Perhaps from the standpoint of literary critics there never has been a greater literary puzzle than the Book of Mormon. A number of "rational" explanations for it have been set forth by students, but of them all, none will bear critical examination. The one offered by those who really knew and played the star roles in the strange story, though often challenged, still stands untouched by any evidence of untruthfulness or fraud. Simple, straightforward, incredible as when they first told it, the three "witnesses" to the Book of Mormon, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris reaffirmed their testimony all through their ministry in the church; unchanged as years passed, though misunderstandings estranged them from Joseph Smith and the church; still unchanged down into old age; and each when death was imminent, with his last breath declared that he truly had seen the plates of gold, and heard the voice of an angel.
One of the first detailed descriptions of the "golden plates" to be published was given in February, 1842, in a letter from Joseph Smith to John Wentworth, editor of the Chicago Democrat. He said:
These records were engraved on plates which had the appearance of gold, each plate was six inches wide and eight inches long and not quite as thick as common tin.
They were filled with engravings, in Egyptian characters, and bound together in a volume, as the leaves of a book with three rings running through the whole.
The volume was something near six inches in thickness, a part of which was sealed.
The characters on the unsealed part were small and beautifully engraved.
The whole book exhibited many marks of antiquity in its construction and much skill in the art of engraving.
With the records was found a curious instrument which the ancients called "Urim and Thummim" which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rims of a bow fastened to a breastplate.1
Two others (at least) of the men who claimed to have seen these curious records and the "Urim and Thummim," that "most mysterious thing in the Old Testament,"2 have left their descriptions on record. Martin Harris in 1853:
And as many of the plates as Joseph Smith translated, I handled with my hands, plate after plate.
[Then, describing their dimensions, he pointed with one of the fingers of his left hand to the back of his right hand and said], I should think they were so long [or about eight inches] and about so thick [or about four inches] and each of the plates was thicker than the thickest tin.3
In 1881, David Whitmer gave his description as follows:
They appeared to be of gold, about six inches by nine inches in size, about as thick as parchment, a great many in number, bound together like the leaves of a book by massive rings passing through the back edges. The engraving upon them was very plain and of very curious appearance.4
One of the very earliest published accounts of what the records were and the incidents connected with their discovery, coming from other than those who had received the story enthusiastically with all its implications, is that of O. Turner in his History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham's Purchase.5 Turner was well acquainted in the vicinity of Palmyra, and refers to one of the most generally accepted theories of the emergence of the Book of Mormon:
It is believed by those who were best acquainted with the Smith family and most conversant with all the Gold Book movements that there is no foundation for the statement that the original manuscript was written by a Mr. Spaulding of Ohio . . . . The book itself is without doubt a production of the Smith family aided by Oliver Cowdery, who was a schoolteacher on Stafford Street, an intimate of the Smith family and identified with the whole matter.
His (Harris') version of the discovery, as communicated to him by the Prophet Joseph is well remembered by several respectable citizens in Palmyra to whom he made early disclosures. It was in substance as follows:
The Prophet Joseph was directed by an angel where to find, by excavation at the place afterwards called Mormon Hill, the golden plates; and was compelled by the angel, much against his will, to be the interpreter of the sacred record they contained and published it to the world; that the records contained a record of the ancient inhabitants of this country "engraved by Mormon, the son of Nephi"; that on top of the box containing the plates "a pair of large spectacles were found, the stones or glass set in which were opaque to all but the Prophet"; that these belonged to Mormon, the engraver of the plates, and without them the plates could not be read. Harris assumed that himself and Cowdery were the chosen amanuenses, and that the prophet curtained from the world and them with his spectacles read from the gold plates, what they had committed to paper . . . Harris had never seen the plates.6
This account written by one very adverse to the whole movement gives Harris' story so nearly in accord with all the versions of the principals, and vouching for its being Harris' disclosure to early inhabitants before the translation of the book and before he (Harris) had ever seen the plates, seems peculiarly corroborative, considering the length of time that had elapsed between 1827 and 1851 (date of publication) and the tendency of neighborhood tradition to increase in inaccuracy with age.
