Wednesday, December 24, 2014

History and the Claims of Revelation: Joseph Smith and the Materialization of the Golden Plates

Ann Taves reviews the accounts of the golden plates that Joseph Smith discovered and interpreted. In spite of conflicting historical evidence regarding the actuality of the plates, Taves suggests a nuanced approach of skilled perception as a means to resolve the challenges of accepting their reality wholesale or denying their reality and inferring that Smith intentionally misled people. This excerpt reproduces the first two sections of the longer article cited below.

Originally published in:
Vol. 61, No. 2-3, 182-207 (2014)
DOI 10.1163/15685276-12341315


The Mormon claim that Joseph Smith discovered ancient golden plates buried in a hillside in upstate New York is too often viewed in simple either/or terms, such that the plates either existed, making Smith the prophet he claimed to be, or did not, making him deceptive or delusional. If we assume that there were no ancient golden plates and at the same that Smith was not a fraud, then the task of historical explanation is more complex. Building on a review of the evidence for the materiality of the plates, the paper uses a series of comparisons — between the golden plates and sacred objects in other religious traditions, between Smith’s claims and claims that psychiatrists define as delusional, and between Smith’s role as a seer and the role of the artist and the physician as skilled perceivers — to generate a greater range of explanatory options. In light of these comparisons, we can view the materialization of the golden plates in naturalistic terms as resulting from an interaction between an individual with unusual abilities, intimate others who recognized and called forth those abilities, and objects that facilitated the creation of both the revelator and the revelation. [i]

Figure 1: A 21st century artistic representation of the Golden Plates, Urim and Thummim,
Sword of Laban, and Liahona. David A. Baird, Wikimedia Commons


Theologians and philosophers of religion have discussed the relationship between revelation and history at length in an effort to protect believers’ claims from the corrosive effects of historical scrutiny (see, e.g., Harvey 1996 and Ward 1994). Here I want to approach this relationship from the point of view of the secular historian in order to consider the questions that historians can bring to such claims, the kinds of data we can analyze, the sorts of explanations we might consider, and the responsibilities that we owe to our subjects as historians if we want to explain their claims in non-native terms. Using Mormonism, a relatively recent, well documented, and still highly contentious instance of an alleged new revelation as a case study, I will seek to illustrate two points: (1) historical methods are well positioned to bring well-documented “outliers” — unusual events, figures, and movements — into conversation with events, figures, and movements that are more amenable to study using ethnographic and/or experimental methods, and (2) Mormon claims regarding new revelation force non-Mormon scholars to struggle to make sense of seemingly implausible claims, a project that has long fascinated both anthropologists and historians of religion.

Neither of these aims requires us to draw upon unusual methods; we simply need to use familiar tools — historical critical, comparative, and explanatory — in an evenhanded and transparent way. First, we need to reconstruct the emergence of the newly claimed revelation in light of the full range of historical evidence offered by both believers and skeptics as the process unfolded. Second, if we seek to explain their claims, we need to articulate our presuppositions forthrightly in order to make the parameters within which we seek to explain explicit. Third, we need to use comparisons based on various stipulated points of analogy in order to illuminate aspects of the phenomenon and generate an explanation within the parameters specified.

The Mormon claim that Joseph Smith Jr. discovered ancient golden plates buried in a hillside in upstate New York provides an important test case since two leading Latter-day Saints (LDS) scholars of early Mormonism, Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens, argue that secular or non-Mormon historians have not taken the historical evidence for this claim seriously and that, as a consequence, historical scholarship on early Mormonism has remained highly polarized. Bushman has argued that at bottom it is the question of the plates that has led Mormon and non-Mormon historians to offer divergent characterizations of Smith. Non-Mormon historians, assuming there were no plates, presume there was something “fishy” going on, as Bushman (2004:269) puts it, and this then colors their entire assessment of Smith.

