“Chapter 4: Doctrine and Covenants 5; 17,” Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual (2017)
“Chapter 4,” Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual
Several months after Martin Harris lost the 116 pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript, he desired further proof of the reality of the golden plates. His wife was speaking out against the Prophet Joseph Smith, accusing him of defrauding her husband and others with his claims of having the ancient record. In March 1829, Martin returned to Harmony, Pennsylvania, to ask if he could see the plates. Joseph learned through the revelation recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 5 that the Lord would call three witnesses who would view the plates and testify of them to the world. The Lord promised Martin that if he humbled himself, he would be allowed to view the plates.
In June 1829, as recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 17, the Lord said that Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris could view the plates and other sacred items according to their faith. After gaining their witness of the plates, they were to “testify of them, by the power of God” (D&C 17:3).
- Early 1829
The translation of the Book of Mormon plates proceeded slowly.
- March 1829
Martin Harris requested to see the plates; Doctrine and Covenants 5 was received.
- April–May 1829
Oliver Cowdery assisted as scribe as Joseph Smith translated the plates.
- June 1829
Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery moved for a time to Fayette, New York.
- June 1829
Doctrine and Covenants 17 was received.
- June 1829
Moroni visited Joseph Smith and the Three Witnesses and showed them the plates.
- About July 1, 1829
Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery completed the translation of the Book of Mormon.
In the months following the loss of the 116 manuscript pages of the Book of Mormon translation, Martin Harris’s wife, Lucy, worked to stir up opposition against the Prophet Joseph Smith. She was upset about the time and money her husband had dedicated to the translation of the Book of Mormon. She was also angry with the Prophet for having denied her earlier requests to see the golden plates. She filed a legal complaint against Joseph and gathered a number of people who were willing to testify that he had lied about the plates’ existence. In addition to threatening a lawsuit against Joseph, these people warned Martin that if he did not join them in testifying of Joseph Smith’s alleged deception and fraud, Martin would be found complicit with Joseph and would join him in jail.
At this time Martin had never seen the Book of Mormon plates himself, although he had acted as a scribe for Joseph. After traveling to Joseph and Emma’s home in Harmony, Pennsylvania, Martin expressed his desire to receive a further witness of the plates’ reality. He may have believed that if he could see the plates himself, he would be prepared to testify in court of their existence and clear his and Joseph Smith’s names of fraud. After Joseph listened to Martin’s request to see the plates, he inquired of the Lord and received the revelation recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 5 (see The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831, ed. Michael Hubbard MacKay and others , 14–15).
Martin Harris had received several evidences that the Prophet Joseph Smith actually possessed the golden plates. Earlier he had served as Joseph’s scribe as the Prophet translated from the plates. Seeking to verify their authenticity, Martin had shown a copy of engravings found on the plates to scholars in New York. He had also brought the 116 translated manuscript pages home to show to his wife and a few others to prove that he was involved in an important work. Nonetheless, when he arrived again in Harmony, Pennsylvania, in March 1829, Martin confided to Emma’s father, Isaac Hale, that he desired a “greater witness” of the plates (see The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831, 15).
The Lord told the Prophet Joseph Smith that his role was to bear witness of the Book of Mormon and his sacred calling by testifying to the world, rather than by making the plates available for all to see. Because Joseph Smith was the prophet and seer chosen to translate the plates by the gift and power of God, his testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon stands as a preeminent witness of the reality of the Restoration of the gospel.
The Prophet fulfilled this commandment of the Lord even to the last hours of his mortal life. Elder Jeffery R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles recounted:
“Incarcerated in [Carthage Jail], Joseph the Prophet turned to the guards who held him captive and bore a powerful testimony of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Shortly thereafter pistol and ball would take the lives of these two testators [Joseph and his brother Hyrum].
“As one of a thousand elements of my own testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon, I submit this as yet one more evidence of its truthfulness. In this their greatest—and last—hour of need, I ask you: would these men blaspheme before God by continuing to fix their lives, their honor, and their own search for eternal salvation on a book (and by implication a church and a ministry) they had fictitiously created out of whole cloth?
“… Tell me whether in this hour of death these two men would enter the presence of their Eternal Judge quoting from and finding solace in a book which, if not the very word of God, would brand them as imposters and charlatans until the end of time? They would not do that! They were willing to die rather than deny the divine origin and the eternal truthfulness of the Book of Mormon” (“Safety for the Soul,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2009, 89).
