Viewed with “spiritual” not “natural” eyes.
There is testimony from several independent interviewers — A. Metcalf and John Gilbert, as well as Reuben P. Harmon and Jesse Townsend (all non-Mormon), that Martin Harris and David Whitmer said they saw the plates with their ‘spiritual eyes’ only. This is contradicted by statements like that of David Whitmer in the Saints Herald in 1882, ‘these hands handled the plates, these eyes saw the angel’.
David Whitmer’s account (interview with the Kansas City Journal, 1881):
“He had two small stones of a chocolate color, nearly egg-shaped and perfectly smooth, but not transparent, called interpreters, which were given him with the plates. He did not use the plates in the translation, but would hold the interpreters to his eyes and cover his face with a hat, excluding all light, and before his eyes would appear what seemed to be parchment, on which would appear the characters of the plates in a line at the top, and immediately below would appear the translation in English, which Smith would read to his scribe, who wrote it down exactly as it fell from his lips. The scribe would then read the sentence written, and if any mistake had been made the characters would remain visible to Smith until corrected, when they faded from sight to be replaced by another line. The translation at my father’s occupied about one month, that is from June 1 to July 1, 1829.”
“Were the plates under the immediate control of Smith all the time?” “No, they were not. I will explain how that was. When Joseph first received the plates he translated 116 pages of the book of ‘Lehi,’ with Martin Harris as scribe. When this had been completed, they rested for a time, and Harris wanted to take the manuscript home with him to show to his family and friends. To this Joseph demurred, but finally asked the Lord if Harris might be allowed to take it. The answer was; No.’ Harris teased Joseph for a long time, and finally persuaded him to ask the Lord a second time, pledging himself to be responsible for its safe keeping. To this second inquiry the Lord told Joseph Harris might take the manuscript, which he did, showing it to a great many people, but through some carelessness allowed it to be stolen from him. This incurred the Lord’s displeasure, and he sent an angel to Joseph, demanding the plates, and until Joseph had thoroughly repented of his transgressions would not allow him to have the use of them again. When Joseph was again allowed to resume the translation, the plates were taken care of by a messenger of God, and when Joseph wanted to see the plates this messenger was always at hand. The 116 pages of the book of ‘Lehi,’ which were stolen, were never recovered, nor would the Lord permit Joseph to make a second translation of it.” Continuing the interview, Mr. Whitmer is asked: “When did you see the plates?” “It was in the latter part of June, 1829. Joseph, Oliver Cowdery and myself were together, and the angel showed them to us. We not only saw the plates of the Book of Mormon, but he also showed us the brass plates of the book of Ether and many others. They were shown to us in this way. Joseph and Oliver and I were sitting on a log when we were overshadowed by a light more glorious than that of the sun. In the midst of this light, but a few feet from us, appeared a table, upon which were many golden plates, also the sword of Laban and the directors. I saw them as plain as I see you now, and distinctly heard the voice of the Lord declaiming that the records of the plates of the Book of Mormon were translated by the gift and the power of God.” “Who else saw the plates at this time?” “No one. Martin Harris, the other witness, saw them the same day, and the eight witnesses, Christian Whitmer, Hiram Page, Jacob Whitmer, Joseph Smith, Sr., Peter Whitmer, Jr., Hyram Smith, no. Whitmer, and Samuel H. Smith, saw them next day.” “Did you see the angel?” “Yes; he stood before us. Our testimony as recorded in the Book of Mormon is absolutely true, just as it is written there.” Can you describe the plates?” They appeared to be of gold, about six by nine inches in size, about as thick as parchment, a great many in number, and bound together like the leaves of a book by massive rings passing through the back edges. The engraving upon them was very plain and of very curious appearance. Smith made facsimiles of some of the plates, and sent them by Martin Harris to Professors Anson and Mitchell, of New York City, for examination. They pronounced the characters reformed Egyptian, but were unable to read them.”
Whitmer gave a different response to the question from Z. H. Gurley , ‘did you touch them [the plates]?’ His answer was, ‘We did not touch nor handle the plates.’ Asked about the table on which the plates rested, Whitmer replied, ‘the table had the appearance of literal wood as shown in the visions of the glory of God.’
