“Idle and Slothful Strange Stories”: Book of Mormon Origins and the Historical Record

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Abstract: From the very beginning, Joseph’s story about the origins of the Book of Mormon seemed wild and unbelievable. Today, however, Joseph’s account enjoys a high degree of corroboration from (1) eyewitness accounts confirming Joseph’s possession of actual metal plates and other artifacts, with some even corroborating the involvement of an angel in providing access to the record; (2) eyewitness reports on the process of producing the text; and (3) evidence from the original manuscript. This evidence is reviewed here, and the implications it has for the Book of Mormon’s origin are considered.

The stories Joseph Smith told about the origins of the Book of Mormon are quite fantastic. He said that in 1823 one of the ancient authors, Moroni, came to him as an angel and told him where the record was hidden. After four years under Moroni’s annual tutelage, Joseph was permitted to recover the record engraved on a set of gold plates from its resting place in a stone box in a hill. Joseph was empowered by God to translate the record, through the medium of “interpreters,” or seer stones. Thus empowered, he dictated to scribes such as his wife Emma, Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and others. This is the origin of the Book of Mormon, per Joseph Smith.1

[Page 22]Naturally, this narrative was greeted with skepticism by those outside Joseph’s inner circle and continues to be doubted by many today. In January 1830, newspaper editor Abner Cole wrote a biting satire about Joseph Smith and his stories about angels, gold plates, and divine translation. Cole lumped these tall tales in with “Idle and Slothful strange stories of hidden treasures and of the spirit who had the custody thereof.”2 The story continues to be lumped in with tales of Captain Kidd and other money-diggers lore today3 and forms part of the rationale for why even some professed Latter-day Saints would have us abandon any kind of defense of the book’s origins, opting instead for some sort of vague “inspired-fiction” view of the Book of Mormon.4

Though this story may seem wild and unbelievable to the modern skeptic, its elements actually fit ancient patterns for the discovery of lost books.5 The account also enjoys a high degree of corroboration from (1) eyewitness accounts confirming Joseph’s possession of actual metal plates and other artifacts, with some even corroborating the involvement of an angel in providing access to the record; (2) eyewitness reports on the process of producing the text; and (3) evidence from the original manuscript. These three items are addressed in this paper.[Page 23]

Artifacts and Angels

Anthony Sweat, assistant professor of Church History at BYU, talks about how remarkably physical the Book of Mormon’s origins are.

Joseph said the Book of Mormon came forth from a nearby hill, by removing dirt, using a lever to lift a large stone, and removing actual engraved plates and sacred interpreters for the translation of its inscriptions. The Book of Mormon text didn’t just pass through Joseph’s trance-induced revelatory mind; its palpable relics passed through a clothing frock, hollowed log, cooper’s shop, linen napkin, wooden chest, fireplace hearth, and barrel of beans.6

The physicality of these artifacts was experienced by a wide variety of men and women in a wide variety of ways. As Richard Lloyd Anderson explained decades ago,

The plates figured in the regular life of Joseph Smith for over a year and a half. … He worried about obtaining them, [and] guarded them carefully during this period. … This meant that those nearest him shared in his strategies for preserving and using them. So a larger circle than the official witnesses had some contact with the ancient record in their daily affairs.7

To start, there are the official eleven witnesses. Just prior to publishing the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith showed the plates to two separate groups of people. The first consisted of Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and Cowdery’s brother-in-law David Whitmer. These three all testified that after praying with Joseph Smith, an angel showed them the plates on which the Book of Mormon was written.8 Another set of witnesses, consisting of David’s brothers Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer Jr., John Whitmer, their brother-in-law Hiram Page, and Joseph’s father and brothers, Joseph Smith Sr., Hyrum Smith, and [Page 24]Samuel Smith were shown the record under ordinary circumstances and allowed to handle the plates.9

Both sets of witnesses had group testimonies drafted and published within the covers of the Book of Mormon. Many of the individuals also made frequent statements throughout their lives as they were questioned about the experience by believers and skeptics alike. The earliest of these on record comes from Oliver Cowdery a few months after the experience. In response to a newspaper editor inquiring about the Book of Mormon, Oliver wrote, “It was a clear, open beautiful day, far from any inhabitants, in a remote field, at the time we saw the record, of which it has been spoken, brought and laid before us, by an angel, arrayed in glorious light, [who] ascend [descended I suppose] out of the midst of heaven.”10

Oliver later left the Church, yet there is no indication that he ever denied his testimony of the Book of Mormon.11 After returning to the Church in 1848 at a Conference held in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Oliver delivered a stirring address. Included in that address was the declaration, “I beheld with my eyes, and handled with my hands, the gold plates from which [the Book of Mormon] was translated. I also saw with my eyes and handled with my hands the Holy Interpreters. That book is true.”12

In a letter written in 1870, Martin Harris testified: “I do say that the angel did show me the plates containing the Book of Mormon.”13 In 1887, after all the other witnesses had passed away, David Whitmer, though no longer a member of the Church, continued to fulfill the charge they had received in 1830. “I will say once more to all mankind,” he wrote, “that I have never at any time denied that testimony or any part thereof. I also [Page 25]testify to the world, that neither Oliver Cowdery or Martin Harris ever at any time denied their testimony.”14

Similar individual statements can be found among the eight witnesses. The Prophet’s brother Hyrum Smith said, “[H]e had but two hands and two eyes” and that “he had seen the plates with his eyes and handled them with his hands.”15 In 1839, after enduring the bleakness of Liberty Jail, Hyrum Smith wrote, “I thank God that I felt a determination to die, rather than deny the things which my eyes had seen, which my hands had handled.”16 In 1847, after leaving the Church, Hiram Page said, speaking of the Book of Mormon, it would be “doing injustice to myself and to the work of God of the last days, to say … my mind was so treacherous that I had forgotten what I saw.”17

John Whitmer, like his brother David, is one of the witnesses who left the Church and never returned. Once, after leaving the Church, he stood before some of his anti-Mormon friends and was questioned about his witness of the Book of Mormon by Theodore Turley. With all the peer pressure in the world telling him to deny his testimony, John declared, “I now say I handled those plates. There was fine engravings on both sides. I handled them.”18 Decades later, after most of the other witnesses had passed away, John responded by letter to someone asking about his testimony in the Book of Mormon. “I have never heard,” he wrote, “that any one of the three or eight witnesses ever denied the testimony that they have borne to the Book as published in the first edition of the Book of Mormon.”19

The two sets of witnesses are complemented by the additional experiences and informal interactions with the plates that others had. [Page 26]These include Alvah Beaman, Josiah Stowell, and Joseph Knight Sr. along with other members of Joseph Smith’s family, such as his wife Emma, his mother Lucy, and his brother and sister, William and Katharine.20 Although most of these people never actually saw the plates, they can attest that Joseph Smith really did have a tangible object. They felt, lifted, and moved this object around (while covered). They could feel the weight, contours, and shape of the object well enough to discern that it was not blocks of wood or stones.21 They could lift the individual pages (or plates), hear them make a metallic rustling sound as they moved,22 and feel that they were bound by three rings.23

Their experiences are so straightforward they cannot be easily dismissed. Both Emma and Katharine moved the covered plates around the house as they did daily chores,24 Josiah Stowell caught a glimpse of their corner as the covering slipped off when Joseph handed them to him,25 Alvah Beaman heard the metallic clinking of the plates as he helped move them around in the wooden chest,26 and Martin Harris let them sit, covered, on his knee for some time as he talked with Joseph in the [Page 27]woods while they were preparing to hide the plates from a mob.27 Others reported finding the stone box in the hill after it had been emptied of its contents.28 These are mundane, ordinary, even day-to-day experiences. Experiences like these bring a certain tangibility and physicality to the plates that makes them hard to remove from historical reality.

