Scholars & Saints

Joseph Smith's Gold Plates (feat. Richard Bushman)

August 17, 2023 UVA Mormon Studies Episode 42
Scholars & Saints
Joseph Smith's Gold Plates (feat. Richard Bushman)
Show Notes Transcript

The mysterious gold plates are the gravitational center of the Latter Day Saint tradition. Although twelve people other than Joseph Smith claimed to have seen or handled the plates, Smith said he returned them to an angel soon after completing the translation of the Book of Mormon. Even now, nearly 200 years later, the plates continue fascinate and confound interpreters in American culture. Today on my last episode as host of Scholars and Saints, I’m chatting with Richard Bushman, renowned biographer of Joseph Smith, about his new book, Joseph Smith’s Gold Plates. 

Scholars & Saints – Ep. 042 – “Joseph Smith’s Gold Plates” (feat. Richard Bushman)


Stephen Betts: Richard, thanks for joining me on the show today. 

Richard Bushman: Thank you. Happy to be here. 

SB: So, Richard, I have to ask, you've been writing about Joseph Smith for decades now. You wrote what's considered widely to be the definitive biography, cultural biography of Joseph Smith with Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling back in 2005. What made you want to write about gold plates

RB: Well, I find it a very alluring object, you know, just as it's imagined physically, you know, this little stack of gold plates with ancient engravings on it, Hebrew, a combination of Hebrew and Egyptian and bound together, and then containing this history of a fallen civilization that sort of destroyed itself because of its own internal contradictions. It's moral decay and rejection of God. So, I just find that sort of just standing by itself something to be excited about. 

But then it's so wrapped in controversy. You know, it's now absent. It's strictly an imagined object and in a sense a condemnation of Joseph Smith that he would even try to perpetuate such a thing so that it's contested in certain ways. So, I thought if I could trace the history of how that mysterious object was treated from the beginning to now, it might be sort of a way of investigating American culture, Mormon culture, and sort of the changing attitudes towards the supernatural through the ages. 

SB: What did you learn about, what kinds of insights did you gain into American culture as you were thinking through the kind of effects or the imaginary that's created around the gold plates?

RB: Well, I saw it as a historian, as a matter of transition and change over time. And it's quite striking in the 1830s and ‘40s, Joseph Smith and the “Gold Bible” are thought as a malicious conspiracy. He was called an imposter. He’s someone who is imposing fanatical belief on the people around him and had to be stamped out. I mean, he was dangerous. He was linked with Muhammad. And, you know, the “propounding your beliefs with fire and sword.” And he was accused, you know, using intending to use his armies to impose his belief so he's dangerous. And then in the end of the 19th century, despite the continuation of condemnation of one sort or another, he becomes an amusing tale. He's sort of an interesting story. And becomes a subject of storytelling and narrative, and he moves from being a villain to being a psychological basket case that is he's considered to be demented in some form. So, all through the 20th century was a matter of finding a pious fraud. And trying to explain him psychologically.

And then in the last 20 years, he's been treated much more sympathetically. I mean, Ann Taves just bends over backwards to take him seriously at his own word. And the whole effort is to understand him. And Sonia Hazard is equally, maybe not equally, but almost as sympathetic. And really just wants to understand what went into the creation of this mentality without moral judgments or any effort to dismiss him, or even I mean it is a naturalistic explanation, but it certainly isn't meant to be demeaning in the slightest.

SB: Well, I think the other thing, and this sort of comes right on the heels of your book, Rough Stone Rolling, is the popularity, the rise in popularity of things like feminist new materialism and the material turn in religious studies. So, people are interested in material stuff and how it has to do with religion and religious experience.

This is the perfect opportunity then in a lot of ways, perfect timing to think about gold plates, think about how do they interact with people and the objects around them and create a whole world despite the fact that from the very beginning, their materiality is contested. They have this spectral quality where, you know, we'll talk about Lucy and Martin Harris, but there, there's always a kind of suspended disbelief. Like, are they there? Are they not there? Is it a bag of sand? Is it tin plates? We don't know, but there are conditions in the academy right now that, that seem to support this.

