By James Bishop|
The historicity of the Golden Plates
According to Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, in 1823 the angel Moroni guided him to some golden plates buried on a hill near to where he lived. Smith apparently collected these plates, took them home, and subsequently translated them into the Book of Mormon which he then published in 1830.
Thus, the plates are foundational to the Mormon religion. Despite Mormons holding to a number of religious texts, the Book of Mormon stands in as the word of God, includes many details and truths missing from the Bible, and is deemed the “keystone” of Mormonism (1). Much then is of significance concerning the story of the golden plates for if there is uncertainty concerning the origin of the Book of Mormon then it might well deliver a fatal blow to the religion.
In this respect, included here are a few challenges I feel that Mormons need to respond to if they wish to propose the golden plate narrative as a historical certainty.
The Problem of the Weight of the Golden Plates
Mormon history provides an idea, although somewhat conflicting, of the weight of the plates Joseph Smith collected from the hill to take back to his home. Some contemporaries of Smith’s suggested that the plates weighed 60 pounds while others alleged they were 30 pounds (2). According to Smith himself, the plates were “six inches wide and eight inches long, and not quite so thick as common tin,” and that the “volume was something near six inches in thickness, a part of which was sealed” (3).
Based on these dimensions, Mormon Apostle John Widtsoe suggested that “If the gold were pure, [the plates] would weigh two hundred pounds, which would be a heavy weight for a man to carry, even though he were of the athletic type of Joseph Smith” (4).
This detail poses a challenge to the story. According to the account set forth concerning how Smith transported the plates home by Lucy Mack Smith, Smith’s mother, Smith took the plates “wrapping them in his linen frock, placed them under his arm and started for home.” However, after having travelled “some distance” he was accosted by “a man [who] sprang up from behind it and gave him a heavy blow with a gun. Joseph turned around and knocked him down, then ran at the top of his speed” (5).
Smith’s mother said that her son was attacked two more times on his way home. However, given her narrative and in the absence of evidence suggesting Smith successfully fought off his attackers, we need to suppose that he fled from his attackers outrunning them for part of his journey back home a few miles away.
This story would seem to stretch credulity. It is quite implausible that a man would not only carry 200 pounds (90kg) for several miles but also outrun his attackers, intent on dispossessing him of his treasure, with these plates in hand. Mormon apologists have come up with numerous explanations to account for this. One, is that they deny the plates were of pure gold in hope to lessen their weight.
This claim runs contrary to multiple lines of evidence that the plates were made of solid gold, including the testimonies put forth by Lucy Smith (6), Oliver Cowdery (7), and David Whitmer (8). Further, is has been suggested that Smith received a supernatural strength from God to both carry and flee with the plates.
This argument is problematic given that Smith never credits God for granting him such a supernatural ability nor does Smith ever say that God did. Another argument proposed is that the plates were made of tumbaga, an alloy found in Central America (9).
Through the employment of some calculations, Read Putnam concluded that the plates were more akin to 50 pounds in weight (22.67kg). However, even granted these calculations are correct and the the plates weighed 50 pounds, carrying such a weight remains a difficult task, especially if one is to flee from attackers multiple times. An additional challenge to this theory is that it assumes that the Book of Mormon lands were in Central America, as proposed in what is known as the “limited geography” theory (10).
However, this theory is often held to be uncertain and even so by many Mormons themselves who claim that Book of Mormon lands are more appropriately located in the northeastern United States, a place where no tumbaga is found.
Witnesses in Support of the Golden Plates
In an effort to support the existence of the golden plates, Smith included a number of witnesses of whom he claimed he had shown the plates to. These testimonies, referred to as “The Testimony of Three Witnesses” and “The Testimony of Eight Witnesses,” are included at the beginning of the Book of Mormon. For many believers, that some 11 men would testify to witnessing the golden plates constitutes sufficient evidence for believing the Book of Mormon is of divine origin.
I think that one should admit that eyewitness testimony can prove to be a strong kind of evidence, especially if it can be trusted and/or prove to be generally reliable. I believe that Mormons would have a strong case for the divine origin of the Book of Mormon should the eyewitness accurately attest to what they saw. However, as will briefly be shown, there is some doubt concerning the veracity of the story.
A challenge to the apologetic of the witnesses to the plates is what they suggest when they say that they saw the plates (11). The witnesses Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris were informed that by faith they would receive a view of the plates (12). However, this did not occur in the room where Smith was apparently translating the plates but rather in the woods.
While in the woods, Smith, Cowdery, Whitmer, and Harris attempted “to obtain, by fervent and humble prayer” the fulfillment of the revelation that they would see the plates by faith. However, this apparently did not work or result in a “manifestation of divine favor” (13). In response, Martin Harris excused himself, thinking he was the reason the prayer was not being answered. After he had left the other three men prayed and this time an angel stood before them holding the plates.
Smith then went to look for Harris who was a “considerable distance” away (14). The two men prayed and the “same vision” was opened to them (15). According to the Mormon historian Marvin S. Hill, in an article response entitled Brodie Revisited: A Reappraisal,
“What of the prophet’s story about gold plates, and what about his witnesses? Given Brodie’s assumptions, was there not deception here, if not collusion? Brodie maintains that the Prophet exercised some mysterious influence upon the witnesses which caused them to see the plates, thus making Joseph Smith once more the perpetrator of a religious fraud. The evidence is extremely contradictory in this area, but there is a possibility that the three witnesses saw the plates in vision only, for Stephen Burnett in a letter written in 1838, a few weeks after the event, described Martin Harris’ testimony to this effect: ‘When I came to hear Martin Harris state in public that he never saw the plates with his natural eyes only in vision or imagination, neither Oliver nor David . . . the last pedestal gave way, in my view our foundations’” (16).
