Defending the Faith: Did Book of Mormon witnesses simply see the golden plates with their ‘spiritual eyes’?
I continually encounter the confident declaration that the witnesses to the Book of Mormon didn’t really see or touch anything at all and didn’t actually claim to have seen or touched anything. They only “saw” the plates with their “spiritual eyes,” I’m assured, and “spiritual eyes,” to them, meant “in their imaginations.”
I responded to this assertion in a column published five years ago (see “Book of Mormon witness testimonies” published May 25, 2010). However, since the claim continues to be made, and given the fundamental importance of this issue, I address it yet again, in somewhat different fashion.
I’ll leave aside the question of whether it’s even remotely plausible that the witnesses sacrificed so very much for something they recognized as merely imaginary. Let’s look at their explicit verbal testimonies. Several of the 11 official witnesses were obviously confronted during their lifetimes with accusations that they had merely hallucinated, and they repeatedly rejected such proposed explanations.
In fact, David Whitmer, one of the initial Three Witnesses, could easily have been addressing today’s skeptics when he declared “I was not under any hallucination, nor was I deceived! I saw with these eyes and I heard with these ears! I know whereof I speak!”
It’s difficult to imagine how he could have been any clearer.
In this column, though, I’ll focus on the experience of the Eight Witnesses, which seems to have included no explicitly supernatural elements but, rather, to have been a wholly matter-of-fact event.
In late 1839, Hyrum Smith wrote an account for the Times and Seasons newspaper covering, among other things, his four months of hungry and cold imprisonment in Missouri’s Liberty Jail, under recurring threats of execution, while his family and fellow members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were being driven from their homes during the wintertime:
“I thank God,” he told the Saints, “that I felt a determination to die, rather than deny the things which my eyes had seen, which my hands had handled, and which I had borne testimony to. … I can assure my beloved brethren that I was enabled to bear as strong a testimony, when nothing but death presented itself, as ever I did in my life.”
One might dismiss this declaration of willingness to die for his testimony as an empty boast, mere retrospective bravado, were it not for the fact that, less than five years later in Illinois, fully understanding the risk, he did in fact go voluntarily to Carthage Jail. There, with his prophet-brother, he died as a martyr — which, in ancient Greek, means “witness” — in a hail of bullets.
The accounts left behind by the Eight Witnesses are replete not only with claims to have “seen and hefted” the plates, to have turned their individual leaves and examined their engravings, but also with estimates of their weight, descriptions of their physical form and the rings that bound them, and reports of their approximate dimensions as well.
Wilhelm Poulson’s 1878 interview with John Whitmer provides an excellent summary:
“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 can 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.”
William Smith, who knew the Eight Witnesses well — his father and two of his brothers were among them — explained “they not only saw with their eyes but handled with their hands the said record.” Daniel Tyler heard Samuel Smith testify that “He knew his brother Joseph had the plates, for the prophet had shown them to him, and he had handled them and seen the engravings thereon.”
Those who seek to dismiss the testimony of the Eight Witnesses must, on the whole, flatly brush aside what they actually, and very forcefully, said.
For further evidence and analysis on this topic, see Richard Lloyd Anderson’s 2005 article “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses” online at publications.maxwellinstitute.byu.edu.
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.read more
Descendants of Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith met in greater force than ever before to both renew family ties and remember history at a reunion in Salt Lake City Aug. 1-4.
Roughly 1,100 Smith descendants from Hyrum, Joseph Jr. and Samuel Smith’s lines came to This Is The Place Heritage Park for the reunion.
“We need to work together as a family to gather our family,” said Michael Kennedy, a Joseph Smith Jr. descendant who has dedicated his life to finding his fellow Joseph Smith Jr. descendants, who are scattered worldwide.
About 200 of the Smith descendants came just to participate in “Joseph’s Miracle Run,” a 5K race on Aug. 3 that celebrated the 1813 experimental surgery that saved young Joseph’s leg.
This topic was further explored later that day by Roy Wirthlin, who presented some of his newly discovered research on the work of the doctor who performed the surgery, Nathan Smith.
The honored guest at the reunion was David Longcope, who is a seventh generation doctor in an unbroken line from Joseph Smith’s surgeon. He and his family participated in the race and especially enjoyed Wirthlin’s lecture. They were presented with the family history work of Nathan Smith as a gift from the family.
While the adults learned more about the courage and love of the Smith family from Wirthlin, their children were experiencing “Zion’s Camp.” The children made swords, learned a pioneer song and tried walking on wooden crutches like Joseph Smith would have needed after his surgery.
Don Lee, a descendant of Hyrum Smith, was the proud maker of the crutches. His wife, Gwen Lee explained, “It just seems like if children have a very firm foundation and know that in their blood they carry this faith in God they can have the courage to go forth and be modern pioneers.”
Meanwhile, the teenagers made a small wreath with 11 red roses, one for each of Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith’s children
The wreath adorned the pulpit where, that evening, Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve spoke to the gathered family. Elder Ballard is a Hyrum descendant, and when he thanked the reunion’s organizers for their hard work, he remarked, “[Organizing] the Smiths is kind of like herding cats sometimes.”
He shared his testimony with the family and told them that they could best honor the legacy of the remarkable Smith family by being good missionaries.
“We owe our forefathers our loyalty and our willingness to do whatever is necessary in the building up of the kingdom of God,” he said.
The Smith descendants were recognized on the morning of Aug. 4 at the live broadcast of “Music and the Spoken Word” at the Conference Center.
Other music over the weekend included a concert on the evening of Aug. 2, where Nathan Osmond, among others, performed. The emcee for the evening was Rick Macy, who has portrayed Joseph Smith Sr. in several films.
