Challenges to Joseph Smith’s Golden Plates and the Witnesses.

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According to Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, in 1823 the angel Moroni guided him to golden plates buried on a hill close to where he lived. Smith apparently collected these plates, took them home, and subsequently translated them into the Book of Mormon which he then published in 1830.

The plates are foundational to Mormonism because they are foundational to the Book of Mormon. Despite Mormons holding to several religious texts, the Book of Mormon stands in as the word of God, includes many details and truths missing from the Bible, and is deemed the “keystone” to the religion (1). The narrative of the golden plates therefore has much significance to the religion. It can be argued that if there is uncertainty about the origin of the Book of Mormon then it might well deliver a fatal blow to Mormonism.

The goal of this entry is not to refute Mormonism, but instead to examine several challenges critics have forwarded to this central narrative. 

The Challenge of the Weight of the Golden Plates

Mormon history provides an idea, although somewhat conflicting, of the weight of the plates Joseph Smith collected from the hill to then transport back home. Some contemporaries of Smith’s suggested that the plates weighed 60 pounds while others alleged they were 30 pounds (2). According to Smith himself, the plates were “six inches wide and eight inches long, and not quite so thick as common tin,” and that the “volume was something near six inches in thickness, a part of which was sealed” (3). Based on these dimensions, Mormon Apostle John Widtsoe suggested that “If the gold were pure, [the plates] 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” (4).

This detail poses a challenge to the story. According to an account of how Smith transported the golden plates home by Lucy Mack Smith, Smith’s mother, Smith took the plates “wrapping them in his linen frock, placed them under his arm and started for home.” However, after having traveled “some distance” he was accosted by “a man [who] 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” (5). 

Smith’s mother reveals that her son was attacked two more times on his way home. However, in the absence of evidence suggesting Smith successfully fought off his attackers, we need to suppose that he fled from them. He seems to have outrun them on the way back to his home a few miles away.

Critics have argued that this story stretches credulity. Given the testimony of Smith’s mother and John Widtsoe, one could argue that it seems implausible that a man could carry 200 pounds (90kg) for several miles and outrun his attackers who were intent on dispossessing him of his treasure. Mormon apologists have come up with numerous explanations to account for this alleged implausibility. One attempt to offset this charge is to deny that the plates were of pure gold because this would decrease their weight. But this explanation runs contrary to multiple lines of evidence suggesting the plates were made of solid gold, including the testimonies put forth by Lucy Smith (6), Oliver Cowdery (7), and David Whitmer (8). Further, it is has been suggested that Smith received supernatural strength from God to both carry and flee with the plates. But this explanation is also questioned on the ground that Smith never credits God for granting him such a supernatural ability. Smith never says that God did this, which is odd since such a claim could have bolstered his prophetic claims as it would arguably demonstrate God’s favour on him. Another explanation is that the plates were made of tumbaga, an alloy found in Central America (9). From this, some have concluded that the plates were around 50 pounds in weight (22.67kg), thus making them more manageable to carry. It remains, however, that plates weighing 50 pounds are also difficult to carry, especially if one is to flee attackers multiple times. Another difficulty for this explanation is that it assumes that the Book of Mormon lands were in Central America, as proposed by the “limited geography” theory (10). However, this theory is often held to be uncertain and even so by many Mormons themselves who claim that Book of Mormon lands are more appropriately located in the northeastern United States, a place where no tumbaga is found.

Witnesses in Support of the Golden Plates

To support the existence of the golden plates, Smith refers to several witnesses he showed the plates to. These testimonies, referred to as “The Testimony of Three Witnesses” and “The Testimony of Eight Witnesses,” are included at the beginning of the Book of Mormon. For many believers, that eleven individuals would testify to witnessing the golden plates constitute sufficient evidence for believing the Book of Mormon is of divine origin.

Few would deny that eyewitness testimony is valuable, especially if that testimony can be shown authentic. This no doubt constitutes a strong kind of evidence and if the eleven eyewitnesses can be trusted, it would make a strong case for the divine origin of the Book of Mormon. But critics have argued that there is room for doubt concerning the veracity of these eyewitnesses.

A strong challenge has been forwarded concerning what the eyewitnesses say when they speak about seeing the golden plates (11). For example, the witnesses Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris believed that by faith they would receive a view of the plates (12). This did not happen where Smith was translating the plates but instead in the woods. While in the woods, Smith, Cowdery, Whitmer, and Harris attempted “to obtain, by fervent and humble prayer” the fulfillment of the revelation that they would see the plates by faith. But this prayer did not have the desired result (13). As a result, Harris excused himself, thinking he was the reason the prayer was not being answered. After he had left the other three men prayed and this time an angel stood before them holding the plates. Smith then went to look for Harris who was a “considerable distance” away (14). Smith and Harris then prayed and the “same vision” was opened to them (15). According to the Mormon historian Marvin S. Hill, “The evidence is extremely contradictory in this area, but there is a possibility that the three witnesses saw the plates in vision only, for Stephen Burnett in a letter written in 1838, a few weeks after the event, described Martin Harris’ testimony to this effect: ‘When I came to hear Martin Harris state in public that he never saw the plates with his natural eyes only in vision or imagination…” (16). The three eyewitnesses saw the plates in visions which, some have argued, is problematic evidence. 

