In 1845, former member of the Church James Strang claimed to have found ancient metal plates. What were the Voree Plates?
This is the eleventh in a series compiled from the many interviews conducted during the course of the Witnesses film project. This series of mini-films is being released each Saturday at 7pm MDT. These additional resources are hosted by Camrey Bagley Fox, who played Emma Smith in Witnesses, as she introduces and visits with a variety of experts. These individuals answer questions or address accusations against the witnesses, also helping viewers understand the context of the times in which the witnesses lived. For more information, go to https://witnessesofthebookofmormon.org/ or watch the documentary movie Undaunted.
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Witnesses of the Book of Mormon — Insights
Episode 11: What were the Voree Plates?
Martin Harris: And I thank you most of all for allowing me to share that which I know with you. I give you these words, not as things that come from my mouth, but things that come from this book. I KNOW that The Book of Mormon is a true work of God, and that it has been given to us for our good.
Woman: Thank you, Brother Harris, your words surprised me.
Man: They surprised all of us. Your witness is remarkable.
Martin: Thank you.
Dismayed Man: What are you doing?
Martin: What do you mean?
Dismayed: You are here to testify of the faith.
Martin: My testimony of the Book has never waivered.
Dismayed: Martin, you are a missionary of the faith, you have been called to declare James Strang as the prophet and leader.
Martin: Did you see them?
Dismayed: With streaming eyes they leave thanking you for defending the faith. THEIR faith. Perhaps this mission is not for you.
Martin: I will continue to tell everyone within the sound of my voice of the things that I saw, and of the things I know. This book is a book of God.
Camrey Bagley Fox: Welcome to our series about the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. My name is Camrey Bagley Fox. And we are joined today by Dr. Gerritt Dirkmaat. Thanks for being here.
Gerritt Dirkmaat: Thanks for having me.
CBF:There are others who claim that there are people in the past who have had the same experience as Joseph. That they’ve found plates, that there were witnesses to those plates. For example, James Strang. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
GD: So James Strang is an Elder in the Church, and he’s actually a pretty late convert. He only joins a few months, actually, before Joseph Smith is murdered. He’s a pretty dynamic character, a pretty charismatic and, in some ways, larger than life. And after Joseph Smith is murdered, and there’s this succession crisis of, ‘Who now is going to lead the Church?’ I think Latter-day Saints are pretty familiar with the fact that Sidney Rigdon says, ‘Well, I should be the new leader of The Church.’ And there’s actually other people who make these claims.
Well, one of the people that makes the claim, in fact, the most successful claim, is actually James Strang. Strang is going to claim that he, actually, is to be the new leader of the Church. He’s going to claim that he has a letter from Joseph Smith STATING that, and that that’s the beginning point of his claim.
He’s also going to claim to receive revelations, in much the way Joseph Smith had received revelations. And eventually, he’s going to claim that he has found some metal plates in a burial mound in Voree, Wisconsin, and that those plates have etchings on them, writings on them, and that he is going to translate them, and so now he’s even appearing to be like Joseph Smith in translating plates.
So, someone might say, ‘Well, I mean, James Strang had plates. How is that any different, when he says that he had plates and these witnesses of the Book of Mormon say that THEY saw gold plates?’ And there’s just a real fundamental difference in the sense that these plates are shown to these witnesses miraculously in a SHARED, a collective, visionary experience.
The angel is appearing to not JUST Martin Harris, it’s Martin Harris and Joseph Smith. He’s appearing to David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith, and bringing the plates with him, and himself giving the declaration of what these things are, and the voice of the Lord declaring that these things are true.
CBF: So James was just claiming—he claimed that he received them from God?
GD: No, he claimed that he found them.
CBF: Okay. And then —
GD: And that he translated them.
CBF: —and he showed them to others.
GD: That, of course, is really convincing to many early Latter-day Saints. At the same time, there is a difference between the two. First of all, the gold plates and the Book of Mormon are much, much, much longer than the Voree plates. Detractors of Strang’s claims will point to people, who later will say, ‘Oh, I actually helped him manufacture those plates. We took an old tea kettle and we pounded it out, and they’re just a fraud.’ Now again, for someone who’s a believer in Strang’s claims, they would say, ‘Well that person’s lying.’ So I want to let them have their beliefs.
Strang is able to gain many converts, in the sense that there are practices and teachings in the Church that many new converts from England and other places don’t want to accept. The radical teachings of Joseph Smith on the progression of God, becoming like God, of our ability to become like God, of eternal AND plural marriage, those things are things that people don’t want to believe. And so, one of the things that Strang offered was, ‘I don’t believe those things.’ Right?
So it allows you to believe the Book of Mormon is true and that Joseph Smith’s a prophet, and all that, but you don’t have to wrestle with the more difficult aspects of Joseph Smith’s late revelations, talking about the nature and character of God, and even more difficult, of course, that Joseph Smith is teaching and practicing plural marriage by the end of his life.
CBF: Was Martin Harris a believer in James Strang?
GD: For a time, Martin Harris believes that Strang really is—of course, Martin Harris is already out of the Church when Joseph is murdered. So all the witnesses are already out of the Church when Joseph was murdered. And kind of like we talked about, though, they all still really believe that the Book pf Mormon is the word of God. So they’re out of the Church, they’ve got great enmity with some of the Church leaders, but the Book of Mormon is still the word of God. Well, what does James Strang provide? He provides, in his claims, something that Joseph really is a prophet, The Book of Mormon really is the word of God, it’s the keystone of Strang’s religion as well, but I don’t have to follow the current leadership of the Church, right?
CBF: Mm hm.
GD: So if I’ve got a real problem with that Quorum of the Twelve that had me excommunicated, I can still have a problem with them.
GD: Because they can go settle off in the mountains while I follow this other person.
Now, Martin Harris will eventually become disenchanted with the Strang arguments, and so while he will, for a time, join them, and preach for them, and be a part of them, he’s going to eventually leave the movement.
It’s very common for a Latter-day Saint, honestly, even NOW, it’s a very easy thing for a Latter-day Saint to believe that someone found some kind of writing in the New World that talks about the people who lived here, because it’s such a key part of what we believe. And I think that’s why many Latter-day Saints were taken in by the Kinderhook Plates fraud, because they really want to believe that there’s other writing, and that’s why Strang’s claim that he found plates is also very persuasive to some people, because they SO much believe that The Book of Mormon is the word of God. Well, here appears to be other evidences that might help prove that. And Martin Harris finds that, at least for a time, in the sense that, ‘How can I believe in The Book of Mormon, in an organized Church, but not the one that kicked me out? How can I believe it, but in a different way?’ And Strangism provides that opportunity for some people.
CBF: Thank you.
GD: You’re welcome.