Blog Post #18: Three Witnesses, Eight Witnesses and One Witness

Some months ago I reread a very good book by Richard Lloyd Anderson entitled “Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses”.  I had read it for the first time many years ago, but I learned much more from this second reading.

I recommend that you do yourself a big favor and read this book.  It is the most complete account that I know of describing all of the different witnesses to the Book of Mormon and their various experiences with the Book of Mormon plates. It is abundantly documented with lots of interesting references.  Here is the link on Amazon.

The book is well-written, unemotional and full of factual information, for example, the fact that Hyrum Smith, one of the Eight Witnesses, was elected school trustee in 1828, two years before the Book of Mormon came forth. Hyrum and two other trustees managed school affairs and funds, including the hiring of teachers.  Hyrum Smith was a very trustworthy guy.

In fact, all of the eleven formal witnesses (the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses) were reliable, solid citizens, just like Hyrum. These are people you would be strongly inclined to believe if they testified in court.  More than their words, however, it is the life-long actions of these witnesses, the sacrifices they made to uphold their testimonies that are so impressive.  I will say more about their “living testimonies” below.

Anderson’s book also summarizes the experiences and testimonies of many other people who were not formal witnesses to the Book of Mormon plates, but whose informal testimonies we also have. These include Emma Smith, the Prophet’s wife, who lived a life full of hardship and persecution because of her testimony.  Emma never knew peace because of those who continually sought to imprison and kill her husband. Two of her adopted children, little babies, died from exposure to the cold when the Smith house was broken into during the middle of the night by a mob who tarred and feathered Joseph and threatened to mutilate him. I admire Emma as much as I admire Joseph–and that is a whole lot of admiration.

Other “informal” witnesses also include William Smith, the prophet’s younger brother and Katherine Smith, Joseph’s younger sister.  Emma, William and Katherine testified that they had picked up and handled the plates when the plates were covered. They were not permitted to see the plates, but they “hefted” them and found them to be very heavy.

One of the most remarkable “informal” witnesses to the Book of Mormon plates was Mary Musselman Whitmer, the wife of David Whitmer, Sr. (called “Mother Whitmer”). Several Whitmer family members recorded her encounter with an angel who also showed her the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated.

Mother Whitmer had a house full of guests to care for while the translation of the Book of Mormon was going on in her home, and she felt quite burdened as a result. Her son David Whitmer recorded the following:

“My mother was going to milk the cows, when she was met out near the yard by the same old man (an angel whom David had previously seen) who said to her: “You have been very faithful and diligent in your labors, but you are tried because of the increase of your toil; it is proper therefore that you should receive a witness that your faith may be strengthened.” Thereupon he showed her the plates.  David also gave additional details in a later statement to Edward Stevenson: “She said that they were fastened with rings. He (the angel) turned the leaves over; this was a satisfaction to her.  A portion of them were sealed together.”

Well, I don’t want to spoil your own reading of Anderson’s book by giving you too many details. But I hope every Latter-day Saint will read his book. It is short—just 200 pages, but full of solid and useful knowledge—and uplifting details. Many people saw or held the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated.  This experience strengthened them for a lifetime of testing and tribulation. Reading their testimonies will also strengthen you for a lifetime of testing and tribulation that you can expect if you are to be valiant in your testimony of Jesus Christ.

More than their words, however, their subsequent lives of sacrifice and testing bear witness to the fact that these men and women actually did see and handle the plates. Some fell away from the Church, some gave their lives, or died prematurely as a result of the persecutions the Church endured. But none of them, not one of these eleven men, ever denied having either seen or held the plates.

Let’s briefly summarize what happened in the lives of the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses after they gave their testimonies to the world that they had seen and handled the plates.  Here is the Testimony of the Three Witnesses:

“Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That we, through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, have seen the plates which contain this record, which is a record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites, their brethren, and also of the people of Jared, who came from the tower of which hath been spoken. And we also know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true. And we also testify that we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates; and they have been shown unto us by the power of God, and not of man. And we declare with words of soberness, that an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon; and we know that it is by the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, that we beheld and bear record that these things are true. And it is marvelous in our eyes. Nevertheless, the voice of the Lord commanded us that we should bear record of it; wherefore, to be obedient unto the commandments of God, we bear testimony of these things. And we know that if we are faithful in Christ, we shall rid our garments of the blood of all men, and be found spotless before the judgment-seat of Christ, and shall dwell with him eternally in the heavens. And the honor be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen.” 

