CES Reply: Rocks in Hats, Part 1 of a Zillion

This is a serialization of “A Faithful Reply to the CES Letter from a Former CES Employee.”  You can download the whole PDF here, and you can also participate in the Latter-day Saint Survey Project by joining or creating one of the Canonizer camps in the links at the bottom of this post.

This is a line-by-line response to Jeremy Runnells’s October 2017 iteration of the CES Letter. Jeremy’s original text appears in green, the color of life. My response text appears in black, the color of darkness.

“I will begin by saying that we still have pictures on our Ward bulletin boards of Joseph Smith with the Gold Plates in front of him. That has become an irksome point and I think it is something the church should pay attention to. Because anyone who studies the history knows that is not what happened. There is no church historian who says that is what happened and yet it is being propagated by the church and it feeds into the notion that the church is trying to cover up embarrassing episodes and is sort of prettifying its own history.

So, I think we ought to just stop that immediately. I am not sure we need a lot of pictures in our chapels of Joseph looking into his hat, but we certainly should tell our children that is how it worked… It’s weird. It’s a weird picture. It implies it’s like darkening a room when we show slides. It implies that there is an image appearing in that stone and the light would make it more difficult to see that image. So, that implies a translation that’s a reading and so gives us a little clue about the whole translation process. It also raises the strange question, ‘What in the world are the plates for? Why do we need them on the table if they are just wrapped up into a cloth while he looks into a seer stone?’”


”People say that the Book of Mormon certainly is an inspired and inspiring book, but the backstory of the plates in the translation is irrelevant to it. What would we gain and lose [if we abandoned the plates]? What we would lose would be a powerful form of evidence that the Lord gave to Joseph Smith and to us of the actuality of all these experiences, and therefore the actuality of the transcendent sphere… That would be gutting some of the most gritty and appealing parts of the Mormon story.”


Unlike the story I’ve been taught in Sunday School, Priesthood, General Conferences, Seminary, EFY, Ensigns, Church history tour, Missionary Training Center, and BYU… Joseph Smith used a rock in a hat for translating the Book of Mormon.

Ah, yes. The rock in the hat.


The Book of Mormon is a bonafide miracle with unmistakable marks of antiquity that could not have been produced by anyone living in 1830. No other explanation other than the one offered by Joseph Smith can account for its existence.

You do not make it disappear by simply repeating a mantra about a rock in a hat.


In my experience, the translation process wasn’t really discussed all that often, if at all. There was some discussion about the Urim and Thummim, which were, in fact, used during the translation, although it’s true that the rock in the hat never came up. That’s may be in part because it’s weird, and the Church doesn’t like to talk about weird things that might seem embarrassing. At the same time, I’m not sure why a rock in a hat is any weirder than granny glasses attached to a metal breastplate, which is how I’ve always envisioned it. I guess it all comes down to expectations. 

The first time I heard the rock-in-the hat story was on my mission, when Joseph Fielding McConkie, son of Bruce R. and grandson of Joseph Fielding Smith, quoted David Whitmer on the subject and claimed that Whitmer didn’t know what he was talking about. Whitmer’s account about the process came decades later, after Joseph Smith’s death, and J.F. McConkie, taking a position he attributed to his father and grandfather, insisted it couldn’t have been that way, because reading words off a seer stone seemingly contradicts D&C 9, which is the only contemporaneous document on the subject that we have. D&C 9 chastises Oliver Cowdery for his translation attempt because he “took no thought save it was to ask” the Lord rather than trying to “study it out in [his] mind.”

So if the rock in the hat idea wasn’t widely disseminated, which it wasn’t, it may have been because there was significant disagreement among the Brethren as to its veracity, with President Smith and Elder McConkie on the side that (probably incorrectly) maintained it was nonsense. The Church is now discussing the rock in the at and has even published pictures of the rock – but, curiously, not the hat.

So where’s the hat? What are they hiding from us?!

It’s worth mentioning that Whitmer was not, in fact, part of the translation process, and it may well be that he was incorrect, as his statements come way, way after the fact when he was disaffected from the Church. Of course, that would force you to consider the possibility of the Church being wrong now in admitting to the rock in the hat as opposed to being wrong then when they tried not to mention it. And in your black-and-white, irreducible theological expectations, the Church is never allowed to be wrong.

