Before we get started, I need to make a quick correction on last week’s post. I misread something and gave you guys some inaccurate information. Regarding a John Whitmer interview that was published after his death, I said that his brother David disputed the interview. David Whitmer actually disputed the contents of his own interview given that same year to the same person. Sorry for the mix-up!
However, John’s interview does still conflict with every other account given on how the Eight Witnesses saw the plates. Therefore, it should still be taken with a grain of salt—particularly since David claimed his interviewer reported things he never actually said. We’ll be discussing this disputed interview shortly.
The two topics at the end of this Witnesses section have nothing at all to do with one another. To be honest, I don’t even know why Faulk placed either of them under the “Witnesses” subtopic. So, my apologies if this post comes across as disjointed. I’m not sure yet how to transition from one topic to the next, so we’ll just run with it and see what happens.
The first topic on the agenda today is what happened to the plates after the translation was complete:
- Where Are The Plates Now?
After completing the Book of Mormon Joseph had no more use of the plates and he gave up possession of them.
It’s a small thing to nitpick, but I don’t know that I’d have personally phrased in it quite that way. I’m sure Joseph still had plenty of use for them, and they would’ve been a handy evidence of what he was saying. But the plates did bring him great hardship, so I can also see why he may have been relieved to hand them back over once and for all.
Wilford Woodruff records,
“President Young said in relation to Joseph Smith returning the plates of the Book of Mormon, that he did not return them to the box from where he had received them. But he went into a cave in the Hill Cumorah with Oliver Cowdery and deposited those plates upon a table.” (Wilford Woodruff, Leaves From My Journal, December 11, 1869)
Before discussing this journal entry, there are some sourcing issues here. Leaves From My Journal is not organized by date, but by topic. A search of the full text from Project Gutenberg shows that the words “Hill Cumorah” do not appear anywhere in this book, so this is not the source where this quote was taken from. It does come from Wilford Woodruff’s journal from December of 1869, but it’s unclear where Faulk lifted this quote from.
The full quote actually reads as follows:
President Young said in relation to Joseph Smith returning the Plates of the Book of Mormon that He did not returne them to the Box from where He had Received But He went im a cave in the Hill Comoro with Oliver Cowdry & deposited those plates upon a table or shelf & in that room were deposited a large amount of gold plates containing sacred records & when they first visited that Room the sword of Laban was Hanging upon the wall & when they last visited it, the sword was drawn from the scabbard & lew upon da table & a Messenger who was the keeper of the room informed them that that sword would never be returned to its scabbard untill the Kingdom of God was Esstablished upon the Earth & untill it reigned triumphant over Evry Enemy Joseph Smith said that Cave contained tons of choice Treaas
sures & records [sic]
There are numerous such accounts from early Saints, and Faulk follows this excerpt with one from that disputed David Whitmer interview given in 1878:
In an interview, David Whitmer recalls:
“Interviewer – Where are the plates now?
Whitmer – In a cave, where the angel has hidden them up till the time arrives when the plates, which are sealed, shall be translated. God will yet raise up a mighty one, who shall do his work till it is finished and Jesus comes again.
Interviewer – Where is that cave?
Whitmer – In the State of New York.” (David Whitmer, Deseret Evening News, August 16, 1878)
The original letter asking David questions about this interview has been lost to time. All we have is his response, so it’s not clear which facts are in dispute:
“As to what you Say about the correspondence published by P Wilhelm Poulson M.D. August 20th, 1878. I surely did not make the Statement which you Say he reports me to have made, for it is not according to the facts. And I have always in the fear of God, tried to give a true statement to the best of my recollection in regard to all matters which I have attempted to Explain. And I do not now remember of talking to Mr Poulson on the subject referred to.”
What that subject is, we don’t know. There’s a bit in the interview about Martin Harris that conflicts with every other account of the Three Witnesses, so I assume it’s probably that portion, but Whitmer never said so directly. It’s just a guess.
Because we don’t know what he disputed, we need to treat this entire interview with caution. And since Poulson’s interview with David’s brother John also has discrepancies with every other known account, it’s probably safe to say that Poulson is not a reliable source.
According to Wilford Woodruff and David Whitmer, it seems as though they are still here on the Earth in a cave in the Hill Cumorah.
Clearly, Faulk did not actually read this account, because—assuming the account is accurate the way Faulk does—David Whitmer directly contradicts this statement immediately following the quoted portion of the interview:
I—Where is that cave?
He—In the State of New York.
I—In the Hill of Cumorah?
He—No, but not far from that place….
David very clearly says that the plates are not in the Hill Cumorah.
