The Lost Plates of Nephi

It was the summer of 1828, and Joseph Smith had a problem: after two months of laborious dictation, his 116-page handwritten manuscript had disappeared. His then scribe, a sheepish Martin Harris, confessed that he had lost it. They had nothing to show for their labors. Joseph Smith had just suffered the 19th century equivalent of a 90’s era word processor crashing at the worst moment.

Smith’s mother remembered solemn and penitent words coming from her son’s mouth: “All is lost! All is lost! What shall I do? I have sinned—it is I who tempted the wrath of God.”1 Whether or not the quote is word-for-word authentic, the emotions seem right. The event was impactful enough to induce Smith to dictate his first known written revelation,2 now ensconced as section 3 of the Doctrine and Covenants, heralding his arrival as a prophetic figure. The revelation chides him for trusting Harris, described therein as a “wicked man,” providing an insight into Smith’s anger and state of mind at the time. The text is not all doom and gloom, though; the revelation offers hope, telling Smith he was still chosen to produce the so far unnamed record. The revelation also bought him some time, while neglecting to offer a solution to the problem. That’s not to suggest he quickly recovered from his disappointment; a year later, he would vent his frustration over the episode in an oddly personal preface he prepared for the Book of Mormon.

Smith’s tragedy has a silver lining, though: it forced him to construct the text in an unconventional order, giving him a second crack at the beginning of the book, which he would go on to compose last. As noted by historian Brent Metcalfe, “Smith’s loss of the 116 pages is Book of Mormon interpreters’ gain. The misplacement, theft, or destruction of the Book of Lehi, eventually leading the despondent prophet to dictate 1 Nephi-Words of Mormon last, unveils an unprecedented glimpse into the formation of a sacred text.”3

Reading the Book of Mormon in the order Smith dictated it provides opportunities to peek into his thought process and the development of his ideas. In order to glean insights from a critical reading, one must be prepared to discard previous assumptions and read the text anew. In some ways, it is a detriment to read a text with the benefit of hindsight; ironically, that hindsight blinds us to the process of discovery. One aspect of the text that merits closer inspection and a critical eye – that is usually misinterpreted – is the solution to the lost material itself, the so-called “Small Plates of Nephi.”

Finding a solution

No matter what strategy he chose, recreating the 116 lost pages was going to be a challenge for Smith. He would not take up the endeavor again until April of 1829, nearly a year later, shortly after meeting Oliver Cowdery. That May, Smith produced his second revelation on the topic. 4 Unlike the first, this revelation offered some instructions on how to deal with the missing material, and addressed the dangers of recreating it. Now known as Section 10 of the LDS Doctrine and Covenants (which includes some strategic edits to insert the “Urim and Thummim” into the opening verse), the revelation assumes that only a word-for-word reproduction would pass inspection, and posits that the missing manuscript is being kept for such a comparison. Assuming the work was the spontaneous result of Smith’s imagination, such a reproduction would obviously be impossible. The revelation itself claims that retranslation would produce a perfect copy, but warns that those holding onto the manuscript would nevertheless alter their version to manufacture a discrepancy.

The idea persists, among both faithful and disillusioned Mormons, that the “Small Plates of Nephi” are the proffered solution here. However, that notion is incorrect, the result of projecting hindsight onto the relevant texts. The idea that Nephi maintained a smaller, redundant set of plates is not conceived of here, and wouldn’t be introduced until much later in the process of the dictation, as we shall see.

The Plates of Nephi

Per Metcalfe, Joseph Smith would have resumed his dictation in what is currently the beginning chapters of Mosiah (some of this early material would have been the terminus of the 116 page manuscript, but not lost), so in order to experience the existing Book of Mormon in the same order that Smith dictated it, we should begin our reading here. The first chapter in Mosiah mentions two sets of plates: the Plates of brass (which were brought over from Jerusalem and contained many Old Testament writings) and the Plates of Nephi. Notice only one set of “Plates of Nephi” is mentioned here, without any qualifiers such as “large” or “small.” King Benjamin instructs his sons to read them both, noting that the plates of Nephi contain “the records and the sayings of our fathers from the time they left Jerusalem until now.” That is, the Plates of Nephi are a multi-generation first-person account that has been handed down for hundreds of years. Verse eight also offers a clue that we are reading a redaction rather than the raw text from the plates of Nephi themselves, saying “many more things did king Benjamin teach his sons, which are not written in this book.” The May 1829 revelation likewise references that the account so far is a redaction of the Plates of Nephi: “an account of those things that you have written, which have gone out of your hands, is engraven upon the plates of Nephi; Yea, and you remember it was said in those writings that a more particular account was given of these things upon the plates of Nephi.” Although the name and nature of the redactor is not described until much later,5 we shall refer to the redacted record hereafter as the “Plates of Mormon,” keeping in mind that they are so far described as a redaction of a singular set of plates known as the “Plates of Nephi.” The idea of passing the Plates of Nephi down from generation to generation and appending new information to them is repeated throughout the volume.

