Updated: Jul 30, 2020
The CES Letter spends quite a bit of time poking the witnesses to the Book of Mormon. The Church has used the witnesses in strong measure to help support the veracity of the Book of Mormon. It's not that the witnesses statements were ever changed, but that some of them can be impeached on definitions of the word, "see."
It begins with an appeal to our best rational natures with respect to the worldview of the witnesses, who were certainly into magical thinking. Like the discussion with Joseph Smith, one needs to apply the same rubric to the witnesses. Having the ability to “see” in a spiritual and non-material sense does not necessarily disqualify someone as a character witnesses. Half of the people in upstate New York used the occult in some form or another. The other half lied about it. Mormonism and the Magical Worldview by D. Michael Quinn provides a better understanding of a quasi-faithful interpretation of these experiences.
The Three Witnesses, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer are well-known in Mormonism as having to have "seen" the golden plates, the angel holding them, and they never are known to have denied their witnesses. That was intended both by Joseph Smith, and by those that followed, to be an iron-clad testimony to the veracity of the work. However, each of the witnesses, as the CES Letter correctly addresses, have problems with their witness as neutral observers. So, let’s be clear. They weren’t neutral. Martin Harris seems to have some integrity issues, possibly some mental health issues that come into play, and he was leveraged to the hilt for the publication of the Book of Mormon. All three later apostatized from the Church with Marin Harris the only one to fully return. David Whitmer felt called by God to abandon the Church and he ended up starting his own sect. All three have bizarre statements that make it difficult to perceive HOW they gained their witnesses. Oliver Cowdery got crosswise with Joseph as the first dissenter over the perceived adultery with Fanny Alger. That is rightfully used as a strength to their testimonies, because if they ever had a story to tell to screw Joseph Smith, they could have.
While there has been a discussion here already about what is called Second Sight, the ability to parse what is imagined vision and what is transfigured vision have not been fleshed out. Both could possibly relate to Second Sight, but both are not the same experience. Guided imagination may be best described as watching a movie in your head or reading a book and seeing the vision of what is happening, but without you guiding the process. It's also called a lucid dream. This author has experienced it, and it can be a bit surprising. It may seem like that someone is taking over your mind. It’s also possible that it is simply your deep sub-conscious doing the work, sort of like learning how to dream while being awake. We could say that such a visionary concept is fraught with error and has mixed results, but we should toss it away as completely unreliable? It may indeed be the gateway effort to even more fascinating results down the road.
The next kind of vision would be transfiguration. This is the sort of vision often described in the scriptures. Moses states “whether I was in the body, I know not.” This sort of experience seems to be characterized as being the following:
The feeling you have left your body
The ability to view images vividly, but without your eyes
Hot feelings that permeate both the breast area and behind the eyes (or third eye)
Are often described as MORE real that things you can view with your natural eyes
Can happen either after a guided imaginary vision or often without any prior meditation
This seems to be the state Joseph Smith was in when he experienced the First Vision and the visions of angel Moroni.
Another terminology for this kind of experience is astral projection.
Astral projection is a new term, or a New Age term, for transfiguration. There are some who claim to be able to do this, or to channel this, to leave the body and experience other realms, or realities. Now whether this happens or is inside the mind is for science to discover (if they will do the research). But it’s not unique to Mormonism, Christianity, or religion. It’s very possible that this kind of experience is simply a method of traveling between dimensions and that anyone can learn how to do it. It’s also quite possible that advanced beings know how to use it and introduce it to those that don’t know how to use it, or to take them to realms that are unreachable without a guide. These things are possibilities that could exist, although to the secularist, seem highly unlikely. Best to keep an open mind. Not all of it could be characterized as "good" or "true." But in terms of experience, it could be very much be "real."