Now we turn to the eight eyewitnesses? Is their testimony more reliable than what we find regarding the three? Again the critic argues there is room for doubt here. These eight witnesses claim to have seen the plates, but we need to acknowledge several details. A first insight is that the list provides names of individuals who were related. For example, of the eleven, three were directly related to Smith (his father and two brothers), some were close friends, financial backers, and Oliver Cowdery was a distant cousin. The four Whitmers were also brothers to David Whitmer (17). Understandably, this had led to concerns and claims about the possibility of collusion between the witnesses (18). 

Critics also charge that there are inconsistencies in their testimonies. According to Robert N. Hullinger, the eight witnesses,

“claimed no revelation. No “voice” declared to them that the “work is true.” No “power of God” showed them the plates—just Joseph Smith. No “angel of God” laid the plates before them; no “voice of the Lord” told them to testify of what they saw… However, the eight did claim revelation in their conversations with others. When David Marks stopped at the Whitmers on March 1830, the eight witnesses “affirmed, that an angel had showed them certain plates of metal, having the appearance of gold that were dug out of the ground by one Joseph Smith.” They explained to Mark’s certain basic points about the Book of Mormon and its contents but claimed to have viewed the plates in vision only” (19).

On the one hand, the witnesses claimed no revelation when they saw the plates (Smith had shown them the plates), yet they later informed others that they received revelation.

How should we judge these testimonies? The testimonies of the eleven witnesses who claimed to see the plates would unlikely qualify as sufficient in a court of law. Imagine, by way of analogy, if a witness in a court claimed to have seen the defendant commit a murder, but that he only witnessed this crime taking place in a vision. It is unlikely that anyone, the judge included, would view this as sufficient testimony and would rule it out. The critic, using the same logic, argues that we shouldn’t view the purported eyewitness to the golden plates as any more reliable than this since they too involved visions. Moreover, the background context of the witnesses is also important. Visions were not unusual for the eyewitnesses. They seem to have the reputation of being quite superstitious, as suggested by their engagement with divination and seer stones, and their unique abilities to see the dwelling places of spirits (20). Witchcraft and the supernatural were quite at home in the lives of the earliest Mormons (21). This background information seems to decrease the impressiveness of the eyewitnesses claiming to receive visions corroborating Smith’s claims.

Did Smith Even Have Plates?

But did Smith ever actually possess golden plates? It seems plausible to think that he did have some sort of object/s, but that we won’t know what they really were. The testimonial evidence seems sufficient to establish this basic fact. The problem is, however, that Smith kept the objects concealed from view. They were usually covered with a cloth (22), placed in a box (23), or hidden behind a curtain (24). According to Smith’s father-in-law, “I was allowed to feel the weight of the box and they gave me to understand, that the plates were then in the box – into which I was not allowed to look” (25). 

References

1. Faust, J. 2004. The Keystone of Our Religion. Available.

2. Chase, W. 1833. Testimony of Willard Chase. In Howe, E. Mormonism Unvailed. p. 240-248

3. History of the Church, 4:537; The Church of the Latter-day Saints. 1986. What was the approximate weight of the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated? Available.

4. Widtsoe, J. & Harris, F. 1937. Seven Claims of the Book of Mormon. p. 37.

5. Hedges, A. 2001. “Take Heed Continually”: Protecting the Gold Plates. Available; Nibely, P. 1945. History of Joseph Smith by His Mother. p. 108.

6. Jessee, D. 1982. Lucy Mack Smith’s 1829 Letter to Mary Smith Pierce. BYU Studies Quarterly. p. 461.

7. The Church of the Latter-day Saints. 1987. “By the Gift and Power of God.” Available.

8. The Church of the Latter-day Saints. 2007. What Did the Golden Plates Look Like? Available.

9. Sorenson, J. 1996. An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies. p. 283.

10. Duffy, J. 2004. Defending the Kingdom, Rethinking the Faith: How Apologetics is Reshaping Mormon Orthodoxy. Sunstone. p. 22-55

11. Hill, M. 1972. Brodie Revisited: A Reappraisal. Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 7(4): 83.

12. Doctrine and Covenants 17

13. Doctrine and Covenants 5

14. The Church of the Latter-day Saints. The Contributions of Martin Harris. Available; The History of the Church 1:55

15. Doctrine and Covenants 17

16. Hill, M. 1972. Ibid. p. 83.

17. Palmer, G. 2002. An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins. p. 179.

18. Bushman, R. 2005. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling: A Cultural Biography of Mormonism’s Founder. p. 79.

19. Hullinger, R. 1992. Joseph Smith’s Response to Skepticism. p. 133.

20. Palmer, G. 2002. Ibid. p. 175.

21. Brooke, J. 1994. The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844. p. 77.

22. Hill, M. 1972. Ibid. p. 84.; Kirkham, F. 1951. A New Witness for Christ in America: The Book of Mormon, 2:416-417;

23. Bushman, R. 2005. Ibid. p. 63.

24. Bushman, R. 2005. Ibid. p. 66.

25. Bushman, R. 2005. Ibid. p. 63.

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