Scriptures

D&C 17| Background & Context
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Date: June 1829

Place: Fayette, New York

From Revelations in Context at history.lds.org

More than five decades after the event, David Whitmer recalled how he first heard of the Book of Mormon: “I made a business trip to Palmyra, N. Y. [in 1828], and while there stopped with one Oliver Cowdery. A great many people in the neighborhood were talking about the finding of certain golden plates by one Joseph Smith, jr., a young man of that neighborhood. Cowdery and I, as well as others, talked about the matter.” The exact details of how 23-year-old Whitmer and  22-year-old Cowdery met are unknown, but they quickly struck up a friendship.

“Cowdery said he was acquainted with the Smith family,” Whitmer continued, “and he believed there must be some truth in the story of the plates, and that he intended to investigate the matter.” Whitmer, who implies that he made more than one trip to Palmyra, conducted his own investigation and “had conversations with several young men who said that Joseph Smith had certainly golden plates. ... These parties were so positive in their statements that I began to believe there must be some foundation for the stories then in circulation.”

Whitmer, a farmer from Fayette Township, New York (about thirty miles southeast of Palmyra), and Cowdery, a Vermont native who had recently been hired by Hyrum Smith and other school trustees to teach in the Manchester district, agreed to keep each other informed of what they discovered. At this time, neither of them had met Joseph Smith, then living in Harmony, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Emma.

Cowdery, whose students included children of Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith, eventually boarded with that family. Lucy wrote that Cowdery “soon began to importune Mr. Smith on the subject [of the plates], but for a considerable time did not succeed in eliciting any information. At last, however, he gained my husband’s confidence, so far as to obtain a sketch of the facts relative to the plates.”

The conversation with Joseph Sr. had a powerful effect on Cowdery. “The subject ... seems working in my very bones,” he told the Smiths. “I have made it a subject of prayer, and I firmly believe that it is the will of the Lord that I should go [to Harmony to assist Joseph with the translation].”

Cowdery also announced this news (apparently in a letter) to Whitmer. “Cowdery told me he was going to Harmony, Pa. ... and see him [Joseph Smith] about the matter,” Whitmer wrote. “He did go, and on his way stopped at my father’s house and told me that as soon as he found out anything either truth or untruth he would let me know.”

Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery began their translation project on April 7, 1829, and worked intensely over the next eight weeks. During that time, Cowdery wrote three letters to Whitmer, discussing the translation process and offering particular information on the content of the Book of Mormon. “When Cowdery wrote me these things and told me that he had revealed knowledge concerning the truth of them, I showed these letters to my parents, and brothers and sisters,” Whitmer recalled.

In his last letter, Cowdery requested that Whitmer come to Harmony and help the two men move to the Whitmer home. “I had some 20 acres to plow,” Whitmer wrote, “so I concluded I would finish plowing and then go.” When he got up the next morning, however, he found that between five and seven acres of his land had been plowed during the night. When asked who plowed the fields, Whitmer answered, “I do not know, I cannot tell you, all I know is it was plowed. ... It was a testimony to me that I did not have any business to put off going after Joseph. I hitched up my team and ... started for Pennsylvania.”

The move to New York took place at the first part of June, and within a month Joseph and his scribes had completed the translation of the Book of Mormon. About that same time, Joseph’s parents and Martin Harris, who had received word that the translation was drawing to a close, arrived from Palmyra.

Lucy Mack Smith wrote that Harris “greatly rejoiced” when he heard of the progress of the translation. Now, although Harris was quite possibly meeting both Cowdery and Whitmer for the first time, the three men bonded through their shared devotion to assist in bringing forth the Book of Mormon. They were particularly interested in certain passages from the Book of Mormon.

“In the course of the work of translation,” Joseph Smith’s history explains, “we ascertained that three special witnesses were to be provided by the Lord, to whom he would grant, that they should see the plates from which this work (the Book of Mormon) should be translated.”

Almost immediately after this discovery was made, Joseph wrote, “it occurred to Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and ... Martin Harris ... that they would have me enquire of the Lord, to know if they might not obtain of him to be these three special witnesses; and finally they became so solicitous, and teazed me so much, that at length I complied, and through the Urim and Thummim, I obtained of the Lord for them [a revelation]” [see D&C 17]. (“The Experience of the Three Witnesses,” Revelations in Context, history.lds.org)


Aftermath and Outcomes of D&C 17

Joseph Smith (President)

