Richard Lyman Bushman’s Joseph Smith’s Gold Plates: A Cultural History (Oxford University Press, 2023) is an important contribution to Book of Mormon studies. As a cultural history of the gold plates, the book traces the story of the plates and the translation of the Book of Mormon, reactions to the story and the development of folklore about the gold plates over the subsequent two centuries. It also discusses how the plates have been portrayed in artwork and literature, used in teaching programs in the Church, and some of the debates about the plates.
Even while visiting the story of the plates—as he has before in Rough Stone Rolling and Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism—Bushman provides fresh perspectives on the story. For example, he focuses on the idea that Joseph Smith may not have understood the purpose of the plates as a record that needed to be translated initially, rather than being a treasure. At first, Joseph Smith may have approached the plates with his treasure hunting in mind rather than a religious perspective. After all, the idea of a book-length record on gold plates wasn’t really something that was a common idea. It was only gradually, as he became acquainted with the interpreters and what was on the plates that he realized it needed to be translated. It was a perspective that I’ve not seen emphasized before (at least within my memory).
As you read, you can tell that Richard Bushman did a lot of in-depth research to bring the book together. He discusses the history, as I’ve mentioned, but adds in art, folklore, and literature to the discussion (not something covered in his previous work or other discussions like Terryl Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon). He discussed some fascinating-sounding but obscure novels about Joseph Smith, Navajo pottery that digests the idea of the gold plates and the Book of Mormon and presents them in a thoroughly Diné form, and more. He also covers better-known artistic treatments of the gold plates, such as the artwork of Arnold Friberg and Minerva Teichert and the sculptures of Torleif Knaphus. And on the folklore front, I think he’s the first person to discuss in-depth the lore of Joseph Smith leaving the plates in or working on the translation in a cave (from both Latter-day Saints in Utah and Palmyra locals). He was able to add a lot of interesting cultural history in discussing dimensions of the gold plates beyond history and scientific arguments.
One thing that caught me off guard was how the book veered into devotional belief on occasion. From the get-go, Bushman acknowledges that “a logical path for a Latter-day Saint growing up in the modern world, especially one who became a historian, would be to grow out of my childhood beliefs. … But my life did not follow that course. The plates have continued to have a hold on me” (ix). He occasionally returns to expressing his belief and arguing for it throughout the book, though he does leave room for other interpretations. For example, at one point he writes: “[What] was the origins of the idea of the plates in Joseph Smith’s mind. Where did he get the conception of a set of plates containing the history of lost civilizations and engraved in ancient characters? No satisfactory answer has been found other than angelic visitation,” though he also acknowledges that “there is also a gap in believers’ story of the plates” (157–158). This wasn’t an unpleasant surprise to me as a member of the Church, but was more apologetic than what I expected going into an Oxford University Press book.
Joseph Smith’s Gold Plates: A Cultural History is important because of the broad swath of information and perspectives it pulls together in one place about the Book of Mormon and the gold plates. In addition to the areas that I’ve mentioned, Bushman discusses the nature of the gold plates as an artifact and what might be displayed with them in a museum (bringing in many theories about what the plates were or what they might have been made from as proposals for what could be in a museum display with the plates), where the gold plates fit in with other sacred objects in faith traditions across the world, and how the plates have been used in Church curriculum (both in missionary literature and Church Education System literature). Appendixes also discuss the structure of the plates/Book of Mormon and the translation debates. All told, the book brings together an impressive array of information about the gold plates and their ongoing existence in the minds of those who have reacted to the idea of their existence.