SALT LAKE CITY — Historian Richard L. Bushman wants "to bring the Gold Plates out of hiding."
The record that Joseph Smith said he translated the Book of Mormon from is a token of God entering history, similar to Moses parting the Red Sea or Christ's resurrection, Bushman said.
Still, Mormons are sometimes reluctant to talk about the Golden Plates.
"I want to show that they are a powerful, resonant, sacred object that can be (compared) to other sacred objects in other religions … and that it has profound religious meaning," Bushman said Oct. 23 at Book of Mormon Lands Conference.
Bushman, author of "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling," says people wanted to know what his next project was after he finished the biography on the Mormon Prophet. "Another book on Joseph Smith?" "Are you moving on to Brigham Young?"
"And I had no answer until suddenly, about a year ago it flashed into my mind the idea of writing a book about the Gold Plates," Bushman said.
Bushman told a crowded ballroom at the eighth annual conference, sponsored by the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum, that the Golden Plates are a "luminous, magnetic, irresistible object" in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
They also divide scholars more than any of Joseph Smith's claimed visions. Bushman said the plates are the hinge of the great question of whether Joseph Smith was sincere or a fraud.
"Had Joseph Smith only seen visions, he could have been classed with Cotton Mather, Charles G. Finney, Ellen G. White, Ann Lee and scores of others who saw visions in his time along with hundreds of other visionaries down through the ages," Bushman said.
Skeptics and rationalists can account for visions, Bushman said, as being merely psychological or cultural. This allows them to think kindly towards visionaries as people who sincerely believed, even though they were sadly mistaken.
Accepting Joseph Smith's Golden Plates is another story.
"They are material, not visionary and psychological," Bushman said. "They make the claim that the supernatural has entered the natural world. If you don't believe in the supernatural, they are impossible."
This, then, is the historical difficulty of the plates. Accounts of hiding the plates, wrapping the plates with cloth, showing the plates and translating from the plates become nothing more than one long attempt at fraud and make everything else Joseph Smith did doubtful. "Like a beggar claiming to have a diamond that he allows nobody to see," Bushman said.
On the other hand, Bushman said, the plates can be the most convincing evidence of Joseph's authenticity. "Joseph — or the Lord — came closest to offering concrete evidence of supernatural intervention in the provision for witnesses of the plates," Bushman said.
Eleven people said they saw the plates and printed their statements in the Book of Mormon. Bushman said that normally Joseph Smith didn't try to prove his claims, but this exception was like legal depositions in answer to skeptics.
"So in the plates we have joined the two characterizations of Joseph Smith," Bushman said, "the fraud and the prophet, with the plates as the hinge between the two. This material proof for unbelievable claims causes (the plates) to hover on the boundary between chicanery and rationality, fantasy and reality."
Bushman explored how the Golden Plates, if real, invite a look at the ancient world from which they purport to come. "I believe the plates cause us to reevaluate history as it is known to modern scholarship."
The record on the plates stands for "the immense importance of history writing and record-keeping" at the time of their creation, Bushman said. The Book of Mormon is "a book about the importance of books." The challenge for investigation is whether this record-keeping impulse can be found in the 7th century BC.
Bushman said this was the time period when historical writing was beginning to emerge. Oral histories such as the Homeric epics and Gilgamesh were written. "History writing was in the air in the Near East."
The plates also challenge modern scholarship. "If it was known for sure that the plates existed, they could in theory turn the course of history," Bushman said. That "course of history" is secularization. "Faith has to assert itself against a background of prevailing doubt," Bushman said. "In the secular age, everything has a natural explanation or stems from natural causes; nothing is supernatural."
But the Golden Plates stand against this view, he said. Their existence is a token of the transcendent: angels, prophets, miracles and God. If Joseph had the plates, Bushman said, "we would have a palpable token of the supernatural. All that had been discounted and dismissed in the secular age would suddenly enter into the mundane world."
At the very least, he said, the plates can open up the possibility that there is more than just the immediate and the ordinary.
"They may not believe in it, but I want to show that those Gold Plates are rich and deep and it is a worthy emblem for a religion to place emphasis upon," he said.