A lot of people have been asking me whether the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses saw the same set of plates.
There isn’t enough data to say one way or another. I’ve looked at this in several ways, and now I think it’s likely that both groups saw the Harmony plates, but not the plates of Nephi.
|Plates “solid as wood”|
In connection with the experience of the Three Witnesses, David Whitmer said part of the plates were “solid as wood,” which has generally been understood to mean he was describing the sealed portion.
That’s how the plates are portrayed in Church media and visitors centers, such as this example from the Priesthood Restoration site.
However, readers of Whatever Happened know that I think the Harmony plates, “the Original Book of Mormon” as Joseph put it, included a compartment that contained the Nephite interpreters or spectacles. Presumably it was made of metal like the plates. It would appear “solid as wood” to David Whitmer, who, like the other Three Witnesses, did not handle the plates when the angel showed them. (Although later in life, they each said they did handle the plates, which is one reason why I think they handled them when they were moving them from Mormon’s depository in the Hill Cumorah.)
The Eight Witnesses didn’t see an angel, but they did handle the plates. They didn’t provide detailed descriptions, with one exception.
Joseph Smith, Sr., was one of the Eight Witnesses. He said that under the first plate, or lid, Joseph found a pair of spectacles. From this I infer there was a compartment in the set of plates for the spectacles. While it’s possible Joseph Sr. observed plates on another occasion, there is no evidence of that. If the only time he saw the plates was with the other seven of the eight witnesses, then he could only have known about the compartment on that occasion (unless someone else described the compartment to him on another occasion, which seems unlikely).
This makes sense for a few reasons.
First, Joseph already had the Fayette plates (the plates of Nephi) with him in Fayette. It wouldn’t make sense for the angel to come get the Fayette plates from him just to show them to the Three Witnesses a short distance away. Possible, but unlikely.
Second, no one mentions Joseph using the spectacles in Fayette. He used them in Harmony only, so far as we can tell. (Some LDS historians claim Joseph didn’t use the spectacles after the 116 pages were lost, but his mother says he used them when he got the message to contact David Whitmer, near the end of the Harmony translation period.) It’s possible Joseph had the spectacles in Fayette and just didn’t use them, but if he didn’t have them in Fayette, it was because there was no compartment in the plates of Nephi to hold them.
Third, the scriptural instructions about the witnesses point to the abridged plates, not the plates of Nephi.
1 And now I, Moroni, have written the words which were commanded me, according to my memory; and I have told you the things which I have sealed up; therefore touch them not in order that ye may translate; for that thing is forbidden you, except by and by it shall be wisdom in God.
2 And behold, ye may be privileged that ye may show the plates unto those who shall assist to bring forth this work;
3 And unto three shall they be shown by the power of God; wherefore they shall know of a surety that these things are true.
4 And in the mouth of three witnesses shall these things be established; and the testimony of three, and this work, in the which shall be shown forth the power of God and also his word, of which the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost bear record—and all this shall stand as a testimony against the world at the last day.
From this, we see that the three witnesses would be shown the plates Moroni was responsible for; i.e., the plates his father gave him, plus the ones he wrote. So they definitely saw the Harmony plates.
Nephi also prophesied about the 3 witnesses, as well as “a few according to the will of God,” which apparently refers to the 8 witnesses. [BTW, it’s interesting that both Moroni and Nephi say the 3 witnesses would behold it “by the power of God,” but the additional witnesses would view the record “according to the will of God.” That’s exactly how it played out; i.e., an angel showed the plates to the 3 witnesses, but Joseph showed the plates to the 8 witnesses without any divine power or manifestation involved.]
Nephi’s prophecy is fascinating because he refers to “a book” as a separate document from the one he is writing. Nowhere does he say “this book.” Instead, it is “a book” that shall be delivered to Joseph. He never connects his own writing, or at least his own plates, to this “book” that would be delivered to Joseph. That’s because the “Original Book of Mormon” as described by the Title Page consisted solely of abridgments and Moroni’s final words that sealed the book.
The only reason we have the plates of Nephi–the Fayette plates–is because Martin Harris lost the 116 pages of the Book of Lehi. If Martin had lost, say, the pages in which Mormon abridged the account of King Benjamin, the divine messenger could have gone into the depository at Cumorah and obtained the original records of that period.
To be sure, Nephi does address “all ye ends of the earth” in 2 Nephi 33:10. This makes sense because he expected his words to be read among his people until their final destruction. In 2 Nephi 32:6, he explains that his people should follow the doctrine of Christ “until he shall manifest himself unto you in the flesh.” At that point, he tells his people, “the things which he shall say unto you shall ye observe to do.”
Nephi gives no indication I can find that he expected his original writings to be published in the book that would be delivered to Joseph Smith.
Nevertheless, there are two ways in which Nephi’s words would have been published to the world even if Martin hadn’t lost the 116 pages.
First, Nephi’s words would likely, if not surely, have been included in Mormon’s abridgment, just like his quotations of King Benjamin, Alma, etc. If/when we ever recover the 116 pages, we may find quotations from Nephi.
Second, all the Nephite records will some day come forth and be published to the world, which would include the original plates of Nephi along with others.
There are a lot more interesting things in Nephi I hope to discuss soon.
Here is what Nephi had to say about the witnesses.
2 Nephi 27:
6 And it shall come to pass that the Lord God shall bring forth unto you the words of a book, and they shall be the words of them which have slumbered.
7 And behold the book shall be sealed; and in the book shall be a revelation from God, from the beginning of the world to the ending thereof.
8 Wherefore, because of the things which are sealed up, the things which are sealed shall not be delivered in the day of the wickedness and abominations of the people. Wherefore the book shall be kept from them.
9 But the book shall be delivered unto a man, and he shall deliver the words of the book, which are the words of those who have slumbered in the dust, and he shall deliver these words unto another…
12 Wherefore, at that day when the book shall be delivered unto the man of whom I have spoken, the book shall be hid from the eyes of the world, that the eyes of none shall behold it save it be that three witnesses shall behold it, by the power of God, besides him to whom the book shall be delivered; and they shall testify to the truth of the book and the things therein.
13 And there is none other which shall view it, save it be a few according to the will of God, to bear testimony of his word unto the children of men; for the Lord God hath said that the words of the faithful should speak as if it were from the dead…
2 Nephi 28:2 And the things which shall be written out of the book shall be of great worth unto the children of men, and especially unto our seed, which is a remnant of the house of Israel.
Source: Book of Mormon Wars