The Book of Mormon is a reliquary in prose. In some extensive sections and at some critical moments, what drives the narrative is the question: how did a set of golden plates, a steel sword, a ball of curious workmanship, a breastplate, and two translucent stones end up inside a stone box buried in a hill in the state of New York? For a religion that attaches little to no significance to relics, it’s striking that large sections of our distinctive book of scripture are concerned with the provenance—the origin and the later cultural significance—of a particular set of holy artifacts. (I’m taking the inventory from D&C 17:1, although other sources differ on the precise contents.)
To consider a typical example of a late medieval relic description, we might consider the 1487 Most Worthy and Imperial Relic in Nuremberg. The tract describes both relics associated with Christ and various saints as well as objects associated with Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, who brought the majesty of empire from Italy and Constantinople to the Germans, and the tract also describes how both secular and religious society attend the annual veneration of the relics. That is, the tract aimed both to describe the relics, their origin, and the manner of their arrival in Nuremberg, as well as to support the legitimacy of the relics and the social order in which their veneration took place. But relics could also inspire more imaginative writing as well. The presence in Trier of Christ’s seamless coat for which Roman soldiers cast lots at the Crucifixion is first documented in the year 1196, nearly simultaneous with the writing of the minor medieval German epic Orendel which provides a more imaginative account of the Holy Robe’s route to Trier. While the Robe had particular significance for the sociopolitical status of medieval Trier, and the epic legitimates the bishopric and its prize relic, the narrative is quite a bit more extensive than a mere relic description.
We can also find relic description in the Book of Mormon. The book of 1 Nephi spends some time on visions and moral teaching, but it interrupts the migration out of Jerusalem with lengthy narrative excurses to explain the provenance of four objects: a set of brass plates, a steel sword, a wooden bow, and the ball or directors known as the Liahona. After telling these stories about objects, we hear no more about the bow (if the story was not actually intended to explain the absence of a steel bow in the first place). The Brass Plates, which also don’t make it to Cumorah, are nevertheless the central exhibit in 2 Nephi and are described even hundreds of years later in the Nephite narrative as valuable records whose transmission is watched over by prophets and kings. The brass plates provide the pattern for other Nephite records and the foundation of Nephite literacy. The sword of Laban and the Liahona, far from passing into the depths of history, are similarly emphasized much later in Nephite civilization, and they are among the last artifacts that Moroni consigns to the earth. Laban’s sword, wielded by their kings and the basis on which other weapons are patterned, seems to be some kind of insignia of rulership, and the other artifacts, including the Brass Plates, the Liahona, and the stones set in a bow, are tokens of religious legitimacy.
The most interesting case is the Urim and Thummim, the stones set in a bow. The sole narrative accomplishment of the Book of Ether is to explain their provenance. Ether has always been something of a puzzle, because the Book of Mormon would be much simpler without it. Nephi takes pains to claim that the Promised Land is empty; Ether says it was teeming with millions. Interaction between Jaredites and Nephites seems either minimal or minimized, and overall Ether adds very little to the story that the Book of Mormon is trying to tell. If space on the plates is limited (and space on gold plates is always limited), it would have been much easier to omit it entirely. (Or, if Joseph Smith was inventing the Book of Mormon out of whole cloth, why complicate matters by introducing a prior civilization partially coexistent with the Nephites, which requires curious explanations for why the two never meet?) But we need Ether to explain where the Urim and Thummin came from, and we need to know where they come from because the Urim and Thummim were part of the Nephite time capsule that Joseph Smith dug up.
If we recognize that these sections of the Book of Mormon are primarily stories about the provenance of particular artifacts, there are some interpretive consequences. If 1 Ne. 3-4 is a story about the provenance of a sword and some inscribed plates that held special significance for the Nephites, then we’re probably mistaken to read the story for insights into Nephi’s psychology, or for general principles concerning the treatment of drunken enemies. The story legitimates Nephite ownership of the Sword of Laban and the Brass Plates, and their central significance in Nephite society, and also explains their presence in the aforementioned stone box.
Critics often find the golden plates and the magic spectacles to be the most ridiculous of Joseph Smith’s outlandish claims, but paying attention to the significance of relics in the Book of Mormon shows that those ridiculous objects are really one of the thorniest problems for skeptics and require some explanation. Why would Joseph Smith spend so much narrative energy to explain the origin of an object that doesn’t actually exist? It would have been easier for him to claim merely to have taken dictation directly from Moroni. The various relic chapters of the Book of Mormon reinforce the solidity of the plates as a physical object. Whatever their source or content, Joseph Smith had something shiny and metallic, and he was confident that he could show it, and its companion objects, to others if allowed. I think we can move the leftward goalpost down the field a bit, from regarding the Book of Mormon as a pious fraud or inspired fiction, to regarding it at a minimum as pious archeology, or an inspired artifact appraisal.
The relics in the Book of Mormon might also provide a way for us to make peace with peep stones. It’s disconcerting to think of Joseph Smith using a stone as some kind of magical linguistic telescope for translating the plates, when we’d prefer a prophet to use the Urim and Thummim as a holy linguistic telescope for the same thing. Perhaps the mistake lies in thinking of Joseph Smith looking through the stone at undecipherable writing as if through a kaleidoscope, when we should think of Joseph Smith only looking through the stone, or at the stone. If Joseph Smith’s seer stone was a Native American gorget or some other treasure yielded up by the earth, then there is perhaps no essential difference between looking at a seer stone, and looking at a set of golden plates, and finding inspiration for writing the religious history of the people who produced them, and of the lands they inhabited. The seer stone was in this sense the same kind of sacred relic in search of a history as the Sword of Laban, the Liahona, or the Urim and Thummim were.
In any case, in faith traditions where relics play a greater role, the technical term for moving a holy object from one place to another, appropriately enough for the prophetic career of Joseph Smith, is ‘translation.’