Book of Mormon/Translation/Description of the plates

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    Eyewitness descriptions of the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated

This page is a chronology of statements from primary and secondary sources. Sources may be viewed by following the citation links.

Questions and Answers


Question: What material were the plates made from?

The plates were most likely an alloy of a lighter metal, such as copper, which was covered with a thin layer of gold

The plates are sometimes described as "gold plates," and at other times they are claimed to have had the "appearance of gold." Pure gold would not be capable of retaining engraving, nor would it have the strength to maintain the integrity of the plates themselves. The plates were most likely an alloy of a lighter metal, such as copper, which was covered with a thin layer of gold. Such an alloy actually exists in Mesoamerica. See Wikipedia entry "Tumbaga" off-site. According to Wikipedia: "Tumbaga can be treated with a simple acid, like citric acid, to dissolve copper off the surface. What remains is a shiny layer of nearly pure gold on top of a harder, more durable copper-gold alloy sheet. This process is referred to as depletion gilding."

  • "the appearance of gold"[1] — Joseph Smith Jr., Eight Witnesses
  • "golden plates"[2] — David Whitmer
  • "a mixture of gold and copper"[3] - William Smith
  • "in a good state of preservation, had the appearance of gold" - William Smith in James Murdock to Congregational Observer, 19 June 1841, "The Mormons and Their Prophet," Congregational Observer (Hartford and New Haven, Connecticut) 2 (3 July 1841): 1. Reprinted in Peoria Register and North-Western Gazetteer (Peoria, Illinois), 3 September 1841; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1:477–480.
  • "pure gold" - “The Orators of Mormon,” Catholic Telegraph (Cincinnati, Ohio) 1 (14 April 1832): 204–5. Reprinted from Mercer Press (Pennsylvania), circa April 1832. off-site
  • "whitish yellow" - Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 15; attributed to David Whitmer off-site
  • "engraven on plates of gold" - Parley P. Pratt, "Discovery of an Ancient Record in America," Millennial Star 1 no. 2 (June 1840), 30–37. off-site
  • "this pretended Revelation was written on golden plates, or something resembling golden plates" - A.S., “The Golden Bible, or, Campbellism Improved,” Observer and Telegraph. Religious, Political, and Literary, Hudson, Ohio (18 November 1830): 3, quoting Cowdery. off-site


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.[4]
  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."[5] —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."[6] —William Smith
  • "I . . . judged them to have weighed about sixty pounds."[7]—William Smith
  • "They were much heavier than a stone, and very much heavier than wood. . . . As near as I could tell, about sixty pounds."[8] —William Smith
  • "I hefted the plates, and I knew from the heft that they were lead or gold."[9] —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."[10] —Martin Harris
  • "I moved them from place to place on the table, as it was necessary in doing my work."[11] —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."[12] —H. S. Salisbury, paraphrasing Catherine Smith Salisbury


Question: What was the size of each of the gold plates?

Each plate was approximately 6 to 7 inches wide and 7 to 8 inches long

  • "7 inches in length, 6 inches in breadth" [13] - Quoting Oliver Cowdery
  • "six inches wide by eight inches long"[14] —Joseph Smith Jr.
  • "seven inches wide by eight inches in length"[15] —Martin Harris
  • "seven by eight inches"[16] —Martin Harris
  • "about eight inches long, seven inches wide"[17] —David Whitmer
  • "about eight inches square" - quoting David Whitmer [18]
  • "six or eight inches square" - Critical newspaper[19]
  • "The plates were each about 7 by 8 inches in width and length." - Parley P. Pratt [20]
  • "about eight inches long, and six wide" - Lucy Mack Smith (allegedly)[21]
  • "Each plate was about six by eight inches"[22]


Question: What was the thickness of each gold plate

Each plate was as thick as thick paper, parchment or tin

  • "of the thickness of tin" - Oliver Cowdery [23]
  • "of the thickness of plates of tin"[24] —Martin Harris
  • "thin leaves of gold"[25] - Martin Harris
  • "about as thick as parchment"[26] — David Whitmer
  • "[We] could raise the leaves this way (raising a few leaves of the Bible before him)."[27] — William Smith
  • "They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metalic [sic] sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book."[28] — Emma Smith
  • "each as thick as a pane of glass" - Critical newspaper[29]
  • "the plates themselves were about as thick as window glass, or common tin" - Critical newspaper [30]
  • "thickness of tin plates" - Citing David Whitmer [31]
  • "being about the thickness of common tin" - Parley P. Pratt [32]
  • "as thick as common tin" - [33]


Question: What was the thickness of entire volume of gold plates?

