by Dan Peterson
The witnesses of the Book of Mormon pose a real obstacle to any honest person who wishes to dismiss the claims of the Restoration.
Let me first briefly summarize who the official witnesses were and what they claimed to have seen, and then explain why I believe them to represent a significant challenge to disbelief:
The Eight Witnesses—Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer, Jr., John Whitmer, Hiram Page, Joseph Smith, Sr., Hyrum Smith, and Samuel Harrison Smith—not only saw but “hefted” the golden plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated and turned their leaves. They did so under quite ordinary and mundane circumstances, in broad daylight.
The Three Witnesses—Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer—not only saw the plates but were shown them by an angel in a blaze of light, as well as hearing the voice of God declare them to have been “translated by the gift and power of God.” Moreover, in addition to the plates themselves, they saw a variety of other exotic objects, such as the Urim and Thummim, the Liahona, and the Sword of Laban.
Taken together, they are eleven witnesses. And, with Joseph Smith himself reckoned among them—he was present on all of the relevant occasions—they are twelve. But they aren’t merely two sets of roughly interchangeable witnesses, because their experiences are quite distinct.
First of all, though, let me dispose of the most obvious and easy objection that a critic might raise to their testimony: There is simply no serious evidence that they were either dishonest, delusional, or insane. Whether examined individually or collectively, they emerge as reputable, respected, well-adjusted, and rational men, thoroughly grounded in the world of everyday reality. (The indispensable starting point for any serious consideration of them is Richard Lloyd Anderson’s classic 1989 book Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, which he followed up thereafter with a number of other substantial and very helpful studies.) There is no credible evidence that any of them, let alone all of them, were engaged in a conspiracy to commit fraud. There simply isn’t. Period.
Accordingly, anybody who seeks grounds upon which to justify rejecting their testimony will need to look elsewhere. Simply dismissing them as crazy or branding them liars will not work. Not, anyway, for any honest person who seeks to be faithful to the historical evidence.
The testimony of the Eight Witnesses seems to establish beyond any reasonable doubt that Joseph Smith possessed a tangible set of plates in the late 1820s that had the appearance of gold. In and of itself, of course, this doesn’t prove that they were ancient or of divine provenance. Nevertheless, it’s an important part of a larger cumulative case: If the plates existed objectively in the real world, they take Joseph’s account of the Book of Mormon out of the realm of the purely subjective. And they make it much harder to dismiss than it would otherwise have been.
The fact that other witnesses claimed that they, too, had seen and “hefted” the plates means that, whatever else it may be, Joseph’s account necessarily reflects more than just internal imagination or private personal dishonesty.
In contrast to Joseph Smith, for instance, the seventh-century A.D. Muslim prophet Muhammad experienced all of his revelations privately and personally, and no material objects were involved. As a result, according to the standard early Arabic sources, he was left to wonder whether he might be mad or possessed—until his wife Khadija and her uncle Waraqa b. Nawfal persuaded him that he was not.
If Joseph could be regarded as merely delusional or as a subjective fantasist, he would be relatively easy for sympathetic skeptics and neutral historians of religion to assimilate or to domesticate. But he cannot be so regarded; publicly and objectively real plates force a stark choice between truth and forgery. After all, somebody deliberately made them, whether in antiquity or in modern times. And, if they weren’t ancient, their creator (however “pious” he or she may have been) was a conscious and deliberate modern fraud.
However, there is no evidence that Joseph Smith created fake plates, no evidence that he or anybody in his circle had the skill to have done so, and no evidence that he had access to the metallic resources that he would have needed to create believable plates with the appearance (and the unusually heavy weight) of gold. Hypothesizing that Joseph somehow fooled the yokels with a manufactured artifact is definitely not driven by the evidence.
Besides which, when we introduce the testimony of the Three Witnesses (whose experience actually occurred prior to that of the Eight), we realize that the creator of the plates—whether ancient or modern—also needed to create a number of other highly unusual metallic objects that were seen by the Three.
And, anyway, as noted above, the Three Witnesses experienced considerably more than simply seeing and “hefting” the plates, and more than simply seeing a few strange additional objects. They also saw an angel descend from heaven in a glory that illuminated the forest around them for a considerable distance. He addressed them, and, beyond that, they heard the voice of God testify to the authenticity of the Book of Mormon translation. (In fact, if we find the testimony of the Three Witnesses convincing, the truth of the Book of Mormon is established. Game over.)
The encounter of the Eight Witnesses with the plates was prosaic, mundane. By contrast, if a Hollywood film studio were attempting to imitate that of the Three it might well be required to seek out the services of George Lucas’s special effects company, Industrial Light and Magic.
Since no such special effects were readily available to the young frontier farmer Joseph Smith in the early 1800s, skeptics have been obliged to suggest hallucination in order to explain the experience of the Three Witnesses. (Remember our note above, that conspiracy or fraud on the part of the witnesses must be ruled out, because there is simply no evidence for it and, indeed, because there is considerable evidence against it.). But the very tangible and matter-of-fact account of the Eight clearly tells us that hallucination alone will not suffice as an explanation for both encounters. (Any counter-explanation for the witness accounts will need to be quite complex, as we shall see.)
