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History Book: Joseph and the golden plates


WORLD Radio - History Book: Joseph and the golden plates

Two hundred years ago, Joseph Smith reportedly meets an angel who reveals to him the location of the golden plates of the Book of Mormon

The third volume of the Joseph Smith papers including the printer's manuscript of the Book of Mormon Associated Press/Photo by Rick Bowmer

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Monday, September 18th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Up next, the WORLD History Book.

This week marks the 200th anniversary of a supposed angelic visitor to a young New Yorker, but not every angel of light is from above. Here’s WORLD Radio Executive Producer, Paul Butler.

PAUL BUTLER, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: In the early 19th century, the 2nd Great Awakening is spreading like wildfire.

EVANGELIST: God gives us the power over temptation, but we are weak in the face of it.

In Central and Western New York, evangelists and itinerant preachers hold large, open air meetings. The services are well attended.

Historian Stephen Nichols is president of Reformation Bible College.

NICHOLS: Revivalist preachers are coming through and telling people they're not Christian, and they need to come forward. And then they'll come through the next year and say, “Well, you came forward last year, but it didn't take. So you need to come forward again.”

Evangelist Charles Finney refers to this region of New York as a “burnt district.” The fire of revival burns hot. People respond with great expressions of repentance, wailing, ecstatic utterances, but soon after return to the way things were. Until the next revival meeting.

A cynicism emerges about traditional Christianity as it seems inadequate to transform people’s lives. Nonconformist movements, folk religion, and personal spirituality fill the void.

In 1817 a boy named Joseph Smith moves into the region with his siblings and parents.

NICHOLS: His father was very spiritual, his mother was mystical. They never were members of a formal church.

Joseph’s father practices divination and often speaks of special visions from God. He raises his family to seek the same.

From a young age, Joseph knows he’s a sinner, but is confused by all the churches claiming to have the truth. So one day he heads into the woods alone to pray—pleading with God to show him the true way.

Smith claims God the Father and Jesus Christ appear to him—assuring him his sins are forgiven, but insist he should not join the church…

NICHOLS: That for the last 2000 years, everyone's been mistaken. And we’re now going to have a restoration, or the true church will be restored. And Joseph Smith is the chosen one, the prophet through whom all this is going to happen.

A couple years later Joseph Smith is in his room praying on September 21st, 1823. He later writes:

SMITH: While I was thus in the act of calling upon God I discovered a light appearing in the room which continued to increase until the room was lighter than at noon-day.

A bright figure bathed in light stands before him.

SMITH: When I first looked upon him, I was afraid but the fear soon left me.

The angel says his name is Moroni…He tells Smith God has a special work for him to do: including the finding of a great spiritual treasure.

SMITH: He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates.

The golden plates contain the ancient history of people descended from Israelites who escaped to the Americas. Moroni also warns Smith of a coming tribulation and Christ’s soon return.

SMITH: He informed me of great judgments, which were coming upon the earth with great desolations by famine, sword and pestilence; and that these grievous judgments would come on the earth in this generation.

Over the next five years, Smith has many similar visitations from Moroni. With his help, Smith eventually finds the golden plates and brings them home. The language is a form of hieroglyphics. Using divination stones, Smith says he can read the text. He dictates the words to a scribe, and then returns the plates to the angel. Smith’s translation is known today as the Book of Mormon.

Unlike the Bible whose source texts are written in common languages and are supported by archeological and historical evidence—followers of Smith have to take his word on what he read and wrote as there is no way to verify it. There’s also no historical evidence for the fanciful histories included in the Book of Mormon.

Some think Smith just had a vivid imagination and made the whole thing up. Others believe that Smith really did have an angelic visitor.

The Apostle Paul warns of such deceptions in 2 Corinthians chapter 11:13 "For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light."

In Augustine’s City of God he describes a similar thing happening in Rome:

“The devils first of all cunningly seduce them by revealing themselves under a friendly guise, and thus make a few of them their disciples, who become the instructors of the multitude.”

Deceive one, who will in turn teach the errors to many. Smith’s followers have grown to more than 16 million Latter Day Saints in the world today.

On this anniversary of Joseph Smith’s vision, Stephen Nichols says the temptation is as strong as ever to seek out secret knowledge and personal revelation, but history shows how often it leads to grave error.

NICHOLS: I think if I were to ask most evangelicals what would you rather have? Would you rather have your morning cup of coffee and your Bible? Or would you rather have your morning cup of coffee, and Jesus comes down and sits in the seat next to you and tells you everything you need to know for the day? And our impulse might be to say, “Oh, I want Jesus sitting in the seat next to me.” But I think we have to, as Christians, first of all have to push back against any of that impulse in us, and recognize that God's word alone is sufficient, that it is what we absolutely must have for life and godliness as Peter tells us, in the opening of his epistle. That this is God's gift to his church, to reveal to us, first and foremost, His Son and His plan of redemption. But then secondly, his plan for our lives and his will, his desire for creation and God's plan. And so this is given to us in the Word of God.

My thanks to WORLD Radio intern Noah Burgdorf for his assistance, and to voice actor Kim Rassmussen for reading the words of Joseph Smith from his biography published in 1853.

That’s this week’s WORLD History Book. I’m Paul Butler.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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