Verse by Verse Commentary: Testimony of the Eight Witnesses

Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That Joseph Smith, Jun., the translator of this work, has shown unto us the plates of which hath been spoken, which have the appearance of gold; and as many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated we did handle with our hands; and we also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship. And this we bear record with words of soberness, that the said Smith has shown unto us, for we have seen and hefted, and know of a surety that the said Smith has got the plates of which we have spoken. And we give our names unto the world, to witness unto the world that which we have seen. And we lie not, God bearing witness of it.

Christian Whitmer

Jacob Whitmer

Peter Whitmer, Jun.

John Whitmer

Hiram Page

Joseph Smith, Sen.

Hyrum Smith

Samuel H. Smith

“the appearance of gold”

It’s true that we don’t know the exact composition of the plates, whether they were made of pure gold or whether they were mixed with other metals, such as copper, but from the accounts given, it seems likely to me that they were indeed at least partly made of genuine gold.1)Joseph Smith, describing the angel Moroni’s visit, said, “He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fulness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants;” –Joseph Smith—History 1:34. On another occasion, Joseph Smith said, “These records were engraven on plates which had the appearance of gold, each plate was six inches wide and eight inches long, and not quite so thick as common tin. They were filled with engravings, in Egyptian characters, and bound together in a volume as the leaves of a book, with three rings running through the whole. The volume was something near six inches in thickness, a part of which was sealed” –History of the Church 4:537 Gold is one of the most versatile metals available. Gold would have been the easiest metal with which to make a book, and the most lasting substance as well. The following is a paragraph from a gold-jeweler’s website:

Gold is unique of all the world’s precious metals, only gold combines lustrous beauty, easy workability, rarity, and virtual indestructibility. Not even diamonds combine these four characteristics. Gold is so soft and malleable one ounce can be stretched into a wire and incredible 5 miles long, or hammered into a sheet so thin, it covers 100 square feet. It is so rare that only an estimated 102,000 tons have been taken from the earth during all of recorded history, as much as could be contained in a cube with 19-yard sides. More steel is poured in one hour than gold has been poured since the beginning of time. Since it does not rust, tarnish or corrode, gold virtually lasts forever. The coins found in sunken galleons centuries old are as bright and shiny as the day they were cast. 2)Information taken from Man and His Gold, published by The Gold Information Center. http://www.pineglen.com/g_human.htm

“we did handle with our hands… and seen and hefted”

What did the plates look and feel like? Joseph Smith described the plates in these words: “These records were engraven on plates which had the appearance of gold. Each plate was six inches wide and eight inches long, and not quite so thick as common tin. They were filled with engravings, in Egyptian characters, and bound together in a volume as the leaves of a book, with three rings running through the whole. The volume was something near six inches in thickness, a part of which was sealed. The characters on the unsealed part were small, and beautifully engraved. The whole book exhibited many marks of antiquity in its construction and much skill in the art of engraving. With the records was found a curious instrument, which the ancients called “Urim and Thummim,” which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rims of a bow fastened to a breastplate. Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift and power of God.”3)Joseph Smith, Letter to John Wentworth, editor and proprietor of the Chicago Democrat, 1 March 1842 Martin Harris estimated the plates being between 40 and 60 pounds, and modern experts concur, estimating they would have been about 53 pounds. Michael De Groote of the Deseret News gives a fascinating description of the plates, suggesting that even if the book had been written in Hebrew, it probably could have fit on 40 plates, but with reformed Egyptian, the text was probably even more compact than that. Keeping in mind that 2/3 of the plates were sealed with a band, the plates were pretty hefty.

“we also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship”

When Joseph Smith copied the characters from the plates for Martis Harris, that copy was then copied by others. Since copies were later made of those copies, we can’t say for sure if the following image is from Joseph’s hand or from a copy of the ones from Joseph’s hand, but this image gives us a very basic idea of what the characters—the writing on the plates—probably looked like.4)Joseph Smith History 1:62-65

Book of Mormon Characters

It’s also not known if the Book of Mormon was written entirely in Egyptian, or if it was written in Hebrew using Egyptian (Reformed Egyptian) characters. Either way, writing the way the Nephites did was a brilliant move.