Let's talk about materiality or just kind of get into that a little bit. What are the differences for you writing about a person versus writing about an object? I mean, that material difference may seem slight because you're a cultural historian. You're used to writing about culture. But to me, as I'm reading this, it feels very different than say Rough Stone Rolling. So, was that a different experience for you as a historian? 

RB: Well, it was. I will say picking up on what you've just said that especially Sonia Hazard's work was very interesting to me, because it helped me with this most difficult problem of explaining where Joseph Smith ever dreamed up the idea of being a translator.

I mean, there's just no precedents for a translator prophet, and yet he falls into that role immediately. It's his very first role after his first vision. Then he has this role thrust upon him, which was entirely out of keeping with his training, his place in society and whatever. So, I try this argument. It's sort of an experimental effort to say that it was the coming of the plates, whether in reality or into his imagination that sort of pushed him towards the idea of translation. So, I'm interested in a material object as agent as something that enters into a sort of a combination of forces and interests that create new things together. It's not just people controlling things. So, it's not until he has the plates or thinks about the plates and realizes they have writing on them that he sees he must face up to the problem of translation. And of course, he adopts it. That is the most mysterious and inexplicable moment when he actually started translating. I have no way of explaining that. But the very fact that he would try it came out of his encounter with the plates. 

SB: This reminds me a lot of [when] I recently talked to Mason Kamana Allred about his book that he just published called Seeing Things. And, of course, he's approaching this from a media studies or communication studies lens, but he has a very similar thesis where he says, look, over time like this is a way for understanding Latter-day Saints or how their identity is formed is that they in his in his really trenchant phrase, “Latter day Saints are fashioned by looking at stuff to see things.” And he unpacks that a lot of ways but looking at stuff to see things they are formed by their interaction with technologies of vision, in this case it's a text, an object. 

You use Robert Orsi, and I hope you'll explain his notion of “the abundant event” because you talk about the plates “radiating presence.” Can you explain for us what Robert Orsi is up to there?

RB: Well, Orsi wants to take very, very, very seriously religious experience and the idea and experience of God. And he resists very much any effort to reduce religious experience to something else. And the word he uses for God—I think it's almost a substitute word—is presence. That people feel this presence, which they usually assign a religious word to like, like God, and then he's tries to trace out how that presence spreads, how it reshapes the world around it. And, you know, I ran onto him first in his review of Ruth Harris's book on Lourdes, which, you know, Bernadette's encounter with the Virgin really creates an industry, a site, it affects history and politics in a thousand different ways.[1] And Orsi wants to give full credit to that kind of experience in shaping history. 

And so, it seemed to me the gold plates were that kind of abundant event, the coming of an angel, the coming of the plates. The lives of the Smith family were transformed almost immediately by that presence. And it reached out into their distant family where they went to tell them about the plates and to pass along the word, and then it affected everyone who encountered it, even without seeing the plates. The very idea of those plates being there made someone sit down day after day and be a scribe for Joseph Smith, listen to it, turn Joseph Smith into a translator. And it attracted the treasure seekers who they think, “At last we've found something that we can cash in on.” So, it's a very powerful item and in one of the chapters I go through sort of one group after another, one individual after another to show how in quite different ways the gold plates entered into their lives as a presence and transformed them. 

SB: Yeah, you talk about things like even boxes, right? Like there were physical boxes that the Smith family claimed the plates are being kept in. Multiple boxes, right? And that's just a, that's just a very trivial example. But, you know, hiding places of plates that are produced, plates being transported, plates being transported by angels. Plates yeah, having this tremendous effect not just on humans, but also on nonhuman objects and environments, right? And we even have, I mean, to get kind of off track here, we even have later this kind of lore that grows up around plates where there are numerous piles of plates in a cave in the hill that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery visit at some point, right? Can we take a detour and just talk about that a little bit? I mean, obviously, even way after Joseph Smith has died, the idea of physical plates is still doing cultural work, right? It's not just in those early years. 

