Many modern minds have commented on Joseph Smith’s claim to have “gold plates” with laughable derision, and dismissed it as delusion and/or fraud. Neuroscientist, author, meditation teacher, atheist, and religious critic Sam Harris makes this kind of critique in his recent book Waking Up:
…Joseph Smith [was] a libidinous con man and crackpot, was able to found a new religion on the claim that he had unearthed the final revelations of God in the hallowed precincts of Manchester, New York, written in “reformed Egyptian” on golden plates. He decoded this text with the aid of magical “seer stones,” which, whether by magic or not, allowed Smith to produce an English version of God’s Word that was an embarrassing pastiche of plagiarisms from the Bible and silly lies about Jesus’s life in America. And yet the resulting edifice of nonsense and taboo survives to this day.-Sam Harris, Waking Up
To many Mormons, this sounds harsh. But to many others, it is as nonsensical as it sounds. While I no longer think Joseph ever had literal authentic ancient gold plates in his physical possession, I think he thought he did, and others thought he did as well, and I think it is worth investigating how this could have happened. What was its source? I don’t think Joseph was merely a “con man” as Harris labels him. I think he was a mystic.
I’m particularly interested in the mysticism of where his vision of the “gold plates” may have come from, and how this could be related to many other “heavenly books” in the history of spirituality and religion. Sam Harris, and many others, may be missing a bigger picture, the greater context in mysticism; the vision of “gold plates” may be a metaphor for a deeper spiritual reality.
The Heavenly “Plates”
What it seems we may have neglected, both within Mormonism and without, is the mystical nature of those original visionary plates. We have been so concerned with their literal physical ancient nature as an actual archaeological record from Mesoamerica, that we have perhaps largely missed their deeper and broader mystical import, including their connection to many other such “heavenly books” in the history of spirituality, religion, and mysticism.
Joseph seems to have been able to clearly see gold plates in his mind’s eye, in mystical vision (see D&C 17:5, JS-H 1:42), and he set out to reify this vision, perhaps not only in making a physical representation of those visionary plates, maybe as a kind of inspiring talisman, perhaps even one that he initially thought he could transmute alchemically into the plates of his vision, but ultimately he reified them in his mystical “translation” of what became the Book of Mormon and the Mormon community.
As I noted recently, I think Joseph’s translation of “Lehi’s” vision in 1 Nephi 1 is an esoteric account of Joseph’s own vision(s), both of the First Vision and the visions of Moroni. It is in the visions of Moroni that Joseph explicitly (exoterically) says he saw “plates of gold upon which there was engravings” (1832 account). This may be related to “Lehi’s” seeing of a heavenly “book” in vision:
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11 And they [angels] came down and went forth upon the face of the earth; and the first came and stood before my father [Lehi], and gave unto him a book, and bade him that he should read.
12 And it came to pass that as he read, he was filled with the Spirit of the Lord.
13 And he read, saying: Wo, wo, unto Jerusalem, for I have seen thine abominations! Yea, and many things did my father read concerning Jerusalem—that it should be destroyed, and the inhabitants thereof; many should perish by the sword, and many should be carried away captive into Babylon.-1 Nephi 1:11-13
Joseph similarly said he was “filled with the spirit of god” in his 1832 account of the First Vision. Perhaps it is because Joseph was similarly “reading” a heavenly “record” of some kind, which his mind later saw as a “book.” Later, in his visions of Moroni, he is told about the contents of those visionary “plates of gold”:
…was engraven by Maroni & his fathers the servants of the living God in ancient days and deposited by th[e] commandments of God and kept by the power thereof and that I should go and get them and he revealed unto me many things concerning the inhabitents of of the earth which since have been revealed in commandments & revelations…-“History, circa Summer 1832,” p. 4, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed November 15, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-circa-summer-1832/4
So these visionary “plates” seemed to have “ancient wisdom” upon them, known through the grace of God, including many things about humanity itself, perhaps even about the human condition, which is only known through mystical experience or “revelation.”