Letters were infrequent events in the log cabins of pioneers of that day, but the Smith household though humble, was different in this respect. An ordinary letter cost either its sender or recipient twenty-five cents postage, which could be prepaid, or collected at the other end, nevertheless Lucy Smith, who loved to write, kept in communication with her family back in Gilsum, New Hampshire, and with her eldest brother's family in Michigan. Peculiarly enough one of these letters escaped the ravages of time, one written to her brother Solomon in Gilsum. On these yellowed bits of parchment, the carefully penned words of this pioneer mother, still remain, postmarked and dated--to give the lie to many a theory of the origin of that strange book. The letter to Solomon Mack under date of January 6, 1831, was written from Waterloo, and addressed to her brother and wife:
Dear Brother and Sister: . . . By searching the prophecies contained in the Old Testament we find it there prophesied that God will set his hand the second time to recover his people the house of Israel. He has now commenced this work; He hath sent forth a revelation in these last days, and this revelation is called the Book of Mormon. . . . Perhaps you will inquire how this revelation came forth. It has been hid up in the earth fourteen hundred years, and was placed there by Moroni, one of the Nephites; it was engraven upon plates which had the appearance of gold . . . . Joseph after repenting of his sins and humbling himself before God, was visited by an holy angel whose countenance was as lightning and whose garments were white above all whiteness who gave unto him commandments which inspired him from on high; and who gave unto him, by the means of which was before prepared, that he should translate this book.7
Mother Lucy Smith also gives a very similar account in her book, Joseph Smith and His Progenitors, written in her last years, a very graphic and detailed account, though told in the garrulous manner of old age.
Standing in the pulpit at Deloit, Iowa, in 1884, the last venerable representative of the family who witnessed the coming of the "golden plates" into that lowly pioneer home in the forests of New York, William Smith told his plain, unvarnished story with the simplicity and fervor of an old man going back in memory to his youth. The scenes he called to mind happened when he was just sixteen. They seemed plainer, he told his hearers, than things which had happened two years before:
The time to receive the plates came at last. When Joseph received them, he came in and said: "Father, I have got the plates." All believed it was true, father, mother, brothers, and sisters. . . . Father knew his child was telling the truth. When the plates were brought in they were wrapped up in a tow frock. My father put them into a pillowcase. Father said, "What, Joseph, can we not see them?"8 "No, I was disobedient the first time, but I intend to be faithful this time; for I was forbidden to show them until they are translated, but you can feel them." We handled them and could tell what they were. They were not quite as large as this Bible. Could tell whether they were round or square. Could raise the leaves this way (raising a few leaves of the Bible before him.) One could easily tell that they were not a stone or even a block of wood . . . . They were much heavier than stone, and very much heavier than wood. . . . I am a little too old a man to be telling stories. I expect to stand before angels and arch angels and be judged for how I have told it.9
Joseph Smith had removed to his father-in-law's in Harmony, Pennsylvania, less than three months after he received the plates. Martin Harris had been overly enthusiastic; he had talked to many. Some of the family perhaps had been similarly indiscreet. Everybody in the vicinity had heard the story; buried gold of any sort meant fabulous wealth. The three months remaining in the year 1827 were filled with a hectic struggle to keep the plates hidden where they could not be stolen. The family resorted to all sorts of expedients. Once Emma took a long horseback ride to warn Joseph who was working some distance from home. It was apparent that the plates could not be translated in peace and quiet at Palmyra, so a change was imperative.
In February, 1828, Martin visited Joseph and took a carefully copied transcription of the characters to a professor in New York. Martin was still intent on proving to his neighbors in Palmyra that his confidence had not been misplaced. He asked Professor Anthon for a "certificate addressed to the people of Palmyra."
