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What did they really see?

by Janis Hutchinson

The printed statement of the three witnesses, as contained in the front of the Book of Mormon, states that they saw the plates and the engravings. Another statement of eight witnesses adds that they “hefted” the plates.

Many ask, “Certainly, they wouldn’t testify to something unless it was true! Or, would they?”


Where did the printed statement of the three witnesses, Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer come from? Did they actually write the testimony themselves? No!

It is believed that Joseph Smith wrote the statement for them to sign. This appears to be evident since, at that time, he knew none of the witnesses had ever seen the plates with their natural eyes, as they themselves later admitted. Yet, when he worded it, he deliberately gave the impression they had.

Stretching or misrepresenting the truth was no problem for Smith, for he had altered other revelations. According to Apostle William E. McLellin, the testimony of the Twelve Apostles contained in the Introduction to the Doctrine and Covenants, was a “base forgery” and Smith had seriously altered other revelations. David Whitmer, one of the three witnesses, accused Joseph of the same thing.


Whatever they saw and by whatever means, it was not in the dimension of physical reality.

Martin Harris admitted he never saw anything with his natural eyes. He stated: “I never saw the golden plates, only in a visionary or entranced state.”

Further, he admitted the same to the printer who was working on the first edition of the Book of Mormon:

During the printing of the first edition of the Book of Mormon, he (Harris) was in the print shop while the type was being set for the testimony of the three witnesses. The printer, John Gilbert, asked him if he had seen the plates with his naked eye. “Martin looked down for an instant, raised his eyes up, and said, ‘No, I saw them with a spiritual eye.”

He further told a Palmyra lawyer, who asked him: “Did you see the plates and the engravings upon them with your bodily eyes?” He responded:

I did not see them as I do that pencil-case, yet I saw them with the eye of faith; I saw them just as distinctly as I see anything around me - though at the time they were covered with a cloth.

Harris further let the cat out of the bag when he revealed that the other eight witnesses saw no plates either. On April 15, 1838, Stephen Burnett gave the following report:

I have reflected long and deliberately upon the history of this church & weighed the evidence for & against it - loth to give it up - but when I came to hear Martin Harris state in public that he never saw the plates with his natural eyes only in vision or imagination, neither Oliver nor David & also that the eight witnesses never saw them & hesitated to sign that instrument for that reason, but were persuaded to do it, the last pedestal gave away . . . . I therefore three weeks since in the Stone Chapel gave . . . the reasons why I took the course which I was resolved to do, and renounced the Book of Mormon. . . .

I was followed by W. Parrish, Luke Johnson & John Boynton, all of who concurred with me, (sic) after we were done speaking M. Harris arose & said he was sorry for any man who rejected the Book of Mormon for he knew it was true, he said he had hefted the plates repeatedly in a box with only a tablecloth or a handkerchief over them, but he never saw them, only as he saw a city through a mountain. And said that he never should have told that the testimony of the eight was false, if it had not been picked out of (him) but should have let it passed as it was.

So, in reality, the witnesses saw nothing!

“Well,” some might insist, “Doesn’t the ‘eye of faith’ count? Harris and the eight wouldn’t have signed a statement if they hadn’t seen something!”

What they saw, was a product of their own mind. Remember, by Harris’ own admission, everything he and the others saw, came as a vision. Historical accounts reflect that the witnesses were effectively induced to see the plates in a vision because of Smith’s mesmerizing methods.

First, Smith persisted in badgering them by telling them that only the faithful could see them. That kind of remark would intimidate the best of men.

Persuasion of this nature is similar to the ploy Mormon missionaries presently use. To the Investigator (potential convert), they read Moroni’s promise at the end of the Book of Mormon, which says that if one asks God in the name of Christ, with a sincere heart, the truth will be manifest by the Holy Ghost.

This can’t help but suggest to the investigator that if he doesn’t get an answer, he or she is not sincere. It doesn’t take much for the investigator to be intimidated, especially when the missionaries say others have received an answer. “What’s wrong with me,” the Investigator asks of himself. “Why won’t God give me a confirmation?”

As a result of this kind of pressure, many Investigators keep praying until they do get some kind of manifestation. It may be goose bumps or some kind of sensation; but, they finally take it as an answer, even if it is produced by their own psyche.

However, for Mormons, that’s okay. The Mormon Church teaches that feelings are the way God authenticates truth. That should sound an alarm, for that is not what the Bible teaches!

