Thoughts on the Gold Plates

We round out the 10 questions interview series on Joseph Smith’s translation with a discussion between Richard L. Bushman and Kurt Manwaring about the gold plates.  We’ve had a good run of interviews with scholars who have worked hard to examine the essential historical records surrounding Joseph Smith’s translation projects in order to find a greater understanding of what Joseph Smith and his colleagues said and did as they worked on the Book of Mormon, the Joseph Smith Translation of the King James Bible, and the Book of Abraham.  These interviews include two interviews with the editors of Producing Ancient Scripture, an interview with Samuel Brown about his understanding of Joseph Smith’s translations, an interview with Thomas Wayment about the Joseph Smith Translation, an interview with Matthew Grey about the Book of Abraham, and now this one about the gold plates and the Book of Mormon.  What follows here is a co-post to the full interview at Kurt Manwaring’s site—a discussion with quotes and commentary—but I also recommend taking the time to go over and read the full 10 questions interview with Richard Bushman here.

In the interview, Kurt Manwaring probed into one of the biggest concerns about the gold plates these days in different ways with his first three questions—what role did the plates play in the translation if Joseph Smith revealed the text of the Book of Mormon through seer stones?  As a bit of background to these questions, in the Gospel Topics essay on the Book of Mormon Translation, we read that according to early accounts of the translation process: “Joseph placed either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument.”[1] With the seerstone in the hat, he would not have been looking directly at the plates—at times the plates seem to not have even been uncovered or even in the same room with him while he dictated the text.[2]  Hence, there are some important questions that have arisen from these accounts about the very purpose of having the gold plates.

Richard Bushman led his response to these questions with the statement that: “This complex question deserves a complex answer.”  He then observed that we ought to remember that “the plates were beautiful,” and this evoked a response in Joseph Smith and others: “The plates called out for attention. … Their very physical presence demanded a response.”  He added that: “The plates were in a sense a testimony in themselves. … The elegant, intricate plates pointed to an ancient people speaking from the dust.”

Bushman then stated that he concurs with something called the “catalyst hypothesis.”  The basic idea of this theory is that contact with the physical objects associated with Joseph Smith’s translation projects sparked or catalyzed the revelatory process that resulted in the texts we call translations.  As Dr. Bushman put it: “Often Joseph Smith received a flash of revelation when he encountered certain items. … After these flashes, there was a long period of translation but it began with sudden inspiration.”  In the case of the gold plates, Bushman noted that we see an initial spark of inspiration even after his initial encounter with the plates: “Lucy Smith said he was overflowing with stories of ancient people after he came back from the first visit to the hill in 1823. This was long before he set out to translate.”  In Bushman’s eyes, “the hypothesis that the translation revelations began with a physical object accounts for Joseph’s initial attraction to certain texts.”

Dr. Bushman then went on to discuss further, focusing on the question: “What was the ongoing role of the plates, sitting covered on the table while Joseph dictated?”  To this, he answered:

Here I feel driven to physical analogies.

Could translation work like induction? If you move a magnet across a wire, the electrons start moving along the wire. That is how electrical generators work. Could something analogous work for translation? We don’t know enough about the technology of revelation to do more than speculate.

Terryl Givens has given a little more insight into the process. He has shown how the Bible spurred revelation.

The Bible deposited words and phrases in Joseph’s mind that occurred in fragments in one revelation and then arranged themselves into more coherent sentences later on. I associate that effect with the flashes Joseph had that he later transformed into a narrative.

It is a speculative answer, to be sure, but an interesting suggestion in light of the evidence that the gold plates may not have been physically involved in much of the translation process.

When asked “what would Joseph Smith think of our fascination with his translation process?”, Richard Bushman shared the following thoughts:

I think he would remain withdrawn as he listened to our debates and speculation.

He refused to say much about it when he was alive.

I don’t think he would be much more forthcoming today. He only said they were translated by the gift and power of God. He may not have known any more about it himself. He focused and the words came. That may have been enough.

While I think many of us do wish we knew more about how the translation process worked for Joseph Smith (the sheer number of books, essays, blog posts, and discussions on the topic is a testament to that desire), there is a lot we simply do not know.  It is also interesting, as Michael Hubbard MacKay recently observed, “that Joseph was reticent to give details and his colleagues were eager to explain.”  There are clues we find about the process—many of which we have discussed over the past few weeks—but it is difficult to know what the full process Joseph Smith went through in producing the text of the Book of Mormon, in part because of his own silence on the subject.

