Friday, 3 July 2009

Can You “Heft” These Plates?

The Mormon Pageant in Manti has thrown up some interesting encounters and conversations this year. Some of the most interesting involved Bill McKeever of Mormonism Research Ministry who explained the above picture thus:

Our Manti outreach began last week. Once again I've been using my "gold plates" as an illustration. When a Mormon tells me they believe Joseph Smith had gold plates I challenge them to lift my plates (10, ten-pound barbell weights). Most can, but then I explain that my 100 pound plates are only half of what Smith carried if they were gold. The responses are priceless.

So many insist that Joseph Smith was a "strong" farm boy and could have carried the plates. I find myself repeating the phrase " Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime couldn't carry 200 pounds under his arm for a distance of three miles." I have yet to have any Mormon offer proof that God gave Smith supernatural strength (a popular argument), although many see how that excuse doesn't work well after I explain how the likes of FARMS and FAIR are trying so hard to get the weight of the plates down to a reasonable level.

Tumbaga anyone?

Mormons seem to be prepared to go to any lengths to lend credibility to the incredible story of the fabled “Gold Plates”. The latest theory is that they were not made of pure gold but of tumbaga, a non-specific alloy of gold and copper used in pre-Columbian America and discovered by the Spaniards.


maybemaybenot said...

You know, this has been one line of reasoning I have never followed amongst my Christian friends, honestly. I mean, IF Joseph Smith was all he claimed to be and IF the gold plates were actually a true account of Jesus visiting the Americas, then something miraculous was happening. If that were the case, why would it be any big deal, or any different from any other miraculous event, that God somehow either (i) lightened the load of the gold plates or (ii) gave JS the strength to carry the plates until they were translated.

Look, I think JS was at the height of fraud and sophistry, but how is his "miracle" any less believable than a red sea parting or a virgin giving birth?

This is actually a genuine question...

Mike's 4 Tea said...

Hi Jeniffer. Haven't heard from you in a while. I hope you are all well.

This is a very good question and it addresses the issue of the nature of miracles and God's purposes in peforming them. If we think of miracles as simply God doing magic then of course anything is possible. But I don't think miracles are magic or that anything is possible.

When Jesus raised Lasarus or the son of the widow of Nain it was not God acting against nature but being true to his nature. Jesus is the source of life (in him was life John 1:4) and imparted life. This is not magic but nature but, as Spock might say, not as we know it.

Miracles then are subject to reason if we understand something of how God works. Given this it can confidently be said that all that God does is reasonable and to a purpose that fits into his plan. Miracles are signs and their purpose is beyond the event itself. Jesus' miracles testified to his being the Son of God.

What purpose could be served in making a book that is too heavy to "heft" and then giving JS the strength to carry it? The Mormon Church has never made any claim for super strength for JS nor have they ever made an issue of how heavy the plates were or made anything of his carrying them. Of course, unauthoritative sources are speculating like billyo now to find a plausible answer but miracles are difficult enough to get your head around. Miracles declared with the benefit of hindsight stretch credulity to breaking point.

maybemaybenot said...


Hi there. Yes, I have not been in hiding, but some little things like full-time work and parenting of five have kept me away. But I've been lurking and, every once in a while, I feel the need to respond.

Yes, I admit that in all my years in the church, I never really heard anyone address the weight of the gold plates, much less how JS would have trotted around with them (quite the amusing imagery that creates).

But still.

If miracles are signs, then this implies that one of the purposes behind them is to help convince people of God's existence or power or benevolence or what have you. Are you suggesting there must be more than one person present for a miracle to occur? Can not God give a sign to one human?

I have read the bible cover-to-cover 2x. And I took some classes, but, being that it always was a bit painstaking for me, I genuinely can not remember all of the miracles I read about. And I don't rememeber if any of the miracles of the bible were performed in the presence of only one individual.

You asked what would be God's purpose in this example. Well, I'm certain I do not know of any of God's purposes, but I honestly do not see the purpose in many of God's miracles. And, it may sound flip, because with electronic communication, one can not hear tone or see body language. But, as with all miracles, God could have accomplished his purpose in any number of ways. And and all of which could have been interpreted as miraculous.

Again, I don't believe the JS story anymore than I beleive in Santa Clause, but I just don't see how it is so easy for Christians to accpet the miracles of old and, at the same time, reject these more modern day revelations, sightings and miracles.

Which reminds me, why did the folks of the Bible get all the "good" miracles? Show me the raising of the dead and I'd be your first believer. Even better, turn water to wine. I be the most zealous convert ever? ;) Saul would have nothing on me.