However, modern Mormons usually describe not one, but two separate Plates of Nephi, in addition to the Plates of Mormon. The “Brief Explanation About The Book Of Mormon” included in the beginning of the Book of Mormon makes such a distinction. But it’s notable that from the Book of Mosiah all the way through the Book of Moroni, there isn’t a single mention of a second set of Plates of Nephi. They are always referred to as a single volume.6

The singular nature of the plates during this period of the transcription is consistent with other contemporaneous texts. Returning to the May 1829 revelation (D&C 10), we notice that here, too, there is no sense of dual Plates of Nephi. Modern readers often project the dual meaning of the plates onto these texts, interpreting them to mean one set of plates or another, or even both combined. But observed in its proper context, and without our assumptions imputed onto it, the text clearly refers to a single set of plates.

For example, multiple LDS manuals erroneously state that D&C 10 refers to the small plates: “the Lord commanded that Joseph Smith not retranslate the portion of the plates from which the 116 pages had been translated. Instead, the Lord commanded the Prophet to translate the record contained on the small plates of Nephi.”7 Another manual states, “The Prophet was commanded to translate the small plates to replace the 116 lost pages (see D&C 10:43–45).”8 This misconception is frequently propagated by faithful scholars and apologists as well.9 But D&C never describes the small plates. D&C refers to only two sets of plates: The Plates of Nephi, and their redaction (the Plates of Mormon). Note carefully what Smith is instructed to do:

And now, verily I say unto you, that an account of those things that you have written, which have gone out of your hands, is engraven upon the plates of Nephi; Yea, and you remember it was said in those writings that a more particular account was given of these things upon the plates of Nephi. And now, because the account which is engraven upon the plates of Nephi is more particular concerning the things which, in my wisdom, I would bring to the knowledge of the people in this account—Therefore, you shall translate the engravings which are on the plates of Nephi, down even till you come to the reign of king Benjamin, or until you come to that which you have translated, which you have retained; And behold, you shall publish it as the record of Nephi…Behold, they have only got a part, or an abridgment of the account of Nephi. Behold, there are many things engraven upon the plates of Nephi which do throw greater views upon my gospel; therefore, it is wisdom in me that you should translate this first part of the engravings of Nephi, and send forth in this work.

D&C 10:38-45, emphasis added

Joseph Smith is not told about a second, redundant set of Plates of Nephi. He is instructed to translate the original Plates of Nephi. This is clear for a few reasons:

  1. Smith is instructed to translate the Plates of Nephi down to the reign of king Benjamin, or until he comes to that which he has already translated. The instructions about where to terminate his translation implies the record goes beyond the reign of Benjamin. Later, the revelation refers to this section as “the first part” of the engravings of Nephi, again emphasizing that this is only a portion of the plates of Nephi. The small plates end at the reign of King Benjamin, and are reproduced in their entirety in the modern Book of Mormon, so this cannot be referring to the small plates.
  2. Smith is reminded of a previous passage from the manuscript that “a more particular account” was given on the plates of Nephi. Words of Mormon informs us that Mormon wasn’t even aware of the small plates while redacting those passages, and randomly stumbled across them at around the same point in the narrative where Smith resumes dictation. Likewise, Smith could not be reminded of a reference to the small plates that had not been written yet (as they aren’t mentioned anywhere from Mosiah through Moroni). The Plates of Nephi referred to here must be the same set that Mormon has been abridging.
  3. Perhaps most importantly, the revelation specifically ties the source of the abridgment (ie the “large” plates) to the account Smith must later translate, emphasizing that the lost 116 pages contain only “a part, or an abridgment” of Nephi’s account, and telling Joseph that he will supply this missing material in its expanded version.

