By Sharon Lindbloom
2 February 2017
In his continuing effort at “Defending the [LDS] Faith,” BYU professor Daniel Peterson has recently tackled the testimonies of the eleven Book of Mormon witnesses. He notes that the two signed testimonies appearing in the front of each Book of Mormon (one signed by three witnesses, the other signed by eight witnesses) are “distinctly different both in tone and what they describe.” This, Dr. Peterson reasons, makes “the task of coming up with a single naturalistic explanation of the witnesses considerably more difficult.”
In the case of the Three Witnesses (i.e., Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer), Dr. Peterson notes that their testimony is “overtly and strongly religious in tone.” They testified that they saw the plates that contained the text of the Book of Mormon, and that they saw the engravings on the plates. This, they testified, was shown to them by the power of God when an angel laid the plates before their eyes. It has been supposed by Latter-day Saints that these three men actually saw tangible plates, but the testimony statement itself, as well as other clarifying comments made by these men later, strongly support the conclusion that the view of the plates experienced by these three men was an intangible vision – or, more accurately, two visions since Martin Harris reportedly stated that he didn’t see the angel and plates until about three days after the other two witnesses.
What difference does it make to a truth-seeker if the Three Witnesses saw the plates in visions only? While it does not totally invalidate the assertions made by these men, it dramatically changes the so-called eyewitness testimonies from statements of tangible fact to statements of strongly held belief.
The Testimony of Eight Witnesses (i.e., Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer, Jr., John Whitmer, Hiram Page, Joseph Smith, Sr., Hyrum Smith, and Samuel Smith) is more matter-of-fact in tone, but subsequent statements by these men confuse the veracity of the formal testimony they gave. The signed testimony claims that the eight witnesses saw plates, covered in engravings, with “the appearance of gold.” This had “the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship.” The statement says they “hefted” the plates and handled the leaves with their hands. But John Whitmer, one of these witnesses, later said the plates were shown to him by a “supernatural power,” using the same sort of visionary language employed by the Three Witnesses. According to investigating itinerate preacher David Marks, when he stopped at the Whitmer farm in 1830 to talk to the Eight Witnesses they confirmed that they had seen the plates — shown to them by an angel; or, in other words, in a vision.
So in reality, these special witnesses of the Book of Mormon didn’t see Joseph Smith’s tangible plates; they saw visions. Boiled down, their printed testimonies claim that they knew the Book of Mormon was true. They knew it in the same way that Martin Harris later claimed he knew the holy book of the Shakers was true. They knew it in the same way the Whitmer family later claimed that they knew Hiram Page’s “false declarations” received via his seer stone were true. They knew it the same way five of the Book of Mormon witnesses later knew William McLellin’s Church of Christ was true. They knew it in the same way Mormons all over the world “know” Mormonism is true: they interpreted a subjective spiritual experience to confirm their already strongly held beliefs.
In the end, the Testimony of the Three Witnesses and the Testimony of the Eight Witnesses are part of the historical record and therefore should be taken into account, but they need to be understood for what they really are. In an article titled, “Facts On The Book Of Mormon Witnesses,” author Joel Groat concludes:
“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.”
This unraveling is not just a modern-day issue. The problematic testimonies of the Book of Mormon witnesses affected early Later-day Saints as well. In 1838, nearly eight years after joining the Mormon Church, after serving several missions for the Church, after being ordained to progressively higher offices in the Church, Stephen Burnett explained his decision to separate from the Latter-day Saints:
“I have reflected long and deliberately upon the history of this church & weighed the evidence for & against it loth to give it up — but when I came to hear Martin Harris state in public that he never saw the plates with his natural eyes only in vision or imagination, neither Oliver [Cowdery] nor David [Whitmer] & that the eight witnesses never saw them & hesitated to sign that instrument for that reason, but were persuaded to do it, the last pedestal gave way, in my view our foundation was sapped & the entire superstructure fell in heap of ruins.” (Stephen Burnett letter to Lyman E. Johnson, April 15, 1838)
In his “Defending the Faith” article, Dr. Peterson scoffs, “Someone determined to reject the testimony of the Three Witnesses, for example, might argue that their experience was merely ‘visionary’ and, thus — if visions are decreed to be impossible — the product of hallucination.”
Even when visions are not decreed to be impossible, the testimonies of the Book of Mormon witnesses are contradictory and the witnesses’ credibility is questionable. Dr. Peterson suggests that the testimonies of the eleven witnesses eliminate “the possibility that all of this rests merely on Joseph Smith’s imagination,” but he does not consider the possibility that much of it could rest on the fertile imaginations of the witnesses themselves.
All of the facts surrounding the testimonies published in the Book of Mormon really need to be considered when evaluating so-called “recent eyewitnesses” to this Latter-day scripture because, according to a current LDS apostle,
“everything of saving significance in the Church stands or falls on the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and, by implication, the Prophet Joseph Smith’s account of how it came forth is as sobering as it is true. It is a ‘sudden death’ proposition. Either the Book of Mormon is what the Prophet Joseph said it is, or this Church and its founder are false, a deception from the first instance onward.” (Jeffrey R. Holland, Christ and the New Covenant, 334)