Signed by:

Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and Martin Harris

OK, let’s take these Three Witnesses one by one.

Oliver Cowdery

Oliver was the scribe who wrote most of the Book of Mormon as translated by Joseph Smith.  About 90% of the printer’s copy of the Book of Mormon is in his handwriting.  More than anyone else, he was in a position to expose Joseph as a fraud.  In Missouri, he felt personally hurt in his relationship with Joseph Smith and allied himself with his Whitmer relatives in serious differences with other church members as the Church was gathering in Caldwell County, Missouri.  He left the Church in 1838 and spent the next decade apart from the Church, finally being rebaptized in late 1848.  He never denied his testimony of seeing the plates or of his role in its translation. He never denounced Joseph as a fraud.

Following Oliver’s death in 1850, Oliver’s wife Elizabeth Whitmer Cowdery wrote about her husband in a letter to her brother David Whitmer: “From the hour when the glorious vision of the Holy Messenger revealed to mortal eyes the hidden prophecies which God had promised his faithful followers should come forth in due time, until the moment when he passed away from earth, he always without one doubt or shadow of turning affirmed the divinity and truth of the Book of Mormon.”

David Whitmer

David joined the Church in 1829, one of its earliest members, and was excommunicated in 1838 while serving as the president of the Church in Missouri (equivalent to stake president today).  Few men were as prominent as David Whitmer in the early history of the Church.   Quoting Richard Anderson “This outspoken and utterly honest personality would have been the first to detect fraud and expose it.”  After excommunication, David lived for 50 years as a businessman in Richmond, Missouri. Starting in 1858 he was elected city councilman several times.  He was also elected to fill the unexpired term of mayor in 1867-68.

Two events give some idea of the strong and outspoken character of David Whitmer.

First, in Richmond, Missouri David lived in a society hostile to his religious views, and also to his political views as a firm Unionist in a divided country at the time of the Civil War.  A meeting was held in Ray County, Missouri, at which the majority were going to draft a resolution requiring all non-secessionists (i.e., all supporters of the Union), to leave the county.

In the words of one Ray County resident “At this point in the proceedings, David Whitmer arose, walked to the platform and delivered a short but very telling speech. He stated that no resolutions or threats would cause him to run away.  He declared that he was a citizen of the United States, and should remain such.  He proposed to live and die under the old flag.  If anyone desired to shoot him, then was a good time.  The resolutions were not passed.”

Second, shortly before David Whitmer’s death, the rabid anti-Mormon lecturer, Clark Braden, came to Richmond and denounced David as disreputable.  A local paper, the Richmond Conservator, responded with a front page editorial that was unsympathetic to Mormonism but insisted on David’s good character “If a life of probity, of unobtrusive benevolence and well doing for well nigh half a century, marks a man as a good citizen, then David Whitmer should enjoy the confidence and esteem of his fellow men.” The following year, the editor penned a tribute on the eightieth birthday of David Whitmer, who “with no regrets for the past” still “reiterates that he saw the glory of the angel.”

Martin Harris 

Martin Harris was the witness who seemed to require more physical proof than any of the other witnesses.  First, he interviewed all of the Smith family separately to see if their stories agreed.  Before he was permitted to see the plates, Martin Harris was allowed to lift the box that contained the plates.  Martin stated “I knew from the heft that they were lead or gold, and I knew that Joseph had not credit enough to buy so much lead.” Before mortgaging his farm to pay for the printing, Martin took copies of characters that had been transcribed from the plates to prominent linguists including Charles Anthon, who pronounced the characters to be genuine.   For me, the point is not that the characters were genuine or not, it is that Martin sought additional evidence from a qualified person and that he got the evidence he sought.

