In the LDS Church, much emphasis is placed on the “witness” of three men who said that they saw ancient plates of gold which were translated by Joseph Smith into the Book of Mormon, as well as eight additional witnesses who testified of their belief in the Book of Mormon. Members are often told that these witnesses never denied their statements, but such a simplistic explanation omits important truths. Each participant’s actions and affiliations prior to joining, and subsequent to departing Mormonism, are relevant character considerations. Many of the witnesses later provided testimony that contradicted Smith’s claims and their own testimonies; and many also fell out with Joseph Smith and left the early church.
The historical narrative surrounding the Book of Mormon witnesses presents a labyrinth of conflicting statements, many provided decades after the fact by those not present during the events. Much confusion surrounds the issue of who actually saw or signed what, where and when.
Each witness, except Martin Harris, was derived from just two interwoven families, the Whitmers (Oliver Cowdery and Hiram Page were related by marriage) and Joseph’s Smith’s own family, leading to questions about their objectivity and clear financial and social incentives to bolster his claims. Each family is well documented to have believed in second sight, the visioning of inanimate objects with spiritual eyes, and the experiences they describe separately seem to have been more spiritual in nature than physical.
It is important to remember the historical time period in which the witness statements were made in order to understand what was meant by them. Judged by modern standards, visions may seem extraordinary and special; yet seeing God, angels and all manner of supernatural beings was definitely a thing in the early 1800s. The burned-over district refers to the western and central regions of New York in the early 19th century, where revivals and the formation of new religious movements of the Second Great Awakening took place.
Numerous restorationist churches sprang up in America, most claiming visions of God, many incorporating Christ in their name, each claiming to be His restored church. Preachers regularly moved their followers to experience visions, speak in tongues or fall down shaking. Nearly all American conversion experiences mention angelic ministration or visions of deity.
The Smith family, like many revivalists of the period, did not differentiate between dreams and visions. In 1 Nephi 8:2 we learn, “Behold, I have dreamed a dream; or, in other words, I have seen a vision.”
Smith’s history offers countless examples of supernatural episodes; many referring to dreams and second sight, things not seen with natural eyes. “Our eyes were opened” means they were seeing things in their mind. See D&C Section 110:1 – “eyes of our understanding were opened”; and D&C 76 – Savior seen by “eyes of our understanding.” LDS scripture contains numerous references to “the eye of faith,” while D&C 17:5 specifically states “By faith the Three Witnesses will see the plates…” The exact meaning of these claims remains open to debate, and it is not clear that they should be taken at face value.
Grant Palmer, former CES Director, documented dozens of personages Joseph claimed to see, including Adam and Eve. Smith, frequently aided by his use of various seer stones, also at times professed to see guardian spirits protecting treasure in the ground. Are members to take all of these visions as gospel truth, in the way that the LDS Church encourages them to accept the story of the witness of the gold plates?
Affirmations by Smith and the witnesses indicate that their experience occurred as a vision, that they saw the plates with spiritual eyes.  In a revelation recorded in D&C 17:2, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris were told that it was by faith they would obtain “a view of the plates.” This is consistent with Whitmer’s 1839 statement, “…they were shown to me by a supernatural power.”  Dan Vogel concluded that each witness spoke “in terms commonly understood to describe visions.” That is to say, they were not describing an experience of a physical nature, as a witness at a trial might talk about seeing an event take place? Rather, they were speaking of something far more dream-like and less tangible.
THE 3 WITNESSES
Martin Harris took great pride in his honesty and upright dealings before God. He was generally respected within his community, while also being known as a pious visionary. Lorenzo Saunders described him as “…a good citizen…a man that would do just as he agreed with you” but that he was also “a great man for seeing spooks.”
Prior to joining Mormonism, he changed his religion at least 5 times. G.W. Stoddard said of him, “I have been acquainted with Martin Harris, about thirty years… Although he possessed wealth, his moral and religious character was such, as not to entitle him to respect among his neighbors….He was first an orthodox Quaker, then a Universalist, next a Restorationer, then a Baptist, next a Presbyterian, and then a Mormon. By his willingness to become all things unto all men, he has attained a high standing among his Mormon brethren.” 
