Did The Book of Mormon Witnesses See The Gold Plates Only In Their Minds?

Witnesses Described A Physical Experience

Painseville Telegraph, 1831

“Martin Harris… told all about the gold plates, Angels, Spirits, and Jo Smith.—He had seen and handled them all, by the power of God!”

Martin Harris via George Godfrey

” I know what I know. I have seen what I have seen and I have heard what I have heard. I have seen the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon is written. An angel appeared to me and others and testified to the truthfulness of the record, and had I been willing to have perjured myself and sworn falsely to the testimony I now bear I could have been a rich man, but I could not have testified other than I have done and am now doing for these things are true… I saw with these two eyes the angel stand with the gold plates in his hands, and I saw him turn leaf by leaf the plates of gold, and I also heard the voice of the Lord saying that these words were true and translated correctly.”

David Whitmer via Nathan Tanner Jr., 1886

“I have been asked if we saw those things with our natural eyes. Of course they were our natural eyes There is no doubt that our eyes were prepared for the sight, but they were our natural eyes nevertheless.”

Martin Harris via Robert Aveson

“It is not a mere belief, but is a matter of knowledge. I saw the plates and the inscriptions thereon. I saw the angel, and he showed them unto me.”

Oliver Cowdery to Andrew Jenson

“I beheld with my eyes, and handled with my hands, the gold plates from which it was transcribed. I also saw with my eyes and handled with my hands the Holy Interpreters.”

Covered By Tablecloth?

CES Letter quotes Martin Harris:

“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 over with a cloth.”

The quote comes from an anonymous third-hand account through rabid anti-Mormon Rev. John A. Clark. It also couldn’t possibly have been about the witness statement in the Book of Mormon, as this was given in 1827, before the Book of Mormon was ever published. The witness experience of seeing and feeling the gold plates occured after this alleged statement was given. Not only is it likely a fake quote, it couldn’t possibly apply to the issue of discussion.

Supernatural Power To See Angels

CES Letter asks:

“Why would you need a vision or supernatural power to see real, physical plates that Joseph said were in a box that he carried around?” (CES Letter)

Because they weren’t only seeing the gold plates. They were also seeing an angel. David Whitmer clearly explained why:

“Of course we were in the spirit when we had the view, for no man can behold the face of an angel, except in a spiritual view, but we were in the body also, and everything was as natural to us, as it is at any time… A bright light enveloped us where we were, that filled at noon day, and there in a vision, or in the spirit, we saw and heard just as it is stated in my testimony in the Book of Mormon.”

One of the most important aspects of the Book of Mormon three witnesses is that they saw an angel along with the gold plates, leaving an unmistakable witness of the book’s divinity. One must be transfigured to view a physical celestial being, which means a spiritual sight in addition, no instead, of physical sight.

“He handed them uncovered into our hands, and we turned the leaves sufficient to satisfy us.”

That was the three witness’s experience. The eight witnesses did not see the angel, and none of them ever said anything about spiritual sight or supernatural events. They gave consistent details, such as the plate’s binding with rings, the weight of the plates, and the page thickness. They gave no hint of a non-physical experience. CES Letter illogically assume the three witnesses didn’t have a physical experience because the experience included spiritual sight, and CES Letter illogically assumes the eight witnesses had the same experience as the three witnesses.

Is This ‘Second Sight’?

CES Letter suggests the witnesses ony saw through “second sight,” which refers to imagination in their minds:

Second Sight: People believed they could see things as a vision in their mind. They called it ‘second sight.’ We call it ‘imagination.’ It made no difference to these people if they saw with their natural eyes or their spiritual eyes as they both were one and the same… This supernatural way of seeing the world is also referred in Doctrine & Covenants as ‘the eyes of our understanding.'”

This is an incorrect definition of “second sight.” The 19th century notion of “second sight” was a clarvoiyant power people used to see future events or far-away locations. The 1879 book Folklore by James Napier defines “second sight” as the ability “to foretell events which happene to certain persons.” He uses the example of someone foretelling who a man would marry and who would visit his house. He says deaf or dumb people frequently had second sight, and it could be transmitted to another person by touch.

