I’ve been told many times that I must accept the testimony of the Book of Mormon witnesses at face value. In their written statement, they say that they saw and “hefted” the plates from which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. Three of them said that an angel showed them the plates. If they said it, it must be so.
And yet I, a skeptic, am not convinced. As Mark Twain put it sarcastically, “When I am far on the road to conviction, and eight men, be they grammatical or otherwise, come forward and tell me that they have seen the plates too; and not only seen those plates but ‘hefted’ them, I am convinced. I could not feel more satisfied and at rest if the entire Whitmer family had testified.”
But I am reminded of the unreliable nature of eyewitness testimony. You never really do know what people see, as individual perspective is so different. And, as ought to be obvious, the written testimony of the eleven witnesses is not actually their testimony. It was written by Joseph Smith.
However, if we take the witnesses at face value, we still can’t be sure that their testimony is reliable. Compare their testimony to the witnesses who saw the Urim and Thummim, which Joseph Smith described as “two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim” (JS-H 1:35). But what did these stone look like? We have three eyewitness descriptions.
In her history of her son’s life, Lucy Mack Smith describes them as “two smooth three-cornered diamonds set in glass and the glasses set in silver bows.” Yet Martin Harris says they were “white, like polished marble, with a few grey streaks” (Tiffany’s Monthly, 1859, p. 166). And further David Whitmer has them being “two small stones of a chocolate color, nearly egg shape, and perfectly smooth, but not transparent” (Kansas City Journal, June 5, 1881).
If Joseph had the Urim and Thummim, and these witnesses saw them, why the discrepancy? Which one is right? And how would I know?
This is the problem with the Book of Mormon witnesses. At least some of them tell us that they didn’t see the plates with their eyes but in a sort of second-sight vision with their “spiritual” eyes. One wonders, then, if those who saw the Urim and Thummim also saw them with their spiritual eyes, and thus saw what they wanted to see.
That would explain the discrepancy.