By Sharon Lindbloom
5 August 2016
LDS Church News published an opinion piece yesterday (4 August) that notes a few “Testimonies of the Book of Mormon” wherein people “witnessed the power of God working through” Joseph Smith during the book’s “translation” process. Included are the testimonies of:
- Emma Smith, who was amazed at Joseph’s “ability to translate despite having so little education.”
- Martin Harris, who tested Joseph by substituting a fake, look-alike stone for Joseph’s seer stone; Mr. Harris found that Joseph wasn’t able to “translate” using the look-alike stone in his hat.
- Parley P. Pratt, who said that he knew the Book of Mormon was true “by the spirit of understanding in my heart — by the light that was in me.”
- Jeffrey Holland, who believes the Book of Mormon is true, in part, because Joseph and his brother Hyrum would not have jeopardized their own salvation in their last earthly moments by clinging to a book of fiction.
- Ezra Taft Benson, who told Latter-day Saints that they should “flood the earth with the Book of Mormon”; a directive that was carried out, as noted by provided statistics.
- Thomas S. Monson, who said that the Book of Mormon changes lives.
Each of these testimonies are subjective in nature: Emma held the opinion that Joseph wasn’t educated enough to “translate” a book; Martin believed Joseph couldn’t have known the difference between his own stone and a substitute stone; Parley just believed; Jeffrey Holland assumes the Smith brothers chose to die, and that for the Book of Mormon; Ezra Taft Benson thought the Book of Mormon should be widely distributed; Thomas Monson, like Parley Pratt, just believes. These testimonies should not be rejected out of hand, but they cannot stand alone, independent of the greater historical context of Mormonism and the actual content of the Book of Mormon. (See MRM’s Book of Mormon link page to explore some of these related issues.)
The testimonies highlighted yesterday in Church News brought another “testimony” to mind: that of Mark Twain. In his autobiographical travel book, Roughing It, Mark Twain detailed his experiences on the frontier of the American West (1861-1867), which included a stop in Great Salt Lake City where he obtained a copy of the Book of Mormon.
In writing his opinion of the book, Mark Twain addressed the testimonies of the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses found in the front of every copy of the Book of Mormon. Of the Testimony of Three Witnesses, where Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris 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…”
“Some people have to have a world of evidence before they can come anywhere in the neighborhood of believing anything; but for me, when a man tells me that he has ‘seen the engravings which are upon the plates,’ and not only that, but an angel was there at the time, and saw him see them, and probably took his receipt for it, I am very far on the road to conviction, no matter whether I ever heard of that man before or not, and even if I do not know the name of the angel, or his nationality either.” (Roughing It, 104)
Of the Testimony of Eight Witnesses, where Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer, Jr., John Whitmer, Hirum Page, Joseph Smith, Sr., Hyrum Smith, and Samuel Smith testify
“that Joseph Smith, Jr., 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.”
Mark Twain wrote:
“And when I am far on the road to conviction, and eight men, be they grammatical or otherwise, come forward and tell me that they have seen the plates too; and not only seen those plates but ‘hefted’ them, I am convinced. I could not feel more satisfied and at rest if the entire Whitmer family had testified.” (Roughing It, 105)
Mark Twain’s satirical evaluation of the testimonies of the Book of Mormon witnesses highlights a sound piece of wisdom: Don’t just believe everything you hear. The questions must be asked: Who are/were these men? Why should I believe them? What else have they said and done in their lives? Where is the objective evidence that will support their claims?
In the end, Mark Twain testified that
“The Mormon Bible is rather stupid and tiresome to read, but there is nothing vicious in its teachings. Its code of morals is unobjectionable—it is ‘smouched’ from the New Testament and no credit given.” (Roughing It, 110)
Here is where I disagree with Mr. Twain. As a believer in God, I find any words falsely attributed to God to be morally objectionable. A book that spuriously claims to be God’s own voice while promoting another Jesus, another Spirit, and another gospel than those which God has revealed in the Bible is “vicious” — and deeply, eternally harmful to the souls of men.