Chapter 3: The Power of God among Men
by Gordon B. Hinckley
AMONG the doctrines taught in the ancient record was that
of baptism for the remission of sins. Joseph Smith had never been baptized,
for he had not become a member of any church. As he and Oliver discussed the
matter, he resolved to inquire of the Lord concerning the ordinance.
They retired to the seclusion of the woods along the banks
of the Susquehanna River. It was the 15th day of May, 1829. While they were
engaged in prayer, a light appeared above them and in it a heavenly
messenger descended. He announced himself to them as John, known in
scripture as John the Baptist.
The Priesthood Restored
He said he had come under the authority of Peter, James,
and John, apostles of the Lord, who held the keys of the Priesthood, and
that he had been sent to confer upon them the Priesthood of Aaron with
authority to administer in the temporal affairs of the gospel. He then laid
his hands upon their heads and ordained them, saying: "Upon you my fellow
servants, in the name of Messiah I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which
holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of
repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins . . . "
He then instructed them that they should baptize each
other by immersion by the authority of the Priesthood they had received.
Joseph first baptized Oliver in the nearby river, and Oliver then baptized
Joseph. Once again men had been baptized under the same authority and in
similar manner as when Jesus had gone to John in the River Jordan "to
fulfill all righteousness."
It was not long thereafter that another remarkable and
even more significant event occurred. It took place "in the wilderness
between Harmony, Susquehanna County, [Pennsylvania] and Colesville, Broome
County, [New York] on the Susquehanna River." The ancient apostles Peter,
James, and John appeared to and conferred upon Joseph Smith and Oliver
Cowdery the higher powers of the Priesthood and they became "apostles and
special witnesses" of Christ. With this ordination there was restored to
earth the same authority to act in God's name that had been enjoyed in the
In June 1829 the work of translation was completed. About
three months of diligent labor had been devoted to the task, although Joseph
had possessed the plates for almost two years. During all of this time he
had exercised every precaution to safeguard them, lest he lose them. No one
was permitted to see them.
But in the course of translation he had discovered that
the record itself stated 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, 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 shall speak as it were from the dead."
As we have seen, among those who had materially assisted
in the work were Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery. Another young man, David
Whitmer, had also been of service, though only for a brief period. When
these three learned there were to be witnesses, they asked for the
Joseph inquired of the Lord and subsequently announced to
the three that if they would humble themselves, theirs might be the
privilege of seeing the ancient record and the responsibility of testifying
to the world of what they had seen.
On a summer day in the year 1829, Joseph Smith, Oliver
Cowdery, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer retired to the woods near the
Whitmer home in southern New York state. In the broad light of day they
knelt in prayer, Joseph praying first, followed by the others in succession.
But when all had prayed, no answer was received. They repeated the procedure
again without result. After this second failure Martin Harris suggested that
he withdraw from the group for he felt that it was he who stood in the way
of their receiving a manifestation. With Joseph's consent, he left.
Again the three knelt in prayer, when presently they
beheld a light above them in the air, and an angel stood before them. He
held the plates in his hands, and deliberately turned them leaf by leaf
before their eyes so that they might see the engravings thereon. They then
heard a voice above them saying, "These plates have been revealed by the
power of God, and they have been translated by the power of God. The
translation of them which you have seen is correct, and I command you to
bear record of what you now see and hear."
Joseph then left Oliver and David to find Martin Harris.
He discovered him fervently engaged in prayer and joined him in an earnest
petition to the Lord. That petition was rewarded with an experience similar
to the one had by the others.
Based on this experience these men wrote the following
signed declaration which appeared in the first edition of the Book of
Mormon, and which has appeared in every subsequent edition.
Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and
people unto whom this work shall come, that we, through the grace of God the
Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, have seen the plates which contain this
record, which is a record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites,
their brethren, and also of the people of Jared, who came from the tower of
which hath been spoken; and we also know that they have been translated by
the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore
we know of a surety that the work is true.
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 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 we know that if we are faithful in Christ, we shall
rid our garments of the blood of all men, and be found spotless before the
judgment-seat of Christ, and shall dwell with him eternally in the heavens.
And the honor be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, which
is one God. Amen.
In addition to the three witnesses, there were eight
others who saw the plates. Their experience, however, was without the
miraculous element. It happened only a day or two after the three had been
shown the record by the angel.
Joseph Smith invited eight men to view the plates. They
gathered about him, and he showed them the record. Again it was in the broad
light of day. Each handled the strange volume with complete liberty to leaf
through the unsealed portion and closely examine the engravings. There was
nothing of the occult. There was no manifestation of heavenly beings. It was
a simple, matter-of-fact experience in which all participated together.
Their testimony on the matter follows. It also has appeared in all editions
of the Book of Mormon.
Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and
people unto whom this work shall come, that Joseph Smith, Jr., 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
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. And
we give our names unto the world, to witness unto the world that which we
have seen; and we lie not, God bearing witness of it.
Peter Whitmer, Jr.
Joseph Smith, Sen.
Samuel H. Smith
Scores of writings deal with the statements of these two
sets of witnesses. For more than a century various explanations have been
offered in an attempt to account for their testimonies on some basis other
than the one the witnesses declared to be the case. In the last analysis all
of the circumstances — the fact that both experiences took place in the
broad light of day, that there were two widely-different types of
experiences, that all concerned were mature men of demonstrated judgment —
these facts, together with the future acts and declarations of these
parties, all point to the conclusion that the situations in each case were
just as they said they were. There was no collusion, no chicanery, no
juggling. In each case it was a sober, factual experience that no
participant ever forgot.
All of the three witnesses left the church founded through
Joseph Smith. Two of them took a strong position in opposition to him. But
not one of them ever denied his testimony concerning the Book of Mormon. In
fact, each, on more than one occasion up to the time of his death,
reaffirmed that testimony.
Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery returned to the Church
after years of disaffection, but even when they were outside the
organization, they boldly declared the validity of the statement published
over their names in the Book of Mormon. David Whitmer never came back into
the organization, but repeatedly he took the same stand as his associates
had taken, and shortly before his death he published a pamphlet denying
statements made in the Encyclopedia Americana and the Encyclopedia
Britannica to the effect that the witnesses had repudiated their testimony.
Of the eight witnesses three left the Church, but not one
of them ever so much as hinted a denial of his testimony.
The Book Published
With the completion of the translation, its publication
was made possible through the assistance of Martin Harris who pledged his
farm to guarantee the printing costs. The work was done by Egbert B. Grandin
of Palmyra, New York, who printed five thousand copies for $3,000. The
volume contained more than five hundred pages and was called the Book of
Mormon from the fact that the ancient prophet-leader Mormon had been its
principal editor. It issued from the press in the spring of 1830.
As it was circulated and read, another type of witness to
its validity appeared, perhaps more powerful than the testimony of those who
had seen the plates. In the concluding writings of the book are found these
words: "When ye shall receive [read] these things, I would exhort you that
ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things
are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent,
having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the
power of the Holy Ghost."
The majority of the early converts of Mormonism came into
the Church through reading the Book of Mormon. Thousands gave their lives
because of their beliefs. Since its first publication the book has been
translated into twenty-six languages, and it has affected the lives of men
and women in many lands. They have testified of this. The sufferings they
have endured and the works they have accomplished have become perhaps the
strongest of all testimonies for the reality of the gold plates and their
translation into the Book of Mormon to become in this generation another
witness for Christ.