Book of Mormon/Anachronisms/Gold plates

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    The Book of Mormon and "gold" plates

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Questions and Answers


Question: What are the criticisms related to the "gold plates" of the Book of Mormon?

It is claimed that Joseph manufactured the plates, and that they would be too heavy to carry if they were pure gold

It is claimed that:

  1. Joseph Smith, Jr. manufactured some metal plates out of tin, copper, or some other metal in order to trick witnesses into thinking he had gold plates.
  2. Gold plates of the dimensions described by the witnesses would be too heavy (on the order of 200 lbs) to be realistically lifted and carried as Joseph and others described.

Critics' attempts to argue that the witnesses only 'saw' the plates in a spiritual state flatly contradicts their own reports, and those of others. One cannot dismiss the eyewitness reports (some of whom reported that they saw more than just plates 'under the cloth,') as irrelevant to the question of the Book of Mormon's historicity and origins.

Both witness testimony and the material of which the plates were made indicates that the weight of the plates was 40-60 lbs, and not 200 lbs.

At least one critic has been desperate enough to suggest that tin plates were fabricated, although there is no evidence of this.

Those who make such claims are assuming that the plates were not what Joseph claimed them to be

It is important to note at the outset that Dan Vogel (a prominent advocate of this attempt to redefine the witnesses' testimonies) describes his approach as beginning

"with the assumption that the Book of Mormon is not real history. Thus to the extent that one believes the evidence points to a non-historical Book of Mormon, it also points to something other than real gold plates under the cloth. The two are inseparably connected."[1]

Thus, Vogel must come up with a counter-explanation for the Book of Mormon. Having decided that the Book of Mormon cannot be true history, Vogel must ignore evidence which disproves his thesis, and manufacture evidence through speculation, rather than considering all the evidence and then drawing conclusions therefrom about both the reality of the Book of Mormon's history and the existence of the plates. As he notes, the two are connected. One cannot dismiss the eyewitness reports (some of whom reported that they saw more than just plates 'under the cloth,') as irrelevant to the question of the Book of Mormon's historicity and origins.

Vogel does not seem to realize it, but the difficulty which he has in coming up with plausible explanations for the physical plates and the testimonies of the eight witnesses is evidence for the reality of the Book of Mormon. But, that conclusion is unacceptable to him, so he must downplay the evidence for the physical plates.

There is also an attempt to argue that the witnesses never actually saw the plates

Vogel and others attempt to argue that the witnesses only 'saw' the plates in a spiritual state, and then were allowed to heft a covered box. This flatly contradicts their own reports, and those of others. Lucy Mack Smith wrote:

In a few days we were follow by Joseph and Oliver and the Whitmers who came to make us a visit and also to make some arrangements about getting the book printed soon after they came They all that is the male part of the company repaired to a little grove where it was customary for the family to offer up their secret prayers. as Joseph had been instructed that the plates would be carried there by one of the ancient Nephites. Here it was that those 8 witnesses recorded in the Book of Mormon looked upon the plates and handled them of which they bear witness in the [title page of the Book of Mormon]. . . . After the witnesses returned to the house the Angel again made his appearance to Joseph and received the plates from his hands. We commenced holding meetings that night in the which we declared those facts that we knew to be true.[2]

Many witnesses offered descriptions of the plates


Question: How much did the gold plates weigh?

The plates weighed approximately sixty pounds

Witnesses of the Book of Mormon were consistent in their witness that the plates weighed 40-60 pounds.

Some critics assume that the "golden plates" are pure gold, or that they are a solid block of gold. Neither conclusion is warranted.

  1. Pure gold plates would be too soft to hold engraving well. An alloy of gold and copper called "tumbaga," known in Mesoamerica, would suit both the appearance and weight of the plates.[3]
  2. The plates were not a solid block of gold, but a set of page-like leaves, which reduces the weight by about 50%.
  • "weighing altogether from forty to sixty lbs."[4] —Martin Harris

