This story was originally published on LDS Living in February 2018.
There are plenty of we long to know about Church history but probably never will. But there are a handful of artifacts we read about in the scriptures that we know survived to our day because Joseph Smith and other early Church members saw them: the gold plates, the Urim and Thummim with their accompanying breastplate, the sword of Laban, and the Liahona. But what happened to them? Here’s what we know about some of these ancient artifacts.
We first hear about the Liahona in 1 Nephi 16:10. It is a gift given from the Lord to Lehi and his family while they are living in the wilderness after fleeing Jerusalem. Described as a compass made of curious workmanship and brass, the instrument had two spindles that pointed the direction the family should go. This heaven-made compass was apparently passed down through generations, as it was later recorded that King Benjamin gave it to his son Mosiah.
We know that the Liahona was safely stored until the early 1800s, as Doctrine and Covenants 17:1 tells us that the Liahona was one of several sacred items that would be shown to the Three Witnesses, according to their faith. We also know that they did see it shortly after this promise was made. Other than that, however, there is no official documentation about what happened to the Liahona.
Urim and Thummim
Can we talk about a powerful history? In Doctrine and Covenants 17:1, we learn that these ancient stones, sometimes used by Joseph Smith to translate the Book of Mormon, were in fact given to the Brother of Jared in the story of faith from Ether. They were meant to “magnify the eyes of men these things which ye [the Brother of Jared] shall write.”
The stones were described as white or clear, set in silver rims like eyeglasses.
When Joseph Smith uncovered the Urim and Thummim with the gold plates, he began using them and other interpreters to translate the ancient record. When he was finished translating the Book of Mormon, Joseph gave the translators back to the angel, along with the plates. (See the 2015 Ensign article “Joseph the Seer.”)
*Did You Know: According to a 2015 Ensign article, “By 1833, Joseph Smith and his associates began using the biblical term ‘Urim and Thummim’ to refer to any stones used to receive divine revelations, including both the Nephite interpreters and the single seer stone. This imprecise terminology has complicated attempts to reconstruct the exact method by which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. In addition to using the interpreters, according to Martin Harris, Joseph also used one of his seer stones for convenience during the Book of Mormon translation. Other sources corroborate Joseph’s changing translation instruments.”
Sword of Laban
The sword of Laban: a notorious instrument of destruction first read about in 1 Nephi chapter 4, when Nephi killed Laban and took the dead king’s sword, as he was commanded by the Lord in order to obtain the brass plates. The sword was used as a model for the Nephites to make their own weapons when they were faced with warfare against their brothers, the Lamanites, and is referenced several more times throughout the Book of Mormon. Sometimes it was used in battle, and sometimes it was simply kept and preserved with other scripture treasures.
But did it ever make an appearance in the latter days?
We know in Doctrine and Covenants 17:1 that the Three Witnesses were promised that through their faith they could see the sword, but beyond that we have very little solid evidence or records of what happened to the ancient weapon. David Whitmer, one of the Three Witnesses, recorded:
“It was in the latter part of June, 1829, Joseph, Oliver Cowdery and myself were together, and the angel showed them [the plates] to us. . . . [We were] sitting on a log when we were overshadowed by a light more glorious than that of the sun. In the midst of this light, but a few feet from us, appeared a table upon which were many golden plates, also the sword of Laban and the directors. I saw them as plain as I see you now, and distinctly heard the voice of the Lord declaring that the records of the plates of the Book of Mormon were translated by the gift and power of God.” (Seehistory.churchofJesusChrist.org.)
The only other reference in Church history to the sword comes from theJournal of Discourses. The account tells of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery seeing the sword in a cave when they returned the plates. Because the Journal of Discourses is not an official Church publication, however, this story cannot be relied upon as fact.
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The Gold Plates
Most of us are more than familiar with the gold plates: what they are, where they were found, and how they were used. But do you know what happened to them after Joseph Smith finished translating them?
Church records tell us that the angel Moroni came to retrieve them, just as he had told Joseph he would. It was then that Joseph gave the Urim and Thummim to the angel as well. In Joseph Smith’s own words at the beginning of the Book of Mormon, he says
“But by the wisdom of God, they [the plates] remained safe in my hands, until I had accomplished by them what was required at my hand. When, according to arrangements, the messenger called for them I delivered them up to him; and he has them in his charge until this day, being the second day of May, one thousand eight hundred and thirty-eight.”
Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones
Though Joseph Smith largely used the Urim and Thummim seer stones while translating the Book of Mormon, in recent years we have learned more about another seer stone he regularly used to help him translate. That stone was given to Oliver Cowdery after the translation of the Book of Mormon was completed. It was then handed from person to person until it ended up with Brigham Young, who had it until his death. Zina D. H. Young, one of Brigham Young’s wives, inherited it upon his death and donated it to the Church. The Church remains in possession of the stone to this day. (For more information on the translation process and Joseph Smith’s seer stone, check out “Joseph the Seer.”)
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Oliver Cowdery’s Gift of Revelation
Have you ever heard of a divining rod? They were common instruments in the early days of the Church, used by other Christians to receive revelation. Here’s what the Church’s history site has to say about a special divining rod and gift of revelation that belonged to Oliver Cowdery and what happened to his gift of revelation:
“Oliver was among those who believed in and used a divining rod.
“The Lord recognized Oliver’s ability to use a rod: ‘Thou hast another gift which is the gift of working with the sprout [or rod].’ Confirming the divinity of this gift, the revelation stated: ‘Behold there is no other power save God that can cause this thing of Nature to work in your hands for it is the work of God.’ If Oliver desired, the revelation went on to say, the Lord would add the gift of translation to the revelatory gifts Oliver already possessed.
“Though we know very few details about Oliver Cowdery’s attempt to translate, it apparently did not go well. His efforts quickly came to naught. In the wake of Oliver’s failure, Joseph Smith received another revelation, counseling Oliver, ‘Be patient my son, for it is wisdom in me, and it is not expedient that you should translate at this present time.’ Oliver was also told he had not understood the process. He was told, ‘You must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right, I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you.’”