Adjusting the Chemistry of the Gold Plates

By June 25, 2008

Last year, Ronan posted a bit called “Making Adjustments” at By Common Consent (here, with useful comments all the way to the end) that hashed out some of the issues with and hermeneutical strategies for bringing together revealed and scholarly understandings. (See also: Joel’s post from Friday.) The Gold Plates’ putative chemical composition provides an example of revealed-subsequently canonized-language “adjusting.” [1] Joseph Smith-History 1:34, quotes Moroni, an angel, as saying “there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent.” Does “gold” mean “100% pure, elemental gold,” a gold-based alloy, or a color? [2] How much could such plates plausibly weigh?

Joseph Smith used the word “gold” from very early, but I’ll begin with the Eight Witnesses, who attested only “the appearance of gold.” The Book of Mormon itself doesn’t require that either Nephi’s Small Plates or Mormon’s plates be pure gold, or, for that matter, gold at all. It’s also vague about how, when, and to where the plates were moved, but seems to imply that Moroni could carry them by himself. Smith described transporting and hiding the plates in various circumstances, including an at least two-mile foot chase. Reports (of varying reliability) indicate fifteen other individuals hefting the plates, including five women. [3]

The earliest two weight estimates—“something more than 20 lbs” (1831) and “[Smith]…put it [the Gold Plates] under his arm and run all the way home, a distance of about two miles. He said he should think it would weigh sixty pounds, and was sure it would weigh forty” (1833)—come from antagonistic sources, neither of which complain about the weight. [4] La Roy Sunderland did complain in 1838: “…admitting there were as many plates as there are pages in the book; and that each plate weighed not less than one pound each; these plates must have weighed not less than five hundred and fifty pounds.” A few months later, Parley Pratt rejoindered that “there is only half as many leaves in a book as there are pages, for one leaf makes two pages…. Besides, a thin gold plate, about 7 by 8 inches, and about the thickness of tin, would not weigh a pound: and you should know that the ?Egyptian’ is a much shorter language than the English. [5]

Joseph Smith – History 1, cited above, was written in 1839 under Smith’s close supervision. The following year, Orson Pratt published “An Interesting Account…,” whose description of the plates became a portion of the 1842 Wentworth Letter after Smith tweaked the wording and reduced the dimensions from “not far from seven” x8″x6″ to 6″x8″x6″—though he left in “appearance of gold.” [6] Smith’s editing and subsequent use make this statement the non-canonical gold standard (Ha!) of his considered opinion about the physical Plates. In 1853, Martin Harris reported a stack height of “about four inches” and then, in 1857, John Hyde brought the chemistry and the size estimates together, using 7″x8″x6″ dimensions, data about a box of plate tin, and a series of ratios to estimate 220 pounds for the Gold Plates. Since the plates “were not so compactly pressed as boxed tin,” he reduced the estimate to “nearly 200 lbs.” In contrast to Sunderland, for whom the plates, as described, were too small, Hyde’s objection was that they were too heavy to carry while beating off “two ruffians,” and running two miles; “Statements must be probable, and, therefore, these ought to be rejected.” The 10% weight reduction Hyde allows for stacking inefficiency amounts to about 8% of the stack height. [7]

Over the subsequent few decades, the original observers made various statements, most of which matched earlier valuations and interspersed “gold” and “appearance of gold” language. In 1880 JS-H 1 was canonized and in 1884 William Smith became the first to explicitly suggest an alloy: “a mixture of gold and copper.” [8] Martin T. Lamb joined the fray in 1887 but, unlike Hyde, focused on information density: “there were only plates enough to furnish from one-third to one-eighth of the contents of the Book of Mormon.” [9] He asserted the “well-known fact” that Egyptian characters “occupy a great deal of space,” which—together with Harris’ 4″ stack with 2/3 sealed, 50 plates per inch, and a one-to-one page/plate correspondence—yielded 200 total plates with 67 available for translation, which fell far short of the 563 pages in the Book of Mormon. Lamb acknowledged Orson Pratt’s objections—6″ versus 4″ stack, double-sided plates, and space-efficient Egyptian—but rejected them out of hand.

