Some believe the three witnesses saw the plates with their natural eyes, with an objective physical visitation of an angel, while others believe they viewed the plates in an inward vision, with their “spiritual eyes.” There is also disagreement about the testimony of the eight witnesses. Since there was no angel involved, and according to the narrative Joseph himself showed them the plates, their testimony is pointed to by those who believe in literal golden plates as evidence of their authenticity.
The Three Witnesses
“Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That we, through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, have seen the plates which contain this record, which is a record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites, their brethren, and also of the people of Jared, who came from the tower of which hath been spoken. And we also know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true. And we also testify that we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates; and they have been shown unto us by the power of God, and not of man. And we declare with words of soberness, that an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon; and we know that it is by the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, that we beheld and bear record that these things are true. And it is marvelous in our eyes. Nevertheless, the voice of the Lord commanded us that we should bear record of it; wherefore, to be obedient unto the commandments of God, we bear testimony of these things. And we know that if we are faithful in Christ, we shall rid our garments of the blood of all men, and be found spotless before the judgment-seat of Christ, and shall dwell with him eternally in the heavens. And the honor be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen.”Oliver CowderyDavid WhitmerMartin Harris
“JS may have been involved in writing this statement, but it is likely that Cowdery or one of the other witnesses was the author. The document appears as an appendix to this volume rather than as a featured text because even though its connection to JS is well established, its authorship is uncertain. The earliest copy of this document is found in the Book of Mormon manuscript prepared for the printer. Oliver Cowdery penned that copy at the end of the manuscript, on the same page as the last few lines of the Book of Mormon, sometime around February 1830, when the printer’s copy was finished. That copy does not appear to be the original because both Harris’s and Whitmer’s signatures are in Cowdery’s handwriting. David Whitmer later stated that each of the witnesses signed the original statement, demonstrating that they had individually agreed with its contents. Therefore, the original was written sometime between the June 1829 experience and early 1830. Unfortunately, most of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon has been lost, and it is unknown whether this testimony was appended to the end of that manuscript. The text featured here is from the first printed edition of the Book of Mormon.”- See Historical Introduction at link below
“Not many days after the above commandment was given, we four, viz., Martin Harris, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery and myself, agreed to retire into the woods, and try to obtain, by fervent and humble prayer, the fulfilment of the promises given in the above revelation—that they should have a view of the plates. We accordingly made choice of a piece of woods convenient to Mr. Whitmer’s house, to which we retired, and having knelt down, we began to pray in much faith to Almighty God to bestow upon us a realization of these promises.”
“According to previous arrangement, I commenced by vocal prayer to our Heavenly Father, and was followed by each of the others in succession. We did not at the first trial, however, obtain any answer or manifestation of divine favor in our behalf. We again observed the same order of prayer, each calling on and praying fervently to God in rotation, but with the same result as before.”
“Upon this, our second failure, Martin Harris proposed that he should withdraw himself from us, believing, as he expressed himself, that his presence was the cause of our not obtaining what we wished for. He accordingly withdrew from us, and we knelt down again, and had not been many minutes engaged in prayer, when presently we beheld a light above us in the air, of exceeding brightness; and behold, an angel stood before us. In his hands he held the plates which we had been praying for these to have a view of. He turned over the leaves one by one, so that we could see them, and discern the engravings thereon distinctly. He then addressed himself to David Whitmer, and said, ‘David, blessed is the Lord, and he that keeps His commandments;’ when, immediately afterwards, we heard a voice from out of the bright light above us, saying, ‘These plates have been revealed by the power of God, and they have been translated by the power of God. The translation of them which you have seen is correct, and I command you to bear record of what you now see and hear.’” –History of the Church, 1:54–55
Joseph Smith then concerned himself with Martin Harris, who had departed from them: “I now left David and Oliver, and went in pursuit of Martin Harris, whom I found at a considerable distance, fervently engaged in prayer. He soon told me, however, that he had not yet prevailed with the Lord, and earnestly requested me to join him in prayer, that he also might realize the same blessings which we had just received. We accordingly joined in prayer, and ultimately obtained our desires, for before we had yet finished, the same vision was opened to our view, at least it was again opened to me, and I once more beheld and heard the same things; whilst at the same moment, Martin Harris cried out, apparently in an ecstasy of joy, ‘’Tis enough; ’tis enough; mine eyes have beheld; mine eyes have beheld;’ and jumping up, he shouted, ‘Hosanna,’ blessing God, and otherwise rejoiced exceedingly.” –History of the Church,1:55.
“Nothing short of biblical Christianity furnishes such a concrete statement of supernatural reality. One cannot dismiss the experience easily, for each man so testifying impressed his community with his capacity and unwavering honesty, and all three consistently reaffirmed the experience in hundreds of interviews throughout their lives.”- “Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses”- Richard Anderson 1981
“Serious critics of the Book of Mormon must neutralize the testimonies of the witnesses to the Golden Plates…
For a very long time, those seeking to discredit their testimony accused them of insanity, or of having conspired to commit fraud. In the light of Anderson’s work, however, neither accusation can be sustained. They were plainly sane, honest, reputable men. Recently, the preferred method of disposing of the witnesses has been to suggest — quite falsely — that they never claimed to have literally seen or touched anything at all, or to insinuate that they were primitive and superstitious fanatics who, unlike us sophisticated moderns, could scarcely distinguish reality from fantasy. Honest, but misguided.”- “Book of Mormon witness testimonies”- Daniel Peterson- Deseret News March 25, 2010
“I continually encounter the confident declaration that the witnesses to the Book of Mormon didn’t really see or touch anything at all and didn’t actually claim to have seen or touched anything. They only “saw” the plates with their “spiritual eyes,” I’m assured, and “spiritual eyes,” to them, meant ‘in their imaginations.’…Let’s look at their explicit verbal testimonies. Several of the 11 official witnesses were obviously confronted during their lifetimes with accusations that they had merely hallucinated, and they repeatedly rejected such proposed explanations.”- “Defending the Faith: Did Book of Mormon witnesses simply see the golden plates with their ‘spiritual eyes’?– Daniel Peterson Deseret News May 21 2015
“The world may take lightly the recorded testimony of the three chosen witnesses, but solemn promises are given to both those who accept and those who reject their words. Those who heed their testimony will find God’s word in the Book of Mormon and will receive the Holy Ghost and be born again (see D&C 5:16). But those who reject this testimony shall come under condemnation.”- LDS.ORG- Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual- Section 5: The Testimony of the Three Witnesses
After talking as he did, so fully and freely he said “I have been asked if we saw those things with our natural eyes. Of course they were our natural eyes There is no doubt that our eyes were prepared for the sight, but they were our natural eyes nevertheless.” I asked him if the table was a tangible one, and he said it appeared to be, but they did not touch it.– David Whitmer, interview with Nathan Tanner, Jr., Letter to Nathan A. Tanner, 17 February 1909, typed copy, LDS Church Archives; cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:170.
“In regards to my testimony to the visitation of the angel, who declared to us three witnesses that the Book of Mormon is true, I have this to say: Of course we were in the spirit when we had the view, for no man can behold the face of an angel, except in a spiritual view, but ‘we were in the body also, and everything was as natural to us, as it is at any time. Martin Harris, you say, called it “being in vision.” We read in the Scriptures, Cornelius saw, in a vision, an angel of God, Daniel saw an angel in a vision, also in other places it states they saw an angel in the spirit. A bright light enveloped us where we were, that filled [the woods as] at noon day, and there in a vision or in the spirit, we saw and heard just as it is stated in my testimony in the Book of Mormon”-David Whitmer, to Anthony Metcalf, 2 April 1887; printed in A[nthony] Metcalf, Ten Years before the Mast ([Malad City, Idaho]: n.p. ), 73-74, italics in original; cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:193.
“I [the interviewer] asked him [Whitmer] if the table, which the angel brought, and upon which the plates lay when he viewed them was a tangible one, and he said that he did not touch it, it had the semblance of a table. The then ex=plained that he saw the plates and with his natural eyes, but he had to be prepared for it--that he and the other witnesses were overshadowed by the power of God and a halo of brightness indescribable.”-David Whitmer, interview with Nathan Tanner, Jr., Journal, 13 May 1886, [50-61], LDS Church Archives; cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:166.
I[nterviewer]–Martin Harris…gave a testimony in Salt Lake City Tabernacle that he saw the plates by [the] faith and power of God.
He [David Whitmer]–Martin Harris is correct….we saw it, and our testimony, which we give to the world, is true exactly as you read it, we saw by the gift and power of God. As we were praying the angel stood before us in his glory, and all those things were before us, as they were laid before us on a table, and we heard the testimony about the plates, and we were commanded to bear that testimony to the world, and our testimony is true. And when the angel had finished his words, and shown us the plates, one by one, which were to be translated, then the vision was closed at once, and exactly as it came even so did the sight disappear.
I––But those things which you saw were material things, how could they come and vanish away again?
He–-It is the power of God. He does those things, and his angels know how to do it. It was wonderful to us, but it was by the power of God. He had appointed his angels to be the guardians of the plates and other things, and the angels knew how it was done.
I–Did the eight witnesses not handle the plates as a material substance?
He-–We did not, but they did, because the faith of Joseph became so great that the angel, the guardian of the plates, gave the plates up to Joseph for a time, that those eight witnesses could see and handle them.-David Whitmer interview with P. Wilhelm Poulson, circa April 1878, letter to the editor, Deseret Evening News (16 August 1878); cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:38-39.
