After learning about Joseph Smith and how he was directed by an angel to find golden plates on which was written an ancient book of scripture, many wonder where those golden plates are now.
The short answer is that after Joseph Smith finished his translation of the golden plates, which was witnessed by more than a dozen people, the plates were returned to the Angel Moroni, who had given the plates to Joseph Smith in the first place.
Joseph Smith History 1:60 states “When, according to arrangements, the messenger called for them, I delivered them up to him; and he has them in his charge until this day, being the second day of May, one thousand eight hundred and thirty-eight.”
The Full Story of Joseph Smith and the Golden Plates
Getting the Plates from Moroni
In 1823, Joseph Smith was praying in his room when Moroni appeared. Among other things, Moroni told Joseph about the existence of a historical record that was engraved on plates of gold.Moroni was a prophet from the American Continent around 400 C.E. and responsible for protecting the finished plates in his day. After multiple visits that night, Moroni appeared again to Joseph the next day and explained where he could find the plates buried in the ground on a hill near Joseph’s home in Palmyra, New York.
Joseph almost immediately went to the place that had been described. When he got there, he said he recognized the burial spot almost at once (see Joseph Smith—History 1:50). Joseph removed a large stone that formed the top of a box created by laying stones in some kind of cement. As he reached to take the plates out of the box he was forbidden. Moroni appeared once again and explained that would not be allowed to have the plates “until he had learned to keep the commandments of God—not only till he was willing but able to do it.”[i]
Joseph spent the next four years preparing to receive the plates. There were lessons as well as experiences that prepared Joseph to receive the plates. Some of those important experiences were the death of his oldest brother Alvin, his employment with Josiah Stowell digging for treasure, and meeting and marrying Emma Hale.
In addition to these important events in his life, Joseph also returned to the Hill Cumorah every year on the anniversary of his first visit. There is very little known about these specific visits to the hill. These trips are the subject of a lot of Mormon-speculation and sensationalizing. Unfortunately, some members of our Church have taken it upon themselves to give details where none truly exist. Joseph Smith’s mother did say:
From this time forth, Joseph continued to receive instructions from the Lord, and we continued to get the children together every evening for the purpose of listening while he gave us a relation of the same…. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of traveling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among them.[ii]
Joseph and Emma hitched their horse early in the morning of September 22, 1827, in preparation for receiving the plates. Emma waited for Joseph at the base of the hill as he went for his final interview with Moroni. Joseph returned with the plates. He hid them in a log near his home before he and Emma returned. From this time forward there were several attempts by those in the area to take the plates from Joseph. Joseph was constantly moving the plates from one hiding place to another to keep them from being stolen.
Translation of the Plates
Until recently, most Latter-day Saints imagined Joseph Smith leaning over the gold plates studying each line as he translated the Book of Mormon. This misunderstanding is probably the result of LDS artists portraying that kind of process. It is a reasonable assumption. I mean, why else would you give Joseph Smith the plates if he is not going to use them in the translation process.
From most descriptions that I have read, Joseph often left the plates on the table next to him as he translated, but they were typically covered by some cloth or other material. Joseph Smith utilized two stones that he found with the gold plates that he later called the Urim and Thummim. He also used at least one of the two seer stones that he owned. When he was translating, Joseph would simply read out loud words that appeared on the stones. Some have made a big deal about Joseph placing the stones in a hat, but he was just blocking out extra light to make seeing the words on the stones easier.
Losing the Plates
At one point in the translation process, Joseph Smith gave 116 pages of translated manuscript to Martin Harris. Harris lost the manuscript and Joseph was seriously rebuked by Moroni. As part of his punishment, Joseph had to give the plates to Moroni, and he lost the ability to translate. While they were not directly involved in the translation process, this suggests that there was at least a symbolic connection between having the plates and the power to translate.
When Joseph moved to Fayette, New York, Moroni returned the plates and Joseph began the process again. When Joseph finished the translation, Moroni came to take the plates from Joseph. Later, Moroni made the plates available for several witnesses who would later share what they saw with the world. Since that time, the plates have remained wherever Moroni left them.
Physical Dimensions of the Plates
Why there are no precise measurements given of the plates, there are some good estimates based on the first-hand accounts of those that saw or felt or lifted the plates at one point or another. For example, Martin Harris said that the plates weighed between 40 and 60 lbs.[iii] Others described the plates as being something like 6 or 7 inches by 8 inches and between 4 and 6 inches tall. Each individual plate being about as thick as parchment or a piece of “common tin.”[iv] One portion of the plates was sealed with some kind of band that kept that part of the plates from being accessed.
Witnesses of the Plates
The question of the reality of the plates is really important to the faith of Mormons and how we see the Book of Mormon. Although the plates did not seem to be used for the translation of the Book of Mormon, the number of people that saw, felt, hefted, or otherwise experienced the plates provide a strong reason for Latter-day Saints faith.
