Learning to Love
Doctrine and Covenants

Those Confusing Book of Mormon Plates By Michael J. Preece

Those Confusing Book of Mormon Plates

“There’s nothing difficult about that question,” I said to myself as I raised my hand. The teacher in our Sunday School class had just asked, “As Joseph Smith bent down to retrieve the Book of Mormon plates from their hiding place near the top of the hill Cumorah on that night in September 1827, specifically what plates did he hold in his hands?” I answered, “Mormon’s abridgement of the Book of Mormon plates.”

Someone near me tried to come to my rescue, “No, I think it was the large plates and the small plates.”

“Not exactly,” said the teacher as she tried to let us both down easy. “I think most of us in the Church find the story of the plates to be confusing.”

And so we do. Test yourself briefly against the following questions:

  • What specifically did Martin Harris lose?
  • What part of our present-day Book of Mormon was translated first?
  • Which part was translated last?
  • Did the prophet Mormon abridge the entire Book of Mormon?
  • What parts did he not abridge?
  • Was Mormon the only prophet who abridged Book of Mormon materials?
  • Who wrote the title page, and where did Joseph Smith find it?
  • How much of the entire record was sealed, and what was contained on the sealed portion?

The Large Plates of Nephi and the Small Plates of Nephi

Actually the story of the plates is well worth reviewing and not really all that complicated. Let us begin.

Shortly after the arrival in the Western Hemisphere of Lehi and his extended family and about ten years after they had left Jerusalem, Lehi’s son Nephi was commanded to make a set of metal plates and engrave onto them an account of their activities from the time they left Jerusalem (1 Nephi 19:1-2). This set of plates was known at the time as the plates of Nephi. The first segment of this record was actually authored by father Lehi himself (doubtless taken from a non-metal journal kept by Lehi) and subsequently has been referred to as the book of Lehi. The book of Lehi was engraved onto the plates of Nephi by Nephi himself.

Almost twenty years later, the Lord commanded Nephi to start a second record or set of plates covering the same period of time—beginning with the departure of Lehi’s family from Jerusalem. The history contained in this second record was to have more of a spiritual emphasis than Nephi’s first record. This second record also was referred to as the plates of Nephi. Keep in mind that this set of plates was made after the death of Lehi, after Nephi had separated from his brothers Laman and Lemuel, and after Nephi had left the “land of their first inheritance” and moved inland to the land of Nephi.

In order to differentiate between the initial secular record of Nephi and this second more spiritual record, the former came to be called the “larger plates” of Nephi (Jacob 3:13) or simply the “large plates of Nephi,” and the latter, the “small plates” of Nephi (Jacob 1:1). “Large” and “small” refer to the number of plates in the record and not to the plates’ dimensions. As the Book of Mormon story unfolded, the large plates of Nephi eventually became an extensive, indeed a “large” set or collection of plates. Brigham Young described this collection as being a library of plates—”many wagon loads” (JD, 19:38). The small plates remained just that, a “small” single set of plates.

As we read the book of First Nephi, we tend to regard it as a daily journal, but we should keep in mind that the writings by Nephi on the small plates of Nephi were begun in retrospect, some thirty years after the events actually happened.

Both the small plates of Nephi and the large plates of Nephi were passed along after Nephi’s death. The small plates were passed from prophet to prophet, and important spiritual happenings were entered. The large plates were passed down from king to king, and an ongoing secular history was kept.

In the year 210 B.C. there occurred a major migration of Nephites from the land of Nephi to the land of Zarahemla. This migration was led by the Nephite king Mosiah. Presumably Mosiah took with him the large plates of Nephi. He was the secular king of the Nephites before this migration took place and was thus entitled to have the large plates of Nephi in his possession. The prophet Amaleki went along on this migration and had with him the small plates of Nephi.

In the year 130 B.C. Amaleki made his final entry onto the small plates, and they were subsequently retired because they were “full” (Omni 1:30). In that same year, Amaleki delivered the small plates of Nephi to King Benjamin, Mosiah’s son and successor to the throne. Benjamin already possessed the large plates of Nephi, having received them from his father Mosiah. Benjamin thus came to possess both the large and small plates of Nephi. The two records remained together throughout the rest of the Book of Mormon story. No further entries could be made onto the small plates of Nephi, but the record keeping continued on the other, ever-expanding collection of plates—the large plates of Nephi. After 130 BC the record on the large plates of Nephi served a dual purpose, containing items of both secular and spiritual significance.