Joseph Smith extracted an initial $50 (two months average wage) out of Martin by saying God had directed him to the only honest man he could find. Martin later said “I paid for him…furnished him money for his journey.” Martin also paid many of Joseph’s debts and incurred the entire Book of Mormon printing cost, despite Smith’s early commitment to pay half. Harris ultimately abandoned “the cultivation of one of the best farms in the neighborhood” to sell books.
Martin’s familiarity with visions, both before and after Mormonism, is extremely well documented. Though he is a credible witness in terms of telling what he experienced, it is also true that he was primed to see visions and certainly not a skeptic of the supernatural. Harris claimed in an interview that before his experience as one of the three witnesses he told Joseph Smith, “Joseph, I know all about it. The Lord has showed me ten times more about it than you know.”  Like Oliver Cowdery, he claimed to have seen the gold plates in a vision before ever meeting Joseph Smith and, in a sense, seems to have been seeking divine intervention.
Harris was said to have walked and talked with a deer that was actually Jesus in deer form.  While reading the Bible, he interpreted the candle’s sputtering as a sign that the devil desired to stop him. When the candle flickered, Martin proclaimed “…it is the devil trying to put out the light, so that we can’t read any more.”  He saw the world in a certain way, and often interpreted it in spiritual terms.
Throughout the remainder of his life, Harris was known to passionately testify, but of his shifting beliefs and visions. His enthusiasm for sharing his testimony often presented challenges for the Church. One such instance occurred when Harris directly contradicted the official story by describing how his vision experience occurred separately from the others, even days later. “…When they had all engaged in prayer, they failed at that time to see the plates or the angel who should have been on hand to exhibit them. They all believed it was because I was not good enough, or, in other words, not sufficiently sanctified. I withdrew. As soon as I had gone away, the three others saw the angel and the plates. In about three days I went into the woods to pray that I might see the plates. While praying I passed into a state of entrancement, and in that state I saw the angel and the plates.”  Harris himself recounted a very different experience than most members of the LDS Church imagine or than the witness statements describe.
Harris changed his stories and visions often enough that Church leaders later defamed him in The Lunacy of Martin Harris, accusing him of being “…an evil man…a strangeness about him…lying deceptive spirit.” Regarding his propensity to shift spiritual allegiance, the church reminded readers that, “One day he [Martin Harris] would be one thing, and another day another. He soon became deranged or shattered, as many believed, flying from one thing to another, as if reason and common sense were thrown off their balance. In one of his fits of monomania, he went and joined the ‘Shakers’ or followers of Anne Lee. He tarried with them a year or two, or perhaps longer … but since Strang has made his entry into the apostate ranks, and hoisted his standard for the rebellious to flock too, Martin leaves the ‘Shakers,’ whom he knows to be right, and has known it for many years, as he said, and joins Strang in gathering out the tares of the field.”  So why is Harris’s testimony of the plates to be relied on; and is it accurate to claim that he never changed his witness?
On March 25, 1838, Martin Harris publicly testified that none of the three or eight witnesses saw or handled physical plates; they were seen only with “spiritual eyes” in faith. Of Martin’s testimony, Warren Parrish wrote, “Martin Harris, one of the subscribing witnesses, has come out at last, and says he never saw the plates, from which the book purports to have been translated, except in a vision and he further states that any man who says he has seen them in any other way is a liar, Joseph (Smith Jr.) not excepted.”  Multiple second-hand accounts confirmed Martin’s words, prompting three Apostles and many other leaders to abandon the Church.
Apostle Lyman E. Johnson was one of these apostles who were disaffected. He wrote in a letter written by Stephen Burnett: “I have reflected long and deliberately upon the history of this church and weighed the evidence for and against it – loth to give it up – but when I came to hear Martin Harris state in public that he never saw the plates with his natural eyes only in vision or imagination, neither Oliver [Cowdery] nor David [Whitmer] and also that the eight witnesses never saw them and hesitated to sign that instrument for that reason, but were persuaded to do it, the last pedestal gave way, in my view our foundations was sapped and the entire superstructure fell a heap of ruins, … I was followed by W. [Warren] Parish, Luke Johnson and John Boynton, all of who concurred with me.”
