William Smith, the-not-too-religious younger brother of Joseph Smith, was recently invoked by a commenter here in an effort to impugn the testimony of the Eight Witnesses of the Book of Mormon. Before I deal with some confusion about a quote from William, let me point out that he is an interesting and often-overlooked witness for the reality of the gold plates and the divinity of Joseph Smith’s divine calling. A useful resource on this topic is “The Trustworthiness of Young Joseph Smith” by Richard Lloyd Anderson, The Improvement Era, Vol. 73, No. 10 (October 1970). Here is an excerpt from the article (footnotes deleted here – see the article itself for details on sources):
The memoirs of William Smith nicely supplement those of the mother. One sees Joseph Smith through very feminine, the other through very masculine eyes. Moreover, the confidence of the mother is balanced by the more detached point of view of the brother. In this case, the brother is the most spiritually skeptical of all of the Smith family. His later religious history proves a lifelong rebelliousness, tempered only by older years.
At the time of Joseph Smith’s visions, Hyrum and Samuel H. Smith had followed their mother into the Presbyterian Church, while most other family members were religious yet aloof from organized religion. William, however, describes himself as not even religious. Family worship “often became irksome or tiresome to me,” he writes of this early period; he paid “no attention to religion of any kind. . . .” Only a powerful experience could unite this religiously divided family, and Lucy Mack Smith and William represented opposite poles.
Carelessly quoting William Smith is an irresponsible procedure. He published rather detailed recollections of his youth in 1883. He also wrote detailed comments on the published stories about the Prophet about 1875. Besides this, access to William’s memory is gained mainly through an interview of 1841, a speech of 1884, and an interview of 1893. These five basic sources for William Smith show a historical method that resembles his religious career, spontaneous and not highly organized. Sequence is not as important to him as making his point with a random illustration. One must be aware of these characteristics because he does not relate the first vision of his brother. That is understandable, first of all, because he was barely nine when it took place. Furthermore, speaking of later visions, he indicated firm belief but carelessness: “being young and naturally high-spirited, I did not realize the importance of such things as I should have done….” Memory depends on deep interest. William, therefore, writes impressionistic history, recalling accurately his basic feelings of a time while often only approximating details. In this matter, he is his own best critic, for more than once he alerts the reader that Joseph Smith’s story is more precise than his own: “A more elaborate and accurate description of his vision, however, will be found in his own history.”
Through the recollections of Lucy Mack and William Smith, the clock can be turned back to the day when Joseph announced Moroni’s coming to the family. As discussed, the stripling prophet first confided this news to his father in the field. Of course, Lucy Smith was not there, but from family knowledge she reported that on that morning Alvin noticed an unusual slackness in Joseph’s work and that “Joseph was very pale.” William confirmed this episode from firsthand knowledge: “I was at work in the field together with Joseph and my eldest brother Alvin. Joseph looked pale and unwell.”
The most dramatic moment that day for the family circle was Joseph’s narration to them of his visions of the night before. William places this event prior to Joseph’s going to the hill, and Mother Smith afterwards. Yet both could be right. Possibly Joseph gave an announcement before and a detailed report afterwards. As to the family’s reaction, there is no doubt. Lucy Mack Smith describes the intense interest of Alvin and “the most profound attention” of the entire family at Joseph’s first reports of what had happened to him. William also described the family’s reaction to Joseph’s explanations: “They were astounded, but not altogether incredulous.”
The foregoing words are those of an interested professor of church history who talked at length with William in 1841. Later William specifically described the reaction of the Smiths when Joseph told them of Moroni’s coming:
“[H]e arose and told us how the angel appeared to him, what he had told him…. He continued talking to us [for] sometime. The whole family were melted to tears, and believed all he said. Knowing that he was very young, that he had not enjoyed the advantages of a common education; and knowing too, his whole character and disposition, they were convinced that he was totally incapable of arising before his aged parents, his brothers and sisters, and so solemnly giving utterance to anything but the truth.” In this comment William singled out reasons for the implicit trust of the household in the nearly 18-year-old Joseph: his limited education, and “his whole character and disposition.” There are important historical insights on these points that enable one to see young Joseph Smith through the eyes of his day-to-day companions.
