When Joseph Smith finally received the gold plates from the stone box that had been buried on the tiny hill we now call th Hill Cumorah, he did not bring them directly home, but hid them in a log since he did not have anything to cover them or store them in. In Chapter One of From Darkness unto Light (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, BYU and Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2015), Michael H. MacKay and Gerrut J. Dirkmat describe the pains Joseph took to properly protect the plates now that he had received them. His first task, then, was to seek a wooden box to put the plates in.
Leaving the plates hidden in the woods, Joseph did not initially intend on showing them to anyone, but instead he set out to find a chest or box to keep them in…. He had apparently asked his neighbor Willard Chase, a local carpenter and joiner, twice in September to make a case for him before he retrieved the plates. Chase likely refused because he doubted that Joseph could repay him for the materials and labor. Chase remembered Joseph making plans to protect the plates, contemplating the problems that he would face once he had them and knowing that the angel had charged him to keep them hidden. The day Joseph went to the hill to obtain the plates, he was still looking for someone to make a box for the plates. Before leaving for the hill, he woke his mother and asked “if [she] had a chest with a lock and key” to store the plates once he retrieved them, but she had nothing to offer him. [From Darkness unto Light, p. 6]
She told Joseph to go to a cabinetmaker who had been making something for their oldest daughter, hoping to be able to buy it on credit because they had no money. But she was able to negotiate a deal involving paying half in produce and half with money (apparently on loan). The next day, a Mrs. Well of Macedon asked for Joseph to come help dig a well, giving him a day of paid labor that Joseph’s mother felt was a blessing from God to allow them to pay their debt to the cabinet maker. [From Darkness unto Light, pp. 6-7]
The lack of a wooden cabinet tells us something about the plates. So does the lack of paper that later hindered the translation process. In Chapter Eight of the same source, MacKay and Dirmat explain that the paper that Joseph and Oliver had received as a gift from Joseph Knight Sr. had run out, and thus the translation process faced a roadblock. Out of money and supplies, Joseph and Oliver left Harmony, PA and traveled 20 miles to reach the Knight home in Colesville, only to find that he had left on business. They returned still without paper for their work.
Joseph and Oliver had no choice but to stop the translation process to look for work in order to get funds for paper. But they were unsuccessful in finding work, and were now empty-handed and hungry. Fortunately, Joseph Knight came to the rescue, bringing generous supplies and paper, and the work continued.
As someone in the forest products industry, the role of two forest products in the Book of Mormon story intrigues me. The Book of Mormon project was hindered twice due to the lack of needed forest products. The lack of a wooden box to protect the plates (but special thanks to the tree that served as a temporary storage place!) and the lack of paper for the translation process.
Both of these issues point to the granular reality of the Book of Mormon and the impoverished state its translator. If the plates did not exist, would he be out shopping for jobs to afford to pay a carpenter for a box to store them in? And if Joseph could not even afford paper for the translation process, could he have afforded expensive tin or copper plates to make a fake set of plates to impress the witnesses? Indeed, when Martin Harris first hefted the plates, still covered in a box, he said, “I knew from the heft that they were lead or gold, and I knew that Joseph had not credit enough to buy so much lead.” [Martin Harris interview in “Mormonism—No. II,” Tiffany’s Monthly, Joel Tiffany, ed., vol. 5, no. 4, August 1859, pp. 163–170, quotation from p. 169.] By the way, he estimated their weight at 40-50 pounds, close to the 60 pounds estimate we have from William Smith, which is an excellent fit not for a chunk of pure gold of the same size (that would be around 200 pounds), but for a stack of thin plates made from a lighter copper-gold alloy like tumbaga from Mesoamerica, with significant air space occurring between the stacked plates, based on analysis from metallurgist Reed Putnam in “Were the Golden Plates made of Tumbaga?” (Update, 5/17/16: A very useful page on this topic was just prepared at Book of Mormon Central: “What Kind of Ore did Nephi Use to Make the Plates?“)
Detail after detail around the translation process supports the reality of the plates and of the oral dictation of the Book of Mormon. Joseph was not a front for a smooth, well-financed operation to deceive people. He was not working off a carefully drafted manuscript that he or someone else with plenty of paper had been crafting for years. He was not dealing with visionary, floating plates, but with real ancient plates that needed a real wooden box in which to be carried safely. Plates that could be hefted and touched. And for both the box and the paper, Joseph was willing to drop everything to go work in order to afford a simple item that he needed. This is a gritty, granular story that doesn’t fit common theories of fraud.
Paper and wood tell us something about the metal plates of Joseph Smith.