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Golden plates

According to Latter Day Saint belief, the golden plates (also called the gold plates or in some 19th-century literature, the golden bible) [1]

are the source from which Joseph Smith said he translated the Book of Mormon, a sacred text of the faith. Some witnesses described the plates as weighing from 30 to 60 pounds (14 to 27 kg), [2] being golden in color, and being composed of thin metallic pages engraved on both sides and bound with three D-shaped rings.

Smith said he found the plates on September 22, 1823, at a hill near his home in Manchester, New York, after the angel Moroni directed him to a buried stone box. Smith said the angel at first prevented him from taking the plates, but instructed him to return to the same location in a year. In September 1827, on his fourth annual attempt to retrieve the plates, Smith returned home with a heavy object wrapped in a frock, which he then put in a box. Though he allowed others to heft the box, he said that the angel had forbidden him to show the plates to anyone until they had been translated from their original “reformed Egyptian” language. Smith dictated the text of the Book of Mormon over the next several years, claiming that it was a translation of the plates. He did this by using a seer stone, which he placed in the bottom of a hat and then placed the hat over his face to view the words written within the stone. [3] Smith published the translation in 1830 as the Book of Mormon.

Smith eventually obtained testimonies from eleven men, known as the Book of Mormon witnesses, who said they had seen the plates. [4] After the translation was complete, Smith said he returned the plates to the angel Moroni. Therefore the plates cannot now be examined. Latter Day Saints believe the account of the golden plates as a matter of faith, while critics often assert that either Smith manufactured the plates himself [5] or that the Book of Mormon witnesses based their testimony on visions rather than physical experience.

See also: Origin of the Book of Mormon and Historicity of the Book of Mormon

In the words of Mormon historian Richard Bushman, “For most modern readers, the [golden] plates are beyond belief, a phantasm, yet the Mormon sources accept them as fact.” [6]

Because Smith said he returned the plates to an angel after he finished translating them, their authenticity cannot be determined by physical examination.

The golden plates were reportedly shown to several close associates of Smith. [7] Mormon scholars have formed collaborations such as Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies to provide apologetic answers to critical research about the golden plates and topics in the field of Mormon studies. Among these topics, the credibility of the plates has been, according to Bushman, a “troublesome item.” [8]

A reputed transcript of reformed Egyptian characters, which Smith said were copied from the golden plates in 1828. The characters are not linked to any known language.

The Book of Mormon itself portrays the golden plates as a historical record, engraved by two pre-Columbian prophet-historians from around the year AD 400: Mormon and his son Moroni. [9]

Mormon and Moroni, the book says, had abridged earlier historical records from other sets of metal plates. Their script, according to the book, was described as “reformed Egyptian,” a language unknown to linguists or Egyptologists. [10] Historically, Latter Day Saint movement denominations have taught that the Book of Mormon’s description of the plates’ origin is accurate, and that the Book of Mormon is a translation of the plates. [11] The Community of Christ, however, while accepting the Book of Mormon as scripture, no longer takes an official position on the historicity of the golden plates. [12] Moreover, even in the more theologically conservative Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), some adherents who accept the Book of Mormon as inspired scripture do not believe it is a literal translation of a physical historical record. [13]

Non-believers and some liberal Mormons have advanced naturalistic explanations for the story of the plates. For example, it has been theorized that the plates were fashioned by Smith or one of his associates, [14] that Smith had the ability to convince others of their existence through illusions or hypnosis, [15] or that witnesses were having ecstatic visions [16] These theories are explored in the Wikipedia article Origin of the Book of Mormon. Scholarly examinations of the book’s historicity are discussed in the Wikipedia article Historicity of the Book of Mormon.

An 1893 engraving depicting Joseph Smith’s description of receiving artifacts from the angel Moroni. The artifacts include the golden plates and a set of spectacles made of seer stones, which Smith called the Urim and Thummim. The sword of Laban and an ancient breastplate are shown nearby.

The story of the golden plates consists of how, according to Joseph Smith and his contemporaries, the plates were found, received from the angel Moroni, translated, and returned to the angel prior to the publication of the Book of Mormon. Smith is the only source for a great deal of the story because much of it occurred at times when he was the only human witness. Nevertheless, Smith told the story to his family, friends, and acquaintances, and many of these provided second-hand accounts. Other parts of the story are derived from the statements of those who knew Smith, including several witnesses who said they saw the golden plates.

