Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Conservation of matter; or, why did Moroni take the plates back?

Having grown up in the Church, there are certain details about Mormon history that I have never really thought about before. These stories have always just been. Every once in a while an aspect will jump out at me that I have never considered as an adult.

One thing that has been bothering me lately is the fact that Moroni took back the golden plates from Joseph once he was done translating. Actually, that is not entirely accurate. Despite the fact that we say Moroni took the plates back, he didn't have them in the first place. They were sitting underground for 1200 years, not in heaven. Anyway, I think the common explanation for this is that we wouldn't have to have faith if there was a stack of finely engraved golden plates lying in the First Presidency vault. I don't know if I necessarily agree with this, but this isn't the part that bugs me.

What disturbs me is the lack of conservation of matter. Removal of an artifact from Earth to wherever the angels hang out seems to be unprecedented in the history of the world. God is omnipotent. He doesn't have to beam down here for cheeseburgers. It just seems odd that he would send an angel to physically remove something. Has God ever taken physical objects (not counting humans) from our world into his before? Was the city of Enoch translated along with all of their buildings too?

Secondly, why bother having the plates at all? We know that Joseph barely looked at them; often they were hidden in nearby woods while he translated indoors. He presumably could have made the same translation even had the plates never existed, just like his translation of the Book of Moses. Why mess with the reformed Egyptian and smelting ore to make plates, and laboriously engraving them if they are just going to function as a "faith intensifier" for Joseph?

Are the plates sitting up in heaven or have they served their purpose? If, say, we receive more of the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon, will Moroni have to physically deliver the plates back to the prophet? Why were they okay underground for so long, but now they have to be safe-guarded in heaven?

Obviously, I don't have any answers to these questions. The golden plates are very interesting because of their sheer physicality. It would have been much, much easier for Joseph to just get revelations through his stone, whether he was a true prophet or not. Why didn't he?


Anonymous said...

Where did you hear that the plates were in the woods while Joseph was translating? I learned that they were in the room covered by a sheet. I specifically remember a story about Emma and how she was allowed to feel the plates under the sheet but not see them.

I'm also not sure that Moroni took the plates to heaven. I've heard that they're back under the rock on Cumorah and guarded by angels.

As for why they're not in some special locked church archive in Salt Lake-- well, really you'd have to ask God. But my two cents on the matter are: not only are they safer under God's direct guardianship but the church was safer without them. How many times was Jospeh attacked by people who didn't believe in his "gold bible" but who were perfectly willing to try to take it from him anyway? How was God's gospel to be restored if His prophet was constantly being hounded and robbed? We know how much trouble Joseph and the church had when they DIDN'T have the plates. Imagine how much worse it would have been if they had. I just think that the golden plates, because of their extraordinary nature, were too much of a distraction from the gospel. God wanted us to focus on His words, not the physical structures they were written on.

Jay S said...

Thought provoking on where they are now.

But some thoughts on why the plates existed
1) They served a purpose for the saints in the Americas. Just as the church keeps records and referes to them for guidance, I would think that the church leaders in the Ancient Americas would need the records

2) Had the revelation been given straight to joseph smith the witnesses would not be able to bear testimony of the existence of the plates.

Anonymous said...

Maybe there were no plates. Just a thought.

Wendy said...

I was born and raised in the church and married in the temple and this entire topic has me rolling on the floor laughing.

Two words: FAIRY TALE.

Wendy said...

P.S. I love that you bring up the tough topics Ned.

Anonymous said...

Wendy, I'm so sorry that you feel the need to laugh at the beliefs of others.

Katie said...

Anonymous, I'll take someone honest enough to laugh at something with their name posted, over someone who is too much of a wimp to put a name with their grievances.

Wendy said...

Anon, I'm sorry if I offended you. Like I mentioned...I was raised with these beliefs. I still consider myself Mormon, if not a true beleiver. You have to admit that so much about Mormon theology is pretty far-fetched. It all comes down to faith.

Once again, sorry for the offense! I usually have more restraint.

NFlanders said...

Thanks for the comments so far. First of all I should clarify: it is my understanding that the plates were usually in the room with Joseph (covered under a blanket) while he translated, even though he apparently didn't look at them directly very often.

What I meant was that on at least one occasion, he was able to translate with the plates hidden in the nearby woods, even though this wasn't his standard operating procedure.

Secondly, I agree with Jay S. that the plates served the Nephites well as a repository of scripture and a keeper of history. (Although I have some big questions about how the rest of the common people were able to "read the scriptures" if there was only the golden and brass plates copy.)

It seems to me that a less permanent record could have served te same purpose with much less hassle.

Jay's point about the fact that there would be no "Eight Witnesses" is also a good one. However, we would still have the testimony that the Three Witnesses saw an angel. How much help does the testimony of the Eight Witnesses give us in the modern Church? I don't know. I just hope it was worth Nephites lugging around a very heavy mass for 1200 years.

Heather P. said...

