Golden Plates

From Academic Kids

The Golden Plates is the name most frequently used to refer to the "gold plates" that Joseph Smith, Jr. said he received from the angel Moroni and used as the ancient source for the English translation of The Book of Mormon. In reference to the plates, the Book of Mormon was commonly known as the "Golden Bible" during the 1830s. Smith later became the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement.


Story of the plates

Joseph obtains the plates

In the 1820s, Joseph Smith, Jr. lived with his father and mother Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack on a farm on the edge of Manchester Township near Palmyra, New York. For a number of years prior to 1827, he reported visitations from either an angel or a spirit, later identified as a resurrected angel Moroni. According to Smith, Moroni had been a Nephite, a member of one of the nations detailed in The Book of Mormon. Moroni indicated that a record of his people, engraved on gold plates, was deposited in a hill not far from the Smith farm and that Smith would one day receive and translate them.

In successive years, Smith would travel to the hill, now known as the Hill Cumorah, but was forbidden to obtain the plates. Finally in late September of 1827, at the age of 21, Smith claimed that he had finally been allowed to receive the antique history. According to various reports, he brought a "60-lb." object "wrapped up in a tow frock" into his father's home (William Smith, "Sermon in the Saints' Chapel," Deloit, Iowa June 8, 1888, Saints Herald 31 (1884):643-44). Besides Joseph Jr., six of Joseph's siblings lived at home. According to Joseph's brother William's account, their father put the plates into a pillow case and asked "What, Joseph, can we not see them?" Joseph Jr. replied, "No. I was disobedient the first time but I intend to be faithful this time. For I was forbidden to show them until they are translated, but you can feel them." Again, according to William's account:

"We handled them and could tell what they were. They were not quite as large as this Bible. Could tell whether they were round or square. Could raise the leaves this way (raising a few leaves of the Bible before him). One could easily tell that they were not a stone hewn out to deceive or even a block of wood. Being a mixture of gold and copper, they were much heavier than stone, and very much heavier than wood."

Palmyra, New York

Shortly after Smith claimed to receive the plates, rumors of their presence began to circulate among the residents of Palmyra. Several of Smith's neighbors made attempts to find and seize the plates, leading Joseph, Jr. (the translator) to keep them hidden and to operate in great secrecy.

Smith's associate, Josiah Stowell, later claimed that he was the first person to receive the plates from Smith's hands. Stowell handled and lifted the plates which remained wrapped in a cloth that resembled a cloak or a pillow case. Other associates of Smith who reported that they handled the plates through the cloth included Smith's mother, Lucy Mack Smith, and his brothers Hyrum and William.

Soon after acquiring the plates, Smith locked them in a box he procured from his brother Hyrum. Some of Smith's neighbors discovered the box's hiding place and smashed it. Meanwhile, however, Smith claimed a premonition had previously caused him to move the plates to a safer spot. (Joel Tiffany, Tiffany’s Monthly 5 (1859): 167). Smith then acquired a wooden "Ontario glass-box". The plates were placed into this second box which was then nailed shut. Several witnesses reported lifting the plates while the were sealed in the box. Martin Harris recalled that his wife and daughter had lifted them and that they were "about as much as [his daughter] could lift". Harris then went to the Smith house himself while Joseph was away. Harris later recalled:

"While at Mr. Smith’s I hefted the plates, and I knew from the heft that they were lead or gold, and I knew that Joseph had not credit enough to buy so much lead." (Tiffany’s Monthly 5 (1859): 168–69).

Harmony, Pennsylvania

Excitement around the Palmyra area and growing opposition encouraged Smith to relocate to his father-in-law's farm in Harmony, Pennsylvania. According to Smith's brother-in-law, who helped Smith and his wife Emma move, the box containing the plates was placed "into a barrel about one-third full of [dry] beans"; after the plates were so secured, the barrel was filled up with more beans.

Residents of Harmony also reported encounters with the plates, either sealed in the box or covered by a cloth. Smith's brother-in-law Isaac Hale recalled that he was "shown a box, in which it is said they were contained, which had, to all appearances, been used as a glass box of the common sized window glass." Hale said that he "was allowed to feel the weight of the box, and they gave me to understand that the book of plates was then in the box — into which, however, I was not allowed to look." (Isaac Hale Statement, reprinted in Dan Vogel, Early Mormon Documents IV:286.)


Emma later recalled that "she often wrote for Joseph Smith during the work of translation..." (Joseph Smith III to James T. Cobb, Feb. 14, 1879, Letterbook 2, pp. 85-88, RLDS Archives, courteously shared with Richard Lloyd Anderson by Smith family scholar Buddy Youngreen). By her account:

"The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen table cloth, which I had given him to fold them in. I once 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." (Saints' Herald 26 (1879):290)

Special witnesses

As Smith and his associates neared the end of their translation of the plates, Smith revealed that a number of special witnesses would be called to testify of the reality of the Golden Plates. There are two sets of witnesses: the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses. Both sets of witnesses signed joint statements in June of 1829 which were subsequently published along with the text of the Book of Mormon.

The Three WitnessesOliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris — claimed to have seen an angel descend from heaven and present the plates. They claimed to have seen the plates but not touch them. They heard a voice from heaven declaring that the book was translated by the power of God and that they should bear record of it.