However, hallucination does not offer a very promising explanation for the experience of the Three Witnesses, specifically. For one thing, there is no evidence that either David Whitmer or Martin Harris or Oliver Cowdery was prone to hallucination. And, on top of that, the notion of a “shared” hallucination is unsupported in the relevant scientific or medical literature. People in groups can certainly hallucinate at the same time—say, as the result of an indoor gas leak or a shared psychedelic drug—but they hallucinate different things. No known naturalistic mechanism exists for transferring the subjective hallucinatory experiences of one mind into another distinct mind.
And group hallucination is even more difficult to invoke in the case of the Three Witnesses, because their combined testimony is actually the result of two distinct experiences. Martin Harris withdrew from the group as they were seeking a divine manifestation, feeling that the weakness of his faith was the reason that their prayers had not yet been answered. It was only after he left that the angel Moroni appeared, showing the plates and the other objects to Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Joseph Smith. Afterwards, Joseph sought Martin out in the woods, and, within a relatively short while, together, they experienced the same manifestation that Oliver, David, and Joseph had received.
Thus, if we insist on the hypothesis of hallucination, Joseph Smith would have needed to induce the same vision—by an unknown mechanism or means—in three separate minds on two distinct occasions. (It is doubtful, incidentally, that “mesmerism” or hypnotism, which was still a relatively recent idea in Europe, had reached the United States—let alone the unlettered frontier farmer Joseph Smith—by the late 1820s. So those who might wish to invoke it as an explanation for witness testimonies of having seen the plates have their work cut out for them.)
The testimonies of the two sets of witnesses, the Three and the Eight, don’t merely extend each other by adding redundant numbers. Because of their radically different character, they reinforce each other by requiring that those who would explain them away provide two distinct explanations rather than just one.
And here, perhaps, is a good place to mention the fact that, as many Latter-day Saints are well aware, the official witnesses of the Book of Mormon never denied their testimonies.
- Hiram Page, to choose one example, was severely beaten by a group of anti-Mormon vigilantes on the last day of October 1833, in Missouri. They demanded that he deny his testimony as one of the Eight Witnesses, but he refused. Finally, when it became apparent that he would allow himself to be beaten to death rather than deny what he had seen and “hefted,” they left him alone. It is said to have taken months for him to recover.
- Around the same time, David Whitmer, one of the Three Witnesses, was hauled “at the point of a bayonet” into the city square of Independence, Missouri, where, surrounded by a mob with guns aimed at him, he too was told to deny the Book of Mormon. He refused and, evidently shaken by the firmness of his testimony, they let him go.
- Hyrum Smith spent the time from November 1838 through April 1839 in the dark, cold, and miserable jail at Liberty, Missouri, faithful to his testimony, and he ultimately died for that testimony in Carthage Jail, Illinois, on 27 June 1844. On the morning of his arrest, he read from the Book of Mormon. (See Doctrine and Covenants 135:4-5; Jeffrey R. Holland, “Safety for the Soul” https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2009/10/safety-for-the-soul?lang=eng)
However, not only did they never deny their testimonies, they reaffirmed them on numerous occasions. All of the Three Witnesses left the Church. Two of them, Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris, ultimately returned. Martin, the only Book of Mormon witness who made it to Utah, recounted his testimony on dozens of occasions between his arrival in the Territory in 1870 and his death in 1875. (See the 2018 biography by Susan Easton Black and Larry C. Porter, Martin Harris: Uncompromising Witness of the Book of Mormon.)
David Whitmer never returned. But, as documented in the now-almost-unobtainable 1991 compilation by Lyndon W. Cook of David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness, he bore his testimony on literally scores of occasions before his death in 1888, very nearly sixty years after his experience with the angel and the plates and fully five decades after his separation from the Saints, by which time he was the last surviving witness.
In fact, David Whitmer had his testimony inscribed on his tombstone in the Richmond Missouri Cemetery, so that he could continue to testify after his death: “The record of the Jews and the record of the Nephites are one,” reads the pillar at his grave, which is topped with two carved books. “Truth is eternal.”
But let’s now proceed on to some of the people whom I call the informal or unofficial witnesses to the Book of Mormon, who have something distinctive to offer as a supplement and expansion to the contribution of the Three and the Eight.
Joseph Smith’s father-in-law, Isaac Hale, was anything but a fan. Mistrustful of Joseph and skeptical of his claims, Hale confronted Joseph on the subject, and demanded to see the plates. Joseph responded that he could not see them, but permitted Hale to lift the heavy wooden box that, he said, contained the plates. Hale remained unsatisfied, but his experience is not without value: Joseph was no innocent, chuckle-headed dreamer. There was something in the box. It was either authentic or fraudulent; it wasn’t imaginary.
Joseph Smith’s sister Katharine held and even carried the covered plates on several different occasions, and, in her various recollections of her experience, she often stressed their physical character. They were, she said, “very heavy.”
