Skip to main content

A Newly Discovered Early Report of Seeing the Plates from One of the Three Witnesses


When it comes to history, early, primary sources are the always the ideal. Of course, they are not always readily available. Sometimes you have to settle for a primary source that is late, or you have an early source, but it’s second hand. Or you have both, have to decide if you’ll give more weight to the document that is early, even though it is secondary, or to the document that is first hand, despite it’s being late. Actually, quite often you will have multiple documents, some primary, others second (or even third or fourth) hand; some earlier, and others later, and whole bunch in-between, and deciding which documents to give priority to is difficult. History is a messy business, and more often than not there is more than enough room for disagreement on the what, how, who, and why of “what happened.” But when you have these ideal documents – the early, primary ones – you can sort through that mess with a little more confidence.


With in mind, I draw your attention to very exciting find. Okay, that is an understatement. This find is monumental, epic, colossal… get the idea? I don’t want to overstate this, but I honestly wonder if “overstatement” is even possible. I just want to stress that this is HUGE. Independent historian Erin Jennings discovered an 1829 letter from Oliver Cowdery (printed in a newspaper) which discusses the experience of the three witnesses. The letter is dated November 9, 1829. John W. Welch dates the revealing of the plates to the three witnesses to around June 20, 1829.[1] That means that this letter was written – by one of the three witnesses – within four months of the experience. This makes the document both early and primary. This thing is like historical gold! The letter reads, in regards to the three witnesses’ experience, as follows (brackets are from the newspaper reporter):

You also wished Mr. Harris to inform you respecting his seeing this book, whether there could not possibly have been some juggling at the bottom of it. A few words on that point may suffice. –

It was a clear, open beautiful day, far from any inhabitants, in a remote field, at that time we saw the record, of which it has been spoken, brought and laid before us, by an angle, arrayed in glorious light, [who] asend [descended I suppose] out of the midst of heaven. 
Now if this is human juggling – judge ye.

Note that “juggling” in the nineteenth century could refer to what we might call “trickery” – attempting to deceive or fool others into believing something. Cowdery is responding to the accusation that Joseph Smith “juggled” (that is, tricked or fooled) the witnesses into seeing the plates. He seems to strongly be of the opinion that it is not.

I don’t want it to seem like this is the only valuable contribution this letter makes to Mormon history, because it is not. There is much more to the letter than this, and it is going to be important for Mormon history for a number of reasons. Also, it has been pointed out that the setting Oliver Cowdery describes seems to be different from that described in Joseph Smith’s 1838 account (which indicates that it was in the woods, not in a field, near the Whitmer home, not “far from any inhabitants”). I believe that these details are reconcilable, but at any rate, discrepancies in how an event is reported hardly prove that the event did not take place. It will be interesting to see how historians choose to deal with these differences in the future. For now, it is exciting to just be able to read the direct testimony of one of the three witnesses from so soon after the event.



[1] John W. Welch, “The Miraculous Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820-1844, John W. Welch, ed. (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2005), 97.

Comments

  1. Good job on a very interesting article. What newspaper was this printed in? Where can I find your source? Very interesting.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Advanced:

    Sorry about not including a link to this in the OP. I meant to(I will be fixing that). But here it is:

    http://www.juvenileinstructor.org/1829-mormon-discovery-brought-to-you-by-guest-erin-jennings/

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Nephite History in Context 1: Jerusalem Chronicle

Editor’s Note: This is the first contribution to my new series Nephite History in Context: Artifacts, Inscriptions, and Texts Relevant to the Book of Mormon. Check out the really cool (and official, citable) PDF version here. To learn more about this series, read the introduction here. To find other posts in the series, see here
Jerusalem Chronicle (ABC 5/BM 21946)
Background
The so-called “Babylonian Chronicles” are an important collection of brief historical reports from Mesopotamia, found in Iraq in the late-19th century.1 They are written on clay tablets in Akkadian using cuneiform script, and cover much of the first millennium BC, although several tablets are missing or severely damaged, leaving gaps in the record. One tablet, colloquially known as the “Jerusalem Chronicle” (ABC 5/BM 21946),2 provides brief annal-like reports of the early reign of Nebuchadrezzar II (biblical Nebuchadnezzar), including mention of his invasion of Jerusalem.
Biblical sources report that King Jehoiac…

Nephite History in Context 4: The Iron Dagger of King Tutankhamun

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth contribution to my new series Nephite History in Context: Artifacts, Inscriptions, and Texts Relevant to the Book of Mormon. Check out the really cool (and official, citable) PDF version here. To learn more about this series, read the introduction here. To find other posts in the series, see here.
The Iron Dagger of King Tutankhamun
Background
The discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 was a worldwide sensation, and to this day is widely regarded as one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all-time due to the veritable treasure trove of artifacts found inside. The treasure was so great that to this day many of the items have yet to be studied. Likewise, Tutankhamun (ca. 1336–1327 bc) remains the best-known Pharaoh of Egypt in popular culture today, but details about his actual reign and accomplishments are still generally unknown among the public. Some are aware that he ascended to the throne as a mere child, about 8 years old, but few r…

Nephite History in Context 2a: Apocryphon of Jeremiah

Editor’s Note: This is the first part of the second contribution to my new series Nephite History in Context: Artifacts, Inscriptions, and Texts Relevant to the Book of Mormon. Check out the really cool (and official, citable) PDF version here. To learn more about this series, read the introduction here. To find other posts in the series, see here
Apocryphon of Jeremiah (4Q385a)
Background
Between 1947 and 1956, a few well preserved scrolls and tens of thousands of broken fragments were found scattered across eleven different caves along the northwest shores of the Dead Sea near Qumran. Now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, they are arguably the most significant discovery ever made for the study of the Bible and the origins of Judaism and Christianity. Among the writings found are the earliest copies of nearly every Old Testament book, many of the known apocryphal and pseudepigraphic works, and several other texts discovered for the first time at Qumran. Altogether, more than 900 differe…