There is also the experience of Mary Whitmer, who saw both the plates and the angel. Her experience is interesting because, even though it includes the divine messenger, even he is portrayed in rather ordinary terms. He shows up as a man while she is out milking cows, he shows her the record, and then he is gone.29

This is only a small sampling of the many accounts that exist from the various witnesses.30 While it is easy to scrutinize and dismiss these testimonies now, for those living in the vicinity of Palmyra at the time, it was much harder to ignore. As a pair of historians who work for the The Joseph Smith Papers Project explain, “Joseph’s initial problems with enemies in 1827 were precisely because they were certain that he had in fact obtained some golden treasure from the hill.”31

All of this makes notions of co-conspirators or easily duped followers very difficult to square with the historical record. There are too many people with too many stories about interactions with the plates and other artifacts. Several left the Church while continuing to bear their witness of the plates. As Richard Lloyd Anderson noted, several were strong-willed individuals who “tended to compete rather than cooperate with [Joseph Smith’s] leadership.”32 Given such circumstances, it would be impossible to keep a conspiracy under wraps, and their tendency to compete with Joseph’s leadership indicates they are not likely to be easily duped.

[Page 28]The different types of experiences of the various witnesses provide what Terryl Givens called “an evidentiary spectrum, satisfying a range of criteria for belief.” He elaborates:

The reality of the plates was now confirmed by both proclamation from heaven and by empirical observation, through a supernatural vision and by simple, tactical experience, by the testimony of passive witnesses to a divine demonstration and by the testimony of a group of men actively engaging in their own unhampered examination of the evidence.33

While Givens was only speaking of the official witnesses, the experiences of others who interacted with these objects further expands the evidentiary spectrum. For these participants, the plates and other objects were an omnipresent reality, sometimes out of sight but never really out of mind. They helped protect them from mobs trying to take the plates, either to get rich, expose the fraud, or both. They moved them around while doing daily chores. Homes were ransacked, marriages were severed, and family ties strained to the limit — all over whatever Joseph had hidden under that linen cloth or secured in his wooden chest. “From Nephi to Joseph and Emma,” Brant A. Gardner notes, “the Book of Mormon was intensely physical, intensely tangible.”34

Steven C. Harper of the Church Historical Department feels that the witnesses’ testimonies “are some of the most compelling evidence in favor of its miraculous revelation and translation.” Indeed, Harper notes that, “[f]or believers,” such testimony “approaches proof of Joseph Smith’s miraculous claims.”35 But what of doubters and skeptics?

“The witnesses’ statements were an effective demonstration of authenticity for a skeptical age,” according to Richard Lyman Bushman, a highly respected early American historian and former Howard W. Hunter chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate [Page 29]School. “Secular historians have never come to grips with the fact that none of the eleven who saw the plates (in addition to Joseph Smith) ever recanted.”36

All told, these accounts corroborate Joseph Smith’s claim to having a set of metal plates and other objects within his possession. Some support his assertions of having retrieved them from a stone box in the Hill Cumorah. Additionally, several eyewitnesses were also introduced to the angel who was involved in revealing the plates. This creates a large body of historical evidence consistent with Joseph Smith’s claims.

Translation Process

There is an abundance of documentation on the process by which the English text was produced.37 Using that documentation, researchers have determined that the bulk of the translation occurred between April and June 1829, in a period only a little longer than two months — a rate of about eight pages per day.38 This was accomplished amidst a variety of other activities that had to be done, such as the dictation of twelve additional revelations (now in the Doctrine and Covenants), application for copyright, and hostile interactions with neighbors, which eventually [Page 30]mandated a relocation of the translation from Harmony, Pennsylvania, to Fayette, New York, a distance of a hundred miles.39 “Besides translating,” Bushman writes, “Joseph received revelations for his brother Hyrum and the helpful Joseph Knight, and was instructed by the Lord to translate the small plates of Nephi rather than go back again to Lehi’s longer record. But through all of the ambient events, the main project ground on, the words coming relentlessly from Joseph’s mouth and going onto paper under Cowdery’s pen.”40

Witnesses to the process have insisted that Joseph Smith had no other book or manuscript with him from which to draw material.41 Using a hat to shield out the light as he focused on his seer stone, Joseph could not have read from a manuscript because, as he once told Martin Harris (who had switched out the seer stone with a different rock), it was “dark as Egypt” in the hat.42 Despite that, however, Joseph seemed to be reading from something because he would have his scribe recite back what was written to verify its accuracy.43 After countless interruptions, Joseph always started back right where he left off, without ever checking with his scribe to see what was last dictated.44 Sometimes Joseph had trouble pronouncing the names of the various characters in the narrative, including that of the name Sariah, Nephi’s mother.45 On at least one occasion, the content of the text seemed to surprise Joseph. For example, on one occasion when Emma was acting as his scribe, she remembered,

[Page 31][O]ne time while he was translating he stopped suddenly, pale as a sheet, and said, “Emma, did Jerusalem have walls around it?” When I answered “Yes,” he replied “Oh! I was afraid I had been deceived.” He had such limited knowledge of history at that time that he did not even know that Jerusalem was surrounded by walls.46

In the words of Martin Harris, “Joseph knew not the contents of the Book of Mormon until it was translated.”47

Evidence from the remaining portions of the original manuscript corroborates much of the witnesses’ testimony. Royal Skousen, a linguist who has led the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project for over a quarter century,48 has observed that the kind of errors found in the original manuscript reflect the mishearing, rather than the misreading, of the words, indicating that the original text was dictated to scribes. His analysis leads him to conclude that Joseph could only read twenty to thirty words at a time. Names are often misspelled and then corrected, supporting the witnesses’ testimony that Joseph would sometimes spell out the proper names. There are immediate changes to errors, consistent with the scribes reading back the text to Joseph to have it verified. Consistent with Joseph’s being unfamiliar with the text, the manuscript shows that Joseph did not always know when a break in the text was the beginning of a new chapter or a whole new book, specifically evidenced in the manuscript at the division between 1 and 2 Nephi.49

To summarize, both the eyewitness and manuscript evidence suggest that Joseph was reading a text, but not from any manuscript or [Page 32]book. He only had access to limited portions of the text at a time, and did not have personal control over the text. There is no long, drawn out composition process — over five hundred pages were rattled off into a complex, coherent narrative in just over two months’ time, a miraculous feat in its own right. After breaks, he did not go back to do extensive revisions, nor did he need to review what had already been written, as an author normally would. He could not pronounce some of the names, and the information in the text was often as new to him as it was to his scribes and those observing the process. Overall, this evidence suggests that the text was not his own.

