How Witnesses Described the "Gold Plates"

Although no single comprehensive description of the Book of Mormon plates has been preserved, the Prophet Joseph Smith and several people closely associated with him made various statements that include partial descriptions of the plates. When we consider all the sources together, quite a detailed picture emerges of the physical characteristics of the ancient Nephite record.

Material

“the appearance of gold”1Joseph Smith Jr., Eight Witnesses, Orson Pratt

“golden plates”2David Whitmer

“a mixture of gold and copper”3William Smith

Weight

“weighing altogether from forty to sixty lbs.”4Martin Harris

“I was permitted to lift them. . . . They weighed about sixty pounds according to the best of my judgement.”5William Smith

“I . . . judged them to have weighed about sixty pounds.”6William Smith

“They were much heavier than a stone, and very much heavier than wood. . . . As near as I could tell, about sixty pounds.”7William Smith

“I hefted the plates, and I knew from the heft that they were lead or gold.”8Martin Harris

“My daughter said, they were about as much as she could lift. They were now in the glass-box, and my wife said they were very heavy. They both lifted them.”9Martin Harris

“I moved them from place to place on the table, as it was necessary in doing my work.”10Emma Smith

Joseph’s sister Catherine, while she was dusting in the room where he had been translating, “hefted those plates [which were covered with a cloth] and found them very heavy.”11H. S. Salisbury, paraphrasing Catherine Smith Salisbury

Individual Plate Dimensions

“six inches wide by eight inches long”12Joseph Smith Jr.

“seven inches wide by eight inches in length”13Martin Harris

“seven by eight inches”14Martin Harris

“about eight inches long, seven inches wide”15David Whitmer

“Each plate was not far from seven by eight inches in width and length.”16Orson Pratt

Thickness of Each Plate

“of the thickness of plates of tin”17Martin Harris

“thin leaves of gold”18Martin Harris

“about as thick as parchment”19David Whitmer

“not quite as thick as common tin”20Orson Pratt

“[We] could raise the leaves this way (raising a few leaves of the Bible before him).”21William Smith

“They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metalic [sic] sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book.”22Emma Smith

Volume Thickness

“something near six inches in thickness, a part of which was sealed”23Orson Pratt

“[W]hen piled one above the other, they were altogether about four inches thick.”24Martin Harris

Sealed and Unsealed Portions

“A large portion of the leaves were so securely bound together that it was impossible to separate them.”25David Whitmer

“What there was sealed appeared as solid to my view as wood. About the half of the book was sealed.”26David Whitmer

“[A]bout two-thirds were sealed up, and Joseph was commanded not to break the seal; that part of the record was hid up. The plates which were sealed contained an account of those things shewn unto the brother of Jared.”27Orson Pratt

“A great many, in reading this record carelessly, would wonder why it was that a part of these plates should be sealed, and why Joseph Smith should not be permitted to break the seal. It was because, in this great revelation, the sealed portion of the plates from which the Book of Mormon was taken, contained this great vision, given to the brother of Jared. Joseph was not permitted to translate it, neither to break the seal of the book; it is to be reserved to come forth in due time.”28Orson Pratt

Rings and Binding Format

“[T]hey were fastened with rings thus [a sketch shows a ring in the shape of a capital D with six lines drawn through the straight side of the letter to represent the leaves of the record].”29David Whitmer

“bound together like the leaves of a book by massive rings passing through the back edges”30David Whitmer

“They were bound together in the shape of a book by three gold rings.”31David Whitmer

“put together on the back by three silver rings, so that they would open like a book”32Martin Harris

“bound together in a volume, as the leaves of a book, and fastened at one edge with three rings running through the whole”33Orson Pratt

“Through the back of the plates were three rings, which held them together, and through which a rod might easily be passed, serving as a greater convenience for carrying them; the construction and form of the plates being similar to the gold, brass, and lead plates of the ancient Jews in Palestine.”34Orson Pratt

Reading Order

“I wish to mention here that the title-page of the Book of Mormon is a literal translation, taken from the very last leaf, on the left hand side of the collection or book of plates, which contained the record which has been translated, the language of the whole running the same as all Hebrew writing in general.*” [The asterisk directs the reader to a note that says, “*That is, from right to left.”]35Joseph Smith Jr.

