Sponsored by BYU Studies—Historian Richard Bushman shares his latest thoughts on Joseph Smith and the gold plates. He expounds on his essay in Producing Ancient Scripture (University of Utah Press, 2020).
What was the role of the gold plates in the translation?
Richard Bushman: This complex question deserves a complex answer. Instead of answering completely, however, I will offer a few observations.
Remember that the plates were beautiful. People who saw them mentioned the fine engravings. The pages were filled with a mysterious, ancient language. The plates were crafted of metal with a gold sheen and linked with heavy wires. They were heavy, weighing probably fifty or sixty pounds.
The plates called out for attention. The ancient writers who received the plates from their predecessors, felt obligated to write something, to continue the tradition of record-keeping. When Joseph brought them home the first day, he told his friends “I want them translated.”
Their very physical presence demanded a response.
They plates were in a sense a testimony in themselves. Natural theology argued that the existence of a beautiful, intricate clockwork universe spoke for the existence of God. By the same token, the elegant, intricate plates pointed to an ancient people speaking from the dust.
If Joseph mainly received revelation through seer stones, what were the main purposes of having the gold plates?
Could they have catalyzed Joseph Smith’s revelatory process like the Egyptian papyri did for his work on the Book of Abraham?
Richard Bushman: I would like to answer these two questions together because the answers are so closely related.
I concur in the catalyst hypothesis. Often Joseph Smith received a flash of revelation when he encountered certain items. The Abraham and Joseph scrolls are the most evident examples. Without having actually translated anything, Joseph knew in an instant that they were the writings of the two ancient patriarchs.
He may have had the same reaction when he encountered 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.
Mere contact set him thinking. So did the bones of Zelph in Illinois on the trek with Zion’s Camp. Joseph saw at once a white Lamanite, a large thick set man, and a man of God.
Even the Bible set him off. The first chapter of Moses and what followed came pouring into him when he approached the Bible in a certain mode. After these flashes, there was a long period of translation but it began with sudden inspiration.
The talent or gift did present problems. Joseph never knew when the next inspiration would come. There were long stretches of nothing and then a moment.
The Kinderhook plates illustrate his difficulties. Having in the past year seen the translation of Abraham, the Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo thought the much ballyhooed Kinderhook plates might yield another translation. Even the Quincy paper thought Joseph might come up with something. Joseph gave it a try but then realized it was not working and stopped.
The hypothesis that the translation revelations began with a physical object accounts for Joseph’s initial attraction to certain texts.
But what was the ongoing role of the plates, sitting covered on the table while Joseph dictated?
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.
Joseph enjoyed the process. He loved having the curtains of eternity drawn aside while he looked on. Oliver felt some of the same joy participating in the Book of Mormon translation.
It was the happiness they felt that enabled them to labor on day after day in the spring of 1829.
How does what the Book of Mormon says about itself as a book differ from what the Bible does?
Richard Bushman: Many people have noted that the Book of Mormon is exceedingly forthcoming about its own construction. The title page mentions that the book was taken from plates and written on plates, and that same attention to process continues through the volume.
The prophets tell us when they make new plates. The act of passing along the plates is unfailingly recorded, so we always know who is in possession of them. One prophet tells how hard it is to incise the characters. We learn of delinquent record keepers who could not find anything to say. We know how Mormon compiled his book from many records. We know the responsibility for the plates was left to the learned elites who knew the plates’ special language.
These men were kings, generals, chief judges, high priests. We learn that splinter groups kept their own records on plates, leading to an accumulation of plates by the end.
There is almost nothing like this in the Bible. I argue in my essay in Producing Ancient Scripture that this attention to process humanizes the making of scripture. We can see how it grows out of the everyday lives of a people.
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.
In the book itself, the Nephite record is not considered scripture at first. That honor is reserved for the brass plates of Laban. But by the end, the plates of Nephi are called scripture. They grow into that standing.
The suggestion, of course, is that our history with its preachments will follow the same course.
Why does Joseph Smith’s approach to revelation and translation increase the faith of some, but harm the faith of others?
Richard Bushman: The stories of angels, a golden book, inspired translations, visits from God and Christ, words from heaven from a human mouth are so far from ordinary that they sound fantastic to most modern people.
Latter-day Saints, who grow up with the stories, come to think of them as perfectly acceptable, but when they leave the protected realm of the family and hear those stories with the ears of skeptical outsiders, they falter. Could the stories all be wrong?
It can be a painful and frightening realization, but it is also an opportunity. Rather than following along with all that they have been taught, they can make their religion their own.
They can decide for themselves if God speaks to people.
Why some recover their faith and others do not is a perplexing question. People with the same information take divergent paths. That is true not only for the scriptures but for all the facts about Joseph Smith’s life.
Those who leave the Church often present their decision as a logical choice based on new facts they have learned. I am not entirely persuaded of that. I think there must be something deeper.
Are you still working on a book about the gold plates? If so, can you give us an update?
Richard Bushman: For nearly a decade now, I have been working spasmodically on a book tentatively titled Joseph Smith’s Gold Plates: A Cultural History.
The pandemic, by clearing out other matters for a few months, has enabled me to make progress.
But it is still a long way from completion. I am working at a leisurely pace and learning a lot.
What purposes do you think the Lord may have had in mind by asking Moroni to retrieve the gold plates when the translation efforts were completed?
Richard Bushman: It would have been a letdown for Joseph to have kept the plates. In the gold plates book, I speculate on what would have happened if the Church had retained the plates and deposited them in the Smithsonian after it opened in 1846. They would necessarily have gone through the process of “artifaction.” Instead of being what they were while in Joseph’s possession, they would have been subject to the inspection of anthropologists, historians, chemists, and curators, and then placed in a glass case for the public to stare at and speculate upon.
In so doing the plates would have been stripped of their special character as a mysterious, radiant object suspended between heaven and earth. They were both heavenly and earthly, protected by an angel, but buried in the ground. They were too sacred to look at, but hidden under the floorboards.
It would have been a letdown to keep the plates and put them in a museum. There they would lose their mystery and power. The great sculptures from ancient temples are imposing in museums but do not radiate the power and fear they evoked in their original settings.
The point of scripture is to bridge heaven and earth, to help us feel we are in touch with God.
The plates help serve that purpose so long as they remain untouchable.
What would Joseph Smith think of our fascination with his translation process?
Richard Bushman: 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.
John Turner is working on what some think will be the most substantive biography of Joseph Smith since Rough Stone Rolling. What do you look forward to about his approach?
Richard Bushman: John Turner is a robust and appealing writer. He is also a student of character and will doubtless have a lot to say about Joseph and the people around him. He will give us a different Joseph than any we have seen before.
He is also tactful about religious feelings and will be respectful of his Mormon readers.
The trick will be to situate revelations in their context, making them appear natural for their time and place, but at the same time capturing their transcendent qualities.
It will be important to see in Joseph something more than is evident from a purely naturalistic perspective. The revelations made Joseph something extraordinary. That is the only way to explain his influence.
I think Turner understands that and will find a way to convey it in his book.
- Joseph Smith Translation Q&A
- Thomas Wayment and the Joseph Smith Translation
- Matthew Grey and the Book of Abraham
- Samuel Brown on Joseph Smith’s Translations
- Richard Bushman on His College Years
This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.