Harry Hermon told of a person who could read through a wall. He defined second sight as the ability to “describe what you see or what you do not see without seeing it” yourself.

Joseph Smith and the gold plates have nothing to do with seeing future events or far-away locations. The allegations about the seer stone make no such claim. Joseph Smith’s role as a seer is described very differently in early Mormon literature and in the Book fo Mormon. The gold plates were physical objects sitting in their hands, so there was no need for folklore’s “second sight.”

Fake Quotes

CES Letter uses phony quotes to make the witness events sound like second sight. It looks like a lot of quotes, but actually several quotes are repetitions of each other, and the only actual pertinent qutoes come from Anthony Metcalf, John Gilbert, and Stephen Burnett.

  • This comes from anti-Mormon Anthony Metcalf many years after Martin Hariss’s death. Fake:

    ““While praying I passed into a state of entrancement, and in that state I saw the angel and the plates.” – EMD 2:346-47”

  • Again, anti-Mormon Mormon Anthony Metcalf many years after Martin Hariss’s death. Fake:

    “I never saw the gold plates, only in a visionary or entranced state.” – EMD 2:346-47

  • Misquote. Here is the actual quote. This is a phony claim by anti-Mormon John Gilbert many years after Martin Harri’s death.

    ““He only saw the plates with a spiritual eye” – Joseph Smith Begins His Work, Vol. 1, 1958”

  • What does this next quote have to do with second sight? Having a vision is not second sight. The witnesses claimed to have a vision of an angel. No discrepancy:

    “As shown in the vision” – Zenas H. Gurley, Jr., Interview with David Whitmer on January 14, 1885

  • CES Letter gets the next quote wrong:

    “Never saw the plates with his natural eyes but only in vision or imagination”– Letter from Stephen Burnett to “Br. Johnson,” April 15, 1838, in Joseph Smith Letter Book, p. 2

    Misquote. CES Letter clips out part of the sentence that gives proper context. It was not referring to the experience of the three witnesses. Here is the entire sentence: “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 throught [sic] a mountain.” So what Stephen Burnett is saying is that there was a tablecloth over the plates when they were lifted out of a box in which they were stored. Also, Stephen Burnett was a bitter ex-Mormon so this quote is unreliable.

  • What does this next quote have to do with second sight? An angel is logically defined as “a supernatural power.” CES Letter is interspersing fake quotes with non-applicable quotes to bolster their fake definition of second sight.

    “They were shown to me by a supernatural power”– History of the Church Vol. 3, Ch. 21, p. 307-308

  • This next quote is the exact same quote that CES Letter presented earlier, only this time they didn’t chop off the part of the sentence that gives proper context. This quote is not referring to the experience of the three witnesses. It is referring to when the gold plates were lifted out of a storage box , and it was indeed covered by a cloth.

    “…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 way, in my view our foundation was sapped & the entire superstructure fell in heap of ruins, I therefore three week since in the Stone Chapel…renounced the Book of Mormon…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 throught [sic] 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/me?] but should have let it passed as it was…” – Letter from Stephen Burnett to “Br. Johnson,” April 15, 1838, in Joseph Smith Letter Book, p. 2

    Also, Stephen Burnett was a bitter ex-Mormon so this quote is unreliable. It is sad that CES Letter has to repeat the exact same quote and pretend like it is a different source.

  • This next quote is the exact same quote that CES Letter presented earlier. Again, they repeat the exact same quote and pretend like it is a different source. It is a phony quote by anti-Mormon John H. Gilbert, who wrote this many years after Martin Harris’s death.

    “The foreman in the Palmyra printing office that produced the first Book of Mormon said that Harris “used to practice a good deal of his characteristic jargon and ‘seeing with the spiritual eye,’ and the like.” – Mormonism: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress, p.71”

  • This next quote references two earlier allegations.

