"A Seer Shall the Lord My God Raise Up":
The Prophet and the Plates
Be ready to receive whatever new truth God might reveal to you, for "the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word."
Rev. John Robinson to the Pilgrims, upon embarking for America
New York ... is the theatre of humbugs; the chosen arena of itinerating mountebanks, whether they figure in philosophy, philanthropy, or religion .... Hence those who seek to make proselytes to any creed, however absurd, or to find believers in any pretensions, however incredible, or miraculous, may gather kindred spirits here, by "calling them from the vasty deep, and they will come." ... And if they can make a pedantic show of learning, lay claims to the character of philosophers, deal in hieroglyphics and technicalities, and profess supernatural and miraculous powers ... they will find here a great multitude of disciples.
David Reese in 1838
It is both fitting and ironic that at a small crossroads in the town of Palmyra, New York, four churches occupy the four corner lots of the intersection. Fitting, because the four contiguous meeting houses with their four steeples that intermingle on the skyline aptly symbolize the hurly-burly of religious sects vigorously competing for new proselytes, as Joseph Smith described the Palmyra area at the time of the Second Great Awakening. Ironic, because the embarrassment of denominational riches suggested by the intersection was not enough to provide a spiritual home for14-year-old Joseph Smith himself. His youthful quest for a "true church" to join led him to a momentous encounter with heavenly beings in which he learned that no church in Palmyraor anywhere elsewas the true church of God.
Like many seekers of the Second Great Awakening, the young Smith found himself caught up in a scene of fervid revivalism and confused by the competing claims of ministers seeking converts. Deciding to pray for heavenly guidance, Smith had retired to the woods to ask God which church he should join. On that early spring morning in 1820, two personages, identifying themselves as God the Father and Jesus Christ, had appeared to the boy in a grove of trees on his father's homestead. Though it may be true, as Mormon historian Richard Bushman writes, that in seeking such guidance "an answer for himself must be an answer for the entire world" and that with the vision "a new era in history began," the boy's initial reading was clearly less grandiose. His personal quest for spiritual guidance may have precipitated an epiphany on the order of Paul's on the road to Damascus, but the important truths he learned were that his personal sins were forgiven and that he should hold himself aloof from the sects of his day. Although the timing and the naming of the event assign it absolute primacy in the founding of Mormonism, the vision was described by the young Joseph and apparently interpreted by him at the time as a private experience with no greater implications for the world at large or for Christian believers generally. In returning from the divine visitation, his understated remark to his mother was simply, "I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true."
In fact, so far was Smith at this point from universalizing his private revelation that his own mother continued her affiliation with the Presbyterian church for another several years. Apparently Smith did share his experience with at least a few persons outside the family circle, for he later said that he was chastised by the clergy and ridiculed by neighbors for his claims. It was not until 1832 that he actually recorded the event, and he withheld publishing a version until 1842, just two years before his death. Accordingly, neither Smith nor Mormon missionaries made much mention of the vision in the early years of Mormonism. Even in the 1830 "Revelation on Church Organization and Government," a kind of manifesto that heralded the church's formal founding, the vision received no more than a passing, cryptic allusion to a time when "it was truly manifested unto this first elder [Joseph Smith] that he had received a remission of his sins." Clearly, the experience was understood at the time, and even scripturally portrayed, as part of a personal conversion narrative, not the opening scene in a new gospel dispensation.
So the young Joseph Smith bided his time until the fall of 1823. By then, he was 17 years old; some three and a half uneventful years had passed since the experience Mormons now refer to as the "First Vision."
Visitation from Moroni
Now on the night of September 21, 1823, the 17-year-old Smith was once again engaged in a private spiritual quest. Nothing in particular seems to have been the catalyst behind his petition that night, other than a sense that the absolution of sin granted him as a youth of 14 was in need of renewal. He was merely seeking once again "forgiveness of all my sins and follies," in his words. And yet, Smith at the same time recorded that he prayed this night with "full confidence in obtaining a divine manifestation, as I previously had one" (JS-H 1:29). His expectation was fully satisfied when his room erupted with brilliant light and an angel who identified himself as Moroni appeared at Joseph's bedside. And this time, before the night was over, the young man would no longer be able to doubt that he was caught up in events of world-shaking importance.
