Question: What did the Book of Mormon witnesses mean when they used the word "supernatural" to describe their experiences?

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Question: What did the Book of Mormon witnesses mean when they used the word "supernatural" to describe their experiences?

The term "supernatural" is used as a synonym for "miraculous"

An early hostile account of the three witnesses' testimony from February 1830 is instructive:

In the Investigator, No. 12, Dec. 11, I published, by way of caution, a letter of Oliver H.P. Cowdry, in answer to my letter to Joseph Smith, Jun. Martin Harris, and David Whitmore—the believers in said bible of gold plates—which they affirm they have miraculously, or supernaturally beheld. I sought for evidences, and such as could not be disputed, of the existence of this bible of golden plates. But the answer was—the world must take their words for its existence; and that the book would appear this month.[1]

Clearly, the author here uses "supernatural" as a synonym for "miraculous," not an attempt to argue that the plates do not literally exist, since "their words" are intended as "evidences...for its existence."

Martin Harris was claimed to have "supernaturally" seen the plates and angel, yet he also insisted that the experience was tangible and literal

Furthermore, Martin Harris' testimony is reported in a mocking newspaper article, which still makes it clear that Harris' experience was tangible and literal:

Martin Harris, another chief of Mormon imposters, arrived here last Saturday from the bible quarry in New-York. He immediately planted himself in the bar-room of the hotel, where he soon commenced reading and explaining the Mormon hoax, and all the dark passages from Genesis to Revelations. He told all about the gold plates, Angels, Spirits, and Jo Smith.—He had seen and handled them all, by the power of God! [2]

John Whitmer, one of the eight witnesses, did not see an angel, but he did say that he "handled those plates." Yet, Whitmer was also said by Theodore Turley to have described the plates as being shown to him by a "supernatural power".

...all I know, you have published to the world that an angel did present those plates to Joseph Smith." Whitmer replied "I now say I handled those plates. there was fine engravings on both sides. I handled them." and he described how they were hung "and they were shown to me by a supernatural power." he acknowledged all. Turley asked him why the translation is not now true, & he said "I cannot read it, and I do not know whether it is true or not.[3]

In a letter written by Myron Bond in 1878, Whitmer is said to have "saw and handled" the plates:

John Whitmer told me last winter....[that he] 'saw and handled' [the plates and]....helped to copy [the Book of Mormon manuscript] as the words fell from Joseph’s lips by supernatural or almighty power[4]

Some who repeated John Whitmer's words may have conflated his "non-supernatural" experience in handling the plates with his "supernatural" experience of listening to Joseph dictate the Book of Mormon

Note that Bond describes how Whitmer helped to copy the manuscript as Joseph dictated the words "by supernatural or almighty power." It is possible that Theodore Turley's recollection conflated Whitmer's non-supernatural handling of the plates with the description of the translation process by a "supernatural" power.

Like Martin Harris, John Whitmer, when speaking in his own words, was very clear that he had physically handled the plates:

It may not be amiss in this place, to give a statement to the world concerning the work of the Lord, as I have been a member of this church of Latter Day Saints from its beginning; to say that the book of Mormon is a revelation from God, I have no hesitancy; but with all confidence have signed my named to it as such; and I hope, that my patrons will indulge me in speaking freely on this subject, as I am about leaving the editorial department. Therefore I desire to testify to all that will come to the knowledge of this address; that I have most assuredly seen the plates from whence the book of Mormon is translated, and that I have handled these plates, and know of a surety that Joseph Smith, jr. has translated the book of Mormon by the gift and power of God, and in this thing the wisdom of the wise most assuredly has perished: therefore, know ye, O ye inhabitants of the earth, wherever this address may come, that I have in this thing freed my garments of your blood, whether you believe or disbelieve the statements of your unworthy friend and well-wisher.[5]

Notes

  1. C. C. Blatchley, “Caution Against the Golden Bible,” New-York Telescope 6, no. 38 (20 February 1830): 150. off-site
  2. Martin Harris . . .,” Painesville Telegraph (Painesville, Ohio) 2, no. 39 (15 March 1831).
  3. "Theodore Turley's Memorandums," Church Archives, handwriting of Thomas Bullock, who began clerking in late 1843; cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:241.; see also with minor editing in Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 3:307–308. Volume 3 link
  4. Saints’ Herald 25/16 (15 August 1878): 253; letter written by Myron Bond in Cadillac, Michigan on 2 August 1878.
  5. John Whitmer, "Address To the patrons of the Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate," (March 1836) Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 2:286-287. (italics added)