While not denying that the Book of Mormon is extraordinary, some people today have tried to “bridge a middle ground” by saying it is “inspired fiction,” the product of Joseph Smith’s imagination. That explanation for the book’s origin does not work, said Anthony Sweat a speaker on Oct. 24 at the Sidney B. Sperry Symposium.
Brother Sweat, a member of the BYU religion faculty and a former teacher and administrator with Church seminaries and institutes, spoke on the theme “Hefted and Handled: Tangible Interactions with Book of Mormon Objects.”
“The sacred-fiction theory says the Book of Mormon is ‘true’ in the sense that it leads people to do good things, be virtuous and live good lives,” he said. “They view it as ‘inspired fiction,’ that God inspired Joseph Smith to work up this record but that its not actual, tangible, real history,” he explained.
“The problem with that, though, is that is not how Joseph Smith explained the Book of Mormon. He begins the story of the Book of Mormon by talking about physical relics, actual stones, actual relics that he pulls out of the ground, characters that he actually copies down and looks at.”
Brother Sweat spent the bulk of his lecture giving evidences from contemporaries of Joseph Smith that physical objects associated with the coming forth of the Book of Mormon actually existed.
These people said, in effect, that not just Joseph had interaction with the plates but they themselves either hefted them or saw them or touched them, he said. “They had sensory experiences testifying to us that Joseph isn’t just working this fiction from his mind but he’s working from an actual artifact that he recovered.”
For example, he said, a number of people said they saw the stone box that Joseph contained the Book of Mormon plates and other items buried in what today is known as the Hill Cumorah.
Samuel Lawrence and Willard Chase, two associates of Joseph’s in a former treasure seeking venture, were certain that he had the Nephite plates and even tried to obtain them from him, reasoning that they had a financial interest in them due to the former business partnership. Brother Sweat said David Whitmer was first alerted to the existence of the Book of Mormon by conversations with Lawrence and Chase, who told him they had seen the spot in the hill from which Joseph obtained the record.
Martin Harris, in later years, shared an account of going with others to the hill to see if they could find any stone boxes containing items. Martin reported that they did find a stone box and tried to raise it with a crowbar, breaking off one corner of the box.
Brother Sweat shared an 1870 account from Edward Stevenson, a Church member in Utah who traveled back to Palmyra, New York. He said he questioned a local farmer about the origin of the Book of Mormon.
The man told him “that he had seen some good-sized, flat stones that had rolled down and lay near the bottom of the hill,” Brother Sweat said. “That had occurred after the contents of the box had been removed, and these stones were doubtless the ones that formally composed the box that the Book of Mormon came from.”
Brother Sweat said the man who was probably the first witness of the Book of Mormon plates other than Joseph Smith himself was Josiah Stoal who had earlier employed Joseph Smith and others in seeking a lost silver mine (see Joseph Smith — History 1:56-57 in the Pearl of Great Price). He was at the Smith family home the night Joseph brought the plates home from the hill. Joseph handed them in through a window of the home; Josiah Stoal reported that he was the one who received the plates. They were covered in a linen frock, but he said part of the frock fell away and he saw a corner of the plates, recalling that they had a greenish cast.
Some scholars have surmised that he may have seen the metal band that sealed two-thirds of the plates, and the band may have been made of copper, which takes on a greenish appearance as it oxidizes over time.
“For all intents and purposes, Josiah Stoal is the ninth witness,” Brother Sweat commented, alluding to the eight official witnesses who said they hefted and handled the plates. “Although he didn’t get to open the plates up and thumb through them as the Eight Witnesses did, he got to heft them, touch them, feel them, and he even saw a corner of them as they were being handed through the window.”
Lucy Mack Smith, the Prophet’s mother, also had “an interaction with tangible artifacts” associated with the Book of Mormon plates, Brother Sweat said.
In her published history of Joseph Smith she reported that when he returned from the hill with the plates, he handed her the breastplate that was one of the items included with the record and which held the stones comprising the Urim and Thummim which Joseph used in translation of the record. She said the breastplate was wrapped in a muslin handkerchief so thin that she “could see the glistening metal and ascertain its proportions without any difficulty. It was concave on one side and convex on the other, and it extended from the neck downward as far as the center of a man of extraordinary size. It had four straps of the same material for the purpose of fastening it to the breast, two of which ran back to go over the shoulders, and the other two were designated to fasten to the hips. They were just the width of my two fingers, for I measured them.”
Brother Sweat commented, “This is so detailed that if this is not real, if these artifacts are not real, where is she getting the dimensions from? Is Lucy Mack Smith delusional as well? I don’t think so. She’s having real experiences, tangible interaction with real artifacts. She’s giving us her account of what she experienced with them.”