Before we get to the critics, let’s keep the criticisms in perspective. The witnesses are direct witnesses. To favor the critics’ testimonies — whom most current LDS critics don’t know a thing about — is absurd. It shows tremendous bias. For an attorney to withhold exculpatory, direct evidence and to favor hearsay (2nd-hand account) or even anonymous claims puts such an attorney in jeopardy of sanction in court.
3 Witnesses: saw and heard an angel. The angel held the Gold Plates, flipped through the pages, called David by name, and testified. The three witnesses, additionally, observed a table on which rested many ancient artifacts: Gold Plates, Brass Plates, other plates, Liahona, Sword of Laban, and interpreters (seer stones). These 3 witnesses were David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris.
8 witnesses: saw, held, and hefted the Gold Plates; flipped through the metal pages; and noted the engravings on the pages. The plates were set on a stump. The eight men reported the sealed portion and the three D-shaped rings. The eight saw the plates 1-2 days after the 3 witnesses saw the angel and objects. These eight were Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer, Jr., John Whitmer, Hiram Page, Joseph Smith, Sr., Hyrum Smith, and Samuel Smith.
Richard L. Anderson (Harvard Law graduate & Berkeley PhD) is a leading authority on the Book of Mormon witnesses. As an attorney, he understood the value of witnesses. During Richard’s study of these witnesses, he collected documents with over 200 positive and affirming statements from the 11 witnesses.
The three witnesses: 30 interviews or reports of contact w/ Oliver Cowdery, minimum of 70 with David Whitmer, and about 50 with Martin Harris. The eight witnesses shared up to 60 reports, affirming their experiences holding and evaluating the Gold Plates.
In contrast, a very small number of records critical to the witnesses’ testimony exist (8 to 10 total). 8-10 vs. 200. So, around 5% of the total records relative to the witnesses argue that the witnesses made it all up. Anderson shows how these critics — 1 named Stephen Burnett was recently excommunicated and hostile to the Church — take the witnesses’ stories out of context, misreport, and otherwise claim the witnesses were not credible. Richard discusses the topic and critics below.
Now we’ll shift to the criticisms of the Book of Mormon witnesses. We’ll start with Steven Burnett. At one point a very faithful member of the Church. In fact, he’s name in D & C 80:
Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet to Stephen Burnett, at Hiram, Ohio, March 7, 1832.
1–5, Stephen Burnett and Eden Smith are called to preach in whatever place they choose.
1 Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you my servant Stephen Burnett: Go ye, go ye into the world and preach the gospel to every creature that cometh under the sound of your voice.
Stephen is mentioned again in D & C 75:35. 23–36, Families of missionaries are to receive help from the Church.
35 And also my servant Ruggles Eames and my servant Stephen Burnett;
Elder David Bendar referenced Stephen Burnett many times in a 2017 General Conference talk, “Called to the Work“.
Section 80 of the Doctrine and Covenants is a record of a mission call to Stephen Burnett extended by the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1832. Studying this call to Brother Burnett can help us to (1) understand more clearly the distinction between being “called to the work” as a missionary and “assigned to labor” in a particular place and (2) appreciate more completely our individual and divinely appointed responsibility to proclaim the gospel.
Verse 1 of this section is a call to serve: “Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you my servant Stephen Burnett: Go ye, go ye into the world and preach the gospel to every creature that cometh under the sound of your voice.”3
Verse 3 indicates where these two missionaries are to labor: “Wherefore, go ye and preach my gospel, whether to the north or to the south, to the east or to the west, it mattereth not, for ye cannot go amiss.”5
I do not believe that the phrase “it mattereth not” as used by the Lord in this scripture suggests that He does not care where His servants labor. In fact, He cares deeply. But because the work of preaching the gospel is the Lord’s work, He inspires, guides, and directs His authorized servants. As missionaries strive to be ever more worthy and capable instruments in His hands and do their best to fulfill faithfully their duties, then with His help they “cannot go amiss”—wherever they serve. Perhaps one of the lessons the Savior is teaching us in this revelation is that an assignment to labor in a specific place is essential and important but secondary to a call to the work.
