Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling - 03

Richard L. Bushman
Chapter 3: "Translation: 1827-30" (pp. 57-83)

In the first and second chapters, Richard Bushman covered Joseph Smith's story from his family roots first up to his family's move to Palmyra, NY, and then beyond that up to the brink of Joseph Smith's retrieval of the golden plates from the Hill Cumorah. The first chapter covered several generations and the second chapter covered eleven or twelve years, but the third chapter marks the beginning of a major slow-down, with only the time period from 1827 to 1830 being covered. Bushman begins with lofty statements about Joseph's liminal position between "visionary supernaturalism" and "folk beliefs" on the one hand and "rational Christianity" on the other (57). Bushman then moves on to the issue of the golden plates, noting very few of the alternative suggestions of what exactly might have happened; Bushman goes on to dismiss them as merely speculative in a way that is, in this instance, far more 'believer' than 'historian'. As Bushman writes:

These explanations keep the story within the realm of the ordinary but require considerable fabrication themselves. Joseph "may" have done this and "probably" did that. Since the people who knew Joseph best treat the plates as fact, a skeptical analysis lacks evidence. A series of surmises replaces a documented narrative. (58)

As a historian, quite frankly, Bushman ought to be far more sensitive to the nature of historical reconstruction which in most circumstances requires that the honest historian offer up these "mays" and these "probablys". The stark difference between Bushman's approach at this sensitive spot and his approach elsewhere is, at least to my eyes, highly apparent. A less invested writer might simply have stated that documentation reveals an object that Joseph Smith asserted to be golden plates and which others believed, with varying degrees of verification, to be golden plates, and which may have indeed been golden plates but which others have explained in other ways. This pattern of Bushman's suddenly soft treatment at various sensitive areas is one of the few stunning weaknesses in Bushman's otherwise magisterial work - that, and his related habit of offering only a sparse few examples of alternative explanations in a very cursory fashion.

Moving on, Bushman picks up the narrative on the evening of 21 September 1827, where Joseph Knight Sr. reportedly saw Joseph Smith Jr. making preparations to retrieve the plates and worrying about interference from their neighbor Samuel Lawrence (59). Joseph left for the Hill Cumorah late that night, driving off with Emma in Joseph Knight's wagon. They returned after breakfast. Joseph presented to his mother an object wrapped in a silk handkerchief, which she claimed were like a pair of three-cornered diamonds connected by bows. Joseph did not immediately bring the plates home with him, but rather carved a hole in a birch log in the woods and hid them inside of it, which gave Joseph time to have a chest made for them. Unfortunately, despite attempts to keep things secret, it wasn't long until Willard Chase was already leading groups attempting to find them. When the Smith family learned this, it was time to bring the plates home as Bushman describes:

Joseph set out alone, still dressed in the linen frock he had been wearing to dig the well. Lucy Smith said he wrapped the plates in the frock and put them under his arm. Martin Harris later estimated that the plates weighed forty or fifty pounds, and Joseph carried them three miles. Wary of interference, Joseph thought it better to leave the road and travel in the woods. His caution proved useless. While he was scrambling over a tree that had fallen across the path, a man struck him with a gun. Joseph knocked the man down and ran off at full speed, still with the heavy plates under his arm. A half mile further he was assaulted again and again made his escape. Yet a third time someone tried to stop him before he finally reached home, speechless with fright and fatigue and suffering from a dislocated thumb. (60)

Hyrum brought Joseph a cherrywood chest for the plates, and Joseph buried the box beneath the hearthstones in their west room. An armed 'mob' attempted to rush their house, but all the Smith men dashed out with a yell and frightened the mob off into the woods. After that, Joseph transferred the plates to the local cooper's shop, separating them from the box.

He buried the box under a floorboard and hid the plates themselves in a pile of flax in the shop loft. That night Willard Chase and his sister Sally Chase with her green glass came with their friends to search. They rummaged around outside but did not come in. Lucy learned later that Sally Chase told the men the plates were in the coopering shop. The next morning, the Smiths found the floor torn up and the box smashed. To their relief, the plates were safely buried in the flax. (61)

This raises a whole batch of questions about the validity of Sally Chase's paranormal powers, but that's a whole 'nother can of worms to perhaps address after reading other books. In the meantime, Joseph knew he had to get out of there, and so Lucy Mack Smith approached a prosperous friendly Palmyra family: the Harrises. When Lucy Smith talked to Lucy Harris about the plate, she "immediately pressed money on Lucy Smith to assist in the translation". As Bushman describes, people like the Harrises - both Martin and Lucy - "were looking for wonders like their Puritan ancestors but as children of the Enlightenment were wary of being deceived. They wanted to believe but would retaliate if they detected fraud" (62). Both Martin and Lucy Harris went about their own ways of trying to verify their hopes. Lucy Harris desperately wanted a glimpse of the plates but was rebuffed; after she had a dream about the plates that night, she persuaded Joseph to accept a $28 loan. Martin Harris, on the other hand, contented himself with talking to each of the Smiths separately and seeing that their accounts matched up. (Frankly that sounds like a remarkably low standard.) Martin Harris was also permitted to lift the box that the plates were in, and then received a 'still small voice' in his soul that, as he saw it, confirmed that the plates were real.

