Question: What did James Henry Moyle say about his visit to David Whitmer?

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Question: What did James Henry Moyle say about his visit to David Whitmer?

Moyle interviewed Whitmer and soon after wrote in his diary:

Mr Whitmer conversed and showed to me the papers [of the Book of Mormon manuscript] for 2 1/2 hours. was very kind but had trouble in keeping him on the points in issue. He was some what spiritual in his explanations[.] He was not as materialistic in his descriptions as I wished. ...

Mr David Whitmer Senior is now 80 years old. He is some what feeble but claims that he will preserve the plates <manuscript>....

Mr D[avid] Whitmer Sen did not handle the plates. Only seen <saw> them, says Martin Haris and Cowdry did so they say!

Says he did see them and the angel and heard him speak. But that it was indiscribable that it was through the [p. 3] power of God (and was possibly [in the spirit] at least) he then spoke of Paul hearing and seeing Christ but his associates did not. Because it is only seen in the Spirit.

I was not fully satisfied with the ex=planation. It was more spiritual than I anticipated.[1]

Some use the above remarks to conclude that Whitmer was denying the physical reality of his witness experience, or that Moyle went away convinced that the vision was somehow unreal.

Moyle's later accounts: "He described minutely the spot in the woods, the large log that separated him from the angel, and that he saw the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated"

Moyle would later write more about his visit, which disproves these notions:

I inquired of those whom I met: What kind of man is David Whitmer? From all I received the same response, that he was a good citizen, an honest man, and that he was highly respected in the community....

I wanted to know from him...what he knew about the Book of Mormon, and what about the testimony he had published to the world concerning it. He told me in all the solemnity of his advanced years, that the testimony he had given to the world, and which was published in the Book of Mormon, was true, every word of it, and that he had never deviated or departed from any particular from that testimony, and that nothing int he world could separate him from the sacred message that was delivered to him. I still wondered if it was no possible that he could have been deceived. I wondered if there was not something in that psychological operation which some offer as the cause of these miraculous declarations and by which he could have been deceived...so I induced him to relate to me, under such cross-examination as I was able to interpose [Moyle had just graduated from law school], every detail of what took place. He described minutely the spot in the woods, the large log that separated him from the angel, and that he saw the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated, that he handled them [this may be in error, given that the contemporaneous record says otherwise], and that he did hear the voice of God declare that the plates were correctly translated. I asked him if there was any possibility for him to have been deceived, and that it was all a mistake, but he said, "No."[2]

He also wrote later:

He said that they (Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and Martin Harris) were out in the primitive woods in Western New York; that there was nothing between them and the Angel except a log that had fallen in the forest; that it was broad daylight with nothing to prevent either hearing or seeing all that took place...he did see and hear the Angel and heard the declaration that the plates had been correctly translated; that there was absolutely nothing to prevent his having a full, clear view of it all. I remember very distinctly asking him if there was anything unnatural or unusual about the surroundings or the atmosphere. He answered that question. I do not remember exactly the words he used, but he indicated that there was something of a haze or peculiarity about the atmosphere that surrounded them but nothing that would prevent his having a clear vision and knowledge of all that took place. He declared to me that the testimony which he published to the world was true and that he had never denied any part of it.[3]

We note here that the experience is very literal and real--but there is also a difference in atmosphere or "haze" that renders it different from day-to-day life. This dovetails well with the Three Witnesses' insistence that there was a spiritual component to their experience, though it was also literal and "real."

Whitmer himself would explain the matter:

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 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. I am now passed eighty-two years old, and I have a brother, J. J. Snyder, to do my writing for me, at my dictation. [Signed] David Whitmer. [4]

And to leave absolutely no doubt about the nature of the manifestation Whitmer explained, "I was not under any hallucination . . . . I saw with these eyes." [5]

But what of Moyle's concern about it being not sufficiently "materialistic"?

In another late account, Moyle returned to the issue of what had bothered him in his contemporaneous diary.

He first noted:

Was there any possibility for him to have been deceived in any particular? His answer was unequivocal. That there was no question about its truthfulness. That the angel stood in a little clear space in the woods, with nothing between them but a fallen log, the angel on one side, the witnesses on the other. It was all in broad clear daylight; that he saw the plates and heard the angel with unmistakeable clearness, and there was nothing to prevent the same.[6]

Moyle then turned to the matter that had troubled him in the diary:

There was only one thing that did not fully satisfy me. I had difficulty then as I have now to describe just what was unsatisfactory. I wrote in my diary immediately on my return home, that in describing the scene in the woods he was 'somewhat spiritual in his explanations and not as materialistic as I wished.' That was my description then and I cannot make it any clearer now. He said, 'It was indescribable; that it was through the power of God.' He then spoke of Paul hearing and seeing Christ, and his associates did not, because it is only seen in the spirit.

I asked if the atmosphere about them was normal. THen he said it was indescribable, but the light was bright and clear, yet apparently a different kind of light, something of a soft haze I concluded.

A few years before in an interview with President Joseph F. Smith and Apostle Orson Pratt, they reported that he said it was more brilliant than that of the noonday sun.

I have wondered if there was a special significance, not clear to me, in the language used by the three witnesses in their testimony referring to the golden plates, 'And they have been shown unto us by the power of God and not of man.' The either witnesses say the plates were shown unto them by Joseph Smith. That I call materialistic, the other spiritual, and I could not get anything more out of it.....[7]

Moyle here makes clear to what he is referring. His difficulty is not that the experience was not real, or didn't happen "in real life," but simply that he and Whitmer were attempting to communicate about something beyond Moyle's experience. Moyle wanted a "materialistic" description of what happened, but in some aspects that wasn't possible--Whitmer couldn't explain what seeing an angel and hearing the voice of God were like.

It is clear that Moyle did not regard this as evidence that Whitmer's experience was not convincing, or that it was unreal. He simply realized that there was an aspect to the Three Witnesses' experience which they could not fully communicate in materialistic, every-day language. One sees this difficulty in many of their accounts. Skeptics repeatedly attempted to infer that the experiences were, therefore, purely mental, or imaginary. The witnesses rejected this interpretation repeatedly, though modern-day skeptics continue the error.

The eight witnesses offer the more prosaic, materialistic experience. The three witnesses saw the plates--but also had a divine witness of an angel and the voice of God: something that cannot be fully explained with normal language if the entire experience is to be captured. They would likely say, however, that this made it more real and literal, not less.

If Moyle's concern had been that the vision was "just in his mind" or "imaginary" or "only spiritual" (meaning not occurring in real, physical time and space), then he would not have had difficulty describing exactly what he was getting at. Instead, he was struggling with language to express those elements that Whitmer likewise could not completely communicate to him. As Whitmer himself explained elsewhere:

He then explained 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. [8]


Notes

  1. David Whitmer Interview with James Henry Moyle, Diary, 28 June 1885 in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:140-141.
  2. James Henry Moyle, Address, 22 March 1908, in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:142-143.
  3. James Henry Moyle, statement, 13 September 1938; in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:146-147.
  4. Anthony Metcalf, Ten Years Before the Mast (Malad, Idaho: A. Metcalf, 1888), 74.
  5. Palmyra Reflector, 19 March 1831; cited in The Saints' Herald, 28 January 1936.
  6. James Henry Moyle, address, 18 March 1945; in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:148-149.
  7. James Henry Moyle, address, 18 March 1945; in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:149, emphasis added by Moyle in original.
  8. "David Whitmer Interview with Nathan Tanner, Jr., 13 May 1886," in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:166.