One should use a combination of methods. First, pray to initiate guidance in (1) researching the facts; (2) comparing the facts with God’s Word; (3) receiving counsel from other Christians; then, (4) pray to confirm what has been gleaned. Decision making must utilize every avenue at one’s disposal. In other words, God gave us a brain to use. He doesn’t expect us, as Josh McDowell says, to commit “intellectual suicide.”

Similarly, Smith used the same devious manipulative method of intimidation. Playing upon the witnesses’ emotions, he engineered them into conjuring up a vision by telling them God was not allowing them to see the plates because they were “unworthy” and needed to “repent”. With that kind of pressure, individuals will see exactly what they are expected to see.

An example of how Smith coerced the eight witnesses to see a vision, was told to the Governor of Illinois, Thomas Ford, by more than one of Smith’s key men.

They [Smith’s men] told Ford that the witnesses were “set to continual prayer, and other spiritual exercises.” Then at last “he assembled them in a room, and produced a box which he said contained the precious treasure. The lid was opened; the witnesses peeped into it, but making no discovery, for the box was empty, they said, ‘Brother Joseph, we do not see the plates.’ The prophet answered them, ‘O ye of little faith! how long will God bear with this wicked and perverse generation? Down on your knees, brethren, every one of you, and pray God for the forgiveness of your sins, and for a holy and living faith which cometh down from heaven.’ The disciples dropped to their knees, and began to pray in the fervency of their spirit, supplicating God for more than two hours with fanatical earnestness; at the end of which time, looking again into the box, they were now persuaded that they saw the plates.”

That they saw the plates with their spiritual eyes instead of natural, accounts for newspaper reports which said that all three witnesses told different versions. This “makes it all the more likely,” author Fawn Brodie notes in her book No Man Knows My History, “that the men were not conspirators but victims of Joseph’s unconscious but positive talent at hypnosis.”


If the plates really existed, then it would not have been necessary for Smith to force the witnesses to pray until they conjured up a vision of plates in an “empty” box.

If the plates had been a physical reality, it certainly would have provided all eleven witnesses with a stronger testimony that Mormonism was indeed God’s work.

In view of this, it is not surprising that all of the witnesses, with the exception of Smith’s father, his two brothers and two who died, left the church. Not very impressive.

DID THE WITNESSES EVER DENY THEIR TESTIMONY? The Mormon Church, of course, claims that none of the three witnesses ever denied their testimony. But, Oliver Cowdery, according to the Mormon publication Times and Seasons, did deny. Published in 1841, J.H. Johnson reflected the sentiments of the community by writing a poem attempting to reflect the fact that men may be untrue to the truth. The last stanza reads:

Or prove that Christ was not the Lord
Because that Peter cursed and swore?
Or Book of Mormon not his word
Because denied, by Oliver?

Oliver Cowdery indeed left the Mormon Church and joined the Methodist Church. He also said he was willing to make a public recantation and that he was “sorry and ashamed of his connection with Mormonism.”

The Mormon Church, however, claims Cowdery came back to the church. But, if he did, he must have left again, because when he died he was buried by a Methodist minister in Richmond, Missouri.

David Whitmer, still believing in the Book of Mormon (probably because of the many Biblical passages in it), became a member of the Church of Christ and died rejecting the LDS Church.

Martin Harris joined Anna Lee’s church, the Shakers, saying that his testimony of Shakerism was greater than that of the Book of Mormon. Although later in life he came back to the Mormon Church and took out his temple endowments, he admitted it was just to find out “what was going on in there.”

Interestingly, as often happens with time and celebrity status, there are accounts in the witnesses’ later years, where they greatly enlarged their testimony. They are quoted as giving very different and exaggerated accounts-- much different than during their earlier years. Fawn Brodie notes, in No Man Knows My History, that David Whitmer’s testimony, given 49 years later, was too “richly embellished”. Whitmer added a long list of things he supposedly saw, which were not mentioned in his earlier account:

the brass plates, the plates of the book of Ether ., . . a table with many records or plates upon it . . . also the Sword of Laban, the directors - i.e., the ball which Lehi had, and the Interpreters.”

Martin Harris, in the last five years of his life, also gave an extraordinary testimony.

Considering that the witnesses admitted years earlier to seeing the plates in a “vision” or “entranced state,” rather than as a physical reality, one must conclude that the embellishments of their testimony in later years was received in the same manner.

Their motive? Mormon writer Richard L. Anderson says, “Martin Harris, like all the witnesses, was especially desirous at the end of his life to have people hear and repeat his testimony.” Why not? By that time, they had become celebrities!