In the interview, Bushman also discussed some of what his essay in Producing Ancient Scripture discusses about book history within the Book of Mormon.  He states that: “Many people have noted that the Book of Mormon is exceedingly forthcoming about its own construction.”  Throughout the work, we see a lot of the provenance of the plates discussed and we know about the various people recording the narratives.  There is far more discussion about the creation of the Book of Mormon within its text than we find in the Bible about its creation. Bushman argues that “this attention to process humanizes the making of scripture. We can see how it grows out of the everyday lives of a people.”  He adds that: “The revelations were usually sermons and they are interspersed with family quarrels, migrations, war, political intrigue, natural disasters. The Book of Mormon as scripture grows out of this account of human life.”  Even within the text, records like the plates of Nephi are “not considered scripture at first,” but “they grow into that standing” over time.  The implication of this, to Bushman, “is that our history with its preachments will follow the same course.”

There’s a lot more that can be discussed from Bushman’s interview.  He talks about his thoughts about why the plates were taken away from Joseph Smith after the Book of Mormon was translated, his work on a book about the gold plates, John Turner’s forthcoming biography of Joseph Smith, and there are also more details on the topics I have covered here.  As such, I recommend jumping on over to Kurt Manwaring’s site and reading the full interview.

 

Footnotes:

[1] “Book of Mormon Translation,” Gospel Topics Essays, accessed 24 August 2020, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/book-of-mormon-translation?lang=eng.

[2] Interview of Emma Smith by her son Joseph Smith III, “Interview with Joseph Smith III, 1879,” in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 1:539.

17 comments for “Thoughts on the Gold Plates

  1. Do we have any more details about Turner’s JS biography other than the tweet? Any idea of timescales?

  2. James, it will be a while. I have an interview coming up with John Turner at FromtheDesk in which he reflects on his Brigham Young biography and shares a few thoughts about the Joseph Smith project. He says that his standard process is to immerse himself in the source material for a few years, so we have a little wait ahead of us.

  3. “Could translation work like induction? If you move a magnet across a wire, the electrons start moving along the wire. That is how electrical generators work. Could something analogous work for translation? We don’t know enough about the technology of revelation to do more than speculate.”

    That’s not translation, that’s magic.

  4. (Re John Turner thread jack): Wow! Promises to be as good as Karen Armstrong’s _Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time_!

  5. Golden plates were fabrications, folks. Joseph Smith didn’t carry what he described to be a 100+-pound object through the woods. There weren’t ancient records kept by Native Americans that when translated into English happened to contain all sorts of verbiage from the Pauline epistles.

  6. Ethan, the quality of your comments has taken a downhill turn lately, but this one’s surprisingly bad. I mean not just knee-jerk rejecting what members of the church believe, but shockingly ill informed. Read a little history; there are a great number of people (well outside the official witnesses) who attest that Joseph Smith had something resembling square, heavy, metallic plates with writing on them. It’s almost the one incontrovertible fact of the whole story. Opinions of course differ on what that writing was, but you’re off in fantasyland if you think the plates simply didn’t exist.

  7. “… who attest that Joseph Smith had something resembling square, heavy, metallic plates with writing on them.“

    But the leap from this to ancient American history written in an unknown language on golden plates is enormous indeed.

    People who question Joseph’s account are not necessarily hostile to the Church. They just don’t believe Joseph’s account.

  8. Ultimately apologists damage the institution they purport to love by perpetuating this nonsense. Bushman’s tortured “induction” hypothesis is another example. Please! I do not believe that a paradigm shift from these hopeless tales to something resembling reality will destroy the Church. It might actually save it.

  9. I’m somewhat torn on this discussion (at least the parts with p). I personally struggle with the induction or catalyst hypotheses (mostly with the question of why the plates were put together, stored, why Joseph Smith then had to spend four years preparing to receive them and then spend years carefully protecting them only to basically ignore them for the majority of the translation if they were just there to be his muse). I recognize that it is an attempt to make sense of the historical evidence we have of Joseph Smith not necessarily directly using the plates during a lot of the time he was dictating the text of the Book of Mormon, but it still doesn’t really make sense to me.