Sometime in this month of February the aforementioned Mr. Martin Harris came to our place, got the characters which I had drawn off the plates, and started with them to the city of New York. For what took place relative to him and the characters, I refer to his own account of the circumstances as he related them to me after his return, which was as follows: "I went to the city of New York and presented the characters which had been translated, with the translation thereof, to Professor Anthon, a gentleman celebrated for his literary attainments. Professor Anthon stated that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian. I then showed him those which were not yet translated, and he said that they were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic, and he said that they were the true characters. He gave me a certificate, certifying to the people of Palmyra that they were true characters, and that the translation of such of them as had been translated was also correct. I took the certificate and put it into my pocket, and was just leaving the house, when Mr. Anthon called me back, and asked me how the young man found out that there were gold plates in the place where he found them, I answered that an angel of God had revealed it unto him.
"He then said to me, 'Let me see that certificate.' I accordingly took it out of my pocket and gave it to him, when he took it and tore it to pieces, saying that there was no such thing now as ministering of angels, and that if I would bring the plates to him, he would, translate them. I informed him that part of the plates were sealed, and that I was forbidden to bring them. He replied, 'I cannot read a sealed book.' I left him and went to Doctor Mitchell, who sanctioned what Professor Anthon had said respecting both the characters and the translation."10
Martin returned crestfallen, without his certificate, but still secure in his belief that he could yet convince his wife and friends of Joseph's sincerity and the genuineness of what he had told them. He arranged his business in Palmyra, returned to Harmony, and acted as scribe for Joseph Smith from April 12 to June 14.
The work progressed very slowly, but Martin Harris was pleased as the pages mounted until he had written 116 pages of foolscap. He wanted to take the manuscript back to Palmyra to show just a very few whom he desired so much to convince that he was not being ridiculous in his adherence to this strange work. But Joseph had been forbidden to let anyone see it. Harris pleaded. He would show it only to his wife, his brother, his mother and father, and his sister-in-law, and bring it right back. After all Joseph felt keenly he could have done nothing without Harris' aid, and it seemed such a small thing to yield to him in this one particular that meant so much to the peace of the home of his great benefactor. Joseph wavered and yielded. True, he bound Martin Harris with a "solemn covenant" which Martin did not intend to break, but in his desire to convert others, the manuscript was lost and never recovered.
It was a time of darkness and discouragement to Joseph. The days passed and Harris did not return. Joseph was censured by revelation for his disobedience. His wife became ill, almost died. His first-born son died at birth and was laid to rest in the family burial lot. Watching by Emma's bedside day and night, he pondered over the fate of the precious manuscript. He tried not to show his anxiety, but at length with that curious intuition women are said to possess, she sent him on a trip to his father's, to find out what had become of Martin. Harris was duty contrite, but the manuscript was gone, irretrievably gone! The plates had temporarily disappeared, and with them went the gift to translate. At length, after humble repentance and forgiveness, the precious commission returned, and he was bidden to translate. Emma was weak and frail from her long illness. Her father, a prosperous farmer, had become convinced during the production of the lost 116 pages of foolscap that his son-in-law was hopelessly lazy, or he would not sit in the house working over his foolish task, in the busiest time of the year on the farm. Joseph was trying to redeem himself with Isaac Hale by working long and arduous hours on the little place they were buying from Emma's father. Upon him lay the heavy consciousness of duty undone, but he could not farm and do the work assigned him, too. Emma helped him as best she could in what time she could spare from her household duties. He dared not trust again to Martin's vacillating hand. Months went by, and then one day in April, Joseph thought it was the 15th, Oliver says the 5th of April, 1829, the Palmyra schoolteacher appeared at the little farmhouse in Harmony. Some strange urging had forced Oliver to follow up the youth with the golden plates and find out the whole story.