RB: Right. Yes, and it does cultural work all over the place, not just among believing Mormons, but among all the people who sort of lived in that region of Cumorah, the hill Cumorah. It's very strange because these are tales that are sort of roughly familiar to Latter-day Saints. The plates, not just being handed back to the angel and disappearing, but being deposited in some great cave filled with other kinds of plates. And these stories began to circulate, not in Joseph Smith's lifetime, but in the ‘50s. 1850s. So, it's hard to tell whether this came from him, or whether, as happens, myths grow up around potent objects or potent events. They almost immediately are mythologized. And so, one way or another, these stories begin to occur. A place where Joseph Smith went to meditate, maybe to translate, but where there's all these piles of plates. And then strangely enough, this lore spread to the citizens of Palmyra. And when they, beginning in the 1860s, when they told stories of Joseph Smith, they would bring in this cave lore. And it just became sort of a standard part of the tales of Palmyra that all these events that had happened involving Mormons in a cave somewhere.

So, it's hard to imagine does this just spring out of the human imagination for one thing leading to another? Or is it some word that Joseph Smith dropped at some point? To me, it's sort of a measure of the potency of the plates that they could spark new thoughts and sort of generate tales that had a life of their own almost.

SB: Yeah, I think, I mean, the thing that really fascinates me about the cave lore is, you talk about some potential cultural precedents with things like Captain Kidd, buried treasure, you know, and of course that dates back also to Joseph Smith's treasure seeking days, right, treasure quest, but at the same time we have to ask the question, obviously Latter-day Saints are not, you know, embroiled in that same world in the 1850s and afterwards.

I mean, why is that narrative so compelling to them? We could bring up the Book of Mormon, right? Like their association of potentially the story of Moroni or Mormon having this cache of plates, right? This hidden, buried in the hill. I mean, that's in the Book of Mormon, right? But at the same time we have to ask, “Well, yeah, but why is this a compelling myth?” And the other interesting part of this is that again, getting back to the materiality, there are people well into the 20th century, well into the 21st century who are still producing plates. Right. I mean, recently we have people like Christopher Nemelka, but still being inspired by this idea of plates, right? And obviously it's the materiality of the plates tied to its narrative is still religiously productive, still culturally productive today.

SB: So, Richard, if I can ask, you don't have to answer this if you don't want to, but getting back to a kind of Robert Orsi mindset of kind of the anthropology of scholarship. I mean, it sounds like for you, the gold plates are a real material object that existed. How does that affect the way that you approach this book?

RB: Well, it's true. I mean, I was raised a Mormon. I remain a Mormon. So, it's just part of the story. It's embedded in all the early stories of Joseph Smith. And so, and of course there are reasons to believe. Eleven people said they saw the plates. So, it's not totally irrational. But I'm very much aware that it's going to appear ridiculous to a lot of readers. And I don't want to get in the position of trying to compel those people to accept my view of the world. I want to talk to them in their world, in their terms. But I think even in that world, there's enough that's sort of exciting materially and intellectually and culturally about the plates because they do have a long life. They don't disappear when Joseph Smith returns them to the angel. They go on and on to this day, you know, Sonia Hazard's article on the gold plates was 2022. You know, it's right with us now. They are worth looking at as sort of a cultural emblem that embodies all sorts of forces and ideas and purposes that deserve to be explored.

I see the interest as part of this general mood right now in religious studies that enchantment needs to be reconsidered. That there are benefits to certain forms of enchantment and we'd be happier and more effective in our world ecologically and humanly, if we were to allow for spiritual forces at work. So, the gold plates, sort of the book, then sort of comes into religious studies at a moment when people are hospitable to thinking about mysterious enchanted objects. And I would say that all things considered, the gold plates is a champion in being an enchanted object with immense influence and complexity. So, I think it's worth talking about. 