The Plates of Mormon are not an abridgement of the small plates, and are never described as such (on the contrary, the small plates are described by Nephi as having an abridgement of his father’s record). The small plates have seemingly not been invented yet when this revelation is created. Smith is asked to translate the Plates of Nephi, those which we now often refer to as the Large Plates of Nephi. The small plates, in fact, are never actually named after Nephi anywhere in the the Book of Mormon.

Of course, Smith never fulfilled that obligation. He never provided a translation of the first portion of the [large] Plates of Nephi. Instead, he introduced an entirely new set of plates.

Another contemporaneous example is found on the Title Page of the Book of Mormon. Smith claimed the title page was translated from the final leaf of the Golden Plates, representing Moroni’s final word. However, we know that the title page was dictated no later than the first few days of June 1829, previous to the completion of the transcription process, for inclusion with the copyright application for the Book of Mormon.10 The Title Page mentions only the singular “Plates of Nephi,” which is described there once again as the source for Mormon’s abridgment. It also mentions the abridgment of the Book of Ether, but not the small plates.

A New Record

The idea of a second, smaller set of plates doesn’t appear until 1 Nephi, which comes after Mosiah through Moroni in dictation order. There, Nephi describes his record as an abridgement of his father’s record.11 Later, Nephi describes this new record as “not the plates upon which I make a full account of the history of my people.” He goes on to say that the larger, more complete volume he he has “given the name of Nephi; wherefore, they are called the plates of Nephi,” This is also the first time he describes the large plates as being more secular in comparison to the small plates. He does not give the small plates a name here, reinforcing that the “Plates of Nephi” are not the small plates. The secular vs spiritual nature of the plates is repeated in 1 Nephi 19. There, Nephi reiterates the expectation that those plates are to be passed down from generation to generation. He also mentions that the smaller plates may have “other wise purposes, which purposes are known unto the Lord,” a coy hint that these plates were prepared specifically to account for the future lost 116 page manuscript.

This second set of plates is first referred to as the “small plates” in Jacob 1:1, but are still not described as the Plates of Nephi or the Small Plates of Nephi. In fact, the first (and only) proper name given to them is the “Plates of Jacob.” It is unlikely that this could have been an error where “Book of Jacob” was intended, since the description specifically alludes to the physical crafting of the plates.12 Jacob does later refer to the large plates as the “other plates of Nephi,”13 although the phrasing is ambiguous as to whether that implies the small plates also ought to be known as the Plates of Nephi. Mormon, in Words of Mormon, likewise only refers to the large plates as the Plates of Nephi. His remarks offer some insight on why the small plates might more properly be known as the Plates of Jacob, in spite of his relatively minor contribution: “…and I found these plates, which contained this small account of the prophets, from Jacob down to the reign of this king Benjamin, and also many of the words of Nephi.”

In contrast to the singular nature of the Plates of Nephi from Mosiah through Moroni, which are sometimes described in conjunction with the brass plates but never the small plates, the large and small plates are nearly always differentiated from each other from 1 Nephi through Words of Mormon. This pattern spans multiple “authors,” including Nephi, Jacob, Jarom, Abinidom, and Mormon.14 When the text is read in Mosiah priority order, it is clear that the “small plates” were a late invention in the creation of the text.

One predictable objection to my interpretation is that the lack of differentiation between the plates from Mosiah through Moroni is expected since the small plates were only maintained up until the reign of King Benjamin. Some faithful interpreters point to Mormon’s discovery of the plates as described in Words of Mormon as evidence that the small plates were not known by the later authors. However, this does not accord with all the evidence. Mormon himself claims he discovered the small plates at precisely the same point in time of the abridgment where Words of Mormon is inserted, while still describing King Benjamin’s reign.15 This means that he is aware of both sets of plates for the entirety of the extant Book of Mormon. Yet, Mormon never describes the small plates in any of his editorial insertions where he mentions the plates of Nephi, nor in his personal account, until we arrive at Words of Mormon, the last section to be dictated by Smith. Neither does Moroni ever mention them. Neither is it mentioned in the final leaf (the title page) nor in the Lord’s revelation to Smith on the matter, which specifically directs Smith to the large plates instead. It’s also notable that the Plates of Nephi are frequently mentioned in conjunction with the brass plates, another set of plates with a closed canon, but never with the small plates.

