Book of Mormon/Witnesses/Eight witnesses

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    Did the Eight Witnesses actually physically view the plates?

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

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here


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.[1]

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.

The Neal A. Maxwell Institute responds to these questions

Richard Lloyd Anderson,"Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses", Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 14/1 (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.

Click here to view the complete article

Detailed Analysis

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.[2]

Attempts to dismiss the eight witnesses

Critics rely on one report from then-apostate John Whitmer and attempt to use this as the 'smoking gun' for a "visionary only" experience, but this misrepresents the totality of the evidence.

...all I know, 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 was fine engravings on both sides. I handled them." and he described how they were hung and they were shown to me by a supernatural power. he acknowledged all. Turley asked him why the translation is not now true, & he said "I cannot read it, and I do not know whether it is true or not.[3]

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 (here 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 Whiter 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.[4]

John Whitmer

Whitmer also published his witness to the plates, and reaffirmed the written testimony:

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.[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 Whitmer's case alone, simply because his witness is inconvenient for their speculations.

[O]ld Father Whitmer told me last winer, 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"[7]

Whitmer's final interview is impressive:

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.'[8]

Hiram Page

Insisted Hyrum Page:

As to the Book of Mormon, it would be doing injustice to myself, and to the work of God of the last days, to say that I could know a thing to be true in 1830, and know the same thing to be false in 1847.[9]

Page's son recalled after his death:

I knew my father to be true and faithful to his testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon until the very last. Whenever he had an opportunity to bear his testimony to this effect, he would always do so, and seemed to rejoice exceedingly in having been privileged to see the plates.[10]

Lucy Mack Smith

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.[11]

Hyrum Smith

Multiple writers recalled Hyrum's testimony:

  • [W]ee wass talking about the Book of Mormon which he is one of the witnesses he said he had but too hands and too eyes he said he had seen the plates with his eyes and handled them with his hands.[12]
  • "[Mary Fielding Smith] bears testimony that her husband [Hyrum] has seen and handled the plates, &c."[13]
  • Another writer heard Hyrum "declare, in this city in public, that what is recorded about the plates, &c. &c. is God's solemn truth."[14]

After being in Liberty Jail, Hyrum wrote:

  • I felt a determination to die, rather than deny the things which my eyes had seen, which my hands had handled, and which I had borne testimony to, wherever my lot had been cast.[15]

Samuel Smith

Daniel Tyler reported hearing Samuel Smith:

He knew his brother Joseph had the plates, for the prophet had shown them to him, and he had handled them and seen the engravings thereon.[16]

Christian and Peter Whitmer

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.[17]

Jacob Whitmer

In 1888, Whitmer's son said:

My father, Jacob Whitmer, was always faithful and true to his testimony to the Book of Mormon, and confirmed it on his death bed."[18]

Hostile accounts

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.[19]

For further information related to this topic


  1. William Smith, "Notes Written on 'Chambers' Life of Joseph Smith,'" 15; transcribed by Richard L. Anderson.
  2. 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. off-site wiki (Key source)
  3. "Theodore Turley's Memorandums," Church Archives, handwriting of Thomas Bullock, who began clerking in late 1843; cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:241.; see also with minor editing in Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 3:307–308. Volume 3 link
  4. "Theodore Turley's Memorandums," Church Archives, handwriting of Thomas Bullock, who began clerking in late 1843; cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:241.; see also with minor editing in Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 3:307–308. Volume 3 link
  5. John Whitmer, "Address To the patrons of the Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate," (March 1836) Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 2:286-287. (italics added)
  6. 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 wiki. See especially Anderson's discussion of Dan Vogel's tendency to ignore contrary witnesses from Whitmer that do not fit his thesis here.
  7. Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:251. original is Myron H. Bond to Editors, 2 August 1878 in Saints' Herald 25 (15 August 1878): 253.
  8. Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:247–249., original in Deseret Evening News, 6 August 1878; citing a letter from P. Wilhelm Poulson to Editors (31 July 1878) from Ovid City, Idaho.
  9. Letter of Hiram Page to William E. McLellin (30 May 1847), Ray County, Mo.; cited in Ensign of Liberty 1 (1848): 63.
  10. Andrew Jenson, Historical Record (Salt Lake City: Andrew Jenson, 1888), 7:614.
  11. Lucy Mack Smith's history, preliminary manuscript, Family and Church History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
  12. Letter to John Kempton, 26 August 1838, Family History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, microfilm no. 840025.
  13. Joseph Fielding, "Letter to Parley P. Pratt," Millennial Star 4 (August 1841), 52.
  14. "Mr. J. B. Newhall's Lecture," signed by "A Hearer," Salem Advertiser and Argus, 12 April 1843, some also in Times and Seasons 4 (15 June 1843): 234–235;
  15. Hyrum Smith, "To the Saints scattered abroad," Times and Seasons 1 (November 1839), 20, 23. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  16. Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981), 148. ISBN 0877478465.
  17. Oliver Cowdery, "The Closing Year," Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 3 no. 3 (December 1836), 426.
  18. Cited in Letter of Andrew Jenson to Deseret News (13 September 1888) from Richmond, Mo.,; cited in Deseret News (17 September 1888).
  19. W.O. [William Owen], “Mormon Bible,” Free Enquirer (New York) (3 September 1831): 364.

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