Mormon Book Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints claimed that he received the Book of Mormon as a revelation from God. He said that the heavenly being Moroni appeared to him and directed him to some buried gold plates which contained ancient writings. His task then, was to translate these ancient writings with the help of seer stones which were also buried with the gold plates. Smith received strict directions from the heavenly being that he was to show the plates to no one except for appointed individuals. The Book of Mormon in its preface identifies these as eleven persons: the three witnesses and the eight witnesses.
A student of religion would now be interested in knowing something about these witnesses, for only then can we evaluate their worth as witnesses. The Book of Mormon names the three witnesses as Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris. The book also names the eight witnesses as follows: Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer, Jr., John Whitmer, Hiram Page, Joseph Smith, Sr., Hyrum Smith, and Samuel H. Smith. Who were these persons? And what can we know about them that would give us reason to either believe or disbelieve them as witnesses in this most important matter? A good place to look for information would be the publications of the Mormons themselves, since they should more than anyone else be interested in preserving histories of their principal witnesses.
This approach could be used at least as a starting point for gathering information before further scrutiny and investigative work. In this study I would like to turn to two books published by the Mormons to find information about the chief witnesses. The first book is the Doctrine and Covenant, a book of authoritative scriptures for the Mormons. The second book is Church History Timeline by William W. Slaughter, published by Desert Book Company, in Salt Lake City, Utah, 1996.
What follows is a brief look at the information these books contain about the witnesses and other key persons associated with the Book of Mormon. My intention here is not to provide a summary of the entire body of information but only to show that what we learn from these books do not give us much confidence in the witnesses and hence in the Book of Mormon itself. The first of the three witnesses is Oliver Cowdery, a rural schoolteacher. He was a scribe to Joseph Smith, and associate president of the Church. In April 12,1838 he was excommunicated from the Mormon Church.
He was rebaptized ten years later in November 1848 and died March 3, 1850. Reading this, one must wonder why this chief witness was excommunicated during the lifetime of Joseph Smith his prophet, and be allowed back in the church after his prophet died. Smith was martyred on June 27, 1844. The second of the three witnesses is Martin Harris. He was a prosperous farmer who was known as industrious, honest, and generous.
It was his $3000 that financed the first 5,000 copies of the Book of Mormon. But, as William Slaughter informs us: Harris clashed with Church leaders over monetary practices and was excommunicated in December 1837; he was rebaptized November 27, 1842. (Church History Timeline, p. 5). The same Martin Harris was given 116 pages of the book of Mormon after Joseph Smith had translated them with the help of the seer stones. But then he allowed wicked men to take these pages for the purpose of corrupting the translation and then to accuse Joseph Smith of falsehood in his prophetic claim. Why would Martin Harris do this? The Doctrine and Covenants explains that he was a wicked man who sought to destroy Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith relates in his history how Martin Harris had previously taken sample characters from the book of Mormon along with the relevant translation of those characters and received confirmation of these in New York City from a professor Charles Anton and Dr.
Mitchell. These men attested that the characters were true characters of the Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac and Arabic, and that the translation so far done by Joseph Smith was accurate. Now, one may wonder why did Harris, after he had received this confirmation, should seek to destroy Joseph Smith. And what value should we attach to the testimony of a man who sought to destroy one whom he believed was God’s prophet? Since the Doctrine and Covenants call Harris a wicked man, should we place confidence in his testimony? Or should we believe the Doctrine and Covenants? But to believe in the Doctrine and Covenants which was revealed to Joseph Smith we have to first believe the Book of Mormon which was revealed to him before that. And to believe the Book of Mormon we have to believe its witnesses. We are still at the early stage of examining the witnesses. The third of the three witnesses is David Whitmer.
