Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-55597f9d44-vkn6t Total loading time: 0.317 Render date: 2022-08-18T17:43:07.860Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true } hasContentIssue true

How Joseph Smith Encountered Printing Plates and Founded Mormonism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 September 2021


Did Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, really find gold plates? This article considers that basic question from a new materialist perspective. Drawing on textual and material-bibliographical evidence, it argues that Smith, and possibly also a group of witnesses, may have had a formative physical encounter with a set of plates and that this encounter was partly responsible for provoking the events and interpretations that followed. These plates could have been either stereotype plates or copper plates, both commonly used for industrial printing in the nineteenth-century United States. This article also takes the empirical investigation into what Smith may have encountered as an occasion to reflect, methodologically and theoretically, on the role of ordinary material objects in processes of religious and historical change.

Research Article
Copyright © 2021 by The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



This article was sparked by a striking offhand remark made during the Mellon Early American Literature and Material Texts Workshop in Philadelphia in summer 2016 by the printing historian Michael Winship, who wondered if Joseph Smith had heard that books came from plates. For their comments and criticisms, I am grateful to acknowledge Winship, Dana Logan, Glenda Goodman, Jim Green, Jae Hee Han, Aaron Hyman, Susanne Kerekes, Trevor Luke, Ian MacCormack, Charlie McCrary, David Morgan, Lisa Regan, Seth Rockman, Peter Stallybrass, John Turner, Dan Vaca, Phillip Webster, the anonymous reviewers, and the students in SherAli Tareen's Interpreting Religion seminar at Franklin and Marshall College in fall 2017. I also thank participants in the Workshop in the History of Material Texts at the University of Pennsylvania, the Nineteenth Century U.S. History Workshop at Brown University, the New Materialism Workshop at Williams College, and the Mormon Studies Group at the American Academy of Religion, as well as the audience at Philipps-Universität Marburg for my keynote lecture on this topic, sponsored by the Dynamiken religiöser Dinge im Museum project. This research was further supported by the bibliographical training I received as part of the Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in Critical Bibliography at Rare Book School.

1 Bushman, Richard Lyman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Vintage, 2005), 4346Google Scholar, 57–83. Regarding scholarly use of the terms Mormon and Mormonism, I rely on the expertise of the editors of the Mormon Studies Review. See Newell, Quincy D. and Park, Benjamin E., “Multiplicity: An Editors' Introduction,” Mormon Studies Review 7 (2020): 17Google Scholar, at 3–5.

2 Vogel, Dan, ed., Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1996–2003)Google Scholar, hereafter EMD; Davidson, Karen Lynn, Whittaker, David J., Ashurst-McGee, Mark R., and Jensen, Richard L., eds., The Joseph Smith Papers: Histories, vol. 1, 1832–1844 (Salt Lake City, UT: Church Historian's Press, 2012)Google Scholar, hereafter JSP, H1; MacKay, Michael Hubbard, Dirkmaat, Gerrit J., Underwood, Grant, Woodford, Robert J., and Hartley, William G., eds., The Joseph Smith Papers: Documents, vol. 1, July 1828–June 1831 (Salt Lake City, UT: Church Historian's Press, 2014)Google Scholar, hereafter JSP, D1.

3 For religious imagination, see, e.g., Brigham Henry Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, ed. Brigham D. Madsen (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 243–50; Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 91–110; Klaus J. Hansen, “Joseph Smith, American Culture, and the Origins of Mormonism,” in Joseph Smith, Jr.: Reappraisals after Two Centuries, ed. Reid Neilson and Terryl Givens (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 31–46; and Kathryn Gin Lum, Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 144–47. For the popular religious context, see D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1987); John L. Brooke, The Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644–1844 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Bushman, Joseph Smith, 50ff.; and Catherine Albanese, A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 136–50.

4 JSP, H1:495; EMD, 1:171.

5 JSP, D1:385; EMD, 3:464.

6 JSP, D1:387; Joseph Smith, The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon, upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi (Palmyra, NY: Printed by E. B. Grandin, For the Author, 1830), [590].

