“Which persons may have seen or handled the gold plates?” Ensign, July 1992, 53–55
Keith W. Perkins, professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University and president of the Orem Utah Stake. Your question relates to the divine law of witnesses. President Joseph Fielding Smith best described this law: “There is a law definitely stated in the scriptures governing testimony and the appointment of witnesses. This law the Lord has always followed in granting new revelation to the people. … Paul in writing to the Corinthians said: ‘In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established’ (2 Cor. 13:1).” (Doctrines of Salvation, Bruce R. McConkie, comp., 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954, 1:203.)
In this dispensation the Lord has given many witnesses to the divinity of the work of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Among them are three special witnesses the Lord prophesied he would provide for the Book of Mormon. (See Ether 5:2–4.) These three men were Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer. While the Book of Mormon was in the process of being translated in June of 1829, the Lord promised that they would have the privilege of being witnesses to the Book of Mormon. (See D&C 17:1–5.)
But the Lord had promised in the Book of Mormon that others besides the Three Witnesses might be privileged to view the plates: “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. …
“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. …
“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 Ne. 27:12–14; italics added.)
We know that in addition to the three witnesses, eight other witnesses testified: “Joseph Smith, Jun., the translator of this work, has shown unto us the plates of which hath been spoken, which have the appearance of gold; and as many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated we did handle with our hands.” (Introduction, Book of Mormon.)
In an article in a previous issue of the Ensign (Feb. 1989, p. 36) I detailed the privilege that Mary Musselman Whitmer had in viewing the gold plates because of her faithfulness. The question is, Did any others besides the Three Witnesses, the Eight Witnesses, and Sister Whitmer see the gold plates?
There are recorded in Church history several accounts of others who saw the gold plates, but not in the same way as these witnesses we have mentioned.
Martin Harris was not the only member of his family who showed a great interest in the translating of the Book of Mormon. In the beginning, his wife Lucy also had a keen interest in the work of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Although Lucy Harris lacked the stability of others in her witness of the Book of Mormon, Lucy Mack Smith records what she heard from Mrs. Harris. One day Lucy Harris said to the Prophet, “Joseph, I will tell you what I will do, if I can get a witness that you speak the truth, I will believe all you say about the matter and I shall want to do something about the translation—I mean to help you any way.” (Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith, ed. Preston Nibley, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958, pp. 116–17.)
The next morning she related a remarkable dream she had had the previous night: “She said that a personage appeared to her who told her that as she had disputed the servant of the Lord, and said his word was not to be believed, and had also asked him many improper questions, she had done that which was not right in the sight of God. After which he said to her, ‘Behold, here are the plates, look upon them and believe.’” (Ibid., p. 117.)
Mother Smith stated that Lucy Harris then described the record in minute detail. Mrs. Harris became so convinced of the truthfulness of the record after this remarkable dream that she decided to give to the Prophet Joseph Smith twenty-eight dollars she had received from her mother before she died; Mrs. Harris insisted that he take it to assist in bringing forth the Book of Mormon.
I wish we could say that after this wonderful experience Lucy Harris became a great supporter of the work of the Restoration, but, sadly, this was not the case. She continued to insist to Joseph Smith that she must see the plates; on one occasion, she ransacked the home where he was staying, looking for them, but to no avail. She then commenced a search outside, but was frightened away when she encountered a “horrible black snake.” (Ibid., p. 122.) After this, she became one of the persecutors of the Prophet.
It is also interesting that Joseph Smith recorded in his history a similar experience of Oliver Cowdery before he came to assist in the work of translation. He stated that the Lord “appeared unto a young man by the name of Oliver Cowdery and showed unto him the plates in a vision, and also the truth of the work, and what the Lord was about to do through me, his unworthy servant. Therefore, he was desirous to come and write for me, and translate.” (The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, ed. Dean C. Jessee, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1984, p. 8. Spelling and punctuation modernized.)
Although Emma Smith never saw the gold plates in the same way the other witnesses did and was also counseled by the Lord not to murmur because of the things which she had not seen (see D&C 25:4), she did have close contact with the plates and the work of her husband. In response to a question from her son, Joseph Smith III, as to the reality of the plates, she responded:
“The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen tablecloth, which I had given him [Joseph Smith, Jr.] to fold them in. I once felt of the plates, as they thus lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book. … I did not attempt to handle the plates, other than I have told you, nor uncover them to look at them. I was satisfied that it was the work of God, and therefore did not feel it to be necessary to do so. … I moved them from place to place on the table, as it was necessary in doing my work.” (The Saints’ Herald, 1 Oct. 1879, p. 290; spelling modernized.)
Even though Emma did not see the plates directly, what she had seen and felt by the Spirit deepened her conviction of the truth of the Book of Mormon. As a result, she bore this powerful witness and testimony of the book to her son:
“My belief is that the Book of Mormon is of divine authenticity—I have not the slightest doubt of it. I am satisfied that no man could have dictated the writing of the manuscripts unless he was inspired; for, when acting as his scribe, your father would dictate to me hour after hour; and when returning after meals, or after interruptions, he would at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him. This was a usual thing for him to do. It would have been improbable that a learned man could do this; and, for one so ignorant and unlearned as he was, it was simply impossible.” (Ibid.)
The Lord has established the truth of the Book of Mormon already in the mouth of “as many witnesses as seemeth him good.” Now our challenge is to gain a testimony of it for ourselves. That is obtained in the way that millions have gained their witness—by reading, pondering, and praying about the Book of Mormon “with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ.” Then, by the power of the Holy Ghost, we too will know that it is the word of God. (Moro. 10:4.)
As a young man I gained that witness for myself, after some struggle on my part. If you have not gained that testimony for yourself, please accept the challenge of Moroni. If you have already gained that testimony, you can nourish it by reading the Book of Mormon daily, as our beloved prophet, President Ezra Taft Benson, has admonished. (See Ensign, May 1986, p. 78.)