Are the Accounts of the Golden Plates Believable?
Photograph by Laci Gibbs via ladylacecreative.com
January 30, 2018
KnoWhy #403
Photograph by Laci Gibbs via ladylacecreative.com
“Joseph Smith, Jun., the translator of this work, has shown unto us the plates of which hath been spoken, which have the appearance of gold”

Testimony of Eight Witnesses

The Know

Nearly two dozen individuals had some sort of sensory encounter with the golden plates that Joseph Smith discovered on a hill near his farm.1 The full weight of these combined reports is certainly impressive. Yet, some may wonder what other kinds of evidence, aside from these witnesses, can help verify the reality and authenticity of the ancient artifact in the prophet’s possession.

Joseph said that an angel, who had custody of the plates, directed him to a hill where they were preserved in a stone box,2 along with other Nephite relics.3 Sacred records in sealed caches guarded by divine beings may seem a bit fantastic to modern societies, but there are a large number of precedents from the ancient world.4

The Ark of the Covenant, for instance, was a box-like structure, symbolically guarded by angelic beings,5 which contained, among other sacred artifacts, an engraved religious document written on non-perishable material.6 Metal documents, including those made of gold and gold-alloys, are well-known in the ancient world and have been discovered in both the Middle East and America.7 According to witnesses, the plates contained both a sealed and an unsealed portion.8 This unusual detail is remarkably consistent with a variety of doubled,9 sealed, and witnessed documents from antiquity.10

Replica of the gold plates by David Baird. Photograph by Daniel Smith

Replica of the gold plates by David Baird. Photograph by Daniel Smith

Several individuals independently reported that the plates were bound together by three D-shaped rings.11 This design was apparently not used for binding written materials during Joseph Smith’s day and was likely unfamiliar to Joseph or anyone in his environment. Yet it is both surprisingly practical and anciently attested. The D shape provided stability, perhaps a way to carry the heavy record,12 and the optimum storage capacity for the plates.13 It is notable that an Etruscan book, dating from the time when Lehi left Jerusalem, was also made from gold plates bound by D-shaped rings.14

As far as the weight, dimensions, and physical appearance of the Nephite record goes, a surprising number of details were reported by witnesses. Individuals who hefted the plates estimated their weight to be around 40–60 pounds. Eyewitnesses said they were about 8 inches in length, 6 or 7 inches in width, and 4 or 6 inches in depth, with the appearance of gold.15

Based on these descriptions, those with metallurgical expertise have suggested that the plates were made of a gold-copper alloy called tumbaga, which was well-known in ancient America.16 Several studies have even shown that it is entirely plausible that the surface area provided by these plates was enough to have produced the English text of the Book of Mormon, assuming the engraved characters from which it was translated were fairly small.17

The Eight Witnesses by Olinda Reynolds via lds.org

The Eight Witnesses by Olinda Reynolds via lds.org

Finally, several witnesses remarked upon the beauty and seeming antiquity of the engravings on the plates, which the Book of Mormon calls “reformed Egyptian” (Mormon 9:32).18 It is now known that before and during Lehi’s day, ancient Israelites implemented Egyptian characters in their scribal tradition.19 There is also emerging linguistic evidence which suggests that Uto-Aztecan, an ancient American language family, may have been influenced by Egyptian.20 Thus, from both the Old and New Worlds, there are good reasons to accept the use and adaptation of Egyptian characters, as described in the Book of Mormon.

Ancient American scholar John Sorenson has remarked, “Taken together, the descriptions we have of what was engraved on the metal plates are suggestive of what someone might say after a naïve perusal of a Mesoamerican document.”21

The Why

Although it may be surprising to some, ongoing research has only increased the plausibility of the numerous accounts of the plates. The reported weight, dimensions, and composition of the plates are believable. The story of their discovery is supported by a large number of similar archeological finds. And several of the record’s unusual features—such as being bound by D-shaped rings, having a sealed portion, and being written in reformed Egyptian—have a surprising amount of corroboration from the ancient world. Each reported detail, no matter how unusual or unlikely from a 19th century perspective, has checked out in light of 20th and 21st century research.

Neal Rappleye has noted that, in many cases, the eyewitnesses who provided these consistent details did so “after their estrangement from Joseph, independently and spontaneously upon questioning and cross-examination (sometimes from skeptical interviewers), during a time when [they] were scattered and isolated from each other, when no collusion was possible.”22 Recognizing that so many independent witnesses firmly ground the plates in reality, some people have assumed that Joseph Smith or one of his associates simply forged them. Yet those who resort to this theory often fail to account for the metallurgical expertise required to create such an object.23

Joseph Smith Receives the Gold Plates by Kenneth Riley

Joseph Smith Receives the Gold Plates by Kenneth Riley

Whoever made the plates would have needed to be competent in hammering, gilding, annealing, smelting, and engraving metal records.24 They would have needed familiarity with the properties of gold, copper, and perhaps silver.25 They would have needed a good deal of time to create the object, presumably in secret. And, most unlikely of all, they would have needed a large amount of gold! Yet, the historical record suggests that neither Joseph Smith nor any of his associates would have had the competence or the materials to pull off such a scheme.26

The reality of the golden plates is a key element in the story of the Restoration. If Joseph Smith never possessed them, then the foundation of Mormonism is built upon a hoax.27 Yet if he actually did possess an ancient record, then his claims of translating it through divine power are significantly supported. It seems that for this very reason, the Lord has provided profound physical and spiritual evidences for the existence of the plates.28 According to Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, both types of evidence are important because “truly rock-ribbed faith and uncompromised conviction comes with its most complete power when it engages our head as well as our heart.”29

The plates were more than just a finely-crafted artifact. They contained the most important spiritual messages from an ancient civilization, recorded and preserved by prophets over the course of a thousand years. For this reason, their contents are far more valuable than the precious metals from which they were created.30 Yet the evidence for their tangible reality helps confirm the historical reality of the ancient prophets who created them, as well as the true doctrines and miraculous experiences which they recorded.32

In Elder Holland’s view, “the reality of those plates, the substance of them if you will, and the evidence that comes to us from them in the form of the Book of Mormon is at the heart, at the very center, of the hope and testimony and conviction of this work.”32 The plates meaningfully represent the reality of Jesus Christ and the truth of His restored gospel.32 They contain His words and to accept them is to accept Him.34

Further Reading

Warren P. Aston, “The Rings That Bound the Gold Plates Together,” Insights 26, no 3. (2006): 3–4.

Kirk B. Henrichsen, “How Witnesses Described the ‘Gold Plates’,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10, no. 1 (2001): 16–21, 78.

John A. Tvedtnes, The Book of Mormon and Other Hidden Books: “Out of Darkness Unto Light, (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000).

Robert F. Smith, “The ‘Golden’ Plates” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1992), 275–277.

Read H. Putnam, “Were the Golden Plates made of Tumbaga?” The Improvement Era 69, no. 9 (1966): 788–789, 828–831.