7 EMD, 3:466.

8 For example, see EMD, 5:244, 5:248, 5:255.

9 EMD, 4:83.

10 EMD, 1:525–26.

11 EMD, 1:218–19.

12 EMD, 2:32.

13 EMD, 2:307.

14 For example, see EMD, 4:339, 1:497.

15 EMD, 2:309, 2:494.

16 EMD, 1:541–42, 1:546.

17 Ann Taves, Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies of the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016); Ann Taves, “History and the Claims of Revelation: Joseph Smith and the Materialization of the Golden Plates,” Numen 61, nos. 2–3 (2014): 182–207.

18 Taves, Revelatory Events, 269, 59.

19 Taves, Revelatory Events, 59, 65. Taves notes that Vogel had also posited a theory of homemade fabrication. See Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 2004), 98–99.

20 Taves, Revelatory Events, 60, 62–63, quote on 59.

21 Taves, Revelatory Events, 65.

22 Taves, Revelatory Events, 8.

23 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 3–25, 34–41. For scholars who engage “assemblages” or similar concepts, see, for example, Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 20–38; Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Kim TallBear, “An Indigenous Reflection on Working Beyond the Human/Not Human,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 21, nos. 2–3 (2015): 230–35; Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014); Sonia Hazard, “The Material Turn in the Study of Religion,” Religion and Society 4, no. 1 (2013): 58–78 at 64–69; and Sonia Hazard, “Thing,” Early American Studies 16, no. 4 (2018): 792–800, at 792–94.

24 For instance, Kim TallBear points out that, in contrast to some more recent theorists, “indigenous peoples have never forgotten that nonhumans are agential beings engaged in social relations that profoundly shape human lives.” TallBear, “An Indigenous Reflection,” 234. In a similar spirit, Susanne Kerekes critically observes, “Viewing all entities, things, and objects as part of a network, or assemblage, is very much in line already with Buddhist notions of non-self and interdependent origination.” Susanne Kerekes, “Wat Arun and Buddhist Material Culture in Thailand” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2018), 18. Furthermore, several scholars of African diasporic religions demonstrate how the idea of a separation of humans from material entities emerged from a colonial encounter with, and was partly a racist response to, Africana theories and practices that emphasized their entanglement. Notably, J. Lorand Matory examines coeval theorizing about materiality among Africana thinkers: “While the Enlightenment strove to establish a clear distinction between the subject and the object … Afro-Atlantic religions simultaneously strove to clarify the mutually constituting relationship between the person and the universe.” J. Lorand Matory, The Fetish Revisited: Marx, Freud, and the Gods Black People Make (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 4. (Matory stops short of understanding agency as a property of things, however. See Matory, The Fetish Revisited, 186.) See also David Graeber, “Fetishism as Social Creativity, or, Fetishes are Gods in the Process of Construction,” Anthropological Theory 5, no. 4 (2005): 407–38; Paul Christopher Johnson, ed., Spirited Things: The Work ofPossessionin Afro-Atlantic Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014); and Sylvester Johnson, African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), chap. 2. For the first steps toward an expanded bibliography of new materialisms, see Sonia Hazard, “Two Ways of Thinking about New Materialism,” Material Religion 15, no. 5 (2019): 629–31.

25 See, for example, Brooke, The Refiner's Fire; Givens, Terryl, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 4251CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Park, Benjamin and Watkins, Jordan, “The Riches of Mormon Materialism: Parley P. Pratt's ‘Materiality’ and Early Mormon Theology,” Mormon Historical Studies 11, no. 2 (2010): 159–72Google Scholar; and Coviello, Peter, Make Yourselves Gods: Mormons and the Unfinished Business of American Secularism (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2019)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 61ff.

26 See, for example, Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), chap. 7; David Howlett, Kirtland Temple: The Biography of a Shared Mormon Sacred Space (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2014); Michael Hubbard MacKay and Nicholas J. Frederick, Joseph Smiths Seer Stones (Salt Lake City, UT: Religious Studies Center at Brigham Young University and Deseret Book Company, 2016); Mason Kamana Allred, “Circulating Specters: Mormon Reading Networks, Vision, and Optical Media,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 85, no. 2 (2015): 527–48; Amy Easton-Flake and Rachel Cope, “Reconfiguring the Archive: Women and the Social Production of the Book of Mormon,” in Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith's Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity, ed. Michael Hubbard MacKay, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Brian M. Hauglid (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2020), 105–34, at 124–25; and David Walker, Railroading Religion: Mormons, Tourists, and the Corporate Spirit of the West (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

27 Benjamin Peters and John Durham Peters, “Introduction: Small Means, Great Things,” Mormon Studies Review 5 (2018): 17–25, quote on 19.

