It all started with the claim that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from Gold Plates delivered to him by an angel. Where are these gold plates? Were there witnesses and, if so, how reliable are they? As before, we will look at the questions (Q) and answers (A) with comments (C) and quotes (Qu.)
Q: What are or were the "Golden Plates"?
A: The Book of Mormon was translated by Joseph Smith from records made on plates of gold, similar to metal plates that have been found in other ancient cultures. It contained a history of peoples in the Western Hemisphere including an appearance by the Savior to them. As such, the Book of Mormon is considered a second testimony of Jesus Christ.
C: The Bible lays great store by eyewitness accounts and Christians have always appreciated authentic testimony. In the Bible we have Luke’s carefully researched account of events “just as they were handed down to us by those who from were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (Lk.1:1-4). Luke tells how he “carefully investigated everything from the beginning.”
John declared, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory...” and later wrote:
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it...We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard...” (Jn.1:14; 1 Jn.1:1-4)
Paul wrote that Jesus “appeared to more than five hundred at one time, most of whom (at the time of writing) are still alive” (1 Cor.15:6)
These people established the largest religion in the world and went on, many of them, to die for their witness. Jesus said of his inner core of witnesses, “not one has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled” (Jn.17:12)
While Jesus’ resurrection was witnessed by hundreds, the Gold Plates had a very select group of witnesses. First there were three, all of whom denied and/or changed their story about seeing the Gold Plates and were all excommunicated from the church.
Originally there were only going to be three “witnesses” because Doctrine and Covenants 5:11-15 clearly states that there would only be three. But since these three proved so thoroughly unreliable Joseph Smith picked another eight.
Of the twelve three were Smith’s and five were Whitmer’s. All left the Mormon Church except Joseph Smith’s father and two brothers. There is, then, no credible evidence for the Gold Plates from which Smith claimed to translate the Book of Mormon so we can say with confidence that there were no Gold Plates.
As a postscript it is interesting that Joseph Smith began with three witnesses and ended with eleven witnesses because he subsequently laid great store by copying Jesus in having twelve apostles.