Abstract: Joseph Smith’s activity in bringing forth the Book of Mormon can be viewed as a project of alchemy, which was influenced by his affiliation with treasure digging, the folk magic worldview, the Hermetic tradition,1 as well as his many mystical spiritual experiences. I suggest he initially sought to bring the “gold plates” of his visions into material reality, and in the process discovered the true “gold” was within himself, the elusive Philosopher’s Stone.
[Note: This paper is an extended version of a paper I presented on 7 April 2018 at the Mormon Transhumanist Association Conference in Provo, Utah. That oral presentation had to be abridged for time, and may be watched here.]
I propose that there never were any authentic ancient gold plates, but in Joseph Smith’s persistent quest to find them, retrieve them, translate them, and materialize this visionary golden “treasure” into objective reality, his work was like medieval alchemy, attempting to transmute base metals into gold. He eventually realized that the “gold” was within himself all along.
Through the arduous work of “retrieving” the “plates” and the “translation” of the Book of Mormon, Joseph’s “Great Work” or Magnum Opus, I think he eventually discovered that the true “gold plates” were a perennial Wisdom buried deep within his own human mind and being, an inner realization of humanity’s divine nature and eternal life, and this is the Philosopher’s Stone. Joseph came to recognize the true value of the project was a transformation or transfiguration of human consciousness from an egoic and materialistic perspective to a pure and perfected state of consciousness and being that finds eternal union in God. He “translated” this “golden” Wisdom into the allegory and scripture known as the Book of Mormon.
Alchemy as Spiritual and Material
Transforming base minerals into even better and more valuable commodities, such as gold, may seem quite archaic to us, until we realize that most of us has probably either directly or indirectly participated recently in transforming the minerals that make up the silicon of computers and the energy that flows through their algorithmic processes into the monetary value of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, even some with “gold” in their name, not to mention all of the other value we derive from our computer systems and networks. We are still alchemists today.
Former board member of the Mormon Transhumanist Association, James Carroll, has noted how religious transhumanists are like modern-day alchemists:
Religious transhumanists feel to me like the modern-day alchemists… [Transhumanists] are trying to perform the same sort of transmutation of physical things, [like] abundance, artificial intelligence… to create an elixir of life that will help us have longer life, [and] live forever. And when you get the religious transhumanists part in there, they put the two together very much like the alchemists, who were struggling to create something in medicine that would cure all ills, grant eternal life, and make us better people, in a religious sense. So these are the modern alchemists today. I think they best fit that description, more than any other group.2
Alchemy is generally thought to be the ancient quest to turn base metals like lead or tin into gold in a process called transmutation.3 What is generally not known is that there was an indispensable spiritual component to medieval alchemy, which is speculated was the true goal of the journey, a transformation of the human soul into perfection, and the achievement of eternal life. The 17th-century French doctor and alchemist, Pierre-Jean Fabre, once wrote:
Alchemy is not merely an art or science to teach metallic transmutation, so much as a true and solid science that teaches how to know the centre of all things, which in the divine language is called the Spirit of Life.4
The noted author of alchemical wisdom, Stanislas Klossowski de Rola, adds an important caveat to that spiritual focus:
However, the transmutative process, without being the final end, is an indispensable part of the Great Work: the Magnum Opus is, at one and the same time, a material and a spiritual realization. This fact is very often overlooked in alchemical studies. Some commentators claim alchemy to be a wholly spiritual discipline, while others seem interested only in finding out whether gold was actually made and by whom. Both attitudes are misleading.5
As both a material and spiritual realization, alchemy involved both material and spiritual realities. The alchemists worked strenuously and with dedication to achieve transmutation or changing actual physical metals into real gold (also known as chrysopoeia). But in the end they may have discovered that the work they were doing was transforming their own self. Through the material work they were actually refining and purifying their own internal spiritual character and perception, until they achieved the “Great Work” (or Magnum opus), which was the ultimate realization of Perfection in the Self, achieving a kind of enlightenment or heavenly bliss, an elixir of eternal life, not only for themselves but for others around them as well. They also called this attainment the Philosopher’s Stone.
It seems to me that Joseph Smith was likewise participating in an alchemical work which was both material and spiritual in nature, which incorporated working with actual material realities, and attempting to transmute them into more perfect or valuable materials, yet finding through this process a spiritual perfection within his own deepest self and the nature of human consciousness, which likewise exists within all people. I think he found that the material and spiritual perfections became one and the same in the perception of the divine eternal nature of Life itself. In this way, Joseph may be considered the first Mormon Transhumanist alchemist.
