Attempts to steal the gold plates from Joseph Smith

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Attempts to steal the gold plates from Joseph Smith

Question: What did Joseph Smith say about efforts that were made to steal the gold plates from him?

Joseph said relatively little about efforts to steal the plates in his official history

59 At length the time arrived for obtaining the plates, the Urim and Thummim, and the breastplate. On the twenty-second day of September, one thousand eight hundred and twenty-seven, having gone as usual at the end of another year to the place where they were deposited, the same heavenly messenger delivered them up to me with this charge: that I should be responsible for them; that if I should let them go carelessly, or through any neglect of mine, I should be cut off; but that if I would use all my endeavors to preserve them, until he, the messenger, should call for them, they should be protected.

60 I soon found out the reason why I had received such strict charges to keep them safe, and why it was that the messenger had said that when I had done what was required at my hand, he would call for them. For no sooner was it known that I had them, than the most strenuous exertions were used to get them from me. Every stratagem that could be invented was resorted to for that purpose. The persecution became more bitter and severe than before, and multitudes were on the alert continually to get them from me if possible. But by the wisdom of God, they remained safe in my hands, until I had accomplished by them what was required at my hand. When, according to arrangements, the messenger called for them, I delivered them up to him; and he has them in his charge until this day, being the second day of May, one thousand eight hundred and thirty-eight. (Joseph Smith History 1:59-60)

Lucy Mack Smith: "They stood in the yard near the door, and were devising plans to find "Joe Smith's gold bible," as they expressed themselves"

Lucy Mack Smith's account of the retrieval of the gold plates:

My husband soon learned that ten or twelve men were clubbed together, with one Willard Chase, a Methodist class leader, at their head; and what was still more ridiculous, they had sent sixty or seventy miles for a certain conjuror, to come and divine the place where the plates were secreted.

We supposed that Joseph had taken the plates, and hid them somewhere, and we were apprehensive that our enemies might discover their place of deposit. Accordingly, the next morning, after hearing of their plans, my husband concluded to go among the neighbours to see what he could learn with regard to the plans of the adverse party. The first house he came to, he found the conjuror and Willard Chase, together with the rest of the clan. Making an errand, he went in and sat down near the door, leaving it a little ajar, in order to overhear their conversation. They stood in the yard near the door, and were devising plans to find "Joe Smith's gold bible," as they expressed themselves. The conjuror seemed much animated, although he had travelled sixty miles the day and night previous.

Presently, the woman of the house, becoming uneasy at the exposures they were making, stepped through a back door into the yard, and called to her husband, in a suppressed tone, but loud enough to be heard distinctly by Mr. Smith, "Sam, Sam, you are cutting your own throat." At this the conjuror [p.103] bawled out at the top of his voice, "I am not afraid of any body—we will have them plates in spite of Joe Smith or all the devils in hell." When the woman came in again, Mr. Smith laid aside a newspaper which he had been holding in his hand, and remarked, "I believe I have not time to finish reading the paper now." He then left the house, and returned home. Mr. Smith, on returning home, asked Emma, if she knew whether Joseph had taken the plates from their place of deposit, or if she was able to tell him where they were. She said, she could not tell where they were, or whether they were removed from their place. My husband then related what he had both seen and heard....

[104] The plates were secreted about three miles from home, in the following manner. Finding an old birch log much decayed, excepting the bark, which was in a measure sound, he lock, his pocket knife and cut the bark with some care, then turned it back, and made a hole of sufficient size to receive the plates, and laying them in the cavity thus formed, he replaced the bark; after which he laid across the log, in several places, some old stuff that happened to lay near, in order to conceal, as much as possible, the place in which they were deposited.

Joseph, on coming to them, took them from their secret place, and, wrapping them in his linen frock, placed them under his arm and started for home.

[105] After proceeding a short distance, he thought it would be more safe to leave the road and go through the woods. Travelling some distance after he left the road, he came to a large windfall, and as he was jumping over a log, a man sprang up from behind it, and gave him a heavy blow with a gun. Joseph turned around and knocked him down, then ran at the top of his speed. About half a mile further he was attacked again in the same manner as before; he knocked this man down in like manner as the former, and ran on again; and before he reached home he was assaulted the third time. In striking the last one he dislocated his thumb, which, however, he did not notice until he came within sight of the house, when he threw himself down in the corner of the fence in order to recover his breath. As soon as he was able, he arose and came to the house. lie was still altogether speechless from fright and the fatigue of running.

