Inside a stone box buried in the Hill Cumorah, golden plates and other artifacts lay hidden for nearly 1,500 years. In 1823, the ancient prophet Moroni showed Joseph Smith these buried plates for the first time. Four years later, in 1827, Moroni allowed Joseph to take the plates and begin translating them through the gift and power of God (see JS—H 1:27–59).
In an effort to create replicas of the golden plates for the Museum of Church History and Art, historians have studied and compiled all the accounts from those who saw or felt the plates and then used that knowledge—and some educated guesses—to create three sets of golden plates for display. Each set varies a little in color, weight, and dimensions. The plates were created as part of the celebration of the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s birth.
Few people ever saw the golden plates before Joseph Smith returned them to the angel Moroni, and even fewer gave accounts of what the plates looked like. The Prophet described the plates as having “the appearance of gold. Each plate was six inches [15 cm] wide and eight inches [20 cm] 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” (“The Wentworth Letter,” Ensign, July 2002, 28).
Other descriptions of the gold plates vary slightly from the Prophet’s or give additional details. For example, Mary Whitmer, David Whitmer’s mother, was shown the plates because of her faithfulness (see Church History in the Fulness of Times, 57–58). She is reported to have said that the rings fastening the golden plates were in the shape of a capital D. Various other reports put the width and length somewhere between six by eight inches and seven by nine inches.
With all these descriptions, historians have little more than a general idea of what the plates look like. But they’ve done the best they can with the information they have.
The process to create the replicas of the plates was long and a little complicated. First, thin copper plates were created and coated in black acid-resistant paint. More than 150 volunteers, many of them youth, then used sharp metal tools to scratch characters into the black surface, exposing the copper beneath. The museum provided examples of what the characters might have looked like.
“This isn’t as much work as the ancient prophets did,” said April Rowbury, 15, of the Provo Eighth Ward, Provo Utah East Stake. “It was hard, but it wasn’t as hard as it was for them, because they had to engrave on the actual metal.”
Some historians think that a harder metal was coated in a softer metal to make the real golden plates. The ancient prophets would have then inscribed in the soft metal, and the hard metal would have stopped their writing from indenting the other side of the plate, allowing both sides to be engraved.
“This is all very speculative,” says Kirk Henrichsen, a senior exhibit designer for the Church museum. “We’ve made them as accurately as we could with the information that we have, but I’m sure if Mormon came to look at them he would just laugh!”
After the volunteers engraved the characters in the black paint, the next step was to soak the plates in a copper etching solution. The solution ate away at the exposed copper, leaving the surfaces beneath the black paint intact. The solution was then rinsed off, and kerosene was used to clean off the remaining black acid-resistant paint. Soapy water cleaned off the kerosene, and then the clean copper plates were electroplated.
Electroplating coats the plates in a thin layer of a golden colored alloy of gold and silver, called electrum. Electrum is not as heavy or as precious as gold. Black ink will then be rubbed into the etched characters to make them more visible.
Some historians believe the real golden plates were also made from an alloy that included gold. A block of solid gold the size of the golden plates would weigh about 200 pounds (90 kg), but the weight of the gold plates, as estimated by the few people who lifted them, was somewhere between 40 and 60 pounds (18 and 27 kg). An alloy of gold and another lighter metal and the air pockets between the plates could account for this difference in weight, say some historians.
It is interesting to think about what the plates looked like or how they felt and what it might have been like to carry them. The precious part of the plates, though, was not the material they were made of—it was the fulness of the gospel they contained.
The Book of Mormon “has the absolute truth of the gospel,” testifies Kaytlyn Monsivais, 13, of the Provo 13th Ward, Provo Utah East Stake. Kaytlyn felt the Spirit as she helped engrave the replica plates, and she knows the Book of Mormon is the word of God.
Annette Rowbury, 17, of the Provo Eighth Ward, also helped make the plates. She says, “It helped build my testimony about how much work and love was put into the plates by the prophets who made them and also by Joseph Smith who translated them.”
Unlike the process for making the plates, the process for gaining a treasured testimony of the Book of Mormon is simple. Moroni says it best in Moroni 10:4–5: “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.
“And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.”
“I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.”
—Joseph Smith, Book of Mormon Introduction
“I do make the record on plates which I have made with mine own hands.
“And behold, I am called Mormon. …
“Behold, I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I have been called of him to declare his word among his people, that they might have everlasting life.
“And it hath become expedient that I, according to the will of God, that the prayers of those who have gone hence, who were the holy ones, should be fulfilled according to their faith, should make a record of these things which have been done—
“Yea, a small record of that which hath taken place from the time that Lehi left Jerusalem, even down until the present time.
“Therefore I do make my record from the accounts which have been given by those who were before me, until the commencement of my day;
“And then I do make a record of the things which I have seen with mine own eyes.
“And I know the record which I make to be a just and a true record.”
—3 Ne. 5:11–18