It is impossible to prove that something is miraculous or divine, but all of the above evidence is consistent with the story told by Joseph himself — that he dictated a text given to him by revelation, through the medium of an “interpreter,” or a seer stone.50 Taken together, Joseph Smith’s basic account, from the angel delivering the record on metal plates to the translation provided by “the gift and power of God,” is supported, to the extent possible, by the best primary sources on the coming forth of the text.

The Implications for Origins

In his study on authorship attribution, Harold Love explained that an important class of evidence includes “[c]ontemporary attributions contained in … titles, and from documents purporting to impart information about the circumstances of composition — especially diaries, correspondence, publishers’ records, and records of legal proceedings.”51 While the Book of Mormon title page listed Joseph Smith as the “author and proprietor” of the text in 1830, this was clearly done for copyright reasons.52 Therefore, the historical evidence, summarized here, coming from the people most familiar with “the circumstances of composition,” [Page 33]must be dealt with in any attempt to explain the origins and authorship of the Book of Mormon.

Such evidence makes it difficult to dismiss these narratives as “idle and slothful strange stories,” or otherwise explain them. Despite continued efforts by some critics to posit some other author, such as Sidney Rigdon or Solomon Spaulding,53 the evidence really allows only for Joseph Smith as a potential author in 1830. Too many people saw and described the process of Joseph, head in hat, dictating the text for it to be any other way.54 Yet Joseph as author also quickly runs into problems.

Joseph was unfamiliar with the content (Jerusalem’s walls) and structural divisions (mislabeled division between 1 and 2 Nephi), and could not pronounce at least some of the names (like Sariah). Why would this be if the text was Joseph’s own creation? Add to that the questions of where the plates and other artifacts in his possession came from, which are also corroborated by eyewitness testimony. Despite these problems, Joseph Smith and several of the other nineteenth century persons have been proposed as the author(s) of the text. Such proposals fail the test of historical evidence. Overall, the external evidence is consistent with Joseph Smith’s own explanation of events — including the angel and the plates — more than any other.

A great deal of creativity has been expended trying to account for all this in some other way. Some have argued,55 for example, that Joseph Smith manufactured a fake set of plates, even appealing to known [Page 34]forgeries such as the Voree and Kinderhook plates, as analogs. Such arguments suffer from a number of difficulties:

  1. This is an ad hoc explanation, necessitated by the witnesses’ testimonies but not actually supported by them or any other historical evidence.
  2. The Voree and Kinderhook plates are small and crude and were obviously made of easily available materials. The Book of Mormon plates, on the other hand, are a different story entirely. Reconstructions of them based on witness descriptions prove extremely difficult.56 These plates were a well-crafted artifact far beyond the skills of Joseph Smith.57
  3. Lastly, witnesses attested to several other artifacts, such as the Liahona, Sword of Laban, the breastplate, and Interpreters.58 If the plates alone were beyond Joseph’s skill set to manufacture, then these added props certainly complicate the matter. It seems difficult to maintain that Joseph Smith created these artifacts himself (or with others). There is no evidence to support such an argument.

Others, then, turn to conspiracy theories, as already discussed. All the eyewitnesses to both the plates and the translation are from Joseph Smith’s “inner circle,” and thus they colluded with him on a major hoax. This theory breaks down quickly, however. Too many of these persons were later estranged from Joseph Smith and the Church, and yet not one backed away from his testimony nor exposed a conspiracy. Added [Page 35]to that is the fact that most of the eyewitness accounts are made after their estrangement from Joseph, independently and spontaneously upon questioning and cross-examination (sometimes from skeptical interviewers), during a time when these witnesses were scattered and isolated from each other, when no collusion was possible.59

Richard Lloyd Anderson is both a historian and an attorney. His legal background is evident in the way he examines historical sources. While some regard such approaches as problematic, it has its merits as well. When trying to discern potential conspirators, for instance, Anderson’s interrogative approach is quite valuable. With the acumen of a seasoned trial attorney accustomed to discerning when witnesses are covering something up, he examined both the public and private statements left behind by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery from the period of translation. He found no deception but instead sincerity.

Profound faith and reverence characterize Joseph and Oliver in the early years of the Church. … The early Joseph and Oliver are men with missions, servants of Christ devoted to his work. This is supremely relevant in judging their Book of Mormon translation. They are the kind of men that God would use in such a great work. Their lives and thoughts are in harmony with what they claimed to do. … Their intense prayerfulness is consistent with communion with God. Not only is their translation story credible by numerous practical tests — the translators themselves emerge as spiritually credible.

… Did Oliver and Joseph translate by revelation and receive testimony and authority from angels? One must judge their credibility and discern the product of their work. Their activities are verified and their lifetime testimonies unwavering. The translators’ minds harmonize with their [Page 36]prophetic call. Moreover, their claims are phrased with the confident simplicity of men who expect to be believed. What they said is important, but so also is how they said it; lack of overstatement in their first testimonies underlines depth of conviction.60

Such sincerity is problematic for theories of fraud or conspiracy. Richard Lyman Bushman, widely regarded as the leading expert on the life of Joseph Smith, reached a similar conclusion after reviewing the primary sources for the recovery and translation period. Speaking of Joseph Smith’s unpublished 1832 history, for example, Bushman observes:

The passage has an endearing candor to it. Joseph admits his teenage transgressions and his hope for forgiveness. He comes across as a learner trying to understand what he is to do. He is baffled when he cannot get the plates and wonders for an instant if he had just dreamed the vision. He is terrified that he has done something wrong. The angel at times frightens him. When he is rebuked, Joseph recognizes that he had been thinking of gold and riches, not of the glory of God. He is relieved to record the assurance that by repentance he could be forgiven and get the plates eventually. … The passage captivates a reader, making it hard to doubt Joseph’s sincerity. Inserting too much of language like this into a secular account would diffuse the search for Book of Mormon sources and turn attention to Joseph’s desire to comply with the will of heaven.

This is why, Bushman explains, “believing historians are more inclined to be true to the basic sources than unbelieving ones.”61

Counter-explanations ultimately fall flat of accounting for all the historical evidence, and they needlessly multiply hypotheses. They are particularly inadequate to account for the sincerity and honesty that both Anderson and Bushman discern in the most reliable primary sources. The most parsimonious explanation remains that given by Joseph Smith himself: an angel showed him where to find a record engraved on metal plates. This record was translated by means of revelation, through the [Page 37]medium of seer stones (called “interpreters” by the record itself), and published as the Book of Mormon.

1. The most accessible primary source for all of this is Joseph Smith’s own history written in 1838–1839, included in the LDS standard works as Joseph Smith — History. For additional treatments of the topic that cite the relevant primary sources, see Richard E. Turley Jr. and William W. Slaughter, How We Got the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 1–23; Matthew B. Brown, Plates of Gold: The Book of Mormon Comes Forth (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2003), 3–97; Brant A. Gardner, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2011), 3–134; Paul C. Gutjahr, The Book of Mormon: A Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 11–37; Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light: Joseph Smith’s Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: BYU Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book, 2015), 3–134.

