Hey guys, so Joseph Smith claimed to translate the Book of Mormon from an ancient set of gold-colored metal plates, which he had in his possession. These plates were not on public display for anyone to come and scrutinize, but eleven official witnesses and a handful of informal witnesses did testify throughout their lives that the plates were real. We’ve already done a bunch of episodes on those witnesses. Go watch them if you haven’t yet.
Despite their varying life circumstances, none of the official witnesses ever denied their testimony—even after ex-communication from the Church and/or alienation from Joseph Smith. In short, it’s extremely difficult (even for many critics) to believe that all of these people were part of a lifelong conspiracy. As an alternative explanation, some people believe that Joseph Smith had the ability to hypnotize people. And it’s that theory we’re going to take a look at in this episode.
The popular anti-Latter-day Saint author Fawn Brodie wrote several decades ago that the official witnesses, “were not conspirators, but victims of Joseph’s unconscious but positive talent at hypnosis.” More recently, Dan Vogel suggested something similar: “… Smith at least knew of the possibility of one person causing another to hallucinate, perhaps through strong suggestion or something like hypnosis.”
Initially, I was struck by the claim that not only was Joseph a highly skilled hypnotist but that he became so unconsciously. Why unconsciously? Well, probably because Fawn Brodie was aware that even the term “hypnosis” wasn’t a thing until a guy named James Braid introduced it in the 1840s, well after the witnesses had their experiences. Before that, in its less reputable and more primitive form, hypnosis was called animal magnetism or mesmerism. It was a pseudoscience used in the medical field that was believed to help relieve pain.
It was first practiced by Franz Mezmer in Vienna, and then Paris, where it gained the attention of King Louis the 16th. The King ordered a team of scientists, including the American liaison Benjamin Franklin, to look into the practice. Their subsequent 1784 report basically said, “Yeah, this isn’t really a thing,” which understandably hurt Mezmer’s reputation quite a bit.
“Magnetism slowly regained its footing in France after a brief intermission for the French Revolution; in the United States, by contrast, the successful introduction of the practice by Charles Poyen was still fifty years out. So it would be fair to say that animal magnetism came to the United States as a falsehood before it appeared there as a truth.” That Frenchman you just heard about, Charles Poyen, didn’t arrive in the United States to popularize animal magnetism until 1834, long after the witnesses saw the plates.
Thus, understanding the minuscule possibility that Joseph Smith actually knew anything about the kind of hypnotism he’s described as practicing, I understand a little more why Fawn Brodie concluded, “Well… he must have been doing it unconsciously.”
Now, this brings up a lot of questions. For example, Mary Whitmer was visited by an angelic messenger and shown the plates while she was milking the cows. Joseph wasn’t near her, and she was actually on the verge of kicking him out of their home because he went to skip rocks on his downtime instead of helping out with chores.
Some explain her experience away by asserting that it was the result of post-hypnotic suggestion. If we’re assuming Joseph’s hypnotic power was unconscious, we’re assuming that at some point he unconsciously hypnotized Mary Whitmer, and then unconsciously suggested to her that milking the cows would be a great time to have a visionary experience.
Or what about Emma Smith? She related that the covered plates “lay on a small table in their living room in their cabin on her father’s farm, and she would lift and move them when she swept and dusted the room and furniture. She even thumbed the leaves as one does the leaves of a book, and they rustled with a metallic sound.” Faced with these kinds of casual, matter-of-fact witnesses, even Fawn Brodie saw that hypnosis wasn’t going to cut it. She wrote,
“Perhaps Joseph built some kind of makeshift deception.” And thus the plot thickens even further. The grand irony is that many of those who refuse to believe the plates existed due to a lack of evidence very quickly turn to other theories that quite noticeably lack evidence.
There is no evidence that Joseph had the resources, ability, or stealth to secretly forge a set of fake plates. There’s no evidence of a mysterious blacksmith lurking behind the curtain that just decided to keep his mouth shut for his entire life. And if Joseph did just tape some tin foil to a brick or something like that (which is also contrary to the evidence but we’ll roll with it) leaving that out in the open covered only by a cloth is probably not the best way to keep a secret.
It’s also worth noting that many of the witnesses were still alive when these hypnotism theories started to appear. One skeptic suggested to David Whitmer that he “had simply been moved upon by some mental disturbance or hallucination, which had deceived him into thinking he saw” the plates. David replied “‘No sir! I was not under any hallucination, nor was I deceived! I saw with these eyes, and I heard with these ears. I know whereof I speak!”
But you are certainly free to believe as you see fit. It’s not the first nor the last time people will point at hypnotism to shrug off these kinds of events. In fact, some people, like author Ian Wilson, use the same reasoning to shrug off the miracles of Christ. That’s the deal with witness testimony. It’s up to you to decide whether you believe it or not. And if you’re still trying to decide what you believe about the witnesses of the Book of Mormon, I’d non-hypnotically suggest that you read the book they’re all testifying about, and if you want to dive deeper, check out the links and notes in the description. Have a great day!
- 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
- “The Book of Mormon Witnesses and Their Challenge to Secularism,” by Daniel C. Peterson: https://bit.ly/331beuu
- Preview of Emily Ogden’s, “Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism”: https://bit.ly/3lTsD19
- “Mesmerism and Mormonism,” BYU Studies: https://bit.ly/356gCPR
- Ian Wilson and his claims that Christ used hypnotism (which Latter-day Saints obviously do not believe is true, but just in case you’re interested): https://bit.ly/2JjRIUA / https://bit.ly/3lL9v5n