Among the doctrines taught in the ancient record was that of baptism for the remission of sins. Joseph Smith had never been baptized, for he had not become a member of any church. As he and Oliver discussed the matter, he resolved to inquire of the Lord concerning the ordinance.
They retired to the seclusion of the woods along the banks of the Susquehanna River. It was the 15th day of May 1829. While they were engaged in prayer a light appeared above them, and in it a heavenly messenger descended. He announced himself to them as John, known in scripture as John the Baptist.
The Priesthood Restored
He said he had come under the authority of Peter, James, and John, Apostles of the Lord, who held the keys of the priesthood, and that he had been sent to confer upon them the priesthood of Aaron with authority to administer in the temporal affairs of the gospel. He then laid his hands upon their heads and ordained them, saying, “Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins.” 1
He then instructed them that with the authority of the priesthood they had received they should baptize each other by immersion. Joseph first baptized Oliver in the nearby river, and Oliver then baptized Joseph. Again men had been baptized under proper authority and in similar manner as when Jesus had gone to John in the River Jordan “to fulfil all righteousness.” 2
It was not long thereafter that another remarkable and even more significant event occurred. It took place “in the wilderness between Harmony, Susquehanna county [Pennsylvania], and Colesville, Broome county [New York], on the Susquehanna river.” The ancient Apostles Peter, James, and John appeared to and conferred upon Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery the higher powers of the priesthood and they became apostles and special witnesses of Christ. With this ordination there was restored to earth the same authority to act in God’s name that had been enjoyed in the primitive Church. 3
In June 1829 the work of translation was completed. About three months of diligent labor had been devoted to the task, although Joseph had possessed the plates for almost two years. During all of this time he had exercised every precaution to safeguard them, lest he lose them. No one was permitted to see them.
But in the course of translation he had discovered that the record itself stated that “three witnesses shall behold it, by the power of God, besides him to whom the book shall be delivered; and they shall testify to the truth of the book and the things therein.
“And there is none other which shall view it, save it be a few according to the will of God, to bear testimony of his word unto the children of men; for the Lord God hath said that the words of the faithful should speak as if it were from the dead.” 4
As we have seen, among those who had materially assisted in the work were Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery. Another young man, David Whitmer, had also been of service, though only for a brief period. When these three learned there were to be witnesses, they asked for the privilege.
Joseph inquired of the Lord and subsequently announced to the three that if they would humble themselves, theirs might be the privilege of seeing the ancient record and the responsibility of testifying to the world of what they had seen.
On a summer day in the year 1829, Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer retired to the woods near the Whitmer home in southern New York State. In the broad light of day they knelt in prayer, Joseph praying first, followed by the others in succession. But when all had prayed, no answer was received. They repeated the procedure again without result. After this second failure, Martin Harris suggested that he withdraw from the group because he felt that it was he who stood in the way of their receiving a manifestation. With Joseph’s consent, he left.
The three again knelt in prayer, and presently they beheld a light above them in the air. An angel stood before them. He held the plates in his hands and deliberately turned them leaf by leaf so that the men might see the engravings thereon. They then heard a voice above them 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.” 5
Joseph then left Oliver and David and went to find Martin Harris. He discovered him fervently engaged in prayer and joined him in an earnest petition to the Lord. That petition was rewarded with an experience similar to the one had by the others.
These men wrote the following signed declaration, which appeared in the first edition of the Book of Mormon, and which has appeared in every subsequent edition:
“Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That we, through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, have seen the plates which contain this record, which is a record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites, their brethren, and also of the people of Jared, who came from the tower of which hath been spoken. And we also know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true. And we also testify that we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates; and they have been shown unto us by the power of God, and not of man. And we declare with words of soberness, that an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon; and we know that it is by the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, that we beheld and bear record that these things are true. And it is marvelous in our eyes. Nevertheless, the voice of the Lord commanded us that we should bear record of it; wherefore, to be obedient unto the commandments of God, we bear testimony of these things. And we know that if we are faithful in Christ, we shall rid our garments of the blood of all men, and be found spotless before the judgment-seat of Christ, and shall dwell with him eternally in the heavens. And the honor be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen.” [Signed by Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris.]
