Use of the gold plates in Book of Mormon translation accounts

It’s become something of a communis opinio doctorum that Joseph Smith didn’t make use of the gold plates while translating the Book of Mormon. Is there evidence for this?

Yes. The Evangelical Inquirer reported in 1831 (without citing a source) that an angel told Joseph Smith “that he would be inspired to translate the inscription without looking at the plates” (Welch no. 135).[1]  It may not be an authoritative source, but it does show that the idea was in circulation. David Whitmer, in an interview published in the Kansas City Daily Journal in 1881, stated that Joseph Smith

did not use the plates in the translation, but would hold the interpreters to his eyes and cover his face with a hat, excluding all light, and before his eyes would appear what seemed to be parchment, on which would appear the characters of the plates in a line at the top, and immediately below would appear the translation in English (Welch no. 84; see also Whitmer’s corrections in Welch no. 85).

And that’s the extent of clear statements denying use of the plates among the primary sources. There’s less evidence for non-use of the plates than sometimes asserted. Emma Smith’s statement, noted in the previous post, that the plates lay on a table covered in a cloth, was not an answer to the question, “Did Joseph Smith make use of the plates while translating?” but to the question, “Why do you think the plates were real if you never saw them?” She was commenting on what she saw, not on her husband’s methods. In contrast, she was quite explicit about what wasn’t accessible to Joseph Smith: books or manuscripts to refer to.

Similarly, the motif of concealment in Book of Mormon translation accounts (also treated in the previous post) is always about limitations on what the scribes or other witnesses saw, not what Joseph Smith could or did see. Moreover, as David Whitmer’s statement noted above should make clear, followers of Joseph Smith did not see a contradiction between not using the plates, and accessing the writing on them. They had tremendous faith in Joseph Smith’s abilities as a seer and the capabilities of the interpreters.

Is there evidence that Joseph Smith did make use of the plates when translating? Yes. There are several accounts that explicitly affirm Joseph Smith’s use of the plates and the characters inscribed on them. Truman Coe, citing Joseph Smith as his source, wrote in 1836, “By putting his finger on one of the characters and imploring divine aid, then looking through the Urim and Thummin, [Joseph Smith] would see the import written in plain English” (Welch no. 23). Charles Anthon’s understanding was that the translation involved “examin[ing] the plates through the spectacles” (Welch no. 158; see also 165). This was also John Gilbert’s understanding; he wrote in 1892, “by putting [the spectacles] on his nose and looking at the plates, the spectacles turned the hyroglyphics into good English” (Welch no. 197). An article in the Christian Journal of Exeter, New Hampshire, stated in 1835 that Joseph Smith would place one of the plates in his hat along with the interpreters (Welch no. 163); Thurlow Weed advanced a similar theory in 1884 (Welch no. 194). Samuel Whitney Richards stated in 1907 that Oliver Cowdery had described “Joseph as sitting by a table with the plates before him, and he reading the record with the Urim & Thummim” (Welch no. 76). David Whitmer, in an interview published in the Chicago Tribune in 1885, stated that “after affixing the magical spectacles to his eyes, Smith would take the plates and translate the characters one at a time” (Welch no. 93).

* * *

The discerning reader will note that David Whitmer thus appears as a key witness that Joseph Smith both did and did not make use of the plates in translation, and none of the clear statements for or against use of the plates are highly convincing by themselves. Personally, I find Truman Coe’s statement of 1836 quite plausible, and I find it more likely in the entire context of Joseph Smith’s cumulative translation projects that Joseph Smith did make use of the plates and the characters on them while translating. The plates were not a mere catalyst for visions or inspired creativity, but the textual source of a divinely enabled linguistic translation. But I don’t hold this position simply because there are more or better sources for it among the various accounts of the translation process. Most of the sources were not intending to address the translation method, but to affirm or deny the Book of Mormon’s authenticity as artifact and as revealed scripture.

In any case, “Joseph Smith didn’t use the plates” doesn’t deserve its status as the consensus opinion. You may believe it as the more likely option if you like, and find some evidence to support it, but we have to acknowledge that the evidence is sparse, murky and contradictory.

What does it say about us as modern educated people that Joseph Smith’s non-use of the plates has become the consensus view even though the evidentiary basis is so sparse? One thing it shows is that there’s little incentive to question it. It’s like a modern equivalent of the nineteenth-century reports of Joseph Smith’s ability to translate the plates from a vast distance; his believing followers saw it as evidence of his awesome powers as prophet, while skeptics saw it as a sign that his translation of the Book of Mormon was of a piece with his fraudulent money digging. Whatever side one was on, there was little incentive to doubt that Joseph Smith would translate while the plates were physically distant (see Welch nos. 45, 59, 103, 114). Today, imagining the translation of the Book of Mormon as an outpouring of pure revelation is quite agreeable to the educated faithful, as it confers a welcome religious respectability on the Restoration (Joseph Smith would thus fit more neatly into the long history of prophets and mystics) and it lessens unpleasant tension with notions of what religious inspiration should look like. Those with a secular outlook, for their part, are frequently prepared to consider the Book of Mormon as a work of tremendous genius and creativity. Given the minimal conceptual gap between divine illumination and creative genius, the more we treat the Book of Mormon as an ethereal and spontaneous outpouring of inspiration, the easier it is for everyone to get along.

But what makes the Book of Mormon appalling to our modern, educated sensibilities is its stubborn materiality: behind the blanket, under the cloth, there was after all a stack of metallic plates, covered in characters of ancient appearance, and that irritating fact is both too well attested to wish away and remarkably difficult to explain. If I have one complaint about recent scholarship on the Book of Mormon (and I actually have a few), it’s the tendency to make the hard physicality of the plates disappear, taking the textuality of the scriptural text along with it. The uncomfortable, unloved fact is Joseph Smith’s possession of a stack of metallic plates, his contemplation of them through his seer stone or oversized spectacles (their outsize dimensions, ironically, are the one thing that all the sources seem to agree on) and his deliberate translation of the text, character by character and sentence by sentence.

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[1] John W. Welch, “The Miraculous Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in John W. Welch, ed., Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820-1844 (Provo: BYU Press, 2005).

11 comments for “Use of the gold plates in Book of Mormon translation accounts

  1. If I have one complaint about recent scholarship on the Book of Mormon (and I actually have a few), it’s the tendency to make the hard physicality of the plates disappear, taking the textuality of the scriptural text along with it.

    Yes and yes. This is excellent, Jonathan; keep it up.

  2. I don’t understand all the hullaballoo about whether Joseph used the plates or not. I can airdrop text to my kid’s iphone from my phone and we don’t bat an eye about that being weird or impossible. Why couldn’t the Master of the Universe create a “celestial’ bluetooth/airdrop connection between two inanimate objects to transmit text? We already have come up with that as fallen mortals. I’m sure God is way ahead of the curve on that one!

  3. Jonathan, with all due respect, I think you’re failing to take full account of how Emma’s testimony bears on this. A plain reading of her comments seems supportive of the “dispensable plates” theory of translation. Specifically, “In writing for your father I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.” If the plates had been the focus of Joseph’s attention and effort in translating, it seems Emma would have mentioned that, rather than saying he dictated with his face buried in a hat (hour after hour, day after day).

    Similarly, your characterization of Emma’s comment about the covered plates as being about the plates’ reality in a general sense–rather than their state during translation–seems strained in the context of the interview. That answer comes after a string of questions about Emma’s observations of, and participation in, the production of the Book of Mormon original manuscript: “Had he not a book or manuscript from which he read or dictated to you?” “Could he not have had [a book or manuscript], and you not know it?” “Are you sure that he had the plates _at_the_time_you_were_writing_for_him_?” It is at that point that she replies, “The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen cloth, which I had given him to fold them in.”

    Now, cash that out. Emma saw exactly what Joseph was doing during translation (i.e., dictating while peering into in a hat). She saw enough to attest with complete confidence that Joseph did not have and could not have concealed any books or manuscripts during the translation. But, by her own admission, she never saw the plates. If Joseph studied the plates during translation, even intermittently, there’s no way Emma could avoid seeing them, if we accept her statements in the interview.

  4. I believe the plates existed.

    I believe Joseph relied on the plates, especially at the beginning when he was learning to trust the Lord and to trust the interpreters and to trust himself.

    I believe that as Joseph progressed, and the Lord’s timetable progressed, Joseph relied less on the plates to accomplish his assignment of translation.

    It does not have to be an all-or-none proposition.

  5. MoPo, that’s an entirely reasonable interpretation.

    But: notice how much interpretation has to go on in order to get from what Emma Smith says to “Joseph Smith didn’t use the plates.” The sheer amount of parsing we have to do means it’s not going to make for strong evidence either way. Her statements are certainly consistent with the view that Joseph Smith didn’t use the plates, but they don’t explicitly make that statement themselves.

    Also: If we’re imagining translation as something like translating ancient Greek as a word-to-word process, then we tend to imagine rapid and repeated reference to the original text, something Emma Smith would presumably notice and comment on. But if we think of the translation as going from one character to multiple words or sentences or perhaps even much more, then glances at the plates could have been much more intermittent, more easily restricted to the moments when Joseph Smith “came up for air,” so to speak, and less remarkable to witness.

    And: You’re assuming that “sitting with his face buried in his hat” means “not referring to the plates,” but Emma Smith and other followers of Joseph Smith would dispute that; consulting the interpreters didn’t limit Joseph Smith’s vision, but enabled him to achieve supernatural feats of vision. This makes it very difficult to read Emma Smith as a witness for non-use of the plates, when to her understanding, Joseph Smith could have seen the plates and much else besides through the interpreters.

    Finally: We have to keep in mind that Emma Smith’s interviews with her son were in 1879, fifty years after the fact, so that we can’t push too hard on them for absolute fidelity to relatively minor details. Memory performs a lot of work in 50 years. I find Emma Smith’s account quite credible, but as others have pointed out to me, she too had her own motivations.

  6. Vogel and Taves argue that Smith made plates, so they take the physicality of the plates seriously.

  7. That’s a good point, Steve, which just shows how the weight of evidence really is on the side of the plates as a real, physical object. Of course how you explain how that physical object came into the possession of Joseph Smith is another matter. One recent work I had in mind that tends to make the plates disappear is William Davis’ Visions in a Seer Stone; the only reason Joseph Smith would need to perform an astounding feat of memory and oral performance is if he entirely ignores the stack of plates sitting next to him (which is not to say that memory and orality played no role in the translation process whatsoever).

    I haven’t read Vogel or Taves in depth and so I can’t argue with them specifically, but it’s not at all a simple proposition to manufacture metal plates in the 1820s. It takes specialized knowledge, expensive tools and raw material, and time. Offhand I don’t find it plausible that Joseph Smith could have manufactured the plates himself. (To be fair, the ease with which Nephi and Mormon produce plates raises its own questions.) One skeptical source (The Christian Journal of Exeter, NH, in 1835; Welch 163) supposed that he had gotten a hold of copper plates used for engravings from various printers, but the source also says that he had been a traveling bookseller. So for me it’s still unconvincing, but I’d find something like at least that more plausible. However you look at it, Joseph Smith going from an indigent laborer to the proud owner of a stack of metallic plates is very odd and difficult to explain. Supernatural intervention isn’t the only possibility, but it’s just inherently a thorny problem.

  8. I happen to be working on this section of my book currently. Thanks for the citation.

  9. Thank you so much for this article.
    It seems so often that “the evidence suggests”, as scant as that often is, is taken as absolute truth (which, to so many people, equates to the “consensus opinion”).

  10. Why did Lehi need the Brass Plates; why did Nephi need to take Laban’s sword and why did King Benjamin use it to defend his people; why did Lehi’s group need a brass Liahona; why did the Brother of Jared need 16 stones for light; why did seers need the interpreters; why did Joseph need the physical plates; and why did many of these relics find there way into the stone box in the Hill Cumorah? There is something unique and curious as to the role of hardware, both divine and man-made, in the role of the Book of Mormon. I wonder if one day these sacred artifacts will serve to self-authenticate their own veracity. But in the interim, this gives me something interesting to contemplate. But there must have been something essential about Joseph’s physical possession of the plates in light of the enormous efforts to create, preserve, acquire and protect them.

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