Why were witnesses to the Book of Mormon, and to the Gold Plates, necessary? What makes these claims different from others throughout history who have claimed divine visions?
This is the sixteenth in a series compiled from the many interviews conducted during the course of the Witnesses film project. This series of mini-films is being released each Saturday at 7pm MDT. These additional resources are hosted by Camrey Bagley Fox, who played Emma Smith in Witnesses, as she introduces and visits with a variety of experts. These individuals answer questions or address accusations against the witnesses, also helping viewers understand the context of the times in which the witnesses lived. This week we feature Gerrit Dirkmaat, Associate Professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University. For more information, go to https://witnessesofthebookofmormon.org/ or watch the documentary movie Undaunted.
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Witnesses of the Book of Mormon — Insights
Episode 16: Why Witnesses?
Mary Whitmer: Well, at the very least, if they’re going to throw rocks in the river they could bring back water. There are meals to be prepared, cows to be milked.
Peter Whitmer, Sr: What was that, Mother? You were speaking.
Mary: I…am trying to remain quiet.
Peter: I know there is much to do, but it is just for a short time. There is a work to be done. And if not here, where would you have them go?
Mary: Would you like me to answer that question?
John C. Whitmer: One evening when, after having done her usual day’s work in the house, grandmother went to the barn to milk the cows. She met a stranger carrying something on his back that looked like a knapsack.
Mary: How do you know my name?
Stranger: The Lord knows you.
John C. Whitmer: At first, she was a little afraid of him. But when he spoke to her in a kind, friendly tone, and began to explain to her the nature of the work which was going on in her house, she was filled with inexpressible joy and satisfaction.
He then untied his knapsack and showed her a bundle of plates. He turned the leaves over, leaf after leaf, and also showed her the engravings upon them, after which he told her to be patient and faithful in bearing her burden a little longer, promising that if she would do so, she should be blessed.
Camrey Bagley Fox: Welcome to our series about the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. My name is Camrey Bagley Fox. And we are joined today by Dr. Gerritt Dirkmaat. Thanks for being here.
Gerritt Dirkmaat: Thanks for having me.
So there are three witnesses of The Book of Mormon, the eight witnesses, and then there are other witnesses; can you tell us about those, and maybe why they were all necessary?
Wow, that’s, that’s a GREAT question, because Joseph Smith is unique in the sense that there, are lots of people who have claimed that they had communication with the divine over the course of time. There are people who claim that they’ve received revelations, there are people claiming that God spoke to them and they’re doing the will of God. But Joseph Smith is a little different in that regard because he’s not ONLY saying that God spoke to him, which of course he is, also, there’s a physical manifestation OF THAT communication with God, and that is these gold plates.
Someone might argue, ‘Well, maybe Joseph just THOUGHT that he saw Jesus, but he’s wrong, and he didn’t.’ You can’t just THINK that you have 60, 70, 80 pounds of gold plates.
You either have them or you don’t have them. And if you have them, and other people are feeling them and know that you have them, then there’s something to that, right? And so, I really feel like the 3 and the 8 witnesses, their testimonies work together.
What’s the way you would dismiss Joseph Smith’s claim if he simply just said, “An angel appeared to me”? Well, much like I just said, you’d say, ‘Well, he’s either lying, because angels don’t appear to people,’ OR, maybe I’ll give him a little bit of benefit of the doubt and I’ll say, ‘He must just be sincerely confused. He must. Someone must’ve tricked him, maybe they did a little flash-in-pan behind him and made him think it was an angel, but of course it wasn’t. And he’s sincere, but he’s sincerely wrong.’ You can dismiss an angelic visitation by simply saying, ‘I’m sure that’s what he thought he saw, but of course he didn’t.’
Similarly, on the other side, if all Joseph had was the gold plates and was showing them to people, people might dismiss the gold plates by saying, ‘Look, he might have something, but obviously it’s not from God. Maybe he made a bunch of plates and that’s where those plates come from, or maybe he FOUND something that he thinks are plates, and then he tricked other people into thinking they’re plates.’