How well and distinctly I remember the manner in which Elder Whitmer arose and drew himself up to his full height–a little over six feet–and said, in solemn and impressive tones: “No sir! I was not under any hallucination, nor was I deceived! I saw with these eyes, and I heard with these ears! I know whereof I speak!”- Joseph Smith III, et al., Interview, July 1884, Richmond Missouri, in Lyndon W. Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 134-35
“Mr. Harris was among the early settlers of this town, and has ever borne the character of an honorable and upright man, and an obliging and benevolent neighbor. He had secured to himself by honest industry a respectable fortune—and he has left a large circle of acquaintances and friends to pity his delusion.”- Wayne Sentinel, May 27, 1831 as quoted in Richard Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 1981
“We have ever regarded Mr. Harris as an honest man. We first became acquainted with him at Palmyra, in the spring of 1828, shortly after the plates from which the Book of Mormon is said to have been translated, were found. . . . Though illiterate and actually of a superstitious turn of mind, he had long sustained an irreproachable character for probity. . . . By his neighbors and townsmen with whom he earnestly and almost incessantly labored, he was regarded rather as being deluded himself, than as wishing to delude others knowingly; but still he was subjected to many scoffs and rebukes, all of which he endured with a meekness becoming a better cause.”-Rochester Daily Democrat, June 23, 1841 as quoted in Richard Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 1981
“Mr. Harris, whose name is in the book, is a wealthy farmer, but of small literary acquirements; he is honest, and sincerely declares upon his soul’s salvation that the book is true.”–Letter of W. W. Phelps to E. D. Howe, Jan. 15, 1831, Canandaigua, N.Y., cit. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, p. 273
“When the Book of Mormon was published, Martin Harris was nearly 47 years of age, more than 20 years older than Joseph Smith and the other two witnesses. He was a prosperous and respected citizen of Palmyra, New York. He owned a farm of over 240 acres, large for the time and place. He was an honored veteran of two battles in the War of 1812. His fellow citizens entrusted him with many elective offices and responsibilities in the community. He was universally respected for his industry and integrity. Assessments by contemporaries described him as ‘an industrious, hard-working farmer, shrewd in his business calculations, frugal in his habits,’ and ‘strictly upright in his business dealings'” (quoted in Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses , 96–97, 98).- Dallin H. Oaks, The Witness: Martin Harris, April 1999
” ‘I know that the plates have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice declared it unto us. . . . And as many of the plates as Joseph Smith translated I handled with my hands, plate after plate.’ Then describing their dimensions, he pointed with one of the fingers of his left hand to the back of his right hand and said, ‘I should think they were so long, or about eight inches, and about so thick, or about four inches.’ “– Statement of David B. Dille, Sept. 15, 1853, deposited in Millennial Star Office, cit. Millennial Star 21 (1859):545. as quoted in Richard Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 1981
“It is not a mere belief, but is a matter of knowledge. I saw the plates and the inscriptions thereon. I saw the angel, and he showed them unto me.”-Robert Aveson, “Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon,” Deseret News, Apr. 2, 1927. as quoted in Richard Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 1981
“Well, just as plain as you see that chopping block, I saw the plates; and sooner than I would deny it I would lay my head upon that chopping block and let you chop it off.”- Statement of Comfort Elizabeth Godfrey Flinders to N. B. Lundwall, Sept. 2, 1943, Ogden, Utah, cit. Assorted Gems of Priceless Value, as quoted in Richard Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 1981
“Gentlemen, do you see that hand? Are you sure you see it? Are your eyes playing you a trick or something? No. Well, as sure as you see my hand so sure did I see the angel and the plates.”- Statement of William M. Glenn to O. E. Fischbacher, May 30, 1943, Cardston, Alberta, Canada, cit. Deseret News, Oct. 2, 1943- as quoted in Richard Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 1981
“I wrote with my own pen the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the Prophet, as he translated it by the gift and power of God, by means of the Urim and Thummim, or as it is called by that book, Holy Interpreters. I beheld with my eyes, and handled with my hands, the gold plates from which it was translated. I also beheld the Interpreters. That book is true.”- Journal of Reuben Miller, Oct. 21, 1848- as quoted in Richard Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 1981
“Oliver Cowdery was generally recognized by Mormon and non-Mormon alike as an astute and highly intelligent individual, and his mature life was spent in the practical vocation and avocation of law and politics. The fact that he considered the above experience the most impressive and solemn event of his life must weigh heavily in favor of the objective reality of the vision. Above all, he had the emotional and intellectual capacity to know whether he was deceived. If this vision was real to him, there is a burden upon every informed person to face the great probability that the Latter-day Saints have indeed received modern revelation. One other possibility exists—fraud. But this is merely conceivable, for Oliver’s solid career as a responsible attorney and public servant is completely inconsistent with such an assumption. Of greatest weight is the unvarying reiteration of this testimony throughout a lifetime. He told the same simple story of the vision, whether under privation, persecution, resentment against the translator of the Book of Mormon, ridicule by non-Mormons, or knowledge of imminent death. Beyond all doubt, he was repeating his inmost convictions as he testified of the truth of the Book of Mormon.”- Richard Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 1981
There is a good argument to be made that D&C 17 supports the view that not only did the three witnesses see the plates with their “spiritual eyes,” i.e. in a vision, but that’s how Joseph Smith saw them as well. This would support Ann Taves’s theory about Joseph “materializing” the plates, even though he did not actually possess ancient plates.
And it is by your faith that you shall obtain a view of them [the plates] (v. 2) … And after that you have … seen them with your eyes, you shall testify of them, by the power of God (v. 3) … And ye shall testify that you have seen them, even as my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., has seen them (v. 5) … [And] you shall be lifted up at the last day (v. 8)-D&C 17
It’s impossible to say what the three witnesses actually experienced. Was it a real angel? Was it just a subjective experience? Was it real just to them perhaps? Whether it was an objective visit by an angel or not, it’s clear that the three witnesses gained a deep commitment to the work of the restoration and a firm testimony that the Book of Mormon was the word of God. They carried this firm testimony with them throughout their lives. It is simply impossible to make a distinction, in such black and white terms, that the witnesses were honest and competent or they were dishonest and/or deluded. Regardless, we are left with the product, the text of the Book of Mormon which can be considered scripture, regardless of the method in which it came into existence.
“Apologists have long put forward the idea that the three and eight witnesses to the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon provide two kinds of testimony- one spiritual, the other physical-and that the two testimonies are complementary. The spiritual proves that Joseph Smith did not fabricate the plates, the physical that he did not delude the three witnesses. This argument is designed more to persuade than to enlighten. For, in fact, the two events are not mutually exclusive and the true historical situation surrounding the experiences of the two groups is more complex than this implies.
In this essay I will examine the published testimonies of the witnesses, as well as other related historical sources, to try to determine more accurately the nature of their experiences. Hence, I will not explore the question of the witnesses’ honesty and trustworthiness; this has been exploited at great length by those whose intent has been to present a false dichotomy.: either the witnesses told the truth about their experiences, and therefore Joseph Smith’s claims about the plates are true, or they lied and the plates never existed. This either/or reduction misrepresents the situation facing those who wish to examine the historical nature of these events.
The important question is not whether the witnesses were trustworthy or if they continued to maintain their belief in the Book of Mormon throughout their lives. The central question- the question explored in this essay- concerns the nature of their experiences and if their statements are distinguishable from those claiming similar religious testimonies. In other words, are the statements by Book of Mormon witnesses different from other examples of religious testimony confronting historians? This essay will attempt to assess the nature of the vision of the three witnesses and investigate the assumption that the eight witnesses’ experience was purely natural and physical.” – Dan Vogel, The Validity of the Witnesses Testimonies, American Apocrypha, 2002, 79
“In defending the witnesses, Richard Anderson repeatedly exhibits an assumption that hallucinators are unstable and most likely uneducated. However, hallucinators are otherwise indistiguishable from other people and can function normally in society. To emphasize Harris’s business ethics or Cowdery’s intelligence or Whitmer’s good citizenship is irrelevant to their potential to be inclined to see visions.
If the experience of the witnesses was some kind of hypnotism or the result of simple suggestion, the three men were willing subjects. As soon as Cowdery, Whitmer, and Harris learned that there were to be three special witnesses, they expressed a desire to volunteer and, as Smith records, “they became so very solicitous, and teazed me so much” that Smith received the revelation instructing them on how they would see the plates and other objects (D&C 17). Thus, Smith may have taken three suggestible, willing subjects into the woods and used prayer as a method of induction. As Riley noted almost a century ago, ‘Repetition, steady attention, absence of mistrust, self-surrender to the will of the principal, – all the requisites are present, not as formulae but as facts.'”– Dan Vogel, The Validity of the Witnesses Testimonies, American Apocrypha, 2002, 79
“…I have reflected long and deliberately upon the history of this church & weighed the evidence for & against it— loth to give it up— but when I came to hear Martin Harris state in a public congregation that he never saw the plates with his natural eyes only in vision or imagination, neither Oliver [Cowdery] nor David [Whitmer] & also that the eight witnesses never saw them & hesitated to sign that instrument for that reason, but were persuaded to do it, the last pedestal gave way, in my view our foundations was sapped & the entire superstructure fell a heap of ruins, I therefore three weeks since in the Stone Chapel gave a full history of the church since I became acquainted with it, the false preaching & prophecying etc of Joseph together with the reasons why I took the course which I was resolved to do, and renounced the Book of Mormon with the whole scene of lying and deception practiced by J. S & S. R in this church, believ ing as I verily do, that it is all a wicked deception palmed upon us unawares
I was followed by W. Parish [Warren Parrish] Luke Johnson & John [F.] Boynton all of who concurred with me, after we were done speaking M Harris arose & said he was sorry for any man who rejected the Book of Mormon for he knew it was true, he said he had hefted the plates repeatedly in a box with only a tablecloth or a handkerchief over them, but he never saw them only as he saw a city through a mountain. And said that he never should have told that the testimony of the eight was false, if it had not been picked out of air but should have let it passed as it was— Now br Johnson if you have any thing to say in favour of the Book of Mormon I should be glad to hear it.”
…I am well satisfied for myself that if the witnesses whose names are attached to the Book of Mormon never saw the plates as Martin admits that there can be nothing brought to prove that any such thing ever existed for it is said on the 171 page of the book of covenants that the three should testify that they had seen the plates even as J S Jr & if they only saw them spiritually or in vision with their eyes shut— J S Jr never saw them in any other light way & if so the plates were only visionary— Stephen Burnett letter to Lyman Johnson 15 April 1838
“Whether I believe in the book of Mormon as being of divine origin? I answer, I do not; and that for the best of reasons, viz. Martin Harris, one of the subscribing witnesses; has come out at last, and says he never saw the plates, from which the book purports to have been translated, except in vision; and he further says that any man who says he has seen them in any other way is a liar, Joseph not excepted; — see new edition, Book of Covenants, page 170, which agrees with Harris’s testimony.”- Warren Parrish to E. Holmes, 11 August 1838, in Evangelist (Carthage, OH) 6 (1 October 1838): 226
“To know how much this testimony is worth I will state one fact. A gentleman in Palmyra, bred to the law, a professor of religion, and of undoubted veracity told me that on one occasion, he appealed to Harris and asked him directly,-”Did you see those plates?” Harris replied, he did. “Did you see the plates, and the engraving on them with your bodily eyes?” Harris replied, “Yes, I saw them with my eyes,-they were shown unto me by the power of God and not of man.” “But did you see them with your natural,-your bodily eyes, just as you see this pencil-case in my hand? Now say no or yes to this.” Harris replied,-”Why I did not see them as I do that pencil-case, yet I saw them with the eye of faith; I saw them just as distinctly as I see any thing around me,-though at the time they were covered over with a cloth.“- John Clark, Gleanings by the way,1842, pgs 256-257
“I never saw the golden plates, only in a visionary or entranced state. I wrote a great deal of the Book of Mormon myself, as Joseph Smith translated or spelled the words out in English. Sometimes the plates would be on a table in the room in which Smith did the translating, covered over with a cloth. I was told by Smith that God would strike him dead if he attempted to look at them, and I believed it. When the time came for the three witnesses to see the plates, Joseph Smith, myself, David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery, went into the woods to pray. When they had engaged in prayer, they failed at the time to see the plates or the angel who should have been on hand to exhibit them. They all believed it was because I was not good enough, or in other words, not sufficiently sanctified. I withdrew. As soon as I had gone away, the three others saw the angel and the plates. In about three days I went into the woods to pray that I might see the plates. While praying I passed into a state of entrancement, and in that state I saw the angel and the plates.”- Martin Harris interview with Anthony Metcalf
“Martin was something of a prophet:– He frequently said that that “Jackson would be the last president that we would have; and that all persons who did not embrace Mormonism in two years time would be stricken off the face of the earth. He said that Palmyra was to be the New Jerusalem, and that her streets were to be paved with gold.”
“Martin was in the office when I finished setting up the testimony of the three witnesses,—(Harris—Cowdery and Whitmer) I said to him,—“Martin, did you see those plates with your naked eyes?” Martin looked down for an instant, raised his eyes up, and said, ‘No, I saw them with a spiritual eye.’“- John H. Gilbert, “Memorandum, made by John H. Gilbert Esq, Sept[ember] 8th, 1892[,] Palmyra, N.Y.,” Palmyra King’s Daughters Free Library, Palmyra, New York, as quoted in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2: 548.
“I was well aquainted with Martin Harris, who was often at my house for days at a time. I have questioned him much about the plates from which the “Book of Mormon” purports to have been translated. He never claimed to have seen them with his natural eyes, only spiritual vision. He said it was impossible for the prophet Joseph to get up the “Book of Mormon,” for he could not spell the word Sarah. He had him repeat the letters of the word*. He was a very illiterate man. …”- Reuben P. Harmon, Statement to Arthur B. Deming, circa 1885, Naked Truths about Mormonism 1 (April 1888): 1.- as quoted in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 2:385
*Note by Dan Vogel in EMD 2:385- “David Whitmer also said Smith spelled out difficult words, and Emma Smith said he could not spell Sarah (probably Sariah, Lehi’s wife)
“How to reconcile the act of Harris in signing his name to such a statement, in view of the character of honesty which had always been conceded to him, could never be easily explained. In reply to uncharitable suggestions of his neighbors, he used to practise a good deal of his characteristic jargon about “seeing with the spiritual eye,” and the like.”- Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1867), 71 in “Pomeroy Tucker Account, 1867,” Vogel,Early Mormon Documents, 3: 122.
