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.
Modern academia is full of cognitive dissonance. Some miracles are worth believing in, but not others? Where does one draw the line?
Far too many modern so-called scholars claim that it is ridiculous to believe that Joseph Smith saw an angel and was led to gold plates. Yet they accept as fact that Christ fed more than 5000 with a few loaves and fishes. Why can the second be true and not the first?
Many claim that they want to be spiritual, but attack Church history because it is based on spiritual events that cannot yet be proven scientifically. They accept God as fact, but won’t accept that even minor miracles could happen if Joseph Smith was involved.
The attacks against Church history are largely based on this faulty premise. That must be recognized.
JCS, that depends on what you call “history.” When you say “attacks against Church history,” what you are really referring to are criticisms or corrections or commentary upon the standard narrative of founding and subsequent events the Church puts out, as amended from time to time. That story may or may not correspond to real world events.
A more technical definition of history is a set of reconstructed events. often put forth in a narrative that is (and here is the essential part) based on and supported by historical documents or artifacts. That’s why the Foundational Texts book is so valuable: it focuses on the texts that have been appealed to as support for the standard LDS narrative (as amended from time to time) but in fact possibly show something different than has been represented. The History of Joseph Smith (see discussion in the OP) is a good example. As the sources are better understood and as additional sources become available, it is possible to update the standard narrative to more closely align with the technical definition of a historical narrative: one that is supported by available documents and artifacts. Or not. Sometimes (generally?) the Church will stick to its convenient narrative in the face of conflicting evidence, at least for a few decades or until it has no choice but to acknowledge the evidence. Stone in the hat. The 1832 First Vision account. The Book of Abraham papyri. And so forth.
So what you call an attack on Church history is actually an argument in favor of Church history, properly defined.
Dave B.: you ask the question, “So why is the idea that Joseph dictated the Book of Mormon text without a source so troubling for Mormons?”
I know you know the answer but I’m going to state it anyway. Most members of Church, even the TBMs, would be perfectly comfortable with the idea that Joseph Smith wrote the BOM, the BOA, and the JST except for one inconvenient detail: Joseph and the Church told us differently. What the Church told us (in official lesson manuals, in GC talks, etc.) is that JS “translated” the BOM from plates, “translated” the BOA from scrolls. I suspect that for most of us, there’s not much difference in the power of a translation vs. the power of a revelation. We would accept both as legitimate. HOWEVER, the official narratives are that he translated these two works.
You know the old saying that with respect to Watergate, the cover up was worse than the crime? Well with respect to the BOM and BOA, the problem isn’t that he wrote these books. We could all accept that as his gift of revelation. The problem is that he said, and the Church still says, that he translated these. And evidence has shown that this is not the case. So now we doubt all the Church truth narratives. Funny, if he had just said from the beginning that he wrote these works under inspiration, using external sources for guidance, most of us could have lived with it. But no, he felt the need to make translation claims that have been demonstrated to be false, and now we are left to pick up the pieces.
Ding, ding, ding. josh h wins the prize and encapsulates the problem very well. I at least partly believe that President Nelson’s seeming focus on making us into borderline Protestants is an effort to “outlive our history.” Can the Church continue on largely divorced from the historical claims on which it was founded?
I’m convinced that there was a physical object referred to as the “gold plates” that Joseph Smith carried around. Bushman and others have convinced me of such. But it is highly implausible that the plates, based on Joseph Smith’s physical descriptions of their dimensions, were made of pure gold. If that were the case, then they would weigh 200 pounds. There is no way that Joseph Smith, with a gimpy leg, could carry those miles through the forest all while fending off three assailants (one of them armed), jumping over logs and outrunning and outmaneuvering them. Many apologists have claimed that the plates were made of some alloy (what it was made of is unclear) to try to be able to claim that they weighed as little as 30 pounds. Even then, I challenge anyone to run three miles with a 30-pound awkwardly shaped cube object through the forest with three men trying to pursue you, and while limping in case you don’t have a deformed leg. Even if they weighed as little as 30 pounds, we have every reason to believe that Joseph Smith made up a tall tale about his mission to obtain the plates. I think apologists are in a position where they’re going to have to appeal to another “catalyst theory” to try to explain the golden plates. The golden plates story is bound by too much. There are too many descriptions and details that ultimately damage notions of plausibility.
JCS, would you be willing to accept as true that Christopher Nemelka is the reincarnation of Hyrum Smith and translated the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon? If not then I could say the same to you, that you have a baseless bias against Christopher Nemelka and that you’re not willing to accept even minor miracles if Nemelka is involved. Personally I don’t believe in miracles. But every miracle-believer I’ve talked with about miracles seems to be guilty of a double standard and tends to believe as true only the claimed miracles of a particular religious tradition or only miracles that are told within a framework that a culture has deemed acceptable. For instance, I can go to a Mormon ward during fast and testimony meeting and talk about I felt a spiritual prompting so vivid that it was as if someone were talking to me that helped me avoid a major car accident and people would eat it up, claim that they felt inspired, and heap praises upon me for sharing. They would probably tell my story to other friends and family and pass it down for generations (I know this is true because to this day my dad tells a story of a neighbor telling of just such an incident). But if I went to a fast and testimony meeting and told everyone how I had a revelation that I was the reincarnation of someone who lived in the past who was trying to communicate things to me, there would be incredible awkwardness. If I persisted telling such a story, I can only imagine that a bishopric would tell me to stop. If I continued beyond that, I can imagine a bishopric disfellowshipping or excommunicating me claiming that reincarnation isn’t true. And yet far more people on this planet claim reincarnation experiences than Mormon miracles.