The Mystical Reality of the Plates
Many Mormons think that Joseph actually had ancient gold plates in his possession. Yet there have been volumes written on the topic of whether or not that object was authentic, or ancient, or gold.6 There were witnesses that said they were, who said they saw the plates and even handled them, but there is still a significant amount of doubt surrounding whether he actually ever had authentic ancient gold plates. Some of the reasons why there is doubt are:
- The object he had was always kept wrapped in a cloth so that no one could see it directly.
- He always kept it hidden away in a box or other concealed location.
- It was said to be accompanied by other mystical objects such as a “sword of Laban,” a “Liahona,” and a “Urim & Thummim,” the last of which may have always been referring to his seer stone and not a breastplate with glasses.7
- The witnesses’ experiences may have taken place in mystical visions, and not in material reality.
- It was Joseph who apparently wrote those witnesses’ testimonies, not the witnesses themselves, and there is some evidence that the witnesses were hesitant to sign their names to it.
- Joseph never used the “plates” or even so much as looked at them during the translation, but dictated the text by scrying with a seer stone in a hat.
- He said that an angel took the “plates” away from him after the loss of the 116 pages, and later returned them.
- After the translation was complete, and even before the publication of the Book of Mormon, the “plates” were mysteriously given back to the angel, never to be critically examined or seen ever again.
These are just a few of a number of mysteries surrounding the existence of the “gold plates,” despite all the apparent “witnesses.” The “plates” seemed to be caught in a kind of mystical realm of existence, suspended in a state between heaven and earth, where an angel guided Joseph to them, prevented him from taking them, taught him about them over several years, delivered them, took them, delivered and took, made them appear and disappear, showed them to only certain people, moved them from place to place, and eventually kept them. There are also some accounts that Joseph returned the “plates” to the Hill Cumorah, to a mystical cave that miraculously opened up in the side of the hill.8
None of this means that Joseph didn’t have anything like the “plates” in his possession, but many doubt if what Joseph possessed was the “gold plates,” or in other words, real ancient gold plates containing a text from an ancient pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilization. It is this mystical nature in the narrative and accounts that casts doubt on the reality of the “plates,” whether they were real or visionary, or a mix of various circumstances, both material and spiritual. I think it was the latter, which is why it was like alchemy.
Materialization of the Plates
I suggest that the “plates” Joseph saw in mystical vision were the only “gold plates,” and that the physical object he had in his possession was a replica or representation of those visionary plates. Many might think that such theories mean that Joseph as a liar and deceiver, because he claimed that this object was the “gold plates,” or delusional, thinking the object was something it was not. But I think there may be reasons to think that he was acting sincerely as an alchemical mystic and genuine prophet.
Hidden in the “Ground” of Humanity
In 1829 Joseph’s uncle, Jesse Smith, wrote a letter which references one he received from Joseph a year earlier:
…[Joseph] writes that the angel of the Lord has revealed to him the hidden treasures of wisdom & knowledge, even divine revelation, which has lain in the bowels of the earth for thousands of years [and] is at last made known to him…9
This seems to directly parallel the Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhist tradition of terma texts (“hidden treasure”) and spiritual adepts known as tertöns (“treasure revealers”), which I’ve discussed elsewhere.10 In this tradition it is recognized that these terma texts were not literally hidden away in the ground, but were “concealed in the mind of the guru,” or in other words, “the true place of concealment is in the tertön’s nature or essence of mind.”11 These spiritual texts were metaphorically “buried” in the mind and nature of the adept themself, and recovered through attaining a purity of mind, a state of unitive consciousness. I suggest that this may have also been true of Joseph Smith, that he uncovered “ancient wisdom,” or perennial wisdom, which was concealed within his own mind, even within human nature.
I think an account from Joseph’s mother Lucy is insightful in this regard. It notes that Joseph had learned much of the contents of this “hidden treasure” before he even claimed to have pursued any “plates,” being taught about it exclusively in mystical visions.
…by sunset [we] were ready to be seated and give our atten undivided attention to Josephs recitals…From this time forth Joseph continued to receive instructions from time to time and every evening we gathered our children togather [together]… In the course of our evening conversations Joseph would give us some of the most ammusing [amusing] recitals which could be immagined [imagined]. he would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent their dress their man[n]er of traveling the animals which they rode The cities that were built by them the structure of their buildings with every particular of their mode of warfare their religious worship as particularly as though he had spent his life with them… The angel informed him at one time that he might make an effort to obtain the plates…12
It seems that it was Joseph’s visions, revelations in his mind, that had given him a great amount of insight about the contents of the Book of Mormon before he ever had any object in his possession. They were revealed directly to his mind, in visionary states of consciousness. He had not even seen any physical “plates” yet, but only “saw” them and their contents in his mind’s eye. Around the same time period, Joseph translated texts such as the prophecies of Enoch (Moses 6-7) and the “parchment” of John (D&C 7) without claiming to have any physical source of these texts in hand, but rather they were revealed directly in his mind. The parchment of John was likewise said to be “hidden up.”