“After we were done speaking, Martin Harris arose and said he was sorry for any man who rejected the Book of Mormon for he knew it was true, he said he had hefted the plates repeatedly in a box with only a tablecloth or handkerchief over them, but he never saw them only as he saw a city through a mountain. And said that he never should have told that the testimony of the eight was false, if it had not been picked out of air but should have let it passed as it was.”  This is damning evidence against the testimony of the witnesses.
Martin Harris earned a well-known proclivity for visions. When questioned by a Palmyra lawyer, who pointedly asked: “Did you see the plates …with your bodily eyes?” Martin replied, “I did not see them as I do that pencil case, I saw them with the eye of faith; I saw them just as distinctly as I see anything around me – though at the time they were covered with a cloth.” Later he said he “saw the angel turn the golden leaves over and over.” Apologists may claim that such a visionary experience cannot be dismissed, but it is not the same as a physical one. And if the gold plates were real, one must wonder why the witnesses didn’t have physical experiences with them?
Martin Harris also demonstrated ambitions of making money from the sale of the Book of Mormon. He had committed to fully funding the printing costs, which provided him additional incentive to testify to its miraculous provenance. Joseph Smith attempted at various times to sooth Martin’s financial worries, such as when he prophesied that Harris would receive a “lot of land” which belonged to another church member. Smith exhorted his parishioners with equal rations of threats and incentives, such as when he said, “Inasmuch as you obtain a chance to loan money by hundreds, or thousands, even until you shall loan enough to deliver yourself from bondage, it is your privilege.” 
Lucy Harris, Martin’s wife, shared that “His whole object was to make money by it. I will have one circumstance in proof of it. One day, while at Peter Harris house, I told him he had better leave the company of the Smiths, as their religion was false; to which he replied, if you would let me alone, I could make money by it.”  Harris never did make money by it, though Smith did through the religion he founded around the book that had cost Harris so much.
Upon separating from Mormonism, Harris joined the Strangites, served a mission and bore frequent testimony of that new truth. Soon thereafter, Harris became a Whitmerite, before eventually shifting his allegiance yet again to William Smith as the true successor of the assassinated prophet Joseph Smith. Phineas H. Young told Brigham Young that Harris’s later testimony of Shakerism was “greater than it was of the Book of Mormon.”  There is no evidence that Martin ever denied his testimonies of any of the varied religions he embraced. But he also seemed not to see any contradiction in moving from one to another. He certainly didn’t see the LDS church as “the one true church.”
Still penniless and estranged at age 85, Harris petitioned and was granted $200 and logistic support to move Harris, Utah by Brigham Young provided $200. There he reunited with his family. When Harris re-affiliated with the Brighamite branch of Mormonism late in life, he was said to have been in a feeble state, and remained dependent upon the Church for financial aid until his death in 1875.  A man in such a condition of dependency would remain unlikely to offend his hosts by changing his testimony.
It is true that in his final moments, Martin reiterated his witness of the golden plates to the LDS periodical, The Instructor. He also then continued to elaborate on a money digging episode he participated in with Joseph Smith, after they had already obtained the gold plates, as he and Smith sought more boxes of gold. “Three of us took some tools to go to the hill and hunt for more boxes of gold or something, and indeed we found a stone box. We got quite excited about it and dug carefully around it, and by some unseen power it slipped back into the hill. We stood there and looked at it and one of us took a crow-bar and tried to drive it through the lid and hold it, but the bar glanced off and broke off one of the corners of the box. Sometime that box will be found and you will see the corner broken off, and then you will know I have told you the truth.  If true, a for-profit treasure hunt on that very same Cumorah where Smith allegedly obtained the sacred gold plates would certainly call into question their mutual motives.
His awkward final testimony was attested to by three witnesses. Martin’s sincerity was seldom in question, while his credibility and reliability remain open to investigation.