One of the things that is noted in the 1 Nephi account of Lehi are the “woes” unto Jerusalem, which I think is a commentary about the egoic nature of humanity itself, of the “natural man,” of the independent “separate self” of the human psyche, which alienates itself from all connection, belonging, and Love. I think Joseph experienced something similar in his First Vision:
…and mine [God’s] anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them acording to thir ungodliness…-“History, circa Summer 1832,” p. 3, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed November 18, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-circa-summer-1832/3
As I suggested briefly in the article about “Lehi’s” vision, this “book” and Joseph’s vision of a record on “gold plates” may be related to many other traditions of a heavenly “book” or “record” seen in mystical visions. I suggest that this is part of a larger perennial pattern not unique to Joseph Smith, and is indicative of something much deeper than any particular literal record. It is perhaps an indication of an overview effect, a holistic point of view, a compendium of truth, which is accessible in mystical experience. I will review some of these traditions.
Ezekiel’s vision of a scroll
In the Old Testament, Ezekiel has a vision in which he is shown a book:
9 And when I looked, behold, an hand was sent unto me; and, lo, a roll of a book was therein;
10 And he spread it before me; and it was written within and without: and there was written therein lamentations, and mourning, and woe.-Ezekiel 2:9-10
Similarly, “Lehi’s” vision of the “book” included woes about Jerusalem, about their “abominations,” which I suggest is similar to the “abomination” and “corruption” of the egoic religious sects that Joseph said he explicitly was told about in his First Vision (1838 account), and that “none doeth good” (1832 account). I think this was mystical insight into the lost and fallen nature of the human ego, the psychological self, which is dualistc, separated from God (Ultimate Reality), selfish, greedy, prideful, independent, alienated. It is the corruption of the “natural man” or “carnal mind.” It is the suffering of the ego.
Ezekiel is told he should do something with the book:
1 Moreover he said unto me, Son of man, eat that thou findest; eat this roll, and go speak unto the house of Israel.
2 So I opened my mouth, and he caused me to eat that roll.
3 And he said unto me, Son of man, cause thy belly to eat, and fill thy bowels with this roll that I give thee. Then did I eat it; and it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness.-Ezekiel 3:1-3
Ezekiel eats the book (a scroll in those times). That’s an odd thing to do with a book! But it is perhaps another metaphor, a symbol of the internal nature of that book, its mystical nature, and becoming one with it, merging one’s own sense of self with the contents of the book, with that suffering of ego, so as to help alleviate it. That alleviation is a healing, a reconciliation, and it is perhaps the sweetness noted. This may be related to Joseph’s insight in his vision that he was to be given the full gospel to help bring people back into God’s Presence, transcending the suffering ego-self.
John’s Vision in Revelation
In the New Testament, John’s vision also contains a reference to a visionary book given by an angel to him:
1 And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire:
2 And he had in his hand a little book open…-Revelation 10:1-2
It’s interesting here that John says the angel was like the “sun” and “fire,” terms that Joseph also used to describe his visions.
4 And when the seven thunders had uttered their voices, I was about to write: and I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Seal up those things which the seven thunders uttered, and write them not.-Revelation 10:4
Here it sounds like John is going to write in the book himself, but then he is told to “seal” those things, and not write them. Joseph was likewise told about a portion of the “gold plates” record that was “sealed,” and could not be “written” (translated). This is perhaps in reference to the mystical phenomenon (or better, noumenon) of ineffability, indescribability, that the mystical vision is beyond words, beyond language, and that it is impossible to capture it in symbolic word form, for the very reason that it is symbolic, referential; the word is not the thing. That mystical vision is thus “sealed,” hidden, and only becomes visible and known to those who experience it themselves, in their own consciousness. This seems to have alchemical connections to the “hermetic seal.”
5 And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven,
6 And sware by him that liveth for ever and ever, who created heaven, and the things that therein are, and the earth, and the things that therein are, and the sea, and the things which are therein, that there should be time no longer:-Revelation 10:5-6
Here we see the notion of the end of time itself, a transcendence of time, perhaps referring to a timelessness, a supratemporal reality, an eternity, perhaps even an eternal timeless now of the present, beyond history, beyond past and future. These ideas were also part of early Mormon hymns, perhaps because of Joseph’s visionary insights.
Returning to John’s Revelation, it recalls Ezekiel’s vision:
8 And the voice which I heard from heaven spake unto me again, and said, Go and take the little book which is open in the hand of the angel which standeth upon the sea and upon the earth.
9 And I went unto the angel, and said unto him, Give me the little book. And he said unto me, Take it, and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey.