Oliver was more than satisfied with what he saw and heard. Several years later, he wrote:
Near the time of the setting of the sun, Sabbath evening, April 5, 1829, my natural eyes for the first time beheld Joseph Smith the Prophet. He then resided in Harmony, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. On Monday the 6th I assisted him in arranging some business of a temporal nature, and on Tuesday the 7th commenced to write the Book of Mormon. These were days never to be forgotten, to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the uttermost gratitude of this bosom! Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated, with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have said, "Interpreters," the history, or record, called The Book of Mormon.11
He immediately wrote his friend, David Whitmer, enthusiastically of his reception and David told his family. They all had confidence in Oliver Cowdery, the confidence of long acquaintance. Joseph was happy in what he considered another mark of God's providence. Henceforth he was to be no more alone, but companioned by a man young like himself, as divinely commissioned and converted to his share of the work, as Joseph was to his. There was but one growing cloud on the horizon. Isaac Hale was becoming more and more disgusted with his seemingly worthless son-inlaw, for Joseph at the very time of spring planting wished to spend hour after hour closeted with this young schoolteacher, working upon a book, not only impractical, but perhaps even harmful to the peace of his family. Joseph, always sensitive to criticism, felt this growing antipathy. Oliver talked often of his friends, the Whitmers, of the peace and comfort of their fireside. Perhaps David had answered his letters with friendly confidence. One day Joseph told Oliver he had received directions to go to Fayette and continue his work there. Whitmer said:
Soon after [Cowdery went to Pennsylvania] I received another letter from Cowdery telling me to come down to Pennsylvania, and bring him and Joseph to my father's house, giving as a reason therefor that they had received a commandment from God to that effect.12
I did not know what to do, I was pressed with my work. I had some twenty acres to plow, so I concluded, I would finish my plowing and then go. I got up one morning to go to work as usual and on going to the field found between five and seven acres of my ground had been plowed during the night. I didn't know who did is, but it was done just as I would have done it myself, and the plow was left standing in the furrow. This enabled me to start sooner. When I arrived at Harmony, Joseph and Oliver were coming towards me, and met me some distance from the house. Oliver told me that Joseph had informed him when I started from home, where I had stopped the next night, how I read the sign at the tavern, where I stopped the next night, etc., and that I would be there that day before dinner, and this was why they had come out to meet me; all of which was exactly as Joseph had told Oliver, at which I was greatly astonished.13
The next day after I got th ere, they packed up the plates, and we proceeded on our journey to my father's house, where we arrived in due time, and the day after we commenced the translation of the plates.14
The month of June, 1829, was one in which heaven came very near to earth for a little group of sincerely devoted ones, toiling away day after day in the "story and a half log house" of the prosperous Whitmer family. There could have been no more beautiful location for this quiet farm that figures so tranquilly in the beginnings of the church, for the township of Fayette lay between Lake Seneca and Lake Cayuga. Here those who were doing the work that seemed so important to them found peace and quiet. It was a month of miraculous happenings. Hardly a night fell on the farmhouse that someone did not have a new spiritual experience to relate, the restoration of the priesthood, the wonderful experience of the "Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon," all the marvelous events leading up to the finding of the plates, Oliver Cowdery's inspired call to go to Pennsylvania, David Whitmer and the plowing that was done in the dark of nighttime, how Joseph saw him in vision leave Fayette and make the two-day journey to Harmony. One evening the faithful mother of the family clasped her toil-knotted hands in her lap, quiet for once from her work, and told how when she had gone to the barn that night to milk, she, too, had met the mysterious messenger and was shown the golden plates.
At times all of the Whitmers, Emma Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris were present in the room (taking part in the humble prayer that preceded each session15 of translating). They all agree that Oliver Cowdery wrote as dictated by Joseph Smith, who sat at the same table, and with eyes darkened and using the Urim and Thummim slowly enunciated the words that were to form the Book of Mormon. Before it was finished all knew the Story that was written there.