Why would the witnesses persevere in their testimony about the plates, even though they left the Mormon Church?

There are five possible reasons:

· They didn’t want to disillusion and destroy the faith of those who were converted to the Book of Mormon because of their testimony.

· They may have retained a special feeling for the Book of Mormon because of its many Biblical passages.

· Since their declaration is stated in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, they would not only be guilty of perjury, but their credibility would be suspect the rest of their life.

· They would look pretty silly telling people that what they testified to and allowed to appear in print, really didn’t happen.

· They began to enjoy their celebrity status and, so, in time, embellished their story.


The eight witnesses stated they actually hefted the gold plates. They described them as “weighing between forty and sixty pounds and being approximately eight inches long, five or six inches wide, and five or six inches thick.”

In the first place, there is no way they could have lifted them in the casual manner they describe. According to the measurements these plates of gold would have weighed nearly 230 pounds!

Nevertheless, they must have hefted something. Therefore, it is believed that Smith may have duped them in the same way he duped two friends, William T. Hussey and Azel Vandruver.

Showing them the supposed plates concealed beneath a canvas, Smith convinced them they were so sacred that if they looked directly upon them they would die.

One of the friends, however, was so anxious that he ripped off the canvas, saying “Egad, I’ll see the critter, live or die!”

What did he see? - Nothing but “a large tile brick”.

Bold as that individual was, it would be safe to assume that the eight witnesses were not so bold. Defy Smith and risk immediate death? But, whatever it was they hefted, covered with a cloth, canvas or otherwise, Smith was able to persuade them it was the original plates which were delivered by an angel.

Smith, however, was always pulling tricks like this and took great delight in fooling people. Once, after a rain shower, Smith discovered some white sand. He “tied up several quarts of it [in his ‘frock’] and then went home.” His family was eager to know what he had. Smith later told Peter Ingersol:

At that moment I happened to think about a history found in Canada, called the Golden Bible; so I very gravely told them it was the Golden Bible. To my surprise they were credulous enough to believe what I said.


What about the engravings the later witnesses claimed they saw on the plates? Their first account states a “vision,” but later a reality.

At a later point, many feel that Smith concocted some kind of plates of his own. Oliver Cowdery could certainly have made such a set, engravings and all, since he’d been a blacksmith in his youth. Fawn Brodie, in her book, also suggests that Joseph built a makeshift set of plates.

By making real plates, Smith hoped to make money by exhibiting them. John C. Bennett, a close associate, said that Smith asked him to go to New York and obtain some falsely engraved plates so that he could exhibit them, at “25 cents a sight”. While anything Bennett could say might be suspect considering his reputation, nevertheless, in this instance, his story was backed up by Sarah, the wife of Mormon historian and Apostle, Orson Pratt.

When one researches the facts (instead of relying on feelings), one can only reach one conclusion: the plates were an elaborate hoax.

One has to pity the witnesses who, at first, may not have wished to testify to something that wasn’t true. They were manipulated and intimidated by a man they believed was a prophet of God to the point where they finally induced a vision.

It is also thought by some, that they were influenced further because of the family connections. Four of the eight witnesses were Whitmers; Hiram Page married a Whitmer daughter; and three were members of Joseph’s own family. Mark Twain later observed: I could not feel more satisfied and at rest if the entire Whitmer family had testified.

What did the witnesses of the Book of Mormon really see? Plates, which admittedly were always covered with a cloth. Plates which they only saw in a “vision” or “entranced state”--never with their “natural” eyes.

These witnesses’ testimony of the gold plates has attracted over nine million converts to the Mormon Church (as of 1996), which doubles its population every 10 to 12 years at the rate of 840 new members a day.

Mormons continue to be deceived, along with many unsuspecting converts, who accept this story without investigating the facts.

First Thessalonians 5:21says one must prove all things and hold fast to that which is good. Is the following good?


· It is believed that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon Statement for the witnesses and induced them to sign.

· Smith knew that none of the witnesses had ever seen the plates with their natural eyes, yet worded the statement as if they had.

· Historical accounts reveal that the three witnesses never saw the gold plates with their natural eyes. They were always covered with a cloth.

· The witnesses were pressured to conjure up their own personal vision after Smith intimidated and hounded them over their lack of faith. They finally envisioned the plates in an “empty” box.

· All of the witnesses were manipulated and pressured by Smith into seeing something that didn’t physically exist, because they believed he was a Prophet of God.

· The gold plates the eight witnesses later claimed to heft in such a casual manner, would have been impossible because of the weight. This suggests that some other kind of plates were provided by Smith.

