One of the striking things about the revelations of Joseph Smith is that many of them were shared with others. Although not unknown in the history of religions — the appearance of the risen Savior to the early apostles and 500 of the first Christian disciples is a significant exception — this isn't typical. Isaiah's and Ezekiel's visions were shared with nobody else, the Buddha's enlightenment was very personal and Muhammad's revelatory experiences were his alone.
By contrast, after the First Vision and Moroni's initial visits, a surprisingly large number of Joseph's crucial revelations were received in company with other people.
There were, of course, the Three Witnesses (Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris and David Whitmer) who saw the plates and the angel (and the Urim and Thummim, the breastplate, the Liahona, the sword of Laban and other related objects) and heard the Lord's voice with Joseph Smith. And, although their encounter with the plates was, in its way, rather prosaic, the Eight Witnesses, too, illustrate the kind of shared experience that grounds the rise of Mormonism.
In fact, the fundamental difference between the experiences of the Three and the Eight is instructive.
There is nothing to suggest that Joseph Smith or anybody involved with him was a metallurgist or blacksmith. None had the expertise to forge a large number of metallic plates with "curious" engravings on them, let alone all those other artifacts. And nothing indicates that Joseph or his associates had the financial wherewithal to purchase enough gold to make such plates in the first place. Still, it's just barely conceivable that somebody could have constructed stage props in order to dupe those eight farmer-witnesses.
But mere props wouldn't account for the angel, the supernatural glory and the divine voice that accompanied the experience of the Three Witnesses.
The vision of the Three Witnesses, in its turn, could be dismissed as pure hallucination brought on by religious fanaticism or even, as one rather zany critic has suggested, by the administration of herbal drugs.
But hallucination can't account for the non-visionary, matter-of-fact realism of the Eight Witnesses' examination — and "hefting" — of the plates in broad daylight.
Two fundamentally different explanations are required to account for the experiences of the two sets of witnesses, and this greatly multiplies the difficulties facing those who are eager to brush their testimonies aside. Eleven men, as well as several others who had their own experiences with the plates and the other Nephite artifacts, testified until their deaths that Joseph had the plates.
How to account for this? Perhaps all of the Book of Mormon witnesses were insane. But their later lives declare otherwise. Perhaps they were all co-conspirators. But their subsequent lives, which have been meticulously investigated, reveal men of consistent integrity, good character and sound reputation.
When John the Baptist conferred the Aaronic Priesthood upon Joseph Smith, he also conferred it upon Oliver Cowdery at the same time. Similarly, Oliver and Joseph received the Melchizedek Priesthood together under the hands of the ancient apostles Peter, James and John.
When the design of the Kirtland Temple was revealed, that little-known but quite spectacular revelation came to the entire First Presidency of the church (Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon and Frederick G. Williams) as they met together.
Oliver Cowdery was kneeling with Joseph Smith in the newly dedicated Kirtland Temple when the Savior appeared to them to accept the building and when, immediately thereafter, Moses and Elijah and Elias revealed additional keys of the priesthood.
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