    “Two other Palmyra residents said that Harris told them that he had seen the plates with “the eye of faith” or “spiritual eyes” – EMD 2:270 and 3:22”

    The first claim comes from John A. Clark, the same anti-Mormon who made up the quote about Martin Harris seeing Jesus in a deer. The second claim comes from an anti-Mormon Presbyterian pastor who admitted it was just rumour gossip.

  • Another fake quote from anti-Mormon John Gilbert years after Martin Harris’s death:

    “John H. Gilbert, the typesetter for most of the Book of Mormon, said that he had asked Harris, “Martin, did you see those plates with your naked eyes?” According to Gilbert, Harris “looked down for an instant, raised his eyes up, and said, ‘No, I saw them with a spiritual eye.” – EMD 2:548”

  • CES Letter again repeats the same quote that they presented earlier:

    “When Martin Harris was asked, “But did you see them [plates] with your natural, your bodily eyes, just as you see this pencil-case in my hand? Now say no or yes to this.” Martin answered, “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 over with a cloth.”– Origin and History of the Mormonites, p. 406”

    CES Letter asks, “Why couldn’t Martin just simply answer ‘yes’?”

    Again, they repeat the exact same quote and pretend like it is a different source. It is a phony quote by anti-Mormon John H. Gilbert, from an anonymous third-hand account, and he dates it to 1827, before the Book of Mormon was ever published. The witness experience of seeing and feeling the gold plates occured after this alleged statement was given. Not only is it likely a fake quote, it couldn’t possibly apply to the issue of discussion.

Eyes Of Understanding

CES Letter says:
“As mentioned previously, people believed they could see spirits and their dwelling places in the local hills along with seeing buried treasure deep in the ground. This supernatural way of seeing the world is also referred in Doctrine & Covenants as ‘the eyes of our understanding .'” (CES Letter)
This verse from D&C 76 has nothing to do with second sight, translation, or the gold plates. It is a completely different issue. Here is the full context:

“By the power of the Spirit our eyes were opened and our understandings were enlightened, so as to see and understand the things of God… And while we meditated upon these things, the Lord touched the eyes of our understandings and they were opened, and the glory of the Lord shone round about.”

This is about spiritual enlightenment, which relates to CES Letter‘s earlier attacks on faith and testimony. But it has nothing to do with the witness accounts of physically seeing and handling the gold plates. The Spirit of God confirmed intellectual knowledge and then they saw the Lord.

It is clever of CES Letter to ignore the real Mormon method for gaining knowledge, involving intellect or “eyes of understanding,” and then they pretend like this as if it is the same thing as second sight, to make Mormons look superstitious. They hit two birds with one stone with this one!

CES Letter Logical Fallacies

Falsehood CES Letter says, “It made no difference to these people if they saw with their natural eyes or their spiritual eyes as they were one and the same.” Well, apparently it did make a difference to the witnesses, because they made it clear over and over that they saw with their natural eyes.

CES Letter asks, “why would the witnesses make following kind of statements….?” They didn’t make any of those statements. Those are fabricated quotes by hateful anti-Mormons. CES Letter repeats several of these quotes and changes their attribution to make them look different. CES Letter also misquotes a couple of them and snips out context to make it look like some apply when they don’t.

Shifting Goalposts CES Letter claims that the Book of Mormon witnesses have a conflict of interest because they are distantly related to Joseph Smith or David Whitmer. I don’t know about that, but isn’t it a conflict of interest for CES Letter to take dubious quotes from virulent anti-Mormon sources and pass them off as coming from the witnesses themselves?
Repetition
Repetition CES Letter repeats the phony “spiritual sight” claim instead of providing evidence within this argument. CES Letter repeats this argument on p.63 and p.64.

CES Letter repeats quotes and dresses them up to look as if they are different.

Redundancy: “real and tangible.”

