Three witnesses and the work itself shall stand as a testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.
1 AND now I, Moroni, have written the words which were commanded me, according to my memory; and I have told you the things which I have sealed up; therefore touch them not in order that ye may translate; for that thing is forbidden you, except by and by it shall be wisdom in God.
Moroni has fulfilled the commands of the Lord in completing the sacred records. He has sealed the records which are not to come forth until the time that the Lord wills it. It is forbidden to try and look at or translate the sealed portion.
Regarding the sealed portion Orson Pratt gives us the following information: "You recollect that when the Book of Mormon was translated from the plates, about two-thirds were sealed up, and Joseph was commanded not to break the seal; that part of the record was hid up. The plates which were sealed contained an account of those great things shown unto the brother of Jared; and we are told that all those things are preserved to come forth in the due time of the Lord." (Journal of Discourses, vol. 3, p. 347)
2 And behold, ye may be privileged that ye may show the plates unto those who shall assist to bring forth this work;
Oliver Cowdrey, David Whitmer and Martin Harris had been instrumental in assisting Joseph Smith in translating and bringing forth the Book of Mormon. In D&C section 17:1-3 the Lord revealed the following to these three men. "BEHOLD, I say unto you, that 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 of the breastplate, the sword of Laban, the Urim and Thummim, which were given to the brother of Jared upon the mount, when he talked with the Lord face to face, and the miraculous directors which were given to Lehi while in the wilderness, on the borders of the Red Sea. And it is by your faith that you shall obtain a view of them, even by that faith which was had by the prophets of old. And after that you have obtained faith, and have seen them with your eyes, you shall testify of them, by the power of God."
3 And unto three shall they be shown by the power of God; wherefore they shall know of a surety that these things are true.
The three chosen witnesses will have the privilege of seeing the golden plates. This will be accomplished through the "power of God," in other words it will be a miraculous event. Because of this miraculous manifestation, they will have a sure knowledge of what they have seen.
Richard Lloyd Anderson, in his paper Book of Mormon Witnesses, comments:"How were [these witnesses] chosen? How did the Three Witnesses learn that they were ones selected for this privilege? As the Book of Mormon translation neared completion, those who were assisting directly with the translation process came upon one of the verses that made so vivid the promise that there would be Three Witnesses. Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer went to Joseph Smith and asked Joseph to ask the Lord if they could see this great vision and have this experience, that they might be the witnesses of the Book of Mormon to this generation. Joseph said they became persistent; in fact, he used the word 'teased.' Joseph inquired of the Lord and was given a revelation, recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 17 [see above]. Though it consists of only nine verses, it is a remarkable revelation because it is so specific about what the witnesses would see." (http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/transcripts/?id=21)
Regarding Martin Harris (who was the most skeptical and doubting of the three) and his desire to view the plates, the Lord revealed the following in D&C 5:23-28: "And now, again, I speak unto you, my servant Joseph, concerning the man [Martin Harris] that desires the witness— Behold, I say unto him, he exalts himself and does not humble himself sufficiently before me; but if he will bow down before me, and humble himself in mighty prayer and faith, in the sincerity of his heart, then will I grant unto him a view of the things which he desires to see. And then he shall say unto the people of this generation: Behold, I have seen the things which the Lord hath shown unto Joseph Smith, Jun., and I know of a surety that they are true, for I have seen them, for they have been shown unto me by the power of God and not of man.
And I the Lord command him, my servant Martin Harris, that he shall say no more unto them concerning these things, except he shall say: I have seen them, and they have been shown unto me by the power of God; and these are the words which he shall say.
But if he deny this he will break the covenant which he has before covenanted with me, and behold, he is condemned.
And now, except he humble himself and acknowledge unto me the things that he has done which are wrong, and covenant with me that he will keep my commandments, and exercise faith in me, behold, I say unto him, he shall have no such views, for I will grant unto him no views of the things of which I have spoken."
This view of the records would not only be a blessing and a revelation, but there would also be serious obligations and responsibilities that the witnesses would have to take upon themselves.
4 And in the mouth of three witnesses shall these things be established; and the testimony of three, and this work, in the which shall be shown forth the power of God and also his word, of which the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost bear record—and all this shall stand as a testimony against the world at the last day.
