Before I delve into that question, I want to ask another: What are the small plates? (I suppose for the sake of this blog post we could simply call them Nephi’s Plates. After all, the rest of what complies the Book of Mormon came from the Plates of Mormon, right?). The small plates (or Nephi’s Plates) are what we know as 1 Nephi through Words of Mormon.
Where Were the Small Plates of Nephi located?
I drew these sketches a while back and upon showing them to my dad and brother we had a debate about where exactly the Title Page was located. Taken from The History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, vol. 1:71, Joseph Smith explains where the Title Page went. He says: “I wish to mention here that the title-page of the Book of Mormon is a literal translation, taken from the very last leaf, on the left hand side of the collection or book of plates, which contained the record which has been translated, the language of the whole running the same as all Hebrew writing in general…” To me, this reads that the Title Page was sandwiched between the Book of Mormon (what was translated) and the Sealed Portion (which wasn’t translated).
Were They in the Beginning?
No. We know that the first thing Joseph Smith translated was the Book of Lehi. Que the story of the lost 116 pages. If Nephi’s plates were at the beginning, Joseph Smith would have had to skip over the book and begin his translation in the Book of Lehi.
Were They at the End?
No. We know that the title page was take from “the last leaf of the plates, on the left hand side of the collection of plates” and that was the end of the plates. We also know that he sent this (the title page) to be copyrighted and received the certificate by June 11, 1829. We also know that right after this Joseph Smith moved to Fayette, New York with David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery where he FINISHED the translation at the Whitmer Farm. According to BYU professor John W. Welch, the translation of the book was completed by June 30, 1829.
Were They in the Middle?
This is what I always pictured simply because that’s how the book is constructed now. Throw out the Book of Lehi (because it’s lost) and the next part is the Plates of Nephi (1 Nephi through Words of Mormon). Upon viewing the Printer’s Manuscript we see that what we know as Mosiah 1 is actually labeled Mosiah 3. Probably what happened is that Oliver copied what he’d written in the Original Manuscript (from 1 Nephi through Words of Mormon) and then went on to copy what they did manage to retain from the Book of Mosiah (which was Chapter Three) realized that Chapter Three would now be Chapter One, and crossed out the roman numeral so that it read “I” instead of “III”. This could easily be a whole separate blog post, but to be short I’ll just move on. The conclusion is that with the Book of Mosiah starting at “Chapter III” would mean that the Book of Lehi and the Book of Mosiah were touching each other and the text was just such that when Martin Harris borrowed the manuscript, he borrowed the beginning of Mosiah as well. But like I said, that could be an entirely different blog post.
So, Where Were They?
I think in order to adequately relay to you where I believe the Small Plates were located, I need to give you a timeline for the translation of the plates.
December 1827 – Joseph and Emma move to her parent’s home in Harmony, Pennsylvania. They transport the plates in a barrel of beans.
Skip down to March 1829 – After the 116 pages were lost, and after a brief period of not translating, Joseph Smith continued translation with his wife Emma acting as scribe. Emma was busy and it soon became too much for her. Joseph Smith prayed for another scribe.
April 5, 1829 – Oliver Cowdery arrived in Harmony, Pennsylvania with Joseph’s brother Samuel.
April 7, 1829 – Oliver begins writing as scribe to Joseph. They begin translation near Mosiah 1 (or 3) where Joseph and Martin had left off.
April 1829 – During this month Joseph Smith received revelation for Sections 6, 7, 8, and 9 of the Doctrine and Covenants. I want to pay particular attention to Doctrine and Covenants 9:1-2. This section came about because Oliver wanted to translate, but the Lord desired him to “be content to write, for the time being” (chapter heading). Verse 1 and 2 read as follows: “Behold, I say unto you, my son, that because you did not translate according to that which you desired of me, and did commence again to write for my servant, Joseph Smith, Jun., even so I would that ye should continue until you have finished this record, which I have entrusted unto him. And then, behold, other records have I, that I will give unto you power that you may assist to translate.”
April 1829 – Doctrine and Covenants 10 was likely revealed during this time. Verses 38-46 speak of the Plates of Nephi.
May 16-31, 1829 – Through a series of miraculous events (see Chapter 7 of Saints, Volume 1) David Whitmer speedily arrives in Harmony.
June 1-3, 1829 – Before heading to the Whitmer Farm Joseph prays to know how he should transport the plates. (Perhaps he could conceal them in a barrel of beans as he had done previously.)
It is here that I must interject.
From the journal of Joseph Smith’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, we read that: “When Joseph commenced making preparations for the journey, he inquired of the Lord to know in what manner he should carry the plates; his answer was, that he should commit into the hands of an angel for [p. 151] their safety; and, when he should arrive at Mr. Whitmer’s, the angel would meet him again in the garden, and deliver them up again into his hands.”
June 1-3, 1829 – Joseph, Oliver, and David travel to the Whitmer Farm from Harmony to Fayette, New York (some 110 miles).
