THE BOOK OF MORMON WITNESSES
Historical evidence has led many people to question the authenticity of the Book of Mormon and the credibility of Joseph Smith's story. Those who would defend traditional beliefs about Mormon origins often turn to the testimonies of 11 men. These men signed statements declaring the Book of Mormon was true, and that they had seen and/or handled the plates used in the translation. For some people, such testimony is enough to alleviate their doubts. But is it truly a solid foundation for faith in the Mormon church? A careful investigation reveals there are a number of historical details which raise questions about the objectivity and credibility of these witnesses.
First let's look at the actual testimony of the men known as the Three Witnesses. They are David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris. In the printed statement found in the Book of Mormon, all three of them affirm being shown the plates by an angel, and the LDS church implies that all three men saw the plates with Joseph on the same day. It is portrayed as a physical, tangible, and verifiable event.
But, what people are not told is that the experience was visionary in nature. While Joseph Smith was dictating the Book of Mormon to Oliver Cowdery, he read off a section that declared there would be three special witnesses who would be allowed to see the plates and then "bear witness" to the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith's History states, "Almost immediately after we had made this discovery, it occurred to Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and the aforementioned Martin Harris (who had come to inquire after our progress in the work) that they would have me inquire of the Lord to know if they might not obtain of him the privilege to be these three special witnesses; and finally they became so very solicitous, and urged me so much to inquire that at length I complied" (History of the Church, Vol. 1, pp. 52-53). Joseph then produced a revelation for Oliver, David and Martin which stated that if they relied upon God's word and did so with a full purpose of heart they would "have a view of the plates, and also the breastplate, the sword of Laban, the Urim & Thummim, ... and the miraculous directors which were given to Lehi" (Ibid, p. 53). It would only be by their faith that they would be able to obtain a view of them.
Is this providence or convenience? Joseph dictates the part of the Book of Mormon that mentions three special witnesses while all three are there with him. They beg Joseph to ask God if maybe they aren't the ones. When he finally gives in, Joseph immediately gets a revelation that says, if they have faith, rely on God's word and have full purpose of heart, they will see not only the plates but numerous other wonderful things. So they go to the woods and first spend a prolonged time in prayer. Nothing happens. They pray more. Nothing happens. Martin Harris volunteers to leave the group because he senses the others think he was the reason nothing was happening. As soon as Harris leaves, the others see the angel and plates, though there is no mention of any of the other items that had been promised. According to Joseph Smith's history, Joseph then goes to find Harris, and while praying together, Harris cries out, "Tis enough, tis enough; mine eyes have beheld; mine eyes have beheld;" (Ibid, p. 55). Even in this there is a conflict of testimony, for according to Harris, "I never saw the gold plates, only in a visionary or entranced state. ...In about three days I went into the woods to pray that I might see the plates. While praying I passed into a state of entrancement, and in that state I saw the angel and the plates." (Anthony Metcalf, Ten Years Before the Mast, n.d., microfilm copy, p. 70-71). Once again, in spite of the revelation that claimed they would see the plates as well as many other marvelous things, all they testified to seeing was an angel holding the plates. However, later in life, in an interview with Zenas Gurley, David Whitmer would testify that he saw "the Interpreters in the holy vision.") When Harris was asked if he saw the plates with his naked eyes, he would later admit he only saw the plates with a spiritual eye. (Wilford C. Wood, Joseph Smith Begins His Work, Vol. 1, 1958, introduction. This is a photomechanical reprint of the first edition  of the Book of Mormon. It also contains biographical and histori cal information relating to the Book of Mormon.)
It becomes apparent from Harris' testimony and that of others, that this was a "visionary experience".
Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith were third cousins (Oliver Cowdery: The Elusive Second Elder of the Restoration, Phillip R. Legg, p. 17), and Cowdery also shared what must be considered a magical, mystical mindset. D. Michael Quinn in his book, Early Mormonism & the Magic World View, states, "Cowdery's use of a divining rod, however, does suggest that before 1829, he may have also had at least some knowledge of and experience with as trology and ceremonial folk magic" (p. 35). Brigham Young related a story from the life of Oliver Cowdery in which Cowdery claimed that he and Joseph Smith walked right into the Hill Cumorah with the gold plates of the Book of Mormon and put them back on a table. In this huge cave were piles of gold plates and a sword with writing on it (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 19, p. 38.).
While this experience with a cave of gold plates sounds more like a vivid dream, it was referred to as the gift of "second sight," or "seeing with the eyes of understanding. According to Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery had already seen the gold plates in a vision before becoming Joseph's scribe (Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, p. 8.). Martin Harris, before his experience as one of the three witnesses, told Joseph Smith, "Joseph, I know all about it. The Lord has showed me ten times more about it than you know." (Interview with Martin Harris in Tiffany's Monthly, 1859, p. 166).
David Whitmer's testimony varied as to the objective versus the subjective nature of the experience, but he also spoke of the angel and gold plates in visionary terms. In 1885 he was interviewed by Zenas Gurley. Gurley asked if Whitmer knew that the plates were real metal. Whitmer said that he did not touch or handle them. He was then asked if the table they were on was literal wood or if the whole thing was a like a vision. Whitmer replied that the table had the appearance of literal wood as shown in the vision, in the glory of God (Zenas H. Gurley, Jr., Interview with David Whitmer on January 14, 1885.).
So, according to their own testimonies, all three witnesses describe a mystical, visionary, almost dreamlike experience in which they claim they saw an angel with the gold plates. And, contrary to the LDS church's portrayal, David Whitmer is the only one who saw the plates for the first time that day in the woods, since Oliver and Martin had apparently already seen them in a vision before that day. According to his own testimony, Martin Harris didn't see the angel with plates until he was alone in the woods three days later. This does not appear to be the factual, unquestionably objective event the Mormon church often portrays it to be.
The testimony of the eight other witnesses who claimed they handled actual plates, also has problems in several areas. The Mormon church always pictures all eight of them standing together in the woods, with Joseph showing them the plates. But according to the testimony of John Whitmer who was one of the eight witnesses, Joseph showed them to four people at one time in his house, and then later to four other people (Deseret Evening News, 6 August 1878, Letter to the editor from P. Wilhelm Poulson, M.D., typed transcript, p. 2). It is notable that these eight men fall naturally into two groups of four. The first group is comprised of four brothers of David Whitmer, who himself was one of the three witnesses: Christian, Jacob, Peter jun., and John Whitmer. The second four are Joseph Smith's father, Joseph's two brothers (Hyrum and Samuel) and Hiram Page, who was married to the Whitmer's sister, Catherine. Another sister, Elizabeth, married Oliver Cowdery. So, all the witnesses, except Martin Harris, were closely related to one another.
Another significant historical point regarding the eight witnesses comes from a letter dated April 15, 1838. It was written by a former Mormon leader named Stephen Burnett. In that letter, Burnett told how he heard Martin Harris state in public that Harris never saw the plates with his natural eyes but only in vision or imagination, and the same was true for Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer. Martin Harris went on to say that the eight witnesses never actually saw the plates either, and therefore, were hesitant to sign the statement, but were persuaded to do so.
According to the letter, Burnett and several other men publicly renounced the Book of Mormon. After they were done speaking, Martin Harris got up and said he was sorry for anyone who rejected the Book of Mormon, for he knew it was true, and said he would have never told them that the testimony of the eight witnesses was false if it had not been picked out of him, and that he should have left it as it was (Stephen Burnett, Letter in Joseph Smith Papers, Letter Book. Copy and typed transcript on file in office of Institute for Religious Research.) While some LDS scholars and apologists have tried to brush aside this testimony as "hearsay," it is corroborated by a letter cited in Wayne C. Gunnell's 1955 BYU dissertation. This letter, written by George A. Smith to Josiah Fleming and dated March 30, 1838 (a couple of weeks earlier than the Burnett letter), describes a similar scene with Martin Harris, Boyington, Parish, and Johnson, all of whom are mentioned in the Burnett letter.