Again, this skeptical, hard-headed farmer, a man who was determined not to be deceived, did receive the physical and other evidence that he required. Then, after humbling himself, he received the visit from the angel that he testified to during the remaining 46 years of his life.

In Kirtland, Ohio, in the last week of December 1837, Martin Harris was excommunicated from the Church. Soon the body of the Church moved from Kirtland, but Martin did not follow.  Martin remained in Kirtland for the next thirty years in a non-Mormon society which ridiculed him. He changed his religious affiliation eight times during that period.  But he continued to affirm that he had seen an angel and held the plates.

Quoting Anderson: “One may well ask, since religious instability is so much in evidence, why Martin Harris did not abandon his signed testimony.  Freely seeking and bound by no Mormon ties, the only constancy of this period is his witness of the Nephite record.  If Martin Harris’s experience was an invention or emotional aberration, why didn’t it go the way of his other religious flirtations? But if his doctrinal commitments in Kirtland were fickle, his testimony of the angel and the plates remained an immovable certainty.”

Good questions. Why indeed hold to that testimony?  During his thirty years out of the Church, Martin Harris continued to affirm that he had seen an angel and handled the plates.

In 1870, 33 years after he was excommunicated, Martin decided to return to the Church and moved west to be with the Saints.  His companion on the trip was Edward Stevenson, who arranged for an interview with the Iowa State Register in Des Moines. The non-Mormon editor of the paper wrote of this interview:

“Mr. Harris is now in his 88th year, though still quite vigorous and sprightly…The old gentleman evidently loves to relate the incidents with which he was personally connected, and he does it with wonderful enthusiasm… Joseph Smith was the first to handle the tables, and Martin Harris, one of the appointed witnesses, the second.  Mr. Harris describes the plates as being of thin leaves of gold, measuring seven by eight inches, and weighing altogether, from forty to sixty pounds…. He believes in the visitations of angels in bodily form, for he has seen and conversed with them, as he thinks, and is satisfied.”

In the last year of his life, Martin sent a letter to Hannah Emerson in which he wrote: “No man ever heard me in any way deny the truth of the Book of Mormon, the administration of the angel that showed me the plates, nor the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints under the administration of Joseph Smith, Jun., the prophet whom the Lord raised up for that purpose in these the latter days, that he may show forth his power and glory.”

So, to summarize, three strong-minded, independent and reliable men were each excommunicated from the Church and were isolated from the Church for many decades in different towns that were hostile to their beliefs. There was absolutely no reason for them to continue in bearing testimony to a fraud.  There was every reason to fit in with their neighbors by repudiating their testimonies. But instead they remained true to their testimonies of the Book of Mormon and angelic visitors. All three men had every reason to denounce Joseph Smith as an imposter.  They would have known all kinds of details about Joseph’s private life. They could have exposed the “real” story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and exposed the fraud for once and for all. But they did not.

OK, now on to a much shorter summary of the Eight Witnesses. Here is their testimony.

 Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That Joseph Smith, Jun., the translator of this work, has shown unto us the plates of which hath been spoken, which have the appearance of gold; and as many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated we did handle with our hands; and we also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship. And this we bear record with words of soberness, that the said Smith has shown unto us, for we have seen and hefted, and know of a surety that the said Smith has got the plates of which we have spoken. And we give our names unto the world, to witness unto the world that which we have seen. And we lie not, God bearing witness of it. 

Signed by,

Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer, Jun., John Whitmer, Hiram Page, Joseph Smith, Sen., Hyrum Smith, Samuel H. Smith

The Whitmers were of German stock who came to New York from Pennsylvania.  They were all solid citizens in their New York society.  All were persecuted for their membership in the Church and their testimonies.  During the Missouri persecutions, Christian Whitmer was threatened with death, and Hiram Page was nearly whipped to death.  Christian and Peter died in 1835 and 1836, respectively, at least in part due to infections and exposure to the elements resulting from the Missouri persecutions.

