Did the Witnesses Actually See the Plates with Their Eyes?

A short article from Daniel C. Peterson (closely related to a passage in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, pp. 204-205, of Peterson et al.) reminds us of the impressive record of Book of Mormon witnesses, who actually saw the gold plates with their eyes:

On the day following the death of David Whitmer in 1888, the Chicago Times reported an interview with an unnamed “Chicago Man.” This man related a conversation that he had carried on with another individual some years before, a prominent resident of the county in which David Whitmer had lived, who had been a lawyer and a sheriff there and who had, he said, known the Witness very well and had told him a remarkable story of David Whitmer’s later life.

In the opinion of this gentleman, no man in Missouri possessed greater courage or honesty than this heroic old man [David Whitmer]. “His oath,” he said, “would send a man to the gallows quicker than that of any man I ever knew.” He then went on to say that no person had ever questioned his word to his knowledge about any other matter than finding the Book of Mormon. He was always a loser and never a gainer by adhering to the faith of Joseph Smith. Why persons should question his word about the golden plates, when they took it in relation to all other matters, was to him a mystery.[Cited in Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 224.]

In an 1878 interview with Elders Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith, David Whitmer gave dramatic and emphatic testimony of his experience as a Witness:

I saw [the plates and other Lehite artifacts] just as plain as I see this bed (striking the bed beside him with his hand), and I heard the voice of the Lord, as distinctly as I ever heard anything in my life, declaring that the records of the plates of the Book of Mormon were translated by the gift and power of God.[ Interview with Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith (Richmond, Mo., 7-8 September 1878), reported in a letter to President John Taylor and the Council of the Twelve dated 17 September 1878. Originally published in the Deseret News, 16 November 1878, and reprinted in Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 40.]

Six years later, Whitmer was interviewed by the leader of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Joseph Smith III:

Rather suggestively [Colonel Giles] asked if it might not have been possible that he, Mr. Whitmer, had been mistaken and had simply been moved upon by some mental disturbance, or hallucination, which had deceived him into thinking he saw the Personage, the Angel, the plates, the Urim and Thummim, and the sword of Laban.

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!” [Interview with Joseph Smith III et al. (Richmond, Mo., July 1884), originally published in The Saints’ Herald, 28 January 1936, and reprinted in Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 134-5, emphasis in the original.]

We are fortunate to have, too, the witness of Joseph Smith’s family and of many of the other early Latter-day Saints. . . .

Remember, Joseph didn’t just claim to have seen an angel and some ethereal plates in a vision. He had many others touch and feel the plates, and some even saw, heard, and felt angels (such as Oliver being ordained under the hands of John the Baptist). And these men, men like Martin Harris, were well known and respected for their integrity, though they were naturally mocked for their “crazy” religious ideas. How to make sense of all this? They were actual witnesses of genuine divine events.

Nevertheless, critics attempt to downplay the emphatic testimony of the witnesses, and have even gone so far as to claim that they didn’t really see anything with their own eyes. I just found a good resource which discusses some aspects of their efforts, one that also clarifies some issues that were raised in my last couple of posts regarding William Smith. Yes, his experience with the covered plates did occur in 1827, and his statement must be understood as referring to a time before the official witnesses saw the uncovered plates in 1829. The resource is “Historical or Hysterical: Anti-Mormons and Documentary Sources” by Matthew Brown at FAIRLDS.org. Here is an excerpt (see the original for the references that I have deleted here):

Now, let us take a look at the related idea that none of the Book of Mormon witnesses ever actually saw the golden plates. It is claimed by some critics that since the Three Witnesses had a ‘visionary’ experience they did not actually view the plates with their natural sight, and therefore their testimony cannot be accepted as recounting something that happened in the real or empirical world. Critics typically construct their ‘visionary’ argument using second-hand accounts of things that Martin Harris supposedly said. These retellings originated with opponents of the LDS faith such as Stephen Burnett, Jesse Townsend, Anthony Metcalf and John Gilbert.