Seriously, though, the whole miracle thing baffles me. I don't see how God expects the same faith from his modern day children who do not witness miracles that can be perceived by the senses. Instead, we have to rely on "feelings" of the spirit for our miracles. When confronted with these in the face of science, it makes it so very hard to believe in miracles. Or God for that matter.

Oh, Mike, I dunno. You know my continual dilemna. Honestly, God, if he exists, sure makes things tricky. It's hard for me to relate because I have always been taught that God is a loving father to us as his children. And now that I have children, I just develop faith and trust in them in such different ways. God's way seems counterintuitive to how we build our earthly relationships...


Mike's 4 Tea said...


I am sure you are busy and I wasn’t chiding you but did wonder if you got my last two emails, one in May and the other in June? I would need to know if my emails are getting lost somewhere in the ether.

I am sure that God can and does perform miracles if only one person is present. Once we start saying that ‘God can do anything’ then we lay ourselves open to all sorts of claims that cannot be tested or challenged which, of course, cults depend upon. God can’t do anything and there are tests we can apply to any claim for the miraculous although I quickly add that we are not the final arbiters in the things of God. Nevertheless God is constant in his character and has created a world that is accessible to reason.

Miracles are a revelation of God and not simply impressive acts designed to persuade people of something. They also harmonise with the rest of the revelation of God and affirm and expand what believers already know of God. Jesus refused to work useless miracles to simply guarantee his teaching. When Jesus imparted life he demonstrated that he was the source of life; when he calmed the storm he demonstrated that he was Lord of nature.

Many say they would believe if only God would do this or that, but when Jesus did perform miracles people rejected and crucified him. You say that God makes things tricky but I find man makes things tricky because we are rebellious and find all sorts of excuses for rejecting Jesus or delaying any decision to accept him. Mormons often challenge Christians about “those who haven’t heard.” I am more concerned for those who have heard but seem unwilling to act.

Jesus spoke of those “who have not seen and yet still believe” (John 20:29). The gospels were written for us who were not there so that we may believe the reports of those who were and be saved (John 20:30-31). God has not left us to wonder about these things but has given his Spirit to guide us into all truth and testify of them. The trouble is we build a picture (sometimes it is built for us) of how God should act, how he should reveal himself and we forget that he is God. He is a God of love but maybe we have the wrong idea about what that love means and how he demonstrates it.

Perhaps we need to clear out our preconceptions, stop insisting on preconditions and ask God who he is and what he wants. I know I had to ‘unlearn’ a tremendous amount in order to really grow in my knowledge of God. One of the difficulties with leaving Mormonism is that we can tend to see God as some sort of executive director doing things according to the book (manuals?) and administering his creation like some divine CEO. Others think of a sort of Miracle on 34th Street character. Still others think it is his job to save us from misfortune and we refuse to believe unless he makes life a great deal better than it is.

But the Bible says that it is we who have failed in our duty, misunderstood God’s purposes and remained stubbornly in our rebellion. This is why some people find God difficult to approach, because to approach him is to do so in an attitude of repentance and humility. C S Lewis again said, “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement. He is a rebel who needs to lay down his arms.” Contrary to what Mormons say, Christians have not chosen the easier way with our salvation by faith alone. It is humbling and difficult and against our very nature to confess our need and depend wholly on Jesus.

Finally, these remarks are not pointed at you or anyone else but, as you said, tone and body language (and warm smiles) do not come across here. You end with a sigh and I do so feel it with you. Be encouraged; maybe I am that life boat and, who knows, perhaps there is a helicopter on its way.

Good grief I can go on! Hwyl Fawr!

maybemaybenot said...


I so admire you. In all my years of searching, learning and yearning, I have not met many humble and genuinely kind folks. Most seem to get defensive and judgmental.I'm certain if I met you we'd be friends.

I wish I had your faith. All you say is so articulate and well-versed, well thought-out and educated. I respect you tremendously. I just don't get it. My heart doesn't accept it. My brain doesn't wrap around it. My conscience rebels. It just does. If I said otherwise, I'd be a liar. And I've been called a lot of things in my life but I hope to not be a liar.

You don't have to give up on me, Mike. As I have said, I admire you a great deal and I often covet (sin!) your faith. But, I am still at a loss.

And yes, I have gotten your e-mails. I thought I was only 1 behind - I need to check my records. But I have only delayed because I would rather give a meaningful response than a hurried one.

I think of you often, dear friend. Take care.


Seth R. said...

First off, the 200 lbs figure comes from a block of SOLID gold in the size dimensions of the plates Joseph and company described.

