Evidence #452 | June 26, 2024

Book of Mormon Evidence: Empty Stone Box

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Scripture Central

Joseph Smith Discovers the Book of Mormon. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org.


Joseph Smith claimed that in 1827 he removed the gold plates from a stone box on the west side of a hill near his family’s farm. Both faithful and antagonistic sources claim to have seen a hole in the ground or even the stone box itself shortly after Joseph removed the plates.

Evidence Summary

In 1827, Joseph Smith received the golden plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated, as well as other Nephite artifacts which accompanied them. According to his own account, he found the plates on the “west side” of a hill near his family’s farm, which was later named the Hill Cumorah.1 The plates were “not far from the top, under a stone of considerable size … deposited in a stone box” (JSH 1:51). Multiple historical sources, from both faithful and hostile witnesses, help corroborate Smith’s claims about this box and its location.

The Three Witnesses

In addition to having seen the plates and other significant items originally stored in the stone box,2  each of the Three Witnesses related having seen the actual box itself at the Hill Cumorah. David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery also reported that prior to meeting Joseph Smith, they had both heard from locals who had been to the hill and had seen the empty stone box.

Empty Stone Box (Three Witnesses).jpg
Joseph Smith and the Three Witnesses, from the film Witnesses.

As Whitmer recalled later in life, “I had conversation with certain young men, who said that Joseph Smith certainly had golden plates.” When asked how they knew Smith had the plates, these individuals replied, “We saw the place in the hill that he [Joseph] took them out of, just as he described it.”3 Similarly, as Oliver Cowdery traveled to Harmony, Pennsylvania, he reportedly encountered individuals who had threatened to harm Joseph Smith if he did not hand over the plates. “When asked how they knew such a treasure had been found, several asserted that they had seen the receptacle from which it had been taken by Smith.”4 

Later in his life, David Whitmer recollected a few details regarding his personal experiences visiting the hill. Summarizing an interview from 1875, one reporter for the Chicago Times stated, “Three times he has been at the hill Cumorah and seen the casket that contained the tablets and seer-stone [Nephite interpreters]. Eventually the casket has been washed down to the foot of the hill, but it was to be seen when he last visited the historic place.”5 The detail of the box washing to the bottom of the hill finds support from a report given by Edward Stevenson. Visiting Palmyra in 1871, decades after Joseph translated the Book of Mormon, Stevenson interviewed a local about Joseph Smith.

Questioning him closely he stated that he had seen some good sized flat stones that had rolled down and lay near the bottom of the hill. This had occurred after the contents of the box had been removed and these stones were doubtless the ones that formerly composed the box. I felt a strong desire to see these ancient relics and told him I would be much pleased to have him inform me where they were to be found. He stated that they had long since been taken away.6

Notably, Stevenson’s visit to the hill in 1871 wouldn’t have been known to Whitmer, and Whitmer’s 1875 report was likely not influenced in any way by Stevenson, since the two didn’t meet in person until 1877.7 The fact that these individuals appear to have gained independent knowledge of the box washing down the hill strengthens the reliability of this unique detail in the historical record.

Stone Boxe in New York (Rock on Hill).jpeg.jpg
A general view, facing south, of the west side of the Palmyra hill, near the summit. This is the general area where Moroni buried the plates. Large flat-faced rocks, like those shown in the foreground, are common on the hill. Photo by Warren Aston. Image and caption via Benjamin R. Jordan and Warren P. Aston, “The Geology of Moroni’s Stone Box: Examining the Setting and Resources of Palmyra,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 30 (2018).

In a letter written in 1834 and published in the Messenger and Advocate, Oliver Cowdery reported that he “visited the place [where the Book of Mormon was deposited] in the year 1830.” Several times in this letter, Cowdery commented upon the depth of the hole which must have been dug to contain the box, noting that it was “on the west side of the hill, not far from the top down its side.” Cowdery also gave a very detailed description of the box itself.8  The nuances he provided suggest he may have been describing what he personally witnessed during his 1830 visit, rather than just reporting what Joseph Smith had told him.