False Dilemma One does not need to be transfigured to see the gold plates. The Eight Witnesses weren’t. But the Three Witnesses need to be transfigured to see the angel who was presenting the plates.
Appeal To Ridicule CES Letter: “I’ve never seen a city through a mountain. Have you?”
Ad Hominem This entire argument is an attack on the Book of Mormon witness’s characters. CES Letter uses charged negative language, calling it “bizarre.”
False Association CES Letter baselessly associates LDS visions with folk magic clarvoiyancy–seeing buried treasure, dweeling places of spirits, etc. Joseph Smith did not use a seer stone or any magical method to view angels or translate the plates.The bible describes visions of celestial angels the same way the witnesses describe the angel: “Whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell.”

Racism Against Mormons & New England – Skeptics risk a lot by exposing such derision for men who were simply for being witnesses to the Book of Mormon. At this point, the audience must be invested in the anti-Mormon narrative in order to not reject CES Letter as haters. But once they adopt the same kind of derision, it makes it a lot easier for them to hate Mormons in turn.

For people who insist on sound physical evidence, I am stunned that CES Letter would attack a man–indeed, the entire 19th century New England civilization–based on such shaky evidence and fake quotes.

“It made no difference to these people if they saw with their natural eyes…” Did it ever occur to CES Letter that they were calling an entire civilization of people–19th century New England–backwards primitives whose beliefs were based on fanciful imagination? Isn’t this what we know today as “racism?”

CES Letter previously quoted racial supremacist James Breasted to attack the Book of Abraham. Well, consider what James Breasted said about Asian people:

“Just as the Orientals accepted the rule of kings without question, so they believed in the rule of gods. This limited their ideas of the world about them. They thought that every storm was due to the interference of some gods, and that every eclipse must be the act of an angry god or demon. Hence the Orientals made little inquiry into the natural causes of things. Under these circumstances natural science could not go very far, and religion was much darkened by superstition.”

Doesn’t this sound a lot like what CES Letter says about 19th century New Englanders and Mormons? Isn’t it the same racist mindset? Historians now agree that ancient Asian people advanced in science and art, in many cases beyond other world civilization. History will also prove that 19the century New England pushed science and art because of their religious enthusiasm. The radical atheist disdain for religion often crosses the line of racism, and is often disproven by history.

It is so easy for us today to sit in judgement of these 19th century trailblazers, in our cushy office chairs, our convenience stores and air conditioned homes, and to laugh at their crazy ‘visions.’ But could one skeptic or anti-Mormon make the trek across the open plains and build a civilization out of barren salt flats?

How would they deal with the persecution and fear, with death waiting around every corner Joseph Smith and the witnesses did not have time to parse his words so fragile Millenials of our day wouldn’t get offended that it sounded a little too superstitious.

Of course, our civilization today is so much more sophisticated and advanced than the Mormon pioneers’;but maybe, just maybe, “these people” knew what they were talking about. Maybe we should be less concerned about material comforts and more concerned about our spiritual welfare? Maybe we aren’t all that much better off than our ancestors? Maybe we shouldn’t think we are special snowflakes who know all there is to know?

Joseph Smith’s Seer Stone? – Admittedly, there are similarities between “second sight” folk magic and the rumors of Joseph Smith’s seer stone. David Whitmer is quoted in a 1991 book:

“Oliver told me, they knew just when I started, where I put up at night and even the name on the sign board of the hotel where I stayed each night, for he had asked Joseph to look in the Seer stone, that he did so and told him all these particulars of my journey.”

I don’t know where this quote came from or if it is legitimate–and even if it is, David Whitmer had turned against Joseph Smith by this point and was trying to attack Joseph Smith. But it could be that Joseph Smith had a seer stone. If so, that is where the similarity ends. There are no allegations of fortune-telling or looking at future events, and Joseph Smith certainly never used the seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon or for anything spiritual. The witnessing of gold plates and angelic visions had nothing to do with second sight or seer stones. The stone was allegedly used for mundane purposes and never for locating sacred things, such as gold plates or the lost 116 pages. It was never used to view where the Saints should settle in Missouri or to warn of incoming mobs. Skeptics draw an untrue parallel between the alleged seer stone activities and Joseph Smith’s spiritual endeavors. The Spirit of God does not work through one’s imagination.

