Critics have long claimed that the various witnesses—both official and unofficial—never interacted with the plates in a physical way. First hand accounts indicate otherwise. What are we to make of such criticism?
This is the twenty-first 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 Daniel C. Peterson, President of the Interpreter Foundation and Executive Producer of Witnesses. For more information, go to https://witnessesofthebookofmormon.org/ or watch the documentary movie Undaunted.
Witnesses of the Book of Mormon — Insights
Episode 21: Who Felt or Saw the Plates?
Oliver Cowdery: It was a clear, open beautiful day, far from any inhabitants in a remote field at the time we saw the record of which it has been spoken, brought and laid before us by an angel arrayed in glorious light who descended out of the midst of heaven. Now if this is human juggling, judge ye.
Camrey Bagley Fox: Welcome to our series on the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. My name is Camrey Bagley Fox and we are joined today by Daniel Peterson, President of the Interpreter Foundation and executive producer of the Witnesses project. Thanks for being here.
Daniel Peterson: Thank you.
CBF: Many people who are critics of the witnesses claimed that they never actually physically saw something. What do you have to say about that?
DP: In order to believe that you have to throw out the statements of a lot of the witnesses because many of them repeatedly say, ‘We held with our hands, we saw them with our eyes.’ And if you just throw out the primary source documents then, hey, why not just throw the whole thing out? You can make up anything in history if you toss out all the source material.
It’s really important to distinguish between the three witnesses and the eight witnesses. The three witnesses definitely claim to have seen things, to have heard the voice of God, to have seen an angel, to have seen the plates and other objects. They never claimed to have touched the plates. That’s an experience that’s reserved to the eight witnesses who did. They apparently, actually, leaf through them to the extent that they could, turn the leaves of the plates and so on.
So we have to be clear when someone says, ‘Well, he never touched the plates.’ That may be true of one of the three witnesses; it’s not true of the eight. And I find sometimes in treatments of the witnesses, people sort of merge them all together and they’ll take a statement that’s true of this one, but isn’t true of that one, and generalize it.
DP: The fact is that the eight witnesses definitely do claim to have seen and touched the plates. And I would even say with regard to one of the three witnesses, at least, Martin Harris held the plates on his lap, covered, before he had the experience of actually seeing them as a witness. That’s the source of the statement I’ve always found very funny in the Witnesses film, where he says, “I knew that they were either lead or gold, and I knew that you didn’t have enough credit to get so much lead.”
DP: I don’t know if he meant that to be funny, but it is funny. But he knew that it was too heavy to be wood, it was too heavy to be a rock. Lead and gold are exceptionally dense and so he knew it was either lead or gold. He had touched the object to that extent, at least. And we have others who’ve touched the plates on various occasions, including the unofficial witnesses, in some cases.
CBF: Right. Emma Smith.
DP: Yeah, Emma Smith did, she had to move them around. And Lucy Mack Smith saw some of the objects and held them, and Josiah Stole. I mean, there are several who do.
CBF: So, there’s a witness that is said to have touched them through a “tow frock.” What is a tow frock? Can you tell me more about all of that?
DP: Yeah. A tow frock, a frock is just a cloak that in the early 19th century both men and women might wear. And tow, apparently, was a kind of inexpensive form of linen. It might be something you put into a work shirt or something like that, not fancy dress. So the plates at one point were wrapped in the tow frock, and this witness held them and “saw them,” as it were, in a tow frock. But the witness seems to be William Smith, and that’s really important. This is a case of people taking one testimony from one witness and generalizing it to the others. William was not one of the eight witnesses.
DP: But you can’t generalize from William’s experience to the eight witnesses who DO claim to have seen them.
DP: And David Whitmer’s testimony also, I think needs to be kept in mind. On numerous occasions he would say something like, ‘I saw these things as clearly as I see you now.’ And you know, he’ll sometimes say, ‘They were as real to me as anything is real at any time.’ And he sort of hits his fist on the table or on the bed next to him to make his point that these were solid, physical objects; he knows them to have been literally there. He says, ‘I wasn’t hallucinating, this was not imagination.’
CBF: The three witnesses saw a vision, right? That’s how they saw the plates. How do we know that they weren’t just hallucinating, or that Joseph didn’t just hypnotize them or something?