Eleven Official Witnesses
Joseph Smith is not the only one to see and handle the plates. At the beginning of the Book of Mormon, you find the testimony of the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses. Moroni showed the three witnesses, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris, the plates and told them that the translation of the Book of Mormon was correct. Just a couple days later, Joseph Smith showed the plates to eight more men: Joseph Smith, Sr., Hyrum Smith, Samuel Smith, Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer, John Whitmer, and Hiram Page. These eleven individuals were placed under an official obligation to share with others what they had seen. Although several of them eventually left the Church and others were kicked out, none of them to my knowledge ever recanted what they said about seeing the plates.
Some critics have made a big deal about the witnesses believing in “second sight,” or, in other words, seeing the plates in a vision. The Eight Witnesses were allowed to handle the plates for themselves. If that part was also a visionary experience, which it may have been, then there are several other witnesses that experienced the plates without the spiritual medium being involved.
Other Witnesses of the Plates
Besides these official witnesses, there were many others. Some of them were faithful members of the Church while others did not like Joseph Smith or members of his church. This is not a complete list of these witnesses but will give a sufficient idea of the kinds of experiences people had with the plates during the translation process.
One day, on her way to milk the cows, an old man came to her and said, “You have been very faithful and diligent in your labors, but you are tired because of the increase of your toil; it is proper therefore that you should receive a witness that your faith may be strengthened.” The man then showed her the plates. Most people believe that the old man in the experience was Moroni being that he was the one that showed the plates to the three witnesses and seems to be the guardian of the gold plates throughout these experiences.
Emma said, “The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen tablecloth, which I had given him to fold them in. I once felt of the plates as they thus lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book.”[v]
Isaac was Joseph Smith’s father-in-law and altogether disapproved of Joseph’s translation and talk of angels and the such. Isaac Hale said, “I was allowed to feel the weight of the box, and they gave me to understand, that the book of plates was then in the box — into which, however, I was not allowed to look.” While he never saw the plates, he was able to feel the weight of the book in the box and described it shifting in the box. Later, Isaac Hale walked in on Joseph translating and saw “On the table-top in front of Joseph sat some square object concealed by a cloth.”[vi]
Joseph Smith’s Enemies—
The number of people trying to take the plates from Joseph Smith in his day serves as a type of alternative witness to their existence. It seems clear that people in Palmyra, New York, and Harmony, Pennsylvania were convinced that Joseph had some kind of gold plates. While these people constantly shed some doubt on Joseph’s motives or where he got the plates or what was actually on the plates, it seems sufficiently obvious that they believed he had something. If it wasn’t the plates, then what was it? There has been no consistent answer to this question.
Martin Harris, a colleague of Joseph Smith, took a series of characters that were copied from the plates to some of the most educated individuals he could find in the area of ancient languages. Harris visited Samuel Mitchell and Charles Anthon. Mitchell was the leading naturalist in the country at the time and Anthon was an up-and-coming linguist at Columbia University. Mitchell was especially interested in the characters as the timing of Harris’ visit happened around the same time that Mitchell was studying the history of Native Americans and had spent time studying hieroglyphic writing. Martin Harris returned from his trip more convinced than ever before that the plates and the writings were legitimate.
Why Were the Gold Plates Necessary
Some people have asked why would God require ancient people to go through the process of making metal plates and then engraving a spiritual record on those plates if the translator would not even use the plates. I am not sure I know the answer to that question, but I have spent some time considering it and here are some of the ideas I have had:
A Connection to Nephite Authors
Throughout the Book of Mormon, the metal records were passed from spiritual leader to spiritual leader. Joseph Smith receiving the plates represented a final “changing of the guard” so to speak. Possessing the plates linked Joseph in a material way to the prophets that had written them almost two thousand years earlier.
Symbolic of the Lord’s Presence
Some LDS writers see a connection to the pillar of fire and cloudy covering the Israelites enjoyed while wandering in the wilderness. The fire and the cloud were symbolic to show the people of God that Jehovah was in their midst although they never saw his physical presence. In a similar way, the plates were always present during the translation process but were “veiled” with a linen cloth of sorts. Emma reported that they “often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen table cloth.”[vii]
Physical Representation of God’s Power to Translate
When Martin Harris lost the translated manuscript (see above), Moroni took the plates from Joseph as a physical reminder that he had lost the power to translate. This is interesting because Joseph was not really using the plates to translate the record anyway. Why didn’t the angel take the seer stones? When he had sufficiently repented, Moroni returned the plates and the ability to translate returned as well. It almost seems like the plates represented the power and without the plates, the power was lost as well.
[i] See Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith, ed. Preston Nibley (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958), p. 81.
[ii] Smith, History of Joseph Smith, pp. 82-83.
[iii] Iowa State Register, Aug. 1870, in Milton V. Backman Jr., Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration (1983), 226.
[iv] Orson Pratt, An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records [pamphlet, 1840], 12–13. Orson Pratt was not an eyewitness of the plates but gathered eyewitness accounts.
[v] “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald, 1 Oct. 1879, p. 290; spelling modernized.
[vi] Susquehanna Register, 1 May 1834.
[vii] “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” The Saint’s Herald 26, no. 19 (October 1, 1879): 290. For historical accounts that agree with Emma’s description, see Welch, “The Miraculous Timing of the Translation,” 145, 153, 166, 184, primary documents nos. 43, 59, 86, 110, 111.