Introducing the Discrepancy

The most obvious impetus for Smith introducing the small plates rather than stick to his divinely revealed plan of translating the Plates of Nephi is time. The 116 pages represented an abridgment of the Plates of Nephi; by promising the source material in place of the abridgment, Smith had unwittingly signed up to produce a manuscript larger and more comprehensive than the original one. A second, smaller volume would be a very attractive alternative. This theory elegantly explains the Book of Mormon’s emphasis on the size difference between the two sets of plates (one smaller, one larger). It can also explain the supposed difference in content. As mentioned before, the small plates are self-described as less interested in history, and more interested in spiritual matters. This description has long puzzled readers of the Book of Mormon, who often note that both sections of the Book of Mormon are a blend of history and theological discourse. The supposed difference in tone is difficult to detect. However, this explanation allows Smith to breeze through hundreds of years of history once the origin story of the Nephites and Lamanites is adequately explained. The Book of Omni advances the narrative almost 200 years in a single chapter without saying almost anything at all. Claiming that a fuller history is contained on the other plates allows Smith this kind of liberty.

It must be noted that Smith never addressed the discrepancy head-on. The language in the May 1829 revelation was preserved for both the Book of Commandments and included in a preface for the 1830 Book of Mormon. The first description of the small plates as “the Small Plates of Nephi” that I can find is in an 1857 edition of the Millenial Star, which describes all the many sources within the Book of Mormon and other books of scripture:

Nephi’s second or small plates were made by him, at the command of God, for the especial purpose that there should be engraven thereon the more plain and precious parts of the ministry, prophecies, and things of God. They contained but a very brief account of the history of the Nephites and Lamanites. In common with the first plates, they were called the Plates of Nephi. They were also called the Plates of Jacob, and were handed down from one prophet to another, together with the larger plates (and other records), with which they were associated by king Benjamin. These small plates of Nephi were put by Mormon with his abridgment.

The Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star, Volume 19. “Originals of the Bible and Book of Mormon.” 1857

The discrepancy is apparently subtle enough to not have attracted attention, and the description given in the Millennial Star is more likely a genuine interpretation rather than an apologetic gambit. With the hindsight of the Book of Mormon narrative in place, it’s easy to assume the small plates are being referenced in D&C 10, even though a close reading reveals otherwise, and even though the small plates are never actually named after Nephi anywhere in the text itself. The fact that both plates are apparently crafted by Nephi also adds to the confusion. This connection between the May 1829 revelation and the “small plates” was codified in Orson Pratt’s footnotes in the 1879 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.

Conclusion

The realization that the Plates of Nephi refer exclusively to the “large” plates may seem like arcane nit-picking, but it challenges certain LDS narratives. First, because Joseph Smith never actually provided the translation that his own revelation promised. The Plates of Nephi never appear anywhere except in redacted form. They are, in a sense, “lost.” Second, because the small plates were apparently a late invention in the process, going unmentioned in places where we’d expect to see it in a literal interpretation of the text. Both are discrepancies which cast doubt on a traditional reading of the Book of Mormon as a literal historical text, but which are easily explained when Smith’s authorship is assumed. It also reshapes some critical readings of the text; one oft-repeated trope is that the loss of the 116 page manuscript inadvertently shifted Smith’s focus to be more religious than secular, when in fact, this distinction is invented quite late in the process to allow Smith the liberty to hastily finish his work. No matter which perspective one comes from, the confusion around the “Plates of Nephi” must be resolved as the source of Mormon’s abridgment, and nothing else.

Glossary

Recognizing that the various names of plates and books can be confusing, the following glossary is provided for your convenience:

  • The Book of Mormon: The book of scripture published by Joseph Smith, Jr. in 1830, purporting to be a record of ancient American prophets that Smith translated by the power of God.
  • Nephi: The first voice in the Book of Mormon as it is published today, a prophet that led his family to America from Jerusalem in 600 BC.
  • Mormon: A prophet/historian living in the 4th century AD in America, that redacted several sets of plates into the volume later translated as the Book of Mormon, often inserting editorial remarks and summarizing historical events from his sources.
  • The Brass Plates: A set of plates that Nephi stole from Jerusalem, containing the writings of the Old Testament up to their time, which he brought to America. These plates are described as being passed down generation to generation.
  • The Plates of Nephi: A set of plates that Nephi crafted that contained the history and preaching of his people. This set of plates was passed down from generation to generation, each prophet/historian adding to it, until it reached Mormon in the 4th century AD. Traditionally divided into two sets of plates (the larger and smaller) by LDS adherents, this essay makes the case that in fact it only ever refers to the larger set of plates.
  • The Plates of Ether: Twenty-four plates telling the history of the Jaredites, a civilization that preceded the Nephites, which was destroyed.
  • The Plates of Mormon: An abridgment of the Plates of Nephi by the prophet/historian Mormon, and an abridgement of the twenty-four Plates of Ether. Also includes his own remarks, and his son Moroni’s following Mormon’s death. Comprises the books of Mosiah through Moroni in the Book of Mormon.
  • 116-page Manuscript: A manuscript dictated by Joseph Smith, which Martin Harris lost, it contained a translation of the Plates of Mormon up until the reign of King Benjamin.
  • The Small Plates: Often called the “Small Plates of Nephi,” but this is a misnomer by LDS adherents, as described in this essay. They would more properly be called the Plates of Jacob. A set of plates, smaller in size than the Plates of Nephi, which contained redundant historical information from the same era (conveniently ending with the reign of king Benjamin) plus extra “spiritual” material. Appears unredacted in the Book of Mormon, comprising the Books of 1 Nephi through Omni. The Small Plates are joined with the rest of the Book of Mormon by “Words of Mormon,” an interjection written in the voice of Mormon, the redactor.