The book was not a SOLID BLOCK. It was leaves of metal so thin that Emma described them thus:

"They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metalic [sic] sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book."

Or as David Whitmere put it: "about as thick as parchment." Or "of the thickness of plates of tin" in the words of Martin Harris.

If you're talking about a book of thin leaves of metal - as much as 2/3 of the bulk could be occupied by mere air.

So even if you're talking pure gold, McKeever's figures are going to be ridiculously off.

Secondly, pure gold is so soft that it would be tough to make into a book to begin with. I could be wrong here since I'm no metalsmith. But it just seems that pure gold is unlikely.

The most likely explanation is a non-scientific farm boy saw a book that looked like gold and called it "pure gold."

The Book of Mormon itself never refers to the plates as "pure gold." Even though Mosiah 8:9 makes a point of distinguishing the Plates of Ether as pure gold, nowhere are the Plates of Nephi so distinguished, or the Plates of Mormon.

Some sort of alloy seems likely. It looked like gold, so that's what farmboy Joseph, and his rural acquaintances, called it. But it probably wasn't pure gold.

This isn't unlikely as an explanation - unless you're already dead-set that the whole thing is nonsense. Then, of course any explanation will seem like "a stretch" to you.

But that's your own prejudices talking.

Mike's 4 Tea said...

Bill McKeever of Mormonism Research Ministry has sent an answer to the questions raised in some comments here. It is longer than can be put up in one comment but is so helpful I will, rather than edit, put it up in two.

Mike's 4 Tea said...

Bill McKeever responds - Pt 1

Let me quickly comment on the responses regarding the weight of the gold plates.

Was it a miracle that enabled Smith to carry the plates in the manner described by LDS history? As Mike so aptly pointed out, no leader in the LDS Church (including Joseph Smith), ever claimed that a miracle was needed to carry the plates from their secreted location to Smith's home three miles away.

If this was indeed a miracle, why have LDS apologists been bending over backwards to reshape the story of the plates to make the weight light enough to carry? Joseph Smith's mother, as did David Whitmer, said the plates were made of "pure gold." Not being metallurgists themselves (plus the fact that they never actually saw the plates), how did they come to this conclusion? Who told them that?

The softness of gold, coupled with its dense weight, would not allow for any air gaps. For the same reason gold plates would not "rustle with a metallic sound." Nor would any weight be lost due to engraving since the soft metal is merely pushed aside. Try this with any soft metal like lead. Any metal that should happen to flake off is inconsequential.

Sandra Tanner displays a set of lead plates at her Utah Lighthouse Bookstore in Salt Lake City. They are similar in size to the dimensions given by Smith (6x8x6). The soft metal plates contain no air gaps and in essence, function like a block of lead. Her lead plates weigh 118 pounds.

I volunteer at the Utah Lighthouse Bookstore and have watched countless people try to lift these plates. It can be done, but not easily. More than once I've been asked if they are bolted down.

Like many modern LDS apologists, Mormon Apostle John Widtsoe could not believe the plates were made of pure gold, but had to be a lighter alloy, probably copper mixed with gold. He stated:

"If the plates were made of eight karat gold, which is gold frequently used in present-day jewelry, and allowing a 10 percent space between the leaves, the total weight of the plates would not be above one hundred and seventeen pounds—a weight easily carried by a man as strong as was Joseph Smith (John A. Widtsoe and Franklin S. Harris, Jr., Seven Claims of the Book of Mormon, p. 37).

Widtsoe's assessment is only one pound less than the lead plates mentioned above. Contrary to his hopes, carrying an object of that size and weight isn't at all easy to carry.

Knowing Widtsoe's arbitrary 10% air gap is not nearly enough to get the plates down to a manageable weight, modern apologists have suggested as much as a 50% air gap between each plate! This conclusion crosses the line to absurdity when you consider that the more “air space” you place between the plates, the less plates Smith had to work with.

Remember, Smith said the plates were six inches thick and that 2/3 of the plates were sealed and were not a part of the Book of Mormon. If 2/3 of the plates were sealed that means Smith translated the entire Book of Mormon from just two inches worth of plates.

(Continued below)

Mike's 4 Tea said...

Bill McKeever's resonse continued from above)

Mormon apologists often refer to LDS metallurgist Read H. Putnam for details. Putnam claimed that if “each plate were .02 of an inch think, it would occupy up to .05 of an inch in the stack, and there would be 20 plates to the inch. The unsealed portion would then consist of 40 plates or 80 sides.”

When the Book of Mormon was published in 1830, it contained 588 pages of printed text; so in essence, we must believe that 588 paper pages of text could be engraved in readable fashion on 80 plates (assuming both sides could be used). That means that each engraved plate contained 7.35 paper pages worth of text.

