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Perspective: What J.K. Rowling got wrong about Joseph Smith and the golden plates

The ‘Harry Potter’ author tweeted that Joseph Smith never showed the golden plates to anyone. Here’s what the historical record indicates

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“Joseph Smith’s First Vision” in the Palmyra Temple.

“Joseph Smith’s First Vision” in the Palmyra Temple.

Willie Holdman

“Harry Potter” series author J.K. Rowling tweeted Thursday about Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the “golden plates,” saying that “nobody else was allowed to look at them” besides Smith.

The claim that Smith didn’t allow anyone else to see the plates, from which he translated the Book of Mormon, is not a new one. Rowling later amended her statement to say that 11 people saw the plates after she went “to look it up.”

“The Book of Mormon” musical made this erroneous claim as well.

In the song “All-American Prophet,” the angel Moroni sings, “But don’t let anybody see these plates except for you.” Later in the musical, the dying Smith says, “Oh God, why are you letting me die without having me show people the plates? They’ll have no proof I was telling the truth or not.”

This claim, however, is not historically accurate.

According to former Joseph Smith Papers editor and Oxford published author Larry E. Morris, “seventeen people reportedly saw or handled the plates (or both).”

Here is an overview of what the 17 people had to say about what American literary scholar Terryl Givens called “the pure physicality of the plates.” Morris references two other accounts of the plates, which he describes as “religious accounts,” including Mary Whitmer and Lyman E. Johnson.

Lucy Mack Smith

Joseph Smith’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, offered her account of seeing the plates in her history. This manuscript and transcript is published by the Joseph Smith Papers. Mack Smith said, “I have also looked upon the plates and handled them with my hands and can testify of the same to the whole world.”

In a more detailed account printed by Henry Caswall, courtesy of Book of Mormon Central, Mack Smith said, “I have seen and handled the golden plates. They are about eight inches long, and six wide; some of them are sealed together and not to be opened, and some of them are loose. They are all connected by a hole which passes through a ring at the end of each plate, and are covered with letters beautifully engraved.”

Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris and David Whitmer

Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris and David Whitmer are known as the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon. The three witnesses were, according to their own accounts, shown the Book of Mormon plates by an angel.

About this experience, Whitmer said, “Of course we were in the spirit when we had the view, for no man can behold the face of an angel, except in a spiritual view, but we were in the body also, and everything was as natural to us, as it is at any time.”

In Whitmer’s interview with The Kansas City Journal, republished by The Millennial Star, Whitmer was asked if he could describe the plates. He responded, “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 engravings upon them were very plain and of very curious appearance.”

Harris, meanwhile, spoke to 12-year-old William Glenn and others, and said about the plates “Gentleman, do you see that hand? Are you sure you see it? Are your eyes playing you a trick or something? No. Well, as sure as you see my hand so sure did I see the angel and the plates.”

On other occasions, including to the wife of Harris’ nephew, Harris said, “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.” Oliver Cowdery, in remarks recorded by Reuben Miller similarly stated, “I beheld with my eyes. And handled with my hands the gold plates from which (the Book of Mormon) was translated.”

Christian Whitmer, Hiram Page, Hyrum Smith, Jacob Whitmer, John Whitmer, Joseph Smith Sr., Peter Whitmer Jr. and Samuel H. Smith

The eight witnesses of the Book of Mormon also testified that they saw the plates, they handled them and they saw the engravings on the plates. They were shown the plates by Joseph Smith.

In an 1878 Deseret News article, John Whitmer gave his own testimony of the plates. The interviewer asked, “Did you handle the plates with your hands?” John Whitmer responded, “I did so!” When the interviewer then asked whether or not Whitmer saw them through a cloth, he responded, “No. (Joseph Smith) handed them uncovered into our hands, and we turned the leaves sufficient to satisfy us.”

In the December 1839 Times and Seasons, made available through the Brigham Young University library, Hyrum Smith submitted a letter that spoke about the persecution he was experiencing. In that letter, he said, “However I thank God that I felt a determination to die, rather than deny the things which my eyes had seen, which my hands had handled, and which I had borne testimony to, wherever my lot had been cast.”

Emma Smith

Emma Smith was the wife of Joseph Smith. In the “Last Testimony of Sister Emma” from “Saints’ Herald” reprinted by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Emma Smith said, “The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen tablecloth, which I had given him to fold them in. I once felt of the plates, as they thus lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book.”

