Sonia Hazard argues Joseph and others had material objects—printing plates—that they took be ancient plates.

Academic / Technical Report
Sonia Hazard

Sonia Hazard, "How Joseph Smith Encountered Printing Plates and Founded Mormonism," Religion and American Culture 31, no. 2 (2021): 137-192

Cambridge University Press
Sonia Hazard, Joseph Smith, Jr.
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Encounters with material objects lie at the heart of Mormonism’s origin story. The story goes like this: Late one night in September 1823, an angel visited the bedside of a young Joseph Smith to tell him of one of these objects—a sacred book written on plates of gold, buried on a hillside not far from the Smith family’s farm in upstate New York. When, the next day, Smith found the gold plates as directed, the divine being reappeared with further instructions. This time, he forbade Smith from removing the plates but beckoned him to return to the site year after year. In 1827, on Smith’s fifth annual visit, the angel finally allowed him to collect the plates and take them home. Over the next several months, Smith kept them securely hidden and revealed them only to a select group of witnesses. Using a seer stone, he translated the plates’ inscriptions from their mysterious language into English. Trusted companions served as scribes. The translation revealed that the plates were created several hundred years before the birth of Christ by the angel Moroni and his father Mormon, and recorded the extraordinary history of their Nephite clan, which had migrated to the American continent from Jerusalem. In June 1829, shortly after the translation was complete, Moroni directed Smith to return the gold plates (in some accounts, by depositing them in a cave). Smith obeyed. Then Smith arranged for the publication of the manuscript in nearby Palmyra, which appeared in 1830 as the first edition of the Book of Mormon.

If the gold plates are not to be excluded outright from consideration, regarded as fakes or as part of a tall tale, then how might they be incorporated into scholarly explanations? Historians of religion who have confronted this question have approached the story of the plates sympathetically in an effort to recognize its meaning and efficacy for Smith and other early Mormons. By and large, they rely on two interpretative paradigms: religious imagination and cultural context. They treat the plates primarily as the product of Smith’s fertile religious imagination or as an organic expression of the cultural milieu of nineteenth-century American spirituality, or as some combination of the two.

While there have been many nuanced interpretations of Smith’s motivations and the broader phenomenon of Mormon origins, few have considered the possibility that Smith, and other witnesses, could have physically encountered material plates at some point during the religion’s formative years. This, in spite of the fact that descriptions of the plates by Smith and other witnesses share details that suggest that they were seeing and touching ordinary material things with a consistent set of characteristics. These witness accounts, moreover, portray the plates as possessing qualities remarkably similar to those of nineteenth-century industrial printing plates, especially stereotype plates or copper plates (Figures 1 and 2). Printing plates, like Smith’s gold plates, were metallic, were covered in writings that read from right to left, were heavy when collected together, typically came in a set, and approximated the dimensions of the pages of a book. This article proposes that Smith, and potentially several witnesses, had a foundational encounter with printing plates during the 1820s. It also suggests a range of possibilities regarding the nature of that encounter. It could have been that Smith’s gold plates, which he handled and showed to his followers, were actual printing plates that he had acquired. Or, short of Smith physically obtaining this printing technology, Smith might have examined it at some point and later constructed a homemade facsimile that was informed by the details of his firsthand observations, or, at least, developed his verbal and written descriptions of the ancient Nephite relics from that prior experience with the same.

However Smith made first contact, the distinctiveness of the argument is that it does not relegate material things to the status of secondary byproducts of human action, as if the plates—and perhaps Mormonism itself—sprang solely from Smith’s mind or from broader cultural forces radiating through him. The point in arguing for a material basis to the plates is hardly to deny a role to creative minds and cultural contexts. Instead, it is to regard the generative encounter between humans and material things as basic to scholarly thinking about what catalyzes religious change.

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