Let us not forget that the 588-page 1830 edition also failed to include the 116 manuscript pages of text lost by Martin Harris. This text was also included in the 2-inch unsealed portion.

Putnam states that the plates could not have been made “of an extremely low-gold alloy because of the danger of electrolysis and brittleness. On the other hand, they were probably not an alloy of an extremely high-gold alloy either, since the weight would thereby be increased.”

Putnam then alleges that the plates, probably made of a malleable copper alloy called tumbaga, were “probably between 8–and-12 carat gold” and “weighed between 53 and 86 pounds” (Improvement Era, Vol.69, No.9, p.788ff). In other words, Putnam guesses that the gold content of the plates was between 33% and 50%.

I challenge any Mormon to reenact Smith's three-mile trek carrying 53-86 pounds. This is comparable to carrying a 60 pound bag of pre-mixed concrete, or two 8x8x16-inch concrete blocks (70 lbs.).

Remember, we are told that Smith also at times had to run at the “top of his speed” with the plates to avoid those who were trying to steal them from him.
Putnam did not believe Smith needed supernatural strength.

He insisted (like Widtsoe) that the “plates were not so heavy that a man could not carry them...we are not led to believe that the weight of the plates was a great hindrance.”

J.M. Sjodahl, in an article printed in The LDS publication Improvement Era, concurred that “the plates were not heavier than that the Prophet, who was an unusually strong man, physically and intellectually, could lift and handle them. This is the testimony of eye witnesses. And that testimony stands” (“The Book of Mormon Plates,” Improvement Era, April 1923, No.6).

The “plates” I take to Manti can easily be disassembled to accommodate any LDS weight theory. Replicating the story even with only 40 pounds shows that the story is completely bogus. Keep in mind that all of these modern theories regarding the metal and the presumed air gaps are completely arbitrary. They are guessing, nothing more.

One thing is certain, Mormons must reject the stories as they are actually written. Remember, Moroni never said he had plates of “copper and gold.”

Bill McKeever

Mormonism Research Ministry

Seth R. said...

For a guy weighing about 200 lbs, 60 lbs is considered a safe and reasonable weight for an all-day backpacking trek.

North Korean soldiers in the Korean War were documented as being able to carry sometimes loads of up to 80 lbs in ammo up the rugged mountain terrain of that country all day and still fight at the end of it. And they did it on an average of 2 rice balls a day.

My daughter weighs about 60 lbs. And I can tell you, if her life was in danger, I damn well could carry her three miles - through the woods no less.

This is just an example of taking a bunch of pampered soft modern Americans and expecting them to perform the same as a upstate New York 1800s farm boy who was used to back-breaking labor each day. Amounts we wouldn't even dream of today. Not only that, but one who was well-documented as being exceptionally strong.

60 lbs actually isn't all that much for a guy like that.

Mike's 4 Tea said...


The problem is that you are not engaging with the issue when you pounce on this 60lb weight and paint a picture of men of a previous generation being of amore robust constitution. It is not a picture that is painted by the Mormon story and surely that is what is official. I see several problems that Mormons are not enaging with.

Firstly, the original account tells us of "pure gold" (see Bill's posts above) and so Mormons are already moving away from the story they take around the doors by suggesting an alloy.

Secondly, the 60lb number is an arbitrary number from an unofficial source and so cannot be used to definitively close down the conversation and end the controversy. The official source makes it impossible for it to be 60lb because it was "pure gold".

The "gap theory" (that makes me smile) is shown to be untenable because we know how gold acts and can dismiss this idea of a certain % gap between the leaves. Add in the missing 116 pages and you have a heavier burden and not a lighter one.

Anyway, if this great feat is within the capability of men why not rise to the challenge and have a race carrying an agreed weight for three miles "at the top of your speed"? It could be a valuable addition to any Mormon pageant if it could be shown as viable.

Third, and this for me is truly telling, the only official account does not allow for all this speculation and yet Mormons seem to appeal to these unofficial theories all the time rather than having any official and defining account to settle the issue. It is revealing that the official account Mormons do have and take around the doors simply doesn't satisfy anyone and this from a church led by revelation instead of the speculation of apostate Christianity.

It always astounds me how speculative Mormonism has become since the days when I spoke with confidence from a Mormon pulpit about the certainty of the Mormon story. These days there is a whole pile of theories and very little certainty. Is Mormonism apostate?

Seth R. said...

What you are talking about is nothing more or less than the process of historical analysis itself.

