You may want to use the church video, "The Works and Designs of God" from "Teachings from the Doctrine and Covenants.
PREPARATION TO RECEIVE THE PLATES
Quoting Kent P. Jackson, an associate professor at BYU: "On the 21st of September, 1823, the Lord began to educate the Prophet [Joseph Smith] in preparation for the restoration of the gospel. The Nephite prophet Moroni, as the last prophet of the Lehite dispensation and the final author, compiler, and caretaker of the Nephite record, was appropriately chosen to serve as young Joseph Smith's tutor...Moroni's message to the young Prophet outlined not only the calling of Joseph Smith, but also the destiny of the Church and kingdom of God from the time of the Restoration until the Millenium." (Kent P. Jackson, "Moroni's Message to Joseph Smith," Ensign, August 1990, p. 13, 15) Brother Jackson has itemized the scriptures Moroni quoted in his article, according to the four accounts Joseph Smith dictated about his visit.
Every year Joseph met the angel, who continued to instruct him. In 1827, when Joseph had just been married and was now 22 years old, he returned home late one night from a business trip. His family had been worried about why he was so late. He "smiled and said in a calm tone, 'I have taken the severest chastisement that I have ever had in my life.'" His father was upset and asked which neighbor might have given Joseph a hard time and began ranting and raving. "Joseph replied, 'Stop, father, stop. It was the angel of the Lord. As I passed by the hill of Cumorah, where the plates are, the angel met me and said that I had not been engaged enough in the work of the Lord; that the time had come for the record to be brought forth; and that I must be up and doing and set myself about the things which God had commanded me to do. But, father, give yourself no uneasiness concerning the reprimand which I received, for now I know the course that I am to pursue, so all will be well." (Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith by his Mother, p. 100, italics added) When the Lord sends us chastisement, it is a blessing, as Joseph said, for now we know the course to pursue. What a wonderful insight! Remember that!
Shortly after that, on September 21, 1827, Joseph received the plates from the Angel Moroni. He had them for two years, and the majority of that time was spent, not in translating them, but in simply keeping them away from those who wanted to steal them. (Andrew H. Hedges, "Take Heed Continually: Protecting the Gold Plates," Ensign, January 2001)
THE THREE WITNESSES
Today we are going to focus on the lives of the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon. Or were there actually four? Keep reading!
MARTIN HARRIS AND THE BOOK OF LEHI
The first of the Three Witnesses to meet Joseph Smith was Martin Harris. He was a well-to-do neighboring farmer. In the spring after Joseph received the plates and wrestled to keep them safe all winter, Martin Harris served as his scribe while Joseph translated the Book of Lehi. Joseph and Emma had moved to Pennsylvania to avoid the mobs. Martin's farm was back in New York. It's quite an imposition on a farmer's time to sit as a scribe in another state, and his wife and parents questioned the value of what he was doing. To appease them, he wanted to take the manuscript of the Book of Lehi back to New York and show his family. He was 45 years old and Joseph was 23. He asked Joseph to ask the Lord whether he might do this. Joseph asked and the answer was definitely no. He pestered Joseph to ask again. Again Joseph asked and the answer was no. Finally, he asked for a deal that the Lord might let him do it if he would solemnly covenant to show them to only six specified family members (his wife, his parents, his brother and his sister-in-law). Joseph asked this and the Lord finally said yes. From this experience, Joseph learned a very valuable lesson, which we might like to learn also, and that is not to bargain with the Lord and not to re-ask the Lord when we have been given a clear answer.
"On June 15, 1828, soon after Martin left with the manuscript, Joseph and Emma's first child was born. They named him Alvin. He lived only a few hours. Emma was very sick, and Joseph, in his grief, hardly had time to think of the manuscript...When Emma regained her health, she urged Joseph to travel to Fayette to see what had happened to Martin and the manuscript." (Brian and Petrea Kelly, Latter-day History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, p. 30)
The strain on Joseph was enormous on his return to New York, but he was blessed by the kindness of a stranger, who deserves our recognition:
"Only one passenger was in the stage[coach] beside himself; this man observing Joseph's gloomy appearance, inquired the cause of his affliction, and offered to assist him if his services would be acceptable. Joseph thanked him for his kindness, and mentioned that he had been watching some time with a sick wife and child, that the child had died, and that his wife was still very low...Nothing more passed between them on this subject, until Joseph was about leaving the stage; at which time he remarked, that he still had twenty miles further to travel on foot that night, it being then about 10:00. To this the stranger objected, saying, 'I have watched you since you first entered the stage, and I know that you have neither slept nor eaten since that time, and you shall not go on foot twenty miles alone this night; for, if you must go, I will be your company.
