Update: September 2014 FAIRMormon has expanded its responses to Jeremy Runnels quite dramatically. I strongly recommend them, as they really cut through what I think is largely a false justification for his actions. FAIRMormon truly devastates his arguments.
I had a nice conversation the other night with a friend of mine about my last post concerning the Letter to a CES Director. I had mentioned in my original post that not all evidence is equal, but after discussing it with my friend, I realized I had failed to really make the point about the logical implications of the evidence. So let's make the point a little more explicit:
It is a fact that in September 1827, Joseph Smith brought something home, and allowed everyone in the home to both hold and touch that something. At least two of those present at that 1827 first encounter would later go on to become witnesses to the Book of Mormon.
So, what was this something? That Joseph Smith actually had some real, tangible object is evident from the fact that critics, such as Dan Vogel, go to great pains to explain how Joseph Smith could have purchased tin from a local supplier, and crafted plates during his annual trips to Hill Cumorah. (Vogel, Joseph Smith, The Making of a Prophet, pages 98-99 and the corresponding footnotes on pages 599-600, #63, #64, #65 and #66.). Vogel even speculates that Joseph's dislocated thumb occurred finishing the rods which were binding the spine of the plates (Vogel, pg 99 and footnote 66 on page 600).
Vogel therefore concedes that Joseph had something cut to the 6 x 8 inch plates, six inches thick and with rods holding the plates together. While he makes a novice error in postulating the tin was "pure tin" in order to get to the approximate weight he believed they weighed, ("pure tin" is actually a powder, so his calculation based on the density of tin are wrong, but nice try), he is in any event contradicting the now popular line of attack which says that Joseph Smith was the world's first mass hypnosis master and caused everyone to hallucinate their experience of seeing the plates.
So what do we have? We have everyone who is at least trying to reconcile the evidence acknowledging plates existed. So now deal with the logic of the positions: If Joseph bought the tin from a local source, or had used 60 pounds of tin from the Smith family stocks used in their coopering work, someone would have noticed. During the time when E.D. Howe's "Mormonism Unveiled" was collecting statements from every neighbor and acquaintance of the Smith's, surely the first place they went was to the local blacksmiths and metal suppliers. We don't have any direct evidence of Howe talking with the local craftsmen or suppliers, but if you were trying as Howe to pile disrepute on the reputation of the Smith's and to provide a naturalistic explanation, that would be the first place anyone would go. The lack of such interviews actually silently speaks to a lack of support for a tangible alternative explanation.
But here is the problem for the alternative theories: By Joseph allowing people to handle and feel the plates, it would be completely silly for the witnesses to be aware of their physical existence and then lie about actually seeing the plates. In fact, the Eight Witnesses make it clear they saw and handled the plates in broad daylight. And they maintained that position throughout their lives. It is particularly unsatisfying to think they saw and handled gold painted tin plates, considering the quality of paints was such as to provide instant recognition the plates were painted, if that were Joseph Smith's attempt.
Therefore, the best evidence is that Joseph Smith had gold colored plates with inscriptions on them.
If this is true, and the best evidence is that it is true, then speculation about whether the stuff on the plates is real or correct is actually irrelevant. There is only one way the story can go if the plates are real: Joseph Smith received them from an angel named Moroni who helped to write the plates and lived in ancient America.
The only point Mormons should be arguing with non-believers is over the reality of the plates. If the plates are real, then Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and God's Church has been restored. The alternative positions, that Joseph either manufactured the plates himself or with some help, or the plates never existed and he used some form of mass hypnosis or suggestion to trick a dozen folks into thinking they saw something they would then stake their lives on for the remainder of their lives, is illogical. Such positions only exist in the desires of non-believers and detractors to not believe that God was in the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They don't want to accept the reality that God can and does actively work miracles on the scale we find in the Bible, and their unauthoritative self-serving interpretation of scripture and creation of false doctrines is not acceptable to the true God in heaven.
Wanting something to be false does not make it false. Evidence and rational conclusions based on the evidence leads to the conclusion the plates existed. Deal with that before you change the discussion to the content of the Book of Mormon or the character of LDS Church leaders. If the plates existed, the Church is true. Thus, as Dan Peterson said, the plates stand as a thumb in the eye of the critics, since failing to deal with how the plates came into Joseph Smith's possession after admitting he had some plates, is the same as conceding the plates came from Moroni, the prophet whose name and writings are in the Book of Mormon.