When the people of Palmyra began threatening to tar and feather Joseph unless he showed them the plates, he fled town two days earlier than he'd announced his departure and hid the plates in a barrel full of beans. They went to Harmony and stayed in a house provided by Emma's parents. Isaac refused to let the plates stay in his house if he wasn't allowed to see them, and so he hid the plates in the woods for a time and moved with Emma into a small two-room house owned by her brother Jesse Hale. Joseph and Emma purchased that house and thirteen acres of land for $200 and made the last payment in August 1830; they lived there for 2.5 years.

Once finally settled, Joseph began the process of copying some of the figures and translating them. Martin Harris arrived in Harmony in February 1828, and Joseph arranged for Harris to take the characters east to be examined by a linguist (63). Harris stopped with several different figures - including Luther Bradish and Samuel Latham Mitchill - but the most famous by far was his encounter with Charles Anthon, a professor of classical studies at Columbia College, who was already renowned for his 1825 encyclopedia A Classical Dictionary. Unfortunately, it's not entirely clear what happened at that meeting. Anthon wrote two discordant accounts of it in 1834 and 1841, neither of which agrees with what Harris said happened. In 1834, Anthon said that he had refused to offer Harris any written opinion at all. In 1841, Anthon said that he had given Harris a clear written opinion so as to expose the fraud. Also, Anthon's description of the characters does not match up with the 'Anthon Transcript' published in 1844. Those characters are Egyptian, while Anthon described what he saw as a bunch of Greek and Hebrew letters and symbols for natural objects, and Harris claimed that Anthon told him that the characters were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic. Harris also said that Anthon gave him a written opinion but then seized it and tore it up when he found out about the origin of the characters and was told he couldn't see the plates. Harris also attributed to Anthon a statement about being unable to read a sealed book, which Joseph understood in terms of Isaiah 29:11-12.

Martin Harris told his wife Lucy that he intended to help Joseph translate the plates, and Lucy became very determined to see them for herself to decide once and for all whether it was real or a hoax. She searched the Smith property, became frustrated, lamented publicly that Joseph intended to cheat her husband, and tried to talk Martin into giving up his plans. Joseph and Martin worked together from 12 April 1828 to 14 June 1828, with a curtain dividing the two of them and Joseph using the 'interpreters', the Urim and Thummim. By June 14, they had produced 116 pages of foolscap with text, but Martin Harris still had doubts and began pestering Joseph to at least let him show the manuscript to people. Although Joseph received negative answers twice through the interpreters, Martin convinced him to try a third time, which resulted in permission. Joseph insisted that Martin would only be allowed to show the manuscript to a few people: his wife, his brother, his parents, and his sister-in-law. Martin swore an oath to comply (66), and Moroni took the interpreters from Joseph (68).

As Martin Harris went, Emma gave birth to a firstborn son, Alvin Smith, who died the same day. Joseph eventually went north to Manchester to check up on Martin Harris... and got some very bad news. Martin had indeed showed the manuscript to his wife, which pleased her; Lucy Harris then allowed Martin to store the manuscript in her bureau. But then Martin decided to show the manuscript to a friend (contrary to his oath) while his wife was away, and so he picked the lock and marred his wife's bureau. Then Martin began to show the manuscript to all of his friends. Lucy Harris was angry with Martin over her bureau, and by the time Joseph reached the area, the manuscript had gone missing. Lucy Mack Smith assumed that Lucy Harris must have taken it with nefarious purposes to alter the manuscript and thus debunk Joseph. Joseph, meanwhile, was utterly despondent and returned to Harmony in July 1828. Moroni briefly returned the interpreters to Joseph, and through them he received a harsh revelation (D&C 3) that put him on probation but also included a promise of comfort.

During this dark period, Joseph and Emma attended Methodist meetings as a way of placating Emma's family. Joseph asked to be enrolled in the Methodist class led by Emma's brother-in-law, but her cousin Joseph Lewis was outraged and objected that Joseph, as a 'practicing necromancer', wasn't fit to participate (69). Bushman notes "no evidence of attendance", but Joseph's name did remain on the roll for six months. On 22 September 1828, Joseph received the interpreters from Moroni again, and although he and Emma did a bit of translating, their focus was on preparing temporally for the upcoming winter. In the early wintery months of 1829, Joseph received a revelation for his father (D&C 4). Emma acted as Joseph's scribe for further translation efforts, with Samuel Smith occasionally helping as well. The plates were kept either in a red morocco trunk or wrapped in a linen tablecloth on the table (70).

