Two solemn declarations — “The Testimony of Three Witnesses” and “The Testimony of Eight Witnesses” — have been published with the Book of Mormon since 1830. They’re distinctly different both in their tone and in what they describe.
In the first, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and Martin Harris affirm that they’ve seen the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated by the Prophet Joseph Smith. They also claim to have seen the angel who brought those plates and to have heard the voice of God himself testifying to the truth of the volume taken from them and commanding the witnesses to testify of that truth. Their statement is overtly and strongly religious in tone.
By contrast, the statement of the Eight Witnesses is strikingly sober, legalistic (note, for example, the two rather dry references to “the said Smith”), quite reserved (e.g. “the plates have the appearance of gold” as well as “the appearance of ancient work”) and almost secular in tone. No divine voice is mentioned, nor any angelic appearance. God is invoked, but solely as guarantor of the truth of their affirmation, rather in the manner of courtroom testimony or the pronouncing of a solemn oath. They too claim to have seen the plates; unlike the three, however, they also claim to have “hefted” those plates, and to have “handled” them one by one.
What is the point of having these two distinct declarations? One thing, at least, is clear: They make the task of coming up with a single naturalistic explanation of the witnesses considerably more difficult.
Someone determined to reject the testimony of the Three Witnesses, for example, might argue that their experience was merely “visionary” and, thus — if visions are decreed to be impossible — the product of hallucination. Of course, something experienced by three distinct persons beside Joseph Smith — and, since Martin Harris received his witness separately from Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer — at two distinct times and two distinct locations is substantially harder to brush off.
If their worldview demands it, though, most skeptics are up to the task: “Once you eliminate the impossible,” Sherlock Holmes explains in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1890 story “The Sign of the Four,” “whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
However, although some have sought to dismiss the experience of the Eight Witnesses as merely visionary (which, they insist, means merely imaginary), it occurred in broad daylight and remains stubbornly matter-of-fact. (See Richard Lloyd Anderson's “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses” ; and Steven C. Harper's “Evaluating the Book of Mormon Witnesses.”)
A conscientious unbeliever is required, accordingly, to assume fake artifacts, for the creation of which absolutely no evidence exists — and no sign, among Joseph Smith’s associates, of the required skill. Moreover, as later statements from the Three Witnesses indicate, they saw not only the plates but various other objects (e.g., the Liahona, the sword of Laban, the Urim and Thummim and breastplate) that only an expert metalworker could have forged.
Significantly, too, each of the declarations — of the Three and of the Eight Witnesses — and both together eliminate the possibility that all of this rests merely on Joseph Smith’s imagination, whether that imagination is deemed deranged or deceptive. He didn’t perceive these things alone.
In her “History," his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, records his relief after the Three Witnesses had their experience: “Joseph threw himself down beside me, and exclaimed, ‘you do not know how happy I am: the Lord has now caused the plates to be shown to three more besides myself. They have seen an angel and they will have to bear witness to the truth of what I have said, for now they know for themselves, that I do not go about to deceive the people, and I feel as if I was relieved of a burden which was almost too heavy for me to bear.’”
Some years ago while driving through the countryside just north of Kansas City, Missouri, my wife and I saw a number of banners hanging at various Protestant churches, inviting people to join tours to the Holy Land. I lead tours to biblical sites myself; I recognize that visiting such places has enormous spiritual and educational value.
However, western Missouri itself is the burial place of several much more recent eyewitnesses who are, in important ways, comparable to the early disciples of Jesus. They too saw. They too knew for themselves.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.