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Several early LDS sources provide detailed accounts of the extreme measures Joseph Smith took to protect the gold plates from greedy townspeople. Several sources are brought together in an Ensign article telling of Joseph fleeing assailants while carrying the golden plates:
Overview of LDS position
For devout LDS members, the mortal risks Joseph took to safeguard the gold plates confirm their divine origin. The above account, like other contemporary accounts, emphasizes Joseph's speed, strength, and resilience, as well as his deep devotion to protecting the plates God had entrusted him with. These admirable qualities concur with Joseph's special role as prophet of the true church.
Overview of Critics' position
Critics point out several potentially troubling aspects concerning these accounts' material circumstances. While historians disagree about the precise weight of the tablets, for example, all accept that a set of metal-based plates consistent with contemporary descriptions would have weighed about 50 pounds. In addition, the historical record shows that Joseph Smith suffered a childhood illness that compromised his mobility as an adult. Joseph never claimed that divine intervention had enabled him to evade harm during these pursuits. So how could he have run almost two miles through difficult terrain and defended himself against violent assailants while carrying 50 pounds of added weight?
If we believe the account as told by the prophet's mother as factual (as we were all taught in various gospel doctrine classes), then some obvious problems arise. How could any man, especially a man who had a slight limp run with a 50 pound weight and avoid capture by three assailants? The journey through the woods was about 3 miles as Joseph indicated above. It's inconceivable that anybody could run carrying a 50 lb. set of metal plates, jumping over logs and such and be able to outrun three men for some 1 to 2 miles that were bent on taking the plates from Joseph. And all this from a young man that had a slight limp and would have difficulty running at a high speed for a long distance - especially carrying a 50 lb. weight.
We've heard where a football coach tried this experiment to prove that it could be done, however he only used a 20 lb weight and was only marginally successful for a limited distance. There's a big difference between a 20 lb. weight and a 50 lb. weight. We can guarantee that if you got any normal, healthy, even stronger than average young man as Joseph reportedly was (and even one with healthy legs where there was no limp at all) and had him carry a 50 lb. dumbbell, even just one mile, that virtually any three men pursuing him could catch him almost immediately.
Recently, several students tried this experiment with a 50 lb. plate. It was very easy to catch the person running with the weight. They put their experiment on youtube here.
Joseph did not claim any superhuman strength divinely bestowed upon him for the occasion nor any angelic help, so how could this have happened? If we accept this account, as we've been taught in church as factual, then It seems obvious to all but the truly faithful that there's something wrong with this story reportedly told by Joseph. Although this story isn't that significant to Mormon history, there's an old saying "if you can't believe someone about the little things, how can you believe the big ones?"
Critics of the church often use the weight of the plates as evidence that the Book of Mormon story is not true. They go through complex calculations to show how gold plates with the dimensions described by the witnesses must have weighed some 200 pounds. At the Tanner's Bookstore in Salt Lake City, they actually have constructed a replica of the gold plates using lead which is actually lighter than gold. They challenge patrons to try to lift and carry the plates around the room. The critics say that Joseph could not have possibly transported and worked with these heavy 200 pound plates. Also pure gold would be too malleable to be useful for permanent engraving.
The lead plates at the Tanner's Bookstore:
In this instance we disagree with the critics' premise. We don't feel that the plates had to be made of solid gold. Although the plates are often referred to as 'gold plates' they didn't necessary have to be made of pure gold. The witnesses described them as having the 'appearance of gold'. Although Joseph originally said "there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates" (History of the Church, vol. 1, by Joseph Smith, pp. 11-12), Joseph later wrote to John Wentworth that the plates had "the appearance of gold": "These records were engraven on plates which had the appearance of gold.(History of the Church, vol. 4, p. 537).
Many things could account for this such as an alloy of gold and another metal or even polished copper plates. A gold alloy or polished copper or even painted tin would have the appearance of gold yet weigh much less.
Editor Comment: We do however, wonder why the angel would give Joseph specific instruction that he could not use the plates for personal gain if they were not made of gold.
Using calculations to arrive at the plates is unnecessary as many of the witnesses have given their estimates as to the weight of the plates by lifting the container that held the plates which several people claim to have done.
Here are all the statements we could find that indicate the weight of the plates from those that claimed to have lifted the container that reportedly contained the plates:
William Smith, a brother of the Prophet
Joseph's sister Catherine
Willard Chase reportedly also said the plates weighed 50 or 60 pounds but we haven't yet been able to locate the exact quote. Robert F. , "The 'Golden' Plates," Reexploring the Book of Mormon, ed., John W. Welch (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992).
So using the statements of the witnesses, it seems logical that the plates weighed about 50 pounds give or take 10 pounds. We summarily reject the critics' arguments that the plates must have weighed 200 pounds.
