The following was originally printed in the Nov-Dec 2009 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.
I make no pretense that I find it incredibly hard to believe Joseph Smith’s story of gold plates written by ancient Americans. I have been convinced for a long time that the story of Joseph Smith and his “gold plates” has no more credibility than his alleged encounter with God Himself. It’s not that I don’t believe he had something he kept wrapped in a cloth that led people to believe he had plates of some sort, but I certainly don’t believe he was hiding anything special from those who were too gullible to see through his pretense.
Still, the LDS Church must keep perpetuating these myths, otherwise the foundation of Mormonism crumbles. Critical scrutiny, however, has compelled Mormons to revise their history based on evidence that tends to undermine original accounts. For instance, many Mormon apologists have pretty much abandoned the idea that the plates Joseph Smith claimed to have were actually made of gold since gold plates would have been incredibly heavy as well as difficult to engrave. For this reason, they are forced to conclude that his plates were a lighter alloy, Tumbaga, being the metal of choice. Many Mormons agree that Tumbaga plates would have weighed around 50-60 pounds. Bear in mind that proponents of this theory have absolutely no evidence to support it, but such a revision tends to prove that they are acutely aware that the story, as originally told, lacks merit.
However, some myths within Mormonism tend to die slowly. One of these has to do with what happened to Joseph Smith after he was eventually allowed by the angel Moroni to secure the plates. Joseph Smith’s mother, and well as respected LDS historian Richard L. Bushman, agree that Smith was attacked three times on his three-mile journey home by men bent on stealing his ancient treasure. Both recount how Smith was struck by a man with a gun but somehow able to run off “at full speed, still with the heavy plates under his arm,” only to be accosted two more times (Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, p.108).
Such a story makes for great theater, but even if we embrace the theory that the gold plates were really made of a lighter alloy like Tumbaga, is this even remotely plausible? I insist it is not. Even if Smith’s plates weighed a mere 50 pounds it is difficult to believe that he could have outran three men while carrying the plates under his arm, and nowhere are we left with the impression that Smith was able to render his attackers unconscious in the scuffles.
In light of such an unbelievable tale I think it may have been much easier for the LDS Church to continue its practice of historical revisionism and abandon such a fanciful story. As it has done so many times before, the LDS Church could have insisted that Smith’s mother got her facts confused, thereby placing the details of how Smith was able to retrieve the plates in the category of mystery. However, for some unexplained reason, the LDS Church has chosen to stick with this incredible tale.
For example, in the 2003 LDS Church student manual titled, Church History in the Fulness of Times, Lucy Mack’s Smith rendition of how her son retrieved the plates, and his struggle to bring them safely home, is retold on page 45.
More recently, the August 2009 edition of the Ensign magazine (p.54) carried an illustration by Sam Lawlor showing Smith fleeing from a man standing behind a large log with a gun. With one arm Smith is carrying the covered plates.
When confronted with the difficult details of this account, many Mormons assume God gave their prophet supernatural strength. The problem with such hopeful thinking is that no LDS leader or apologist that I am aware of has ever offered such an explanation, and we have no record of Smith ever giving glory to God if such a miracle did in fact take place. If this was a plausible excuse, why not stick with the idea that the plates were really made of gold (as heavy as gold is), and be done with it?
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?”