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
taken, at least in part, by Nephi from a non-metal journal kept by his father Lehi. Nephi
summarized his father’s writings and engraved them onto these plates of Nephi. Nephi
then continued on to give an account of his own life and ministry. These plates would
become the beginning of the set of plates later to be called the “large plates of Nephi.”
We have no specific information as to what title Nephi may have placed on the initial
part of this record. It is possible that he titled it, “the book of Lehi.”
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 begun 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. For
the initial writings on this set of plates, Nephi also used as a resource, the journal of his
father Lehi recorded on perishable material. Thus, Lehi’s journal record was utilized by
Nephi for writing the initial parts of both the first plates of Nephi and the second set of
plates of Nephi. As mentioned, this second set of plates of Nephi was to have more of
a spiritual emphasis than the first.
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.” This name was likely applied to the
first set of plates because it came to consist of a larger number of plates than the
second record. It likely had nothing to do with the actual dimension of the plates. The
second record was then referred to as the “small plates” of Nephi (Jacob 1:1). This set
of plates was “small” because it consisted of fewer plates.
As the Book of Mormon story unfolded, the large plates of Nephi eventually
became an extensive 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 BC Amaleki made his final entry onto the small plates, and they
were subsequently retired because they were “full” (Omni 1:30). We will later learn that
there was still some room left on these plates. 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 would be made onto the small plates of Nephi until much later
in the history of the plates. 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
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. This abridgment was written onto an entirely new set of
plates, the plates of Mormon. He made these plates with his own hands (3 Nephi 5:11).
He titled the first section of his abridgment “the book of Lehi.” This section, the book of
Lehi, extended from the experiences of Lehi’s family in Jerusalem to the reign of King
Benjamin. The abridged record on the plates of Mormon, then, began with the book of
Lehi. It ended with an abridgment of his own writings (Mormon 1-5).
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 11-
As mentioned, Mormon’s account of his own history comprises Mormon chapters
1 through 5. It seems clear that Mormon originally wrote a more comprehensive
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 found, among the collection of plates in his possession, the small plates
of Nephi. Onto these plates (they weren’t entirely “full,” after all) Mormon wrote an
editorial comment we have come to call the Words of Mormon. In this editorial addition,
Mormon tells of being inspired to keep these small plates together with his abridgement,
the plates of Mormon.
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 BC. This record 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
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
The plates of Mormon, in summary, contained:
- Mormon’s abridgment of the large plates of Nephi (The book of Lehi through 3
- 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);
- Moroni’s abridgment of the record of the Jaredites (book of Ether);
- The writings of Moroni (Mormon 8-9 and the book of Moroni);
- The title page of the Book of Mormon, written by Moroni directly onto the plates
of Mormon; and
- 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 nonvisionary
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. There exists abundant additional
testimony that the binding rings were in the shape of a “D” (John Whitmer interview by
P. Wilhelm Poulson, reported in the Deseret News of 6 August 1878; David Whitmer
interview by Edward Stevenson, 22-23 December 1877, Family and Church History
Department Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; see also Richard
Lloyd Anderson, “Attempts to Redefine the Experiences of the Eight Witnesses,”
Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 14/1, 2005: 30). Though it may seem a relatively
unimportant observation, the shape of the binding rings turns out to be an important
evidence of the Book of Mormon. It is now understood that rings of a “D” shape allow
the leaves to stack vertically against the straight side of the rings and allow a full 50
percent more storage capacity than a circular ring. This would certainly have been an
advantage to Book of Mormon prophets who labored to inscribe their records on metal
plates and to whom space was clearly an important consideration. The history of looseleaf
binders in the modern day is instructive. The first loose-leaf binder patent was not
filed until 1854, and the first two-ring binders were not advertised for sale until 1899.
Within a few decades the use of three rings rather than two proved to be a more stable
design and became standard. These early designs, however, used circular or ovalshaped
rings. Perhaps it is not coincidental that the only other ancient metal record
bound by rings so far known also has D-shaped rings and dates to about 600 BC (see
“Etruscan Gold Book from 600 BC Discovered” and the photograph in Insights 23/5,
2003: 1, 6). Joseph Smith could have known nothing about three-ring binding and Dshaped
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
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
people “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
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 (this was the book of Lehi). 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
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