28 See, for example, Adam S. Miller, Speculative Grace: Bruno Latour and Object-Oriented Theology (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013); John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015); and Rosalynde Welch, “The New Mormon Theology of Matter,” Mormon Studies Review 4 (2017): 64–79.

29 See, especially, my discussion later in this article about Richard Lyman Bushman's and Terryl Givens's approach to the materiality of the plates, as well as my note 83 about the Latter-day Saint “catalyst theory” regarding the Book of Abraham.

30 I thank Trevor Luke for his observation that Smith valued the inalterability of writing on metal, as seen in the Book of Mormon in 1 Nephi 5:19. On this point see also Richard Lyman Bushman, “Nephi's Project: The Gold Plates as Book History,” in Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith's Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity, ed. Michael Hubbard MacKay, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Brian M. Hauglid (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2020), 187–204, at 192–93.

31 As Sally Promey has demonstrated with regard to mid-nineteenth-century Shakers, spiritual visions could be quite elaborate and translate into detailed materializations (such as in Shaker gift drawings). Sally Promey, Spiritual Spectacles: Vision and Image in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Shakerism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 17–42.

32 Physical printing plates would have also directly inspired some of the textual content of the Book of Mormon that refers to writing on plates, for instance the gold plates of the Jaredites (Mosiah 8:9 and Alma 37:21), the plates of brass (1 Nephi 3–5), and the large plates of Nephi (1 Nephi 9:2–4 and Words of Mormon 1:3).

33 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 34.

34 Friend of Truth, Pioneer (Rock Spring, IL), March 1835, 7.

35 “Mormonism,” Biblical Recorder (Raleigh, NC), April 29, 1835, 1; “Mormonism,” New-York Weekly Messenger and Young Men's Advocate 4, no. 41 (New York), April 29, 1835, 161; “Brief History of Mormonism,” Rover: A Weekly Magazine of Tales, Poetry, and Engravings 3, no. 19 (New York), 1844, 303–304; Christian Journal 1, no. 5 (Exeter, NH), May 28, 1835, 17, quoted in Taves, Revelatory Events, 60n3.

36 Emma Willard, Abridged History of the United States: Or Republic of America, New and Enlarged Edition (New York: A. S. Barnes and Co. and H. W. Derby and Co., 1849), 332. This account also appeared in her Western history textbook, produced in the wake of the U.S.–Mexican War. Emma Willard, Last Leaves of American History: Comprising Histories of the Mexican War and California (New York: George P. Putnam, 1849), 18. I thank Jessica Linker for the Willard references. For the extensive circulation of this text, see Jessica Linker, “Lady Historian, Cuban Exile, and German Hatter: An Immigrant Story of Emma Willard's Compendio de la Historia de los Estados Unidos as Translated by Miguel T. Tolón,” in American Contact: Intercultural Encounter and the History of the Book, ed. Rhae Lynn Barnes and Glenda Goodman (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming).

37 The best source for the nineteenth-century publishing history of the Book of Mormon is Hugh G. Stocks, “The Book of Mormon, 1830–1879: A Publishing History,” MLS thesis, (University of California–Los Angeles, 1979); for stereotypy, see especially 12, 15, 57–59, 62–65, 99–105. Key primary sources for stereotyping the Book of Mormon come from one Ebenezer Robinson, who had worked as a journeyman printer in the Mormon printing offices in Kirtland, Ohio, and Nauvoo, Illinois. One day, in May 1840, Robinson received a revelation that he should have the Book of Mormon stereotyped, and arranged for the casting of the plates in Cincinnati. Between October 1840 and February 1842, he ran off at least three issues from the plates in Nauvoo. (One wonders if Robinson or his co-workers had seen something uncannily familiar in these stereotype plates as they handled, arranged, inked, printed, and cleaned them.) The plates fell into disuse after February 1842, when Joseph Smith and the Quorum of the Twelve fired Robinson and other printers. The plates later went missing after the Mormon community's exit from Nauvoo in 1846 in the wake of Smith's murder. For decades afterward, the Mormons had Books of Mormon printed from plates in Liverpool, England, and imported. They did not print from plates on American soil again until 1871. See Ebenezer Robinson, Return (Davis City, IA), May 1890, 257–62, 286; June 1890, 301; September 1890, 323–35, 346. A redacted typescript of the reminiscences is available in Brigham Young University's Special Collections.

