Question: Does Doctrine and Covenants 5 stipulate that there be only three witnesses to the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated?

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Question: Does Doctrine and Covenants 5 stipulate that there be only three witnesses to the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated?

Introduction to Criticism

Readers of the Doctrine and Covenants have become puzzled by a verse that, at first blush, stipulates that there be only three witnesses to the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated. The text reads as follows:

10 But this generation shall have my word through you;
11 And in addition to your testimony, the testimony of three of my servants, whom I shall call and ordain, unto whom I will show these things, and they shall go forth with my words that are given through you.
12 Yea, they shall know of a surety that these things are true, for from heaven will I declare it unto them.
13 I will give them power that they may behold and view these things as they are;
14 And to none else will I grant this power, to receive this same testimony among this generation, in this the beginning of the rising up and the coming forth of my church out of the wilderness—clear as the moon, and fair as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners.
15 And the testimony of three witnesses will I send forth of my word.

This may cause some stress for readers since there were at least 22 (and perhaps more) formal and informal witnesses to the gold plates--each with different experiences to recount.

This article will examine this criticism and another, closely-related criticism. Upon a closer reading of the text of the revelation, the concern should be eliminated.

Response to Criticism

The Actual Experiences of the Witnesses to the Book of Mormon Plates

First, we should reacquaint ourselves with what each of the formal and informal witnesses to the gold plates actually said about their experience.

There are the Three Witnesses -- including David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris; and there are the Eight Witnesses--including Joseph Smith Sr., Hyrum Smith, Samuel H. Smith, Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer Jr., John Whitmer, and Hiram Page. Additionally, there are several informal witnesses--people who either saw, felt, and/or hefted the plates but were not required to give their names in a formal statement testifying to the plates’ reality. These witnesses include people such as Emma Smith, Lucy Mack Smith, Katharine Smith, Mary Mussellman Whitmer, Josiah Stowell, Alvah Beaman, Joseph Knight Sr., Luke Johnson, Harrison Burgess, Lucy Harris, etc.

The testimony of the Three Witnesses, as printed in every edition of the Book of Mormon since its publication, reads as follows:

Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That we, through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, have seen the plates which contain this record, which is a record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites, their brethren, and also of the people of Jared, who came from the tower of which hath been spoken. And we also know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true. And we also testify that we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates; and they have been shown unto us by the power of God, and not of man. And we declare with words of soberness, that an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon; and we know that it is by the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, that we beheld and bear record that these things are true. And it is marvelous in our eyes. Nevertheless, the voice of the Lord commanded us that we should bear record of it; wherefore, to be obedient unto the commandments of God, we bear testimony of these things. And we know that if we are faithful in Christ, we shall rid our garments of the blood of all men, and be found spotless before the judgment-seat of Christ, and shall dwell with him eternally in the heavens. And the honor be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen.

So the Three Witnesses:

  1. Saw an angel come down from heaven and lay the plates before them
  2. Saw the plates
  3. Saw the engravings on the plates.
  4. Heard the voice of God declare that the plates were translated by His gift and power.
  5. Heard the Lord command them to testify of the Book of Mormon’s divinity.

The testimony of the Eight Witnesses, as printed in every edition of the Book of Mormon since its publication, reads as follows:

Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That 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; and we also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship. And this we bear record with words of soberness, that the said Smith has shown unto us, for we have seen and hefted, and know of a surety that the said Smith has got the plates of which we have spoken. And we give our names unto the world, to witness unto the world that which we have seen. And we lie not, God bearing witness of it.

So the Eight Witnesses:

  1. Had Joseph Smith show them the plates
  2. Handled, saw, and hefted the leaves from the plates
  3. Saw the engravings on the plates

The informal witnesses’ experiences are as follows:

  1. Emma Smith felt the plates through a cloth as she moved them around the house while cleaning and doing other chores.[1]
  2. Katherine Smith felt the plates through a cloth as she moved them around the house.[2]
  3. William Smith, Joseph Smith's younger brother, testified in June 1884 that when Joseph first brought the plates home, that "[Joseph's family] handled them and could tell what they were. They were not quite as large as this Bible. Could tell whether they were round or square. Could raise the leaves this way [he raises a few leaves of the Bible before him]. One could easily tell that they were not a stone, hewn out to deceive, or even a block of wood. Being a mixture of gold and copper, they were much heavier than stone, and very much heavier than wood."[3] He also stated in 1883 that he saw Joseph bring the plates home from the hill wrapped in a tow frock. According to him, they weighed about 60 pounds.[4]
  4. Josiah Stowell “caught a glimpse of their corner as the covering slipped off when Joseph handed them to him[.]”[5] Stowell said the plates “resembled a stone of a greenish caste,” which is consistent with the plates being made of a copper alloy which had oxidized.[6]
  5. Alvah Beaman “heard the metallic clinking of the plates as he helped move them around in [a] wooden chest[.]”[7]
  6. Mary Whitmer “saw both the plates and the angel. Her experience is interesting because, even though it includes the divine messenger, even he is portrayed in rather ordinary terms. He shows up as a man while she is out milking cows, he shows her the record, and then he is gone.”[8]
  7. Joseph Knight Sr. was among those at the Smith home when Joseph first retrieved the plates in 1827. According to William Smith, those present were allowed to feel and heft the plates.[9]
  8. According to Brigham Young in 1859, Luke Johnson, in a “vision of his mind,” saw that “the angel of God came and laid the plates before him, and he saw and handled them, and saw the angel, and conversed with him as he would with one of his friends.”[10] John D. Lee visited Luke in 1846 and “asked him if the statement he signed about seeing the angel and the plates was true, if he did see the plates from which the Book of Mormon was printed or translated.” According to Lee, Johnson said it was true.[11]
  9. According to Lucy Mack Smith, Lucy Harris saw the angel and plates. “She said that a personage had appeared to her the night before and said to her that inasmuch as she had disputed the servant of the Lord, said that his word was not to be believed, and asked him many improper questions, she had done that which was not right in the sight of God. Then he said, ‘Behold, here are the plates, look upon them and believe.’”[12] According to Martin Harris in an 1859 interview with Joel Tiffany, Lucy also had the opportunity to lift the plates while contained in a glass box.[13] Martin appears to have affirmed the same in a conference address he gave in 1870 in Salt Lake City.[14]
  10. According to that same interview of Martin Harris done by Tiffany, Martin's daughter Lucy Harris was with her mother and Lucy Mack Smith when she had the experience of lifting the plates while contained in a glass box.[15]
  11. Harrison Burgess reported that in July 1832, he had “a glorious personage clothed in white stood before [him] and exhibited to [his] view the plates from which the Book of Mormon was taken.”[16]

Tying the Actual Experiences of the Various Witnesses to D&C 5

Now, response becomes quite simple. Reviewing the experiences of each of the various witnesses, it can be seen that none of them received "the same witness" as that of the Three Witnesses. Let's quote the most relevant part of the passage in question and bold the most important parts of that passage:

12 Yea, they shall know of a surety that these things are true, for from heaven will I declare it unto them.
13 I will give them power that they may behold and view these things as they are;
14 And to none else will I grant this power, to receive this same testimony among this generation

The Three Witnesses heard the voice of God declare unto them that the translation of the Book of Mormon was done by his gift and power. None of the other witnesses received "this same testimony." That is how one may reconcile the passage with the presence of other types of witnesses to the Book of Mormon plates.

Introduction to Criticism #2

There is a related criticism to this one. It is claimed that the original revelation that was later edited and incorporated into the Doctrine and Covenants is much less open to the existence of other witnesses to the Book of Mormon plates.

The original revelation reads as follows:

yea & the testimony of three of my Servants shall go forth with my word unto this Generation yea three shall Know of A surety that those things are true for I will give them power that they may Behold & vew these things as they are & to none else will I grant this power among this Generation & the testimony of three Witnesses will I send forth & my word[.][17]

One can quickly see that the original revelation omits the phrases "for from heaven will I declare it unto them" and "to receive this same testimony." Thus, fitting the experiences of the other witnesses into the origins of the Book of Mormon may become trickier.

The revelation is dated March 1829. The translation of the Book of Mormon took place between late April 1829 to June 1829.[18] The translation actually commenced with Mosiah being translated first, getting all the way to Moroni, then going back to 1 Nephi, and finishing with Words of Mormon.[19] There are two passages in the Book of Mormon that refer to the witnesses of the Book of Mormon: Ether 5 and 2 Nephi 27.