However, again, this account has been disputed, and there are multiple other accounts declaring the same thing—that the Hill Cumorah opened up, and Joseph and Oliver walked in and deposited the plates inside a room filled with a ton of other records, as well as the sword of Laban.
Brigham Young stated it in the Journal of Discourses, for example:
…This is an incident in the life of Oliver Cowdery, but he did not take the liberty of telling such things in meeting as I take. I tell these things to you, and I have a motive for doing so. I want to carry them to the ears of my brethren and sisters, and to the children also, that they may grow to an understanding of some things that seem to be entirely hidden from the human family. Oliver Cowdery went with the Prophet Joseph when he deposited these plates. Joseph did not translate all of the plates; there was a portion of them sealed, which you can learn from the Book of Doctrine and Covenants. When Joseph got the plates, the angel instructed him to carry them back to the hill Cumorah, which he did. Oliver says that when Joseph and Oliver went there, the hill opened, and they walked into a cave, in which there was a large and spacious room. He says he did not think, at the time, whether they had the light of the sun or artificial light; but that it was just as light as day. They laid the plates on a table; it was a large table that stood in the room. Under this table there was a pile of plates as much as two feet high, and there were altogether in this room more plates than probably many wagon loads; they were piled up in the corners and along the walls. The first time they went there the sword of Laban hung upon the wall; but when they went again it had been taken down and laid upon the table across the gold plates; it was unsheathed, and on it was written these words: “This sword will never be sheathed again until the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and his Christ.” I tell you this as coming not only from Oliver Cowdery, but others who were familiar with it, and who understood it just as well as we understand coming to this meeting, enjoying the day, and by and by we separate and go away, forgetting most of what is said, but remembering some things. So is it with other circumstances in life. I relate this to you, and I want you to understand it. I take this liberty of referring to those things so that they will not be forgotten and lost….
And again, remember that we need to take the JoD with a grain of salt, because much of it was altered from the speakers’ original words by the reporters.
But this story was repeated by W.W. Phelps, Heber C. Kimball, Orson Pratt, and others in addition to David Whitmer, Wilford Woodruff, and Brigham Young. Some said they heard it directly from Oliver Cowdery, one from Hyrum Smith, one from Don Carlos Smith, etc. Because there are so many accounts from so many reputable sources, we do have to consider this story as possible.
Joseph himself merely had this to say in the Joseph Smith—History:
…But by the wisdom of God, [the plates] remained safe in my hands, until I had accomplished by them what was required at my hand. When, according to arrangements, the messenger called for them, I delivered them up to him; and he has them in his charge until this day, being the second day of May, one thousand eight hundred and thirty-eight.
The Manuscript History of the Church skips straight from the translation “drawing to a close” in June of 1829 to a revelation from March of 1830, ignoring the return of the plates altogether.
And, according to Lucy Mack Smith:
After these [Eight] witnesses returned to the house, the angel again made his appearance to Joseph, at which time Joseph delivered up the plates into the angel’s hands.
So, from Joseph’s own words, all he says is that he returned the plates to Moroni. But from multiple second- and thirdhand sources, the story emerges of Joseph and Oliver returning the plates to the cave in the Hill Cumorah, sometimes with Hyrum and others joining them, and sometimes alone.
Surely the Church must be in possession of the plates as there is a visitor’s center at the Hill Cumorah.
Well, no. The Hill Cumorah in New York is almost certainly not the Hill Cumorah/Ramah from the Book of Mormon. Because the hill in New York is a drumlin made of gravel and dirt, it’s geologically impossible for it to hold a cave of the size needed to hold all of the Nephite records. Any cave of that size would collapse in on itself.
Mormon makes it clear that he buried all of the other Nephite records at Cumorah, not the golden plates. Moroni wandered for more than 30 years after losing the battle at Cumorah. Why would he go back just to bury the plates, when he could have buried them anywhere? It makes far more sense than he eventually made his way to New York by the direction of the Spirit and buried them in the hill in New York, where they waited for Joseph to be led to them.
And just because the Church has a visitor’s center at the hill we call Cumorah doesn’t mean they’ve done full excavations of the hill and have everything from inside it in their possession. What a silly argument. Besides, the Book of Mormon prophesies that the plates will be returned after they’re translated, and after the witnesses come forth to testify of its truthfulness:
Wherefore, when thou hast read the words which I have commanded thee, and obtained the witnesses which I have promised unto thee, then shalt thou seal up the book again, and hide it up unto me, that I may preserve the words which thou hast not read, until I shall see fit in mine own wisdom to reveal all things unto the children of men.