Moving to 1908: one B.F. Cummings responded in the Liahona: The Elders’ Journal to a piece in the Christian Standard. [10] He began with a swipe: “This argument is old and has been revamped we don’t know how many times. Few of those who use it are honest enough to credit it to the first man who published it, Hyde.” He then parries the issue of God’s intervention:

Stale, flat and dishonest as it is, this argument bears as close a resemblance to a scientific objection to the Book of Mormon as the present writer remembers ever to have seen. ¶ And as a scientific objection let us examine it. The reader will please remember that we are now in the domain of physical science, and are dealing with its demonstrated truths and laws, with which our opinions and conclusions must square or be cast aside. While we believe God to be a God of miracles we are to say nothing about them.

Cummings’ emphasized inefficient stacking, estimating that each plate occupied two to four times its thickness. He noted that engraving removed some metal and concluded that the plates weighed not more than 65 pounds and plausibly less than 50. Chemistry anchored his argument: “The plates…were very thin…and being of pure gold were easily wrinkled and indented.” So, while Hyde allowed an 8% inefficiency, Cummings posited 100 to 200%.

Janne M. Sjödahl responded to Lamb in 1927. [11] With Mormon 9:32-33 establishing Hebrew as an upper epigraphic limit, Sjödahl calculated the surface area required for Hebrew and Phoenician Books of Mormon, including the 116 lost manuscript pages, and thence estimated 45 plates—which fit easily under Lamb’s 67-plate limit. On the weight, Sjödahl articulated a composite explanation of concise text, copper-alloyed gold, and inefficient stacking due partially to hammered rather than cast plates and to engraving. Following Lamb’s 4″ stack and 50 plates per inch, Sjödahl predicted a raw weight of 123 pounds from which the inefficiencies would be subtracted, concluding that “the volume must have weighed considerably less than a hundred pounds.” Finally, he reversed the information density problem: since he estimated 45 plates for the translated third, he estimated 135 plates for the whole set. The raw estimate for 200 plates was 123 pounds, so 135 similar plates would weigh about 83 pounds, which, with inefficiencies subtracted, yielded a final weight of no more than fifty pounds. Interestingly, though Sjödahl’s analysis is more sophisticated than its predecessors, he also wiggles, emphasizing that the dimensions are approximate, that Smith might have only carried the unsealed portion, that Smith “was an unusually strong man, physically as well as mentally,” and that critics also challenge the weight of the ark the covenant. [12] Additionally, he fudges, using the 4″ instead of 6″ stack height in his calculations. [13]

Reed H. Putnam advanced Gold Plate Chemistry studies in a 1966 Improvement Era article that analyzed some of the implications of gold-alloy plates and suggested an archeological basis for the alloying technology. [14] His analysis calls for plates made from between 8- and 12-carat gold to avoid the electrolysis and brittleness of an extremely low-gold alloy and the excessive weight and malleability of a high-gold alloy. He also addresses the electrolytic issues of a copper-gold mix and how those might have been avoided, as well as specifying at least a 125% stacking inefficiency. More recent apologetics have done likewise. [15] In 1986 Ron Doxey recapitulated the composite explanation but additionally emphasized the number of individuals who reported hefting the plates; in 2001 John Gee verified the plausibility of Sjödahl’s text-size estimates. [16]

Apologists point out that neither 1830s nor contemporary English require that “gold” mean “24-carat gold” and that it is not uncommon to refer to a ring made of 10-carat gold as a “gold ring.” On the other hand, Sunday Schoolers still speculate about how much plates of pure gold would be worth, Primary children sing enthusiastically and without complicating details of “golden plates,” and artistic renderings show perfectly stacked plates. Further, the weight/composition objection remains viable in some circles.