Other Witnesses 

Though the three and eight witnesses were officially called to bare witness of the reality of the record, others saw, felt, or in some other way experienced the plates. For example, Emma regularly encountered the plates, though under a cloth cover, and described the experience. “The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen tablecloth, which I had given him to fold them in. I once felt of the plates as they thus lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book.” 5)Account cited from “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald, 1 Oct. 1879, p. 290; by Elder Russell M. Nelson, with spelling modernized. Emma also had to move the plates in order to clean around them. 6)Q.-Are you sure that he had the plates at the time you were writing for him? A.-The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen tablecloth, which I had given him to fold them in. I once felt of the plates, as they thus lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book…. “Q-Could not [Joseph Smith] have dictated the Book of Mormon to you, Oliver Cowdery, and the others who wrote for him, after having first written it, or having first read it out of some book? “A.-Joseph Smith could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter; let alone dictating a book like the Book of Mormon. And, though I was an active participant in the scenes that transpired, and was present during the translation of the plates, and had cognizance of things as they transpired, it is marvelous to me, ‘a marvel and a wonder,’ as much so as to anyone else. “Q.-I should suppose that you would have uncovered the plates and examined them? “A.-I did not attempt to handle the plates, other than I have told you, nor uncover them to look at them. I was satisfied that it was the work of God, and therefore did not feel it to be necessary to do so. “Major Bidamon here suggested: Did Mr. Smith forbid your examining the plates? “A.-I do not think he did. I knew that he had them, and was not specially curious about them. I moved them from place to place on the table, as it was necessary in doing my work. Also: Q: “Do you believe that your husband, Joseph Smith died true to his profession?” A: “I believe he was everything he professed to be.” The Saints’ Herald, vol. 26, pp. 289, 290 [1 Oct 1879] Mary Whitmer, mother to David Whitmer, was also shown the plates by Moroni.7)This incident is reported by David Whitmer: “Soon after our arrival home, I saw something which led me to the belief that the plates were placed or concealed in my father’s barn I frankly asked Joseph if my supposition was right, and he told me it was. Sometime after this, my mother was going to milk the cows, when she was met out near the yard by the same old man (judging by her description of him) who said to her, ‘You have been very faithful and diligent in your labors, but you are tried because of the increase of your toil, it is proper therefore that you should receive a witness that your faith may be strengthened!’  Thereupon he showed her the plates. My father and mother had a large family of their own, the addition to it therefore of Joseph, his wife Emma and Oliver very greatly increased the toil and anxiety of my mother. And although she had never complained she had sometimes felt that her labor was too much, or at least she was perhaps beginning to feel so. This circumstance, however, completely removed all such feelings, and nerved her up for her increased responsibilities.” Report of Elders Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith,” Millennial Star 40 (9 Dec 1878):772-73, 9 December 1878–or see the transcribed version In addition to eye and “hand” witnesses to the plates, there were others who saw the plates in vision, such as  Lucy Harris8)Lucy Mack Smith gives the following account: “He (Martin Harris) said that he would see Joseph in the course of a few days. At this his wife exclaimed, “Yes, and I am coming to see him, too, and I will be there on Tuesday afternoon, and will stop over night.” Accordingly, when Tuesday afternoon arrived, Mrs. Harris made her appearance and as soon as she was well seated she began to importune my son relative to the truth of what he had said concerning the Record, declaring that if he really had any plates, she would see them, and that she was determined to help him publish them. He told her she was mistaken-that she could not see them, for he was not permitted to exhibit them to any one except those whom the Lord should appoint to testify of them. “And, in relation to assistance,” he observed, “I always prefer dealing with men, rather than their wives.” This highly displeased Mrs. Harris, for she considered herself altogether superior to her husband and she continued her importunities. She would say, “Now, Joseph, are you not telling me a lie? Can you look full in my eye and say before God that you have in reality found a Record, as you pretend?” To this Joseph replied, rather indifferently, “Why, yes, Mrs. Harris, I would as soon look you in the face and say so as not, if that will be any gratification to you.” Then said she, “Joseph, I will tell you what I will do, if I can get a witness that you speak the truth, I will believe all you say about the matter and I shall want to do something about the translation-I mean to help you any way.” This closed the evening’s conversation. The next morning, soon after she arose, she related a very remarkable dream which she said she had had during the night. It ran about as follows: She said that a personage appeared to her who told her that as she had disputed the servant of the Lord, and said his word was not to be believed, and had also asked him many improper questions, she had done that which was not right in the sight of God. After which he said to her, “Behold, here are the plates, look upon them and believe.” –Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother [Salt Lake City: Stevens & Wallis, Inc., 1945], 116-117., who unfortunately did not stay true to the prophet in his efforts to translate the book.

