Book of Mormon/Witnesses/Spiritual or literal
Were the experiences of the witnesses spiritual or literal?
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View of the plates:
It was a clear, open beautiful day, far from any inhabitants, in a remote field, at the time we saw the record, of which it has been spoken, brought and laid before us, by an angel, arrayed in glorious light, [who] ascend [descended I suppose] out of the midst of heaven. Now if this is human juggling—judge ye."
Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris, in letter dated 29 November 1829, quoted in Corenlius C. Blatchly, "THE NEW BIBLE, written on plates of Gold or Brass," Gospel Luminary 2/49 (10 Dec. 1829): 194.
Some critics suggest that the witnesses’ encounter with the angel and the plates took place solely in their minds. They claim that witnesses saw the angel in a “vision” and equate “vision” with imagination. To bolster this claim they generally cite two supposed quotes from Martin Harris. Supposedly Harris was once asked if he saw the plates with his “naked eyes” to which he responded, “No, I saw them with a spiritual eye.” In another interview Harris allegedly claimed that he only saw the plates in a “visionary or entranced state.”
Oliver Cowdery wrote explicitly for himself and Martin Harris when he replied, in a November 1829 letter, to questions about whether "juggling" (i.e., trickery or conjuring) could have explained what they saw:
- "It was a clear, open beautiful day, far from any inhabitants, in a remote field, at the time we saw the record, of which it has been spoken, brought and laid before us, by an angel, arrayed in glorious light, [who] ascend [descended I suppose] out of the midst of heaven. Now if this is human juggling—judge ye."
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
Critics impose their own interpretation on phrases that do not match what the witnesses reported in many separate interviews. When challenged on the very point which the critics wish to read into their statements—their literal reality—both Harris and the other witnesses were adamant that their experience was literal, real, and undeniable. As early convert William E. McLellin reported:
- "D[avid] Whitmer then arose and bore testimony to having seen an Holy Angel who had made known the truth of this record to him. [A]ll these strange things I pondered in my heart."
Does “visionary” mean “imaginary?” Does the belief that the experience had visionary qualities contradict the claim that the plates were real? The critics who resort to this tactic to discredit the witnesses are often secularists—as such, they consider any talk of the spiritual as delusion or imagination. Yet, their understanding of such terms does not match how Martin and the other witnesses meant them.
Consider: on separate occasions Harris also claimed that prior to his witnessing the plates he held them (while covered) “on his knee for an hour and a half” and that they weighed approximately fifty pounds. It seems unlikely– from his physical descriptions as well as his other testimonies and the testimonies of the other two witnesses—that he meant to imply that the entire experience was merely in his mind. On one occasion, for example, critics charged Harris with delusion—that he had merely imagined to see an angel and the plates. Martin responded by extending his right hand:
- Gentlemen, do you see that hand? Are you sure you see it? Are your eyes playing a trick or something? No. Well, as sure as you see my hand so sure did I see the angel and the plates.
An early hostile account of Martin Harris' testimony in 1831 makes it clear that Harris' listeners got the message that the experience was literal, though done by God's power:
- Martin Harris, another chief of Mormon imposters, arrived here last Saturday from the bible quarry in New-York. He immediately planted himself in the bar-room of the hotel, where he soon commenced reading and explaining the Mormon hoax, and all the dark passages from Genesis to Revelations. He told all about the gold plates, Angels, Spirits, and Jo Smith.—He had seen and handled them all, by the power of God!
A second account claims that the two witnesses' accounts differed, but makes it clear that both Harris and Whitmer had at some point physically handled and examined the plates:
- Whitmar’s [sic] description of the Book of Mormon, differs entirely from that given by Harris; both of whom it would seem have been of late permitted, not only to see and handle it, but to examine its contents. Whitmar relates that he was led by Smith into an open field, on his father’s farm near Waterloo, when they found the book lying on the ground; Smith took it up and requested him to examine it, which he did for the space of half an hour or more, when he returned it to Smith, who placed it in its former position, alledging that the book was in the custody of another, intimating that some Divine agent would have it in safe keeping.
Another hostile press likewise reported Oliver Cowdery's testimony that he had seen and talked with angels:
- About two weeks since some persons came along here with the book, one of whom pretends to have seen Angels, and assisted in translating the plates....The name of the person here, who pretends to have a divine mission, and to have seen and conversed with Angels, is Cowdray.
