What Did the Eight Book of Mormon Witnesses Actually “Witness”?

metal 1

It seems almost beyond doubt that if Joseph Smith did not have in his possession actual “gold plates” of the ancient and Nephite variety, then he most likely produced an imitation with which to deceive his family and friends, including the eight witnesses.  An imitation which, for the most part and as far as we can glean from the sources, was kept in a box or covered up with cloth.

Richard Anderson, notable LDS scholar, dismisses the possibility of an imitation artefact for the following reason:

“…Other critics acknowledge sincerity and suppose Joseph Smith constructed an imitation.  But the Eight Witnesses were tradesmen and farmers who worked with materials and would recognize a clumsy counterfeit”.

Anderson’s assessment is problematic for the following reasons:

  • The assumption that the witnesses would not have been fooled by an imitation artefact because they were “tradesmen and farmers” is poor to say the least.  If their expertise was in ancient antiquities, for example, then it seems likely that they would have been able to spot a pale imitation.  But there is nothing intrinsic in the work of trade or farming that would mean the eight witnesses were in any better position to spot an obvious fraud than those of many other professions.

 

  • Anderson’s assumption that if the artefact was a fraud then it was a “clumsy counterfeit”.  Why should it have been clumsy?  It is perfectly possible that Smith fashioned/or had another fashion an artefact that, by mere appearances at least, could have looked genuine to the untrained eye.  Would such a task of metalwork have been beyond him?  Well, we have no reason to think that Smith had direct experience of working with metal, that’s true … but then again, no reason to discount the possibility either.  But note, we are not required here to imagine Smith fashioning a pocket watch or something of similar complexity – but, instead, a reasonably modest creation of sheets of engraved metal bound together by metal rings.  Unlike a complex pocket watch which would take considerable expertise to put together, engraved metal plates, crudely or even carefully produced, would not seem to be beyond the capability of someone with Smith’s background – a man used to working with his hands.  Consider the following from Dan Vogel:

 

His [Smith’s] remark that a plate was not quite as thick as common tin may have been meant to divert attention from the possibility that they were actually made from some material otherwise readily available to him.  Indeed, his prohibition against visual inspection seems contrived to the skeptic who might explain that the would-be prophet constructed a set of plates to be felt through a cloth. The construction of such a book would have been relatively easy.  There were scraps of tin available on the Smith property and elsewhere in the vicinity, … Using a pair of metal shears, it would have been easy to cut a number of 6×8-inch sheets.  A hole punch, nail, or some similar instrument could have been used to make three holes along one edge of each plate.  Then it would have been a matter of passing three wires or rods through the holes and bending them into rings.  A book made of tin plates of the dimensions (6x8x6 inches) described by Smith would have weighed between fifty and sixty pounds, corresponding to the weight that was mentioned by eye-witness accounts”.

  • If the plates were made of pure gold, or even, as some apologists have argued, a gold-copper mixture, the plates should still have weighed well in excess of a hundred pounds, but all who ‘hefted’ the plates gave as their estimation a fifty-sixty pound weighting.  If we add the 1826 trial where it was claimed that Smith had defrauded his employer, Josiah Stowall, of treasure which he claimed was hidden beneath the earth, we see a “treasure-digging” context in which it is no stretch to imagine Smith fashioning an imitation artefact with the intent to deceive.  Which is more likely, we may ask, that an angel of God directed a fraudulent-treasure-digger to find real gold, or that a fraudulent-treasure-digger created his own fraudulent treasure?  Furthermore, the production of James Strang’s “Voree Plates” in 1845 surely provides a plausible precedent in this regard, showing how a similar artefact was most likely produced in the same era by a Mormon charismatic (described by witnesses as plates with the thickness of sheets of tin, bound together by a metal ring and upon which there were ancient engravings of curious workmanship), an artefact presented as ancient, though thought to be a hoax-imitation – but sufficient to convince the untrained eyes of many of its authenticity.  Strang went on to secure the testimonies of seven witnesses to the authenticity of his “ancient plates” and led his own off shoot strand of Mormonism of which there are thousands of adherents even today.  If Strang was capable of producing his own plates, as the evidence suggests, and fooling many of his contemporaries into believing that they were ancient … then why not Smith?
  • Finally, how can Anderson speak with such confidence about what it would have taken or not taken to fool eight persons from the 19th century into accepting an imitation as an ancient historical artefact?  What one person finds suspicious, another may find persuasive and there is no failsafe way of predicting this outcome beforehand. Surely, we cannot speak with any certainty about how sophisticated a fraud would need to be in order to fool Richard Anderson, let alone eight individuals from early 19th century frontier America.

