While translating the Book of Mormon, the Prophet Joseph Smith learned that three witnesses would be permitted to see the plates “by the power of God” (see 2 Nephi 27:12–14; Ether 5:2–4). When Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer learned of this, both of them felt an inspired desire to be witnesses. In a previous revelation (D&C 5), the Lord told Martin Harris that if he was sufficiently humble and obedient he would be permitted to see the plates. Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris asked the Prophet to inquire of the Lord if they would be allowed to have this opportunity. The revelation you will study today, Doctrine and Covenants 17, confirmed that these three men would be permitted to view the plates and other related objects if they exercised sufficient faith.
Two places in the Book of Mormon contain prophecy about witnesses who would see and testify of the book or plates containing the record. Read 2 Nephi 27:12–14 and Ether 5:2–4, and think about what it might be like to be a witness of the gold plates. From what you learn in those scriptures, how would three of those witnesses be shown the record?
Through revelation, the Lord told Joseph Smith that Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris would be allowed to see the plates. Read Doctrine and Covenants 17:1. In addition to the plates, what other objects would these witnesses be able to see? (Footnote 1h contains references to what “the miraculous directors” are, including 1 Nephi 16:10, 16, 26 and Alma 37:38–47.)
Think about how these sacred items (such as the sword of Laban and the Liahona) could provide further evidence of the reality of the people and events recorded in the Book of Mormon.
Read Doctrine and Covenants 17:2–3. What did the Lord say the witnesses needed before they could see the plates?
Answer the following question in your scripture study journal: Why do you think these witnesses needed to have faith before they could see the gold plates?
Although we may not receive a witness in the same way the Three Witnesses did, we too can receive a witness of truths we desire to know. Ponder what Doctrine and Covenants 17:1–3 teaches about how we can receive our own witness of gospel truths. Then complete the following principle based on what you learn from these verses: If we , we can receive a witness of the truths we desire to know.
In your scripture study journal, describe how you have exercised faith in God to obtain a witness of the Book of Mormon and other gospel truths. Or, if you feel you have yet to obtain this witness, explain how you can exercise faith so you can obtain a testimony of the Book of Mormon.
Joseph Smith’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, wrote about how Martin Harris was told he could be one of the Three Witnesses. After an evening spent reading from the newly completed Book of Mormon manuscript, “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).
Ponder the following questions:
Why do you think it is necessary to be humble when we seek God’s forgiveness?
Why do you think we need to seek God’s forgiveness when we want to receive a witness of truth from Him?
Imagine being chosen to be one of the Three Witnesses who were permitted to see the plates “by the power of God.” What responsibility would you feel after such an experience? The Lord spoke of their responsibility of being witnesses of the plates. Read Doctrine and Covenants 17:3–5, looking for what the Lord commanded the Three Witnesses to do after they had seen the plates.
Consider the responsibility we have when the Lord gives us a witness of divine truths. You may want to mark phrases in verse 3 that teach the following principle: After we obtain a witness of the truth, then we have a responsibility to testify of it. Think about how your willingness to testify of the truth is also a demonstration of your faith in Jesus Christ.
In your scripture study journal, list a few doctrines and principles of the gospel that you know are true. Share your testimony, feelings, or thoughts about these principles with a parent or sibling.
Soon after the revelation in Doctrine and Covenants 17 was given, the Prophet Joseph Smith, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris went to the woods near the Whitmer home to “try to obtain, by fervent and humble prayer” the promised witness. Joseph Smith recorded that after two unsuccessful attempts, “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 … to have a view of. He turned over the leaves one by one, so that we could see them, and discern the engravings thereon 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).
Think about being entrusted with some important information that you were not allowed to share with anyone for a long time. How would you feel when you were finally allowed to share it? Think about what it would have been like for Joseph Smith to be the only witness of the Book of Mormon plates for so many years. How would you have felt in his position? How do you think Joseph Smith felt knowing that others could now add their witnesses and testimonies to his?
The following account from Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph Smith’s mother, describes how Joseph felt after the Three Witnesses had seen the plates: “When they returned to the house it was between three and four o’clock p. m. Mrs. Whitmer, Mr. Smith [Joseph Smith Sr.] 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, 152–53).
In your scripture study journal, describe what it feels like to have others around you who have also received a witness of what you know is true. How do their testimonies help you?
Elder Loren C. Dunn of the Seventy spoke of the importance of witnesses in the Lord’s work: “The law of witnesses has always been a part of the Lord’s work on earth. This law states that ‘in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established’ (2 Cor. 13:1; see also Deut. 17:6; 19:15; Matt. 18:15–16; John 8:12–29). This witness confirms that certain events took place and that God-given doctrine and principles are true” (“Witness,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 28). The Lord used the law of witnesses to confirm the reality of the plates.
