What were the three witnesses promised and what did they claim to experience? The basics of answering this question seems obvious—they saw the gold plates and other artifacts related to them. What is less apparent is how the Three Witnesses had that experience, since there are indications that they viewed the plates in vision, rather than experiencing them in a tangible way. There is often a desire to make their experience out as being more materialistic than it was, perhaps as a result of conflating their experience with that of the Eight Witnesses, contradictory recollections of those who knew the witnesses, or a desire to have the experiences seem more real by being more physical in nature. Whatever the case, it seems that the Three Witnesses saw and heard in a supernatural setting in a direct contrast to the experience of the Eight Witnesses, who claimed to have touched and handled the plates.
Both early revelations and the Book of Mormon itself lay out the promises made to the three witnesses. The earliest promise of a chance to witness the Book of Mormon was a revelation that was received in March 1829 (now D&C 5). The text states that: “three shall Know of A surety that those things are true for I will give them power that they may Behold & v[i]ew these things as they are.” Next, while translating Moroni’s writings in the Book of Ether, the promise was made to the future translator of the Book of Mormon that: “Ye may be privileged that ye may shew the plates unto those who shall assist to bring forth this work. And unto three shall they be shewn by the power of God; wherefore they shall know of a surety that these things are true.” This was followed by translations of Nephi’s writings that indicated that: “At that day when the book shall be delivered unto the man of whom I have spoken, the book shall be hid from the eyes of the world, that the eyes of none shall behold it save it be that the power of three witnesses shall behold it by the power of God, besides him to whom the book shall be delivered … save it be a few according to the will of God, to bear testimony of his word unto the children of men.” These three texts were the primary basis supporting the idea of the three witnesses.
Based on the texts cited above, a revelation (now D&C 17) was received in June 1829 in response to ongoing pestering by Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer about whether they could be the witnesses spoken of in the earlier texts. The revelation states that if they rely on God’s word with full purpose of heart:
you shall have a view of the plate and also the brestplate the sword of Laban the Urim and Thumim <?which was?> given to the brother of Jared upon the mount when he talked with the Lord face to face and the marveelus directors which was given to Lehi while in the wilderness on the borders of the red sea and it is by your faith that you shall obtain a view of them … and after that you have obtained faith and have seen them with your eyes you shall testify of them by the power of God.
It was following this revelation that the Three Witnesses had their experience.
Let’s take a moment and examine what they were promised. The language is fairly consistent in promising them that they would see the plates in a way that involved God’s power—”they may Behold & v[i]ew these things,” “they be shewn by the power of God,” “three witnesses shall behold it by the power of God,” “you shall have a view of the plate,” etc. They also indicate that the witnesses would know for sure that they were true: “three shall Know of A surety that those things are true” and “they shall know of a surety that these things are true.” Otherwise, the only other consistent thing expressed was that they were expected to testify based on the experience. There was no indication that the experience would be anything other than seeing the plates and other related objects by the power of God.
What, then, did they report experiencing when the time came? In the official “Testimony of the Three Witnesses,” it is stated that: “We, through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, have seen the plates which contain this record … and we also know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety, that the work is true.” They also explain that:
We have seen the engravings which are upon the plates; and they have been shewn unto us by the power of God, and not of man. And we declare with words of soberness, that an Angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon; and we know that it is by the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, that we beheld and bear record that these things are true; and it is marvellous in our eyes.
This lines up well with what they were promised—they saw the plates and the engravings which are upon the plates, they saw these things “by the power of God, and not of man,” and they knew it was true: “we know of a surety, that the work is true.” The conditions laid out for their experience in the revelations prior to that time were met, and they said nothing about having any physical interactions or other experiences outside of sight and sound through the power God.
This is a marked contrast to the experience of the eight witnesses. Rather than a supernatural experience of seeing the plates through the power of God with an angel visiting them, the eight witnesses leave a straightforward testimony of a tangible experience with the plates. They said that Joseph Smith “has shewn unto us the plates of which have been spoken … and as many of the leaves as said Smith has translated, we did handle with our hands. … We have seen and hefted, and know of a surety, that the said Smith has got the plates of which we have spoken.” That experience of Joseph Smith bringing the plates out and letting them handle them is different—no supernaturalism to it and they didn’t just claim to see the plates—they touched them, leafed through pages, and hefted the plates.
It’s an important distinction because the Three Witnesses may have have seen the plates while in a vision state rather than having a physical, visitation experience with the angel and the objects. Consider, for example, Joseph Smith’s recollection the experience in his 1838/1839 history. After Martin Harris had withdrawn from the others because he felt he needed to repent, Joseph recalled that he, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer beheld an angel with the plates, who turned pages for them to see and that they heard the voice of God command them to bear record of the experience. Afterwards, Joseph Smith sought out Martin Harris and they prayed together. Eventually, “the same vision was opened to our view; at least it was again to me, and I once more beheld, and seen, and heard the same things; whilst at the same moment, Martin Harris cried out, apparently in an ecstasy of Joy ‘’Tis enough, ’tis enough; mine eyes have beheld, mine eyes have beheld’, and jumping up he shouted, Hosanna, blessing God; and otherwise rejoiced exceedingly.” What is interesting to note here is that Joseph Smith referred to the experience as a vision and that he indicated that he wasn’t sure what Martin Harris experienced, he only could observe what Harris said and did. This would indicate that they were in some sort of experience outside of normal sight where only those involved in the vision could see and experience it. It also gives no indication that Harris or Smith physically handled anything that the other could see.
