Class of 1978 Pavilion in the Kislak Center
6th Floor of Van-Pelt Library
We will be welcoming Sonia Hazard for a talk entitled: “America’s Cargo Cult: How Joseph Smith Discovered Printing Plates and Founded Mormonism.” Sonia writes:
Did Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, find golden plates buried in the earth? Though this question used to polarize believing and nonbelieving scholars, today most scholars of Mormonism normally pass over the matter of the plates as insignificant or unanswerable. In this presentation, I return to that shopworn query from a new perspective, one that draws on the history of material texts. Smith indeed found something in the dirt: What he found, I argue, were metal printing plates, known to the early-nineteenth century book trades as stereotyped plates. A textbook case of the cargo cult, Smith and his followers were astonished by this technology and interpreted it as a sacred gift containing revelations, which became the scriptural basis of the Mormon religion. Beyond its empirical contribution to the study of Mormon origins, I analyze tendencies among scholars to account for the presence and effects of material objects through appeals to cultural context (surrounding objects) and imagination (assumed to precede objects). The case of the stereotyped plates models a different way to approach materiality that attends to how material things not only reflect prior cultures and mentalities, but may themselves pose a difference, acting as agents of religious change in their own rights.
Sonia Hazard is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Franklin & Marshall College. Her work focuses on religious print media in the nineteenth-century United States. Her articles appear (or are forthcoming) in The Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Religion and Society, andChurch History. Her edited special issue of Early American Studies on “Keywords in Early American Material Texts” will come out in Fall 2018. She has received long-term fellowship support from the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Winterthur Library, and the RBS/Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in Critical Bibliography.