Kind of a tangent, one thing that has bothered me is how they say in seminary and places like that the Book of Mormon is "for our day" and that the people of that day never ever saw what had been written. I won't argue with the first part of that statement, but I think that the recorded words must have been fairly widespread then too. They had some means of disseminating information physically (see Mosiah 2:8). When Nephi and Lehi think of what their father said in Helaman 5:6-12, Helaman mentions what some of the earlier prophets taught. it's true that he's a prophet and had the plates, but it seems to me that he talks about it as if it is common knowledge.

I don't know about the plates.

Anonymous said...

Huh? Who's laughing? All I said was that there were no plates, maybe. No smileys, no guffawing, just my opinion. Just a thought.

I mean, the Church is moving away from the idea that Lamanites were NOT the primary ancestors of the Native Americans, and that skin color does not become lighter with righteousness (even though President Spencer W. Kimball said it does).

So it's entirely plausible that 50 years from now the Church will state that there were no literal gold plates.

NFlanders said...

Good point, Heather P. I have always wondered just how the scriptures were disseminated in that time. Were there paper copies? Mini-plates? Just an oral tradition?

Regardless, it seems that the brass and golden plates would have served as a central repository of knowledge and religious authority. It is surprising there weren't power struggles over the plates or a religious structure formed around them.

Anonymous-- I don't think the Church can ever deny the reality of the plates. To do so would be to contradict JS, Emma, and the 3 and 8 witnesses. I can see them moving to a more agnostic view, though. "We don't really know what was going on then, we just accept that the BoM came forth somehow."

Anonymous said...


I didn't post a name because I'm not a member of this blogging site and it didn't give me a place to post a name. And I fail to see how my response gave offense. Some one did deeply offend me but I didn't get aggressive or rude in response. It DOES sadden me when people laugh at or belittle someone else's beliefs, whether or not those beliefs are also my own.

On Topic: It makes perfect sense to me that the plates were made of an easily available, easily carvable metal. If, as seems likely, they were being written in Central America then they needed something that wouldn't be eaten by the humid atmosphere. They also needed something that wouldn't wear out with repeated use and just plain time. Our copies are nice but I think that after 1200 years they'd be kind of hard to read. Sure they could re-copy the pages but that would put us in the same position we are in with the Bible-- things being lost due to human error and such.

Wendy: Apology accepted and I'm sorry in my turn if my response offended you.

--harpingheather, who also posted comment #1.

Ann said...

Ned, God has indeed come to earth for physical objects. See This article

Stephen said...

At one time there was so much gold coming out of the Americas it drove the gold/silver exchange rate down to 4 to 1 (it has traditionally been around 15 to 1 until modern times where gold has been ahead of silver on a basis other than ore availability).

Lots of records and other artifacts were melted down and lost. Thousands of tons of them.

The plates are probably with the ark of the covenant.

A. Nonny Mouse said...

Hey there, Mistah Flanders.

I've found a couple of verses in the BOM over the years that seem to indicate that things other than plates were written on by BOM peoples/cultures:

Jacob 4:2 -
"But whatsoever things we write upon anything save it be upon plates must perish and vanish away"

Omni 1:20 -
"And it came to pass in the days of Mosiah, there was a large stone brought unto him with engravings on it..."

Alma 14:8 -
"... and they also brought forth their records which contained the holy scriptures, and cast them into the fire also, that thye might be burned and destroyed by fire."

In the first verse, Jacob seems to be indicating that there were other things written on, but they knew that those things were temporary... i.e. paper documents don't stand the test of time very well.

In the second verse, we learn that stones were written on, at least by the Jaredite-era folk.

And in the last verse, it seems pretty apparent that 1. the common folk, who are being burned here, along with their records, are in possession of the scriptures and 2. the records are capable of being destroyed by a good ol' book-burning.

Now, I realize the third versus doesn't really say anything about the material the scriptures were written on -- with a hot enough fire, you could burn golden plates and destroy the writing on them, too -- but it seems at least compatible with a non-gold plates theory of scripture transmission among the Nephites/BOM Christians. At any rate, it clarifies that the commoners had the scriptures, too.

Interesting side correlations with Mayan culture occur here, too. (Clearly the Maya are not Lamanites or Nephites, but I think the archaelogical congruencies are interesting.) The ancient Maya commonly wore paper crowns and other pieces of clothing. We know they exist from the records they left in stone, but I don't believe many, if any, of the paper crowns have ever been found, because they were destroyed by nature. We know the Maya made paper (the tools they used to make it are well attested in the archaelogical record) and yet we have only a handful of books (4 or 5? I can't remember) that they wrote, most of which were written at the time the Conquistadores took over. So, even though this culture used paper extensively, we have nary a piece of paper with a bit of useful Mayan on it. Paper records, it seems, are just not that good at standing the test of time.

NFlanders said...

Stephen-- Everyone knows that Indiana put the Ark of the Covenant in government storage. Are you suggesting a Mormon-themed Indiana Jones 5?

A. Nonny Mouse-- Thanks for the scriptures. I wish there were less oblique references to this, but thanks for tracking down what is there.