The entire volume was approximately six inches thick

  • "a pile about 6 inches deep." - Quoting Oliver Cowdery [34]
  • "[W]hen piled one above the other, they were altogether about four inches thick."[35] — Martin Harris
  • "six or eight inches thick" - Critical newspaper [36]
  • "The volume was something near six inches in thickness." - Parley P. Pratt[37]
  • "The volume was something near six inches in thickness" - Joseph Smith [38]
  • "the whole being about six inches in thickness"[39]


Question: What were the characteristics of the sealed vs. unsealed portion of the gold plates?

A portion of the plates were somehow bound together

  • "A large portion of the leaves were so securely bound together that it was impossible to separate them."[40] —David Whitmer
  • "What there was sealed appeared as solid to my view as wood. About the half of the book was sealed."[41] —David Whitmer
  • "they thus translated about two thirds of what the plates contained, reserving the residue for a future day as the Lord might hereafter direct." - Critical newspaper [42]
  • "the leaves were divided equidistant between the back and the edge, by cutting the plates in two parts, and again united with solder, so that the front might be opened, while the back part remained stationary and immovable, and was consequently a sealed book, which would not be revealed for ages to come, and which Smith himself was not permitted to understand." - Citing David Whitmer<re>ED Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 15; attributed to David Whitmer off-site</ref>
  • "some of them are sealed together and are not to be opened, and some of them are loose" - Lucy Mack Smith (allegedly)[43]
  • "a part of which was sealed. The unsealed part has been translated; and contains the Book of Mormon"[44]


Question: What were the characteristics of the rings which held the gold plates together?

The plates were fastened together by three D-shaped rings

  • "[T]hey were fastened with rings thus [a sketch shows a ring in the shape of a capital D with six lines drawn through the straight side of the letter to represent the leaves of the record]."[45] —David Whitmer
  • "bound together like the leaves of a book by massive rings passing through the back edges"[46] —David Whitmer
  • "They were bound together in the shape of a book by three gold rings."[47] —David Whitmer
  • "put together on the back by three silver rings, so that they would open like a book"[48] —Martin Harris
  • " bound together in a volume, as the leaves of a book with three rings running through the whole" - Joseph Smith [49]
  • "The plates were . . . connected with rings in the shape of the letter D, which facilitated the opening and shutting of the book."[50] - William E. McLellin quoting Hyrum Smith
  • "I could tell they were plates of some kind and that they were fastened together by rings running through the back."[51] - William Smith
  • "volume of them were bound together like the leaves of a book, and fastened at one edge with three rings running through the whole" - Parley P. Pratt[52]
  • "They are all connected by a ring which passes through a hole at the end of each plate" - Lucy Mack Smith (allegedly) [53]
  • "put together with three rings, running through the whole"[54]
  • "The plates were minutely described as being connected with rings in the shape of the letter D, when facilitated the opening and shutting of the book."[55] - Early skeptical newspaper account
  • "back was secured with three small rings of the same metal, passing through each leaf in succession" - Citing David Whitmer [56]

It should be noted that the "D" shape here described is the most efficient way to pack pages with rings. It is a common design in modern three-ring binders, but was not invented until recently (the two-ring binder did not exist prior to 1854 and were first advertised in 1899. The critics would apparently have us believe that Joseph Smith and/or the witnesses just happened upon the most efficient binding design more than a century before anyone else! Such a pattern also matches a collection of gold plates found in Bavaria dating from 600 B.C.[57]


Question: What was the appearance of the engravings on the gold plates?

