According to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the golden plates were sacred writings used to produce the authoritative translation of the Book of Mormon. These plates were allegedly discovered by Joseph Smith, Jr. on September 22, 1823, at the Cumorah Hill in New York state. Smith claimed that the plates had been hidden there for centuries by an angel named Moroni, who required Smith to obey certain commandments prior to receiving the plates. However, Smith's failure to obey the angel prevented him from obtaining the plates until September 22, 1827, four years later. Thereafter, Smith translated their contents and also began dictating the Doctrine and Covenants, including a commandment to form a new church, and to choose eleven men who would join Smith as witnesses of the plates. These witnesses declared, in a written statements attached to the 1830 published Book of Mormon, that they had seen the plates. However, their descriptions of the plates were not always consistent with each other.
The golden plates are the most significant of metallic plates in Latter Day Saint history and theology. There are no extant plates for researchers to examine. Belief in their existence is a matter of faith. Although the Book of Mormon is generally accepted by adherents as a sacred text, not all Latter Day Saints view the plates as an ancient, physical artifact engraved by ancient prophets.
Like the Ten Commandments carved on stone by Yahweh, assertions of the existence and authenticity of the golden plates are a matter of religious faith. Only men who were Joseph Smith's associates were allowed to become witnesses to the plates; he invited no strangers to inspect the plates. These witnesses, first a group of three, Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer, and then a group of eight—five members of the Whitmer family, Joseph Smith's father, and two of his brothers, Hyrum and Samuel—all said they "saw and hefted" the plates.
According to the Book of Mormon itself, the golden plates were engraved by two pre-Columbian prophet-historians from around the year 400 C.E.: Mormon and his son Moroni. Mormon and Moroni, the book says, had abridged earlier historical records from other sets of metal plates. Their script, according to the book, was called "reformed Egyptian" a language not known or recognized by Egyptologists or linguists, but which is described in the Book of Mormon as a language "altered… according to our manner of speech" and that "none other people knoweth our language" (Book of Mormon 9: 32-34). Part of the plates were said to have been sealed, and thus could not be translated. According to Joseph Smith, Moroni buried the plates just prior to his death, and they remained buried until, at the direction of God, Moroni led Joseph to them in a nearby hill in 1823.
The story of Smith's finding and taking possession of the golden plates is taken from accounts by Smith and from interviews and writings of his contemporaries who heard the story. Many Latter Day Saint denominations have adopted official accounts. For example, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially recognizes a version of Smith's 1838 account, which the denomination has canonized in its scripture The Pearl of Great Price.
During the Second Great Awakening, Joseph Smith, Jr. lived on his parents' farm near Palmyra, New York. This was a period where Christian churches in the region contended vigorously for followers; so much so that it became known as the "burned-over district" due to the fires of religion having burned it so often. It was also a region noted for its participation in a "craze for treasure hunting" by its citizenry. Beginning as a youth in the early 1820s, Smith was both recognized and paid to act as what was called a "seer," using seer stones in attempts to locate lost items and buried treasure earning about $14 per month. Smith later rejected his youthful treasure-hunting activities as frivolous and immaterial, but he "never repudiated the stones or denied their power to find treasure. Remnants of the magical culture stayed with him to the end." Smith's contemporaries described his method for seeking treasure as putting the stone in a white stovepipe hat, putting his face over the hat to block the light, and then "seeing" the information in the reflections of the stone. His first stone, which some said he also used later to translate the golden plates, was chocolate-colored and about the size of an egg, found in a deep well he helped dig for one of his neighbors.
According to Smith, he found the plates only after a period of preparation during which an angel named Moroni allegedly appeared to him annually and finally directed him to their location. (According to the story, the angel's first visit occurred late at night in Smith's bedroom on September 22 in 1822 or 1823.) While Smith was thinking about his First Vision, Moroni appeared, and told him that the plates could be found buried in a prominent hill near his home later referred to as Cumorah.
The angel would not allow Smith to take the plates until he was able to obey certain "commandments." Smith's writings say that the angel required at least the following commandments: (1) that he have no thought of using the plates for monetary gain, (2) that Smith tell his father about the vision, and (3) that he never show the plates to any unauthorized person. Smith's contemporaries who heard the story—both sympathetic and unsympathetic to Mormonism—generally agree that Smith mentioned the following additional commandments: (4) that Smith take the plates and go directly away from the burial site without looking back, and (5) that the plates never directly touch the ground until safe at home in a locked chest. In addition to the above, some unsympathetic listeners who heard the story from Smith or his father add that Smith said the angel required him (6) to wear "black clothes" to the site of the plates, (7) to ride a "black horse with a switchtail", (8) to call for the plates by a certain name, and (9) to "give thanks to God."
