When we discuss the witnesses of the Book of Mormon, we often overlook the first witness of the plates: Joseph Smith himself. What were his experiences with the plates?
This is the twenty-fourth 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 24: What was Joseph’s Witness?
[Breathing. Joseph Smith uncovers the gold plates and sets them on the log, admiring them. Sensing something, he quickly wraps the plates in a cloth and sets off.]
Mixed angry voices: It’s Joe Smith. Get him!
You got him?
He’s over there.
I seen him!
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, the president of the Interpreter Foundation and executive producer of the Witnesses project. Thanks for being here, Dan.
Daniel Peterson: Thank you.
CBF: So, critics would argue that these historical events we have of Joseph running with the plates are not realistic because they were too heavy. What do you think about that?
DP: Yeah, this is a fairly new criticism, at least in my experience, and I try to keep my ear to the ground, so I only heard it a few years ago. At first, I thought, well, okay, I mean, I suppose we should test it sometime and see whether a reasonably fit young man could run with plates like that. But, in fact, the nice thing is in filming Witnesses, we’ve basically done the experiment because our Joseph Smith, Paul Wuthrich, had to run with those plates through a wooded area over and over and over again, holding them with one arm. He didn’t even get to change arms, which I assume the historical Joseph Smith got to do, because we’re filming, right? And so, you have to get it the same way each time.
He has mentioned, and I think this is really interesting—he said originally people were wanting to splash some water on him to make him look like he was working up a sweat.
DP: He didn’t need it after a while, and they realized he didn’t need it because he really was.
But the fact is, we now have film evidence of that actually being done. So, it’s not a theoretical question. And I’m leaving out of this the fact that Joseph probably had some adrenaline pumping that Paul didn’t, because he’s being chased by a mob.
DP: And I’ll leave all together out the idea of possible divine help in being able to do it. But the fact is we know it can be done. He was given a set of plates to carry and he had a choice of a really light set of plates, but he didn’t use them because he knew that he would run differently, it would look different if he had a light set of plates. So, he carried the heavy ones, which are about the weight of what we think the historic plates were.
DP: Not only do we THINK it can be done, we know it can be done because it has been done and we’ve got it on film.
CBF: And we have other references of people, not necessarily running with the plates, but for example Emma Smith says that she moved the plates. We know that Catherine Smith moved the plates as well, so it seems reasonable that if Joseph’s younger sister, who certainly was not as strong as he was, could lift the plates, that Joseph would feasibly be able to run with them.
DP: That’s right. And I’ve had feedback on this from, also, military people who say, ‘When we train we have to run with packs that are heavier than that. And it’s not pleasant, we don’t enjoy it.’
DP: ‘But it can be done.’
And remember the plates were very dense, they weren’t a huge thing he’s holding out in front of him. They’re relatively small and dense, he can hold them close in. That makes it a little easier, too. It would be, still, exhausting, and it’s said that when he arrived home, he was totally exhausted. No wonder. But he wasn’t faking it; there was a real object there. But he COULD do it.
I think, too, we have to remember what kind of a person Joseph Smith was. He was a frontier farm-boy, and in a day when it was all manual labor, it wasn’t being done by tractors and things like that. So, he’s out there a lot of the time clearing fields, which means: pulling up tree stumps, moving heavy rocks out of the way of the plow, plowing, doing all that kind of thing, digging wells, building fences. He’s in really, really good shape. And we know also, frankly, that Joseph Smith was unusually strong. There are reports of him even later in life as a wrestler, for example, he could defeat just about anybody. Well, he was probably EVEN better when he was in his early 20s and was doing that kind of manual labor all day, every day. So, this is a person who is in as good a position to be able to run with plates as probably anybody would be.
CBF: So, when Joseph was finally able to share the plates with some people who were close to him, he told his mother that he was overjoyed by that experience. Why do you think that was?
DP: You know, I think it’s really fun to see Lucy Mack Smith’s history of her son, because sometimes his responses to her, his comments to her seemed to me so human. For example, she’s been attending Presbyterian services—the family is sort of divided religiously—and Joseph comes in after his first vision. She wants to know, I think she can sense that something has happened. And she asks him what happened. And the response that she records in her history is, “I’ve learned for myself that Presbyterianism isn’t true.” And I think, man that sounds like a teenage boy to his mom. That really sounds human to me. But his response to the experience of the three witnesses also, I think, says a lot about his position.
If I may, I’ll quote from Lucy Mack Smith. She says,
They return to the house, it was between three and 4 o’clock. Mrs. Whitmer and Mr. Smith and myself were sitting in a bedroom. I sat on the bedside. When Joseph came in, he threw himself down beside me. “Father, Mother,” said he, “you do not know how happy I am. The Lord has caused the plates to be shown to three more besides me, who have also seen an angel, and will have to testify to the truth of what I have said, for they know for themselves that I do not go about to deceive the people. And I do feel as though I was relieved of a dreadful burden which was almost too much for me to endure. Now they’ll have to bear a part. It rejoices my soul that I’m not entirely alone in the world anymore.
I just think he’s so relieved because, heretofore, it’s all been resting on him. Do you believe him, do you not believe him? Even for the family. They’ve got to be thinking, ‘Okay, Joseph, you’re telling the story. It’s, it’s pretty wild stuff, but we’re trusting you.’
William Smith said later on that, “Well, Joseph was a truthful boy, we all believed him, we’d never known him to lie.” But still, this is a lot to ask.
But now he comes in, he says, ‘Look, I’m not alone anymore. Other people have seen this.’ And he feels so unburdened by that. That’s got to feel absolutely great. ‘I have corroborating witnesses and it’s not just me anymore.’ To me, that’s a human as can be. That’s totally believable to me.
CBF: I agree. I can’t even imagine the relief because, it’s one thing to have people trust you, and support you. But it’s another thing to have them be able to share that lived experience with you. You know, whether or not that’s just seeing it with their eyes or actually living through the same things, I think, you know, we’ve probably all experienced times where we felt on one hand, completely alone in things, or feel like we’re the only one holding up all of this burden. But then when you can talk to other people who have experienced the same thing, been through the same thing, it’s SO therapeutic and I can’t even imagine how good that would have felt for him.
DP: And I would think, you know, he bore a really heavy burden because he was THE prophet. And people looked to him for everything. And I’ve though sometimes there had to be moments in Liberty Jail, for example, where he’d think, ‘I’m here. I can’t do anything. My people are being driven from one state to another. It’s cold, they have no shoes. Some have died, and it’s because of me.’
And it would really be helpful sometimes to remember, ‘I’m not alone in this, it’s not just my word.’
That would be an awful burden to bear.
CBF: Thank you.