I suggest that Joseph’s meaning of “hidden treasure” should be reinterpreted. Rather than being literally buried in the literal soil of the ground, this precious Wisdom was buried spiritually or mystically in the “ground” or “earth” of Joseph’s own being, deep within human consciousness. The Hebrew word for “ground” or “earth” is adamah, which is where the name Adam is derived.13 All human beings are created from out of this ground or “dust of the earth,” as Adam is said to have been created, which is why in ancient and modern Hebrew ben adam means “human being.”14
There are passages in the Book of Mormon itself which also suggests this interpretation of Wisdom being “buried” within. For example, Moroni says that the brother of Jared wrote of the visionary things which he had seen, and “there never were greater things” (Ether 4:4). Moroni notes that he was commanded to “hide them up again in the earth” (Ether 4:3). This seems quite literal, burying a record down in the soil of the ground. However, he then says that in a future day when people “exercise faith,” that God will “manifest unto them the things which the brother of Jared saw, even to the unfolding to them of all my revelations” (Ether 4:7). This “knowledge” is “hid up because of unbelief” (Ether 4:13). Again, these things will be “made manifest to you,” which the “Father hath laid up,” even “from the foundation of the world” “because of unbelief” (Ether 4:14), because of egoic “hardness of heart” and “blindness of mind” (Ether 4:15). The scripture notes that in overcoming these defilements of ego in one’s mind, in “rending that veil of unbelief,” that the revelations are “unfolded in the eyes of all the people” (Ether 4:15-16). This language seems to suggest that these manifestations and revelations are not literally hidden down in the ground somewhere, but actually hidden within humanity itself, deep within our minds, spirit, and soul, in this “ground” or “earth” of the divine human being, or “Adam.” They are concealed within us because of the egoic tendencies of our consciousness, but which may be revealed in vision, “unfolded in the eyes” of any person, at any time, through the breaking through of those egoic limitations of human consciousness.
Several years later in 1833 Joseph dictated a revelation known as the “Word of Wisdom,” which was a kind of health code. Obedience to this and other commandments were said to bring blessings, including the very same language from Joseph’s letter five years earlier to his uncle:
And [they] shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures… (D&C 89:19)
Here it seems evident that Joseph was not referring to members of the Church literally finding more “gold plates” in the ground on which this wisdom and knowledge would be read, but rather that these were “hidden up” as a “treasure” in the minds and consciousness of the human being, and maintaining a healthy mind was essential to discovering them.
The Alchemy of the Plates Recovery
Joseph himself may not have understood it this way, at least initially, but thought that the revelations were coming from an external source, and that this wisdom was literally written on a golden treasure hidden in the ground nearby his home that he had to recover. His understanding of this was likely heavily influenced by his prior treasure digging activities, attempting to find all kinds of treasures hidden in the ground in his surrounding community, which cultural movement grew out of the folk magic and Hermetic traditions, including alchemy.15
In pursuing the “gold plates” that he believed were a reality, Joseph may have initially thought he would simply be given them by the mystical angel of his visions, but later may have realized, like the alchemists, that he needed to “do the work” of bringing this “hidden treasure” into material existence.
Ann Taves, a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has written an excellent paper16 (and more recently a book17) introducing a theory of the materialization of the plates which I believe begins to make better overall sense of history, and the mystical nature of the plates, from a naturalistic yet still spiritual viewpoint, and which also indicates to me the alchemical nature of Joseph’s work. Taves suggests that there were no real ancient plates, but also that Joseph was not a fraud. She offers a compelling theory about this, and so I will draw extensively from her paper.
Jesse Smith’s letter continues, writing about his nephew Joseph:
…he has eyes to see things that are not, and then has the audacity to say they are.18
Taves suggests that Joseph may have had “eyes to see things that could be and the audacity to give what he envisioned tangible form.”19 In other words, she opines that the discovery of the “gold plates” may not have been a literal discovery of gold plates in the ground of a nearby hill, but may have been a discovery of “skillful seeing,” like an artist or designer. As a designer myself, I have often seen my designs first in my mind’s eye, in “vision,” before attempting to make them physically in material reality. Perhaps Joseph wanted to give his dream-visions tangible form in this way, giving this visionary wisdom that he had perceived for so long in his mind an objective reality in the outside world, external to his mind.
Taves notes a specific detail about the plates as canonized in D&C 17, verse 5. Speaking to the witnesses, this revelation states:
And ye shall testify that you have seen [the plates], even as my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., has seen them; for it is by my power that he has seen them, and it is because he had faith.
