Thanks to Daniel C. Peterson for this column, published in the Deseret News on Thurs., May 21, 2015. The title is"Defending the Faith: Did Book of Mormon witnesses simply see the golden plates with their 'spiritual eyes'?" He provides a link to a column on the same topic, which he wrote a few years ago, which is also worth reading.
He points out that if you're criticizing the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith's story about how he received the Golden Plates, you have to "neutralize" the testimonies of the three witnesses and the eight witnesses.
Anti-Mormons have tried all kinds of ways to do this: Claim that the 11 men were unreliable, insane, irresponsible, and/or unworthy; claim that they later denied their original testimonies published in the Book of Mormon; claim that they were somehow deceived or hallucinated the experience; and even claim that what they witnessed was only "spiritual."
|The Eight Witnesses, by Dale Kilbourn|
The first two arguments have been debunked by LDS historian Richard Lloyd Anderson. Peterson writes that, thanks to Anderson's work:
"... we know a great deal about them and about the six decades, both when they were dedicated followers of Joseph Smith and after they had been alienated from him and his church for many years, during which they testified to the Book of Mormon. For a very long time, those seeking to discredit their testimony accused them of insanity, or of having conspired to commit fraud. In the light of Anderson's work, however, neither accusation can be sustained. They were plainly sane, honest, reputable men."The witnesses themselves strongly denounced that third claim (that they were deceived or were hallucinating) during their lifetimes. Again, the following quotes are from Peterson's article:
"Several of the 11 official witnesses were obviously confronted during their lifetimes with accusations that they had merely hallucinated, and they repeatedly rejected such proposed explanations.
"In fact, David Whitmer, one of the initial Three Witnesses, could easily have been addressing today’s skeptics when he declared 'I was not under any hallucination, nor was I deceived! I saw with these eyes and I heard with these ears! I know whereof I speak!'”
Peterson tells of an 1878 interview with John Whitmer by Wilhelm Poulson. Here are the questions and answers:
“I — Did you handle the plates with your hands? He — I did so!
"I — Then they were a material substance? He — Yes, as material as anything can be.
"I — They were heavy to lift? He — Yes, and you know gold is a heavy metal, they were very heavy.
"I — How big were the leaves? He — So far as I can recollect, 8 by 6 or 7 inches.
"I — Were the leaves thick? He — Yes, just so thick, that characters could be engraven on both sides.
"I — How were the leaves joined together? He — In three rings, each one in the shape of a D with the straight line towards the centre. ...
"I — Did you see them covered with a cloth? He — No. He handed them uncovered into our hands, and we turned the leaves sufficient to satisfy us.”
William Smith, who knew the Eight Witnesses well — his father and two of his brothers were among them — explained “they not only saw with their eyes but handled with their hands the said record.” Daniel Tyler heard Samuel Smith testify that “He knew his brother Joseph had the plates, for the prophet had shown them to him, and he had handled them and seen the engravings thereon.”
Peterson concludes, "Those who seek to dismiss the testimony of the Eight Witnesses must, on the whole, flatly brush aside what they actually, and very forcefully, said."