In Joseph Smith’s day, people claimed that his story of ancient metal plates was evidence against him—because no such thing existed. In modern times, with the discovery of many examples of ancient plates, critics now claim that, of course, Joseph knew about ancient records on metal. What do we really know about Joseph and metal plates?
This is the twenty-eighth in a series compiled from the many interviews conducted during the course of the Witnesses film project. This series of mini-films is being released each Saturday at 7pm MDT. These additional resources are hosted by Camrey Bagley Fox, who played Emma Smith in Witnesses, as she introduces and visits with a variety of experts. These individuals answer questions or address accusations against the witnesses, also helping viewers understand the context of the times in which the witnesses lived. This week we feature Daniel C. Peterson, President of the Interpreter Foundation and Executive Producer of Witnesses. For more information, go to https://witnessesofthebookofmormon.org/ or watch the documentary movie Undaunted.
Witnesses of the Book of Mormon — Insights
Episode 28: Ancient Metal Plates?
Richard Lyman Bushman, Professor of History, Emeritus, Columbia University: If Joseph had just said [that] he saw God, people would say, ‘We understand. All sorts of people have seen God.’ He would be just thought of as a visionary, a person who thought of divine things and experienced them. When he says he has plates, then he becomes a charlatan.
Susan Easton Black, Emeritus Professor of Church History & Doctrine, Brigham Young University: We know that Joseph Smith has the plates, but we also know he’s commanded not to show anyone the plates.
Gerrit Dirkmaat, Associate Professor of Church History & Doctrine, Brigham Young University: A detractor can simply say, ‘Well, they’re all lying. Every one of them’s lying, everyone’s a liar.’ But academics trying to treat this seriously have to come to the conclusion that even antagonists of Joseph Smith seem to believe that he has something.
Paul Wuthrich, Narrator: William Smith was a younger brother of Joseph the prophet. He was fiercely loyal to Joseph, to the point of coming to blows with those who disagreed with him. Which, on at least one occasion, was Joseph himself.
William Smith, Actor: This is the way.
Narrator: William was known as an eloquent orator with an abrasive personality. Unafraid to criticize Joseph, he found himself as a defender of the faith and a challenger of the Church almost simultaneously, and he was excommunicated in 1845, the year after Joseph’s death. An apostle and a patriarch, William was never a fence-sitter.
William Smith: I was permitted to lift them as they lay in a pillowcase, but not to see them. It was contrary to the commands which he had received. One could easily tell that they were NOT stone hewn out to deceive, or even a block of wood. Being a mixture of gold and copper, they were much heavier than stone, and very much heavier than wood.
Camry Bagley Fox: Welcome to our series on the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. My name is Camry Bagley Fox, and we are back with Daniel Peterson, president of the Interpreter Foundation and executive producer of the Witnesses project. Thanks for being here.
Daniel Peterson: It’s good to be here.
CBF: So, the Kinderhook Plates. Joseph Smith has sometimes been criticized for thinking that they could’ve been authentic. Can you give me some background on that?
DP: Yeah, the Kinderhook plates are what we now know to be forgeries. They derive their name from the place where they were found. They were created by some people with the intent, presumably of fooling Joseph Smith and fooling other people, maybe making some money, certainly scoring a point. I can imagine if you’re an outsider, you think this guy is a phony, ‘Okay, we’re gonna get him. We’re gonna have these forged plates, we’re gonna give them to him and he’ll come up with some elaborate translation. Then we’ll spring the trap, right? We made them. We made them just a few months ago, so ha! Your translation’s bogus.’
There’s no record that Joseph tries to translate them. He does take them seriously, for at least a little while, and he’s willing to look at them. Which, to me, is indicative of his sincerity, of his actual belief in what he himself was claiming. The fact that he thinks, even for moment, that they might be authentic, they’re worth looking at, tells me that he really believed there was a possibility of authentic plates from ancient America. But he considers it, which to me suggests that he may think, ‘Well, since I’ve [come] across plates, was directed to plates that were authentic, and contained a scriptural record, it’s possible these do too. I’m going to look at them.’
But to me, that’s really, really interesting. I mean, the whole idea finding plates seems to have been suggested by Joseph Smith, right?
CBF: Mm Hm.
DP: I mean, other people have heard the story now, so James Strang finds plates, the Kinderhook people find plates. And I still hear of them occasionally now.
DP: Oh yeah, there’s still people finding plates, and purporting to translate them. And it’s all in imitation, I think, of Joseph Smith. The whole idea of ancient metal plates is something we now know a lot more about than Joseph did. And we know that this is not something made up. There were actually early critics of the Church who said, ‘Aw, come on. You know, sacred records written on metal plates? This is, this is nuts. This is just crazy, it’s over the top.’
We now know of a lot of cases—and I mean a fair number—of ancient records written on metal plates. In fact, some of the oldest forms of the biblical record are on tiny silver plates; they are older, probably, than any other manuscript of the Bible we have. We have a number of things like that. Sacred deposits are placed in the cornerstones of temples in Persia. There was the so-called copper scroll of the Dead Sea where a lot of things were written on copper plates and then sealed up, by the way, in the face of impending military destruction, like the Book of Mormon plates.
It’s not such a crazy notion now. So, early on, the critics said, ‘Well, this is too much.’ Now, I’ve actually heard someone say, ‘Eh, metal plates. Writing on metal plates. Everybody knew about that. Not original with Joseph.’ Well, it’s not original with Joseph, but it wasn’t well-known in his day and so that kind of writing actually makes some sense.
In fact, there’s a set of plates out there right now, I can say this, that purport to be, well I would think probably the earliest known form of the Qur’an, the sacred book of the Muslims, which are written on gilded copper plates.
DP: They’re not publicly available, but I’ve seen them, and they’re really, really interesting. Now, are they authentic or not? I don’t know, but they purport to be from the seventh or eighth century, so, the idea of writing sacred texts on metal plates is not crazy. We know it was done in the Middle East before the time of the Book of Mormon, probably, and certainly afterwards. Some of the earliest texts that we have are Greek plates, so it’s around the Mediterranean world.
DP: In fact, one authority on those Greek plates says that the idea arose, probably in Syria, southern Lebanon, that sort of area and then spread. Well, that’s exactly the area, Northern Israel, he says, that’s exactly the sort of area that Lehi’s family came from. Lehi was of the tribe of Manasseh; that would have been the very area where writing of texts on metal plates may have begun.
The Book of Mormon looks pretty plausible in that light. Something that Joseph Smith could not possibly have known.
CBF: Okay, that’s what I was going to ask. But there’s not really a record that they would have had access to, of the knowledge of the plates.
DP: Some people have pointed to some records that could possibly have been interpreted that way, but again, they’re things that were known among the learned in Europe, maybe in New York or Boston, not on the American frontier. The idea that Joseph would have known these things is just hard to believe.
Now, the more we find, the more, to my mind, the more the Book of Mormon seems to fit the ancient world that it claims to come from, in ways that Joseph could not POSSIBLY have known.
CBF: Right, that makes sense. Thank you.