There were small, fine engravings on both sides of each plate

  • "[The plates] were filled with . . . Egyptian characters. . . . The characters on the unsealed part were small, and beautifully engraved. The whole book exhibited many marks of antiquity in its construction and much skill in the art of engraving."[58] —Joseph Smith Jr.
  • "There were fine engravings on both sides."[59] —John Whitmer
  • "We also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship."[60] —Eight Witnesses
  • "[T]he characters . . . were cut into the plates with some sharp instrument."[61] —William Smith
  • "On opening that part of the book which was not secured by seals, he discovered inscribed on the aforesaid plates, divers and wonderful characters, some large and some small" - Citing David Whitmer [62]
  • "These were filled with engravings on both sides" - Parley P. Pratt [63]
  • "are covered with letters beautifully engraved" - Lucy Mack Smith (allegedly) [64]
  • "on each side beautifully engraved, and filled with black cement"[65]


Question: What is the description of the stone box in which the plates were hidden?

  • "there, on the side of a hill, found in a stone box, or a square space enclosed by stone on every side, the plates on which the revelation was inscribed. The box in thickness was about 6 inches, and about 7 by 5 otherwise....well secured by silver rings or loops in the box as an effectual defence against all weather...." - “The Orators of Mormon,” Catholic Telegraph (Cincinnati, Ohio) 1 (14 April 1832): 204–5. Reprinted from Mercer Press (Pennsylvania), circa April 1832. off-site
  • "A hole of sufficient depth had been dug, and a flat stone laid in the bottom; then there were four set erect at the outer edges of the bottom stone, joined together with some kind of cement, so as to form a Box. On the bottom stone was laid a Shield or Breastplate, from that arose three pillars made of cement. On the top of these pillars laid the Record, together with the “Urim and Thummim,” the whole not to extend quite even with the top of the side stones. Over the whole was placed a crowning stone, a small part of which was visible, when he first visited the spot." - W. I. Appleby, A Dissertation of Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream... (Philadelphia: Brown, Bicking & Guilbert, 1844), 1–24. Full title


Question: What happened to the stone box in which gold plates were deposited?

David Whitmer reported seeing the stone box three times, but that it had broken apart and been destroyed

It was reported that David Whitmer had "seen the casket that contained the tablets and seerstone," and that over time "the casket has been washed down to the foot of the hill."[66]

Treasure seekers dug up the hill in an attempt to locate additional treasures

In the years after Joseph Smith reporting recovering the gold plates from "Mormon Hill," treasure seekers dug up the hill in an attempt to locate additional treasure.

There were many holes dug in the Hill Cumorah by treasure seekers after Joseph obtained the plates. Full size image may be viewed here: http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/fullbrowser/collection/GEA/id/11495/rv/singleitem


Chigaco Times (1875): "Three times [David Whitmer] has been at the Hill Cumorah and seen the casket that contained the tablets and seerstone"

It was reported that David Whitmer had seen the stone box from which the plates were removed.

Three times [David Whitmer] has been at the Hill Cumorah and seen the casket that contained the tablets and seerstone. Eventually the casket has been washed down to the foot of the hill, but it was to be seen when he last visited the historic place.[67]


