While Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon, he learned that three witnesses would be permitted to see the plates (see 2 Nephi 27:12–14; Ether 5:2–4; D&C 5:11–15, 18). When Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer learned of this, both of them felt an inspired desire to act as witnesses. Previous to this, the Lord had said that if Martin Harris was sufficiently humble and obedient, he would also be permitted to see the plates (see D&C 5:23–28). Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris asked the Prophet to ask the Lord if they would be allowed to have this opportunity. The Lord confirmed that these three men would be permitted to view the plates and other objects if they exercised sufficient faith.
Suggestions for Teaching
The Lord tells Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris that if they have sufficient faith they will be allowed to see the plates and other sacred items
On the board, make a vertical list of the numbers 1 through 5. Write gold plates next to number 1. Invite students to copy the numbered list in their class notebooks or scripture study journals. Ask students to complete the list by writing any other items that the Three Witnesses saw when Moroni showed them the plates. After sufficient time, ask students to compare their lists with the items mentioned in Doctrine and Covenants 17:1.
Which item mentioned in Doctrine and Covenants 17:1 would you most like to see? Why?
How might seeing these items have strengthened the testimonies of the Three Witnesses? Why?
How would seeing the sword of Laban and the Liahona provide further witnesses of the Book of Mormon?
To help students understand the historical background of the revelation they will study today, summarize the introduction to this lesson. The Lord told Joseph Smith that Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer would be permitted to see the plates. However, the Lord required something of them first.
Invite a student to read Doctrine and Covenants 17:1–2 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for what the Three Witnesses needed to do in order to see the plates. After students report what they find, ask the following questions:
What do you think it means to rely upon God’s word “with full purpose of heart”? (One meaning might be that we obey God or follow His words with all our hearts.)
Why do you think these men needed to show faith like the prophets of old before the Lord would allow them to see the plates?
Although we may not have the opportunity to see the same physical objects the Three Witnesses saw, we can receive a witness of truths of the gospel. Write the following incomplete statement on the board: If we obey and _____________________________________________, we can receive a witness of the truths of the gospel.
Ask students to suggest words that complete this statement. (Students might respond with something like this: If we obey and exercise faith in God, we can receive a witness of the truths of the gospel. Write the complete principle on the board using students’ words.)
How have you exercised faith in God in order to receive a witness of the Book of Mormon?
To help students understand how Joseph Smith helped Martin Harris apply this principle, invite a student to read the following account by Joseph Smith’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith:
“The next morning, after attending to the usual services, namely, reading, singing and praying, Joseph arose from his knees, and approaching Martin Harris with a solemnity that thrills through my veins to this day, when it occurs to my recollection, said, ‘Martin Harris, you have got to humble yourself before God this day, that you may obtain a forgiveness of your sins. If you do, it is the will of God that you should look upon the plates, in company with Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer’” (History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, ed. Preston Nibley , 151–52).
How did Martin need to change in order to be a witness of the gold plates?
The Lord reveals the Three Witnesses’ responsibility to testify of the plates
Invite students to read Doctrine and Covenants 17:3–5 on their own, looking for the responsibility the Three Witnesses would have after seeing the plates. (They would have the responsibility to testify of what they had witnessed.)
What responsibility do we have when the Lord gives us witnesses of divine truths? (Students should identify the following principle: After we obtain a witness of the truth, we have a responsibility to testify of it. You may want to suggest that students mark phrases in their scriptures that teach this principle.)
How is our willingness to testify of the truth a demonstration of our faith?
To help students understand the account of the Three Witnesses, invite a student to read aloud the following account by Joseph Smith:
“Martin Harris, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery and [I] … retired [to the woods near the Whitmer home], and having knelt down, we began to pray in much faith to Almighty God. …
“According to previous arrangement, I commenced by vocal prayer to our Heavenly Father, and was followed by each of the others in succession. We did not at the first trial, however, obtain any answer or manifestation of divine favor in our behalf. We again observed the same order of prayer … but with the same result as before.
