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 then testified 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.
But what you may not have known is that there were several other people who saw or had really cool experiences with the plates. In this episode, I just want to give you some crash-course exposure to some of those informal experiences, and explain why they’re valuable.
Joseph Smith received the golden plates in September 1827. His brother, William Smith, was present when Joseph got home with the plates. He later described how they weren’t allowed to see the plates, but said:
“We handled them and could tell what they were. They were not quite as large as this Bible. Could tell whether they were round or square. Could raise the leaves this way (raising a few leaves of the Bible before him). One could easily tell that they were not a stone, hewn to deceive, or even a block of wood. Being a mixture of gold and copper, they were much heavier than stone, and very much heavier than wood.”
A man named Josiah Stowell was also present, and actually later testified in court that while the plates were passing hands at Joseph’s house, he caught a glimpse of a corner of the plates in a gap in the cloth. He believed in the Book of Mormon for the rest of his life.
Today, whether or not the golden plates ever existed is a controversial issue. But back in Joseph’s hometown, people were totally convinced he actually had them, and there were several attempts made to steal them. Things got so bad that he and Emma moved to Harmony, Pennsylvania, where Joseph continued the translation, with Emma’s help. Emma later said,
“The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen table cloth, which I had given him to fold them in. I once felt of the plates as they thus lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book.”
These are some very casual, non-supernatural, and even accidental experiences attesting to the reality of the plates. But they weren’t all that way, as we’ll see with this next experience. Eventually, persecution caught up to the Prophet in Harmony. Joseph and his new scribe, Oliver Cowdery, moved their efforts to the home of Mary and Peter Whitmer in Fayette.
“When Oliver’s hand and Joseph’s eyes grew tired they went to the woods for a rest. There they often skated rocks on a pond. Mary Whitmer, with five grown sons and a husband to care for, besides visitors, often grew tired. She thought they might just as well carry her a bucket of water or chop a bit of wood as to skate rocks on a pond.
“She was about to order them out of her home. One morning, just at daybreak, she came out of her cow stable with two full buckets of milk in her hands, when a short, heavy-set, gray-haired man carrying a package met her and said, ‘My name is Moroni. You have become pretty tired with all the extra work you have to do. The Lord has given me permission to show you this record:’ turning the golden leaves one by one!” Mary’s frustrations dissipated, and she had a solid testimony of the Book of Mormon for the rest of her life. Now, why am I telling you all of this?
OK, so we’ve talked about the 3 Witnesses, the 8 Witnesses, and now some of these informal witnesses. Personally, I sort of view these informal witnesses as the cherry on top of the official witnesses. They add yet another valuable layer of testimony to the historical record, adding more dots that skeptics must connect in order to explain away Joseph’s claims.
Just as one simple example, Fawn Brodie, a renowned critic of Joseph Smith, believed that the official witnesses “were not conspirators, but victims of Joseph’s unconscious but positive talent at hypnosis.” We’ll address this theory more in-depth in a future episode, but for now, let’s roll with it. Somehow, unconsciously, Joseph is causing people to hallucinate. But then Brodie runs into the informal witnesses, like Emma and William, who independently have very tangible experiences with the plates. Brodie ends up modifying her theory. She writes, “Perhaps Joseph built some kind of makeshift deception.”
But she also had to decide what to do with Mary Whitmer, who was visited by an angelic messenger and saw the plates while Joseph wasn’t even present. Brodie concludes that not only could Joseph unconsciously hypnotize people, he could hypnotize people he wasn’t even around that, frankly, weren’t big fans of his. If that’s true, frankly, I can think of several instances where that talent could have really come in handy in Joseph’s life.
Anyway, you get the point. These additional witnesses are tough to accommodate into theories of conspiracy or deception on Joseph’s part. And while witness statements don’t necessarily prove anything, they do further support the idea that Joseph was telling the truth, and that he actually did have the golden plates as he claimed. I’ve left a few stories from some additional informal witnesses in the description, check out the links while you’re there, and have a great day!
- “5 Women Who Are Witnesses of the Physical Golden Plates,” by Chris Heimerdinger: https://bit.ly/2YYFPI9
- “Hefted and handles: Tangible Interactions with Book of Mormon Objects,” by Anthony Sweat: https://bit.ly/3lIfoQH
- “Empirical Witnesses of the Gold Plates,” by Larry E. Morris: https://bit.ly/2QNYH80
- “How Witnesses Described the Gold Plates,” by Kirk B. Henrichsen: https://bit.ly/2F2flOY
- Very informative video via “LDS Truth Claims”: https://bit.ly/2DmYeqq
- Another informative video via “Latter-day Saint Q and A”: https://bit.ly/3lFymYa
- Yet another informative video via “The Interpreter Foundation”: https://bit.ly/3lLM6R2