To dismiss LDS claims, Bushman says, “unbelieving historians … repress material [evidence] coming from eyewitnesses close to Smith [who] consistently wrote and acted as if he had the Book of Mormon plates” (ibid.:93). The crux of the problem, according to Givens, is that this evidence grounds the Book of Mormon “in artifactual reality” (2002:12). If Smith only claimed to have spoken with an angel or seen the plates, Givens says, we could explain his new revelation as a subjective experience for which there would be little objective evidence. Smith and his followers, however, claimed that that they not only saw, but also held objectively real golden plates. “Dream-visions,” Givens rightly insists, “may be in the mind of the beholder, but gold plates are not subject to such facile psychologizing” (ibid.:42). From an LDS perspective, the materiality of the golden plates presents secular historians with a significant stumbling block. Givens was right, I think, to argue that we cannot just explain the golden plates in terms of “Joseph’s psyche or religious unconscious” (ibid.). For those of us interested in naturalistic explanations, this offers an intriguing challenge.

Explanations of the golden plates to date tend to presuppose an either/or choice: ancient golden plates either existed or they did not. If they existed, then Smith was who he claimed to be. If they did not and Smith knew it, then he must have consciously deceived his followers in order to convince them that they existed. Alternatively, if Smith believed there were plates when in fact there were not, then he was deluded. Although some non-believing historians have chosen to bracket the contentious issue of the golden plates, others — both non-Mormon and ex-Mormon — forthrightly acknowledge their belief that there were no actual golden plates; indeed, this is so obvious to some historians that they are taken aback when they discover that many Mormon intellectuals believe there were. [ii]

In keeping with these either/or choices, non-believing contemporaries of Smith and non-believing historians in the present typically explain Smith’s claims regarding the plates in terms of deception, fantasy, or a prank that got out of hand. Within two years of the alleged removal of the plates from the hill in 1827, Smith’s neighbor, Peter Ingersoll, claimed that the box that supposedly contained the plates really contained only sand (Early Mormon Documents [EMD] 2:44–45). Historian Fawn Brodie, relying on this source, suggests that: “Perhaps in the beginning Joseph never intended his stories of the golden plates to be taken so seriously, but once the masquerade had begun, there was no point at which he could call a halt. Since his own family believed him … why should not the world?” (1995:41). Historian Dan Vogel views the materiality of the plates as “the most compelling evidence” for “conscious misdirection” on Smith’s part (2004:xi). Speculating that Smith most likely made the plates himself out of tin, Vogel characterizes the recovery of the plates as a mix of deception and fantasy, the sort of “pious fraud” that he associates with shamans and magicians. [iii]

Skeptics in my view have been too quick to jump from the assumption that there were no plates to the conclusion that Smith was either deluded or a fraud. In doing so, they sidestep the most interesting (and challenging) questions. For the sake of argument, I want to assume that there were no plates or at least no ancient golden plates and at the same time take seriously believers’ claim that Smith was not a fraud. If we start with those premises, then we have to explain how the plates might have become real for Smith as well as his followers. The challenge, however, is not just to explain how they might have become real for Smith, but how they might have become real for him in some non-delusory sense [iv].  This shift in premises forces us to consider a greater range of explanatory possibilities and has the potential to expand our understanding of the way that new religious movements emerge.

To open up some new options, I want to turn to a letter written by Jesse Smith, Joseph Smith’s staunchly Calvinist uncle, to Joseph’s older brother Hyrum in June 1829, two years after Joseph claimed to have recovered the golden plates, but before the translation was published in 1830 (EMD 1:552; for context, see EMD 1:567). In a scathing attack, Jesse Smith denounced “the whole pretended discovery” and compared Joseph to the Israelites in the desert bowing down before the golden calf. Joseph, Jesse wrote, was like a “man [who] … makes his own gods, [then] falls down and worships before it, and says this is my god which brought me out of the land of Vermont.” In Joseph’s case, though it was not a golden calf, but a “gold book discovered by the necromancy of infidelity, & dug from the mines of atheism.” His Calvinist sensibilities outraged, Jesse summarized the letter he had received a year earlier, complaining, “he writes that the angel of the Lord has revealed to him the hidden treasures of wisdom & knowledge, even divine revelation, which has lain in the bowels of the earth for thousands of years [and] is at last made known to him.” To this very early account of the new revelation, Jesse then adds: “he has eyes to see things that are not, and then has the audacity to say they are” (EMD 1:552).

