The 
Witnesses

In order to help prove that Joseph Smith did indeed have golden plates from which he was translating, he permitted eleven men to witnesses the secret record. 

Who were these men? Were they trustworthy? Did they ever deny seeing an angel or the golden plates?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claims that because these eleven men saw golden plates with engravings from a language they did not know, that Joseph Smith's translation is therefore correct. Never in the history of linguistics did seeing a language you did not know, and with no way of verifying the language, does that ever automatically make its translation correct.

Joseph was commanded to show the golden plates to three individuals. Who were these individuals? Were they trustworthy? Did they have retract their testimonies?

As he was completing the Book of Mormon, Joseph showed the golden plates to eight other witnesses. Who were these men? Were they trust worthy? Did they ever deny their testimonies?

Was anyone else permitted to see the golden plates? Did they ever deny their testimony?

Prophecy of Witnesses
in The Book of Mormon

Ether 5:3-4 And unto three shall they be shown by the power of God; wherefore they shall know of a surety that these things are true. And in the mouth of three witnesses shall these things be established; and the testimony of three, and this work, in the which shall be shown forth the power of God and also his word, of which the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost bear record—and all this shall stand as a testimony against the world at the last day.

2 Nephi 11:3 And my brother, Jacob, also has seen him as I have seen him; wherefore, I will send their words forth unto my children to prove unto them that my words are true. Wherefore, by the words of three, God hath said, I will establish my word. Nevertheless, God sendeth more witnesses, and he proveth all his words.

2 Nephi 27: 12-14 Wherefore, at that day when the book shall be delivered unto the man of whom I have spoken, the book shall be hid from the eyes of the world, that the eyes of none shall behold it save it be that three witnesses shall behold it, by the power of God, besides him to whom the book shall be delivered; and they shall testify to the truth of the book and the things therein. And there is none other which shall view it, save it be a few according to the will of God, to bear testimony of his word unto the children of men; for the Lord God hath said that the words of the faithful should speak as if it were from the dead. Wherefore, the Lord God will proceed to bring forth the words of the book; and in the mouth of as many witnesses as seemeth him good will he establish his word; and wo be unto him that rejecteth the word of God!

2 Nephi 27:22 Wherefore, when thou hast read the words which I have commanded thee, and obtained the witnesses which I have promised unto thee, then shalt thou seal up the book again, and hide it up unto me, that I may preserve the words which thou hast not read, until I shall see fit in mine own wisdom to reveal all things unto the children of men.

Revelations
concerning the witnesses

March 1829 - D&C 5: 11-13 And in addition to your testimony, the testimony of three of my servants, whom I shall call and ordain, unto whom I will show these things, and they shall go forth with my words that are given through you. Yea, they shall know of a surety that these things are true, for from heaven will I declare it unto them. I will give them power that they may behold and view these things as they are;

April 1829 - D&C 6:28 [to Oliver Cowdery] And now, behold, I give unto you, and also unto my servant Joseph, the keys of this gift, which shall bring to light this ministry; and in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.

June 1829 - D&C 14:8 [to David Whitmer] And it shall come to pass, that if you shall ask the Father in my name, in faith believing, you shall receive the Holy Ghost, which giveth utterance, that you may stand as a witness of the things of which you shall both hear and see, and also that you may declare repentance unto this generation.

Joseph Smith History 

Vol. A-1, 23

“In th[e] course of the work of translation, we ascertained that three special witnesses were to be provided by the Lord, to whom he would grant, that they should see the plates from which this work (the Book of Mormon) should be translated, and that these witnesses should bear record of the same; as will be found, recorded, Book of Mormon First edition <​second book of Nephi, chap. 11.​>37 Page 110. and second edition Page [blank]. <​third european edition section 17, page 102.​>


“Almost immediately after we had made this discovery, [HC 1:52] it occurred to Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and the aforementioned Martin Harris (who had came to enquire after our progress in the work) that they would have me enquire of the Lord, to know if they might not obtain of him to be these three special witnesses; and finally they became so very solicitous, and teazed me so much, that at length <​I​> complied, and through the Urim and Thummin, I obtained of the Lord for them the folowing Revelation.”

