The following was originally printed in the March-April 2010 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.
The Book of Mormon ends by describing the demise of the Nephite people at the hands of their Lamanite counterparts. For decades the descendants of Lehi, the light-skinned Nephites and the dark-skinned Lamanites, warred against each other until both sides met for a final battle in the “land of Cumorah.” According to Moroni 6:6:
And it came to pass that when we had gathered in all our people in one to the land of Cumorah, behold I, Mormon, began to be old; and knowing it to be the last struggle of my people, and having been commanded of the Lord that I should not suffer the records which had been handed down by our fathers, which were sacred, to fall into the hands of the Lamanites, (for the Lamanites would destroy them) therefore I made this record out of the plates of Nephi, and hid up in the hill Cumorah all the records which had been entrusted to me by the hand of the Lord, save it were these few plates which I gave unto my son Moroni.
According to Mormon lore, Smith claimed to receive the “few plates” from Moroni in 1827 and from them translated the Book of Mormon. When he was finished translating the plates he gave them back to the angel who he claimed “has them in his charge” (Joseph Smith History 1:60). Many ask, “Where are the gold plates now?” “And what of the many other records that were supposedly ‘hid up in the Hill Cumorah’?”
In his article “Cumorah’s Cave,” printed in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (v.13, no.1-2, 2004), Cameron J. Packerconcedes that several prominent Mormons spoke of gold plates and other objects (such as the very sword Nephi used to kill Laban.) that lay buried within the famous hill located near the Smith home outside of Palmyra, New York. Packer asks, “Was this a real cave that Joseph and others actually walked into, or was it a visionary, or ‘virtual,’ experience?”
Unfortunately, most of the cave accounts come second or even third-hand. For example, Parker cites the diary of William Horne Dame who recorded the words of W.W. Phelps, who in turn cited Hyrum Smith. Phelps said that Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer went to the Hill Cumorah and “walked into a room about 16 ft. square. In that room was an angel and a trunk. On that trunk lay a Book of Mormon and gold plates, Laban’s sword, Aaron’s breastplate.”
Brigham Young gave a somewhat similar, second-hand account on June 17, 1877:
Oliver Cowdery went with the Prophet Joseph when he deposited these plates. Joseph did not translate all of the plates; there was a portion of them sealed, which you can learn from the Book of Doctrine and Covenants. When Joseph got the plates, the angel instructed him to carry them back to the hill Cumorah, which he did. Oliver says that when Joseph and Oliver went there, the hill opened, and they walked into a cave, in which there was a large and spacious room. He says he whether they had the light of the sun or artificial light; but that it was just as light as day. They laid the plates on a table; it was a large table that stood in the room. Under this table there was a pile of plates as much as two feet high, and there were altogether in this room more plates than probably many wagon loads; they were piled up in the corners and along the walls. The first time they went there the sword of Laban hung upon the wall; but when they went there again it had been taken down and laid upon the table across the gold plates; it was unsheathed, and on it was written these words: ‘This sword will never be sheathed again until the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and his Christ.’” (Journal of Discourses 19:38)
David Whitmer’s testimony is a rare exception because he was one of the men who is said to have actually entered such a cave. His testimony slightly conflicts with Young’s for he stated in an 1878 interview printed in the Deseret Evening News, that Smith’s gold plates were indeed hidden, but not in a cave in the Hill Cumorah. Instead, he said they were hidden, “not far away from that place.”
Parker notes that Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt, speaking in Ogden in 1873, spoke of day when the plates, “now slumbering in the Hill Cumorah,” will be “brought to light.” When that happens, he said, they will “have the history of the Old Testament much more fully, with the addition of a great many prophecies that are not now contained in the record.”
Such accounts leave us to believe that Smith and company literally saw tangible plates and artifacts, yet Heber C. Kimball, a member of the First Presidency under Brigham Young, used the word “vision” in 1856 when he spoke of “Joseph Smith and others” seeing “more records than ten men could carry” (Journal of Discourses 24:105).
If this is the case then such a story really carries no more persuasive weight than the testimony of the three witnesses who claimed to “have seen” the plates Smith received from Moroni. At first glance one might assume they too saw tangible gold plates. However, this conclusion is dashed when we read in History of the Church 1:53 that it was only by prayer and faith that they were “able to obtain a view of them.” Why would prayer and faith be necessary to see physical objects? Furthermore, page 55 clearly states they saw the plates in a vision.
Second-hand accounts and differences in details have not stopped Mormons from retelling this cave story. You will find it recounted in Mormon manuals, speeches, and commentaries. It is even alluded to in Doctrine and Covenants 8:11. No doubt this tradition is meant to strengthen the faith of members who need to believe the plates actually existed. But it should come as no surprise that several Mormons are content to concur with Kimball and conclude that participants only envisioned themselves entering such a cave. After all, the evidence is all hearsay.
One might ask, if the plates really lie hidden in the Hill Cumorah, why not excavate it and prove to the world once and for all that the story of the gold plates was not the result of Joseph Smith’s fertile imagination? The Mormon Church owns the property and it certainly has the financial means to do so. However, the risk of failing to produce the ancient objects in question makes such an effort highly unlikely.