    Out of curiosity, how do you all make sense of all of this information while still embracing the idea that the Book of Mormon is divinely inspired scripture (for those who do)?

  10. “…how do you all make sense of all of this information while still embracing the idea that the Book of Mormon is divinely inspired scripture…”

    I simply take Joseph at his word. I don’t need academics or theologians and their theories to explain it to me.

  11. P, I agree. LDS apologetics runs into problems when doctrine and belief get souped together.

    Chad, I’m sticking to my guns:

    That Joseph received the entire self-contained BOOK of Mormon in the same way that John received the entire self-contained BOOK of Revelation—that, figuratively, “eating” the BOOK (Rev 10:9-10), is to consume the whole—the entire revelation-vision as a seed.

    We might find evidence for the word “BOOK” to be used interchangeably with “vision” or “revelation,” somewhat after the pattern of some Jews who perceive Talmud-Torah as a “living” expression, not merely a material book. Some Jews would say the Rabbi “translates” the translation (translates the revelation/living book).

    As for the relationship of a material object to revelation-received, I would say there is evidence for this phenomena in text, whether the urim, the budding rod, the stone, the cup, talisman, etc.

    Psychologically speaking, the esoteric “mantic” experience (see Nibley on the Mantic), like the schizo-mania behavior expressed in “trickster” and Hermetic archetypes, infuses objects with psychic power. Just like icons and totems of a tribal priest or pagan sorcerer.

    Our puritanical-Protestant paradigm naturally rejects icon and totem, but Joseph transcended Puritanism. “Why are we so puritanical when Joseph was not?” might be worth exploring.

    A lot of the behavior our puritanical consciousness rejects—like many wives, temples, mystic powers—tribal or indigenous peoples see as evidence of Joseph’s true calling as king-priest or prophet.

    We ought to be careful not to sanitize or whitewash Joseph to fit our ethnocentric beliefs…

  12. Travis, the possibility that Jos. the simple farm boy [inadvertently] reestablished barbarian religion is pretty interesting, tho we are currently taught that the sanitized church is the true church.

  13. @Chad Nielsen

    You asked how believers make sense of this information. I’d like to respond.

    In a few of my comments here, I’ve pushed conclusions from Don Bradley’s book on the 116 pages. I really do think it’s a great work of scholarship. One of the things that I gleaned from it is that, during the period of translation with Martin Harris, the plates were used directly in the translation. I mean stereotypical Joseph-looks-through-the-spectacles-at-the-plates direct usage. It’s only after the plates were returned to Joseph in the aftermath of the lost pages fiasco that he started turning to the seer stone. So the plates were not entirely irrelevant to Joseph Smith as he set about to translate.They were not just a muse. However, the process of translating in that manner involved a lot more preparation and thus was abandoned as Smith began to use the seer stone to receive divine revelation, including the contents of the plates. Their purpose, however, was not yet finished, as they were still needed to serve as a physical relic of the Book of Mormon for the Witnesses to the plates and the other informal witnesses who observed them from time to time. The process of protecting the plates likely served as a refining agent in the lives of the Smith family and their faithful associates, and thus found purpose beyond merely the engraved records which they carried.

    In sum, the plates did serve as a literal subject of translation during the Harris period. Beyond that, and perhaps more importantly, they became a physical representation of the divine outpouring for the Smiths, Stowells, Knights, Whitmers, and others. In protecting the plates, their dedication was tried and they were refined. In beholding the plates, their faith was strengthened and they were made witnesses to the world. In testifying of the plates, they testified in turn of the Restoration that the Book of Mormon heralded. The plates were a physical representation, a totem, of the Restoration as a whole.

  14. Hoosier,

    I like your thoughts. They are true to what Joseph said, and they don’t try to erase the plates, erase God, or intellectualize or mysticize the story.

  15. “We don’t know enough about the technology of revelation to do more than speculate” is a statement that surprises me given Bro Bushman’s church callings.

    My father was a Stake Patriarch for 30 years, he spoke of the flow of inspiration he received each time he touched the head of the candidate whom he rarely knew. There was a tangible, arguably catalytic, element in this.

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