Where are the Golden pLates?


The Book of Mormon offers a unique chance for God to show his hand.  At the outset it seems like a reasonable opportunity to establish an indirect evidence for the existence of God through His providing us with a tangible work of scripture that we can study.  The Book of Mormon avoids some the “scriptural chain of evidence” issues that plague the Bible.  It was supposedly hidden up in the earth for more than a thousand years to pin down points of doctrine that had been lost from the Bible in its dubious travels.  While the story of Joseph Smith and The First Vision are interesting (they do present some evidentiary concerns that are addressed elsewhere) the Book of Mormon offers us our first opportunity to study a literary “work of God” that is a little less adulterated than the bible.

The Book of Mormon tells a story of a jewish family admonished by God to leave Jarusalem 600 years before Christ.  They made their way across the Pacific (or Atlantic, depending on who you read) to the new world and there established a civilization that would become the ancestors to the great civilizations of the new world (Mayans and Tolmecs).

There are several pieces of evidence that are used to argue on both sides of the Book of Mormon.  The first piece of evidence is what I would call circumstantial evidence.  Mormon believers contend that when Joseph Smith was just 19 years old, he learned about the ancient record written on gold plates, hidden in a hill near his home in New York State.  He finally obtained possession of the book four years later, at age 23, and translated it by the power of God over about 6 month’s time.  The Book of Mormon is of such complexity and doctrinal maturity, it is argued, that a boy of his age and lack of formal education could not have written it unaided by God.  This argument is the classic “god of the gaps” argument.  It implies that since we can’t conceive of how Joseph Smith could have accomplished this thing, it must have been an act of divine intervention.  This is the same argument that was once used by men to explain the creation of the earth, or to explain the spontaneous healing of illness, or any of a myriad of other natural but rare phenomenon.  It turns out that science has since explained the origin of the earth, and we know that the immune system works very well to cure illness (even occasionally some that are “incurable”). 

It turns out that there are several explanations for how Joseph Smith could have come by the Book of Mormon by more earthly means.

Complex books have been written by unlearned authors in the past and probably will be in the future as well.  However, having read many journal entries written by Joseph Smith, I think it is very unlikely that he wrote the Book of Mormon himself.  He really was not a good writer.

Another consideration is that while Joseph Smith’s work on the Book of Mormon supposedly took place over the course of 6 months, the first vision took place in the spring of 1820 (although that is in question as well.  See First Vision).  The first visit of the angel Moroni, at which time he “became aware” of the existence of the gold plates, occurred in September 1823.  The book was finally published in 1830.  Taking some time out for typesetting and printing, that leaves at least 6 years for him to conceive of and write the Book of Mormon assuming he were capable of it.  I acknowledge the fact that he was unlearned, but that aside, six years is more than enough time to author a 500 page book.

Finally, there is the possibility that Joseph Smith did not write the Book of Mormon.  Perhaps there was another author or authors who, for whatever reason, did not or could not take credit for the work. There have been several studies that have concluded that multiple authors are responsible for the Book of Mormon.  Most of these have been commissioned by LDS authors or academics seeking to prove that multiple ancient prophets wrote the book as claimed.  I will concede that it is very likely that multiple authors were involved, based on the available evidence.  However, there is little or no reason to suspect that the authors were ancient prophets.  It is far more likely that 19th century authors were responsible for the Book of Mormon.  In fact, given the two possibilities, I have to conclude that the more modern source is more likely precisely because it does not require “divine intervention.  Discussions of arguments for and against the divine origin of the Book of Mormon are found in separate sections of this site.

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When I was about 5, my mom told me that the Book of Mormon was originally written on golden plates.  I was fascinated.  I asked her where they were and if we could go see them. She told me they were taken to heaven by an angel and we could not see them.  I was sad...