Recreating the golden plates: Artist tells how he replicated Nephite record for museum display

Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Replica of Book of Mormon plates that silversmith Gordon Andrus made as they are displayed in “The Heavens Are Opened” exhibit at the Museum of Church History and Art. Credit: Welden C. Andersen, Intellectual Reserve, Inc., Intellectual Reserve, Inc.
Credit: Welden C. Andersen

Imagine the challenge of creating a copy of something you can’t see. But that’s what silversmith Gordon Andrus did in late 2014 when the Church History Museum commissioned him to create a copy of the golden plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated.

“Instead of the visual artifact of the golden plates, our curators were able to provide Gordon with several statements of description by eyewitnesses, which are fairly general in nature, and some of which are conflicting,” said his wife, Maryanne, who is supervisor for exhibitions and programs at the museum and who researched the eyewitness accounts.

The husband and wife spoke Sept. 21 at the latest event in the “Evenings at the Museum” series that is presented free to the public.

The exhibition-quality replica that Andrus created is included in the main-level exhibit that has been open at the museum since its yearlong renovation completed in October 2015.

The eyewitnesses from whose descriptions the golden plates replica was based included Joseph Smith Jr.; his wife, Emma; Oliver Cowdery and others of the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses; the Prophet’s brother, William Smith; and Orson Pratt, an associate.

“The exhibition team and Gordon himself felt that we should stay as close to the eyewitness accounts as possible, looking to Joseph Smith’s descriptions most often,” Maryanne Andrus said. “But herein is one of the challenges of this project. Joseph was reticent about many of the finer details of both the plates themselves and of the translation process.”

The Prophet described them in a Times and Seasons article of March 1, 1842, in this way: “These records were engraven on plates which had the appearance of gold, each plate was six inches wide and eight inches long and not quite so thick as common tin.”

William Smith referred to them as “a mixture of gold and copper.”

Emma Smith said, “They seemed to be a pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book.”

William Smith reported that the title page of the Book of Mormon is a literal translation taken from the very last leaf on the left hand side of the plates, with “the language of the whole running the same as all Hebrew writings in general [from right to left].

Joseph, Martin Harris, Mary Musselman Whitmer and David Whitmer all said the plates were bound together with three rings.

The weight of the book was variously described as weighing from 40 to 60 pounds.

David Whitmer and Orson Pratt said a portion of the book was sealed, about two-thirds, according to Pratt.

A document that was in the possession of David Whitmer is said to contain characters transcribed from the plates.

From these and other descriptions, Andrus fashioned his replica. Using PowerPoint slides and hands-on demonstration shown with the aid of a television camera and projected on a screen in the museum theater, he detailed and demonstrated his work for the audience gathered for the lecture.

Citing early engraved plates of King Darius 1 and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Andrus said they were cut-engraved, not scratched or chased (a stamping technique). “I worked at all the physical facets of making a set of replica plates with the hope of honoring these artisans of long ago. As my wife, Maryanne said, ‘make Mormon look good!’”

To begin with, the Andruses looked at the sample of handwritten characters from a fragment of John Whitmer’s transcription. The fragment today is now owned by and was used with the permission of the Community of Christ.

“We also referenced an image of some writing done by Joseph’s main scribe, Oliver Cowdery,” he said, explaining that Oliver had on one occasion penned four characters and written out an English translation of each. They appear to be from the Book of Mormon. The sample is at the Church History Library.

Finally, they referred to a published poster printed in the early Mormon newspaper < i>The Prophet,< /i> containing characters apparently identical to the others.

Using a computer, Andrus made a composite sheet of all the characters and standardized their size. Using this sheet, he built two full, unique plates of writing. He placed the characters so that they didn’t look repetitive and so that they would appear to be written right to left, as with Hebrew writing.

For the plates, Andrus used rolled jeweler’s bronze.

“I had to hammer the smooth plates, planishing the surface to look like that of plates forged from an ingot of metal,” he said. “Every plate was hammered around all four edges to give some variance to the look of the stacked plates. The three plates that are fully engraved were hammered over their entire surface and from both sides to keep the stresses of the metal more even.”

Andrus said the work of hammering the plates was so repetitive that at one point he mesmerized himself. He imagined what it might have been like for the keepers of the Nephite record.

In a process called annealing, each plate was softened with fire and quenched in water.

Finally, characters were transferred to the metal by printing the full sheets onto plastic with a laser jet printer, then taping the plastic over the plate, which had been covered with a solution that would hold the black ink, Andrus said. The characters were then pressed onto the metal.

With the printed characters thus serving as a guide, he engraved them on the metal using a modern engraver. “Joseph Smith had described the characters as ‘beautifully engraved, with many marks of antiquity’; I worked towards that goal,” he said.

Each of the three plates he engraved took him five hours.

To replicate the sealed portion of the golden plates, Andrus encased the edges of the sealed portion of his plates with a solution of beeswax and pitch. This made the edges appear as “solid wood,” consistent with one of the descriptions from the period.

Working from descriptions of the three rings that bound the plates, Andrus fashioned three silver, D-shaped rings for his replica.

Andrus concluded: “It is my experience that monumental determination was needed for the making of such a record. … The ancient metal smiths who recorded their history and spiritual teachings on plates were highly skilled in the art of refining, shaping and marking alloys of copper (and gold) as evidenced in the artifacts they left behind.”

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