In studying the history of Joseph Smith and the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, referred to as the Mormons, we emphasize Joseph Smith’s own testimony of the Book of Mormon, that book of additional scripture that is another testament of Jesus Christ. We also talk about the testimony of the Three Witnesses, three men who were allowed to see an angel and the physical gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated.
Additionally, there were eight other men who were privileged to see the gold plates. But unlike the Three Witnesses, these Eight Witnesses had a somewhat less dramatic experience. B. H. Roberts explained:
“The difference between the testimony given the Three Witnesses and that given to the Eight, is that the former was attended by a splendid display of the glory and power of God and the ministration of an angel, while the latter was attended by no such display but was a plain matter-of-fact exhibition of the plates by the Prophet to his friends, and they not only saw the plates, but handled them and examined the engravings upon them.” (History of the Church 1:58n)
WHY THE WITNESSES?
Even without the angel and a voice from heaven, seeing the gold plates would be something wonderful. Of course we are not so much concerned with the material upon which a message was written, but the message itself. That is why Mormons are so enthusiastic about the Book of Mormon—it is a crucial second witness of Christ and His gospel.
And that it why it is important to have Joseph Smith’s account, and the accounts of the Three and Eight Witnesses. They testify to the reality and physicality of the gold plates. The Book of Mormon had to come from somewhere, and their deposition answers that question. We need this foundational question settled before we can go to the next set of questions, such as “What is the message of the Book of Mormon?” “Why is it important to have a second witness of Christ?” “How can the Book of Mormon help me with my practical, day-to-day problems?”
But first thing first.
This is the testimony of the last group, the Eight Witnesses:
THE TESTIMONY OF EIGHT WITNESSES
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.
JOSEPH SMITH, SEN.
PETER WHITMER, JUN.
SAMUEL H. SMITH
In this testimony, two things impress me. Actually, it is two words: “curious” and “heft.”
Curious. Nowadays, we associate curious with a certain mischievous chimpanzee, or with Alice tumbling into Wonderland. However, in the archaic sense curious means “accomplished with skill or ingenuity.” What they meant to say was that the engravings on the plate were minutely detailed and skillfully carved.
If you look at artifacts similar to the Book of Mormon, such as the two Roman plates currently on display at the Brigham Young University Harold B. Lee Library, you see that they are rather exquisite. (Click here for images of the Roman Plates)
This exquisiteness, or curiousness, is an impressive detail. These witnesses used words which imply that they looked over the plates with microscopic precision. I get the impression that they were actually describing something that saw, but did not quite understand, given their academic background.
Heft. Then there is the word “heft.” This odd word is related to the words “hefty,” heavy,” and “heave.” Instead of a visual detail, this is a tactile detail. It emphasizes the plate’s weight. As all eight testify, the plates were rather heavy, so they had to heave them to each other after holding and examining them.
Joseph Smith said that the plates were gold, and that they were six inches by six inches by eight inches. Given the density of gold (and assuming that they were a solid block for guesstimation purposes), they should be about 200 pounds. The consensus of witnesses was that they weighed about 60 pounds. Since we do not know how alloyed the gold was, and they did not actually weigh them with scientific instruments, this is all we can go on.
SCIENCE, FACTS, FAITH
But the salient point is that the testimony of the Eight Witnesses has both internal and external consistency. They agree that the plates were finely engraved, and then make special note of their weight. This corresponds to both archaeological evidence and the physical properties of gold.
Of course this does not prove that Mormonism is true. It does, however, weed-out frivolous objections, and makes what they said scientifically and historically possible and plausible.
I say plausible because if you eliminate two miracles—the angel and the miraculous translation process—Joseph Smith’s story is no different than the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Someone digs up an unexpected archaeological find, and then … !
(By the way, we have a better account of the origins of the Book of Mormon that we do of the Rosetta Stone.)
But this is something that we all need to find out for ourselves. There is nothing I could say to persuade anyone that the Book of Mormon is true any more than I can drop a box full of artifacts and say “Artifact A plus artifact B plus artifact C. Thus, Q.E.D, the Book of Mormon is true.”
All I can suggest is that a person read the book on their own and pray about it. This eliminates any mortal (and therefore fallible) middleman.
THE LIVES OF THE EIGHT WITNESSES
Like the lives of the Three Witnesses, the lives of the Eight Witnesses are rather tortuous. Some remained true to Mormonism, some fell away, but none ever denied their testimony.
Here is the breakdown:
Christian Whitmer. Remained faithful, died 1835.
Hiram Page. Excommunicated in 1838, died in 1852.
Jacob Whitmer. Excommunicated in 1838, died in 1856.
Joseph Smith, Sr. Remained faithful, was the first Church Patriarch, and died in 1840.
Peter Whitmer, Jr. Remained faithful, and died of tuberculosis in 1836.
Hyrum Smith. Remained faithful, was the Associate President of the Church and second Church Patriarch. Martyred with Joseph Smith in 1844.
John Whitmer. He left the church in 1838, and stayed in Missouri until his death.
Samuel H. Smith. Became the first missionary of the Mormon Church, remained faithful, and died in 1844.
As with the Three Witnesses, the fact that several left Mormonism is not so much a comment on Mormonism as it is a comment on humanity and people’s power of choice. The key point is that though they were disaffected and estranged, they never retracted their testimony.
Joseph Smith did not stand alone in regards to the Book of Mormon. He gave consistent testimony about the angel, the plates, and the translation. Additionally, he allowed two separate groups of several men to see the plates. They, in turn, confirmed his claims. And not one of the witnesses ever retracted or denied their testimony, including the men who later left Mormonism.
Joseph Smith, the Three Witnesses, and the Eight Witnesses are a twelve-man jury in affirming the reality of the gold plates and the Book of Mormon. And I find that rather impressive.