I have deep respect for all of the Book of Mormon witnesses. The things they went through because of their testimonies are, in parts, both devastating and galvanizing. Putting their names onto those documents truly became a trial by fire. And, as is usually the case with lifelong trials, sometimes they rose to the occasion and sometimes they didn’t. That makes them relatable and human, but it also makes them inspiring examples that we can follow in our own difficult situations.
Over the past two years, I’ve learned something about standing by your testimony in the face of vicious opposition. Since I first started my CES Letter series, and especially since I put my real name and face to it, I’ve had people attack my intelligence, my character, my writing ability, and my appearance. I’ve had people call my testimony, sincerity, and integrity into question. I recently compiled a list of more than 60 personal insults directed at me on a fairly large LDS-related subreddit that still stand today, despite direct appeals to moderators that I consider friendly acquaintances. I’ve had Jeremy Runnells and John Dehlin sic their followers on me in attempts to flood my social media accounts with abuse. I’ve had people attempt to dox me and publish my private information. I’ve had people call me the vilest names you can think of. I’ve even had someone spit on me because I was willing to stand up for my testimony.
And my experiences are nothing compared to what the Witnesses had to endure for their testimonies.
We’re going to spend the next few weeks talking about those Witnesses and their experiences. The Letter For My Wife spends the next six pages on this topic, and though I haven’t read them in detail yet, I did skim over them in preparation for this post. From what I saw when I did, we’re in for quite a ride.
Losing confidence in the truthfulness of Joseph’s claims made me think of the witnesses to the plates and how their testimonies lend credibility to the entire narrative; however, research turns up issues of their own.
The Witnesses do lend credibility to Joseph’s account, that’s true. That isn’t their only purpose, but it’s a big one. I’m curious to see exactly what that “research” entails, though, because by now, Faulk has already given us numerous incorrect assertions as fact. Either he’s been blatantly lying, or his research up to this point has failed him.
These included the fact that no scribe ever saw the plates, the 3 and 8 witnesses only saw the plates with their spiritual eyes, the printed testimony did not reflect literal events, and nearly all the witnesses left the Church.
Okay, I guess we’re starting early on the inaccuracies. Everything in this sentence is incorrect. Several of the scribes eventually saw the plates in person; the Witnesses saw the plates with their actual eyes; the printed testimony absolutely reflected literal events; and only about half the witnesses fully left the Church, though none of them ever recanted their testimonies despite their disagreements with Joseph Smith. I’m sure we’ll delve into all of those points in more detail as we go on.
- The Scribes
During the translation process, Joseph was either behind a curtain or the plates sat underneath a cloth in a box in another room. No scribe to the translation process (Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris or Emma Smith) was ever allowed to see the plates.
Um. So, at this point, I have to ask: does Faulk actually know who the Witnesses were? Because both Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery did see the plates. It didn’t happen during the translation process, granted, but they did see them.
There were other scribes, as well. John Whitmer was another Witness who served as a scribe at some point during the translation and also saw the plates. According to Emma Smith, her brother Reuben Hale was another of the early scribes. Reuben was not one of the Witnesses. And according to Evidence Central, Samuel Smith and Christian Whitmer, both Witnesses, also served as scribes.
So, there are seven scribes that I’m aware of, and of those, five physically saw the plates at some point.
Emma only felt the plates through a cloth on the table.
This is true. According to her final testimony, however, she also never asked to see them:
Q. Are you sure that he [Joseph] had the plates at the time you were writing for him?
A. The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen table cloth, which I had given him to fold them in. I once felt of the plates, as they thus lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. 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…
Q. I should suppose that you would have uncovered the plates and examined them?
A. I did not attempt to handle the plates, other than I have told you, nor uncover them to look at them. I was satisfied that it was the work of God, and therefore did not feel it to be necessary to do so.
Major Bidamon [Emma’s second husband] here suggested: Did Mr. Smith forbid your examining the plates?
A. I do not think he did. I knew that he had them, and was not specially curious about them. I moved them from place to place on the table, as it was necessary in doing my work.
In her own words, she knew he had them, but she wasn’t very curious and didn’t need to see them. I personally would have been dying to see them, but apparently, we are very different women!