Benjamin passed both sets of plates on to his son, also named Mosiah. They were next placed under the care of Alma the younger, the high priest of the people. He was also the first chief judge of the Nephites. Subsequently they remained in the hands of the Nephite spiritual leader—usually the high priest or prophet. Each keeper of the plates in turn made his own entry onto the large plates of Nephi.

Eventually all of the plates, including the collection referred to as the large plates of Nephi and the small plates of Nephi, came into the hands of the twenty-four year old prophet Mormon in AD 335. Initially, Mormon was instructed to write the record of his own people onto the large plates of Nephi (Mormon 1:2-4). Later, probably about AD 380, Mormon took the entire collection of the large plates of Nephi and wrote an abridgement of that record beginning with the book of Lehi, the initial “book” on the large plates and ending with an abridgment of his own writings (Mormon 1-5). He recorded his abridgement onto a separate set of plates which he had made with his own hands (3 Nephi 5:11). We refer to this latter set as the plates of Mormon.

It is clear that some of the materials which Mormon included on the plates of Mormon were quoted directly from the large plates of Nephi rather than being abridged. Some of these include the Isaiah materials taken from the plates of brass, King Benjamin’s speech (Mosiah 2-5), the epistles of Helaman, Pahoran, and Moroni (Alma 56-58, 60-61), and the account of Christ’s visit to the Nephites in Bountiful (3 Nephi 11­28).

As mentioned, Mormon’s account of his own history comprises Mormon chapters 1 through 5. It seems clear that Mormon originally wrote this account of his own history onto the large plates of Nephi and then later abridged that record and wrote a shorter version onto the plates of Mormon (see Mormon 1:4; 2:18). Mormon 6 and 7 which describe the fateful battle at Cumorah, were written by Mormon directly onto the plates of Mormon after the large plates of Nephi were buried (Mormon 6:6), and are therefore an unabridged account.

Mormon also wrote an editorial comment we have come to call the Words of Mormon. In this comment, he tells of finding, among the collection of plates in his possession, the small plates of Nephi. He also tells of being inspired to keep these small plates together with his abridgement, the plates of Mormon. His editorial comments, the Words of Mormon, were apparently originally entered onto the end of the small plates of Nephi (which were obviously not entirely “full,” after all).

Mormon delivered these two sets of plates, the plates of Mormon and the small plates of Nephi, to his son Moroni. Moroni engraved onto the plates of Mormon some of his own writings, Mormon 8-9. He then entered onto them the book of Ether, which is Moroni’s abridgement of the twenty-four gold plates found in the land Desolation by Nephites about 120 B.C. which told the story of the great Jaredite nation. Moroni probably re-translated the twenty-four Jaredite plates, though it is possible that he might have simply abridged king Mosiah’s translation of those same plates. Moroni concluded this set of plates we call the plates of Mormon with more of his own writings, the book of Moroni. Finally he engraved onto the last leaf of the plates of Mormon the words which have become the title page for the Book of Mormon.

The Set of Plates Delivered by Moroni to the Prophet Joseph Smith

On September 22, 1827, Moroni delivered to Joseph Smith a single set of plates which we have come to refer to as the “Book of Mormon plates.” Let us analyze exactly what those plates included. Simply stated they included the plates of Mormon and the unabridged small plates of Nephi. Presumably the small plates of Nephi did not exist as a separately bound set, rather they were appended to and bound at the back of the plates of Mormon. Apparently the individual plates of the set of plates we call the small plates of Nephi were identical in size to the individual plates of the set we call the plates of Mormon.

