Continued from Part I.
Sarah Reed, “Fantasy, Fraud, and Freud: The Uncanny Gold Plates in 19th Century Newspaper Accounts.” Sarah, a graduate student in German studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, had the honor of bringing Freud to the party. Specifically, she explored the debates surrounding the Gold Plates through the lens of Freud’s “uncanny,” the idea that a thing or concept can be both familiar and foreign at the same time. Sarah examined how newspaper accounts presented Joseph Smith’s narrative—which in itself possessed many home-grown or native elements—in a way that repressed the familiar and emphasized the exotic. Attackers often contrasted JS’s message with Enlightenment ideals, thereby creating a safe distance between the Mormons and the audience. Fun stuff.
Elizabeth Mott, “The Forbidden Gaze: The Veiling of the Gold Plates and Joseph Smith’s Redefinition of Sacred Space.” Mott is a graduate student in Women’s Studies at Claremont, and framed her paper around Martin Harris’s famous statement on seeing the Gold Plates through his “spiritual eyes.” Be exploring the metaphorical nature of 19th century religious rhetoric, Liz claimed that the use of “spiritual eyes”—in contrast to “temporal eyes”—sacralized the event that kept the encounter spiritual in nature. This persistent contrast between divine and profane seems to be at odds with Mormonism’s collapse of the sacred, yet is common in Mormon scriptures; for instance, Moses’s vision in the Book of Moses is described as being received with “spiritual eyes.” The language also provided a framework in which Martin Harris, someone fully conscious of his unworthiness and sins, still able to take part in sacred discourse.
Michael Reed, “The Notion of Ancient Metal Records in Joseph Smith’s Day.” The thesis of this paper was simple: that the idea of “metal records” was uncontroversial in antebellum America. Mike began his presentation with a Parley Pratt quote saying that if Joseph Smith claimed finding a buried record in the field, lacking angelic and divine intervention, his message would have been universally accepted by the world. He then presented a number of newspapers, pamphlets, school books, and novels that took the belief in ancient metal records for granted. While Mike didn’t necessarily explore what these sources really mean to Mormon historians–moving past the “what” to “why” question–it did persuasively demonstrate that ancient metal records were not the radical part of Joseph Smith’s story. Predictably, several FARMS associates in the audience offered challenges in the Q&A session, and a combination of ambiguity (and in one case, hostility) on the part of the questioners and Mike’s inability to comprehend what the questions were really asking led to tremendous awkwardness for all those present—perhaps the most tension felt at a Bushman/Givens Seminar to date. Oh, well.
Caroline Sorensen, “Operation Tumbaga: The Metallurgic Plausibility of the Gold Plates.” Caroline is an engineering student at BYU, and examined whether the Gold Plates, as described by those who experienced them, were plausible. She got into lots of detailed and specialized concepts about gold alloy, copper, and other metal-related topics and decided that while not a “home run,” it was possible for the Book of Mormon civilizations to create plates made from a copper-rich gold alloy that would weigh around 60 pounds. Perhaps the most fascinating part of her discussion—and likely a first in Summer Seminar history—was Caroline describing her own attempt to recreate one plate following the process she previously explained. The resulting two tiny examples were then passed around for everyone to “heft.”
Christopher Smith, “Rediscovering Joseph Smith’s ‘Discovery Narrative’ in Southern Utah.” Chris’s presentation was both fun and fascinating. He narrated the story of two amateur LDS archeologists—Jose Davila and John Brewer—and their quest to verify the Gold Plates story through their own expeditions. Drawing on the Paul R Cheesman Papers at BYU (Cheesman was a BYU Religion Professor who became involved with both characters), Chris showed how Book of Mormon archeology went through several growing stages before it finally became as scholarly and professional as it is today. While primarily descriptive rather than analytic—I’m sure we’ll see more brilliant analysis as he expands the project—it was exciting to catch a glimpse of how some Mormons attempted to verify Joseph Smith’s gold plates in the mid-20th century.
Rachel Gostenhoffer, “In Consequence of Their Wickedness:The Decline and Fall of Mormon Seership, 1838-1900.” Rachel is a graduate student at Brown University, and her presentation was brilliantly sophisticated and interesting. She opened the paper by narrating a late 19th-century Mormon examining a neighbor’s seerstone through a microscope—a beautiful example of how fields like “science” and “religion” have merged over time: the supernatural seerstones merged with modernity’s positivism. While there are many facets of the paper I could describe, I was mostly fascinated by her take on the possibility of different trajectories Mormonism could have taken with regard to seership, challenging the Quinnean (and traditional) trajectory of mysticism giving way to modernity. The first trajectory was the de-literalization and aestheticism of seership, where the “seer” became much more important in Mormon spirituality than the “seerstone.” The second trajectory was the growing emphasis on patriarchy, where supernatural experiences were increasingly understood to be under the direction of the priesthood rather than spirituality found in the person or an object. I can’t wait to see where Rachel goes with this project.
All in all, it was a fantastic conference and lived up to the seminar’s hyped tradition. I’ve heard Bushman wants to continue the same theme next year, so let’s hope more brilliant young scholars take part!