As far as the cave itself goes, it’s an interesting set of questions. Did that event happen the way the second- and thirdhand sources claim, or was it simply a hand-off to Moroni? If it did happen, where is the cave? What else is in there? And most importantly, when will we have access to the records and other artifacts inside?
Personally, I believe that the cave does exist and that Joseph and Oliver did place the plates inside when they returned them to Moroni. I believe, due to the composition of the hill in New York, that this event was one of two things: either a purely visionary, symbolic experience, or, much more interestingly, a literal, physical transportation to the original Cumorah.
For it came to pass after I had desired to know the things that my father had seen, and believing that the Lord was able to make them known unto me, as I sat pondering in mine heart I was caught away in the Spirit of the Lord, yea, into an exceedingly high mountain, which I never had before seen, and upon which I never had before set my foot.
Maybe Joseph and Oliver were also “caught away in the Spirit of the Lord” and went somewhere they never had before seen, and upon which they never had before set their feet. The cave repository they stepped into seems to be the original Cumorah, and it seems to still be intact. We don’t know where that hill is, and that is probably with very good reason. The Lord is keeping it hidden from the knowledge of man until the time is right to bring the contents forth, as He promised He would.
And to me, that is just such a cool idea. That’s probably why I lean toward it, if I’m being honest, but it is what I believe likely happened. To me, it accounts for all of the evidence.
Switching topics now, we’re going to move on to the succession crisis after Joseph’s death. I told you there was no easy way to segue between the two!
Here’s what Faulk had to say about this topic:
- The Succession Crisis
For roughly six months after Joseph and Hyrum Smith’s deaths, several people competed to assume the role as prophet and leader of the Church. Claiming to be the new rightful successor were: Sidney Rigdon, Brigham Young, James Strang, Samuel Smith, William Smith, Joseph Smith III and others.
Just to clarify, Joseph Smith III was a child and did not make this claim in the months after Joseph Jr.’s death. Some of his family members felt the position should be reserved for him until he was old enough, however. And he did obviously believe that the position had been given to him when he was an adult, but he did not publicly vie for the position as an 11-year-old boy.
After several hours of searching, I also can’t locate any instance where Samuel Smith put himself forward as the successor to Joseph or Hyrum. He was the one who retrieved their bodies from Carthage, and he had to evade a violent mob in order to arrive there. He wounded his side during the melee, and upon his return to Nauvoo, became very ill. He died about three weeks after Joseph and Hyrum did. The closest I can come to corroborating him as a potential successor is a note copied from William Clayton’s Nauvoo diaries and eventually published by who was then a BYU grad student named Andrew Ehat. According to Ehat’s Master’s thesis, when discussing who might take over as leader of the Church:
That [Newell K.] Whitney did not have in mind either of the two surviving members of the First Presidency, he made perfectly clear to Clayton, for he concluded his interview by saying that “Joseph…said that if he and Hyrum were taken away, Samuel H. Smith [the Prophet’s brother] would be his successor.” The week before, however, Lucy Mack Smith wanted Samuel to be the Patriarch.
I can’t corroborate this further with Clayton’s Nauvoo diaries, because while the Church Historian’s Press has announced that they will be published and transcribed, this has not yet happened.
And, just so we’re all clear how murky this information is, Newell K. Whitney reported it to Clayton, who recorded it in his journal. From the notes and comments about the Clayton diaries on the By Common Consent blog, it appears that historians James B. Allen and Dean Jessee transcribed the diaries either independently at the same time, or while working together on the project. Ehat apparently took his notes from the Allen/Jessee transcripts, not from the diaries themselves.
So, this one little nugget of information is coming to us at least fourth-hand, possibly fifth-hand if Ehat went through both Allen and Jessee to get the information. At this point, be cautious in taking that declaration of Joseph’s to be anything more than just a rumor. But even if he did say it, Joseph named several people as his successor at different times, and it was not his decision to make. It was the Lord’s.
Brigham Young also didn’t present himself as the next leader of the Church. Instead, he put forward the combined efforts of the Quorum of the Twelve, because together, they held all of the Priesthood keys necessary to lead the Church. In his journal, he wrote:
The first thing which I thought of was, whether Joseph had taken the keys of the kingdom with him from the earth; brother Orson Pratt sat on my left; we were both leaning back on our chairs. Bringing my hand down on my knee, I said the keys of the kingdom are right here with the Church.
The others on Faulk’s list, however, did indeed make a claim to Joseph’s now-vacated role.