- Dialogue, Martin Harris: The Kirtland Years, H. Michael Marquardt
- Recovery from Mormonism: The Book of Mormon Witnesses
- Joseph Smith Papers: Stephen Burnett’s Original Letter
David Whitmer was one of six original members of the Church of Christ that Joseph Smith organized in 1830. Much of the Book of Mormon was produced in the home of his father, Peter, as he hosted the Smiths. David rose to positions of prominence, becoming head of the church in Missouri. His presence at so many of the important early events of the church makes him a useful witness.
Like Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery, the extended Whitmer family embraced a supernatural, often magical world view. David Whitmer possessed his own seer stone and experienced many visionary episodes. Lyndon Cook, a teacher of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University, suggested that Whitmer’s accounts of “other supernatural experiences…must be seen in connection with the more frequently printed evidence to fully this eyewitnesses’s testimony.” 
Whitmer’s experience with the gold plates was unique, as he was the sole primary witness to see the plates for the first time during the famous episode of the three witnesses Joseph Smith later described. On the other hand, Cowdery and Harris attested to having already seen them “in vision” before meeting Joseph Smith.
David Whitmer was a man inclined to visionary experiences. On June 18, 1830, in one of the earliest descriptions of the new church, Reverend Diedrich Willers wrote that the Whitmers “…even believe in witches. Hiram Page (married to a Whitmer daughter) is likewise full of superstition.”  Mark Twain, sarcastically referring to the family’s known proclivity for visions and mysticism, said, “I could not feel more satisfied and at rest if the entire Whitmer family had testified.” 
Also like Harris, Whitmer’s account of his experience changed over time, but for him it was to include him describing the angel (Moroni) as having no appearance or shape.  Whitmer later expanded his narrative to include viewing many other items, such as “…the brass plates, the plates of the Book of Ether…and many other plates…the Sword of Laban…the ball which Lehi had, and the interpreters [Urim & Thummim].  None of these fantastic items were referenced in Joseph’s account.
One of David’s most remarkable experiences with the supernatural occurred while he was transporting Joseph Smith to his [Whitmer’s] fathers house, where he would be hosted. They encountered an old man who walked alongside their wagon for some distance, carrying “an old fashioned army knapsack strapped over his shoulder and something square in it…” Declining their offered ride, he declared that he was “going across to the hill Cumorah.” The mysterious traveler disappeared the moment they looked away. Whitmer said “the prophet looked as white as a sheet and said that it was one of the Nephites and that he had the plates.” Upon arriving at their destination in Fayette, “they were impressed that the same person was under the shed and again they were informed [by Smith] that it was so.”  David’s retellings of this episode, which he shared with others over the years, incorporated varied and sometimes conflicting details.
But like many of the witnesses, Whitmer’s adherence to the church and his personal loyalty to Smith waned in later years. Strongly disaffected by the Kirtland Safety Society banking scandal, Mr. Whitmer resigned from Mormonism in August 1837. Following Sidney Rigdon’s inflammatory Salt Sermon speech of June 1838 and related Danite Manifesto, each directed at the growing number of apostate Mormons, the Whitmers fled town.
In addition, Whitmer publicly criticized Smith for modifying prior revelations, an accusation which has since been validated and documented. After departing Mormonism, he later declared, “If you believe my testimony to the Book of Mormon; if you believe that God spake to us three witnesses by his own voice, then I tell you that in June, 1838, God spake to me again by his own voice from the heavens, and told me to separate myself from among the Latter-day Saints.”  Like Harris, he followed James Strang’s leadership after Joseph’s death, but never rejoined the Church. Determining which of David Whitmer’s many statements to believe, not just those the LDS Church finds convenient, can be quite challenging.
WHITMER’S ANTHON SCRIPT
Another episode illustrating David Whitmer’s special status as a witness to important events of the early church, as well as his proclivity to provide fascinating testimony, is related to the provenance of the Book of Mormon. David Whitmer claimed to possess the original script which Martin Harris carried to Professor Charles Anthon to confirm the veracity of Smith’s mysterious characters. The LDS Church confirms that David Whitmer “claimed that it was the same one Martin Harris showed to scholars in New York in early 1828.” However, the authenticity and source of the script, now owned by Community of Christ, are disputed by the LDS Church itself.