If Joseph could not see the “plates,” except by the power of God and with faith, then what was it that he had in his material possession? Taves suggests that the object that Joseph had was “most likely neither ancient nor gold.”20 She agrees with Dan Vogel, who speculates that Joseph likely made something which he called the “plates” himself. After several years of visits to the nearby Hill Cumorah to seek visionary guidance, Taves notes that Joseph’s “recovery” of the “plates” may have taken a more active role:
Recovery of the plates may have depended on Joseph realizing that he had to actively materialize the plates “in faith,” rather than passively waiting for them to be “given” to him ready made, as it were.21
After visiting the hill for several years, and being unable to “get” the plates he saw in vision, Joseph may have decided that he needed to change his approach to the problem. Taves notes the following interaction between Joseph and his parents, as reported by Joseph’s mother Lucy:
Joseph reported to his anxious parents that he had just received “the severest chastisement that [he] had ever had in his life … [from] the angel of the Lord.” The angel told him he had been “negligent [and] that the time ha[d] now come when the record should be brought forth.” But, he added confidently, “Father give yourself no uneasiness as to this reprimand I know what course I am to pursue an[d] all will be well.”22
It seems that if a resurrected angel had been there at the hill, “in the flesh,” and if the “plates” had been real tangible metal plates simply located in a stone box in the hill, then it would not have been a strenuous task for the angel to simply hand them over to Joseph, or allow Joseph to pick them up himself from out of the stone box and carry them home. Why had the angel “chastised” him? In what way had Joseph been “negligent” in “bringing forth the record”? Taves suggests that this vision convinced Joseph that he had to take an “active role” in the “materialization” of the “plates,” in order for them to become the real deal. Or in other words, I think he had to become like an alchemist, and “do real work,” even material work, to make his spiritual vision become reality.
Taves hypothesizes that Joseph made a representation of the plates, out of tin or lead, which incidentally are some of the very same base materials the medieval alchemists used, having faith that they would “become the sacred reality the Smith family believed them to be,” even the “gold plates”.23 In other words, Joseph thought his tin plates would be alchemically transmuted into the real gold plates. Joseph Smith himself once actually compared his “plates” to tin, in the famous Wentworth letter:
These records 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.24
Joseph may have made his representative plates out of this same “common tin” he referenced here, and this statement may have unintentionally revealed the nature of how he originally made his replica. Being “not quite so thick” may have been the result of his hammering the tin flat. That they had the “appearance” of gold suggests the visionary nature of that gold.
Joseph may have believed that his making the plates in this way was the only way to manifest them in material objective reality, as Taves notes, “co-creating the reality of the plates,” a “materialization of the sacred.”25 Joseph may have thought that the chastisement of the angel was telling him that he needed to actively bring the “plates” into material reality, that the angel wouldn’t do it all for him. He had to participate, to “do the work,” similar to the alchemists, and he could later transmute his tin plates into the real “gold plates.”
Taves compares this with the story of the brother of Jared in the Book of Mormon itself, who prepared sixteen stones, which he moltened from a rock, and then asked the Lord to touch them and cause them to “shine in darkness.” Similarly, Joseph may have felt that he had to exercise faith and prepare his own home-made tin plates that he could then take to the Hill Cumorah and ask the angel to transform them into the “gold plates” of his visions. This may be what Joseph did on the night of September 22, 1827, traveling to the hill, and returning home believing that he accomplished his task and the “plates” in his possession were now, in fact, the real ancient “gold plates” he had previously seen only in visions.
Considering the many parallels Taves notes, I would go further and suggest that the story of the Brother of Jared and the stones may be an autobiographical allegory that Joseph unconsciously included in the book (along with many other autobiographical parables), having experienced these things himself. The publication of the Book of Mormon launched the organization of the LDS Church, which Joseph later recorded in the dedicatory prayer of the Kirtland Temple was “com[ing] forth out of the wilderness of darkness, and shin[ing] forth,” just like the Brother of Jared’s stones were shining (D&C 109:73). Later, I will suggest that Joseph found himself to be such a “stone” which shone in darkness.