"Joseph...thanked the gentleman for his kindness, and, leaving the stage, they proceeded together. When they reached our house it was nearly daylight. The stranger said he was under the necessity of leading Joseph the last four miles by the arm; for nature was too much exhausted to support him any longer..." (History of Joseph Smith, p. 126-129, quoted in Latter-day History, p. 31)
Joseph's parents fed Joseph and the stranger a little breakfast and sent for Mr. Harris. He always came immediately when called upon, living just next-door, and they expected him to join the rest of them for breakfast. At 8:00 they set the table, but he didn't come. At 9:00 he didn't come. 10:00. 11:00. Noon.
"But at half past twelve we saw him walking with a slow and measured tread toward the house, his eyes fixed thoughtfully upon the ground. On coming to the gate, he stopped, instead of passing through, and got upon the fence, and sat there some time with his hat drawn over his eyes. At length he entered the house. Soon after which we sat down to the table, Mr. Harris with the rest. He took up his knife and fork as if he were going to use them, but immediately dropped them. Hyrum, observing this, said, 'Martin, why do you not eat; are you sick?' Upon which Mr. Harris pressed his hands upon his temples and cried out in a tone of deep anguish, 'Oh, I have lost my soul!'" (ibid.)
Joseph took the long, lonely journey back to Emma the following day.
Imagine how it must have felt to face God's prophet, and tell him that you did not treasure the manuscript as you should have--that you had put worldly concerns above the Book of Mormon and therefore lost something of inestimable worth.
But wait! Don't we from time to time face that very situation? President Benson said of our day, "The Lord is not pleased with us in the manner of attention we're giving the Book of Mormon, a New Witness for Christ. We need it in our homes, we need it in our families. It was written for us today." (Church News, 9 Nov. 1986, p. 10) One day we will all have an accounting of our use of the scriptures. Will we be like Martin Harris was that day, hanging our heads, leaning against the fence, feeling deep anguish as we now realize what a great treasure we lost due to our negligence?
Martin Harris's folly is recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants for all of us to witness. But we would do very well to be half as valiant as Martin Harris. Here are some ways in which he was a great example:
- He mortgaged his farm for the publication of the Book of Mormon. How difficult it usually is for a wealthy man to part with his money!
- Despite the fact that the Lord had commanded him to mortgage the farm, when the mortgage fell due, the Church had no money to pay it back and he had to give it up to foreclosure. Would that be a trial of faith for many of us?
- At about the same time, he endured the pain of divorce, rather unusual for his day.
- He served a mission with his brother Emer and baptized at least 182 people.
- While serving his mission he was imprisoned on a false charge.
- After his mission, he volunteered to march on the dangerous rescue mission with Zion's Camp (which we will learn more of this year).
- He was called to help choose the Quorum of the 12 Apostles.
- He was a member of the first high council in Kirtland.