On one occasion, William Smith, the Prophet’s younger brother was present when the plates were brought into the family home. He later reported that he handled them through a cloth, that he could tell that their shape was square, that they were in the form of pages or leaves that could be raised separately from one another, that these leaves were fastened together by rings on one side.
William made particular mention of their great weight, which, much later, he estimated at roughly sixty pounds; they were too heavy, he said, to be merely wood or stone.
This is reminiscent of a comment from Martin Harris regarding the time, before his encounter with the angel, when he was permitted to hold the plates in a box on his lap. I’ve always found it quite funny, whether or not he intended it as a joke. Martin was struck by the dense weight of the plates: “I knew from the heft,” he said, “that they were lead or gold, and I knew that Joseph had not credit enough to buy so much lead.”
During Joseph Smith’s 30 June 1830 trial for an alleged “breach of the peace” in Broome County, New York, Josiah Stowell, for whom the very young Joseph sometimes worked as a hired hand, testified under oath that he had seen the plates on the day Joseph first brought them home. As Joseph passed them through the window, Stowell caught a glimpse of the plates as a portion of the linen was pulled back. He gave the dimensions of the plates to the court and explained that they consisted of gold leaves with characters written on each sheet.
Lucy Harris is typically remembered among Latter-day Saints very negatively for her opposition to her husband Martin’s involvement with the Book of Mormon and, most dramatically, as the leading suspect in the case of the lost manuscript pages.
But there’s more to the story.
According to Lucy Mack Smith, a “personage” appeared to Lucy Harris one night, rebuking her for her opposition to Joseph and displaying the plates before her such that she could describe them “very minutely.” And the historical record seems indirectly to support this: Lucy Harris gave Joseph $28—worth nearly $770 in 2021—which appears to make her the very first donor toward the publication of the Book of Mormon.
Lucy Mack Smith herself, the Prophet’s mother, claimed to have “examined” both the Urim and Thummim and, through a cloth that didn’t completely block its metallic glint, the breastplate. She gave detailed descriptions of both.
Emma Smith, too, must be considered a corroborating witness to the plates. While doing her housework, sweeping and dusting, she was obliged to move the covered plates around. She was familiar with their outline and shape. Moreover, she said, “They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book.”
Mary Musselman Whitmer, mother to five of the witnesses and, sooner or later, mother-in-law to two more of them, encountered a mysterious stranger in her barn who showed the plates to her, allowing her time to examine them.
So what special significance, if any, do the experiences of the “informal” or “unofficial” witnesses hold? Interestingly, they reported a mixture of the same kinds of experiences, more or less, that the Three and the Eight had. In B. H. Roberts’s language, they received both “ordinary testimony” and “miraculous testimony”:
- Isaac Hale, William Smith, Josiah Stowell, the early Martin Harris, Lucy Mack Smith, Emma Smith, and Katharine Smith had quite mundane encounters with tangible physical objects, much like the Eight Witnesses.
- Lucy Harris and Mary Musselman Whitmer saw the plates but also an angel or messenger, rather like the Three Witnesses.
So they provide additional, corroborating testimony. But I think that they offer more than just that. Again, the informal or unofficial witnesses are not interchangeable—not with each other as individuals nor, collectively, with the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses.
Several arguments that have been deployed against the Three and the Eight, however ineffectually, just can’t be used against the informal witnesses.
A few skeptics have suggested, for instance, that some sort of social dynamic or collective group hysteria explains the experience of the Three and the Eight. But the informal witnesses had their experiences separately. For the most part, Joseph Smith wasn’t even nearby. So collective emotional pressure can’t seem to account for them.
Others have suggested that the Three and the Eight went out expecting to have a “spiritual experience.” And so, being effectively “programmed” for something extraordinary to happen, they did have remarkable experiences—but experiences that were real only in a subjective sense. But this can’t explain the unofficial witnesses. Mary Whitmer was working in the barn, and perhaps feeling a bit resentful. She wasn’t expecting an encounter with the plates and the messenger, so religious fervor can’t explain her report in any obvious or straightforward way. Josiah Stowell and Katharine Smith suddenly had a heavy object thrust at them, under rather tense conditions. Lucy Mack Smith and Martin Harris and Emma Hale Smith and William Smith were just handling and examining tangible objects under very mundane circumstances.
These accounts are difficult to dismiss. “No testimony of direct revelation in the world’s history,” Richard Anderson quite correctly observed, “is better documented than the testimony of the Book of Mormon witnesses.”
More Come Follow Me resources here.
 Eventually, I hope to have all of the witness statements, including David Whitmer’s, up on a new website that we have just launched: https://witnessesofthebookofmormon.org/. But this is a very labor-intensive and time-consuming process, and we’ll probably need to hire some help with it. If anyone would like to support the effort, please contact me at [email protected]
Daniel C. Peterson (Ph.D., UCLA) is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University and founder of the university’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. He has published and spoken extensively on both Islamic and Mormon subjects. Formerly chairman of the board of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) and an officer, editor, and author for its successor organization, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, his professional work as an Arabist focuses on the Qur’an and on Islamic philosophical theology. He is the author of, among other things, a biography entitled Muhammad: Prophet of God (Eerdmans, 2007).