The critics attempt to argue that the witnesses only ‘saw’ the plates in a spiritual state and then were allowed to heft a covered box. This flatly contradicts their own reports, and those of others.
New Portage Conference, 1835
During a conference held in early 1835 in [New Portage,] Ohio, Oliver Cowdery reported: “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 [John] 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. Such is the fact that a record of that description does exist, for it has been seen, and such is the fact, that the Lord himself bears witness of it, for thousands testify of the same — there is neither lack of human or divine testimony: Then who so blind as not to see? And who so deaf as not to hear? “
Address To the patrons of the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, 1836
[John Whitmer was employed in Kirtland as editor of the Messenger and Advocate. In March 1836 he resigned from this position and wrote an article stating he was retiring from the editorial department in which he again bore his testimony of truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.]
It may not be amiss in this place, to give a statement to the world concerning the work of the Lord, as I have been a member of this church of Latter Day Saints from its beginning; to say that the book of Mormon is a revelation from God, I have no hesitancy; but with all confidence have signed my named to it as such; and I hope, that my patrons will indulge me in speaking freely on this subject, as I am about leaving the editorial department. 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, and in this thing the wisdom of the wise most assuredly has perished: therefore, know ye, O ye inhabitants of the earth, wherever this address may come, that I have in this thing freed my garments of your blood, whether you believe or disbelieve the statements of your unworthy friend and well-wisher.
Theodore Turley claimed that John Whitmer said, late 1843 or later:
[Theodore] Turley said, ‘Gentlemen, I presume there are men here who have heard [John] Corrill say, that Mormonism was true, that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and inspired of God. I now call upon you, John Whitmer: you say Corrill is a moral and a good man; do you believe him when he says the Book of Mormon is true, or when he says it is not true? There are many things published that they say are true, and again turn around and say they are false.’ Whitmer asked, ‘Do you hint at me?’ Turley replied, ‘If the cap fits you, wear it; all I know is that 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 were fine engravings on both sides. I handled them;’ and he described how they were hung [on rings], and [said] ‘they were shown to me by a supernatural power;’ he acknowledged all.
So, the apostate Whitmer insists that he physically handled the plates, and attests to having seen fine engraving “on both sides.” The critics grasp at straws, and ignore the very clear implication that Whitmer (at this time a bitter enemy of Joseph Smith) claims to have actually seen and handled the plates. The “supernatural power” citation seems to be the imposition of the interviewers’ bias (it appears in none of Whitmer’s first person accounts or in the Testimony of the Eight Witnesses—see further discussion in main article above).
It is also possible that Whitmer was insisting that Joseph Smith could not have showed him the plates without divine aid; this perspective is not present in any of his other statements, however. The Three witnesses likewise insisted on the physical reality of their experience with the angel, despite the supernatural trappings of their witness experience.
Why, then, did John Whitmer apostatize? He rationalized his choice to disbelieve the translation of the Book of Mormon (despite knowing that the plates were literal and physical) thusly:
I cannot read it, and I do not know whether it is true or not.
E. C. Brand Report of Interview with John Whitmer, 1845:
I visited Mr. John Whitmer at his residence at Far West, Caldwell Co., Mo., on the 18th of February, 1845. He also bore his testimony to me concerning the truth, and declared that his testimony, as found in the testimony of “Eight Witnesses,” in the Book of Mormon, is strictly true. He showed me a facsimile of plates, copied from the plates in the handwriting of Joseph Smith. Both of these men (David and John) are respectable, and looked up to as truthful, honorable men, in the vicinity where they live. The above is a brief and correct statement of my interview with them.”
Mark Forscutt, 1876:
In 1876, John Whitmer, one of the Eight Witnesses, wrote a lengthy letter to Mark Forscutt, which included the following:
Oliver Cowdery lived in Richmond, Mo., some 40 miles from here, at the time of his death. I went to see him and was with him for some days previous to his demise. I have never heard him deny the truth of his testimony of the Book of Mormon under any circumstances whatever. . . . Neither do I believe that he would have denied, at the peril of his life; so firm was he that he could not be made to deny what he has affirmed to be a divine revelation from God. . . .