First of all, it came as a shock that the teenager thought himself capable of writing a book. One autobiographical sketch summarizes his total education in one terse sentence: “My father was a farmer and taught me the art of husbandry.” That is to say, muscle and tools were his skills, not study and books. Although not illiterate, Joseph at this point of life was relatively unskilled in reading and writing. One contemporary at Palmyra pays him the compliment of showing native intelligence in the “juvenile debating club,” but it is a long leap from that to gaining either the interest or capacity to reproduce scripture.
Joseph himself commented on the demands of life that prevented his doing much reading. He mentioned the “indigent circumstances” of the family, and the necessity “to labor hard” to support the dozen members alive in 1823. This “required the exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the support of the family; therefore, we were deprived of the benefit of an education. Suffice it to say, I was merely instructed in reading, writing, and the ground rules of arithmetic, which constituted my whole literary acquirements.”
William and Lucy Smith concur. The former pictures his brother as educated only in a rudimentary way: “That he was illiterate to some extent is admitted, but that he was entirely unlettered is a mistake. In syntax, orthography, mathematics, grammar, geography, with other studies in the common schools of his day, he was no novice, and for writing, he wrote a plain, intelligible hand.” In other words, Joseph had taken advantage of limited opportunities for basic education, but (as his mother insists) he was anything but widely read: at 18 he “had never read the Bible through in his life. He seemed much less inclined to the perusal of books than any of the rest of our children, but far more given to meditation and deep study.” The Smith family measured the adolescent Joseph and found it unbelievable that he would know history or aspire to writing it down without the divine direction that he claimed.
Now let’s turn to a quote from one of the interviews with William Smith that was cited by a recent commenter. Here is what the commenter said:
It seems there is abundant evidence supporting the fact that not only the 3 witnesses, but the 8 witnesses as well, indeed never saw the plates with the naked eye. . . .
William Smith (JS’s Brother) goes on to state that no one had seen them with the naked eye, nor could they:
“I did not see them uncovered, but I handled them and hefted them while wrapped in a tow frock and judged them to have weighed about sixty pounds. … Father and my brother Samuel saw them as I did while in the frock. So did Hyrum and others of the family…No, for father had just asked if he might not be permitted to do so, and Joseph, putting his hand on them said; ‘No, I am instructed not to show them to any one. If I do, I will transgress and lose them again.” (Zion’s Ensign, p. 6, January 13, 1894)
One reading the above might think that one of the Eight Witnesses was denying the details of the published testimony about seeing and handling the plates. Not so. First of all, William Smith was not one of the Eight. In fact, he stands as yet another person, apart from the main witnesses, who offered important testimony relevant to the divinity of the Book of Mormon. He was in a good position to know whether Joseph was a fraud or not, and though he was much less religious, he affirmed that Joseph was the real thing, an honest man called of God, and he stayed true to that testimony to the end of his life.
Second, we are supposed to believe that William’s comment denies the experience recorded by the official witnesses to the Book of Mormon, who saw the actual plates with no cloth covering over them. In fact, William is referring to a time apparently before any of the Three or Eight Witnesses had seen the plates, and apparently shortly after the 116 pages had been lost, an incident of carelessness that resulted in the plates temporarily being taken away from Joseph. Joseph had the plates, but was being strict to follow the commandment not to show them to others. But that commandment would be modified with a revelation given in June 1929, recorded in Section 17 of the Doctrine and Covenants, in which the Lord revealed that Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer would be shown the plates, or that through faith they would have a view of them. Indeed, they would all see not only the plates, but an angel showing them the plates, and hear the voice of the Lord in that experience as well. The Eignht Witnesses would come later, and be shown the plates under more ordinary circumstances. I do not know how aware William was of those later experiences of others, but I assume he knew of them but was simply referring to his own encounter with the plates. Surely the interviewers did not see his words as somehow challenging the reliability of the official accounts of the origins of the Book of Mormon, especially whe William Smith goes on to affirm its divinity.