Taves also compares Joseph’s “active materialization” of the plates as similar to a Catholic priest making Christ present in the Eucharistic wafer by calling upon God to transform it into Christ’s body and blood.26 I think that is a very good analogy. Few religious people think the priest is being delusional when he offers up such a prayer of transubstantiation which is believed to actually change the substance or essence of bread and wine into the reality of the body and blood of Christ, even though the appearance of it remains as simple bread and wine. Might Joseph, and consequently his friends, have also believed in such a “transubstantiation” of the substance of his tin plates into the reality of the “gold plates”? Like the Eucharist, Joseph may not have known or attempted to know how this change happened, but had faith that it did, in fact, happen. In Catholicism, this transubstantiation is referred to as a “Sacred Mystery” or Sacrament.27
Joseph may also be compared to those in the Book of Mormon text who made plates themselves in order to write holy texts on them. This may be another autobiographical detail couched in allegory, Joseph unconsciously telling us that he made the “plates” in order to help him capture the wisdom of the Book of Mormon that was flowing through his mind:
Behold, I make an abridgment of the record of my father, upon plates which I have made with mine own hands; wherefore, after I have abridged the record of my father then will I make an account of mine own life. (1 Nephi 1:17)
It is quite intriguing to note that one of the early things that is recorded in 1 Nephi is Lehi’s dream-vision of the Tree of Life (1 Nephi 8), which is thought by some to actually be sourced from a dream-vision of Joseph’s own father, Joseph Smith Sr, which he recited to his family prior to the translation.28 Joseph may have symbolically been “Nephi,” who was making a record of his own father’s visions (symbolically “Lehi”) before recording his own visions and wisdom. This has been suggested by several scholars over the years, but which many Mormons resist because of belief in the ancient historicity of the book.
Faith to really see the Plates
Taves notes how this change of substance, like the Eucharist, may have only been visible “to those who believe.”29 Like the Eucharist, “Smith [didn’t] claim that the plates [he had] were a representation of ancient gold plates, he claimed that they really were” those plates.30 Taves writes:
In much the way that Jesus is said to have held up human made bread and said to his disciples “this is my body,” Joseph Smith may have made plates, placed them in a box, and said to his family: these are the golden plates.31
In Catholicism, Christ is thought to be “truly, really, and substantially” present in the bread and wine.32 Likewise, having made the “plates” himself, Joseph may have deeply believed that through his faithful efforts, and the faith of others around him, the real “gold plates” were made manifest. As Taves notes, this communal belief means that Joseph can’t be properly described as delusional:
Technically, according to the DSM-4 (1994:765), a delusion is “a false belief based on [an] incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture (e.g. it is not an article of religious faith).”33
In other words, because Joseph’s family, friends, and others, even many critics and enemies who wanted to steal them away from him, thought that Joseph had real gold plates, means that Joseph was not necessarily “delusional.” Visionary, yes. I’m reminded of another modern visionary, Steve Jobs, and his well-known “reality distortion field,” and the extraordinary power of belief.34 Many in Joseph’s society believed he had gold plates just as much as he believed he had them. With additional witnesses who also said he had them, there was not any obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. Belief became reality to them.
And since belief became reality only to those who had sufficient faith, Joseph may have known that it required faith to see the real “gold plates” in the tin plates he had in his possession, so that may be why he did not readily allow people to view his plates. As noted in D&C 17, they had to have “faith” to see this higher “reality.” There is even an obscure account, told by Governor Thomas Ford of Illinois, that suggests that Joseph had to engender significant “faith” in those who insisted on seeing the plates so that they could “see” them, even in an empty box:
He set them to continual prayer, and other spiritual exercises, to acquire this lively faith by means of which the hidden things of God could be spiritually discerned; and at last, when he could delay them no longer, he assembled them in a room, and produced a box, which he said contained the precious treasure. The lid was opened; the witnesses peeped into it, but making no discovery, for the box was empty, they said, “Brother Joseph, we do not see the plates.” The prophet answered them, “O ye of little faith! how long will God bear with this wicked and perverse generation? Down on your knees, brethren, every one of you, and pray God for the forgiveness of your sins, and for a holy and living faith which cometh down from heaven.” The disciples dropped to their knees, and began to pray in the fervency of their spirit, supplicating God for more than two hours with fanatical earnestness; at the end of which time, looking again into the box, they were now persuaded that they saw the plates.35
The source of this account is unknown beyond Governor Ford, so there are reasons to believe it is not accurate, but the sentiment seems similar as expressed in D&C 17; it required tremendous “faith” to see the plates, perhaps a deep shift of conscious perception, an alteration of consciousness, to see this “vision” of the “plates” true reality, even the same “vision” that Joseph had. And so Joseph kept the “plates” well-guarded and concealed as he went about his work of translating them.