Based largely on the handwriting, the LDS Church suggests that the document was written by David’s brother, John Whitmer, while pointing out that he “did not meet [Smith] until 1829, more than a year after Harris’s journey to New York.” It reaffirms “The earliest John Whitmer could have produced this document was after he first met [Smith] in June 1829…” Other scholars, such as Brent Metcalfe, suggest the author was his other brother, Christian Whitmer.
In sharp contrast to Whitmer’s document, Anthon himself described the characters he saw as being arranged in vertical columns ending in a “rude delineation of a circle divided into various compartments, decked with various strange marks, and evidently copied after the Aztec calendar given by Humboldt…” This is not at all a confirmation of Joseph Smith’s translation, as modern members of the LDS church are often told.
In any event, the characters are almost certainly not the actual ones Anthon viewed, which brings David Whitmer’s ability to sort fact from fiction into serious question. This suggests that the Whitmer family engaged in the production of a fraudulent religious document. Further, it makes it difficult to rely on other statements Whitmer made regarding the gold plates or things divine he so often witnessed.
Even the LDS Church has at various times taken advantage of David Whitmer’s propensity to provide impeachable testimony, affirming his stories whenever they suit the Church’s evolving narrative, but disavowing whenever his recollections contradict. Specifically, during the many years when the Church remained in denial about Smith’s rock-in-hat method of translation, and before it readily acknowledged that the rock was synonymous with the “Urim & Thummim,” prominent LDS scholars Joseph Fielding McConkie and Craig Ostler eloquently illustrated the duplicity: “In our judgment, Mr. Whitmer is not a reliable source on this matter. We are entirely respectful of and grateful for the testimony to which he appended his name as one of the three witnesses of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and its divine origin. That, however, does not make him a competent witness to the process of translation… Such an explanation is, in our judgment, simply fiction created for the purpose of demeaning Joseph Smith.”  Today, the LDS Church acknowledges the translation method of which Whitmer spoke..
- Joseph Smith Papers: Characters copied by John Whitmer, circa 1829-1831.
The final of the three witnesses is Oliver Cowdery, who served as scribe for 80% of the Book of Mormon. Cowdery was a third cousin to Lucy Smith, while Joseph Smith Sr. was a close friend of Cowdery’s father.
The relationship between Cowdery and Smith is made clear through a group in Vermont founded by Nathaniel Wood at the turn of the 19th century, known as the New Israelites, Wood Scrape group, even Fraternity of Rodsmen.  The sect used dowsing rods to seek buried treasure, claimed to be descendants of Israelites, and faced multiple accusations of counterfeiting. Joseph Smith Sr. and William Cowdery, Oliver’s father, were members.
Though Joseph Smith Senior’s involvement has been disputed, it aligns well with the family’s well documented subsequent money digging practices, and his 1837 boast, as recorded by James Brewster, ”I know more about money-digging than any man in this generation for I have been in the business for more than thirty years!”  D. Michael Quinn addressed the Wood Scrape group in Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, while Oliver’s inherited “gift of working with the rod” was confirmed in the Doctrine & Covenants – before the Church altered its own revelation multiple times to ultimately read “gift of Aaron” (see Doctrinal Changes, D&C 8).
Cowdery lived in Poultney, Vermont from 1809-1825, where his three half-sisters were baptized into Ethan Smith’s church. Oliver was also a member of Ethan’s congregation. (see Sources of Inspiration) The connection between Cowdery and the Smiths became closer when Cowdery accepted a teaching position in Manchester and his employment was approved by Hyrum Smith as trustee of the school; Cowdery then boarded at the Smith home. His involvement in early Mormonism was not fortuitous or divinely manipulated; his involved stemmed from a family and financial relationship.