10 And I took the little book out of the angel’s hand, and ate it up; and it was in my mouth sweet as honey: and as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter.-Rev. 10:8-10
John also eats the book, and it is sweet in his mouth, but bitter in his stomach. The sweetness, again, could be because what John taught and brought into the world would help bring healing, and alleviation of suffering, reconciliation. But the suffering itself may be the bitterness expressed. It could also be in reference to the mystical unity of opposites, the coincidentia oppositorum, that sweetness does not exist apart from bitterness, something that Joseph also expressed in his translation of 2 Nephi 2 in the Book of Mormon.
Isaiah’s Vision of a Sealed Book
Isaiah also mentions that his visions are like words “sealed” in a scroll or document (book) in Isaiah 29:
The vision of all this has become for you like the words of a sealed document. If it is given to those who can read, with the command, “Read this,” they say, “We cannot, for it is sealed.” And if it is given to those who cannot read, saying, “Read this,” they say, “We cannot read.”-Isaiah 29:11-12
When people who are literate try to read this heavenly book, they cannot. It is “sealed” to them. It is perhaps ineffable, indescribable, undecipherable, hidden, concealed, unknown. Joseph Smith compared his own “heavenly book” to this book in Isaiah, one that could not be understood or interpreted by one who was learned and literate (Charles Anthon).
Book of Life in Judaism/Christianity
The previous traditions are perhaps part of the greater tradition in Judaism and later in Christianity of a heavenly “Book of Life.” This seems to be a kind of mystical book in which God is said to record the names of those people who are destined for “heaven” or the “world to come.”
This also seems to be a transtemporal compendium. Here it includes all those souls who are part of Life itself, those who perhaps realize they are a part of the eternal nature of Life (see Daniel 12:2). There is an analogous “book” alongside it, the “Book of the Dead,” which records the names of those who are perhaps spiritually dead to God, being trapped in their egoic selves, not realizing their part in the eternal nature of Life and Reality. This second “book” is perhaps the one more closely associated to the previous two visions, of lamentations and the suffering of ego in the “wicked.”
The Book of Jubilees, an apocryphal book, also notes these two “books” or “heavenly tablets.” It is also found in the Book of Enoch, The Shepherd of Hermas, 2 Baruch, the Ascension of Isaiah, and throughout John’s Book of Revelation. The tradition of the Book of Life may date back to earlier Babylonia and Mesopotamia, in the tradition of the Tablet(s) of Destiny. It may even have relationship to the tradition of “tablets” that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai after his vision of God, upon which was the law of God.
Terma in Buddhism
I’ve written a couple times before about the terma tradition in Tibetan Buddhism. This is remarkably analogous to Joseph Smith’s story. Terma (meaning “hidden treasure”) are considered to be sacred texts and teachings, written by ancient spiritual masters, which are said to have been hidden in the world in various places, including buried in the ground. They are later discovered by tertöns, adepts or seers. The texts are written in a kind of undecipherable code or script which only the tertöns can decipher, and who would translate them into contemporary language for the benefit of their community.
As Wikipedia notes, “Though a literal understanding of terma is ‘hidden treasure’, and sometimes refers to objects that are hidden away, the teachings associated should be understood as being ‘concealed within the mind of the guru’, that is, the true place of concealment is in the tertön’s nature or essence of mind.” This seems to point again to a mystical “book,” a “heavenly book,” a record contained within consciousness, a truth found within the essence of being.
Preserved Tablet in Islam
The Preserved Tablet (al-lawh al-mahfooz), also known as the Book of Decrees, is a tradition in Islam related to fate and destiny, and is considered a heavenly record where God has written down all that has happened and will happen, and which will come to pass as written. Wikipedia notes, “According to this belief, a person’s action is not caused by what is written in the preserved tablet, but rather the action is written in the tablet because God already knows all occurrences without the restrictions of time.” So there is here again the idea of the transcendence of time. This record contains all actions, because it is not bound by time, as we are. It is a kind of overview of all people’s actions, whether good or ill.
Akashic Records in Theosophy
In the tradition of theosophy and anthroposophy, there is a concept known as the Akashic Records. These are said to be “a compendium of all human events, thoughts, words, emotions, and intent ever to have occurred in the past, present, or future.” These records are recorded in a heavenly or spiritual realm, called the “etheric plane.” So, again, we find here a kind of “book” in heaven.