2. Obadiah Dogberry [Abner Cole], “The Book of Pukei,” Palmyra Reflector (June 12, 1830), 36.

3. See Ronald V. Huggins, “From Captain Kidd’s Treasure Ghost to the Angel Moroni: Changing Dramatis Personae in Mormonism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 36/4 (2003): 17–42. For evaluation of such arguments from a faithful LDS perspective, see Larry E. Morris, “‘I Should Have an Eye Single to the Glory of God’: Joseph Smith’s Account of the Angel and the Plates,” FARMS Review 17/1 (2005): 11–81; Mark Ashurst-McGee, “Moroni as Angel and as Treasure Guardian,” FARMS Review 18/1 (2006): 34–100.

4. See for example, Anthony A. Hutchinson, “The Word of God Is Enough: The Book of Mormon as Nineteenth-Century Scripture,” in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, ed. Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 1–19; Robert M. Price, “Joseph Smith: Inspired Author of the Book of Mormon,” in American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, ed. Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 321–366.

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

6. Anthony Sweat, “Hefted and Handled: Tangible Interactions with Book of Mormon Objects,” in The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, ed. Dennis Largey, Andrew H. Hedges, John Hilton III, and Kerry Hull (Provo/Salt Lake: BYU Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book, 2015), 44.

7. Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981), 21, brackets mine, capitalization altered.

8. See “The Testimony of Three Witnesses,” in the front of contemporary editions of the Book of Mormon.

9. See “The Testimony of Eight Witnesses,” in the front of contemporary editions of the Book of Mormon.

10. Oliver H.P. Cowdery to Cornelius C. Blatchly, November 9, 1829, printed in Cornelius C. Blatchly, “The New Bible,” Gospel Luminary 2/49 (December 10, 1829): 194. Brackets represent the commentary of Blatchly. An image of this source is available online at https://juvenileinstructor.org/ji-content/uploads/2012/08/1829-12-10-v2n49-copy-93×300.jpg (accessed July 26, 2014).

11. See Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 37–47.

12. Reuben Miller Journal, cited in Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Reuben Miller, Recorder of Oliver Cowdery’s Reaffirmations,” in Oliver Cowdery: Scribe, Elder, Witness, ed. John W. Welch and Larry E. Morris (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2006), 402.

13. Martin Harris to Hannah Emerson, November 23, 1870, printed in “Correspondence,” in True Latter Day Saints’ Herold 22/20 (Plano, IL; October 15, 1875), 630.

14. David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ (Richmond, MO: David Whitmer, 1887), 8.

15. Sally Bradford Parker to John Kempton, August 26, 1838; transcribed in Janiece L. Johnson, “‘The Scriptures Is a Fulfilling’: Sally Parker’s Weave,” BYU Studies 44/2 (2005): 115, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization standardized. Original reads: “he said he had but too hands and too eyes he said he had seene the plates with his eyes and handeled them with his hands”.

16. Hyrum Smith to the Saints, December 1829, printed at “Communications,” Times and Seasons 1/2 (December 1839): 23.

17. Hiram Page to William E. McLellin, May 30, 1847; cited by Steven C. Harper, “The Eleven Witnesses,” in The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon, 122.

18. Memorandum of Theodore Turley, April 4, 1839; cited by Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 131.

19. John Whitmer to Mark H. Forest [Forscutt], March 5, 1876; cited by Harper, “The Eleven Witnesses,” 123.

20. For summaries of the experiences of these individuals, see Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 21–34; Brown, Plates of Gold, 48, 78 n. 83; MacKay and Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light, 13, 15–16. For Alvah Beaman, see William J. Hamblin, “An Apologist for the Critics: Brent Lee Metcalf’s Assumptions and Methodologies,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6/1 (1994): 519.

21. William Smith, “Sermon in the Saints Chapel,” The Saints’ Herald 31 (1884): 643–644.

22. Emma Smith, Interview between February 4–10, 1879, The Saints’ Herald 26 (1879): 290; William Smith, “Sermon in the Saints Chapel,” 643–644; Joel Tiffany, “Mormonism — No. II,” Tiffany’s Monthly 5 (August 1859): 167; MacKay and Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light, 15; Michael R. Ash, Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 2008), 14.

23. Interview of William Smith by E.C. Briggs and J. W. Peterson, Zion’s Ensign (January 13, 1894): 6; Lucy Mack Smith, reported in 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.

24. Emma Smith, The Saints’ Herald 26:290; MacKay and Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light, 15.

25. See “Mormonism,” New England Christian Herald 4/6 (Boston, MA; November 7, 1832); reprinted in Morning Star 8/29 (Limerick, ME; November 16, 1832); transcripts online at http://www.sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/NE/miscne01.htm#110732 and http://www.sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/NE/miscMe01.htm#111632 respectively (accessed August 2, 2015).

26. Tiffany, “Mormonism — No. II,” 167.

27. “Testimonies of Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris,” Millennial Star 21 (August 20, 1859): 545.

28. See MacKay and Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light, 9–10.

29. Three different accounts are all transcribed in Royal Skousen, “Another Account of Mary Whitmer’s Viewing of the Golden Plates,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 10 (2014): 35–44.

30. Unfortunately, there is no complete collection of these accounts. Preston Nibley, comp., The Witnesses of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1968) does gather a handful, though the collection is incomplete and out of date.

31. MacKay and Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light, 10.

32. Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Cowdery, Oliver,” in To All the World: The Book of Mormon Articles from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, comp. Daniel H. Ludlow, S. Kent Brown, and John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 78, brackets mine.

33. Terryl L. Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 40.

34. Brant A. Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), xv.

35. Harper, “The Eleven Witnesses,” 19. For a brief evaluation of the witnesses and their role, for believers, in God’s “proof system of the Book of Mormon,” see Book of Mormon Central, “Who Are the ‘Few’ Who Were Permitted to See the Plates? (2 Nephi 27:12–13), KnoWhy 54 (March 15, 2016), online at https://knowhy.bookofmormoncentral.org/content/who-are-the-few-who-were-permitted-to-see-the-plates (accessed April 19, 2016).

36. Richard Lyman Bushman, “The Recovery of the Book of Mormon,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997), 33. For the most recent attempt to grapple with this issue by a non-Mormon, see Ann Taves, “History and the Claims of Revelation: Joseph Smith and the Materialization of the Golden Plates,” Numen: International Review for the History of Religions 61 (2014): 182–207.

37. My argument here is similar to that of Daniel C. Peterson, “A Response: What the Manuscripts and the Eyewitnesses Tell Us about the Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in Uncovering the Original Text of the Book of Mormon: History and Findings of the Critical Text Project, ed. M. Gerald Bradford and Alison V.P. Coutts (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002), 67–71. Also see Daniel C. Peterson, “Editor’s Introduction — Not So Easily Dismissed: Some Facts for Which Counterexplanations of the Book of Mormon Will Need to Account,” FARMS Review 17/2 (2005): xi–xxiv, xxx–xxxii.

38. See John W. Welch and Tim Rathbone, “How Long Did it take to Translate the Book of Mormon?” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, 1–8; For a much longer and thorough examination, see John W. Welch, “The Miraculous Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2005), 77–117. Immediately following the article, from pages 118–213 are transcriptions of the relevant statements regarding the translation process, from a total of 202 documents. The primary sources used in this section can all be found in this collection. The citation to pages in Opening the Heavens will be provided only for documents difficult to access directly.