After stating his own name and his divine commission, the messenger told Smith that "God had a work for [him] to do; and that [his] name should be had for good and evil among all nations." The nature of that work was hinted at in the words that followed immediately: "He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fulness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants" (JS-H 1:33-34).
This book "written upon gold plates" would forever alter the life and reputation of the young farmboy, and would serve as the principal catalyst behind the rise of a worldwide church. More than any other factor, it would come to ground Joseph's reputation as seer and charlatan, beloved prophet and reviled blasphemer, as disturber of the peace and empire builder. At the present day, over one hundred million copies of this "gold bible" have been printed and distributed throughout the world, and the religion it helped to found stands on the threshold, according to one researcher, "of becoming the first major faith to appear on earth since the Prophet Mohammed rode out of the desert."
If we seek an explanation behind the staggering success of a document so controversial that it has been called everything from the origin of modern America's "creeping nincompoopism" to the product of "an authentic religious genius," we might do well to begin by looking closely at Moroni's prologue to the great religious drama about to unfold. With those few words spoken to Joseph Smith, the angel managed to convey something of the complexity and variability of the roles this "golden bible" would play. First, Moroni emphasized the rootedness of this new revelation from Heaven in artifactual reality. Referring to a book actually "deposited" in the earth, and consisting of a physical, tangible mediumactual gold plateslifts the revelatory experience beyond the nebulous stuff of visions and alters the whole dynamic of the religious claims Smith would be making. It shifts the debateat least partlyfrom the realm of interiority and subjectivity toward that of empiricism and objectivity.
Second, the angel characterized the book as an account of America's "former inhabitants," thus setting in motion a pattern that both Joseph and subsequent Mormons would adopt. Moroni, in fact, revealed to Joseph that he was one of those inhabitants of ancient America, the last prophet of his people, chronicler of their history, and keeper of their sacred plates. Grounding the text in a history that is proximate and verifiable proves a keenly double-edged sword, subjecting the record as it does to the exacting gaze of scholarly verification. Its claim to reveal this continent's history gives it an appealing relevance at the same time it raises expectations of confirmatory evidence.
Third, the angel reported that the "fulness of the everlasting Gospel" was contained in the plates, but added the enigmatic clause, "as delivered by the Savior to the ancient [American] inhabitants." Such a formulation seems almost calculated to combine shocking novelty with a kind of wry nonchalance. He might as well have said the record affirmed those same ten commandments that God delivered to Atlantis. The angel's perplexing description foreshadows the paradoxical charges soon to come: that the Book of Mormon is both clichéd and heretical, pedestrian and preposterous. And the description raises as many questions as it answers: does the record reiterate canonical scripture, extend canonical scripture, or replace canonical scripture?
Accompanying the plates, the angel had said, were "two stones in silver bows" that would be used for translating the plates. That he, Joseph, would be that translator was never explicitly stated by the angel, but seemed indicated in Moroni's promise that, at some subsequent time, Joseph could retrieve the record from a nearby hillside where it had, apparently, lain buried for 1,400 years.
Following Moroni's description of the plates and relics, the angel quoted several verses of scripture that Smith recognized as coming from both the Old and the New Testaments (though some were altered)verses that had clear millennialist import for him and his contemporaries. The angel repeated Malachi's ominous predictions of apocalypse, to be ushered in by the coming of the Lord's "messenger, [who] shall prepare the way before me: [after which] the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come" (Mal. 3:1); he recited Isaiah's prophecy that an "ensign for the nations" would be set up in the context of a "second" gathering of his people, and Moses' prophecy (quoted by Peter) that "a prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear in all things whatsoever he shall say unto you" (Isa. 11; Deut. 18:15; Acts 3:22). Moroni identified this prophet as Christ, but he went on to quote Joel's reference to the Lord pouring out his spirit upon all flesh in a new Pentecostal era, at which point "your young men shall see visions" (Joel 2:28). Additionally, Moroni "quoted many other passages of scripture," at least one of which was Daniel's prophecy of the "stone cut out of the mountain without hands" (JS-H 1:41; Dan. 2:44).
To what extent Joseph then saw himself in the allusions to Moses' prophet, Joel's young men, or Malachi's messenger is difficult to say. (Apparently, in spite of Moroni's clarification, many Latter-day Saints persisted in seeing in Moses' words an allusion to Joseph Smith. One member complained to the editor of the church newspaper that among his brethren, "many ... are in error concerning the prophet of whom Moses spake.") Neither do we know if he then had intimations of the role in which he would later cast himself"to be one of the instruments in setting up the kingdom of Daniel." But Moroni had made clear that an era of history-changing turmoil was now dawning, that the end time was near, and that spiritual forces were being unleashed while the wicked would soon "burn as stubble." At the center of it all, soon to emerge from obscurity into both defamation and renown, was young Joseph himself. And the instrument through which these cataclysms would be made manifest and propagated was a fantastic set of golden plates, to which subject the angel now returned.
Smith learned that the actual "time that [the plates] should be obtained was not yet fulfilled," although "the vision was opened to my mind that I could see the place where the plates were deposited." He was warned that the plates were not to be shown to any person, and then the angel "ascended till he entirely disappeared, and the room was left as it had been before." Shortly thereafter the angel reappeared, rehearsed the entire message with additional words of "great judgments which were coming upon the earth," and disappeared as before. Then, yet a third time the scene was repeated. On this occasion, the angel cautioned the boy that Satan would tempt him to obtain the plates "for the purpose of getting rich." Thus, in deflating counterweight to the grandiose role being thrust upon the young Smith, the angel had warned him against the twin temptations he would face: to aggrandize himself spiritually or materially by misusing the plates. He was neither to exhibit the plates to anyone nor to think of alleviating his family's acute impoverishment by selling them.
The morning after the heavenly messenger's three visits, he appeared a fourth time. In a field where the fatigued Smith fainted while returning home early from chores, Moroni rehearsed the entirety of his teachings, warnings, and commands, and then instructed Joseph to relate all that he had experienced to his father. Joseph immediately did so, and his father encouraged him to visit the hill to see the miraculous artifacts. So on that morning of September 22, 1823, Joseph Smith left the field and walked down the Palmyra-Canandaigua road, turning off to the left about halfway to the village of Manchester when he recognized, a few hundred feet in the distance, the hill Moroni had shown him in the vision the night before. Owing to "the distinctness of the vision" he had had, he knew by which side to approach, and nearing the top, he stopped and removed a large stone. Underneath, like a New World counterpart to the lost ark of the covenant, Smith found a large stone box with the sacred relics of an ancient civilization inside: the gold plates, the "interpreters," as well as the breastplate the angel had described. According to some accounts, the box contained two other artifacts: the sword of Laban, which an early writer in the Book of Mormon had taken from a Jewish ruler and which served in subsequent Book of Mormon history as both a model for other weapons and as an important article in the royal regalia, and a spherical brass instrument (the "Liahona") that functioned as a miraculous compass belonging to the principal group of Jewish exiles who left the Old World and whose story opens the Book of Mormon.
Apparently, in his excitement at beholding the concrete objects of his vision, Smith forgot the angel's words that the time for obtaining the objects was yet distant; according to his 1842 account, he tried to retrieve the plates, "and was again informed that the time for bringing them forth had not yet arrived" (JS-H 1:42, 53). In his 1832 version of the episode, Smith is more frankly self-critical: "I had been tempted of the advisary [sic] and saught [sic] the Plates to obtain riches ... therefore I was chastened." The angel had warned him against a susceptibility to selfishness; now, looking down at the treasures and contemplating the potential value of such curiosities, his greed apparently tainted his motives. In addition to angelic reprimand, Smith's mother, Lucy Mack, recorded that by some divine agency Smith was actually "hurled to the ground with great violence" as was Uzzah for steadying the ark.
Joseph Smith's friend and scribe Oliver Cowdery, who would most likely have had his information from Joseph himself, confirmed Smith's lapse and its painful consequence in an account he wrote for church members in 1835. By the time of Smith's arrival at the hill, Cowdery wrote, "the certainty of wealth and ease in this life, had so powerfully wrought upon him" that the angel's injunction "had entirely gone from his recollection." As a consequence, "On attempting to take possession of the record a shock was produced upon his system, by an invisible power which deprived him, in a measure, of his natural strength."
Excerpted from By the Hand of Mormon by Terryl L. Givens. Copyright © 2002 by Terryl L. Givens. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.