Reflections on Taves’s Revelatory Events, pt. 1: The Plates

By April 30, 2018

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.[1] 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).

[1] 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.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks for this, Steve. I was fascinated by Taves’ MHA paper and I know that many have continued to wrestle with the implications. I’m not entirely sure, though, that cognitive science can explain the gold plates, or anything, really, to do with religion. Pairing Taves with Orsi would be a fascinating way of digging deeper into the implications of the study of religion on supernatural events.

    Comment by J Stuart — April 30, 2018 @ 10:08 am

  2. Thanks, J. Using cognitive science and rejecting epoche are fairly controversial in the field of religious studies and Taves’s approach is in the minority (as I understand it, maybe she call tell us a little more about that). I may post of the the knock-down drag out fights the erupted when Taves presented cognitive science to the grad cohort I was in. But having gotten a little slice of how the approach has developed, I have to say that it looks like it’s improving and that Taves’s book seems like another positive step.

    This book that I reviewed was really interesting http://juvenileinstructor.org/review-essay-edward-bever-the-realities-of-witchcraft-and-popular-magic-in-early-modern-europe/ though Bever’s approach was a little different in that he was more open to supernatural events being real.
    And also, Taves didn’t use much cognitive science on her treatment of the plates. She really brings it out for her discussion of the Book of Mormon translation. More interesting stuff (my next post).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 30, 2018 @ 10:42 am

  3. Thanks, Steve, for launching this discussion. Steve’s right that I don’t draw much from cognitive science in the first part of the book or in my discussion of the materialization of the plates. In general I would say I draw more from Durkheim to stress the role of faith, which defines and creates a group of insiders, materializing the plates by agreeing they should be kept hidden due to the Lord’s command. There is one place where I do make a cog science type move (p. 63): “While some in each tradition may view these statements as figurative, others?orthodox Catholics and orthodox Latter-day Saints?might view them as literally true in light of their belief in the power of divinity to manifest itself in material bodies and objects. In cognitive science terms, we are considering the extent to which Smith?as well as his followers?came to identify a human made object with a mental representation of ancient golden plates in faith.”
    This distinction between the object and the mental representation of the object was added in response to feedback from Terryl Givens’ comments on my chapter draft. He said he thought that my claim that ?insider accounts do not depict the plates as an ordinary material object, but rather as an object that angels [transport]? set up a false dichotomy, as if to suggest that the object wasn?t really ?material in the common-sense meaning of the term.? In light of his feedback, I realized my distinctions weren?t yet precise enough. I needed to distinguish more carefully between the ordinary material object (a box containing something or a cloth covering something) and a believed-in mental representation of what was in the box or under the cloth (ancient golden plates). In cognitive science terms, I am suggesting believers linked their believed-in mental representation of the ancient golden plates with an ordinary, albeit concealed, material object, while skeptics did not. Based on this fusion of representation and object, at least some believers were able to visualize the object itself through the eyes of faith. Without Givens prodding me that last bit of the way, cognitive science distinctions wouldn’t have entered into that part of the discussion at all.

    Comment by Ann Taves — April 30, 2018 @ 11:48 am

  4. Thanks very much for your response, Dr. Taves!

    Comment by J Stuart — April 30, 2018 @ 11:59 am

  5. Thanks for the clarification, Ann. I’ll get to the next part soon.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 1, 2018 @ 7:30 am


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