One of the truisms of Mormon apologetics can be summarized thusly:
There is no solid physical evidence for the Book of Mormon because even if they had solid evidence, people who disbelieve the book still wouldn’t believe. And for the others, they would be logically compelled to believe in the gospel, thus skipping the all important step of having faith. Sometimes this is even embellished with the theory that God is being merciful by withholding all the evidence. He’s doing it for our benefit.
But, as with many apologetic truisms, this one makes no sense when compared to other situations where evidences such as source documents are available. Does the presence of these sources inspire other people to change their religion? And when faced with an “exceedingly unusual” claim (such as one that drastically rewrites traditional history) does the presence of “evidence” such as source documents usually help the claim, or does it do more damage?
After all, how many people converted to the Church after the “discovery” of the Joseph Smith papyri?
How many people changed their religious affiliation, or diminished their feelings towards their current one, after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi library, or any other recently discovered ancient religious document?
How many “anciently inscribed” metal plates or clay tablets supporting an alternate view of ancient American history have been discovered on the American continent in the last 200 years (inluding the Kinderhook plates, the Vorhee Tablets, and the Michigan Relics)? Of these, how many have been fraudulent, and how many have been authentic? Has the availability of the artifacts made it easier to determine their fraudulent nature, or harder?
How many hard evidences of an ancient Hebrew presence have been “discovered” in the Americas in the last 200 years (including the Bat Creed Stone and the Los Lunas inscription)? Of these, how many have been accepted as authentic, and how many have been determined to be likely fakes? How has the availability of the artifacts affected a researchers ability to determine their authenticity?
In any of the previous examples, if the artifacts had been “lost” or hidden, would it be easier or harder to believe in their authenticity?
Compare pre-1980 comments in Church publications regarding the Kinderhook plates to post-1990 comments (when testing in 1980 had strongly indicated a 19th century origin). If there had been existing Kinderhook plates to test, would we have seen such a dramatic change in the approach of Church scholars to the subject?
In addition to the Golden Plates that are now gone, also consider the liahona, Laban’s sword, the breastplate, the Urim and Thummim and the cement box, all of which were claimed to have been recovered by Joseph Smith in the 1820’s. When formulating a theory to explain the missing Golden Plates, should the theory also include an explanation for these other missing artifacts?
It should also be noted that “uneducated farmboys” have found ancient artifacts before, including significantly religious ones (main example being the Dead Sea Scrolls). Joseph Smith could have found an stash of ancient metal plates and artifacts entirely by luck, especially since he was digging in the area looking for such things anyway. So, the actual existence of the plates would only prove that Joseph Smith found some ancient plates.
The critical factor as far as faith and evidence is concerned would be the translation. But based on the situation with the Book of Abraham, where Joseph Smith’s “translation” doesn’t exactly correspond with what is one the original document, and the apologetic reaction to the situation, how is it imagined the reaction would be any different if Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon didn’t correspond with what is written on the plates (assuming scholars could crack the code in the first place).
Let’s take the most direct piece of evidence we have for Joseph Smith’s claims of supernatural gifts: the papyri. Is it your opinion that it was easier to believe in the Book of Abraham before the papyri was recovered in the 1960’s, or after? For those who believe the existing papyri is incomplete, do you imagine the recovery of the rest of the papyri would be more supportive of belief, or more damaging?
Look at the Kinderhook plates. Until an actual plate was discovered and tested, most LDS publications considered them genuine, and supportive of the presence of ancient metal plates in the Americas (and thus the Book of Mormon). But the increase in “evidence” allowed the claim to be tested and falsified. Luckily, it was a purely tangential issue (merely a footnote in Church history), but imagine if the same thing happened with the actual gold plates !?
And the same thing has happened over and over in the last 200 years, with all sorts of odd archaeological artifacts being found that support some unusual theory of the ancient americas. The artifacts that remain get tested and falsified (michigan relics, kinderhook plates, bat creek inscription etc.,) The only hope for a con or a fraud is to somehow get rid of the evidence, so it can’t be scrutinized or tested.
No, in the last 175 years, discoveries of physical evidence have ended up being negative to the previous orthodox belief of Church members and scholars, and have required an attitude shift and redefinition away from the previous belief, usually to a less-literal and less-likely-to-be-falsified version of belief.
But if you can get people to believe something regardless of the evidence for or against it, then who cares? You’ve hit the argumentative lottery, and have graduated to that blessed Xanadu that few can hope to achieve: where you can say almost anything you want, and people will believe you not because of the evidence for our claim, but only because you said it. And if evidence contradictory to your claim should appear in the future, the believers will not doubt your claim, but instead work to re-evaluate the evidence to make it fit with your claim, or ignore it all together. They’ll do the work for you!
Just to be clear, the plates would not be a “dead giveaway”.
Remember, there is a situation where a group of people seperated from the main “Church”, and lived in their own society for many years. Then, before their annihilation, they hid up their records (including copies of some of the books of the Old Testament, which they had with them). The records were preserved for over a dozen centuries, until discovered by an uneducated farmboy.
But this farm boy wasn’t Joseph Smith, and we still have them today. The discoverers of these ancient texts didn’t start a Church though. They handed them over to scholars. Thus, researchers the world over are able to learn about this ancient community. No one doubts the origin of the record, because they can be examined. And yet, their existence and publication hasn’t “compelled” anyone to change their belief, as far as I know.
These records are of course the Dead Sea Scrolls.
So, it would have been entirely possible for Joseph to have found a set of buried metal plates in one of his digging expeditions. The real proof wouldn’t be in the existence of the plates, it would be in the translation of the plates. And if the translation was shown to be unrelated to the engraven language, then those who had faith would accept their mistake, right?
Unfortunately, there is another similar case where Joseph translated some ancient documents, with the subsequent examination producing a non-faith promoting result. The Book of Abraham.
So, even if we had the plates, and the translation was shown to be incorrect, I’m sure we would be hearing all about a “catalyst” theory for the Book of Mormon, where these ancient american artifacts weren’t the actual record, but instead “inspired” Joseph to channel Mormon‘s long lost writings.
But if we had the plates, and the translation was shown to be correct, that would be pretty incredible. But considering the prevelance of hoaxes involving ancient american artifacts in the last 200 years, and the ability of the hoax to be exposed based on the availability of the artifacts, I think it was the smartest thing Joseph and/or God ever did when they got rid of the evidence.