By Scott S. Mitchell
A puzzling feature of the description of the gold-colored metal plates, on which the Book of Mormon text was written, was the thickness of the sealed portion. The unsealed plates could be turned like the pages of a book, but the sealed plates were bound together by some means (which was never actually described by witnesses) whereby the individual leaves could not be separated from each other and read. David Whitmer, one of the witnesses privileged to actually see the plates, estimated the sealed portion to constitute about one half of the total number of leaves, while Orson Pratt, who did not personally see the plates but wrote about what eyewitnesses had told him, estimated the sealed portion to be two thirds of the total.1 The overall thickness of the sealed and unsealed portions together was estimated as ranging from four (Martin Harris’ version) to six inches (Orson Pratt’s version).2 The unsealed portion produced what is now 531 pages of text in the Book of Mormon, so presumably, the sealed portion, if translated, would produce approximatedly that same amount or more.
This short essay suggests a possible explanation for why the sealed portion of the ancient plates was as thick as reported by witnesses, and what other texts might have been contained within that portion in addition to that which is already known.
What We Know About the Sealed Portion of the Plates Already, and What We Don’t Know
Considerable mystery surrounds the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon plates. Several well-known scholars who are members of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter “LDS”) have mistakenly taught that the full account of the vision shown by the Lord to the Brother of Jared was contained within the 24 plates which were found by the people of King Limhi and later translated by the Nephite king Mosiah. This is clearly not the case. The full account of the brother of Jared’s vision was written and sealed up by him with the interpreters (two stones attached at either end of two rims of a bow, and referred to as the Urim and Thummim by LDS church members) separately from the overall history subsequently written by Jaredite record keepers on the 24 plates. Consequently, when the 24 plates were found along with the ruins and corpses of the Jaredite civilization, the interpreters were not found with them; they’d been kept apart with the sacred vision (presumably on other plates, though we’re not told specifically which writing surface was used). (See Ether 3:22-24, 28.) The interpreters were already possessed by the second King Mosiah at the time Limhi’s group found the plates, and it’s apparent they had been handed down to him by his grandfather and father. It’s also apparent he had already received the sealed full account of the vision of the Brother of Jared through the same means (see Mosiah 8:4-19, 21:25-28 and Ether 4:1).3 A well-reasoned article has been written on this subject in 2002 by the scholar Valentin Arts, entitled “A Third Jaredite Record: the Sealed Portion of the Gold Plates,”4 which can be read free of charge on the bookofmormoncentral.org website. According to Ether 1:1-5, Moroni abridged the 24 plates, and from them, produced the Book of Mormon’s Book of Ether, which contained, in current chapters 3 and 4, only a short and nonspecific description of the brother of Jared’s vision.
Questions about the Composition of the Sealed Portion5
It’s obvious the brother of Jared’s sealed vision contained a large amount of information. After all, the Lord “showed unto the brother of Jared all the inhabitants of the earth which had been, and also all that would be; and he withheld them not from his sight even unto the ends of the earth.” (See Ether 3:25.) When the contents are eventually read to the world by the power of Christ in a time of pervasive righteousness, “all things shall be revealed unto the children of men which have ever been among the children of men, and which ever will be even unto the end of the earth.” (See 2 Nephi 27:11.) With this background, then, we focus on this question: Given that Moroni’s sealed version6 of the vision was information-heavy, could it have been so voluminous as to account for at least half the thickness of all the plates recovered by Joseph Smith? Might that sealed version contain more than just the brother of Jared’s vision? If so, what additional texts might it contain?
Clues to the Length of Moroni’s Written Account of What the Brother of Jared Saw
It’s impossible to know for certain how long the brother of Jared’s account of his vision was when he wrote it. We have no textual mention of how many plates he filled, nor do we know for certain that Moroni’s later version of it constituted the sole contents of the sealed plates later possessed by Joseph Smith. We do have a few pieces of evidence which may shed light on its length, however. First of all, the brother of Jared didn’t write his account until shortly before the end of his life, and even then, he wrote it from memory, as did Moroni with his version of it. (See Ether 3:21-24, 4:4-7.) The fact the brother of Jared wrote his account from memory many years after the actual vision would presumably make the account less voluminous, when actually recorded, than if it had been recorded immediately following the event.
