What was the experience of the Eight Witnesses viewing the “gold” plates?

Richard Anderson: All eleven Book of Mormon witnesses publicly reaffirmed their testimony as printed

Richard Anderson described multiple accounts of all the Witnesses bearing testimony and reaffirming their published testimony:[1]

The three Smiths who formally gave their names as seeing and handling the plates were the Prophet’s father, Joseph Smith, Sr.; the Prophet’s older brother, Hyrum; and his immediately younger brother, Samuel Harrison. They sometimes joined the other Book of Mormon witnesses to reaffirm their testimony printed in the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon regarding lifting and turning the leaves of the plates. After quoting the published statements of the Three and Eight Witnesses, and describing the experience of the latter group, Lucy Smith relates, “The ensuing evening, we held a meeting, in which all the witnesses bore testimony to the facts as stated above.”[2] Two years later, in the period of dynamic preaching of the early elders, a conference was held near Cleveland, Ohio, remembered by Luke Johnson as follows: “At this conference the eleven witnesses to the Book of Mormon, with uplifted hands, bore their solemn testimony to the truth of that book, as did also the Prophet Joseph.”[3]

How do critics of the Church attempt to dismiss the experience of the Eight Witnesses of the Book of Mormon?

Oliver Cowdery, describing a testimony given by John Whitmer, one of the Eight Witnesses, June 1835:

“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 taht 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.”[4]

Some have tried to argue that the Eight witnesses only claimed a ‘spiritual’ or ‘visionary’ view of the plates, not a literal, physical one

Critics of the Church attempt to dismiss the experience of the Eight Witnesses by claiming that their view of the plates was not literal. 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.[5] Richard Anderson has collected eight accounts of John Whitmer’s that confirm the reality of his handling of the plates.[6] The critics ignore much documentary evidence in John Whitmer’s case alone, simply because his witness is inconvenient for their speculations.

William Smith summarized the matter well when he said of all the Eight witnesses

that they not only Saw with their eyes but handled with their hands the said record . . . nor has either or any one of these witnesses ever to my knowledge Counteracted the testimony as given above Concerning the real existence of these Mormon tablets.[7]

The Eight witnesses consistently affirmed the accuracy of their published testimony, and the physical reality of their experience. The critics will have to seek elsewhere to support their speculations.

Did Christian and Peter Whitmer, two of the Eight Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, ever deny having seen the plates?

Christian and Peter Whitmer “proclaimed to their last moments, the certainty of their former testimony”

Oliver Cowdery said of these men (his brothers-in-law):

Among those who have gone home to rest, we mention the names of our two brothers-in-law, Christian and Peter Whitmer, jr. the former died on the 27th of November 1835, and the other the 22nd of September last, in Clay county, Missouri. By many in this church, our brothers were personally known: they were the first to embrace the new covenant, on hearing it, and during a constant scene of persecution and perplexity, to their last moments, maintained its truth — they were both included in the list of the eight witnesses in the book of Mormon, and though they have departed, it is with great satisfaction that we reflect, that they proclaimed to their last moments, the certainty of their former testimony: The testament is in force after the death of the testator. May all who read remember the fact, that the Lord has given men a witness of himself in the last days, and that they, have faithfully declared it till called away.[8]

Why did Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer accept Hiram Page's seer stone revelations as authoritative?

The Lord used this incident as a way to teach Oliver the proper order of revelation in the Church

This event is discussed in the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Teacher Manual (2013):

In 1830, the Prophet Joseph Smith encountered a challenge because Church members did not understand the order of revelation in the Church. Hiram Page claimed to receive revelations for the Church through the medium of a special stone, and some Church members, including Oliver Cowdery, believed him. Shortly before a Church conference that was held on September 26, 1830, the Lord revealed truths that helped Oliver Cowdery and others understand the order of revelation in the Church.[9]

Oliver was actually directed by the Lord to correct Hiram Page in this matter. It was a “teaching moment” for Oliver:

11 And again, thou shalt take thy brother, Hiram Page, between him and thee alone, and tell him that those things which he hath written from that stone are not of me and that Satan deceiveth him;

12 For, behold, these things have not been appointed unto him, neither shall anything be appointed unto any of this church contrary to the church covenants.

13 For all things must be done in order, and by common consent in the church, by the prayer of faith.

14 And thou shalt assist to settle all these things, according to the covenants of the church, before thou shalt take thy journey among the Lamanites. (D&C 28:11-14).

Lucy Mack Smith: “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”

Lucy Mack Smith wrote:

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 [title page of the Book of Mormon]. . . . After the witnesses returned to the house the Angel again made his appearance to Joseph and received the plates from his hands.[10]

William Owen (skeptical account): “Ten persons say they have seen them and hefted them, three declare that an angel of God appeared to them and showed them to them”

A skeptical account from a reader in 1831 demonstrates that the witnesses’ contemporaries understood the experience to be a literal one:

The plates from which Smith, the author translates his book are said to be in his possession. Ten persons say they have seen them and hefted them, three declare that an angel of God appeared to them and showed them to them, and told them that God had given Smith power to be able to read them, understand them, and translate them. The names of those persons are signed to the certificates in the book.[11]

Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses”

Richard Lloyd Anderson,  Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, (205):

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. This article discusses sources that have been misused in attempts to reverse the Eight Witnesses’ statement about their physical contact with the ancient record.

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[1] Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981), 137-138. ISBN 0877478465.
[2] Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool, S.W. Richards, 1853), 141.
[3] Deseret News (26 May 1858).
[4] Oliver Cowdery, ”Conference Report,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 1 (June 1835), 143. Reproduced in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:250.
[5] Many of the quotes collected here are found in Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/1 (2005): 18–31.
[6] Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/1 (2005): 18–31. See especially Anderson’s discussion of Dan Vogel’s tendency to ignore contrary witnesses from Whitmer that do not fit his thesis here.
[7] William Smith, “Notes Written on ‘Chambers’ Life of Joseph Smith,'” 15; transcribed by Richard L. Anderson.
[8] Oliver Cowdery, ”The Closing Year,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 3 no. 3 (December 1836), 426.
[9] “Lesson 34: Doctrine and Covenants 28,” Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Teacher Manual, 2013.
[10] Lucy Mack Smith’s history, preliminary manuscript, Family and Church History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
[11] W.O. [William Owen], “Mormon Bible,” Free Enquirer (New York) (3 September 1831): 364.

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