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History and the Claims of Revelation: Joseph Smith and the Materialization of the Golden Plates1

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AbstractThe Mormon claim that Joseph Smith discovered ancient golden plates buried in a hillside in upstate New York is too often viewed in simple either/or terms, such that the plates either existed, making Smith the prophet he claimed to be, or did not, making him deceptive or delusional. If we assume that there were no ancient golden plates and at the same that Smith was not a fraud, then the task of historical explanation is more complex. Building on a review of the evidence for the materiality of the plates, the paper uses a series of comparisons — between the golden plates and sacred objects in other religious traditions, between Smith’s claims and claims that psychiatrists define as delusional, and between Smith’s role as a seer and the role of the artist and the physician as skilled perceivers — to generate a greater range of explanatory options. In light of these comparisons, we can view the materialization of the golden plates in naturalistic terms as resulting from an interaction between an individual with unusual abilities, intimate others who recognized and called forth those abilities, and objects that facilitated the creation of both the revelator and the revelation.

Affiliations: 1: University of California Santa Barbara, Department of Religious StudiesSanta Barbara, Calif.


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