In a testimony recorded in 1875, Martin Harris also claimed to have visited the Hill Cumorah and seen the stone box. According to this account, Martin and two others went to the top of the hill and unsuccessfully tried to remove the box. Afterward, “one of us took a crow bar and tried to drive it thru the lid to hold it, but it glanced and broke one corner off the box. Some time that box will be found, and you will see the corner broken off, and then you will know I have told you the truth.”9 

Other Faithful Witnesses

Other individuals who supported Joseph Smith either saw the place where the plates had been extracted or were aware of interested parties’ attempts to locate it. One such statement comes from W. W. Phelps, although it is printed secondhand by an antagonistic source. In 1831, E. D. Howe sent an inquiry to Phelps regarding his dealings with Smith and other Latter-day Saints. Phelps responded neutrally, taking “neither a pro- nor an anti-Mormon stance.”10  In one instance, he remarked that “the places where they dug for the plates, in Manchester, are to be seen.”11  Phelps made these statements six months before he was baptized, while he was still investigating the Church. His letter, which does not appear to have been manipulated in any way, was eventually printed in Howe’s famous exposé Mormonism Unvailed in 1834.12 

Joseph Knight recalled that in the increased activity to get the plates from the Smiths, a man named Samuel Lawrance “had bin to the hill and knew about the things in the hill and

he was trying to obtain them.”13 While Knight did not claim to have seen the place on the hill himself, he was an early convert to the Church who would have been aware of local happenings related to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. Lawrance’s reported actions match up well with Joseph Smith’s own statement that “the most strenuous exertions were used to get [the plates] from me” (JSH 1:60).

Antagonistic Sources

Additional evidence comes from antagonistic sources. Several of these claimed that at the time they had been writing, the hole in the hill was still visible and anyone who was curious could verify its presence.

In a diary entry dated August 7, 1831, James Gordon Bennett reported some findings for an article that he would write later that month. Although he believed that one Henry Rigdon was the author of the Book of Mormon, Bennett nevertheless mentioned “the Golden Bible Hill where there is a hole 30 or forty feet into the side—6 feet diameter.”14 In his printed article, this description of a single hole is not present, and instead a general mention of holes (plural) dug by treasure diggers is given: “On the sides & in the slopes of several of these hills, these excavations are still to be seen. … In excavating the grounds, they began by taking up the green sod in the form of a circle of six feet diameter—then would continue to dig to the depth of ten, twenty, and sometimes thirty feet.”15 Because of these differences, it is uncertain what Bennett knew of the specific hole mentioned in other sources, but it is notable that his initial diary entry mentions only one such hole.

In 1840 a reporter named John A. Clark gave an account of what he called “the rise and origin of the Mormon delusion.” While never claiming to have visited the Hill Cumorah himself, he asserted that in “the town of Manchester, near the village of Palmyra, might still be seen an excavation in the side of a hill, from whence, according to the assertion of the Mormon prophet, the metalic plates, sometimes called The Golden Bible, were disinterred.”16 Like Bennett, Clark did not dismiss the reality of a substantial excavation or hole in the ground even though he did not believe the reports of the gold plates.

A later critic named Orasmus Turner likewise attempted to tell the history of the Church in 1851. Although he was clearly biased against the Smiths and got many details wrong, he stated that Joseph Smith and his father had dug holes on the Hill Cumorah and that it was from one of these holes that they claimed to receive the new scripture.17 Similarly, a man named Pomeroy Tucker wrote in 1867, “The spot from which the book is alleged to have been taken, is the yet partially visible pit where the money speculators had previously dug for another kind of treasure.”18

The Saunders Account

One antagonistic account from a man named Lorenzo Saunders is particularly notable. Saunders grew up near the Smiths and had been aware of the claims the Smiths made regarding the Book of Mormon. In a November 1884 interview, Saunders stated that he had visited the hill shortly after September 22, 1827, but could find no place where the ground had recently been broken: “We went there & we examined the hill all over where he claimed to got the plates & we could not find a place that was broke & there was no plates on the ground where the hill was not broke.” Saunders also specified that a man named Anson Robinson, who eventually owned the Hill Cumorah, “said he tried many times to find the hole where he took them out, that is on the west hill it was cleared off.”19

Fortunately, Saunders provided more details in a letter dated just two months later, in January 1885:

The time [Joseph Smith] claimed to have taken the plates from the hill was on the 22 day of September, in 1827, and I went on the next Sunday following with five or six other ones and we hunted the side hill by course and could not find no place where the ground had been broke. There was a large hole where the money diggers had dug a year or two before, but no fresh dirt.20

This time, Saunders noted that while no ground had recently been broken, there was a large hole on the west side of the hill that had been dug within the past few years, based on the lack of fresh dirt. Ironically, as pointed out by Joshua Gehly, this statement can actually be viewed as support for Joseph Smith’s claims. After all, Joseph “first uncovered the stone box in 1823. He excavated around the box and temporarily removed the top for his first view of the plates.”21 The plates would remain on the hill until 1827, but “no fresh dirt needed [to be] moved or removed when finally retrieving the plates.”22 Furthermore, per Saunders’s 1884 interview, he and Robinson knew where to look—that is, on the west side of the hill, consistent with Joseph Smith’s own description of where he disinterred the plates.

