When the experience of the Three Witnesses is placed in context with other visitations, revelations, and visions in the early 1800s, a much clearer picture arises of what might have happened.
As I mentioned in this article, experiences like what is claimed by the Three Witnesses were common for the time. Why? Was God different? Were the times different? Were people more faithful? Were they lying?
I think that the answer is that their way of thinking was different. From my studies, it’s clear that people at that time — living on the American frontier1 in the early 1800s — were more apt to trust what was sometimes called “second sight”. We might call it imagination or daydreaming and rarely attribute it to the divine, but I believe that in some ways, many people of the day trusted it more than they trusted their five senses.
Here’s an example:
Mormons are frequently told this version of the events surrounding the dedication of the Kirtland Temple:
Brother George A. Smith arose and began to prophesy, when a noise was heard like the sound of a rushing mighty wind, which filled the Temple, and all the congregation simultaneously arose, being moved upon by an invisible power; many began to speak in tongues and prophesy; others saw glorious visions; and I beheld the Temple was filled with angels, which fact I declared to the congregation. The people of the neighborhood came running together (hearing an unusual sound within, and seeing a bright light like a pillar of fire resting upon the Temple), and were astonished at what was taking place.
The problem is that, while a lot of people claimed to have “seen” and “heard” and “felt” amazing things during that meeting, no one seemed to have “seen” or “heard” or “felt” the same things.
Olivery Cowdery said that he saw “cloven tongues” fall from the sky and “rest upon people”, who then spoke in tongues2. No one else seemed to see that.
Heber C. Kimball very explicitly described a tall angel with white hair, black eyes, etc who sat next to Joseph Smith, in front of the entire congregation3. No one else seemed to see that either.
George A. Smith said that David Whitmer saw three angels ascending the aisle4. Visions and prophecies, and speaking in tongues are mentioned frequently in accounts but aside from the non-supernatural stuff, no one seems to have experienced the same thing.
Some of the people present didn’t hear, or see, or feel anything except for a what they described as a disgraceful display of uncontrolled and drunken chaos5.
Whatever was experienced by some of the attendees, it doesn’t sound at all like it was an objective, physical experience because no two people seem to have experienced the same things.
But the Three Witnesses apparently did see and hear the same things during their experience with the Angel Moroni and the gold plates. What are we to make of that? I think that this explanation of the Kirtland Temple dedication offers the most likely scenario for what also happened to the Three Witnesses:
It’s likely that Joseph said he was seeing something angelic and told the congregation what he claimed to be seeing. Those in attendance relayed what Joseph said he saw. Everyone was so excited for this grand event, that they likely got caught up in the moment and imagined some extraordinary things. Imagine if someone you thought was a prophet said an angel was in the room, the people are singing intently, people are speaking in tongues, there’s shouting of Hosanna, waving, cheering, etc. That would likely cause some to believe the prophet so much as to get caught up in the spirit and cause them to imagine they were witnessing something extraordinary – made much easier if they were fasting and had a sudden dose of wine. Some who were genuinely drunk probably added fuel to the environment by claiming to see things just to support their beloved prophet.
I agree. I think that the Kirtland temple “Pentecost” and the experience of the three witnesses were most likely a product of second sight and of suggestion. I’ll get to more about suggestion later, but first, here’s a bit of my own experience with the concept of second sight:
On my mission to Brazil in the mid-90s, I met many people who trusted their “second sight” in this way. Some of them said they saw angels, or floating balls of light, or Jesus, or Nossa Senhora Aparecida. Brazilians just thought differently. They placed more meaning on thoughts and imagination and the unexplainable than what I was used to.
I have some personal experience with this type of thinking. As a Mormon missionary, I had recited Joseph Smith’s The First Vision hundreds of times, but I particularly remember one time near the end of my mission when something different happened. As I told the story this time, I could very distinctly imagine a small part of the vision very clearly from Joseph’s perspective. I imagined a bright light filtering through the rustling leaves so clearly, that it was almost like seeing6. It really was an average experience that lasted only a split second, but it became a powerful experience because I believed that it was a gift from the Creator of the Universe.