Problems with the statement

In both of the witnesses statements there was no date given, or time of day, or a location for the event. 

Each of the witnesses signed an already written statement.

None of them ever gave a personal recounting of this event (i.e. no personal journals, firsthand publications, etc.)

Originally, as you can see, the witness statements were published at the end of the book, whereas today they are published at the beginning.

Changes in the Document 

Since its original publication in 1830, the witness statements have been edited.

It originally said: “Joseph Smith, Jr. the Author and Proprietor of this work.” 

It was later changed to read: “Joseph Smith, Jun., the translator of this work.”

Almost all the witnesses
were related?

With the exception of Martin Harris, all of the witnesses were related to the Whitmer's or the Smiths.

Martin Harris
Oliver Cowdery (married to Elizabeth Ann Whitmer)
David Whitmer

Christian Whitmer
Jacob Whitmer
Peter Whitmer
John Whitmer
Hiram Page (married to Catherine Whitmer)
Joseph Smith, Sr.
Hyrum Smith,
Samuel Smith

Same Signature?

From the Printer's Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, Oliver Cowdery signed the names of David Whitmer and Martin Harris himself. 

There is no evidence that these men signed the Three Witnesses statement individually. 

Additionally, having individuals sign a collective statement written by someone else is not as credible as having them make their own personal statement. 

[Link to original source]

Fawn Brodie

1971

In her book, No Man Knows My History, historian Fawn Brodie pointed out that:

“According to the local press of the time, the three witnesses all told different versions of their experience,  a fact that makes it all the more likely that the men were not conspirators but victims of Joseph’s unconscious but positive talent at hypnosis.” [pg. 77]

Martin Harris
witness statements

Jesse Townsend to Phineas Stiles

24 December 1833

“At that time Martin Harris was worth five or six thousand dollars, while the Smiths were not worth a cent. The latter used Martin’s money freely; and some other men, having a great dislike to labor, joined Joe in his deceptions, among whom was a sort of schoolmaster named Cowdery, who assisted him in writing or transcribing the “Book of Mormon,” as a pretended translation of the golden plates which he affirmed he had been directed by the Spirit of the Lord to dig from the earth. This was all done in the most secret manner. At the same time it was assumed to the uninitiated that it would be “immediate death” for any except the translators to see the plates. Poor Martin’s faith was apparently strengthened by this pretension, but afterward the “command” was modified, and he claimed to have seen the plates with “spiritual eyes.” [as published in Pomeroy Tucker’s book in 1867].


 

John A. Clark

1842

“To know how much this testimony is worth I will state one fact. A gentleman in Palmyra, bred to the law, a professor of religion, and of undoubted veracity, told me that on one occasion, he appealed to Harris and asked him directly, — "Did you see those plates ?" Harris replied, he did. "Did you see the plates, and the engravings on them with your bodily eyes ?" Harris replied, “Yes, I saw them with my eyes, — they were shown unto me by the power of God and not of man." "But did you see them with your natural, — your bodily eyes, just as you see this pencil-case in my hand? Now say no or yes to this." Harris replied, — "Why I did not see them as I do that pencil-case, yet I saw them with the eye of faith; I saw them just as distinctly as I see any thing around me, — though at the time they were covered over with a cloth” [John A. Clark, Gleanings by the Way, pg. 256-257].

