Hey guys, so here’s the deal: Joseph Smith claimed that the Book of Mormon was translated from an ancient set of gold-colored metal plates. Joseph was permitted to show this ancient record to several people who could then testify to the world that they were actually real. Their testimonies are found in the pages preceding each Book of Mormon. We have the Testimony of the Three Witnesses and the Testimony of the Eight Witnesses.
We’ve already learned about each of the 3 witnesses in these episodes. And in this episode, we’re going to look at the 8 witnesses. So let’s get goin’.
So the story of what the 8 witnesses saw is very simple. In June of 1829 in the Manchester/Palmyra area, Joseph Smith brought 8 people out to a spot where the Smith family would sometimes pray, and he simply showed those 8 people the plates. There were no angels, there was no celestial glory. It was one dude showing the plates to 8 other dudes on a normal summer afternoon.
Four of the witnesses were brothers: Christian, Jacob, Peter, and John Whitmer, along with their brother-in-law, Hiram Page. The remaining 3 were two of Joseph Smith’s brothers—Hyrum and Samuel—as well as his father, Joseph Smith Sr.
They testified that Joseph “has shown 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 … 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.”
And sure enough, those 8 witnesses held to their testimony for the rest of their lives—even Jacob Whitmer, John Whitmer, and Hiram Page, who all later either left or were excommunicated from the Church, continued to testify that those plates were real. They could have thrown Joseph under the bus and denied the whole thing. It would have been so easy to just say, “You know what… I think Joseph pulled the wool over our eyes.” But they never do.
There’s one cool story about John Whitmer that occurred in 1839 in Missouri, not long after he’d been excommunicated. The Saints had been forced out of Missouri, but a guy named Theodore Turley stuck around to settle some of the Church’s financial business. John Whitmer shows up with 5 other guys (the infamous anti-Latter-day Saint Samuel Bogart among them), and these guys start pressuring Turley to deny his testimony.
Turley turns to John and asks John what he thinks about the Book of Mormon. Having been one of the witnesses of the plates. John replies, “I now say I handled those plates—there was fine engravings on both sides. I handled them.” Naturally, Turley then asked him if he accepted the translation of the plates. Speaking of the engravings on the record John said: “I cannot read it, and I do not know whether it is true or not.”
In other words, even at his worst, in a strictly anti-Latter-day Saint community, right in front of people hostile to the faith, all John can say is, “Well, yes, the plates are absolutely real … but I couldn’t read the engravings so who knows what they said!”
Many years later in 1876 after some of the bitterness had faded, John Whitmer told Herman Smith, “I conclude you have read the Book of Mormon, together with the testimonies that are thereto attached; in which testimonies you read my name subscribed as one of the Eight witnesses to said Book. That testimony was, is, and will be true henceforth and forever.”
Now, some people learn about the witnesses and think, “Well, lots of people throughout history have testified to stuff that never happened, so why should I believe these guys?” Others are suspicious of the fact that all of these 8 witnesses were either friends or family of Joseph Smith.
You can go that route if you want to. You could approach the witnesses of Christ’s resurrection in a similar way. “Maybe the disciples just aren’t to be taken seriously. Maybe it’s all a conspiracy, seeing as how the only witnesses were conveniently Christ’s own followers.” You can find ways to shrug off the witnesses if you want to.
Contrary to the totally casual nature of their experience, some people believe these witnesses must have been worked up in a religious fervor, and they must have imagined the whole thing. Others believe Joseph simply induced a mass hallucination. Still others think that Joseph somehow managed to secretly create fake plates. And some even believe Joseph showed the witnesses authentic ancient plates that he’d legitimately discovered, and he just made the rest up.
For me personally, guys, those theories just don’t do it for me, especially when you take into account the experiences of the other 3 Witnesses and the several unofficial witnesses whom we have yet to talk about.
I believe that they were telling the truth and that they truly did handle and heft the Book of Mormon plates. But ultimately, it’s up to you to decide for yourself whether you accept the testimony of the witnesses or not. If you want to investigate further, a good place to start might be by reading the Book of Mormon. I’ve also thrown a few solid resources and notes in the description that might help. Have a great day!
- Transcript and additional notes on our website: [We’ll put a link here when ready]
- Video: Did Martin Harris actually see the golden plates?: https://bit.ly/2QUX8p3
- Video: Did David Whitmer actually see the golden plates?: https://bit.ly/3h0IirB
- Video: Did Oliver Cowdery actually see the golden plates?: https://bit.ly/3lQHUzw
- Quick-fact sheet about the witnesses: https://bit.ly/32LrH6j
- Richard Lloyd Anderson on the Whitmer family: https://bit.ly/31x7bH4
- “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses,” by Richard Lloyd Anderson: https://bit.ly/2ED8MlP
- “The Eleven Witnesses,” by Steven C. Harper: https://bit.ly/2YG3vkx
- “Evaluating the Book of Mormon witnesses,” by Steven C. Harper: https://bit.ly/2Qtz9wP
- Theodore Turley writing about John Whitmer: https://bit.ly/3hrvDix
- Biography of John Whitmer via Joseph Smith Papers: https://bit.ly/2QxihoY
- Did John Whitmer claim his witness of the plates was supernatural? https://bit.ly/3b6Djoa
I HIGHLY recommend Richard Lloyd Anderson’s book, “Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses,” for anyone looking to learn more about any of the witnesses of the Book of Mormon plates.