Q: I am not a Mormon and was wondering how you can explain this...When Joseph Smith was walking through the forest he came upon those special glasses and staph. When he put those glasses on he saw what is now in the Book of Mormon. These items are nowhere to be found. If I found something that important, do you think I'd misplace it? How do you explain that?

A: It appears from your question that you have received some strange information about the church.  So, I commend you for asking your question to Mormons directly and trying to get the complete story. 

There is no story in Church History in which Joseph Smith was "walking through the forest" and "found" or "came upon special glasses and staph."  However, I think I can guess what you are referring to.  It is one of the most amazing, true stories in the history of America. 

In the year 1823, while praying one evening in his home, young Joseph Smith was visited by a heavenly being.  This angel told him of an ancient record, similar to the Bible, written on plates of gold, that lay hidden, buried in a hill near his home.  Joseph was led to the spot where he uncovered these gold plates. Four years later, after years of preparation and instruction by the angel, Joseph was eventually commanded to take the record and translate it into what would later be known as The Book of Mormon.

Buried with the plates were special instruments which would assist him in translating the sacred book.  These instruments are called Urim and Thummim and are described by Joseph as "two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim ... and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted “seers” in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book."  Urim and Thumum are referred to in the Bible and were used in Old Testament times by Abraham, Aaron, and the Priests of Israel.  Ancient prophets on the American continent also had the Urim and Thummim as recorded in the Book of Mormon. For more information about the Urim and Thummim, see the Bible Dictionary.  

When Joseph received the gold plates and the Urim and Thummim, he was given a strict commandment by the angel to keep them safe.  He soon realized the reason for this charge, for from the moment Joseph received the plates, people aggressively attempted to steal them from him.  He had to be constantly on the look out to protect them, finally having to move to a different state where he could get some peace and begin translation.  When the translation was finally done, the angel called for the plates and the Urim and Thumim, which Joseph was only too glad to return to the care of the angel. This, then, is the answer to your question.  Joseph received the gold plates and the Urim and Thummim from the angel and later returned them to the same angel. These sacred items were not misplaced, rather they were used for a season, then returned when no longer necessary. (1) 

You can read Joseph Smith's Story in more detail as told in his own words by the Prophet Joseph, himself.  I urge you to read the account in full; it is only a few pages long and is divided into 75 verses.

We do not know exactly how the Urim and Thummim were used in translation.  Joseph Smith never described the process in detail, perhaps out of respect for the sacred nature of these instruments and the process of revelation.  We know that they were prepared by the Lord for use by his prophets only.  The Book of Mormon states that the possession of these instruments is "a gift from God.  And the things are called interpreters, and no man can look in them except he be commanded, lest he should look for that he ought not and he should perish.  And whosoever is commanded to look in them, the same is called a seer." (2)  When the Urim and Thummim were first delivered to the Brother of Jared, an ancient Book of Mormon prophet, the Lord said, "And behold, these two stones will I give unto thee, and ye shall seal them up also with the things which ye shall write.  For behold, the language which ye shall write I have confounded; wherefore I will cause in my own due time that these stones shall magnify to the eyes of men these things which ye shall write." (3)  So, it appears that the Urim and Thummim somehow made translation and revelation easier and were useful to the prophet in training his spiritual sensitivity.  They were not a substitute for revelation, but an instrument which made revelation more easily discernible. 

We know that before Joseph Smith actually began translating, he spent several months in preparation, both spiritual and intellectual, "studying the characters and making himself familiar with them and the use of the Urim and Thummim." (4)  It was not as easy as simply looking and seeing the translation as we might see words appear on a computer screen.  It required determined study and practice and spiritual sensitivity.  Speaking of this translation process, the Lord said, "you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.  But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind: then you must ask me if it be right..." (5)  As he progressed in his role as Prophet and grew spiritually, Joseph was able to become more sensitive to revelation.  So even after returning the Urim and Thummim to the angel, he was able to continue with important translations and receive many more revelations from the Lord.  He later commented that the Lord gave him the Urim and Thummim when he was inexperienced as a translator, but that he later progressed to the point that he no longer needed the instruments.  Whether Joseph Smith used the Urim and Thummim in translating the entire Book of Mormon or not, we do not know.  Either way, we affirm that the entire processes was accomplished through revelation, by the "gift and power of God" as stated in its title page and the Testimony of Three Witnesses. 

Some may claim that Joseph never had any gold plates or instruments for translating them--that the whole story is a fraud and that his story about receiving the plates and the Urim and Thumim, and then returning them to the angel, is a convenient way to explain their absence.  They may argue that without the physical evidence of the Gold Plates and the Urim and Thummim, there is no proof that the Book of Mormon is anything more than a fabrication.

However, these critics are overlooking one great evidence.  The book itself.  When I read the Book of Mormon, a feeling that is hard to describe comes over me.  I know that this feeling is the witness of the Holy Spirit confirming the truthfulness of the words to my heart. This has a more powerful effect on my soul than seeing physical evidences. Further, intellectually, as I read, I ask myself, "could any man have written this book--let alone an uneducated, back-woods laborer like Joseph Smith?"  The overwhelming answer is, "no, it is the work of God."  The language is beautiful, rich and inspiring and the writing itself is filled with imagery and literary styles (such as Chiasmus) which are found in the Bible and other ancient writings which have been identified by modern scholars, but had not yet been discovered in Joseph Smith's day.  So, when I read, the truth of the book is verified in my mind (intellectual) and my heart (feelings, witness of the Spirit). The Lord confirmed this process of witness in a later revelation to Joseph Smith in these words, "Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart." (6) 

Near the end of the Book of Mormon, the prophet-writer Moroni, gives the following promise and proof to anyone who will read the book with sincerity, and a desire to know the truth:

"And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.  And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things." (7)

The most compelling proof that the Book of Mormon is true is the book itself.  I personally have experienced this witness of the Spirit spoken of by Moroni.  Since I know the Book of Mormon is true, this proves to me that Joseph Smith told the truth, and that he was God's prophet of the restoration.  Jesus Christ is our Savior and Redeemer, as taught in both the Bible and Book of Mormon.  I testify of these things in his holy name.

I challenge you and urge you to read the Book of Mormon for yourself.  How will you ever know, one way or the other, unless you try it?  If you don't already have a copy, you can obtain a free one here.

Notes:

1. See the Joseph Smith Story, verse 60 (Joseph Smith--Matthew 1:60)
2. Book of Mormon: Mosiah 8:13
3. Book of Mormon: Ether 2:23-24, emphasis added
4. Doctrines of Salvation, Vol. 3, pg. 215-16
5. Doctrine & Covenants 9:7-8
6. Doctrine & Covenants 8:2
7. Book of Mormon: Moroni 10:4-5