- Sidney Rigdon, first counselor in the First Presidency to Joseph Smith, argued that by virtue of revelation from the Prophet himself, he should be rightful heir to Joseph’s position.
Doctrine and Covenants 20:6:
And again, verily I say unto thy brethren, Sidney Rigdon and Frederick G. Williams, their sins are forgiven them also, and they are accounted as equal with thee in holding the keys of this last kingdom.
Um. Not exactly. D&C 20:6 actually says:
But after repenting, and humbling himself sincerely, through faith, God ministered unto him by an holy angel, whose countenance was as lightning, and whose garments were pure and white above all other whiteness;
It’s about Joseph Smith and Moroni, not Sidney Rigdon. Faulk apparently meant to cite D&C 90:6 instead.
This revelation was given in March of 1833, 11 years before Joseph’s death. While Sidney was a member of the First Presidency all that time, Joseph did try to remove him but was outvoted. The historical record of Joseph’s reaction to this outcome is in dispute. The Times and Seasons reported that Joseph was glad of the outcome and hopeful that Sidney would rise up again to his calling. The History of the Church, however, says that Joseph washed his hands of the situation and of Sidney. It’s unclear which is the most accurate description or why the record was changed.
The other details, though, are correct. Sidney did use that revelation, as well as several others, in his attempts to wrest control of the Church away from the Twelve. He was obviously unsuccessful in this attempt.
- James Strang asserted that, unlike the others, he had physical proof of his prophetic calling. He produced a 3-page letter, supposedly written by Joseph Smith, naming Strang as successor. While the wording of the letter is somewhat ambiguous and the handwriting does not match Joseph’s, it still convinced many members of the Church to follow Strang. Included were all the members of the 3 and 8 witnesses, and all members of the Smith family including Emma, except Samuel, and Joseph Sr.
Again, this is not very accurate. Yes, James Strang did indeed produce this letter and make those claims. However, there were also two exposés written by people who claimed to help him perpetrate his hoaxes.
It would have been pretty difficult for Samuel or Joseph Sr. to join Strang’s church, since both of them were dead by that point. And Oliver Cowdery never joined Strang’s church, either. There is only actual evidence of three of the Witnesses or Smith family members believing any of his claims: Martin Harris, John Whitmer, and William Smith—and all of them were short-lived. David Whitmer was listed as an antagonist by Strang himself. Katharine Smith Salisbury later disputed that any of the female members of her family ever followed Strang either, and any evidence to the contrary was manufactured during a time when they were consumed by grief. Emma also rejected Strang’s claims, as she initially favored Sidney taking over until her son was old enough to do it himself. After Sidney backed out of the fight, she remained religiously unaffiliated until her son joined the Reorganized Church of Latter-day Saints.
- Fighting between individual competitors lasted 3 years until the most senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Brigham Young, was voted “President of the whole Church of Latter Day Saints” by the remaining members of the Twelve.
Three years? Not exactly, no. That vote took place on April 7th, 1845, 10 months after Joseph’s death. And on February 4th of that same year, they’d already voted Brigham “president of the Kingdom of God” and “legal successor of president Joseph as our head.” It wasn’t publicly known yet, but that’s when it happened.
- While Joseph Smith and five others were imprisoned at Liberty Jail in Missouri, his young son, Joseph III, was brought to visit on several occasions. Imprisoned with Joseph was apostle Lyman Wight. Lyman did not agree with Brigham’s new position as leader of the Church because he witnessed Joseph Smith ordain his oldest son, Joseph III, to be his successor.
“Joseph called on me shortly after we came out of [Liberty] jail to lay hands with him on the head of a youth and heard him cry aloud, ‘You are my successor when I depart,’ and heard the blessings poured on his head. (Lyman Wight, Saints Advocate, Vol.7, September 1884) Who was the youth Lyman referred to? “The fifties assembled should have called on all the authorities of the church down to the lay members from all the face of the earth, and then have called on young Joseph, and held him up before the congregation of Israel to take his father’s place in the flesh!” (Lyman Wight, Gospel Herald, Voree, WI, August 31, 1848)
Yes, Lyman Wight did claim that he’d witnessed this blessing take place. Joseph III did also remember receiving a blessing when he visited his father in Liberty Jail, but was too young to remember its contents. The issue is, however, that Lyman Wight had a habit of reading his own wishes into revelations, according to Wilford Woodruff. He ignored conditional blessings and misremembered the wording of other blessings. That makes it impossible to know whether he was interpreting the blessing correctly or not. It may have been something of a patriarchal blessing or a father’s blessing, and not the Priesthood ordination Wight claimed it was. Because we don’t know what was said, and because Heavenly Father made His wishes known as to the identity of Joseph’s successor, we know we can’t accept the naming of Joseph III as Joseph’s successor as being valid.
