While trying to dismiss claims that the witnesses interacted with the gold plates, critics often gloss over—or even completely ignore—the fact that many of the witnesses also interacted with other ancient objects. What were these objects?
This is the twenty-second 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 22: What Else did the Witnesses See?
Catherine Whitmer: Where are you doing?
David Whitmer: You startled me.
Catherine Whitmer: Where are you going?
David Whitmer: What makes you think I’m going anywhere? I didn’t wanna wake anyone. I’m going to see Oliver.
Catherine Whitmer: Does father know?
David Whitmer: He does.
Catherine Whitmer: Do you really think that Joseph had a vision?
David Whitmer: Oliver thinks so.
Catherine Whitmer: I’d love to know.
David Whitmer: Me too.
Camrey Bagley Fox: Welcome to our series on the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. My name is Camrey Bagley Fox and we are back with Daniel Peterson, President of the Interpreter Foundation and executive producer of the Witnesses project. Thanks for being here.
Daniel Peterson: Good to be here.
CBF: So, we put a lot of focus on the fact that the witnesses saw the plates, but there were other things they saw, right? Can you tell me a little bit about that?
DP: There were, and I think it’s really interesting that there were. Doctrine and Covenants 17, first verse, which was given in June of 1829, so before the witnesses experience. In that section the Lord promises the witnesses that, ‘You shall have a view of the plates and also of the breastplate, the sword of Laban, the Urim and Thummim (which were given to the brother of Jared upon the mount when he talked with the Lord face-to-face), and the miraculous directors which were given them to Lehi while in the wilderness (that’s the Liahona) on the borders of the Red Sea.’
So if you’re Joseph Smith, if you’re a fake, you’ve just given yourself a really stiff assignment, you’ve gotta produce not only plates, but all this other stuff and they’ve got to record that they see it. So, did they? And the answer is, yes, they did.
DP cont’d: David Whitmer, in one interview, says, ‘There appeared, as it were, a table with many records on it, besides the plates of The Book of Mormon, also the sword of Laban, the directors and the interpreters. I saw them as plain as I see this bed,’ and he strikes his hand upon the bed beside him. And to me that’s pretty impressive because people said, ‘Well, maybe Joseph created plates.’ That’s really dubious, right, to begin with. But he must’ve been running some sort of specialized metal foundry or something like that to have produced the Liahona, the sword of Laban, the breastplate, all these other things that he’s got to produce IF he’s faking it. And he promises he’ll show them and then he does. They see all those things and hear the voice of God and see the angel. That’s pretty impressive.
CBF: Right. I think that’s an aspect that we kind of brush over a lot in church. Obviously, the plates are more, like influential, because it’s the book of scripture, but how cool that they were able to see all those other items, all those other historical artifacts. I think that’s incredible.
DP: And it greatly complicates Joseph’s task if he’s making these things up, or any group of conspirators, they’ve got to produce all sorts of things. And I ask myself, in the first place, what’s the point, if you want to be a fake prophet just give a revelation. Why invoke all of these material objects you’ve got to now produce and make convincing, and show to people. It’s just making the job much, much harder. But it also, to my mind, makes the explanation of it much, much harder for critics.
CBF: Mm Hm.
DP: I remember a friend, an academic friend, was saying, ‘What was the point of the plates? I mean, it’s not clear that Joseph absolutely needed to be looking at them in order to receive the revealed translation. They had to be near to him, they didn’t always have to be right there.’ And I said, ‘Well for one thing, they’re an absolutely indigestible lump in the throats of people like you who want to say that he just made it up.’ I mean, he’s got all these objects he’s got to produce.
It takes it out of the realm of the subjective, it’s not just Joseph having this happy little fantasy that he’s created for himself. No, there are all these heavy objects that other people see and heft and move around. Emma has to move the plates around. Lucy Mack Smith feels the breastplate through a cloth, maybe even sees it. She said she could see the glint of the metal through the thin linen cloth.
That’s a really complicated thing, and so I’m imagining, did none of the neighbors notice that Joseph had this metal foundry going on there south of Palmyra, smoke belching out as he pounded out his plates and made his breastplate and made all these specialty objects. Where did learn all this metallurgy?
DP: Just, it’s not plausible.
CBF: So why do you think the angel even brought those if just the plates would have been enough?
DP: I think for one thing, it does make the counter-explanation harder because you’ve got so many more things to account for, things that are way beyond the capacity of Joseph Smith to do.
Now, by the way there was an idea floating around early on that maybe Oliver Cowdrey was a blacksmith or something like that and he had the ability to do it. Well, what we know about Oliver Cowdrey is that he was a fairly slightly built person– not your image of the village blacksmith with the broad and sinewy arms and all that sort of thing, pounding things out with a sledgehammer. That’s not Oliver. Oliver is a bookish sort of guy. He becomes a lawyer, he’s a politician, he’s a writer, he’s an intellectual. So, they’re looking around at first. They drop it pretty quickly because Oliver just isn’t possible as a blacksmith that’s just not gonna fly.
So people have basically ignored that issue, but I think it’s a really important one.
CBF: I love that, thank you.