Like Martin Harris, Cowdery also claimed to vision the plates before ever meeting Smith. This was confirmed by Joseph Smith as he recorded his own history. “… [the] Lord appeared unto a young man by the name of Oliver Cowdery and shewed unto him the plates in a vision and also the truth of the work and what the Lord was about to do through me…” 
However, Cowdery is unique among all other witnesses due to his extensive and intimate experience with Joseph Smith. He worked directly with Joseph to produce the 1835 D&C, which contained numerous significant revisions to prior revelations. He reported many other visions throughout his life, including mystical descriptions that may surprise modern LDS Church members, including how he accompanied Smith multiple times to return the plates into the Hill Cumorah. He reported that a cave opened before them, containing the sword of Laban upon a table, and “wagon loads” of plates stacked high around the cavern. 
Promptly following the Kirtland Safety Society financial scandal of 1837 and related collapse of the Church in Kirtland, Cowdery seemed to lose faith in the prophet. He heavily criticized Joseph Smith for his affair with Fanny Alger, a young maid living in the Smith home. It is true that Cowdery refused to recant his testimony. Still, he was excommunicated in April 1838, congruent with his letter of resignation.
Later, church leaders at various times of convenience accused Cowdery of theft, fraud, adultery and even formally threatened his life if he did not depart the scene.  Smith himself said, “Such characters as McLellin, John Whitmer, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris, are too mean to mention; and we had liked to have forgotten them.”  If we are to believe that Cowdery was reliable in his witness statement about supernatural gold plates, are we not to believe what he said about Fanny Alger? And if he is not a reliable witness, then why believe either story?
Like other witnesses who became disaffected, Cowdery found his way into another church. He later became a Methodist, but was eventually re-baptized into the LDS Church in October of 1848. Even then, his involvement in Mormonism remained very limited until his passing in 1850 at David Whitmer’s Missouri home.
THE WITNESSES ABANDON SMITH
In July 1837, Joseph had left on a five-week missionary tour to Canada, only to find upon his return that all three of the witnesses had joined a faction opposing him. They had rallied around a young girl who claimed to be a seeress by virtue of a black stone through which she read the future. David Whitmer, Martin Harris, and Oliver Cowdery all pledged her their loyalty, while Frederick G. Williams, Joseph’s former First Counselor, became her scribe. “The girl seeres was known to dance herself into a state of exhaustion, fall to the floor, and burst forth with revelations.” 
Sidney Rigdon, an early member of Joseph’s First Presidency, said, “Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer…united with a gang of counterfeiters, thieves, liars, and blacklegs in the deepest dye, to deceive, cheat, and defraud the saints out of their property, by every art and stratagem which wickedness could invent…”  Smith’s preferred method of dealing with those who fell out of favor was often to attempt to discredit them. Many have since been rehabilitated without any explanation of these difficulties.
- Lucy Smith: Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, p 211-213.
THE 8 WITNESSES
- Hyrum Smith (Joseph Jr’s brother)
- Joseph Smith, Sr. (Joseph Jr’s dad)
- Samuel Smith (Joseph Jr’s brother)
- Jacob Whitmer
- John Whitmer
- Christian Whitmer
- Peter Whitmer, Jr.
- Hiram Page (son-in-law to Peter Whitmer, Sr.)
Now we move from the three primary witnesses to the additional eight. As can be seen from the list above, aside from Joseph’s father and two brothers, four were David Whitmer’s brothers, while Hyram Page was married to a Whitmer sister.
The witness statements promoted by the Church are not dated, nor is any location identified. Joseph Smith’s official declaration of the witness episodes, printed in 1842, appears to be a composite of more than one event or experience. The few statements provided by the witnesses themselves suggest a far more visionary, supernatural experience than the physical event portrayed in Smith’s declaration.
None of the witnesses recorded their own contemporary account of the experience; rather they appear to have signed a statement prepared by Joseph Smith. None of the signatures promoted by the Church were penned by the witnesses themselves; Oliver Cowdery hand wrote each one. No original witness signatures are extant today. It is a matter of record that Smith later convinced dozens of his most loyal followers to affix their signature and oath to verifiably false statements regarding polygamy.
