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WHY DID JOSEPH SMITH NEED THE GOLD PLATES?


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[1].

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[2]. 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.

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Notes:


Comments

  1. Interesting. I have never heard that Joseph Smith did not use the plates at all and only used a seer stone. I know that it is said he did not need the urim an thummim after awhile.

    As for his own testimony, I remember the quote from Joseph Smith, "I don't blame others for not believing me. I would not believe my story for myself if I had not experienced it." I, however, am not sure what I think about the notion of Joseph Smith needing the plates for his own testimony and they were otherwise not necessary. While I agree with the need for a tangible "work" (or proof) to support his claims and to gain followers, the physical plates mean so much more.

    The plates are evidence that God remembers his children wherever and whenever they are and will call prophets among them to reveal his word. The Book of Mormon is another witness of Jesus Christ to go hand in hand with the bible. Sure we can say that the doctrines and teachings of the Book of Mormon could have been revealed to Joseph Smith without the plates, but if constructed as a story of ancient inhabitants of the Americas there must be something physical. That also begs the question why would the bible be preserved and not other books of scripture if a new prophet can have those things revealed unto him?

    I don't know what accounts have been written to lead people to conclude that part of Joseph Smith's translation of the Book of Mormon was done without the plates, but there is one thing I am sure of. The Book of Mormon stands on its own. We can't just look at it as an appendage to Joseph Smith's calling to be a prophet. If we only view it through the scope of what it means to Joseph Smith, then some erroneous conclusions might be made. The Book of Mormon has its own place in the whole Plan of Salvation. Therefore, it was necessary for someone to find them and translate them while preserving the integrity of their origin.

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  2. Thanks for your comments Scott. I thought of that same quote from Joseph Smith as I wrote this post (but I didn't know the exact source, so I didn't use it).

    I completely agree, there was definitely more to the purpose of the plates then simply reassuring Joseph Smith. I'm only saying they may have served that purpose. I agree 100 % when you say:

    "Sure we can say that the doctrines and teachings of the Book of Mormon could have been revealed to Joseph Smith without the plates, but if constructed as a story of ancient inhabitants of the Americas there must be something physical."

    I think that is definitely part of the purpose of plates. Today, some people say that Joseph Smith wrote the BoM by revelation, but it is not a true history. Such a position doesn't make any sense to me - if it isn't a true history, why would God (or his prophet) write it as a history? Anyway, for such people and their theories, we have the problem of the plates. Why did Joseph Smith claim to have these Gold plates if he was just receiving the BoM by revelation? Especially if we think about all the trouble(claiming to have)those plates caused him, with people always trying to steel them from him. Then you have the 11 witnesses who saw and held the plates. I think the plates very effectively put to rest any idea of the BoM being "inspired but not historical." Joseph Smiths (and the witnesses)claims of there being physical objects involved forces us to accept the BoM for what it is - inspired scripture and a historical account - or dismiss it as a fraud. Some will say that is a "false dilemma" but I think the plates, and Joseph's repeated claims that it was historical, leave us no other options. I also think God meant to leave us no middle roads - after all, we know what God thinks about people being "lukewarm."

    As far as whether or not the plates were there during the whole translation process, as I said, I haven't studied it myself yet, so I don't have a real opinion. The main source of this idea seems to come from David Whitmers various reports on the translation process.

    Here is article you can read that will give you a bit of an overview:

    http://en.fairmormon.org/Book_of_Mormon/Translation

    I agree with their conclusion that ultimately, all that matters is that the BoM was translated by the gift and power of God.

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  3. Such a position doesn't make any sense to me - if it isn't a true history, why would God (or his prophet) write it as a history? Anyway, for such people and their theories, we have the problem of the plates. Why did Joseph Smith claim to have these Gold plates if he was just receiving the BoM by revelation?"

    Here's what such a Mormon could say, I suppose:

    First, it was written as a history because it would be more palatable that way. Everyone back then was claiming revelations. But to declare that you've translated a history of heretofore unknown peoples--that's bold! So the Book of Mormon, on this view, is kind of like the Trojan Horse. God had it written as a history so that people would read it, and upon reading it, they'd discover the book's real importance--it's doctrines.

    As to why Smith possessed plates: The plates were necessary for Smith's testimony. Just as god had to sell the BoM as a history to the world, so too did he have to sell the BoM as a history to Smith. He couldn't have done that without something physical.

    Like you, I don't buy this theory. But I don't buy it because I just don't think the BoM is important for its doctrines. You would learn next to nothing about Mormonism as a religion if all you read was the BoM.

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