Helena Blavatsky said they were “indestructible tablets of the astral light” recording the past and future of all human actions. Henry Steel Olcott claimed that “everything has come out of Akasa in obedience to a law of motion inherent in it, and, passes away,” a kind of Source or Origin from which all things come, perhaps like emanationism from the neoplatonic One. He also thought that this record had “permenancy,” and that a human could “read” this heavenly record, “when he [sic] was evoluted to the stage of true individual enlightenment.” Alice Bailey wrote, “The akashic record is like an immense photographic film, registering all the desires and earth experiences of our planet.”
The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ by Levi Dowling is said to be a transcribed text from this “heavenly” Akashic Records. This parallels Joseph’s claim to have “translated” the visionary “gold plates” into what became the Book of Mormon.
A Modern Interpretation
I think we can begin to see some patterns among these traditions. I don’t think they are all distinct and unrelated traditions, but rather they seem to be similar intuitions about a mystical book, tablets, plates, records, etc. existing in a spiritual realm. Some general themes seem to be:
- The book/tablets/plates/records is “heavenly,” in another psychic realm, in a visionary mind’s eye, perhaps accessible in an altered meditative enlightened state of consciousness, in the essence of mind
- It is beyond time, transcends spacetime, is timeless, includes all time, all “history” (ancient wisdom?), everything both past and future, is in an eternal now
- It may include an omniscient overview, a holistic picture, a compendium of all truth, being, action, thought, even including people themselves, their names, their identities, their beings
- This “book” recognizes the condition of the human. Those who are “righteous” are part of the book, whereas those who are “wicked” are erased out of the book, or woes are pronounced on them.
- Characters or script are sometimes seen, but they are ineffable, sealed, unable to be read, and which must be “translated,” transcribed, deciphered, or unsealed by a mystical adept or seer into modern language
How might we understand this in a modern context? It doesn’t seem possible that there actually exists a literal book of this kind in a spiritual realm of some kind. These are most likely all metaphors, symbols created by the minds of the seers, but what are they pointing to? What could it mean? What is this mystical “compendium”? What aspect of reality might they be referring to? How could we interpret these traditions today?
I suggest that it might have to do with a transcendental Reality, beyond the ego structures of our mind, our psychological self. In transcendent states of consciousness, we can go beyond the typical conscious state of being a finite localized being embedded in the flow of spacetime, and gain a greater perspective of Reality beyond it. So the “heavenly” nature of the book I think is referring to these transcendent states of consciousness. They are mystical states, contemplative states, visionary states, altered states, beyond the ordinary and everyday state of egoic waking consciousness. They see beyond this “veil” to a greater Reality.
In these transcendent states, the mind may transcend space and time, or what we now call spacetime, thanks to Einstein. Consciousness is taken beyond these limitations of mind, thoughts which are chronological in time, and a spatial dimension in which we find ourselves are localized. All those limitations are transcended, overcome, ascended, fall away from consciousness. It is perhaps a consciousness that is so focused on the present moment, that there is no longer any past or future. There is only the timeless (eternal) now of Reality, and that includes all. Everything that has been or will be is located here, and exists in this timeless now. This perhaps recalls modern theories of time known as the “block universe”:
According to the block universe theory, the universe is a giant block of all the things that ever happen at any time and at any place. On this view, the past, present and future all exist — and are equally real.-Kristie Miller, “The block universe theory, where time travel is possible but time passing is an illusion,” 1 September 2018
This “block” begins to sound like the traditions of the Preserved Tablet, and Akashic Records. This may also be related to philosophical theories about eternalism or presentism. It is interesting that Joseph Smith claims that when he looked in his seer stone “time, place, and distance were annihilated; that all intervening obstacles were removed, and that he possessed one of the attributes of Deity, an All-Seeing Eye” (1826 Trial). This seems to be a transcendence of spacetime in consciousness. Such transcendence would have also likely taken place when he used his seer stone to see and “translate” the visionary “plates.” The “book” of the “plates” may have been that transcendent visionary state itself, in which he found his consciousness, which his mind reified as a kind of “book.” I’ve written before about Joseph’s reference to the “All-Seeing Eye” as similar to Eastern traditions of the “third eye.”
In these transcendent states of consciousness, one may gain an overview, a more holistic view of Reality, understanding the bigger picture, what is Real, what is true, the Absolute. One may understand the Source of all things, the origin of all thoughts, feelings, theories, philosophies, etc., or the Goal toward which all these things are pointing. One may see and know the One, the Source of all beings, the Singularity, which is also the essence of all beings, and which manifests itself as the substance that makes up all beings and things.