Footnotes

  1. Smith, Lucy Mack. History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, ed. Preston Nibley [1958], 125–29
  2. Bushman, Richard. Rough Stone Rolling. pg 68
  3. Metcalfe, Brent. “The Priority of Mosiah,” New Approaches to the Book of Mormon.
  4. The dating of this revelation is debatable, and may be a composite revelation.
  5. See 3 Nephi 5:10-20, 3 Nephi 26:6-11, Mormon 2:18. Notice Mormon doesn’t introduce himself in the text until 3 Nephi (in Mosiah priority order). This may be a hint that D&C 10 was written before 3 Nephi, since it doesn’t mention Mormon.
  6. See Mosiah 1:6,16; Mosiah 28:11; Alma 37:2; Alma 44:24; 3 Nephi 5:10; 3 Nephi 26:7,11; 4 Nephi 1:19,21; Mormon 1:4; Mormon 2:18; Mormon 6:6
  7. Doctrine and Covenants Teachers Manual, Chapter 3. Retrieved July 23, 2019 (link)
  8. Church History in the Fullness of Times, Chapter 5. Retrieved July 23, 2019 (link)
  9. Eg. Ricks, Eldin. The Small Plates of Nephi and the Words of Mormon: “Afterward the Lord revealed to Joseph Smith that the small plates of Nephi were “more particular concerning the things” (D&C 10:40).” FairMormon. The lost 116 pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript: “the Lord instructed Joseph to translate an additional set of plates that had been provided, the record of Nephi, as described in DC 3: and DC 10“. Heimerdinger, Chris. The Book of Mormon: A Brilliant Mess redacts the relevant verse: “Behold, there are many things engraven upon the [small] plates of Nephi.”
  10. Title Page of Book of Mormon, circa Early June 1829, retrieved from the Joseph Smith Papers on July 23, 2019. (link)
  11. 1 Nephi 1:17. See also 1 Nephi 6
  12. Jacob 3:14
  13. Jacob 7:26
  14. See 1 Nephi 1:17; 1 Nephi 6; 1 Nephi 9-10:1; 1 Nephi 19:1-6; 2 Nephi 4:14-15; 2 Nephi 5:4,29-33; Jacob 1:1-3; Jacob 3:13-4:3; Jacob 7:26-27; Jarom 1:2,14-15; Omoni 1:11; Words of Mormon 1:3-10. Two passing mentions to the current set of plates omit mention of the larger plates, in Omni 1:1,3 and Omni 1:8-9.
  15. Words of Mormon 1:3,5

5 thoughts on “The Lost Plates of Nephi

  1. Thanks for making this topic more well known and accessible. It seems to me that Brent Metcalf is one of the unsung heros of mormon history/research.

    Not sure what the “wasting your life” comment was about. Did the author intend to imply that anyone involved in mormonism since the 1990s has been wasting their life because of the abundance of evidence available at that time that the narrative proposed by the church was false? Are they trying to imply that those who came to the conclusion before the Gospel topics essays came out in 2013 that the church was false are somehow more informed or have greater integrity than those who left the church after 2013? The comment is slightly bizarre.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think that’s accurate. The church claims Smith both had the plates and showed it to eleven people. The gospel topics essay suggests that he sometimes kept it hidden outside during translation, which is not the same as not possessing them. I’m also not sure why that would render this essay “moot”

      Like

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