After resting a few moments, he desired me to send Carlos for my husband, Mr. Knight, and his friend Steal....[1]

Question: Is it 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?

The critics' claims

One anti-Mormon website claims that even at 40-60 lbs, the story of Joseph running with the plates is impossible.[2]

The critics claim:

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.

Nobody claims that Joseph "outran" the men

First, Lucy does not say that Joseph "outran" the men—in each case, a man tried to ambush him alone, and Joseph struck them and ran on. So, the key question would seem to be, "Was Joseph physically capable of incapacitating someone with a blow?" His well-known skill at wrestling and stick-pulling would suggest that he was. He does not have to outrun three men trying to trap him simultaneously.

Lucy also says that at least one of the men had traveled sixty miles the day and night before

Second, Lucy also says that at least one of the men had traveled sixty miles the day and night before. This suggests that he, at least, would not have been at his peak by the time he accosted Joseph, and probably more ill-suited to a long chase than the prophet.

Others have demonstrated such abilities

Third, this type of thing is not "inconceivable" at all:

  • God could well have blessed him beyond his own abilities. That said, Joseph was well-known for his strength and ability to do serious amounts of physical work, as well as wrestle and pull sticks—maybe he's in better physical shape than MormonThink wants to grant?
  • In a culture and time when all work is done by either human or animal muscle power, frontier farmers like the Smiths were likely in far better physical condition than most twenty-first century westerners.
  • Several people testified of the plates' weight, and they all knew Joseph Smith. None of them found the story inherently impossible. None of them challenged Joseph's tale—including his family who both knew him best and handled the plates.
  • Did you know that traditional Chinese martial artists recommend training in "hilly terrain" to build strength, and running with a rucksack containing 56 lbs for men, for a distance of at least 5 miles? (They emphasize that farmlife made such things doable anciently.)
  • During World War II, a Canadian infantry sergeant carried his friend on his shoulders for half a mile, while under continuous enemy fire. A wounded man weighs considerably more than fifty pounds, and he probably didn't loiter while under severe fire.
  • Hitler's SS trained to run 3 km (1.87 miles) in twenty minutes with full gear.[3]
  • Israel Defense Force officer candidates must past the "Loren test"—"scaling a two-meter wall, climbing a three-meter wall, completing an obstacle course, running two miles, and then target-shooting — all in under 22 minutes," and done in full battle gear.

While such feats are not easy, and are tiring (and Joseph had to rest a bit before even asking his mother to go get help), they are well within human ability, then and now.

Joseph's limp didn't hinder his physical ability

The critics claim:

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.

What evidence is there that Joseph's "slight limp" made it hard for him to run at high speed? Joseph managed fine during the Zion's Camp march of nearly a thousand miles on foot at 25-40 miles per day.[4] He'd had the limp since his boyhood operation, and was likely well-adjusted to it.

It also didn't seem to stop Joseph from competing well in footraces and high jumping:

. . . All of the Henrie boys were of the rugged athletic type and all were fairly big fellows. Daniel being the smallest, but he was strong and wirey. They loved to wrestle, run and jump and often did it in the less tense moments when they had time. The prophet also loved and excelled in these sports and one day Daniel related he walked up to one of their high corral gates—it came up to his chin as he measured it—then he walked back a little way, took a running jump, and cleared the gate easily. Daniel related that he often beat the Prophet racing and also at the high jump, but when the prophet thought it was his turn to win and he really tried, he could out them all.[5]

This doesn't sound like a man whose limp is crippling him--and Joseph was younger and likely more fit during the Book of Mormon translating period, when he was focused almost entirely on farming, rather than splitting his attention as required for Church administration.

Critics of the Church claim that the story of Joseph running with the plates is merely a "tall tale" simply because the believe that it can't be done

The critics claim:

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.

We have no reason to think the story of Joseph running with the plates is a "tall tale" save MormonThink's "argument from incredulity"—they don't believe it can be done, so therefore it's a tall tale. But, people clearly can and do do what Joseph claimed he did, especially when the story which his mother actually told (three separate attacks by individual men) is considered.

Daniel C. Peterson proved it possible in his production of Undaunted and Witnesses—films about the witnesses to the Book of Mormon plates

Daniel C. Peterson wrote the following for Meridian Magazine on this criticism.

