Just thirty years ago, the idea of the Book of Mormon as non-historical inspired scripture brought forth through the mind of Joseph Smith and not an actual, literal history of ancient American prophets was a heretical notion. Now, among some progressive LDS scholars and thinkers the idea is gaining traction. There seems to be clues in the text and other evidence that leads us in this direction. The church established a precedent for this idea with the publishing of the essay of the Book of Abraham, using the “catalyst theory”. ie the scroll that Joseph believed he was translating was not the actual record of Abraham, but Joseph needed the scrolls to tap into the revelatory spirit, allowing him to bring forth the inspired scripture we have today. The biggest obstacle in adopting this same kind of view for the Book of Mormon is the gold plates. We have clearly established a (false?) paradigm that either the plates were authentic or Joseph was a fraud.
Don Bradley, LDS historian, introducing research from non-LDS scholar Ann Taves on Joseph Smith and the gold plates said:
Taves, a non-Mormon scholar, has taken up a challenge laid down by Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens. The argument by Bushman and Givens is that the nature of Joseph Smith’s claim to have the Nephite golden plates is such that one must either fully accept it or think that he was a fraud: i.e., there is no middle ground on which to reject Joseph Smith’s claim to have the Nephite plates while accepting his sincerity. This is an argument I’ve also made myself, in various discussions online, going back several years.
In this blog post, I will explain Ann Taves’ answer to this challenge, add some additional pieces to the theory, and then ask the same question Don asked.
When I posted this on Facebook I also had one LDS friend weigh in as accepting Taves’ hypothesis while also embracing the reality of the Nephites. Would such a combination of beliefs place an individual within or without the scope of Latter-day Saint faith?
Ann Taves published an article Joseph Smith and the materialization of the golden plates. I will quote and borrow from Taves heavily in this post. Ann previews the issue talking about the polarity in people’s opinions of Joseph Smith and especially the golden plates.
- Richard Bushman said “unbelieving historians … repress material [evidence] coming from eyewitnesses close to Joseph Smith [who] consistently wrote and acted as if he had the Book of Mormon plates.”
- Non-believers explain Smith’s claims regarding the plates in terms of deception, fantasy, or a prank that got out of hand.
- Materiality of the golden plates presents secular historians with a significant stumbling block.
- Dan Vogel believes Joseph made the plates out of tin and calls this “the most compelling evidence for conscious misdirection.”
- Vogel considers the materiality of the plates “the most compelling evidence” that Smith consciously misdirected his followers and compares the making of the plates with the practices of adepts who comingle trickery and sincere belief.
On the flip side, believers, even LDS scholars, are reticent to discuss the possibility of the golden plates being anything but the actual ancient Nephite recorded on metal plates. There seems to be no middle ground. Taves’ challenge is to provide a plausible explanation for the two seemingly opposite assumptions: 1) there were no actual ancient golden plates and also 2) Smith was neither fraudulent nor delusional.
The relationship between Materiality and Sacrality of the Golden Plates
Taves points out the complex relationship between materiality and sacrality using this quote from Jesse Smith, Joseph’s uncle who critically said the following of Joseph “[He had] eyes to see things that are not, and then [had] the audacity to say they are.”
Taves concurs with Bushman, that is is right to point out that Smith consistently acted as if he possessed ancient plates. But there was something different about the physicality of the plates. They seemed to be not an ordinary material object, but something only the Angel Moroni operating in a spiritual realm could deliver, display, and take away.
- The three witnesses saw the plates only through a vision.
- According to Lucy Smith, even the 8 witness event, even though Joseph was the one who showed them the plates, they retired to the grove without the plates where they were delivered by “one of the ancient Nephites”
- Joseph monitored the safety of the plates from a distance using the seerstone.
- Martin Harris according to two separate witnesses said the three and eight witnesses did not physically see the plates only saw “the plates with his natural eyes only in vision or imagination””
- Even in the LDS canon, it appears to reference the plates as something that could only be seen through faith. D&C 17:5: “And ye shall testify that you have seen them, even as my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., has seen them; for it is by my power that he has seen them, and it is because he had faith.”
Examples of Materialization of Sacred Objects
Taves establishes a precedent for the materialization of sacred objects by discussing some examples of cases when something natural is believed to be transformed into something sacred. I’m adding a couple more introduced by Mark Bukowski.
Transubstantiation is the belief in the Catholic church that by the authority and faith of the administering priest and the power of God, that the bread and wine is actually and literally changed to the physical flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. If you were to ask a Catholic partaking of the sacrament, whether the bread they eat is bread symbolizing the body of Christ or the actual body of Christ, they would say the latter. Joseph would be familiar with this belief and could have viewed this as a true principle of God that could be extended to the materialization and transformation of other sacred objects.
Brother of Jared and 16 stones
The 16 small stones that the Lord transformed through his power and the faith of the Brother of Jared into lights. The Brother of Jared was commanded to do something but not given everything to complete the task. The Brother of Jared created a natural solution which God blessed and transformed.
God gave Moses a stone tablet with the 10 commandments written on them by his finger. The first set of tablets were destroyed, whereupon Moses made a second set of tablets himself by his own hand. God made that second set of tablets sacred by writing again on them the 10 commandments.
In the LDS faith, we take simple olive oil, and bless it and consecrate it for the healing of the sick. At this point, we treat the oil as sacred and set it apart for its holy purpose, only for the involvement in blessings. We believe God transforms the simple olive oil into consecrated oil. If we were making a recipe that called for olive oil and checked the pantry and found we were out of EVOO, it would be unthinkable to use consecrated oil. In our minds, it is no longer cooking oil, it is a sacred object.
