While Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon, he was not allowed to show anyone else the metal plates containing the original record (Joseph Smith–History 1:42). His scribes sat near him, recording the words he spoke, but Joseph kept the plates hidden from their view.
But near the end of the translation process, in June 1829, Joseph translated two passages indicating that other people would be permitted to view the plates.
Moroni inserted an editorial note into his history of the Jaredites, with specific instructions for the future translator of the book. He told Joseph Smith not to attempt to translate the sealed portion of the plates. Then he said:
And behold, ye may be privileged that ye may show the plates unto those who shall assist to bring forth this work;
And unto three shall they be shown by the power of God; wherefore they shall know of a surety that these things are true.
And in the mouth of three witnesses shall these things be established; and the testimony of three, and this work, in the which shall be shown forth the power of God and also his word, of which the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost bear record—and all this shall stand as a testimony against the world at the last day (Ether 5:2-4).
Nephi also emphasized the importance of multiple witnesses. After quoting a sermon by his brother Jacob, and just before quoting 13 chapters from Isaiah, he highlighted the value of having three witnesses:
By the words of three, God hath said, I will establish my word. Nevertheless, God sendeth more witnesses, and he proveth all his words (2 Nephi 11:3).
Then, near the end of his writings, Nephi prophesied that three witnesses would view the plates:
Wherefore, at that day when the book shall be delivered unto the man of whom I have spoken [Joseph Smith], the book shall be hid from the eyes of the world, that the eyes of none shall behold it save it be that three witnesses shall behold it, by the power of God, besides him to whom the book shall be delivered; and they shall testify to the truth of the book and the things therein.
And there is none other which shall view it, save it be a few according to the will of God, to bear testimony of his word unto the children of men;…
And in the mouth of as many witnesses as seemeth him good will he establish his word (2 Nephi 27:12-14).
Near the end of the translation process, three men who had participated in the process–Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris–asked Joseph to inquire of the Lord if they could be those three witnesses. Joseph was apparently slow to respond to their request. “Finally,” he wrote, “they became so very solicitous…that at length I complied” (Documentary History of the Church, 23 on josephsmithpapers.org).
In response, Joseph received a revelation on their behalf, with the following promise: “You must rely upon my word, which if you do with full purpose of heart, you shall have a view of the plates…. And it is by your faith that you shall obtain a view of them” (D&C 17:1-2).
Shortly after, the three men were shown the plates by an angel of God. Their testimony that they saw the plates, and that this ancient record was translated “by the gift and power of God” appears at the beginning of the Book of Mormon.
Today, I will be grateful that God sends witnesses to help us recognize the truth. I will be grateful that many people can testify that the Book of Mormon is the word of God. I will particularly remember the three witnesses, who provided contemporary testimonies corroborating Joseph Smith’s.