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Opening the Heavens is now available at Deseret Book’s online ebook store.

The Latter-day Saint faith is arguably the least mystical of all religious traditions. Mormons welcome a type of empirical evidence into their circle of religious fervor. Jesus said, “By their fruits ye shall know them” and “If any man will do [God’s] will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.”

In other words, “Test the gospel and observe the outcome.” God through modern revelation says, “I will reason as with men in days of old, and I will show unto you my strong reasoning” (D&C 45:10). Joseph Smith once remarked that facts are stubborn things, and the world would prove him to be a true prophet through “circumstantial evidences, in experiments” (Times and Seasons 3:922).

Mormonism is a tactile religion as much as a spiritual one. Its history records real gold plates that many witnesses hefted and examined, deities with tangible bodies of flesh and bone, and angels that would rather reach out and shake our hand than wax mysterious in sermon. The urim and thummim, seer stones, Egyptian mummies, ancient papyri, and other physical artifacts rivet the Mormon mind to the reality of it all. Reality is a word that sums up the object of our religious quest.

Old-school scientific purists might complain that our religious evidences cannot be replicated predictably in a lab. True enough. But as science moves from modernism to postmodernism, it is becoming increasingly apparent that many of the greatest scientific realities cannot be replicated consistently. Geneticists onced surmised that genes were a blueprint that could predict how the body functions. But once the human genome was finally mapped out and studied, it became apparent that genes were more like flexible rubber, responding dynamically to various conditions. The question is no longer nature versus nurture, but how much will nurture change nature; identical twins living drastically different lifestyles may eventually look very different from each other. Likewise, quantum physicists agree that even the act of human observation changes the properties of quantum particles in unpredictable ways.

With such developments, a new philosophy of science has arisen that is willing to consider evidence that is not dependable or replicable in a lab, because in fact the universe in its various dimensions is not fundamentally predictable, especially while intelligent beings with their own wills and motives can act upon it. In other words, real life gets in the way. The realm of Newtonian physics is a terrible predictor of the realm of quantum phsysics, and in turn the subatomic realm of quantum physics does not translate well to the vast universe of Einstein’s relativity. And the laws established in each of these fields will all fall abysmally short when trying to predict the mysterious interchange between young lovers. Truth does not equal lock-step conformity-anything but. Each realm must have its own criteria and context before we can even begin to talk about consistency.

This idea of realms is a welcome development to most Latter-day Saints, who, for example, have long held internal spiritual evidence in the same high regard as external physical evidence. And if one is willing to consider internal and external witnesses as a part of their evidence, Mormonism is teeming with opportunities to verify truth.

As one example, consider the Law of Witnesses. Many assume that the foundations of Mormonism are basically a matter of faith alone-Joseph Smith’s testimony versus our willingness to believe or not to believe. Yet the First Vision is the only foundational event in Church history that Joseph Smith experienced alone. The book Opening the Heavens, for example, documents several hundred firsthand accounts from 1820-1844 where others saw visions, angels, healings, transfigurations, and so forth, often together with Joseph Smith or simultaneously with a crowd of other Saints.

For example, Sidney Rigdon had a vision simultaneously with Joseph Smith concerning the three degrees of glory. This upholds the belief that Joseph was more than a charismatic with a mystical imagination-a second witness is impressive and confirms faith. In reality, however, many more witnesses than two were present. They did not see the vision but saw a magnificent glory encircle Sidney and Joseph. Philo Dibble was one of those present and recounts: “Joseph and Sidney were in the spirit and saw the heavens open, and there were other men in the room, perhaps twelve. 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…’

“This manner of conversation was repeated at short intervals to the end of the vision. Not a sound nor motion was made by anyone but Joseph and Sidney, and it seemed to me that they never moved a joint or limb during the time I was there, [which was] for over an hour, to the end of the vision.

“Joseph sat firmly and calmly all the time in the midst of a magnificent glory, but Sidney sat limp and pale, apparently as limber as a rag, observing which, Joseph remarked, smilingly, Sidney is not used to it as I am.'”[i]

So that which is often accounted as a two-witness vision might also be called a fifteen-witness vision. Two saw the full vision, but those among the dozen or so, who felt the power and saw the glory, should not be discounted. This account serves as a good template for a study of the witnesses of the Restoration-it shows that there is always more evidence than we at first might suspect.