Not many days after the above commandment was given [D&C 17], we four viz: Martin Harris, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery and myself agreed to retire into the woods, and try to obtain by fervent and humble prayer, the fulfilment of the promises given in the revelation; that they should have a view of the plates &c. we accordingly made choice of a piece of woods convenient to Mr. Whitmer's house, to which we retired, and having knelt down we began to pray in much faith, to Almighty God to bestow upon us a realization of these promises. According to previous arrangements I commenced, by vocal prayer to our heavenly Father, and was followed by each of the rest in succession; we did not yet however obtain any answer, or manifestation of the divine favor in our behalf. We again observed the same order of prayer each calling on, and praying fervently to God in rotation; but with the same result as before. Upon this our second failure, Martin Harris proposed that he would withdraw himself from us, believing as he expressed himself that his presence was the cause of our not obtaining what we wished for; he accordingly withdrew from us, and we knelt down again, and had not been many minutes engaged in prayer when presently we beheld a light above us in the air of exceeding brightness, and behold an angel stood before us; in his hands he held the plates which we had been praying for these to have a view of: he turned over the leaves one by one, so that we could see them, and discover the engravings thereon distinctly. He addressed himself to David Whitmer, and said, "David, blessed is the Lord, and he that keeps his commandments." When immediately afterwards, we heard a voice from out of the bright light above us, 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."

I now left David and Oliver, and went in pursuit of Martin Harris, who I found at a considerable distance, fervently engaged in prayer, he soon told me however that he had not yet prevailed with the Lord, and earnestly requested me to join him in prayer, that he also might realize the same blessings which we had just received. We accordingly joined in prayer, and ultimately obtained our desires, for before we had yet finished, the same vision was opened to our view; at least it was again to me, and I once more beheld, and heard the same things; whilst at the same moment, Martin Harris cried out, apparantly in ecstacy of joy, "Tis enough; mine eyes have beheld," and jumping up he shouted, hosanah, blessing God, and otherwise rejoiced exceedingly.

Having thus through the mercy of God, obtained these manifestations, it now remained for these three individuals to fulfil the commandment which they had received, viz: to bear record of these things, in order to accomplish which, they drew up and subscribed the following document... (History of Joseph Smith., Times and Seasons, vol. 3 [November 1841-October 1842], Vol. 3 No. 21 September 1, 1842, p.898)

From Revelations in Context at history.lds.org

The revelation, now known as Doctrine and Covenants 17, made this promise to Cowdery, Whitmer, and Harris: “you must rely upon my word which if you do with full purpose of heart you shall have a view of the plates and also the breastplate the sword of Laban the Urim and Thumim ... and after that you have obtained faith and have seen them with your eyes you shall testify of them by the power of God.”

Days later, the prophecy was dramatically fulfilled. “It was in the latter part of June, 1829,” Whitmer wrote. “Joseph, Oliver Cowdery and myself were together, and the angel showed them [the plates] to us. ... [We were] sitting on a log when we were overshadowed by a light more glorious than that of the sun. In the midst of this light, but a few feet from us, appeared a table upon which were many golden plates, also the sword of Laban and the directors. I saw them as plain as I see you now, and distinctly heard the voice of the Lord declaiming that the records of the plates of the Book of Mormon were translated by the gift and power of God.”

Joseph Smith and Martin Harris had a similar experience, and as the manuscript was prepared for printing, Cowdery, Whitmer, and Harris signed a joint statement that has been included in each of the more than 120 million copies of the Book of Mormon printed since then. It reads in part:

“And we declare with words of soberness, than an angel of God came down from heaven, and he 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.” (“The Experience of the Three Witnesses,” Revelations in Context, history.lds.org)

Lucy Mack Smith (Mother of Joseph Smith)

When they [Joseph and the three witnesses] returned to the house, it was between three and four o'clock. Mrs. Whitmer, Mr. Smith, and myself were sitting in a bedroom, myself on a bedside. When Joseph came in, he threw himself down beside me and exclaimed, "Father! Mother! You do not know how happy I am. The Lord has caused the plates to be shown to three more besides me. They have also seen an angel and will have to testify to the truth of what I have said, for they know for themselves that I do not go about to deceive the people. I do feel as though I was relieved of a dreadful burden which was almost too much for me to endure. But they will now have to bear a part, and it does rejoice my soul that I am not any longer to be entirely alone in the world."

Martin Harris then came in. He seemed almost overcome with an excess of joy. He then testified to what he had seen and heard, as did also the others, Oliver and David, who added that no tongue could express the joy of their hearts and the greatness of the things which they had both seen and heard. Their testimony was the same in substance as that in the Book of Mormon: [see the Testimony of the Three Witnesses].... 

Martin Harris seemed particularly willing to give out his feelings in words. He said, "I have now seen an angel from heaven who has of a surety testified of the truth of all that I have heard concerning the record. I have also looked upon the plates and handled them with my hands and can testify of the same to the whole world. I have received for myself a witness that words cannot express, and no tongue can describe, and I bless God in the sincerity of my soul that he has condescended to make me, even me, a witness of the greatness of his work and designs in behalf of the children of men." Oliver and David also joined with him in solemn praises to God for his goodness and mercy. (Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, (1996), p.199-201)