It’s interesting to me that she doesn’t remember Joseph ever forbidding her from looking at them, though. According to her father, Isaac Hale, Joseph did forbid him from seeing them, and that’s why he wouldn’t allow the plates into his home:
Soon after this [Joseph and Emma moving to Harmony], I was informed they had brought a wonderful book of Plates down with them. I was shown a box in which it is said they were contained, which had, to all appearances, been used as a glass box of the common sized window glass. I was allowed to feel the weight of the box, and they gave me to understand that the book of plates was then in the box—into which, however, I was not allowed to look.
I inquired of Joseph Smith Jr., who was to be the first who would be allowed to see the Book of Plates? He said it was a young child. After this, I became dissatisfied, and informed him that if there was anything in my house of that description which I could not be allowed to see, he must take it away; if he did not, I was determined to see it. After that, the Plates were said to be hid in the woods.
As soon as they were able, Joseph and Emma moved out of Hale’s home and into a smaller cabin elsewhere on his property. This cabin is where they kept the plates and where most of the translation happened.
Emma’s statement is interesting for another reason. In the famous revelation given to her in which she’s called an elect lady, verse 4 says:
Murmur not because of the things which thou hast not seen, for they are withheld from thee and from the world, which is wisdom in me in a time to come.
I always assumed this was regarding the plates and her desire to see them. But maybe it was about something else entirely. It was a personal revelation given to her, and only she and the Lord can really know what was in her heart and mind during that time. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, I’m more than happy to take Emma at her word. As strange as the idea is to me personally, maybe she honestly didn’t care whether she ever saw the plates or not. Different people have different wishes and desires.
Why wouldn’t Joseph want anybody to see the plates?
Because he was commanded not to show them to anyone who wasn’t authorized to see them. It wasn’t his decision. Joseph wasn’t shy about explaining that. It’s even in our scriptures:
Again, he [Moroni] told me, that when I got those plates of which he had spoken—for the time that they should be obtained was not yet fulfilled—I should not show them to any person; neither the breastplate with the Urim and Thummim; only to those to whom I should be commanded to show them; if I did I should be destroyed.
I mean, that’s a pretty good reason, don’t you think? If an angel of the Lord told me not to do something or else I’d be destroyed, I wouldn’t do it either.
Faulk then lists his sources for the information so far:
(By the Gift and Power of God, Elder Neal A. Maxwell January 1997 Ensign quoting David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness, ed. Lyndon W. Cook, , p173) and (Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” pp289–90).
I find these sources to be very curious. I’ve already linked to Emma’s testimony twice and quoted a portion of it. It conveniently answered the question he had about Emma not seeing the plates, but he neglected to quote from that part.
I don’t know if he didn’t actually read it and is pulling his words from a different source entirely, or if he’s deliberately misconstruing his actual sources. The third option is that he didn’t understand what his sources were saying. Personally, though, I think Faulk has shown that he’s smart enough to understand a simple Q&A without difficulty, which only leaves the other two options.
As for the other source listed, I’m a big fan of Elder Maxwell. Again, Faulk seems to be citing things he hasn’t fully read, or is deliberately lying about what he read. The part of the article where the David Whitmer interviews was cited gives further clarification on this point:
With regard to the physical circumstances of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his scribe, Martin Harris was quoted as saying there was a blanket or curtain hung between himself and Joseph during the translation process. If Martin is accurately quoted, perhaps this occurred when the Prophet was copying characters directly from the plates in the sample to be taken to Professor Charles Anthon, since the dates mentioned are several months before Martin Harris’s brief scribal duties began. I say this because although David Whitmer mentions a blanket being used—it was only to partition off the living area in order to keep both the translator and scribe from the eyes of visitors (see David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness, ed. Lyndon W. Cook, , 173).
In fact, Elizabeth Anne Whitmer Cowdery, Oliver’s wife, said, “Joseph never had a curtain drawn between him and his scribe” (quoted in John W. Welch and Tim Rathbone, “The Translation of the Book of Mormon: Basic Historical Information,” F.A.R.M.S. report WRR–86, p. 25). Emma likewise said of her days as scribe, early on, that Joseph dictated “hour after hour with nothing between us” (“Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” 289).
