Commentary on Doctrine & Covenants 17

/ Doctrine & Covenants 17 / Commentary

Find helpful commentary on the verses below to better understand the message of this revelation.

Verses 1-4

Casey Paul Griffiths (LDS Scholar)

You shall have a view of the plates. David Whitmer later described the experience with the plates in detail, saying,


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 record of the wickedness and secret combinations of the people of the world down to the time of their being engraved, and many other plates. The fact is, it was just as though Oliver and I were sitting just here on the log, when we were overshadowed by a light. It was not like the light of the sun not like that of a fire, but more glorious and beautiful. It extended away round us, I cannot tell how far, but in the midst of this light about as far off as he sits (pointing to John C. Whitmer, sitting a few feet from him), there appeared, as it were, a table with many records or plates upon it, besides the plates of the Book of Mormon” (Sperry, Book of Mormon Compendium, 55–56).


The Breastplate. Shortly after Joseph Smith retrieved it from the hill, Lucy Mack Smith handled the breastplate. She gave the following description:


Upon meeting him, he handed me the breastplate spoken of in his history. It was wrapped in a thin muslin handkerchief; so thin that I could feel​ its proportions without any difficulty: It was concave on one side and convex on the other; and extended from the neck downwards as far as the center of the stomach of a man of extraordinary size. It had four straps of the same material for the purpose of fastening it to the breast: two of which ran back to go over the shoulders, and the other two were designed to fasten to the hips. These straps were just the width of two of my fingers; (for I measured them); and they had holes in the end of them for convenience in fastening (Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1845, 115–16, JSP).


The Sword of Laban. In the Book of Mormon, Nephi described the sword of Laban, saying “the hilt thereof was of pure gold and the workmanship was exceedingly fine” and “the blade thereof was of the most precious steel” (1 Nephi 4:9). Nephi used the sword as a pattern for the weapons he forged to protect his people (2 Nephi 5:14) and wielded it himself in defense of people (Jacob 1:10). Later, King Benjamin wielded the sword in battle (Words of Mormon 1:13) and passed it on to his son Mosiah as one of the sacred relics of the Nephites (Mosiah 1:16). In an 1877 discourse, Brigham Young shared a secondhand account from Oliver Cowdery describing how Joseph and Oliver saw the sword of Laban when they entered a cave containing many plates in the hill Cumorah. Brigham said, “The first time they went there the sword of Laban hung upon the wall; but when they went again it had been taken down and laid upon the table across the gold plates; it was unsheathed, and on it was written these words: ‘This sword will never be sheathed again until The Kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of our God and his Christ’” (Complete Discourses of Brigham Young, 3136).


The Urim and Thummim. Though Joseph Smith may have used different instruments in the translation process, this mention of the Urim and Thummim is most likely a reference to the interpreters given to the brother of Jared (Ether 3:23) and later passed on to the prophetic leaders among the Nephites (Mosiah 28:20; Alma 37:21). In the Wentworth letter, Joseph Smith provided a straightforward description of the interpreters, writing, “With the records was found a curious instrument which the ancient called ‘Urim and Thummim,’ which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate. Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God” (“Church History,” 1 March 1842, 707, JSP).


The Miraculous Directors. The phrase “miraculous directors” is undoubtedly a reference to the Liahona, described by Nephi as “a round ball of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass.” He further said that “within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go in the wilderness” (1 Nephi 16:10). The Liahona was among the other relics passed on by the Nephite leaders (Mosiah 1:16–17; Alma 37:1, 38–47). (Doctrine and Covenants Minute)

Verses 5-9

Casey Paul Griffiths (LDS Scholar)

Though all three of the witnesses later left the Church or were excommunicated, all of them maintained their testimony of the witness experience throughout the remainder of their lives. Oliver Cowdery wrote a letter in November 1829, just a few months after the witness experience, explaining, “This record which gives an account of the first inhabitants of this continent, is engraved on plates, which have the appearance of gold; and they are of very curious workmanship. . . . It was a clear, open beautiful day, far from any inhabitants, in a remote field, at the time we saw the record, of which it has been spoken, brought, and laid before us, by an angel, arrayed in glorious light, ascend out of the midst of heaven” (Documentary History of the Book of Mormon, 374–75).