38 Elbert Hubbard, Philistine 7, no. 3 (East Aurora, NY), August 1903, 65–91, quote on 69.

39 Terryl Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 12; Richard Lyman Bushman, Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 93–106, quotes on 93. Also see Bushman, Joseph Smith, 58.

40 The way I use it, new materialist theory goes hand-in-hand with empirical methods. In claiming that material things were generative agents in an assemblage, I am not only telling a story about what early Mormons perceived to be true in the phenomenological sense as true-for-them. I am also making claims about what was true, in an empirical and widely shared sense. The reviewers and editors questioned why I am willing to ascribe empirical reality to the plates but not, say, to the supernatural presence of Moroni, who appeared to Smith in a vision and directed him to the plates’ location. Where and why do I draw the line in my ascriptions of what was concretely material and, hence, fair game for empirical methods on the one hand, and what was imagined or phenomenal, on the other?

I want to be clear that I am not saying that there were no angels. There were angels, experienced by Smith and his followers as real. On this point, I agree with the religious studies consensus. My contribution is to add that there were also plates, existing on a more concrete register of reality. The plates assembled with, facilitated, and shaped early Mormon phenomenal experiences. Far from denying those phenomenal realities, I am supplementing them with a dose of empirical analysis.

One of the reasons that this supplementary maneuver may be challenging is that a common technique of religion scholars is to fix protective brackets around religions and proceed according to the idea that everything occurring within those brackets belongs to a phenomenal reality that must be respected as wholly different from the scholar's world. To ask empirical questions of what lies in those brackets is taken as the move of a debunker and, thus, threatening to the whole project of the empathetic understanding of religions. But religions are hardly the closed systems that scholarly bracketing makes them out to be. In so far as religions exist in the material world, phenomenal religious realities (including felt experiences of the supernatural) are relentlessly augmented by concrete material things and circumstances that everyone can see.

This article seeks to show that, in the case of early Mormonism and, perhaps, other religions as well, scholars could benefit from a more expansive theoretical and methodological repertory than what is allowed by bracketing. I hope to model here what it could look like to ask empirical questions, loosen but not demolish brackets, and acknowledge that religious worlds are not always, or in every facet, remote from the worlds of the scholar. In addition to recognizing the phenomenal reality of certain aspects of religions such as visionary experiences and the presence of angels (aspects which may also be ambiguous and contested within those religious worlds), scholars of religion can, at the same time, ask empirical questions grounded in the forms of material reality that are shared by religious subjects and scholars alike. They can further ask questions about the relationships between those registers of reality, that is, about the ways that concrete things and phenomenal appearances combine with one another in assemblages. How scholars answer those questions must proceed on the basis of the strength of the evidence.

41 For the stereotyping process, see Michael Winship, “Manufacturing and Book Production,” in A History of the Book in America, Vol. 3, The Industrial Book, 1840–1880, ed. Scott E. Casper, Jeffrey D. Groves, Stephen W. Nissenbaum, and Michael Winship (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 40–69, at 42–46.

42 Keith Houston, The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time (New York: W. W. Norton, 2016), 202–18.

43 For example, Taves, Revelatory Events, 52; Vogel, Joseph Smith, 44.

44 Taves, Revelatory Events, 40–42. Taves's argument hinges on (1) Lucy Smith's report (EMD, 1:395–96) that an angel carried the plates to and from the grove where the eight were to have seen them, which suggests that the entire episode could have been a vision; and also (2) an event, narrated in a pair of 1838 letters (EMD, 2:288–93; EMD, 3:469) in which Martin Harris, one of the three witnesses, reputedly stated at a public meeting in Kirtland, Ohio, that no one, Joseph Smith included, ever saw the plates with his “natural eyes” but “only in vision.”

