While a few LDS scholars and apologist have clung on tight to the traditional perceptions of Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon with the Gold plates set out before him, and only by the means of the Urim and Thummim; most seem to have conceded that (at least for a portion of the translation process) he translated using a seer stone in a hat, without having the plates physically present, or at least without him looking at the plates. While I have not yet studied any of the eyewitness accounts for myself, nor have I seriously read and studied any of the scholarly studies on this topic, from the little reading I have done it seems to me that this is an inescapable conclusion.
With that said, the question has naturally arisen from the critics “What was the point of having the Gold Plates at all then, if they we not really needed for the translation process?”
This is a fair question, one of which I have pondered about myself. Today, I was watching the Daniel C. Peterson lecture “Evidences of the Book of Mormon.” In response to this same question asked by someone in the audience, Peterson suggests that it was for the sake of Joseph Smith’s own testimony.
A friend of mine has recently published on his own blog a posting where he discusses how Joseph Smith’s visionary experiences were not uncommon in his own day, and he gives some examples of others who had similar experiences. My friend then suggests that such experiences were not actually revelations, but just some type of "out of body" experiences. Following the posting, my friend adds in one of the comments (in response to my own question) how he feels it was having the Book of Mormon – something tangible for his followers to have and hold – that helped Smith win converts. This is something I do not disagree with – in fact, on my mission we often used the same approach, inviting people to read the Book of Mormon because it stood as some material “proof” if you will, of Joseph Smtih’s prophetic claims.
Anyway, taking into consideration the fact that Smith may have known of others who had had similar visions, it does not seem unlikely to me that Smith himself may have doubted his own experiences. Indeed, Peterson’s idea seems to be right on the spot. Perhaps the plates - the physical existence of the plates - were more for Joseph Smith’s own assurance than anything else. Perhaps those plates filled the same role for Smith as the translated copy of them (the Book of Mormon) did for his followers; that is, they served as evidence to Joseph Smith himself that what was happening to him was real. It was more than a dream, or an hallucination, or something else, because he had physical objects – the Gold Plates, the Urim and Thummim, the sword of Laban, etc. – which he could have and hold, and reassure himself with.
Anyway, I’m not saying that was the only reason plates were necessary, nor am I suggesting that they did not play any role in the translation process. I personally haven’t yet reached any conclusions about the translation process. I’m simply sharing my insights on what Peterson said, because it struck me as interesting. Perhaps Joseph Smith needed something to assure himself. If that is the case, then the plates – and other such objects which he says he possessed – may have been exactly what he needed.