Martin Harris interview with Anthony Metcalf

circa 1873-1874

“Martin Harris, who was one of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon, was living in Smithfield, Cache Valley, with his son Martin. I called to see him and he gave me his history from his youth up. This occurred in the winter of 1875-6. Following is the history as related to me, including aU his connections with Joseph Smith, the pretended prophet and the founder of the Mormon church: He told me all about the translating of the Book of Mormon, and said he had given $5,000 towards its publication. He said: “I never saw the golden plates, only in a visionary or entranced state. I wrote a great deal of the Book of Mormon myself, as Joseph Smith translated or spelled the words out in English. Sometimes the plates would be on a table in the room in which Smith did the translating, covered over with a cloth. I was told by Joseph Smith that God would strike him dead if he attempted to look at them, and I believed it. When the time came for the three witnesses to see the plates, Joseph Smith, myself, David Whitmer^ and Oliver Cowdery, went into the woods to pray. When they had all engaged in prayer, they failed at that time to see the plates or the angel who should have been on hand to exhibit them. They all believed it was because I was not good enough, or, in other words, not sufficiently sanctified. I withdrew. As soon as I had gone away, the three others saw the angel and the plates. In about three days I went into the woods to pray that I might see the plates.^ While praying I passed into a state of entrancement, and in that state I saw the angel and the plates.” Harris told me about his trip to New York and what Prof Anthon told him. He (Anthon) said the characters were translated correctly.^ After Harris had told the professor how the plates had been found, the professor said that it was his opinion that he (Harris) was being duped by sharpers, and advised Harris to take care of himself. I asked him if he knew what the prophet Isaiah had said about that event. He said, “No,” but that Joseph Smith had shown that chapter to him after his return.


 

John H. Gilbert Memorandum

8 September 1892

“Martin was in the office when I finished setting up the testimony of the three witnesses,—(Harris—Cowdery and Whitmer—) I said to him,— ‘Martin, did you see those plates with your naked eyes?’ Martin looked down for an instant, raised his eyes up, and said, 

‘No, I saw them with a spir[i]tual eye.’”

Wilford C. Wood

1958

Martin was something of a prophet: –He frequently said that “Jackson would be the last president that we would have; and that all persons who did not embrace Mormonism in two years would be stricken off the face of the earth.” He said that Palmyra was to be the New Jerusalem, and that her streets were to be paved with gold. 

Martin was in the office when I finished setting up the testimony of the three witnesses, –(Harris—Cowdery and Whitmer) I said to him, — “Martin, did you see those plates with your naked eyes?” Martin looked down for an instant, raised his eyes up, and said, “No, I saw them with a spiritual eye.”

[Wilford C. Wood, Joseph Smith Begins His Work, Volume 1, 1958].

Pomeroy Tucker

1867

How to reconcile the act of Harris in signing his name to such a statement, in view of the character of honesty which had always been conceded to him, could never be easily explained. In reply to uncharitable suggestions of his neighbors, he used to practice a good deal of his characteristic jargon about "seeing with the spiritual eye," and the like. As regards the other witnesses associated with Harris, their averments in this or any other matter could excite no more surprise than did those of Smith himself. 

Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism by Pomeroy Tucker, 1867, p. 71 [Link to original source]

David Whitmer
witness statements

The Palmyra Reflector

19 March 1831

“Whitmar's 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.”

David Whitmer’s interview with 
Orson Pratt

Millennial Star, 1878

Elder O. P. Do you remember what time you saw the plates?

D.W. It was in June, 1829 –the latter part of the month, and the eight witnesses saw them, I think, the next day or the day after. (i.e. one or two days after). Joseph showed them the plates himself, but the angel showed us (the three witnesses) the plates, as I suppose to fulfil the words of the book itself. Martin Harris was not with us at this time; he obtained a view of them afterwards, (the same day). Joseph, Oliver and myself were together when I saw them. We not only saw the plates of the Book of Mormon but also the brass plates, the plates of the Book of Ether, the plates containing the records of the wickedness and secret combinations of the people of the world down to the time of their being engraved, and many other plates. The fact is, it was just as though Joseph, Oliver and I were sitting just here on a log, when we were overshadowed by a light. It was not like the light of the sun nor like that of a fire, but more glorious and beautiful. It extended away round us, I cannot tell how far, but in the midst of this light about as far as he sits (pointing to John C. Whitmer, sitting a few feet from him), there appeared as it were, a table with many records or plates upon it, besides the plates of the Book of Mormon, also the Sword of Laban, the directors –i.e. The ball which Lehi had, and the Interpreters. I saw them just as plain as I see this bed (striking the bed beside him with this hand), and I heard the voice of the Lord, as distinctly as I ever heard anything in my life, declaring that the records of the plates of the Book of Mormon were translated by the gift and power of God.”