William Smith, Joseph’s brother, also got to feel the plates, and lift them while they were in a pillow case. He described them as being about 60 pounds, much heavier than stone or wood. He felt the leaves, and suggested that they were a mixture of gold and copper. 9)“When the plates were brought in they were wrapped up in a tow frock. My father then put them into a pillow case. Father said, “What, Joseph, can we not see them?” “No. I was disobedient the first time, but I intend to be faithful this time. For I was forbidden to show them until they are translated, but you can feel them.” We handled them and could tell what they were. They were not quite as large as this Bible. Could tell whether they were round or square. Could raise the leaves this way (raising a few leaves of the Bible before him). One could easily tell that they were not a stone, hewn out to deceive, or even a block of wood. Being a mixture of gold and copper, they were much heavier than stone, and very much heavier than wood.”
When asked by a man in the congregation how much the plates weighed, he replied, “As near as I could tell, about 60 pounds.” The Saints’ Herald, Volume 31, 1844, page 643-644

William testified in his final weeks that he never doubted the call of his brother, Joseph.10)From The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 56:
Before William Smith, brother of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, died he was visited by J. W. Peterson. That gentleman has written an account of the interview with father Smith, to Zion’s Ensign, a paper published at Independence, Missouri. It is written from Bradtville, Wisconsin, and is as follows: Brother Briggs and I visited him next day after he returned from St. Paul, it being about two weeks before his death. We found him able to be about the house and quite willing to talk. After passing the time of day, Brother Briggs and he spoke of former meetings and finally drifted on to the subject of Brother Smith’s early boyhood and his knowledge of the rise of the Church, Book of Mormon, etc.
Bro. Briggs then handed me a pencil and asked Bro. Smith if he ever saw the plates his brother had had, from which the Book of Mormon was translated.
He replied, “I did not see them uncovered, but I handled them and hefted [p.511] them while wrapped in a tow frock and judged them to have weighed about sixty pounds. I could tell they were plates of some kind and that they were fastened together by rings running through the back. Their size was as described in mother’s history.”
Bro. Briggs then asked, “Did any others of the family see them?”
“Yes,” said he; “Father and my brother Samuel saw them as I did while in the frock. So did Hyrum and others of the family.”
“Was this frock one that Joseph took with him especially to wrap the plates in?”
“No, it was his every day frock such as young men used to wear then.”
“Din’t [sic] you want to remove the cloth and see the bare plates?” said Bro. B[riggs].
“No,” he replied; “for father had just asked if he might not be permitted to do so, and Joseph, putting his hand on them said; “No, I am instructed not to show them to any one. If I do, I will transgress and lose them again.” Besides we did not care to have him break the commandment and suffer as he did before.”
“Did you not doubt Joseph’s testimony sometimes?” said Bro. Briggs.
“No,” was the reply. “We all had the most implicit confidence in what he said. He was a truthful boy. Father and mother believed him, why should not the children? I suppose if he had told crooked stories about other things we might have doubted his word about the plates, but Joseph was a truthful boy. That Father and mother believed his report and suffered persecution for that belief shows that he was truthful. No sir, we never doubted his word for one minute.”
The Testimony of William Smith, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star Vol. 56, pages 132-133

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Chas Hathaway is the author of the books Scripture Study Made Awesome, Marriage is Ordained of God, but WHO Came Up with Dating? and Giraffe Tracks. Learn more at chashathaway.com. Please participate in the conversation by adding comments and sharing with friends on the web!

