Church History
Witnesses of the Book of Mormon

“Witnesses of the Book of Mormon,” Church History Topics

“Witness of the Book of Mormon”

Witnesses of the Book of Mormon

The first edition of the Book of Mormon featured two testimonials: one written by a group of three witnesses and another by a group of eight. Three witnesses (Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris) declared an angel of God appeared to them and showed them the Book of Mormon plates and they heard the voice of the Lord pronounce that Joseph Smith’s translation had been accomplished “by the gift and power of God.” This experience took place in June 1829 near the home of Peter Whitmer Sr. in Fayette, New York. An additional eight witnesses (members of the Smith and Whitmer families)1 declared that Joseph Smith himself showed them the plates and allowed each to “heft” the ancient artifact and examine its engravings. Several others had direct experiences with the plates or otherwise witnessed Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon.2

painting of three men kneeling in front of Angel Moroni, who is holding golden plates

Artist’s depiction of Moroni showing the plates to Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Joseph Smith.

Other Witnesses of the Plates

Members of the Smith family recalled helping Joseph move or hide the plates from his enemies. Joseph’s younger sister Katharine later told her husband she once tried moving the plates, covered with a cloth, across a table, but that they were too heavy. Joseph’s brother William remembered that the whole family saw Joseph carry the plates in a sack and even felt their shape through the fabric. Joseph’s wife Emma told her son she felt the plates’ edges and rustled their leaves, though she never saw the plates. Lucy Mack Smith’s neighbor in Ohio, Sarah Bradford Parker, once asked Lucy about seeing the plates. According to Parker, Lucy replied “it was not for her to see them but she hefted and handled them.”3 Moreover, David and John C. Whitmer gave several interviews between 1877 and 1888 in which they declared an angel appeared to their mother, Mary Whitmer, and showed her the plates.4

The Reliability of the Three Witnesses

While the testimony of the Eight Witnesses emphasized the tangible reality of the plates, the Three Witnesses had the additional responsibility to testify that their experience as witnesses and the translation itself had been made possible by the power of God. A June 1829 revelation gave the Three Witnesses specific instructions regarding their testimony of the plates. “Testify that ye have seen them,” the Lord commanded, “even as my servant Joseph Smith jr has seen them for it is by my power that he has seen them.” The revelation further explained that “it is by your faith that you shall obtain a view of them.”5 Accordingly, David Whitmer testified that he saw the plates “by the gift and power of God.”

In 1838, a disaffected Church member named Stephen Burnett claimed that Martin Harris denied having seen the plates “with his natural eyes.” Citing the language of the revelation, Burnett asserted that to see by God’s power meant that the witnesses viewed the plates only “in vision or imagination.” Harris felt misrepresented and immediately attempted to clarify his earlier statement. Struggling to put the transcendent experience into words, he stated, according to Burnett, that he saw the plates as if he “saw a city through a mountain.”6

Many Christians in Harris’s day believed it was dangerous or impossible to witness the divine with the physical senses. This belief was rooted in stories from the Bible. For example, in the Old Testament, Israelites who peered into the ark of the covenant without proper authorization were destroyed. God’s presence was typically hidden behind a veil or a cloud of smoke to shield the eyes of those who were not spiritually prepared.7 One of Joseph Smith’s early revelations affirmed similarly that humans cannot see God with their “natural eyes” without being consumed. They could, however, witness his glory with “spiritual eyes” if they were changed or “quickened by the spirit of God.”8

Martin Harris considered the witnesses’ experience with the angel and the ancient record to be just such an encounter with the divine, similar to Joseph Smith’s visions. Conscious of the stern warnings of scripture, he often spoke of the inadequacy he felt at the time he witnessed the plates. Over the years, he employed a variety of phrases to describe his extraordinary encounter. When pressed by various interviewers to clarify whether he actually saw the plates, he spoke both of seeing them with “a spiritual eye,” emphasizing the unusual and sacred quality of the experience, and also with his physical senses.9 “As sure as you are standing there and see me,” he insisted on one occasion, “just as sure did I see the angel with the golden plates in his hand.”10 David Whitmer, similarly described both the spiritual and physical dimensions of the witnesses’ experience. “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,” he explained, adding, “but we were in the body also, and everything was as natural to us, as it is at any time.”11

painting of Martin Harris

Painting of Martin Harris by Lewis A. Ramsey.

Each of the Three Witnesses bore repeated testimony of their witness experience in published statements, interviews, and private conversations. Not all of the witness accounts are equally reliable as sources. Some were the result of interviews by people who were hostile to the witnesses’ testimony. Others were recorded years or decades after the testimony was given. Though the reports of their statements vary in some details, they are generally consistent and adhere closely to the revelation’s instructions.12

Despite differences with Joseph Smith that led each of the Three Witnesses to part ways individually with the Church (Cowdery and Harris later returned), they continued to affirm their testimony as witnesses throughout their lives.13 Each of the Eight Witnesses likewise reaffirmed his testimony of examining the plates, though some eventually became estranged from the Church. The combined weight of their numerous statements, given over many years and despite their changing attitudes toward Joseph Smith and the Church, is a powerful witness of the reliability of the statements they published in the Book of Mormon.

Related Topics: Book of Mormon Translation, Martin Harris’s Consultations with Scholars, Angel Moroni