A few days after the gold plates were shown to the Three Witnesses by the power of God, the Prophet Joseph Smith was allowed to show the plates to “a few according to the will of God, to bear testimony of his word unto the children of men” (2 Nephi 27:13; see also Ether 5:2). Read “The Testimony of Three Witnesses” and “The Testimony of Eight Witnesses” (found after the introduction to the Book of Mormon). Notice the differences in their experiences and the similarities of their testimonies. Also notice that the Eight Witnesses described the plates as having “the appearance of gold” and the engravings having “the appearance of ancient work.” Since they did not know if the plates were real gold or that the engravings were actual ancient writings, they testified only of what they honestly knew to be true.
Imagine that your testimony of the Book of Mormon could be added to each copy of the Book of Mormon. On a blank page in your scripture study journal, create your own personal witness page. Include what you know is true about the Book of Mormon that you want others to know as well.
Doctrine and Covenants 17:6 contains the Savior’s testimony of the Book of Mormon. Mark the witness that He gave to the world in this verse, or write His testimony in your scripture study journal. You may also want to write Jesus Christ testified that the Book of Mormon is true in your scripture study journal or the margin of your scriptures near verse 6. Ponder how the Lord’s testimony of the Book of Mormon influences your testimony.
After their remarkable experience, each of the Three Witnesses endured severe trials and their faith in God and testimonies of the gospel were challenged. During their struggles, all three left the Church, though Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery later returned and remained faithful for the remainder of their lives. However, none of the Three Witnesses ever denied their witnesses of the Book of Mormon.
Although we do not know the specific reason why each of the Three Witnesses left the Church after having experienced such a powerful witness, the Lord’s warning to the Prophet Joseph Smith recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 3:4 helps us understand how such things can happen: “For 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.” Each of the Three Witnesses, however, continued to bear faithful witness of the Book of Mormon throughout their lives.
Oliver Cowdery testified: “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, and he translated it by the gift and power of God, by the means of the Urim and Thummim, or, as it is called by that book, ‘Holy Interpreters.’ I beheld with my eyes, and handled with my hands, the gold plates from which it was transcribed. … 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. It contains the everlasting gospel. … It contains principles of salvation; and if you, my hearers, will walk by its light and obey its precepts, you will be saved with an everlasting salvation in the kingdom of God on high” (in “Last Days of Oliver Cowdery,” Deseret News, Apr. 13, 1859, 48).
A newspaper called the Richmond Democrat carried the following account of David Whitmer bearing witness of the Book of Mormon a few days before he died: “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. , 1:270).
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, HDC). (See also Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual [Church Educational System manual, 2001], 33.)
Read Doctrine and Covenants 17:7–9, and mark the promises the Lord made to the Three Witnesses if they were faithful in declaring their testimonies. Notice the phrase “righteous purposes” in verse 9. Think about the righteous purposes the Lord desired the Three Witnesses to fulfill by declaring their witnesses of the gold plates and the Book of Mormon. (You may also want to review Doctrine and Covenants 17:4 as you think about this question.)
In your scripture study journal, answer the following question: What might be a righteous purpose for which the Lord could give you a witness of the truths you desire to know?
Remember that we can gain or strengthen a testimony as we share it. President Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught:
“It is not unusual to have a missionary say, ‘How can I bear testimony until I get one? How can I testify that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, and that the gospel is true? If I do not have such a testimony, would that not be dishonest?’
“Oh, if I could teach you this one principle. A testimony is to be found in the bearing of it! Somewhere in your quest for spiritual knowledge, there is that ‘leap of faith,’ as the philosophers call it. It is the moment when you have gone to the edge of the light and stepped into the darkness to discover that the way is lighted ahead for just a footstep or two. ‘The spirit of man,’ as the scripture says, indeed ‘is the candle of the Lord.’ (Prov. 20:27.)
“It is one thing to receive a witness from what you have read or what another has said; and that is a necessary beginning. It is quite another to have the Spirit confirm to you in your bosom that what you have testified is true. Can you not see that it will be supplied as you share it? As you give that which you have, there is a replacement, with increase! …
“To speak out is the test of your faith” (“Candle of the Lord,” Ensign, Jan. 1983, 54).
Ponder who you could share your testimony with who might benefit from hearing it. Share your testimony with that person this week.
Write the following at the bottom of today’s assignments in your scripture study journal:
I have studied Doctrine and Covenants 17 and completed this lesson on (date).
Additional questions, thoughts, and insights I would like to share with my teacher: