Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies of the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths

Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies of the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths

by Ann Taves

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A leading scholar sheds critical light on the seemingly revelatory events behind new religions and spiritual movements

Unseen presences. Apparitions. Hearing voices. Although some people would find such experiences to be distressing and seek clinical help, others perceive them as transformative. Occasionally, these unusual phenomena give rise to new spiritual paths or religious movements. Revelatory Events provides fresh insights into what is perhaps the bedrock of all religious belief—the claim that otherworldly powers are active in human affairs.

Ann Taves looks at Mormonism, Alcoholics Anonymous, and A Course in Miracles—three cases in which insiders claimed that a spiritual presence guided the emergence of a new spiritual path. In the 1820s, Joseph Smith, Jr., reportedly translated the Book of Mormon from ancient gold plates unearthed with the help of an angel. Bill Wilson cofounded AA after having an ecstatic experience while hospitalized for alcoholism in 1934. Helen Schucman scribed the words of an inner voice that she attributed to Jesus, which formed the basis of her 1976 best-selling self-study course. In each case, Taves argues, the sense of a guiding presence emerged through a complex, creative interaction between a founding figure with unusual mental abilities and an initial set of collaborators who were drawn into the process by diverse motives of their own.

A major work of scholarship, this compelling and accessible book traces the very human processes behind such events.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400884469
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 10/25/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Ann Taves is professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her books include Religious Experience Reconsidered and Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (both Princeton).

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Revelatory Events

Three Case Studies of the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths

By Ann Taves


Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8446-9



The revelation to Joseph Smith that Mormons now refer to as "D&C 3," that is, the third revelation in the current edition of the LDS Church's canonized Doctrine and Covenants, provides our first direct window into the emergence of early Mormonism. Although there is evidence to suggest that Joseph Smith received what he and others viewed as revelations prior to this one, this is the first revelation that was written down at about the time it was received (JSP, D1:6). This and subsequent revelations were recorded on loose pages, which John Whitmer began transcribing into a manuscript book titled the "Book of Commandments and Revelations" in 1831. In the absence of the originals, which weren't kept, we don't know exactly when or how the earliest revelations were recorded, but John Whitmer supplied headings that indicated, in most cases, when, where, why, and to whom the revelation was given. From Whitmer's heading, we learn that Smith received the first recorded revelation in July 1828 in Harmony, Pennsylvania, "after he had lost certain writings which he had Translated by the gift & Power of God" (Revelation, July 1828, JSP, D1:6–8 [D&C 3]). This chapter centers on that revelation, using it to reconstruct, as carefully as we can, not only the event itself but the events that led up to and followed from it, as they likely appeared to those who were involved at the time.

The Context

Based on the real-time sources already cited and an array of later sources from those directly involved in the events, including Joseph's mother Lucy Smith, Emma's father Isaac Hale, and Martin and Lucy Harris, we can confirm and flesh out many of the basic historical facts that Smith recounted in his 1839 history related to the first real-time revelation, bracketing or noting interpretations that were contested. Geographically, it is important to note that the revelation was given to Smith in Harmony, Pennsylvania, where he and his wife Emma were living near her extended family, and not at the Smith family farm in Manchester Township in Upstate New York, although events unfolded between these two locations. As Smith indicated in his 1839 history, he boarded with the Hales in Harmony when he, in company with Josiah Stowell, his father, and a number of others, were searching for a mine they believed had been opened and abandoned by Spaniards in the late eighteenth century (EMD 4:407–13). According to the 1826 trial transcript in which Stowell's nephew brought charges against Smith for "imposture," Smith testified that, while living at Josiah Stowell's for five months, he had spent some time "employed in looking for mines," but most of the time, he said, he had worked on Stowell's farm and attended school (EMD 4:249). He acknowledged that "he had a certain stone, which he had occasionally looked at to determine where hidden treasures in the bowels of the earth were, that he professed to tell in this manner where gold mines were a distance underground, and had looked for Mr. Stowel [sic] several times." Stowell corroborated Smith's testimony, indicating that "he positively knew that the Prisoner [Smith] ... possessed the art of seeing those valuable treasures through the medium of said stone" (EMD 4:251). In a statement given in 1834, Isaac Hale confirmed that he met Smith in 1825, when he was "in the employ of a set of men who were called 'money-diggers'; and his occupation was that of seeing, or pretending to see [minerals and hidden treasure] by means of a stone placed in his hat, and his hat closed over his face" (EMD4:284). While Isaac Hale confirmed that he refused to consent to Joseph and Emma's marriage, he did so, he said, because he disapproved of Smith's money-digging (EMD 4:285), not because Smith claimed to have seen a vision in 1820 or 1823, as Smith implied in his 1839 history.

After they were married in January 1827, Joseph and Emma Smith moved to Manchester to live with Joseph's parents, and, in September 1827, they ostensibly recovered ancient golden plates from a hillside near the Smith family farm. The alleged recovery of the plates did arouse considerable interest, especially in treasure-seeking circles, and others did attempt to gain access to the plates (EMD 4:15–16). Joseph and Emma moved to Harmony in December 1827, where Emma's father had offered to help them get established in farming if Joseph would give up "money-digging" (EMD4:285). Martin Harris, a substantial, well-respected farmer from Palmyra, New York, contacted the Smith family in October 1827 after hearing about the recovered plates and gave Joseph and Emma fifty dollars in November to help with their move to Harmony (EMD 2:307–10). In Harmony, sometime between December 1827 and February 1828, Joseph Smith produced one or more documents containing "characters" that he said he copied from the plates, perhaps with the help of Emma and Emma's brother Reuben (MacKay 2013; JSP, D1:354–55). Harris visited Harmony in February 1828 and, with Smith's permission, took a "characters" document to show several scholars, among them the linguist Charles Anthon at Columbia University (EMD 2:253–54). Harris's wife Lucy apparently wanted to accompany him but did not (EMD 1:351).

Sometime in this period, Joseph, Emma, and perhaps also Reuben Hale began translating the plates. Martin and Lucy Harris visited Harmony together, most likely in late February or early March, and, in early April 1828, Martin returned to help full-time with the translation (EMD 1:353). As Smith recounts in his 1839 history, he and Harris worked for about two months, with Smith dictating and Harris transcribing. In mid-June, Harris took the first 116 manuscript pages home to Palmyra to show them to Lucy and others, leaving Harmony just before Emma delivered the Smith's first child, who died the same day, on 15 June 1828. Joseph stayed with his wife for about two weeks before leaving for Manchester to see why Harris had not yet returned. Over breakfast at the Smith family home, he learned from Harris that the manuscript was lost (see JSP, D1:443, EMD 1:363–64, and sources cited in EMD 4:275–76). Smith received the first recorded revelation after he returned to Harmony in the wake of learning of this loss.

A Turning Point

If we now turn to the content of the revelation itself, we find real-time evidence that the loss of the manuscript precipitated a crisis. The key portion of the text reads as follows:

behold thou art Joseph & thou wast chosen to do the work of the Lord but because of transgression thou mayest fall but remember God is merciful therefore repent of that which thou hast done & he will only cause thee to be afflicted for a season & thou art still chosen & will & will again be called to the work & except [p. 1] Thou do this thou shalt be delivered up & become as other men & have no more gift & when thou deliveredst up that Which that which God had given thee right to Translate thou deliveredest up that which was Sacred into the hands of a wicked man who has Set at naught the Councils of God & hath broken the most Sacred promises which was made before God & hath depended upon his own Judgement & boasted in his own armwisdom & this is the reason that thou hast lost thy Privileges for a Season for thou hast suffered that the council of thy directors to be trampeled upon from the begining for as the knowledge of a Saveiour hath come to the world so shall the knowledge of my People the Nephities [sic] & the Jacobites & the Josephites & the Lamanites come to the Lamanites ... for this very Purpose are these Plates prepared which contain these Records that the Promises of the Lord might be fulfilled which he made to his People & that the Lamanites might come to the knowledge of their Fathers ... Received in Harmony Susquehannah Penn. (JSP, D1:8–9)

The revelation presupposed the discovery and recovery of buried plates that were inscribed in an ancient language and could be translated by means of a gift that had been granted to Smith, who had been chosen for this work. The loss of the manuscript led Smith to fear that he was no longer chosen and thus threatened to derail the whole translation project. The crisis was resolved through the intervention of an otherworldly personage, who revealed to Smith that he was "still chosen" and would "again be called to the work." It was this intervention that was recorded and later transcribed as the first entry in the manuscript "Book of Commandments and Revelations."

