Book of Mormon

A Cultural History of the Gold Plates

A new book by Richard Bushman seeks to uncover the cultural history of Joseph Smith’s gold plates.

A new book by Richard Bushman seeks to uncover the cultural history of Joseph Smith’s gold plates. As a biographer of Joseph Smith, Bushman has thought about the role of the plates for decades. He believes that they were real, but also points out that they are mysterious. In this interview, he shares thoughts about how they’ve been viewed by scholars, portrayed by artists, and contextualized by the church.

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Read more about the golden plates in Joseph Smith’s Gold Plates: A Cultural History.

Table of Contents

Why did you decide to research the gold plates?

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?

What was your research process?

My research consisted of searching for places where the gold plates figured in someone’s imagination and trying to understand how they were conceived. I began with newspaper accounts in Joseph Smith’s Palmyra, went on to early accounts by believers and then to the Book of Mormon itself. The plates really took shape within the book’s pages.

There is very little evidence that Joseph Smith understood the plates before he began translating, but they figure prominently within the book. Unlike the materials on which the Bible was written, Book of Mormon prophets spoke frequently about making plates, passing them along, deciding what to record, storing them. From the Book of Mormon, I move on to others who talked about the plates: witnesses, critics, imitators like James Strang, novelists, biographers, apologists, missionaries, artists, poets, and on and on.

My aim in each case is to explain how the plates were conceived by these various minds. What were the plates like? What was their function? How were they explained?

What are some of your favorite findings?

One interesting story to emerge from these investigations is the gradually softening of criticism. At first all of Mormonism—including the plates—was considered to be a malevolent imposture that had to be stamped out. It played on the gullibility of the uneducated poor and caught them up in the religious schemes of fanatics who sought to dominate the world.

Joseph Smith was almost immediately compared to Mohammad as one more fanatic who used religion to conquer. The enlightened moral guardians of society had to unite in opposition to these malevolent forces and do everything possible to expose their fallacious claims.

That frame of mind continued through the nineteenth-century but was gradually softened by authors who found in Mormonism not a malevolent force, but an intriguing story.

The aim became to understand Smith and his plates, and through the twentieth-century both novelists and critics brought psychology to bear on the puzzle. Why did Smith dream up the plates? How was he to be accounted for?

For a while, critics presented Smith as a pious fraud who knew he was lying, but in recent years he has increasingly been seen as a sincere religious personality who experienced visions. The role of scholarship is to understand these experiences, not to discredit or even to doubt them.

Why did it take so long for Joseph Smith to recognize that he needed to translate the plates?

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.

What is the connection between Mormonism Unvailed and “Urim and Thummim”?

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.

Richard Bushman has written a cultural history of the gold plates. Learn more about the historical context in this video from Church History.

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.

What is the story of Henry Caswell’s Greek psalter?

Henry Caswall was an Episcopal minister who visited Joseph Smith in Nauvoo in 1842. Caswall had migrated to the United States from England hoping to find a position in America. When nothing opened up for him, he planned to return to England but before his departure he took a boat up the Mississippi from St. Louis to Nauvoo. He went with the intention of discrediting Joseph Smith’s claims to be an inspired translator by showing him an old Greek psalter and inviting him to translate.

When Smith made some awkward attempt, as Caswall assumed he would, Caswall would disclose the true nature of the psalter and catch Smith in a deception.

Solid gold plates would have been far too heavy for Joseph Smith.

When he arrived in Nauvoo, Caswall found the Saints eager for another translation. The publication of the Book of Abraham a few months earlier had thrilled them. They seemed to believe their prophet could find ancient scripture hiding inside any foreign text and pled with Caswall to show the psalter to Smith. Even after Caswall lifted the veil on the plot by telling them it was a psalter, the Saints wanted to purchase the text. His scheme failing him, Caswall returned to England, leaving Smith’s reputation among his people unaffected.

The incident suggests the Saints’ confidence in their prophet as a translator who, they hoped, would discover other scriptures to reveal.

It also suggests Joseph Smith’s dilemma in exercising his translation powers. Following the success of the Abraham translation, how was Smith to know when another inspired text might turn up? None ever did, but he had to give Caswall’s psalter and the Kinderhook plates at least a trial run before discarding them.

How have depictions of the plates changed over time?

The plates have led many different lives even among believing Latter-day Saints. Their appearance has been generally agreed upon—a stack of plates about six inches wide and eight inches long and six inches high bound together by three rings—but when and how to depict them has varied.