Significantly, almost all of the apologists herein cited avoid interventionist-God arguments. The closest are Cummings and Sjödahl, who make naturalist cases but hedge with Deus ex machina fallbacks. The problem of overly-heavy plates is easily solved by a well-attested miracle: make the hefters temporarily stronger. Such a miracle accords with the Book of Mormon (Nephi bursting bands, Ammon dis-arming sheep rustlers), the Bible (Samson), subsequent Mormon history (the invisible-angels-pushing-handcarts episode), and any number of non-Mormon-specific faith-promoting rumors about lifting cars to save babies, and so on. More emphatically, Smith’s story of the Gold Plates begins, ends, and runs through with angels, some of whom moved the Plates. Nevertheless, on the question of Gold Plate Chemistry, apologists have tended to pursue naturalism-in church-sponsored periodicals-and imagine it as helping religion advance rather than retreat in the face of secularism.


Sorry, purists, but I left out many of the footnotes. Also, if tense disagreement or inconsistency bothers you, well, I’m sorry about that, too.

[1] I will use capitalized “Gold Plates” or “Plates” to refer to the bound set of plates from which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, thus distinguishing them from the various other individual and collected plates.

[2] Many reliable sources put the word “gold” in Smith’s or the angel’s mouth, so the issue would face us regardless, but the “Standard Work” status ups the ante.

[3] The Eight Witnesses; Martin, Lucy, and daughter Harris; Lucy, Emma, William, and Catherine Smith.

[4] Abner Cole, “Gold Bible, No. 6.” Palmyra Reflector, 19 March 1831, Vol. 2, Series 1, No. 16. Howe, Eber Dudley. Mormonism Unvailed. Telegraph Press, Painesville Ohio, 1834, p. 246 (quoting Willard Chase in an 1833 affidavit).

[5] Pratt’s plates were thin enough to stack more than 40 per inch. Sunderland’s “Mormonism Exposed and Refuted” was a newspaper series and then a pamphlet (Zion’s Watchman, New York, New York, 13 January to 3 March 1838). I have only examined the portions quoted in Parley P. Pratt “Mormonism unveiled: Zion’s Watchman unmasked, and its editor, Mr. L. R. Sunderland, exposed: truth vindicated: the Devil mad, and priestcraft in danger!” (New York, 1838, p. 36.

[6] Orson Pratt, “An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records,” Ballantyne and Hughes, Edinburgh, Scotland, May 1840. Joseph Smith, Jr., “Church History,” Nauvoo Times and Seasons, 1 March 1842, Nauvoo, Illinois. 3:707 (706-710); also HC 4:535-541.

[7] Martin Harris: David B. Dille, letter, 15 Sep 1853, in Dan Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 2:298-99. Hyde, John. Mormonism: Its Leaders and Designs. W.P. Fetridge, New York, 1857, p. 243-4. I will report stacking inefficiencies as the percentage of the actual stack height relative to the optimal stack height. Thus, a solid block would have an inefficiency of 0%; a stack where each plate occupied twice its height would have an inefficiency of 100%.

[8] William Smith interview, The Saints’ Herald, 4 October 1884, p. 644.

[9] Martin Thomas Lamb, The Golden Bible, or The Book of Mormon, Is It from God? (New York: Ward & Drummond, 1887), p. 245-50.

[10] B. F. Cummings, “Weight of the Plates,” Liahona: The Elders’ Journal, 18 July 1908, pp. 108-10.

[11] The book chapter expanded a 1923 article. Janne M. Sjodahl, “The Book of Mormon Plates,” Improvement Era, April 1923, as reprinted in JBMS 10(1, 2001):22-24. Janne M. Sjodahl, An Introduction to the Study of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1927), p. 35-46.