This is an extraordinarily rich passage that opens up several lines of inquiry, two of which I want to consider here: first, the allusion to the golden calf, idolatry, and Joseph as the “maker of his own gods” and, second, Jesse’s astute, albeit somewhat puzzling, observation that his nephew had “eyes to see things that are not, and then [had] the audacity to say they are.” The first takes us into the complex relationships between materiality and sacrality, on the one hand, and between human creativity and divine manifestation, on the other. The second takes us into the problematics of perception. What exactly does it mean to say someone has eyes to see things that are not? Does it mean that the things do not exist, that they are imagined or made up, as Jesse believed? Does it mean that there are things that do exist that are not visible to those who do not have the eyes to see them, as Joseph’s followers claimed? Or might it mean, as I will suggest, that he had eyes to see what could be and the audacity to give what he envisioned tangible form.

In making this argument, I am playing with the idea of discovery: turning away from discovery as a literal recovery of ancient golden plates buried in a hill in upstate New York to discovery as skillful seeing. If we view Smith as a skilled perceiver, we can view the appearance of the angel Moroni in 1823 as a dream-vision that opened up the possibilities present in a particular historical moment and the testimony to the materiality of the golden plates as evidence of Smith’s ability to bring forth his dream-vision. Viewing Smith in this way takes his claim to seership seriously and allows us to consider the seer alongside the artist as the creator of things that, in Martin Heidegger’s sense (1971:43–44), open up new worlds. Nonetheless, a seer, however perceptive, becomes a seer only with the support and collaboration of others who play a crucial role as co-creators of the new worlds their seers envision. In that sense, the seer is like the physician who cannot heal apart from his or her patients.

Building on a review of the evidence for the materiality of the plates, the paper uses a series of three comparisons — between the golden plates and sacred objects in other religious traditions, between Smith’s claims and claims that psychiatrists define as delusional, and between Smith’s role as a seer and the role of the artist and the physician as skilled perceivers — to generate a greater range of explanatory options. In light of these comparisons, I argue that the materialization of the golden plates might be better understood as an interactive process that involves a person with unusual abilities, intimate others who recognized and called forth those abilities, and objects that facilitated the creation of both the revelator and the revelation.

The Materiality of the Plates

Bushman is right to point out that those close to Smith did fairly consistently act as if he had ancient plates. Although Jesse Smith died a fervent Calvinist, all of Smith’s immediate family and many in his extended family were convinced that the gold book was real. Moreover, when it was published in 1830, the Book of Mormon contained the testimony of two sets of witnesses (“the three” and “the eight”), some of them family members and others closely involved with the translation process, who claimed they had seen or handled the plates. Stepping back, we can identify three types of evidence: first, accounts of feeling and “hefting” the plates while covered with a cloth or contained in a box; second, the accounts of the three and eight witnesses, who claim to have seen the plates directly; and third, relatively detailed visual descriptions, which characterize the plates in terms of size and appearance and have been used to create models of them. 

Figure 2: Engraving of the Angel Moroni delivering the Golden Plates to Joseph Smith. 
Edward Stevenson, Wikimedia Commons.