For many Mormons, the understanding of the Law of Witnesses goes something like this: (1) Eleven witnesses saw the golden plates, (2) Joseph and Oliver Cowdery were present when Peter, James, and John restored the Priesthood, and (3) Joseph and Oliver were witnesses when Moses, Elias, and Elijah restored the keys of that Priesthood in the Kirtland Temple.

Though these events are central to Mormon doctrine, in relation to the totality of witnesses, these episodes barely scratch the surface.

And notice not only the extra testimonies but the care taken in presenting the Book of Mormon witnesses to the world. Anyone with some semblance of an open mind should be at least be curious. In giving others a witness of the plates, it seems apparent that two main objectives were accomplished. First, to prove that the Book of Mormon was of divine origin, and second, to prove that the plates were real and tangible-nothing mystical or symbolic or transcendental about them-Joseph was dealing with a real recorded history that could be handled and hefted and seen. These two purposes cover two different realms of evidence-the spiritual and the physical.

With the Three Witnesses, how does God prove that the Book of Mormon indeed does have a heavenly origin, that the powers of God were indeed present when Joseph Smith translated? The necessary mode of evidence is simple: “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God . . . because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14); “For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit [receive] the things of the Spirit” (Rom. 8:5). Like the above discussion about placing evidences in their proper realms, the powers of heaven are proven by other heavenly powers. Hence, to show that the medium of heaven was intimately involved in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, it would follow that the Three Witnesses would view the Book of Mormon plates through the power of God. This, of course, is exactly what the account records.

But what about those not acquainted with the principal of faith? How will God plant the tiny seed of curiosity into the hearts of materialists, scientists, and skeptics who look upon life with an analytical and secular mind, and who so easily dismiss reports of divine manifestations as the product of some sort of psychosomatic symptom stemming from way too much religious zealotry?

It appears God has reached out to those with these empirical tendencies as well. Along with the Three Witnesses, eight others signed their names that they had seen and hefted the plates. But with the Eight Witnesses we do not find any heavenly powers involved at all. These eight men retired to the woods with Joseph Smith, where he unceremoniously uncovered the plates. Each man could view them, heft them, and turn over the several leaves that Joseph had translated. No dreams, no visions, no transfigurations, no altered states of mind; but they, in their sober senses and with their natural eyes, examined the plates in broad daylight. Everything was purposefully natural and low-key.

However, like the new paradigm in science, if the evidence is examined only in a controlled environment and everything fits too perfectly, that’s a sign something is suspect. But there was a third type of Book of Mormon witness that answers to this kind of scientific concern. These were the witnesses that weren’t even supposed to be witnesses. They were not official. They came across the plates by accident, really. There was no official gatherings in the woods, no official signed affidavit or proclamation, just normal people who came across evidence of the plates in everyday life. These accounts smack of authenticity because, like real life, they are unstudied and unpredictable. These people could not be in collusion with Joseph Smith-after all, they were forbidden to be witnesses-yet they became witnesses anyway.

When Emma acted as scribe in the translation, the plates were often right in front of her on the table wrapped in cloth. With admirable discipline, Emma didn’t ever uncover them and look, having been previously forbidden to do so, but she did satisfy her curiosity just enough to become an incidental witness: “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 thumbs the edges of a book.”

Other incidental witnesses spoke of hefting the plates while they were in a linen frock, a pillowcase, or a wooden box. All noticed how heavy they were, including Martin Harris’s family: “My daughter said they were about as much as she could lift . . . and my wife said they were very heavy.” Martin Harris, piqued by their hands-on experience, went to the Smith home for himself and gave this insightful incidental witness: “I knew from the heft that they were lead or gold, and I knew that Joseph had not credit enough to buy so much lead.” Besides what appears to be an ingenious deployment of the Law of Witnesses, the above examples also show that the raw number of witnesses is more substantial than what we normally think. [ii]

In reality, Mormons hardly realize what they have by way of witnesses because it is so voluminous and breathtaking. Think for a moment, what would happen if one, just one, original, authenticated letter surfaced from the time of Christ-say, a letter written by Mary Magdalene that she did indeed see two angels at the tomb of Jesus, and that she saw the resurrected Christ-what would happen? If it could truly be authenticated, pandemonium among biblical students would likely ensue; a vast renewal of religious faith like wild fire would take the world over; skeptics would present nervous theories to discount the claim; it would be, to say the least, a sensation.