It is important to draw this distinction, because if Joseph Smith and the witnesses saw everything in their imagination or in a rock in a hat, this implies that all Holy Ghost “feelings” are bogus. All “visions” and miracles could just be a product of a runaway imagination. It is easy to dismiss people’s testimonies as products of an imagination, because we do not have the gold plates to see for ourselves. But this is the point of a test of faith. We can receive tangible miracles for our own witness, but only after the test of faith. For the Book of Mormon witnesses, it was losing their farm and reputation. The test is not whether the Mormon church can produce physical evidence, but whether we can excercise faith and display righteous behavior to be worthy of a manifestation.

No Relics In The Church – Gold plates are not holy objects that imbue power. They are just plates made out of gold. The seer stones, which skeptics incorrectly claim Joseph Smith used to translate the gold plates, are just rocks. There is no reason why prophets should be able to tell which rocks were used for what or who actually wrote this certain document, because it does nothing to build our faith to have magic rocks. There is no holiness imbued in physical objects that prophets can use to build faith.

We are not a church that deals with relics, like pieces of Noah’s ark or the cup of Jesus Christ. CES Letter sets the narrative that we need to have some kind of physical objects, like the Catholic crusaders who scoured the Holy Land for objects from the bible. Well, the Mormon church does not do this. Superstition is spiritual belief built on a physical premise. Why is there lightning in the sky? Must be a manifestation of the gods! The Mormon path toward truth is physical conclusions based on physical evidence and spiritual conclusions based on spiritual evidence.

If the gold plates were discovered by archaeologists at the Hill Cumorah tomorrow, do you think CES Letter would change their minds? I don’t think so. No amount of scientific testing would convince them. Even if scientific testing removed all doubt that they weren’t forgeries, skeptics would pass it off as coincidence.

If some evidence were uncovered that made the truth of the church undeniable, that would destroy the entire purpose of being born on earth, to be tested. It would be detrimental to Mormonism because it would shift our narrative away from matters of faith toward unspiritual confirmation of a historical event from physical evidence. And that’s what CES Letter is trying to do. The shift away from faith serves Satan’s intentions because a person who relies on superstition is not practicing personal agency, but being totally reliant on others for his beliefs and actions. The Marxist ideology is to believe only what you have a physical explanation for and to twist it however you need to for the current narrative. Mormons do not need to do this.

It is very convenient for CES Letter that Mormon must produce gold plates to prove their beliefs, yet CES Letter can rely on dubious quotes from biased sources. The difference between CES Letter and Mormons when it comes to testimonies is CES Letter cherry-picks anything from anyone to back up their pre-conceived conclusion, while Mormons get both sides of the issue and seek a personal witness to know if something is true, by a manifestation of the Holy Ghost. Skeptics read something online and instantly believed it because it aligned with their narrative.

Witnesses Are Important – At first, I was confused why CES Letter devoted so much to attacking the Book of Mormon wintesses. Like most Mormons I never considered the wintesses and anything more than a nice supporting page for the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, not really all that necessary. Why does CES Letter attack their characters, almost as much as they attack Joseph Smith’s? Derision is currency for anti-Mormons; people will be turned off if they display too much bitterness so they need to choose their battles carefully.

Daniel C. Peterson gave a great explanation for the importance of the Book of Mormon witnesses. It is not by accident that CES Letter attacks them after having reduced Mormon testimonies as nothing more than emotion. Suddenly, the witness testimonies of the Book of Mormon are like the positive vibes you feel from watching Forrest Gump?

But we are living in a secular Western world, and ex-Mormons tend to become secularists. The witness testimonies are some of the best secular evidences for the Book of Mormon’s truth. It is one thing for a guy to claim visions, but it gains a lot more credibility when a dozen other men swear they the same thing and know it for a fact. Anti-Mormons are reduced to dismissing the entire 19th century New England area as a bunch of superstitious primitives in order to undercut their testimonies.