Witness statements regarding the weight of the gold plates

  • "I was permitted to lift them. . . . They weighed about sixty pounds according to the best of my judgement."[5] —William Smith
  • "I . . . judged them to have weighed about sixty pounds."[6]—William Smith
  • "They were much heavier than a stone, and very much heavier than wood. . . . As near as I could tell, about sixty pounds."[7] —William Smith
  • "I hefted the plates, and I knew from the heft that they were lead or gold."[8] —Martin Harris
  • "My daughter said, they were about as much as she could lift. They were now in the glass-box, and my wife said they were very heavy. They both lifted them."[9] —Martin Harris
  • "I moved them from place to place on the table, as it was necessary in doing my work."[10] —Emma Smith
  • Joseph's sister Catherine, while she was dusting in the room where he had been translating, "hefted those plates [which were covered with a cloth] and found them very heavy."[11] —H. S. Salisbury, paraphrasing Catherine Smith Salisbury


Question: What did Joseph Smith say about efforts that were made to steal the gold plates from him?

Joseph said relatively little about efforts to steal the plates in his official history

59 At length the time arrived for obtaining the plates, the Urim and Thummim, and the breastplate. On the twenty-second day of September, one thousand eight hundred and twenty-seven, having gone as usual at the end of another year to the place where they were deposited, the same heavenly messenger delivered them up to me with this charge: that I should be responsible for them; that if I should let them go carelessly, or through any neglect of mine, I should be cut off; but that if I would use all my endeavors to preserve them, until he, the messenger, should call for them, they should be protected.

60 I soon found out the reason why I had received such strict charges to keep them safe, and why it was that the messenger had said that when I had done what was required at my hand, he would call for them. For no sooner was it known that I had them, than the most strenuous exertions were used to get them from me. Every stratagem that could be invented was resorted to for that purpose. The persecution became more bitter and severe than before, and multitudes were on the alert continually to get them from me if possible. But by the wisdom of God, they remained safe in my hands, until I had accomplished by them what was required at my hand. When, according to arrangements, the messenger called for them, I delivered them up to him; and he has them in his charge until this day, being the second day of May, one thousand eight hundred and thirty-eight. (Joseph Smith History 1:59-60)


Lucy Mack Smith: "They stood in the yard near the door, and were devising plans to find "Joe Smith's gold bible," as they expressed themselves"

Lucy Mack Smith's account of the retrieval of the gold plates:

My husband soon learned that ten or twelve men were clubbed together, with one Willard Chase, a Methodist class leader, at their head; and what was still more ridiculous, they had sent sixty or seventy miles for a certain conjuror, to come and divine the place where the plates were secreted.

We supposed that Joseph had taken the plates, and hid them somewhere, and we were apprehensive that our enemies might discover their place of deposit. Accordingly, the next morning, after hearing of their plans, my husband concluded to go among the neighbours to see what he could learn with regard to the plans of the adverse party. The first house he came to, he found the conjuror and Willard Chase, together with the rest of the clan. Making an errand, he went in and sat down near the door, leaving it a little ajar, in order to overhear their conversation. They stood in the yard near the door, and were devising plans to find "Joe Smith's gold bible," as they expressed themselves. The conjuror seemed much animated, although he had travelled sixty miles the day and night previous.

Presently, the woman of the house, becoming uneasy at the exposures they were making, stepped through a back door into the yard, and called to her husband, in a suppressed tone, but loud enough to be heard distinctly by Mr. Smith, "Sam, Sam, you are cutting your own throat." At this the conjuror [p.103] bawled out at the top of his voice, "I am not afraid of any body—we will have them plates in spite of Joe Smith or all the devils in hell." When the woman came in again, Mr. Smith laid aside a newspaper which he had been holding in his hand, and remarked, "I believe I have not time to finish reading the paper now." He then left the house, and returned home. Mr. Smith, on returning home, asked Emma, if she knew whether Joseph had taken the plates from their place of deposit, or if she was able to tell him where they were. She said, she could not tell where they were, or whether they were removed from their place. My husband then related what he had both seen and heard....

[104] The plates were secreted about three miles from home, in the following manner. Finding an old birch log much decayed, excepting the bark, which was in a measure sound, he lock, his pocket knife and cut the bark with some care, then turned it back, and made a hole of sufficient size to receive the plates, and laying them in the cavity thus formed, he replaced the bark; after which he laid across the log, in several places, some old stuff that happened to lay near, in order to conceal, as much as possible, the place in which they were deposited.

Joseph, on coming to them, took them from their secret place, and, wrapping them in his linen frock, placed them under his arm and started for home.

