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Joseph Smith Had the Plates, or Did He?

Now faith is . . . evidence.
~Paul, Hebrews 11:1

The moral of all this is an old one; that
religion is revelation. In other words,
it is a vision, and a vision received by
faith; but it is a vision of reality. The
faith consists in a conviction of its reality.
~G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

Hearing the “Joseph Smith story” for the first time may raise a few eyebrows, and a few questions. Mitt Romney recently reported that he responded honestly and frankly to a reporter’s request for an explanation of his, Romney’s, belief in Joseph Smith’s “first vision.” After complying with this request Romney said he was astounded, perhaps “blindsided” was the word he used, at the reporter’s follow-up question. “How can you believe in that kind of stuff?” That is not an easy question to answer in a few words, and the length of the answer depends somewhat on the theological knowledge and maturity of the one asking. Is it a sincere question? And does his or her knowledge of religion go beyond a sophomore course in “The Bible as Literature”?

Nevertheless, the “first vision” has been rather easy for critics to dismiss. Joseph was an uneducated farm boy, only fourteen years old. The religious fervor around him cried out for spiritual experiences. He admits he was unconscious for at least part of the time. “When I came to myself again, I found myself lying on my back, looking up into heaven” (JSH, 20). And little changed in his life for the next three years. Joseph tells us, “I continued to pursue my common vocation in life until the twenty-first of September, one thousand eight hundred and twenty-three . . .” (JSH, 9)

But on the night of September 21, 1827, everything changed. Joseph Smith reports the visit of a “messenger sent from the presence of God,” whose name was Moroni. This messenger (soon to be known commonly as the Angel Moroni) instructed Joseph in lengthy detail, quoting scriptures, telling of “gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent,” and most surprisingly (I assume Joseph was surprised) instructing Joseph that he was to get these plates, translate the ancient characters into English, and publish the translation. And this time Joseph was conscious throughout the whole of this amazing scene.

. . . when almost immediately after the heavenly messenger had ascended from me for the third time, the cock crowed, and I found that day was approaching, so that our interviews must have occupied the whole of that night (JSH, 47).

If the “first vision” raised questions which critics have, in their minds, easily answered, the events of the night of September 21, 1823, and the following day, and subsequent events which continued through the next seven years until the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830, raise many more questions which are not so easily answered. I discovered this when I tried to approach these events through the eyes of the unbelieving critic, and said to myself: Suppose there were no Moroni and no gold plates? What then?

Joseph told his father the next morning about the visit from the angel and then left his father standing in the field and went, supposedly, to the hill, supposedly to meet the angel again and discover the plates. That evening he told his entire family that he had gone to the hill, had pried off a big rock which was covering a cement repository, had seen the plates, and had seen the “angel,” a fifth time within two days. And here comes the first question. Was Joseph Smith a liar?

The much-admired scholar Harold Bloom says that in his opinion Joseph Smith was “a religious genius,” even “an authentic religious genius, unique in our national history” (The American Religion, 80, 82). Since we are assuming here, as Professor Bloom assumes, that there was no Moroni and no gold plates, we must then also assume that Joseph Smith was, in addition to being a genius, devious, crafty, and very clever. We might even say shrewd. In kindness we may also believe him to have been sincere in his intentions. But having said that we must still raise the question again, Was he also a liar? Harold Bloom says no, he was not a liar.

In explaining the Book of Mormon and the plates Professor Bloom has the following rather strange explanation: “I assume that magical trance-states were involved, so that we can dismiss the literalism both of the golden plates and of conscious charlatanry” (emphasis mine). There were no golden plates ergo no Angel Moroni. But in saying multiple times to many people over the course of several years that these plates existed and that he had communicated directly on several occasions with the Angel Moroni, Joseph Smith is not telling lies. Did he exist in a perpetual “magical trance-state and therefore there was no “conscious charlantanry”?

I am reminded of a favorite passage from G.K. Chesterton.

Long words go rattling by us like long railway trains. . . . It is a good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable. If you say “The social utility of the indeterminate sentence is recognized by all criminologists as a part of our sociological evolution towards a more humane and scientific view of punishment,” you can go on talking like that for hours with hardly a movement of the gray matter inside your skull. But if you begin “I wish Jones to go to gaol and Brown to say when Jones shall come out,” you will discover with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged to think. The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. (Orthodoxy, Image Books, 124)

Following Chesterton’s theory, the sentence: “I assume that magical trance-states were involved, so that we can dismiss the literalism both of the golden plates and of conscious charlatanry” actually says: “Forget about the gold plates. Joseph Smith was not an outright liar because he was a crackpot.” Can we have it both ways? When one reads the description of Joseph Smith’s first visit to the hill and his first experience with the plates and his fifth visit by the angel, it is hard to read the detailed, matter-of-fact descriptions of this event and think of Joseph as being in a continuous “magical trance-state.” But maybe it is too harsh to call his description of these events “lies”. The British have a kinder word. They call such little harmless things “taradiddles.” He embellished these taradiddles further by telling the family he had tried to take the plates but “was forbidden by the messenger.” Furthermore, he was to go to the hill each year on that day for a total of four years. Question: Where had he been all day when he should have been working in the field? Why did his family believe him? His brother William later answered the last question by saying that of course they believed him, that Joseph was a good and an honest boy. Why shouldn’t they believe him? William also mentioned that they were a religious family and frequently read the scriptures together in the evenings, which would make Joseph’s taradiddles all the more astounding.