William Smith

William Smith was the younger brother of Joseph Smith. In “The Old Soldier’s Testimony” found in “Saints Herald,” William Smith said about the plates, “We handled them and could tell what they were. They were not quite as large as this Bible. Could tell whether they were round or square.” He added, “Being a mixture of gold and copper, they were much heavier than stone, and very much heavier than wood.”

Katharine Smith

Katharine Smith was the younger sister of Joseph Smith. Katharine Smith told her grandson Herbert S. Salisbury that she had seen and handled the plates. According to an account reprinted by Witnesses of the Book of Mormon, Salisbury recounted “she hefted those plates and found them very heavy like gold and also rippled her fingers up the edge of the plates and felt that they were separate metal plates and heard the tinkle of sound that they made.” On a different occasion referenced by former Joseph Smith Papers editor Larry E. Morris, Katharine Smith told Salisbury that she had handled the plates.

Josiah Stowell

Josiah Stowell had previously hired Joseph Smith to dig for silver and then he later joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Stowell’s sworn testimony was reported by the 1832 New England Christian Herald as follows: “witness saw a corner of (the plates); it resembled a stone of a greenish caste; should judge it to have been about one foot square and six inches thick; (Joseph Smith) would not let it be seen by any one; the Lord had commanded him not; it was unknown to Smith, that witness saw a corner of the (gold) Bible, so called by Smith; told the witness the leaves were of gold; there were written characters on the leaves.”

Alvah Beaman

Alvah Beaman’s daughter, Mary Adeline Noble wrote about her father in the Joseph B. Noble reminiscences, available through the Church History Library: “My father was there at the time and assisted in concealing the plates in a box in a secluded place where no one could find them although he did not see them.” Martin Harris also reported that Beaman had heard the plates jingle in a box, as reported in Tiffany’s Monthly, a periodical from the time.

Joseph McKune Sr.

Joseph McKune Sr. was not a Latter-day Saint, but McKune’s granddaughter Mehitable Smith Many Doolittle reported that he once felt the plates. This account from “Early Days of Mormonism” in Chenango Union, was also reprinted by Larry E. Morris. “(Doolittle’s) grandfather was once privileged to take in his hands a pillow-case in which the supposed saintly treasure was wrapped, and to feel through the cloth that it had leaves. From the size and the weight of the book, Mr. McKune supposed that in dimensions it closely resembled an ordinary Bible in the print of those days.”

Mary Whitmer

John C. Whitmer, grandson of Mary Whitmer, heard his grandmother recount the story of seeing the plates. Latter-day Saint scholar Daniel Peterson published text from John C. Whitmer’s recollection of Mary Whitmer’s account, as well as what Daniel Whitmer said about Mary Whitmer seeing the plates, in a Deseret News article. According to John C. Whitmer, Mary Whitmer was shown “a bundle of plates” that “corresponded with the description subsequently given by the witnesses to the Book of Mormon.” She watched as the stranger leafed through the plates and she saw the engravings on them. In David Whitmer’s account, Mary Whitmer met “an old man” and “he showed her the plates.”

Historians like Ann Taves have begun to discuss the plates in different ways due to the many accounts about their physical existence and how those around the plates acted. The issue, of course, remains a debate because according to Joseph Smith the plates were returned to the angel after he completed the translation of the Book of Mormon sometime in June 1829. But, beyond witness testimony there are other markers regarding the physicality of the plates. For example, Lucy Mack Smith’s history recalls when Joseph Smith dislocated his thumb while running with the plates. He asked his father and friend Joseph Knight Sr. to tend to his thumb after the incident.

Joseph Smith had also requested his brother Hyrum Smith get him a chest with a good lock on it. While this chest only housed the plates for a short period of time due to its poor fit, Martin Harris mentioned two other boxes that housed the plates. One of these boxes was made out of cherry wood, and Martin Harris in Tiffany’s Monthly stated that the cherry box was made for the purpose of holding the plates. Lucy Mack Smith had advised Joseph Smith to get a chest made for the purpose of storing the plates. Joseph Smith also used an “old Ontario glass-box” that had to be adjusted to fit the size of the plates. To paraphrase renowned historian Richard Bushman, those around Joseph Smith — and Joseph Smith himself — acted as if he had the plates.

And material evidence seems to indicate that he did.