Golden Plates

Richard Lyman Bushman’s most recent book focuses on presenting a cultural history of the gold plates. I’ve reviewed Joseph Smith’s Gold Plates in the past, but Dr. Bushman did an interview that was recently published on the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk that had some interesting tidbits. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.

Richard Bushman described some of what led him to research and write this book:

I had always found the gold plates intriguing: a stack of thin, hammered, metal sheets that looked like gold, covered with engravings, partly sealed, bearing a thousand-year history of a civilization that destroyed itself by rejecting God and giving way to moral decay.

Add to that the plates elusiveness. They were mostly hidden, not revealed in public, and now gone, and so always in question. Did they ever really exist?

I thought it would be interesting to trace how people reacted to this radiant but suspect object. Joseph Smith first spoke of the plates two centuries ago. Why do people still talk about them and not just Latter-day Saints? They turn up in novels, dramas, TV shows, as well as Latter-day Saint lesson manuals. They still exist in the imagination, much like Moses’ tablets bearing the Ten Commandments. What accounts for the plates’ long life? …

I hope that readers will come away with an impression of the vitality and mystery of the gold plates. Rather than dismiss them entirely as a trivial figment of Joseph Smith’s imagination, I would like them to recognize the lasting force emanating from the plates—even if only imagined.

Joseph Smith’s golden plates are a fascinating artifact.

One of the core points of Joseph Smith’s Golden Plates is that it only gradually dawned on Joseph Smith that he needed to translate the contents of the golden plates. As Bushman explained in the interview:

The basic problem with understanding the plates is that there was no convincing precedent for them. The problem with understanding Joseph Smith’s role is that there was no reason for him to believe he could translate.

Translation was the work of learned men, like the forty-seven scholars who translated the King James Version of the Bible. Uneducated boys did not translate anything, not even simple Latin texts, much less a strange combination of Hebrew and Egyptian. Champollion was an immensely learned prodigy, an expert in languages. Joseph Smith had no qualifications to translate. I think it took him years to understand his role.

Sources are skimpy, but I think the bulk of the evidence shows that he did not entirely understand the plates were to be translated until after he received them in September 1827—and he did not grasp that he was to be the translator until after Martin Harris failed to get any help from learned linguists he visited in New York City.

Both Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery indicate that when Joseph went to Cumorah in September 1823, he thought he was being led to a buried treasure like the precious coins his father had searched for with Josiah Stowell. Only gradually did the family come to realize they were to recover a record—not a horde of gold—and still later that Joseph was to translate the record.

Then suddenly in the winter of 1828 he began to translate, and the words poured from his mouth.

It was an interesting point that I had not considered before. Having had the benefit of hindsight and knowing that the Book of Mormon was created with ties to the story of the golden plates, I just always assumed that was obvious from the get-go that the plates would be translated.

Another interesting note was about the reason that Joseph Smith started calling the seer stones Urim and Thummim. I’ve pointed out in the past that some of the magic-adjacent narratives from the earliest days of the Church have been downplayed, but Bushman pointed out that there was a specific catalyst that sparked that process of downplaying:

In the early accounts of the plates, the translating instrument that came with them was called interpreters or spectacles. Not until after 1834 did Urim and Thummim become the standard usage. I believe that the publication of E.D. Howe’s Mormonism Unvailed in that year moved the Saints to adopt this usage. They wished to suppress anything that smacked of treasure-seeking.

The Smiths and their neighbors inherited the practices of folk magic that went along with treasure-seeking from predecessors going back many centuries.

There was no shame in this among common people. But under the pressure of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, belief in magic had gradually been discredited. The educated people in Palmyra, the clergy, newspaper editors, and doctors belittled magic as a retrograde superstition that was practiced only by the poor and ignorant.

When E.D. Howe—the editor of The Painesville Telegraph who had closely followed the rise of Mormonism in nearby Kirtland—wanted to discredit Joseph Smith, he chose to depict the Smith family and all the early converts as ignorant and superstitious and, to prove the point, labeled them all as money-diggers. His collection of affidavits recounting stories of the Smith family’s search for treasure was proof they were untrustworthy and silly. His book made the Smiths’ involvement in folk magic a source of shame.

In an attempt to dignify the discovery and translation of the plates, the Saints chose to call the translating instrument a Urim and Thummim, a term from the Bible.

It was not a perfect fit; the Urim and Thummim was not a translating instrument but a set of stones that the High Priest inserted in his robe to help him make righteous judgments. It was adopted because it associated Joseph’s labors with the Bible instead of folk magic. To establish the term, the editors of the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835 added Urim and Thummim to revelations that in their first appearance in the Book of Commandments had not employed the term.

The anti-Mormon portrayals of Latter-day Saints included casting the folk magic as silly superstitions, which led to attempts to use more dignified, Bible-based ways to refer to the artifacts and practices associated with folk magic and the early Latter Day Saint movement.

There’s a lot of other interesting insights in the interview, so I encourage you to go read the full interview about a cultural history of the gold plates at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk.

7 comments for “Golden Plates

  1. I have admired Dr. Bushman from afar for 30-40 years. I somehow became aware (probably through comments he made on some podcast) of this project several years ago, and I was hoping that he’d live long enough to complete the book. I very much enjoyed the book, and found it well worth reading (as I do just about all of Bushman’s writings), but it was not what I expected. I was hoping to come away from the book with a better sense of the arguments and evidence for and against the assertion that there were actually tangible plates. As noted in the post, that really wasn’t the focus of the book. At the end of the day, those of us who are engaged in Mormonism are left to still struggle with a couple of very foundational questions: (i) were there really tangible metal plates, which any person could have seen and touched and felt, given by an angel to Joseph and then taken back by the angel; and (ii) did the events described in the Book of Mormon actually take place, and were the authors real people? While Bushman’s book is well worth reading and provocative, it really didn’t move the needle for me at all with respect to my decades-long struggle with those two questions.

  2. Matthew73 – I find beauty in the fact that it is not possible to move that needle on our own. When the Lord moves it, it will move. Meanwhile, we have the opportunity to discover a total reliance on spiritual knowledge about the miracle of it all. An informational miracle, this dispensation’s equivalent of Moses’ parting of the Red Sea, for an Information Age.

    Further knowledge will come in time. When it does, the opportunity to believe in its absence will have past.

  3. Matthew73, thanks for your interesting comment. I, too, have heard Bushman talking about this project for several years. But I understood him to say that he was basically writing a cultural history (my words, not his) of the plates and their reception. After having read it, would you say that’s a good summary of the actual product?

  4. I think Matthew73’s question (I), at least the first part, is perhaps the one settled question about the earliest church history. Enough people lifted and felt the plates and heard their leaves rustle metallically that it’s much harder to treat them as imaginary than as a real physical object. Opinions differ about their origin, physical composition, age and eventual fate, but the physical reality of the plates seems as close to a settled question as we’re going to get.

  5. Jonathan

    If the plates were real, but not of divine origin, that means Joseph Smith made them and then disposed of them somewhere. Any anti-mormons out there looking for them somewhere in Pennsylvania? ;)

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