Throughout their lives, the Three Witnesses were recorded talking about the experience, and there are many examples in which that they spoke of seeing it in ways that seem to be more visionary than materialistic. For example, when a Latter-day saint by the name of James Henry Moyle visited David Whitmer in 1885, he cross-examined him to learn more about the experience as one of the Three Witnesses. Moyle recorded in his journal that Whitmer was “somewhat spiritual in his explanation and not as materialistic as I wished … D[avid] Whitmer … did not handle the plates, only seen <saw> them.” He added later on that Whitmer could only say that the experience “was indescribable; that it was through the power of God.” This is in-line with other interviews, in which David Whitmer generally claimed that the objects in the vision appeared to be tangible, but he never actually touched them. Recollections along these lines seem to indicate that the experience was visionary and outside of the normal realm of existence.
Of course, the witnesses said a lot of things over the course of their lives and people made a lot of claims about what they had heard them say, which leaves us with a complicated and contradictory mess of information to sort through. For example, most of the information I’ve presented so far only indicates that the Three Witnesses saw and heard things but did not touch (in contrast with the experience of the Eight Witnesses). However, as quoted in the “Come, Follow Me” manual in this week’s materials, Lucy Mack Smith recalled that when Harris returned from the experience, he told her that: “I have now seen an angel from Heaven who has of a surety testified of the truth of all that I have heard concerning the record and my eyes have beheld him I have also looked upon the plates and handled them with my hands and can testify of the same to the whole world.” This contradicts Joseph Smith’s history and David Whitmer’s recollections, as quoted above (unless Harris is referring to another, separate experience in handling the plates). While all four people involved claimed that it was a clear and open vision, there are contradictory records on whether or not they handled the plates during their experience.
Regardless, they did all seem to be convinced that the Book of Mormon was from God. And the differences in testimony between the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses are important in supporting each other. As Elder B. H. Roberts wrote:
Doubtless the Lord had his own purpose to subserve in giving different kinds of testimony—divine and human—to the same truth. The testimony of the Three Witnesses, attended as it was by such remarkable displays of supernatural power, he knew would be opposed from the very circumstance of its being supernatural. It cannot be but that God fore-knew of the rise of that so-called “Rational Criticism” of divine things which would resolve inspired dreams, visions, revelations and the administration of angels into hallucinations, brought about first by an inclination to believe in the miraculous … supplemented by the theory of self-deception, self-hypnosis or hypnotic influence of others. … Thus “Rational Criticism” would explain away the testimony given by the Three Witnesses. …
But what of the testimony of the Eight Witnesses—all so plain, matter-of-fact, straight-forward and real? How shall that be accounted for? Here all the miraculous is absent. It is a man to man transaction. Neither superstition, nor expectation of the supernatural can play any part in working up an illusion or mental mirage respecting what the Eight Witnesses saw and handled. Their testimony must be accounted for on some other hypothesis than that of hallucination.
In Elder Roberts’s eyes, the combination of the two types of witnesses (supernatural vision compared with materialistic and simple handling of the plates) served to strengthen the other.
In any case, all of the revelations that discussed what the Three Witnesses would experience promised them that they would see and know but gave no promise that they would handle and feel. While their experience seemed clear and open as they saw the angel and objects associated with the Book of Mormon, it does seem to be a vision that they experienced through the power of God. That experience did, however, fulfil the promises made to them. The testimony of the Eight Witnesses is the time where people spoke of handling the plates, which seems to be a purposeful contrast with the experience of the Three Witnesses.
- Book of Mormon Central, “Come Follow Me 2021: Doctrine and Covenants 14-17”
- Kent Larsen, “Lit Come Follow Me: D&C 14-17,” Times and Seasons, 15 February 2021
- FairMormon: “Witnesses to the Book of Mormon”
 “Revelation, March 1829 [D&C 5],” p. 1, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed February 16, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-march-1829-dc-5/1
 Ether 5:2-3. Text quoted from The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, ed. Royal Skousen (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009), https://bookofmormoncentral.org/content/book-mormon-earliest-text
 2 Nephi 27:12-13, Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text.
 “Revelation, June 1829–E [D&C 17],” p. 119, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed February 16, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-june-1829-e-dc-17/1/
 “Appendix 4: Testimony of Three Witnesses, Late June 1829,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed February 16, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/appendix-4-testimony-of-three-witnesses-late-june-1829/1
 “Appendix 5: Testimony of Eight Witnesses, Late June 1829,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed February 16, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/appendix-5-testimony-of-eight-witnesses-late-june-1829/1
 “History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834],” p. 25, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed February 21, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-a-1-23-december-1805-30-august-1834/31
 James Henry Moyle Journal, June 28, 1885- Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah. Also in Dan Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, Vol 5. (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 2003), 140.
 James H. Moyle, “A Visit to David Whitmer,” The Instructor, vol. 80, no 9 (September 1945), (Salt Lake City:
Deseret Sunday School Union), 402.
 See, for example, Zenas H. Gurley, 14 January 1885; David Whitmer, interview with Nathan Tanner, Jr., Letter to Nathan A. Tanner, 17 February 1909, typed copy, LDS Church Archives; cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:170
 “Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1844–1845, Page , bk. 8,” p. , bk. 9, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed February 21, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/lucy-mack-smith-history-1844-1845/105
 B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God, 3 vol. (Vol. 1: Salt Lake City: George Q. Cannon and Sons, 1895. Vol. 2 & 3: Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1903-1908), 2:296, 306.