Let’s talk about Foundational Texts of Mormonism: Examining Major Early Sources (Oxford Univ. Press, 2018), edited by Mark Ashurst-McGee, Robin Scott Jensen, Sharilyn D. Howcroft. Each of the twelve articles, all by noted LDS scholars, covers a significant documentary source relating to early LDS history, such as the manuscripts of Joseph Smith’s revelations (by Grant Hardy), records of Joseph Smith’s sermons (by William Smith, known to some readers by his posts at BCC), and Wilford Woodruff’s diaries (by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich). Richard Bushman contributes the first chapter, on the gold plates. I’ll give a quick two-paragraph assessment of the book, then dive into a few of the essays.
The strengths of the book are the authors, all established scholars familiar with LDS topics, and the relevance of the material. Only in recent years have scholars started to do the tough work of producing critical editions of key Mormon texts or (as with these essays) looking carefully at particular texts to assess their provenance and credibility. So this book is invaluable for giving the reader a good critical introduction to many early sources.
The weakness of the book, for some readers, is that most of the authors (many of whom are associated with the Joseph Smith Papers Project) take the standard Mormon narrative and standard Mormon historical claims as a largely unquestioned starting point, then bend over backwards to fit the documentary evidence into that framework. The worst offender here is probably the last essay in the book, “Joseph Smith and the Conspicuous Scarcity of Early Mormon Documentation,” by Ronald O. Barney. Joseph Smith offered few written accounts of the supernatural events that now feature so prominently in the standard LDS narrative. Well, Joseph was shy when it came to sharing sacred events, Barney says. And that Methodist minister he verbally shared it with when he was still a teenager gave him a hard time, so he learned to keep quiet about those events. And Joseph didn’t think he wrote well, so he avoided writing things down, even the Nauvoo sermons that, in the 1840s, became Joseph’s primary vehicle for sharing “revelations” with the Saints. The problem is that, objectively, a lack of contemporaneous documentation weighs against the accuracy and even the existence of claimed events. Late accounts tend to be exaggerated or conflated or simply fabricated. But if you start with an assumed and unquestioned narrative, then you are inclined to fit what evidence you have into the assumed framework, then just skip over or apologize for lacunae or contradictory evidence. You should be fitting conclusions to the evidence, not the other way around. If you’re like me, you’ll be saying “Well, isn’t that a convenient conclusion for you to make?” about every other page. I only verbally shouted at one author while reading the book. Which is better than when I’m driving on California freeways, I suppose.
Introduction, by the three editors. Here’s an example of why source criticism is so necessary. Once upon a time (like until the late 20th century), Mormon writers took the first six volumes of Church-published The History of the Church as a reliable source. Here is their commentary:
The first six volumes of this history carried the subtitle Period I: History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, by Himself. This title easily gives the wrong impression. For decades, historians used this source as if Smith himself had personally written the entire multi-volume work, quoting passages from the history as if from the prophet’s pen. In 1971, after years of careful research, [Dean] Jesse published his article “The Writing of Joseph Smith’s History,” showing that none of the extant manuscripts behind the printed history were in Smith’s handwriting. Nor were they in the hand of a single scribe taking down Smith’s oral dictation. Instead, the history was written by more than a dozen different scribes and clerks, combining their efforts to review the journals, letters, and other extant documents left behind by Smith and his close associates and to copy, revise, or otherwise utilize those documents to create a seamless narrative written in an autobiographical voice.Introduction, p. 3, in Foundational Texts, cited above.
In other words, it isn’t a source at all, although Mormon writers treated it as such for over a century. It was a created and selectively edited narrative that was edited and re-presented as if it was a source. This is why the sort of critical examination of early LDS texts and manuscripts undertaken in these essays is needed.
FYI, you can go to the Amazon page for the book and read the entire Introduction, as well as half the first chapter (on the golden plates, by Richard Bushman). It gives a brief overview of each essay, plus introductory remarks. Your other options are to pay $55 for a copy or go find it through your local library or interlibrary loan (how I got a copy).
The Gold Plates. This is the first essay in the book, “The Gold Plates as Foundational Text,” by Richard Lyman Bushman. Bushman has devoted the last ten or fifteen years to studying and writing about the gold plates. Now it pains me to say anything remotely negative about Bushman, who is to Mormon history what Wayne Gretzky is to hockey or what Michael Jordan is to basketball. But couldn’t he have found a couple of other topics to devote a decade to?