Although Smith, his parents, and others, such as David Whitmer, provide detailed descriptions that have been used by believers to create models of the plates (see EMD 1:171, 1:221, 1:462, 5:38), most of the sources agree that no one was allowed to look at the plates directly from the time they were recovered in September 1827 until they were shown to the witnesses in late June 1829, after which time they were no longer available. Most of the evidence offered by Smith’s immediate family and those directly involved in the translation process is of something material, which, though obscured by a cloth or kept hidden in a box, nonetheless could be felt and “hefted.” Smith’s younger siblings, William (EMD 1:479, 1:497, 1:505, 1:508, 1:511) and Catherine (EMD 1:521, 1:524), both recount that they had hoped to see the plates when Smith brought them home, but that when he said they were not allowed to look at them directly, they obeyed. Smith’s wife Emma provided a more detailed account that ran along similar lines (EMD 1:539–540). Martin Harris, who helped with the translation, reported that “[t]hese plates were usually kept in a cherry box made for that purpose, in the possession of Joseph and myself. The plates were kept from the sight of the world, and no one, save Oliver Cowdrey, myself, Joseph Smith, jr., and David Whitmer [i.e., Smith and the three witnesses], ever saw them” (EMD 2:306). The signed testimony of the three and the eight witnesses provides relatively little physical detail. The three — Cowdrey, Whitmer, and Harris — simply testified “we beheld & saw the plates & the engraving thereon” (EMD 5:347), while the eight testified that the plates, which “we did handle with our hands & we also saw the engraving thereon,” had “the appearance of gold” (EMD 3:471).

The more detailed descriptions of the plates seem not to reflect what people saw first hand, but the way Smith described the plates to them. Joseph Knight, who was staying with the Smith’s the night Smith ostensibly recovered the plates, recounts that Smith described the plates to him the next morning, indicating “the Length and width and thickness of the plates[,] and[,] said he[,] they appear to be Gold.” But, according to Knight — and Smith’s mother Lucy agrees on this point — Knight did not see the recovered plates, which were still not present in the house, but presumably hidden for safekeeping (EMD 4:15). The later descriptions offered by Smith’s parents and others are similar to the one that Smith offered to Joseph Knight and suggest that the models of the plates are based not on what they actually saw, but on how Smith described them. [v]

If we look beyond this inner circle of believers, all of whom testified to the materiality of the plates, opinion as to their existence was sharply divided. There were many, mostly associates or former associates of Smith’s in the local treasure-seeking network, who clearly believed the plates existed, viewed them as gold treasure rather than a gold bible, and went to great lengths to get them away from Smith, but without success. Then there were those who viewed Smith as a charlatan and a deceiver who fabricated plates in order to promote his revelatory claims, including Harris’ wife Lucy (EMD 1:353–355, 1:382–386), Emma Smith’s family (EMD 4:284–288), and neighbors such as the Ingersolls (EMD 1:385–386, 2:39–45).

What I find most striking, though, is that the discussions of the materiality of the plates, whether by insiders or outsiders to the tradition, seem to presuppose that we are talking about materiality in the ordinary sense of the term [vi].  If we examine key events in the material history of the plates, however, it appears that their material presence remains under the control of supernatural entities that have the power to manifest or withdraw them as they see fit. “The Testimony of the Three Witnesses” published with the Book of Mormon provides the most obvious example. Smith did not simply show the plates to the three witnesses, instead, they testified that they were shown the plates “by the power of God & not of man,” and specifically, that “an angel of God came down from Heaven & he brought & laid before our eyes that we beheld & saw the plates & the engraving thereon.” [vii] In contrast, the published “Testimony of the Eight Witnesses” indicates that Smith showed them the plates, not an angel [viii].  Nonetheless, according to his mother Lucy, Smith did not bring the plates to the grove so that the eight could handle them. Rather, she indicates, the eight “repaired to a little grove where it was customary for the family to offer up their secret prayers[,] as Joseph had been instructed that the plates would be carried there by one of the ancient Nephites.” Moreover, she adds, “[a]fter the witnesses returned to the house the Angel again made his appearance to Joseph and received the plates from his hands.” [ix]

