Reading through both the testimony of the three and the testimony of the eight witnesses today, I was struck by the contrast between the two. This isn’t the first time I’ve thought this, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice this, but the two sets of witnesses really experienced very different events: the three had a supernatural experience, stating that God “hath declared it unto us” and that “an angel of God” showed them the plates. The eight had a more sensory experience, with no supernatural events: they saw and handled the plates (the three only saw), and examined them physically.
Today when reading, however, it seemed to me that that contrast can be seen not just in the type of experiences the two sets of witnesses are trying to relate, but also in what they are seeking to convey from that, and even how they talk about it. So the three witnesses begin early by speaking about the experience they have had “through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ”. Their witness is not just that the plates exist, but that “they have been translated by the gift and power of God” and that “the work is true”. They assert that they too are acting under divine authority, having been commanded by God to bear witness of their experience, and conclude their witness by speaking of faith in Christ and the final judgment, before finishing with a doxology.
In contrast, the testimony of the eight witnesses only invokes God once, at the end: “And we lie not, God bearing witness of it”, which has more the character of a legal declaration rather than the revelatory one of the eight witnesses. Otherwise their remarks are limited to what they handed and what they infer, in which they are quite restrained: the plates “have the appearance of gold”, and the plates and engravings have “the appearance of an ancient work” (my emphasis). They restrict themselves purely to what they were able to determine with their senses, to the extent that they don’t simply declare that the plates are ancient, but that they appeared to be so. It has the character of a legal testimony, in which they simply (“with words of soberness”) recount what they can observe with their eyes and hands, while the testimony of the three is a religious testimony, in which they bear record of a revelatory experience which they were commanded by God to share with the world, with consequences for their immortal soul.
Upon thinking about this, it really strikes me that both experiences are not just complimentary, but may even be necessary. It’s tempting to see the witness of the three as the more expansive, and in many respects it is, but notice that they don’t recount having actually handled the plates, nor do they give any physical description of it and its contents; only the eight do that. I think this touches on the same duality seen in the commandment that we are to learn “by study and also by faith“: we are expected both to use the capacity of our own minds, reason and other resources to find truth, and supernatural means also, and we really need both when it comes to learning about eternal things. Likewise, in our own efforts to gain a knowledge or witness of the truth of things like the Book of Mormon, I think upon my own experiences and think we may need to exert both: to use what we can learn through reason, experience and our senses, but also be able to seek the spirit and look with an eye of faith. And it is when the two work together, reason and revelation, that we are on the surest ground for seeking truth.