In response to this accusation I would like to point out the three quotations on the left-hand portion of this slide. Here you will see statements from each of the Three Witnesses which were recorded by persons who were not antagonistic toward Mormonism. I have highlighted words that I would like to draw your attention to. Here we see that each of the Three Witnesses testified, independent of each other and at different times, that their experience was registered by both their physical “eyes” and “ears.” In addition, David Whitmer provided an invaluable perspective on the nature of the Three Witnesses’ experience when he said,

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.

As the documents on this slide show, the witnesses were careful to clarify that they were not fooled by an illusion, they were not suffering from any type of hallucination, and they most certainly were not having a dream.

Modern anti-Mormons claim that as far as the Eight Witnesses are concerned, none of them saw the golden plates either–they only saw an object that was covered over with a cloth! But take a look at what two of the Eight Witnesses had to say about their experience and determine whether or not the anti-Mormon view can be sustained. When John Whitmer was asked point blank, “Did you see [the plates] covered with a cloth?” He answered, “No. [Joseph Smith] handed them uncovered into our hands, and we turned the leaves sufficient to satisfy us.” In this same interview John Whitmer stated that the plates were a material substance, they were gold, they were heavy, they measured 8 by 6 or 7 inches, they had engravings on both sides, and they were connected together by three rings in the shape of the letter D. In the Spring of 1832 Samuel H. Smith (the Prophet’s younger brother) informed a group of people that he was a witness to the Book of Mormon. He said “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.” These men obviously saw and handled an identifiable, physical object and were able to supply a detailed description of it. The anti-Mormon stance on this issue simply cannot be taken with any degree of seriousness.

As a side note, I would like to draw attention to the attempt made by some anti-Mormons to ‘qualify’ the published testimonies of Joseph Smith, Sr., Hyrum Smith and Samuel Smith by appealing to a statement made by William Smith–who did in fact speak of these men handling the plates while they were concealed by a piece of cloth. This is a prime example of the type of ‘hysterical but not historical’ scholarship that some critics of the Church engage in. William’s statement refers only to his brother bringing the golden plates into his family’s home in late September 1827, not to the experience of the Eight Witnesses which occurred in June 1829. Anti-Mormons would do well to educate themselves on this point so that they can avoid any future embarrassment by employing this bogus argument.

It’s understandable that good LDS people encountering William Smith’s quote in anti-Mormon literature would be troubled by it. That’s what anti-Mormon literature is meant to do, of course. But the details that are cleverly left out, such as the time of the experience and the rest of William’s statement, do more to tell us about the motives of the anti-Mormons than the origins of the Book of Mormon. To a few of my readers who have been bothered by the anti-Mormon material they’ve encountered, I’d encourage you to press forward and move past such sources, turning more fully to a careful study of the Book of Mormon itself.

It really is true. There really were golden plates and eye witnesses who were not hallucinating.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

28 thoughts on “Did the Witnesses Actually See the Plates with Their Eyes?

  1. Amen.

    The work of the BoM apologist is not to prove the Book of Mormon is true — it is to prove that the accusations against it are false and that the claim of divinity has merit. The responsibility of _proving_ its truth lies with each individual, and is done by the method God has ordained — study and prayer.

  2. I was always most bothered that Emma wasn’t allowed to see the plates–Joseph’s wife. She was his partner and an “Elect Lady”.

    All the witnesses, all men. Seems odd to me. Sigh…

  3. I am trying to remember whose wife it was, that had a vision when an angel showed her the gold plates. Was it David Whitmer’s wife?

  4. It was actually David Whitmer’s mother who stated she was shown the plates by an angel (Joseph Smith declared the angel was actually one the 3 Nephites).

  5. Too bad Wendy is rejecting Christ and the Apostles and the New Testament.

    God works with us, in our weaknesses and in our habitat. It doesn’t mean that Christianity is false or that Christ is man made, only that we are as he found us when he found us.

  6. I don’t think Wendy is rejecting anything. She merely made an observation and commented on it.

    Her observation is absolutely valid. How do you know that the Gnostic Gospels aren’t valid, that put women in a much higher position than traditional Christianity?

  7. The Gnostic Gospels are a whole diff’t animal. Were it not for the overtly political tenor of this conversation, they could be addressed. Given the situation, though, that would be nerdy.

