Bill McKeever recently took a look at the documented history and evidence surrounding the testimonies of the Book of Mormon witnesses. In “Did the Eleven Witnesses Actually See the Gold Plates?” Mr. McKeever wrote,
“Mormons generally believe that these eleven men actually saw the plates in question, and given what they said in their testimonies, it is easy to see why they draw that conclusion. The three witnesses stated that they ‘beheld and saw the plates and the engravings thereon.’ The eight witnesses, in a similar fashion, stated they ‘saw the engravings,’ and that they had also ‘seen and hefted, and know of a surety that the said Smith has got the plates of which we have spoken.’
“Despite the rather lucid description given by these men, it appears that their familiarity with the plates is not as it first appears. Did the witnesses actually see physical plates with their naked eyes? Or was this some sort of mystical experience that involved ‘seeing’ an object that was not really there?
Though not mentioned in Mr. McKeever’s article, this reminded me of something I read some years ago. In Thomas Ford’s A History of Illinois (originally published in 1854) we find a description of the events leading up to the testimony of the eight witnesses:
“…I have been informed by men who were once in the confidence of the prophet that he privately gave a different account of the matter. It is related that the prophet’s early followers were anxious to see the plates; the prophet had always given out that they could not be seen by the carnal eye, but must be spiritually discerned; that the power to see them depended upon faith and was the gift of God, to be obtained by fasting, prayer, mortification of the flesh, and exercises of the spirit; that so soon as he could see the evidences of a strong and lively faith in any of his followers they should be gratified in their holy curiosity. He set them to continual prayer and other spiritual exercises, to acquire this lively faith by means of which the hidden things of God could be spiritually discerned; and at last, when he could delay them no longer, he assembled them in a room and produced a box, which he said contained the precious treasure. The lid was opened; the witnesses peeped into it, but making no discovery, for the box was empty, they said, ‘Brother Joseph, we do not see the plates.’ The prophet answered them, ‘O ye of little faith! how long will God bear with this wicked and perverse generation? Down on your knees, brethren, every one of you, and pray God for the forgiveness of your sins, and for a holy and living faith which cometh down from heaven.’ The disciples dropped to their knees and began to pray in the fervency of their spirit, supplicating God for more than two hours with fanatical earnestness; at the end of which time, looking again into the box, they were now persuaded that they saw the plates.” (177-178)