Book of Mormon/Witnesses/Viewing gold plates would result in death
This page is based on an answer to a question submitted to the FAIR web site, or a frequently asked question.
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View of the plates:
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Did Joseph Smith say that viewing the gold plates would result in death?
Critics claim that Joseph Smith said that the penalty for viewing the gold plates was death. This was just a way for Joseph to hide the fact that the plates really didn't exist.
The only first-person account—that made by Joseph Smith himself—says that it was Joseph who would be destroyed if he showed the plates to any other person unless commanded to do so by the Lord. Many accounts attributed to Joseph in which he is supposed to have claimed that anyone else who viewed the plates would die originated with people who were hostile to Joseph and the Church. Significantly, Emma's statement makes no mention of the alleged penalty associated with the unauthorized viewing of the plates.
Primary source: Joseph Smith's own words
Joseph Smith-History 1:42 describes the conditions under which Joseph was to handle the plates:
- Again, he told me, that when I got those plates of which he had spoken—for the time that they should be obtained was not yet fulfilled—I should not show them to any person; neither the breastplate with the Urim and Thummim; only to those to whom I should be commanded to show them; if I did I should be destroyed. While he was conversing with me about the plates, the vision was opened to my mind that I could see the place where the plates were deposited, and that so clearly and distinctly that I knew the place again when I visited it. (emphasis added)
According to this, it was Joseph who risked destruction if he showed the plates to anyone unless explicitly commanded to do so by the Lord, not the person to whom he showed them.
Of course, we also have the testimony of the Three and Eight witnesses, who all viewed the plates without any threat of destruction.
Secondary sources: Hostile
Fawn Brodie claimed that Joseph told Martin Harris that God's wrath would strike him down if he examined the plates or looked at him while he was translating. This is supported by a second-hand source: Charles Anthon's statement regarding the visit of Martin Harris in Eber D. Howe's anti-Mormon book Mormonism Unvailed. Anthon stated:
- I adverted once more to the roguery which had been in my opinion practised upon [Harris], and asked him what had become of the gold plates. He informed me that they were in a trunk with the large pair of spectacles. I advised him to go to a magistrate and have the trunk examined. He said the "curse of God" would come upon him should he do this. 
In Mormonism Unvailed, Peter Ingersoll and Sophia Lewis claimed that Joseph told them that anyone who viewed the plates would perish.
Peter Ingersoll was a hostile source. Here is what he claims that Joseph said to him:
- ...On my entering the house, I found the family at the table eating dinner. They were all anxious to know the contents of my frock. At that moment, I happened to think of what I had heard about a history found in Canada, called the golden Bible; so I very gravely told them it was the golden Bible. To my surprise, they were credulous enough to believe what I said. Accordingly I told them that I had received a commandment to let no one see it, for, says I, no man can see it with the naked eye and live. However, I offered to take out the book and show it to them, but they refuse to see it, and left the room." Now, said Jo, "I have got the damned fools fixed, and will carry out the fun." Notwithstanding, he told me he had no such book, and believed there never was any such book... (emphasis added)
Here we have a statement alleged to have been made by Joseph Smith that "no man can see it with the naked eye and live." However, we also see that, according to Peter Ingersoll, Joseph came up with the entire idea of the "golden bible" on the spur of the moment as a way to have "fun." Then he claims that Joseph confided to him that the plates didn't actually exist at all. There are so many inconsistencies between this story and the statements of numerous other witnesses that one wonders if Peter Ingersoll was the one who was having some "fun" with his audience. Ingersoll can also be discredited on his claim that Joseph made the story up on the spot, because Joseph was telling various people about his Moroni visits well before recovering the plates (see for example various Knight family recollections).
Examining the testimony of Sophia Lewis we find:
- SOPHIA LEWIS, certifies that she "heard a conversation between Joseph Smith, Jr., and the Rev. James B. Roach, in which Smith called Mr. R. a d-----d fool. Smith also said in the same conversation that he (Smith) was as good as Jesus Christ;" and that she "has frequently heard Smith use profane language. She states that she heard Smith say "the Book of Plates could not be opened under penalty of death by any other person but his (Smith's) first-born, which was to be a male." She says she "was present at the birth of this child, and that it was still-born and very much deformed." (emphasis added)
Here we find that not only could the plates not be viewed by another person, but that the only person who could "open" them would be Joseph's first-born child. Sophia Lewis's testimony is suspicious however. Hezekiah M'Kune, Levi Lewis and Sophia Lewis went together to make their depositions before the justice. Their testimonies bear a remarkable similarity and contain the unique claim that Joseph claimed to be "as good as Jesus Christ." This claim is not related by any other individuals who knew the Prophet, suggesting that these three individuals planned and coordinated their story before giving their depositions. 