“It was perhaps impossible for many of Martin’s neighbors, not to mention our present generation, to fully understand his behavior. His imagination was excitable and fecund. Once while reading scripture, he reportedly mistook a candle’s sputtering as a sign that the devil desired him to stop. Another time he excitedly awoke from his sleep believing that a creature as large as a dog had been upon his chest, though a nearby associate could find nothing to confirm his fears. Several hostile and perhaps unreliable accounts told of visionary experiences with Satan and Christ, Harris once reporting that Christ had been poised on a roof beam.” – Martin Harris: Mormonism’s Early Convery, BYU Professor Ronald Walker 1986, pp. 34–35
“No matter where he [Martin Harris] went, he saw visions and supernatural appearances all around him. He told a gentleman in Palmyra, after one of his excursions to Pennsylvania, while the translation of the Book of Mormon was going on, that on the way he met the Lord Jesus Christ, who walked along by the side of him in the shape of a deer for two or three miles, talking with him as familiarly as one man talks with another.” – John A. Clark letter, August 31, 1840, Vogel EMD, 2: 271
According to two Ohio newspapers, shortly after Harris arrived in Kirtland, Ohio, he began claiming to have “seen Jesus Christ and that he is the handsomest man he ever did see. He has also seen the Devil, whom he described as a very sleek haired fellow with four feet, and a head like that of a Jack-ass.” – Vogel EMD, 2: 271, note 32
“Martin was a man that would do just as he agreed with you. But, he was a great man for seeing spooks.”- Lorenzo Saunders Interview, November 12, 1884, in Vogel EMD, 2: 149
“And, as has already been intimated, he [Martin Harris] alone was depended upon for the means to pay for its printing, for no other man of the whole Mormon tribe could have raised a dollar of his own money for that or any other object. he was a prosperous, independent farmer, strictly upright in his business dealings, and, although evidencing good qualifications in the affairs of his industrial calling, yet he was the slave of the peculiar religious fanaticism controlling his mental organization. “Marvelousness” being his predominating phrenological development, he was noted for the betrayal of vague superstitions — a belief in dreams, ghosts, hobgoblins, “special providences,” terrestrial visits of angels, the interposition of “devils” to afflict sinful men, etc.“– Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1867), 50
It is interesting to note that even after Martin Harris sat across from Joseph for many months while he dictated the first 116 pages, even after he had hefted the plates many times while covered or in a box, even after he confirmed to Joseph that the Lord “has showed to me ten times more about it than you know,” that he still doubted the authenticity of the plates and demanded of Joseph that he be allowed to see them. In March 1829, after Emma had served as scribe for the Book of Mosiah, and before Oliver Cowdery served as scribe for the remainder of the Book of Mormon, Joseph received this revelation in D&C 5:
Behold, I say unto you, that as my servant Martin Harris has desired a witness at my hand, that you, my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., have got the plates of which you have testified and borne record that you have received of me;- D&C 5:1 – March 1829
Harris had evidently told the dissenters [Stephen Burnett, Warren Parrish, Luke Johnson, John Boynton] what he had told John A. Clark in 1828, that he saw the plates “with the eye of faith just as distinctly as I see any thing around me,—though at the time they were covered over with a cloth.”(John A. Clark, Letter to Dear Brethren, 31 August 1840, The Episcopal Recorder [Philadelphia] 18 (12 September 1840): 99 ) The weakness of such evidence even in Harris’s mind is revealed by his own actions following his meeting with Clark. In March 1829, Harris showed up at Joseph Smith’s door in Harmony, Pennsylvania, demanding to see the plates. Isaac Hale remembered: “Martin Harris informed me that he must have a greater witness, and said that he had talked with Joseph about it.” (“Mormonism,” Susquehanna Register 9 (1 May 1834): 1 (EMD 4:286). At this time, Smith dictated a revelation: “Behold, I say unto you, that my servant Martin has desired a witness from my hand, that my servant Joseph has got the things of which he has testified, and borne record that he has received of me.” Harris told Isaac Hale that “Joseph informed him that he could not, or durst not show him the plates, but that he (Joseph) would go into the woods where the book of plates was, and that after he came back, Harris should follow his tracks in the snow, and find the book, and examine it for himself.” Hale said that “Harris informed me afterwards, that he followed Smith’s directions, [but] could not find the plates, and [that he] was still dissatisfied.” (Mormonism,” Susquehanna Register 9 (1 May 1834): 1 (EMD 4:286-87). Three months later, Harris would receive his “greater witness” by becoming one of the three witnesses, but he never saw the plates uncovered with his natural eyes. Given Harris’s own attitude about his pre-vision experience with the plates, he could hardly blame the dissenters for being unmoved by such stories.- Book of Mormon Witnesses Revisited: A Response to Richard L. Anderson, Stephen C. Harper, Daniel C. Peterson, Richard L. Bushman, and Alan Goff- by Dan Vogel
[Murphy]: “First of all, I heard you saw an angel. I never saw one. I want your description of [the] shape, voice, brogue and the construction of his language. I mean as to his style of speaking. You know that we can often determine the class a man belongs to by his language.”
[Whitmer]: “It had no appearance or shape.”
[Murphy]: “Then you saw nothing nor heard nothing?”
[Whitmer]: “Nothing, in the way you understand it.”
[Murphy]: “How, then, could you have borne testimony that you saw and heard an angel?”
[Whitmer]: “Have you never had impressions?”
[Murphy]: “Then you had impressions as the quaker when the spirit moves, or as a good Methodist in giving a happy experience, a feeling?”
[Whitmer]: “Just so.”- John Murphy to the Editor, undated, Hamiltonian, 21 January 1881, quoted in “David Whitmer Interview with John Murphy, June 1880,” Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 5:63
David Whitmer wrote a rebuttal to the interview with John Murphy but interestingly, he did not dispute the portion quoted above.
“Unto all Nations, Kindreds, tongues and people unto whom this present Shall come. It having been represented by one John Murphy of Polo Mo. that I in a conversation with him last Summer, denied my testimony as one of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon. To the end therefore, that he may understand me now if he did not then, and that the world may know the truth, I wish now standing as it were, in the very sunset of life, and in the fear of God, once for all to make this public Statement; That I have never at any time, denied that testimony or any part thereof, which has so long since been published with that book as one of the three witnesses. Those who know me best, well know that I have adhered to that testimony. And that no man may be misled or doubt my present views in regard to the same, I do now again affirm the truth of all my statement, as then made and published. He that hath an ear to hear, let him hear; It was no Delusion. What is written is written, and he that readeth let him understand.”- An Address to all Believers in Christ in 1887,David Whitmer
Elder Orson Pratt: Have you any idea when the other record will be brought forth?
David Whitmer: When we see things in the spirit and by the power of God they seem to be right here; the present signs of the times indicate the near approach of the coming forth of the other plates, but when it will be I cannot tell. The Three Nephites are at work among the lost tribes and elsewhere. John the Revelator is at work, and I believe the time will come suddenly, before we are prepared for it.- David Whitmer interview with Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith, 7-8 September 1878, Vogel EMD 5:45-46
“Mr [David] Whitmer conversed and showed to me the papers [of the Book of Mormon manuscript] for 2 1/2 hours. was very kind but had trouble in keeping him on the points in issue. He was some what spiritual in his explanations[.] He was not as materialistic in his descriptions as I wished. …Mr David Whitmer Senior is now 80 years old. He is some what feeble but claims that he will preserve the plates <manuscript>….
Mr D[avid] Whitmer Sen did not handle the plates. Only seen <saw> them, says Martin Haris and Cowdry did so they say!
Says he did see them and the angel and heard him speak. But that it was indiscribable that it was through the [p. 3] power of God (and was possibly [in the spirit] at least) he then spoke of Paul hearing and seeing Christ but his associates did not. Because it is only seen in the Spirit.
I was not fully satisfied with the ex=planation. It was more spiritual than I anticipated.“- David Whitmer Interview with James Henry Moyle, Diary, 28 June 1885 in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5:140-141.
“In regards to my testimony to the visitation of the angel, who declared to us three witnesses that the Book of Mormon is true, I have this to say: Of course we were in the spirit when we had the view, for no man can behold the face of an angel, except in a spiritual view, but we were in the body also, and everything was as natural to us, as it is at any time. Martin Harris, you say, called it ‘being in vision.’ We read in the Scriptures, Cornelius saw, in a vision, an angel of God. Daniel saw an angel in a vision; also in other places it states they saw an angel in the spirit. A bright light enveloped us where we were, that filled at noon day, and there in a vision, or in the spirit, we saw and heard just as it is stated in my testimony in the Book of Mormon. I am now passed eighty-two years old, and I have a brother, J. J. Snyder, to do my writing for me, at my dictation.”
(signed) David Whitmer- Anthony Metcalf, Ten Years before the Mast, ([Malad City, Idaho]; n.p. , 73-74, Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 5:193
“In June 1829, I saw the angel by the power of God … The angel appeared in the light … Between us and the angel there appeared a table, and there lay upon it the sword of Laban, the Ball of Directors, the Record, and interpreters. The angel took the Record, and turned the leaves, and showed it to us by the power of God. They were taken away by the angel to a cave, which we saw by the power of God while we were yet in the Spirit.”– David Whitmer, interview by Edmund C. Briggs, in “Letter from Edmund C. Briggs to Joseph Smith III,” 4 June 1884, Saints’ Herald, 2 1 Ju n e 1884, 396; David Whitmer, interview by Edward Stevenson, Journal, 22 Dec. 1877, 4806:2, LDS archives, Vogel EMD 5:121
“The “New Israelites” of Middletown, Vermont also synthesized evangelical religion and treasure seeking. In 1789 Nathaniel Wood, Sr. and his extensive connections announced that they were the descendants of the ancient Jews and established their own separate church. In 1799 a seer named Wingate arrived in Middletown as a guest of the Woods and of William Cowdry in adjoining Wells, Vermont. The Woods began to feature divining rods in their rituals, insisting that the rods’ jerks in answer to their questions represented divine messages. The town’s historian recalled that “by the use of the rod many converts were added, and the zeal of all increased and continued to increase until it amounted to a distraction.” Under Wingate’s direction, for two years the New Israelites employed their rods to predict the future, seek lost property, detect valuable medicinal roots, search for buried treasures, and to order the construction, and then abandonment, of a “temple.” They expected to find sufficient gold to pave the streets of the “New Jerusalem” that they planned to construct. In late 1800 Wingate and the Woods employed the rods to predict the end of the world on the night of January 14, 1801. When January 15 arrived on schedule, and shortly thereafter, when it was learned that Wingate had been a counterfeiter, the sect collapsed in local disgrace. Most of the members, including the Woods, migrated to western New York. 
A direct link can be drawn between the New Israelites and the Mormon church founded by Joseph Smith, Jr. in 1830. Both faiths stressed millenialism, confidence in their Jewish ancestry, insistence of recapturing Christian Primitivism, a separatist notion of building a New Jerusalem, and reliance on latter-day prophecies. There is also a genealogical connection. William Cowdry, the father of Oliver Cowdry who helped transcribe theBook of Mormon was a New Israelite. Some Middletowners who later moved to Palmyra claimed that they found Wingate there assisting the Smiths in their treasure seeking under an assumed name, perhaps the ‘magician Walters.’– Alan Taylor, “The Early Republic’s Supernatural Economy: Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast, 1780–1830,” American Quarterly 38, no. 1 (Spring 1986):24
Oliver Cowdery obviously continued this practice of seeking answers from God through a divining rod. This is noted explicitly in the Book of Commandments of 1833 (that later became the D&C) and the revelation was modified for the current D&C, which veils the historical meaning somewhat.