Ether 5:2–4 reads:

2 And behold, ye may be privileged that ye may show the plates unto those who shall assist to bring forth this work;
3 And unto three shall they be shown by the power of God; wherefore they shall know of a surety that these things are true.
4 And in the mouth of three witnesses shall these things be established; and the testimony of three, and this work, in the which shall be shown forth the power of God and also his word, of which the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost bear record—and all this shall stand as a testimony against the world at the last day.

2 Nephi 27:12–14 reads:

12 Wherefore, 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, besides him to whom the book shall be delivered; and they shall testify to the truth of the book and the things therein.
13 And 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; for the Lord God hath said that the words of the faithful should speak as if it were from the dead.
14 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!

Given the timeline for translation, Joseph would have received D&C 5 in March 1829, then translated Ether, and then translated 2 Nephi. Reading the passages in that order and looking at the explicit flow of ideas, one might surmise that Joseph Smith at first believed that only three people were going to see the Book of Mormon plates and then, over time, revised his plan to include more witnesses to the Book of Mormon plates.

Response to Criticism #2

Focus on Phrases "Behold & [view] these things as they are" and “my word unto this Generation”

To respond to this criticism, one can easily fit the uniqueness of the experience of the three witnesses in particular into the phrase "Behold & [view] these things as they are." To view these things "as they are," according to the three witnesses, is to hear the voice of God declare to them that the translation of the Book of Mormon was done by his gift and power and to be commanded by God to tell the world of it. This declaration and subsequent injunction may be "[the Lord's] word unto this Generation" promised in the original draft of the revelation.

Notes

  1. Emma Smith, The Saints’ Herald, 26:290; Michael H. MacKay and Gerrit Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light: Joseph Smith’s Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015), 15.
  2. MacKay and Dirkmaat, Darkness unto Light, 15.
  3. William B. Smith, “The Old Soldier’s Testimony,” Saints’ Herald, Oct. 4, 1884: 643–44.
  4. William Smith, William Smith on Mormonism (Lamoni, IA: Herald Steam Book and Job Office, 1883), 5–12. Quoted in Larry E. Morris, A Documentary History of the Book of Mormon (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 153–56.
  5. Neal Rappleye, “‘Idle and Slothful Strange Stories’ Book of Mormon Origins and the Historical Record,” Interpreter 20 (2016): 26.
  6. Morning Star 8, no. 29 (Limerick, Maine; November 16, 1832).
  7. Rappleye, “Idle and Slothful,” 26. Citing Joel Tiffany, “Mormonism — No. II,” Tiffany’s Monthly 5 (August 1859): 167.
  8. Ibid., 27. Citing Royal Skousen, “Another Account of Mary Whitmer’s Viewing of the Golden Plates,” Interpreter 10 (2014): 35–44.
  9. Smith, "Old Soldier," 643–44. See also Matthew B. Brown, Plates of Gold: The Book of Mormon Comes Forth (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2003), 48.
  10. Journal of Discourses, 7:164. Quoted in H. Donl Peterson, Moroni: Ancient Prophet, Modern Messenger (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000), 165.
  11. John D. Lee, Mormonism Unveiled (St. Louis: Bryan, 1877), 184. Quoted in Peterson, Moroni, 165–66.
  12. Lucy Mack Smith, The Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, eds. Scot Facer Proctor and Maureen Jensen Proctor (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1996), 152–53. Quoted in Peterson, Moroni, 167. It is unclear from the account whether this was a dream as experienced by Harris or an actual appearance of an angel that Harris may have thought was a dream.
  13. Morris, Documentary History, 196.
  14. Ibid., 297–98.
  15. Ibid., 196.
  16. Harrison Burgess, “Sketch of a Well Spent Life,” Labors in the Vineyard (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1884), 65–66. Quoted in Peterson, Moroni, 170.
  17. "Revelation, March 1829 [D&C 5]," p. 1, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed April 2, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-march-1829-dc-5/1.
  18. John W. Welch, “Timing the Translation of the Book of Mormon: ‘Days (and Hours) Never to Be Forgotten’,” BYU Studies 57, no. 4 (2018): 16–30.
  19. Richard E. Turley Jr. and William W. Slaughter, How We Got the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 19–20.