In the morning, Smith began work as usual and did not mention the visions to his father because, he said, he did not think his father would believe him. Smith said he then fainted because he had been awake all night, and while unconscious, the angel appeared a fourth time and chastised him for failing to tell the visions to his father. When Smith then told all to his father, he believed his son and encouraged him to obey the angel's commands. Smith then set off to visit the hill, later stating that he used his seer stone to locate the place where the plates were buried, and he "knew the place the instant that [he] arrived there."
At the proper location, the story goes, Smith saw a large stone covering a box made of stone or possibly iron. Using a stick to remove dirt from the edges of the stone cover, and after prying the cover up with a lever, he saw the plates inside the box, together with other artifacts.
Joseph Smith said that the plates were engraved in an unknown language, and Smith told associates that he was capable of reading and translating them. This translation took place mainly in Harmony, Pennsylvania (now Oakland Township), Emma's hometown, where Smith and his wife had moved in October 1827 with financial assistance from a prominent, though superstitious, Palmyra landowner Martin Harris. The translation occurred in two phases: the first, from December 1827 to June 1828, during which Smith transcribed some of the characters and then dictated 116 manuscript pages to Harris, which were lost. The second phase began sporadically in early 1829 and then in earnest in April 1829 with the arrival of Oliver Cowdery, a schoolteacher who volunteered to serve as Smith's full-time scribe. In June 1829, Smith and Cowdery moved to Fayette, New York, completing the translation early the following month.
Smith used scribes to write the words he said were a translation of the golden plates, dictating these words while peering into seer stones, which he said allowed him to see the translation. Smith said that he translated using what he called the "Urim and Thummim"—a set of large spectacles with stones where the eye-pieces should be. There is no eye-witness testimony that Smith ever wore the large spectacles. Witnesses did observe Smith using a single seer stone (not part of a set of spectacles) in the translation, and some said that this stone was one of those Smith had earlier used for treasure seeking. Smith placed the stone (or the spectacles) in a hat, buried his face in it to eliminate all outside light, and peered into the stone to see the words of the translation. A few times during the translation, a curtain or blanket was raised between Smith and his scribe or between the living area and the area where Smith and his scribe worked. Sometimes Smith dictated to Martin Harris from upstairs or from a different room.
Smith's process of what he called "translation" was not typical of the usual meaning of that word because his dictation of the English words did not require his understanding of the source text. As he looked into the seer stone, Smith said that the words of the ancient script appeared to him in English. These dictations were written down by a number of assistants including Emma Smith, Martin Harris, and most notably, Oliver Cowdery. In May 1829, after Smith had lent 116 un-duplicated manuscript pages to Martin Harris, and Harris lost them, Smith dictated a revelation explaining that Smith could not simply re-translate the lost pages because his opponents would attempt to see if he could "bring forth the same words again". Smith seems to have assumed that a second transcription of the lost pages should be identical to the first rather than be filled with the variants that would naturally occur if one was translating a text from one language into another in the normal manner.
Smith did not require the physical presence of the plates in order to translate them; and many witnesses said the plates were hidden during the translation process, presumably in the woods. In early June 1829, the unwanted attentions of locals around Harmony necessitated Smith's move to the home of David Whitmer and his parents in Fayette, New York. Smith said that on this move the golden plates were transported by the angel Moroni, who placed them in the garden of the Whitmer house in Fayette where Smith could recover them. Translation was completed at the Whitmer home in Fayette.
After translation was completed, Smith said he returned the plates to the angel, without elaboration. According to accounts by several early Mormons, a group of Mormon leaders including Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and possibly others went with Smith to return the plates to a cave inside the Hill Cumorah. There, Smith is said to have placed the plates on a table near "many wagon loads" of other ancient records, and the Sword of Laban hanging on the cave's wall. According to Brigham Young's understanding which he said he heard from Cowdery, on a later visit to the cave, the Sword of Laban was said to be unsheathed and placed over the plates, and inscribed with the words "This sword will never be sheathed again until the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and his Christ."
Smith said the angel commanded him not to show the plates to any unauthorized person. He reportedly expected that the first authorized witness would be his firstborn son, but his first child was stillborn in 1828. In March 1829, after pressure by Martin Harris to see the plates, Smith dictated a revelation stating that the words of the plates would be accompanied by the testimonies of three witnesses who would have the exclusive privilege to "view [the plates] as they are". Some time later, Smith’s dictation of the Book of Ether (chapter 2) also made reference to three witnesses, stating that the plates would be shown to them "by the power of God".