45 In response to concerns described in note 44, regarding (1), I think that it should be considered, as the JSP editors point out (JSP, D1:386n7) that the witnesses always reported that Smith showed them the plates by his own hand. The witnesses could have seen natural plates by a supernatural power without contradiction; the exercise of religious imagination does not preclude the coexistence of material objects. Regarding (2), the letters may be contextualized in light of the facts that their writers were disillusioned dissenters and that there is no evidence that Harris ever made this claim again.

46 C. E. Butterworth, “The Old Soldier's Testimony. Sermon Preached by Bro. William B. Smith, in the Saints’ Chapel, Deloit, Iowa, June 8th, 1884,” Saints’ Herald (Lamoni, IA), October 4, 1884, 644; EMD, 4:184; EMD, 5:288; EMD, 3:34; “Mormonism,” New England Christian Herald (Boston), November 7, 1832, 22–23, quoted in Taves, Revelatory Events, 60n3.

47 EMD, 1:171; 2:305; Stowell quoted in Taves, Revelatory Events, 60n3.

48 William Smith's weight estimate can be found at EMD, 1:497; Martin Harris's estimate (and quote) at EMD, 2:306; and that of Lucy Harris and her daughter in “Interview with Martin Harris,” Tiffany's Monthly (New York), August 1859, 168, quoted in Easton-Flake and Cope, “Reconfiguring the Archive,” 116. Joseph Smith and Orson Pratt estimated the height of the combined plates to be six inches; Martin Harris thought four (EMD, 1:148, 1:171, and 2:305). Secondhand, Sidney Rigdon noted that he was told that there were fourteen plates in the box (EMD, 1:50).

49 EMD, 1:91; cf. JSP, H1:352.

50 EMD, 1:171.

51 Smith might have understood “engraving” to apply to relief printing in light of Exodus 28:36 KJV (which I argue later in this article could be a conceptual source for the 1823 vision): “And thou shalt make a plate of pure gold, and grave upon it, like the engravings of a signet, HOLINESS TO THE LORD.” By “the engravings of a signet,” the text refers to the relief characters typical of a signet (i.e., a seal).

52 EMD, 2:267.

53 EMD, 5:326, 1:148.

54 A discussion of the known manuscripts said to contain Book of Mormon characters, extant and (mostly) not extant, may be found in JSP, D1: 353–67.

55 EMD, 1:70.

56 EMD, 4:380, 4:383.

57 See Jessee et al.'s editorial note in JSP, D1:353–61, especially 354, 358–59; cf. Vogel's editorial note in EMD, 4:415–16.

58 I thank Matthew Dougherty for the idea to examine shorthand manuals.

59 EMD, 3:52.

60 EMD, 1:462–63.

61 EMD, 1:91; cf. JSP, H1:352.

62 JSP, H1:495.

63 EMD, 5:248.

64 “The Mormonites,” Huron Reflector (Norwalk, OH), October 31, 1831, 1. The Reflector notes that the story was reprinted from the Illinois Patriot (Jacksonville, IL), September 16, 1831 (which I have not been able to locate).

65 See the advertisement in A Directory for the Village of Rochester (Rochester, NY: Elisha Ely, 1827), 131. Joseph Smith visited at least one Rochester printer in 1829, which suggests that he could have visited the Rochester shops earlier in that decade. When Smith originally approached Grandin in Palmyra to publish the Book of Mormon in June 1829, Grandin declined. Smith then traveled to the Rochester offices of Thurlow Weed (who had his first job in Rochester working for Everard Peck, whom I discuss further later in this article). In the midst of the Rochester negotiations, Grandin relented. See EMD, 3: 327–31.

66 Directory, 115, 119.

67 William F. Peck, History of Rochester and Monroe County, New York: From the Earliest Historic Times to the Beginning of 1907, 2 vols. (New York: Pioneer, 1908), 1:446.

68 Edward Foreman, ed., Rochester Historical Society, Publication Fund Series, vol. 5 (Rochester, NY: Published by the Society, 1926), 176; Archibald Robbins, A Journal, Comprising an Account of the Loss of the Brig Commerce, of Hartford, stereotyped by C. Starr [New York] (Rochester, NY: E. Peck and Co, 1818).