Maxwell said specifically that there was nothing between Joseph and his scribes during the translation process, even if the plates were covered by a cloth. Faulk appears to take this to mean that the scribes never saw the plates, which is demonstrably untrue for five of the seven listed above. One of the other two testified that she was not specifically forbidden from seeing them, though she never asked if she could.
So, that only leaves one of the seven scribes who definitely did not have the opportunity to see the plates uncovered. That is very different from Faulk’s claim that “no scribe ever saw the plates.”
- The 3 Witnesses
The History of the Church records the event where Martin Harris, David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery became the first witnesses to the gold plates after Joseph Smith. Joseph describes how the men gained their witness of the plates in a purely visionary setting.
Again, this statement is somewhat misleading, in more ways than one. For one thing, The History of the Church was written by scribes and compiled from multiple different sources. Those sources included dictation by Joseph, but also other documentation like letters, journal entries, meeting minutes, etc. It was written in Joseph’s voice as if he was the one speaking, but often, he wasn’t. This particular section probably was dictated and approved by Joseph, but it’s difficult to know that for certain.
JS dictated or supplied information for much of A-1 [this notebook], and he personally corrected the first forty-two pages before his death. As planned, his historian-scribes maintained the first-person, chronological narrative format initially established in the volume. When various third-person accounts were drawn upon, they were generally converted to the first person, as if JS were directly relating the account. After JS’s death, Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, George A. Smith, and others modified and corrected the manuscript as they reviewed material before its eventual publication….
Aside from the material dictated or supplied by JS prior to his death, the texts for A-1 and for the history’s subsequent volumes were drawn from a variety of primary and secondary sources including JS’s diaries and letters, minutes of meetings, the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, church and other periodicals, reports of JS’s discourses, and the reminiscences and recollections of church members. … While it remains difficult to distinguish JS’s own contributions from composition of his historian-scribes, the narrative trenchantly captures the poignancy and intensity of his life while offering an enlightening account of the birth of the church he labored to establish.
So, just bear in mind, while the following quotation is probably from Joseph’s own words, there’s the possibility that it was taken from elsewhere and rewritten to sound like Joseph speaking. This is within the first 42 pages of the notebook, so he definitely approved it, but it’s unclear whether or not he actually said it.
The other and more important way that Faulk’s sentence is misleading is his characterization of the following account as being a “purely visionary setting.” That is not what any of the witnesses ever claimed. We’ll go into that in detail a bit later in this post, but this is not an honest claim by Faulk.
“Not many days after the above commandment was given, we four, viz., 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 the above revelation—that they should have a view of the plates. 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 these promises.
According to previous arrangement, I commenced by vocal prayer to our Heavenly Father, and was followed by each of the others in succession. We did not at the first trial, however, obtain any answer or manifestation of 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 should 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 then 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.” (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, vol.1, pp.54–55)
Nowhere in this quote does Joseph say this wasn’t a real experience, or that it was “purely visionary.” Look at the language he does use. He describes it as a literal, physical event that they both saw and heard.
Joseph Smith, David Whitmer, and Oliver Cowdery saw an angel and the plates after Martin Harris withdrew from the group. Joseph goes on to tells how he, “…left David and Oliver and went in pursuit of Martin Harris, whom I found at a considerable distance fervently engaged in prayer.” Then they both joined in prayer, and according to Joseph, “the same vision was opened to our view.” Remember, the word “vision” means dream not reality.
No, the word “vision” does not always mean “dream.” It can mean that, but it can also mean a bunch of other things. According to the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary, in Joseph’s day it also meant, among other things, “the act of seeing external objects” or “actual sight.” It also has a definition that says, “In Scripture, a revelation from God; an appearance or exhibition of something supernaturally presented to the minds of the prophets, by which they were informed of future events.” Revelation can occur in your mind, as this particular definition says, but it can also occur in front of your eyes, as one of the other definitions says.
As the book of Ether explains, the things we see with the eye of faith are things we also see with our physical eyes:
And there were many whose faith was so exceedingly strong, even before Christ came, who could not be kept from within the veil, but truly saw with their eyes the things which they had beheld with an eye of faith, and they were glad.
