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I understand the Book of Mormon has a list of witnesses. However, I have heard that these witnesses may not have actually ever seen the gold plates that contained the original manuscripts for the Book of Mormon, but were witnesses in a different sort of way.

So, just how many people physically saw and/or touched the gold plates from which Joseph Smith is said to have translated the Book of Mormon?

Note: Martin Harris, one of the witnesses, later explicitly denied seeing the plates with his physical eyes.
See article..

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    Out of curiosity, where did you hear that claim about "witnesses in a different sort of way?" Because the testimonies of the witnesses themselves are pretty clear. – Mason Wheeler Nov 29 '12 at 21:03
  • @MasonWheeler Somewhere I read or heard that the witnesses claimed to see them with "spiritual eyes" or "eyes of faith" rather than with physical eyes. – Narnian Nov 29 '12 at 21:09
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The testimonies of these "lists of witnesses" is included in the introduction to the Book of Mormon, in which they explain what they saw and experienced.

From the testimony of the Three Witnesses:

And we also testify that we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates; and they have been shown unto us by the power of God, and not of man. And we declare with words of soberness, that an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon; and we know that it is by the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, that we beheld and bear record that these things are true. And it is marvelous in our eyes. Nevertheless, the voice of the Lord commanded us that we should bear record of it; wherefore, to be obedient unto the commandments of God, we bear testimony of these things.

And from the testimony of the Eight Witnesses:

Joseph Smith, Jun., the translator of this work, has shown unto us the plates of which hath been spoken, which have the appearance of gold; and as many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated we did handle with our hands; and we also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship. And this we bear record with words of soberness, that the said Smith has shown unto us, for we have seen and hefted, and know of a surety that the said Smith has got the plates of which we have spoken.

Both groups include a solemn testimony that they did actually see the golden plates that the record was inscribed upon. The first group (three men) was shown them by an angel, but they do not claim to have touched them, while the second (eight men) was shown them by Joseph Smith, and was allowed to handle them. So those eight and three, plus Joseph Smith himself, makes a total of twelve who physically witnessed the original record.

Because of the strength of these testimonies, it was common, back when the men in question were still alive, to make claims that they had denied or recanted their testimonies in some way, as a way to attempt to undermine the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. The linked Wikipedia article contains a few such claims attributed to Martin Harris, one of the Three Witnesses, but it also gives his claim that "No man heard me in any way deny the truth of the Book of Mormon [or] the administration of the angel that showed me the plates."

A discussion of this apparent discrepancy can be found at the FAIR wiki, which assumes that Harris did actually say what was attributed to him. A simpler explanation, of course, would be deliberate incorrect attribution. Fact checking is hard enough even today with the Internet at our fingertips; in the mid 19th century, such a task was exponentially more difficult, which made it much easier for dishonest people to employ flat-out falsehoods in many different causes.

In any case, the last word on the subject should be Martin Harris's literal last words. On his deathbed, he once again reaffirmed that:

The Book of Mormon is no fake. I know what I know. I have seen what I have seen and I have heard what I have heard. I have seen the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon is written. An angel appeared to me and others and testified to the truthfulness of the record, and had I been willing to have perjured myself and sworn falsely to the testimony I now bear I could have been a rich man, but I could not have testified other than I have done and am now doing for these things are true.

The other two of the Three Witnesses both gave similar reaffirmations on their own deathbeds.

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    It should also be noted that several of the witnesses were also excommunicated from the early LDS church. – James Shewey Oct 14 '14 at 22:47
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    @user3127174: This is true. Due to various reasons, several of the witnesses did leave the church. Some came back, others did not. But even then, these men who had every incentive to expose Joseph Smith as a fraud--and the ones who would be the most capable of doing so, as the reputation of the Book of Mormon was bound up to a great degree with the solemn testimony that they had given--never did so, and went to great lengths to set the record straight when it was claimed that they did. – Mason Wheeler Oct 14 '14 at 22:59
  • Really this fact could offer motivation either way. One could say that they were excommunicated partially because of their recantations while it could also be argued that they recanted when they truly had seen the plates out of spite for being excommunicated. – James Shewey Oct 14 '14 at 23:38
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It may be that at least some of those who testified to have seen the gold plates really did do so, but each witness must be examined individually, after which there may have been fewer than eleven genuine witnesses, in addition to Joseph Smith himself. To have seen the plates and the engravings on them, and to have helped in their translation, would indelibly imprint onto one's mind the truth on which the Church of Latter Day Saints is based, making it inconceivable that such a witness would desert the Church, no matter what disputes were entered into, yet it appears that some did.

Three Witnesses

  • Oliver Cowdery, one of the 'Three Witnesses', left the Church within eight years and became a Methodist, although he returned ten years later. Wikipedia says those who doubt the miraculous origin theory of the Book of Mormon have speculated that Cowdery, who was a distant relative of Joseph Smith, may have played a role in the work's composition. Cowdery should be disqualified as a reliable witness to the gold plates.
  • Another of of the 'Three Witnesses' was David Whitmer, who always insisted that his account of having seen the plates was true, even when he broke with Joseph Smith. Whitmer was interviewed several times over the years, and Wikipedia says Whitmer's testimony varied from one retelling to another, as well as which he was unable to describe the angel that he saw. Because of this, Whitmer should be disqualified as a reliable witness to the gold plates.
  • The third of the 'Three Witnesses', Martin Harris, ought to have been a reliable witness, as he seems to have been universally regarded as honest, industrious, benevolent, and a "worthy citizen'. Unfortunately, Wikipedia says he also had a strong reputation for seeing angels and ghosts, to the extent that he had already gained a reputation of being crazy. According to Wikipedia, the local Presbyterian minister called him "a visionary fanatic." Under the heading 'Testimony to the Book of Mormon', Wikipedia reports that several people said that Harris had told them he did not see the plates with his natural eyes, but with his 'spiritual eyes' or the 'eyes of faith'. An unpublished deathbed testimony is reported as saying that Harris continued to assert that he had truly seen the plates, but we can never be sure whether Harris considered a vision to be 'true' in the sense that seeing something with his 'natural eyes' would be. Harris should be disqualified as a reliable witness to the gold plates.

I note that if the testimony of any one of the 'Three Witnesses' is doubtful, then the testimony of all three must similarly be doubted.

Eight Witnesses

The 'Eight Witnesses' were Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer, Jr., John Whitmer, Hiram Page, Joseph Smith Sr., Hyrum Smith and Samuel H. Smith, all members of the Whitmer or Smith families. Their testimonies may have been coloured by family loyalty. This fact alone does not disqualify them as reliable witnesses, but it does raise questions about their reliability, especially as no independent witness claimed to have seen the gold plates. If so, further doubt attaches to the testimonies of Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer, Jr., John Whitmer and Hiram Page because the testimony of David Whitmer seems unreliable, as explained above.

Conclusion

I think the witness testimonies would be dismissed as unreliable in a court of law, but of course a different standard can and should be applied to religious experiences. There may have been as many as twelve, including Joseph Smith Jr., who saw the plates, but it is rather likely that no one from the 'Three Witnesses' or the 'Eight Witnesses' really did. For his part, Joseph Smith never disputed the testimony of the 'Eight Witnesses' who said that he personally showed them the plates, which means that either he knew their testimony was true, or he was complicit in a deception.

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