Characters, Text, and Plate Surface

“[The plates] were filled with . . . Egyptian characters. . . . The characters on the unsealed part were small, and beautifully engraved. The whole book exhibited many marks of antiquity in its construction and much skill in the art of engraving.”36Joseph Smith Jr., Orson Pratt

“There were fine engravings on both sides.”37John Whitmer

“We also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship.”38Eight Witnesses

“[T]he characters . . . were cut into the plates with some sharp instrument.”39William Smith

“Upon each side of the leaves of these plates there were fine engravings, which were stained with a black, hard stain, so as to make the letters more legible and easier to be read.”40Orson Pratt

The following statements, though based on transcriptions of the characters engraved on the plates and not on examination or intimate knowledge of the plates themselves, are also of interest. “It [Joseph’s transcription of characters from the plates] consisted of all kinds of singular characters disposed in columns, . . . Greek and Hebrew letters, crosses and flourishes; Roman letters inverted or placed sideways were arranged and placed in perpendicular columns, and the whole ended in a rude delineation of a circle, divided into various compartments, arched with various strange marks, and evidently copied after the Mexican calendar.”41Charles Anthon

“The characters were arranged in columns, like the Chinese mode of writing, . . . Greek, Hebrew and all sorts of letters, more or less distorted, . . . were intermingled with sundry delineations of half moons, stars, and other natural objects, and the whole ended in a rude representation of the Mexican zodiac.”42Charles Anthon

“[Martin Harris] was in the habit of exhibiting to his hearers what he claimed to be a fac simile [sic] copy of the title page of the forthcoming book [Book of Mormon].” One who saw this copy said, “On it were drawn rudely and bunglingly, concentric circles, between, above and below, which were characters, with little resemblance to letters.”43Charles W. Brown

Notes

The descriptive material for this article was compiled by Kirk Henrichsen, of the staff of the Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City, who kindly offered it for use in the Journal.

1. Joseph Smith Jr., “Church History,” Times and Seasons, 1 March 1842 (also known as the Wentworth Letter); “The Testimony of Eight Witnesses,” Book of Mormon; and Orson Pratt, in a pamphlet titled An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records (Edinburgh, Scotland: Ballantyne and Hughes, May 1840), 12–13. The Wentworth Letter, the Prophet Joseph Smith’s sketch of the history and faith of the Latter-day Saints written for the editor of the Chicago Democrat, utilizes much of the same language found in Pratt’s pamphlet. Although Pratt did not see or handle the plates, he learned much about them through his close association with Joseph Smith.

Nowhere in the documentary evidence did the witnesses or other key participants in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon describe the plates as being made of solid or pure gold.

2. David Whitmer interview, Kansas City Journal, 5 June 1881, in David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness, ed. Lyndon W. Cook (Orem, Utah: Grandin, 1993), 60.

3. William Smith (Joseph’s younger brother) interview, The Saints’ Herald, 4 October 1884, 644.

4. Martin Harris interview, Iowa State Register, August 1870, as quoted in Milton V. Backman Jr., Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1986), 226.

5. William Smith, William Smith on Mormonism (Lamoni, Iowa: Herald Steam, 1883), 12.

6. William Smith interview with E. C. Briggs. Originally written by J. W. Peterson for Zions Ensign (Independence, Mo.); reprinted in Deseret Evening News, 20 January 1894, 11.

7. William Smith interview, The Saints’ Herald, 4 October 1884, 644.

8. “Interview with Martin Harris,” Tiffany’s Monthly, May 1859, 169.

9. Ibid., 168.

10. Emma Smith interview, published as “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” The Saints’ Herald, 1 October 1879.