When Christ appeared to Mary and His apostles after His death, or His appearances on the Mount of Transfiguration, or Joseph’s experience in the Sacred Grove, it was both a spiritual and a physical experience. Particularly in the case of Christ appearing to the Apostles, where they touched the nail wounds in His hands and thrust their hands into the spear wound on His side, it was not a dream. He was physically there in front of them.
However, in each of those experiences transfiguration was necessary. Moses explains:
But now mine own eyes have beheld God; but not my natural, but my spiritual eyes, for my natural eyes could not have beheld; for I should have withered and died in his presence; but his glory was upon me; and I beheld his face, for I was transfigured before him.
By this definition, seeing something with your spiritual eyes doesn’t mean seeing it in a dream. It simply means being transfigured.
That it’s not an experience any of them can easily describe makes perfect sense to me. I doubt I’d have the vocabulary to explain what that truly feels like, either. Would you?
It is important to note that Joseph never claimed to have carried the plates into the woods where they prayed.
Faulk doesn’t quote anyone suggesting otherwise, so I’m not sure what the point of this statement is. We already knew Joseph didn’t carry the plates into the woods with him when he knelt with the Three Witnesses in prayer.
Praying to see the plates in the woods seems rather odd if Joseph actually possessed physical plates.
No, it doesn’t. One of the conditions of seeing the plates was that they had to demonstrate faith. What better way to do that than by praying?
Why was prayer necessary to see the plates if they were in fact, a physical object?
Joseph tells us exactly why in that same account quoted above:
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 the above revelation—that they should have a view of the plates.
They were praying for permission. “The above revelation” states that it’d be by their faith that they could obtain a view of the plates, the sword of Laban, the interpreters, the breastplate, and the Liahona. It also says that after they’ve obtained that faith, they’ll see them with their eyes, not in a dream. The prayer was to demonstrate that faith.
Martin Harris’ behavior also seems strange if the plates actually existed.
Without any elaboration on what he means here, this is difficult to respond to. Martin Harris’s behavior doesn’t come across as odd to me at all, so it’s unclear what Faulk actually means. Is he talking to the secondhand statements from decades later claimed to be by Martin? Or his actual firsthand statements, and if so, which ones? Is he talking about his behavior in the time period leading up to this miraculous experience? Or the behavior immediately afterward, or years later? Is he talking about Martin leaving the Church for a time, or his returning? Or the activity he got up to in the interim?
Faulk doesn’t clarify. That’s something I’ve noticed he does a lot. He’ll make a statement and then not elaborate on it, leaving us to guess what the issue is and what he thinks about it. Because these things aren’t personally controversial to me, I have to take time to figure out what might be considered controversial about them, and then respond to that. It’d all be a lot easier if Faulk just explained why he thinks something is controversial.
- The Testimony of The 3 Witnesses is Not Accurate
Printed in the Book of Mormon is the Testimony of the Three Witnesses. It is not an accurate account of the events, but a reconstruction of multiple experiences.
It’s actually both an accurate account of the events and a reconstruction of the experience of Joseph and Martin, as well as that of Joseph, David Whitmer, and Oliver Cowdery.
“And we also testify that we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates… 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.” (Testimony of the Three Witnesses, The Book of Mormon)
Yeah, that’s an accurate retelling of the events. Read their full testimony:
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.
At no point does it say that they all saw those things at the exact same time and place. It just says that they all had those experiences. Martin had the same experience as David and Oliver did; he just had it a short time later.
It was a brief summary of the events, but it was an honest one. Nothing in that testimony was a lie or a distortion of the truth. They were bearing their testimonies of the things they’d seen, not giving a moment-by-moment account of every single thing that happened in those woods.
The language in this statement makes it seem as if all four men experienced this event together.
Where does it say anything of the kind? I just quoted the entire thing, and it doesn’t say or even imply that anywhere. It simply says that it happened.
However, the History of the Church passage clearly shows that the Martin Harris’ vision happened separately.