Second, Moroni explained in Mormon 8:6 that he began finishing his father’s book 400 years after the birth of Christ, and he added text, which now comprises two more Book of Mormon chapters, to his father’s writings before he began abridging the history of the Jaredites from the 24 plates written by Ether. But he explained in Ether 4:4-5 that he wrote the brother of Jared’s entire vision and sealed it up before he had even completed abridging the Book of Ether. Following that, he then wrote his own short concluding book, the book of Moroni, but we don’t know what year it was in which he started it. We only know that 420 years had passed since Christ’s birth when he wrote his last words. This places the recording of the brother of Jared’s vision sometime between 400 and 420 years after Christ’s birth, sandwiched between what are now five chapters of text from the books of Mormon and Ether preceding it, and 22 chapters of Ether and Moroni after it. Given that it took Moroni’s father approximately 40 years, spanning the period between 345 and 385 years after Christ’s birth, to write what is now 338 pages of text– from page 143 through page 480 of the LDS Book of Mormon–it is difficult to believe that Moroni could have written the now-sealed portion in such a short time if its length was equal to or greater than the cumulative length of the first 143 pages from the small plates of Nephi (First Nephi through Omni), plus Mormon’s 338 pages, plus Moroni’s 51 pages.
Third, as explained in Ether 4:16, the revelations written by John in the Bible’s Book of Revelation are to be fulfilled in our time. John’s revelation also spans the history of God’s dealing with man from the beginning to the end, and is important enough to be mentioned three times in the Book of Mormon. We obviously don’t know whether John’s revelation is useful for comparison to the record of the brother of Jared’s vision, but it’s worth noting that Revelation covers only 25 pages in the LDS edition of the Bible. Even if Revelation were ten times longer than it actually is, its thickness, as measured in plates, wouldn’t account for even half the thickness of the plate-equivalent of the Book of Mormon’s 531 pages.
Fourth, and most importantly, we read in 3 Nephi 26:3-4 that during part of the second day of his preaching to the Nephites, Jesus expounded on
all things, even from the beginning until the time that he should come in his glory—yea, even all things which should come upon the face of the earth, even until the elements should melt with fervent heat, and the earth should be wrapt together as a scroll, and the heavens and the earth should pass away;
And even unto the great and last day, when all people, and all kindreds, and all nations and tongues shall stand before God, to be judged of their works. . .
If a sermon that expansive and comprehensive could be delivered in a mere part of one day, it’s reasonable to conclude that the record of it, like the record of the brother of Jared’s vision, could fit on plates less thick than those of the entire Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is too long to be read in one day, let alone a part of the daylight portion of one day.
Accordingly, I hypothesize that the sealed portion of the plates consisted of more than just the account of the brother of Jared’s vision.
Hypothesis: The Balance of the Sealed Portion Consisted of Scriptures from the Non-Nephite Lost Tribes of Israel
A prominent Book of Mormon prophecy which readers have wondered about over the years is this one, by the Lord himself, in 2 Nephi 29: 11-13. It reads:
11 For I command all men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north, and in the south, and in the islands of the sea, that they shall write the words which I speak unto them; for out of the books which shall be written I will judge the world, every man according to their works, according to that which is written.
12 For behold, I shall speak unto the Jews and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the Nephites and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the other tribes of the house of Israel, which I have led away, and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto all nations of the earth and they shall write it.
13 And it shall come to pass that the Jews shall have the words of the Nephites, and the Nephites shall have the words of the Jews; and the Nephites and the Jews shall have the words of the lost tribes of Israel; and the lost tribes of Israel shall have the words of the Nephites and the Jews.
(Emphasis in italics added.)
Since neither the Bible nor the Book of Mormon contain any additional information about the lost tribes of Israel keeping a scriptural record which will someday be made available to us, we naturally ask, who and where were these Israelites who kept their own holy scriptures without us knowing of them? Frustratingly, this question is acknowledged by the Lord at a later point in Nephite history, but is never answered.
The Lord did tell the Nephites when he appeared to them, however, that at the same time he was teaching them in person, he was also doing the same with the lost tribes of Israel: “But now I go unto the Father, and also to show myself unto the lost tribes of Israel, for they are not lost unto the Father, for he knoweth whither he hath taken them.” (See 3 Nephi 17:4.)
It’s impossible to conclude that when Jesus visited the lost tribes of Israel, wherever and with however many groups of them that occurred, he didn’t instruct them to write about his appearance and teachings, and keep those writings as sacred scripture. We read in 3 Nephi 23 that during his time with the Nephites he strongly emphasized not only the imperative of writing his words, but of treasuring them and keeping them complete. He instructed the people to search diligently the words of Isaiah and the other prophets, and specifically directed Nephi to add to the Nephite scriptures the account of many saints rising from the dead and appearing and ministering unto many after Christ’s resurrection. Jesus added two chapters from the biblical book of Malachi to the Nephite’s scriptural corpus, explaining that it was expedient that future generations should have them. (See 3 Nephi 24 through 26:2.) He later commanded Mormon what to include and not include in his compilation of Jesus’ in-person teachings. (See 3 Nephi 26:6-12.) Conscientious recording of scriptural records was something Christ constantly emphasized, beginning with his original commandment that Lehi’s sons return to Jerusalem to obtain the brass plates in Laban’s possession, and it continued through the very last chapter of the Book of Mormon. Thus, I believe the “words of the lost tribes of Israel” were written during Jesus’ visits to them, and those words became the scriptures which will eventually be possessed by the Jews and Nephites, in fulfillment of 2 Nephi 29:13.