[105] After proceeding a short distance, he thought it would be more safe to leave the road and go through the woods. Travelling some distance after he left the road, he came to a large windfall, and as he was jumping over a log, a man 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. About half a mile further he was attacked again in the same manner as before; he knocked this man down in like manner as the former, and ran on again; and before he reached home he was assaulted the third time. In striking the last one he dislocated his thumb, which, however, he did not notice until he came within sight of the house, when he threw himself down in the corner of the fence in order to recover his breath. As soon as he was able, he arose and came to the house. lie was still altogether speechless from fright and the fatigue of running.

After resting a few moments, he desired me to send Carlos for my husband, Mr. Knight, and his friend Steal....[12]


Question: Is it inconceivable that anybody could run carrying a 50 lb. set of metal plates, jumping over logs and such and be able to outrun three men?

The critics' claims

One anti-Mormon website claims that even at 40-60 lbs, the story of Joseph running with the plates is impossible.[13]

The critics claim:

It's inconceivable that anybody could run carrying a 50 lb. set of metal plates, jumping over logs and such and be able to outrun three men for some 1 to 2 miles that were bent on taking the plates from Joseph.

Nobody claims that Joseph "outran" the men

First, Lucy does not say that Joseph "outran" the men—in each case, a man tried to ambush him alone, and Joseph struck them and ran on. So, the key question would seem to be, "Was Joseph physically capable of incapacitating someone with a blow?" His well-known skill at wrestling and stick-pulling would suggest that he was. He does not have to outrun three men trying to trap him simultaneously.

Lucy also says that at least one of the men had traveled sixty miles the day and night before

Second, Lucy also says that at least one of the men had traveled sixty miles the day and night before. This suggests that he, at least, would not have been at his peak by the time he accosted Joseph, and probably more ill-suited to a long chase than the prophet.

Others have demonstrated such abilities

Third, this type of thing is not "inconceivable" at all:

  • God could well have blessed him beyond his own abilities. That said, Joseph was well-known for his strength and ability to do serious amounts of physical work, as well as wrestle and pull sticks—maybe he's in better physical shape than MormonThink wants to grant?
  • In a culture and time when all work is done by either human or animal muscle power, frontier farmers like the Smiths were likely in far better physical condition than most twenty-first century westerners.
  • Several people testified of the plates' weight, and they all knew Joseph Smith. None of them found the story inherently impossible. None of them challenged Joseph's tale—including his family who both knew him best and handled the plates.
  • Did you know that traditional Chinese martial artists recommend training in "hilly terrain" to build strength, and running with a rucksack containing 56 lbs for men, for a distance of at least 5 miles? (They emphasize that farmlife made such things doable anciently.)
  • During World War II, a Canadian infantry sergeant carried his friend on his shoulders for half a mile, while under continuous enemy fire. A wounded man weighs considerably more than fifty pounds, and he probably didn't loiter while under severe fire.
  • Hitler's SS trained to run 3 km (1.87 miles) in twenty minutes with full gear.[14]
  • Israel Defense Force officer candidates must past the "Loren test"—"scaling a two-meter wall, climbing a three-meter wall, completing an obstacle course, running two miles, and then target-shooting — all in under 22 minutes," and done in full battle gear.

While such feats are not easy, and are tiring (and Joseph had to rest a bit before even asking his mother to go get help), they are well within human ability, then and now.

Joseph's limp didn't hinder his physical ability

The critics claim:

And all this from a young man that had a slight limp and would have difficulty running at a high speed for a long distance - especially carrying a 50 lb. weight.

What evidence is there that Joseph's "slight limp" made it hard for him to run at high speed? Joseph managed fine during the Zion's Camp march of nearly a thousand miles on foot at 25-40 miles per day.[15] He'd had the limp since his boyhood operation, and was likely well-adjusted to it.

It also didn't seem to stop Joseph from competing well in footraces and high jumping:

. . . All of the Henrie boys were of the rugged athletic type and all were fairly big fellows. Daniel being the smallest, but he was strong and wirey. They loved to wrestle, run and jump and often did it in the less tense moments when they had time. The prophet also loved and excelled in these sports and one day Daniel related he walked up to one of their high corral gates—it came up to his chin as he measured it—then he walked back a little way, took a running jump, and cleared the gate easily. Daniel related that he often beat the Prophet racing and also at the high jump, but when the prophet thought it was his turn to win and he really tried, he could out them all.[16]

This doesn't sound like a man whose limp is crippling him--and Joseph was younger and likely more fit during the Book of Mormon translating period, when he was focused almost entirely on farming, rather than splitting his attention as required for Church administration.

