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.” 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. 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.
 “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.
 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.