In 1823, several weeks after Joseph Smith’s first encounter with the angel Moroni, Joseph’s eldest brother, Alvin, fell seriously ill. Alvin had always believed in and supported Joseph’s mission and calling. On his deathbed, Alvin told Joseph, “Be a good boy and do everything that lays in your power to obtain the records.”
It is fitting, then, that Joseph used this chest, which had been Alvin’s, to hold the plates after he received them from Moroni four years after Alvin’s death.
Early on the morning of September 22, 1827, Joseph Smith climbed a hill near his home to meet with the angel Moroni. He had come to this hill every year for four years to receive instruction and prepare to translate a book written on golden plates. This time, however, Moroni allowed Joseph to take the plates with him but cautioned him to “be responsible for them . . . [and to] use all [his] endeavors to preserve them.”
This was not an idle warning. Although the Smiths had been discreet about Joseph’s meetings with Moroni, word had somehow spread that Joseph was about to receive a “gold Bible,” and the family had heard rumors that people in Palmyra might try to take the plates.Joseph needed to take every precaution.
When he first received the plates, he hid them in a hollow log on the hill where he had received them; they remained there for several days.Joseph may have hoped that the excitement would die down a bit, but unfortunately this was not the case.
When Joseph heard that several men had hired a “conjuror” to find the plates, he decided to move them from their hiding place. He asked his brother Hyrum to find a suitable box with a good lock to hold the plates.
Later that day, Joseph retrieved the plates from the hollow log and wrapped them in his shirt. On his way home, he was assaulted three separate times. In each case, he fought off his attackers, hitting the last one so hard he dislocated his own thumb.
As soon as Joseph arrived home, he sent his brother Don Carlos to Hyrum’s house to remind Hyrum to bring the chest. It appears that Hyrum, unfortunately, may have forgotten his assignment. Don Carlos arrived to find Hyrum entertaining two of his wife’s sisters. As soon as Don Carlos tapped him on the shoulder, Hyrum remembered his task, dropped his cup, and grabbed what is believed to be this chest.Hyrum immediately turned the chest over, letting all of its contents spill onto the floor. Without pausing to clean up his mess, Hyrum bolted out the door, chest in tow, to find Joseph. His guests thought that he may have lost his mind, but his wife reassured them that her husband had “just thought of something that he [had] neglected and it’s just like him to fly off in a tangent when he thinks of anything that way.”
This chest likely held the plates for only a short time, perhaps because the plates did not fit into the chest well. In a later statement, Martin Harris referred to two other boxes that were used to hold the plates: one was of cherry wood, made especially to hold the plates, and the second was an “old Ontario glass-box” (a wooden box that held glass plates), which was modified to fit the length of the plates.
Of course, a box alone was not enough to protect the plates. As mobs repeatedly attempted to steal the plates, Joseph was forced to find new places to hide them. Once, when he heard a commotion outside the house, Joseph handed the plates, wrapped in a cloth, to his sisters Katharine and Sophronia, who hid them under their bedcovers and then climbed into the bed themselves to protect them. The plates were later hidden under the hearth in the Smith home, then under the floor in the cooper shop across the street, and then up in the shop’s rafters.
Eventually Joseph realized that he would never be able to translate in peace in Palmyra, and he and Emma moved to her parents’ farm in Harmony, Pennsylvania. There, circumstances allowed him to translate a substantial portion of the Book of Mormon.
This simple wooden box may not be an impressive sight on its own, but what it held—even briefly—is one of the greatest treasures of our time.