Secondary sources: Friendly
It is interesting to note that Emma Smith, admittedly much closer to her husband Joseph than the hostile sources previously quoted, never mentioned a penalty for viewing the plates. In fact, in an interview with her son Joseph Smith III in 1879, the following conversation was recorded:
- [Joseph Smith III} Q: I should suppose that you would have uncovered the plates and examined them?
- [Emma Smith Bidamon] A. I did not attempt to handle the plates, other than I have told you, nor uncover them to look at them. I was satisfied that it was the work of God, and therefore did not feel it to be necessary to do so.
- Major Bidamon here suggested: Did Mr. Smith forbid your examining the plates?
- [Emma] A. I do not think he did. I knew that he had them, and was not specially curious about them. I moved them from place to place on the table, as it was necessary in doing my work.
- [JS III] Q. Mother, what is your belief about the authenticity, or origin, of the Book of Mormon?
- [Emma] A. My belief is that the Book of Mormon is of divine authenticity - I have not the slightest doubt of it. I am satisfied that no man could have dictated the writing of the manuscripts unless he was inspired; for, when acting as his scribe, your father would dictate to me hour after hour; and when returning after meals, or after interruptions, he could at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him. This was a usual thing for him to do. It would have been improbable that a learned man could do this; and, for one so ignorant and unlearned as he was, it was simply impossible.  (emphasis added)
Emma, therefore, did not recall any specific threat of destruction associated with the unauthorized viewing of the plates.
- [note] Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, pp. 272
- [note] Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, pp. 235-6
- [note] Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, pp. 269
- [note] Hugh W. Nibley, Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass: The Art of Telling Tales About Joseph Smith and Brigham Young (Vol. 11 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by David J. Whittaker, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1991), 128. ISBN 0875795161. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
- [note] "Interview with Joseph Smith III", in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 1:542.
FAIR wiki articles
|Metal and gold plates wiki articles|
- A FAIR Analysis of Wikipedia article "Three Witnesses"—
Wikipedia's treatment of the Three Witnesses is controlled by a Protestant editor, and is crafted to discredit the Witnesses by emphasizing the negative and diminishing the positive. (Link)
- What was the character of the witnesses?—
Critics charge that the witnesses cannot be trusted, or are unreliable, because they were unstable personalities, prone to enthusiasm and exaggeration. Evidence amply demonstrates that the formal witnesses of the Book of Mormon were men of good character and reputation, and were recognized as such by contemporary non-Mormons. (Link)
- Description of the plates and stone box in which they were found.—
A collection of all statements regarding the physical appearance, dimensions, and character of the plates and other items associated with them. (Link)
- Description of translation method and circumstances—
Friendly and unfriendly accounts of those who witnessed and heard about the translation of the Book of Mormon (Link)
- Did the Book of Mormon witnesses ever recant?—
Critics have tried to argue that some or all of the Witnesses recanted concerning their testimony. They were all faithful to their testimonies to the end of their lives, even though many of them had personal disagreements with Joseph Smith that caused them to leave the Church. (Link)
- Did Joseph hypnotize the Book of Mormon witnesses?—
Critics claim that the Book of Mormon witnesses may have been sincere in their testimony, but were actually the victims of 'hallucination' or 'hypnosis' induced in them by Joseph Smith. The accusation that Joseph Smith was somehow able to hypnotize the witnesses—not individually, but en mass—is simply too preposterous to be true. This accusation vastly overstates the nature of hypnotism and the abilities of those able to practice it. (Link)
- Did God tell David Whitmer to leave the Church?—