An alternative title to the essay might have been “The Gold Plates: The MacGuffin of Mormonism.” Go read about MacGuffins in Wikipedia. They have been around for millennia under various names, most recently Big Dumb Objects (in science fiction), red herrings (this was a favorite of my accounting prof at BYU), and of course MacGuffins (from cinema). They pop up in movies (the One Ring, the Obelisk in 2001), fiction (the Maltese Falcon, or just about any fantasy book you’ve ever read), and even religion. A MacGuffin is a mysterious or supernatural object that moves the plot along. In serious fiction, it is character development and human interaction that moves the plot along or is the focus of the narrative. MacGuffins are sort of a substitute for character development. More broadly, they seem to appeal to the strange but enduring human interest in mysterious devices and objects. In religion, think of the Holy Grail, or the obsession with other religious relics in the Middle Ages. Catholics have the Eucharist and the Rosary. For Scientologists, it’s Thetans. For Mormons, it’s the gold plates, or other charged religious artifacts (the Urim and Thummim, the Sword of Laban, the Liahona). Mormonism has too many religious MacGuffins. We should donate a few to Evangelicals, who don’t really have any.
In Rough Stone Rolling, Bushman called the plates “the single most troublesome item in Joseph Smith’s history” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, p. 58). Casting doubt on the various explanations critics give for the apparent existence of the plates, Bushman says, “What is most interesting about Joseph Smith is that people believed him” (Ibid.). In the same way, what is most interesting about the gold plates is that Mormons believe in them. They will bear heartfelt testimonies about them. They will explain in lessons how important they are as the historical source of the Book of Mormon text — while often, at the same time, acknowledging that Joseph had no knowledge of ancient languages and did not even look at the plates while translating. Two MacGufffins (gold plates plus Urim and Thummim) equals one Book of Mormon.
So I’m sort of getting sidetracked here, but honestly, the place or function of the gold plates in Mormon discourse and the Mormon psyche is a lot more interesting than some sort of pseudo-historical inquiry into the plates as real-world artifacts. Mormons hang on to the gold plates as the lynchpin on which the Book of Mormon hangs. The average mainstream Mormon reacts to the claim “There were no gold plates” as if their world would fall apart were this so. Which is just bizarre when you think about it. Joseph gave hundreds of revelations which fill the D&C and appear in other manuscripts. Mormons aren’t troubled that these revelations flowed directly from Joseph’s mind — no source, apart from Bible verses they so often quote or echo. The evolving standard Mormon narrative now acknowledges that the plates weren’t really part of Joseph Smith’s translation process (stone in the hat and all that). The papyrus scrolls that were supposedly the basis for the Book of Abraham have been rediscovered and investigated, revealing that the text of the Book of Abraham has nothing to do with the characters on the scrolls (and, by extension, suggesting the test of the Book of Mormon has nothing to do with whatever characters might have been on the alleged gold plates). Joseph dictated hundreds of revelations without a source. He dictated the first chapter of the Book of Moses without a source. He dictated the text of the Book of Abraham without a source. So why is the idea that Joseph dictated the Book of Mormon text without a source so troubling for Mormons? Objectively (and you might not have recognized this before) the gold plates have almost nothing to do with the Book of Mormon. This is acknowledged even by current official LDS accounts! But psychologically (for Mormons) and institutionally (for the Church) the plates still play a key role in the Book of Mormon story. They hold on to the gold plates like a stranded sailor clings to a floating chunk of debris. That’s what needs explaining, not how Emma was able to riff the leaves of the plates as she felt them under a tablecloth or how Joseph was able to outrun a bunch of locals in the woods while carrying fifty pounds worth of metal plates under his arm.
Let me wind up with a quotation from Bushman’s essay. To me, it seems to underline the MacGuffin-like nature of the plates.
Behind the Book of Mormon, and even more captivating than the book itself, stood its purported source: the gold plates recovered from the Hill Cumorah with the help of an angel. For Smith’s followers, the plates were the ur-text, the mysterious original of the English translation, and so for them the true foundational text, allegedly written in a derivative of Egyptian and never read by moderns save for Joseph Smith himself. … Even for believers, the backstory of the text’s production defined the book more than its actual contents.“The Gold Plates as Foundational Text,” p. 13-14, in Foundational Texts, cited above.
Everything Else. So I’ve talked about two of the essays and the introduction, which is about all I can squeeze into a blog post and not lose your attention. I don’t want to sound too critical or negative. If I had picked two other essays to talk about this post would have sounded rather different. Overall, it’s an excellent book tackling a sorely needed project and should be the starting point, not the last word, on critical examination of the documentary record of early Mormonism. [A quick note: Dan Vogel has been doing this for decades and Dean Jesse as well. Lavina Fielding Anderson did a critical edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s history twenty years ago. But it’s only recently, with the JSPP, that a larger group of LDS scholars have taken an interest in the field.] You need to read the other essays in the book to understand the History of the Church as a source (remember, it’s an edited and biased narrative, not a source), the Bible translation (it’s not a translation), written accounts of Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo sermons (they’re not transcripts, not by a long shot), Lucy Mack Smith’s historical reminiscences (again, a highly edited text, not a source), Wilford Woodruff’s diaries, and so forth.