Right, so does every Church history book or manual on the topic. This isn’t something the Church ever tried to hide. This was the story told right from the very beginning, in the very first history they ever tried to write of the organization of the Church. At no point did anyone ever claim that Martin had his vision at the same time that David and Oliver had theirs. This is just Thomas Faulk inventing controversy out of nothing.
Not only that, but later statements made by David Whitmer and Martin Harris show that the angel brought additional objects for them to see. This is curiously left out of the signed Testimony of the Three Witnesses.
1 Behold, I say unto you, that you must rely upon my word, which if you do with full purpose of heart, you shall have a view of the plates, and also of the breastplate, the sword of Laban, the Urim and Thummim, which were given to the brother of Jared upon the mount, when he talked with the Lord face to face, and the miraculous directors which were given to Lehi while in the wilderness, on the borders of the Red Sea.
2 And it is by your faith that you shall obtain a view of them, even by that faith which was had by the prophets of old.
3 And after that you have obtained faith, and have seen them with your eyes, you shall testify of them, by the power of God;
4 And this you shall do that my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., may not be destroyed, that I may bring about my righteous purposes unto the children of men in this work.
5 And ye shall testify that you have seen them, even as my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., has seen them; for it is by my power that he has seen them, and it is because he had faith.
6 And he has translated the book, even that part which I have commanded him, and as your Lord and your God liveth it is true.
7 Wherefore, you have received the same power, and the same faith, and the same gift like unto him;
8 And if you do these last commandments of mine, which I have given you, the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; for my grace is sufficient for you, and you shall be lifted up at the last day.
9 And I, Jesus Christ, your Lord and your God, have spoken it unto you, that I might bring about my righteous purposes unto the children of men. Amen.
Again, this is not obscure or buried information. It’s in the D&C for everyone to read. In their Witness statement, they testified of the Book of Mormon and the reality of the golden plates, shown to them by an angel of the Lord. Did they need to say that the angel also showed them other objects at the same time?
I don’t personally think so, especially when people were already trying to physically harm Joseph in order to steal the plates. If they knew he also had a sword and a golden ball and ancient armor, wouldn’t they try even harder to get them?
You might disagree and feel that they needed to list all of those things. That’s okay; you’re entitled to your opinions. But it seems clear to me that between the Witness statement and the revelation in the D&C, we know what happened that day. The accounts given by those involved backed this information up in its entirety, as well as added additional detail. Again, it’s not hidden information.
“We not only saw the plates of the Book of Mormon but also the brass plates, the plates of the Book of Ether, the plates containing the records of the wickedness and secret combinations of the people of the world down to the time of their being engraved, and many other plates … there appeared as it were, a table with many records or plates upon it, besides the plates of the Book of Mormon, also the Sword of Laban, the Directors i.e., the ball which Lehi had-and the Interpreters [Urim and Thummim].” (David Whitmer, interview by Orson Pratt, Book of Mormon Compendium, 1878, pp.55-56)
Why fail to mention the other plates and important Nephite artifacts?
I gave one possible reason already—the persecution they were already enduring from those trying to steal the plates. Maybe they didn’t want to draw further attention to them and risk putting their lives in danger.
Or perhaps they didn’t feel it was necessary, since the golden plates were the truly important part. The others, while cool objects to see, were not vital, essential parts of the translation process. You could make a solid case for the interpreters being vital, of course. However, Joseph’s use of his own personal seer stone for part of the translation process tells us that, while important, they weren’t necessary.
I don’t know why they didn’t include them in the Witness statement. I didn’t write it, and neither did any of you. Maybe we would have phrased it differently in their place; who knows? But we know what happened, and the Witness statement covers the essential parts of their experiences. As I said, it was a brief summary of what happened, not a moment-by-moment recounting of the details. Maybe I just don’t expect as much from other flawed human beings as Thomas Faulk seems to. I don’t know.
I do know that the Witnesses saw what they said they saw. The Holy Ghost has confirmed this to me many times over. He’ll confirm it to you too, if you only ask. Remember, we have to ask before it’ll be given to us. We have to seek before we’ll find. We have to knock before the door will be opened unto us. We have to do our part, and then the Holy Ghost will do His.
Sarah Allen is relatively new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. An avid reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her friends lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises. That’s when she began sharing what she’d learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.