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.
“the appearance of gold”1 —Joseph Smith Jr., Eight Witnesses, Orson Pratt
“golden plates”2 —David Whitmer
“a mixture of gold and copper”3 —William Smith
“weighing altogether from forty to sixty lbs.”4 —Martin Harris
“I was permitted to lift them. . . . They weighed about sixty pounds according to the best of my judgement.”5 —William Smith
“I . . . judged them to have weighed about sixty pounds.”6 —William Smith
“They were much heavier than a stone, and very much heavier than wood. . . . As near as I could tell, about sixty pounds.”7 —William Smith
“I hefted the plates, and I knew from the heft that they were lead or gold.”8 —Martin 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.”9 —Martin Harris
“I moved them from place to place on the table, as it was necessary in doing my work.”10 —Emma 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.”11 —H. S. Salisbury, paraphrasing Catherine Smith Salisbury
Individual Plate Dimensions
“six inches wide by eight inches long”12 —Joseph Smith Jr.
“seven inches wide by eight inches in length”13 —Martin Harris
“seven by eight inches”14 —Martin Harris
“about eight inches long, seven inches wide”15 —David Whitmer
“Each plate was not far from seven by eight inches in width and length.”16 —Orson Pratt
Thickness of Each Plate
“of the thickness of plates of tin”17 —Martin Harris
“thin leaves of gold”18 —Martin Harris
“about as thick as parchment”19 —David Whitmer
“not quite as thick as common tin”20 —Orson Pratt
“[We] could raise the leaves this way (raising a few leaves of the Bible before him).”21 —William 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.”22 —Emma Smith
“something near six inches in thickness, a part of which was sealed”23 —Orson Pratt
“[W]hen piled one above the other, they were altogether about four inches thick.”24 —Martin Harris
Sealed and Unsealed Portions
“A large portion of the leaves were so securely bound together that it was impossible to separate them.”25 —David Whitmer
“What there was sealed appeared as solid to my view as wood. About the half of the book was sealed.”26 —David 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.”27 —Orson 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.”28 —Orson 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].”29 —David Whitmer
“bound together like the leaves of a book by massive rings passing through the back edges”30 —David Whitmer
“They were bound together in the shape of a book by three gold rings.”31 —David Whitmer
“put together on the back by three silver rings, so that they would open like a book”32 —Martin Harris
“bound together in a volume, as the leaves of a book, and fastened at one edge with three rings running through the whole”33 —Orson 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.”34 —Orson Pratt
“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.”]35 —Joseph 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.”36 —Joseph Smith Jr., Orson Pratt
“There were fine engravings on both sides.”37 —John Whitmer
“We also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship.”38 —Eight Witnesses
“[T]he characters . . . were cut into the plates with some sharp instrument.”39 —William 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.”40 —Orson 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.”41 —Charles 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.”42 —Charles 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.”43 —Charles W. Brown
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.