David Whitmer, one of the Book of Mormon's Three Witnesses, said "If you believe my testimony to the Book of Mormon; if you believe that God spake to us three witnesses by his own voice, then I tell you that in June, 1838, God spake to me again by his own voice from the heavens, and told me to "separate myself from among the Latter Day Saints, for as they sought to do unto me, should it be done unto them." Critics argues that if members accept Whitmer's witness of the Book of Mormon, then they must also accept that God wanted David to repudiate the Church as false. Critics distort the historical record to make it appear that David Whitmer left the Church because he was told to, when it fact he was excommunicated prior to claiming any revelation to do so. The command to leave, if it was a true revelation, involved David's physical safety and not his membership in the Church, which he had already renounced. (Link)
- Eight witnesses—
Critics have tried to argue that the Eight witnesses only claimed a 'spiritual' or 'visionary' view of the plates, not a literal, physical one. The witnesses left concrete statements regarding the physical nature of the plates. There were others besides the eleven who saw and felt the plates, and testified that they were real. (Link)
- "Eye of Faith" and "Spiritual Eye" statements by Martin Harris—
Martin Harris frequently told people that he did not see the golden plates and the angel with his natural eyes but rather with “spiritual eyes” or the “eye of faith.” (Link)
- Other Book of Mormon witnesses—
Are there any other witnesses to the Book of Mormon plates besides the Three and Eight witnesses? (Link) [needs work]
- Strangite parallels—
Critics claim that break-off sects like James Strang's produced eyewitnesses of buried records, so Joseph's ability to do so is neither surprising nor persuasive. The Strangite witnesses were not all faithful, and some recanted and described the nature of the fraud perpetuated by Strang. (Link)
- Were the experiences of the witnesses spiritual or literal?—
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. (Link)
- Only handled when covered by a tow frock?—Some critics claim that the witnesses said they only handled the plates covered in a "tow frock." Critics do not reveal that this report is from William Smith, one of Joseph's brother who was not a Book of Mormon witness. They also fail to tell us that William insisted in the same statement that he was convinced Joseph was not lying about the plates. William also dismissed the Spalding hypothesis as nonsense, but critics do not mention that either. (Link)
- Was it true the viewing the gold plates would result in death?—
Critics claim that Joseph Smith said that the penalty for viewing the gold plates was death, and that this was just a way for Joseph to hide the fact that the plates didn't actually exist. (Link)
- Oliver Cowdery joined the Methodists after leaving the Church—
Why did Oliver Cowdery join the Methodists if all other churches had been "condemned of God"? (Link)
- All were "interested" since they followed Joseph Smith—
Critics claim that because the witnesses are "interested"—i.e., they were members of the Church and believers in Joseph's mission—they are therefore not reliable, since they cannot be "neutral" or "disinterested." (Link)
FAIR web site
|Metal and gold plates FAIR articles on-line|
- FAIR Topical Guide: Book of Mormon witnesses FAIR link
- FAIR Topical Guide: Metal and metal plates FAIR link
- Michael R. Ash, "Metals and Metallurgy" FAIR link
|Book of Mormon witnesses FAIR articles on-line|
- FAIR Topical Guide: Book of Mormon Witnesses FAIR link
- FAIR Topical Guide: Testimonies of the Book of Mormon FAIR link
- Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Explaining Away the Book of Mormon Witnesses," paper given at the 2004 FAIR Conference FAIR link (Key source)
- Scott Gordon, "The Testimony of Eight" FAIR link
|Metal and gold plates on-line articles|
- Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/1 (2005): 18–31. off-site PDF link wiki (Key source)
- Anonymous, "Of What Material Were the Plates?," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10/1 (2001): 21–21. off-site [No PDF link] wiki
- Mike Ash, "Weight of Gold Plates," mormonfortress.com, 1998. off-site
- William J. Adams Jr., "Lehi's Jerusalem and Writing on Metal Plates," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 3/1 (1994): 204–206. off-site PDF link wiki
- William J. Adams Jr., "More on the Silver Plates from Lehi's Jerusalem," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4/2 (1995): 136–137. off-site PDF link wiki
- John Gee, "Epigraphic Considerations on Janne Sjodahl's Experiment with Nephite Writing," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10/1 (2001): 25–25. off-site [No PDF link] wiki
- John Gee, "Two Notes on Egyptian Script," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5/1 (1996): 162–176. off-site PDF link wiki