SB: What's really interesting about early Mormonism is you talk about Lucy and Martin Harris, very much skeptical, sort of suspended disbelief. I mean, can you talk about that as kind of a frame for understanding? You use Todorov's theory of the fantastic to kind of understand what's going on with the Harris family. So, talk about the Harris family's interaction with the plates and the surroundings of the plates. 

RB: Well, I will do that. But first, let me say, I was still quite surprised at how easily family and friends around Joseph Smith accepted the plates is immediate family. They just accepted immediately. Of course, the treasure seekers, they have a framework for understanding it. But this was a world where marvels could be accepted. And so, it was amazing how easily it went down. The witnesses come along and sort of give some concrete evidence, but at the very end of the translation period. So, there's still a lot of culture that's inhospitable, but Martin Harris is really of a different social class than most of these people. He's a wealthy farmer, he’s sort of a thoughtful person and he and his wife, I think, saw the plates as the possibility of real enforcement of traditional belief in supernatural forces. And they yearned to have this sort of settled. But Todorov’s view is that there is this kind of belief in fantasy, the fantastic that gets to the point of suspension, where there's enough evidence that something is real, some fantastic thing that goes beyond the laws of nature as we know them, and is supernatural, but then not for sure. And it's sort of that excruciating in-between state the two Harrises got involved in for a while. And then at the end, these things always come to an end, Lucy opted out. She sees it all as a fake and Martin signs on he accepts the whole thing and believes in it. So, it's an interesting transition that I thought it illustrates Todorov’s theory pretty well and sort of draws attention to the excitement of the fantastic at this point in time.

SB: Yeah, there's something really seductive about the fantastic foro Lucy, especially, I mean, when she comes to Joseph's house, [she] is rifling through his possessions, is going outside to dig up places where she thinks the plates might be hiding, all the while, again, in this, you know, having this experience of suspended disbelief, but almost, yeah, on the edge of potentially believing in this fantastic reality. But for her, it's real enough that she's going to spend all this time, and then, of course, she's going to demand, right, “You’ve got to bring me the translation.” And that of course, precipitates eventually her falling out and her divorce from Martin. So, from the beginning, I mean, just those first few years, people's lives are being materially affected by this golden plates imaginary and continue to be today, right?

RB: Yeah. Well, you wonder what cultural conditions made Lucy susceptible to the fantastic. I mean, it implies some degree of skepticism or uneasy doubt about the reality of the Christian story, the biblical story, which could easily be accounted for. There's a lot of skepticism, even at the folk level, circulating these days and some way of sort of nailing that down. 

So, we have the famous story of the debate between a believer and an atheist which drew a thousand people for eight days while they fought over the question of, “Can you believe in God?” This was Robert Owen and Charles Finney who debated that. So, in the end, they took a vote. And who won? Finney the believer, or Robert Owen, the atheist? And Finney swept swept the congregation that everybody believed. But they sat there for eight days listening to the debate, which indicates [an] anxiety and a yearning for settlement about religious questions. 

SB: Richard, if you had to say one or two things that you hope people will take away from this in your various audiences, of course, you're speaking to multiple audiences here in my estimation, what do you hope that people take away about the gold plates?

RB: Well, I'm a promoter of the plates. I have to be, I've written a book on the subject! But I would like people to recognize the potency of this material object along with similar material objects through history. So, in a way, I'm an advocate for material religion, and more particularly for the plates as a potent symbol. And I would like people to recognize in themselves or in culture or whatever the yearning for enchantment that it's not the enemy to be stamped out, that it's a part of human life and we partake of that as well as anyone. And the fact that the gold plates have survived this long is sort of an indication of that yearning and the intrigue, at least with enchantment. 

SB: Richard, it's been a pleasure chatting with you today. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me on the show. 

RB: My pleasure, Stephen. Good conversation.

[1] See Ruth Harris, Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age (London: Penguin, 2000). 

*Transcript has been edited