“Upon this, our second failure, Martin Harris proposed that he should withdraw himself from us, believing, as he expressed himself, that his presence was the cause of our not obtaining what we wished for. He accordingly withdrew from us, and we knelt down again, and had not been many minutes engaged in prayer, when presently we beheld a light above us in the air, of exceeding brightness; and behold, an angel stood before us. In his hands he held the plates which we had been praying for these to have a view of. He turned over the leaves one by one, so that we could see them, and discern the engravings theron distinctly. … We heard a voice from out of the bright light above us, saying, ‘These plates have been revealed by the power of God, and they have been translated by the power of God. The translation of them which you have seen is correct, and I command you to bear record of what you now see and hear.’
“I now left David and Oliver, and went in pursuit of Martin Harris, whom I found at a considerable distance, fervently engaged in prayer. He soon told me, however, that he had not yet prevailed with the Lord, and earnestly requested me to join him in prayer, that he also might realize the same blessings which we had just received. We accordingly joined in prayer, and ultimately obtained our desires, for before we had yet finished, the same vision was opened to our view, at least it was again opened to me, and I once more beheld and heard the same things; whilst at the same moment, Martin Harris cried out, apparently in an ecstasy of joy, ‘’Tis enough; ’tis enough; mine eyes have beheld; mine eyes have beheld’” (in History of the Church, 1:54–55).
Why do you think the law of witnesses, or having multiple witnesses, was so important in the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Consider asking a student to read the following statement, which details Joseph Smith’s feelings about the experience:
“When they returned to the house it was between three and four o’clock p. m. Mrs. Whitmer, Mr. Smith and myself, were sitting in a bedroom at the time. On coming in, Joseph threw himself down beside me, and exclaimed, ‘Father, mother, you do not know how happy I am: the Lord has now caused the plates to be shown to three more besides myself. They have seen an angel, who has testified to them, and they will have to bear witness to the truth of what I have said, for now they know for themselves, that I do not go about to deceive the people, and I feel as if I was relieved of a burden which was almost too heavy for me to bear, and it rejoices my soul, that I am not any longer to be entirely alone in the world.’ Upon this, Martin Harris came in: he seemed almost overcome with joy, and testified boldly to what he had both seen and heard. And so did David and Oliver, adding that no tongue could express the joy of their hearts, and the greatness of the things which they had both seen and heard” (History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, 152).
What feelings do you have when you are with others who also know the gospel is true? How do their testimonies help you?
Divide students into pairs. Invite each partnership to read “The Testimony of Three Witnesses” aloud (found after the introduction to the Book of Mormon). As students read, invite them to look for words or phrases that strengthen their testimonies.
Explain to students that although each of the Three Witnesses fell away from the Church (Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris were later rebaptized), none of them ever denied their witnesses of the Book of Mormon.
Ask students to imagine that their personal testimony of the Book of Mormon could be added to each copy of the Book of Mormon. Invite students to write in their class notebooks or scripture study journals what they would want to include in their testimony. Consider inviting several students to share what they have written.
Invite students to read Doctrine and Covenants 17:6 silently, looking for Jesus Christ’s testimony of the Book of Mormon. Jesus Christ testified that the Book of Mormon is true.
How does the Lord’s testimony of the Book of Mormon strengthen your testimony?
Invite a student to read Doctrine and Covenants 17:7–9 aloud. Ask students to follow along, looking for the promises given to the Three Witnesses. Focus students’ attention on the phrase “righteous purposes” in verse 9.
What might be some of the Lord’s purposes for having the Three Witnesses? (You may also want students to review Doctrine and Covenants 17:4 to answer this question.)
What might be a “righteous purpose” for providing you with a witness of the truth you desire to know?
Remind students that we can gain or strengthen a testimony as we share it. Invite the class to ponder who they could share their testimony with who might benefit from hearing it. Encourage them to share their testimony with that person this week.