The Lord promised that after the Book of Mormon plates were translated, the Prophet Joseph Smith would be ordained to deliver the word of the Lord in this “generation” (D&C 5:8, 10), or dispensation. A dispensation is a period of time during which the Lord reveals, or “dispenses,” the fulness of His gospel, priesthood authority, and ordinances.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–1985) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles emphasized the Prophet Joseph Smith’s important role in this dispensation: “The Lord said to Joseph Smith: ‘This generation shall have my word through you’ (D&C 5:10). What this means is that if we are going to receive the knowledge of God, the knowledge of truth, the knowledge of salvation, and know the things that we must do to work out our salvation with fear and trembling before the Lord, this must come in and through Joseph Smith and in no other way. He is the agent, the representative, the instrumentality that the Lord has appointed to give the truth about himself and his laws to all men in all the world in this age” (Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie, ed. Mark L. McConkie , 19).
The “things” (D&C 5:2) that the Lord had committed to the Prophet Joseph Smith included the golden plates (see D&C 5:1). Simply seeing and examining the plates would not have converted people to the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. Signs do not produce faith (see the commentary in this manual for D&C 63:7–11). Laman and Lemuel, for example, saw an angel but did not experience a change of heart (see 1 Nephi 3:28–31). A testimony of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon does not come from seeing the plates but rather from being willing to believe the Lord’s words found in the book. Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught: “Faith in Jesus Christ is a gift from heaven that comes as we choose to believe and as we seek it and hold on to it. … The future of your faith is not by chance, but by choice” (“Faith Is Not by Chance, but by Choice,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2015, 65). By repeating the phrase “my words,” as recorded in D&C 5:6–7, the Lord invited us to focus on the teachings and doctrine of the Book of Mormon to gain a witness of the truth rather than focusing on the plates.
Through inspiration from the Lord, the Prophet Joseph Smith called Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer to serve as the three “servants” (D&C 5:11) referred to in Doctrine and Covenants 5:11–18. These three men would hear God’s voice declaring that the plates had been “translated by the gift and power of God,” and an angel would show them the plates (“The Testimony of Three Witnesses,” Book of Mormon). When the Eight Witnesses later saw the plates, they did not hear God’s voice or see an angel. Therefore, the Lord’s statement regarding the Three Witnesses that “to none else will I grant this power, to receive this same testimony” (D&C 5:14) may refer to the uniqueness of their experience. To read more about the Three Witnesses’ experience, see the commentary in this chapter for Doctrine and Covenants 17.
While the Lord promised to show the Book of Mormon plates to three witnesses (D&C 5:11–13), He also promised that whoever would believe His words would receive his or her own spiritual manifestation. Elder Robert D. Hales of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught about the reality of this spiritual witness: “As you seek a personal witness—your personal revelation—you will discover that Heavenly Father has provided a special way for you to know the truth for yourself: through the third member of the Godhead, a personage of spirit we know as the Holy Ghost” (“Eternal Life—to Know Our Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2014, 82).
As recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 5:16, the Lord also stated that receiving a spiritual witness has a transforming effect on the believer. This is one reason why it would not be sufficient to simply see the plates. The process of reading the book, believing in the words, and receiving a spiritual manifestation of the truth causes a change—a spiritual rebirth—in the reader.
The Lord chastened the Prophet Joseph Smith on this and other occasions (see D&C 3:3–9; 64:5–7). These revelations show that the Lord’s chosen servants are imperfect people who are nevertheless striving to do the Lord’s will. The only perfect, blameless person to have lived on the earth is Jesus Christ; all others have sinned, are in need of divine mercy, and must repent (see Romans 3:23). This is one reason why we must build our spiritual foundation upon Jesus Christ (see Helaman 5:12) and follow Him by upholding His chosen servants “by the prayer of faith” (D&C 43:12).
President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910–2008) stated:
“We recognize that our forebears were human. They doubtless made mistakes. …
“There was only one perfect man who ever walked the earth. The Lord has used imperfect people in the process of building his perfect society. If some of them occasionally stumbled, or if their characters may have been slightly flawed in one way or another, the wonder is the greater that they accomplished so much” (“The Continuing Pursuit of Truth,” Ensign, Apr. 1986, 5).
The Lord promised Martin Harris that he could become a witness of the Book of Mormon plates, or “these things” (D&C 5:2, 11), if he would humble himself, acknowledge the wrongs he had committed, and be willing to bear testimony to the world of the things he would see. Even after having the harsh experience of losing the 116 manuscript pages of the Book of Mormon, Martin found it difficult to humbly trust that God was working through His servant Joseph Smith (see The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831, 14–15.
Humility is required of all those who seek to be disciples of Jesus Christ. Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy explained: “Through this process [becoming like a child], we will eventually acquire the childlike attributes of meekness, humility, patience, love, and spiritual submissiveness. True humility will inevitably lead us to say to God, ‘Thy will be done.’ And because what we are does affect what we do, our submissiveness will be reflected in our reverence, gratitude, and willingness to accept callings, counsel, and correction” (“To Walk Humbly with God,” Ensign, May 2001, 10).