But the two witness accounts kind of work together in that regard. That Joseph Smith has something, seems to be beyond dispute at this point. Even critics of Joseph, from the time and now, will say that Joseph has something, something that sounds metallic that he has in a box that people are lifting and feeling that the eight witnesses themselves, they are hefting and looking at and seeing, and they’re convinced that these are ancient, and these are gold plates.
Most scholars are going to say Joseph clearly has something, some kind of physical object. And it’s the three witness account that explains what that object is.
Anyone could find some plates, or maybe among the most severe detractors, they would say, ‘Well, he MADE those plates, that’s why he has them.’ But in the angelic experience of the three witnesses, which happens twice, because it’s Joseph Smith and David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris goes off, there’s three men all together there when an angel of God comes down out of heaven and brings the plates with him and shows them the plates.
And then they hear that voice of God declaring that the translation of the plates is true. That is a shared experience that’s miraculous. How do I know that those plates come from God? Because God said those plates come from God, and not just to Joseph; to David, and Oliver as well. And then, in a separate experience, angel comes again to Joseph and Martin, another shared experience.
And so really, the two witness accounts work together. That Joseph has something, the eight witnesses testify, to the point where even detractors say, ‘Yeah, he’s got something.’ That the something he has is an ancient record that God had prepared for the translation of The Book of Mormon, is something that the 3 witnesses testify of along with Joseph, that an angel of God told them this, and you know, ‘We lie not,’ as they say. They’re putting their own souls, as well as their own lives, on the line for the fact that they really saw an angel who said these plates really are from God.
What about other witnesses?
So, there are different accounts of ways people experience the plates. I mean, sometimes people limit someone being a witness to the plates if they actually saw them, right?
But a lot of other people experienced them. I mean, Isaac Hale, for instance, Emma Hale’s father, he will lift the box the plates are in, he can hear and feel what’s in the box. But when he asks to see them, Joseph says, ‘You can’t see them. The Lord will only let me show them to whoever I’m told.’ And so, he’s pretty irate about that, but even he has a testimony to the fact that Joseph has something, he lifted that box, he felt the weight in it. Joseph’s got something.
Emma, in a much kinder way, of course, is also going to testify of the reality of the plates. She doesn’t see them, which seems like that would be INCREDIBLY hard.
Doctrine and Covenants section 25 speaks directly to that, ‘Murmur not because of the things thou hast not seen.’ And the Lord tells her they are kept hidden from her for a wise purpose in Him, you know? And, man, that requires a lot of faith on her part, that she’s the one doing the most sacrifice, and yet, ‘Martin Harris gets to see them, and I don’t.’
But she talks about the plates sitting on the table, they’re covered up with a cloth. She feels them, to the point where she can feel the edges, that she can feel the way the pages feel on her finger. There’s a real thing there. So, whether she’s looking at the plates themselves or not, there’s a real object sitting on her table. She sees it every day.
So, you have several people like this who experience the plates, with the weight of them, or touching them without actually seeing them.
Then there are other accounts. We have an account that says Josiah Stowell, the same person who had hired Joseph to do the money digging down in Pennsylvania, that he caught a glimpse of the plates as they were being passed through the window because the sheet kind of came off and he saw some of them.
Most people know about the miraculous experience that Mary Whitmer has, where an angel of God comes and shows her the plates. So, we do have various witnesses outside of the three and the eight witnesses, but I think it’s the three and eight witnesses that testify, on the record so to speak, they’re putting their name behind it throughout the remainder of their life, ‘I saw and held plates.’ Or, ‘I saw an angel of God who showed me these plates. They were shown to us by the power of God and not of man.’
I think that those testimonies further provide a witness to believers that Joseph is NOT lying about this. This isn’t just, ‘He hallucinated.’ He is having this miraculous experience with an angel with other people. Other people who aren’t even seeing them miraculous, they’re feeling these plates, they’re looking at them. Joseph has these plates from God.