Lucy Smith recounts other occasions in which an angel transported the plates from one place to another. Prior to traveling from Pennsylvania back to New York, the Lord told Smith to leave the plates in Pennsylvania and “he would receive the plates from the hand of an angel” after he arrived at the Whitmer’s house in New York (EMD 1:391). Smith also monitored the plates from a distance using his “interpreters.” Thus, according to his mother, “Joseph kept the urim and thumim constantly about his person as he could by this means ascertain at any moment <if> the plates were in danger” (EMD 1:334, 1:338). In addition, both Joseph’s history (EMD 1:73) and Lucy’s manuscript history (EMD 1:370–371) indicate that an angel took the plates back after Harris reported that the first part of the manuscript had disappeared.

In short, insider accounts do not depict the plates as an ordinary material object, but rather as an object that angels, “ancient Nephites,” and, in particular, the angel Moroni, who was himself “an ancient Nephite,” could display, deliver, and take away as appropriate. Even though the inner circle that saw and touched the plates generally acknowledged that they had either seen the plates in vision or obscured by a covering, believers and non-believers found the “magical realism” of the plates hard to grasp. In 1837–1838 a number of well-placed believers left the church when Harris allegedly testified, according to Warren Parish, that “he never saw the plates except in vision, and … that any man who says he has seen them in any other way is a liar, Joseph [Smith] not excepted” (EMD 2:289) and, according to Stephen Burnett, that neither the three nor the eight witnesses had seen “the plates with his natural eyes only in vision or imagination” (EMD 2:291). Although Harris’ testimony apparently caused considerable consternation, Parrish noted that it was supported by the revelation Smith received in June 1829, preserved in the canonized Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 17.5), which indicated that the three witnesses would see the plates, “as my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., has seen them; for it is by my [God’s] power that he has seen them, and it is because he had faith …” [x]  In other words, God, or Smith in revelatory mode, depending on how you look at it, conceded that Smith himself only saw the plates through the power of God in faith.

The fact that insiders do not describe the golden plates as an ordinary material object, but rather as one that ancient Nephites display, deliver, and take away as appropriate; the fact that Lucy Smith says that ancient Nephites — not Joseph — brought the plates to the grove where some argue the eight saw them with their natural eyes; and the fact that most believers testified to seeing the ancient plates either directly in vision or indirectly while hidden in a box or covered by a cloth suggests to me that there was a material artifact, but that it was most likely neither ancient nor gold. I think Vogel (2004:98–99) is probably correct in speculating that Smith made the plates himself, but, and this is the crucial question, is there any way he could have done this and still viewed them — in some non-delusory sense — as ancient golden plates? [xi]

Notes and References

[i] Versions of this paper were given at the conference on Researching Religion at Aarhus University in Denmark, as the Mary Olive Woods Lecture at Western Illinois University in Macomb, the Alumna of the Year Lecture at the University of Chicago Divinity School, the Dickinson Distinguished Fellow Lecture at Dartmouth College, the Donald Benson Memorial Lecture at Iowa State University, and at the 2013 meeting of the Mormon History Association. I am grateful to conversation partners in all these contexts for helpful feedback and discussion. Thanks above all to Richard Bushman, Kathleen Flake, Stephen Fleming, Steven C. Harper, and Jan Shipps for reading drafts and providing feedback on my efforts to play fair with the Mormon sources.

[ii] Many believing historians, such as Bushman and Givens, in turn wonder how well-trained, non-believing historians can dismiss so much evidence, hence their critique.

[iii] Vogel 2004:xi–xx, 44–45, 98–99. Characterizing shamans as “pious frauds” begs the question, as the literature on shamans and shamanistic practices is at least as complicated and contentious as the literature on Joseph Smith (for an overview, see Znamenski 2004).

[iv] I am grateful to the philosophers at Western Illinois University for challenging me on this point.