 

Lucy Mack Smith, speaking of the circumstances in which the eight witnesses viewed the plates, makes the following assertions:

“In a few days we were follow by Joseph and Oliver and the whitmers who came to make us a visit and also to make some arrangements about getting the book printed soon after they came They all that is the male part of the company repaired to a little grove where it was customary for the family to offer up their secret prayers. as Joseph had been instructed that the plates would be carried there by one of the ancient Nephites. Here it was that those 8 witnesses recorded in the Book of Mormon looked upon the plates and handled them of which they bear witness in the following words. . . . After the witnesses returned to the house the Angel again made his appearance to Joseph and received the plates from his hands. We commenced holding meetings that night in the which we declared those facts that we knew to be true.”

It should be noted that Anderson finds Lucy’s account trustworthy and authoritative in his article on the subject.  But there is a problem.  The testimony of the eight witnesses is often trumpeted by apologists as distinctively different from the testimony of the three on the grounds that there was no supernatural or “visionary” aspect to their experience. They viewed the plates in the cold light of day and in full “sobriety” as it were.  Thus the narrative goes: Joseph led the men with plates in toe to a grove whereupon they viewed and handled the plates without there being any supernatural component to their experience.  The implication, of course, being that the testimony of the eight may carry more empirical weight than the testimony of the three who spoke of meditative prayer, the pre-condition of faith, an angelic visitation, and a spiritual view of the sacred Nephite objects.  The latter is clearly less persuasive as evidence of tangible “gold plates” than the former.

But note the following line from Lucy’s account:

“… Joseph had been instructed that the plates would be carried there by one of the ancient Nephites”. 

Again, from an account that Anderson deems reliable, we hear of the plates being taken to the grove for the eight to view, not by Smith, but by an angel of God – Moroni we can assume.  Anderson conveniently glosses over this claim by Joseph’s Mother probably because he knows that it taints the testimony of the eight, aforeclaimed to be a ‘non-visionary’ event, with the air of the supernatural, which, as was mentioned above, is a significant feature of the testimony of the three and one reason among others why it has been thought to lack the empirical credentials of the testimony of the eight.

To add to Lucy’s claim that the plates were to be “carried” to the grove “by one of the ancient Nephites” and thus affirming a supernatural context in which the plates were viewed – we have the following account by Theodore Turley where he quotes part of a conversation with John Whitmer:

“Whitmer asked do you hint at me? Turley replid “if the cap fits you wear it. all I know, you have published to the world that an angel did present those plates to Joseph Smith.” Whitmer replied “I now say I handled those plates. there was fine engravings on both sides. I handled them.” and he described how they were hung and they were shown to me by a supernatural power. he acknowledged all. Turley asked him why the translation is not now true, & he said “I cannot read it, and I do not know whether it is true or not.”

Anderson is quick to reject the reference to a “supernatural power” as an interpolation on the part of Turley, reflecting Turley’s own belief that the experience of the eight must surely have mirrored the spiritual/supernatural experience of the three but which was not something, according to Anderson, claimed by John himself.  Anderson points out that nowhere else in the accounts of John Whitmer’s experience does this supernatural claim appear in his description.  He omits, however, the fact that Turley’s account does accord with Lucy’s claim that the plates were to be carried to the grove by an angelic visitor and thereupon viewed by the eight witnesses.  In other words, shown by a “supernatural power”.  This is an important convergence between the accounts particularly in light of the primacy of place that Anderson gives to Lucy’s account in his article.

