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Grant Hardy
Tuesday, September 20 2011

What More Might the Ensign Have Said? (Part 1)

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If you have not yet received it, there is a treat coming to your mailbox. The October issue of the Ensign is entirely devoted to The Book of Mormon, and it provides a timely introduction to the scripture that the whole Church will be studying in Gospel Doctrine next year. This special issue features the testimonies of apostles and prophets, as well as the experiences of ordinary Latter-day Saints from around the world, all bearing witness of the significance and power of the Nephite record.

There are articles about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, apostolic essays about its key themes and teachings, and a reprint of one of President Benson’s most memorable conference addresses: “The Book of Mormon: Keystone of our Religion.”

As is usually the case with The Book of Mormon, there is still so much more that could be said about its message, its miraculous origins, and its worldwide impact. There are hints in the Ensign of additional information and insights, but the constraints of space and an international audience limited what could be included. On p. 78, a bulletpoint notes, “For more information, articles, and explanations, see lds.org/study/topics/book-of-mormon?lang=eng.

The resources there — consisting entirely of articles from Church magazine and manuals —are helpful, but for Meridian readers with access to the Internet and English-language books, it is possible to identify some additional reliable resources, written and published by faithful Latter-day Saints, including several that have appeared only in the last few years.

Female Witnesses of the Golden Plates

On p. 77, in answer to the question “Who else saw the golden plates?”, the editors state, “In addition to Joseph Smith, several other men and women saw the plates and testified of their existence.” They go on to briefly describe the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses, but readers might reasonably ask, “Can you tell us a little more about the women who saw the plates?”

Although I’m not exactly sure who the editors had in mind when they wrote their answer, we know of several women who saw or even held the Nephite record wrapped in cloth. Joseph’s younger sister Katherine reported that when he first brought home the golden plates, after being attacked by several unknown assailants on the way, she took the package containing the plates from him and laid it on a table until he could catch his breath again.

His wife Emma, in an interview with their son Joseph III in 1879, described her own experiences with the plates as follows:

Q. Are you sure that [Joseph] had the plates at the time you were writing for him?

A. The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen table cloth, which I had given him to fold them in. I once felt the plates, as they thus lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edged were moved by the thumb, as one does sometime thumb the edges of a book. [Another except from this same interview appears in the October Ensign, pp. 8-9.]

In 1842, a visitor to Nauvoo wrote about a conversation with Joseph’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, in which she affirmed: “I have myself seen and handled the golden plates; they are about eight inches long, and six wide; some of them are sealed together and are not to be opened and some of them are loose. They are all connected by a ring which passes through a hole at the end of each plate, and are covered with letters beautifully engraved.”

We are not sure whether he was embellishing a bit (he goes on to say that Lucy had also seen the breastplate with the interpreters, when we know by her own first-hand account that she had only felt them through the cloth that covered them), or perhaps Lucy was referring to an otherwise unknown event, but in any case there a report of another woman who definitely saw the plates directly.

When Joseph, Emma, and Oliver moved in with the Whitmer family to finish the translation, the mother there, Mary Musselman Whitmer, found that her workload had significantly increased. Her grandson told the story this way:

My grandmother in having so many extra persons to care for, besides her own large household, was often overloaded with work to such an extent that she felt it to be quite a burden. One evening, when (after having done her usual day’s work in the house) she went to the barn to milk the cows, she met a stranger [identified in another version as Moroni] carrying something on his back that looked like knapsack. At first she was a little afraid of him, but when he spoke to her in a kind, friendly tone, and began to explain to her the nature of the work which was going on in her house, she was filled with inexpressible joy and satisfaction. He then untied his knapsack and showed her a bundle of plates, which in size and appearance corresponded with the description subsequently given by the witness to the Book of Mormon. This strange person turned the leaves of the book of plates over, leaf after leaf, and also showed her the engravings upon them; after which he told her to be patient and faithful in bearing her burden a little longer, promising that if she would do so, she should be blessed; and her reward would be sure, if she proved faithful to the end. The personage then suddenly vanished with the plates, and where he went, she could not tell. From that moment my grandmother was enabled to perform her household duties with comparative ease, and she felt no more inclination to murmur because her lot was hard.

I quite like the striking contrast between Mary Whitmer’s miraculous account and Emma Smith’s matter-of-fact reporting (at another time Emma said that she used to lift and move the covered plates while she was dusting). Both are impressive testimonies in their own way, much like the contrast between the Three Witnesses who saw an angel show them the plates, and the Eight Witnesses who handled and turned the pages themselves, with no divine intervention at all.

Most of the accounts above can be found in John W. Welch, ed., Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820-1844 (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2005), which can be purchased here, or you can simply download the chapter on the Book of Mormon

translation here for $2 and it will be sent to your computer within minutes. The story of Mary Whitmer is a little harder to find (it appears in my Reader’s Edition of the Book of Mormon  on pp. 639-640), but it was originally published in official Church publications in the 1880s and then was made into a BYU movie titled The Fourth Witness: The Mary Whitmer Story  in 1997.

Textual Issues

One of the most exciting developments in the study of The Book of Mormon over the past couple of decades is Royal Skousen’s Critical Text Project, which analyzes all the changes that have occurred from the original manuscript through the current official edition (1981), and which also offers a scholarly reconstruction of the text as it was first dictated by Joseph Smith to his scribes.


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