Gospel Living Made Awesome is not an official work of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If Chas says something stupid, it's his own fault.

References   [ + ]

1. Joseph Smith, describing the angel Moroni’s visit, said, “He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fulness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants;” –Joseph Smith—History 1:34. On another occasion, Joseph Smith said, “These records were engraven on plates which had the appearance of gold, each plate was six inches wide and eight inches long, and not quite so thick as common tin. They were filled with engravings, in Egyptian characters, and bound together in a volume as the leaves of a book, with three rings running through the whole. The volume was something near six inches in thickness, a part of which was sealed” –History of the Church 4:537
2. Information taken from Man and His Gold, published by The Gold Information Center. http://www.pineglen.com/g_human.htm
3. Joseph Smith, Letter to John Wentworth, editor and proprietor of the Chicago Democrat, 1 March 1842
4. Joseph Smith History 1:62-65
5. Account cited from “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald, 1 Oct. 1879, p. 290; by Elder Russell M. Nelson, with spelling modernized.
6. Q.-Are you sure that he had the plates at the time you were writing for him? A.-The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen tablecloth, which I had given him to fold them in. I once felt of the plates, as they thus lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book…. “Q-Could not [Joseph Smith] have dictated the Book of Mormon to you, Oliver Cowdery, and the others who wrote for him, after having first written it, or having first read it out of some book? “A.-Joseph Smith could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter; let alone dictating a book like the Book of Mormon. And, though I was an active participant in the scenes that transpired, and was present during the translation of the plates, and had cognizance of things as they transpired, it is marvelous to me, ‘a marvel and a wonder,’ as much so as to anyone else. “Q.-I should suppose that you would have uncovered the plates and examined them? “A.-I did not attempt to handle the plates, other than I have told you, nor uncover them to look at them. I was satisfied that it was the work of God, and therefore did not feel it to be necessary to do so. “Major Bidamon here suggested: Did Mr. Smith forbid your examining the plates? “A.-I do not think he did. I knew that he had them, and was not specially curious about them. I moved them from place to place on the table, as it was necessary in doing my work. Also: Q: “Do you believe that your husband, Joseph Smith died true to his profession?” A: “I believe he was everything he professed to be.” The Saints’ Herald, vol. 26, pp. 289, 290 [1 Oct 1879]
7. This incident is reported by David Whitmer: “Soon after our arrival home, I saw something which led me to the belief that the plates were placed or concealed in my father’s barn I frankly asked Joseph if my supposition was right, and he told me it was. Sometime after this, my mother was going to milk the cows, when she was met out near the yard by the same old man (judging by her description of him) who said to her, ‘You have been very faithful and diligent in your labors, but you are tried because of the increase of your toil, it is proper therefore that you should receive a witness that your faith may be strengthened!’  Thereupon he showed her the plates. My father and mother had a large family of their own, the addition to it therefore of Joseph, his wife Emma and Oliver very greatly increased the toil and anxiety of my mother. And although she had never complained she had sometimes felt that her labor was too much, or at least she was perhaps beginning to feel so. This circumstance, however, completely removed all such feelings, and nerved her up for her increased responsibilities.” Report of Elders Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith,” Millennial Star 40 (9 Dec 1878):772-73, 9 December 1878–or see the transcribed version
8. Lucy Mack Smith gives the following account: “He (Martin Harris) said that he would see Joseph in the course of a few days. At this his wife exclaimed, “Yes, and I am coming to see him, too, and I will be there on Tuesday afternoon, and will stop over night.” Accordingly, when Tuesday afternoon arrived, Mrs. Harris made her appearance and as soon as she was well seated she began to importune my son relative to the truth of what he had said concerning the Record, declaring that if he really had any plates, she would see them, and that she was determined to help him publish them. He told her she was mistaken-that she could not see them, for he was not permitted to exhibit them to any one except those whom the Lord should appoint to testify of them. “And, in relation to assistance,” he observed, “I always prefer dealing with men, rather