I Have a Question


Questions of general gospel interest answered for guidance, not as official statements of Church policy

Why were the Book of Mormon gold plates not placed in a museum so that people might know Joseph Smith had them?

Monte S. Nyman, professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University. The scriptures suggest two reasons the Book of Mormon gold plates were not made available to the public: the first is that the Lord refused to allow men to use these sacred plates for commercial or personal benefit; the second, and most important, was so the Lord could test the faith of all who receive the record.

As Moroni concluded his father Mormon’s record, he wrote:

“And I am the same who hideth up this record unto the Lord; the plates thereof are of no worth, because of the commandment of the Lord. For he truly saith that no one shall have them to get gain; but the record thereof is of great worth; and whoso shall bring it to light, him will the Lord bless.” (Morm. 8:14.)

Because the plates were made of precious metal, their monetary value was undoubtedly impressive—but they would be of still greater value to those who would attempt to publicize them by displaying them. The Lord obviously knew that the presence of the plates would cause men to attempt to use them to obtain money, or personal notoriety. This may be one reason he commanded the plates to be taken from the earth following their translation.

We can see the wisdom of the Lord’s commandment when we study Moroni’s vision of the day when the Book of Mormon was to come forth. He saw that pride had corrupted the churches of that day and that the members of those churches loved money, their fine apparel, “and the adorning of your churches more than ye love the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted.” (Morm. 8:37.) He witnessed “murders, and robbing, and lying, and deceivings, and whoredoms, and all manner of abominations.” (Morm. 8:31.) Such conditions would require constant vigilance over the plates were they to be placed on display.

Furthermore, those who dismiss the truths taught in the Book of Mormon would also dismiss the plates themselves as genuine even if they were available for display. Such people would undoubtedly insist that Joseph Smith or one of his associates had made the plates, or that the Prophet’s translation was only pretended. In this respect, the physical presence of the plates would not convince anyone of the truth of the Book of Mormon.

In short, it is not necessary that the plates be physically present to bless the lives of the covenant people. It is the content of the plates that is important. Those who are of the people of Israel, or those who are adopted into the covenant, will know of the truth of the plates’ content through the power of the Holy Ghost without seeing the plates. This brings us to the second reason the plates were not made available to the public—the test of faith.

Moroni testified that the plates and their message would be brought forth by the power of God and warned that those who condemn the message will be judged on the same basis. (See Morm. 8:16–22.) He further commented that it would be because of the prayers and the faith of the ancient Nephites that the record would be translated and disseminated. The Lord had assured that the record would come even as Isaiah had prophesied, although it would “be said that miracles are done away.” (Morm. 8:23–26.)

After the record was brought forth, the Lord provided two sets of witnesses: three men who had a spiritual manifestation, and eight who saw the plates in a purely temporal setting. These men fit the law of witnesses which the Lord revealed in both Old and New Testament times (see Deut. 19:15; Matt. 18:16) and their testimonies serve to bolster the faith of readers (see D&C 5:11–16, D&C 17:1–4; Ether 5:2–4; 2 Ne. 27:12–14).

Since it was by faith that the record was brought forth, why would the Lord not require the same kind of faith from readers as he did from the recorders of the plates? Earlier the Savior had told Mormon to write only the lesser part of the Nephite record first to try the faith of the latter-day readers; if they believed in Book of Mormon teachings, greater things would be manifest to them. (See 3 Ne. 26:6–11.) Nephi concluded his record with this warning testimony to the unbeliever:

“And you that will not partake of the goodness of God, and respect the words of the Jews, and also my words, and the words which shall proceed forth out of the mouth of the Lamb of God, behold, I bid you an everlasting farewell, for these words shall condemn you at the last day.

“For what I seal on earth, shall be brought against you at the judgment bar; for thus hath the Lord commanded me, and I must obey.” (2 Ne. 33:14–15.)

Mormon and Moroni bear a similar testimony. (See Morm. 3:17–22; Moro. 10:27, 34.) An acknowledgement of the truth of the plates at judgment day, however, will be, in the words of Samuel the Lamanite, “everlastingly too late.” (Hel. 13:38.)

Those who lack faith are usually the same ones who want or expect material or physical evidence. The evidence will come, but only after the people have passed the test of faith.

What was the approximate weight of the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated?

Roy W. Doxey, assistant in the office of the Quorum of the Twelve. The Prophet Joseph Smith described the gold plates as follows: “These records were engraven on plates which had the appearance of gold, each plate was six inches wide and eight inches long, and not quite so thick as common tin. They were filled with engravings, in Egyptian characters, and 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 in thickness, a part of which was sealed. The characters on the unsealed part were small, and beautifully engraved. The whole book exhibited many marks of antiquity in its construction, and much skill in the art of engraving.” 1

Although no specific mention of weight is made in this description, several references to the weight can be found in accounts by Joseph’s acquaintances who personally handled the plates. Joseph’s wife, Emma, recorded that she moved the linen-wrapped plates while cleaning. Martin Harris declared, “I hefted the plates many times, and should think they weighed forty or fifty pounds.” 2 William Smith, brother of the Prophet, reported that he “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 [Joseph Smith] had received. They weighed about sixty pounds according to the best of my judgment.” 3 The eight men who testify that they examined the plates say that they each lifted them.

Variations in the estimation of the weight of the plates by those who “hefted” them are due to the experience of each in judging weight. But the accounts listed above indicate that the plates were light enough to be carried without undue difficulty. Joseph Smith, for example, carried them some distance when he was forced to flee from some men seeking the plates shortly after he received them. 4

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. 8

Though we may never know the exact weight of the plates, the statements of others who handled them, as well as the scriptural references to their mobility, substantiate that weight was no barrier to conveying the plates in accordance with the purposes of God.

    Notes

  1.   1.

    History of the Church, 4:537.

  2.   2.

    Tiffany’s Monthly, May 1859, p. 166.

  3.   3.

    William Smith on Mormonism, Lamoni, Iowa: Herald Steam Book and Job Office, 1883, p. 12.

  4.   4.

    See Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith, ed. Preston Nibley, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958, pp. 104–9.

  5.   5.

    See B. F. Cummings, “Weight of the Plates,” Liahona: The Elders’ Journal, 18 July 1908, pp. 108–10.

  6.   6.

    Reed H. Putnam, Improvement Era, Sept. 1966, p. 789.

  7.   7.

    See H. Lechtman, “Pre-Columbian Surface Metallurgy,” Scientific American, June 1984, p. 56–63.

  8.   8.

    See Putnam, pp. 830–31.