Book of Mormon/Witnesses/Spiritual or literal/Only handled when covered by a tow frock

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Did a Book of Mormon witnesses say that they only saw and handled the plates covered by a cloth or "tow frock"?

Summary: A frequent claim is that a Book of Mormon witnesses said that he only handled the plates while they were covered in a "tow frock." However, this report is from William Smith, one of Joseph's brothers who was not a Book of Mormon witness. In fact, William insisted in the same statement that he was convinced Joseph was not lying about the plates. William also dismissed the Spalding hypothesis as nonsense.

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he was pursued while on his way home with the plates, by two persons who desired to obtain the possession of the plates to convert them into money. However, he escaped to the house and brought the plates with him, wrapped up in a tow frock. He could not permit us to see them, because he said the angel told him not to do so, and he was determined to obey strictly this time.

—Joseph Smith's brother William B. Smith, who was not one of the Book of Mormon Witnesses, William Smith on Mormonism (Lamoni, Iowa: Herald Steam Book and Job Office, 1883), 5-19. Reproduced in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 1:497.
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Father knew his child was telling the truth. When the plates were brought in they were wrapped up in a tow frock. My father then put them into a pillow case. Father said, "What, Joseph, can we not see them?" "No. I was disobedient the first time, but I intend to be faithful this time; for I was forbidden to show them until they are translated, but you can feel them." We handled them and could tell what they were.

"The Old Soldier's Testimony. Sermon preached by Bro. William B. Smith, in the Saints' Chapel, Detroit, Iowa, June 8th, 1884. Reported by C.E. Butterworth," Saints' Herald 31 4 October 1884): 643-44. Reproduced in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 1:505.
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Question: Did one of the Book of Mormon witnesses actually only handle the plates while they were covered in a "tow frock"?

William Smith, who was not one of the Three or Eight Witnesses, described handling the plates covered by a "tow frock" when Joseph brought them home from the Hill Cumorah

It is claimed by some that at least one of the Book of Mormon witnesses said they only handled the plates while they were covered in a "tow frock," and that this is evidence that the witnesses were simply imagining that they saw the plates because they believed in "second sight."

All of the statements regarding seeing the plates covered by a "tow frock" come from one person: William Smith. William was Joseph Smith's older brother, but he was not one of the Three or Eight Book of Mormon witness. William is instead describing his experience when Joseph brought the plates home from the hill later known as "Mormon Hill" and ultimately, "Hill Cumorah." Joseph had wrapped the plates in a frock in order to keep them from being seen. William was allowed to handle the plates while they were still wrapped in the frock.

Critics of the Church who employ this statement as evidence do not reveal that this report is actually from William Smith and instead attempt to portray Williams description of handling the plates as coming from one of the Three or Eight Witnesses to the Book of Mormon. They also fail to tell us that William insisted in the same statement that he was convinced Joseph was not lying about the plates. William also dismissed the Spalding hypothesis of Book of Mormon authorship as nonsense.

William Smith's statement actually confirms that Joseph did have something in his possession that fit the dimensions, form, and weight of the plates he claimed to have. So William, although not a direct witness, is an accessory who confirms Joseph Smith's story.


William Smith (1883): "he escaped to the house and brought the plates with him, wrapped up in a tow frock. He could not permit us to see them, because he said the angel told him not to do so"

William Smith describes when his brother Joseph first brought the plates home:

During this four years, I spent my time working on the farm, and in the different amusements of the young men of my age in the vicinity. I was quite wild and inconsiderate, paying no attention to religion of any kind, for which I received frequent lectures from my mother and my brother Joseph. He occupied himself part of the time working on the farm, and part of the time in Pennsylvania where he courted a young lady by the name of Emma Hale, whom he afterwards married. At the end of the appointed time he went and obtained the plates which were pointed out to him by the angel. The story being noised abroad, he was pursued while on his way home with the plates, by two persons who desired to obtain the possession of the plates to convert them into money. However, he escaped to the house and brought the plates with him, wrapped up in a tow frock. He could not permit us to see them, because he said the angel told him not to do so, and he was determined to obey strictly this time; for he had disobeyed before and was compelled to wait four years before he could come into possession of the plates.[1]

This report that they were not allowed to see the plates applies only to when Joseph first brought the plates home. Joseph's father and two of his brothers (Hyrum and Samuel) were to be allowed to see them, and William says so explicitly later in the same work.