When Church painters began to picture them toward the end of the nineteenth century, the most common setting was the Hill Cumorah where Moroni presented the young prophet with the plates. Moroni was shown as an angel standing by the stone box with Joseph kneeling before him. Early artists seemed to be most interested in the plates as an inaugural event in the Restoration.

In the mid-twentieth century, Arnold Friberg famously depicted the plates at another moment in their history, when Mormon, a wounded and dying general, handed the plates to Moroni while Nephite civilization went up in flames before their eyes. The plates became a record of a dying people.

In 1935, the sculptor Torlief Knaphus placed the plates in Moroni’s arms on the ten-foot statue crowning the Hill Cumorah, as Moroni, one arm raised in a rhetorical gesture, preached the Gospel to the world. Knaphus associated Moroni with the angel in Revelation who preaches the gospel to the world in the last days.

Torlief Knaphus's sculpture of Moroni holding the gold plates.
Torlief Knaphus’s sculpture of Moroni holding the gold plates.

Knaphus and many others in the twentieth century turned Moroni into a character from the Bible and the plates, using a passage from Ezekiel, became the stick of Joseph, a biblical artifact. The Bible was called upon to verify the role of the plates in God’s plan. Now these scripture references have disappeared from the Church’s missionary teaching plan and the plates are barely mentioned.

To this day, the context in which the plates are located keeps evolving.

Why has tumbaga been suggested as the metal from which the plates were created?

The attention paid to tumbaga, an alloy of gold, silver, and copper found among South America artifacts came to the attention of Book of Mormon apologists when they attempted to explain the weight of the plates.

Solid gold plates would have been far too heavy for Joseph Smith to have carried home from the Hill Cumorah. The alloy, especially if hammered into sheets with a little space between each one, would have been a manageable fifty pounds. Tumbaga, though an alloy, would have the appearance of gold.

How is Ann Taves’ approach to the gold plates different?

Ann Taves, who only recently retired from teaching, speaks for a generation of religious studies scholars who make every effort to empathize with religious beliefs and religious experience. They strive not to impose the enlightenment ideology of modern scholarship on the religions of others, but to take this experience at face value.

Robert Orsi has been a strong voice for honoring the integrity of religious belief and accepting reports of religious experience as actual. Taves wishes not only to respect Joseph Smith’s accounts of his visions as records of bonafide experiences, but also to insist that he was not deluded in telling his story.

Previous scholars like Fawn Brodie and Dan Vogel had acknowledged Smith’s sincerity but insisted that he knew he was lying about the plates.

Taves says no.

His plates were something like the host in the Eucharist. The priest knows it is a mere wafer but at the same time believes sincerely it is also the flesh of Christ. Joseph may have made a set of plates to carry about and let his friends touch, but he believed they were also true gold with characters on them.

How do the gold plates resemble objects from lore?

In the final chapter of the book, I search about in world religious history for objects that resembled the plates, hoping to find some category of things that helps us to situate the plates in our imaginations. I consider religious relics, objects associated with holy or superior people that can be used to supply strength, healing, or holiness to those who see or touch them.

I do believe they deserve respect.

Plates and relics are both invested with divine authority, but they are also clearly different. Relics put people in touch with the superior faith of a holy person who can plead with God on behalf of the supplicant. The plates have no power in themselves other than what can be derived from the history on their pages.

So it is with the other objects I consider. The plates overlap them all but with remaining distinctive difference.

Moses’s stone tablet carried writing from God, but are not a history written by a succession of historian-prophets like the plates.

Terma are objects inscribed with the teachings of Buddhist gurus, buried to protect them, and recovered by later teachers and used as a source of authority and instruction. But the carriers of the messages, the leaves, the bark, the scrolls have little substance themselves. Unlike the gold plates, their material form has no significance. Some teachings could be conveyed solely by the transfer of thoughts without a material medium.

I conclude at the end that there is a broad category of empowered religious objects that partially resemble the plates but nothing is quite like them.

What do you hope people will take away from your book?

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.

I do not attempt to drive home the physical reality of the plates—though I believe in them myself—but I do believe they deserve respect as one of the most vital and complex religious objects ever to come to light in the history of humankind’s search for God.

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About the interview participant

Richard Lyman Bushman is an American historian and Gouverneur Morris Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University, having previously taught at Brigham Young University, Harvard University, Boston University, and the University of Delaware. Bushman is the author of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, a biography of Joseph Smith. Bushman also was an editor for the Joseph Smith Papers Project.

Further Reading

Gold Plates Resources

By Chad Nielsen

Biotech professional. Armchair historian. Latter-day Saint.

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