The best known elements of the golden plates story are found in an account told by Smith in 1838 and incorporated into the official church histories of some Latter Day Saint movement denominations. [17] The LDS Church has canonized part of this 1838 account as part of its scripture, the Pearl of Great Price.

Background

Main article: Early life of Joseph Smith

During the Second Great Awakening, Joseph Smith lived on his parents’ farm near Palmyra, New York. At the time churches in the region contended so vigorously for souls that western New York became known as the “burned-over district” because the fires of religious revivals had burned over it so often. [18] Western New York was also noted for its participation in a “craze for treasure hunting.” [19] Beginning as a youth in the early 1820s, Smith was periodically hired, for about $14 per month, as a scryer, using what were termed “seer stones” in attempts to locate lost items and buried treasure. [20]

Smith’s contemporaries described his method for seeking treasure as putting the stone in a white stovepipe hat, putting his face over the hat to block the light, and then “seeing” the information in the reflections of the stone. [21]

Smith did not consider himself to be a “peeper” or “glass-looker,” a practice he called “nonsense.” [22] Rather, Smith and his family viewed their folk magical practices as spiritual gifts. [23] Although Smith later rejected his youthful treasure-hunting activities as frivolous and immaterial, he never repudiated the stones themselves nor denied their presumed power to find treasure, nor did he ever relinquish the magic culture in which he was raised. [24] He came to view seeing with a stone in religious terms as the work of a “seer”. [25] Smith’s first stone, apparently the same one he used at least part of the time to translate the golden plates, was chocolate-colored and about the size of a chicken egg, [26] found in a deep well he helped dig for one of his neighbors. [27] The LDS Church released photographs of the stone on August 4, 2015. [28] [29]

Finding the plates

According to Smith, he found the plates after he was directed to them by a heavenly messenger [30] whom he later identified as the angel Moroni. [31]

According to the story, the angel first visited Smith’s bedroom late at night, on September 22 [32] in 1822 or 1823. [33]

Moroni told Smith that the plates could be found buried in a prominent hill near his home, later called Cumorah, a name found in the Book of Mormon. [34] Before dawn, Moroni reappeared two more times and repeated the information. [35]

But the angel would not allow Smith to take the plates until he obeyed certain “commandments”. [36] Smith recorded some of these commandments, but made it clear the main thrust of Moroni’s message was that he had to keep God’s commandments in general. Some contemporaries who later claimed he told them the story said there were others, some of which are relevant to the modern debate about whether, or how closely, events of early Mormonism were related to the practice of contemporary folk magic. [37] Smith’s writings say that the angel required at least the following: (1) that he have no thought of using the plates for monetary gain, [38] (2) that he tell his father about the vision, [39] and (3) that he never show the plates to any unauthorized person. [40] Smith’s contemporaries who claimed to have heard the story—both sympathetic and unsympathetic—generally agreed that Smith mentioned the following additional commandments: (4) that Smith take the plates and leave the site where they had been buried without looking back, [41]

and (5) that the plates never directly touch the ground until safe at home in a locked chest. [42] Some unsympathetic listeners who allegedly heard the story from Smith or his father recalled that Smith had said the angel required him (6) to wear “black clothes” to the place where the plates were buried, [43] (7) to ride a “black horse with a switchtail”, [44]

(8) to call for the plates by a certain name, [45] and (9) to “give thanks to God.” [46]

An 1841 engraving of “Mormon Hill” (looking south), where Smith said he found the golden plates on the west side, near the peak.

In the morning, Smith began work as usual and did not mention the visions to his father [47] because, he said, he did not think his father would believe him. [48] Smith said he then fainted because he had been awake all night, and while unconscious, the angel appeared a fourth time and chastised him for failing to tell the visions to his father. [49] When Smith then told all to his father, he believed his son and encouraged him to obey the angel’s commands. [50] Smith then set off to visit the hill, later stating that he used his seer stone to locate the place where the plates were buried [51] but that he “knew the place the instant that [he] arrived there.” [52]

Smith said he saw a large stone covering a box made of stone (or possibly iron). [53] Using a stick to remove dirt from the edges of the stone cover, and prying it up with a lever, [54]

Smith saw the plates inside the box, together with other artifacts. [55]