And here I have to pause before asking a big question. I must make it clear that I consider Joseph Smith to have been a very intelligent man. He was not a fool, and certainly not a crackpot. Nor did he have schizophrenia. I have lived with a schizophrenic. My older brother completed a degree in mathematics and then suffered what we called back in those days, a “mental breakdown.” He remained a pleasant fellow, walked the streets of Provo talking to himself or to anyone else who wanted to listen to his theories about squaring the circle, but schizophrenics or delusionary people (people in a magical trance-state), in my experience, do not write books. They may see small birds as angels, but that does not inspire the confidence and admiration that Joseph Smith enjoyed from those closest to him. No, if Joseph Smith was not a prophet, he was a liar.

So what was the motive behind the lies? Did Joseph Smith want to become the creator of a new “biblical religion,” with himself at the head? Did he want to restore early biblical Christianity? Did he want to model a new church after the apostolic church that arose after the death of Christ? If so, he was not the only one. Many contemporary ministers claimed to be doing just that. So, another following question would be, why didn’t he do just that? It would have been so easy. Why did he invent this fantastic story about gold plates with ancient engravings telling about the origin of ancient inhabitants of this continent? And plates that he would have to get his hands on, keep, translate, and publish? Why did he lay on himself at the outset of his ecclesiastical career such an impossible burden? Of course, it turned out not to be an impossible burden. He actually did, in a relatively short time, dictate, complete, and publish the Book of Mormon. And, according to the assumptions I am suggesting here, he did it without the assistance of an angel and without gold plates!

How did he do it? Did he memorize twenty-one chapters of Isaiah? All the scribes insist he had no papers with him while he dictated. And speaking of Isaiah, we must ask other questions. Joseph Smith reported that the messenger, Moroni, quoted specific passages from Old and New Testament prophets. There was no Moroni giving him instructions, and yet these quotations all point in the direction of a “restored” Church of Christ, a rebuilding of “the house of Israel.” He even has the messenger telling him that the prophecies found in Isaiah concerning this restoration were “about to be fulfilled.” What did Joseph Smith have in mind at this early date? Thousands of readers of the Book of Mormon have seen the genius of the organization of these restoration prophecies. And in every case, as far as Isaiah is concerned, the passages include detailed commentaries. How did he do it? Had Joseph Smith, with his meager formal education, become a master scholar of the writings of Isaiah?

We find, for example, twenty-one chapters of Isaiah arranged with complete commentaries by Nephi, Jacob, Abinadi, and Jesus Christ. We also find the term “house of Israel” occurring 106 times in the book, frequently occurring in conjunction with the term “gentiles,” with the commentaries instructing us that “in the last days” the “house of Israel” is going to be “restored” by a “gentile” nation. It is also interesting that these terms (“house of Israel” and “gentile”) only occur when the prophet Isaiah is being quoted—that is, only in First and Second Nephi, in Jacob, and in Third Nephi. Did Joseph Smith arrange all of this in his mind before and during the time he was dictating?

Perhaps there are answers to these questions about Joseph Smith’s dictating the Book of Mormon. But even more questions arise when we continue with the problem of there being no gold plates. Huge questions. There is probably no event in Joseph Smith’s early life for which there are so many reliable and insistent witnesses. When Joseph reported to his family that he had received a severe reprimand from the Angel for not being diligent enough in his work, what was he talking about? More lies? When Joseph and Emma took Joseph Knight’s horse and wagon away from the Smith home at midnight where did they go? When Joseph returned home with a dislocated thumb and said he had been waylaid in the woods by persons trying to steal the plates, where had he really been and what had he been up to? First he told his family that he had hidden the plates in a log, but shortly thereafter he brought the plates home, covered with a cloth or with a coat, and each member of the family was allowed to handle them but not remove the covering. Joseph’s brother William (16) says “I was permitted to lift them as they laid in a pillowcase but not to see them, as it was contrary to the commands he [Joseph] had received. They weighed about 60 lbs. according to the best of my judgment.” Another time William handled whatever it was that Joseph had covered and said: “I could tell they were plates of some kind and that they were fastened together by rings running through the back.” Joseph’s sister Catherine (15) “hefted” them and declared they were “heavy.” What did Joseph have hidden in the coat or under the cloth that could deceive the members of his family?