Thus, in the second half of June 1829, Smith took Harris, together with Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer (known collectively as the Three Witnesses), to the woods in Fayette, New York, where they said they allegedly saw an angel holding the golden plates and turning the leaves. The four of them also said they heard the voice of the Lord telling them that the translation of the plates was correct, and commanding them to testify of what they saw and heard. A few days later, Smith selected a group of Eight Witnesses, the males of the Whitmer home, including David Whitmer's father Peter, his brothers Christian, Jacob, and John, and his brother-in-law Hiram Page. Smith took this group, along with his father Joseph Smith, Sr. and his brothers Hyrum and Samuel to a location near Smith's parents' home in Palmyra where they said Smith showed them the golden plates.
When the Book of Mormon was published in 1830, the book included one affidavit testifying to the experience of the Three Witnesses and another affidavit of the Eight Witnesses. There is no evidence that these two affidavits were actually signed by either group, and these statements were apparently drafted by Joseph Smith.
In March 1838, some church members said that Martin Harris, who had previously given specific descriptions of the plates, now publicly denied having seen them at all. Near the end of his long life, Harris also said that he had seen the plates only in "a state of entrancement". Nevertheless, in 1871 Harris testified that no one had "ever heard me in any way deny the truth of the Book of Mormon [or] the administration of the angel that showed me the plates".
The plates were said to be bound at one edge by a set of rings. In 1828, Martin Harris, one of Joseph Smith, Jr.'s early scribes, is reported to have said that he understood the plates to be "fastened together in the shape of a book by wires". In 1859, Harris said that the plates "were seven inches [18 cm] wide by eight inches [20 cm] in length, and were of the thickness of plates of tin; and when piled one above the other, they were altogether about four inches [10 cm] thick; and they were put together on the back by three silver rings, so that they would open like a book". David Whitmer, another 1829 witness, was quoted by an 1831 Palmyra newspaper as saying the plates were "the thickness of tin plate; the back was secured with three small rings…passing through each leaf in succession". Anomalously, Smith's father is quoted as saying the (stack of?) plates (were?) only half an inch (1.27 centimeter) thick while Smith's mother, who said she had "seen and handled" the plates, is quoted as saying they were "eight inches [20 cm] long, and six [15 cm] wide… all connected by a ring which passes through a hole at the end of each plate".
Hyrum Smith and John Whitmer, also witnesses in 1829, are reported to have stated that the rings holding the plates together were, in Hyrum's words, "in the shape of the letter D, which facilitated the opening and shutting of the book". Joseph Smith's wife Emma and his younger brother William said they had examined the plates while wrapped in fabric. Emma said she "felt of the plates, as they thus lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book".
Joseph Smith did not provide his own published description of the plates until 1842, when he said in a letter that "each plate was six inches [15 cm] wide and eight inches [20 cm] long, and not quite so thick as common tin. They were… bound together in a volume, as the leaves of a book, with three rings running through the whole. The volume was something near six inches [15 cm] in thickness".
The plates were first described as "gold," and beginning about 1827, the plates were widely called the "gold bible." When the Book of Mormon was published in 1830, the Eight Witnesses described the plates as having "the appearance of gold". However, late in life, Martin Harris stated that the rings holding the plates together were made of silver, and he said the plates themselves, based on their heft of "forty or fifty pounds" (18–23 kg), "were lead or gold." Joseph's brother William Smith, who said he felt the plates inside a pillow case in 1827, said in 1884 that he understood the plates to be "a mixture of gold and copper… much heavier than stone, and very much heavier than wood".
Different people estimated the weight of the plates differently: According to Smith's one-time-friend Willard Chase, Smith told him in 1827 that the plates weighed between 40 and 60 pounds (18–27 kg), most likely the latter; Smith's father Joseph Smith, Sr., who was one of the Eight Witnesses, reportedly weighed them and said in 1830 that they "weighed thirty pounds" (14 kg); Joseph Smith's brother, William, said that he lifted them in a pillowcase and thought they "weighed about sixty pounds [23 kg] according to the best of my judgment"; Others who lifted the plates while they were wrapped in cloth or enclosed in a box thought that they weighed about 60 lbs [23 kg]. Martin Harris said that he had "hefted the plates many times, and should think they weighed forty or fifty pounds [18–23 kg]"; Joseph Smith's wife Emma never estimated the weight of the plates but said they were light enough for her to "move them from place to place on the table, as it was necessary in doing my work"; Had the plates been made of 24-karat gold, they would have weighed about 140 pounds (64 kg)
According to Joseph Smith, Jr., and others, the book of Golden Plates contained a "sealed" portion containing "a revelation from God, from the beginning of the world to the ending thereof" (Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 27:7). Smith never described the nature or extent of the seal, and the language of the Book of Mormon may be interpreted to describe a sealing that was spiritual, metaphorical, physical, or a combination of these elements.