Apparently the three eyewitnesses saw the plates in visions, but what of the eight other witnesses? Eight other men besides the three mentioned above would also claim to have seen the plates. Perhaps most striking in the list of provided names is that many of the men were related. For example, of the 11, three were directly related to Smith (his father and two brothers), some where close friends, financial backers, and Oliver Cowdery was a distant cousin. The four Whitmers were also brothers to David Whitmer (17). Understandably, this had led to concerns and claims pertaining to the possibility of collusion (18).
Nonetheless, there are inconsistencies in the testimonies of the eyewitnesses. According to Robert N. Hullinger, the eight witnesses
“claimed no revelation. No “voice” declared to them that the “work is true.” No “power of God” showed them the plates—just Joseph Smith. No “angel of God” laid the plates before them; no “voice of the Lord” told them to testify of what they saw… However, the eight did claim revelation in their conversations with others. When David Marks stopped at the Whitmers on March 1830, the eight witnesses “affirmed, that an angel had showed them certain plates of metal, having the appearance of gold that were dug out of the ground by one Joseph Smith.” They explained to Mark’s certain basic points about the Book of Mormon and its contents but claimed to have viewed the plates in vision only” (19).
Thus, on one hand, it appeared that the witnesses claimed no revelation when they saw the plates (Smith had shown it to them) yet would later tell others that they were in fact recipients of revelation.
The challenge for accepting these testimonies based on visions would be the same if an individual claimed to be an eyewitness to a murder and while providing his testimony in a court claimed that he seen the crime take place in a “vision.” One wouldn’t take such a testimony seriously, and perhaps for good reason. However, the likes of this was not particularly unusual for the eyewitnesses.
The men were quite superstitious and often included in their practices the use of divination and seer stones, and they believed that they possessed the ability to see spirits and the dwelling places of these spirits (20). The likes of witchcraft and the supernatural were also quite at home in the lives of the earliest Mormons (21). Thus, given this background knowledge of the eyewitness, it is not particularly impressive that these men claimed to have seen an angel and receive visions corroborating Smith’s claims.
Did Smith Even Have Plates?
Given the testimonial evidence it can be taken with relative certainty that Smith possessed some kind of object akin to plates, whether they were plates exactly we will likely never know. The problem is that Smith kept the objects concealed from view as they were usually said to have been covered with a cloth (22), placed in a box (23), or hidden behind a curtain (24). According to Smith’s father-in-law, “I was allowed to feel the weight of the box and they gave me to understand, that the plates was then in the box – into which I was not allowed to look” (25). What exactly was it? I suppose we’ll never know, but we certainly know it wasn’t 50-200 pounds of gold.
This article was originally featured on the website of James Bishop and was republished with permission.
1. Faust, J. 2004. The Keystone of Our Religion. Available.
2. Chase, W. 1833. Testimony of Willard Chase. In Howe, E. Mormonism Unvailed. p. 240-248
3. History of the Church, 4:537; The Church of the Latter-day Saints. 1986. What was the approximate weight of the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated? Available.
4. Widtsoe, J. & Harris, F. 1937. Seven Claims of the Book of Mormon. p. 37.
5. Hedges, A. 2001. “Take Heed Continually”: Protecting the Gold Plates. Available; Nibely, P. 1945. History of Joseph Smith by His Mother. p. 108.
6. Jessee, D. 1982. Lucy Mack Smith’s 1829 Letter to Mary Smith Pierce. BYU Studies Quarterly. p. 461.
7. The Church of the Latter-day Saints. 1987. “By the Gift and Power of God.” Available.
8. The Church of the Latter-day Saints. 2007. What Did the Golden Plates Look Like?Available.
9. Sorenson, J. 1996. An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies. p. 283.
10. Duffy, J. 2004. Defending the Kingdom, Rethinking the Faith: How Apologetics is Reshaping Mormon Orthodoxy. Sunstone. p. 22-55
11. Hill, M. 1972. Brodie Revisited: A Reappraisal. Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 7(4): 83.
12. Doctrine and Covenants 17
13. Doctrine and Covenants 5
14. The Church of the Latter-day Saints. The Contributions of Martin Harris. Available; The History of the Church 1:55
15. Doctrine and Covenants 17
16. Hill, M. 1972. Ibid. p. 83.
17. Palmer, G. 2002. An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins. p. 179.
18. Bushman, R. 2005. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling: A Cultural Biography of Mormonism’s Founder. p. 79.
19. Hullinger, R. 1992. Joseph Smith’s Response to Skepticism. p. 133.
20. Palmer, G. 2002. Ibid. p. 175.
21. Brooke, J. 1994. The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844. p. 77.
22. Hill, M. 1972. Ibid. p. 84.; Kirkham, F. 1951. A New Witness for Christ in America: The Book of Mormon, 2:416-417;
23. Bushman, R. 2005. Ibid. p. 63.
24. Bushman, R. 2005. Ibid. p. 66.
25. Bushman, R. 2005. Ibid. p. 63.