There are a lot of things we used to speak with confidence of, that are now more speculative and nuanced. That's true of any branch of human history - the longer you have to mull something over, the more complex it gets.

That's life.

Seth R. said...

By the way... I'm feeling a bit too lazy to look it up myself... What is this account where Moroni himself speaks of the plates being "pure gold?"

Mike's 4 Tea said...

Are you saying that if Moroni didn't say it then it isn't true?

Seth R. said...

Not necessarily, but I'd like more to go on than an internet remark.

Mike's 4 Tea said...

That was cheap. David Whitmer said they were pure gold. I am too lazy to look it up right now but I am sure you have a substantial Mormon library to consult.

Consider: Much is made in the BOM of the fact that the Nephites found gold - 1 Nephi 18:25.

There was 'a great abundance' of gold - 2 Nephi 5:15; Alma 29:1 and this it was that Nephi used to begin making the record that was to become the BOM - 1 Nephi 19:1

Moroni told JS that they were gold plates JSH 1:34 warned him that he was not to get them with the purpose of getting rich - JSH 1:46. JS then tells us that the reason we are having this discussion in the first place is because he ran 3 miles carrying the plates to avoid people who sought to gain the plates for the purpose of getting rich - JSH 1:60.

Why would they do that? Could it be because the fraudulent Smith had so far failed to produce the treasure he had promised to dig up for them. On hearing that he finally had gold but no plans to share it they got not so much greedy ans angry.

There is a theme running through this story and it is gold. Given JS's previous career as a diviner and money digger is that really a surprise?

Mike's 4 Tea said...

An interesting aspect of this business is the language used. The BOM writers refer to ore. Nephi writes about making “plates of ore”, in Mosiah we read that the Lamanites wrote on “plates of ore”. In “The Restored Church” William Berrett wrote:

“The secret of the preservation of the record lay in the fact that ordinary writing materials were not used...the letters had been engraved on in the thin leaves of a metal which would not corrode...a gold alloy had been used for this purpose...While the book had the ‘appearance of gold’ we read that the plates were made from gold ‘ore’ and hence would be an alloy rather than pure gold” (P30)

A rudimentary understanding of the process that produces gold and gold alloys shows a lot of confusion in these writings. The following is taken from a site on general geology:

“You might ask yourself what the difference is between a rock and a mineral, a rock is only a solid mass of grains of minerals. A rock is classified according to the kinds and proportions of minerals it contains
What we call mineral deposits is where minerals are concentrated in sufficient quantity, the bodies or zones in which they are found. Mineralization becomes ore when the minerals are present in enough tonnage, or quantity, and appropriate grade, or quality to be recovered with profits.
We most of the time mine these deposits to produce metals or other commodities like coal and uranium. The vast majority of people can very easily identify metals which are commonly used such as tin, aluminum, zinc, copper, silver and gold. These metals have a distinctive lustre, conduct electricity and heat, and are malleable under pressure and heat
A metallic material consisting of two or more elements is the alloy, it is homogenous in its external appearance, and is combined in such a way that they cannot be readily separated or divided by physical means. More often we use alloys than pure metals because they most of the time have properties which are different than the ones of the metals from which they are made. For instance, if we combine copper and tin together, we create an alloy which is tougher and harder than any of these two metals in their natural and pure form. Bronze is the alloy, and when it was discovered it marked the era of civilization which is known as the Bronze Age. Nowadays, alloys are used in the advanced technologies of energy, electronics and even aerospace.”
‘Ore’ then is the raw material, the minerals and grains including the precious metal. You don’t make anything, let alone plates on which it is possible to engrave, much less plates thin enough to make a book. When mineral deposits show sufficient precious metal content the ‘ore’ is mined and the metal extracted to produce pure gold. A 24k gold ring for example is 99.95-,9999 pure gold. An alloy is where other metals are added such as; Palladium, Copper, Aluminium and silver. Different percentages/ratios of gold to other metals, determined what carat rating, the gold is given.

To produce gold alloy plates it would be necessary to dig mineral ore from the ground, extract the gold and then mix it with an appropriate metal. ‘ore’ describes the material at the beginning of the process and ‘alloy’ the material at the end.

Seth R. said...

Sorry Mike, that wasn't a shot against you. I really was just wanting to read the passage in question for context.

Interesting stuff. I always like learning new things.

I told my young kids that we would be reconstructing "gold plates" out of cardboard and tinfoil for Home Evening using Joseph's described dimensions (figured I'd use the Wentworth letter description).

My seven year old daughter is pretty excited about it.

If you have any other good Home Evening ideas, I'm all ears.