Unsuccessful retrieval attempts

According to Smith’s followers, Smith said he took the plates from the box, put them on the ground, and covered the box with the stone to protect the other treasures it contained. [56] Nevertheless, the accounts say, when Smith looked back at the ground after closing the box, the plates had once again disappeared into it. [57] According to two non-believing Palmyra residents, when Smith once again raised the stone and attempted to retrieve the plates, Smith saw something in the box like a toad that grew larger and struck him to the ground. [58] Although Smith’s followers do not mention a toad-like creature, they agree with several non-believers that Smith said he was stricken by a supernatural force that hurled him to the ground as many as three times. [59]

Disconcerted by his inability to obtain the plates, Smith said he briefly wondered whether his experience had been a “dreem of Vision” [sic]. [60]

Concluding that it was not, he said he prayed asking why he had been barred from taking the plates. [61]

In response to his question, Smith said the angel appeared and told him he could not receive the plates because he “had been tempted of the advisary and saught the Plates to obtain riches and kept not the commandments that I should have” [sic]. [62] According to Smith’s followers, Smith had also broken the angel’s commandment “not to lay the plates down, or put them for a moment out of his hands”, [63] and according to a non-believer, Smith said “I had forgotten to give thanks to God” as required by the angel. [64]

Smith said the angel instructed him to return the next year, on September 22, 1824, with the “right person”: his older brother Alvin. [65] Alvin died in November 1823, and Smith returned to the hill in 1824 to ask what he should do. [66]

Smith said he was told to return the following year (1825) with the “right person”—although the angel did not tell Smith who that person might be. [67] But Smith determined after looking into his seer stone that the “right person” was Emma Hale, his future wife. [68] For the visit on September 22, 1825, Smith may have attempted to bring his treasure-hunting associate Samuel T. Lawrence. [69]

Smith said that he visited the hill “at the end of each year” for four years after the first visit in 1823, [70] but there is no record of him being in the vicinity of Palmyra between January 1826 and January 1827 when he returned to New York from Pennsylvania with his new wife. [71] In January 1827, Smith visited the hill and then told his parents that the angel had severely chastised him for not being “engaged enough in the work of the Lord”, [72] which may have meant that he had missed his annual visit to the hill in 1826. [73]

Receiving the plates

The next annual visit on September 22, 1827 would be, Smith told associates, his last chance to receive the plates. [74]

According to Brigham Young, as the scheduled final date to obtain the plates approached, several Palmyra residents expressed concern “that they were going to lose that treasure” and sent for a skilled necromancer from 60 miles (96 km) away, encouraging him to make three separate trips to Palmyra to find the plates. [75] During one of these trips, the unnamed necromancer is said to have discovered the location, but was unable to determine the value of the plates. [76] A few days prior to the September 22, 1827 visit to the hill, Smith’s loyal treasure-hunting friends Josiah Stowell and Joseph Knight, Sr. traveled to Palmyra, in part, to be there during Smith’s scheduled visit to the hill. [77]

Another of Smith’s former treasure-hunting associates, Samuel T. Lawrence, was also apparently aware of the approaching date to obtain the plates, and Smith was concerned he might cause trouble. [78] Therefore, on the eve of September 22, 1827, the scheduled date for retrieving the plates, Smith dispatched his father to spy on Lawrence’s house until dark. If Lawrence attempted to leave, the elder Smith was to tell him that his son would “thrash the stumps with him” if he found him at the hill. [74] Late at night, Smith took a horse and carriage to the hill Cumorah with his wife Emma. [79] While Emma stayed behind kneeling in prayer, [80] Smith walked to the site of the buried plates. Some time in the early morning hours, he said he retrieved the plates and hid them in a hollow log on or near Cumorah. [81] At the same time, Smith said he received a pair of large spectacles he called the Urim and Thummim or “Interpreters”, with lenses consisting of two seer stones, which he showed his mother when he returned in the morning. [82]

Over the next few days, Smith took a well-digging job in nearby Macedon to earn enough money to buy a solid lockable chest in which to put the plates. [83] By then, however, some of Smith’s treasure-seeking company had heard that Smith said he had been successful in obtaining the plates, and they wanted what they believed was their share of the profits from what they viewed as part of a joint venture in treasure hunting. [84] Spying once again on the house of Samuel Lawrence, Smith, Sr. determined that a group of ten to twelve of these men, including Lawrence and Willard Chase, had enlisted the talents of a renowned and supposedly talented seer from 60 miles (96 km) away, in an effort to locate where the plates were hidden by means of divination. [85] When Emma heard of this, she rode a stray horse to Macedon and informed Smith, [86] who reportedly determined through his Urim and Thummim that the plates were safe. He nevertheless hurriedly rode home with Emma. [87]

Once home in Manchester, he said he walked to Cumorah, removed the plates from their hiding place, and walked home through the woods and away from the road with the plates wrapped in a linen frock under his arm. [88] On the way, he said a man had sprung up from behind a log and struck him a “heavy blow with a gun.” “Knocking the man down with a single punch, Joseph ran as fast as he could for about a half mile before he was attacked by a second man trying to get the plates. After similarly overpowering the man, Joseph continued to run, but before he reached the house, a third man hit him with a gun. In striking the last man, Joseph said, he injured his thumb.” [89] He returned home with a dislocated thumb and other minor injuries. [90] Smith sent his father, Joseph Knight, and Josiah Stowell to search for the pursuers, but they found no one. [91]

Smith is said to have put the plates in a locked chest and hid them in his parents’ home in Manchester. [92] He refused to allow anyone, including his family, to view the plates or the other artifacts he said he had in his possession, although some people were allowed to heft them or feel what were said to be the artifacts through a cloth. [93] A few days after retrieving the plates, Smith brought home what he said was an ancient breastplate, which he said had been hidden in the box at Cumorah with the plates. After letting his mother feel through a thin cloth what she said was the breastplate, he placed it in the locked chest. [94]

The Smith home was approached “nearly every night” by villagers hoping to find the chest where Smith said the plates were kept. [95] After hearing that a group of them would attempt to enter the house by force, Smith buried the chest under the hearth, [96] and the family was able to scare away the intended intruders. [97] Fearing the chest might still be discovered, Smith hid it under the floor boards of his parents’ old log home nearby, then being used as a cooper shop. [84] Later, Smith told his mother he had taken the plates out of the chest, left the empty chest under the floor boards of the cooper shop, and hid the plates in a barrel of flax. Shortly thereafter the empty box was discovered and the place ransacked by Smith’s former treasure-seeking associates, [98] who had enlisted one of the men’s sisters to find the hiding place by looking in her seer stone. [99]

Translating the plates

See also: Life of Joseph Smith from 1827 to 1830

Smith said that the plates were engraved in an unknown language, and he told associates that he was capable of reading and translating them. [100]

This translation took place mainly in Harmony, Pennsylvania (now Oakland Township), Emma’s hometown, where Smith and his wife had moved in October 1827 with financial assistance from a prominent, though superstitious, Palmyra landowner Martin Harris. [101]

The translation occurred in two phases: the first, from December 1827 to June 1828, during which Smith transcribed some of the characters and then dictated 116 manuscript pages to Harris, which were lost. The second phase began sporadically in early 1829 and then in earnest in April 1829 with the arrival of Oliver Cowdery, a schoolteacher who volunteered to serve as Smith’s full-time scribe. In June 1829, Smith and Cowdery moved to Fayette, New York, completing the translation early the following month.

A 21st-century artistic representation of Joseph Smith translating the golden plates by examining a seer stone in his hat.

Smith used scribes to write the words he said were a translation of the golden plates, dictating these words while peering into seer stones, which he said allowed him to see the translation. Smith’s translation process evolved out of his previous use of seer stones in treasure seeking. [102] During the earliest phase of translation, Smith said he used what he called Urim and Thummim—two stones set in a frame like a set of large spectacles. [103] Witnesses said Smith placed the Urim and Thummim in his hat while translating. [104]

After the loss of the first 116 manuscript pages, Smith translated with a single seer stone that some sources say he had previously used in treasure seeking. [105] Smith placed the stone in a hat, buried his face in it to eliminate all outside light, and peered into the stone to see the words of the translation. [106]

A few times during the translation, a curtain or blanket was raised between Smith and his scribe or between the living area and the area where Smith and his scribe worked. [107] Sometimes Smith dictated to Harris from upstairs or from a different room. [108]

Smith’s translation did not require the use of the plates themselves. [109]

Though Smith said very little about the translation process, his friends and family said that as he looked into the stone the written translation of the ancient script appeared to him in English. [110] There are several proposed explanations for how Smith composed his translation. In the 19th century, the most common explanation was that he copied the work from a manuscript written by Solomon Spaulding. [111] This theory is repudiated by Smith’s preeminent modern biographers. [112]