The situation is further complicated by some puzzling statements made by the witnesses themselves. Only three of the eight witnesses made separate statements that they had handled the plates. They were Joseph's two brothers, Hyrum and Samuel, and John Whitmer. Hyrum and Samuel's statements are further qualified by their brother William who, in an interview, also claimed to have handled the plates. He said, "I did not see them uncovered, but I handled them and hefted them while wrapped in a tow frock and judged them to have weighed about sixty pounds. ... Father and my brother Samuel saw them as I did while in the frock. So did Hyrum and others of the family." When the interviewer asked if he didn't want to remove the cloth and see the bare plates, William replied, "No, for father had just asked if he might not be permitted to do so, and Joseph, putting his hand on them said; 'No, I am instructed not to show them to any one. If I do, I will transgress and lose them again.' Besides, we did not care to have him break the commandment and suffer as he did before." (Zion's Ensign, p. 6, January 13, 1894, cited in Church of Christ broadside.)
John Whitmer's statements were the most detailed -- both the 1878 statement mentioned earlier and his 1839 statement to Theodore Turley where he said, "I now say, I handled those plates; there were fine engravings on both sides. ... they were shown to me by a supernatural power" (History of the Church, Vol. 3, p. 307). Now if these were physical plates, presented to the eight witnesses while Joseph Smith held them on his knee, why did Whitmer qualify his statement by saying it happened by means of a supernatural power? One can only wonder why there was a need for a supernatural presentation of physical plates. Unless, of course, the Whitmer family was also shown the plates under a cloth, but was encouraged to see them with their eyes of faith. This, however, contradicts John Whitmer's 1878 interview where he states that his group of four were handed the plates "uncovered into our hands, and we turned the leaves sufficient to satisfy us." (Poulson letter to Deseret Evening News, previously cited, p. 2).
Just as puzzling is Hiram Page's testimony regarding his part as one of the eight witnesses. While he makes a veiled reference to "what I saw" he never mentions seeing or handling the plates, but instead emphasizes that Joseph had to have supernatural power to write such a book. He also says, "And to say that those holy Angels who came and showed themselves to me as I was walking through the field, to confirm me in the work of the Lord of the last days -- three of whom came to me afterwards and sang a hymn in their own pure language; yes, it would be treating the God of heaven with contempt, to deny these testimonies." (Ensign of Liberty, 1848, cited in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol 7:4, Winter 1972, p. 84.)
Statements like these raise serious questions about the witnesses, and what exactly happened with Joseph Smith. Yet, we still have the statements from the Mormon church that none of them ever denied their testimony of the Book of Mormon. This may be the case, but there is a possible exception. A reference in an LDS poem published in Times & Seasons, Vol. 2, p. 482, speaks of Oliver denying the Book of Mormon. Oliver Cowdery did later become a member of the "Methodist Protestant Church" in Tiffin, Seneca County, Ohio. Before joining, it appears he made a complete and full renunciation of Mormonism. He later served as a Superintendent of the Sabbath-School, and Secretary of a church meeting and was recognized as a charter member (Affidavit quoted in The True Origin of Mormonism, by Charles A. Shook, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1914, pp. 58-59, cited in Case Against Mormonism, Vol. 2, p. 16; also The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power, by D. Michael Quinn, Signature Books, 1994, p. 545.).
Oliver Cowdery did return to the Mormon church and was rebaptized in October of 1848, but there are questions as to his motivation for joining and how long he remained a member after rejoining. Some Mormons were suspicious of his motives and against his rebaptism. There is interesting evidence that indicates Cowdery was never completely reconciled to the Mormon church. The Gospel Herald of November 1, 1849 carried the following comments: "You will observe also that they make no mention of Oliver Cowdery filling up their organization. The truth is, he is not the sort of man for them. It was a singular fit of mania by which he was led off after them, and seems to have lasted him but a few weeks . . . they would not trust power in his hands a single moment." (Cited in Case Against Mormonism, by Jerald & Sandra Tanner, 1968, p. 28.)