[12] He questions whether Smith “had charge of the sealed part of the volume, as well as of the part that was not sealed.” He quotes Orson Pratt: “…about two-thirds were sealed up, and Joseph was commanded not to break the seal; that part of the record was hid up,” (emphasis in Sjödahl) interpreting “hid up” to possibly mean that “the sealed part was hidden somewhere when the translation of the other part was in progress,” which would obviate the weight concern. I find his evidence weak and the counter-evidence strong.

[13] He quoted Smith’s 6″ estimate in the chapter. Since he was responding to Lamb, he needed to use the same dimensions as him, but Lamb did not then turn about and make an argument about the plates’ weight. What was a “fair” assumption for the information density question becomes a major-favorable-under-estimation for the weight question. Using the six-inch height, the “raw” weight becomes 188 pounds, which becomes 127 pounds for 135 plates. Whereas originally he only had to assume a 40% reduction due to stacking inefficiency, engraving, and alloying, with the six-inch numbers he would have to assume a 61% reduction to arrive at the same 50-pound final weight.

[14] Reed H. Putnam, “Were the Golden Plates Made of Tumbaga?” Improvement Era 69, no. 9 (Sep 1966):788-9, 828-831. John A. Widtsoe and Franklin S. Harris, Jr. addressed topic in 1937 and Sidney B. Sperry did so in 1964, but I have not examined their arguments. John A. Widtsoe and Franklin S. Harris, Jr., Seven Claims of the Book of Mormon (Independence, MO: Zion’s Printing and Publishing Company, 1937), p. 36-38. Sidney B. Sperry, Problems of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1964).

[15] Ash (1998) rehashes Putnam’s analysis bolstered by a 1984 paper by Heather Lechtman, “Pre-Columbian Surface Metallurgy,” and an analysis by Robert Smith (“The ?Golden’ Plates,” 1992). See also Henrichsen (2001).

[16] Roy W. Doxey, “I Have a Question,” Ensign, Dec. 1986, 65. John Gee, “Epigraphic Considerations on Janne Sjodahl’s Experiment with Nephite Writing,” JBMS, 10(1, 2001):25.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Preliminary thoughts: Brilliantly done. I love it.

    Only two nitpicks of an otherwise excellent analysis:

    -Bold footnote #2.

    -It requires a little extra footwork, but if you added the primary sources on those who hefted the plates in footnote 3 it would greatly add to this paper, imo.

    Great work.

    Comment by BHodges — June 25, 2008 @ 11:35 am

  2. Fascinating, Edje; this is a great post.

    I think you hit directly the tension that is in place when we try to explain supernatural elements with rational means. A “collapse of the sacred” indeed.

    Comment by Ben — June 25, 2008 @ 2:03 pm

  3. BHodges: Thanks for the feedback.

    I’m afraid to go back and try to bold the endnote reference (I’m afraid cyberdemons would strike down my post for my insolence, or something like that.)

    The expurgated footnote is below. That I’ve noticed, I?m missing Lucy Harris? dates and age and daughter Harris? name and age.

    The Eight Witnesses, males, age 20?58: ?we have seen and hefted? (?Testimony of the Eight Witnesses,? Introduction to Book of Mormon, 1981. See also Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981) for general discussion. The witnesses were (with age in 1829): Peter Whitmer, Jr., 20 (1809-1836), Samuel H. Smith, 21 (1808-1844), John Whitmer, 27 (1802-1878), Jacob Whitmer, 29 (1800-1856), Hyrum Smith, 29 (1800-1844), Hiram Page, 29 (1800-1852), Christian Whitmer, 31 (1798-1835), Joseph Smith, Sr., 58 (1771-1840));

    Martin Harris, male, age 44: ?I hefted the plates many times, and should think they weighed forty or fifty pounds?; ?[he] describes the plates as being of thin leaves of gold, measuring seven by eight inches, and weighing altogether, from forty to sixty lbs? (Joel Tiffany, ?Interview with Martin Harris,? Tiffany’s Monthly, May 1859, p. 163-170 (169); Martin Harris interview, Iowa State Register, August 1870, as quoted in Milton V. Backman Jr., Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1986), p. 226);

