The Latest Chapter in the Cultural History of the Book of Mormon Plates

Richard Bushman poses with participants and interested observers of the 2012 summer seminar on Mormon culture

In September 1823, Joseph Smith pried open a stone box in the side of a New York hill and beheld, for the first time, the luminous gold plates of the Book of Mormon. On July 3, 1850, James J. Strang pulled out of his pocket and showed to Stephen Post the small, sacred brass plates of Rajah Manchou. In the early 1960s, a dispute erupted between discoverer Jesus Padilla and translator Jose Davila about the ownership of twelve tiny golden plates unearthed in Oaxaca, Mexico. In Fall 1986, a BYU student asked a girl to the homecoming dance by writing the question on a set of golden plates, which he buried in her backyard. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, Matthew Phillip Gill found on his doorstep the golden plates of Jeraneck, the ancient patriarch of the British Isles. And on July 23, 2012, a young receptionist named Kristina lugged a heavy brass replica of Joseph Smith’s plates to the fourth floor of a building at BYU, where some nerdy graduate students sat around a conference table telling stories about the cultural history of the Book of Mormon plates. In the act of studying that history, they became characters in its latest chapter. And in telling their story a few days later, so did a certain blogger.

All of these stories, as a professor of mine used to say, are either true or interesting. To complicate matters, I’m not entirely sure which is which.

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The annual Summer Seminars on Mormon Culture draw graduate students and interested scholars from around the world to do scholarship on Mormon topics. This year’s seminar, directed by Richard Bushman, continued the work begun last year on the gold plates as a cultural artifact. On July 23, 25, and 26, I had the privilege of attending the final symposium at which this year’s participants presented the fruits of their labors. Among the star presenters were Austin Walters (a businessman making his first foray into Mormon Studies), Saskia Tielens (a non-Mormon all the way from the Netherlands), and Ruth Eldredge (a multi-talented Mormon musician serving as an interfaith organist for the Episcopal Church). Judging from the caliber of the participants and their papers, the future of Mormon Studies is blindingly bright.

A few recurring themes and questions emerged in the course of the presentations. One that Richard Bushman highlighted in his introductory remarks was that there was a “moment” in the 1970s when General Authorities, archaeologists, and Church Public Relations were all working to bring the plates into the limelight. One of the more striking products of this moment was the Mormon Pavilion at the World’s Fair: an entire building in the shape of gold plates! Another was the collaborative work of Paul Cheesman and Mark E. Peterson to investigate examples of inscribed metal plates from around the world. Perhaps as a consequence of this moment, the plates more recently have become a “national cultural resource” tapped by Gentile literature and popular culture.

Mormon Pavilion at the 1974 World’s Fair

Another recurring question Bushman highlighted was: what makes the plates so enthralling? He suggested that it’s the ambiguity that counts. Sacred objects or relics, in general, tend to be ambiguous artifacts that have miraculous power for insiders but are critiqued as means of gain by outsiders. This ambiguity enthralls and fascinates us. Other presentations made equally interesting suggestions. Bryan Cottle highlighted the drive to confirm one’s testimony experience, as illustrated by the lives of Book of Mormon archaeologists Paul Cheesman and Thomas Ferguson. Saskia Tielens, in a paper both hilarious and theoretically astute, highlighted the role of the plates in Mormon material culture as a radical marker of the distinctiveness of Mormon identity. (Just as there are “iron rod” and “Liahona” Mormons, she suggested, there seem to be gold plates and non-gold plates Mormons.)

The most troublesome recurring question for the participants seemed to be the prescriptive problem of how to talk about the plates in a religious studies context. Several of the presentations skillfully situated the plates in a broader comparative context, placing them alongside Catholic relics, world scriptures, and the texts of Mormon schismatic groups. Each of these papers, I noticed, fell into the trap of subtly (and slightly speciously) arguing for the superiority of the Book of Mormon over the objects of comparison. I was really impressed, however, by Austin Walters’ explanation of the comparative method as an act of friendship and a quest to take other groups’ scriptures seriously, and also by his and the other presenters’ responsiveness to questions and suggestions about additional steps that could be taken toward realizing this ideal. Jeremy Walker’s paper, which argued for the recognition of “multiple authentic realities,” offered one potentially fruitful way forward. (As Jim Faulconer helpfully explained in the Q&A, “reality” in this context is not metaphysical, but truth-procedural. If you share a truth-procedure, you share a reality.)

In conclusion, I’d like to leave you with two important lessons I learned from the symposium, both from Saskia Tielens. The first is that there’s a Mormon cookbook titled I Can’t Believe It’s Food Storage. The second is that there’s an entire website dedicated to Mormon “Hey Girl” memes. Curiously, neither of these life-changing revelations has anything to do with the gold plates. I guess both Saskia and I just decided they were too awesome to leave out!

Comments

The Latest Chapter in the Cultural History of the Book of Mormon Plates — 10 Comments

  1. Great write-up, Chris. I loved listening to the papers, which were both informative and entertaining. Who would have thought that the seminar could focus on the gold plates for two straight summer and produce around sixteen solid papers on a supposedly narrow subject?

    Well done to all involved.

  2. Well you’ve certainly made me want to hear the rest of Saskia’s presentation. Guest post?

  3. Chris, What’s your impression re. the future of the Seminar? It seems that participants are now coming from backgrounds much broader than Mormon/Religious Studies (including history). If true, what do you think this might portend for the Seminar?

  4. Gary, one possibility that’s under discussion is for the seminar to partner with the Wheatley Institution to do some broader work on things like Mormonism and the family or Mormonism and international affairs. I think the interdisciplinary broadening of the seminar will be a great thing for Mormon Studies in the long run, and hopefully will help make it more practical and relevant to the modern world.

  5. Of course I found out about this symposium on the last day that it was going on… Would love to read some of the stuff presented there, sounds like it was great.

  6. Chris,

    Thanks for doing this post, it is a fun read.

    I did not know about the Mormon Pavilion at the Spokane World’s Fair and the gold plate’s connection. This is fascinating. I recall some of this attraction/craze with gold plates during this time. I was a teenager, so gold plates were not at the top of my interest list, but Jack West was at his height presenting his “Trials of the Stick of Joseph.” I recall a major part of his slide presentation included images of metal plates.

    This brought back fun memories, thanks Chris.

  7. Chris– thanks for the invite, I wanted to attend the seminar but was a bit overwhelmed last week. I’ve actually been inside the gold plates (at the 1974 World’s Fair)…I like to enter a text… ;-) Maxine