David Whitmer helps clear up the “spiritual” vs. “natural” viewing of the plates. Responding to the interviewer who questioned Harris, Whitmer replied,
- 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.
Critics are again accustomed to seeing "spiritual" as either implying something totally "Other" from physical, tangible reality, or as something delusional. But, Joseph Smith and his contemporaries in the Church did not understand things in such a way. As Joseph was to later write:
- 7 There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; 8 We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.(DC 131:7-8.)
For Joseph, the Witnesses, and the Saints, "spiritual" does not imply something other or less than "material" or "literal"; it means something additional.
An LDS author reported in 1870:
- On one occasion several of his old acquaintances made an effort to get him tipsy by treating him to some wine. When they thought he was in a good mood for talk they put the question very carefully to him, ‘Well, now, Martin, we want you to be frank and candid with us in regard to this story of your seeing an angel and the golden plates of the Book of Mormon that are so much talked about. We have always taken you to be an honest good farmer and neighbor of ours but could not believe that you did see an angel. Now, Martin, do you really believe that you did see an angel, when you were awake?’ ‘No,’ said Martin, ‘I do not believe it.’ The crowd were delighted, but soon a different feeling prevailed, as Martin true to his trust, said, ‘Gentlemen, what I have said is true, from the fact that my belief is swallowed up in knowledge; for I want to say to you that as the Lord lives I do know that I stood with the Prophet Joseph Smith in the presence of the angel, and it was the brightness of day.”
And, at his death, Harris reported:
- The Book of Mormon is no fake. I know what I know. I have seen what I have seen and I have heard what I have heard. I have seen the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon is written. An angel appeared to me and others and testified to the truthfulness of the record, and had I been willing to have perjured myself and sworn falsely to the testimony I now bear I could have been a rich man, but I could not have testified other than I have done and am now doing for these things are true.
David Whitmer—like the other witnesses—had been charged with being deluded into thinking he had seen an angel and the plates. One observer remembers when David was such accused, and said:
- “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!’
- Wilford C. Wood, Joseph Smith Begins His Work, Vol. 1, 1958, intro.
- Anthony Metcalf, Ten Years Before the Mast (Malad, Idaho: Research Publications, 1888), 70-71. Quoted in Dale Morgan, Dale Morgan on Early Mormonism: Correspondence and a New History, ed. John Phillip Walker (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1986), xxx.
- Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris, in letter dated 29 November 1829, quoted in Corenlius C. Blatchly, "THE NEW BIBLE, written on plates of Gold or Brass," Gospel Luminary 2/49 (10 Dec. 1829): 194.
- William E. McLellin, journal, 18 July 1831, reproduced in The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831–1836, edited by Jan Shipps and John W. Welch (Urbana: Brigham Young University Studies and University of Illinois Press, 1994), 29. ISBN 0842523162..
- Millennial Star (15 September 1853).; quoted in George Reynolds and Janne Sjodahl, Commentary on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1959), 4:436. AISN B000ESAPTO. GL direct link
- Tiffany’s Monthly 5/2 (New York: Joel Tiffany, 1859), 166.
- Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981), 116. ISBN 0877478465.
- “Martin Harris . . .,” Painesville Telegraph (Painesville, Ohio) 2, no. 39 (15 March 1831).
- “Gold Bible, No. 6,” The Reflector (Palmyra, New York) 2, no. 16 (19 March 1831), 126–27. off-site
- “The Golden Bible,” Painesville Telegraph (Ohio) (16 November 1830).
- Letter of David Whitmer to Anthony Metcalf, March 1887, cited in Anthony Metcalf, Ten Years Before the Mast (Malad, Idaho: Research Publications, 1888), 74. cited by Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981), 86. ISBN 0877478465.
- Letter of Elder Edward Stevenson to the Millennial Star quoted in William Edwin Berrett, The Restored Church (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1974), 57–58.
- George Godfrey, “Testimony of Martin Harris,” from an unpublished manuscript copy in the possession of his daughter, Florence (Godfrey) Munson of Fielding, Utah; quoted in Eldin Ricks, The Case of the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1971), 65–66.
- Memoirs of Joseph Smith III, cit. Mary Audentia Smith Anderson, Joseph Smith III and the Restoration (Independence, Mo., 1952), pp. 311-12. Cited in Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981), 88. ISBN 0877478465.