The Gold Plates
An intervention in history, a call to transformation
I am a skeptic by nature. My instinctive reaction to stories of divine intervention is doubt. I am dubious about prayers for lost keys. (Which doesn’t prevent me from offering such prayers. Consistency can be a hobgoblin.) For the most part, skepticism has served me well. As the dramatist Wilson Mizner quipped, “I respect faith, but doubt is what gives you an education.”
I was trained in the tools of skeptical analysis at university and law school and wholeheartedly agree with Henry B. Eyring’s observation that “universities . . . are probably . . . as good a way we know of to find truth.” Why? That’s best summed up in words attributed to Harold Macmillan, the former prime minister of Great Britain, spoken when he was the Chancellor of the University of Oxford: “Nothing you learn here at Oxford will be of the slightest possible use to you later, save only this: that if you work hard and diligently, you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot. And that is the main, if not the sole purpose of education.”
I want to know when rot is being spoken. I don’t want to be fooled. I’m haunted by Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day where the protagonist, who, while confined to the small world of the manor he served so diligently, had no way to know that his life was built on a lie. It was only when he ventured beyond the manor that he was able to know the truth. I don’t want my thinking to be confined to the manor.
Which makes my conversion story unsettling to skeptical me because it was based on a spiritual experience wholly outside the realm of the reasoned skepticism that I have grown to trust over a lifetime.
I was sixteen years old at the time, a junior in high school living in a suburb of Washington, D.C. Although no one would have mistaken me for devout, I was interested in religion and had regularly attended church with my family since I was a small child. Even so, I had little sense that Jesus Christ was a living, dynamic presence, and I was agnostic as to the truthfulness of the New Testament claim that He was Lord and Savior.
Because religion interested me, I was open to the invitation of a Latter-day Saint friend to attend early morning Seminary. There I discovered about twenty high-school students taught by a young married couple. The friendliness and informality of the class appealed to me. I was especially touched by the students’ open expressions of faith in Christ and love of family—things I had not heard expressed by my peers. The discussion that day was about the Book of Mormon and how it fit into the Latter-day Saint canon alongside the Old and New Testaments. At the end of the class, the teacher gave me a copy of the Book of Mormon, which he encouraged me to read.
I took the book to school, and during class, slipped the Book of Mormon inside the textbook I was supposed to be reading and began to leaf through its pages. Initially, my attention was drawn to the illustrations depicting scenes that were new to me, but then I started reading the text. When I did, something unexpected and marvelous happened, something I can’t put fully into words. All at once, I was overcome with a sense of wonder. Joy filled my heart, and my mind came alive with excitement. I experienced a powerful sense that what I was reading was true, that it was ancient, that it confirmed the importance of the Bible, especially the trustworthiness of the New Testament account of the life of Christ, and that the rest of my life would be inextricably intertwined with this book and its custodian. I wanted to know more, much more. My baptism soon followed.
The decision to join the Church remains the single best decision I have made in my life, yet I did so largely on the basis of a mystical experience that defies rational analysis. The decision to stay fully committed to the Church is the second best decision of my life, yet it is based in large measure on my skepticism.
I am convinced that there really were gold plates and that Joseph Smith provides the best explanation of their provenance and purpose. As Richard Bushman points out in his latest book, Joseph Smith’s Gold Plates: A Cultural History, a belief that the plates were what Joseph Smith claimed “makes a big difference in one’s outlook on the world. With the plates comes an angel and divine intervention in ordinary human lives. The plates imply a world where God is an active agent in human affairs in opposition to the skepticism that has eroded religion for the past two hundred years.”
In this sense, the gold plates serve much the same role for Latter-day Saint Christians as the bodily resurrection of Jesus plays for all Christians. Christians of the first century asserted that, with the bodily resurrection of Jesus, “history has been invaded by God in Christ in such a way that nothing can stay as it was. All terms of human community and conduct have been altered at the deepest levels.”1 The claim that the New Testament story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is a historical reality is both the strength of the Christian witness and its greatest vulnerability. As Ross Douthat observes, “[T]he Christian story . . . recounts a series of events that, if real, tell us something profound about the nature of God and His relationship to His creatures.” “If real.” There's the rub. Was the story of the bodily resurrection of Jesus real? Or was it, in the words of 2 Peter 1:16 (NRSV), a “cleverly devised myth”?
The same tension exists with respect to the claim of Latter-day Saints that recent history has been “invaded by God in Christ,” this time through the Restoration of his gospel beginning in nineteeth-century America. This updated version of the Christian story also “recounts a series of events that, if real, tell us something profound about the nature of God and His relationship to His creatures.” But are those events real?
Eyewitness accounts of the bodily resurrection of Jesus fueled the faith of the earliest Christians. People they trusted claimed that they saw, heard, touched, and even shared a meal with the Risen Christ. So, too, with the story of the Latter-day Saints. At the heart of our story is the claim of a miracle: an angel gave to Joseph Smith the gold plates from which this unlettered man miraculously produced the Book of Mormon. The book is an account of an ancient peoples’ encounter with the Risen Christ that is intended to bolster the New Testament witness of Christ in a secular age. As with the first Christians, eyewitnesses claim that this modern miracle is a historical reality. The gold plates were not the stuff of a mystical vision or the ineffable. They were material, physical. They were seen, touched, hefted, and examined by people who, as a result, believed that history had once again “been invaded by God in Christ in such a way that nothing can stay as it was.” And while we know little about the ancient New Testament eyewitnesses, we know much about the more recent eyewitnesses to the gold plates who left abundant records of their lives, and we have the text of the Book of Mormon to study and analyze.
On the strength of the eyewitness descriptions of the gold plates, I'm persuaded that they were real. That's the easy part. The more intriguing and important issue is raised by the possibility that the gold plates and the complex and profound text that emerged from their translation were part of a modern miracle. If so, they are a marker that there may be more to reality than what I can see, touch, feel, and measure. The gold plates prod the skeptic to allow for the possibility that reality includes God and Christ and angels and moral laws that shape and mold us into different types of beings than we might otherwise be, and that God in Christ has undertaken a major project for all the world in our time. When I choose to accept that reality, my life is different and better. And when my vision of that reality becomes blurry, I recall the gold plates, the eyewitnesses to their historical reality, the text they contained, and the miracle they present to a skeptical world and to skeptical me.
Bertrand Russell, the most famous of the twentieth-century’s atheists, quipped that were he to meet God in heaven after this life that he would defend his lack of belief with the complaint, “You should have given me more evidence!” The gold plates supply evidence. The text of the Book of Mormon supplies evidence. My life needs to account for that evidence, for the possibility—or is it the probability?—that they are part of a dramatic story of God intervening in history in modern times “in such a way that nothing can stay as it was.” I can think of no better way to do that than to give my life to the custodian of that miracle.
Thomas B. Griffith was a judge on the U. S. Court of Appeals for the D. C. Circuit from 2004-2020. Currently he is a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, a Fellow at the Wheatley Institute at Brigham Young University, Special Counsel to the international law firm of Hunton Andrews Kurth, and Senior Policy Advisor to the National Institute for Civil Discourse. His most recent writings have appeared in the Harvard Law Review, the Yale Law Journal, and BYU Studies.
David Bentley Hart, The New Testament: A Translation, xxiii-xxiv (Yale 2017).