CES Reply: McConkies, Whitmers, and Rocks in Hats

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.

In 2000, two BYU religion professors, Joseph Fielding McConkie (son of Elder Bruce R. McConkie) and Craig J. Ostler, wrote an essay titled, “The Process of Translating the Book of Mormon .

Yes! Thank you! I was looking for a link like this when I wrote my previous version of my reply, where I mentioned that this was President McConkie’s position. (He was my mission president, so I can’t think of him with any other title. He was a great man, and I adored him.)

Pictured: Joseph Fielding McConkie.
A master teacher and a disciple of Christ.

They wrote:

“Thus, everything we have in the Book of Mormon, according to Mr. Whitmer, was translated by placing the chocolate-colored stone in a hat into which Joseph would bury his head so as to close out the light. While doing so he could see ‘an oblong piece of parchment, on which the hieroglyphics would appear,’ and below the ancient writing, the translation would be given in English. Joseph would then read this to Oliver Cowdery, who in turn would write it. If he did so correctly, the characters and the interpretation would disappear and be replaced by other characters with their interpretation.”

After laying the groundwork, the professors continue:

“Finally, the testimony of David Whitmer simply does not accord with the divine pattern. If Joseph Smith translated everything that is now in the Book of Mormon without using the gold plates, we are left to wonder why the plates were necessary in the first place. It will be remembered that possession of the plates placed the Smith family in considerable danger, causing them a host of difficulties. If the plates were not part of the translation process, this would not have been the case. It also leaves us wondering why the Lord directed the writers of the Book of Mormon to take a duplicate record of the plates of Lehi. This provision which compensate for the loss of the 116 pages would have served no purpose either. 

Further, we would be left to wonder why it was necessary for Moroni to instruct Joseph each year for four years before he was etrusted with the plates. We would also wonder why it was so important for Moroni to show the plates to the three witnesses, including David Whitmer. And why did the Lord have the Prophet show the plates to the eight witnesses? Why all this flap and fuss if the Prophet didn’t really have the plates and if they were not used in the process of translation?

What David Whitmer is asking us to believe is that the Lord had Moroni seal up the plates and the means by which they were to be translated hundreds of years before they would  come into Joseph Smith’s possession and then decided to have the Prophet use a seer stone found while digging a well so that none of these things would be necessary after all. Is this, we would ask, really a credible explanation of the way the heavens operate?”

Those are good questions. I was first introduced to the rock in the hat in 1989 when the ideas of this essay were delivered live in a zone conference by Pres. McConkie himself. As I mentioned earlier, this, more than the inherent weirdness of the rock in the hat, is probably why Whitmer’s account isn’t widely discussed, because the McConkies and the Fielding Smiths didn’t think Whitmer, at such a late date and because of his disaffected status, was a reliable source on the subject. And there’s the possibility that they may well be right, that the current interpretation of the historical narrative is incorrect, and that the conventional wisdom was right the first time.

I confess that I, personally, lean in that direction based on D&C 9’s explanation that translation required study and effort beyond just reading words on a stone. The Book of Mormon also appears to be clothed in Joseph Smith’s language and vocabulary, which would suggest the prophet had a part in choosing the words. For my part, I don’t see the translation process as critical to a testimony of the Book of Mormon, so I am untroubled that my opinion is, at the moment, out of the mainstream. My opinion on a number of Church subjects is fairly heterodox, actually. I’m grateful the Church has far more room for a variety of points of view than you give it credit for.

In any case, what you’re encountering here is the reality that even prophets and apostles have differences of opinion. It’s disconcerting that, for you and many active Church members, the possibility of such differences still comes as a great surprise. 

How could it have been expected of me and any other member to know about and to embrace the rock in the hat translation when even these two faithful full-time professors of religion at BYU rejected it as a fictitious lie meant to undermine Joseph Smith and the truth claims of the Restoration?

Well, two things.

First, I can confidently assert that President McConkie did not think the rock in the hat was a “fictitious lie meant to undermine Joseph Smith and the truth claims of the Restoration.” I have heard him speak about this firsthand. He bases his interpretation of Whitmer’s description on the fact that David Whitmer’s comments were decades removed from a process he did not himself witness, which means he may have gotten his facts wrong for any  number of innocent reasons. He thought David Whitmer was mistaken, not that he was deliberately misleading anybody. Certainly Whitmer wasn’t trying to undermine the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. He was true to his testimony of that sacred record throughout his life, even when he was deeply disaffected with Joseph Smith. President McConkie would have been the first to acknowledge that. 

Pictured: David Whitmer
Faithful to the Book of Mormon to the end

A lie requires deliberate intent to deceive. If you were to ask me how to get to my house, and I tell you to turn right instead of left at some point, it may well be that my atrocious sense of direction is to blame rather than dishonesty, and that I have made an honest mistake.

This also cuts to the heart of many of your objections against the Church. Every time you encounter fallibility in Church history, you immediately assume malicious intent when non-malicious human error is a more likely, and certainly more charitable, explanation for missteps.

Bad information often comes from well-intentioned sources. As a word of advice, I would caution you against characterizing all factual errors as lies, as you would be branding yourself a liar for the legions of mistakes that can be found in every version of the CES Letter.

Second, it was not “expected” of you to know about, let alone “embrace,” the rock in the hat. The Church, frankly, doesn’t particularly care what you, me, or anyone thinks about the translation process. To repeat, Joseph Smith himself said it “was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.” It turns out you can be a faithful Latter-day Saint in full fellowship and ultimately be saved in the Celestial Kingdom of God regardless of your views on this particular subject, or even if you remain blissfully unaware of both the rock and the hat for the entirety of your mortal life.

That’s it for now about rocks in hats, although Jeremy keeps coming back to it as the letter progresses. Next time, I’m going to get a bit personal and talk about my father’s final sermon. In the meantime, take a look at the Canonizer camps below. If you think I’m completely wrong, you can join a camp that says so – or create one of your own!