But merely having what he thought were the plates was not the end of this alchemy. His work of the “materialization” of the plates stretched, as Taves notes, from the dream-visions that Joseph had in 1823 until the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830. It was a seven-year laborious and strenuous process that ended up—not with a set of real gold plates—but with a book, a real tangible spiritual wisdom text that many people could easily see, handle, acquire, and read.36 As the essayist and philosopher William H. Gass once wrote, “The true alchemists do not change lead into gold, they change the world into words.”37
The Alchemy of Translation
In medieval alchemy there was a recognized difference between two types of alchemists, as discussed by James Carroll in a lecture on alchemy:
There’s a common description among alchemists as a distinction between what they call “puffers” and what they call “alchemists,” or philosophers. A puffer is somebody who is interested in producing gold. He wants to get rich. So he’s going to play with alchemy because he believes buried in alchemy is a secret to wealth. And the true philosophers, the true alchemists, would make fun of this sort of thing, because for them it was a spiritual quest, and one that at its very heart had an irony built into it. The irony is [that] people undertake the quest because they want to get rich, to get gold. But the problem is, the refinement of the soul produced by the process itself, the actual goal of the process, [is] to refine and transform you, not to transform metals, [and this] turns you into the sort of person who no longer desired wealth, or fame, or fortune.38
I think we can see these same characteristics in Joseph. In Lucy Smith’s autobiography, even before he had any “plates,” Joseph seemed to be concerned that people would want to get them from him because of their gold value.
Now said he[,] Father and Mother the angel of the Lord says that we must be careful not to proclaim these things or to mention them abroad For we do not any of us know the wickedness of the world which is so sinful that when we get the plates they will want to kill us for the sake of the gold if they know we had them.39
In Joseph’s 1838 account of the visitations of Moroni, we see that the temptation to do this work for the materialistic gold value was real even for Joseph. He had previously been a treasure seeker, a treasure digger. But he seems to have realized through his visions that he was not to do this work for riches. He was not to be a “puffer,” to get rich from this gold, but to seek the deeper spiritual value in the work:
[The angel] added a caution to me, telling me that Satan would try to tempt me (in consequence of the indigent circumstances of my father’s family), to get the plates for the purpose of getting rich. This he forbade me, saying that I must have no other object in view in getting the plates but to glorify God, and must not be influenced by any other motive than that of building his kingdom; otherwise I could not get them. (JS-H 1:46)
In other words, Joseph knew he was not to pursue these visionary “plates” for their gold, but for their divine spiritual Wisdom. If he pursued the “plates” for egoic materialistic purposes of “getting rich,” he would not be able to get them, and alchemical “work” would fail. In this process, he became a true alchemist.
Pursuit of “Gold” in the text
I think we see this sentiment reflected in the Book of Mormon text, which may be Joseph’s own deeper intuitions, his conscious shift from materialistic to spiritual goals, from material “gold” to realizing spiritual “gold,” a “gold” found within the human being, even as he found in his own mind through his visions and while dictating the text. Here are some examples:
- Lehi and his family leave their home in pursuit of a promised land, leaving behind their gold and silver (1 Nephi 2:4, 11).
- Nephi and his brothers return to gather their gold and silver and offer it to Laban for the brass plates (containing spiritual wisdom). Laban lusts after their gold, and in so doing he eventually is killed by Nephi (1 Nephi 3:16,22,24).
- Nephi sees Laban’s sword is made with a hilt of pure gold, and seems to be envious of it (1 Nephi 4:9).
- Nephi has a vision in which he sees an “abominable church” which desires gold, and silver, and many “precious things” (1 Nephi 13:7-8).
- A translation of Isaiah includes a passage in which God promises to “make a man more precious than fine gold; even a man than the golden wedge of Ophir” (2 Nephi 23:12; Isaiah 13:12).
- The people of Nephi grow hard in their hearts, and begin searching for gold and silver, being “lifted up somewhat in pride” (Jacob 1:16; 2:12-13).
- King Benjamin does not seek for gold or for riches (Mosiah 2:12).
- King Benjamin teaches that God gives us all our substance, including gold and silver (Mosiah 4:19).
- King Noah taxes the people in pursuit of their gold and silver (Mosiah 11:3; 19:15).
- Amulek gives up his gold and silver for the word of God (Alma 15:16).
- Alma sees the people had their hearts set on gold and silver (Alma 31:24).
- God is as a purifier and refiner, and purges people as gold and silver (3 Nephi 24:3; Malachi 3:3).
- People unfortunately sell Christ for material gold and silver (3 Nephi 27:32).
