Historical evidence has led many people to question the authenticity of the Book of Mormon and the credibility of Joseph Smith's story. Those who would defend traditional beliefs about Mormon origins often turn to the testimonies of 11 men. These men signed statements declaring the Book of Mormon was true, and that they had seen and/or handled the plates used in the translation. For some people, such testimony is enough to alleviate their doubts. But is it truly a solid foundation for faith in the Mormon church? A careful investigation reveals there are a number of historical details which raise questions about the objectivity and credi- bility of these witnesses.
First let's look at the actual testimony of the men known as the Three Witnesses. They are David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris. In the printed statement found in the Book of Mormon, all three of them affirm being shown the plates by an angel, and the LDS church implies that all three men saw the plates with Joseph on the same day. It is portrayed as a physical, tangible, and verifiable event.
But, what people are not told is that the experience was visionary in nature. While Joseph Smith was dictating the Book of Mormon to Oliver Cowdery, he read off a section that declared there would be three special witnesses who would be allowed to see the plates and then "bear witness" to the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith's History states, "Almost immediate- ly after we had made this discovery, it occurred to Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and the aforementioned Martin Harris (who had come to inquire after our progress in the work) that they would have me inquire of the Lord to know if they might not obtain of him the privilege to be these three special witnesses; and finally they became so very solicitous, and urged me so much to inquire that at length I complied" (History of the Church, Vol. 1, pp. 52-53). Joseph then produced a revelation for Oli- ver, David and Martin which stated that if they relied upon God's word and did so with a full purpose of heart they would "have a view of the plates, and also the breastplate, the sword of Laban, the Urim & Thummim, ... and the miraculous directors which were given to Lehi" (Ibid, p. 53). It would only be by their faith that they would be able to obtain a view of them.
Is this providence or convenience? Joseph dictates the part of the Book of Mormon that mentions three special witnesses while all three are there with him. They beg Joseph to ask God if maybe they aren't the ones. When he finally gives in, Joseph immediately gets a revelation that says, if they have faith, rely on God's word and have full purpose of heart, they will see not only the plates but numerous other wonderful things.
So they go to the woods and first spend a prolonged time in prayer. Nothing happens. They pray more. Nothing happens. Martin Harris volun- teers to leave the group because he senses the others think he was the reason nothing was happening. As soon as Harris leaves, the others see the angel and plates, though there is no mention of any of the other items that had been promised. According to Joseph Smith's history, Jo- seph then goes to find Harris, and while praying together, Harris cries out, "Tis enough, tis enough; mine eyes have beheld; mine eyes have be- held;" (Ibid, p. 55). Even in this there is a conflict of testimony, for according to Harris, "I never saw the gold plates, only in a visionary or entranced state. ...In about three days I went into the woods to pray that I might see the plates. While praying I passed into a state of entrancement, and in that state I saw the angel and the plates." (Anthony Metcalf, Ten Years Before the Mast, n.d., microfilm copy, p. 70-71). Once again, in spite of the revelation that claimed they would see the plates as well as many other marvelous things, all they testified to seeing was an angel holding the plates. However, later in life, in an interview with Zenas Gurley, David Whitmer would testify that he saw "the Interpreters in the holy vision.") When Harris was asked if he saw the plates with his naked eyes, he would later admit he only saw the plates with a spiritual eye. (Wilford C. Wood, Joseph Smith Begins His Work, Vol. 1, 1958, introduction. This is a photomechanical reprint of the first edition  of the Book of Mormon. It also contains biographi- cal and historical information relating to the Book of Mormon.)
It becomes apparent from Harris' testimony and that of others, that this was a "visionary experience".
Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith were third cousins (Oliver Cowdery: The Elusive Second Elder of the Restoration, Phillip R. Legg, p. 17), and Cowdery also shared what must be considered a magical, mystical mindset. D. Michael Quinn in his book, Early Mormonism & the Magic World View, states, "Cowdery's use of a divining rod, however, does suggest that before 1829, he may have also had at least some knowledge of and experience with astrology and ceremonial folk magic" (p. 35). Brigham Young related a story from the life of Oliver Cowdery in which Cowdery claimed that he and Joseph Smith walked right into the Hill Cumorah with the gold plates of the Book of Mormon and put them back on a table. In this huge cave were piles of gold plates and a sword with writing on it (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 19, p. 38.).
While this experience with a cave of gold plates sounds more like a vivid dream, it was referred to as the gift of "second sight," or "seeing with the eyes of understanding. According to Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery had already seen the gold plates in a vision before becoming Joseph's scribe (Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, p. 8.). Martin Harris, before his experience as one of the three witnesses, told Joseph Smith, "Joseph, I know all about it. The Lord has showed me ten times more about it than you know." (Interview with Martin Harris in Tiffany's Monthly, 1859, p. 166).
David Whitmer's testimony varied as to the objective versus the subjec- tive nature of the experience, but he also spoke of the angel and gold plates in visionary terms. In 1885 he was interviewed by Zenas Gurley. Gurley asked if Whitmer knew that the plates were real metal. Whitmer said that he did not touch or handle them. He was then asked if the table they were on was literal wood or if the whole thing was a like a vision. Whitmer replied that the table had the appearance of literal wood as shown in the vision, in the glory of God (Zenas H. Gurley, Jr., Interview with David Whitmer on January 14, 1885.).
So, according to their own testimonies, all three witnesses describe a mystical, visionary, almost dreamlike experience in which they claim they saw an angel with the gold plates. And, contrary to the LDS church's portrayal, David Whitmer is the only one who saw the plates for the first time that day in the woods, since Oliver and Martin had apparently al- ready seen them in a vision before that day. According to his own testi- mony, Martin Harris didn't see the angel with plates until he was alone in the woods three days later. This does not appear to be the factual, unquestionably objective event the Mormon church often portrays it to be.
For more information contact: Institute for Religious Research, 1340 Monroe N.W., Grand Rapids, MI 49505 or LPWilson@AOL.com