Joseph Smith, the first president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, referred to as the Mormons was consistent with his account of the history of the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ:
“Moroni, who deposited the plates in a hill in Manchester, Ontario county, New York, being dead and raised again therefrom, appeared unto me, and told me where they were, and gave me directions how to obtain them. I obtained them, and the Urim and Thummim with them, by the means of which I translated the plates; and thus came the Book of Mormon.” (“Chapter 4: The Book of Mormon: Keystone of Our Religion,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, , 57–68.)
He always asserted that there was an angel, there were physical gold plates, and that he translated the Book of Mormon from these plates. I am impressed with how consistent he was.
I am also impressed how those who knew Joseph Smith were equally consistent with the facts. Even though many of them left the Mormon Church, they still corroborated Joseph Smith’s statements. They all affirmed that there was an angel, there were gold plates, and that it was translated by the gift and power of God.
THE THREE WITNESSES
There were two formal groups whose witness buttressed Joseph Smith’s account of the gold plates. The first group is known as the Three Witnesses. They were Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris.
Here is their formal statement, which is present in every copy of the Book of Mormon:
THE TESTIMONY OF THREE WITNESSES
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.
Of course like most formal depositions this has all the facts but none of the emotion surrounding the event. The actual process of seeing the angel and the plates was far more dramatic and exciting.
THE ANGEL AND THE PLATES
From the official church history, here is what happened:
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 fulfillment 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 [in Fayette, NY], 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 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.”
I now left David and Oliver, and went in pursuit of Martin Harris, whom I found at a considerable distance, fervently engaged in prayer. He soon told me, however, that he had not yet prevailed with the Lord, and earnestly requested me to join him in prayer, that he also might realize the same blessings which we had just received. We accordingly joined in prayer, and ultimately obtained our desires, for before we had yet finished, the same vision was opened to our view, at least it was again opened to me, and I once more beheld and heard the same things; whilst at the same moment, Martin Harris cried out, apparently in an ecstasy of joy, ” ‘Tis enough; ’tis enough; mine eyes have beheld; mine eyes have beheld;” and jumping up, he shouted, “Hosanna,” blessing God, and otherwise rejoiced exceedingly. (History of the Church 1:54-55.)
Joseph Smith was relieved to have these additional supports. When the foursome came back from seeing the plates and the angel, Joseph Smith exclaimed the following to his parents:
“Father, mother, you do not know how happy I am; the Lord has now caused the plates to be shown to three more besides myself. They have seen an angel, who has testified to them, and they will have to bear witness to the truth of what I have said, for now they know for themselves that I do not go about to deceive the people, and I feel as if I was relieved of a burden which was almost too heavy for me to bear, and it rejoices my soul that I am not any longer to be entirely alone in the world.” (History of the Church 1:55n.)
These Three Witnesses reinforce Joseph Smith’s claims. After all, to a practical person living in the age of telegraphy and steam engines, talking about an angle with gold plates is just as implausible as it would be to a person living in the age of the Internet and space shuttles. With science and technology, we should know better.
But there it is, this testimony of the Three Witnesses. On his own, Joseph Smith could fabricate as much nonsense as his heart could imagine, so to speak. But because he involved other people, we should take pause. If he was a fraud, what was in it for them to keep the charade going? Was it really in their own self-interest to have their good names attached to something they knew to be underhanded? Of course not.
THE PLOT THICKENS
However, the story of the Three Witnesses takes an interesting twist. All three of the men in the late 1830s, within ten years of seeing the plates and the angel, left Mormonism. Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery eventually reunited with the Church, but David Whitmer never did. Yet none of them, whether in or out of Mormonism, ever denied seeing the plates and the angel.
Their persistence and steadfastness impresses me the most. They had every motive, means, and opportunity to expose Joseph Smith as a fraud. In fact, as disgruntled ex-Mormons, it was in their self-interest to do so. But none of them ever did. They stood by their testimony to their dying day.
THE THREE WITNESSES, YEARS LATER
Here are statements from the Three Witnesses, each speaking individually at the end of their lives:
“I wrote with my own pen the entire book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the Prophet as he translated it by the gift and power of God by means of the Urim and Thummim or as it is called by the book holy Interpreters. I beheld with my eye and handled with my hands the gold plates from which it was translated. I also beheld the Interpreters. That book is true. … It contains the everlasting gospel and came in fulfillment of the revelations of John where he says [that] he saw an angel come with the everlasting gospel to preach to every nation, tongue and people.” (Journal of Reuben Miller, 1848, or Millennial Star, Aug. 20, 1859, 544.)
Unto all nations, kindred, tongues and people unto whom these presents shall come:
It having been represented by one John Murphy of Polo (Caldwell County), Missouri, that I had in a conversation with him last summer, denied my testimony as one of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon….
To the end, therefore, that he may understand me now if he did not then, and that the world may know the truth, I wish now, standing as it were, in the very sunset of life, and in the fear of God, once for all to make this public statement:
That I have never at any time denied that testimony or any part thereof, which has so long since been published with that book, as one of the three witnesses.
Those who know me best, will know that I have always adhered to that testimony. And that no man may be misled or doubt my present views in regard to the same, I do now again affirm the truth of all my statements as then made and published.
He that hath an ear to hear, let him hear; it was no delusion. What is written is written and he that readeth let him understand. And if any man doubt, should he not carefully and honestly read and understand the same before presuming to sit in judgment, and condemning the light which shineth in darkness, and showeth the way of eternal life, as pointed out by the hand of God?
In the Spirit of Christ who hath said follow thou me, for I am the life, the light and the way, I submit this statement to the world, God in whom I trust being my Judge, as to the sincerity of my motives and the faith and hope that is in me of eternal life.
My sincere desire is that the world may be benefited by the plain and simple statement of the truth.
And all the honor be to the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen. (Cited in Joseph Fielding Smith, The Restoration of All Things, 116-117.)
“Do I believe it! Do you see the sun shining! Just as surely as the sun is shining on us and gives us light, and the moon and stars give us light by night, just as surely as the breath of life sustains us, so surely do I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, chosen of God to open the last dispensation of the fulness of times; so surely do I know that the Book of Mormon was divinely translated. I saw the plates; I saw the Angel; I heard the voice of God. I know that the Book of Mormon is true and that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God. I might as well doubt my own existence as to doubt the divine authenticity of the book of Mormon or the divine calling of Joseph Smith.” (Quoted in William Harrison Homer, “The Passing of Martin Harris,” Improvement Era, Mar. 1926, 470.)
As a unified body in early adulthood, as disaffected middle-agers, and as returning prodigals in the sunset of their lives, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris remained true to their written statement.
For me this speaks volumes, not only about the reality of the physical gold plates, and their personal integrity by not denying what they saw, but also the power of the experiences. It was as if the experience of seeing the angel and the gold plates was something more than real. Denying what they actually knew would be like loosing an arm or an eye. We have this self-preservation instinct for our bodies, and it seems like they had a similar instinct for their souls.
Of course the best way to get to know the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon is by reading it yourself. That way you are not dependent upon anyone else’s word. It is just you and God.
And I like that student-teacher ratio.