In addition to the three witnesses, there were eight others who saw the plates. Their experience, however, was different. It happened only a day or two after the three had been shown the record by the angel.
Joseph Smith invited eight men to view the plates. They gathered about him, and he showed them the record. Again, it was in the broad light of day. Each handled the strange volume with complete liberty to leaf through the unsealed portion and closely examine the engravings. It was a simple, matter-of-fact experience in which all participated together. Their testimony on the matter follows. It also has appeared in all editions of the Book of Mormon.
“Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people unto whom this work shall come: That Joseph Smith, Jun., the translator of this work, has shown unto us the plates of which hath been spoken, which have the appearance of gold; and as many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated we did handle with our hands; and we also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship. And this we bear record with words of soberness, that the said Smith has shown unto us, for we have seen and hefted, and know of a surety that the said Smith has got the plates of which we have spoken. And we give our names unto the world, to witness unto the world that which we have seen. And we lie not, God bearing witness of it.” [Signed by Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer, Jun., John Whitmer, Hiram Page, Joseph Smith, Sen., Hyrum Smith, and Samuel H. Smith.]
Scores of writings deal with the statements of these two sets of witnesses. For more than a century various explanations have been offered in an attempt to account for their testimonies on some basis other than the one the witnesses declared to be the case. In the last analysis, all of the circumstances—the fact that both experiences took place in the broad light of day, that there were two widely different types of experiences, that all concerned were mature men of demonstrated judgment—these facts, together with the future acts and declarations of these parties, all point to the conclusion that the situations in each case were just as they said they were. There was no collusion, no chicanery, no juggling. In each case it was a sober, factual experience that no participant ever forgot or denied.
All of the three witnesses left the Church founded through Joseph Smith. Two of them took a strong position in opposition to him. But not one of them ever denied his testimony concerning the Book of Mormon. In fact, each, on more than one occasion up to the time of his death, reaffirmed that testimony.
Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery returned to the Church after years of disaffection, but even when they were outside the organization, they boldly declared the validity of the statement published over their names in the Book of Mormon. David Whitmer never came back into the organization, but repeatedly took the same stand as his associates had taken, and shortly before his death he published a pamphlet denying statements made in the American Cyclopedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica to the effect that the witnesses had repudiated their testimony.
Of the eight witnesses, three left the Church, but none of them ever denied his testimony.
The Book Published
With the completion of the translation, its publication was made possible through the assistance of Martin Harris, who pledged his farm to guarantee the printing costs. The work was done by Egbert B. Grandin of Palmyra, New York, who printed five thousand copies for $3,000. The volume contained more than five hundred pages and was called the Book of Mormon because the ancient prophet-leader Mormon had been its principal editor. It issued from the press in the spring of 1830.
As it was circulated and read, another type of witness to its validity appeared, perhaps more powerful than the testimony of those who had seen the plates. In the book itself are found these words: “When ye shall receive [read] these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.” 6
The majority of the early converts came into the Church through reading the Book of Mormon. Thousands gave their lives because of their beliefs. Since its first publication, the book has been translated into dozens of languages, and it has affected the lives of men and women in many lands. The sufferings they have endured and the works they have accomplished are, perhaps, the strongest of all testimonies for the reality of the gold plates and their translation into the Book of Mormon—the book which has become in this generation another witness for Christ.
1. See D&C 13.
2. See Matthew 3:13–15.
3. See D&C 128:20.
4. 2 Nephi 27:12.
5. In Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols., 2nd ed. rev., edited by B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1932–51), 1:55. Hereafter cited as HC.
6. Moroni 10:4.