In connection with Lucy’s account, we have this very impressive account from John Whitmer.  Here he is being questioned by a Mr Poulson on his experience of viewing the plates:

“I said: I am aware that your name is affixed to the testimony in the Book of Mormon, that you saw the plates? He—It is so, and that testimony is true. I—Did you handle the plates with your hands? He—I did so! I—Then they were a material substance? He—Yes, as material as anything can be. I—They were heavy to lift? He—Yes, and you know gold is a heavy metal, they were very heavy. I—How big were the leaves? He—So far as I recollect, 8 by 6 or 7 inches. I—Were the leaves thick? He—Yes, just so thick, that characters could be engraven on both sides. I—How were the leaves joined together? He—In three rings, each one in the shape of a D with the straight line towards the centre. . . . . I—Did you see them covered with a cloth? He—No. He handed them uncovered into our hands, and we turned the leaves sufficient to satisfy us……I—In what place did you see the plates. He—In Joseph Smith’s house; he had them there. . . . I—Were you all eight witnesses present at the same time? He—No. At that time Joseph showed the plates to us, we were four persons, present in the room, and at another time he showed them to four persons more.

Now, Whitmer’s description is impressive and assuming there have been no significant errors in recording his words (a concern merited by the fact that David Whitmer complained that Poulson had misreported some of his words in their interview), it must rank as possibly the best witness account confirming the actual existence of a bound metal artefact.  But note, given the points above about the relative ease with which Smith might have produced an imitation artefact, the limits of what one might rationally conclude from Whitmer’s account should strike the reader as obvious.

The problem is that elements of Whitmer’s account conflict with Lucy Mack Smith’s account (an account which Anderson claims ought to be given primacy over Poulson’s interview with Whitmer).  Namely, the fact that Lucy has the eight witnessing the plates in a grove to which an “ancient Nephite” delivers the plates in person.  Whereas, Whitmer divides the witnesses into two groups, four of whom observe the plates, followed by the other four.  But crucially, Whitmer is very clear that this all took place at Joseph’s house and that they were “present in the room” when they viewed the plates.  According to Anderson, this is an “odd detail” and most likely an error from either John or Poulson.  But these are not small discrepancies.  For establishing exactly where, how and in what order an event occurred are surely bedrock requirements if we are to determine the veracity of an event and the various claims surrounding it, especially when those claims are of an extraordinary nature – which, in this case, would be the viewing of an ancient, gold, Hebrew artefact delivered by a reanimated dead person.  Confusion over basic details in the matter of extraordinary claims, creates further grounds for skepticism.

In conclusion, those who accept the witness accounts as being an accurate reflection of events in history and powerful evidence of the veracity of the Book of Mormon would do well to consider the following: imagine the witnesses giving evidence in a formal trial.  What would a judge and jury make of the claims that the plates were observed “in the spirit”, “with spiritual eyes”, “with an eye of faith”, “shown to me by a supernatural power”, and delivered for inspection by a dead “ancient Nephite”?  What would they make of the inconsistencies among those giving evidence in support of the claims – concerning basic details like where the alleged event took place, how many were present and in what order events followed, and by whom exactly was the artefact shown?  What would you make of these claims if you were a jury member?

I think it obvious that testimonies of this nature would not and could not be taken seriously by a court whose purpose is to establish what really happened in the real world and not what may or may not have happened in the private world of human minds where nothing can be verified.   But if the witness accounts would not be good enough for a jury, why are they good enough for believing Mormons?  Yes the Book of Mormon may be inspired scripture, but the witness accounts constitute bad evidence.

And finally, if the image of Joseph Smith banging and cutting metal to create his own plates strikes you as far fetched or even preposterous, compare that with the image of an angel, a reanimated corpse, appearing out of nowhere in Joseph’s bedroom and then vanishing into thin air – glowing white and hovering above the floor, speaking in seventeenth century King James English and directing Joseph to a nearby hill to unearth an ancient record made of gold… I think I know which of these two images is the more preposterous.

 

Notes

Richard Anderson –

http://publications.mi.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1399&index=4

Dan Vogel –

http://www.hope-of-israel.org/mormonplates.html

Gold/Copper plates –

Seven Claims of The Book of Mormon: A Collection of Evidences, by John A. Widtsoe and Franklin S. Harris, Jr., Zion’s Printing and Publishing Company, 1937, pp. 38-39

James Strang –

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_the_Law_of_the_Lord#Witnesses

 

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