The Prophet Joseph Smith had made very little progress on the work of the translation since the Book of Mormon plates had been returned to him following the loss of the 116 manuscript pages. It is possible that during this time, both Emma Smith and her brother Reuben Hale assisted Joseph as scribes (see The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831, 4). When the revelation recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 5 was given in March 1829, the Lord indicated that Joseph should “stop for a season” (D&C 5:30) and wait until He would “provide means” to complete the translation of the Book of Mormon (D&C 5:34). This seems to have been fulfilled when Oliver Cowdery arrived in Harmony, Pennsylvania, a few weeks after Joseph received this revelation (see commentary in this manual for Doctrine and Covenants 6).
In March 1829, the Lord revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith that He would permit three servants to view the Book of Mormon plates and to thereby become witnesses who would bear testimony to the world (see D&C 5:11–15). Later, while finishing the translation of the small plates near the end of his work on the Book of Mormon, Joseph was again reminded of the Lord’s plan to appoint three witnesses to view the plates (see 2 Nephi 27:12–14; Ether 5:2–4). The Prophet Joseph Smith recorded, “Almost immediately after we had made this discovery, it occurred to Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and … Martin Harris (who had [come] to enquire after our progress in the work) that they would have me enquire of the Lord, to know if they might not obtain of him [the privilege] to be these three special witnesses; and finally they became so very solicitous, and [urged] me so much, that at length I complied, and through the Urim and Thummim, I obtained of the Lord for them the following Revelation [D&C 17]” (in The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832–1844, ed. Karen Lynn Davidson and others , 314; spelling standardized).
The promise that three witnesses would be permitted to see the Book of Mormon plates and other sacred items depended upon them having faith like that “had by the prophets of old” (D&C 17:2). Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris were eventually given the privilege of seeing the golden plates, the breastplate, the sword of Laban, the Urim and Thummim, and the “miraculous directors,” or Liahona (D&C 17:1; see also Alma 37:38–39). David Whitmer later testified, “We not only saw the plates of the B[ook] of M[ormon] but also the Brass plates, the Plates of the Book of ether [sic], the Plates containing the Record of the wickedness of the people of the world, and many other plates” (in The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831, 380). In addition to seeing the golden plates, viewing the other ancient items would have given the Three Witnesses an assurance that the events and people described within the Book of Mormon were real.
The sacred experience promised by the Lord occurred near the end of June 1829 as the Prophet Joseph Smith was completing the work of translation at the home of Peter Whitmer Sr. The Prophet recorded the following:
“Not many days after the above commandment [D&C 17] was given, we four, viz. [namely], Martin Harris, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and myself, agreed to retire into the woods and try to obtain, by fervent and humble prayer, the fulfilment of the promises given in this revelation [to see the plates and other items]. … We accordingly made choice of a piece of woods convenient to Mr. Whitmer’s [house], to which we retired, and having knelt down, we began to pray in much faith to Almighty God to bestow upon us a realization of those promises. According to previous arrangement, I commenced by vocal prayer to our Heavenly Father and was followed by each of the rest in succession; we did not yet, however, obtain any answer or manifestation of the divine favor in our behalf.
“We again observed the same order of prayer, each calling on and praying fervently to God in rotation, but with the same result as before. Upon this our second failure, Martin Harris proposed that he would withdraw himself from us, believing, as he expressed himself, that his presence was the cause of our not obtaining what we wished for. He accordingly withdrew from us, and we knelt down again and had not been many minutes engaged in prayer when presently we beheld a light above us in the air of exceeding brightness, and behold, an angel stood before us. In his hands he held the plates which we had been praying for these to have a view of; he turned over the leaves one by one, so that we could see them and discern the engravings thereon distinctly. He addressed himself to David Whitmer, and said, ‘David, blessed is the Lord, and he that keeps his commandments,’ when immediately afterwards we heard a voice from out of the bright light above us, saying, ‘These plates have been revealed by the power of God, and they have been translated by the power of God; the translation of them which you have seen is correct, and I command you to bear record of what you now see and hear’.