From the 2007 Sunday School Manual (underlining added):
Editor commentThis explains why in many paintings of Joseph he is shown with a cane. One of Joseph's canes is on display at the Community of Christ Museum in the Independence Temple.
When the townspeople where Joseph lived found out he had golden plates, they reportedly tried to steal them from Joseph as gold plates would of course be worth a lot of money. The following account is sometimes told in church of one of these attempts (emphasis added):
Willard Chase recounted a basically similar story but the details differ:
After this Smith went to Willard Chase's house and talked with him. Chase recalled the story that Smith told him, which is similar to the accounts of Smith's mother and his friend Joseph Knight
We have not been able to find an official Church response. However, since this section was posted, several believing members have written MormonThink to voice their opinions on this problem. The rebuttals fall into these general categories:
1) The story is basically true as told but maybe some of the details are merely exaggerated hearsay and conclusions to what actually happened are not correct. Joseph did not necessarily have to outrun the men, he could have defeated his pursuers individually and continued on his way. We don't know anything about how big, strong or determined these men may have been and Joseph, being the strong lad he was, emerged victorious. The length of the trip through the woods, and other details, may have been somewhat exaggerated and it's possible for him to eventually have journeyed through the woods with the 50 lb. plates more-or-less as described.
2) Joseph had assistance from above. God may have temporarily supplemented Joseph's strength and endurance for him to carry out his mission. It was not in God's plan to have the plates fall into enemy hands and he endowed Joseph with 'divine help' as needed.
3) Since the account is not told directly from Joseph, it is suspect. The primary account sometimes told in church comes from Joseph's mother, Lucy, reported some 15 years afterwards. His mother may have been relying on hearsay and told a yarn she likely heard and believed herself.
Like so many faith-promoting stories told in church, we don't have Joseph's first-hand account recorded by him personally. But so many independent witnesses reported hearing the story that there is little doubt that Joseph told of being attacked while he was bringing the plates home. The best source is Early Mormon Documents (EMD) by Dan Vogel. EMD vol 1 includes the accounts of Orson Pratt (p. 158), Lucy Mack Smith (pp. 335-36), and Katharine Smith (pp. 524-26). EMD vol 2 includes accounts from Willard Chase (p. 71), Benjamin Saunders (pp. 137-38), and Martin Harris (pp. 306-7). As these people independently told similar stories, the source of the tale seems clear to us to have to have been Joseph himself. Since Joseph was alone in the woods (except for the alleged pursuers), how else could the story have originated in the first place if not from Joseph?
Some of the details vary from the accounts. We can determine the following; Joseph was likely attacked by 2 or 3 men. Joseph journeyed some distance, perhaps as much as 3 miles through the woods carrying the gold plates that weighed some 50 pounds give or take 10 pounds and Joseph made it safely home with the plates.
Now we don't know the details of what exactly happened in the attacks, how formidable his attackers were, how long he took to make it to his house and just how much nonstop running he did with the heavy plates.
Intuitively upon hearing the account as described by Joseph's mother, we try to recreate the scene in our mind. I imagine a boy carrying a 50 lb. weight and some man attacking him to get the plates and the boy perhaps being able to knock him down. I then wonder would that man just give up and then walk away? And then the 2nd man attacks the boy and then walks away. And then perhaps a 3rd man attacks Joseph and merely walks away as well?
Some of us have a hard time imagining a boy not getting completely exhausted traveling through the woods with such a weight, fighting off attackers and somehow still be in any sort of shape to keep his property from being taken by repeated attacks, especially after dislocating his thumb in the last attack.
And what of the attackers, would they not join forces to more easily engage the boy or did they merely each walk away in a different direction silently and not alert the other(s)? I have to wonder how did they each know to look for Joseph in those woods in the first place at the same time yet not be together?
I know if I was somehow unable to take something from a boy carrying a magnificent treasure, I would at least follow him to see what happened to the treasure. How could he possibly escape me carrying 50 lbs. of gold plates?
Also, one of the men according to Lucy "gave him a heavy blow with a gun". How could a such a man with a gun not be able to be able to rob Joseph, who was unarmed, of his treasure?
In the absence of details and given that this is perhaps a hearsay story with no written account by Joseph himself, no definitive conclusion can be reached as to what exactly happened to Joseph but the story, as told to us in church, seems extraordinary.
If the story is but a 'tall tale', regardless of its origins, it should not be taught in church as a true, historical account, as we have been taught growing up in the church, just to provide another faith-promoting event. Otherwise, it causes credibility problems for the church by casting doubt as well on other more fundamental church narratives that are essential to the church's claims to being restored through Joseph Smith.
The following very informative video by noted Mormon historian Dan Vogel describes the circumstances surrounding how Joseph first brought the plates to his family's house in 1827. In this video, Dan Vogel also recants the story mentioned above.