39. I’ve somewhat paraphrased Russell M. Nelson, “A Testimony of the Book of Mormon,” Ensign (November 1999): 71 on additional events occurring during translation. All these activities are documented in Welch, “The Miraculous Translation,” 77–117.

40. Bushman, “The Recovery of the Book of Mormon,” 32.

41. See Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” The Saints’ Herald (1 October 1879): 289–290.

42. “The Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon,” Millennial Star 48 (June 21, 1886): 389–390.

43. See Edward Stevenson, letter to the editor (reporting an interview with Martin Harris) November 30, 1881, Deseret Evening News (December 13, 1881), interview occurred in 1870; Eri B. Mullen, “Letter to the Editor,” (reporting an interview with David Whitmer) The Saints’ Herald 27 (March 1, 1880): 76; Interview of David Whitmer reported in Kansas City Journal (June 5, 1881).

44. See Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” 290.

45. See Edmund C. Briggs (reporting an interview with Emma Smith), “A Visit to Nauvoo in 1856,” Journal of History 9 (October 1916): 454; E.C. Briggs (reporting an interview with David Whitmer), “Letter to the Editor,” The Saints’ Herald 31 (June 21, 1884): 396–397; “The Book of Mormon,” (reporting an interview with David Whitmer) Chicago Tribune (December 17, 1885): 3.

46. See Briggs, “A Visit to Nauvoo in 1856,” 454; cf. Nels Madsen, “Visit to Mrs. Emma Smith Bidamon [in 1877],” 1931, Church Archives, transcribed in Openings the Heavens, 129–130; Chicago Tribune, 3; M.J. Hubble, interview of David Whitmer, November 13, 1886, Missouri State Historical Society, Columbia, MO, transcribed in Opening the Heavens, 155–156. For commentary on this event, see Book of Mormon Central, “Did Jerusalem Have Walls Around It? (1 Nephi 4:4),” KnoWhy 7 (January 8, 2016), online at https://knowhy.bookofmormoncentral.org/content/did-jerusalem-have-walls-around-it (accessed April 19, 2016).

47. Orson Hyde (clerk), Council minutes from Kirtland, OH, February 12, 1834; in Fred C. Collier and William S. Harwell, eds., Kirtland Council Minute Book (Salt Lake City: Collier’s Publishing Company, 2002), 23.

48. For background on the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project, Royal Skousen, “The Original Text of the Book of Mormon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 7 (2013): 57–96.

49. See Royal Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited, 67–87.

50. The exact mechanics of how one actually sees and translates using a seer stone are unclear, but the best attempt at explaining this is made by Gardner, The Gift and Power, 250–315. Other writers have explicitly avoided trying to explain, instead choosing to focus on capturing the miracle of the Book of Mormon translation as Joseph Smith and his contemporaries experienced it. See, for example, MacKay and Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light, xiii–xvi.

51. Harold Love, Attributing Authorship: An Introduction (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 51.

52. See Michael Hubbard MacKay, Gerrit Dirkmaat, Grant Underwood, Robert J. Woodford, and William G. Hartley, Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831, The Joseph Smith Papers (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2013), 64 n. 196, 94 n. 366. Also see Miriam A. Smith and John W. Welch, “Joseph Smith: ‘Author and Proprietor’,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1992), 154–157.

53. The most detailed recent attempt to make a historical case of Spaulding/Rigdon authorship is Wayne L. Cowdrey, Howard A. Davis, and Arthur Vanick, Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon? The Spalding Enigma (St. Louis: Concordia, 2005). For detailed analysis of the many problems with the Spaulding/Rigdon theory, see Matthew Roper, “The Mythical ‘Manuscript Found’,” FARMS Review 17/2 (2005): 7–140; Matthew Roper, “Oliver Cowdery and the ‘Mythical Manuscript Found’,” in Oliver Cowdery: Scribe, Elder, Witness, ed. John W. Welch and Larry E. Morris (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2006), 123–131; Matthew Roper, “Myth, Memory, and ‘Manuscript Found’,” FARMS Review 21/2 (2009): 179–223; Matthew Roper and Paul J. Fields, “The Historical Case against Sidney Rigdon’s Authorship of the Book of Mormon,” Mormon Studies Review 23/1 (2011): 113–125.

54. See several of the sources in Opening the Heavens, 118–213.

55. See, for example, Dan Vogel, “The Validity of the Witnesses’ Testimony,” in American Apocrypha, ed. Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 108. Taves, “History and the Claims of Revelation,” 182–207 more or less follows Vogel.

56. Kirk B. Henrichsen, “What Did the Golden Plates Look Like?” New Era (July 2007): 32 (insert “A Model of the Plates”); Shanna Butler, “A Golden Opportunity,” New Era (February 2006): 34–37

57. MacKay and Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light, 108. Even seemingly obvious and “common sense” aspects of the construction turn out to be beyond what Joseph Smith or someone from his day would have known to do. For example, the fact that the plates had three rings, which were D-shaped, makes it highly unlikely someone like Joseph Smith manufactured them. Three rings provide the most stability, and the D-shape provides the optimum utility, facts that were unrealized when ringed-binders were first developed in 1854. Whoever manufactured the plates had knowledge and experience in ring-binding technology, something no one in upstate New York had but which some ancient peoples were aware of, as confirmed by recent discoveries. See Warren P. Aston, “The Rings That Bound the Gold Plates Together,” Insights 26/3 (2006): 3–4.

58. Steven C. Harper, Makings Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants: A Guided Tour through Modern Revelations (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2008), 62–63; Brown, Plates of Gold, 47–53.

59. Other explanations which invoke drug-induced hallucinations, or hypnotism, etc., get even more ad hoc as they attempt to rationalize the eyewitness testimonies. For more detailed responses to attacks on the Book of Mormon witnesses, see Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 151–179; Steven C. Harper, “Evaluating the Book of Mormon Witnesses,” Religious Educator 11/2 (2010): 37–49; Matthew Roper, “Comments on the Book of Mormon Witnesses: A Response to Jerald and Sandra Tanner,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/2 (1993): 164–193; Larry E. Morris, “‘The Private Character of the Man who Bore That Testimony’: Oliver Cowdery and his Critics,” FARMS Review 15/1 (2003): 311–330; Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/1 (2005): 18–31.

60. Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The Credibility of the Book of Mormon Translators,” in Book of Mormon Authorship, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1982; reprint FARMS, 1996), 230, 231.

61. Bushman, “The Recovery of the Book of Mormon,” 25–26.

30 thoughts on ““Idle and Slothful Strange Stories”: Book of Mormon Origins and the Historical Record

  1. Pingback: Are the Accounts of the Golden Plates Believable? | Meridian Magazine

  2. As interesting as all of this is it really does not matter. All anyone needs to do is to put Moroni’s promise to the test. I have done so and state irrevocably that I know that the book of Mormon is an accurate translation of writing of ancient prophets, prepared for us today by men who were not only commanded what to write but also saw us and understood the issues we would face. The four men who wrote the majority of the text all had the same four things in common.
    1. They each claim that they saw and talked to Jesus Christ
    2. They each claim to have seen us in vision
    3. They were told what to write (at least in part)
    4. They each promise to meet us personally some day
    Actual physical evidence is interesting only to the person who has not heard the voice of God declare it to be true. Once you have that experience you do not need anything else.