than their wives.” This highly displeased Mrs. Harris, for she considered herself altogether superior to her husband and she continued her importunities. She would say, “Now, Joseph, are you not telling me a lie? Can you look full in my eye and say before God that you have in reality found a Record, as you pretend?” To this Joseph replied, rather indifferently, “Why, yes, Mrs. Harris, I would as soon look you in the face and say so as not, if that will be any gratification to you.” Then said she, “Joseph, I will tell you what I will do, if I can get a witness that you speak the truth, I will believe all you say about the matter and I shall want to do something about the translation-I mean to help you any way.” This closed the evening’s conversation. The next morning, soon after she arose, she related a very remarkable dream which she said she had had during the night. It ran about as follows: She said that a personage appeared to her who told her that as she had disputed the servant of the Lord, and said his word was not to be believed, and had also asked him many improper questions, she had done that which was not right in the sight of God. After which he said to her, “Behold, here are the plates, look upon them and believe.” –Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother [Salt Lake City: Stevens & Wallis, Inc., 1945], 116-117.
9. “When the plates were brought in they were wrapped up in a tow frock. My father then put them into a pillow case. Father said, “What, Joseph, can we not see them?” “No. I was disobedient the first time, but I intend to be faithful this time. For I was forbidden to show them until they are translated, but you can feel them.” We handled them and could tell what they were. They were not quite as large as this Bible. Could tell whether they were round or square. Could raise the leaves this way (raising a few leaves of the Bible before him). One could easily tell that they were not a stone, hewn out to deceive, or even a block of wood. Being a mixture of gold and copper, they were much heavier than stone, and very much heavier than wood.”
When asked by a man in the congregation how much the plates weighed, he replied, “As near as I could tell, about 60 pounds.” The Saints’ Herald, Volume 31, 1844, page 643-644
10. From The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 56:
Before William Smith, brother of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, died he was visited by J. W. Peterson. That gentleman has written an account of the interview with father Smith, to Zion’s Ensign, a paper published at Independence, Missouri. It is written from Bradtville, Wisconsin, and is as follows: Brother Briggs and I visited him next day after he returned from St. Paul, it being about two weeks before his death. We found him able to be about the house and quite willing to talk. After passing the time of day, Brother Briggs and he spoke of former meetings and finally drifted on to the subject of Brother Smith’s early boyhood and his knowledge of the rise of the Church, Book of Mormon, etc.
Bro. Briggs then handed me a pencil and asked Bro. Smith if he ever saw the plates his brother had had, from which the Book of Mormon was translated.
He replied, “I did not see them uncovered, but I handled them and hefted [p.511] them while wrapped in a tow frock and judged them to have weighed about sixty pounds. I could tell they were plates of some kind and that they were fastened together by rings running through the back. Their size was as described in mother’s history.”
Bro. Briggs then asked, “Did any others of the family see them?”
“Yes,” said he; “Father and my brother Samuel saw them as I did while in the frock. So did Hyrum and others of the family.”
“Was this frock one that Joseph took with him especially to wrap the plates in?”
“No, it was his every day frock such as young men used to wear then.”
“Din’t [sic] you want to remove the cloth and see the bare plates?” said Bro. B[riggs].
“No,” he replied; “for father had just asked if he might not be permitted to do so, and Joseph, putting his hand on them said; “No, I am instructed not to show them to any one. If I do, I will transgress and lose them again.” Besides we did not care to have him break the commandment and suffer as he did before.”
“Did you not doubt Joseph’s testimony sometimes?” said Bro. Briggs.
“No,” was the reply. “We all had the most implicit confidence in what he said. He was a truthful boy. Father and mother believed him, why should not the children? I suppose if he had told crooked stories about other things we might have doubted his word about the plates, but Joseph was a truthful boy. That Father and mother believed his report and suffered persecution for that belief shows that he was truthful. No sir, we never doubted his word for one minute.”
The Testimony of William Smith, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star Vol. 56, pages 132-133

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