- William J. Hamblin, "An Apologist for the Critics: Brent Lee Metcalfe's Assumptions and Methodologies (Review of Apologetic and Critical Assumptions about Book of Mormon Historicity by Brent Lee Metcalfe)," FARMS Review of Books 6/1 (1994): 434–523. off-site PDF link
- William J. Hamblin, "Sacred Writing on Metal Plates in the Ancient Mediterranean," FARMS Review 19/1 (2007): 37–54. off-site PDF link wiki
- William J. Hamblin (research), "Metal Plates and the Book of Mormon," F.A.R.M.S. Update (July 1994), number 95. off-site
- Kirk B. Henrichsen, "How Witnesses Described the "Gold Plates"," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10/1 (2001): 16–21. off-site [No PDF link] wiki
- Janne M. Sjodahl, "The Book of Mormon Plates," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10/1 (2001): 22–24. off-site [No PDF link] wiki
- Sidney B. Sperry, "Some Problems of Interest Relating to the Brass Plates," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4/1 (1995): 185–191. off-site PDF link wiki
- Stephen D. Ricks and John A. Tvedtnes, "Jewish and Other Semitic Texts Written in Egyptian Characters," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5/2 (1996): 156–163. off-site PDF link wiki
|Book of Mormon witnesses on-line articles|
- Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Book of Mormon Witnesses," farms.byu.edu off-site (Key source)
- Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/1 (2005): 18–31. off-site PDF link wiki
- Kenneth W. Godfrey, "David Whitmer and the Shaping of Latter-day Saint History," in The Disciple As Witness: Essays on Latter-Day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, edited by Richard Lloyd Anderson, Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges, (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000),223–256. ISBN 0934893454. ISBN 978-0934893459. off-site direct off-site
- Kirk B. Henrichsen, "How Witnesses Described the "Gold Plates"," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10/1 (2001): 16–21. off-site [No PDF link] wiki
- Jeff Lindsay, "Circumstantial Evidence and the Witnesses of the Book of Mormon: Can They Be Ignored Any Longer?", jefflindsay.com off-site
- Matthew Roper, "Comments on the Book of Mormon Witnesses: A Response to Jerald and Sandra Tanner," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/2 (1993): 164–193. off-site PDF link wiki
|Metal and gold plates printed materials|
- C. Wilfred Griggs, "The Book of Mormon as an Ancient Book," in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, edited by Noel B. Reynolds and Charles D. Tate (eds.), (Provo, Utah : Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University ; Salt Lake City, Utah : Distributed by Bookcraft, 1996 ),75–94. ISBN 0884944697 GospeLink (requires subscrip.)GL direct link
- Read H. Putnam, "Were the Plates of Mormon of Tumbaga?," Improvement Era (September 1966), 788—789, 828–831.; also appears in Ross T. Christensen, ed., Papers of the Fifteenth Annual Symposium on the Archaeology of the Scriptures (Provo, Utah: Extension Publications, BYU Division of Continuing Education, 1964), 101–109.
- Robert E. Smith, "The 'Golden' Plates," in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, edited by John W. Welch, (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1992), 275. ISBN 0875796001 off-site FAIR linkGL direct link
|Book of Mormon witnesses printed materials|
- Richard Lloyd Anderson, "The Credibility of the Book of Mormon Translators," in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, edited by Noel B. Reynolds and Charles D. Tate (eds.), (Provo, Utah : Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University ; Salt Lake City, Utah : Distributed by Bookcraft, 1996 ),Chapter 9, 213–232. ISBN 0884944697 GospeLink (requires subscrip.) GL direct link
- Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981), 1. ISBN 0877478465. (Key source)
- Richard L. Anderson, "Personal Writings of the Book of Mormon Witnesses," in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, edited by Noel B. Reynolds, (Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997), Chapter 3. ISBN 093489325X ISBN 0934893187 ISBN 0884944697. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.) GL direct link
- Milton V. Backman, Jr., Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book, 1983).
- Matthew B. Brown, Plates of Gold: The Book of Mormon Comes Forth (American Fork UT: Covenant, ---), ---.
- John W. Welch and Larry E. Morris, editors, Oliver Cowdery: Scribe, Elder, Witness (Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2006). ISBN 9780842526616.