None of the 3 scribes of the Book of Mormon, Emma Smith, Sidney Rigdon and Oliver Cowdery, wanted to be affiliated with the new Brigham Young-led Church. None of the 3 Witnesses wanted to be part of Brigham’s Church and none of the 8 Witnesses did either. While Samuel Smith and Joseph Sr. did not end up leaving the Church like the rest, it is important to note that the Church was financially supported them at the time. While Samuel Smith and Joseph Sr. did not end up leaving the Church like the rest, it is important to note that the Church was financially supported them at the time.
There were at least seven scribes for the Book of Mormon, as we covered a few weeks ago, and Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris, both scribes, were also both rebaptized into the Brigham-led Church. Of the Eight Witnesses, all three Smith family Witnesses were dead by the time Brigham and the Twelve took over after Joseph’s death. So were Christian Whitmer and Peter Whitmer, Jr. That leaves a grand total of four Witnesses who were alive at the time of Joseph’s death and who never returned to the Church.
As for the claim that the Smith family members were being financially supported by the Church, I searched for an hour and didn’t find anything to support that claim. Thomas Faulk certainly didn’t present any evidence to back up his words.
Samuel Smith was an industrious farmer and a Nauvoo city alderman, among other things. Joseph Smith, Sr., was both financially devasted by the fall of the Kirtland Safety Society and in declining health for several years before he passed, so it’s entirely possible that the Church did support him financially for a time. But, whether true or not, I personally suspect that Joseph being their family member had a lot more to do with them supporting his calling as a prophet than anything else did.
- No scribe was allowed to see the plates.
Sure, unless you count Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, Christian Whitmer, John Whitmer, and Samuel Smith, all of whom were Book of Mormon Witnesses as well as scribes during the translation.
- All of the witnesses saw the plates spiritually, not physically.
Sure, if you discount every firsthand account any of them ever made.
- Signatures of the witnesses are the handwriting of Oliver Cowdery.
Sure, because the only full manuscript that still exists today is the printer’s manuscript, which was a copy made by Oliver and delivered to the printer in order to keep the original manuscript safe.
- All witnesses of the plates left the Church; save 2 members of the Smith family.
Sure, unless you also count Hyrum Smith, who was a Witness and who didn’t leave the Church. Peter Whitmer, Jr. and his brother Christian both died as faithful members before the rest of their family left the Church, too. And let’s not forget that Oliver and Martin both later returned to the Church despite leaving for a time. Only four of the eleven Witnesses left and never returned in this lifetime, and none of them ever recanted their testimonies despite their differences with Joseph. They each continued to testify of the truthfulness of the statements they signed until the day they died.
How much credibility can we give the testimonies of those that have claimed to see the plates when the records show that it was seen in visions, not physically as the Church teaches? How much trust can we put in the statements of these witnesses when all of them that weren’t being financially supported by the Church ended up leaving?
Well, since none of those objections are true, I personally happen to think they have a lot of credibility. When I think about all that those men endured—the beatings, the near-death experiences, personal and professional blows, the loss of their reputations, in some cases the loss of their families and even their lives—the fact that they stood by their testimonies through everything tells me that they are men of integrity who were telling the truth about the things they saw and experienced. I find them to be entirely credible.
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.
Robert Martin says
Once again thanks for doing all this research. God bless you in your endeavours to clarify Church history.
Tania Torea says
Dear Sarah, what an amazing and important work you are doing. Thank you.
Tania Torea – New Zealand.
Nathan Turner says
Thanks for all you’ve written. This has been a huge testimony building experience for me to see the evidences of the Restoration.
I know it’s hard to ignore the haters. You have more friends than enemies, and the wicked taketh the truth to be hard.
Raleigh Excavating says
Sarah! It’s fascinating to explore the different accounts of what happened to the plates and the possible existence of the cave. Your analysis has piqued my curiosity and left me wanting to dive deeper into this mysterious history chapter. How do you think the discovery of the cave might impact our understanding of these events?
Sarah Allen says
@Raleigh Excavating, I would be very surprised if that cave was discovered in upstate New York. I personally suspect the original Cumorah/Ramah is in Mesoamerica. I also suspect that the Lord will continue to keep that cave hidden u til He determines that the time is right. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of all of those unread records, so I hope to see the day when it’s discovered.
Sarah Allen says
Thank you all for the very kind words. They meant a lot to me, and I appreciate you guys.