History and the Claims of Revelation: Joseph Smith and the Materialization of the Golden Plates

In: Numen


The Mormon claim that Joseph Smith discovered ancient golden plates buried in a hillside in upstate New York is too often viewed in simple either/or terms, such that the plates either existed, making Smith the prophet he claimed to be, or did not, making him deceptive or delusional. If we assume that there were no ancient golden plates and at the same that Smith was not a fraud, then the task of historical explanation is more complex. Building on a review of the evidence for the materiality of the plates, the paper uses a series of comparisons — between the golden plates and sacred objects in other religious traditions, between Smith’s claims and claims that psychiatrists define as delusional, and between Smith’s role as a seer and the role of the artist and the physician as skilled perceivers — to generate a greater range of explanatory options. In light of these comparisons, we can view the materialization of the golden plates in naturalistic terms as resulting from an interaction between an individual with unusual abilities, intimate others who recognized and called forth those abilities, and objects that facilitated the creation of both the revelator and the revelation.

  • American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM] 1994 4th ed. Washington, D.C. American Psychiatric Association

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • AndersonRichard L. “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2005 14 1 18 31 125 127

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ashurst-McGeeMark “Moroni as Angel and Treasure Guardian” FARMS Review 2006 18 1 34 100

  • BenedettiFabrizio Placebo Effects: Understanding the Mechanisms in Health and Disease 2008 New York Oxford University Press

  • BenedettiFabrizioCarlinoElisaPolloAntonella “How Placebos Change the Patient’s Brain” Neuropsychopharmacology 2011 36 1 339 354

  • BrodieFawn M. No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith 1995 New York Vintage Books

  • BrookeJohn L. The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology 1644–1844 1994 Cambridge Cambridge University Press

  • BushmanRichard Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism 1984 Urbana and Chicago University of Illinois Press

  • BushmanRichard NeilsonReid L.WoodworthJed Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays 2004 New York Columbia University Press

  • BushmanRichard Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling 2005 New York Knopf

  • BushmanRichard On the Road with Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary 2007 Salt Lake City Greg Kofford Books

  • EllenbogenJoshTugendhaftAaron Idol Anxiety 2011 Stanford Stanford University Press

  • GardnerBrant A. The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon 2011 Salt Lake City Greg Kofford Books

  • GivensTerryl By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion 2002 New York Oxford University Press

  • GyatsoJanet “The Logic of Legitimation in the Tibetan Treasure Tradition” History of Religions 1993 33 2 97 134

  • HardyGrant Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide 2010 New York Oxford University Press

  • HarveyVan A. The Historian and the Believer: The Morality of Historical Knowledge and Christian Belief 1996 Urbana University of Illinois Press rev. ed.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HeideggerMartin Poetry Language Thought 1971 New York Harper and Row

  • JensenRobin ScottWoodfordRobert J.HarperSteven C. JesseeDean C.EsplinRonald K.BushmanRichard Lyman Revelations and Translations, Volume 1: Manuscript Revelation Books The Joseph Smith Papers vol. 1 Salt Lake City Church Historian’s Press [Revelations and Translations]

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • KaptchukTed J.KerrCatherine E.ZangerAbby “Placebo Controls, Exorcisms, and the Devil” Lancet 2009 374 9697 1234 1239

  • “Mormonism” New England Christian Herald 1832 November 7 Salt Lake City Signature Books facsimile ed.

  • PalmerGrant H. An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins 2002 Salt Lake City Signature Books

  • PersuitteDavid Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon 2000 2nd ed. Jefferson, N. C. McFarland

  • PriceDonald D.FinnissDamien G.BenedettiFabrizio “A Comprehensive Review of the Placebo Effect: Recent Advances and Current Thought” Annual Review of Psychology 2008 59 569 590

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • QuinnMichael Early Mormonism and the Magic World View 1996 Salt Lake City Signature Books rev. and enlarged ed.

  • RaddenJennifer On Delusion 2011 London and New York Routledge Taylor and Francis

  • RobertsB. H. MadsenBrigham D. Studies of the Book of Mormon 1995 2nd ed. Salt Lake City Signature Books

  • SkousenRoyal The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text 2009 New Haven Yale University Press

  • StakerSusan VogelDanMetcalfeBrent Lee “Secret Things, Hidden Things: The Seer Story in the Imaginative Economy of Joseph Smith” American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon 2002 Salt Lake City Signature Books 235 274

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • TavesAnn Revelatory Events: Extra-Ordinary Experiences and New Visionary Movements Forthcoming Princeton Princeton University Press

  • Van WaggonerRichardWalkerSteven “Joseph Smith: The Gift of Seeing” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1982 15 2 48 68

  • VogelDan VogelDanMetcalfeBrent Lee “The Validity of the Witnesses’ Testimony” American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon 2002 Salt Lake City Signature Books 79 121

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • VogelDan Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet 2004 Salt Lake City Signature Books

  • VogelDan “Book of Mormon Witnesses Revisited” 2012 accessed 17 June 2013 Salt Lake City Signature Books URL: http://www.signaturebooks.com/2012/03

    • Export Citation
  • VogelDan Early Mormon Documents [EMD] 1996–2003 Salt Lake City Signature Books 5 vols.

  • WardKeith Religion and Revelation 1994 Oxford Clarendon Press

  • ZnamenskiAndrei A. ZnamenskiAndrei A. “General Introduction: Adventure of the Metaphor. Shamanism and Shamanism Studies” Shamanism: Critical Concepts in Sociology 2004 London and New York Routledge xix lxxxvi

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 3

    Vogel 2004:xi–xx 44–45 98–99. Characterizing shamans as “pious frauds” begs the question as the literature on shamans and shamanistic practices is at least as complicated and contentious as the literature on Joseph Smith (for an overview see Znamenski 2004).

  • 6

    Palmer (2002) is the most notable exception.

  • 14

    Ellenbogen and Tugendhaft (2011) offer a theoretically illuminating set of essays on the relationship between idols icons and divine presence.

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 143 82 5
Full Text Views 131 5 0
PDF Downloads 14 7 0