DP: Well, there’s no evidence that Joseph knew how to hypnotize. There’s no evidence that anybody on the American frontier, so far as I knew, knew anything about hypnosis. It was BEGINNING to come into fashion, in France I think, and maybe reached United States at a certain point. But out on the American frontier, Joseph Smith, really? A hypnotist? Not very likely.
And in fact he would’ve had to do it at least twice with the three witnesses, because you have two separate visionary experiences. I think you’re taxing his hypnotic abilities, for which we have no evidence in the first place, pretty heavily.
So, were they hallucinating? That’s an interesting issue. It is true that people will sometimes hallucinate at the same time. If you put people in a room and let in some gas or something, people may begin to hallucinate. But the question is, do they hallucinate the same things? And the answer is no, they don’t. They hallucinate based on what’s already in their own minds. For three witnesses like this, on two separate occasions, to have exactly the same hallucination, seems almost impossible. I just say, well if you believe that he did it by hypnosis, provide some evidence.
CBF: Yeah, I agree.
DP: People have given up the attempt to argue that the witnesses were dishonest, because they clearly weren’t dishonest. People have given up the attempt to argue that they were insane, because they clearly weren’t. So you gotta find some other way of dismissing the testimony and a very popular way recently has been to say, ‘Uh, well they only claim to see the plates, the angel, etc., with “spiritual eyes.”’ Which the critics then go on to assume means not literally, not really, not with my physical eyes.
I think they have to prove that, because the witnesses are on record in many places as saying, ‘I saw them with these eyes. They were just as real to me as anything is real.’
What they’re saying is that, in the visionary experience of the three, that this was not an ordinary vision experience. That it’s not like just going out into the woods and seeing a couple of things and some props. No. It’s supernatural, but it was real. They really saw these things. There’s also an attempt to dismiss the eight witnesses as being purely visionary, not real, because you have statements like, I think it’s John Whitmer, says, ‘Well the plates were shown to me by a spiritual power.’ What he’s saying is that this was a divine gift. It wouldn’t have happened had God not been behind it. It wouldn’t have happened in an ordinary way. I don’t have these kinds of experiences every day. They were shown me by spiritual power. God made it possible. Because the other descriptions are quite matter-of-fact. We went out to a grove of trees, Joseph brought the plates, we saw them, we hefted them, we turned the leaves. They stress over and over again, ‘This was real. I really saw these things. I really held them.’ This is literal.
CBF: And do you think that that’s because people in today’s world are more distanced from spirituality? From religion? Where, maybe in the past, it was more normal. Everyone had those spiritual experiences weekly when they went to church, because that’s what everyone was expected to do. So, to some degree, they were getting a taste of that. But nowadays there are people who have no religion at all and don’t associate with spirituality.
DP: Yeah, I think that might play a role. And to say, ‘Look, if you have spiritual feelings, they’re just imagination. You’ve talked yourself into this. You’re not really having it. Sure, you can feel good about the universe, but it doesn’t say anything about the universe.’
And it’s been a trend for a long time. I mean Freud’s most famous book on religion is called The Future of an Illusion. What he’s getting at, and what many are getting at, is these spiritual things are illusory, they’re not real. And also, we’re just more distant from that world and those people. In fact, I will say this, some people have said, ‘Well you know, the people in the early 19th century were, they just were detached from reality. We know reality better than they did.’ And I think, really? We live in air-conditioned houses. We spend a lot of our lives looking at screens.
DP: Television screens, computer screens. They were spending their lives out clearing fields, pulling up tree stumps, moving rocks. I mean, who’s detached from reality?
CBF: Right. If anything we’re gonna be the ones being fed something through the devices that we’re consuming rather than actually…
DP: That’s right. I can go all day long without feeling the weather outside or sensing anything about whether it’s daylight or night, it doesn’t make any difference to me. WE are divorced from reality, not the 19th century witnesses were farmers and worked with their hands.
CBF: That’s such an interesting thought. Thank you.
David Whitmer: I have this to say, of course we were in the spirit when we had the view, for no man can behold the face of an angel except in a spiritual view. But we were in the body, also, and everything was as natural to us as it is at any time.