How Might the Scriptural Records of the Lost Tribes of Israel Have Been Added to the Sealed Portion of the Plates?
Elsewhere on this website, I have written about the enormous role I think the three specially chosen Nephite disciples played in bringing forth and translating the Book of Mormon into English. The assertions in this essay should be read in light of the assertions made in that separate essay, which can be read here. I hypothesize that these three Nephites may have seen to it that the lost tribes’ records were added to the sealed portion of the plates before or after Moroni’s death,7 and ultimately, it was they who I think were responsible for placing them in the hill in upstate New York and supervising the translation process. Moroni doesn’t inform the reader of the precise composition of the plates, or his ultimate disposition of them, when his words end. Whether or not he knew about the locations and records of the lost tribes of Israel at that point from his conversations with the three Nephites (see Mormon 8:10-11), we cannot say. But the three Nephites not only knew where the scattered lost tribes were, they ministered to them (see 3 Nephi 28:29). It’s not at all hard to believe they took custody of the lost tribes’ records, and added them to the Book of Mormon plates, of which they also eventually took custody. They alone, not being subject to death (see footnote 7), had the ability to take care of such details. And I believe they did.
Adding to the sealed portion of the sacred plates the lost tribes’ accounts of Jesus’ visits to them would accomplish two great things. Not only would it facilitate the Jews, Nephites and lost tribes of Israel having each others’ words read from the rooftops during the coming time of righteousness, it would further glorify, and manifest Christ’s approval of, the ancients who so carefully treasured the word of God.
- Heinrichsen, Kirk B., “How Witnesses Described the ‘Gold Plates’,” in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, vol. 10, pp.16-21, 78; also available online at bookofmormoncentral.org
- I hypothesize, along with Valentin Arts (see Footnote 4), that the first King Mosiah had been given the sealed vision of the brother of Jared, and the interpreters with which to read it. This was probably done by the prophet Ether himself before he even finished his Jaredite record. I further hypothesize that the first Mosiah had kept these sealed plates from being translated, per the Lord’s instructions, though he had used the interpreters to translate the large stone which gave a brief history and genealogy of Coriantumr’s people. I also believe it very likely that the account of Mosiah’s reception of the sealed vision and the interpreters was contained within the lost 116 pages of Book of Mormon translation that was taken from the Large Plates of Nephi. This is evident in Ether 4:1, which refers to Mosiah “keep[ing]” the plates without allowing them to be translated. In this verse of Moroni’s narration, he takes for granted that the reader is already aware of Mosiah having possessed and safeguarded the sealed vision. On this point, it’s irrelevant which Mosiah Moroni is referring to, but it was likely the first one, since most of his reign was chronicled in the 116 pages which are now lost, whereas we aren’t missing any information about the second King Mosiah. The gap in our knowledge of Mosiah’s acquistition of the plates and interpreters is thus explainable if we remember that the 116 pages of text from the Large Plates of Nephi provided more details about his reign before they were tragically lost.
- Arts, Valentin, “A Third Jaredite Record: The Sealed Portion of the Gold Plates,” in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, vol. 11, no. 1 (2002), 50-59, 110-111.
- Questions about the the composition of the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon are made considerably more complicated by the fact that Mormon repeatedly refers to the whole Book of Mormon as being “sealed” or “sealed up” without differentiating it from those individual plates which were literally physically bound together. It appears that Mormon considers the word “seal” or “sealed” to signify, roughly, “unable to be accessed or read without divine authorization and translation by means of the interpreters.” To understand which plates are being discussed, specific references to the physically bound part of the plates containing the brother of Jared’s vision have to be read in close connection with the immediate versicular context.
- The sealed portion doesn’t contain the brother of Jared’s own words, but rather, Moroni’s version of what the brother of Jared wrote. See Ether 4:4-7, 5:1.
- The Book of Mormon gives us no reason to believe Moroni has been resurrected, or that anyone has been resurrected who died after Jesus’ resurrection. The “first resurrection,” contrary to what is taught in LDS temples, consists of those righteous individuals being resurrected who preceded Jesus in death. (See Mosiah 15:21-22, 24; Alma 40:15-19.)