Joseph asked his brother Hyrum for a box to store the plates in. Hyrum had also “hefted” the plates and was quick to provide the box. Why? Several days later Martin Harris’ wife and daughter visited the Smith home with the intention of seeing the plates. They went home disappointed and told Martin Harris that they were not permitted to see the plates but they were permitted to hold the box. Martin reported: “My daughter said they were about as much as she could lift . . . and my wife said they were very heavy.” So Martin himself went to the Smith home to see the plates with the same result. He was allowed to lift the box which contained the plates and reported: “I knew from the heft that they were lead or gold, and I knew that Joseph had not credit enough to buy so much lead” (Anderson, 26). A farmer like Martin Harris worked with and knew all kinds of metals. What was in that box?

These experiences could be repeated many times and each time would raise many questions. What did Joseph’s wife Emma have sitting on the table in her house “wrapped in a small linen table cloth?” She says:

I once felt of the plates as they thus lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb. . . . I moved them from place to place on the table, as it was necessary in doing my work. (Anderson, 29)

What was under the cloth?

Mrs. Whitmer says that she was shown the plates. In David Whitmer’s words:

My mother was going to milk the cows, when she was met out near the yard [by a stranger] who said to her: “You have been very faithful and diligent in your labors, but you are tired because of the increase of your toil; it is proper therefore that you should receive a witness that your faith may be strengthened.” Thereupon he showed her the plates. (Anderson, 31-32)

She repeated this story to her children and grandchildren all her life. Was she also a liar? If not, what did she see? Who was the stranger?

Another question: Why would a man like Joseph Smith, who was in his right mind, who had a plan in his head, and who had finished dictating the Book of Mormon and was about to take the manuscript to the printer, why in the world would he invite eight shrewd and probably still somewhat skeptical farmers, including his father and his two brothers Hyrum and Samuel, to meet him in a secluded spot in the woods near their house where he would show them the plates, if he had no plates to show them? His father and brothers, as well as the Whitmer family, had been waiting for several years for this opportunity. They were all religious men. They trusted in Joseph Smith. There were no plates to see, but when they returned to the house they each signed a document stating they had seen “the plates of which hath been spoken which have the appearance of gold . . . we also saw the engravings thereon. . . we have seen and hefted, and know of a surety that the said Smith has got the plates. . . . And we lie not, God bearing witness of it.” If there were no plates, what happened that day in the woods? What conversation took place between Joseph and these men? What did Joseph tell his father and his brothers when he showed up with no plates? Sorry, Dad, I have been lying to you all these years, but if you will only say you actually saw the plates, that would help me out a whole lot. What would Joseph’s father answer to such an absurd statement?

I am now getting to the point of weariness suggesting these questions, and this reminds me of an interesting anecdote in the life of Samuel Johnson which is somewhere in Boswell’s Life. James Macpherson, the compiler and editor of the Ossian papers, was disturbed that Samuel Johnson did not believe the poetry came from an early-medieval Celtic bard, but believed, rather, that Macpherson himself had collected old highland poetry and fused it together with a few poems of his own. Incensed, Macpherson asked Mr. Johnson: “Sir, Do you believe any man living in this age could have produced such poetry?” to which Johnson answered, “Yes, sir. Many men, many women, and many children. A man could write such stuff all day if he would abandon his mind to it.” But there were not any men, let alone women and children who could have written the Book of Mormon. But I could continue asking such questions all day if I would abandon my mind to it. But I will not abandon my mind to it; I will close this session of questions.

And Joseph Smith did not abandon his mind. His mind became sharper and clearer as his work as prophet continued through city planning, through temple building, right on through his imprisonment when he dictated this pearl of the Doctrine and Covenants:

. . . let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven. The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto the forever and ever. (D&C 121:45-46)

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Garold N. Davis (Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University) is professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at Brigham Young University, where he also chaired the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and served as associate dean of the College of Humanities. Prior to joining the faculty at BYU, he taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Southern Oregon College, and the University of Colorado.

Among his Mormon-oriented publications are “Pattern and Purpose of the Isaiah Commentaries in the Book of Mormon,” in Davis Bitton, ed., Mormons, Scripture, and the Ancient World: Studies in Honor of John L. Sorenson (Provo: FARMS, 1998); and, with Norma S. Davis, “Behind the Wall: The Church in Eastern Germany (Part 1: Saints in Isolation, 1945-1989),” Ensign (April 1991); “The Wall Comes Down: The Church in Eastern Germany (Part 2: 1989-1990),” Ensign (June 1991); Behind the Iron Curtain: Recollections of Latter-day Saints in East Germany, 1945-1989 (Provo: BYU Studies, 1996) [German edition: Jenseits des eisernen Vorhangs: Erinnerungen von Heiligen der letzten Tage in Ostdeutschland, 1945-1989 (Bad Reichenhall, Germany: LDS Books Schubert & Roth OHG, 2005).

Dr. Davis is married to Norma S. Davis, and they are the parents of five children. Together, they have served two missions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Germany and Austria. He is currently an assistant executive secretary in his home ward, and a sealer in the Provo Utah Temple. His hobbies “in a previous life” were backpacking, cross-country skiing, and marathon running; now, they’re somewhat more sedate: golf and woodcarving.

Posted February 2012