You are a pseudointellectual with a very tenuous grasp on the topics that you cover. You criticize the idea of examining evidence to see where the evidence goes, but that’s precisely what you do with nearly every assumption that you have about Church history and the Book of Mormon. You do not, as a true intellectual should, treat the absence of evidence as merely an absence of evidence. You instead treat it as proof of the negative (in short, you don’t understand the difference between negation and contrapositive). Your observation that the scholars here are presuming certain facts is facile. Of course they are–they don’t pretend that they aren’t. You, on the other hand, aren’t even aware of your blind spots.
Gordon, a “true intellectual” would also not stoop to ad hominem insults to make their point. Either you don’t want to take the time to offer an alternative perspective, or you can’t. If you can, I’d be interested in where you think Dave is off base. If you can do it using more $5 words, well that would be even more satisfying.
I find it pretty interesting that Elder Soares moved the needle ever so slightly for mainstream members in the April 2020 general conference by stating “The translation process of the Book of Mormon was also a miracle. This sacred ancient record was not “translated” in the traditional way that scholars would translate ancient texts by learning an ancient language. We ought to look at the process more like a “revelation” with the aid of physical instruments provided by the Lord, as opposed to a “translation” by one with knowledge of languages.”
In this context, I doubt whether we never would have seen “revelation” in the same sentence as “translation” a generation ago.
I always want to steer this ship of Zion as if it were a kayak, but in reality, most of the time it’s like an aircraft carrier.
Thanks Dave B for a great post and motivating me to check out this collection of articles in the near future.
Gordon, I’m trying to make sense of your comment. You’re saying that Dave B. is not treating the absence of evidence as just that and is instead treating absence as proof of a negative. Proof of what negative is unclear. I gather that what you’re saying is that Dave B. is claiming that because there is no hard evidence of the golden plates that it is proof that they didn’t really exist and were in fact something else. In historical scholarship there is something called a default fact, meaning that unless promoters of extraordinary claims about historical phenomena cannot produce strong evidence to back their claims then by default what can be derived from common sense based on available evidence stands as a more likely explanation. For instance, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 happened. No one disputes that. Now some claim that FDR knew about the attack in advance, could have prevented it, but let it happen as an excuse to go to war. Now unless that claim can be backed with evidence, then by default it must be said that FDR didn’t know about it and was caught off guard. Writers of history don’t bear the burden of proving that FDR didn’t see it coming. That can be derived from common sense. Instead, writers of history claiming that FDR did know about it in advance bear the burden of proof, and they are the only ones bearing that burden of proof. For common sense based on available evidence dictates that unless documents show that FDR had foreknowledge that it must be accepted that he didn’t. He either had it or he didn’t. The claim that he had foreknowledge requires additional evidence. The claim that he didn’t requires no additional evidence. People get surprised by attacks that they don’t know about beforehand. It happens all the time. We don’t need evidence that someone didn’t know about an attack beforehand. It is just the logical presumption in the absence of evidence otherwise. And such it is with Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith dictated the Book of Mormon to a scribe while looking into a hat at a stone. No one disputes that. Now some claim that while Joseph Smith was dictating the words of the Book of Mormon to a scribe that he was somehow transmitting a translation of a text inscribed on golden plates that he had in his possession. That claim requires additional evidence, which has yet to be produced on a scale that would reasonably satisfy a larger academic audience. The burden of proof rests solely upon those making the claim that the Book of Mormon was the translation of an ancient text. If that cannot be proven, then by default the Book of Mormon is simply the product of Joseph Smith talking to a scribe who writes down his words. I don’t need to produce additional evidence to make that claim. People write stories, and sometimes they accomplish this by dictating words to scribes.