The lack of accounts in any of the witnesses’ journals is interesting, as signing such a momentous document would have been a significant event in all of their lives. There is no evidence to support the notion that anyone even saw an original, signed witness statement.
John Whitmer contradicted the official historical narrative by recounting to journalist Wilhelm Poulson that he experienced his witness in Joseph Smith’s house, with only four others present, and that the other four experienced the event separately.  Whitmer also stated that “…they [the plates] were shown to me by a supernatural power.”
Thomas Ford, former Governor of Illinois, reflected upon his impression of the witnesses. “…I have been informed by men who were once in the confidence of the prophet, that he privately gave a different account of the matter… He set them to continual prayer, and other spiritual exercises…and at last, when he could delay them no longer, he assembled them in a room, and produced a box, which he said contained the precious treasure. The lid was opened; the witnesses peeped into it, but making no discovery, for the box was empty…”
The prophet promptly chastised their lack of faith, commanding them to their knees to beg forgiveness and increased faith. “The disciples dropped to their knees and began to pray in the fervency of their spirit, supplicating God for more than two hours with fanatical earnestness; at the end of which time, looking again into the box, they were now persuaded that they saw the plates.”  If true, this is a damning account. If untrue, why didn’t the witnesses ever contradict the idea that they had only seen the gold plates with spiritual eyes?
In modern times, we have learned to be skeptical of coerced or persuaded witness statements. Scientific studies have confirmed that about half of all individuals will come to believe that a fictional event occurred if they are told about the event and then repeatedly imagine it happening. Regardless of the extraordinary claims people sometimes make, it does not always mean that an extraordinary event actually occurred.
It is instructive to explore which branch of Mormonism the witnesses supported immediately following the death of Joseph Smith. Despite having only met Smith in February, James Strang entered the succession fray of June of 1844 to compete as the prophet’s legitimate heir. Like many top-ranking church leaders, Strang was a Freemason. Thus, he was able to leverage a fraternal trust that would have been otherwise unavailable to outsiders.
Strang confessed his secular motivations only in Masonic inspired code within his own journal, which was not fully deciphered and transcribed until 1950s. Therein, he records “[Mr. Smith] calls on me to pray and talk religious subjects and sometimes I consent just to please the people. It is all a mere mock of sounds for me for I can no longer believe the nice speculative contradictions of our divine theologians of our age.” His ambitions to power are revealed when he recorded, “The dreams of empire are so thoroughly imprinted on my mind as not to be easily erased”; or “I am a perfect atheist but do not confess it lest I bring my father grey hair with sorrow to the grave.” 
Nevertheless, the audacious Strang quickly surmised the leanings of Smith’s eager parishioners. To bolster his authority during such an extraordinarily convenient moment, he claimed to have been ordained to the office by an angel, and presented a personal letter of appointment that Joseph Smith allegedly mailed him from Nauvoo on June 18, 1844, just nine days prior to his death. While the handwriting of the letter does not match Smith’s, and the meaning of the vague letter remains in dispute, U.S. postal records from two cities along the mail route confirm that a letter was in fact mailed to Strang from Nauvoo.
Lucy Smith (Joseph’s mother) wrote a letter on May 11, 1846 upholding James Strang as a prophet, while Emma Smith testified that Joseph held a council of trusted advisors before penning a letter to Strang. These actions could be seen as powerful endorsements of the legitimacy of this line of succession.
In January 1845, Strang revealed to his followers that God had revealed to him the location of another record of an ancient, lost civilization. By September, he revealed the exact location of some additional buried plates, before leading four new “witnesses” to participate in their extraction from the earth near a tree. The record contained inscriptions in an unknown language and became known as the Voree Plates. Strang soon thereafter claimed the ability to translate ancient records.
Strang’s witnesses were arguably more credible than Smith’s. Each clearly testified of seeing physical plates with their natural eyes. Many of their statements were contemporaneously recorded by their own hand, with date and location identified. Further, Strang placed his plates on open public display for all to inspect, rather than hiding them under a cloth or in the woods under threat of destruction.
