The following was originally printed in the September-October 2013 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.
In the front of every edition of the Book of Mormon are statements from eleven men who testify of the authenticity of the gold plates Joseph Smith claimed to have received from the angel Moroni. These eleven men are placed into two groups, the “Three Witnesses,” composed of Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris, and “Eight Witnesses,” composed of Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer, Jr., John Whitmer, Hiram Page, Joseph Smith, Sr., Hyrum Smith, and Samuel Smith. All of these eight men were from two families. Hiram Page was Peter Whitmer’s son-in-law, having married his daughter Catherine Whitmer. Together these eleven men, we are told, were hand-picked by God to “see” the plates that are the source for the Book of Mormon.
In the July 18, 2013 edition of the Deseret News, BYU professor and Mormon apologist Daniel C. Peterson argues that a twelfth person, Mary Whitmer, also saw the plates. In his piece titled “Defending the Faith: Mary Whitmer, 12th Witness to the Book of Mormon,” he wrote:
“Most Latter-day Saints are aware of the testimonies of the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses to the Book of Mormon. But these 11 men, impressive as they are, were not the only people besides Joseph Smith who had direct encounters with the gold plates. David Whitmer, for example, one of the Three Witnesses, related that his mother, Mary Musselman Whitmer, also saw the plates, quite independently of anybody else and under the most matter-of-fact circumstances.”
Before we examine the above claim, let me say that the testimonies of the eleven men are really not as impressive as Dr. Peterson insists. Mormons have been led to believe that the eleven saw physical, tangible plates, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. When it comes to the Three Witnesses, the History of the Church clearly states they saw the plates in “vision.” According to volume one, page 54, Smith, Cowdery, Whitmer, and Harris engaged in “fervent and humble prayer,” and when the first attempt to see the plates failed, Martin Harris excused himself from the group thinking he was the hindrance.
First of all, one must ask why prayer would be necessary to see the plates if they were, in fact, physical and tangible. Once Harris had moved a “considerable distance” away, the men prayed again. Not “many minutes” later, Smith claimed that “an angel stood before us” holding the plates in his hands. Smith then went to find Harris. When he did, History of the Church 1:55 states, “We accordingly joined in prayer, and ultimately obtained our desires, for before we had yet finished, the same vision was opened to our view.”
This spiritual manifestation allowing the three to “see” the plates concurs with the description given by John Whitmer, one of the Eight Witnesses. History of the Church 3:307 cites him, saying that “they were shown to me by a supernatural power.”
Mormon historian Marvin Hill concedes the “possibility that the three witnesses saw the plates in vision only,” and that controversy also surrounds the claims of the Eight Witnesses as well. In an article he wrote titled “Brodie Revisited: A Reappraisal,” he stated,
“So far as the eight witnesses go, William Smith said his father never saw the plates except under a frock. And Stephen Burnett quotes Martin Harris that “the eight witnesses never saw them & hesitated to sign that instrument [their testimony published in the Book of Mormon] for that reason, but were persuaded to do it” (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol.7, No.4, pp.83-84).
As previously mentioned, Peterson relies on a second-hand report from Mary’s son David as support for his conclusion. David said his mother was visited by a mysterious “old man” in their barn who showed her the plates. Peterson also recounts another second-hand piece of evidence by Mary Whitmer’s grandson, John C. Whitmer, who said:
“She met a stranger carrying something on his back that looked like a knapsack. At first she was a little afraid of him, but when he spoke to her in a kind, friendly tone and began to explain to her the nature of the work which was going on in her house (that is, the translation of the Book of Mormon), she was filled with unexpressible (sic) joy and satisfaction. He then untied his knapsack and showed her a bundle of plates, which in size and appearance corresponded with the description subsequently given by the witnesses to the Book of Mormon. This strange person turned the leaves of the book of plates over, leaf after leaf, and also showed her the engravings upon them; after which he told her to be patient and faithful in bearing her burden a little longer, promising that if she would do so, she should be blessed; and her reward would be sure, if she proved faithful to the end. The personage then suddenly vanished with the plates, and where he went, she could not tell.”
The latter story sounds all too familiar with the account given in History of the Church 1:54 cited earlier. In that story, the angel also “turned over the leaves one by one.” Since this was a “vision,” why should we automatically conclude that Mrs. Whitmer’s experience was any different? All this must be taken into account before we can place much credence in Dr. Peterson’s conclusion. If we are to believe Mary Whitmer did see physical plates, why was she given this privilege when the eleven others had to settle for a visionary experience? If she really saw tangible plates, it would seem that her “testimony” is of much more value than what we receive from the eleven “witnesses.” Yet her story is admittedly obscure and unknown, even among many Latter-day Saints.
Could it not be possible, having heard this amazing account of the plates from her close family members, that Mary Whitmer merely recreated her own tale with similar details? If she is, in fact, describing nothing more than a vision, then we still have no proof that Smith’s plates were real. In other words, her story, like that of the eleven, means virtually nothing.