The whole Whitmer family had become interested in the translating of the Book of Mormon, and it was at the residence of this family that Joseph Smith lived until he completed the work of translating the Book of Mormon from the gold plates. Others in the Whitmer family are numbered among the eight witnesses, but David alone had the privilege of being among the select three witnesses. Nevertheless, Doctrine and Covenants describe David Whitmer as one who fears men and does not rely on the Lord (D 30: 1). Doctrine and Covenants tells us that he had his mind on the things of the earth (D 30:2), and was persuaded by those whom the Lord did not command. This is in spite of the fact that he had been called as was Paul (D 18:9). Paul, however, was not believed by Christians to have become an apostate.
Yet David Whitmer was excommunicated in April 1838, about the same time as Oliver Cowdery, the first of the three witnesses. Oliver Cowdery we recall was later rebaptized after the death of Joseph Smith. But David Whitmer never came back to the Church. He died fortynine years later as an apostate. One must again ask why the chief witnesses waver like this.
Two fell away and came back. One fell away and never came back. Their wavering from this initial position of commitment to the revelations is not exactly the thing that will inspire confidence. Mormons point out that these three witnesses never denied their initial testimony even when they were excommunicated from the church. The Church History Timeline even includes a positive testimony from David Whitmer for the record.
Whitmer said that although it is recorded that he had denied his testimony as one of the three witnesses, neither he nor the other two had at any time denied that testimony or any part thereof. Yet actions speak louder than words. The fact that these men relinquished their commitment to the revelations reduces the weight of their testimony. Two of the witnesses repented and were baptized, and this makes them obviously better witnesses than David Whitmer who never came back. Yet their many years of being out of the church makes us wonder how firmly they believed their own testimony. Mormons will say that the important thing is not the witness of men but the witness of God.
They will advise the inquirer to pray about the Book of Mormon to find out whether or not it is true. But, obviously, the publishers of the Book of Mormon considered the testimony of the men to be worthy of note. Prayer is important. Investigation is also important. Once the witnesses are presented, they should be examined. If the Mormon message says that the witness of men is not important why then do they print the list of witnesses in the book? When we turn to the list of eight witnesses we notice three significant things. First, the list is not as diverse as the number would apparently suggest.
The eight witnesses are four from the Whitmer family, three from the Smith family, and one Hiram Page. As for the Whitmers, we noted already how the best of them, David Whitmer received the distinction of being one of the elite group of three witnesses. We have also seen how he fell away permanently and died an apostate. Nevertheless, his brothers kept up their commitment to the revelations. The Smiths were Joseph Smith’s father and two of his brothers. One of the brothers, Hyrum, was martyred together with Joseph, and the other, Samuel, died a month later.
The father had died some years before that. The second significant thing is that this Hiram Page also claimed revelations for himself. He also, like Joseph Smith, had a seer stone which enabled him to write revelations from God. But God declared in theDoctrine and Covenants that those revelations are not from him but from Satan (D&C 28: 11). What then is the value of Hiram Page as a witness about revelations from God? The third significant fact about the eight witnesses is that their testimony is not as important as the testimony of the three.
The three had borne witness not only that they saw the plates but also that they saw the angel and that they heard the voice of God who said that the book was authentic and the translation was accurate. The eight witnesses, on the other hand, only said that they had seen the plates “which have the appearance of gold” (preface to the Book of Mormon). They also handled the plates and saw the engravings “which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship.” The eight witnesses did not say anything to assure readers that they knew the origin of the plates, or the accuracy of the Book of Mormon. What their testimony bears out is that Joseph Smith showed them some plates which had the appearance of gold and the engravings which they could not decipher. But they believed that Smith was translating those engravings to produce the Book of Mormon. Could we call them expert witnesses? More Fall Away Not only did many of the chief witnesses of the Book of Mormon fall away. We find in Mormon literature that many others who were close confidants and associates of Joseph Smith could not stick with his mission after they once professed belief in it.
William was the only brother of Joseph Smith who lived on for a long time after him. William was loyal to Joseph and remained a believer until 1845 at which time he was excommunicated from the church. Thirtythree years later he joi …