The second issue with your comment is the presumption that believing Mormon scholars’ opinions about the historicity of the golden plates and the Book of Mormon are in line with general intellectual thinking. Nothing could be further from the truth. I can guarantee you that the prevailing attitude of the larger intellectual community (those who aren’t already believers in Mormonism) toward the Mormon church’s claims about Book of Mormon historicity is one of dismissal and non-acceptance. In fact, these claims are so far-fetched that most intellectuals won’t even bother addressing them at length. Their attitude to BOM historicity claims is much like prevailing attitudes to 9/11 or Pearl Harbor conspiracy theories: not worth their time, wouldn’t provide any additional insight, wouldn’t convince the hardcore believers, and also wouldn’t have much of an impact on the wider intellectual populace who already sees the conspiracy theories as bunk anyways. What good would it do for a mainstream scholar to produce a work at length debunking Mormon historicity claims to sell to an intellectual audience of people who already believe Mormonism to be pure fantasy and hokum? It would do little to advance overall scholarship and might mostly serve to incur the wrath of the hardcore believers. It could have the unintended consequence of generating attention to the issue of Mormon truth claims and allow the Mormon church and believers to portray themselves as victims and gain followers by appealing to a victimhood narrative. Extreme claims are sometimes best ignored, seems to be a prevailing attitude among the mainstream. Also a prevailing attitude is that that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
“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.”
Well Dave B, this seems to be the same thing going on at, among other LDS addresses, Times&Seasons: the more papers & “studies” produced on a given topic, the more verisimilitude it seems to possess. Doesn’t matter, apparently, whether anyone actually reads these studies. In the minds of the faithful the sheer volume speaks volumes.
I have nothing to add, but I do want to say how much I love your point about the gold plates as MacGuffin, Dave.
Just wanted to add that an evangelical MacGuffin could be the Bible as the inerrant divinely-breathed word of God.
I feel like all the “thumbs down” on John Charity Springs’ comment are kind of knee-jerk. There’s a valid point in there, specifically that many anti-Mormon claims are from competing religious sects who accept a whole lot of supernatural stuff in their own faith but try to tear down another faith on the exact same basis. In essence, you can’t accept Fatima while dismissing Moroni.
Now, that’s not the criticism of Mormon narratives most scholars are leveling (the majority of whom treat all supernatural religious events without evidence as suspect), but I did want to state that if it’s sect-on-sect criticism, yeah, it’s full of hypocrisy.
Josh H: Yes, exactly to this point. The problem with the plates is that if they didn’t exist, then what the heck was Joseph Smith carrying around in that box (while hicks were chasing him to steal it)? Gwyneth Paltrow’s head?
The MacGuffin analogy is great. The problem with religious props is that they often aren’t what people think and say they are. Masonry wasn’t ancient. The Ark of the Covenant isn’t really in a warehouse in Washington D.C., etc.
Contracts secured by fraud are voidable. The victim has no duty to comply with his end of the fraudulent contract, although he can if he so chooses. The Mormon church claims to be THE gateway to Jesus Christ and to his salvation and exaltation. It makes this claim hinge on the historicity of key events (including revelatory documents) that transpired in time and space, mostly as attested to by Joseph Smith and certain of his contemporaneous associates. From these foundational events springs the church’s claim to exclusive authority to preach and teach the word of Christ, and to administer “essential” ordinances. And so these foundational events are existential. If they didn’t happen at all, or if there are material, substantial differences between what the church claims happened and what really happened, the covenants the members have been induced to enter–in my view–are akin to fraudulent contracts and are thus voidable without moral qualm.
Because the Mormon church erects its claims and authority not on theology, but on key historical events, these events’ historicity must support the Church’s astounding claim to be humanity’s sole gateway to Christ. Contrast this with churches that rest on theology or on a given era’s understanding of scripture–don’t they have more latitude to “nuance” their way into new understandings, perhaps to adapt and redo their foundations? But the Mormon church’s foundation seems to me much more brittle. Either the canonized 1838 first vision occured like Joseph Smith said it did, or it didn’t. (Lather, rinse, repeat this reasoning for the rest of the key events: Book of Mormon origins, priesthood restoration, BoA, JS’s prophecies, temple stuff, Elias/Elijah, etc.) Whereas theology and scriptural scholarship can midwife new foundational understandings for religions based on such, emphatically described historical events cannot easily be reworked… although the record shows that’s what Joseph Smith himself often did–sometimes unabashedly.
The problem is compounded in a church with a founder who bequeathed us a roster of foundational events, but also a literalistic approach and understanding of scripture: real Eden, young earth, real Satan, Babel, worldwide flood, etc.
The Mormon church’s foundation therefore seems fairly brittle. It’s not easily retrofitted for the current seismic activity springing from scholarship and spread by modern technology. If it were not so, many things would be different. Chuch historical archives might have been opened long ago.
I’ve never heard the one ring of Sauron referred to as a MacGuffin before……I need to Ponderize this.
“ Mormonism has too many religious MacGuffins. We should donate a few to Evangelicals, who don’t really have any.” Thanks for bringing a laugh to my morning. Having lived and served with evangelicals in the past, I think they could greatly benefit from a macguffin or two.
Angela C, you’ll pry my cherished Ark-as-superweapon-in-warehouse beliefs from my cold, dead hands.
Angela, the Arc of the Covenant is in Axum, Ethiopia, not in a vault in the US.
While I applaud the current research on Church history and doctrine, it comes way too late for me. And presents too many problems. Bushman et al can make it work, but I struggle. Rather than resolve all my Church issues, I prefer to spend my time in more productive ways.