Joseph Smith himself dodged questions about specifics of the translation process, saying only that it was accomplished “by the gift and power of God” and that it “was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.” So it seems the uncomfortableness about talking about the process goes way back to the beginning.

Having read through your letter multiple times, I think it’s safe to say that this is the one objection that you come back to more than any other. Variations of the phrase “rock in a hat” appear thirteen times throughout this version of your letter, and as you’re summing up the entirety of what you’ve written, you say the following:

At the end of the day? It all doesn’t matter. The Book of Mormon Witnesses and their testimonies of the gold plates are irrelevant. It does not matter whether eleven 19th century treasure diggers with magical worldviews saw some gold plates or not. It doesn’t matter because of this one simple fact:


 In the first version I replied to, this was followed by one final graphical dig at the rock in the hat.

(Wonder where that graphic went. Tone problems, I guess.)

Pictured: A tonally problematic graphic
from the 2016 CES Letter 

The problem with this is that it seems to suggest that process somehow precludes product. I confess I find your obsession with this issue baffling. It’s undeniable that the Book of Mormon was produced in a manner you find strange or ridiculous. It’s also undeniable that the Book of Mormon is here; it exists, and it must be accounted for. Nowhere in your CES Letter do you provide any explanation for how that could be. Instead, you offer half a dozen contradictory theories about plagiarism that  are demonstrably garbage, and you fixate on the rock in the hat, as if it makes it all 265,000 words vanish in a puff of smoke. It doesn’t, which is why millions of people still have testimonies of its truthfulness and divine origin. 

In other words, Joseph used the same magic device or “Ouija Board” that he used during his treasure hunting 3 days. 

Those are other words, all right. They’re also wrong. Why do you put “Ouija Board” in quotes? Nobody but you is comparing this to a Ouija Board. Have you ever seen a Ouija Board?

They look like this:

Call me crazy, but that doesn’t look like a rock in a hat.

He put a rock – called a “peep stone” – in his hat…

So is it a peep stone or a Ouija Board? Both are in quotes, suggesting someone with some authority gave them both these labels, which they didn’t. 

… and put his face in the hat to tell his customers the location of buried treasure on their property. He also used this same method for translating the Book of Mormon, while the gold plates were covered, placed in another room, or even buried in the woods. The gold plates were not used for the Book of Mormon we have today.

That last sentence is a curious one, as it presupposes only a single way in which the gold plates could have been “used for the Book of Mormon.” Given that Joseph Smith didn’t know how to read Reformed Egyptian, any method in which he could have translated the characters on the plates would have required divine intervention. As such, what difference does it make whether that intervention makes use of the physical plates or not?

That does not mean, however, that the plates were useless. They were extraordinarily useful. You began this section with a quote from Richard Bushman to imply that this great scholar and faithful Church member agrees with you on this point. (He does not.)

The Bushman quote I added to your opening of this section points out that the plates are “a powerful form of evidence that the Lord gave to Joseph Smith and to us of the actuality of all these experiences” and provide “some of the most gritty and appealing parts of the Mormon story.” They were used for the testimony of the witnesses and the instruction of the prophet in preparing to obtain them. It is not at all correct to say that they were “not used for the Book of Mormon we have today.”

UPDATE: These facts are now officially confirmed in the Church’s December 2013 Book of Mormon Translation essay. 

Not sure how this is an update, as you mentioned the essay in the previous version of your letter. What you don’t mention is that the Church also confirms that the rock in the hat was not the only method of translation, and that the plates were, in fact, used for part of the translation process.

From the Church’s essay:

Nevertheless, the scribes and others who observed the translation left numerous accounts that give insight into the process. Some accounts indicate that Joseph studied the characters on the plates. Most of the accounts speak of Joseph’s use of the Urim and Thummim (either the interpreters or the seer stone), and many accounts refer to his use of a single stone. [Emphasis added]

If you thought this was the end of the rocks in the hats, alas, we have miles of rocks in hats to go before we sleep. In the meantime, take a look at the Canonizer camps here. If you think I’m completely wrong, you can join a camp that says so – or create one of your own!