The problem with the witnesses’ testimonies are how they have been portrayed as rational, experiential, scientific witnesses of beings and items. That is simply not true to the extent it has been portrayed, no matter how that may have been inferred by later followers. But if we can reject the interpretation, we can go back to the original content and take it in anew with a sense of awe at certain possibilities. There is good evidence to believe in the existence of something that at least looked and appeared like plates in an objectively real way. Three witnesses, including Emma Smith, talk about feeling them through a cloth or hefting them. Josiah Stowell got a peak at them as Joseph crawled through a window. Joseph Smith often carried these around, even hiding them from enemies who thought he had some sort of treasure. They even mention an empty stone box on the hill. He was clearly hefting something. Now whether they are ancient records, found pre-Columbian artifacts, or fakes is anyone’s guess from the testimonies. But the plates were at least nominally real and had an existence of some sort. That seems undeniable. What is really in play here is the angel. From all of the statements read, the type of experience with the angel showing the plates was indeed a form of Second Sight, or transfiguration. But that probably doesn't mean it should be dismissed, simply re-interpreted.
Imitations and Authenticity
Another challenge with the witnesses’ narrative is that it was replicated years later after the death of Joseph Smith through a man named James Strang. Strang produced some plates that he claimed he could translate. He also produced the Book of the Law of the Lord, which he claims he translated from the Brass Plates mentioned in the Book of Mormon.
James Strang with copies of the Voree Plates. It’s noted that the Voree Plates he produced are not the source from the Book of the Law of the Lord.
Tens of thousands of Mormons followed Strang to Wisconsin and Michigan. It’s easy to see why. Even though Strang was largely unknown in Nauvoo, he produced charismatic testimony, like Joseph Smith, while Brigham Young only produced power and authority. Strang produced items (plates) that he showed to the public (which later were lost to history but parchment copies were preserved) and he produced witnesses to angels and plates, with Martin Harris being one of his witnesses. It is true that his witnesses even seem to come from a stronger place than the Book of Mormon.
After about twenty years, Strang was murdered, his followers then mostly drifted into the arms of the RLDS Church then being formed by Joseph Smith III. Today there are barely any Strangites left.
Of course, what this does is set up a logical test for most Mormons. Since most have no idea who this guy was, and since his system was identical to Joseph Smith’s, and his work and accomplishments have largely been forgotten by history, the idea of witnesses at all is insufficient to prove the Book of Mormon. The CES Letter largely surmises that Mormons would reject Strang’s work as one of an impostor. Thus, an appeal to witnesses is useless.
But is it?
Option A (The Secular Mainstream Interpretation): The witnesses were all duped, magical-thinking men who got caught up in a scam. Some twice. This is the Occam’s Razor answer.
Option B (The Imitation Interpretation): The first is authentic, and the second one is an imitation at best. There is a sense that things that come after the original are never better. Think Goulies to Gremlins or Battlestar Galactica to Star Wars in terms of movies. It’s hard for lightening to strike twice, even if we all want it to.
Option C: There are merits to both stories. A faithful albeit imperfect take sees these witnesses as flawed individuals. Perhaps they mis-remember things later or language impedes esoteric experiences. Perhaps some of it was imagined . . . in both cases. In each instance, it would not be uncommon to find artifacts in the mid nineteenth century. The fact that some other Mormon dug up some plates in Wisconsin is not all that unremarkable considering that upper Wisconsin and Michigan were hot places in terms of pre-Columbian Adena artifacts at the time. Perhaps there were authentic “translations” of both artifacts. Perhaps the Voree plates were real, but the translation was fraudulent. Under the same auspices for the discussion with Joseph Smith, James Strang doesn’t seem to be a fraud, but rather, at least a pious deceiver. Upon reading the Book of the Law of the Lord, (a later translation), one finds a Levitical-sounding text of rules and regulation that simply serve to strengthen the leadership of Strang as King of his sect. It does not carry the same sort of gospel implications as does the Book of Mormon. It is an inferior product. At this point James Strang seems a very sincere imitator of Joseph Smith, but whose leadership style morphs into Brigham Young at some point. But he may have had real artifacts. People saw both.
 One thing to note is that it appears that Joseph Smith’s visions were also of the transfigured variety, both the first vision, and his visions with Moroni (or Nephi). In his first vision and later visions, he often talks about “coming to” or waking up. When one understands the tight quarters in the attic of the Smith home where Joseph slept, it’s apparent a grown angel could not hover in the space there. No, it’s more likely that Joseph was having an “out of body” experience when he had his angelic experiences.