Here again, I must interject.
On their journey to Fayette, Joseph, Oliver and David pass a “very pleasant, nice-looking old man” on the road. David offers to give him a ride if he was going their way. “But he said very pleasantly, ‘No, I am going to Cumorah.’” David, who has never heard of such a place looks to Joseph for explanation and the man seemingly disappears. David describes the man as being about 5 feet 8 or 9 inches tall, heavy set, wearing a brown woolen suit, and sporting a white beard. The most important description for the man, however, was that he was described as carrying on his back “a sort of knapsack with something in, shaped like a book.” And without skipping a beat David identifies the man: “It was the messenger who had the plates, who had taken them from Joseph just prior to our starting from Harmony.” (All of these quotes are taken from an interview with David Whitmer, published in the The Latter-day Saints Millennial Star, No. 49, Vol. XL in 1878; some fifty years after the fact.)
So here we know that the plates that Joseph handed over to the messenger are heading to Cumorah, not the Whitmer Farm. And according to Google Maps, that’s roughly a 25 mile journey and somewhere close to an eight hour trip on foot.
Beginning of June 1829 – The same messenger gives plates to Joseph at the Whitmer Farm and he again commences the translation.
Shortly after in June 1829 – Mary Whitmer is overwhelmed with chores during the translation. She is visited by the messenger and is shown the plates.
June 30, 1829 Joseph Smith finishes the translation (according to Welch as stated above)
Witnessing the Plates
An article was published in the New Era back in 2007 titled “What Did the Golden Plates Look Like?” and I have read over this numerous times and find it very interesting. I also learned that most of the pictures that I’d seen of the plates were incorrect (such as what direction the book opens or the sealed portion looking solid instead of being held together by a clasp.) In reading over the article there are five main descriptions for the plates:
- Six inches wide, eight inches long -Joseph Smith, Jr.
- Six inches thick, two inches of that contained the Book of Mormon -Orson Pratt
- Bound by three “D” shaped silver rings -David Whitmer & Martin Harris
- “Pages as thick as parchment.” -David Whitmer
- Weighed 40-60 pounds. -Martin Harris
These are probably all familiar to you. But what might not be familiar to you is that each of these descriptions come from Joseph Smith, Jr. or one of the three witnesses (or from Orson Pratt who never viewed the plates himself). But did any of the eight witnesses personally describe the plates? To my knowledge the only description of the eight witnesses comes from Joseph Smith, Sr. In May of 1870 an interview was published in The Historical Magazine Vol. VIII, No. 5, forty years after the event took place. The interview was conducted by a man named Fayette Lapham and through his questions Joseph Smith, Sr. paints a very different picture of the golden plates.
- “About six inches wide, and nine or ten inches long”
- “Half an inch thick”
- “Held together by several gold rings”
- “It weighed thirty pounds”
Conclusion, there are two sets of plates!
One was retrieved out of the ground by Joseph Smith. When the translation was completed, Joseph Smith gave the plates to a messenger who took them to Cumorah. We read from The Testimony of the Three Witnesses that the next time Joseph saw these plates was when “an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before [their] eyes, that [they] beheld and saw the plates…”
The second set of plates was given to Joseph Smith by the same messenger who had taken Mormon’s Plates to Cumorah. (It was there that this messenger probably retrieved the Small Plates of Nephi.) Joseph Smith finishes the translation and shows the plates to the eight witnesses, as recorded in The Testimony of the Eight Witnesses. After their viewing of the plates, Joseph goes with several of the brethren to return the plates to the Hill Cumorah.
I have always loved the connection between Martin Harris losing the 116 pages and that of Nephi keeping a record that his father already kept “for a wise purpose in him, which purpose I know not” (1 Nephi 9:5). It’s wonderful to know that the Lord has backups for our mistakes and that the Lord’s work will not be frustrated. I also like the idea of the two sets of plates because it doesn’t seem to doom Martin Harris from the start. Certainly God knew that Martin would make this mistake. But having the record separate seems to shed some mercy on Martin Harris. That book was lost and so the Lord brought forth another to redeem what was lost.
In his explanation of the small plates, Mormon tell us that after he made an “abridgment” (which 1 Nephi is not) from the plates of Nephi “…[he] searched among the records ..and [he] found these plates” and “put them with the remained of [his] record, for they are choice unto [him]” (Words of Mormon 1:3,6). Now there are many ways Mormon could have “put them with” the rest of the Book of Mormon record, but it seems to make the most sense that he simply set them next to his record or simply kept them in close proximity. I think it is important to note that Nephi’s record (which he made with his own hand – 1 Nephi 1:3) was made some thirty years after he and his family left Jerusalem in 600 B.C. while Mormon’s abridgments weren’t made until 385 A.D. There’s no reason to think that both records were kept on the same size of plates or that the rings were in exactly the same places, or even made of the same material.