Ann Taves, Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies of the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).
Taves was my dissertation adviser at UCSB
Ann Taves, Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, made some waves in the Mormon academic community with her paper 2013 MHA paper that argued that Joseph Smith made the golden plates himself but did so under religious sincerity. Taves published her argument in Numen in 2014 and then placed the argument in a larger context in Revelatory Events, which not only looks at more of Smith’s supernatural claims (the First Vision and the Book of Mormon translation) but also compares those events to other revelatory individuals: Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous and Helen Schucman, founder of A Course in Miracles.
Taves divides Revelatory Events into two parts: she starts with a historical examination of the founding of each religion and then she compares them to each other in part two. Since the book is a rather novel and somewhat complex approach to Mormon origins, I’ll break my review into two parts, following Taves’s division.
Taves’s larger question is how do new religions begin (she broadens the definition to “spiritual paths” that includes AA and ACIM) from the premise that supernatural events do not occur. Taves uses a cognitive science approach to the topic, though she does not use much of those methods in part one. Cognitive science, however, does inform her premise that revelators can really believe they experience visions (that aren’t real) and not be crazy. Taves even references the term “benign schizotypy” at one point, though doesn’t specifically apply the term to Smith (9). What Smith?s gifts/conditions may have been is considered in part two.
Taves cites Richard Bushman’s observation that the plates tend to push scholars to take either a prophet or fraud approach to Smith’s whole life, and argues that the cognitive science premise “can expand the range of possibilities beyond either/or choices that scholars have typically advanced” (51).
Similar to her earlier iterations, Taves argues that based on family encouragement, Smith had a vision of plates in the hill that he later felt commanded to “materialize” so that he could “receive” them. Taves refers to this act as “a theologically informed process of co-creation” similar to how the brother of Jared made stones for the Lord to touch (60).
Taves points to DC 17:5 that says that the witnesses saw the plates “even as my servant Joseph Smith, Jn., has seen them; for it is by my power that he has seen them, and it is because he had faith,” to suggests that the plates were essentially visionary for Smith also. Taves also argues that quotes attributed to Martin Harris saying that none of the witnessing including Joseph Smith saw the plates “except in vision,” provides further evidence for her claim (41). All of the witnesses interacted with Smith’s constructed set of plates, argues Taves, and when the time came to officially view them, the witnesses saw Smith’s constructed plates them as ancient and gold by faith like DC 17:5 said. Taves points to the example of the Catholic Eucharist becoming the real flesh of Christ for Catholic believers (63).
Taves applies a cognitive science approach to Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon in part two, but I think it’s worth pausing to consider the implication of this part of Taves’s argument before moving on.
Can the fundamentally differing views of the plates between believing and non-believing scholars that Bushman noted really be transcended? Religious scholars have often used what they call epoche or bracketing out the issue of the reality of supernatural claims to allow scholars on different spectrum of belief to proceed with other topics. Many religious studies scholars reject epoche, including Taves. Yet Taves still seeks to treat religion sympathetically: “I hope that this book models a way of playing fair with people’s deeply held beliefs, whether religious or not, without having to bracket one’s own” (8).
Opinions on the success of Taves’s approach will no doubt vary, and not surprisingly, Mormon scholars of a traditional apologetic bent have already taken exception. And yet, Taves’s work already shows signs of some transcendence of the either/or divide without using epoche. Taves sought after and received considerable feedback from many LDS scholars suggests a more sanguine relationship than debates over the validity of the plates have often engendered. The fact that is was Loyd Ericson who showed Taves the story of the brother of Jared making rocks for the Lord to transform to support her argument further suggests that Taves did manage to enter a kind of liminal space on the issue of how scholars discuss the golden plates (60 n.4).
 Funny story. With Taves as my adviser, she interacted with my family and even came to my daughter’s baptism. Through that process, she became acquainted with my parents who invited her over a couple of times. During one of the visits, we somehow got on the topic of her materialization thesis. I think my dad asked, and Ann turned to me and asked, “Is it okay if I tell them?” I thought “that’s a terrible idea,” but didn’t know how to convey that in that setting. My folks were polite as she explained, but expressed some dismay after she left.