It is instructive to read the full 1893 statement of William Smith from this interview shortly before his death. Here is an excerpt in which he discusses the Book of Mormon:
Bro. Briggs and I visited him [William] next day after he returned from St. Paul being about two weeks before his death. We found him able to be about the house and quite willing to talk. After passing the time of day, etc., Bro. Briggs and he spoke of former meetings and finally drifted on to the subject of Bro. Smith’s early boyhood and his knowledge of the rise of the church, Book of Mormon, etc.
Bro. Briggs then handed me a pencil and asked Bro. Smith if he ever saw the plates his brother had had, from which the Book of Mormon was translated”
He replied, “I did not see them uncovered but I handled them and hefted them while wrapped in the tow frock and judged them to have weighed about sixty pounds. I could tell they were plates of some kind and that they were fastened together by rings running through the back. Their size was as described in Mother’s history.”
Bro. Briggs then asked, “Did any others of the family see them?”
“Yes,” said he, “Father and my Brother Samuel saw them as I did while in the frock So did Hyrum and others of the family.”
“Was this frock one that Joseph took with him especially to wrap the plates in?”
“No, it was his every day frock such as young men used to wear then.”
“Didn’t you want to remove the cloth and see the bare plates?” said Bro. B.
“No,” he replied; “for father had just asked if he might not be permitted to do so, and Joseph, putting his hand on them said, ‘No; I am instructed not to show them to anyone. If I do, I will transgress and lose them again.’ Besides we did not care to have him break the commandment and suffer as he did before.’
“Did you not doubt Joseph’s testimony sometimes?” said Bro. Briggs.
“No,” was the reply. “We all had the most implicit confidence in what he said. He was a truthful boy. Father and mother believed him, why should not the children? I suppose if he had told crooked stories about other things we might have doubted his word about the plates, but Joseph was a truthful boy. That father and mother believed his report and suffered persecution for that belief shows that he was truthful. No sir, we never doubted his word for one minute.”
“Well,” said Bro. B. “It is said that Joseph and the rest of the family were lazy and indolent.”
“We never heard of such a thing until after Joseph told his vision, and not then by our friends. Whenever the neighbors wanted a good days work done they knew where they could get a good hand and they were not particular to take any of the other boys before Joseph either. We cleared sixty acres of the heaviest timber I ever saw. We had a good place, but it required a great deal of labor to make it a good place. We also had on it from twelve to fifteen hundred sugar trees, and to gather the sap and make sugar and molasses from that number of trees was no lazy job. We worked hard to clear our place and the neighbors were a little jealous. If you will figure up how much work it would take to clear sixty acres of heavy timber land, heavier than any here, trees you could not conveniently cut down, you can tell whether we were lazy or not, and Joseph did his share of the work with the rest of the boys.
We never knew we were bad folks until Joseph told his vision. We were considered respectable till then, but at once people began to circulate falsehoods and stories in a wonderful way.”
William Smith’s statement cannot be taken as denying the vivid and emphatically affirmed experiences of the official witnesses to the Book of Mormon, who all insisted throughout their lives, as did William, that the plates were real and that the Book of Mormon was of God, not a fabrication of Joseph Smith. But unlike William, the official eleven witnesses would affirm that they had actually seen the plates under a couple of different circumstances, one miraculous (with an angel and the voice of God – an experience that could be described as a vision or as seen with spiritual eyes but every bit as real as seeing one’s hand in front of one’s face, as David Whitmer insisted), or under more mundane circumstances, where the plates could be viewed and handled in plain sight without miraculous trappings. Both offer more direct evidence for the reality of the plates than William’s experience feeling them while covered, but his testimony is also valuable in creating a mosaic of varied but consistent data from credible sources pointing to the reality of the Book of Mormon and the enormous difficulty of accounting for the Book of Mormon as some kind of fraudulent scheme devised by Joseph Smith.
For some further information, see “Book of Mormon Witnesses” by R.L. Anderson.