O remember, these words and keep my com mandments. Remember this is your gift. Now this is not all, for you have another gift, which is the gift of working with the rod: behold it has told you things: behold there is no other power save God, that can cause this rod of nature, to work in your hands, for it is the work of God; and therefore whatsoever you shall ask me to tell you by that means, that will I grant unto you, that you shall know.- Book of Commandments 7:3 (1833)- JosephSmithPapers.org
6 Now this is not all thy gift; for you have another gift, which is the gift of Aaron; behold, it has told you many things;
7 Behold, there is no other power, save the power of God, that can cause this gift of Aaron to be with you.
8 Therefore, doubt not, for it is the gift of God; and you shall hold it in your hands, and do marvelous works; and no power shall be able to take it away out of your hands, for it is the work of God.- D&C 8:6-8
“When Joseph got the plates, the angel instructed him to carry them back to the hill Cumorah, which he did. Oliver [Cowdery] says that when Joseph and Oliver went there, the hill opened, and they walked into a cave, in which there was a large and spacious room. He says he did not think, at the time, whether they had the light of the sun or artificial light; but that it was just as light as day. They laid the plates on a table; it was a large table that stood in the room. Under this table there was a pile of plates as much as two feet high, and there were altogether in this room more plates than probably many wagon loads; they were piled up in the corners and along the walls. The first time they went there the sword of Laban hung upon the wall; but when they went again it had been taken down and laid upon the table across the gold plates … I tell you this as coming not only from Oliver Cowdery, but others who were familiar with it … Carlos Smith … was a witness to these things. Samuel Smith saw some things, Hyrum saw a good many things, but Joseph was the leader.”- Brigham Young, 17 June 1877, Journal of Discourses 19:38. Young refers to this same incident when they “went into a cave in the Hill Cumorah” and returned the plates, in Wilford Woodruff ’s Journal, 1833-98, typescript, ed. Scott G. Kenny, 9 vols. (Midvale, UT: Signature Books, 1984], 11 Dec. 1869, 6:508-9
Visionary Experience/Spiritual Eyes/ Eye of Faith/ Eye of the mind/Eyes of Understanding/ Second Sight/:
It is very apparent that the experience of the three witnesses occurred in a visionary state, in other words an inward experience, and there wasn’t actually a physical angel standing in front of them with actual metal plates or a physical table present with artifacts on it. This is clear when the statements above are evaluated closely. That is why all of the 3 witnesses stated explicitly that they didn’t actually touch the plates, table, or artifacts. As David Whitmer said “When we see things in the spirit and by the power of God they seem to be right here.”
Joseph Smith himself referred to it as a vision and stated that when he separated from the group with Martin, “the same vision was opened to our view, at least it was again opened to me, and I once more beheld and heard the same things…” it’s obvious the experience was not shared in any objective sense. David Whitmer’s statement about the vision being like “Paul hearing and seeing Christ but his associates did not because it is only seen in the Spirit,” concords with this view as well. In those days, seeing “hidden” things through second sight, spiritual eyes, the eye of faith, etc was fairly common. It does not mean those things were objectively real but they were certainly real to those experiencing it. Here are some examples:
“More specifically, they [the witnesses] believed in what has been called second sight. Traditionally, this included the ability to see spirits and their dwelling places within the local hills and elsewhere. Josiah Stowell of Bainbridge, New York, hired Joseph Smith to hunt for buried treasure because Joseph “could discern things invisible to the natural eye.” Ezra Booth, an early Mormon convert, reported of Joseph: “He does not pretend that he sees them [spirits and angels] with his natural, but with his spiritual eyes; and he says he can see them as well with his eyes shut, as with them open.”Joseph reported that the antediluvian prophet Enoch beheld “things which were not visible to the natural eye” and explained that he, like Enoch, could “see” with the spiritual “mind” (Moses 6:36; D&C 67:10). Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery would later perceive Jesus, Moses, Elias, and Elijah in a worship service in Ohio while the congregants discerned “convoy after convoy of angels,” all with “the eyes of our understanding.” The eleven witnesses to the Book of Mormon claimed second-sight abilities, as well.”- Grant Palmer, An Insider’s View to Mormon Origins,2002, 175-176
David Whitmer reported that his grandson George Schweich was a “seer” who, “through his peepstone, sees caves in which are vast stores of records; cave in succession to cave, all filled with treasures of golden plates and sacred records. He sees in the north pole a gigantic race of people; in the south a liliputian race.”-Joseph Fielding Smith, Life of Joseph F. Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press,1938), 239
“These American adepts [money-diggers] were a diffuse lot, including girls, boys, women, and men. Young Sally Chase found lost articles and treasure in the Palmyra, New York neighborhood. Seven-year-old Eli Yarnall began his seeric career when in his own house he suddenly laughed at the idea of his father running down a distant mountain chasing a dropped whiskey jug. On returning home his father confirmed the boy’s “second sight.”
“A second treasure finding device used by some adepts was the “peep” or “seer” stone whose acclaimed gifts excelled even those of the divining rod…Practitioners were literally “seers,” that is, lookers into the stone. An eyewitness described the process: ‘Tim placed the diamond- for so we must term the [seer] stone- in his cap, put the cap over his face in such a manner as to exclude every particle of light, and after a long and steady ‘view,’ moved the cap slowly away from his face his gaze still fixed on the stone.’ With most village seers requiring that the light be secluded, this stone in the hat procedure was standard. By this method an adept could see within the stone crystal a helpful spirit or the precise locality of the underground treasure.”
“The Palmyra Reflector labeled the New York money hunting “mania“: ‘Men and Women without distinction of age or sex became marvellous[ly] wise in the occult sciences, many dreamed, and others saw visions disclosing to them, deep in the bowels of the earth, rich and shining treasures.”- Ronald W. Walker, The Persisting Idea of American Treasure Hunting, BYU Studies, 1984, 442
“I know several persons in whom this great change [the new birth] was wrought, in a dream, or during a strong representation to the eye of their mind, of Christ either on the cross or in glory.”- Methodist Founder John Wesley, as quoted in Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 53
1 The veil was taken from our minds, and the eyes of our understanding were opened.– D&C 110:1– Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery vision of Jesus, Moses, Elias, and Elijah in the Kirtland temple
12 By the power of the Spirit our eyes were opened and our understandings were enlightened, so as to see and understand the things of God—
19 And while we meditated upon these things, the Lord touched the eyes of our understandings and they were opened, and the glory of the Lord shone round about.- D&C 76:12,19- Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon of the three degrees of glory
Philo Dibble was an eyewitness to the vision recorded in D&C 76 and described it in detail. You can see how Joseph Smith directed the experience with Sidney Rigdon and they both took cues from one another. The experience took over an hour. I assume a similar methodology was employed during the vision of the 3 witnesses, and why Martin Harris may not have seen the same things, and why Joseph said, when referring to Martin, “the same vision was opened to our view, at least it was again opened to me…” Its seems clear that the vision of the 3 witnesses was guided and directed by Joseph Smith, otherwise why did he have to be present for the vision to occur?
“The vision which is recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants was given in the house of ‘Father Johnson,’ in Hiram, Ohio, and during the time that Joseph and Sidney were in the spirit, and saw the heavens open, there were other men in the room, perhaps twelve, among whom I was one during part of the time- probably two thirds of the time,- and I saw the glory and felt the power, but did not see the vision.
Joseph would, at intervals, say: ‘What do I see?’ as one might say while looking out the window and beholding what all in the room could not see. Then he would relate what he had seen or what he was looking at. Then Sidney replied, ‘I see the same.’ Presently Sidney would say ‘what do I see?’ and would repeat what he had seen or was seeing, and Joseph would reply, ‘I see the same.’
“This manner of conversation was reported at short intervals to the end of the vision, and during the whole time not a word was spoken by any other person. Not a sound nor motion made by anyone but Joseph and Sidney, and it seemed to me that they never moved a joint or limb during the time I was there, which I think was over an hour, and to the end of the vision.”- Account of Elder Philo Dibble,Juvenile Instructor, May 1892, pp. 303–4
“Vardis Fisher’s Children of God portrays a Joseph Smith by no means lacking in admirable traits of character, but including as well some stereotypes from the mesmerism tradition. At one confrontation between the young Smith and a Palmyra mob one man ‘tried to laugh but only snickered; and another, slowly withdrawing, with his gaze on Joseph’s face, spoke out of sudden awe: ‘Look at his eyes! Men, look at his eyes” Soon the men left and ‘Joseph was left alone, a man courageous and fearless, whose eyes, whose strange intense directness, had abashed his enemies.’ Later he took the three prospective witnesses of the Book of Mormon into the woods. ‘There, with bared head, he stood motionless, gazing at the sky, his eyes so bright and hypnotic that Dave [Whitmer] looked anxiously at Oliver [Cowdery]…’ In other incidents the same pattern is repeated as when Sidney Rigdon and Joseph entered the woods to pray. ‘Rigdon watched him with a skeptical stare. When he saw the pallor in Joseph’s face and the far-seeing hypnotic brightness of his eyes, he was convinced, and he listened attentively when the prophet spoke.’
“The standard biography of Joseph Smith, Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History refers to Smith’s ‘magnetic influence over his friends’ and his ‘talent for making men see visions.’ Referring to the tes[t]imony of the three witnesses and the fact of their later departure from the Mormon Church, Mrs Brodie notes that Joseph Smith had no reason to fear that they would deny their testimony ‘for he had conjured up a vision they would never forget.’–Vardis Fisher, Children of God (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1939), pp. 30, 47, 80, as quoted in Gary L. Bunker and Davis Bitton, Mormonism and Mesmerism, BYU Studies, Vol 15, no.2, 1975
“Whatever we may say of the moral character of the author of Mormonism, it cannot be denied that Joseph Smith was a man of remarkable power– over others. Added to the stupendous claim of supernatural power, conferred by the direct gift of God, he exercised an almost magnetic power— an irresistible fascination– over those with whom he came in contact.“- Amos Sutton Hayden, Early History of the Disciples in the Western Reserve Ohio, Cincinnati: Chase and Hall, 1876, p.249-250
Here is another example of the possible influence of Joseph’s charismatic character and mesmeric/magnetic influence.
“The Smith family was driven from New York, and a small church had been organized. Oliver Cowdery, Peter Whitmer, and Ziba Peterson were members. Well, I being anxious, though young, to learn about the plates from those who knew all about it, my mother and I went up to the Smith family the next night after they came to Kirtland. As I went in, there were two or three others present. They were all there, from the old gentleman and his wife to all the sons and daughters. As we stood there talking to them, Joseph and Martin Harris came in. Joseph looked around very solemnly. It was the first time some of them had ever seen him.
Said he, “There are enough here to hold a little meeting.” They got a board and put it across two chairs to make seats. Martin Harris sat on a little box at Joseph’s feet. They sang and prayed. Joseph got up and began to speak to us. As he began to speak very solemnly and very earnestly, all at once his countenance changed and he stood mute. Those who looked at him that day said there was a search light within him, over every part of his body. I never saw anything like it on the earth. I could not take my eyes off him; he got so white that anyone who saw him would have thought he was transparent. I remember I thought I could almost see the cheek bones through the flesh. I have been through many changes since but that is photographed on my brain. I shall remember it and see in my mind’s eye as long as I remain upon the earth.
He stood some moments. He looked over the congregation as if to pierce every heart. He said, “Do you know who has been in your midst?” One of the Smiths said an angel of the Lord. Martin Harris said, “It was our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” Joseph put his hand down on Martin and said: “God revealed that to you. Brethren and sisters, the Spirit of God has been here. The Savior has been in your midst this night and I want you to remember it. There is a veil over your eyes for you could not endure to look upon Him. You must be fed with milk, not with strong meat. I want you to remember this as if it were the last thing that escaped my lips. He has given all of you to me and has sealed you up to everlasting life that where he is, you may be also. And if you are tempted of Satan say, ‘Get behind me, Satan.’
