Book of Mormon/Anachronisms/Gold plates
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Critics claim that:
- 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.
- 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.
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."
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.
Only a "spiritual vision"?
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.
Description of the plates
Too heavy for Joseph to run with?
Description of the plates' hiding place
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  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
Of what material were the plates?
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.  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)  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."  (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. 
- 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).  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. 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.  Plates having "the appearance of gold," then, are exactly what we would expect if they were made of tumbaga. [Footnote markers have been left in; references are available on the original site, linked below.]
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.
- [note] Dan Vogel, "Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling: Comments" John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 26 (September 2006): 322—325.
- [note] 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. off-site PDF link wiki
- [note] Anonymous, "Of What Material Were the Plates?," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10/1 (2001): 21–21. off-site [No PDF link] wiki