    Lucy Harris and daughter, female, age __ and __, reported by Martin Harris: ?My daughter said, they were about as much as she could lift…and my wife said they were very heavy. They both lifted them? (Tiffany’s Monthly, May 1859, p. 169. Also in Anderson (1981, p. 26) with more background information. Martin and Lucy Harris were married 27 March 1808 and had at least six children. Presuming no pre-marital children, the oldest the daughter in question could have been was nineteen);

    William Smith, male, age 16: ?I was permitted to lift them…. They weighed about sixty pounds according to the best of my judgement?; ?I…judged them to have weighed about sixty pounds?; ?They were much heavier than a stone, and very much heavier than wood…. As near as I could tell, about sixty pounds? (William Smith, “William Smith on Mormonism” (Herald Steam, Lamoni, Iowa, 1883), p. 12. William Smith interview with EC Briggs, Originally written by JW Peterson for Zions Ensign (Independence, MO); reprinted in Deseret Evening News, 20 January 1894, p. 11. ?William Smith interview,? The Saints’ Herald, 4 October 1884, p. 644. See Anderson (198, p. 22-24) for background on William?s experience.

    Lucy Smith, female, age 52, reported by Sally Parker: ?she hefted and handled them? (Sally Parker, letter to Francis Tufts, 26 August 1838, letter in possession of a descendant, as in Anderson, 1981, p. 24-25. A contested source is a ?Daniel Hendrix? in the late 1800s: ?I have heard Joe’s mother say that she had lifted them when covered with a cloth, and they were heavy?so heavy, in fact, that she could scarcely raise them, though she was a robust woman.? See notes under J.F. Peck, ?The Book of Mormon? (Vermont Watchman, Montpelier, VT, 26 Oct 1887, vol. 83, no. 3), at;

    Emma Smith, female, age 23: ?I moved them from place to place on the table, as it was necessary in doing my work? (Emma Smith interview, published as “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” The Saints’ Herald, 1 October 1879).

    Catherine Smith, female, age 15, reported by Herbert S. Salisbury: ?She told me Joseph allowed her to ?heft? the package but not to see the gold plates…. She said they were very heavy? (Herbert S. Salisbury, ?Things the Prophet?s Sister told Me,? 30 June 1945, as quoted in Anderson, 1981, p. 26-27. Compare ?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?? from IB Bell interview with HS Salisbury, Historical Department Archives, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as quoted in Kirk B. Henrichsen, 2001. ?How Witnesses Described the ?Gold Plates,?? Journal of Book or Mormon Studies 10(1):16-21. Henrichsen gives no date).

    Comment by Edje — June 25, 2008 @ 2:27 pm

  4. Ben: Thanks.

    Comment by Edje — June 25, 2008 @ 2:28 pm

  5. Edje: Nice.

    Comment by David G. — June 25, 2008 @ 3:17 pm

  6. Good grief, an excellent effort. Kudos, my friend.

    Comment by BHodges — June 25, 2008 @ 3:53 pm

  7. This is not something I had ever thought to be concerned about, and I’m amazed at how often it has evidently been an issue — a serious lack of imagination on my part. Fascinating essay.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — June 25, 2008 @ 4:56 pm

  8. Ben could you expand a bit? I confess that while I see the tension in some places I don’t see it here given the accounts of the witnesses.

    Comment by Clark — June 25, 2008 @ 4:57 pm

  9. David, BHodges, and Ardis: Thanks for the affirmation.

    Comment by Edje — June 25, 2008 @ 5:25 pm

  10. Clark: I was more commenting on how modern people have tried to explain the physicality of the plates. When it comes to the actual witnesses, I agree: most of them were satisfied as just describing them as tangible plates.