After 33 years, he rejoined the Saints, and his visits to congregations in Utah strengthened the faith of many. His final testimony was recorded by his grandson William Pilkington, as reported in Susan Black's wonderful book:
"On the 9th day of July 1875, while he was dying, I knelt by his cot...I wanted to get what I thought would be his last words, but he could not talk audibly.' Pilkington then prayed that his grandfather's last words could be understood. He reported, 'Strength was given to him and he bore his testimony as he had done many times before and I understood every word. He then bore the same testimony to the whole world and then laid back exhausted.' Martin died on 10 July 1875 in Clarkston, Utah. He was buried with his Book of Mormon in his right hand and the Doctrine and Covenants in his left." (Susan Easton Black, Who's Who in the Doctrine and Covenants, p. 127)
The Urim and Thummim were taken from Joseph but were returned by Moroni so that Joseph could receive the revelation that is now Section 3 (after inquiring of the Lord). They were taken back afterwards, but returned again in a few days so that Joseph could again inquire and receive Section 10. (History of the Church 1:21-23)
In accordance with the revelation received in Section 10, some of which was received about July 1828, Joseph went to work to support his family and did not restart the full-time translation of the Book of Mormon until April 7, 1829. (History of the church, 1:28, 32)
TRANSLATION OF THE REST OF THE BOOK--OLIVER COWDERY
Now the second of the Three Witnesses enters the story. While Joseph was in Pennsylvania, Oliver Cowdery, who was just a year younger than he, took up boarding with Joseph's parents back in New York. He was the school teacher, and part of the school teacher's pay from the community he served was his room and board with one of them. After hearing about Joseph's vision, he wanted to meet him himself. At the same time, Joseph was praying for help in translating. He had his wife and his brother-in-law writing for him, but they were both so busy that they couldn't do it full-time. Olivery Cowdery showed up, and two days later, April 7, 1829, he and Joseph began to translate full-time. The translation was finished June 30th or July 1st. The speed with which they translated was incredible: the entire Book of Mormon in less than three months. Oliver's normally perfect handwriting was uncharacteristically sloppy, as we noted before, because of the speed at which he was writing. Interestingly, while Oliver was copying the Book of Mormon by hand, William B. Burt received the first U.S. patent for a typing machine. (Latter-day History, p. 41)
Of Olivery, Wilford Woodruff wrote, "I have seen Oliver Cowdery when it seemed as though the earth trembled under his feet. I never heard a man bear a stronger testimony than he did when under the influence of the Spirit." (Quoted in Black, p. 74)
DAVID WHITMER--THE PLOW WAS LEFT STANDING
The third witness, David Whitmer, was an acquaintance of Oliver Cowdery's. Before Oliver went to Pennsylvania, they had discussed the rumors about the Smith family and the golden plates. Oliver had told David that he was going to find out whether the rumors were true and he would let him know. Shortly after his arrival in Pennsylvania, he wrote to David, telling him he was convinced that Joseph actually had the plates and that he was to be the scribe in the translation. Then he wrote another letter, including a few lines translated from the plates and bore his testimony of its authenticity as an ancient record. Finally, Oliver wrote a letter asking--no, telling--David Whitmer that God had commanded him to come to Pennsylvania and bring Joseph and Oliver back to his own family's house. (He was still living with his parents.) The reason for this was that persecution was now great in Pennsylvania.
David Whitmer didn't know what to do. He had 20 acres to plow, which would not wait. So he decided he had better do his plowing before he left. He got up to do the work and found that 5 to 7 acres had been plowed in the night. He said, "I do not know who did it, but it was done just as I would have done myself, and the plow was left standing in the furrow."
The next morning he went out to spread plaster on his fields, a common soil treatment of the day. He had left the plaster in heaps near the house, but now it was gone. He ran to his sister and asked what had happened to it. She was surprised and said, "Wasn't it all sown yesterday?"
"'Not to my knowledge,' answered David. 'I'm astonished at that,' replied his sister, 'for the children came to me in the forenoon, and begged of me to go out and see the men sow plaster in the field, saying, that they never saw anybody sow plaster so fast in their lives. I accordingly went, and saw three men at work in the field, as the children had said but supposing that you had hired some help, on account of your hurry, I went immediately into the house, and gave the subject no further attention.'" (Smith, History of Joseph Smith, p. 136-37)
Needless to say, David Whitmer immediately took the two-day trip to Pennsylvania to bring Joseph and Oliver back with him. (This story, as well as the following story, is also printed in the August 1979 Ensign: "The Whitmers: A Family That Nourished the Church")
THE FOURTH WITNESS
At this point in the story, we find out about a fourth witness, or maybe we should say, the first witness of all.
David Whitmer's parents' home was a log cabin 20 feet by 30 feet. There were five children still living at home, in addition to the parents, and there were only three bedrooms. And they were taking in Joseph and Emma Smith and Oliver Cowdery--the prophet of God, his wife, and a schoolteacher. I know I would feel pretty stressed out and very intimidated by the coming house guests, especially if my home was a tiny log cabin and I was already working all day long just to maintain the farm.
David went to Fayette to fetch Joseph and Oliver while his mother readied the home. As the men were traveling from Pennsylvania (Emma was coming later),
"...in a clear, open place, a very pleasant, nice looking old man suddenly appeared by the side of our wagon and saluted us with, 'Good morning; it's very warm;' at the same time wiping his face or forehead with his hand. We returned the salutation, and by a sign from Joseph, I invited him to ride if he was going our way. But he said very pleasantly, 'No, I am going to Cumorah.' The name was somewhat new to me, and I did not know what 'Cumorah' meant. We all gazed at him and at each other, and as I looked round inquiringly of Joseph, the old man instantly disappeared so that I did not see him again.
