The Book of Mormon Plates
Janne M. Sjodahl
As far as I know, we have no data from which to calculate, with any degree of accuracy, the number of plates contained in the original volume of the Book of Mormon, or their weight. And yet, such questions have been discussed seriously by unfriendly critics of the Book of Mormon. The Prophet Joseph does not enlighten us on that point, any more than Moses does on the size and weight of the stone tablets on which the law was engraved. The particulars furnished by the eye witnesses were given in answer to questions pressed upon them, in the course of what amounted almost to cross-examination, many years after they had seen the plates, and their figures could not be anything but vague estimates, in the absence of new revelations on the subject.
Suppose, for the sake of illustration, that two or more men should be asked the dimensions of a book they claim to have seen, say Webster's Dictionary, and that the question was put to them twenty years after they had actually had it before them; what would the result be? Each would give his own impression, unless, indeed, there had been collusion between them.
David Whitmer, in an interview in the Kansas City Journal, not very long before his death, said of the plates:
They appeared to be of gold, about six by nine inches in size, about as thick as parchment, a great many in number, and bound together like the leaves of a book by massive rings passed through the back edges.1
Martin Harris, according to Myth of the Manuscript Found,2 estimated the plates at eight inches by seven inches, and that the volume had a thickness of about four inches, each plate being about as thick as thick tin.
Orson Pratt had never seen the plates, but owing to his intimacy with the Prophet and the witnesses, his word has great weight. He tells us that the plates were eight by seven inches, and that the volume was about six inches, each plate being about as thick as common tin. Orson Pratt also tells us that two-thirds of the volume was sealed.
The question therefore is: Could one-third of a volume of metal leaves, eight by seven inches, by four (according to Martin Harris), or eight by seven by six (Orson Pratt), contain enough plates, each as thick as tin, to yield the necessary space for the entire text of the Book of Mormon?
We have been told that this was utterly impossible.
Now look at the accompanying illustration [see the illustration on p. 22, which has been reproduced at actual size]. On a space seven by eight inches, my friend, Brother Henry Miller, a Hebrew by birth, has written with pen and ink fourteen pages of the Book of Mormon text, translated into Hebrew, using the square letters in which the Hebrew Bibles now are printed. That is to say, the entire Book of Mormon,3 fourteen pages of the American text to each page of Hebrew, could be written on 40 3/7 pages—21 plates in all.
Brother Miller positively states that, even if the compilers of the Book of Mormon used much larger characters than he has used in this copy, they could have engraved the entire text on 48 plates.
This may sound incredible to some, but in the first place, the Hebrews anciently did not write the vowels, as we do. They wrote only the consonants and they did not leave a blank space between words. That was an immense saving of space. In the second place, they did not need as many small words to complete a sentence as we do. And frequently the auxiliary words consisted of only one letter, which was attached to the main word, either as a prefix or suffix. Finally, they used many abbreviations and that was another great saving of space.
Now, if we allow fifty plates to an inch, and four inches for the thickness of the volume, we find that one-third which was translated consisted of 66 or 67 plates. But as only 48 were actually needed, there is ample enough margin to allow for large, readable characters, and the necessary thickness of each plate.
It is just as difficult to estimate the weight of the plates as their number. Thirty-five twenty-dollar gold pieces would cover a surface 8 by 7 inches. To make a column four inches high, 48 would be needed. That is to say, thirty-five times forty-eight twenty-dollar gold pieces—1,680 in all—would make up the dimensions of the plates, 8 by 7 by 4 inches. But each of these weighs, as I am informed, 21 1/2 pennyweights. That would make a total, if my figures are correct, of 123 pounds avoirdupois.
But from this weight liberal deductions must be made. The plates did not fit as closely together as gold coins stacked up in columns. They were, in all probability, hammered and not cast, and there would be quite a space between each. Further, they were not solid gold but an alloy. Nephi's plates were made of "ore," and Moroni mentions "ore" as the material of which his plates were made (1 Nephi 19:1; Mormon 8:5). The ore certainly was considerably lighter in weight than the refined gold would have been. Then again, some allowance must be made for the metal cut away from every plate by the engraver. Everything considered, the entire volume could not have weighed a hundred pounds even if we accept the dimensions given as the actual measurements. But they were not. They were only approximations.
The question may also be approached from a different angle. If the entire text was written on 48 plates, then the book contained only 144 leaves, since two-thirds were sealed up. But if 200 leaves weighed 123 pounds, 144 leaves weighed a fraction over 88 pounds. When the necessary deductions are made from their weight, something like anywhere from 50 to 75 pounds remain, and that, I believe, comes nearer the truth than any estimate made by unfriendly critics. The plates were not heavier than that the Prophet, who was an unusually strong man, physically, as well as intellectually, could lift them and handle them.4 This is the testimony of eye witnesses. And that testimony stands.
But, is it certain that the Prophet Joseph had charge of the part of the plates that was sealed up? That may be the general impression, but is it correct? Orson Pratt5 says:
You recollect that when the Book of Mormon was translated from the plates, about two-thirds were sealed up, and Joseph was commanded not to break the seal; that part of the record was hid up.
If the words which I have italicized mean that the sealed part of the volume was hidden before the translation of the other part was even begun, then the Prophet did not have the sealed part in his keeping, and the objection based on the weight of the volume rests on nothing.
This article originally appeared in the April 1923 issue of the Improvement Era. The following notes are as they appeared in the original article, with the exception that publication data has been added in brackets.
1. This is quoted from [Gregg Thomas,] The Prophet of Palmyra [New York: J. B. Alden, 1890] and may or may not be authentic.
2. An excellent little book by George Reynolds [Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1883].
3. The American edition, published at Nauvoo, 1842, has 566 pages, 5 3/4 by 3 7/8 inches, including the margins.
4. See History of the Prophet Joseph, by his mother, Lucy Smith, pp. 85 and 105. The account related must have been given by the Prophet himself to his mother. [The pages cited correspond to the 1902 edition of this book, revised by George A. Smith and Elias Smith and published by the Improvement Era.]
5. Journal of Discourses, Vol. 3, p. 347.