  3. Well-done, and good points. The article above twice mentions the stone in the hat, but does not mention the interpreters that came with the plates as a method of translation.
    Yet, as far as I have been able to trace, neither Joseph Smith nor Oliver Cowdery, who did the vast majority of the translating, ever mention the stone in the hat, but repeatedly mention “interpreters” and “spectacles”.
    I’m aware that others somewhat involved in witnessing and translating small portions suggest the stone in the hat, especially many decades after the fact. However, it seems inaccurate to mention only the stone and to leave out the way Joseph and Oliver described it.
    Do you have a primary source from any of the translators-Oliver, David Whitmer, Emma Smith, within 30 years of 1830 that suggest the stone in the hat?

  4. Neal, I just want to offer a pure and simple pat on the back. In my opinion, this is the best article you have written thus far.

  5. (In a respectful tone)…
    To those of you who have disparaged the research, witnesses, “gold” aspect of the book, I ask…why do you care??? You clearly don’t believe it anyway.
    I wish you would put your noble efforts into something that will benefit yourself or mankind, rather than attempting to tear down the beliefs of people who have found joy, peace and happiness within the structure of the church and yes…the pages of the Book of Mormon.
    I personally don’t care about the weight of gold. There’s NO WAY to know exactly what the plates were made of, is there? What we do know is that there were people who saw and/or carried them. Lots of people. Period.
    God is not required to give us all the answers before he gives us the test. He has leaked a few answers (NHM, for example. NO WAY could JS have known about that place!).
    We love you. You are our son…our parent…our sister. We pray for you every day and night, but we look forward to the time when you can find your OWN happiness in what YOU have chosen. Go for it! Don’t waste another minute trying to convince those of us who believe to follow you. We’ve made a decision we’re happy with. Now, go do the same. God and all of us love you, even if you have opted out. That’s the gospel truth!

  6. Shouldn’t it strike one as convenient that the plates were supposedly taken up by the angel or spirit Moroni? Wouldnt it be a slam dunk if the BofM translation were verified? Also, whether one believes that the plates were real, why didn’t JS use the supposed plates in his supposed translation? One would think that God would have intended their use given the amount of time it supposedly took to manufacture the plates.

    • Joseph Smith had no particular knowledge that would have allowed him to read the engravings on the plates and formulate the English equivalent. As such, the plates need not be used in that way. However, having the plates themselves did serve an express purpose in being an actual source record of that which Joseph Smith was transmitting to his scribes, something likely far beyond his ability to manufacture. As described in the the essay, a number of people were shown the plates, but in particular the Three Witnesses who were shown the plates by and angel who told them this was a real record and that the English translation given by Joseph Smith was true to that record.

  7. Actually, the objection raised by Robert — a classic strawman argument that (as Brant and Stephen point out) ignores or is ignorant of the very real scholarship that has been published regarding the likely physical composition of the plates — underscores precisely why most Book of Mormon criticism is so profoundly unconvincing: to give a naturalistic explanation of the Book of Mormon, you have to establish the historical framework for it. And as Neal has so well pointed out, the historical evidence that we do have — including from hostile contemporaneous sources — is remarkably consistent with the ‘official’ story. Bluntly put, there is little or no evidence for any ‘alternative’ historical explanation of how the Book of Mormon came to be.
    And that doesn’t even begin to touch explaining the text itself. My wife and I do more-or-less nightly joint reading from the scriptures. And at least once a week when we’re going through the Book of Mormon, I’ll finish reading a chapter out loud and say, “Yep. That sounds exactly like something a 23-year-old farm boy with only a few years of education, living in the early 18th century, would write.” I have a college degree (and did graduate work), scored in the 99th percentile on the English portion of the GRE (lo! some 40 years ago), actually made my living as a writer for a few years, have published four books and well over 100 articles, own over 3600 books (I counted during our last move), and I _still_ marvel at the complexity and sophistication of the Book of Mormon narrative. And, as Brett said, the real miracle is its ability to bring us unto Christ.

  8. Thank you for this essay. While not the subject of your essay, something that amazes me (perhaps humbles is a better word) is that for over 180 plus years, across diverse geographical boundaries, cultures and languages, the Book of Mormon SPEAKS to people old and young, black and white, male and female, rich and poor regarding Jesus Christ, His gospel and His way. It is a marvelous work and wonder.

  9. Robert’s analysis and conclusions do not address the evidences claimed in Rappleye’s discussion. Robert selects instead another objection that cannot be proven or disproven, given the absence of the actual plates. We do not know how much the plates weighed. The exact composition of the metal cannot be presently known, only speculated. The number of “gold” leaves cannot be known by any current measure.
    Given the contemporary descriptions of the translation process, and recognizing that the plates were, of course, not in the hat into which Joseph is said to have peered when translating, the weight of the plates, the total volume of the bound plates, the number of leaves, etc., has a very uncertain relationship to the volume of the translated or revealed text. To conclude that the weight of gold plates made transporting them difficult or impossible assumes facts that are not known, and ignores facts that are known.
    Robert is correct that apologists, like their critics, have been found to be wrong at times. That is not an evidence for or against the Book of Mormon. It only demonstrates the reliable fact that men are often fallible, even when they believe their own intentions are good.

  10. Well, there is an easy way to settle this, and surely the Church has the resources to perform the required task.
    Using only tools and techniques that would have been available before 400 AD, make plates having the required dimensions and characteristics described in the Book of Mormon as well as firsthand eyewitness accounts from Joseph’s day. Gold can be beaten very thin, but with those tool and technique constraints, and given the greater warping effect of engraving the thinner the plates are, can it be beaten very flat? And, just for the heck of it, since we don’t know whatever script “reformed Egyptian” was, why not use a Hebrew version of The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text to engrave upon the experimental plates, with a resonable amount of repeated material to represent the lost contents of the 115 pages?
    You know, nothing stops the critics from performing this test either.
    Instead of arguing airy abstractions, let’s see some experimentation.

    • Ah, yes, and we can add more repeated material to simulate the sealed portion as well.
      Let’s settle the argument once and for all – after all, if a reasonable facsimile of the plates, according to the descriptions, weighs on the order of 50 lbs, let’s get an Amish farmboy to simulate Joseph as well, and see how he gets on over a three-mile course, sprinting for part of it.

    • “Using only tools and techniques that would have been available before 400 AD,”
      Um, well since we don’t know everything there is to know about archaeology and they keep finding new and amazing things that we didn’t think were possible in ancient times (like an electrical battery) then how exactly do you expect us to use only tools available before 400 AD when we don’t know what they were?
      “why not use a Hebrew version of The Book of Mormon:”
      Because the Book of Mormon wasn’t written in Hebrew that’s why.

