One of the great things about blogging is the ability to bounce ideas off people much smarter than yourself. Therefore, I want to just throw one of my thoughts out and hope that an engaging discussion on the topic will follow.
For the record, I feel the evidence is fairly insurmountable that Joseph Smith used his seerstone in a hat while translating the Book of Mormon (I just wanted a catchy title to hopefully draw more readers). With very few exceptions, all scholarly historians seem to accept that as fact. Therefore, this post is not to try and prove or challenge that notion; rather, I want to explore why Joseph was not more forthright in explaining this remarkable process.
A well-rehearsed account is recorded from a conference held in Orange, Ohio, in late October 1831. Hyrum asked Joseph to explain the particulars of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon to a group of faithful elders present. While you can imagine those in attendance salivating at the chance to hear some juicy details, Joseph’s answer was pretty anti-climactic: “Br. Joseph Smith jr. said that it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon, & also said that it was not expedient for him to relate these things &c.” My question probably echos those who were there, “Why?”
Richard Bushman in “The Visionary World of Joseph Smith” argued that Joseph did not make public his supernatural experiences in order to separate himself from the other visionaries of the day, and used this specific account concerning the Book of Mormon as an example. While this definitely played a role in speaking of his visions, and probably to a degree relating to the BoM translation, I think that there is more to it. I don’t think his contemporary visionaries were the only people Joseph wanted to distance himself from.
Only one day before Joseph’s refusal to explain the translation process, Ezra Booth was not as hesitant in his third of a series of letters published by a newspaper. In this letter, Booth spoke of Joseph’s treasure-seeking past, and connected it to the Book of Mormon. He wrote that the Mormon prophet’s “[buried] treasures were discovered several years since, by means of the dark glass, the same with which Smith says he translated most of the Book of Mormon.” Booth was definitely not the first to make this negative connection, neither was he the last.
The first years of the Church encountered a media onslaught against the new faith, and often the attacks mentioned a connection between Joseph Smith and the folklore culture of his day. As early as August, 1829, two newspapers published accounts of the forthcoming Book of Mormon, specifically mentioning the use of a seer stone and a hat. In the summer of 1830, the Reflector (based in Palmyra) began publishinga parody of the Book of Mormon titled “The Book of Pukei,” that included a mantle being transferred to Joseph Smith from a magician named “Walters”. It later depicts Joseph being told “thou art greater than all the ‘money-digging rabble,’ and art chosen to interpret the book, which Mormon has written, to with the Gold Bible.” The Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate printed a letter in 1831 stating “the Book of Mormon was brought to light by the same magic power by which he pretended to tell fortunes, discover hidden treasures, &c.” Later on, Issac Hale made the same negative connection: “The manner in which he pretended to read and interpret, was the same as when he looked for the money-diggers, with the stone in his hat, and his hat over his face, while the book of Plates were at the same time hid in the woods!”
It seems to me that when Joseph was reluctant to discuss the particulars of how he translated from the plates, these were the accusations he was trying to distance himself from. Alva Hale, Joseph’s brother-in-law, appears to think Joseph tried to distance magic and translating at an even earlier date. Alva claimed that while Joseph still lived in Harmony, he heard the prophet say the “gift in seeing with a stone and hat was a gift from God, while “‘peeping’ was all d–d nonsense.” This distancing was possibly the main reason the early Church’s first public statement in 1833 concerning the translation was so vague: it was done “through the aid of a pair of Interpreters, or spectacles–(known, perhaps, in ancient days as Teraphim, or urim and Thummim).”
So, my question is, did Joseph make a conscious decision to discuss the Book of Mormon translation in vague terms in order to distance himself as a money-digger? This narrow topic also leads to a much bigger question: What are the implications when you shade past events in order to present a desired image?
 Minutes of a conference at Orange, Ohio, October 25, 1831, in Donald Q. Cannon and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., Far West Record (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), 23.
 Richard Bushman, “The Visionary World of Joseph Smith,” BYU Studies 37, no. 1 (1997-98): 194-77.
 Ezra Booth, “Mormonism–No. III,” Ravenna Ohio Star, October 24, 1831 (reprinted from New York Courier and Enquirer).
 “Golden Bible,” Rochester Advertiser and Telegraph, August 31, 1829; cited in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:221-22. This article was apparently printed earlier in the month by the Palmyra Freeman, but no original copies are currently available. These claims became even more known the following years. As far away as Worcester, Massachusetts, a newspaper was reporting that Joseph Smith “looks in a small stone he has” (Letter from “A Presbyterian,” Worcester (Mass.) Independent Messenger, May 27, 1831, 96, letter is dated February 22, 1831).
 “The Book of Pukei.–Chap. 1,” Reflector, June 12, 1830, 36.
 “The Book of Pukei.–Chap. 2,” Reflector, July 7, 1830, 60.
 Cited in John Phillip Walker, ed., Dale morgan on Early Mormonism: Correspondence and a New History (Salt lake City: Signature Books, 1986): 338.
 Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed: or, a Faithful Account of That Singular Imposition and Delusion, from Its Rise to the Present Time (Painesville, Ohio: By the Author, 1834), 264-265.
 Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 268.
 “The Book of Mormon,” Evening and the Morning Star, January 1833.