Referring to the blend of faith-based history and family time that characterized the reunion, Nathan Adams, a reunion organizer, said, “Only in the Smith family do you get to do things like this.”
Lucy Schouten is an Arizona native studying journalism and Middle Eastern studies at Brigham Young University. Contact her at email@example.com more
By Dennis Lythgoe Deseret News staff writer
Valeen Tippetts Avery’s fascination with the last son of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith came while she was working on a biography of the prophet’s wife, Emma.David Hyrum Smith was born in 1844 after the death of his father, and Avery became so interested in him that he became the subject of her Ph.D dissertation.
The title was changed from “Insanity and the Sweet Singer” to “From Mission to Madness: Last Son of the Mormon Prophet,” and her dissertation in history at Northern Arizona University became a prize-winning book. (Winner of the locally prestigious Evans Biography award, given by Utah State University, and the Mormon History Association’s award for best biography; it has also been nominated for several other awards, including the nationally prestigious Bancroft Prize in History.)According to Avery, David Smith was “the sweet singer of Israel to congregations in the Midwest, because his preaching resembled that of Old Testament prophets — but he could also sing.”
Speaking by telephone from her home in Flagstaff, Ariz., where she teaches history at NAU, Avery said Smith’s life was one of both success and tragedy. Although a brilliant and charismatic poet, painter, philosopher, naturalist and highly effective missionary for the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in IIlinois, Smith was stricken with mental illness while still in his 30s. He was committed to the Northern Illinois Hospital and Asylum for the Insane, where he remained until his death in 1904.
While his older brother, Joseph Smith III, was serving as president of the RLDS Church, David Smith felt that going on a mission to Utah, to try to convert the “Brighamites,” was his most important duty, and he did so several times. In spite of the conflict that existed between the LDS and the RLDS Churches, Smith managed to make friends with many Utah Mormons. And even though he and Brigham Young exchanged harsh words, there is evidence that they felt a natural affinity for one another. There was no one Young respected more than Smith’s father, and he wanted Smith in the Utah Church. Meanwhile, Smith felt moved to teach Young the error of his ways.
Implicit in this story is the connection between the LDS and RLDS churches, which also intrigued the author. “I didn’t understand the relationship between the two churches, most of all the sons of Joseph and Emma, and Brigham Young, and the church in the West, ” she said. Avery, who is LDS, could see this was a story about which church would be most successful in establishing Mormonism as an American religious tradition.
“Who would control Mormonism in the American experience? Would it be the more moderate RLDS version that conformed more to Protestant viewpoints and refused to accept polygamy or the doctrine of the gathering? I would have bet that Joseph III, with his more moderate Mormonism, would have appealed to a larger number of people. But I would have been wrong.The Western LDS Church was more stringent, more radically different than standard Christian theology, yet it succeeded in identifying itself more as an American religion.”
Avery did not set out to write a history of the two churches, although she believes that needs to be done. But she admits that “If there’s another book in me, the thing that excites me the most is a book about Mormons vs. Mormons over who would determine the shape of Mormonism in American culture.”
Avery plans to let a year pass before plunging into another project, however. She also knows she has emerged as a biographer and is not sure if she “can tell the story of a movement and a competitive religious agenda with the same success as that of a human life.”
But “From Mission to Madness” is also more than a biography. Avery puts this Mormon story into the larger context of “a 19th Century American family defining who they were, how they made a living and how they would deal with an extraordinary son and brother who becomes mentally ill. Its value to the 20th Century is not only telling that story but suggesting that families are not perfect. There are struggles to find answers to the problems of individual family members. It’s a story that reaches out to all of us. It was a joy and an agony to write. It was wonderful to see this family figure out how they were going to live their lives.”
Avery struggled herself with the degree to which she should analyze David Smith’s illness. Should she talk to professionals and try to make a definitive diagnosis? Should she shorten other aspects of the book so she could treat the medical problem in a speculative way? She finally decided to describe Smith’s character the best she could and leave the decision of what his illness might have been to modern clinicians. She has already heard from a variety of medically-trained people who have suggested Smith had hypoglycemia, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or even a frontal lobe tumor.
“I finally decided David deserved to have his story told without a footnote that said his illness might have been alleviated with pills. I’m turning it loose now for the medical professionals.”
While Avery was researching her book, Smith’s grandson, Lynn Smith — then in his 80’s — would occasionally call her and read an intriguing line from a letter in the family collection he was keeping. That way, she knew he had a valuable collection she needed to make the story complete. Lynn would not let her see the papers, but when he died, he donated them to the RLDS Church in Missouri, which granted her immediate access.
An intriguing aspect of Avery’s study is that David Smith never knew his own father. But as he traveled to Utah and talked to many people who did know his father, Smith learned an enormous amount about him. And he started to understand various aspects of his own personality as they related to his father’s.
Avery was impressed with the ways Smith tried to combine his interest in religion with that of science, and how he tried to explain scientific concepts in terms that the average RLDS Church member in Missouri and Iowa could understand. Avery believes that when David became institutionalized, the RLDS Church lost its most compelling spokesman. “They lost the one man most uniquely qualified to bridge the gap between their identity and the larger American public. He understood Mormonism, in the context of both churches, so he could have explained it to the larger American culture.”
Avery also believes that Smith “combined the musical talent of his mother with the charismatic qualities of his father and came out with the very best of both those very strong people.”
(During a visit to Salt Lake City this week, Avery will discuss her book and sign copies during the Sunstone Symposium at the Salt Palace, Friday, July 16, beginning at 12:45 p.m.)read more