Oliver was excommunicated in April 1838 and spent roughly a decade outside of the Church. He returned in the fall of 1848, when he gave a speech recorded by Reuben Miller. Miller recalled Oliver saying, “I beheld with my eyes, and handled with my hands, the gold plates from which it was transcribed. I also saw with my eyes and handled with my hands the ‘holy interpreters.’ That book is true” (“Last Days of Oliver Cowdery,” Deseret News, April 13, 1859). Oliver died on March 3, 1850, in Richmond, Missouri. In 1911, Church leaders placed a monument to the Three Witnesses near the place of Oliver’s burial.


Martin Harris also became estranged from the Church in 1838. He was associated with a number of schismatic groups led by James J. Strang, William McClellin, and others, before returning to the Church in 1870. He then traveled to Church headquarters and settled in Clarkston, Utah. William Pilkington, a young man hired to live and work with Harris, wrote that he heard Martin bear his testimony “scores of times.” Pilkington later recorded that the day before he died Harris shared his testimony, even asking the fourteen-year-old William to hold up Martin’s right hand while he spoke. According to Pilkington, Martin said,


Just as sure as you see the sun shining, just as sure am I that I stood in the presence of an angel of God with Joseph Smith, and saw him hold the gold plates in his hands. I also saw the urim and thummim, the breastplate, the sword of Laban. I saw the angel descend from heaven, the heavens were then opened and I heard the voice of God declare that everything the angel had told us was true, and that the Book of Mormon was translated correct. I was commanded by God’s voice to testify to the whole world what I had seen and heard” (Documentary History of the Book of Mormon, 402–403).


Martin died on July 9, 1875, and was buried in Clarkston, Utah. On his grave rises a small obelisk with a metal plaque engraved with the testimony of the three witnesses.


David Whitmer was the longest-lived and most interviewed of the three witnesses. He never returned to the Church but on dozens of occasions shared his testimony of the experience with the angel. In 1887, the year before he died, David published an address to the entire world, in which he wrote,


It is recorded in the American Cyclopedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica, that I, David Whitmer, have denied my testimony as one of the three witnesses to the divinity of the Book of Mormon; and that the other two witnesses, Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris, denied their testimony to that book. I will say once more to all mankind, that I have never at any time denied that testimony or any part thereof. I also testify to the world that neither Oliver Cowdery or Martin Harris ever at any time denied their testimony. They both died reaffirming the truth of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon. I was present at the death bed of Oliver Cowdery, and his last word were, ‘Brother David, be true to your testimony to the Book of Mormon’” (Address to All Believers in Christ, 8).


David Whitmer died on January 25, 1888, in Richmond, Missouri. On his headstone in the Richmond cemetery are chiseled the words, “The record of the Jews and the record of the Nephites are one. Truth is eternal.”


It is worthwhile to mention, in addition to these three witnesses, the one woman who was shown the plates by the angel. John C. Whitmer, the grandson of Mary Musselman Whitmer, recorded the following:


I have heard my grandmother (Mary Musselman Whitmer) say on several occasions that she was shown the plates of the Book of Mormon by a holy angel, whom she always called Brother Nephi. (She undoubtedly refers to Moroni, the angel who had the plates in charge.) It was at the time, she said, when the translation was going on at the house of the elder Peter Whitmer, her husband. Joseph Smith with his wife and Oliver Cowdery, whom David Whitmer a short time previous had brought up from Harmony, Pennsylvania, were all boarding with the Whitmers, and my grandmother in having so many extra persons to care for, besides her own large household, was often overloaded with work to such an extent that she felt it to be quite a burden.


One evening, when (after having done her usual day’s work in the house) she went to the barn to milk the cows, she met a stranger carrying something on his back that looked like a knapsack. At first she was a little afraid of him, but when he spoke to her in a kind, friendly tone and began to explain to her the nature of the work which was going on in her house, she was filled with inexpressible joy and satisfaction. He then untied his knapsack and showed her a bundle of plates, which in size and appearance corresponded with the description subsequently given by the witnesses to the Book of Mormon. This strange person turned the leaves of the book of plates over, leaf after leaf, and also showed her the engravings upon them; after which he told her to be patient and faithful in bearing her burden a little longer, promising that if she would do so, she should be blessed; and her reward would be sure, if she proved faithful to the end.


The personage then suddenly vanished with the plates, and where he went, she could not tell. From that moment my grandmother was enabled to perform her household duties with comparative ease, and she felt no more inclination to murmur because her lot was hard. I knew my grandmother to be a good, noble and truthful woman, and I have not the least doubt of her statement in regard to seeing the plates being strictly true. She was a strong believer in the Book of Mormon until the day of her death (LDS Biographical Encyclopedia, Andrew Jenson, 1:283). (Doctrine and Covenants Minute)