Elder O.P. Did you see the Angel at this time?

D.W. Yes; he stood before us. Our testimony as recorded in the Book of Mormon is strictly and absolutely true, as as it is there written.” [pg. 771-772]

In this interview David Whitmer testifies that they (himself, Oliver Cowdery, and Joseph Smith, NOT Martin Harris) saw the following:
 

  • Golden plates
  • Brass plates
  • Plates of Ether
  • Plates of wickedness and secret combinations
  • Many other plates
  • A table (a few feet from him)
  • Sword of Laban
  • Directors (Liahona)
  • Interpreters (Urim and Thummim/spectacles)
  • The angel (almost as an afterthought)
     

Based on this testimony, and others from the three witnesses, they did not handle any of the objects. They only saw them.

Inconsistences of the witnesses

Who handled the plates?

In each of the scriptures discussing the three witnesses along with the Testimony of Three Witnesses and the History of the Church, none of the three handled the plates. 

However, in 1831, David Whitmer testified that he went with Joseph to a field and handled the plates before setting them down again. 

Again in 1848 Oliver Cowdery said that he too handled the plates.

Years later in his interview with Zenas H. Gurley, David Whitmer said that they neither touched nor handled the plates. 

 

When/Where did they see the plates?

Joseph Smith says that the three witnesses happened on the same day, but Martin Harris stated that “about three days” after David and Oliver saw the plates he had his own witness of them, after passing into “a state of entrancement.”

Joseph Smith says that he and the three witnesses retired to “a piece of woods convenient to Mr. Whitmer’s [house].”

Yet both Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer said they were brought to an open field with Joseph Smith and there saw the plates. 

 

What did they see?

The official statement of the three witnesses says only that they saw an angel and the plates.

In a revelation in June 1829, Joseph Smith listed the many items that they would see.

Neither Oliver Cowdery nor Martin Harris ever described seeing a table when they obtained their witness of the plates, nor any other items.

David Whitmer describes seeing many items on a table during this experience. However, only the plates are mentioned in the Testimony of the Three Witnesses. Why would they not also be a witness of these things? Why would the angel show them those other items? Why are the other witnesses silent on these items?

Recreating the Golden Plates

On Mormon Stories episode 1388, Trent Told recreated a set of plates that matched the description of the plates using material that Joseph Smith would have had access to. It took Trent 2 hours to create his own set of plates.

Did they see physical plates?

In at least twelve accounts the witnesses did not see a physical angel and a physical set of plates, but only a vision of the angel and the plates.

 

Stephen Burnett: Vision or imagination, all hesitated to sign already written testimonies

Jesse Townsend: Martin saw the plates with “spiritual eyes”

John A. Clark: Matin saw the plates with “the eye of faith”

Anthony Metcalf: Martin passed into a state of entrancement” and saw the angel and plates

John H. Gilbert: Martin saw the plates with “a spiritual eye”

Reuben P. Harmon: Martin saw them only in a spiritual vision

John Murphy: David said that the experience was an “impression” the angel “had no appearance or shape”

Anthony Metcalf: David said “Of course we were in the spirit when we had the view” and agreed with Martin that it was “being in a vision”

Zenas H. Gurley: David said they did not handle the plates, and it was only a “holy vision”

Edward Stevenson: The witnesses were favored with a vision

Theodore Turley: John Whitmer said that the plates were shown “by a supernatural power.”

Thomas Ford: The eight witnesses looked into an empty box and were “persuaded that they saw the plates.”

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