At this point it is appropriate to discuss the Law of Witnesses. We read in Matthew "in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established." (Matt. 18:16) In the economy of heaven, it is not appropriate to show all there is to reveal to every single person. The Lord chooses select individuals and reveals His will to them. They in turn convey these messages to the rest of us, testifying of what they have seen and heard. Our obligation is to hear the message and prove its veracity through the Spirit of Christ or better yet, the Holy Ghost (see Moro. 10:4-5). If we receive the word and have it verified by the Spirit, all is well. If we hear the message, but fail to verify it, we are still responsible, just as if it had been verified by the Spirit. If one chooses to blindly ignore the message when it is plainly available to him, he is still liable and will be judged as if he had received it and known it."The scriptural law of witnesses requires that in the mouth of two or three individuals shall every word be established (Deut. 19:15; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19). This law applies in divine as well as human relations, for members of the Godhead bear witness of one another (John 5:31—37; 3 Ne. 11:32), and books of holy writ give multiple witness to the work of God in the earth (2 Ne. 29:8—13). The law of witnesses is prominent in the history and practice of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
"A witness gives personal verification of, or attests to the reality of, an event. To 'witness' in the scriptural sense is much the same as in the legal sense: to give personal testimony based on firsthand evidence or experience. To bear false witness is a very serious offense (Deut. 5:20; 19:16—21). When prophets have an experience with the Lord, often he commands them to 'bear record' of him and of the truths that have been revealed (1 Ne. 10:10; 11:7; D&C 58:59; 112:4; 138:60). In legal affairs, testimony is usually related to what a person knows by the physical senses. In spiritual matters there is additional knowledge or information received through the Holy Spirit."
"In the final judgment that God will render to all mankind, the fact of the gospel having been taught on the earth by multiple witnesses will be important. Nephi has written, 'Wherefore, by the words of three, God hath said, I will establish my word. Nevertheless, God sendeth more witnesses, and he proveth all his words' (2 Ne. 11:3; cf. 27:14)." (Robert L. Marrott, Witnesses, Law of, http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=51&chapid=460)
See below for more information on the witnessing of the Book of Mormon as well as the testimonies of the witnesses.
5 And if it so be that they repent and come unto the Father in the name of Jesus, they shall be received into the kingdom of God.
If the latter day people will heed the testimony of the chosen witnesses, read the book, and follow it's precepts, they will be able to enter into celestial glory.
6 And now, if I have no authority for these things, judge ye; for ye shall know that I have authority when ye shall see me, and we shall stand before God at the last day. Amen.
Moroni was a bearer of the priesthood and was authorized by God to do this work. Moroni speaks as if he will be involved in the judgement, and that as we each appear before the judgement seat, he will be there as a witness to testify that these records and teachings were available to us.
Some additional information, as well as the testimony of the witnesses is presented below.
On the appointed day the three men (Oliver Cowdrey, David Whitmer and Martin Harris) retired to the woods near the Whitmer farm in Fayette, New York and began to pray, each taking a turn. Richard Bushman relates what followed: "The first attempt brought nothing, and they tried again. Again nothing. Before they made a third attempt, Harris offered to leave, saying he was the obstacle. The remaining three knelt again and before many minutes ... saw a light in the air over their heads. An angel appeared with the plates in his hands. David Whitmer said the breastplate, Lehi's Liahona, and the sword of Laban lay on a table. He heard the angel say, 'Blessed is he, that keepeth His commandments.' That was all Whitmer could remember him saying. Then a voice out of the light said, '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.' Cowdery later said: 'I beheld with my eyes, And handled with my hands the gold plates from which it was translated. I also beheld the Interpreters.'"
"After the appearance to Cowdery and Whitmer, Joseph went searching for Harris, who had gone further into the woods. Harris asked Joseph to pray with him, and at length ... their desires were fulfilled. Joseph said that he saw the same vision as before, and Harris cried out 'in an ecstasy of joy': 'Tis enough; 'Tis enough; mine eyes have beheld.' At the close of the vision he jumped up, shouted 'Hosanna,' and blessed God." (Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling, pp. 78-79).
