The Mormon Scholars Foundation Summer Seminar, founded by Richard Bushman and recently co-directed with Terryl Givens, has a tradition of gathering the brightest young Mormon scholars for six weeks to research, engage, and present on specific themes or periods. This year’s group was no exception. A dozen participants ranging from an undergraduate majoring in engineering to an Assistant Professor in Religious Studies (our own SC Taysom!) gathered together to explore the theme, “The Cultural History of the Gold Plates.” I had the great privilege to attend their presentations today, and what follows is my brief recap, broken into two parts.
(Note that these are based on very flawed notes on an iPad, and that they primarily give a glimpse, not a faithful reconstruction of their arguments. Also, in an attempt to keep the size of this post anywhere near reasonable (snort!), I will only devote 2-3 sentences to each presentation, which means it will not do justice to the richness of nuance of the papers. Basically, I’m trying to urge readers not to judge these great papers by my short and flawed summaries!)
Stephen Taysom, “Worlds of Discourse, Plates of Gold: Joseph Smith’s Plates as Cultural Catalysts.” Steve’s presentation was perhaps the most sophisticated and developed of the group–as if we’d expect anything else. He uses Robert Orsi’s notion of “abundant events” (see the exchange between Orsi and Bushman here, and a discussion of it here) as a way of better understanding the Gold Plates narrative. After skillfully explaining Orsi’s definition of this approach—including the major characteristics of the event being out of the ordinary, real to those who believe it, something that is possessed by and motivating to a group of people, and which arises at the center of the past, present, and future—he specifically explores how the Gold Plates engage and perpetuate a “frontier” religious culture: geographically frontier, theologically frontier, and culturally frontier. Most fascinating is how the Gold Plates both takes advantage of several “live options” presented by Joseph Smith’s culture while closing others. And, as we can expect with Steve, the paper was soaking with sophisticated theory and exuding dry wit.
Benjamin Bascom, “Guarding the Gold: Didactic Fictions and the Mainstreaming of Mormonism.” Ben is a brilliant PhD student in American literature at the University of Illinois and brought his literary expertise to the Gold Plates narrative. He framed his paper by looking at two major genres in the 19th century: non-Mormon fiction on the one hand, and Mormon catechisms on the other. Such a comparison may sound odd at first, but Ben ably demonstrated how both failed (at least at first) to let the narrative spark imagination in their texts but rather didactically repeated the basic facets of the story. Most interesting is how the catechisms moved away from the details of the narrative–therefore avoiding controversial or problematic aspects–and instead became narrower and narrower in only focusing on the major premise of the story.
Jared Halverson, “Fictionalizing Faith: Popular Polemics and the Gold Plates.” Jared works for CES and is a graduate student at Vanderbilt University. He spoke on the rhetorical strategies used by attackers on Mormonism during Joseph Smith’s life. Focusing on the “gold bible”—a powerful term commonly invoked in popular depictions—Jared noted how humor was used as a form of aggression and abuse, a tool to dismiss Mormonism without ever really having to engage it. By framing the gold plates as simply “absurd,” the rejection of them then became a matter of intellect—a framework in which Mormonism is condemned before even making it to trial. (Relatedly, Spencer Fluhman’s book, due out next fall, will be an extraordinary treatment of the larger theme in play here.) What is fascinating, and what I hope Jared will address more as he expands the paper, is how Mormonism then fought fire with fire and repeated the very same strategy in combating their Protestant accusers.
Julie Frederick, “What Hath the Earth to Do With the Angels? Sacred Time, Sacred Space, and the Gold Plates.” Julie is a specialist in medieval Christianity, and used that knowledge to contextualize Mormon iconography. After a long introduction on how art is often utilized as new religious movements appropriate elements from preceding faith traditions, Julie examined how Mormon art concerning the Gold plates both perpetuate and break away from common Protestant trends. Perhaps the most fascinating parts were only hinted at in the presentation but then brought out more in the Q&A: first, the fact that the earliest depictions of JS receiving the gold plates have Moroni on the ground physically handing over the record, while later treatments moved Moroni higher and higher into the sky symbolizing more sacred distance between human and divine. (Kristine Haglund astutely noted how Moroni went from standing on the ground wearing work boots to hovering above the ground with sandals to eventually flying in the air without his feet even visible.) Second, and perhaps most provocative, is the fact that Mormon depictions of the angel Moroni always feature a Christian, Anglo-American angel rather than a resurrected Nephite—especially interesting since they were drawn in a period Mormons weren’t afraid to draw stereotypical depictions of Indians!
Tyler Gardner, “Possessing the Plates: The Presence and Absence of the Gold Plates.” Tyler is a graduate student at GTU and presented on how the stewardship of the plates changed over time. In the Book of Mormon text itself, and until the lost 116 pages, the gold plates were primarily in the possession of human hands and preserved through human craftiness. (Remember Joseph Smith moving to Harmony with the plates buried in a barrel of beans.) However, after the lost pages, Moroni took the plates into his own possession and they were rarely used again in the translation process. (Remember how, when Joseph moved to Fayette, Moroni was the one who transferred the plates.) This liminal nature of the plates moving between human and divine hands is a fascinating premise, and I hope Tyler works through it a bit more to find a driving thesis and important lesson—because it’s there, somewhere.
Rachael Givens, “Lost Wagonloads: The Disappearance of the Book of Mormon’s Sealed Portion.” Rachael is finishing up her bachelors degree at BYU and presented on the image of the BoM’s sealed portion in Mormon thought and culture. In the 19th century, they were seen as a symbol of an open canon: that they will someday be revealed and represent God’s continual revelatory communication with His children. They were also used as an incentive, a “carrot-before-the-rabbit” type of reward to help the Saints become more faithful. With the retrenchment period, however, and the writings of Bruce R. McConkie and Joseph Fielding Smith (it always comes back to these two, doesn’t it?), the hope for an eventual revealing waned and the sealed portion of the BoM became more of a Millennial, rather than a preparatory, event. The sealed portion came to symbolize, in effect, a closed canon, as more emphasis was placed on the “fulness” Mormonism already possesses and the need for Saints to appreciate and live what we have already received. I look forward to seeing how Rachael expands and refines the paper, especially if she uses the “sealed portion” as a rhetorical tool played in the ever-important era of retrenchment within Mormonism.
Stay tuned for Monday when I will give Part II, which includes literally reconstructing the Gold Plates, treasure seeking in 1960s southern Utah, and even an old-fashioned FARMS bash!