Hey guys, so I want to start this episode off by making the following point: The things we know about Christ—His earthly ministry, His miracles, His resurrection, and ascension—we know about those things because Christ left witnesses. Some miracles happened more publicly than others, and some of the most spectacular events were very private. But everything in the scriptures that we know today about Christ, we know because the witnesses went abroad and testified of the things they’d experienced.
It is then up to you to decide for yourself whether you believe their testimony or not. And that can be tough, especially since people can be deceived or flat-out lie.
Now, fast forward to the era of Joseph Smith and his story about the golden plates that would later be translated into the Book of Mormon. Latter-day Saints claim that God once again left witnesses, and you must decide whether to believe them or not. In the past I’ve dedicated an entire episode to each of the first 3 official witnesses of the Book of Mormon plates, there’s also an episode for the official 8 witnesses and another episode for the unofficial witnesses. If you haven’t watched those episodes yet, I highly encourage you to do so. In this episode, we’re going to explore some of the ways people approach those witness testimonies.
OK, so based on my research there are 6 Major theories about what is happening with the formal and informal witnesses of the golden plates. Some people believe the witnesses lied and were co-conspirators with Joseph Smith; some believe they were duped by Joseph’s hypnotic powers; some believe their experiences were the product of religious fanaticism and an overactive imagination; some believe Joseph duped them by forging a set of fake plates, some believe their experiences were an intricate combination of any of the previous theories, and some believe that the witnesses were simply telling the truth.
We’ve already explored pretty much all of these theories more in-depth in the past episodes, but we’ll briefly revisit them here. Theory 1: Even critics of our faith have a hard time adhering to the idea that all of these witnesses were all in on a life-long conspiracy. The data just doesn’t add up. Many of these witnesses later left the Church, were estranged from Joseph, Joseph actually publicly insulted some of them, some publicly believed Joseph had become a fallen prophet, but they never deny their testimonies of the cold, hard reality of the golden plates. If it was all a conspiracy, Joseph would have done everything he possibly could to keep those people close. Alienating them would risk exposure.
Some people say, “Well, back then, a man’s word was all he had. If the witnesses came out and said it was all a lie, their reputations would have been ruined.” First of all, if integrity was that important back then, they never would have lied in the first place. Second, I disagree, I think the anti-Latter-day Saint communities the Saints often lived around would have hailed whistle-blowers as heroes. And third, if they were worried about being branded as liars, they could have easily just claimed that Joseph tricked them. But they never do. The idea that this was all an intricate conspiracy just gushes questions that don’t have good answers.
Theory 2: The idea here is that Joseph could, consciously or unconsciously, induce auditory, visual, and tangible hallucinations in other people, sometimes without even being around them, that people testified had actually happened for the rest of their lives. We’ve already done an entire episode on this theory, so if you want to learn more about it, watch this episode.
Theory 3: The idea here is that all of these witnesses got worked up in a religious fervor that caused them to only imagine they were seeing the plates—that they only saw them via “Second Sight” or with a “spiritual eye,” meaning that in reality, they never actually saw anything. In my opinion, this is a tough one to back up, considering the fact that many of the witnesses adamantly affirmed that it was a real experience, not to mention the fact that many witnesses were notably not in a religious mood when they had their experiences with the plates. Mary Whitmer was milking cows, thinking about kicking Joseph off their property. Emma was dusting. There’s no credible record of the 8 witnesses doing anything particularly religious before Joseph casually showed them the plates.
According to Theory 4, people actually did see golden plates, but they were fake. Of course, there is no evidence that Joseph had the ability to make fake plates, and there’s no evidence that anyone secretly made them for him. Not only does this theory fail to explain the supernatural experiences of some of the witnesses, but there’s also simply no evidence to back it up.
It’s hard to stick with Theory 1, 2, 3, or 4 because while one of those theories could explain the experience of some witnesses, alone each theory fails to explain the experiences of all of the witnesses. And thus: Theory 5.
This theory mixes and matches some or all of theories 1-4. For example, not only could Joseph hypnotize people, but he also managed to create fake plates, and had life-long secret co-conspirators. If you can’t believe these people were simply telling the truth, then a form of Theory 5 is usually where you end up, though it gets quite complicated quite quickly, and proponents of Theory 5 usually have a hard time agreeing with each other on the details.
And, last but not least, we have Theory 6, which is the belief that throughout their lives these men and women simply told the truth. Obviously, I’m a fan of Theory 6 but that doesn’t mean you have to be. I’ll let you and God figure that one out. A good place to start might be by reading the book the witnesses were all talking about. I’ll leave a link to it in the description, along with links to all of the other episodes we’ve done on the witnesses. Have a great day!
- Read the Book of Mormon here: https://bit.ly/2zygfQE
- Episode on David Whitmer here: https://bit.ly/3h0IirB
- Episode on Martin Harris here: https://bit.ly/3iTPbNh
- Episode on Oliver Cowdery here: https://bit.ly/3lQHUzw
- Episode on the 8 Witnesses here: [pending]
- Episode on the informal witnesses here: [pending]
- Episode on the “hypnotism” theory here: [pending]
As kind of an umbrella source on all things having to do with the witnesses, I highly recommend reading Richard Lloyd Anderson’s excellent book, “Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses.”