These words are figured upon my brain and I never took my eye off his countenance. Then he knelt down and prayed. I have never heard anything like it before or since. I felt that he was talking to the Lord and that power rested down upon the congregation. Every soul felt it. The spirit rested upon us in every fiber of our bodies, and we received a sermon from the lips of the representative of God.”- Mary Elizabeth Lightner, Address at Brigham Young University, April 14, 1905, typescript, BYU
Oliver Cowdery stated that he saw the plates in a vision before meeting Joseph Smith. Martin Harris intimated he had also seen the plates and 10 times more than Joseph knew. This brings up a very important question. If God commanded that no one was to see the plates before the translation was completed, why were Oliver and Martin allowed to see the plates in a vision before that time? Secondly, if they had already seen the plates in a vision, why was it necessary for them to see the plates AGAIN in a vision, in order to testify to the world? Wouldn’t it have been more credible and believable if Oliver and Martin were allowed to see the “actual” plates, uncovered, during the many months they sat by Joseph’s side transcribing the words he dictated, while his face was buried in the hat, not even looking at the plates?
“I also was chastened
alsofor my transgression for asking the Lord the third time wherefore the Plates was taken from me by the power of God and I was not able to obtain them for a season and it came to pass afte[r] much humility and affliction of Soul I obtained them again when Lord appeared unto a young man by the name of Oliver Cowd[e]ry and shewed unto him the plates in a vision and also the truth of the work and what the Lord was about to do through me his unworthy Servant.”- Joseph Smith History, circa Summer 1832, handwriting of Frederick G. Williams and JS; six pages; in JS Letterbook 1, JS Collection, CHL.
“These plates were usually kept in a cherry box made for that purpose, in the possession of Joseph and myself. The plates were kept from the sight of the world, and no one, save Oliver Cowdrey, myself, Joseph Smith, jr., and David Whitmer, ever saw them. Before the Lord showed the plates to me, Joseph wished me to see them. But I refused, unless the Lord should do it. At one time, before the Lord showed them to me, Joseph said I should see them. I asked him, why he would break the commands of the Lord! He said, you have done so much I am afraid you will not believe unless you see them. I replied, ‘Joseph, I know all about it. The Lord has showed to me ten times more about it than you know.’ “Mormonism–No. II,” Tiffany’s Monthly. Devoted to the Investigation of the Science of Mind, in the Physical, Intellectual, Moral and Religious Planes Thereof 5 (August 1859): 166.
The apologist attempts to paint the three witnesses as respectable, intelligent citizens of the community who would not lie about their experiences and therefore their experience must be taken at face value. This as a false dichotomy. The fact that the witnesses were susceptible to visionary experiences says nothing about their trustworthiness or their respectability within society.
For example, when I was going through my faith transition, I came in contact with an individual who helped me tremendously. He had already moved beyond Mormonism but found much richness in the symbolism of the temple endowment, among other things. I greatly valued his perspective and leaned on him for some understanding as I was going through a difficult time. This individual holds a PhD in Biology and is an associate professor at a well known institution back east. He is extremely intelligent and respected in his field and has published in many professional journals. As I communicated with him further by email and then by phone, I became more familiar with his world view. I came to find out he was very much a conspiracy theorist, who believed in a secret group of reptilian humanoids who were adept at shape-shifting, so they could appear as normal humans most of the time, and they had infiltrated the highest forms of governments and were controlling the world that way. He followed very closely the ideas espoused by David Icke. He told me on one occasion, when he was following a splinter sect of Mormonism who was setting up a remote camp to prepare for the apocalypse, that he and another gentleman experienced a hand reach through the veil that grabbed them by the throats. They both experienced the same thing. He also told me of one incident where his wife was lying on the bed and as he lay down next to her, he sensed that she had shape-shifted. He also recounted to me about the time he saw Jesus and met his guardian angel and encouraged me to ask for this same experience. Now, this individual was very reasoned and articulate in his explanations and was careful what he shared with me. I tried to understand his world view and even watched a several hour David Icke video he sent me, but in the end I just couldn’t get there and began to distance myself from him. Did he really have a hand grab his neck from beyond the veil? Did his wife shape-shift in front of him? Did he really meet Jesus and his guardian angel? These experiences were very real to him, but of course I don’t think they represent reality in any form. He has a website up and if you look at the book list he has posted, you will see what I am referring to (http://www.ldsendowment.com/)
Denver Snuffer is a practicing attorney who has experienced, according to him, the most sacred experience of all, visits from Jesus Christ himself, The Second Comforter. I have read a number of his books and I have heard him speak in person on one occasion. He is a very sincere, lucid individual who genuinely believes what he has experienced. I didn’t perceive him to be disingenuous or deceitful at all. He is very clear that Jesus himself has given him certain tasks to do, and he has reluctantly completed them. In one of his blog posts, he describes the account of Lorin Woolley who claimed to have have seen light under the door of President Taylor, who was being visited by the Lord. Denver attempts to debunk this account by making this interesting statement on his blog:
“If Woolley was not invited into the vision (and his account makes clear he was not invited to participate), then this detail of seeing the heavenly light does not belong in an authentic narrative. It is a detail that, in my view, has been added to embellish the account and make it seem more believable. However, to me it makes the account less believable.
My own experience also tells me it is not trustworthy. The Lord was with me in the Draper Temple recently, and no one present had any idea what transpired nor beheld a thing of what happened there. An interloper does not behold glory, nor participate in such things. The retelling by Woolley, however, makes the mistake of embellishing with the very kind of detail that is incorrect.”– Sorting Things Out, Part 2- July 24, 2012, denversnuffer.com
Both of these men mentioned above are professionals with advanced academic degrees. To label them as silly, superstitious, deluded or hallucinators, or dismiss them as liars is as problematic and simplistic as doing so for the 11 witnesses. They truly believed these experiences were real.
The Eight Witnesses
Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come, that Joseph Smith, Jr. the Author and Proprietor of this work, has shewn unto us the plates of which hath been spoken, which have the appearance of gold; and as many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated, we did handle with our hands; and we also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship. And this we bear record, with words of soberness, that the said Smith has shewn unto us, for we have seen and hefted, and know of a surety, that the said Smith has got the plates of which we have spoken. And we give our names unto the world, to witness unto the world that which we have seen: and we lie not, God bearing witness of it.
PETER WHITMER, Jr.
JOSEPH SMITH, Sen.
SAMUEL H. SMITH.
“The earliest extant copy of this document is found on the last page of the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon [currently in possession of the Community of Christ- who recently allowed the LDS church full access to it] and is in the handwriting of Oliver Cowdery. It is unknown whether the Eight Witnesses signed the original statement, and it is likewise unknown who wrote the statement. Unlike the earlier testimony signed by the Three Witnesses, which borrowed most of its language from the Book of Mormon, this statement reads like a legal document. Its language distances the Eight Witnesses from JS by referring to him as “the said Smith.” Whereas the testimony of the Three Witnesses described a visitation by an angel and attested to the authenticity of the translation, this document describes a sensory experience that involved both sight and touch as the witnesses handled and lifted the plates. Though it is unknown who originally composed this statement, it is included as an appendix in this volume because a JS document, the Book of Mormon, mandated showing the plates to witnesses, and this statement was published in the Book of Mormon.”- See Historical Introduction at below link
Link to copy from 1st Edition of Book of Mormon- JosephSmithPapers.org
There is much less historical documentation available for the eight witnesses as compared to the three witnesses. Not many of eight witnesses gave statements or interviews after the fact, but the few that were given will be analyzed below.
“An angel showed the Book of Mormon plates to the Three Witnesses, who heard God’s voice declare the translation correct. But the Eight Witnesses report handling the plates under natural circumstances, describing color, substantial weight, individual leaves with engraved writings, and careful craftsmanship throughout. Critics have reacted variously to such physical language. Some see the Eight Witnesses as participants in a fraud. But their lives do not fit that mold, since all suffered in the severe persecutions of early Mormonism and not one reversed his written testimony. Other critics acknowledge sincerity and suppose Joseph Smith constructed an imitation. But the Eight Witnesses were tradesmen and farmers who worked with materials and would recognize a clumsy counterfeit. More recent skeptics advance a double theory: (1) that at various times Joseph Smith allowed the eight men to lift but not see a heavy covered object; (2) that these men testified of seeing plates because of a vision induced by enthusiasm or mind control. This theory is showcased by arbitrary interpretation of very few documents.”- Richard L. Anderson, “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/1 (2005):18
“In a few days we were follow by Joseph and Oliver and the whitmers who came to make us a visit and also to make some arrangements about getting the book printed soon after they came They all that is the male part of the company repaired to a little grove where it was customary for the family to offer up their secret prayers— as Joseph had been instructed that the plates would be carried there by one of the ancient Nephites. Here <it> was that those 8 witnesses recorded in the Book of Mormon looked upon the plates and handled them of which they bear witness in the following words…After the witnesses returned to the house the Angel again made his appearance to Joseph and received the the plates from his hands. We commenced holding meetings that night a in the which we declared those facts that we knew to be true.”- Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1844–1845; handwriting of Martha Jane Knowlton Coray and Howard Coray; 240 pages, with miscellaneous inserted pages; CHL
I said: I am aware that your name is affixed to the testimony in the Book of Mormon, that you saw the plates?
He — it is so and that testimony is true.
I — Did you handle the plates with your hands?
He — I did so!
I — Then they were a material substance?
He — Yes, as material as anything can be.
I — They were heavy to lift?
He — Yes, and as you know gold is a heavy metal, they were very heavy.
I — How big were the leaves?
He — So far as I recollect, 8 by 6 or 7 inches.
I — Were the leaves thick?
He — Yes, just so thick that characters could be engraven on both sides.
I — How were the leaves joined together?
He — In three rings, each one in the shape of a D with the straight line towards the centre.
I — In what place did you see the plates?
He — In Joseph Smith’s house; he had them there.
I — did you see them covered with a cloth?
He — No. He handed them uncovered into our hands, and we turned the leaves sufficient to satisfy us.
I — Were you all eight witnesses present at the same time?
He — No. At that time Joseph showed the plates to us, we were four persons present in the room, and at another time he showed them to four persons more. – Interview with Deseret News editor Wilhem Poulson, Deseret News 6 August 1878
“Therefore I desire to testify to all that will come to the knowledge of this address, that I have most assuredly seen the plates from whence the Book of Mormon is translated, and that I have handled these plates, and know of a surety that Joseph Smith, Jr., has translated the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God.”–Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 2 (1836):236-37
“…all I know, you have published to the world that an angel did present those plates to Joseph Smith.’Whitmer replied ‘I now say I handled those plates; there was fine engravings on both sides. I handled them;’ and he described how they were hung, ‘and they were shown to me by a supernatural power;‘ he acknowledged all. Turley asked him, ‘why the translation is not <now> true.’ He said ‘I cannot read it [in the original], and I do not know whether it [i.e. the translation] is true or not.’ Whitmer testified all this in the presence of 8 men.”-John Whitmer statement of non-belief in the Book of Mormon translation- in response to Theodore Turley-1839, Theodore Turley, “Memorandums,” 1845, LDS church archives, Salt Lake City Utah, as quoted in Vogel EMD 5:240
“Father John Whitmer told me last winter with tears in his eyes, that he knew as well as he knew he had an existence that Joseph translated the ancient writing which was upon the plates which he “saw and handled,” and which as one of the scribes, he helped to copy, as the words fell from Joseph’s lips, by supernatural or almighty power.”- Myron Bond statement, The Saints’ Herald, 15 Aug, 1878, Vol 25, No 16, pg 253
“Mr. Whitmer is considered a truthful, honest and law abiding citizen by this community, and consequently, his appointment drew out a large audience. Mr. Whitmer stated that he had often handled the identical golden plates which Mr. Smith received from the hand of the angel. He said it was of pure gold; part of the book was sealed up solid, the other part was open, and it was this part which was translated. . . . Before closing he asked the audience if they would take the Book of Mormon and the Bible and compare them, and to take Paul’s rule, ‘To prove all things and hold fast to that which is good.’ “– I.C. Funn,” [John Whitmer Testimony], Kingston (MO) Sentinel, ca. January 1878, reprinted in Saints’ Herald 25 (15 February 1878): 57; cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:245.