    In any case, I can speak for my nearly quarter of a century of experience in the church when I say that it’s a lot of malarky to say that women are oppressed in our church (and if you cite the less-than-statistically sound studies on Mormon women, well, let’s just say I need a good laugh–so go ahead).

    In BYU wards anyway, men are the oppressed if anything. Women are told “you don’t need to be married to make a contribution. Your souls are of great worth etc. etc” All of this I agree with wholeheartedly.

    To men, the message: “You worthless, lazy good-for-nothing…why don’t you date? It’s time to take the initiative. Etc. etc.

    Women oppressed…ha.

  8. Oppression – according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, the definition is:
    “an unjust or excessive exercise of power”

    According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the definition is:
    “The act of oppressing; arbitrary and cruel exercise of power: “There can be no really pervasive system of oppression… without the consent of the oppressed” (Florynce R. Kennedy).”

    Now I don’t think there is anything cruel about the Patriarch system of the church, but there is an argument for unjust, excessive or arbitrary use use of power or authority.

    With all due respect, this is not an issue to be laughed at or simply brushed aside. I for one have yet to hear a valid reason for not allowing women to have authoritative callings and to hold the priesthood. And why not have a woman as one of the 11 witnesses?

  9. Esp. the oppression found in “Oh my father”

    Talk about anti-women propaganda–wait…

    Well, if one accepts President Hinckley as the prophet on earth at this time, then it is apparent that women are not to administer in the priesthood.

    That’s a valid reason for the believer. For a non-believer, well, that’s a whole different animal…

    And I’m quite pleased to hear anyone denounce arbitrary use of authority, just as Doctrine and Covenants 121 directs us to do.

    We anxiously await this case for systematic abuse of authority–a case which must of necessity consist not of isolated incidents (regardless of their number–) but inherent structural issues. I would maintain that oppression is a function of mortality, not Mormonism.

    Two quotes by Elder Maxwell:

    Priesthood and motherhood are the perfect partnership…One of the advantages of a woman who is fulfilled is that she doesn’t have to spend all her time thinking about being fulfilled. The women I know and admire, who have deep and abiding testimonies, do show some differences in certain dimensions of their life-style, but on the things that really matter, they have made the same choices.

    The major problem in the world is sin—sins of omission and commission, among which are the inconsiderations that come to women because they are women. But this particular failing is part of a large family of failings. It is no less real, of course, but neither is it as great a source of human misery as are certain other failings we have as human beings. (Deposition of a Disciple)

  10. It doesn’t matter who the prophet is, mistakes are still made. How many prophets did it take to get blacks the priesthood?

    Elder Maxwell’s quote is a copout. Put the blame on the woman who wonders (thinks) about why woman can’t hold the priesthood or authoritative callings.

    Motherhood as a companion to the priesthood doesn’t cut it either. Not all woman are mothers, and the majority effort of motherhood (for those that are) ends when children leave home.

    Try again.

  11. Thanks for backing me in the other post. Much appreciated that we agree on something.

    “It doesn’t matter who the prophet is, mistakes are still made. How many prophets did it take to get blacks the priesthood?”

    Ah, an a priori assumption that it was a mistake. Another topic, another time.

    “Motherhood as a companion to the priesthood doesn’t cut it either. Not all woman are mothers, and the majority effort of motherhood (for those that are) ends when children leave home.”

    I would rephrase myself: women, by mere virtue of being women, are already pretty far along. Yes, you’ve probably heard it before and perhaps you don’t buy, but I do. And I have a pretty good reason for believing this.

    There are many women who are not mothers, and they are encouraged to continue in their professional and educational careers (see Sherri Dew for a classic example). As I mentioned earlier, in BYU wards, it’s the men who feel the iron hand, not the women. Hardly a case for oppression.

    This, of course, is to say nothing of the blessings of the priesthood that women receive in the temple (I’m of the opinion that they receive the priesthood in a far more eternal way, but that’s another story). I know my mother does and she loves every minute (but maybe that’s because she’s brainwashed and oppressed 😉

    Not having the priesthood is nothing to be sad over.

    In any case, do you consider yourself in a position to counsel the prophet on far-reaching doctrinal matters? I’m not.

  12. Walker,

    We agree on alot of things. Its just that the disagreements get all the press.