Ironically, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has thousands of original documents and accounts from contemporaries of Joseph Smith relating such divine manifestations, and very few seem to care. “Think, for example, how few documents have survived from the time of Mohammed,” writes John W. Welch in Opening the Heavens, “And what would New Testament scholars give for a single letter from Mary about the raising of Lazarus? Or a diary entry by someone who was present when Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River? Or a brief report from Peter to the Twelve about what he had just seen and heard on the Mount of Transfiguration? In the case of Joseph Smith and the key events of the Restoration, we enjoy, by comparison, and overwhelming abundance” (viii).

In Opening the Heavens alone, which deals only with the foundational events in Mormonism, we have ten accounts of the First Vision, over 200 accounts that document the miraculous translation of the Book of Mormon, 70 contemporaneous accounts of the Restoration of the Priesthood, 76 accounts of visionary experiences, and over 120 eyewitness accounts of the transfiguration of Brigham Young.

The transfiguration of Brigham Young stands as probably the single most widely documented miracle, ancient or modern, experienced by onlookers simultaneously. And for every recorded witness there is likely to be an unrecorded witness. Zina D. H. Young mentioning that thousands in her day bore testimony of the miracle (Opening the Heavens, 422).

Critics point out that many more thousands attending reported no miraculous manifestation, as if uniform consistency should be expected. That is placing a higher standard on religion than all the postmodern sciences combined. If things at the quantum level can only be discerned by quantum physics, then isn’t it true that the things of the spirit can only be discerned by the spirit? Orson Hyde’s account, speaking of the two others that accompanied him that day, personifies this principle: “When President Young began to speak, one of them said: It is the voice of Joseph! It is Joseph Smith!’ The exclamation of the other was,-I do not see him, where is he?[‘] Well the thought occurred to my mind respecting the Scripture which President Young has just quoted:-My sheep know my voice and follow me.’ Where is the one that recognized the voice of Joseph in President Young? Where is she? She is in the line of her duty. But where is the other? Gone where I wish she were not” (Opening the Heavens, 423).

Besides, even if thousands did not see anything, we must still reckon with the many who did. Positive evidence carries greater weight than negative evidence. Orson Hyde went on to give this account of Brigham, representative of the 120 other accounts that cannot lightly be dismissed: “On his rising to speak, and as soon as he opened his mouth, I heard the voice of Joseph through him, and it was as familiar to me as the voice of my wife, the voice of my child, or the voice of my father. And not only the voice of Joseph did I distinctly and unmistakably hear, but I saw the very gestures of his person, the very features of his countenance, and if I mistake not, the very size of his person appeared on the stand. And it went through me with the thrill of conviction that Brigham was the man to lead this people. And from that day to the present there has not been a query or a doubt upon my mind with regard to the divinity of his appointment; I know that he was the man selected of God to fill the position he now holds” (Opening the Heavens, 422-23).


The first principle of the gospel involves faith; but faith never need exclude sound evidence. In fact, sometimes it is a spark of evidence that an inquiring soul clings to that inspires the journey of faith in the first place (see JST Heb. 11:1). And who is to say that an internal witness by the Holy Spirit is not every bit as viable as external evidence? Especially when millions across the world externally report a similar brush with God? Hopefully, Latter-day Saints embrace reality, whether it be an intangible but oh-so-real witness from the Holy Spirit, or the tactile realm of sacred instruments and holy personages-or even embrace the reality of true science.

While religious and scientific purists would rather not mix the two, Mormon truths and scientific truths are increasingly arriving at reality using a similar process. Both groups recognize that the universe has different realms or dimensions, each with their own set of laws and conditions. If you want quantum truth, go to a genius quantum physicist; if you want physical truth about our planet’s dimension, go to the genius Newton; if you want cosmic relative truth, go to the genius Einstein; and if you want religion, go to the geniuses of spiritual truth, the prophets. And as to the genius Prophet Joseph Smith and the early days of the Restoration, it seems apparent that at some point the world is going to have to reckon with this overwhelming evidence, this “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1).

Opening the Heavens is now available at Deseret Book’s online ebook store.


[i] Philo Dibble, “Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” The Juvenile Instructor 27 (1892), 23.

[ii] For a thorough analysis of these incidental witnesses, see chapter 2 of Richard Lloyd Anderson’s Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book Company, 1981).