There are also passages which seem to directly reflect Joseph’s sentiments about the “plates” being pursued for their spiritual wisdom, and that their gold was worthless:
And I [Moroni] am the same who hideth up this record unto the Lord; the plates thereof are of no worth, because of the commandment of the Lord. For he truly saith that no one shall have them to get gain; but the record thereof is of great worth; and whoso shall bring it to light, him will the Lord bless. (Mormon 8:14)
Joseph may be considered symbolically as the “Moroni” who “hid up these records” by his very act of dictating the text of the Book of Mormon. How could they be hidden in this plain text? Because most spiritual texts are allegorical symbolic texts, which hide deeper spiritual wisdom. What they seem to reveal exoterically in simple words yet remains hidden esoterically, and is only “visible” to those who have transfigured their consciousness to understand it, just like the “plates” were only visible to those with a mind to see them.40 As was previously discussed, this deeper spiritual wisdom of God may be “hidden up” directly within human nature until “that day” that people put off their egoic self, the “natural man,”41 overcome their egoic consciousness, transcend their “self,” and know this Wisdom for themselves mystically within themselves, when they are revealed in their own eyes by direct experiential perception.
The “sealed” portion of the “plates” was said to represent “a revelation from God, from the beginning of the world to the ending thereof” (2 Nephi 27:7). This seems to be related to the alchemical concept of the hermetic seal, which, to the uninitiated, was like truth forever remaining in a “sealed” book, unable to be read. The entire extant Book of Mormon may still be so hermetically sealed, as well as other spiritual texts. We are unable to understand their deeper truth because our minds are not initiated into a more spiritual and mystical state of consciousness, a similar state of consciousness in which they were originally written. The “revelation of God” may be considered to be that final Revelation, like the brother of Jared, when people come into possession of that pure state of divine consciousness, when they realize their union and at-one-ment in God in the Present moment, the Parousia or Second Coming, the veil is rent, and all things are revealed and fulfilled in that moment of Apocalypse and Revelation.
Joseph seems to be allegorically telling us that the “plates” that he claimed to have were of no value, but it was the wisdom of the record, and particularly the Source of that wisdom, that was of “great worth” or golden. Once Joseph’s alchemical “Great Work” (or Magnum opus) of the translation was finished, he may have thought he had no need for the physical object of the “plates” anymore, even though he may have really believed they were authentic and made of gold, and so he discarded whatever object that was. That object is not what mattered anymore; it was of “no worth” or worthless to him. What mattered was what he had discovered within his mind and “translated” as the text of the Book of Mormon. The Source of this text was that perennial Wisdom that he had found within himself, which is hidden up likewise in all humanity, which was the true “gold.”
During the translation Joseph wrote a revelation that is found in Doctrine & Covenants 6:7, which seems to attest to this as well,
Seek not for riches but for wisdom, and behold, the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto you, and then shall you be made rich. Behold, he that hath eternal life is rich. (D&C 6:7)
Joseph found this Wisdom within his mind and soul, the Mysteries were unfolded to his vision, which included a realization of the alchemical “elixir” of eternal life, which we’ll explore next.
Personal Transformation in the text
Beyond the passages which talk about gold and the plates, there are a number of stories of personal transformation in the text of the Book of Mormon. I think these are reflective of Joseph’s own spiritual transformation from a treasure seeking youth to one who found spiritual “gold” within himself, in his mind, heart, and being. This was the promise of genuine alchemy.
The book references attaining eternal life numerous times, which I think are deep realizations that Joseph had through the mindful and meditative process of visionary “translation”:
- Humanity is free to choose liberation and eternal life, or captivity and death (2 Nephi 2:27-28).
- To be carnally-minded is death, but to be spiritually-minded is life eternal, pointing to it being a state of mind in consciousness (2 Nephi 9:39).
- There is a strait and narrow path that leads to eternal life, including a baptism by fire, and a love of God and of all humanity (2 Nephi 31:18, 20; Jacob 6:11).
- Ironically, “enduring to the end” is said to be “life eternal” (2 Nephi 33:4).
- Alma comes to know that he will have “eternal life” (Mosiah 26:20).
- If our works are good, our mortality is “raised” to immortality, which is endless happiness and the kingdom of God (Alma 41:4).
- We are to have hope to be raised through atonement and resurrection to life eternal (Moroni 7:41)
If “Alma” is a symbol of Joseph himself, then Joseph may have realized as he was doing this translation, or earlier, that he too had “eternal life.” During the translation, he seems to have confirmed this again in a revelation recorded in the Doctrine & Covenants:
And that you be firm in keeping the commandments wherewith I have commanded you; and if you do this, behold I grant unto you eternal life, even if you should be slain. (D&C 5:22)
It’s interesting to note that Joseph seems to have intuited that teaching these things might lead him to getting killed, some fifteen years before he was shot at Carthage Jail. But even so, he had come to realize that he had eternal life in God. He had attained the alchemist’s goal, and it seems mortal death was no longer as much of a concern for him.
