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Did Book of Mormon witnesses simply see the golden plates with their 'spiritual eyes'?
By Daniel Peterson, For the Deseret News
Published: Saturday, May 23 2015
with comments and review by Doug Christensen
Scholars in the Churh of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continually encounter the confident declaration from critics that the witnesses to the Book of Mormon didn’t really see or touch anything at all and didn’t actually claim to have seen or touched anything. They only “saw” the plates with their “spiritual eyes,” or in other words, “in their imaginations.”
Dr. Peterson points out that several of the 11 official witnesses were obviously confronted during their lifetimes with accusations that they had merely hallucinated, and they had repeatedly rejected such proposed explanations.
"In fact, David Whitmer, one of the initial Three Witnesses, could easily have been addressing today’s skeptics when he declared 'I was not under any hallucination, nor was I deceived! I saw with these eyes and I heard with these ears! I know whereof I speak!'"
More about David Whitmer below.
Focusing exclusively on the experience of the Eight Witnesses, Peterson observes none of them felt that they had experienced supernatural elements but, rather, a wholly matter-of-fact event. He writes:
In late 1839, Hyrum Smith wrote an account for the Times and Seasons newspaper covering, among other things, his four months of hungry and cold imprisonment in Missouri’s Liberty Jail, under recurring threats of execution, while his family and fellow members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were being driven from their homes during the wintertime:“I thank God,” he told the Saints, “that I felt a determination to die, rather than deny the things which my eyes had seen, which my hands had handled, and which I had borne testimony to. … I can assure my beloved brethren that I was enabled to bear as strong a testimony, when nothing but death presented itself, as ever I did in my life.”
Once again, critics accuse the prophet of empty boasting and bravado for expressing his willingness to die for his testimony. His actions tell the true story, though, for less than five years later in Illinois, "fully understanding the risk, he did in fact go voluntarily to Carthage Jail. There, with his prophet-brother, he died as a martyr in a hail of bullets."
The accounts left behind by the Eight Witnesses are replete not only with claims to have “seen and hefted” the plates, to have turned their individual leaves and examined their engravings, but also with estimates of their weight, descriptions of their physical form and the rings that bound them, and reports of their approximate dimensions as well.
In an 1878 interview with John Whitmer, this question and answer scenario took place:
“I — Did you handle the plates with your hands? He — I did so!"I — Then they were a material substance? He — Yes, as material as anything can be."I — They were heavy to lift? He — Yes, and you know gold is a heavy metal, they were very heavy."I — How big were the leaves? He — So far as I can recollect, 8 by 6 or 7 inches."I — Were the leaves thick? He — Yes, just so thick, that characters could be engraven on both sides."I — How were the leaves joined together? He — In three rings, each one in the shape of a D with the straight line towards the centre. ..."I — Did you see them covered with a cloth? He — No. He handed them uncovered into our hands, and we turned the leaves sufficient to satisfy us.”
They say that you can tell a marvelous lie and fool everyone for a little while, your familly members for a day and your mother not at all. Joseph's father, mother, wife and brothers never failed in their testimony of the Book of Mormon.
The prophet's brother William Smith knew the Eight Witnesses well. He testified “they not only saw with their eyes but handled with their hands the said record.” Samuel Smith testified that “He knew his brother Joseph had the plates, for the prophet had shown them to him, and he had handled them and seen the engravings thereon.”
Those who seek to dismiss the testimony of the Eight Witnesses must, on the whole, flatly brush aside what they actually, and very forcefully, said.
For further evidence and analysis on this topic, see Richard Lloyd Anderson’s 2005 article “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses” online at publications.maxwellinstitute.byu.edu.
My father, McKay Christensen, to illustrate the relatively short time span separating our generation from the prophet Joseph Smith's, related this account:
"While serving as a missionary in the Eastern States Mission, I spent most of my mission in the mission office as assistant to President James H.Moyle. He was a great man, a Salt Lake City attorney of outstanding reputation, and a mentor who treated me as an associate. He often confided in me about his life's experiences. He repeated this story to me personally, as well as to our missionaries:
In late 1887, when returning home to Salt Lake City after just graduating with my law degree, I determined to stop on the way in Missouri and see if I could gain an interview with David Whitmer who, as it turns out, was just a few weeks from his death. I knew that he had been the most interviewed of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon and so was optimistic about interviewing him.
When ushered into his bedroom, I saw a frail old man who was obviously on his death bed, but who still had a glow about him. I told Brother Whitmer that I was just a young man, starting out life in the world with fresh prospects, and I was planning on ordering my life around the restored gospel, but I needed to know from him if he really had seen an angel and had touched the gold plates containing the ancient record.
Seemingly with all the energy he could muster, David Whitmer lifted hmself up on one elbow, and in a quiet but strong voice bore his witness that he had seen the angel who had invited him to handle the plates and stated that the translation was true and correct. Brother Whitmer related that no matter what differences he had had with Joseph and the other brethren, he had seen and touched those plates and seen the angel and he could not deny that and would declare it to the world if they would listen.