Mormonism is one of those movements that has grappled imperfectly with modernity, from what I have been able to gather. The Book of Mormon plates are exhibit A for that. Insisting that there is a physical object dug out of the earth that others have felt, handled, seen, etc., is an obvious move to validate spiritual truths as "real." The affidavits are the biggest tell here. To have 11 people affirm through documents that they had the experiences described in their testimonies is an obvious move to establish the actual factual nature of the plates as a product of real ancient civilizations.I think if we were going to make a distinction between spiritual "knowledge" and "factual" knowledge, then we'd need to steer clear of the apologist shell game that simply uses notions of spirituality to defend against uncomfortable facts, or to just make up facts whole cloth. I think the key to any kind of authentic spiritual knowledge, to the extent that such a thing could actually be, is that spiritual knowledge must not be propositional. Now, that might wipe out nearly everything Mormons believe about spirituality because for Mormons, propositions such as the existence of God or Satan or the truth of the Book of Mormon, often as literal history, actually aren't suppositions of any different kind than statements about rain and snow. There really is no distinction between "spiritual knowledge" and "factual knowledge" if spiritual knowledge is merely a list of empirical claims except that they benefit some special narrative or power structure, while having no credible evidence. And I must point out, If the evidence were credible, then apologists wouldn't jump out of their seat to suppose some knew kind of knowledge such as "spiritual knowledge" that is exactly like ordinary knowledge except the believer gets to be right about whatever he wants by some invented criteria. We wouldn't be having this conversation if it were really believed that Mormon propositions are credible.
The holy ghost can "testify" to the truth of all things, right? And so an angel could come down from heaven and explain how light works while the Holy Ghost gives you a good feeling, and bam, you now know how light works in exactly the same way as you know Nephi built a ship. So what's the difference between "factual" and "spiritual" knowledge?
rev: " I do not believe that spiritual feelings or knowledge regarding scriptures establishes historical facts,"
Yes, that silliness must be flushed before any progress could be made to legitimize "spirituality" at all.
So, on the one hand, there are the very problematic statements of the Book of Mormon witnesses, and on the other there is the invitation to get good feelings after praying about the truth of the Book of Mormon. My opinion is that the experiences the witnesses actually had were much closer to the experiences "Moroni" invites his reader to have. It was Joseph Smith who deliberately constructed the plates and their story in such a way that it would appear to belong to the realm of hard reality.
My hypothesis for his motivation is that it was less religious than it was mercenary. Joseph Smith was seeking to create a tourist destination for travelers taking trips down the Erie Canal. One of the primary goals of this hoax, which would have been an obvious hoax to this target audience, was to draw the interest of Freemasons. It could be that Smith was originally making a bid to make Palmyra the western center of New York Freemasonry. Unfortunately, however, by the time his plan came to fruition, he had to abandon his original Masonic project and replace it with a church project. The kidnapping of Morgan and the subsequent anti-Masonic hysteria scotched the original plan.
So, the hoax was no longer a hoax with winking approval from Freemasons. Now it was something else entirely. And yet I think something of the original plan survived in the insistence on the hard materiality of the plates themselves. At some point, however, Joseph decided he would not be able to use his fabricated plates in the way he hoped, and so he had to get rid of them. No two bits a gander after all. That would have to wait until Joseph's young church purchased the mummies and papyri. Then people actually were charged two bits a gander to see the artifacts. I see no reason to think that the Book of Mormon wasn't originally intended to be a similar thing.
The complications started to arise when Joseph was unable to create something that met his own requirements for a credible fake. Then he had to use some object as a stand in that no one would really be able to examine. And the danger of having someone discover that what was lugged around like plates was not actually gold plates with ancient writing on them at all was too great to let them hang around.
I do, however, think that Joseph believed in spiritual things, and probably thought that his special religious experiences were remarkable enough that what he produced in that vein had a kind of legitimacy and authority that the experiences and works of others did not have.