In this important and interesting book the history of ancient America is unfolded, from its first settlement by a colony that came from the tower of Babel at the confusion of languages to the beginning of the fifth century of the Christian era. We are informed by these records that America in ancient times has been inhabited by two distinct races of people. The first were called Jaredites, and came directly from the tower of Babel. The second race came directly from the city of Jerusalem, about six hundred years before Christ. They were principally Israelites of the decendants of Joseph. The Jaredites were destroyed about the time that the Israelites came from Jerusalem, who succeeded them in the inheritance of the country. The principal nations of the second race fell in battle towards the close of the fourth century. The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country. This book also tells us that our Saviour made his appearance upon this continent after his resurrection, that he planted the gospel here in all its fullness, and richness, and power, and blessing, that they had apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, and evangelists; the same order, the same priesthood, the same ordinances, gifts, powers, and blessings, as was enjoyed on the eastern continent, that the people were cut off in consequence of their transgressions, that the last of their prophets who existed among them was commanded to write an abridgment of their prophecies, history, etc., and hide it up in the earth, and that it should come forth and be united with the Bible for the accomplishment of the purposes of God in the last days.16
Several of the Whitmer brothers, especially John and Christian, Martin Harris, and Emma Smith, assisted in writing for Joseph, but the great burden of the work fell upon Oliver Cowdery. "That book is true," he said in later years. "Sidney Rigdon did not write it. Mr. Spaulding did not write it. I wrote it myself as it fell from the lips of the Prophet."17
In the manuscript which has been preserved, all these various handwritings have been recognized. Alexander W. Doniphan was requested at one time to identify the handwriting in this old manuscript. He knew Cowdery well, and was acquainted with his penmanship. On July 13, 1884, he wrote to Heman C. Smith:
Some eight years ago I was requested by some persons to accompany them to the residence of David Whitmer, Sr., in this village [Richmond, Missouri]. When we arrived quite a volume of manuscript was lying on the center table, and I was requested to state whether I recognized the handwriting. I had not been told the purpose of our visit before. I began to turn over the pages. It was an old looking document, but in a good state of preservation, as if it had been well cared for. After sketching it over in various parts, I felt sure it was the handwriting of Oliver Cowdery, although I had not seen it for many years; and said that I believed it was his. In the further examination I found a few pages here and there in two other hands, and so pointed them out. Those present then asked Mr. Whitmer as to the various handwritings. He said that I was correct, the manuscript was almost entirely written by Cowdery. The other parts were written by Emma, wife of Joseph Smith, and Christian Whitmer, merely to relieve Cowdery when tired. I still believe, the handwriting to be Cowdery's.18
On the 11th day of June, 1829, the title page of the new book was deposited with R. R. Lansing, clerk of the United States District Court in western New York. The book was still unfinished. In order to protect himself under the law, against such a loss as he had met the year before, Joseph signed his own name as "author and proprietor" as provided by act of Congress. In order not to deceive anyone as to the nature of the book, he also put on the front page, a description of the work taken from the book itself, as Joseph Smith explained.
THE BOOK OF MORMON
An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon upon Plates
Taken from the Plates of Nephi.
Wherefore, it is an abridgment of the record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites; written to the Lamanites, who are a remnant of the house of Israel; and also to Jew and Gentile; written by way of commandment, and also by the spirit of prophecy and of revelation. Written, and sealed up, and hid unto the Lord, that they might not be destroyed; to come forth by the gift and power of God unto the interpretation thereof; sealed by the hand of Moroni, and hid up unto the Lord, to come forth in due time by the way of Gentile; the interpretation thereof by the gift of God.
An abridgment taken from the Book of Ether; also, which is a record of the people of Jared; who were scattered at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people, when they were building a tower to get to heaven: which is to shew unto the remnant of the house of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off for ever; and also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations. And now if there are faults, they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment seat of Christ.
By Joseph Smith, Junior,
Author and Proprietor.
Printed by E. B. Grandin, for the Author, 1830.
David Whitmer says the work of translating was finished about July, and that it was in process at his father's for about a month.19 Mr. John H. Gilbert of Palmyra, New York, who claims to have set the type for the Book of Mormon, says, "The manuscript was put in our hands in August, 1829, and all printed by March, 1830."20 Mr. Egbert Grandin in Palmyra agreed to print five thousand copies for the sum of three thousand dollars.
Oliver Cowdery continued his vigil over the manuscript to the end, taking only a few pages to the printer at a time, remaining with them, proofreading, and seeing that they were correct.21 In April, 1830, the book was sent into the world to fight its own battles. The young men instrumental in its publication sought diligently, it is true, to sell these copies, while they also preached the restoration of the gospel (for they felt it was not only necessary but right to reimburse Martin Harris as much as possible for the expense of their printing, which had involved him heavily),22 at the same time they felt no one who could not buy should be deprived of a copy, and gave them away freely.