Oliver Cowdery died, not in Utah, but at the home of fellow witness David Whitmer, who had also left the Mormon church. Whitmer makes it clear that Cowdery "died believing as I do to-day," which included a belief that Joseph was a fallen prophet, and that the Doctrine and Covenants contained false revelations (An Address to All Believers in Christ, 1887, pp. 1-2).
Martin Harris is also said to have rejoined the Mormon church and died in full fellowship, affirming his commitment to the Book of Mormon. Yet sources contemporary with Martin Harris referred to him as "feeble both in body and mind" (Des Moines Daily News, Oct. 16, 1886, cited in Case, p. 31). In fact, Anthony Metcalf who interviewed Harris wrote, "Harris never believed that the Brighamite branch of the Mormon church, nor the Josephite church, was right, because in his opinion, God had rejected them; but he did believe that Mormonism was the pure gospel of Christ when it was first revealed, I believe he died in that faith" (Ten Years Before the Mast, Anthony Metcalf, p. 73, microfilm copy).
Mormon writers have also acknowledged that Harris was religiously unstable, saying, "Martin Harris was an unaggressive, vacillating, easily influenced person" (E. Cecil McGavin, The Historical Background for the Doctrine & Covenants, p. 23, cited in Case, Vol. 2, p. 33). Wayne C. Gunnell in his 1955 BYU thesis on Martin Harris wrote, "Martin's motives in being baptized at that time are not known, but the data of later events would indicate a lack of sincerity." Gunnell goes on to quote a letter written in 1844 by Phineas Young to Brigham Young, "Martin Harris is a firm believer in Shakerism, says his testimony is greater than it was of the Book of Mormon" (Martin Harris - Witness and Benefactor to the Book of Mormon, Wayne C. Gunnell, BYU thesis, 1955, p. 52).
It is very significant that Joseph Smith himself called into question the moral integrity of at least four of the eleven witnesses. In History of the Church, vol. 3:232 he wrote: Such characters as McLellin, John Whitmer, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris, are too mean to mention; and we had liked to have forgotten them." Because they had dared leave the Latter-day Saint church, these men and others were later driven away after being accused of being "united with a gang of counterfeiters, thieves, liars and blacklegs of the deepest dye, to deceive cheat and defraud" (Senate Document 189, 1841, p. 9). In all fairness to the witnesses, this appears to be character assassination with the intent of discrediting these men in the eyes of other Mormons. That way other people would think twice about leaving the Mormon church or listening to any further testimony from these witnesses.
According to historical evidence, the Mormon church's customary portrayal of the witnesses as eleven men of rational and critical mindsets, unquestioned honesty and integrity and unwavering commitment to the Mormon church and the Book of Mormon is far from true. Joseph Smith himself questioned their integrity, and many of them left the church and did not return.
There are also some questions left unanswered, such as, were there really gold plates, or did Joseph produce a prop which he kept covered in a cloth and allowed only certain relatives to see and lift? He had four years between when he announced he discovered the gold plates, and when he actually claimed to get them out of the ground. When did Joseph, Harris, Whitmer & Cowdery first find out there would be three special witnesses? The D&C records two different times when Joseph claimed to receive a revelation regarding BOM witnesses. The first came at the request of Martin Harris in March of 1829 (D&C 5). It warned Joseph not to show the plates except to those whom God commanded (vs. 3). This revelation went on to say that three witnesses would be given special power to see the plates, but "to none else will I grant this power" (D&C 5:13-14). According to this revelation, there would only be three witnesses.
Yet, in Joseph Smith's History of the Church, Vol. 1, pp. 52-53 previously cited, Joseph and Oliver did not discover there would be three witnesses until they were translating the Book of Mormon in late June of 1829 - at least three months later. A little while after this (no date is given) Joseph took it upon himself to show what he claimed were the BOM plates to the eight witnesses who were all related to one another. Joseph had them sign a testimonial. Apparently, showing the plates to his father and brothers did not require the power of God, but supernatural power was needed for showing them to John Whitmer. There was also no revelation giving him permission to show the plates, just a private meeting. At least one source indicates that Joseph showed the plates to two groups of four on separate occasions in his house, while other accounts say that all eight were together out in a grove.