The Eight Witnesses were members of the families of Joseph Smith and David Whitmer. Like the Three Witnesses, the Eight signed a joint statement in June 1829. Many of these men had previously handled the plates either when they were in one of the boxes or wrapped in a cloth. According to their statement, they also saw and hefted the plates, "the translator of this work, has shown unto us the plates of which hath been spoken, which have the appearance of gold; and as many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated we did handle with our hands; and we also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship."

Other spiritual witnesses

Mary Whitmer, the wife of Peter Whitmer, Sr., also reported seeing the plates in supernatural or visionary experiences (see Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses by Richard Lloyd Anderson). She said she saw the angel Moroni, conversed with him, and was shown the gold plates as a comfort and testimony to her while she kept house for a large party during the translation work (Peterson, H. Donl. Moroni: Ancient Prophet, Modern Messenger. Bountiful, Utah, 1983. pp. 114, 116). Most of her immediate family was directly involved with Joseph Smith and/or the translation.

Plates returned to Moroni

After the work of translation was complete and after the visionary experiences of the Special Witnesses, Smith reported that the plates were returned to Moroni in the summer of 1829. Many Latter Day Saints believe that Moroni returned the plates to the Hill Cumorah and that other ancient records lie buried there.

Physical description

Smith said Moroni used the term "gold plates" rather than "golden plates." Smith's brother William believed that the plates were "a mixture of gold and copper." Other witnesses said the plates had the "appearance of gold" and were sheets of metal about 6 inches wide by 8 inches high and somewhat thinner than common tin. The plates were said to be bound together with three rings, and made a book about 6 inches thick. Reports from Smith and others who lifted the plates (while wrapped in cloth or contained within a box) agree that they weighed about 60 pounds.

In his famous letter to Chicago Democrat publisher John Wentworth ([1] (, Smith wrote:

"These records were engraven on plates which had the appearance of gold, each plate was six inches [150 mm] wide and eight inches [200 mm] long, and not quite so thick as common tin... The volume was something near six inches [150 mm] in thickness, a part of which was sealed." These plates are typically referred to as the "gold plates" or other similar phrases.

William Smith (Joseph's brother) wrote in an 1883 account (

"I was permitted to lift them as they laid in a pillow-case; but not to see them, as it was contrary to the commands he had received. They weighed about sixty pounds [22 kg if troy pounds, 27 kg if avoirdupois] according to the best of my judgment."

Other plates in the Latter Day Saint tradition

In addition to the Golden Plates, there are several other mentions of ancient records recorded on metal plates in the Latter Day Saint tradition.

The text of the Book of Mormon itself refers to several other sets of plates:

  • The brass plates — originally owned by Laban, containing the writings of Old Testament prophets up to the time shortly before the Babylonian Exile, as well as the otherwise unknown prophets Zenos and Zenoch, and possibly others.
  • The plates of Nephi (sometimes the "large plates of Nephi") — the source of the text abridged by Mormon and engraved upon the Golden Plates.

In addition to plates relating to the Book of Mormon, Smith acquired a set of 6 plates known as the Kinderhook Plates in 1843.

James J. Strang, one of the rival claiments to succeed Smith also claimed to discover and translate a set of plates known as the Voree Plates.


Critics of the Prophet Joseph Smith have claimed that the plates may have weighed as much as two hundred pounds. Such estimates, however, are based on computation of a solid 24-karat gold object with the dimensions described by the Prophet; this estimation does not allow for the weight reduction that would naturally result from cutting the engravings, from unevenness of the leaves wrinkled by hammering, and from air space between each leaf. 5 Referring to the Prophet’s statement that the plates “had the appearance of gold,” some have speculated that the metal of the plates was probably tumbaga, the name given by the Spaniards to a versatile alloy of gold and copper which could “be cast, drawn, hammered, gilded, soldered, welded, plated, hardened, annealed, polished, engraved, embossed, and inlaid.” 6 Tumbaga can be treated with a simple acid like citric acid to dissolve the copper on the surface. What is then left is a shiny layer of 23-karat gold on top of a harder, more durable copper-gold alloy sheet. This process was widely used by the pre-Columbian cultures of central America to make religious objects. 7 Tumbaga plates of the dimensions Joseph Smith described would weigh between fifty-three and eighty-six pounds.

Plates outside of the Latter Day Saint tradition

Other cultures have kept records on metal plates, and those found to date have been extremely thin, so as to facilitate their being engraven into with a pointed utensil. For utilitarian reasons alone, to make it both easier and feasible, the plates would need to be thin enough to allow depressions to be made into them simply by applying pressure, rather than having to scratch and dig as thicker plates would necessitate. Michael R. Ash points to the discovery of objects made from tumbaga, a gold-copper alloy in South America. He writes that using this alloy would make the plates more rigid and lighter. [2] ( This claim is congruent with William Smith's idea (cited above) that the plates might be part gold and part copper. Orichalcum, the legendary metal of Atlantis and the Temple of Solomon, is held by many to match this same description. In 500 B.C (concurrent with the Book of Mormon), Darius the Great of Persia inscribed his history on a gold plate and sealed it in a stone box in the temple at Persepolis. [3] (, [4] (


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