Martin Harris was anything but a skeptical witness. He was known by many of his peers as an unstable, gullible and superstitious man. Reports assert that he and the other witnesses never literally saw the gold plates, but only an object said to be the plates, covered with a cloth. There are several accounts that illustrate the superstitious side of Harris.
Ronald W. Walker:
“Once while reading scripture, he reportedly mistook a candle’s sputtering as a sign that the devil desired him to stop. Another time he excitedly awoke from his sleep believing that a creature as large as a dog had been upon his chest, though a nearby associate could find nothing to confirm his fears. Several hostile and perhaps unreliable accounts told of visionary experiences with Satan and Christ, Harris once reporting that Christ had been poised on a roof beam.”
“Martin Harris: Mormonism’s Early Convert”, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 19 (Winter 1986): 34-35.
John A. Clark letter, August 31, 1840:
“No matter where he went, he saw visions and supernatural appearances all around him. He told a gentleman in Palmyra, after one of his excursions to Pennsylvania, while the translation of the Book of Mormon was going on, that on the way he met the Lord Jesus Christ, who walked along by the side of him in the shape of a deer for two or three miles, talking with him as familiarly as one man talks with another.” According to two Ohio newspapers, shortly after Harris arrived in Kirtland he began claiming to have “seen Jesus Christ and that he is the handsomest man he ever did see. He has also seen the Devil, whom he described as a very sleek haired fellow with four feet, and a head like that of a Jack-ass.” Vogel, EMD 2: 271, note 32.
The Reverend John A. Clark, who knew Harris, said Martin:
“had always been a firm believer in dreams, and visions and supernatural appearances, such as apparitions and ghosts, and therefore was a fit subject for such men as Smith and his colleagues to operate on”.
Lorenzo Saunders said Harris was a “great man for seeing spooks”.
Presbyterian minister Jesse Townsend of Palmyra called Harris a “visionary fanatic”.
Smith was a master of the con for his era, and it is likely that he had the ability to produce plates and witnesses. Others of his era had similar skills. James Jesse Strang, a self-proclaimed prophet who led a Mormon break-off group after Smith died, also produced a set of scriptures from plates that also had witnesses. Strang had 7 witnesses for his Book of the Law of the Lord. See: http://www.strangite.org/Law.htm#Testimony. Harris followed Strang for some time. Strangites still exist today and still believe in their witnesses.
If we were to believe testimonies regarding the gold plate size and weight, pure gold plates would have weighed >200lbs, but those who claimed to have hefted them say they felt closer to 60lbs. The claim of 60lbs suggests a lighter material than gold. Could Smith and/or associates have made plates from common, inexpensive elements like copper? It would seem that there’s a fair chance the plates were made of copper. Copper is malleable. But those that saw the plates swear they were gold, not copper in color. It’s an easy and old jeweler’s trick to make copper look like gold: Get Zinc and Sodium Hydroxide (lye), add a pinch of zinc to water, add Sodium Hydroxide. Bring to a boil then turn off the heat. Apply it to copper. Wait until copper turns silver and remove it very carefully using tongs. Heat the silvered copper until it turns gold. A treasure hunter searching for gold would know how to test for fake gold like this. And probably how to make it too.
In July, 1837, Smith left on a five-week missionary tour to Canada, only to find on his return that all three of the Witnesses had joined a faction opposing him. This faction rallied around a young girl who claimed to be a seeress by virtue of a black stone in which she read the future. David Whitmer, Martin Harris, and Oliver Cowdery all pledged her their loyalty, and Frederick G. Williams, formerly Joseph’s First Counselor, became her scribe. The girl seer would dance herself into a state of exhaustion, fall to the floor, and burst forth with revelations. (See Lucy Smith: Biographical Sketches, pp. 211-213).
December 16, 1838 – Smith said of former Church associates, including all of the 3 witnesses:
“Such characters as McLellin, John Whitmer, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris are too mean to mention; and we had liked to have forgotten them”.
Sidney Rigdon’s view of the witnesses:
July 1838 – Rigdon said of former Church associates, including 2 of the 3 witnesses:
“Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Lyman E. Johnson, united with a gang of counterfeiters, thieves, liars, and blacklegs of the deepest dye, to deceive, cheat, and defraud the saints out of their property.” US Senate Document 189