Historians have rightly viewed this crisis as a major turning point. But what kind of turning point? Jan Shipps describes it as the point at which "Joseph Smith don[ned] the prophet's mantle" (1974, 17); Richard Bushman as the point at which Smith "cast aside" the magic of treasure seeking and "found his prophetic voice" (2005, 69); Dan Vogel as the point at which "Smith was transformed from a translator of God's words to ancient prophets into a prophet himself" (2004, 129). From a process perspective, however, describing him as a prophet in 1828 is premature. The headnote for the first revelation in the manuscript revelation book refers to him simply as "Joseph the Seer," as do many of the other revelation headnotes in the manuscript book (MRB, 9; see also 27, 35, 41). The manuscript book itself was titled "A Book of Commandments and Revelations of the Lord Given to Joseph the Seer and Others by the Inspiration of God and Gift and Power of the Holy Ghost" (ibid., 3). John Whitmer, who likely supplied the headings, as he transcribed the revelations into the manuscript book, regularly referred to Joseph as "the Seer" in his history (EMD5:233–38), despite the fact that the revelation of 6 April 1830 (JSP, D1:129 [D&C 21]), which legally constituted the church, instructed believers to view him as "a seer & Translater & Prop[h]et," as well as "Apostle" and "Elder." Subsequent early revelations characterized Smith as the church's president, as "a Seer a revelator a translator & a prophet" (11 November 1831B, JSP, D2:135 [D&C 107]), and as a "Seer, Revelator and Prophet" (5–6 December 1834, JSP, H1:32). Given that John and David Whitmer ultimately dissented from the LDS Church and the absence of such terms in the revelations apart from the headnotes, it seems prudent not to read back any labels for Smith into these early sources.

This is not to deny that the loss of the manuscript precipitated a crisis or that the recording of the revelation marked a turning point, but it allows us to specify the shifts in both process and content with more precision. Although we don't know for sure when or how the earliest revelations were recorded, the fact that they were recorded reflected an acknowledgment on the part of those who transcribed and preserved them, not only that it was possible to communicate with suprahuman entities in the present but that their communications needed to be recorded. The act of transcription recorded and, at the same time, formalized these communications as "revelations" (Shipps 1974, 18). In terms of content, the communication testified to Smith's gift and his continued calling as a translator. This suggests that the revelation was not simply a communication but an intervention into the process. The text simultaneously recorded the intervention of a suprahuman entity in the process of translation (to testify to Smith's gift and his continued calling) and formalized the intervention as a "revelation."

Key Terms as Building Blocks

Three key terms are at work in this first recorded revelation — revelation, gifts, and translation — each of which served as a fundamental "building block" in the process of generating the manuscript of the Book of Mormon. Although this point may seem obvious, I want to stress that all three were complex cultural concepts, simultaneously internal to the process and constitutive of it. They came together in the context of the first real-time recorded revelation in a new way, simultaneously establishing real-time revelation as a formal recorded practice and reaffirming Smith's gifts as a translator. Each has a history of use before and after this event, which allows us to situate them in a developmental trajectory.

The idea of explicit "revelations," which this first recorded revelation instantiated, was preceded by communications from suprahuman entities, often in response to inquiries made in prayer. The revelation itself refers to these past communications as "revelations," when the speaker notes that "a man" — presumably alluding to Smith — "may have many Revelations ... yet ... incur the vengeance of a Just God" if he transgresses. Moreover, the recording of this revelation did not necessarily presuppose belief in continuing revelation as the church later came to understand it. The early revelations, written on individual sheets of paper, were not transcribed into a manuscript book until 1831 and were not published until 1833, at which point they were understood within a framework of "continuing revelation" to the church. During the translation process, those involved may have simply viewed them in practical terms, as divine interventions needed to keep the process on track. They might have believed that the revelations were given to individuals, as David and John Whitmer later concluded, "for their individual instruction" during the translation process and not, as the church later claimed, to the church through its president (as seer and prophet) as continuing revelation (EMD 5:207). We can distinguish, as the Whitmers did in retrospect, between new revelation that functioned to facilitate the translation process and the institutionalization of an open-ended process of continuing revelation (via the presidency) as a distinctive mark of the restored church. While the progression from recording, to transcribing in a manuscript book, to publication and canonization as revelations of the church may seem inevitable in retrospect, they were steps in a developmental process that could have occurred otherwise, as the dissenters came to acknowledge (introduction in JSP, MRB, xxv–xxviii).

