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). 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).
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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.
 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).