“I now left David and Oliver and went in pursuit of Martin Harris, who I found at a considerable distance fervently engaged in prayer. He soon told me, however, that he had not yet prevailed with the Lord, and earnestly requested me to join him in prayer, that he also might realize the same blessings which we had just received. We accordingly joined in prayer, and ultimately obtained our desires, for before we had yet finished, the same vision was opened to our view; at least it was again [opened] to me, and I once more beheld … and heard the same things; whilst at the same moment, Martin Harris cried out, apparently in an ecstasy of joy ‘’Tis enough, ’tis enough; mine eyes have beheld, mine eyes have beheld,’ and jumping up he shouted, Hosanna, blessing God; and otherwise rejoiced exceedingly” (in The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Volume 1: 1832–1834, 316, 318, 320; punctuation, spelling, and capitalization standardized).
Following that experience, a statement was written and signed by each of the witnesses. That statement, known as “The Testimony of the Three Witnesses,” was published in the first printed edition of the Book of Mormon and in all subsequent editions published by the Church.
After seeing the golden plates, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris shared the burden of testifying to the world of the reality of the plates and the divinity of the Book of Mormon. Lucy Mack Smith, the Prophet Joseph Smith’s mother, gave the following account describing Joseph’s feelings upon returning to the Whitmer home after the vision: “[When] they returned to the house it was between 3 and 4 o’clock. Mrs. Whitmer & Mr. Smith [Joseph Smith Sr.] 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 3 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 if I was relieved of a dreadful burden, which was almost too much for me to endure, but they will now have to bear a part, and it does rejoice my soul, that I am not any longer to be entirely alone in the world’” (“Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1844–1845,” book 8, page 11, josephsmithpapers.org; spelling and punctuation standardized).
As recorded in the Book of Mormon, the Lord prophesied that besides Joseph Smith and the Three Witnesses, “there is none other which shall view [the book], save it be a few according to the will of God, to bear testimony of his word unto the children of men” (2 Nephi 27:13; see also verse 12). This refers to the Eight Witnesses who both saw and handled the golden plates (see “The Testimony of Eight Witnesses,” Book of Mormon). In all, there were 12 eyewitnesses of the Book of Mormon plates (Joseph Smith, the Three Witnesses, and the Eight Witnesses) who were given the commandment to declare their witness to the world.
Additional individuals felt the plates, when the plates were covered by a cloth, or felt their weight in a cloth sack. Mary Whitmer, the wife of Peter Whitmer Sr., had a remarkable experience during this time. She and her husband carried the increased burden of hosting the Smiths and Oliver Cowdery in their home while the Prophet completed the translation of the Book of Mormon. Their son, David, remembered that although his mother did not complain, she felt overwhelmed. “David later related what happened one day as his mother went to the barn to milk the cows: ‘She was met out near the yard by the same old man [seen earlier by David] (judging by her description of him) who said to her: “You have been very faithful and diligent in your labors, but you are tired because of the increase of your toil; it is proper therefore that you should receive a witness that your faith may be strengthened.” Thereupon he showed her the plates’” (Church History in the Fulness of Times [Church Educational System manual, 2000], 57–58).
In addition to the testimonies offered by the special witnesses of the Book of Mormon, the Lord Himself gave a definitive confirmation that it is true. Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained:
“One of the most solemn oaths ever given to man is found in these words of the Lord relative to Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. ‘He [meaning Joseph Smith] has translated the book, even that part which I have commanded him,’ saith the Lord, ‘and as your Lord and your God liveth it is true.’ (D&C 17:6.)
“This is God’s testimony of the Book of Mormon. In it Deity himself has laid his godhood on the line. Either the book is true or God ceases to be God. There neither is nor can be any more formal or powerful language known to men or gods” (“The Doctrine of the Priesthood,” Ensign, May 1982, 33).
The commandment given to the Three Witnesses to testify was essential in the Restoration of the gospel. If they were to ever deny their witness, it may have given people reason to disbelieve the Prophet Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.
In speaking of the Three Witnesses, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said: “Each of the three had ample reason and opportunity to renounce his testimony if it had been false, or to equivocate on details if any had been inaccurate. As is well known, because of disagreements or jealousies involving other leaders of the Church, each one of these three witnesses was excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by about eight years after the publication of their testimony. All three went their separate ways, with no common interest to support a collusive effort. Yet to the end of their lives—periods ranging from 12 to 50 years after their excommunications—not one of these witnesses deviated from his published testimony or said anything that cast any shadow on its truthfulness” (“The Witness: Martin Harris,” Ensign, May 1999, 36).
The Lord promised His grace to the Three Witnesses since they would face great opposition to their testimonies. President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency testified: “The Three Witnesses never denied their testimony of the Book of Mormon. They could not because they knew it was true. They made sacrifices and faced difficulties beyond what most people ever know. … That they continued to affirm what they saw and heard in that marvelous experience, during long periods of estrangement from the Church and from Joseph, makes their testimony more powerful” (“An Enduring Testimony of the Mission of the Prophet Joseph,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2003, 90).