John Whitmer was a counselor to his brother David in the presidency of the Church in Missouri.  John was excommunicated March 10, 1938, a month before David’s excommunication.  Hiram Page and Jacob Whitmer were not excommunicated, but sided with their Whitmer relatives. From that time until they died they were all alienated from the Church.  However, all of them continued to affirm that they had seen the angel and handled the plates.

John Whitmer’s declaration is typical of the Whitmer group of witnesses.  Six months before his death, he spoke at a Sunday service.  A local newspaper reported: “Mr. Whitmer stated that he had often handled the identical golden plates which Mr. Smith received from the hand of the angel.  He said it was of pure gold; part of the book was sealed up solid, the other part was open, and it was this part which was translated.”

Now the Smith witnesses.   Joseph Smith, Senior was the prophet’s father. Hyrum was his older brother and Samuel was his next younger brother.  These three men constantly lived and worked with Joseph.  They would have known if Joseph was a fraud, an imposter.  Instead, all three lost their lives as a result of their testimonies.  All three of them insisted to the ends of their lives that they had carefully examined and held the ancient plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated.

Samuel, in fact, was the Church’s first missionary and one of its most active missionaries in its early days.  Daniel Tyler was converted as a result of Samuel’s missionary service. Here are Tyler’s words:

“In the spring of 1832, Elders Samuel H. Smith and Orson Hyde…came to our neighborhood and held a few meetings.  Elder Smith read the 29th chapter of Isaiah at the first meeting and delineated the circumstances of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, of which he said he was a witness. He knew that his brother Joseph had the plates, for the prophet had shown them unto him, and he had handled them and seen the engravings thereon. His speech was more like a narrative than a sermon.”

Deeds speak louder than words.  Quoting once more from Anderson (pg. 147):

“Worn out by middle-aged privation for the cause of the restoration, Joseph Smith, Sr., died of a severe lung condition a year after the Mormon expulsion from Missouri.  The strain of a dangerous horseback ride in an attempt of Samuel to reach his brothers before their murder, and the shock of their deaths, brought fatal sickness to this last-surviving witness of the Smiths, who died a month later.  With his beloved Prophet-brother, Hyrum earlier faced the guns of a murderous mob in his last moments.  And it is clear that his martyrdom meant exactly to Hyrum what the Latter-day Saints made of it.  Interviews with the prison companions of Joseph and Hyrum were the basis of historical details that Hyrum read portions of the Book of Mormon the night before the martyrdom, and the next day bore testimony of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.”

In 1839, five years before his martyrdom, Hyrum wrote the following words in a general letter to the members of the Church:

“Having given my testimony to the world of the truth of the Book of Mormon,… and the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven, in these last days: and having been brought into great afflictions and distresses for the same—I thought that it might be strengthening to my beloved brethren, to give them a short account of my sufferings, for the truth’s sake, and the state of my mind and feelings, while under circumstances of the most trying and afflicting nature….

“[I] had been abused and thrust into a dungeon…on account of my faith…. However, I thank God that I felt a determination to die, rather than deny the things which my eyes had seen, which my hands had handled, and which I had borne testimony to, wherever my lot had been cast; and I can assure my beloved brethren that I was enabled to bear as strong a testimony, when nothing but death presented itself, as ever I did in my life.”

So, as I end this blog, I have some questions to ask of every honest person.

If these eleven formal witnesses were frauds, or if they knew Joseph was a fraud, why not denounce the fraud? Why not avoid the persecution, suffering and death which came to them and those they loved by continuing in the fraud? When every one of the Three Witnesses and the majority of the Eight Witnesses were excommunicated from the Church and no longer surrounded by fellow Mormons, why wouldn’t they retaliate against Joseph by repudiating their testimonies? What on earth did they gain from continuing with this fraud? What earthly benefit did it bring them?

No benefit at all.

The only explanation that makes any sense is that they truly had seen the angel and handled the plates. They were determined to keep faith with God and with the reality of that experience, even if they were separated from the Church.

Now, one more witness.  I have not seen an angel, nor handled the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated. I do not need to.  But like these eleven men, and millions of other men and women, I know that the Book of Mormon is true. It comes from God.  I am another witness.