The Book of Mormon refers to other documents and plates as being "sealed" by being buried in order to be revealed at some future time. For example, the Book of Mormon says the entire set of plates was "sealed up, and hid up unto the Lord", and that separate records of John the Apostle were "sealed up to come forth in their purity" in the end times. One set of plates to which the Book of Mormon refers was "sealed up" in the sense that they were written in a language that could not be read.
Smith may have understood the sealing as a supernatural or spiritual sealing of the plates "by the power of God" (2 Nephi 27:10). This idea is supported by a reference in the Book of Mormon to the "interpreters" (Urim and Thummim) with which Smith said they were buried or "sealed". Oliver Cowdery also stated that when Smith visited the hill, he was stricken by a supernatural force because the plates were "sealed by the prayer of faith".
Several witnesses described a physical "sealing" placed on part of the plates by Mormon or Moroni. David Whitmer said that an angel showed him the plates in 1829 and that "a large portion of the leaves were so securely bound together that it was impossible to separate them". He also said that the "sealed" part of the plates were held together as a solid mass that was "stationary and immovable" "as solid to my view as wood", and that there were "perceptible marks where the plates appeared to be sealed" with leaves "so securely bound that it was impossible to separate them". Lucy Mack Smith said in 1842 that some of the plates were "sealed together and are not to be opened, and some of them are loose". The account of the Eight Witnesses says they saw the plates in 1829 and handled "as many of the leaves as [Joseph] Smith has translated," implying that they did not examine untranslated parts of the book such as the sealed portion.
In one interview, David Whitmer said that "about half" the book was sealed, and in 1881, he said that "about one-third" of the book was unsealed, and the remainder sealed.< Whitmer's 1881 statement is consistent with an 1856 statement by Orson Pratt, an associate of Smith's who never saw the plates himself, but who said he had spoken with witnesses. According to Pratt, "about two-thirds" of the plates were "sealed up".
The sealed portion of the plates is said to contain "a revelation from God, from the beginning of the world to the ending thereof" (Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 27:7). The Book of Mormon states that this vision was originally given to the Brother of Jared, recorded by Ether on a set of 24 plates later found by Limhi, and then "sealed up" (Book of Mormon, Ether 1:2). According to this account, Moroni copied the plates of Limhi onto the sealed portion of the Golden Plates.
The Golden Plates were said to contain engravings in an ancient language that the Book of Mormon (9:32) describes as Reformed Egyptian. Smith later described the writing as "Egyptian characters… small, and beautifully engraved," exhibiting "much skill in the art of engraving".
John Whitmer, one of the Eight Witnesses, said the plates had "fine engravings on both sides", and Orson Pratt, who did not see the plates himself but who had spoken with witnesses, understood that there were engravings on both sides of the plates, "stained with a black, hard stain, so as to make the letters more legible and easier to be read".
Since Joseph Smith's announcement that he had received golden plates from an angel, non-believers have challenged their reality. Mormon scholars have argued that other ancient civilizations wrote sacred records on metal plates. Some ancient European and Mesopotamian cultures did keep short records on metal plates, but extant examples are rare, have comparatively brief texts, and are extremely thin. A six-page, 24-carat gold book, written in Etruscan, was found in Bulgaria; and in 2005, an eight-page golden codex, allegedly from the Achaemenid period, was recovered from smugglers by the Iranian police. The Pyrgi Tablets (now at the National Etruscan Museum, Rome) are gold plates with a bilingual Phoenician-Etruscan text. Gold Laminae funerary texts similar to Books of the Dead have also been found in Italy. In the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls had been found, archeologists later discovered the aptly-named Copper Scroll, two rolled sheets of copper that may describe locations where treasures of the Second Temple of Jerusalem may have been hidden. Another Israelite example is the tiny "Silver Scrolls" dated to the seventh century B.C.E. (First Temple period), containing just a few verses of scripture, perhaps the oldest extant passages of the Old Testament. Nevertheless, there is no known extant example of writing on metal plates longer than the eight-page Persian codex and no extant metal plates with writing from Egypt or from any ancient civilization in the Western Hemisphere.
All links retrieved June 24, 2017.
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