A renowned scholar of Mormon history visited Utah State University on Thursday, giving students and community members an exclusive presentation on his latest historical research.
Richard Bushman is most well-known for his historical biography, “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,” on Mormonism's founder. A Latter-day Saint himself, Bushman has been nationally recognized for his scholarly work on the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Thursday was the first time Bushman presented research done for his next book, which is about “the many lives of Joseph Smith's golden plates,” which was also the title of the lecture. The plates play an important role in the history of the LDS Church, because, according to Smith, they were the origin of the Book of Mormon.
Bushman said the plates and Mormonism are worth studying academically because of their effect on American history as a cultural phenomenon.
“When you say, 'Mormon studies,' it's like saying, 'Russian studies' — it's meant to look at Mormon material just the way you would study any other religion, or any other philosophy,” Bushman said in an interview after the presentation. “This is a study in sacred material culture: How does an object function in a religious light?
“I would hope that (the golden plates) could be in dialogue with the Shroud of Turin and the Arc of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, all the great religious emblems and material objects that down through history shaped things,” Bushman continued. “That they would become part of a larger dialogue, not just a little religion isolated in the United States, but one of the world religious cultures.”
In his presentation, Bushman outlined the effect of the golden plates on the culture of Smith's time, as well as their extended influence on the world today, found in beliefs, imagination, artwork, Broadway plays and public discourse. He said although their physical existence is in dispute, the plates have had a definite presence in the imagination and culture of Mormons and non-Mormons alike.
Smith said the plates were given to him by an angel, and that they contained the record of an ancient group of people who emigrated to the American continent from Jerusalem.
Since 1827, when he was said to have received the plates, the public reaction to Smith's “gold bible” was polarized, Bushman said. Some accepted Smith’s account and joined the LDS Church when it was founded in 1830, some rejected it, and others, like early LDS Church leader Martin Harris and his wife, did not immediately know what to think. During the time in which Harris was undecided, Bushman said the plates, for Harris, occupied the realm of the fantastic: He could neither explain their existence nor explain them away.
It is this realm, the fantastical realm, that makes the plates as a religious object so enthralling — and the mystery so captivating, Bushman said.
“The plates walk a fine line between magic and religion, between enchantment and disenchantment, between fraud and religious genius,” Bushman said during his presentation. “They make the claim that the supernatural has entered into the natural world.”
He said the plates can be seen as either “the fatal flaw” in Joseph Smith’s story, or as “the most palpable evidence of its authenticity.” Bushman suggested that perhaps it is the plates’ very elusiveness that has made them the subject of so much debate and kept them in the realm of shared cultural experience long after Smith’s death.
Perceptions of the golden plates, however, have not always been the same, Bushman said.
“My approach to the plates is to think of them as living many lives,” Bushman said. “By this, I mean they figure in many stories.”
The “lives” of the golden plates included the early Mormons’ perception of the plates as something sacred, forbidden and even a temptation — as something of great monetary value, Bushman said. In the Book of Mormon itself, the plates are referred to mainly as the “bearer of the record,” meaning their primary purpose was to keep the history and sacred writings of a people.
Now, the golden plates have taken on a new life in the contemporary Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon,” in “South Park” episodes, in children’s songs within the LDS Church, in artwork, in sculpture, and in the discovery of other types of plates around the world.
One example is the gold plates recently found in China, which archaeologists estimate to be from the 14th century and contain two-thirds of the Quran, Bushman said.
“My contention is that the plates shift their meaning every time they pass from one kind of narrative to another,” Bushman said. “The variations may partly account for the plates' longevity. People used the plates for their own purposes — they told the plates' story as they wished and needed it to be told.”
The lecture took place in the Eccles Science Learning Center on the USU campus in a large auditorium-type classroom. Nearly every seat was filled, and the crowd of hundreds included people of all ages. Bushman’s presentation was intended for everybody, regardless of religious background.
“People ... are often under the misimpression that the study of religion is just for religious people, or the study of Mormonism is just for Mormons,” said Philip Barlow, director of Utah State University’s religious studies program and the Leonard J. Arrington Chair of Mormon History. “Mormons ought to want to study their tradition, but religion in the nation, religion in the world, and Mormonism, in some ways in the nation, in the world and especially here in this region, is culturally crucial.”
At 80 years old, Bushman’s most recent post was as the Howard W. Hunter Visiting Professor in Mormon Studies at Claremont graduate school of religion in Southern California, Barlow said.
When Bushman retired, he returned to New York, where he is the Gouverneur Morris Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University.
Bushman has taught at Harvard University, Brigham Young University, Boston University, the University of Delaware and has been instrumental in helping to establish Mormon history studies programs at universities across the nation. He has served as a full-time missionary, seminary teacher, bishop, stake president and stake patriarch for the LDS Church. Barlow met Bushman through his own work in Mormon studies, and he arranged for Bushman’s visit to USU.
For his upcoming book, Bushman said he is conducting an “open-source experiment,” looking for stories, lore and expanded cultural meanings of the golden plates. For those who have something to contribute to his research, Bushman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.