Question: Did David Whitmer believe his witness experience was "only a vision"?

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Question: Did David Whitmer believe his witness experience was "only a vision"?

Zenos H. Gurley reported an interview in which David Whitmer described his witness of the plates as occurring “in the holy vision.”

Some have attempted to make this an admission that the experience was not “literal” because there was a visionary aspect to it.

A more complete look at the text lets us discern Whitmer’s meaning:

1[Q] — Do you know that the plates seen with the Angel on the table) were real metal, did you touch them?
Ans We did not touch nor handle the plates
2 Q — Was the table literal wood? Or was the whole a vision such as often occurs in dreams &c.
Ans—The table had the appearance of literal wood as shown in the vision, in the glory of God.[1]

Whitmer makes the distinction clear—this is not “as often occurs in dreams,” things have the literal appearance. This does not mean, however, that it was not also a “vision,” however, since they were “in the glory of God.” As Whitmer said on another occasion:

"Persons may attempt to describe the presentation of the plates as shown to himself and other witnesses, but there was a glory attending it that no one could describe, no human tongue could tell the glorious scenes that were presented to them. Joseph Smith was there and Oliver Cowdery and himself--Martin Harris did not come as expected, but they were shown to him a short time after."[2]

Seeing with "natural eyes"

In another account, Whitmer described seeing with his "natural eyes":

I [the interviewer] asked him [Whitmer] if the table, which the angel brought, and upon which the plates lay when he viewed them was a tangible one, and he said that he did not touch it, it had the semblance of a table. The then ex=plained that he saw the plates and with his natural eyes, but he had to be prepared for it--that he and the other witnesses were overshadowed by the power of God and a halo of brightness indescribable (emphasis added).[3]

Whitmer was careful not to testify to things he could not say--he had not touched the table, so he would not say that it was tangible. But, he makes it clear that his witness experience was literal, and involved his "natural eyes," not a merely internal experience. In another account:

After talking as he did, so fully and freely he said "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." I asked him if the table was a tangible one, and he said it appeared to be, but they did not touch it.[4]

A later account has Whitmer insist that their vision was not altered in its natural character, saying that it was "as it is at any time," save it was prepared by God to tolerate an angelic visit:

In regards to my testimony to the visitation of the angel, who declared to us three witnesses that the Book of Mormon is true, I have this to say: 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. Martin Harris, you say, called it "being in vision." We read in the Scriptures, Cornelius saw, in a vision, an angel of God, Daniel saw an angel in a vision, also in other places it states they saw an angel in the spirit. A bright light enveloped us where we were, that filled [the woods as] 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 (emphasis and italics added).[5]

Setting is prosaic, not in prayer, meditation, or an altered mental state

Furthermore, the experience did not occur in the midst of a religious excitement or prayer. They prayed, and then sat on a log, and as they were talking they had the witness experience:

"I [David Whitmer] was plowing in the field one morning, and Joseph and Oliver came along with a revelation stating that I was to be one of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon. I got over the fence and we went out into the woods, near by, and sat down on a log and talked awhile. We then kneeled down and prayed. Joseph prayed. We then got up and sat on the log and were talking, when all at once a light came down from above us and encircled us for quite a little distance around; and the angel stood before us. He was dressed in white, and spoke and called me by name and said 'Blessed is he that keepeth His commandments.' This is all that I heard the angel say. A table was set before us and on it the records were placed....While we were viewing them the voice of God spoke out of heaven saying that the Book was true and the translation correct."
We then asked him [David Whitmer] , "Do you remember the peculiar sensation experienced upon that occasion?" He answered very slowly and definitely.
"Yes; I remember it very distinctly; and I never think of it, from that day to this but what that same spirit is present with me."
"How did you know it was the voice of God?"
"We knew it was the voice of God. I knew it was the voice of God just as well as I knew any thing."[6]

Again we see that the difficulty lies in describing the spiritual elements, but this is clearly a literal experience, not an internal, subjective visionary or enthusiastic transport.

Another account has Whitmer say of the difficulty of describing all elements of the witness experience:

He was plowing when Joseph and Oliver came to him and the former told him that he was chosen to be one of the three witnesses to whom the angel would show the plates. He also told him that the Lord had promised to make this manifest and now was the time.
They went out and sat upon a log conversing upon the things to be revealed when they were surrounded by a glorious light which overshadowed them. A glorious personage appeared and he showed to them the plates....Human language could not, he said, describe heavenly things and that which they saw. The language of the angel was: Blessed is he that believed and remaineth faitful to the end. He had his hours of darkness and trial and difficulty, but however dark upon other things[,] that had ever been a bright scene in his mind and he had never wavered in regard to it; he had testified fearlessly always of it, even when his life was threatened. Martin Harris was not with them at the time that he and Oliver saw the angel, but he and Joseph afterwards saw the same, and he thus became a witness also.[7]

Elsewhere he described the "solemnity" of feeling that accompanied the experience:

In June, 1829, [when] I [David Whitmer] saw the angel by the power of God, Joseph, Oliver and I were alone, and a light from heaven shone round us, and solemnity pervaded our minds. The angel appeared in the light, as near as that young man. [Within five or six feet - note in original] Between us and the angel there appeared a table, and there lay upon it the sword of Laban, the Ball of [sic] Directors, the Record, and Interpreters. The angel took the Record, and turned the leaves, and showed it to us by the power of God....My testimony in the Book of Mormon is true; I can't deviate from it.[8]