For further information related to this topic



Notes


  1. Joseph Smith Jr., "Church History [also known as the Wentworth Letter]," Times and Seasons (1 March 1842), 707. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.) ; "The Testimony of Eight Witnesses," Book of Mormon; and Orson Pratt, in a pamphlet titled "An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records" (Edinburgh, Scotland: Ballantyne and Hughes, May 1840), 12–13.
  2. David Whitmer interview, Kansas City Journal, 5 June 1881, in David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness, ed. Lyndon W. Cook (Orem, Utah: Grandin, 1993), 60.
  3. William Smith (Joseph's younger brother) interview, The Saints' Herald, 4 October 1884, 644.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. William Smith, William Smith on Mormonism (Lamoni, Iowa: Herald Steam, 1883), 12.
  7. 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.
  8. William Smith interview, The Saints' Herald, 4 October 1884, 644.
  9. "Interview with Martin Harris," Tiffany's Monthly, May 1859, 169.
  10. "Interview with Martin Harris," Tiffany's Monthly, May 1859, 168.
  11. Emma Smith interview, published as "Last Testimony of Sister Emma," The Saints' Herald, 1 October 1879.
  12. 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.
  13. A.S., “The Golden Bible, or, Campbellism Improved,” Observer and Telegraph. Religious, Political, and Literary, Hudson, Ohio (18 November 1830): 3, quoting Cowdery. off-site
  14. Joseph Smith Jr., "Church History [also known as the Wentworth Letter]," Times and Seasons (1 March 1842), 707. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  15. Martin Harris interview, Tiffany's Monthly, May 1859, 165.
  16. Martin Harris interview, Iowa State Register, August 1870, as quoted in Backman, Eyewitness Accounts, 226.
  17. David Whitmer interview, Chicago Tribune, 24 January 1888, in David Whitmer Interviews, ed. Cook, 221.
  18. ED Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 15; attributed to David Whitmer off-site
  19. “Mormonism,” Fredonia Censor (New York) (7 March 1832). Reprinted from the Franklin Democrat (Pennsylvania) circa March 1832. off-site
  20. Parley P. Pratt, "Discovery of an Ancient Record in America," Millennial Star 1 no. 2 (June 1840), 30–37. off-site
  21. Henry Caswall, The City of the Mormons; or, Three Days at Nauvoo, in 1842, 2nd ed. revised and enlarged, (London: J. G. F. & J. Rivington, 1843), 26. off-site
  22. W. I. Appleby, A Dissertation of Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream... (Philadelphia: Brown, Bicking & Guilbert, 1844), 1–24. Full title
  23. A.S., “The Golden Bible, or, Campbellism Improved,” Observer and Telegraph. Religious, Political, and Literary, Hudson, Ohio (18 November 1830): 3, quoting Cowdery. off-site
  24. Martin Harris interview, Tiffany's Monthly, May 1859, 165.
  25. Martin Harris interview, Iowa State Register, August 1870, as quoted in Backman, Eyewitness Accounts, 226.
  26. Martin Harris interview, Iowa State Register, August 1870, as quoted in Backman, Eyewitness Accounts, 226.
  27. William Smith, The Saints' Herald, 4 October 1884, 644.
  28. Emma Smith interview, The Saints' Herald, 1 October 1879.
  29. “Mormonism,” Fredonia Censor (New York) (7 March 1832). Reprinted from the Franklin Democrat (Pennsylvania) circa March 1832. off-site
  30. “The Orators of Mormon,” Catholic Telegraph (Cincinnati, Ohio) 1 (14 April 1832): 204–5. Reprinted from Mercer Press (Pennsylvania), circa April 1832. off-site
  31. ED Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 15; attributed to David Whitmer off-site
  32. Parley P. Pratt, "Discovery of an Ancient Record in America," Millennial Star 1 no. 2 (June 1840), 30–37. off-site
  33. W. I. Appleby, A Dissertation of Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream... (Philadelphia: Brown, Bicking & Guilbert, 1844), 1–24. Full title
  34. A.S., “The Golden Bible, or, Campbellism Improved,” Observer and Telegraph. Religious, Political, and Literary, Hudson, Ohio (18 November 1830): 3, quoting Cowdery. off-site
  35. Martin Harris interview, Tiffany's Monthly, May 1859, 165.
  36. “Mormonism,” Fredonia Censor (New York) (7 March 1832). Reprinted from the Franklin Democrat (Pennsylvania) circa March 1832. off-site
  37. Parley P. Pratt, "Discovery of an Ancient Record in America," Millennial Star 1 no. 2 (June 1840), 30–37. off-site
  38. Joseph Smith, "Church History [Wentworth letter]," Times and Seasons 3 no. 9 (1 Mar 1842), 706–710. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.) off-site
