The following was originally printed in the May/June 2014 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.
For several years I brought a replica set of “gold plates” to the Mormon Miracle Pageant held annually in Manti, Utah (its last performance was in June, 2019). By encouraging Mormon visitors to lift my plates, it gave me an opportunity to explain the many problems I see with the official account of how Smith allegedly retrieved the plates back in 1827.
My plates are six inches by eight inches, by six inches deep, the same measurements given by Joseph Smith. And although my plates are made of sheet metal and are much lighter than gold plates, they are still quite heavy—80 pounds. If Smith’s plates were actually made of the metal gold, their soft consistency and dense weight would tend to expel any air gaps between the plates. In other words, as plates are added to the ever increasing record, the plates (at least near the bottom of the stack), would tend to flatten out. That being the case, it would be very likely that the six-inch stack would weigh around 200 pounds.
Mormons are led to believe that Smith moved the gold plates from their original hiding place in a stone box, to a hollow log. Joseph Smith’s mother. Lucy Mack Smith, in her History of Joseph Smith: By His Mother, stated that the hollow log was “three miles from home” (p. 107). According to her account, her son took the plates from the log, tucked them under his arm, and headed for home on foot (p. 108). On this journey home, he was able to jump over a log, fight off an attacker with a gun, run away from him “at the top of his speed,” travel another half mile, is accosted again, run away from this attacker, only to be attacked a third time before arriving at his destination.
Amazingly, many Mormons insist that because Smith was “a buff farm boy” he was able to accomplish such a feat. Yet when a Mormon finally realizes that replicating Smith’s story is humanly impossible, they have no recourse but to insist that a miracle was involved. The problem with such a claim is that if Smith needed a miracle to carry the plates, then surely Moroni, the person Mormons believe buried the plates centuries ago, must have needed one too, not to mention all of the other Book of Mormon characters who certainly handled the plates towards the time they were supposedly buried in the ground. Amusing indeed was a scene in the Mormon Miracle pageant where Mormon hands the plates to Moroni as if it was a football and Moroni runs up the hill with hardly any effort at all.
Are we to assume that the “eight witnesses” mentioned in the front of the Book of Mormon also were able to “heft” the plates also needed a miracle? If so, wouldn’t Smith’s wife, Emma, who was known to have moved the plates around on the table “as her work required it,” also needed a miracle? (See Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, p.70.)
Mormon leaders of the past never seemed to entertain the notion that a miracle was needed. For example, if a Mormon wants to insist that Smith needed a miracle to carry the plates he must explain the following comment from Mormon Apostle John A. Widtsoe. Understanding that plates of pure gold would be much too heavy for Smith to carry, he offered this explanation:
“A cube of solid gold of that size, if the gold were pure, would weigh two hundred pounds, which would be a heavy weight for a man to carry, even though he were of the athletic type of Joseph Smith. This has been urged as an evidence against the truth of the Book of Mormon, since it is known that on several occasions the Prophet carried the plates in his arms. It is very unlikely, however, that the plates were made of pure gold. They would have been too soft and in danger of destruction by distortion. For the purpose of record keeping, plates made of gold mixed with a certain amount of copper would be better, for such plates would be firmer, more durable and generally more suitable for the work in hand. 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, pp.37-38).
Widtsoe would have no need to give such an explanation if he believed that a miracle was involved. Still, Widtsoe’s hypothesis fails for one simple reason — 117 pounds is not at all an easy weight to carry, no matter how strong he thinks Smith may have been. This can be easily demonstrated.
At the Utah Lighthouse bookstore in Salt Lake City, Sandra Tanner has a replica set of plates made of lead on display. Lead is lighter than gold, but like lead, it is very soft and very dense, hence the plates contain no air gaps, making it appear as a solid piece. Though only one pound heavier than Widtsoe’s estimate, visitors to the bookstore who attempt to lift the lead plates learn very quickly that Smith could not achieve what Mormons are led to believe. In fact, many who fail to lift the plates at all, often ask if they are bolted down. No, they are not.
Mormon apologists who admit that plates made of actual gold would be much to heavy for Smith to carry like to point to Reed Putnam, a Mormon metallurgist who insisted that the gold plates were probably made of an alloy consisting mostly of copper. Perhaps knowing that Widtsoe’s arbitrary 10% air gap between the plates is entirely inadequate, he argues that if plates had a whopping 50% air gap, the weight could be brought down to a little as 53 pounds.
But why bother if a miracle was involved? If God could miraculously allow Smith to carry 53-pound plates, He most certainly could have enabled Smith to carry 200-pound plates. Efforts by Mormon apologists to get the weight of the plates down to a manageable level tend to prove they do not believe a miracle was involved. Furthermore, Mormon attempts to make the plates lighter actually take glory away from God. After all, is it not more of a miracle for Smith to carry 200-pound plates as opposed to 117, or even 53-pound plates?
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?”