We are taught that the Three Witnesses (Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris and David Whitmer) were first given a view of the gold plates in June 1829, when the angel Moroni showed them unto them. If that is so, then how did Oliver have his failed attempt at translating the plates two months before in April 1829? He had to have seen the plates then, right?
No, actually, he didn’t. The thing is that the Urim and Thummim allows one to see things anywhere. Joseph Knight recounts Joseph Knight’s statement upon interacting with the plates and Urim and Thummim thusly:
But, he seemed to think more of the glasses or the Urim and Thummim than he did of the plate for, said he, “I can see anything. They are marvelous.”
— Joseph Knight Sr., Reminiscence, Circa 1835-1847 (Early Mormon Documents, 4:15)
So, the plates could have been in the next room or another city for that matter. This was one of the things that Oliver was missing from the process. The fact is that we don’t know if he actually saw them or not during the attempt in April.
The Lord said:
7 Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
8 But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.
— D&C 9:7-8
Oliver thought that all you had to do was look at the plates through the Urim and Thummim as if through any pair of glasses, and the words would transform into readable English. But that simply wasn’t how they worked. It would have been too easy if all he had to do was ask to do it as Joseph did, and it would be given him. That simply wasn’t true in this case. There was significant spiritual preparation that was required, which Oliver had not gone through.
I always thought it was odd that in all that time, he never seemed to understand the details of the translation. In the beginning, Joseph had to “get right with God” every day and every hour he translated.
One morning when he was getting ready to continue the translation, something went wrong about the house and he was put out about it. Something that Emma, his wife, had done. Oliver and I went up stairs and Joseph came up soon after to continue the translation, but he could not do anything. He could not translate a single syllable. He went down stairs, out into the orchard, and made supplication to the Lord; was gone about an hour–came back to the house, asked Emma’s forgiveness and then came up stairs where we were and then the translation went on all right. He could do nothing save he was humble and faithful.
— David Whitmer (Quoted in: Defense of the Faith and the Saints Vol 1; P 262; B.H. Roberts)
Oliver seemed not to notice that there was a spiritual element of translation. This enabled one to use the Urim and Thummim. So, it really doesn’t matter if he saw them in April or not. Why?
There was a difference between the testimony of the Three Witnesses vs the testimony of the Eight Witnesses.
- The Eight “saw” some plates with characters on them. It was an entirely mortal experience.
- The three had a spiritual witness with a glorified resurrected being showing them the plates and testifying to them of the divinity of the work.
So, it wouldn’t have mattered if Oliver saw the plates earlier or not. The special witness he received that day was quite different than what he had on the date of attempted translation.