In my last post, Lawyers, Inc. vs. Faith, some folks suggested that the import of the Book of Mormon witnesses is lessened by the imitative adventure of James Strang and his witnesses who observed the non-miraculous existence of some much less valuable non-precious metal plates. Ironically, it's a fitting comparison to make since Strang himself was a lawyer and his exploits illustrate some of the things that skilled lawyers or other highly educated people can do when they seek to affect (as in misdirect) the faith of others.

Strang claimed that Joseph Smith had appointed him to be his successor, and showed some people a letter that he claimed was a letter of appointment from Joseph. There's no evidence I know of that Joseph ever said or advocated this, apart from Strang's letter. If the letter was a forgery, as seems highly probable, the tiny low-value plates lack evidence of being anything more than that. But wait, he had witnesses! Just like the witnesses to the gold plates, right? No, not like those witnesses.

Strang's witnesses first saw tiny plates that had been buried and dug out of the ground by the witnesses at a spot where Strang prophesied they would be found. But no one doubts that some metal plates existed, for they were not clearly miraculous and not beyond the abilities of that educated man to fabricate or hire out. Gold plates in the hands of Joseph Smith are quite a different matter, and it was gold that the witnesses saw, not the same common metal used in teaware and other items of his day. What the Eight Witnesses experienced already trumps Strang's imitative work, but nothing in his portfolio can even begin to compare with the sheer miraculous power of what the Three Witnesses experienced and affirmed throughout their lives: gold plates and other sacred relics, shown by a majestic angel, his feet not touching the ground, and then the voice of God adding to the witness of divinity. The witnesses of the gold plates testify to the physical tangible reality of the plates under ordinary light and also under miraculous circumstances. Both settings are important. 

For Strang, seeking to obtain the same credentials as Joseph, imitating the discovery of plates was a "smart move" for this lawyer, but for Joseph, announcing the discovery of ancient writings on metal plates was ridiculous. Remember, Joseph showed his witnesses the gold plates many decades before the Darius plates and other ancient records on gold and other metal plates would be found. This was decades before the Mesoamerican practice of using stone boxes to preserve sacred items would be known. This was over a decade before the reality of ancient civilization in Mesoamerica would become widely known to the public (Humboldt and a few others notwithstanding). Strang was the imitator, Joseph was the groundbreaker, and importantly, what the witnesses testified to was quite different and has remarkably different meaning.

Strang's witnesses can be taken at face value, at least regarding the existence of the plates, though unlike Joseph's witnesses, not all would remain convinced that the story of the find was something grander than a man-made fraud. Yes, they saw something. Yes, it was made out of metal--apparently a common metal. Yes, there were some writings on the plates. Tiny plates, much smaller than the gold plates. But taking their witnesses at face value does not imply a divine origin for the plates or a divine call for Strang.

Strang, the educated lawyer, having impressed his witnesses with the buried plates, proceeded to "translate" them. The translation took roughly a decade--not bad, but that's a pace that pales with Joseph's rapid work of dictating the translation, unaided by other resources according to his scribes and others.

Strang, a lawyer seeking to provide evidence that he should be revered as a leader like Joseph, would translate his plates and strive to gain followers. But the story dwindles after that, while the evidences for the reality and plausibility of the Book of Mormon continue to grow in many ways. Those evidences include many witnesses who experienced both miraculous manifestations and mundane evidence for the tangible reality and divine origins of the sacred record, an ancient, Semitic record engraved on gold plates (or, more likely, a gold alloy such as the gold-copper alloy known as tumbaga that was widely used in ancient Mesoamerica, much lighter than gold itself, and which would give a stack of thin plates with Book of Mormon dimensions weighing about 60 pounds, as one of the witnesses recorded regarding their weight).

Daniel Peterson summarizes the case of the Strang witnesses in his 2006 FAIR Conference presentation on the tangible nature of the Restoration (an important essay - please read it):
The first set, the three "Voree" or "Rajah Manchou" plates, were dug up by four "witnesses" whom Strang had brought to the appropriate site. Inscribed on both sides with illustrations and "writing," the Rajah Manchou plates were roughly 1.5 by 2.75 inches in size--small enough to fit in the palm of a hand or to carry in a pocket. Among the many who saw them was Stephen Post, who reported that they were brass and, indeed, that they resembled the French brass used in familiar kitchen kettles. "With all the faith & confidence that I could exercise," he wrote, "all that I could realize was that Strang made the plates himself, or at least that it was possible that he made them." One not altogether reliable source reports that most of the four witnesses to the Rajah Manchou plates ultimately repudiated their testimonies. The eighteen "Plates of Laban," likewise of brass and each about 7 3/8 by 9 inches, were first mentioned in 1849 and, in 1851, were seen by seven witnesses. Their testimony appeared at the front of The Book of the Law of the Lord, which Strang said he translated from the "Plates of Laban." (Work on the translation seems to have begun at least as early as April 1849. An 84-page version appeared in 1851; by 1856, it had reached 350 pages .) The statement of Strang's witnesses speaks of seeing the plates, but mentions nothing of any miraculous character. Nor did Strang supply any second set of corroborating testimony comparable to that of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon. One of the witnesses to the "Plates of Laban," Samuel P. Bacon, eventually denied the inspiration of Strang's movement and denounced it as mere "human invention." Another, Samuel Graham, later claimed that he had assisted Strang in the fabrication of the "Plates of Laban." The well-read Strang had been an editor and lawyer before his brief affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his subsequent career as a schismatic leader. Thus, Strang's plates were much less numerous than those associated with Joseph Smith, his witnesses saw nothing supernatural, his translation required the better part of a decade rather than a little more than two months, and, unlike the Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, Strang's witnesses did not remain faithful to their testimonies. [footnotes omitted]
Whatever you think of James Strang and his plates, he and his witnesses do not lessen the evidence provided by the Three Witnesses nor that from the Eight Witnesses and others for the reality of the gold plates of the Book of Mormon.

Unfortunately, the critics can't see a difference. As one put it in the comments section on my last post,
Oh, the Strangite one is my favorite. Has nearly the exact same arguments for its validity as Mormonism, but we can dismiss Strangite testimonies because, well, for all the reasons we can dismiss Mormon testimonies.

I'm sure Jeff is 100% aware of it, too. It just doesn't click. The brain doesn't work on logic when there are huge emotional barriers.
This is not a difficult issue, IMHO. The reasons for not accepting James Strang's work as divine based on the weak evidence from the Strangite witnesses have little bearing on the Book of Mormon. The two cases do not involve "the exact same arguments." The Strangite witnesses are not parallels to the miraculous evidence from Book of Mormon witnesses. They do not provide the consistent, passionate, and lifelong credibility we have with the gold plates from men who often had much to lose and nothing to gain by standing as witnesses, even after falling away from the institutional Church. The Strangite witnesses are much more easily understood as men who actually saw real, fabricated plates, having been duped for a while by a skilled and well-read lawyer with a scheme to imitate Joseph. This does nothing to explain the origins of what Strang sought to imitate. Emotional barriers are not the issue here.

It's one thing to show some people a little set of plates carefully buried in the ground. It's quite another thing to have a majestic angel present them, and then, to remove all doubts from religious hysteria and frenzied minds, to have men under ordinary light see and handle actual gold plates that Joseph could not plausibly have fabricated. Joseph the uneducated farmboy wins this round against the skilled lawyer, and so do his witnesses.

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