    • While this is not exactly the experiment you suggest, my grandfather read Robert’s comment, and, being an accomplished metallurgist, decided to do some tests:
      “First, I would like to ask Robert if he has ever actually seen or handled sheets of gold, as his note tends to suggests that gold would have more the characteristics of clay or wax than those of a soft metal.
      I have, and the following is the result of some rather simple measurements and calculations. I have a small sheet of 24k gold purchased probably 40 years ago and since stored in a drawer next to samples of 14k and 18k gold used in jewelry making. My sample of 24k was 1.6” x 1.6” for a total area of 2.56 sq. in. To make a 7” x 8” sheet, it would take 21.87 of my small squares. My small sample (of a thickness of .006”) weighed .155 oz. Multiplied by the number needed to make a sheet 7” x 8”, the per-sheet weight would be 3.39 oz.
      The sample was rumpled, as you would expect if handled for scissor cuts and then stored in a small box with other items that were more frequently handled. It had no creases or sharp bends. It was further flattened for this experiment by being placed between two flat steel plates, with a weight on top that would come out to be 51.41 lbs. if extended over a per “full-sized” sheet. Keep in mind here that a stack of gold leaves 4-6 inches thick wouldn’t have the total weight on each sheet, but a fraction of that determined by its location within the stack. Now with the “flattening” done, the distance between the steel plates was measured using a gapping tool – one measurement on each corner and averaged. The .006 thick sheet took up .021 inches of vertical space when in a natural “flattened” condition.
      Now by a little simple math, it would take 190.46 sheets weighing a remarkable 40.36 lbs. to reach the 4″ thick estimate given by Martin Harris. It would take 287.71 sheets weighing an equally remarkable 60.55 inches to reach the 6″ estimate by Orson Pratt. These numbers are remarkable because Martin Harris estimated that the plates weighed “from forty to sixty pounds.”
      A couple of notes:
      If it every dimple and imperfection was identical in every sheet, there would be less space between sheets and would require more sheets to make up the book. If, on the other hand, each sheet had just a few bumps or imperfections that exactly matched up in a tip to tip relationship, it would require significantly fewer sheets to make up the book. Also, my sample was a sheet of uniform thickness gold rolled out between precision rollers to a uniform thickness. The variation was simply natural distortion from handling rather than variation in thickness due to hammering to achieve the desired thickness. With my sample a larger weight could have reduced it to its .006 rolled dimension, which would be impossible with a hammered sheet of variable absolute thickness. That would not happen if the variations in thickness were primarily hammered peaks and valleys. Unfortunately, I only had the one small sample, but suspect strongly that if two equally sized sheets of gold were stacked, the combined thickness would easily exceed twice the dimension measured between the two steel plates.
      Regarding sacks of concrete, I am an old guy and recently poured a foundation for a shed and poured a sidewalk as well. I know from recent experience how difficult it is to heft a sack of concrete, let alone run with it. Put that same 60 lbs. in a package 7” x 8” x 6” – the size of a small car battery – and it would be much easier to handle, but certainly far less dramatic in a debate type discussion.”

  11. Gold weighs 1,204 pounds per cubic foot, so if we use the dimensions given by Smith we can correctly conclude that the plates were 1/6 of a cubit foot. In other words, if the plates were made of gold (as the angel Moroni claimed them to be), they would have weighed 200 pounds. This becomes problematic since no one believes that it is physically possible to carry such a weight for any considerable distance, much less be able to run away from thieves bent on stealing the plates.
    In response to this dilemma, proponents argue that the plates would have been considerably lighter due to “air space” between the uneven, hand-made plates. While this may seem plausible to some, this rebuttal becomes tenuous given the soft nature of gold. Plates of gold stacked in the manner described by Smith would easily flatten out, thus displacing any arbitrary “air space” suggested by LDS apologists.
    By assuming the plates had an air gap of 50% (a capricious percentage to be sure), Mormon metallurgist Reed Putnam estimates that if the plates were made of pure gold, they would have probably weighed around 100 pounds. Still, this is not at all a reasonable weight that can be carried by even the strongest of New York farm boys. In perspective, that would be like carrying a bag of Portland cement under one’s arm.
    The possibility of the plates being too heavy for Smith to carry has not escaped the notice of LDS apologists. To credit their founder with the ability to carry such a weight while running at “the top of his speed” would seem to conclude that Smith had no idea how heavy gold really was, thus making it appear that he fabricated this story.
    Still, Putnam insists that “the plates were not so heavy that a man could not carry them.” In a September, 1966 article in the Improvement Era magazine, he states, “we are not led to believe that the weight of the plates was a great hindrance” (p.789). However, in drawing such a conclusion Putnam and many modern Mormon apologists reject the notion that the plates were made of pure gold. Putnam surmises that the plates were probably composed of a copper/gold Central American alloy called tumbaga. Though there is no standard for the copper/gold ratio in tumbaga, Mormon apologists naturally insist on a ratio that allows for the plates to be the lightest, presumably 8K gold and copper. In other words, the plates would have been primarily composed of 66% copper and only 33% gold.
    Mormon apologists feel that plates made of a stronger alloy makes more sense since plates of pure gold would be too soft and not practical. However, if that is really so, why does Mosiah 8:9 in the Book of Mormon specifically mention 24 Jaredite plates that were “filled with engravings, and they are of pure gold“?
    This argument also fails to take into account a photograph in earlier editions of the Book of Mormon that showed a “gold tablet found in Persia in 1961, dating to the time of Darius II (Fourth century B.C.), covered with cuneiform engravings.” The caption went on to say, “This tablet is about the size of the gold plates of the Book of Mormon.” In his book titled An Approach to the Book of Mormon, Dr. Hugh Nibley also mentioned this parallel as evidence that Smith had plates of gold. If the plates deposited by Moroni were really an alloy made primarily of copper, why go to such lengths?
    By insisting that the plates had an air gap of 50%, Putnam concludes that 8K tumbaga plates could have weighed as little as 53 pounds. In other words, it would be like carrying a sack of redi-mix concrete. Given the details of how Smith retrieved the plates, this lighter weight only comforts those who really want (and need) to believe such a fantastic story.
    It appears that the tumbaga theory is not always the generally accepted conclusion. For example, the May 15, 1999 issue of the LDS Church News ran an article titled “Hands-on opportunity.” Speaking of Joseph Smith, the fourth paragraph read, “He had also been instructed by an angel, Moroni, who had met with him each year for four years. On his last visit, he was entrusted with plates of solid gold, which he had been translating by the power of the Spirit.” It should be noted that the electronic version of this article has been revised and now reads that Joseph Smith was “entrusted with gold plates. . . .”
    A common response by faithful Latter-day Saints is that God gave Joseph Smith supernatural strength to carry the plates. If that is really the case, why have Mormon apologists gone to great lengths to reconstruct the story in such a way as to get the weight of the plates down to what they feel is a manageable level? If God really intervened, why reinvent the tale? Why not believe Smith could have supernaturally carried 200 pounds under his arm and be done with it? The fact is, no Mormon apologist or LDS leader argues that God gave Smith supernatural strength to carry the plates. And Smith certainly never gave God any glory for such an alleged miracle.
    Keep this in mind the next time you stop at a hardware store. Pick up a bag of cement, tuck it under your arm, and imagine yourself carrying it for a distance of three miles running as fast as you can at least part of the way. For added effect you could jump over a display or two.

