How did Joseph Smith obtain the Golden Plates, and who saw them?
Various Topics About the Plates
In 1823, Joseph Smith was visited by an angel who told him of the existence of the Golden Plates, a record of ancient middle eastern peoples who had emigrated to North America.
Many years later, Smith would identify that angel as Moroni, the last survivor of those ancient peoples, and last author of the plates. Later still, Smith identified the angel as Nephi, the first author of the plates. Today, LDS literature has been standardized to show that the angel was indeed Moroni.
In any case, this angel told Joseph where he could find the Golden Plates, and using his seer stone as a guide, Smith unearthed the plates from beneath a large stone on the Hill Cumorah. Unfortunately, because Smith did not obey the angels instructions concerning their retrieval, the plates vanished back into the ground.
It wasn’t until four years later, in 1827, that Smith was able to obtain the Golden Plates again. While transporting them to his home, he was attacked by his fellow money diggers who felt they deserved a share of the treasure. But he fended off his assailants, running three miles to his home, all the while carrying his large book of gold.
Later, in 1842, Smith would describe the plates as being a six inch thick stack of 6 by 8 inch metal pages held together by three rings. This he kept this either in a wooden box, or under a cloth, because the angel had told him not to show it to any unauthorized people.
While translating the plates, Smith was told that three witnesses would be allowed to see the plates by faith. These men were Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer. Although the plates were actually in Whitmer’s house, the men went out into the woods to pray where they saw a vision of an angel showing them the plates. The testimony of these Three Witnesses is found at the beginning of every Book of Mormon to validate the existence of the Golden Plates. Later, all three of these witnesses were excommunicated from the church.
Later, another group of witnesses was allowed to see the plates. Of these 8 men, 7 of them were immediate family members of Joseph Smith or David Whitmer. They supposedly saw the plates directly, without an angelic visit, but statements from some witnesses later in life indicate that they saw the plates spiritually, and not physically.
Other people testified that they handled the plates through a cloth, but never actually saw them. The issue was put to rest, however, when Joseph Smith returned the plates to the angel after he finished translating them.
According to Brigham Young, when Smith returned the plates, the Hill Cumorah opened up into a large cave, revealing wagonloads of other plates and treasures. These were all the surviving records and artifacts of the ancient peoples of the Book of Mormon. And although the Hill Cumorah is a popular LDS tourist site today in New York, none of these plates or artifacts have ever been recovered to validate Smith‘s story. There’s more on the Golden Plates at ldsvideo.org