    Regarding being in a position to counsel the prophet, no I’m not in that position, but will take if ever offered. Having the title of prophet doesn’t make you infallible. We have plenty evidence for that.

  13. I always understood “In the Spirit” as a keyword for having a vision. I would consider it streching the truth to say that anybody saw the plates with their physical eyes except for possibly Joseph Smith. The others saw the plates too, but they saw them with their spiritual eyes – in other words – in a vision. The Three Witnesses had a combined vision, for example. Even the Dramatized Church History audio CD’s from Living Scriptures are very careful not to imply that anyone saw them with their physical eyes. However, witnesses were allowed to heft and feel the plates WHILE they were covered with cloth.

    ~Jeff, a “Mormon Gnostic”

  14. Jeff – Mormon Gnostic,

    I’m not clear on what you are saying. Are you saying that all 11 witness must have seen the plates in a vision, or just the 3 witnesses?

  15. Jeff,

    Your evidence for this besides the living scriptures videos?

    David Whitmer:
    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.” (Letter of David Whitmer to Anthony Metcalf, Mar. 1887

    This record is understandably ambigious to those who have not seen an angel. In any case, though, Whitmer was prompted to call the experience “natural.” That should figure into our thinking.

  16. Did Whitmer say it “seemed” natural or that it “was” natural?

    He even explicitly states being “in the body,” not exactly the way to describe simply “seeing things.”

    His comment on Martin Harris’ description “being in vision” appears to me to be his way of couching the obviously unusual experience into terms an outsider could understand.

    Check the text for yourself. I have no solid evidence to contradict it.

  17. The text is too inconclusive to make a determination. In order to really come to a realistic conclusion, we need more information than what has been provided on this blog.

  18. As it is with most historical determinations, esp. those involving supernatural claims. Alas, the pains of “seeing through a glass darkly.”

    However, I am personally of the opinion that when there is a perponderence of evidence in favor a particular interpretation (as I believe the case is with the Witnesses’ “natural” sight of the BOM), we do well to at least lean in that direction.

  19. Details like the shape of the rings, the gold appearance of the plates, and the presence of characters on both sides of the plates point to witnesses describing what they saw with their eyes, not what they felt through cloth.

  20. I believe they saw the plates with their eyes, yes, but they but saw them spiritually (spiritual eyes), and that explains how they were able to discern details such as the style of rings, etc. The three witnesses saw the plates in a vision. At least a few of the eleven saw them in vision, and we do not know with certainty if the other eleven, or any of them, or even Emma ever saw them with physical eyes. This does not place any doubt as to the existence of the plates, for all the testimonies agree! But I rather see it as a caution so that people do not feel misled and betrayed upon discovering that it was a vision while reading a historical account.

    Visions are not “lesser” experiences. They are fine. The First Vision was a vision (and is wisely called a “Vision”) and is evidenced by Joseph waking up, finding himself on the ground as if he had been out cold, and yet he saw Heavenly Father and Jesus and it was a very real experience.

    ~Jeff, a “Mormon Gnostic”

  21. Actually, considering Richard ANderson’s work on the Eleven witnesses who all made quite clear that that they hefted and saw the plates, I would venture to say that we can conclude, with a fair amount of certainty (barring the possibility that God works in ridiculously complex ways) that the eleven witnesses saw the plates in the light of day and felt them as any mortal would hold an object.

  22. Rick (who is obviously not a “Bishop”):

    You’ve told us the Church is wrong about polygamy, that it’s wrong about ordination of women, that it’s disingenuous about calling missionaries…the list goes on and on. What I can’t figure out is, if the Church is so wrong and corrupt, why do you continue to associate yourself with it?

  23. I asked that once too–what DOES he believe? When one’s arguments are so intent on looking at “the other side” at the expense of having personal convictions, I tend to wonder if the indivdiual has personal convictions.

    And let’s face it–if one’s a cultural Mormon, that’s pretty uncultured. The irony is that the culture won’t get you anything–within the church OR without. If one is going to be a cultural (insert denomination here), then might as well make it one that has more excitement.

  24. There was precious little conversation here about the actual witness testimonies themselves.

    Critics are wise to ignore them, and to try to change the subject when they come up.

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