29 July 2012

Joseph: Moroni and the Gold Plates

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer, 2003, Excerpts

One night in the autumn of 1823, when Joseph was seventeen, ethereal light filled his bedroom, followed by the appearance of an angel, who introduced himself as Moroni and explained that he had been sent by God. He had come to tell Joseph of a sacred text inscribed on solid gold plates that had been buried fourteen hundred years earlier under a rock on a nearby hillside. Moroni then conjured a vision in Joseph’s mind, showing the exact place the plates were hidden. The angel cautioned the boy, however, that he shouldn’t show the plates to anyone, or try to enrich himself from them, or even to attempt to retrieve them yet. By gazing into his most reliable peep stone, Joseph further learned that in order for him to be given the plates, God required that he marry a girl named Emma Hale and bring her along on his next visit to the hill, in September 1827.

High on the steep west slope of the hill, Joseph dug beneath the rock in the dark of night, while Emma stood nearby with her back turned to him. He soon unearthed the stone box that he had been prevented from removing four years earlier. The box contained a sacred text, “written on golden plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent,” which had been hidden on the hill for fourteen hundred years. They were filled with engravings in Egyptian characters and bound together in a volume. The stack of metal pages stood about six inches high. Joseph gathered up the plates and headed home with them. Later, nineteen witnesses would testify that they had actually seen the gold book.

Although the text was written in an exotic, long-dead language described as “reformed Egyptian,” Moroni had also given Joseph a set of divinely endowed spectacles that would allow the person wearing them to comprehend the strange hieroglyphics. By means of these magic glasses, Joseph began deciphering the document, dictating his translation to a neighbor named Martin Harris, who acted as his scribe. After two months of painstaking work they completed the first 116 page translation. Moroni retrieved the golden plates and magic spectacles, and Joseph reluctantly allowed Harris to borrow the manuscript to show his skeptical, disapproving wife. Disaster then struck: Harris somehow mislaid all 116 pages. The prevailing view is that his wife was so furious that Harris had gotten involved in such nonsense that she stole the pages and destroyed them.

In September 1828, however, after much praying and contrition on Joseph’s part, Moroni returned the plates, and the translation resumed, initially with Emma Smith serving as scribe. But the angel hadn’t returned the spectacles along with the plates this time around, so to decipher the Egyptian characters Joseph relied instead on his favorite peep stone: a chocolate-colored, egg-shaped rock.

Day after day, Joseph would place the magic rock in an upturned hat, bury his face in it with the stack of gold plates sitting nearby, and dictate the lines of scripture that appeared to him out of the blackness. He worked at a feverish pace during this second phase of the translation, averaging some thirty-five hundred words a day, and by the end of June 1829 the job was finished.

Nine months after the translation was completed, the 588-page book finally rolled off the presses and went on sale in the printer’s brick storefront in downtown Palmyra. Little more than a week after that – on April 6, 1830 – Joseph formally incorporated the religion that we know today as the Church of Latter-day Saints. The religion’s foundation – its sacred touchstone and guiding scripture – was the translation of the gold plates, which bore the title The Book of Mormon.

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