Richard Bushman on the Gold Plates

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 book cover of "Producing Ancient Scripture"
Richard Bushman’s essay in ‘Producing Ancient Scripture’ is entitled, ‘Nephi’s Project: The Gold Plates as Book History.’

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.

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7 Replies to “Richard Bushman on the Gold Plates”

  1. Richard Bushman notes, “I concur in the catalyst hypothesis.”

    There must have been more to it than that. Otherwise, Joseph wouldn’t have written this: “I wish also to mention here, that the title page of the Book of Mormon is a literal translation, taken from the very last leaf, on the left hand side of the collection or book of plates, which contained the record which has been translated; the language of the whole running the same as all Hebrew writing in general; and that, said title page is not by any means a modern composition either of mine or of any other man’s who has lived or does live in this generation. Therefore, in order to correct an error which generally exists concerning it, I give below that part of the title page of the English version of the Book of Mormon, which is a genuine and literal translation of the title page of the Original Book of Mormon, as recorded on the plates. . . . The remainder of the title page is of course, modern.
    https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/times-and-seasons-15-october-1842/1

    That’s awfully specific and seems to demand more of an explanation than just the catalyst theory.

    There’s also the “Caractors” document, with its specific depictions of characters on the plates:
    https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/appendix-2-document-1-characters-copied-by-john-whitmer-circa-1829-1831/1

    And there are late reminiscent accounts like these:

    Interview with William Smith (the Prophet’s brother) in 1891: “Among other things we inquired minutely about the Urim and Thummim and the breastplate. We asked him what was meant by the expression “two rims of a bow,” which held the former. He said a double silver bow was twisted into the shape of the figure eight, and the two stones were placed literally between the two rims of a bow. At one end was attached a rod which was connected with the outer edge of the right shoulder of the breast-plate. By pressing the head a little forward, the rod held the Urim and Thummim before the eyes much like a pair of spectacles. A pocket was prepared in the breastplate on the left side, immediately over the heart. When not in use the Urim and Thummim was placed in this pocket, the rod being of just the right length to allow it to be so deposited. This instrument could, however, be detached from the breastplate and his brother said Joseph often wore it detached when away from home, but always used it in connection with the breastplate when receiving official communications, and usually so when translating as it permitted him to have both hands free to hold the plates.”

    Statement of David Whitmer in 1885: “Each time before resuming the work all present would kneel in prayer and invoke the Divine blessing on the proceeding. After prayer Smith would sit on one side of a table and the amanuenses, in turn as they became tired, on the other. Those present and not actively engaged in the work seated themselves around the room and then the work began. After affixing the magical spectacles to his eyes, Smith would take the plates and translate the characters one at a time. The graven characters would appear in succession to the seer, and directly under the character, when viewed through the glasses, would be the translation in English. (Opening the Heavens footnote: “The Book of Mormon” Chicago Tribune, December 17, 1885, 3)

    Fayette Lapham’s interview with Joseph Smith Sr. in May 1870 presents an alternative to the catalyst theory that deserves to be investigated more thoroughly, not just for the Book of Mormon but also for Joseph Smith’s other scriptural productions: “After thus translating a number of plates, Harris wanted to return to Palmyra, taking a part of the writings with him; but the Lord objected, for fear that Harris would show them to unbelievers, who would make sport and derision of them. But Harris finally obtained leave to take them, on condition that he should let no one see them, except those who believed in them; in this he was indiscreet, and showed them to some one that he ought not to. When he next went to his drawer to get them, behold! they were not there; the Lord had taken them away.
    “Joseph and Harris returned to Harmony, and found the plates missing–the Lord had taken them also. Then Joseph put on the spectacles, and saw where the Lord had hid them, among the rocks, in the mountains. Though not allowed to get them, he could, by the help of the spectacles, read them where they were, as well as if they were before him.”

    1. Wow Jack. Thank you for this very helpful response concerning the difficulties with the catalyst theory. I agree. The catalyst theory doesn’t hold up because Joseph was very specific about literally translating characters both with the Book of Mormon and with the Book of Abraham. You have to basically disregard Joseph’s own words in order to believe in the catalyst theory.

  2. I’d like to address one more problem with the catalyst theory. In his excruciatingly meticulous analyses of the Book of Mormon manuscripts, Professor Royal Skousen has shown–conclusively, in my view–that Joseph Smith *saw* and *read aloud* the text of the Book of Mormon *in English,* one phrase at a time. Skousen’s findings have been summarized like this:

    =================================
    Evidence from the manuscripts themselves shows that the original manuscript was written from dictation, that Joseph Smith was working with at least twenty words at a time, that Joseph Smith could see the spelling of names, that the scribe repeated the text to Joseph Smith, and that the word chapter and the corresponding chapter numbers were not part of the revealed text. The manuscripts and text show that Joseph Smith apparently received the translation word for word and letter for letter, in what is known as “tight control.”
    =================================

    In my mind, “tight control” is the *antithesis* of the catalyst theory. You can download Skousen’s article “How Joseph Smith Translated the Book of Mormon” here:
    https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/jbms/vol7/iss1/4/

    More information here:
    https://criticaltext.byustudies.byu.edu/translating-book-mormon-evidence-original-manuscript

    Scholars need to stop formulating airy hypotheses and look at the actual evidence from the Book of Mormon manuscripts.

  3. I don’t know either, but I assumed he borrowed it from what is being said (by some) about the creation/translation of the BofAbraham. I wish that unfortunate theory had not found its way into the BofA translation gospel topic essay.

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