Empty Stone Box (Joseph brushing leaves).jpg..jpeg
Joseph Smith uncovering the plates. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org.

As for the stone box itself, it is notable that Saunders neither confirmed nor denied its presence. As a hostile source, Saunders may understandably not have mentioned the box if he did see it, as such a detail might provide a little too much support for Smith’s claims. According to Gehly, “The [presence of the] box is most likely why Lorenzo attributed the hole to money diggers. It was not just any hole—it was a hole of significance made just a few years before, exactly correct. … He confirmed in the right place and time that the hole seen by so many others was made by human hands.”23


From all of these sources, it can be concluded that the presence of a significant hole on a hill near the Smith family farm was a verifiable reality for years following the retrieval of the golden plates. While not all sources believed that Joseph had disinterred ancient artifacts from this location, none challenged the fact that such a hole indeed existed. It is also notable that all of the sources are consistent about the location of the hole. While some only mentioned “the side of the hill” without specifying the east or west side, those that did specify the side were clear that Joseph obtained the plates (or at least dug a hole) on the west side of the hill near the summit.24

The existence of the stone box which was said to contain the plates and other artifacts is also attested by several sources, including each of the Three Witnesses. It is significant that for two of these witnesses, David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery, their initial interest and trust in Joseph Smith’s claims increased because of reports from locals who could corroborate the story about the hill and the stone box.

“Ironically,” writes Anthony Sweat, “while much of Joseph’s later persecution may have arisen out of others doubting the existence and possession of golden plates, originally the difficulty was due to the exact opposite: certain persons were convinced he had actually retrieved the record.”25 The historical sources outlined in this article help explain why so many were convinced that Smith indeed had such a record, as well as the many efforts to steal it. As concluded by Gehly, “the aggressive reaction from the community makes sense if the hill contained an exposed, empty stone box.”26

Further Reading

Joshua Gehly, Witnessing Miracles: Historical Evidence for the Resurrection and the Book of Mormon (Monongahela, PA: The Church of Jesus Christ, 2022), 75–101.

Benjamin R. Jordan and Warren P. Aston, “The Geology of Moroni’s Stone Box: Examining the Setting and Resources of Palmyra,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 30 (2018): 233–252.

Anthony Sweat, “Hefted and Handled: Tangible Interactions with Book of Mormon Objects,” in The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, ed. Dennis L. Largey, Andrew H. Hedges, John Hilton III, and Kerry Hull (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2015), 43–59.