When I later recounted this experience, I told people that “I saw”. Of course, I didn’t really “see” anything in a physical sense, because no one else in the room could see anything. If I “saw” anything, it was with my “spiritual” eyes (my imagination).
Some people have said that they heard Harris and Whitmer describe their witness experiences in a similar way (but that’s another article for another time).
The account below, written by Philo Dibble, is another example of second sight during a Mormon revelation. It also provides some insight into how suggestion was used during these visions. At least a dozen men, including Dibble, were present while Joseph Smith and Sydney Rigdon claimed to be receiving D&C Section 76 directly from God:
I saw the glory and felt the power, but did not see the vision.
Joseph would, at intervals, say: “What do I see?” as one might say while looking out the window and beholding what all in the room could not see. Then he would relate what he had seen or what he was looking at. Then Sidney replied, “I see the same.” Presently Sidney would say “what do I see?” and would repeat what he had seen or was seeing, and Joseph would reply, “I see the same.”
The two most interesting things about this quote are:
- Second Sight: No one but Joseph and Sydney saw the vision.
- Suggestion: Sydney and Joseph would play off each other “Do you see that?” “Yes I do.” “Do you see that too?” “Yes, I do.”
I imagine that the Three Witnesses’ experience consisted of both of these elements.
- Ohio and Missouri were very much the American Frontier in the 1830s and 1840s.
- “Sunday, the 27th attended on the dedication of the Lord’s house. For the particulars of this great event see my account written by myself, and printed in the March No. of The Messenger and Advocate, signed C. In the evening I met with the officers of the church in the Lord’s house. The Spirit was poured out–I saw the glory of God, like a great cloud, come down and rest upon the house, and fill the same like a mighty rushing wind. I also saw cloven tongues, like as of fire rest upon many, (for there were 316 present,) while they spake with other tongues and prophesied.” “Oliver Cowdery’s Kirtland Ohio ‘Sketch Book,'” BYU Studies, Volume 12, (Summer 1972), 426.
- “During the ceremonies of the dedication, an angel appeared and sat near President Joseph Smith, Sen., and Frederick G. Williams, so that they had a fair view of his person. He was a very tall personage, black eyes, white hair, and stoop shouldered; his garment was whole, extending to near his ankles; on his feet he had sandals. He was sent as a messenger to accept of the dedication…While these things were being attended to the beloved disciple John was seen in our midst by the Prophet Joseph, Oliver Cowdery and others.” Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854-1886), 9: 376.
- David Whitmer later denied this saying “The great heavenly ‘visitation,’ which was alleged to have taken place in the temple at Kirtland, was a grand fizzle. The elders were assembled on the appointed day, which was promised would be a veritable day of Pentecost, but there was no visitation. No Peter, James and John; no Moses and Elias, put in an appearance. ‘I was in my seat on that occasion,’ says Mr. Whitmer, ‘and I know that the story sensationally circulated, and which is now on the records of the Utah Mormons as an actual happening, was nothing but a trumped up yarn…” The Des Moines Daily News, Oct. 16, 1886
- See quote from David Whitmer in the previous footnote.
William E. McLellin also said, “As to the endowment in Kirtland, I state positively, it was no endowment from God. Not only myself was not endowed but no other man of the five hundred who was present—except it was with wine!” McLellin to Mark H. Forscutt, 1 October 1871; cited in Stan Larson and Samuel J. Passey (editors), The William E. McLellin Papers 1854-1880 (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 2007), p. 476.
- This “vision” of mine was distinctly one in which the First Vision took place in Summer. (Similar to the videos produced by the Mormon Church like this one.) But from Joseph’s accounts, the event took place in Spring. This is what Palmyra, New York looks like in Spring. (Credit for that photo goes here.) I was clearly influenced by the marketing images that I had seen throughout my life.