I have never heard that any one of the three or eight witnesses ever denied the testimony that they have borne to the Book as published in the first edition of the Book of Mormon. There are only two of the witnesses to that book now living, to wit., David Whitmer, one of the three, and John Wh[itmer], one of the eight. Our names have gone forth to all nations, tongues and people as a divine revelation from God. And it will bring to pass the designs of God according to the declaration therein contained.
William Lewis (1877):
STEWARTSVILLE, DeKalb Co., Missouri, November 29th, 1877.
Dear Herald:–In company with Bro. Temme Hinderks and Charles Faul, I attended a meeting at Far West branch; and as we returned home, we called to see Father John Whitmer, one of the eight witnesses to the Book of Mormon. He informed us that he is the only one of the eight living; and David, his brother, one of the three, is the only one; so they are the only two out of the eleven witnesses that now live; and their testimonies are still the same as that recorded in the Book of Mormon. Father Whitmer says that he hopes that God will give him strength to stand firm to the testimony.
We asked many questions; among them the following:
1. Had he ever made it a subject of prayer to try and find out who was the proper one to lead the Church, as there were so many claims made? He replied that he did not think it to be his duty to make such inquiry; that the Lord would reveal it when he saw proper.
We insisted on his making it a subject of prayer.
2. Did he believe in the gathering? He answered, Yes; and all that God has promised will be fulfilled. Jackson County, Missouri, is the place, and will be the final home of the saints.
3. Were not the Saints commanded to settle in this neighborhood of Far West, and to build a temple? To this he said, “Well, there was, I believe, some talk of that kind; and they did gather here in a large body, and lay the corner stone of the temple, which stone is there; some are taken off.”
4. Do you not think that when the Saints return to Jackson County, and to the regions from which they have been driven, that you will fall into the ranks? To this he replied, with tears running down his cheeks, and he could hardly speak from crying. At last he did say, wiping the tears off, that the day would come when we would see eye to eye.
He has been living in that locality since 1831; forty-six years. Was that when the Saints were mobbed and driven out? He also said that men you could not get near even fifteen years ago, are now anxious to learn and get all the information they can about Mormonism, and are friendly to the doctrine.
I can say this for Father Whitmer; that he manifested a good spirit, and did not try to discourage us, but to encourage. I believe that if the Saints in his neighborhood will flock around him, and invite him to their testimony meetings, and go up after him, that good will be done. I don’t believe in forcing any man, but I do think we should try every legal way to bring back the strayed sheep. We should remember the parables of the lost sheep and prodigal son. Father Whitmer is seventy-four years old and is quite smart.
We could stay only a few hours, so we bade them good day, and went on our way rejoicing, remarking one to the other, that now we could say that we had seen and talked with one of the eight witnesses to the Book of Mormon, in hopes to see his brother David, one of the three.
Myron H. Bond (1878):
[O]ld Father 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”
I. C. Funn’s Report of Testimony of John Whitmer (1878):
Bro. O. P. Worden sends us a Kingston (Missouri) Sentinel, in which we find the following notice of a discourse by Elder John Whitmer. Mr. I. C. Funn may see some fun that will make him “laugh out of the other side of his mouth,” as the saying is, when the comparison asked for by Elder Whitmer is made. We are glad to learn that Elder Whitmer is in the field:
“We were down to the Whitmer school house to preaching on last Sabbath at eleven o’clock. Mr. John Whitmer delivered the discourse. It will be remembered by a great many readers, that Mr. Whitmer is one of only two now living that helped (were witnesses) to the translation of the Book of Mormon, or generally known as the Mormon Bible. Mr. Whitmer is considered a truthful, honest and law abiding citizen by this community, and consequentially, 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, and is termed today the Mormon Bible. This is the first time Mr. Whitmer has attempted to preach for a good many years; and time, who waits for no one, has written many a furrow upon his brow. He is upwards of sixty years old, and gave some good advice to both old and young. 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,” in comparing them.
I. C. Funn. . . .
John Whitmer’s final interview, 1878
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 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….
when Joseph Smith [III]…sent word to John Whitmer to reaffirm his testimony, his answer was: ‘I have never recalled it, and I have nothing to reaffirm.’