The Philosopher’s Stone
The end of the “Great Work” (Magnum opus) was also known as the Philosopher’s Stone.42 Through the alchemists’ work they thought that they would arrive at a final substance, something concrete that was capable of performing transmutation, an “elixir” of eternal life, a “stone” of some sort that was the foundation of perfection, a final enlightenment. This was the chrysopoeia, which literally means “to make gold.”43 Through the process of the translation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph’s Magnum Opus, he may have found that transmuting his tin plates into real gold was not the final objective, but that he had found and “translated” (put into his own words) a source of Wisdom and knowledge deep within his mind and soul. He had uncovered a “hidden treasure” within his Self, and this discovery was the treasure, it was eternal life, the alchemical Philosopher’s Stone.
For the true alchemists, having real gold was not the final end, but it was a personal transformation of one’s own soul. It was a transfiguration of consciousness which perceived one’s own Self as Perfect. Through the “work” one came to discover that the Perfection that one was seeking was forever and always within one’s own Self, at the ground of one’s Being. This was the “rock” of Peter. It was the “cornerstone” of Christ. It was the “rough stone rolling” of Joseph Smith. It was the “sixteen stones” of the Brother of Jared that were shining out of darkness into light. It was the “white stone” that is given to all those who overcome ego. It was the seer stone that Joseph used to help him perceive that deepest and most foundational part of himself; some have noted how “Gazelem” in the Book of Mormon seems to refer to the seer, Joseph Smith, as well as the stone (Alma 37:23-25).44 It is the deepest Being of the human individual and of collective humanity that is the rock upon which all of Life and creation is built. And this rock is Perfect in each and every being. The alchemists work was a refinement of their own perception in order to perceive this rock that was the foundation of their Self, their deepest Being. The alchemist themself was discovered to be the “gold” they were searching for all along, that most precious and perfect substance, essence, material, and being. It was in them all along.
As mentioned earlier, all of humanity is made up of another great rock, this “ground,” this “earth,” this “Adam,” which is this planet Earth, which is made up of the mass-energy Cosmos. Our life consists of emerging from this Earth, this anima mundi, and we return to it. This rock is our foundation, our substance, the essence which makes up our very bodies, the energy which comes to flow through our brains that allows consciousness to arise, in a continual daily cycle of emerging from the Earth and returning to the Earth, in one eternal round.
In the highest spiritual perception one comes to see one’s Self as the ouroboros, that “one is the all.”45 We are the Earth and the Cosmos. We are One in God that has emerged from the dust of the Earth and become living souls. God has awakened as us. We are the Cosmos becoming aware and conscious of itself, through the Life-Light-Energy that flows through our brains, minds, and bodies. This is our True Self, the ground of our being, the foundation of the world, the rock upon which we are built, the rock of which we are made. This is known by Christians as Christ, by Buddhists as Buddha-nature, by Hindus as Atman. Similar symbols are found in many of the world’s religions and spiritual traditions.
When we refine our perception, purify our mind, and remove all the defilements of ego consciousness from us, our psychological self, through contemplation, meditation, or other spiritual practices and technologies which transform consciousness, including through working with material realities, of which our own physical body is a part, then we may eventually see directly the Light of our Being, our True Self in the world, which shines as bright as the sun. This is the ultimate Philosopher’s Stone which shines out of darkness into light. As Jesus taught, “I am the Light of the world,” and so are you! (John 8:12; Matthew 5:14)
The real value of the visionary “gold plates,” I perceive, was the Wisdom that Joseph found deep in his mind and consciousness. This Wisdom existed within Joseph, in the deepest part of his own Being that was at-one in Divine consciousness, at-one in God. He reified his visions into material reality not through actually transmuting tin into real gold plates, but through the “translation” of perennial Wisdom he perceived deep in his mind and Being. The Book of Mormon was the transmutation of the “gold plates” of his deepest visions into objective reality, and in that “Great Work” Joseph discovered that the Human Being and Life itself are the true “gold,” and the perception and embodiment of these in their purity is the goal of existence, even the Philosopher’s Stone.
As Taves notes:
…the focus on whether [Joseph] could see and recover actual buried treasure, including golden plates, has obscured his patent ability to see and create a new reality for himself and others.46
Will we look beyond the materiality of Joseph’s “gold plates” to see the deeper spiritual Wisdom that he brought forth, even this “gold” he found within his mind? And will we look beyond this textual wisdom to find that same Source of Wisdom within our own Self, these revelations and visions and insights which are still hidden up within the “ground” of our own Being?
As religious transhumanists, we are striving to transmute our deepest visions, our most heartfelt yearnings, into new objective material realities, new technologies and benefits for human society, including transforming and exalting human consciousness, and in so doing we are doing alchemy which is both material and spiritual. And just like alchemists such as Joseph Smith, this may not result in the transmutations we originally thought we were striving for, but in the process it may transfigure our perception of ourselves and of all of humanity.