Later, eight men also had the opportunity of viewing, handling and examining the gold plates. Richard Lloyd Anderson comments:"The Eight Witnesses not only saw the plates, as the Three Witnesses did, but they felt them too Lucy Smith said that a few days after the first witnessing, the Smiths, the Whitmers, and Oliver made the thirty-mile journey from Fayette to the Smith home in Manchester, which is south of Palmyra. She said that the male Whitmers [this included a son in law Hiram Page], Joseph Sr., and her sons Hyrum and Samuel accompanied Joseph Jr. into the woods where an angel had deposited the plates on a tree stump. The Eight Witnesses testified that they saw these plates, picked them up, and examined the "curious" characters. ('Curious' did not mean 'strange' in that day; it meant that the characters were very carefully crafted ... The witnesses also used the word heft, which is archaic for our day; it means 'to lift.') They examined the plates and bore testimony in their formal statement that they had 'lifted' the gold plates.
"They described the physical plates as weighing between forty and sixty pounds and being approximately eight inches long, five or six inches wide, and five or six inches thick ... Not only did the Eight Witnesses see the characters and turn over the leaves, but they reported seeing a sealed part. They described the plates as bound with "D"-shaped rings, saying a perpendicular center ran through the plates, like a loose-leaf notebook, and then the ring curved in a half circle across the spine."
Martin Harris later testified, "We not only saw the plates of the Book of Mormon but also the brass plates, the plates of the Book of Ether, the plates containing the records of the wickedness and secret combinations of the people of the world. . . . The fact is, it was just as though Joseph, Oliver and I were sitting just here on a log, when we were overshadowed by a light. It was not like the light of the sun . . . but more glorious and beautiful. It extended away round us . . . [We saw] many records or plates . . . besides the plates of the Book of Mormon, also the Sword of Laban, the Directors . . . and the Interpreters. I saw them just as plain as I see this bed (striking the bed beside him with his hand), and I heard the voice of the Lord, as distinctly as I ever heard anything in my life, declaring that the records of the plates of the Book of Mormon were translated by the gift and power of God." (Richard Lloyd Anderson, The Book of Mormon Witnesses, Maxwell Institute, http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/transcripts/?id=21.)
Daniel Peterson has observed that the two witnessing experiences were diametrically different. The first was spiritual and other worldly, in the form of a vision, miraculous and unusual. The second was mundane with nothing (other than the golden plates) unusual about it. It was as if one man was showing his friends one of his favorite books. (Tangible Restoration: The Witnesses and what They Experienced, Daniel C. Peterson, 2006 FAIR Conference, http://www.fairlds.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/2006-Daniel-Peterson.pdf)
Now to the witness statements themselves. The first witness document, signed by Oliver Cowdrey, David Whitmer and Martin Harris was more detailed. Not only were they shown the plates, but the angel also showed them the interpreters (the Urim and Thumim), the Liahona, and the sword of Laban. They saw the angel (presumably the resurrected Moroni), and heard the voice of the Lord commanding them to testify of the things they had seen and heard. This happened twice, first to Cowdrey and Whitmer, and then in another more remote place to Harris. This manifestation was near the Whitmer farm in Fayette, New York.
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 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. 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.
Signed by: OLIVER COWDERY, DAVID WHITMER and MARTIN HARRIS
The second, shorter document was signed by eight early members of the church, CHRISTIAN WHITMER, HIRAM PAGE, JACOB WHITMER, JOSEPH SMITH, SEN., PETER WHITMER,JUN., HYRUM SMITH, JOHN WHITMER, and SAMUEL H. SMITH. Some have criticized these witnesses as being closely related to, or associated with, Joseph Smith, as if this would decrease the validity of their testimony. However, at this very early time in the history of the church there were very few members, and these had to suffice. This experience occurred in broad daylight, near the Smith farm in Palmyra. Joseph Smith showed these eight men the plates and let them handle them, lift them, turn the pages, and examine the writing. There was no heavenly manifestation or voice, or appearance of the angel. It was all very objective and logical. Nothing mysterious or miraculous happened. But still, they saw the gold plates.
BE IT KNOWN unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That Joseph Smith, Jun., 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 curious workmanship. 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.
Signed by: CHRISTIAN WHITMER, HIRAM PAGE, JACOB WHITMER, JOSEPH SMITH, SEN., PETER WHITMER,JUN., HYRUM SMITH, JOHN WHITMER, and SAMUEL H. SMITH