Today, I’ve been thinking about the people who saw the golden plates containing the original text of the Book of Mormon. Their experiences differed from one another dramatically, and I think we can learn a lot from those differences:
The Three Witnesses—Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris—all participated in the translation of the Book of Mormon. They knew that three people would be allowed to see the plates and would testify to the world that the Book of Mormon is true (Ether 5:2-4, 2 Nephi 27:12-14). They collectively asked Joseph Smith to “enquire of the Lord, to know if they might not obtain of him to be these three special witnesses.” And they didn’t just ask once. Joseph said that they “became…very solicitous, and teazed [sic.] me so much, that at length I complied” (Documentary History of the Church, 23 on josephsmithpapers.org).
In response, the Lord promised the three men that, by their faith, they would see the plates, together with several other ancient artifacts (Doctrine and Covenants 17).
On June 28, 1829, Oliver, David, Martin, and Joseph walked into the woods near the Whitmer home in Fayette, New York, where they knelt and took turns praying. When nothing happened, Martin left the group, feeling that he was the cause of their failure. Immediately after he left, Oliver and David saw an angel, who showed them the plates and the other artifacts, declared that the translation was accurate, and commanded them to bear record of what they had seen. Later that day, Martin had a similar experience. Their declaration of what happened is published in the Book of Mormon as the Testimony of Three Witnesses.
A few days later, the Whitmer family traveled with Joseph to his family’s home in Palmyra, New York. On Thursday, July 2, Joseph invited eight members of the two families to join him in the woods nearby, where he showed them the plates. They were also able to hold them, turn the pages, and observe the engravings. (See Saints, Volume I, Chapter 7, “Fellow Servants.”) Their statement about this experience is recorded as the Testimony of Eight Witnesses.
One other person reportedly saw the plates. In 1878, David Whitmer related a miraculous experience which had happened to his mother during the summer of 1829. She was feeling overburdened by the guests who were staying in her home—Joseph Smith, his wife Emma, and Oliver Cowdery. One evening, as she felt particularly overwhelmed, an old man approached her as she went out to milk the cows. The man said:
You have been very faithful and diligent in your labors, but you are tired because of the increase of your toil, it is proper therefore that you should receive a witness that your faith may be strengthened (Deseret News, 16 November 1878, quoted in “Another Account of Mary Whitmer’s Viewing of the Golden Plates,” Royal Skousen, Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 10 (2014): 35-44
Mary’s grandson, John C. Whitmer provided a similar account of his grandmother’s experience. Unlike the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses, Mary’s experience was apparently intended for her alone. She was not commanded to share it with other people, but it did help to strengthen her faith as she worked to support the translation of the plates.
As I’ve thought of these three experiences, I’ve had the following insights:
- Spiritual experiences happen in different ways and for different purposes. The Three Witnesses proactively sought their experience, similar to Joseph Smith, Nephi, and Abraham (Joseph Smith—History 1:14, 29, 1 Nephi 10:17-19, Abraham 1:1-4). The Eight Witnesses accepted an invitation to participate in a spiritual experience. Mary Whitmer’s experience came as she fulfilled her duties.
- Some spiritual experiences are intended to be shared, while others are intended for our own personal growth.
- Different people can learn the same truths in different ways. The Three Witnesses apparently did not touch the plates—seeing them and hearing the angel’s testimony was what they needed. The Eight Witnesses saw and handled the plates but did not see an angel. Mary was shown the plates privately by a stranger. Our own unique and diverse experiences can lead us to a shared understanding of universal truths.
Today, I will be grateful for the experiences which have strengthened my faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. I will remember that my experiences don’t have to be the same as other people’s experiences. God works with each of us individually to give us the knowledge we need in order to progress spiritually and accomplish our unique missions.