· That Smith forged false plates with inscriptions, was stated by John C. Bennett and Sarah Pratt, wife of Apostle Orson Pratt.

· All three witnesses, plus many of the eight, left the church and embraced another faith.

· The testimony of the witnesses in their old age, proved to be embellished and exaggerated.

*Copyright 2003 - 2009. This article cannot be copied and used in a professional publication without express permission of the author.

Many believe Joseph Smith drew it up, spinning it off from Doctrine & Covenants (D&C) 5:11-14 and Section 17. In the D&C, Smith claims that God told him he would provide him with witnesses. Therefore, Smith set about to find them.

See Jerald and SandraTanner, Mormonism-Shadow or Reality? (Salt Lake, Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1972), 31.

David Whitmer stated this in his An Address To All Believers in Christ. See Tanner, 49.

David Persuitte, Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon (McFarland & Co. Pub., Jefferson, NC) 2nd Ed. 1991, p. 97.

Persuitte, p. 96. His quote is from Wilford C. Wood, Joseph Smith Begins His work, Vol. 1, forepart, “Memorandum made by John H. Gilbert, Esq.”

Interview with Ole Jensen in Clarkston, Utah, published in J.M. Sjodahl: Introduction to the Study of the Book of Mormon, pp 58-60, as quoted in Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History, (2nd Ed. NY, Alfred A. Knopf, 1971), 78. (emphasis mine)

Letter from Stephen Burnett to Lyman E. Johnson. (Italics, mine.) A copy of this letter is in the Joseph Smith Collection in the LDS Church Archives. Cited in Persuitte, 96.

See The Mormon Missionaries: An inside look at their real message and methods, by Janis Hutchinson (Grand Rapids, Kregel Pub., 1995), Chapter 4.

See Hutchinson, The Mormon Missionaries, 204-205.

Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, rev. ed. (San Bernardino: Here’s Life Pub. 1979), 3.

History of Illinois (Chicago, 1854), 257. (Italics mine.) Cited in Brodie, 79-80.

Brodie, 77. (Italics mine.)

In David Whitmer’s Address to All Believers in Christ; he stated: “All of the eight witnesses who were then living (except the three Smiths) came out [of the LDS Church]. Peter and Christian Whitmer were dead. Oliver Cowdery came out also. (28). Cited in Marvin W. Cowan’s Mormon Claims Answered (Marvin W. Cowan, 1989), 57.

From Times and Seasons (2:482). Also quoted in Oliver Cowdery - The Man Outstanding, by Joseph Hyrum Greehalgh, Phoenix, Ariz., 1965, p. 28, as cited in Tanner, 55.

Affidavit by G.J. Keen. See also, Tanner, 54.

Martin Harris-Witness and Benefactor of the Book of Mormon, 1955, p. 52. Cited in Cowan, 56. Martin Harris was well known for his religious instability and that he changed his religious affiliation at least thirteen times in his life. In addition, he gave false prophecies and became carried away with his own visions. In one vision he saw Jesus in the form of a deer. In another, he said the devil looked like a jackass and had short smooth hair like a mouse. (See Tanner, Mormonism-Shadow or Reality? p. 56.)

Tanner, 58.

Brodie, 78. Compare the Palmyra Reflector, March 19, 1831, and David Whitmer’s interview with Orson Pratt 49 years later, as published in the Millennial Star, Vol. XL, pp. 771-2.

Richard L. Anderson, Book of Mormon Witnesses, Transcript F.A.R.M.S. Book of Mormon Lecture Series, p. 11.

Anderson,. 9.

James H. Snowden, The Truth About Mormonism (N.Y., George H. Doran Co., 1926), 60.

Snowden, 60.

Palmyra Reflector, February 28, 1831. See also Snowden, 57, citing an affidavit given in Mormonism Unveiled by Howe, 235-36.

Tanner, 59.

Brodie, 80.

Brodie, 316-317.

See Hutchinson, Mormon Missionaries, Chapter 7 entitled “Magic and Masonry: How Joseph Smith put it all together”.

Brodie, 79.

As of April 1995, total church membership is 9 million. One million members were acquired since September 1991. The rate of growth since then “has been about 840 new members each day, the equivalent of two wards. The equivalent of a typical stake of 3,800 members was created every four and a half days.” (The Ensign, April 1995, 77.) This also includes the newly baptized children of members. D. Michael Quinn, former LDS Historian, states that the LDS Church doubles its population every ten to twelve years.

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