More than a century has passed. The Book of Mormon has been printed in over a hundred editions, and in fifteen or more languages. It has made its own place in the sun and has kept it. Carlyle has said:
I will allow a thing to struggle for itself in this world, with any sword, or tongue, or implement it has, or can lay hold of. We will let it preach and pamphleteer and fight, and to the uttermost bestir itself and do, beak and claw, whatsoever is in it; very sure that it will in the long run, conquer nothing which does not deserve to be conquered. What is better than itself cannot be put away, but only what is worse. In this great duel, Nature herself is umpire and can do no wrong; the thing which is deepest rooted in nature, which we call truest, that thing and not the other will be found growing at last.
But who will believe such a ridiculous, such an incredulous, such a chimerical tale? Thousands upon thousands of people have believed. And today, after more than a hundred years have passed, missionaries of the gospel restored are still handing this book to those who will hear, and telling them its story as romantic as a fairy tale, as unbelievable as a New Testament miracle. And today after more than a hundred years, men and women are reading it, praying over It, as did these young men of long ago, and coming forward to say with Oliver Cowdery: "The book is true."
1 Times and Seasons, Volume 3, page 707.
2 John M. Zane, in A Rare Judicial Service of Charles S. Zane, Illinois State Historical Publications, 1826. For Urim and Thummim in the Old Testament, Ezekiel 28:30; Leviticus 8:8; Deuteronomy 33: 8; Ezra 2: 63; Numbers 17: 21; Nehemiah 7: 65; I Samuel 28: 6.
3 Millennial Star, as quoted in the Myth of Manuscript Found, pages 88, 89. 4 Kansas City Journal, June 5, 1881. See Church History, Volume 4, page 362; Saints' Herald, Volume 28, page 198.
5 History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham's Purchase and Morris Reserve, embracing counties of Monroe, Ontario Livingston, Yates, Steuben, and parts of Orleans, Genesee, and Wyoming, 1851. Rochester, New York.
6 History of Pioneer Settlement, etc., O. Turner, pages 214, 215.
7 From a letter given to Joseph F. Smith of Salt Lake City, Utah, by Mrs. Candace Mack Barker of Keene, New Hampshire, granddaughter of Solomon Mack, published in Scrapbook of Mormon Literature, published by Ben E. Rich, Volume 1, pages 543-545.
8 Joseph's sister, Catherine Salisbury, in a letter from Fountain Green, Illinois, March 10, 1886, and published in the Elders' Journal, Chattanooga, Tennessee, Volume 4, page 60, says, "We had supposed that when he should bring them home, the whole family would be allowed to see them, but he said he was forbidden of the Lord. They could only be seen by those who were chosen to bear their testimony to the world" (Saints' Herald, Volume 33, page 260).
9 Sermon by William Smith, Deloit, Iowa, June 8, 1884, as reported in the Saints' Herald, Volume 31, pages 643, 644.
10 Church History, Volume 1, page 19.
11 From a letter written W. W. Phelps, and dated Norton, Medina County, Ohio, September 7, 1834, and published in the Saints' Messenger and Advocate, Kirtland, Ohio, October, 1834 (first number of that publication).
12 Kansas City Journal, June 5, 1881; Saints' Herald, Volume 28, page 198. (See Church History, Volume 4, page 362.)
13 Saints' Herald, Volume 26, pages 6, 7. Quoted from Deseret Evening News.
14 Interview with David Whitmer, Kansas City Journal, June 5, 1881; Saints' Herald, Volume 28, page 198.
15 Chicago Tribune of December 15, 1885, report of interview with David Whitmer, also Saints' Herald, Volume 33, page 12.
16 Times and Seasons, Volume 3, pages 707, 708.
17 Church History, Volume 1, page 50.
18 Church History, Volume 4, page 451.
19 Interview with David Whitmer, Kansas City Journal, June 5, 1881. Saints' Herald, Volume 28, page 198.
20 Saints' Herald, Volume 28, Page 166.
21 Saints' Herald, Volume 31, pages 396-397, and Church History, Volume 4, page 448.
22 Martin Harris states that every penny he advanced for the publication of the Book of Mormon was repaid.