The plates of Mormon, in summary, contained:

  1. Mormon’s abridgment of the large plates of Nephi (The book of Lehi through 3 Nephi);

  2. The writings of the prophet Mormon, part of which is apparently an abridgment of his more extensive writings taken from the large plates of Nephi (Mormon 1-5) and part of which is his unabridged writings (Mormon 6-7);

  3. Moroni’s abridgment of the record of the Jaredites (book of Ether);

  4. The writings of Moroni (Mormon 8-9 and the book of Moroni);

  5. The title page of the Book of Mormon, written by Moroni directly onto the plates of Mormon; and

  6. A sealed portion that was not translated by Joseph Smith.

As Moroni abridged the record of the Jaredites, he wrote in some detail the visions and teachings of the brother of Jared. Moroni said of the content of this material: “There never were greater things made manifest than those which were made manifest unto the brother of Jared. . . . And he commanded me that I should seal them up” (Ether 4:4-5). It is Moroni’s account of these visions and teachings that comprise the sealed portion of the plates of Mormon. We do not know how large a portion of the plates was sealed. Orson Pratt stated that two-thirds of the plates were sealed. This figure has been widely accepted because of the popularity of Elder Pratt’s writings (JD, 3:347). David Whitmer, one of the three special witnesses who actually saw the plates is reported to have said that “about the half of the book was sealed” (P. Wilhelm Poulsen, Deseret Evening News [16 August 1878] 11:2). On another occasion Whitmer indicated, “one-third appeared to be loose,” and he said the sealed portion appeared “as solid to my view as wood.” (Cook, Lyndon W., ed. David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness, [Orem, Utah: Grandin Book, 1991], 20-21, 75). Elder George Q. Cannon wrote that one-third of the plates were sealed (“The Latter-day Prophet: History of Joseph Smith,” Juvenile Instructor, 1900). Joseph Smith simply said, “The volume was something near six inches in thickness, a part of which was sealed” (HC, 4:537). Speculations, then, have ranged from one-third to two-thirds. Whatever the portion, Moroni’s sealed writings were extensive and supremely important. Won’t it be exciting to one day be able to read this material? We should pray that the Lord will one day favor us with that opportunity!

The Physical Characteristics of the 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 plates. We will summarize that picture here.

The individual pages had “the appearance of gold” (Joseph Smith, Eight Witnesses). David Whitmer described them as “golden plates.” William Smith described them as “a mixture of gold and copper.”

The individual plates were described as being “of the thickness of plates of tin” (Martin Harris); “thin leaves of gold” (Martin Harris); “about as thick as parchment” (David Whitmer); “not quite as thick as common tin” (Orson Pratt); and “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” (Emma Smith). It should be noted that Orson Pratt never saw the plates, but owing to his intimacy with the Prophet and the witnesses, his word has great weight.

The dimensions of a single plate was described as being six inches wide and eight inches long by Joseph Smith, and seven inches wide and eight inches long by Martin Harris, David Whitmer, and Orson Pratt.

The thickness of the volume was described as being six inches by Orson Pratt and Joseph Smith and four inches by Martin Harris.

William Smith, a brother of the Prophet Joseph, in an interview with J. W. Peterson, later recalled an experience with the plates that occurred under wholly non-visionary circumstances: “I handled them and hefted them while [they were] wrapped in a tow frock and judged them to have weighed about sixty pounds. I could tell they were plates of some kind, and that they were fastened together by rings running through the back” (Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 24). Martin Harris, not yet invited to be one of the Three Witnesses, once lifted the box in which he had been told that the plates were concealed, to see what he could determine. He knew from the weight of the box that it had to contain something as dense and heavy as either gold or lead, he later recalled, “and I knew that Joseph had not credit enough to buy so much lead” (Cited in Ibid., 107-08).

David Whitmer, Martin Harris, and Orson Pratt all described the binding of the set of plates to consist of three rings. David Whitmer added that the rings were not round but shaped like a capital “D” with the straight edge of the D passing through the plates. Martin Harris said that the rings were made of silver.

According to Joseph Smith the characters on the plates were read from right to left.

Other pertinent statements that bear upon the physical characteristics of the plates include the following: “[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” (Joseph Smith, Orson Pratt). “There were fine engravings on both sides” (John Whitmer). “We also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship” (Eight Witnesses). “The characters . . . were cut into the plates with some sharp instrument” (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” (Orson Pratt).