One of the problems with relying on the Witnesses for the authenticity of Mormonism is the testimony of David Whitmer given later in life. In his Address to All Believers in Christ, page 27, Whitmer declares, "If you believe my testimony to the Book of Mormon; if you believe that God spake to us three witnesses by his own voice, then I tell you that in June, 1838, God spake to me again by his own voice from the heavens, and told me to 'separate myself from among the Latter-day Saints, for as they sought to do unto me, so should it be done unto them.' In the spring of 1838, the heads of the church and many of the members had gone deep into error and blindness. I had been striving with them for a long time to show them the errors into which they were drifting, and for my labors I received only persecutions."
This quote creates a quandary. If we accept Whitmer's testimony regarding his experience with the angel and the gold plates, then we must also accept his testimony that God also declared the current Mormon church is in a fallen state. To disavow the revelation he received stating that the Mormon church since 1838 has "gone deep into error and blindness" means we must hold as suspect his testimony to the Book of Mormon. Whitmer inseparably links the two events.
Even if the majority of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon did not deny their testimony of the book itself, this does little to support Mormonism today. Current Mormon doctrine on the nature of God, the priesthood, use of temples, baptism for the dead, and men becoming gods, is nowhere contained in the Book of Mormon. By 1847 not a single one of the surviving eleven witnesses was part of the Mormon church. Five of these witnesses joined The Church of Christ started by William McLellin, and Oliver Cowdery indicated he was supportive of this group, though he never joined. (D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy - Origins of Power, Signature Books, 1994, p. 188). If these men were alive today, they would be considered apostates who had turned their back on the Spirit of God. They would be cut off from the LDS church and condemned to outer darkness, regardless of whether or not they still believed in the Book of Mormon.
What are the facts? Eleven men claimed to witness the existence of plates they believed were the source for the Book of Mormon. Three of these men admitted the experience was subjective and visionary. Each of the first three witnesses saw the plates in a vision for the first time in a different place and time. The other eight witnesses were closely related to Joseph Smith either by blood or marriage. Only three of them claimed to see and handle that which had the appearance of being plates of gold, and could testify Joseph did have something that resembled plates with etchings after signing their name to the testimony document. Many of these witnesses left Joseph Smith and the organization that he started, believing at best that he was a fallen and false prophet. Joseph Smith himself, called into question the general character and reliability of several of these men. This, in spite of the fact that they were close friends and family of Joseph Smith.
These historical facts highlight another thread of Mormon history that has been misrepresented by LDS Church leaders. The witnesses' testimonies as a whole are presented as objective, solid, and irrefutable, but upon close examination are seen to be subjective, ambiguous and, at times, contradictory. The traditional portrayal of a tightly woven story of Mormon origins is slowly being unraveled by the historical evidence, much of which is now being compiled and published within the Mormon community itself.
Another thread of the traditional Mormon story that is seriously misrep- resented by the LDS church has to do with the discovery and translation of the supposed gold plates of the Book of Mormon. The testimony of those who were closest to Joseph Smith state uniequivocally that Joseph never used the plates while doing the translation, he used his seer stone in his hat to both discover and translate the Book of Mormon. (Richard Van Wagoner & Steve Walker, "Joseph Smith: 'The Gift of Seeing,'" in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 15:2, Summer 1982, p. 53) If the plates were never used in the translation process, why the need for wit nesses? Why focus so much attention on gold plates in the first place? We attempt to answer these and related questions in the post entitled "Problems with the Book of Mormon Story."
Does this prove the plates were a true historical artifact versus a prop Joseph put together. No. The witnesses could only testify as to appearance, and Joseph Smith himself was later duped by forged plates in the Kinderhook incident.