The next verse highlights important qualifications for all missionaries: “Therefore, declare the things which ye have heard, and verily believe, and know to be true.”6
The final verse reminds Brother Burnett and all of us from whom a call to serve truly comes: “Behold, this is the will of him who hath called you, your Redeemer, even Jesus Christ. Amen.”7
In 1838, Steven lost property in Independence and then made (conflated, false) statements about Martin, suggesting Martin never saw the plates. Prior to that (loss of faith and property in Independence) Burnett never would have made such statements, as he was a believing Latter-day Saint.
Stephen Harper discusses the witnesses, Stephen Burnett, and others:
As an early convert in Ohio, Stephen Burnett felt the Holy Spirit and a desire to take the gospel to his relatives. He led his parents into the Church and responded successfully to revealed mission calls (see D&C 75:35; 80). He “was the first one that sounded the glad tidings of the everlasting gospel” in Dalton, New Hampshire.
But by 1838 Burnett felt completely disillusioned. He felt he had tried but failed to regain the Holy Spirit. Finally he “proclaimed all revelation lies” and left the Church. Burnett wrote candidly to Lyman Johnson, explaining his decisions. “My heart is sickened within me when I reflect upon the manner in which we with many of this Church have been led & the losses which we have sustained all by means of two men in whom we placed implicit confidence,” Burnett wrote, referring to Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon. He felt that Joseph had used his influence for financial gain and had prophesied lies. He continued his compelling story:
I have reflected long and deliberately upon the history of this church & weighed the evidence for & against it—lo[a]th to give it up—but when I came to hear Martin Harris state in
apublic congregationthat he never saw the plates with his natural eyes only in vision or imagination, neither Oliver nor David & also that the eight witnesses never saw them & hesitated to sign that instrument for that reason, but were persuaded to do it, the last pedestal gave way, in my view our foundations was sapped & the entire superstructure fell [in] a heap of ruins, I therefore three week[s] since in the Stone Chapel gave a full history of the church since I became acquainted with it, the false preaching & prophecying of Joseph together with the reasons why I took the course which I was resolved to do, and renounced the Book of Mormon with the whole scene of lying and deception practiced by J. S & S. R in this church, believing as I verily do, that it is all a wicked deception palmed upon us unawares[.] I was followed by W. Par[r]ish Luke Johnson & John Boynton all of who concurred with me, after we were done speaking M. Harris arose & said he was sorry for any man who rejected the Book of Mormon for he knew it was true.
Burnett gave us a rich metaphor by describing his faith as a building whose foundation had been shattered, leaving only a heap of ruins. Those who share his experience know exactly what he means. One strategy of coping with the devastating loss is to pull what remains from the heap of ruins and try to rebuild something sensible. Burnett and others since have dug into the pile of statements by and about the Book of Mormon witnesses and fashioned an alternative way to interpret the testimonies of the eleven eyewitnesses. Those whose faith in their own spiritual experiences has been shattered doubt that the witnesses had authentic spiritual experiences either, and therefore seek alternative explanations for the testimonies of the witnesses. Acknowledging that “Harris and others still . . . believe the Book of Mormon,”
A letter from Stephen Burnett claims that Harris never saw the plates at all, and that he only saw them when they were covered with a cloth
The quote in question is from a letter from Stephen Burnett to “Br. Johnson” on 15 April 1838:
when I came to hear Martin Harris state in public that he never saw the plates with his natural eyes only in vision or imagination, neither Oliver nor David & also that the eight witnesses never saw them & hesitated to sign that instrument for that reason, but were persuaded to do it, the last pedestal gave way, in my view our foundation was sapped & the entire superstructure fell in heap of ruins, I therefore three week since in the Stone Chapel…renounced the Book of Mormon…after we were done speaking M Harris arose & said he was sorry for any man who rejected the Book of Mormon for he knew it was true, he said he had hefted the plates repeatedly in a box with only a tablecloth or a handkerchief over them, but he never saw them only as he saw a city throught [sic] a mountain. And said that he never should have told that the testimony of the eight was false, if it had not been picked out of—–—[him/me?] but should have let it passed as it was…
(image below of Emma feeling plates wrapped in a cloth. Emma never witnessed the plates. Harris didn’t either until 1829.)