"Sometime after this, my mother was going to milk the cows, when she was met out near the yard by the same old man (judging by her description of him), who said to her, 'You have been very faithful and diligent in your labors, but you are tired because of the increase of your toil; it is proper, therefore, that you should receive a witness, that your faith may be strengthened.' Thereupon, he showed her the plates. My father and mother had a large family of their own, the addition to it, therefore, of Joseph, his wife Emma, and Oliver, very greatly increased the toil and anxiety of my mother. And although she had never complained she had sometimes felt that her labor was too much, or, at least, she was perhaps beginning to feel so. This circumstance, however, completely removed all such feelings, and nerved her up for her increased responsibilities. (Latter-day History, p. 40, quoting from B.H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:126-27)
Does the Lord care about the backstage work? The housekeeping? The laundry? Yes, He does. The Lord felt that Mary Whitmer's homemaking duties made her worthy to view the plates. She was actually the first person besides Joseph to see the plates!
THE THREE WITNESSES ARE SHOWN THE PLATES BY THE ANGEL
On June 20, 1829, as the translation was progressing, Joseph came across a scripture that told him there were to be three witnesses to the Book of Mormon. He didn't say which scripture it was, but there are two it could have been: 2 Nephi 27:12 or Ether 5:2,3. Because we don't know the order in which the Book of Mormon was translated, we don't know which one it was, but when Joseph read this, Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer asked if they might be the three. (The section heading to D&C 17 tells us that they were inspired to desire this.) Joseph then asked the Lord (because no revelation was ever received without asking first), and the Lord said yes. (See D&C 17:1-3)
After sincere prayer in the woods with the Prophet Joseph, David and Oliver saw an angel. "In his hands he held the plates...He turned over the leaves one by one..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.'" (Latter-day History, p. 42)
Shortly afterwards, Joseph and Martin prayed fervently together and beheld the vision. When they returned to the house it was about 3:00 in the afternoon. Joseph threw himself down by his mother and said, "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." (Latter-day History, p. 44)
A day or two later, eight more witnesses were permitted to see and touch the plates, but without an angel. The testimonies of all 11 of these witnesses are recorded in the very front of the Book of Mormon.
POSSIBLE CHRONOLOGIES OF TRANSLATION
This isn't important to anyone's testimony, but it's just kind of interesting. These possible chronologies come from the studies of my scriptorian friend, Paul Wheeler. We know that the restoration of the priesthood, the ordinance of baptism, and the calling of the three witnesses were all precipitated by scriptures Joseph Smith and Olivery Cowdery came across while translating the Book of Mormon. So did they translate them in the order that the plates were assembled, or did they translate them in the order that the Book of Mormon was published?
- April 12, 1828 to June 14, 1828--Joseph Smith translates the Book of Lehi. Martin Harris is scribe. The Book of Lehi is later lost
- Sept. 22, 1828 to April 7, 1829--The interpreters are returned and Joseph translates sporadically. Emma is scribe.
- April 5, 1829--Oliver Cowdery arrives
Possibility One: After losing the Book of Lehi, Joseph continued from Mosiah through Moroni, and translated Nephi's plates last including 1 Nephi through Words of Mormon (which is the order in which they were assembled in the golden plates) .
- April 7, 1829--Translation begins at Mosiah 1 with Oliver Cowdery as scribe.
- May 15, 1829--They reach 3 Nephi 11 where they ask and are answered questions about the restoration of the priesthood and baptism (38 days)
- June 1, 1829--They move to Fayette, finish Moroni, and begin 1 Nephi (16 days)
- June 20, 1829--They read about the law of witnesses in 2 Nephi 27, ask and find out that there will be three witnesses to the Book of Mormon (20 days)
- June 30, 1829--Translation finished at Words of Mormon (10 days)
Possibility Two: After losing the Book of Lehi, Joseph translated Nephi's plates next since they were a re-telling of the Book of Lehi, and continued in the order our Book of Mormon is today, ending with Moroni.
- April 7, 1829--Translation begins at 1 Nephi
- May 15, 1839--They read 3 Nephi 11 where they learn of the restoration of the priesthood and baptism (38 days)
- June 20, 1829--They read about the law of witnesses in Ether 5, ask and find out that there will be three witnesses to the Book of Mormon (35 days)
- June 30, 1829--Translation finished at Moroni (10 days)