The most prominent modern theory is that Smith composed the translation in response to the provincial opinions of his time, [113] perhaps while in a magical trance-like state. [114] As a matter of faith, Latter Day Saints generally view the translation process as either an automatic process of transcribing text written within the stone, [115] or an intuitive translation by Smith assisted by a mystical connection with God through the stone. [116]

Smith’s dictations were written down by a number of assistants including Emma Smith, Martin Harris, and Oliver Cowdery. [117] In May 1829, after Smith had lent 116 un-duplicated manuscript pages to Harris, and Harris had lost them, Smith dictated a revelation explaining that Smith could not simply re-translate the lost pages because his opponents would attempt to see if he could “bring forth the same words again.” [118] According to Grant Palmer, Smith believed “a second transcription would be identical to the first. This confirms the view that the English text existed in some kind of unalterable, spiritual form rather than that someone had to think through difficult conceptual issues and idioms, always resulting in variants in any translation.” [119]

Location of the plates during translation

When Smith and Emma moved to Pennsylvania in October 1827, they transported a wooden box, which Smith said contained the plates, hidden in a barrel of beans. [120] For a time the couple stayed in the home of Emma’s father Isaac Hale; but when Smith refused to show Hale the plates, Hale banished the concealed objects from his house. [121] Afterward, Smith told several of his associates that the plates were hidden in the nearby woods. [122]

Emma said that she remembered the plates being on a table in the house, wrapped in a linen tablecloth, which she moved from time to time when it got in the way of her chores. [123] According to Smith’s mother, the plates were also stored in a trunk on Emma’s bureau. [124]

However, Smith did not require the physical presence of the plates in order to translate them. [125]

In April 1828, Martin Harris’s wife, Lucy, visited Harmony with her husband and demanded to see the plates. When Smith refused to show them to her, she searched the house, grounds, and woods. According to Smith’s mother, during the search Lucy was frightened by a large black snake and thus prevented from digging up the plates. [126] As a result of Martin Harris’ loss of the 116 pages of manuscript, Smith said that between July and September 1828, the angel Moroni took back both the plates and the Urim and Thummim as a penalty for his having delivered “the manuscript into the hands of a wicked man.” [127] According to Smith’s mother, the angel returned the objects to Smith on September 22, 1828, the anniversary of the day he first received them. [128]

In March 1829, Martin Harris visited Harmony and asked to see the plates. Smith told him that he “would go into the woods where the Book of Plates was, and that after he came back, Harris should follow his tracks in the snow, and find the Book, and examine it for himself.” Harris followed these directions but could not find the plates. [129]

In early June 1829, the unwanted attentions of locals around Harmony necessitated Smith’s move to the home of David Whitmer and his parents in Fayette, New York. Smith said that during this move the plates were transported by the angel Moroni, who put them in the garden of the Whitmer house where Smith could recover them. The translation was completed at the Whitmer home. [130]

Returning the plates

A 21st-century artistic representation of the Golden plates, Urim and Thummim, Sword of Laban, and Liahona

Main article: Cumorah

After translation was complete, Smith said he returned the plates to the angel, although he did not elaborate about this experience. [131] According to accounts by several early Mormons, a group of Mormon leaders including Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and possibly others [132] accompanied Smith and returned the plates to a cave inside the Hill Cumorah. [133] There, Smith is said to have placed the plates on a table near “many wagon loads” of other ancient records, and the Sword of Laban hanging on the cave wall. [134] According to Brigham Young’s understanding, which he said he gained from Cowdery, on a later visit to the cave, the Sword of Laban was said to be unsheathed and placed over the plates, and inscribed with the words “This sword will never be sheathed again until the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and his Christ.” [135]

Smith taught that part of the golden plates were “sealed”. [136] This “sealed” portion is said to contain “a revelation from God, from the beginning of the world to the ending thereof”. [137] Many Latter Day Saints believe that the plates will be kept hidden until a future time when the sealed part will be translated [138] and, according to one early Mormon leader, transferred from the hill to one of the Mormon temples. [139]

David Whitmer is quoted as stating that he saw just the untranslated portion of the plates sitting on the table with the sword (and also a breastplate). [140]

Apparently, Whitmer was aware of expeditions at Cumorah to locate the sealed portion of the plates through “science and mineral rods,” which he said “testify that they are there”. [141]

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