Late in the day on 5 April 1829, Samuel Smith brought a new visitor to the Smith household in Harmony, a 22-year-old bachelor named Oliver Cowdery. (Bushman does not mention the family ties between the Smiths and the Cowderys.) On their way to Harmony, Samuel and Oliver stopped in Fayette to visit Oliver's friend David Whitmer and promised to send back word about the plates. Cowdery eventually earned the family's trust. On 7 April 1829, a new burst of translation activity began that lasted until the project's completion in June. Bushman explains the method of translation:

By the time Cowdery arrived, translator and scribe were no longer separated. Emma said she sat at the same table with Joseph, writing as he dictated, with nothing between them, and the plates wrapped in a linen cloth on the table. When Cowdery took up the job of scribe, he and Joseph translated in the same room where Emma was working. Joseph looked in the seerstone, and the plates lay covered on the table. Neither Joseph nor Oliver explained how translation worked, but Joseph did not pretend to look at the "reformed Egyptian" words, the language on the plates, according to the book's own description. The plates lay covered on the table, while Joseph's head was in a hat looking at the seerstone, which by this time had replaced the interpreters. (71-72)

Bushman mentions two major paradigms for understanding the process: 'composition' and 'transcription'. As a Latter-day Saint, naturally Bushman wishes to favor the latter. He dismisses the former as calling for "a precocious genius of extraordinary powers who was voraciously consuming information without anyone knowing it" (72). He notes that the eyewitnesses to Joseph's activity all believed that he was performing transcription from the text that appeared in his seerstone. As Bushman goes on to say about transcription and its harmony with Joseph's past in folk magic, "The boy who gazed into stones and saw treasure grew up to become a translator who looked in a stone and saw words" (73).

Bushman notes that Cowdery was able to believe in Joseph so readily in part because Cowdery himself "used a rod to discover water and minerals"; he had a 'gift of working with the rod' as described in the original version of a revelation (D&C 8) that was later changed to remove the clear endorsement of divining rods. Bushman explains of Cowdery:

His [Cowdery's] family may have engaged in treasure-seeking and other magical practices in Vermont, and, like others in his culture, melded magic with Christianity. For a person with his cultural blend, an angel and gold plates had excitement and appeal. The revelation said nothing to discourage Cowdery's use of his special pwoers. [...] Rather than repudiate his claims, the revelation redirected Cowdery's use of his gifts. (73)

At this juncture, Cowdery wanted to try his hand at translating but failed - as explained by another April 1829 revelation (D&C 9) - because he neglected to first put in human effort before asking for God's confirmation. The translation project continued as normal, and in May 1829 they had to finally face the quandary of the missing 116 pages. A May 1829 revelation (D&C 10) directed him not to retranslate that portion, but rather to translate the plates of Nephi that covered the same period, which they began in late May or early June. Bushman also mentions the revelations that were given because of questions that arose during the translation process. In April 1829, for instance, Joseph and Oliver were at odds over what happened to the apostle John, and so a revelation (D&C 7) was given stating that John was still alive and would live to see the Second Coming.

They also had questions about the issue of authority, and were so disturbed that they went to the Susquehanna River to pray. According to Joseph's account given nearly a decade later, John the Baptist appeared to them to ordain them to the Aaronic Priesthood so that they could validly baptize one another at last (and also re-ordain each other to the Aaronic Priesthood thereafter, for some reason), and John promised them an even higher priesthood later. Cowdery mentioned the story in 1834, the first time it was ever told.

As tensions rose in Harmony over the translation work, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery transferred to the Whitmer farm in Fayette. At this point, Bushman notes that the Whitmers were Pennsylvania Germans and members of the German Reformed Church. Translation continued, with others such as John and Christian Whitmer also taking turns as scribes, though Cowdery remained the primary scribe. Joseph began to make quite a few converts, whom he baptized. In the meantime, there was still interest in seeing the plates, and eventually Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer persuaded Joseph to seek a revelation about it. This revelation "promised them a view not only of the plates but of the breastplate, the Urim and Thummim, and two sacred objects accompanying the plates - the sword of Laban and the Liahona, the miraculous ball with a compass given to Lehi by the Red Sea to set his course" (77-78).

Around 1 July 1829, the manuscript of the translation was at last finished, and on a day soon after that, the time came. Joseph took Harris, Cowdery, and Whitmer into the woods to pray for a while. After a time, Harris left, acknowledging that he was the obstacle. After Harris left, the others reported a vision in which an angel held the plates for them to see, and they also beheld the breastplate, the sword of Laban, and the Liahona lying on a table in their vision. When this was finished, Joseph sought Harris out and prayed with him until they together received the same vision. Joseph was relieved to finally not be alone (78).