11. I. B. Bell interview with H. S. Salisbury (grandson of Catherine Smith Salisbury), Historical Department Archives, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

12. Joseph Smith Jr., “Church History” (Wentworth Letter), Times and Seasons, 1 March 1842, 707.

13. Martin Harris interview, Tiffany’s Monthly, May 1859, 165.

14. Martin Harris interview, Iowa State Register, August 1870, as quoted in Backman, Eyewitness Accounts, 226.

15. David Whitmer interview, Chicago Tribune, 24 January 1888, in David Whitmer Interviews, ed. Cook, 221.

16. Pratt, An Interesting Account, 13.

17. Martin Harris interview, Tiffany’s Monthly, May 1859, 165.

18. Martin Harris interview, Iowa State Register, August 1870, as quoted in Backman, Eyewitness Accounts, 226.

19. David Whitmer interview, Kansas City Journal, 5 June 1881, in David Whitmer Interviews, ed. Cook, 64.

20. Pratt, An Interesting Account, 13.

21. William Smith, The Saints’ Herald, 4 October 1884, 644.

22. Emma Smith interview, The Saints’ Herald, 1 October 1879.

23. Pratt, An Interesting Account, 13.

24. Martin Harris interview, Tiffany’s Monthly, May 1859, 165.

25. David Whitmer interview, Chicago Tribune, 24 January 1888, in David Whitmer Interviews, ed. Cook, 221. The method by which a portion of the record was sealed is not specified in the documentary evidence.

26. David Whitmer interview, Deseret Evening News, 16 August 1878, in David Whitmer Interviews, ed. Cook, 20–21.

27. Orson Pratt, in Journal of Discourses, 3:347, 13 April 1856. Orson Pratt was not an eyewitness of the plates.

28. Ibid., 19:211–12, 9 December 1877.

29. David Whitmer interview, Edward Stevenson diary, 22–23 December 1877, Historical Department Archives, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Original capitalization and punctuation have been modernized. In Stevenson’s interview, Whitmer recounted his mother’s description of the rings.

30. David Whitmer interview, Kansas City Journal, 5 June 1881, 1.

31. David Whitmer interview, Chicago Tribune, 24 January 1888, in David Whitmer Interviews, ed. Cook, 221.

32. Martin Harris interview, Tiffany’s Monthly, May 1859, 165.

33. Pratt, An Interesting Account, 13.

34. Orson Pratt, in Journal of Discourses, 7:31, 2 January 1859.

35. Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 1:71. One can surmise from Joseph’s statement that when the full stack of plates was positioned on a table, the open rings would be located on the reader’s right side. The sealed portion would probably be located at the bottom on the left-hand side with the unsealed plates on top so that they would open to the right.

36. Joseph Smith Jr., “Church History” (Wentworth Letter); Pratt, An Interesting Account, 13. Pratt’s description is slightly different, adding, for example, the following italicized words: “[The plates] were filled on both sides with . . . Egyptian characters. . . . The characters or letters upon the unsealed part were small, and beautifully engraved.”

37. John Whitmer to Theodore Turley, “in the presence of his anti-Mormon friends.” As reported in Richard L. Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981), 131.

38. “Testimony of the Eight Witnesses.”

39. William Smith interview, The Saints’ Herald, 4 October 1884, 644.

40. Orson Pratt, in Journal of Discourses, 7:31, 2 January 1859.

41. Letter from Charles Anthon to E. D. Howe, 17 February 1834, as printed in B. H. Roberts, ed., A Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Provo, Utah: BYU Press, 1965), 1:100–101. The version of the letter published in Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York: D. Appleton, 1867), 44, contains slight variations.

42. Charles Anthon to Rev. T. W. Coit, 3 April 1841, as printed in B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:101.

43. From Charles W. Brown, “Manchester in the Early Days,” Shortsville Enterprize [sic] 35 (ca. 1883), based on Orsamus Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham’s Purchase, and Morris’ Reserve (Rochester, N.Y.: Alling, 1851), 215.