    • Robert:
      There is information here that is worth discussion. However, a common problem on both sides of any discussion is to have a tone that is conducive to conversation and analysis of data rather than suggest some form of ridicule as part of the post.
      For all who might respond, please attempt to keep to discussions of the facts and not allow the overtones. That is difficult, I know, and we will all err from time to time. Please try to make the times fewer.

      • Brant, are you sure you aren’t mistaking disagreement with tone? I think mormon apologists are nice people and smart too, but so wedded to a conclusion that they simply cannot look at the facts in an objective manner. Is the tone satisfactory?

        • Toomis, you have identified the most difficult problem in online discussions. Tone is incredibly subjective, and people who are in disagreement are most sensitive to it. It seems that if someone agrees with what is being said, they tolerant much more than if they disagree.
          Unfortunately, that leads some to tolerate more in their own posts than what sounds like a reasonable disagreement. I don’t have any solution that is going to assure that everyone will feel that all disagreements are civil and reasonable. We can only try–and remind ourselves to keep trying.
          If we use your statement that “they simply cannot look at the facts in an objective manner,” the emotional impact differs if the subject is “Mormon apologists” or “Mormon critics.” Even the very label stirs the emotion depending upon the original position of the reader. It is possible that “Mormon apologists” might be seen as value-neutral, but it is seldom used that way. Those who are tend not to use the label, and those who use the label don’t do so favorably–or very neutrally. On the other hand, we also don’t have a good label for those on the other side of the question, those who might use the term “Mormon apologist.” Even the “Mormon critics” that I used isn’t a good opposite descriptor as it still evokes a non-neutral response.
          Online discussions should require all of us to desensitize ourselves somewhat so that we don’t see offense where non is intended–giving a charitable reading to all. We should also be as sensitive as possible to what we write so that we are at least making the attempt to have a reasonable and objective discussion. I do understand that is is almost by definition that “they simply cannot look at the facts in an objective manner” describes opinions with which we disagree. If we agreed, then of course we would be looking at the facts in an objective manner.

    • Nice review of apologists’ positions. But regardless of the composition of the plates, the questions still stand, “Did Joseph actually have the plates?” “Did the witnesses actually see the plates?” “Why did they maintain their testimonies throughout their lives if they were part of a conspiracy?” “What would have been their motive?”
      Their testimonies were unwavering. Logic dictates that those embittered or at odds with the Prophet would have “fessed up,” and admitted to being duped. This would have been much less embarrassing than stubbornly clinging to a story of having seen heavenly messengers from God, which they knew to be false. Simply, logical conclusion: They did see the plates, they did see the angel, and they were not part of a conspiracy concocted by Joseph Smith. Now, all that remains is for nonbelievers to explain how an unlearned, harassed farm boy, struggling for temporal survival, could produce a record that has survived the withering academic analysis of scholars like the author and those mentioned in the article.

      • The witnesses saw the plates with their spiritual eye, e.g., they weren’t real but merely more like an hallucination. They didn’t recant because maybe of a fear of being ridiculed? Anyway, there are many stories of people holding onto false beliefs throughout their lives. How would you explain an evangelical that believes in his religion until he dies? Isn’t yours the one and only? Aren’t the witnesses like the misinformed evangelical, counsel?

    • Robert, a couple of observations. I, who rarely lift much more than my laptop, would certainly find your bag of cement quite heavy. Someone used to physical labor would be much more accustomed to the work. I suspect Joseph Smith was much more used to physical labor than I.
      As for for your analysis of the metal, you are using a lot of assumptions which are not required nor historically supported. The early comments were about “appearance of gold” or “golden.” That this morphed into pure gold is certain, but you are making a requirement of the later development and ignoring the earliest comments.
      As for the analysis, you are also behind on that. Before coming to any such severe conclusions as you have, you might want to look at the much more detailed metallurgical analysis in Jerry D. Grover, Jr. Ziff, Magic Goggles, and Golden Plates: Etymology of
      Zyf and a Metallurgical Analysis of the Book of Mormon Plates.
      You will probably be unsurprised that his results do not match yours, but provide the context to understand the composition of the plates that provides the historically listed weight.
      The “apologists” are not resting on very old studies, and it is important to keep up with the current work if you are going to criticize apologetic responses to your issue.

    • It’s interesting you mention the “pure gold” reference in Mosiah. When I read through Mosiah Chapter 8, I am really curious about why the purity of the gold was mentioned given the difficulty of determining it. If we look at the description of the plates, excepting the purity of the gold, it’s all easily verifiable to someone with the plates. It’s easy to count 24 plates, it’s easy to see engravings filling the plates, and for a person familiar with metals it might even be easy to identify gold (though I could be easily fooled). I just can’t imagine how they would have known the plates were made of “pure gold” though, rather than something naturally occurring alloy like electrum, or even a man-made alloy, or why they would mention the purity if they couldn’t determine it.

    • Robert refers to Mosiah 8:9 in the Book of Mormon that mentions the Jaredite plates that were “of pure gold“. He uses this to support the assertion that pure gold was a suitable surface for engraving, and thus the use of a gold alloy was unnecessary as a material to make engraving by the Book of Mormon writers more permanent.
      Robert’s use of this verse, however, actually lends support to the assertion that the plates were NOT of “pure gold”.
      The only other uses of the description “pure gold” in the Book of Mormon are used to 1) describe the hilt of Laban’s sword, and 2) describe the ornamentation of the seats of the priests in King Noah’s court in the Land of Nephi. No Book of Mormon author, or its abridger Mormon, ever described the plates upon which their own record was engraved as being of “pure gold”. I think this is important.
      What about the use of the term “golden” plates in the Book of Mormon? “Golden” can mean “made of gold”. It occurs twice, but both are in the 2 Nephi Isaiah chapters describing items entirely unrelated to the composition of the plates upon which the Book of Mormon record was engraved.
      And the term “plates of gold” in the Book of Mormon? It is used only in reference to the Jaredite plates.
      Then there is the term “gold plates”. Joseph recorded this description of the plates as having come from Moroni during one of his night time visits. Of course, gold is also a color. This definition is further confirmed by the 8 witnesses when they stated that the plates had the “appearance of gold” (they looked like gold, at least in color).
      I really think that the choice of Mormon to describe (or keep the description of) the Jaredite plates as being of “pure gold” is important. Neither he nor any other author or record keeper in the Book of Mormon uses this term to describe the plates upon which the Nephite record was kept. There is a distinction there. They were familiar with the term “pure gold”, had ample opportunity to use it to describe their own records, but never did.
      I believe this pattern of descriptions of the various plates represents strong evidence that the Book of Mormon plates were NOT made of pure gold.

  12. Neal Rappleye has fashioned a fine essay that both cites and also engages the entire range of relevant literature on his topic.

  13. I believe Arthur Henry King also picked out Joseph Smith’s restraint and sincerity in his own accounts. If I recall correctly I think he mentioned it as an aspect in his own conversion, that as someone trained in the English language he was impressed that Joseph wasn’t telling it in some fanciful or overly emotive way.

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