Critics of the Church claim that the story of Joseph running with the plates is merely a "tall tale" simply because the believe that it can't be done

The critics claim:

If the story is but a 'tall tale', regardless of its origins, it should not be taught in church as a true, historical account, as we have been taught growing up in the church, just to provide another faith-promoting event.

We have no reason to think the story of Joseph running with the plates is a "tall tale" save MormonThink's "argument from incredulity"—they don't believe it can be done, so therefore it's a tall tale. But, people clearly can and do do what Joseph claimed he did, especially when the story which his mother actually told (three separate attacks by individual men) is considered.


Question: What descriptions exist of the "gold" plates' hiding place?

Oliver Cowdery gave a detailed description of the box that contained the plates

Oliver Cowdery described the plates as found by Joseph:

First, a hole of sufficient depth, (how deep I know not,) was dug. At the bottom of this was laid a stone of suitable size, the upper surface being smooth. At each edge was placed a large quantity of cement, and into this cement, at the four edges of this stone, were placed, erect, four others, their bottom edges resting in the cement at the outer edges of the first stone. The four last named, when placed erect, formed a box, the corners, or where the edges of the four came in contact, were also cemented so firmly that the moisture from without was prevented from entering. It is to be observed, also, that the inner surface of the four erect, or side stones was smooth. This box was sufficiently large to admit a breast-plate, such as was used by the ancients to defend the chest, &c. from the arrows and weapons of their enemy. From the bottom of the box, or from the breast-plate, arose three small pillars composed of the same description of cement used on the edges; and upon these three pillars was placed the record of the children of Joseph, and of a people who left the tower far, far before the days of Joseph, or a sketch of each, which had it not ben for this, and the never failing goodness of God, we might have perished in our sins, having been left to bow down before the altars of the Gentiles and to have paid homage to the priests of Baal! I must [196] not forget to say that this box, containing the record was covered with another stone, the bottom surface being flat and the upper, crowning. But those three pillars were not so lengthy as to cause the plates and the crowning stone to come in contact. I have now given you, according to my promise, the manner in which this record was deposited; though when it was first visited by our brother, in 1823, a part of the crowning stone was visible above the surface while the edges were concealed by the soil and grass, from which circumstance you will see, that however deep this box might have been placed by Moroni at first, the time had been sufficient to wear the earth so that it was easily discovered, when once directed, and yet not enough to make a perceivable difference to the passer-by.

- Oliver Cowdery to W. W. Phelps, "Letter VIII," Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 2 no. 1 (October 1835), 195–196. off-site


Question: Of what material were the Book of Mormon "gold" plates constructed?

Plates having "the appearance of gold," are exactly what we would expect if they were made of tumbaga

The Journal of Book of Mormon Studies states:

Were the Book of Mormon plates pure gold, or were they made from an alloy that looked like gold? The most serious investigation of this question was done 45 years ago by Read H. Putnam of Evanston, Wyoming, a blacksmith and metallurgist. [1] Working first from the general dimensions of the set of plates as reported by eyewitnesses, he calculated that a block of pure gold of that size would have weighed a little over 200 pounds. A number of witnesses, however, put the weight of the set at about 60 pounds. The discrepancy can be partly accounted for by the fact that the leaves must have been handcrafted, presumably by hammering, and irregularities in flatness would have left air space between the plates. This led Putnam to surmise that the entire set of plates would have weighed probably less than 50 percent of the weight of a solid block of the metal.

Because the weight of a metal depends on its purity, we must also consider whether the plates were of pure gold. The Nephites were aware of purity distinctions and alloys. We know, for example, that the "brass" plates were of an alloy (quite surely bronze, a copper-tin mixture) [2] and that the plates of Ether were specifically distinguished as being of "pure" gold (Mosiah 8:9). Furthermore, Nephi taught his associates "to work in all manner of" metals and "precious ores" (2 Nephi 5:15). Yet nowhere does the text say that the Nephites' plates were of pure gold.

