False historical claims continue to be put forward by critics of Mormonism. One of those claims is that the eight witnesses, whose printed testimony is included with every copy of the Book of Mormon, never really saw the gold plates, but only saw them covered by a cloth. William Smith, Joseph Smith’s brother, is sometimes quoted as the evidence that supports this claim, as he states many times that he only saw the covered plates. He also references some of the other eight witnesses being with him.
There are two important facts left out of this claim. First, William Smith was not one of the eight witnesses, so he truly didn’t see the plates. We should not confuse his experience with that of the eight witnesses. Secondly, some of the eight witnesses did, at first, see the plates with William while the plates were covered. But, later, after Joseph completed the translation, they actually saw the uncovered plates and handled them, as their printed testimony clearly states.
While William didn’t see the uncovered plates, his comments are enlightening. He said,
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.1
At another time William said, “I was permitted to lift them as they laid in a pillowcase, but not to see them, as it was contrary to the commands he had received. They weighed about 60 lbs. according to the best of my judgment.”2 He also stated, “I could tell they were plates of some kind and that they were fastened together by rings running through the back.”3
In contrast to William, the eight witnesses report handling the plates, describing the color, weight, individual pages with engraved writings, and careful craftsmanship.
In the front of every Book of Mormon is the testimony of the eight witnesses which states:
That Joseph Smith, Jun., the translator of this work, has shown unto us the plates of which hath been spoken, which have the appearance of gold; and as many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated we did handle with our hands; and we also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship. And this we bear record with words of soberness, that the said Smith has shown unto us, for we have seen and hefted, and know of a surety that the said Smith has got the plates of which we have spoken. And we give our names unto the world, to witness unto the world that which we have seen. And we lie not, God bearing witness of it.4
Additionally, there are many other documents where the witnesses and their relatives repeated this claim. An interview of John Whitmer by a Mr. P. Wilhelm Poulson is recorded as follows:
I said: I am aware that your name is affixed to the testimony in the Book of Mormon, that you saw the plates?
He-It is so, and that testimony is true.
I-Did you handle the plates with your hands?
He-I did so!
I-Then they were a material substance?
He-Yes, as material as anything can be.
I-They were heavy to lift?
He-Yes, and you know gold is a heavy metal, they were very heavy.
I-How big were the leaves?
He-So far as I recollect, 8 by 6 or 7 inches.
I-Were the leaves thick?
He-Yes, just so thick, that characters could be engraven on both sides.
I-How were the leaves joined together?
He-In three rings, each one in the shape of a D with the straight line towards the centre.
I-Did you see them covered with a cloth?
He-No. He handed them uncovered into our hands, and we turned the leaves sufficient to satisfy us.5
In late 1876 John Whitmer was answering Heman C. Smith, referring to the published declaration in the front of the Book of Mormon, and concluding, “That testimony was, is, and will be true, henceforth and forever.”6 Later, John Whitmer responded to an 1877 letter writing: “It is the same as it was from the beginning, and it is true. . . . I have never denied my testimony as to the Book of Mormon, under any circumstances whatever.”7
The eight witnesses saw, felt and hefted the plates. The three witnesses saw the plates, saw the angel, and heard the voice of God. Many other witnesses had real experiences with the plates as well. No one has yet been able to refute this. Those who wish to discredit the Book of Mormon must first overcome the testimony of the many witnesses of the Gold plates.
1 William Smith, “Sermon in the Saints’ Chapel,” Deloit, Iowa, June 8, 1884, Saints’ Herald 31 (1884): 643-44.
2 P. Wilhelm Poulson to the editors of the Deseret News, 31 July 1878, Deseret News, 6 August 1878.
3 Interview of William Smith with E. C. Briggs and J. W. Peterson, Zion’s Ensign, 13 January 1894, 6.
4 The Testimony of the Eight Witnesses, The Book of Mormon, 1981 (First published 1830) http://scriptures.lds.org/en/bm/eghtwtns
5 Deseret News, 6 August 1878; also in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 5:247–49 Letter, Far West, Missouri, 11 December 1876.
6 Smith and Smith, History of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 1:57n6; copied from the original that was in Heman Smith’s possession (now unlocated), with italics used for the whole sentence in the first printing, as quoted by Richard Lloyd Anderson “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Maxwell Institute, Volume 14, Issue 1, pages 18-31, 2005
7 Letter to J. R. Lambert, 6 May 1877, copied from the original that was in Joseph Lambert’s possession, attested by Joseph R. Lambert in a letter to E. L. Kelley, 29 January 1884, Community of Christ–Archives reference no. P13, f311 as quoted by Richard Lloyd Anderson “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Maxwell Institute, Volume 14, Issue 1, pages 18-31, 2005