When Harris said that “he had hefted the plates repeatedly in a box with only a tablecloth or a handkerchief over them,” he was not referring to his experience as one of the Three Witnesses
The comment about hefting the plates repeatedly while they were covered by a cloth refers to the period of time when he was assisting Joseph Smith in the translation – a time during which Harris was not allowed to view the plates. What is missing from Burnett’s account is any mention of Harris stating that he saw the plates as one of the Three Witnesses.
For years after Harris is said to have made the comment related by Burnett, he used clear language to assert that he had actually seen the plates. For example, Martin Harris said in the presence of 12-year-old William Glenn:
Gentlemen, do you see that hand? Are you sure you see it? Are your eyes playing a trick or something? No. Well, as sure as you see my hand so sure did I see the angel and the plates.
Harris told Robert Aveson,
It is not a mere belief, but is a matter of knowledge. I saw the plates and the inscriptions thereon. I saw the angel, and he showed them unto me.
George Mantle recalls what Martin Harris said while he was in Birmingham on a mission for the Strangites. This was well after Martin had left the Church:
When we came out of the meeting Martin Harris was beset with a crowd in the street, expecting that he would furnish them with material to war against Mormonism; but when he was asked if Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, he answered yes; and when asked if the Book of Mormon was true, this was his answer: ‘Do you know that is the sun shining on us? Because as sure as you know that, I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, and that he translated that book by the power of God.’
These statements are much clearer regarding Martin’s experience with the place than Burnett’s account of him claiming to have seen the plates while they were covered as a “city through a mountain”. Critics dismiss direct evidence in favor of hearsay.
Clark’s account mixes elements from both before and after Harris viewed the plates as one of the Three Witnesses and portrays Harris as contradicting himself
The two elements that are mixed together in Clark’s account are the following:
- Martin Harris said that he only saw the plates through the “eye of faith” when they were covered with a cloth prior to his experience as a witness.
- Martin Harris saw the plates uncovered as one of the three witnesses.
Note also that the date assigned to these comments places them prior to the publication of the Book of Mormon, yet Clark’s statement appears to include elements from both before and after Harris viewed the plates as a witness. Harris “saw them” with his eyes when he acted as one of the Three Witnesses, but he only saw them through the “eye of faith” when they were covered with a cloth prior to his being a witness. Clark’s third-hand hostile relation of another hostile source, makes no distinction between these events, and instead portrays Harris as contradicting himself.
When Martin Harris said that he had seen the angel and the plates with his “spiritual eyes” or with an “eye of faith” he may have simply been employing some scriptural language that he was familiar with. Such statements do not mean that the angel and the plates were imaginary, hallucinatory, or just an inner mental image—the earliest accounts of Martin Harris’ testimony makes the literal nature of the experience unmistakable.
Rather than being hallucinatory or “merely” spiritual, Martin claimed that the plates and angel were seen by physical eyes that had been enhanced by the power of God to view more objects than a mortal could normally see (cf. DC 76:12; DC 67:10-13).
Joseph Smith was an eyewitness to what Martin Harris said at the exact moment that the manifestation took place. He reported that Martin’s words were: “Tis enough; mine eyes have beheld“.  Another eyewitness, named Alma Jensen, saw Martin Harris point to his physical eyes while testifying that he had seen both the angel and the plates. 
Oliver Cowdery wrote a letter to a skeptical author in November 1829, and spoke for both himself and Harris on the question of whether there was some trickery or “juggling” at work:
- “It was a clear, open beautiful day, far from any inhabitants, in a remote field, at the time we saw the record, of which it has been spoken, brought and laid before us, by an angel, arrayed in glorious light, [who] ascend [descended I suppose] out of the midst of heaven. Now if this is human juggling—judge ye“.