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Book of Mormon/Witnesses/Eight witnesses/Shown to me by a supernatural power
John Whitmer states that the plates were "shown to me by a supernatural power"
Summary: Some critics of the Restoration have focused on a single statement reportedly made by John Whitmer in 1839 to make it appear as though the Eight Witnesses of the Book of Mormon did not have a physical encounter with the golden plates (as they so testified on the pages of the book itself), but rather a spiritual or visionary experience only.
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- Question: Did John Whitmer, one of the Eight Witnesses, actually say that he saw the plates by a "supernatural power"?
- Question: What did the Book of Mormon witnesses mean when they used the word "supernatural" to describe their experiences?
Question: Did John Whitmer, one of the Eight Witnesses, actually say that he saw the plates by a "supernatural power"?
The "supernatural power" quote is actually reported by Theodore Turley six years after getting the information from Whitmer
Some critics of the Restoration have focused on a single statement reportedly made by John Whitmer in 1839 to make it appear as though the Eight Witnesses of the Book of Mormon did not have a physical encounter with the golden plates (as they so testified on the pages of the book itself), but rather a spiritual or visionary experience only. Detractors advocate this viewpoint in the hope of weakening the idea that the golden plates existed in objective reality and also to make it appear that the Witnesses themselves were delusional or hallucinatory and, therefore, should not be trusted to provide accurate testimony.
The key to properly understanding the nature of the alleged 1839 John Whitmer statement is to see it in its historical context. The quotation in question is not a contemporaneous declaration, but was instead reported by eyewitness Theodore Turley about six years after the information was relayed by Whitmer. Three years prior to giving this verbal account, however, John Whitmer published a firsthand explanation of his experience. It is reproduced here because its content is crucial to analyzing the Turley reminiscence.
ca. 27 March 1836
- “I desire to testify unto all . . . that I have most assuredly seen the plates from whence the Book of Mormon [was] translated, and that I have handled these plates, and know of a surety that Joseph Smith, jr. has translated the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God.”
It is plainly manifest in this primary source that John Whitmer not only saw the Book of Mormon plates without any hint of spiritual overtones but he also physically “handled” them. More importantly, for this discussion anyway, is the phraseology that Whitmer uses next. He indicates that he knew beyond doubt that Joseph Smith translated the plates “by the gift and power of God” – i.e., by a supernatural power.
Theodore Turley states that John Whitmer saw the plates by a "supernatural power"
Now for the Turley statement that is so dearly cherished by detractors of the faith. It reads:
5 April 1839
- “[Theodore] Turley said, ‘Gentlemen, I presume there are men here who have heard [John] Corrill say, that Mormonism was true, that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and inspired of God. I now call upon you, John Whitmer: you say Corrill is a moral and a good man; do you believe him when he says the Book of Mormon is true, or when he says it is not true? There are many things published that they say are true, and again turn around and say they are false.’ Whitmer asked, ‘Do you hint at me?’ Turley replied, ‘If the cap fits you, wear it; all I know is that you have published to the world that an angel did present those plates to Joseph Smith.’ Whitmer replied: ‘I now say, I handled those plates; there were fine engravings on both sides. I handled them;’ and he described how they were hung [on rings], and [said] ‘they were shown to me by a supernatural power;’ he acknowledged all.”
Whitmer clearly states that he "saw and handled" the plates
At first glance it may appear that this statement scores significant points for the opposing team. But any ground that seems to be gained is effectively nullified by comparing this John Whitmer statement with another one made by him which was recorded by Myron Bond only about seven months after the information was verbalized. It reads:
21 December 1877–21 March 1878
- “John Whitmer told me last winter . . . [that he] ‘saw and handled’ [the plates and] . . . helped to copy [the Book of Mormon manuscript] as the words fell from Joseph’s lips by supernatural or [A]lmighty power.”
Again, John Whitmer testified that he “saw and handled” the golden plates without any spiritual or visionary overtones. He also used language with regard to the translation process that unmistakably matches what Theodore Turley reported in his late recollection. The connection in phraseology must not be overlooked - both quotations speak of a supernatural power. But the more recent reminiscence of Myron Bond matches the firsthand published information provided by John Whitmer in 1836. Both of these sources identify the supernatural power as the power of God which was manifest through the translation process. (And, since John was one of the scribes for Joseph Smith's translation of the Book of Mormon, it is not surprising that he would choose to repeatedly emphasize that the translation was done with divine aid. This aspect of his witness is conceptually distinct from his witness of the plates' reality.)
Question: What did the Book of Mormon witnesses mean when they used the word "supernatural" to describe their experiences?