[v] Smith described the plates in an interview in 1842 (EMD 1:171), his mother in an interview in 1842 (EMD 1:221), and his father in a similar fashion in an interview in 1829 or 1830, published four decades later (EMD 1:462, 1:456). In 1878, David Whitmer, who aided in the translation and was one of the three witnesses, provided a similar description of what he saw when “an angel laid the plates before his eyes” in June 1829 (EMD 5:38).

[vi] Palmer (2002) is the most notable exception.

[vii] EMD 5:347. Emphasis added.

[viii] EMD 3:464-472. While there is general agreement that the three witnesses saw the plates in a vision, skeptics and believers tend to disagree with respect to the testimony of the eight, with believers arguing that the eight saw and handled the plates directly (Givens 2002:39–40 and Anderson 2005) and skeptics arguing that they did not (Vogel 2002; Palmer 2002; Vogel 2012). Although Anderson (2005:21–22) quotes Lucy Smith’s account, both he and his interlocutors focus on what the witnesses saw in the grove without commenting on how Lucy indicates the plates got there. Thanks to Mark Ashurst-McGee for bringing this discussion to my attention.

[ix] EMD 1:395–396. Emphasis added.

[x] EMD 2:289, n. 2. Emphasis added. It is not clear what was so disturbing about Harris’ testimony, partly because we do not know exactly what Harris said (for text and commentary, see EMD 2:288–293). Although he may have said that the testimony of the eight was false, he most likely said, under some duress, that the eight — like the three — saw the plates in vision, which then as now is not how believers typically interpret the witness of the eight. Whether or not he said “Joseph Smith not excepted” is not clear either, as it appears in Parrish’s but not Burnett’s account. There is no indication that Harris considered his testimony as a repudiation of the Book of Mormon; indeed Burnett reports him as saying “he knew it was true.” Most likely, then, Harris simply reiterated his long-standing testimony to have seen the plates “with the eye of faith [although covered with a cloth] … just as distinctly as I see any thing around me” (EMD 2:292, n. 11) and, when pressed on the matter in the heat of an emotional meeting, claimed that the same was true for the eight as well. Since he allegedly said that “he would have let it pass as it was … if it had not been picked out of him” (EMD 2:292), I suspect that Harris typically allowed people to believe what they wished about the testimony of the eight because he knew some people had difficulty with the idea that all the witnesses had seen through the eyes of faith. Given the evidence already presented that people, including Smith, either saw ancient plates directly in vision or through the eyes of faith when covered or in a box, I take the consternation surrounding Harris’ testimony as evidence of believers’ difficulty grasping the “magical realism” of the plates.

[xi] I think it is possible, as Vogel argues, that Smith made the plates himself out of tin or other metal as an act of “conscious misdirection,” but I also think it is possible, as Quinn and Bushman argue, that Smith really believed in the power of his seer stone and used it to develop his revelatory abilities over time. Vogel believes their argument is premised on Smith seeing “objectively real treasures in his stone,” an assumption precluded, he argues, by “the failure of present-day adepts to prove the efficacy of divination under scientific conditions” (2004:xvi). Assuming (as I would) that human psychological processes have not changed since Smith’s day, he asks: “in what way could Smith possibly train himself to be a prophet using such delusive methods?” Vogel, however, has not exhausted the range of psychological possibilities. Thus, for example, Gardner (2011:259–277) has drawn from the scientific literature to offer a plausible naturalistic account of how seers “see” and how Smith might have “translated” based on unusual abilities rather than deception. In a similar vein, treasure-seeking might have involved visualization practices that later enhanced his ability to visualize spiritual treasure and visualize text while staring at a stone in his hat.

Anderson, Richard L. 2005. “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses.” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14(1):18–31, 125–127.

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Gardner, Brant A. 2011. The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books.

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Vogel, Dan. 2002. “The Validity of the Witnesses’ Testimony.” In Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe (eds.), American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 79–121.

———. 2004. Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet. Salt Lake City: Signature Books.

———. 2012. “Book of Mormon Witnesses Revisited.” Salt Lake City: Signature Books. URL: (accessed 17 June 2013).

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