    Comment by Ben — June 25, 2008 @ 7:24 pm

  11. Apologists point out that neither 1830s nor contemporary English require that ?gold? mean ?24-carat gold? and that it is not uncommon to refer to a ring made of 10-carat gold as a ?gold ring.? On the other hand, Sunday Schoolers still speculate about how much plates of pure gold would be worth

    Nicely said.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — June 25, 2008 @ 8:00 pm

  12. No, I guess my point Ben is that the witnesses said it was ~50 lbs so there wasn’t much to explain in this case.

    Comment by Clark — June 25, 2008 @ 10:21 pm

  13. Clark, the Q is whether that is compatible with the amt of text on the BoM (sand isn’t the only proposed sort of fake plates JSJ has been accused of creating).

    I’m surprised no one mentioned the plates as a supernatural eBook/Kindle, particularly in light of Ostler’s old hypothesis in Dialogue about expansive/editorializing translation.

    Comment by smb — June 26, 2008 @ 2:58 am

  14. Stephen: Thanks.

    Clark: I think the fact that an explanation was/is required at all is a source of tension. For the devout (as I imagine them (and include myself)), sentences starting with, “When the angel said that, they really meant…,” induce tension—no matter that the explanation is ultimately and decisively successful.

    smb: The eBook-like angle is interesting; I hadn’t thought of it at all. I see two reasons why it might not have made it into a source I examined. First, the weight question had been pretty definitively addressed by the time Ostler wrote, so there was no great need to find a new explanation. Second, I think that, in terms of contemporary Mormon understandings, the shift from “gold” to “gold/copper” is miniscule compared to a shift from “translator” to “translator/co-author”—especially if Smith’s expansive contributions were enough to significantly alter the required information density of the plates.

    Comment by Edje — June 26, 2008 @ 1:22 pm

  15. This makes me think of the 24 Jaredite plates and all the information that it seems was on them. Growing up I always had the mental picture of 24 plates as 24 sets of plates like the Gold Plates, but thinking about it further, the description seems to refer to 24 plates not sets of plates.

    Comment by Jared T. — June 26, 2008 @ 2:27 pm

  16. While I can’t speak for Blake, I’m not sure he intended his position to entail there being a significant expansion. It’s a fairly vague claim though. I notice that Blake seems willing to use it in a somewhat ad hoc fashion.

    As such it’s main problem is that it explains too much I think. Don’t like 2 Isaiah in the Book of Mormon? Hey, it’s a JS expansion. Don’t like prophecies that would make libertarian free will questionable? It’s a JS expansion.

    We need to find some way to allow for a loose translation without making it so open anything goes. (That Blake’s theory doesn’t do this is hardly a problem of Blake though – it’s an obvious question relative to translation given modern translations often include commentary and footnotes and the fact that the JST appears midrashic but is called a translation)

    Comment by Clark — June 26, 2008 @ 6:05 pm

  17. Edje, I think any question of meaning introduces some degree of tension of the sort you raise. I think one problem with some literalists is that they often want a literalism where we accept the words but not the meaning or reference of words. (I’m not saying you are doing that – just that the way the issue is sometimes cast entails accepting the words but being unable to translate them into anything intelligible)

    Comment by Clark — June 26, 2008 @ 6:06 pm

  18. Jared: Good catch. Since we don’t know their size or whether they were double-sided or other details, any conjectures have to let go of the rod almost immediately, but it does seem like a whole pile of information came those twenty four plates. On the other hand, _Ether_ isn’t very long, and Moroni goes on a couple of chapter-long disquisitions. Maybe part of the reason they seem to contain so much is that Moroni tells us things he left out—reflecting his own space limitations in the Plates of Mormon—but not how long they were.

    On the subject of the Jaredite plates: both Mormon and Nephi label an object as being pure gold (Jaredite plates and hilt of Laban’s sword) but then don’t call the plates they made gold of any sort, much less pure gold.

    Comment by Edje — June 27, 2008 @ 1:35 pm

  19. Clark: Bingo.

    Comment by Edje — June 27, 2008 @ 1:36 pm


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