Having the ego structures of the first-person point of view in the mind, one may become keenly aware of the human condition, of its relative finite nature, of its mortal nature, of its tendency to separate, divide, alienate, collapse its identity to only its skin boundary, go to war with others, attach itself to things, seek all kinds of things to appease itself, aggrandize itself, protect itself. This ego is known in full light. And the true Self is also revealed, what the essence of consciousness really is. It is not a particular person, but somehow the essence of consciousness itself, life itself, being itself, reality itself. All subject-object dualism is transcended, and there is only the One, and you are that Holy (Wholly) One. Those who realize themselves in this One are perhaps those who have been metaphorically written into the book of Life. They have realized themselves as Life and Truth and Being itself, at-one in what has been called “God.” Those who are still lost in their egos are not yet so united, and suffer as a result.
When the mind tries to reify these things, to go from direct intuitive awareness of them, immediate knowing within one’s being, I suggest that the mind engages in meaning-making, interpretation, “translation,” manifestation, creation, and this can include the use of linguistic symbols, empty semantic forms (asemic writing?), characters, scripts. The mind may be trying to reify something that is fundamentally abstract, ineffable, indefinable, and so the letters are also initially abstract, and must be “translated” or deciphered. The seer’s mind is making it “on Earth as it is in heaven.” It is bringing the vision of that One down to Earth, giving it form and substance.
Or perhaps said in a different way, Truth is coming up from out of the Ground of Being, the Ground of “Adam,” the Hebrew adamah meaning ground or earth. Perhaps this is why some of these books/texts are said to be “hidden treasures” in the ground, even as Jesus himself noted the “kingdom” to be (Matt. 13:44). We are that ground. We have been made of the “dust of this Earth” as Genesis says, and so when we find this inner wisdom in consciousness, we are digging it out of the ground of the Earth, out of ourselves. We are realizing our oneness with the Earth itself, with the cosmos itself, and wisdom is springing out of this Earth of our self (Ps. 85:11). In a previous article I considered other mystics, seers, adepts, mediums who have also seen such characters in their mind’s eye, and “translated” them into meaning.
I think the visionary “gold plates” that Joseph Smith saw in his mind’s eye belong in the same category of mystical intuitions of a “heavenly book” that has existed throughout history in many different traditions. I suggest it is not a literal book, like we may pick up from a bookshelf, or that Joseph thought may be made of gold plates, but rather is metaphorically indicative of a transcendental spiritual Reality that he was perceiving in an altered state of consciousness, a Reality which may transcend spacetime and the finite localized ego-self of mind, to a much more holistic, all-encompassing, timeless, selfless, absolute, universal view of Truth and Reality.
I think the “gold” part of Joseph’s vision of the “plates” may have been largely a result of his treasure digging activities. He was always searching for gold in his youth, buried treasure. But that search seems to have turned from material gold to spiritual gold. There is something mystical about the search for gold, as we can see in alchemical transmutation, in the “hidden treasure” of several traditions, of turning the darkness and dross of the egoic self into the pure gold of the perfected human, the Golden Buddha found within. A recent webinar with mystical scholar Andrew Harvey is about this kind of alchemical transfiguration, of realizing that inner gold:
When this death of Self beckons you into the darkness of the unknown, something new is forged within you… a sacred identity. This process is precisely what helps you lose your layers of falsity so you can birth the gold of an awakened life…
The transfiguration archetype is at the core of all mystical traditions, says Andrew, all of which tell us that this new “divine human,” this “engoldened soul,” is our ultimate destination.-Shift Network, Discover the Alchemical Transformations…
This kind of transfiguration archetype is at the core of the Mormon tradition as well, I perceive.
I think that the “gold plates” were in a way Joseph’s own divine consciousness, the divinity that he perceived deep within himself, in his essence, the “divine human,” the “engoldened soul,” the Christed soul. It had nothing to do with literal gold plates, the precious metal, but soul-gold, the gold found deep within consciousness, the divine Self, this “hidden treasure” within each and all of humanity, life, and being. I think gold is an apt metaphor for referring to the perfection of that inner divinity, the purity forged by having passed through the Refiner’s Fire, removing all defilements, egoic imperfections, foreign matter, everything that is not truly us, and the profound Beauty that is thereafter revealed. It is the transcendence of the darkness of the false self, to the mystical realization of the true Self, our divine nature, in Light, Truth, and Reality.