“Elder John Whitmer took the lead in the services of the afternoon, and gave a short relation of the facts connected with the translation of the book of Mormon. On reflecting how many foolish reports are in circulation on this subject, and how many there are who are vain enough to believe them, I could not but wish that such were present, while Elder Whitmer was delivering his address. A thousand things may be conjectured, but when a man declares openly, candidly, and seriously, of what he has seen, hefted and handled with his own hands, and that in the presence of a God who sees and knows the secrets of the heart, no man possessed of common reason and common sense, can doubt, or will be so vain as to dispute.”- Oliver Cowdery, Conference Report, Messenger and Advocate 1 [June 1835]:143.
“Consequently we will not persue this historey any further for the present. Suffice to say however, that there was not a single member of the family of sufficient age to know wright from wrong but what had implicit confidence in the statements made by my Brother Joseph Concerning his vision and the Knowledge he thereby obtained Concerning the plates. The fact also that these tablets of which I have spoken were seen by a number of persons, who testafy that they not only Saw with their eyes but handled with their hands the said record is Conclusive proof that this Mormon revelation was not a transcript taken from any romance written by Solomon Spaulding or by any other person. The witneses all of them being men of respectable standing in Society…”- William Smith, “Notes Written on ‘Chambers’ Life of Joseph Smith,” circa 1875, 1, 4-7, 9-15, 25, 26-29, 32-35, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah.- as cited in Vogel EMD 1:485
“In the spring of 1832, Elders Samuel H. Smith and Orson Hyde . . . came to our neighborhood and held a few meetings. Elder Smith read the 29th chapter of Isaiah at the first meeting and delineated the circumstances of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, of which he said he was a witness. He knew his brother Joseph had the plates, for the prophet had shown them to him, and he had handled them and seen the engravings thereon. His speech was more like a narrative than a sermon.”- Daniel Tyler, “Incidents of Experience,” Scraps of Biography, Faith-Promoting Series (Salt Lake City, 1883), 10 :23 cited in Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981), 140.
“[W]ee wass talking about the Book of Mormon which he is one of the witnesses he said he had but too hands and too eyes he said he had seen the plates with his eyes and handled them with his hands.”- Letter to John Kempton, 26 August 1838, Family History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, microfilm no. 840025. as cited in Anderson, Witnesses
“I felt a determination to die, rather than deny the things which my eyes had seen, which my hands had handled, and which I had borne testimony to, wherever my lot had been cast.” – Hyrum Smith, “To the Saints scattered abroad,” Times and Seasons 1 (November 1839), 20, 23
“In the next place you want to know my faith relative to the Book of Mormon and the winding up of wickedness. As to the Book of Mormon, it would be doing injustice to myself and to the work of God of the last days, to say that I could know a thing to be true in 1830, and know the same thing to be false in 1847. To say my mind was so treacherous that I have forgotten what I saw, to say that a man of Joseph’s ability, who at that time did not know how to pronounce the word Nephi, could write a book of six hundred pages, as correct as the Book of Mormon without supernatural power. And to say that those holy Angels who came and showed themselves to me as I was walking through the field, to confirm me in the work of the Lord of the last days–three of whom came to me afterwards and sang an hymn in their own pure language; yes, it would be treating the God of heaven with contempt, to deny these testimonies, with too many others to mention here…..”– Letter of Hiram Page to William E. McLellin (30 May 1847), Ray County, Mo.; cited in Ensign of Liberty 1 (1848): 63.
“I knew my father to be true and faithful to his testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon until the very last. Whenever he had an opportunity to bear his testimony to this effect, he would always do so, and seemed to rejoice exceedingly in having been privileged to see the plates.”- Recollection of Hiram Page’s son- Andrew Jenson, Historical Record (Salt Lake City: Andrew Jenson, 1888), 7:614.
“My father, Jacob Whitmer, was always faithful and true to his testimony to the Book of Mormon, and confirmed it on his death bed.”- Cited in Letter of Andrew Jenson to Deseret News (13 September 1888) from Richmond, Mo.,; cited in Deseret News (17 September 1888).
See Non-Literal Belief section above for the Three Witnesses
“Perhaps one should not expect that a book about the witnesses to the Book of Mormon published by Deseret Book Company would be anything other than an attempt to strengthen the reader’s faith in the Book of Mormon. This book will be convincing to those already certain that the gold plates actually existed and that the eleven witnesses saw them. And even the detached reader will probably be convinced by Anderson’s research that the witnesses were honest men who sincerely believed their signed testimony and probably stuck by their story as long as they lived. But Anderson is really trying to have us conclude more than this. He would have the reader be convinced that because these men were honest and reaffirmed their testimony when asked, they actually saw and handled plates which contained the records of an ancient people. I believe that Anderson– like the eleven witnesses–is an honest and sincere man when he writes: ‘After years of working with their lives and their words, I am deeply convinced that their printed testimonies must be taken at face value’ (p. xii). But I don’t believe that his research by itself requires this conclusion. As he admits, ‘spiritual truths must be spiritually verified’ (p. 82). Believers must make a ‘leap of faith,’ apprehending with their ‘spiritual eyes’ rather than their ‘natural eyes’”- Response to Richard Anderson’s Book “Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses”, Community of Christ historian William D Russell “Investigating the Investigation,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol.16, No.2, pp.132-133
10: But this generation shall have my word through you;
11: And in addition to your testimony, the testimony of three of my servants, whom I shall call and ordain, unto whom I will show these things, and they shall go forth with my words that are given through you.
12: Yea, they shall know of a surety that these things are true, for from heaven will I declare it unto them.
13: I will give them power that they may behold and view these things as they are;
14: And to none else will I grant this power, to receive this same testimony among this generation, in this the beginning of the rising up and the coming forth of my church out of the wilderness—clear as the moon, and fair as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners.- D&C 5:10-14- This generation will have the Lord’s word through Joseph and the Three Witnesses
It is specifically stated in scripture that no one else will be granted the power to view the plates, and that the testimony of the three witnesses will go forth unto this generation. There is no mention of the eight witnesses. it appears the experience of the eight witnesses was something decided after the fact and apparently in direct contradiction to D&C 5:14. The bolded portion above “for from heaven will I declare it unto them,” was added in an 1835 revision, presumably to distinguish the experience of the three witnesses who heard a declaration from heaven, while the eight witnesses had no such declaration. In verse 13, it mentions the witnesses will be given power to “view these things as they are,” which begs the question, why does “power” need to be granted to view material object(s) and why could none of these witnesses, two of whom sat by the side of Joseph transcribing his words for months at a time, view the plates “as they are,” at anytime during the “translation” process?
Additionally, if the three witnesses needed to be granted “power” to view the plates, and needed to exercise faith to witness this miraculous manifestation of an angel showing them the plates, why were the eight witnesses exempted from this requirement and allowed to view the plates in a non-visionary, non-miraculous setting as maintained by many apologists?
2: And it is by your faith that you shall obtain a view of them, even by that faith which was had by the prophets of old.
3: And after that you have obtained faith, and have seen them with your eyes, you shall testify of them, by the power of God;
4: And this you shall do that my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., may not be destroyed, that I may bring about my righteous purposes unto the children of men in this work.- D&C 17:2-4
Side note: Would God really have destroyed Joseph if the three witnesses failed to bear testimony of the plates?
Is the Testimony of Eight Witnesses Clearly Non-Visionary?
“I took great pains to show how a prima facie reading of either the Testimony of Three Witnesses or Testimony of Eight Witness cannot be used to recreate the historical events behind them. By drawing on subsequent statements, I showed how the Testimony of Three Witnesses leaves out important details—such as place, date, and the appearance of other objects on a table—and gives the false impression that all three were present at a single vision. Both Martin Harris and David Whitmer gave descriptions of their visions that challenge Anderson’s assumption that it was a “natural-supernatural” event—meaning the angel was objectively present in the woods having been supernaturally transported there—a notion that he undoubtedly took from the spare and simplistic wording of the Testimony.
Harris later said the angel and plates were seen with “spiritual eyes” and Whitmer that they were only seen “in the Spirit.” In other words, it was a visionary or extrasensory experience. In similar fashion, it is a mistake to attempt to reconstruct the historical situation behind the Testimony of Eight Witnesses based solely on its simplistic and non-historical wording. Nevertheless, Anderson wants to repeat this mistake without addressing any of the concerns and warnings I raised. He argues: the Witnesses speak of viewing the plates themselves with unobstructed vision, noting they had the appearance of gold … of ancient work … of curious workmanship. In their official testimony, they looked closely at the engravings while turning the leaves, seeing and handling at the same time. Thus the published testimony contradicts the current subjective theory, which asserts the eight men saw the plates in a mystic group experience but handled them only on other occasions when they were covered. Of course, the Testimony does not say the witnesses had an “unobstructed” view of the plates; that’s Anderson’s assumption. Nor does it say they turned the leaves, but instead ambiguously states that “as many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated we did handle with our hands.” Conceivably the leaves could be turned even while under a cloth or in a sack, which Anderson admits is possible when he states in a footnote “Martin [Harris] spoke of handling the leaves of the plates, but possibly when the record was covered, as William and Emma Smith did.” Regardless, since the Testimony can accommodate either Anderson’s purely naturalistic reading or my spiritual-sight reading or even [Grant] Palmer’s purely subjective reading, it begs the question to quote the Testimony as contradicting the subjectivists’ position. We saw how the naturalistic language of the Testimony of Three Witnesses led Anderson to make similar assumptions that were disproved by the subsequent statements of Harris and Whitmer, so Anderson is on shaky ground when he inserts his naturalistic assumptions into his reading of the Testimony of Eight Witnesses.
Anderson tries to label the subjectivist interpretation of the Testimony of Eight Witnesses as mind reading, arguing that [Grant] Palmer’s position “is really based on knowing their ‘mind-set’ instead of focusing on what they repeatedly said about their experience.” Anderson has long neglected an examination of the witnesses’ lives in light of their pre-Mormon participation in early nineteenth-century visionary culture, which preconditioned them to Joseph Smith’s claims and potential manipulations. His 1981 book Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses explores the lives and characters of the witnesses in great detail, but nothing is said about their propensities for visionary experience. Regardless, there is little difference in Palmer’s contextualizing the Testimony within a visionary culture and Anderson’s adding “unobstructed” and “turning the leaves” and assuming a detailed description of the plates precludes a visionary experience. Because the Testimony can be read from multiple perspectives, it is pointless for Anderson to reference instances of the witnesses reaffirming their published Testimony—it only begs the question.”– Response to Richard L. Anderson, Book of Mormon Witnesses Revisited, Dan Vogel
An Incomplete and Partial Reconstruction
“Since there is no account detailing exactly how the eight witnesses came to see and handle the plates near the Smith cabin in Manchester, New York, there are several possible reconstructions, which I explored in my 2002 essay (Dan Vogel, The Validity of the Witnesses Testimonies, American Apocrypha, 2002). ‘Assuming the experience of the eight witnesses was visionary,’ I said, ‘there are at least three possible scenarios to explain how they both saw and handled the plates.’ First, there is Palmer’s view that the witnesses saw and handled the plates in vision. Second, as some former Mormons told Thomas Ford, Joseph Smith may have produced an empty box and the witnesses were induced to see the plates. In this instance, handling of the plates necessarily refers to previous exposure to the covered plates of at least some of the witnesses. Third, the box Joseph Smith showed the witnesses contained a set of fake plates or some other material of similar weight and the witnesses viewed the plates supernaturally or clairvoyantly through the box. In this instance, the witnesses could claim that they had both seen and hefted the plates. Fourth, it is also possible that a set of fake plates were presented concealed in a cloth, which would allow for all the elements to occur on the same day to all the men. This would be similar to Harris’s statement that in addition to his vision of the angel and plates, ‘he had hefted the plates repeatedly in a box [or] with only a tablecloth or a handkerchief over them, but he never saw them only as he saw a city through a mountain.’”– Response to Richard L. Anderson, Book of Mormon Witnesses Revisited, Dan Vogel
The actual event:
There is very little information about the actual event. The statement of the eight witnesses found in the Book of Mormon is a group statement, composed by one individual, and presumably signed by the witnesses, although the original document is not extant. We know from Martin Harris’s account that the eight witnesses hesitated to sign the statement because it didn’t conform to the exact details of their experience. Some of the eight witnesses confirmed they had seen and handled the plates but give no details about the actual event. In contrast the extensive detail we have today about the account of the three witnesses comes from multiple statements from Martin Harris and David Whitmer and to a lesser degree, Joseph Smith. We don’t have anywhere near this level of detail for the eight witnesses.
