Some, unable or unwilling to take the witnesses to the Book of Mormon at their word, question their claims of seeing and hefting the golden plates, insisting instead that the witnesses “saw” only with “spiritual eyes” — which means, effectively, in their imaginations.
Historian Steven Harper explains in an article titled "The Eleven Witnesses" that “this explanation is appealing to some because it does not completely dismiss the compelling testimonies of the Book of Mormon witnesses, but it categorizes them as unreal.”
Harper’s essay appears in a valuable book called “The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder” (Salt Lake City, 2015), edited by Dennis Largey, Andrew Hedges, John Hilton III and Kerry Hull. Immediately following it in the same volume is an essay by Amy Easton-Flake and Rachel Cope, titled “A Multiplicity of Witnesses: Women and the Translation Process.” Viewed together, these two articles examine the role of 11 men and four women who saw, felt, heard and knew. We can accept their testimonies, or we can attempt to evade them.
Harper examines the surviving evidence of the witnesses, citing the basic, uncontroversial historical principle that, all else being equal, firsthand testimony should be preferred over secondhand reports when such testimony is available.
How does that principle apply in this case? Besides their formal testimonies printed in every edition of the Book of Mormon since 1830, two of the Three Witnesses and three of the Eight Witnesses are known to have left behind written accounts of their experience. And numerous statements survive from others who heard the testimonies of one or more of them.
Yet, Harper observes, critics of the Book of Mormon — to the extent that they engage the witnesses at all — “repeatedly choose to privilege selected hearsay more than the direct statements of the witnesses,” interpreting it by means of speculations and conjectures. (He writes of “selected hearsay” because the overwhelming majority even of the secondhand accounts are consistent with the official witness testimonies; only a small minority clash with them.)
Harper recounts the story of the intelligent but skeptical William McLellin, a onetime member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who lived for five decades in embittered estrangement from the church. Yet he never lost his conviction, founded upon lengthy and searching interviews with the witnesses, that their testimonies were true and that, consequently, the Book of Mormon was of God.
“Why not make the same satisfying choice?” Harper asks. “Why not opt to believe in the direct statements of the witnesses and their demonstrably lifelong commitments to the Book of Mormon? This choice asks us to have faith in the marvelous, the possibility of angels, spiritual eyes, miraculous translation and gold plates, but it does not require us to discount the historical record or create hypothetical ways to reconcile the compelling Book of Mormon witnesses with our own skepticism.”
Easton-Flake and Cope contribute in their essay to our understanding of the Latter-day Saint past by addressing the “gap in scholarship and historical memory” connected with the role of women in the formative events of the Restoration. They concentrate specifically on four women — Mary Musselman Whitmer, Lucy Mack Smith, Lucy Harris and Emma Hale Smith — in their capacity as witnesses to the Book of Mormon and facilitators of its appearance.
I’ll mention the most surprising of them first: Lucy Harris. We’re accustomed to thinking of Martin Harris’ wife as an antagonist to the Book of Mormon, to Joseph Smith and, for that matter, eventually to her own husband. But this oversimplifies a very complex person: Before she became an opponent, she actually contributed money to help Joseph while he was translating the record. She did this after a remarkable dream in which an angel showed the plates to her. Later, she and her daughter were permitted to hold the wooden box in which the plates were kept, and both were impressed by how heavy they were.
Lucy Mack Smith and others in her family, as well as Emma Smith, were allowed to touch the plates and related objects through thin cloths. They heard the metallic sound that the plates made when they scraped together.
Finally, Mary Whitmer, David Whitmer’s mother, was shown the plates by an apparent angel while she was out in the family barn to milk the cows. (See my previous column on Mary’s account.) She may have been the first person to see them after Joseph Smith himself and Josiah Stowell.
These articles represent the latest scholarship on the Book of Mormon witnesses, who remain as formidable and as convincing today as they were when William McLellin interviewed them back in the early 1800s.