Of what material were the Book of Mormon plates composed? Were they pure gold, or were they made from an alloy that looked like gold? A most helpful contributor to this question was Reed H. Putnam of Evanston, Wyoming, a blacksmith and metallurgist (“Were the Plates of Mormon of Tumbaga?” Improvement Era, September 1966, 788-89, 828-31). Working first from the general dimensions of the set of plates as reported by eyewitnesses, he calculated that a block of pure gold of that size would have weighed a little over 200 pounds. Most witnesses, however, put the weight of the set at about 60 pounds. The discrepancy can be partly accounted for by the fact that the leaves must have been handcrafted, presumably by hammering, and irregularities in flatness would have left air space between the plates. This led Putnam to surmise that the entire set of plates would have weighed probably less than 50 percent of the weight of a solid block of the metal.

Because the weight of a metal depends on its purity, we must also consider whether the plates were of pure gold. The Nephites were aware of purity distinctions and alloys. We know, for example, that the “brass” plates were of an alloy, quite surely bronze, a copper-tin mixture (see John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, 283-84), and that the plates of Ether were specifically distinguished as being of “pure” gold (Mosiah 8:9). Furthermore, Nephi taught his associate “to work in all manner of” metals and “precious ores” (2 Nephi 5:15). Yet nowhere does the text say that the Nephite plates were of pure gold.

Joseph Smith’s brother William specifically said that the material of the plates was “a mixture of gold and copper” (William Smith interview, The Saints’ Herald, 4 October 1884, 644). Someone must have provided an objective basis for that statement, for the natural assumption would have been that the plates were pure gold. The cautious statements by other witnesses, including Joseph Smith himself, who spoke of the plates as having “the appearance of gold,” suggest that the metal may have been an alloy (Joseph Smith, Jr., “Church History,” Times and Seasons, 1 March 1842).

Brother Putnam observed that the only two colored metals from antiquity were gold and copper. An alloy of those two elements was called “tumbaga” by the Spaniards and was in common use in ancient tropical America for manufacturing precious objects. Putnam put forward the reasonable hypothesis that metal plates made in Mormon’s day were of that material. The earliest Mesoamerican archaeological specimen of tumbaga, made from a hammered metal sheet, dates to the same century, the fifth century AD, when Moroni hid up the plates he had in his possession (David M. Pendergast, “Tumbaga Object from the Early Classic Period,” Science 168, 3 April 1970, 117). If Mormon’s Book of Mormon plates were made of tumbaga, their weight would have been much less than had they been made of pure gold. Putnam made that point in mathematical detail and concluded that the total weight of the plates in Joseph Smith’s charge would have been near the 60-pound figure reported by several witnesses.

It is of interest that tumbaga was commonly gilded by applying citric acid to the surface. The resulting chemical reaction eliminated copper atoms from the outer .0006 inch of the surface, leaving a microscopic layer of 23-carat gold that made the object look like it was wholly gold. Plates having “the appearance of gold,” then, are exactly what we would expect if they were made of tumbaga.

The Sequence of Translation of the Book of Mormon

When Joseph Smith and Martin Harris began translating in April 1828, they started at the beginning of the plates of Mormon—beginning with the book of Lehi. By June 1828 they had written 116 pages of manuscript and had translated from the beginning of the record to the reign of King Benjamin. Martin Harris borrowed and lost the manuscript, and consequently the plates and the Urim and Thummim were taken away from Joseph. They were returned to Joseph on September 22, 1828.

In April 1829 Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery recommenced the translation starting with the remainder of the plates of Mormon. They began where Joseph and Martin Harris had left off in June 1828—at the beginning of the book of Mosiah. By June 1829 they had completed the translation of the plates of Mormon. Joseph then petitioned the Lord as to what he should translate next. Should he re-translate the first part of the plates of Mormon, or should he translate instead the small plates of Nephi which covered the same time period? The Lord’s answer was given in D&C 10—he should replace the lost portion with a translation of the small plates of Nephi.

Joseph found Mormon’s editorial comment, the Words of Mormon, at the end of the small plates of Nephi. He inserted it between the book of Omni and the book of Mosiah. Thus it is located between that part of the book translated from the small plates of Nephi and the portion translated from the plates of Mormon. Hence, the first part of our present Book of Mormon to be translated was the book of Mosiah, and the last part translated was the book of Omni and the Words of Mormon.

When Joseph completed the translation of the Book of Mormon, he returned all the plates to Moroni (JS-H 1:60).

- Michael J. Preece