Lucy Mack Smith said the eight witnesses went out together into the woods, as a group. She is recounting this years after the fact, when composing her history in 1845, 15 years after the event.
“They all that is the male part of the company repaired to a little grove where it was customary for the family to offer up their secret prayers— as Joseph had been instructed that the plates would be carried there by one of the ancient Nephites. Here <it> was that those 8 witnesses recorded in the Book of Mormon looked upon the plates and handled them…”– see full quotation above
Dan Vogel states:
“However, it is unclear whether Lucy was stating what she remembered happened on that day, or was merely reflecting the content of the Testimony of Eight Witnesses, which she was introducing. Because Lucy gave no details of her own and relied on the published Testimony, we have no way of knowing if her memory and the Testimony were not one and the same.”- Response to Richard L. Anderson, Book of Mormon Witnesses Revisited, Dan Vogel
John Whitmer says the there were two groups of four, who saw the plates on different occasions:
“At that time Joseph showed the plates to us, we were four persons present in the room, and at another time he showed them to four persons more…”- see full quotation above
Thomas Ford gives a third hand account of how he heard the eight witnesses viewed the plates:
“It is related that the prophet’s early followers were anxious to see the plates; the prophet had always given out that they could not be seen by the carnal eye, but must be spiritually discerned; that the power to see them depended upon faith, and was the gift of God, to be obtained by fasting, prayer, mortification of the flesh, and exercises of the spirit; that so soon as he could see the evidences of a strong and lively faith in any of his followers, they should be gratified in their holy curiosity. He set them to continual prayer, and other spiritual exercises, to acquire this lively faith by means of which the hidden things of God could be spiritually discerned; and at last, when he could delay them no longer, he assembled them in a room, and produced a box, which he said contained the precious treasure. The lid opened; the witnesses peeped into it, but making no discovery, for the box was empty, they said, “Brother Joseph, we do not see the plates.” The prophet answered them, “O ye of little faith! how long will God bear with this wicked and perverse generation? Down on your knees, brethren, every one of you, and pray God for the forgiveness of your sins, and for a holy and living faith which cometh down from heaven.” The disciples dropped to their knees, and began to pray in the fervency of their spirit, supplicating God for more than two hours with fanatical earnestness; at the end of which time, looking again into the box, they were now persuaded that they saw the plates.“- Thomas Ford, A History of Illinois, from Its Commencement As a State in 1818 to 1847 (Chicago: S. C. Griggs and Co., 1854), 257 (EMD 3:333).
Dan Vogel’s response to the account of Thomas Ford and Anderson’s critique of him using this source:
“Ford does not specify which set of witnesses his account describes, but it is obviously about the experience of the eight witnesses. There are several problems with Ford’s account, which I have freely admitted in my uses of it. It is unattributed and at best thirdhand and apparently garbled. For this reason, I said “Fawn Brodie was probably mistaken to place so much weight on his account alone.” However, since the subjective element in Ford’s account is supported by Martin Harris’s 1838 statement and John Whitmer’s 1839 testimony, I argued that “Ford’s narrative cannot be dismissed out of hand” and that the “details of the story transmitted by Ford may be inaccurate, but the essence of the account contains an element of truth.”
Anderson argues that “Ford’s story traces to no reliable source and appears to be outright folklore.” However, he has difficulty explaining how Ford’s “informants” knew about the subjectivity of the experience of the eight witnesses when there were no published sources making such claims in the 1840s. He tries to argue: “But slander circulating in one location is not proved true by similar slanders developed elsewhere, as the history of political campaigns shows.” Of course, labeling difficult testimony “slander” is also a ploy of political campaigns and hardly disproves the veracity of the testimony. Moreover, this depiction of the sources is highly inaccurate since neither John Whitmer nor Martin Harris, as believers, had an interest in slandering either themselves or the eight witnesses. The same can be said for Theodore Turley, a believer who undoubtedly had no motivation to misrepresent Whitmer’s testimony. Stephen Burnett’s reporting of Harris is also not “slander” since, as I will show, his account was reasonably accurate. Indeed, he had little motivation to slander, defame, or discredit Harris since he was using him as justification for dismissing the Testimony of Eight Witnesses.”- Response to Richard L. Anderson, Book of Mormon Witnesses Revisited, Dan Vogel
“…all I know, you have published to the world that an angel did present those plates to Joseph Smith.’Whitmer replied ‘I now say I handled those plates; there was fine engravings on both sides. I handled them;’ and he described how they were hung, ‘and they were shown to me by a supernatural power;‘ he acknowledged all. Turley asked him, ‘why the translation is not <now> true.’ He said ‘I cannot read it [in the original], and I do not know whether it [i.e. the translation] is true or not.’ Whitmer testified all this in the presence of 8 men.”-John Whitmer statement of non-belief in the Book of Mormon translation- in response to Theodore Turley-1839, Theodore Turley, “Memorandums,” 1845, LDS church archives, Salt Lake City Utah, as quoted in Vogel EMD 5:240
This is why it’s important to be very careful about taking generic statements like those from the 3 and 8 witnesses. If the experience of the 8 witnesses was a completely naturalistic experience, with Joseph showing them the plates and no angel involved, why would there need to be a supernatural power involved to show them the plates?
I — In what place did you see the plates?
He — In Joseph Smith’s house; he had them there.
I — did you see them covered with a cloth?
He — No. He handed them uncovered into our hands, and we turned the leaves sufficient to satisfy us.-Interview with Deseret News editor Wilhem Poulson, Deseret News 6 August 1878
Dan Vogel gives a very reasonable explanation why this account by Poulson is most likely exaggerated and not reliable.
“There is only one reported statement of John Whitmer that explicitly mentions handling the plates uncovered, but the source is unreliable and dubious. Not surprisingly, Anderson labors to rehabilitate this source. P. Wilhelm Poulson, an eccentric Mormon with serious involvement with psychic and spiritualistic phenomena, interviewed both David and John Whitmer in April 1878 and made separate reports to the Deseret News in August. According to Poulson, John Whitmer described the plates as being “very heavy … 8 by 6 or 7 inches” joined by “three rings, each one in the shape of a D with the straight line towards the centre.” Then Poulson asked a specific but curious question:
I—Did you see them covered with a cloth? He—No. He [Joseph Smith] handed them uncovered into our hands, and we turned the leaves sufficient to satisfy us.
Where did Poulson hear that the witnesses had seen the plates covered? Burnett’s letter was unknown to him. Possibly he spoke to Harris, but more likely he heard it from John Whitmer—the witness who, according to Theodore Turley, said that the plates were shown to him by “a supernatural power.” Poulson likely changed Whitmer’s statement to read the opposite of what he said during the interview, and there is good reason for believing this.
Unfortunately, John Whitmer was dead when Poulson’s account was published and could not challenge the accuracy of the reported interview. However, Poulson’s subsequent publication of his interview with David Whitmer was challenged by the interviewee as containing invented conversation. In a letter to S. T. Mouch, 18 November 1882, David Whitmer complained about Poulson’s account of the interview: “As to what you Say about the correspondence published by P Wilhelm Poulson M D Aug[ust] 20th 1878. I surely did not make the Statement which you Say he reports me to have made, for it is not according to the facts. And I have always in the fear of God, tried to give a true statement to the best of my recollection in regard to all matters which I have attempted to Explain. And I do not now remember of talking to Mr Poulson on the subject referred to.” Unfortunately, we do not know what portion of the interview Whitmer referred to since we do not have Mouch’s letter of inquiry. That there was an inaccuracy suggests that Poulson probably did not keep careful notes during his interviews. At the end of the present account, Poulson states that his conversation “was mostly written down word for word half an hour after the interview.” “Mostly” suggests that in some instances it may have gone beyond his notes and drew from memory about four months later.”- Response to Richard L. Anderson, Book of Mormon Witnesses Revisited, Dan Vogel
Reliability of Multiple Witnesses/ Group Visions:
There are a number of examples where a group of people shared a vision. When evaluating the experience of both the three and eight witnesses, one must also evaluate similar occurrences of group visions and judge whether those are reliable as well.
The Virgin Mary:
“The apparitions occurred on many different nights and are continuing in different forms. The Holy Virgin Saint Mary appeared sometimes in full form and sometimes in a bust, surrounded with a halo of shining light. She was seen at times on the openings of the domes on the roof of the church, and at other times outside the domes, moving and walking on the roof of the church and over the domes. When She knelt in reverence in front of the cross, the cross shone with bright light. Waving Her blessed hands and nodding Her holy head, She blessed the people who gathered to observe the miracle. She appeared sometimes in the form of a body like a very bright cloud, and sometimes as a figure of light preceded with heavenly bodies shaped like doves moving at high speeds. The apparitions continued for long periods, up to 2 hours and 15 minutes as in the dawn of Tuesday April 30, 1968 (the 22nd of Barmouda, 1684 A.M.), when She appeared continuously from 2:45 am till 5:00 am.
Thousands of people from different denominations and religions, Egyptians and foreign visitors, clergy and scientists, from different classes and professions, all observed the apparitions. The description of each apparition as of the time, location and configuration was identically witnessed by all people, which makes this apparition unique and sublime.”- The Apparitions Of The Blessed Holy Virgin Mary To Millions In The Coptic Orthodox Church Named After Her, In Zeitoun, Cairo, Egypt (1968-1970)
Emily Babcock and her Eight Witnesses
“On the Sabbath, the sixth day of October, eighteen hundred forty two, as I came out of the meeting house, after attending solemn worship, I heard the sound of a mighty trumpet, which caused me to raise my eyes to see from whence the sound proceeded; when I beheld an Angel standing on the top of the center dwelling, holding in his right hand a trumpet and in his left, a Roll or Book.
With his trumpet he sounded aloud, turning to the four quarters of the earth; and it was made known unto me, on my return home from meeting, by that power which is not of mortals, but of the Supreme Being, who is God of all, that a Roll should yet be revealed and spread abroad to all nations of the earth, that they might be forewarned of his judgments and prepare for the same.
I am the Angel that you and many more mortals, have seen within a short time; I hold in my right hand a trumpet; and in my left, a Roll. Se to’ re ca’ lo ve’ rin de le’ ri, before my time has come. For thus saith the Lord your God: Behold, the time has now fully arrived, when all the inhabitants of earth, different nations, tongues and people, shall hear my indisputable word of truth and justice. Of my All-righteous judgments shall they be warned in due season; and all who strictly obey my warning voice, before it be too late, yea I say, all, every class and order that heed my word in due season, with the same shall it be well, now and hereafter. But those who slight, disregard, mock, scoff or deride my sacred Word, shall not escape my hand of judgment.
I have not thus warned the inhabitants of earth for nought; but that they might know in part, in a very small part, that which awaiteth them and humble themselves, if they would and turn to Me their God; for I am truly to be found of those that seek Me in truth and in the sincerity of their souls. To those who seek aright, shall it surely be given. The hungry soul will I feed with the bread of Heaven and to the thirsty soul will I give to drink of the waters of life everlasting and eternal. I am the only true and living God of Heaven and earth; and not one word that I have spoken, or shall hereafter speak, or cause, by my power, to be written, shall ever fall or fail. So beware how and in what manner ye treat my word, O ye children of men; consider, well consider and seek to understand these my sayings.” Inspired Witness, Emily Babcock.
I can now boldly testify and affirm that what I have here stated is the truth and that I am willing to meet my Maker at any hour. I know that I am nothing but a frail mortal, in the sight of my God; but that which is revealed to me by divine revelation and the power of an Almighty God, I know to be true.
