It’s been almost 9 months since the LDS History Dept released the topic essay on the Book of Mormon Translation, in which they admit that "Joseph placed the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument." I joked at the time that God made “Reformed English” appear from the “Reformed Egytpian” written on the plates because the original manuscript was so chock-a-block with mistakes (4000+) that God needs remedial lessons in the English language.
Little did I know that Daniel C Peterson would take that “Reformed English” idea so serious. Peterson claimed and quoted others that the Book of Mormon doesn’t use “the Modern English that we typically use today… It clearly draws on a wide array of … language forms and syntax from the Early Modern English period, some of them obscure and inaccessible to virtually everyone 200 years ago.” And, "The original English Book of Mormon is... “in large part” an Early Modern English text, “even reaching back in time to the transition period” from late Middle English into Early Modern English."
Apparently there is growing consensus in what critics have been claiming for decades: The gold plates were not needed at all to produce the Early Modern (or late Middle) English text of the Book of Mormon. It all appeared in a vision (or the mind) of Joseph Smith when he stared into darkness. Amazing? Probably not as much as Peterson would like.
Still Will Hamblin, another regarded LDS Apologist, released photos on his blog recently showing gold plates that existed in ancient Italy (ca. 2500 years ago) that resemble the descriptions Joseph Smith gave.
Witnesses, Smith’s wife and a few others still contended that there were actual plates, even if Smith did not need them proximate to envision the Book of Mormon words floating inside a hat.
So, were there plates or not?
Some thoughtful analysis says no way, because gold plates of the size he claimed would have weighed perhaps over 100 lbs--enough that his story of running with them under arm, fending off would be thieves, could not have happen.
Apologists have re-countered saying that the plates were not pure gold, just golden in appearance. They find in South America evidence that Amerindians worked in a gold alloy called Tumbaga, which is primarily copper with some gold mixed in.
Other critics believe Joseph Smith made mock plates, perhaps of tin, because he wasn't rich enough to own any gold. Let’s assess the data…
If the plates actually existed, then they weighed around 50-60lbs according to those that hefted them (in the box or under cloth). The dimensions that "witnesses" offer of the box or the plates under the cloth, of 6x8x6 inches (or just under 300 cubic inches in volume). The plates were about as thin as "common tin" or ~0.5-1mm thick. See this wiki entry. Apologists agree with these values. (See https://www.lds.org/ensign/1986/12/i-have-a-question for example.)
If these are accepted, then pure gold plates would have a weight of between 100-210lbs (the upper weight if the volume were pure gold without spaces), more than double what witnesses claim. (The calculation is based on gold's density of 0.7 lbs/cubed-inch X 300 cubed-inches ~= 210lbs solid mass, and 100 lbs for 50% empty space.)
Critics have contended that if he had actual plates (a big question) they were likely tin, because that would be financially accessible and workable by frontier folk like Smith. http://www.utlm.org/newsletters/no105.htm
I doubt either gold or tin. Tin is not the right color. Though, it has a density of 0.26 lbs/cubed-inch and as such would have a volume weight for the plates around 40-80lbs. Tumbaga, as apologists claim, of mostly copper would fit the story if the plates had been from ancient American sources. Still, copper is about the right weight, with a density of 0.32 lbs/cubed-inch giving it a volume weight of around 50-90lbs.
My proposal is that IF the plates ever existed, we can assume that Smith simply thought of a book, but knowing paper couldn't endure thousands of years, proposed the ear-catching golden plates. And he could have easily made a forgery set of plates from brass-plated copper. It would be cheap, engravable, the correct weight and gold in color. Copper plates were used regularly (and for hundreds of years before Smith) by printshops. Most cheap copper plates were right around 1mm thick, though some expensive ones are thicker. Copper printing plateswere tossed away or re-used. Plates the size of a book page (6x8 inches) would be quite accessible in the bins outside a printshop.
Historical copper plate
The only problem is, copper is not gold in color. That is easily remedied by brass-plating them, which even a novice apprentice-blacksmith could do simply using zinc powder and lye (sodium hydroxide). This trick is done in elementary school science classes, using pennies.
Interestingly, Oliver Cowdery had apprenticed as a blacksmith and was adequately good at it before turning to teaching. See the 1890 (google scanned) book History of Utah: 1540-1886 By Hubert Howe Bancroft, Alfred Bates.
See this LDS CES manual reference to Oliver Cowdery as blacksmith.
Also this 1884 book.
And this 1913 book.
Once you have gold-colored plates, all that was needed was to scratch some "caractors" (characters that may have come from the Detroit manuscript with latin short-hand script) into the surface of the plates (engraving copper plates are made just for that purpose).
One can also imagine that it's far too much work to scratch a whole novel of made-up "caractors" into dozens of plates. Used printer plates would have engravings on at least one side and it would be apparent what they were on very close inspection. Cursory glances of a few unused blank plates ontop and used plates under them would suffice to "prove" the claims Smith made. The rest of the throw-away printer-engraven plates could be fastened together in a sealed portion, to make it look much more involved and real, without the risk of exposing the trick. Hence the sealed portion. And the reason the plates were not needed for translation, nor allowed to be seen except by a few witnesses who were family and already believers.
Of course, even at 50-60lbs, running with these fabricated plates would still prove very challenging, as exhibited by this fun test. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=08wRRff8x0k
The LDS History dept and apologists are the ones who are running with a heavy burden. They are burdened with an antiquated story full of holes about the founding of their religious organization. The Apostles are out of breath, Running with the Olden Plates.
Interestingly, Joseph Smith may have conned others with forged plates, but he himself was conned with other forged plates. These are the famed Kinderhook plates, which scientist analyzed and found to be 19th century forgeries. Plate forgery in the mid 19th century was easy enough and fooled many, at least good enough to trick the LDS church into the 20th century (~1980). Faithful frontier witnesses of plates surely were as gullible.