Commentary and Background Information
Doctrine and Covenants 17:1. The plates, the Urim and Thummim, and the breastplate
Joseph Smith delivered up the plates, the breastplate, and the Urim and Thummim to the angel Moroni when he was finished and had accomplished the work God had required of him (see Joseph Smith—History 1:52, 59–60).
Doctrine and Covenants 17:3, 5. The testimonies of Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris
Although we do not know the exact reasons why each of the Three Witnesses fell away from the Church for a time, Doctrine and Covenants 3:4 may help explain how someone could fall away after having received such a significant witness as seeing an angel and the plates:
“Although a man may have many revelations, and have power to do many mighty works, yet if he boasts in his own strength, and sets at naught the counsels of God, and follows after the dictates of his own will and carnal desires, he must fall and incur the vengeance of a just God upon him.”
Despite falling away from the Church, none of the Three Witnesses ever denied their witnesses of the Book of Mormon, as indicated by the following accounts:
Oliver Cowdery shared the following testimony at a conference held in Kanesville, Iowa, on October 21, 1848:
“I wrote, with my own pen, the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the Prophet Joseph Smith, as he translated it by the gift and power of God. … That book is true. 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” (“The Three Witnesses,” The Historical Record, ed. Andrew Jenson, vol. 6, nos. 3–5 [May 1887], 201; see also George Reynolds, “History of the Book of Mormon,” The Contributor, vol. 5, no. 12 [Sept. 1884], 446).
A newspaper called the Richmond Democrat carried the following account of David Whitmer bearing witness of the Book of Mormon:
“On Sunday evening, at 5:30 (Jan. 22, 1888), Mr. Whitmer called his family and some friends to his bedside. … He then addressed himself to all around his bedside in these words: ‘Now you must all be faithful in Christ. I want to say to you all, the Bible and the record of the Nephites (Book of Mormon) is true, so you can say that you have heard me bear my testimony on my death-bed. All be faithful in Christ, and your reward will be according to your works. God bless you all. My trust is in Christ forever, worlds without end. Amen.’ [Richmond Democrat, Feb. 2, 1888, quoted in Andrew Jenson, Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia, 4 vols. (1901), 1:270]” (in Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual [Church Educational System manual, 2001], 33).
Shortly before he died, Martin Harris testified:
“Yes, I did see the plates on which the Book of Mormon was written; I did see the angel; I did hear the voice of God; and I do know that Joseph Smith is a Prophet of God, holding the keys of the Holy Priesthood. [“The Last Testimony of Martin Harris,” recorded by William H. Homer in a statement sworn before J. W. Robinson, Apr. 9, 1927, quoted in Francis W. Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ in America, 2 vols. (1960), 1:254.]” (In Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual, 33.)
Doctrine and Covenants 17. The Testimony of the Eight Witnesses
A few days after the Three Witnesses saw the gold plates, “eight additional witnesses—faithful men who were close to the Prophet during the translation—were also chosen to see the plates. … Joseph was permitted to show them the plates near the Smith residence in Manchester when he was making arrangements for the printing of the book. [See History of the Church, 1:58.] The Eight Witnesses testified that they handled and lifted the plates and saw the engravings on the individual leaves. Their testimony is also contained in all published editions of the Book of Mormon” (Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual, 2nd ed. [Church Educational System manual, 2003], 60–61).
Doctrine and Covenants 17:6. God’s testimony of the Book of Mormon
Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught:
“One of the most solemn oaths ever given to man is found in these words of the Lord relative to Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. ‘He [meaning Joseph Smith] has translated the book, even that part which I have commanded him,’ saith the Lord, ‘and as your Lord and your God liveth it is true.’ (D&C 17:6.)
“This is God’s testimony of the Book of Mormon. In it Deity himself has laid his godhood on the line. Either the book is true or God ceases to be God. There neither is nor can be any more formal or powerful language known to men or gods” (“The Doctrine of the Priesthood,” Ensign, May 1982, 33).