The idea of "gifts" also has a developmental history. The revelation itself was centrally concerned with the gift of translation, which the earliest version of the text characterized as the "right to Translate," but which Sidney Rigdon later amended to read the "sight and power to Translate" (JSP, MRB, 11). The speaker said that he had lost these "Priveleges" due to his transgressions, but that, if he repented, he would "again be called to the work" and the translation process, which depended on this gift, would go forward.

Although his initial gift was simply that of "translator," the idea of gifts was significantly enlarged over the coming months to include the gift of "revelation" (Revelation, April 1829-B,JSP, D1:45 [D&C 8]) and the gift of "seership" (Mosiah 8:11–13). In Mosiah 8:11–13, a portion of the Book of Mormon dictated in early April 1829, a seer was explicitly characterized as one to whom God had given the "gift" of interpreting "the language or the engravings" recorded on ancient plates by means of "interpreters." This characterization specified the role of the seer beyond that of ordinary local seers, who were generally viewed simply as people who could see what others could not by means of special tools or techniques. It also dramatically elevated the seer's status, such that the seer was not only "greater than a prophet" but "a revelator and a prophet also."

Smith had previously demonstrated gifts as a local "seer" engaged in treasure seeking or "money-digging" to the satisfaction of some of his contemporaries, including Josiah Stowell. Others, however, were skeptical, including Stowell's nephew, who brought charges against him in 1826. Sometime after his trial, Smith and others began to view his gift of seeing in the more exalted terms expressed in Mosiah 8 (Bushman 2005, 69). With the founding of the church in 1830, Smith's gifts as seer, translator, revelator, and prophet were all explicitly recognized. In the wake of the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon, others would claim that they too had gifts of seership and prophecy, and these claims were adjudicated through new real-time revelations to Smith, thus confirming his status as the primary and authoritative "prophet, seer, and revelator" (see Revelation, September 1830-B [D&C 28], JSP, D1:183–86).

The concept of "translation" presupposed that Smith had recovered ancient records inscribed on metal plates that required translation and that the "right to Translate," as a gift and a privilege given by God, could also be taken away. In this case, the speaker indicated that Smith had lost his "Privileges for a Season," not only because he delivered the manuscript to Harris, but also because he "suffered that the council of thy directors [interpreters] to be trampeled [sic] upon" (JSP, D1:8–9). This was likely a reference to the objects that he (and, as it turned out, Book of Mormon "seers") used to translate. In the revelation itself, we thus see indications that the translation did not involve the usual process of translating words from one language to another but involved special objects that were known by various names. The title page of the Book of Mormon acknowledged the unusual nature of the process as well, indicating that the translation or "interpretation" of the records "[came] forth by the gift and power of God" (JSP, D1:65).


Excerpted from Revelatory Events by Ann Taves. Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Illustrations and Tables vii
Preface xi
Acknowledgments xv
Abbreviations xvii
Introduction 1
Part 1 Making Meaning 13
Case Study A Restored Church 17
1 Translation 23
2 Materialization 50
3 Beginnings 66
Case Study An Anonymous Fellowship 82
4 Stories 89
5 Fellowship 110
6 Seeking 129
Case Study A Course in Miracles 151
7 Emergence 157
8 Teaching(s) 180
9 Roles 195
Part 2 Creating Paths 223
10 Groups 225
11 Selves 240
12 Motives 270
Conclusion 290
Appendix Discussion of Methods 297
Appendix Charts 311
Bibliography 331
Author Index 347
Subject Index 351

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"Ann Taves uses her skills as a historian to demonstrate that it is not spiritual experience itself that makes revelatory events, and her skills in cognitive science to unpack how events become revelatory. A deeply fascinating book, Revelatory Events helps us rethink spirituality itself."—T. M. Luhrmann, author of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God

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