The term "supernatural" is used as a synonym for "miraculous"
An early hostile account of the three witnesses' testimony from February 1830 is instructive:
In the Investigator, No. 12, Dec. 11, I published, by way of caution, a letter of Oliver H.P. Cowdry, in answer to my letter to Joseph Smith, Jun. Martin Harris, and David Whitmore—the believers in said bible of gold plates—which they affirm they have miraculously, or supernaturally beheld. I sought for evidences, and such as could not be disputed, of the existence of this bible of golden plates. But the answer was—the world must take their words for its existence; and that the book would appear this month.
Clearly, the author here uses "supernatural" as a synonym for "miraculous," not an attempt to argue that the plates do not literally exist, since "their words" are intended as "evidences...for its existence."
Martin Harris was claimed to have "supernaturally" seen the plates and angel, yet he also insisted that the experience was tangible and literal
Furthermore, Martin Harris' testimony is reported in a mocking newspaper article, which still makes it clear that Harris' experience was tangible and literal:
Martin Harris, another chief of Mormon imposters, arrived here last Saturday from the bible quarry in New-York. He immediately planted himself in the bar-room of the hotel, where he soon commenced reading and explaining the Mormon hoax, and all the dark passages from Genesis to Revelations. He told all about the gold plates, Angels, Spirits, and Jo Smith.—He had seen and handled them all, by the power of God! 
John Whitmer, one of the eight witnesses, did not see an angel, but he did say that he "handled those plates." Yet, Whitmer was also said by Theodore Turley to have described the plates as being shown to him by a "supernatural power".
...all I know, you have published to the world that an angel did present those plates to Joseph Smith." Whitmer replied "I now say I handled those plates. there was fine engravings on both sides. I handled them." and he described how they were hung "and they were shown to me by a supernatural power." he acknowledged all. Turley asked him why the translation is not now true, & he said "I cannot read it, and I do not know whether it is true or not.
In a letter written by Myron Bond in 1878, Whitmer is said to have "saw and handled" the plates:
John Whitmer told me last winter....[that he] 'saw and handled' [the plates and]....helped to copy [the Book of Mormon manuscript] as the words fell from Joseph’s lips by supernatural or almighty power
Some who repeated John Whitmer's words may have conflated his "non-supernatural" experience in handling the plates with his "supernatural" experience of listening to Joseph dictate the Book of Mormon
Note that Bond describes how Whitmer helped to copy the manuscript as Joseph dictated the words "by supernatural or almighty power." It is possible that Theodore Turley's recollection conflated Whitmer's non-supernatural handling of the plates with the description of the translation process by a "supernatural" power.
Like Martin Harris, John Whitmer, when speaking in his own words, was very clear that he had physically handled the plates:
It may not be amiss in this place, to give a statement to the world concerning the work of the Lord, as I have been a member of this church of Latter Day Saints from its beginning; to say that the book of Mormon is a revelation from God, I have no hesitancy; but with all confidence have signed my named to it as such; and I hope, that my patrons will indulge me in speaking freely on this subject, as I am about leaving the editorial department. Therefore I desire to testify to all that will come to the knowledge of this address; that I have most assuredly seen the plates from whence the book of Mormon is translated, and that I have handled these plates, and know of a surety that Joseph Smith, jr. has translated the book of Mormon by the gift and power of God, and in this thing the wisdom of the wise most assuredly has perished: therefore, know ye, O ye inhabitants of the earth, wherever this address may come, that I have in this thing freed my garments of your blood, whether you believe or disbelieve the statements of your unworthy friend and well-wisher.
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
- “Memorandums,” 1845, handwriting of Thomas Bullock, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah.
- John Whitmer, "To the patrons of the Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate," (March 1836) Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 2:287.
- Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 3:307–308. Volume 3 link
- Saints’ Herald 25/16 (15 August 1878): 253; letter written by Myron Bond in Cadillac, Michigan on 2 August 1878.
- C. C. Blatchley, “Caution Against the Golden Bible,” New-York Telescope 6, no. 38 (20 February 1830): 150. off-site
- “Martin Harris . . .,” Painesville Telegraph (Painesville, Ohio) 2, no. 39 (15 March 1831).
- "Theodore Turley's Memorandums," Church Archives, handwriting of Thomas Bullock, who began clerking in late 1843; cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:241.; see also with minor editing in Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 3:307–308. Volume 3 link
- Saints’ Herald 25/16 (15 August 1878): 253; letter written by Myron Bond in Cadillac, Michigan on 2 August 1878.
- John Whitmer, "Address To the patrons of the Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate," (March 1836) Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 2:286-287. (italics added)