  39. W. I. Appleby, A Dissertation of Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream... (Philadelphia: Brown, Bicking & Guilbert, 1844), 1–24. Full title
  40. David Whitmer interview, Chicago Tribune, 24 January 1888, in David Whitmer Interviews, ed. Cook, 221.
  41. David Whitmer interview, Deseret Evening News, 16 August 1878, in David Whitmer Interviews, ed. Cook, 20–21.
  42. “The Orators of Mormon,” Catholic Telegraph (Cincinnati, Ohio) 1 (14 April 1832): 204–5. Reprinted from Mercer Press (Pennsylvania), circa April 1832. off-site
  43. Henry Caswall, The City of the Mormons; or, Three Days at Nauvoo, in 1842, 2nd ed. revised and enlarged, (London: J. G. F. & J. Rivington, 1843), 26. off-site
  44. W. I. Appleby, A Dissertation of Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream... (Philadelphia: Brown, Bicking & Guilbert, 1844), 1–24. Full title
  45. David Whitmer interview, Edward Stevenson diary, 22–23 December 1877, Historical Department Archives, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Original capitalization and punctuation have been modernized. In Stevenson's interview, Whitmer recounted his mother's description of the rings.
  46. David Whitmer interview, Kansas City Journal, 5 June 1881, 1.
  47. David Whitmer interview, Chicago Tribune, 24 January 1888, in David Whitmer Interviews, ed. Cook, 221.
  48. Martin Harris interview, Tiffany's Monthly, May 1859, 165.
  49. Joseph Smith, "Church History [Wentworth letter]," Times and Seasons 3 no. 9 (1 Mar 1842), 706–710. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.) off-site
  50. Reported in the Huron Reflector (Norwalk, OH), 31 October 1831; cited in Warren P. Ashton, "The Rings That Bound the Gold Plates Together," Insights 26 no. 3 (2006), N/A..
  51. Interview of William Smith with E. C. Briggs and J. W. Peterson, Zion's Ensign, 13 January 1894, 6.
  52. Parley P. Pratt, "Discovery of an Ancient Record in America," Millennial Star 1 no. 2 (June 1840), 30–37. off-site
  53. Henry Caswall, The City of the Mormons; or, Three Days at Nauvoo, in 1842, 2nd ed. revised and enlarged, (London: J. G. F. & J. Rivington, 1843), 26. off-site
  54. W. I. Appleby, A Dissertation of Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream... (Philadelphia: Brown, Bicking & Guilbert, 1844), 1–24. Full title
  55. “The Mormonites,” Christian Intelligencer and Eastern Chronicle (Gardiner, Maine) (18 November 1831): 184. Reprinted from Illinois Patriot (Jacksonville, Illinois) (16 September 1831). off-site
  56. ED Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 15; attributed to David Whitmer off-site
  57. Warren P. Ashton, "The Rings That Bound the Gold Plates Together," Insights 26 no. 3 (2006), N/A.
  58. Joseph Smith Jr., "Church History" (Wentworth Letter)
  59. John Whitmer to Theodore Turley, "in the presence of his anti-Mormon friends." As reported in Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981), 131. ISBN 0877478465.
  60. "Testimony of the Eight Witnesses."
  61. William Smith interview, The Saints' Herald, 4 October 1884, 644.
  62. ED Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 15; attributed to David Whitmer off-site
  63. Parley P. Pratt, "Discovery of an Ancient Record in America," Millennial Star 1 no. 2 (June 1840), 30–37. off-site
  64. Henry Caswall, The City of the Mormons; or, Three Days at Nauvoo, in 1842, 2nd ed. revised and enlarged, (London: J. G. F. & J. Rivington, 1843), 26. off-site
  65. W. I. Appleby, A Dissertation of Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream... (Philadelphia: Brown, Bicking & Guilbert, 1844), 1–24. Full title
  66. Salt Lake Herald (12 August 1875); reprinting from Chicago Times (7 August 1875); cited in Ebbie L V Richardson, "David Whitmer: A Witness to the Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon," (M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1952), 156-58. Also in Lyndon Cook (editor), David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness (Orem, Utah: Grandin Books, 1991), 7.
  67. Salt Lake Herald (12 August 1875); reprinting from Chicago Times (7 August 1875); cited in Ebbie L V Richardson, "David Whitmer: A Witness to the Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon," (M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1952), 156-58. Also in Lyndon Cook (editor), David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness (Orem, Utah: Grandin Books, 1991), 7.

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