Joseph Smith's brother William specifically said that the material of the plates was "a mixture of gold and copper." [3] (Someone must have provided an objective basis for that statement, for the natural assumption would have been that the plates were pure gold.) The cautious statements by other witnesses, including Joseph Smith himself, who spoke of the plates as having "the appearance of gold," suggest that the metal may have been an alloy. [4]

Putnam observed that the only two colored metals from antiquity were gold and copper. An alloy of those two elements was called "tumbaga" by the Spaniards and was in common use in ancient tropical America for manufacturing precious objects. Putnam put forward the reasonable hypothesis that metal plates made in Mormon's day were of that material (the earliest Mesoamerican archaeological specimen of tumbaga—made from a hammered metal sheet—dates to the same century, the fifth century AD, when Moroni hid up the plates he had in his possession).[5] If Mormon's Book of Mormon plates were made of tumbaga, their weight would have been much less than had they been made of pure gold.[17] Putnam made that point in mathematical detail and concluded that the total weight of the plates in Joseph Smith's charge would have been near the 60-pound figure reported by several witnesses.

It is of interest that tumbaga was commonly gilded by applying citric acid to the surface. The resulting chemical reaction eliminated copper atoms from the outer .0006 inch of the surface, leaving a microscopic layer of 23-carat gold that made the object look like it was wholly gold. [6] Plates having "the appearance of gold," then, are exactly what we would expect if they were made of tumbaga.[7] [Footnote markers have been left in; references are available on the original site, see footnote.][18]


Question: Could Joseph Smith have manufactured some metal plates out of tin, copper, or some other metal in order to trick witnesses into thinking he had gold plates?

There is no known evidence to support this assertion

The critics have made an ad hoc assumption that Joseph made plates out of tin. There is no known evidence to support this assertion, nor does it explain how skeptical witnesses were convinced that they were made of gold, rather than tin. This accusation is interesting, because it shows how desperate some critics are to discredit Joseph Smith, yet they cannot dismiss the repeated testimony that he had actual, physical plates which many witnesses concluded were of gold, and of ancient origin.


To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. Dan Vogel, "Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling: Comments" John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 26 (September 2006): 322—325.
  2. Preliminary manuscript, Family and Church History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; cited in Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/1 (2005): 18–31. [{{{url}}} off-site] wiki
  3. See Roy W. Doxey, "I Have A Question: What was the approximate weight of the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated?," Ensign (December 1986), 64.
  4. Martin Harris interview, Iowa State Register, August 1870, as quoted in Milton V. Backman Jr., Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1986), 226.
  5. William Smith, William Smith on Mormonism (Lamoni, Iowa: Herald Steam, 1883), 12.
  6. William Smith interview with E. C. Briggs. Originally written by J. W. Peterson for Zions Ensign (Independence, Mo.); reprinted in Deseret Evening News, 20 January 1894, 11.
  7. William Smith interview, The Saints' Herald, 4 October 1884, 644.
  8. "Interview with Martin Harris," Tiffany's Monthly, May 1859, 169.
  9. "Interview with Martin Harris," Tiffany's Monthly, May 1859, 168.
  10. Emma Smith interview, published as "Last Testimony of Sister Emma," The Saints' Herald, 1 October 1879.
  11. I. B. Bell interview with H. S. Salisbury (grandson of Catherine Smith Salisbury), Historical Department Archives, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
  12. Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool, S.W. Richards, 1853), 102, 104-5.
  13. MormonThink.com website (as of 29 April 2012). Page: http://mormonthink.com/runningweb.htm
  14. Christopher Ailsby, SS: Hell on the Eastern Front: The Waffen-SS War in Russia, 1941-1945 (Osceloa, WI: MBI Publishing Co., 1998), p. 18
  15. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 239.
  16. Mark L. McConkie, Remembering Joseph: Personal Recollections of Those Who Knew the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company, 2003), Henrie, William account citing Callie O. Morley, "History of William and Myra Mayall Henrie, Pioneers of 1847 and 1847," Delta, West Millard County, Utah, October 1955, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah, 4-5..(print version) ISBN 978-1570089633 GL direct link
  17. See also Roy W. Doxey, "I Have A Question: What was the approximate weight of the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated?," Ensign (December 1986), 64.
  18. Anonymous, "Of What Material Were the Plates?," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10/1 (2001): 21–21. off-site wiki


Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims

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