After the work of translation, William says:

He then showed the plates to my father and my brothers Hyrum and Samuel, who were witnesses to the truth of the book which was translated from them. I was permitted to lift them as they laid in a pillow-case; but not to see them, as it was contrary to the commands he had received.


William Smith (1884): "When the plates were brought in they were wrapped up in a tow frock. My father then put them into a pillow case. Father said, 'What, Joseph, can we not see them?'"

William Smith describes how his family was not allowed to see the plates:

The time to receive the plates came at last. When Joseph received them, he came in and said: "Father, I have got the plates." All believed it was true, father, mother, brothers and sisters. You can tell what a child is. Parents know whether their children are truthful or not. The proof of the pudding is not in chewing the string, but in eating the pudding. Father knew his child was telling the truth. When the plates were brought in they were wrapped up in a tow frock. My father then put them into a pillow case. Father said, "What, Joseph, can we not see them?" "No. I was disobedient the first time, but I intend to be faithful this time; for I was forbidden to show them until they are translated, but you can feel them." 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 out 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. [2]


William Smith (1893): "I did not see them uncovered, but I handled them and hefted them while wrapped in a tow frock and judged them to have weighed about sixty pounds"

William Smith describes the physical characteristics of the plates:

Bro. Briggs then handed me a pencil and asked Bro. Smith if he ever saw the plates his brother had had, from which the Book of Mormon was translated.

He replied, "I did not see them uncovered, but I handled them and hefted them while wrapped in a tow frock and judged them to have weighed about sixty pounds. I could tell they were plates of some kind and that they were fastened together by rings running through the back. Their size was as described in mother's history."

Bro. Briggs then asked, "Did any others of the family see them?"

"Yes," said he; "Father and my brother Samuel saw them as I did while in the frock. So did Hyrum and others of the family."

"Was this frock one that Joseph took with him especially to wrap the plates in?"

"No, it was his every day frock such as young men used to wear then."

"Din't [sic] you want to remove the cloth and see the bare plates?" said Bro. B[riggs].

"No," he replied; "for father had just asked if he might not be permitted to do so, and Joseph, putting his hand on them said; "No, I am instructed not to show them to any one. If I do, I will transgress and lose them again." Besides we did not care to have him break the commandment and suffer as he did before."5

"Did you not doubt Joseph's testimony sometimes?" said Bro. Briggs.

"No," was the reply. "We all had the most implicit confidence in what he said. He was a truthful boy. Father and mother believed him, why should not the children? I suppose if he had told crooked stories about other things we might have doubted his word about the plates, but Joseph was a truthful boy. That Father and mother believed his report and suffered persecution for that [p.512] belief shows that he was truthful. No sir, we never doubted his word for one minute." [3]

William again insists that despite not seeing the plates, he and the others were convinced that Joseph had them. He talks of the future witnesses (Hyrum, Samuel, and his father) seeing through the cloth--but only when Joseph first brought them home. He includes himself and the rest of the family in this group. He is not talking about the three and eight witnesses' experience at all.

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. William B. Smith, William Smith on Mormonism (Lamoni, Iowa: Herald Steam Book and Job Office, 1883), 5-19. Reproduced in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 1:497.
  2. "The Old Soldier's Testimony. Sermon preached by Bro. William B. Smith, in the Saints' Chapel, Detroit, Iowa, June 8th, 1884. Reported by C.E. Butterworth," Saints' Herald 31 4 October 1884): 643-44. Reproduced in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 1:505.
  3. "Wm. B. Smith's last Statement," Zion's Ensign 5 (13 Jan. 1894): 6; reprinted in the Deseret Evening News 27 (20 Jan. 1894): 11; Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 56 (26 Feb. 1894): 132. Reproduced in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 1:510-512.