LDS garments are considered to be sacred. But, like the other examples they start as a material object that becomes sacred through the human modification of the object combined with God’s sanctification.
Transformation of a natural object into the Golden Plates
After a visit to the Hill Cumorah to obtain the plates, Joseph told his parents he had just received “the severest chastisement that [he] had ever had in his life … [from] the angel of the Lord.” The angel told him he had been “negligent [and] that the time ha[d] now come when the record should be brought forth.” But he also told them not to worry. He now knew what to do. “Father give yourself no uneasiness as to this reprimand I know what course I am to pursue an[d] all will be well.”
Taves hypothesizes that up until this time, Joseph assumed his role in receiving the plates was more of a passive one, but now he understood it to be an active, participatory role. Joseph used the verb “obtain” to describe his journey in receiving the gold plates. Obtaining implies an active effort.
Smith’s logic, however, may have been less like an adept deceiving his subjects and more like a Catholic priest making Christ present in the Eucharistic wafer. In the first case, the adept knowingly misleads his viewers, albeit for their own good. In the second, a priest calls upon the Holy Spirit to transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Comparison of the golden plates and the Eucharist allows us to consider the possibility that Smith viewed something that he made – metal plates – as a vehicle through which something sacred — the ancient golden plates — could be made (really) present.
Taves believes at this point Joseph crafted some metal plates, and then approached God to make them sacred, to materialize them into the ancient gold plates. This is very similar to the Moses precedent and the Brother of Jared example, of a prophet being expected by God to do something to get things started through a natural process and then having God finish the process through a sacred process.
An important, final step in the materialization process was for others to see the plates in vision and to be persuaded by the power of God to believe in them. This explains why Joseph is so genuinely happy when the three witnesses obtained the same vision of the plates.
Father! — Mother! — … you do not know how happy I am[.] The Lord has caused the plates to be shown to 3 more besides me who have also seen an angel and will have to testify to the truth of what I have said for they know for themselves that I do not go about to deceive the people… I do feel as though I was relieved of a dreadful burden which was almost too much for me to endure … it does rejoice my soul that I am not any longer to be entirely alone in the world.
My Twist on the theory
An added dimension from myself: it’s possible that between the time Joseph “discovered” the plates and when Moroni finally took them back up, Joseph believed these crafted plates intermittently transformed between regular non-sacred object not having the ancient record attached to it to a the actual gold plates with ancient record attached to it, depending on when God needed them to function this way.
Jan Shipps believes Joseph through his money digging activities found a Native American artifact, that inspired the golden plates story. I think this could be a real clue. Here’s an additional aspect to the theory I’ve heard from others, but am folding into this Ann Taves materialization narrative. Josiah Stowell is the only non-insider who claimed to view the gold plates outside of the three and eight witnesses. His description taken from a court record for a money digging charge against Joseph Smith:
Josiah Stowel, being by me sworn, saith,… that Smith, the prisoner, went in the night, and brought the Bible, (as Smith said;) witness saw a corner of it; it resembled a stone of a greenish caste; should judge it to have been about one foot square and six inches thick; he would not let it be seen by any one; the Lord had commanded him not; it was unknown to Smith, that witness saw a corner of the Bible, so called by Smith; told the witness the leaves were of gold; there were written characters on the leaves; prisoner was commanded to translate the same by the Lord;…
According to BYU professor Anthony Sweat, this occurred at the Smith home the night Joseph brought home the plates the first time
(Stowell) testified under oath that he saw the plates the day Joseph first brought them home. As Joseph passed them through the window, Stowell caught a glimpse of the plates as a portion of the linen was pulled back. Stowell gave the court the dimensions of the plates and explained that they consisted of gold leaves with characters written on each sheet.
Imagine the possibility that Joseph, instead of crafting gold plates, with pure intent and full of faith, went to the Hill Cumorah, and dug where he believed the Angel Moroni had led him, and when he dug, he found something like this.
This is an actual Native American artifact with etchings. Perhaps Joseph found a squarish stone unlike any natural object he had ever seen. Maybe it was a greenish-goldish color. Perhaps it had actual Native American etchings or looked like it could have been some sort of ancient record. When he tried to take hold of the gold plates, he was blocked from doing so. Maybe the materialization process had not taken place. Through Joseph’s faith and the power of God, the object would first need to be transformed and sanctified, before he could obtain the object as actual gold plates.
Mark Bukowski said
There are words, I think we can put together, which can be read and understood as “naturalistic” explanations and as traditional LDS explanations as well. I think once we figure out those vocabularies, so we can speak as Taves does, yet even with more nuanced meanings, the church really could fill the earth as the “stone cut without hands”. We are completely compatible with a theistic view of humanism, we are materialists, and there are atheist philosophers who describe a god they would believe in terms of solidarity with humanity, with their god being a “friend” to humanity (Rorty and others). We are so dang close it drives me crazy. If we could just get past these sectarian linguistic blocks, and I think Taves work heads in that direction for us- we could actually suddenly have a Mormon revolution. If we can get the world to see it as Taves does, we are very close to being there.
In the sacramental/metaphorical paradigm I introduce on this site, interpreting Joseph’s motives and especially how the gold plates fits in are critical components. Historical problems in scripture and religious foundations are generally not a problem. But Joseph Smith is such a central and key figure in the LDS church, that I feel it’s important to come to terms with a view of him that we can appropriately revere and respect him and view the scripture and doctrines he restored as truth.
Can this view of Joseph Smith and the gold plates fit within the scope of LDS faith?