Relevant Scriptures

Joseph Smith—History 1:51–52 


  • 1. For information about this hill and its relationship to the text of the Book of Mormon, see Scripture Central, “Where is the Location of the Hill Cumorah? (Mormon 6:6),” KnoWhy 489 (August 21, 2019).
  • 2. For historical evidence supporting the existence of some of these additional objects, see Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Accounts of the Breastplate,” Evidence Data 419, September 7, 2023; Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Accounts of the Liahona,” Evidence Data 416, August 15, 2023.
  • 3. “Mormonism,” Kansas City Daily Journal, June 5, 1881, as cited in Ebbie L. V. Richardson, David Whitmer, a Witness to the Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1952), 25. Note that although this account doesn’t specifically mention the stone box, it does very strongly imply the presence of such a receptacle since Joseph’s known description of the hill explicitly mentions it. Another similar account was later reported in David Whitmer, “The Last Man,” Chicago Times, October 17, 1881.
  • 4. Special Correspondence to the Chicago Tribune, Dec. 15,” Deseret News, December 24, 1885, 1.
  • 5. “The Golden Tables,” Chicago Times, August 7, 1875, as cited in Richardson, David Whitmer, 158.
  • 6. Edward Stevenson, Reminiscences of Joseph the Prophet, and the Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: printed by the author, 1893), 13.
  • 7.  Edward Stevenson, journal, December 22, 1877, MS 4806, Edward Stevenson Collection, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, UT.
  • 8. Oliver Cowdery, “Letter VIII,” reprinted in Letters by Oliver Cowdery, to W.W. Phelps on the Origin of the Book of Mormon and the Rise of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Liverpool, UK: Thomas Ward and John Cairns, 1844), 37–39.
  • 9. Ole A. Jensen, “Testimony of Martin Harris,” MS 5569, folder 1, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, UT.
  • 10. Bruce A. Van Orden, “Conversion To Mormonism,” in We’ll Sing and We’ll Shout: The Life and Times of W. W. Phelps (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2018), 34.
  • 11. E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH: printed by the author, 1834), 273.
  • 12. Howe expressed his own disbelief in Phelps’s letter, believing Phelps had already made up his mind to be baptized when he responded, and tried to cast doubt on whether or not Phelps could have “examined the holes where Smith had dug for money” by the time he responded to Howe’s letter. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 275. Howe’s argument rests on the assumption that Phelps had not seen the hole prior to receiving his letter, or even that Phelps was not reporting secondhand information that he had received. While it is possible that Howe could have altered the letter in its printed form, this detail is likely authentic to Phelps based on what he had either heard from others or personally seen.
  • 13. Joseph Knight, Sr., “Manuscript of the History of Joseph Smith,” ca. 1835–47, as published in Dean C. Jessee, “Joseph Knight’s Recollection of Early Mormon History,” BYU Studies Quarterly 17, no. 1 (1976): 32; original spelling retained.
  • 14. James Gordon Bennett, diary, August 7, 1831, cited in Leonard J. Arrington, “James Gordon Bennett’s 1831 Report on ‘The Mormonites,’BYU Studies Quarterly 10, no. 3 (1970): 355.
  • 15. James Gordon Bennett, “Mormonism—Religious Fanaticism—Church and State Party,” New York Morning Courier and Enquirer, August 31, 1831; cited in Arrington, “James Gordon Bennett’s 1831 Report on ‘The Mormonites’,” 358.
  • 16. John A. Clark, “Gleanings by the way. No. VI,” Episcopal Recorder (Philadelphia, PA), September 5, 1840, 94.
  • 17. Orasmus Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham’s Purchase (Rochester, NY: William Ailing, 1851), reprinted in Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1996–2003), 3:50; emphasis added.
  • 18. Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York, NY: D. Appleton and Company, 1867), 34.
  • 19. Lorenzo Saunders, interviewed by E. L. Kelley, 12 November 1884, 1–22, E. L. Kelley Papers, “Miscellany,” Community of Christ Library–Archives, Independence, MO, cited in Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents, 2:159; original spelling retained.
  • 20. Lorenzo Saunders to Thomas Gregg, 28 January 1885, in Charles A. Shook, The True Origin of the Book of Mormon (Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing Co., 1914), 135.
  • 21. Joshua Gehly, Witnessing Miracles: Historical Evidence for the Resurrection and the Book of Mormon (Monongahela, PA: The Church of Jesus Christ, 2022), 90.
  • 22. Gehly, Witnessing Miracles, 90. The fact that Saunders’s first account entirely omits that he discovered a fairly recently excavated hole in the ground lends plausibility to Gehly’s thesis about Saunders seeing the box itself but not mentioning it.
  • 23. Gehly, Witnessing Miracles, 90.
  • 24. Two potential exceptions exist, as one late thirdhand, antagonistic source places the hole on the east side of the hill. However, this source is full of historical inaccuracies and does not represent eyewitness retellings, unlike the earlier sources closer in time to Joseph Smith. See Frederic G. Mather, “The Early Days of Mormonism,” Lippincott's Magazine 2, no. 6 (August 1880): 200. Furthermore, while Edward Stevenson notes he had been shown a hole on the east side of the hill, his guide told him this hole was dug much later by the Rochester Company. The same guide showed him the place on the west side of the hill, near the summit, where the original hole had been. See Stevenson, Reminiscences of Joseph the Prophet, 13. As such, the historical sources most reliably place the hole near the summit of the west side of the hill, just as Joseph Smith described. 
  • 25. Anthony Sweat, “Hefted and Handled: Tangible Interactions with Book of Mormon Objects,” in The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, ed. Dennis L. Largey, Andrew H. Hedges, John Hilton III, and Kerry Hull (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2015), 45.
  • 26. Gehly, Witnessing Miracles, 87–88.

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