New Lebanon, N.Y. April 8, 1843. Emily Babcock.
We, the undersigned, hereby testify, that we saw the holy Angel, standing upon the house-top, as mentioned in the foregoing declaration, holding the Roll and Book.
Sarah Maria Lewis
Sarah Ann Spencer
Caty De Witt
Laura Ann Jacobs
A Holy, Sacred and Divine Roll and Book; From the Lord God of Heaven, to the Inhabitants of Earth; Revealed in the United Society at New Lebanon, County of Columbia, State of New York, United States of America (Canterbury, NH:United Society, 1843), 303, 304
“There are reports of groups numbering from two up to about eight people seeing the same apparition at the same time, but there are no well authenticated cases of groups much larger than this doing so.”– Celia Elizabeth Green, Charles McCreery, Apparitions, 41.
Wherever you fall on the spectrum of belief, as you can see from what I’ve outlined above, there is evidence to support you. What resonates the most with you? For me, the evidence overwhelming favors no truly authentic ancient plates and therefore no truly authentic visionary or physical confirmation from the eleven witnesses. This doesn’t even take into account historicity issues with the Book of Mormon, which in my opinion overwhelming negate any chance of that book being an actual historical document (this is a very extensive topic but I may tackle it in future posts). If that is true, then there were no real Nephites and Lamanites, no Mormon, no Moroni, and therefore no actual authentic golden plates. There are many people who disagree with me and view the evidence differently and take either a literal or non-literal approach to the plates and witnesses. They tell me their experience is different than mine. That is completely fine with me. By writing this post, I am just attempting to share with them my experience, while at the same time validating theirs.
The views of Mormon scholar Sterling McMurrin resonate deeply with me. Sterling was a close personal friend of President David O McKay but possessed very heretical beliefs. In fact Pres. McKay was ready to intervene on his behalf when he was threatened with excommunication for his heterodox views:
“President McKay said, “Now, just what is it that a person is not permitted to believe without being asked to leave this church? Just what is it? Is it evolution? I hope not, because I believe in evolution.”
“He said, “They can’t do this to you. They can’t do this to you!” I kind of smiled and said, “Well now, President McKay, you know more than I about what they can do, but it looks like this is what they are going to do.” He said, “They cannot do this to you!” There was a pause, then he said, “All I will say is that if they put you on trial for excommunication, I will be there as the first witness in your behalf.” I said, “Well, now, I can’t imagine anyone having a better witness for such an occasion.”- Sterling McMurrin and L. Jackson Newell, Matters of Conscience, Chapter 8
Sterling was interviewed by Mormon scholar Blake Ostler for a BYU Newspaper called The Seventh East Press in 1981. Here is a portion of that interview, with some of the most profound and authentic remarks I have ever read on Mormonism:
Ostler: What was your opinion of the Book of Mormon when you were a teacher for the Church, and what is your opinion of it now?
McMurrin: I never did consider the Book of Mormon to be authentic. At least I have no recollection of ever seriously believing in the Book of Mormon. No doubt when I was a child I did hold that belief, but I have no recollection of it. Frankly, I am always somewhat amused by those who make extensive studies of the Book of Mormon through archaeological remains, computer word studies, etc., in their attempt to prove its authenticity or to come to some conclusions as to whether it is what it purports to be.
Ostler: Are you saying that the story of Moroni bringing the Book of Mormon to Joseph is a fabrication?
McMurrin: I won’t comment here on Joseph Smith and his claims because he was a remarkably complicated person, and we don’t know enough about him to competently judge his motives and mentality. My point is that I came to the conclusion at a very early age, earlier than I can remember, that you don’t get books from angels and translate them by miracles; it is just that simple. So I simply don’t believe the Book of Mormon to be authentic. I think that all of the hassling over the authenticity of the Book of Mormon is just a waste of time. You should understand that I don’t mean to say that there aren’t some interesting and worthwhile things in the Book of Mormon. I really don’t even mean to attack the Book of Mormon but rather to simply deny its authenticity. I don’t believe that it is what the Church teaches it to be. I know of no real evidence in its support, and there is a great deal of evidence against it. As you no doubt know, B. H. Roberts set forth some of that evidence in an unpublished book-length study of the Book of Mormon.
Ostler: Doesn’t that mean then that in your opinion the Church is merely a facade?
McMurrin: Of course not. I think it is unfortunate that a church should ground itself so thoroughly on something that is, in my opinion, not genuine and obviously is seriously doubted by thousands of persons who are in the Church and love the Church. But the Church is not a book, nor is it a collection of books— the standard works. Nor is it simply an ecclesiastical organization. The Church is the people who constitute it and their relationships to one another, their hopes and aspirations, their mutual love, their joys and tragedies. Whatever one might say about the Church’s scriptures, its ecclesiastical organization, or its theological or historical claims, the Church is certainly not a facade. It is a living, moving, religious community and should not be judged on any other terms than its character and quality — its capacity to bring satisfaction and happiness to the people, to give them the strength and courage to live through the dangers and tragedies of life.
I am well aware that the Book of Mormon has had a strong impact on the life of the Church, particularly as an instrument for conversion. Anyone who studies the history of religion knows well that a religion that has a literature of its own is strengthened, and the Mormon Church has been strengthened in its institutional life and in the faith of its people by the Book of Mormon. But it is the simple existence of the book rather than what is in it that has made the big difference. Whether the Bible would not have been sufficient as a scripture is an open question. I do not agree with the common Mormon view that the Book of Mormon was necessary as a “new witness for Christ.” The Bible itself was a sufficient witness as far as literature is concerned. I know of nothing in the Book of Mormon that is of importance for religion and the moral life that is not already at least in principle in the Bible.
This is not to say that there are not good things in the Book of Mormon, as well as some bad things. Nor is it to say that the Book of Mormon is not sacred literature. Things are not sacred in and of themselves. They are made sacred by those who regard them as sacred or holy and develop sacral attitudes toward them. Though I don’t regard the Church’s position with respect to the Book of Mormon as authentic, I certainly recognize that it is a very remarkable book and I respect it in the way that I respect any religious literature — even more, of course, because it is the sacred literature of my own people.
Ostler: Is there anything at all that could count as evidence for the Book of Mormon, given that angels don’t exist?
McMurrin: I’ve never said that angels don’t exist. I don’t know whether they exist or not; but I’ve never met an angel, the kind that spend at least part of their time in heaven. I’m just saying that you don’t get books from angels. Mortimer Adler recently published a book about angels — which I haven’t read and don’t intend to read — but I doubt that even Adler, for all his theological eccentricities, would have angels carrying metal books around.
Ostler: How is it that you could teach in the seminaries and institutes of the Church and yet not believe that the Book of Mormon is a genuine article that was delivered by ancient prophets?
McMurrin: When I became a teacher for the Church, I was not questioned about my beliefs. Rather, I was interviewed with respect to my competence in relevant scholarship, my attitudes toward religion, my moral judgments, and my concern for the well-being of the Church. In retrospect, I feel that no doubt I should have been more forthcoming in revealing my heresies, such as my disbelieving in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. But those who interviewed me were not interested in searching for heresies. They were looking for competence in the teaching of religion and faithfulness to the Church. Moreover, they made it very clear that they wanted the work of the seminaries and institutes conducted on a high scholarly level as a search for truth. In my day there were no classes in the seminaries directly on the Book of Mormon. Seminary classes were on the Old Testament, the New Testament, and Church history. In my institute teaching I was never involved in classes on the Book of Mormon. I have never taught a course on the Book of Mormon and would not do so. Long before I left the employ of the Church, my views on such matters had been made entirely evident to those under whom I served. This was not the result of their inquiries into my views but, rather, simply the outcome of serious conversations with them with regard to Mormonism.
I realize that it is often difficult for the orthodox to grasp the fact that some of us in the Church who are unorthodox in our views love the Church as much and are as sincerely devoted to it as they are. I have found that there are elements of heresy in virtually all of the orthodox whom I have known and that there are elements of orthodoxy in all of the heretics. I recall a statement by Heber C. Snell, the leading Bible scholar of the Church, who in his late years said, “I’m orthodox; it’s simply that I have my own doxy.”
The problem is that most people tend to confuse heresy with apostasy. In my language an apostate is one who turns against the Church. A heretic is simply a person who disbelieves in whole or in part the teachings of the Church. They sometimes, of course, go hand in hand, but not necessarily, and there is a difference. I readily admit to heresy, but I reject any charge that I am an apostate. As a person holding heretical views, in my teaching for the seminaries and institutes, and also in other Church classes, I have tried very conscientiously to avoid expressing heresy. There is so much good in Mormonism as a religion and moral culture, and so much basic strength in Mormon theology, and so much goodness in the Mormon people that a teacher can concentrate on these without indulging in classroom heresy. Even a quite radical heretic is not under some compulsion by the nature of the subject of Mormonism to indulge in heresy in his classes. Actually, I haven’t been the instructor of a Church class for twenty-three years, since 1960, though I have met with three or four fireside groups.
I don’t mean to say that some students did not detect that I was unorthodox, but I certainly have never been interested in disseminating heresy or in any way affecting negatively the religious faith of my students or of anyone else, Mormon or non-Mormon. I presume that my teaching has had negative effects at times, but this certainly has not been intentional on my part. I have never had any disposition whatsoever to argue for or against a person’s religious beliefs or to try to change another’s religious views. I rather think that is the reason the Lord never called me on a mission. To be a good missionary, you have to be sure that you have the truth and that the other person is in error. This is a qualification that I do not possess. (Perhaps the fact that I was never asked to fulfill a mission could be used as evidence that we have the true Church!)
But to get back to your question. I must say simply that when I entered into the employ of the Church as a teacher, the intellectual environment and the attitudes of Church leaders were in many ways quite different from what they are at the present time. As teachers we were encouraged and expected to be searchers after the truth and to be honest. Some of us who had heretical leanings were made to feel that we were just as much a part of the Church and that it belonged to us just as much as it belonged to some of the ultra-orthodox who, at the other extreme, constitute the broad Mormon lunatic fringe. To illustrate my point — I have often been condemned as an apostate for not believing in the devil, and yet I know of a seminary teacher, held in the highest regard as an orthodox person, who taught his students that the devil smells like a wet dog. Another seminary teacher taught his students that the devil is responsible for the behavior of persons manipulating ouija boards. It’s a little like politics in Utah. Those who are a little far to the left are counted as being rather bad, but you can go as far to the right as you want and, for the most part, Church people regard you as quite acceptable.
My interest as a teacher is to encourage people to think and to think carefully and honestly — to have a genuine respect for evidence and a passion for truth. I am not interested in telling them what they should believe. I recognize, of course, that the very young should be inducted into the value system of their society, but there are good and bad ways of indoctrinating the young. Do you make bigots of them — and our Church has its fair share of bigots — or do you teach them to think intelligently about their values?
I am not defending the fact that I became a teacher for the Church but am simply undertaking to explain why I was willing to do it despite my unorthodoxy. Having said this, I am willing to admit that under what seem to be the Church’s present policies, I probably should never have been in its employ as a teacher. Things have changed.
I would not want to be regarded as an orthodox Mormon. I must say this even though I am aware that many people will be offended by it, among them some whom I would least want to offend.- Ostler: An Interview with Sterling McMurrin, Dialogue- A Journal of Mormon Thought
Unfortunately, this issue can be very divisive. Some who take a literal approach may see those who believe non-literally or don’t believe at all as less faithful or less valiant. Some who believe non-literally may view those who believe differently as less sophisticated and not nuanced enough in their approach to belief. Some who do not believe cannot fathom how anyone could believe in literal golden plates or why someone would need to try and nuance their belief by taking a non-literal approach. I would hope we could all be a little more empathetic and compassionate as we try to understand one another and not let these issues divide us. Perhaps we could just simply ask the question, “What works for you?” and demonstrate love and understanding no matter what the response is.