One way of explaining the Book of Mormon, if Joseph Smith’s own explanation is rejected, is to regard it as merely the product of Joseph’s subjective imagination — whether that imagination is judged to have been sincerely deceived or, for whatever motives, deceptive and dishonest.
The historical evidence, though, seems lethal to such theories. And it’s instructive to note that, while modern skeptics commonly assume that the golden plates never existed, many of Joseph’s very earliest persecutions came because some of his neighbors were completely convinced that he had them.
“These records,” Joseph later wrote, “were engraven on plates which had the appearance of gold, each plate was six inches wide and eight inches long and not quite so thick as common tin. They were filled with engravings, in Egyptian characters and bound together in a volume, as the leaves of a book with three rings running through the whole. The volume was something near six inches in thickness.”
Why, if he were merely pretending, go into such detail? Wouldn’t it have been easier simply to have claimed inspiration, without manufacturing ancient civilizations or claiming to possess tangible ancient artifacts? After all, as Anthony Sweat observes in his excellent chapter in the new book “The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder,” edited by Dennis Largey, Andrew Hedges, John Hilton III and Kerry Hull, this was how most of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants were received:
“Joseph Smith did not describe the coming forth of the Book of Mormon the way he described many of his revelations found in the Doctrine and Covenants: as inspired words of the Lord that came to his mind and that he then dictated to a scribe. No, Joseph said the Book of Mormon came forth from a nearby hill, by removing dirt, using a lever to lift a large stone, and removing actual engraved plates and sacred interpreters for the translation of its inscriptions. The Book of Mormon didn’t just pass through Joseph’s trance-induced revelatory mind: its palpable relics passed through a clothing frock, hollowed log, cooper’s shop, linen napkin, wooden chest, fireplace hearth, and barrel of beans.”
Sweat’s article lays out some of the salient evidence by examining “multiple historical accounts of persons who interacted with actual, physical, tangible objects” that, “taken collectively,” “provide compelling evidence to the truthfulness of Joseph Smith’s account of the Book of Mormon’s ancient origins.”
Such accounts don’t prove the Book of Mormon ancient, divine, or even correctly translated — no single piece or type of historical evidence can cover everything — but what Sweat terms the “indisputable physicality” of the plates and related relics goes a very long way toward establishing the plausibility of Joseph’s overall story and claim.
For example, Sweat considers the stone box in which the artifacts of the Book of Mormon were preserved on the side of the Hill Cumorah. Several witnesses, both believers and nonbelievers, apparently knew the place where it had been, and some may even have seen it. Lucy Mack Smith reported that she had seen and held both the Urim and Thummim and the breast-plate found in the box, describing both of them in strikingly concrete detail. And, if there were no “actual relics hefted and handled, touched and transported, from one place to another and by one person to another,” all the stories about such things, and about the great efforts expended to protect the plates from people seeking to steal them, represent nothing more than a charade.
Looking at the same sorts of evidence, Mormon scholar Terryl Givens has remarked of Joseph Smith, “This continual, extensive, and prolonged engagement with a tangible, grounding artifact is not compatible with a theory that makes him an inspired writer reworking the stuff of his own dreams into a product worthy of the name scripture.”
If the “keystone” of Mormonism was delivered wrapped in fabrications, regarding it as nevertheless somehow “true” becomes — to put it mildly — much more difficult. Like the bodily resurrection of Christ from death, the physicality of the Book of Mormon — recovered from a dead pre-Columbian civilization — resists attempts to treat it as merely symbol or metaphor. It forthrightly demands to be understood as literally, tangibly true. It virtually forces a sharp decision.
I strongly suggest Sweat’s summary of the available evidence to any who might be interested in pursuing this subject. Believers can be heartened, and honest skeptics should find themselves challenged.