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.