A few days later, the time came for a return to Palmyra to arrange for the printing of the manuscripts. At the place in the old log house where the Smith family prayed, there gathered - in addition to Joseph Smith Jr. - also Joseph Smith Sr., Hyrum Smith, Samuel Smith, John Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Christian Whitmer, Peter Whitmer Jr., and Catherine Whitmer's husband Hiram Page. As Bushman describes what came next:

There Joseph showed them the plates, this time without an angel present. They turned over the leaves, examined the characters and the workmanship, and held the plates in their own hands. They later signed a statement saying what they had seen and testifying that they knew 'of a surety, that the said Smith has got the plates of which we have spoken.' (79)

Bushman does note in passing, at least, that others have observed that the family loyalties may mitigate the merit of their testimony and that some have suggested that this, too, was a visionary experience through 'spiritual eyes', or perhaps the result of pressure exerted by Joseph Smith Jr. As at the previous sensitive spot, here once again Bushman cursorily notes in very sparse fashion a few of the alternative theories, but engages in no interaction with them whatsoever.

On 11 June 1829, Joseph got a copyright for the Book of Mormon after depositing the title page in the Utica office of R. R. Lansing, a clerk of the U.S. district court for the Northern District of New York. He also successfully - though not at first - negotiated with Egbert G. Grandin, a Palmyra printer, to print the first copies of the Book of Mormon. Martin Harris mortgaged his farm as security, which led to his wife divorcing him; Martin Harris eventually sold the farm on 7 April 1831. In the meantime, printing began in Palmyra, although awareness of growing hostility persuaded Joseph to direct Cowdery to transcribe another copy of the manuscript for safekeeping. Cowdery delivered the first 24 pages of the manuscript to Grandin's print shop in mid-August (80).

On 4 October 1829, Joseph returned home to Harmony, but soon there was trouble in Palmyra yet again. In September 1829, a former justice of the peace named Abner Cole began publishing a weekly periodical called The Reflector under the pseudonym 'O. Dogberry'. He commented on the upcoming "Gold Bible" through the fall, but on 29 December 1829 he actually printed lengthy excerpts from the yet-unpublished manuscript. After a confrontation with Joseph Smith, Cole printed excerpts yet again in the 13 January 1830 and 22 January 1830 issues of The Reflector, but it stopped there. In the meantime, the people of Palmyra were coming to regard the Book of Mormon as "a blasphemous rival to orthodox Christianity" (81). When the Smith family in Palmyra refused to back down, they were censured and suspended from communion by the Western Presbyterian Church. The people of the area attempted to persuade Grandin to stop the printing, but Martin Harris sold a portion of his farm to raise funds so the printing could continue (81). In the meantime, Hyrum urged Joseph to sell the copyright in Canada and requested that Joseph seek a revelation on the matter. In response, Joseph promised Oliver Cowdery and Hiram Page success if they went to Toronto, but things fell through (82). Here, Bushman carefully avoids stating definitively that this promise was given as a revelation, though in light of Hyrum's request, that's at least implicit in Bushman's text.

Grandin announced in the 26 March 1830 issue of the Wayne Sentinel that the Book of Mormon, a work printed in 'large Duodecimo' and running about 600 pages in length, was at last available for sale at the Palmyra Bookstore. The book didn't sell well, as a consequence of the boycott against it. Still, this put Joseph on the national stage, at least slightly. A brief notice had first appeared in the Wayne Sentinel about the Book of Mormon on 26 June 1829. Papers in Rochester made note of it in late August and early September 1829. After publication in the spring of 1830, substantial comments appeared in the Rochester Republican, the Rochester Daily Advertiser, and the Rochester Gem. Of course, these early comments were seldom favorable. Joseph was presented as a "full-blown religious imposter" (82). The editors used vocabulary drawn both from the province of false religion - such as 'enthusiasm', 'fanaticism', and 'blasphemy' - but also from treasure-seeking - such as 'charlatan' (83). The Smith family and their supporters ignored the negative press entirely. Strangely, Bushman notes, neither Joseph nor his mother Lucy ever mentioned the day when bound copies of the Book of Mormon first became available; Bushman also observes how little Joseph was mentioned in the preface to the first edition, and on that note of the book taking on "a life of its own", he concludes the third chapter (83). Many of the strengths of the previous chapters are present in this one as well, but as has been seen there are some critical weak points as well. In the fourth chapter, Bushman turns his focus away from the chronology of Joseph Smith's life and instead hones in on the Book of Mormon itself.

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