This analysis corresponds closely to the description offered by Whitmer in other interviews (emphasis added in all cases):


Quotations from David Whitmer which demonstrate the literal nature of the Three Witness experience

  • I personally heard him [David Whitmer] state in Jan. 1876 in his own house...in most positive language, that he did truly see in broad day light, a bright, and most beautiful being, an 'Angel from Heaven," who did hold in his hands the golden plates, which he turned over leaf by leaf, explaining the contents, here and there. He also described the size and general appearance of the plates....[9]
  • I saw the angel as plainly as I see you; he was surrounded by the glory of God, which overshadowed us, and we heard his voice, and we saw the records of the Book of Mormon...My testimony is the same as at the beginning, as is true.[10]
  • I[nterviewer]--Martin Harris...gave a testimony in Salt Lake City Tabernacle that he saw the plates by [the] faith and power of God.
He [David Whitmer]--Martin Harris is correct....we saw it, and our testimony, which we give to the world, is true exactly as you read it, we saw by the gift and power of God. As we were praying the angel stood before us in his glory, and all those things were before us, as they were laid before us on a table, and we heard the testimony about the plates, and we were commanded to bear that testimony to the world, and our testimony is true. And when the angel had finished his words, and shown us the plates, one by one, which were to be translated, then the vision was closed at once, and exactly as it came even so did the sight disappear.
I--But those things which you saw were material things, how could they come and vanish away again?
He--It is the power of God. He does those things, and his angels know how to do it. It was wonderful to us, but it was by the power of God. He had appointed his angels to be the guardians of the plates and other things, and the angels knew how it was done.
I--Did the eight witnesses not handle the plates as a material substance?
He--We did not, but they did, because the faith of Joseph became so great that the angel, the guardian of the plates, gave the plates up to Joseph for a time, that those eight witnesses could see and handle them.[11]
  • David Whitmer: "It was in June 1829, the very last part of the month, and the eight witnesses, I think, the next day. Joseph showed them the plates himself. We (the Three Witnesses) not only saw the plates of the book of Mormon, but the Brass Plates, the plates containing the record of the wickedness of the people of the world, and many other plates. The fact is, it was just as though Joseph, Oliver and I were sitting right here on a log, when we were overshadowed by a light. It was not like the light of the sun, nor like that of a fire, but more glorious and beautiful. It extended away round us, I cannot tell how far, but in the midst of this light, immediately before us, about as far off as he sits (pointing to John C. Whitmer who was sitting 2 or 3 feet from him) there appeared, as it were, a table, with many records on it, besides the plates of the Book of Mormon; also the sword of Laban, the Directors (i.e. the ball which Lehi had) and the Interpreters. I saw them just as plain as I see this bed (striking his hand upon the bed beside him), and I heard the voice of the Lord as distinctly as I ever heard anything in my life declaring that they (the plates) were translated by the gift and power of God."[12]
  • David had been charged with being deluded into thinking he had seen an angel and the plates. One observer remembers when David was so accused, and said:
How well and distinctly I remember the manner in which Elder Whitmer arose and drew himself up to his full height--a little over six feet--and said, in solemn and impressive tones: "No sir! I was not under any hallucination, nor was I deceived! I saw with these eyes, and I heard with these ears! I know whereof I speak!"[13]



Notes

  1. Zenas H. Gurley, 14 January 1885; in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols.
  2. David Whitmer, interview with James H. Hart on 21 August 1883, Letter to Deseret News (23 August 1883); cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:97.
  3. David Whitmer, interview with Nathan Tanner, Jr., Journal, 13 May 1886, [50-61], LDS Church Archives; cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:166.
  4. David Whitmer, interview with Nathan Tanner, Jr., Letter to Nathan A. Tanner, 17 February 1909, typed copy, LDS Church Archives; cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:170.
  5. David Whitmer, to Anthony Metcalf, 2 April 1887; printed in A[nthony] Metcalf, Ten Years before the Mast ([Malad City, Idaho]: n.p. [1888]), 73-74, italics in original; cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:193.
  6. David Whitmer, Interview with William H. Kelley and George A. Blakeslee, 15 December 1881; published in William H. Kelley to the Editor, 16 January 1882, Saints' Herald 29 (1 March 1882): 68-69; cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:91-92.
  7. David Whitmer, Interview with George Q. Cannon, Journal, 27 February 1884, LDS Church Archives; cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:113.
  8. David Whitmer, Interview with E.C. Briggs, 1884; recorded in E.C. Briggs to Joseph Smith III, 4 June 1884, Saints' Herald 31 (21 June 1884): 396-97; cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:121.
  9. David Whitmer, reported by Thomas Wood Smith to the Editor, Fall River (MA) Herald, 28 March 1879; reprinted in the Saints' Herald 26 (15 April 1879): 128; cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:26.
  10. David Whitmer, interview with J. Frank McDowell on 8 May 1884, Saints' Herald 31 (9 August 1884): 508; cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:223.
  11. David Whitmer interview with P. Wilhelm Poulson, circa April 1878, letter to the editor, Deseret Evening News (16 August 1878); cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:38-39.
  12. David Whitmer, interview with Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith, 7-8 September 1878; Joseph F. Smith, Diary, 7-8 September 1878, LDS Church Archives; cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:43-44.
  13. Joseph Smith III, et al., Interview, July 1884, Richmond Missouri, in Lyndon W. Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 134-35