Question: Did the Three Witnesses have personal, subjective experiences?


Question: Did the Three Witnesses have personal, subjective experiences?

The Three Witnesses insisted upon the literal, physical reality of their experience, despite also affirming that their was a divine, spiritual dimension to it.

Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer saw the angel together with Joseph Smith. This rebuts the claim that their vision was "merely" internal or subjective—both Oliver and David were present and could discuss or compare what they had experienced to confirm its reality. They were sharing a view of something, not hallucinating or being caught away in a private transport.

Martin Harris received his vision apart from Whitmer and Cowdery. This provides yet another cross-check on the experience, since Whitmer described how they heard Martin describe what he had experienced, and it matched their own experience:

At that time Mr. Whitmer saw the tablet, gazed with awe on the celestial messenger, heard him speak and say: 'BLessed is the Lord and he that keeps His commandments;" and then, as he held the plates and turned them over with his hands, so that they could be plainly visible, a voice that seemed to fill all space, musical as the sighing of a wind through the forest, was heard, saying: "What you see is true: testify to the same." And Oliver Cowdrey and David Whitmer, standing there, felt, as the white garments of the angel faded from their vision and the heavenly voice still rang in their ears, that it was no delusion--that it was a fact; and they so recorded it. In a day or two after[1] the same spirit appeared to Martin Harris while he was in company with Smith, and told him also to bear witness to its truth, which he did, as can be seen in the book. Harris described the visitant to Whitmer, who recognized it as the same that he and Cowdrey had seen (emphasis added).[2]

A similar account repeats these same themes:

I saw this apparition [the angel] myself and gazed with awe on the celestial messenger and heard him say, "Blessed is the Lord and he that keeps his commandments." Then, as he held the plates and turned them over with his hands so that we could see them plainly, a voice that seemed to fill all space was heard, saying: 'What you see is true. Testify to the same." Oliver Cowdrey and I, standing there, felt, as the white garments of the angel faded from view, that we had received a message from God, and we have so recorded it. Two or three days later the same angel appeared to Martin Harris while he was in company with [Joseph] Smith, and placed the same injunction upon him. He described the sight and his sensations to me, and they corresponded exactly with what I had seen and heard.[3]

In another account, David Whitmer described how Martin's face was altered and physically different than it had been before, which acted as another evidence that the experience was both real and divine:

When Martin Harris came back to them [Joseph, Oliver, and David Whitmer], they knew he had also seen the angel, because his face was radiant and he declared he had received the testimony. David Whitmer told me they knew he had also seen the vision which they had, because he explained what they had themselves seen.[4]

Conclusion

David and Oliver could cross check each other's experience, and had the additional witness of hearing Martin Harris describe his own experience to them, and seeing his face transformed. These data points increase our confidence that these were not merely subjective, internal experiences.

Notes

  1. Note: in most other accounts, Harris had the vision the same day. The Eight witnesses saw the plates a day or two later. There is probably confusion in the reporting here.
  2. David Whitmer, Interview with Chicago Times (14 October 1881); cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:85.
  3. David Whitmer, Interview with Unknown Reporter, around July 1884, unidentified and undated newspaper clipping, William H. Samson, Scrapbook, 18:76-77, Rochester Public Library, Local History Room, Rochester, New York; cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:134.
  4. David Whitmer, cited by Joseph F. Smith, Brian H. Stuy (editor), Collected Discourses: Delivered by Wilford Woodruff, his two counselors, the twelve apostles, and others, 1868–1898, 5 vols., (Woodland Hills, Utah: B.H.S. Publishing, 1987–1989), 2:1987-1982. [Discourse given on 21 February 1892.] ; cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:220.