Strang mirrored many of Joseph Smith’s doctrines and methods. He gathered his followers to remote Beaver Island in Lake Michigan and began taking multiple wives, despite his prior opposition to the practice of polygamy. Strang was ultimately murdered by his disillusioned followers.
All the Whitmers and Smiths aligned with Strang, as did at least three apostles and thousands of Saints. Thus, we find every living Book of Mormon witnesses, except Oliver Cowdery, accepting Strang as their prophet, at least for a time. By 1847, not a single one of the surviving eleven witnesses were affiliated with the Mormon church.
The historical narrative surrounding the Book of Mormon witnesses presents a labyrinth of conflicting statements, many provided decades after the fact by those not present during the events. Much confusion surrounds the issue of who actually saw or signed what, where and when. Each participant’s actions and affiliations prior to joining, and subsequent to departing Mormonism, are relevant character considerations. Not one of them remained truly committed to Joseph Smith throughout his lifetime, and many left Mormonism never to return. It is difficult to review the complete history and context of these witnesses and continue to believe with any certainty that they saw the gold plates with anything other than spiritual eyes, which often casts doubt upon much of what Joseph Smith claimed to have seen and done in the early days of Mormonism.
- MormonThink: The Witnesses
- Book of Mormon Witnesses – The Three – Part 1, Dan Vogel
- Book of Mormon Witnesses – The Eight – Part 2, Dan Vogel
- Institute for Religious Research – Book of Mormon Witnesses, Joel Groat
- The Book of Mormon Witnesses
 Papers of Joseph Smith, Jesse, 296, Also Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, 197.
 History of the Church, vol 3, 307.
 G.W. Stoddard affidavit, Nov 28, 1833.
 Tiffany’s Monthly, 1859, 166.
 John Clark letter, Aug 31, 1840 Early Mormon Documents 2:271.
 History of The Church, 1:26-27.
 Martin Harris Interview with Anthony Metcalf, Circa 1873-1874, Early Mormon Documents, Vogel, 2:346-347.
 Millennial Star, vol 8, Nov 15, 1846, 124-128.
 Warren Parrish to E. Holmes, Aug 11, 1838, The Evangelist, Carthage, OH.
 Stephen Burnett letter to Lyman E. Johnson dated April 15, 1838. Joseph Smith Papers, Letterbook 2.
 D&C 104: 24, 84.
 Lucy Harris affidavit, Nov 29, 1833.
 Letter of Phineas H. Young to Brigham Young, Dec 31, 1844.
 Improvement Era, March 1969, 63 / Journal of Discourses, vol 7, 164, Brigham Young.
 The Instructor: The Last Testimony of Martin Harris, E. Cecil McGavin, Oct 1930, vol 65, #10, 587-589.
 David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness, 1991.
 Willers letter, 1830
 Mark Twain, Roughing It, 113.
 John Murphy interview, June 1880.
 Book of Mormon Compendium, Orson Pratt interviewing Whitmer, 1878.
 Edward Stevenson’s journal, Dec 22-23, 1877.
 An Address to All Believers in Christ, Whitmer.
 David Whitmer Interviews, Cook, 115, 157-58.
 Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, Quinn / Making of a Prophet, Vogel.
 James C. Brewster, 1837.
 Dean Jessee 1984.
 Journal of Discourses 1878, 19:38.
 Senate Document 189 1841, 6-9.
 History of the Church vol 3, ch 15, 232.
 Biographical Sketches, Lucy Smith, 210-213.
 Letter and Testimony, Feb 15, 1841, 6-9.
 Deseret Evening News, Aug 16, 1878.
 A History of Illinois, from its Commencement as a State in 1818 to 1847, Thomas Ford, Chicago, S. C. Griggs & Co., 1854, 256–58.
 Strangite Masonry and the Order of Illuminati, Cheryl Bruno. 2021, Journal of Mormon History 47:3 (July 2021) 1-21. James Jesse Strang Diary, July 1831–January 1836, type-script, WA MSS S-188, box 3, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.