Daniel C. Peterson, "Running through the forest with the Book of Mormon plates."

Later estimates of the weight of the gold plates of the Book of Mormon (by those who had briefly held them, such as the official witness Martin Harris and the unofficial witness William Smith) put that weight at somewhere in the range of forty to sixty pounds. Some critics, accordingly, have contended that Joseph Smith could not have carried them for any significant distance, let alone run with them through the woods. The plates — if they actually existed and weighed as much as the witnesses say they did — were simply too heavy. Thus, these critics argue, at least that portion of his story must be fraudulent.

With that argument in mind, I call your attention to a scene from the Interpreter Foundation’s Witnesses film project that depicts Joseph Smith, played by Paul Wuthrich, being chased by money diggers while he’s carrying the plates.

It appears briefly in the official trailer for Interpreter’s Witnesses theatrical film and is shown at relative length in the “overview” that is now available on the website of Interpreter’s docudrama, Undaunted:



I was not present on the outdoor “set” for that day’s filming, but here’s some background on the scene that is directly relevant to the critics’ argument. It’s based on communication with Russell Richins and James G. Jordan, who are, respectively, the producer and associate producer of Witnesses: Filming “Joseph Smith” with the plates, and running from and interacting with the attackers, took a considerable amount of time.

Knowing that filming the scene of Joseph running with the plates would require several hours, Paul Wuthrich was presented with the option of going with something lighter as a prop. He opted to use the two prop sets of plates that metallurgist Dave Baird had created, based on Baird’s careful research. Somewhat amusingly, one set came to be called the “non-hero set.” They weighed somewhere between thirty (30) and thirty-five (35) pounds. We’re more certain of the weight of the other set — unsurprisingly labeled the “hero set” — because Russell Richins weighed them himself. They came in at forty-five (45) pounds. In other words, at roughly the weight of the historical plates themselves.

During the relevant filming day, the two sets were switched out at various times. Sometimes the secondary or “non-hero” prop was used, and sometimes the “hero set.” “At all times,” comments Russell Richins, “when you see Paul Wuthrich running or using the plates in the scenes, he is using one of these two sets. Bottom line, Paul was in very similar circumstances that Joseph Smith faced except for this one exception – – Paul Wuthrich did it over and over and over again throughout the day. Yes, he was exhausted, but he did it. A whole crew witnessed it.”

Those who have not been involved with filming of this sort would, I think, be astonished at how many takes and re-takes need to be done for even relatively simple indoor scenes.

Paul Wuthrich ran down the hill repeatedly, carrying the plates, jumping over rocks and logs, trying to avoid low branches. He did it many times, for different takes, so that filming could be done from a variety of angles. He had to run down the hill with the plates, then climb up the hill once more with the plates, then run down the hill, then climb up the hill again.

I like Russell Richins’s summary statement:

Whether they want to accept it or not, people are going to have to face the fact that Joseph Smith, used to day labor and a very fit individual known for his strength, was fighting for his and the plates’ safety, perhaps even his life. Additionally, this claim would have been quite achievable for many young men of his time. Even Martin Harris lifted the plates, as did eight other rural Americans. People must remember that Martin Harris was older, but a farmer used to working physically. This was very common.Another interesting tidbit is that Annie Passman, about 16 years of age and playing Joseph Smith’s sister Katherine, lifted the hero, 45 pound, set of plates from the floor to the table throughout the entire day as we ran that scene many, many times while filming. Was it tiring? Yes. Was it doable? I think we have proven that clearly, in both cases.

And we’re not even invoking supernatural or divine aid.[6]

  1. Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool, S.W. Richards, 1853), 102, 104-5.
  2. website (as of 29 April 2012). Page:
  3. Christopher Ailsby, SS: Hell on the Eastern Front: The Waffen-SS War in Russia, 1941-1945 (Osceloa, WI: MBI Publishing Co., 1998), p. 18
  4. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 239.
  5. Mark L. McConkie, Remembering Joseph: Personal Recollections of Those Who Knew the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company, 2003), Henrie, William account citing Callie O. Morley, "History of William and Myra Mayall Henrie, Pioneers of 1847 and 1847," Delta, West Millard County, Utah, October 1955, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah, 4-5..(print version) ISBN 978-1570089633 GL direct link
  6. Daniel C. Peterson, "Running through the forest with the Book of Mormon plates," Meridian Magazine, January 17, 2021,