How Heavy Were Those Gold Plates?

 

Paramount in the story of the Latter-day Saints is the account given by Joseph Smith of a visitation he received from the angel Moroni on September 21, 1823. He stated that after he retired to bed, his room became filled with light. At his bedside stood an angel who called Smith by name and told him that God had a work for the young boy to do. Smith claimed the angel told him, “there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang” (Joseph Smith – History 1:34).

Smith said he was not allowed to retrieve the buried plates for another four years. In verse 54 of his testimony, he related that the day he was allowed to dig up the record came on September 22, 1827. Mormon historian Leonard Arrington notes that, “Sometime after midnight in the early morning hours of September 22, Joseph and Emma drove to the hill, obtained the plates and hid them in an old birch log about three miles from the Smith home. With neighboring ruffians seeking the plates, thinking they were of great monetary worth, Joseph changed the hiding place several times and managed to keep them from being discovered and stolen” (“Mormonism: From Its New York Beginnings,” Dialogue, Vol.13, No.3, p.122). Eventually Joseph Smith would bring the plates home to be translated. His mother, Lucy Mack Smith, remembered the day this way:

“The plates were secreted about three miles from home… Joseph, on coming to them, took them from their secret place, and, wrapping them in his linen frock, placed them under his arm and started for home.

“After proceeding a short distance, he thought it would be more safe to leave the road and go through the woods. Traveling some distance after he left the road, he came to a large windfall, and as he was jumping over a log, a man sprang up from behind it, and gave him a heavy blow with a gun. Joseph turned around and knocked him down, then ran at the top of his speed. About half a mile further he was attacked again in the same manner as before; he knocked this man down in like manner as the former, and ran on again; and before he reached home he was assaulted the third time. In striking the last one he dislocated his thumb, which, however, he did not notice until he came within sight of the house, when he threw himself down in the corner of the fence in order to recover his breath. As soon as he was able, he arose and came to the house. lie was still altogether speechless from fright and the fatigue of running” (History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, Lucy Smith, pp.107-108. An abbreviated version of Lucy Smith’s account is found on pages 44-45 of the LDS Church manual Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual: Religion 341 Through 343).

An interesting fact of history missing from the story above is that when Smith was a young boy, he went through an excruciating surgery on his leg that caused him to walk with a limp for the rest of his life. We are left to believe that Smith was either able to strike his attackers hard enough to prevent them from pursuing him, or he was able to escape from them with this physical handicap, all while carrying the plates.

Smith stated, “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” (History of the Church 4:537)

Paintings of Smith show him receiving the plates with outstretched arms or resting on his knee. Although these are just an artist’s perception, these descriptions do cause us to ask, “If they really existed, just how heavy were those plates, given the size and description by Smith?”

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. Mormon Apostle John Widtsoe [1872-1952] is one of many Mormons who did not believe that the plates were made of gold as Moroni described. He concluded that the plates must have been made of a lighter alloy that was composed of primarily copper with some gold. He said: “If the plates were made of eight karat gold, which is gold frequently used in present-day jewelry, and allowing a 10 percent space between the leaves, the total weight of the plates would not be above one hundred and seventeen pounds—a weight easily carried by a man as strong as was Joseph Smith (John A. Widtsoe and Franklin S. Harris, Jr., Seven Claims of the Book of Mormon, p. 37).

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 Widtsoe – at least toward the bottom of the stack. Widtsoe’s conclusion that the plates were 8 carat gold would mean that gold made up 33% of the metal included in the plates. Could a young man like Smith ― “easily” carry 117 pounds worth of plates? The answer is no, as I have personally witnessed on several occassions. Let me explain. On display at the Utah Lighthouse Ministry Bookstore, located at 1358 South West Temple, Salt Lake City, (across the street from Smith’s ballpark where the Salt Lake Bees play), is a set of lead plates that are the same dimensions Joseph Smith gave for his plates (6 inches wide, 8 inches long, and 6 inches deep).  Though lead is lighter than gold, these lead plates weight 118 pounds, or one pound more than the weight suggested by Widtsoe. As one who has for years volunteered at this bookstore, I have seen numerous visitors attempt to lift these plates. More often than not, I’ve been asked, “Are they bolted down?”

Reed Putnam, a Mormon metallurgist cited by Mormon apologists, apparently realized that Witdsoe’s arbitrary 10 percent air gap was not enough. Discarding Widtsoe’s estimate, Putnam suggested that there must have been a 50% air cap between the plates! Perhaps Putnam, and those who adhere to his theory, have failed to realize how this assumption presents another serious dilemma. Joseph Smith said he only translated the top two inches of the plates because the bottom four inches were sealed. The top two inches of plates that Smith allegedly translated later became the Book of Mormon. Placing a 50% air gap between the plates means that the two inches worth of plates is now reduced to only one inch. Are we really to believe that one inch worth of metal plates, enscribed by hand, gave us enough text for a book that is over 500 pages in length?

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.

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.

Mormon anthropologist, John L. Sorenson, agreed that Putnam’s explanation helps solve the weight problem. In his book, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, he wrote, “R. H. Putnam has argued persuasively that the Book of Mormon plates that were in Joseph Smith’s hands were of tumbaga. (Had they been unalloyed gold, they would have been too heavy for a single person to carry)” (p. 283).

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 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?

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. . . .”

Supernatural Strength?

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 would Mormon Apostle John Widtsoe, Reed Putnam, and other Mormon apologists who accept their theories, 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 your favorite hardware establishment. When you enter the store, pick up a bag of cement, tuck it under your arm, and continue with your shopping. Assuming no sales clerk is going to jump you as you shop, imagine yourself carrying this weight for a distance of three miles (according to Smith’s mother), at times running “at the top of your speed” to escape three separate attackers. For added effect you could jump over a display or two. As you attempt to replicate the story, you will soon realize that Smith’s tale was nothing but a fabrication.

Related Quotes

  • “It may be well to state, that the people of God, in ancient days, according to the accounts of men, kept their sacred records on plates of gold, and those of less consequence on plates of brass, copper, wood, &c. see John’s biblical archaeology, Josephus, and others. These plates were generally made from the sixteenth to the thirty second part of an inch thick (of metal) and something like six by eight inches square, and fastened at the back with three rings through which a rod was put to carry them, or hang them. The word of the Lord, the history of the doings of the children of God, and their genealogy was engraved in a nice workmanlike manner, upon them, in Hebrew, reformed Egyptian, &c. Such was the condition of the plates, from which came the book of Mormon. As may be seen by an allusion in the book of Ether, all that was on them is not translated; wherefore, as they are sacred, when the book of Mormon was translated from them, they were again hid up to the Lord, to come forth again in his own due time.” – The Book of Mormon., Evening and Morning Star, vol. 1 (June 1832-May 1833), Vol. I. December, 1832. No. 7., p.58 – 59

For more articles on the Standard Works in Mormonism, click here.

For a December 2011 Viewpoint on Mormonism series on this topic, click the following links: Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5    Another show related to this topic can be found here: “Gold Plates or Golden Plates?”

  • Video: Can you lift the plates? The reactions of Mormons who attempt to lift the “gold” plates owned by Bill McKeever before a June 2014 Mormon Miracle Pageant in Manti.