69 Douglas C. McMurtrie, A Bibliography of Books, Pamphlets and Broadsides Printed at Canandaigua, New York, 1799–1850 (Buffalo, NY: Grosvenor Library, 1939), 13; Isaac Watts, The Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, and Applied to the Christian State and Worship, stereotyped by B. and J. Collins [New York] (Rochester, NY: E. Peck and Co., 1822).

70 Blake McKelvey, ed., “Part I: The History of Rochester Libraries,” in The Rochester Historical Society Publications, vol. 16 (Rochester, NY: The Rochester Historical Society, 1937), 20.

71 Taves, Revelatory Events, 59, 65.

72 JSP, H1:222; cf. EMD, 1:64.

73 As far as I know, scholars have not explicitly posited this passage as the conceptual source for the gold plates. I thank Daniel Picus and Matthew Goff for corresponding about examples of writing on metal in the Hebrew Bible. For the young Joseph Smith's familiarity with the King James Bible, see Philip L. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 14–26, and Bushman, Joseph Smith, 134–36. Leviticus also mentions the tzitz, which is similarly translated as “plate” in the KJV, but without discussion of engravings (Leviticus 8:9).

74 Taves, Revelatory Events, 267.

75 See, for example, Frederick Follett, History of the Press of Western New-York, Prepared at the Request of a Committee, Together with the Proceedings of the Printers’ Festival (Rochester, NY: Jerome and Brother, 1847), 5; and Madeleine Stern, Imprints on History: Book Publishers and American Frontiers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1956), 12.

76 Follett, History of the Press of Western New-York, 44–45.

77 George Washington, Washington's Farewell Address, to the People of the United States (Canandaigua, NY: Printed by James D. Bemis, 1813).

78 Thomas Smith, Walker's Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language, Abridged, Canandaigua Stereotype Edition, stereotyped by A. W. Kinsley, Albany (Canandaigua, NY: J. D. Bemis and Co., 1824).

79 McMurtrie, A Bibliography of Books, Pamphlets and Broadsides Printed at Canandaigua, 87, 90, 95.

80 Foreman, ed., Rochester Historical Society, 181, 184.

81 Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 3–5. For a thoughtful analysis of being “struck” by religious objects, inspired by Bennett, see Hillary Kaell, “Seeing the Invisible: Ambient Catholicism on the Side of the Road,” Journal of the American Academy 85, no. 1 (2017): 136–167, at 143–44.

82 Bushman, Joseph Smith, 48–54; Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, chap. 2.

83 This view of material plates, particularly the language of “catalyzing,” may evoke a parallel between my argument and one Latter-day Saint position regarding the Book of Abraham. A scriptural text, the Book of Abraham was a sheaf of Egyptian papyri found and translated by Joseph Smith in 1835. When the extant papyri were later found to postdate the time of Abraham's life by thousands of years, Mormon apologists developed the “catalyst theory.” On its website, the Church describes this theory (with my emphasis added): “According to this view, Joseph's translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.” The Latter-day Saint idea of the material papyri as “catalysts” is akin to what I have in mind when I argue that that material printing plates furnished the circumstances that enabled the development of Smith's visions and his writing of the Book of Mormon (despite the cosmic difference in that Mormon apologists think the papyri were provided by God and that I think they were found naturalistically). “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, July 2014, I thank Liz Brocious and Jay Treat for corresponding about the Book of Abraham.

84 Ann Blair, “Organizations of Knowledge,” in Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Philosophy, ed. James Hankins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 239ff.

85 Latour, Bruno, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Porter, Catherine (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 1012Google Scholar; Keane, Webb, Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007)Google Scholar; Promey, Sally, ed., Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Practice (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 29Google Scholar, 12–14; Taylor, A Secular Age, esp. 32–41.

86 Taylor, A Secular Age, 19, 27, 221, 423, 30.

87 Johnson, African American Religions, 1500–2000, chap. 2; Matory, The Fetish Revisited; Palmié, Stephan, “Thinking with Ngangas: Reflections on Embodiment and the Limits of ‘Objectively Necessary Appearances,’Comparative Studies in Society and History 48, no. 4 (2006): 852–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

88 Taves, Revelatory Events, 65.

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

How Joseph Smith Encountered Printing Plates and Founded Mormonism
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

How Joseph Smith Encountered Printing Plates and Founded Mormonism
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

How Joseph Smith Encountered Printing Plates and Founded Mormonism
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *