Article Categories

Movie review: Witnesses

Reviewed by Eric Johnson

A Viewpoint on Mormonism week-long series aired the week of June 21, 2021:  Part 1   Part 2   Part 3  Part 4  Part 5  

The integrity of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon is the subject of a movie released to certain western United States theaters on June 4, 2021. The film, which was produced by the Mormon apologetic organization Interpreter Foundation, is meant to be faith-promoting for Latter-day Saints while addressing several controversial historical issues concerning early Mormonism.

This is not meant to be a full review on every point in this 1 hour 50 minute production. Instead, this review will consider additional details not addressed in the film

Background

Edwin Kelly is a reporter for the Richmond Democrat newspaper who visits Book of Mormon witness David Whitmer in 1881 at his home in Richmond, VA. It had been a year after after a critical newspaper article had been published by John Murphy and Kelly wants to get to the bottom of what Murphy wrote. as he claimed Whitmer was unable to describe the image of the angel who supposedly visited the witnesses more than five decades earlier. Murphy concluded that Whitmer’s experience was not worthy to be accepted as true and suggested the Book of Mormon was fraudulent.

Although he was the most interviewed of the three witnesses (one source says 71 different reporters wrote pieces on him), Whitmer bristles at having to do another newspaper interview after getting burned by Murphy. However, Kelly persists, getting his attention by suggesting that Whitmer ought to be more adamant about correcting misperceptions of the experience if they really happened. “I’m interested in the truth,” the youthful Kelly tells the elderly Whitmer.

The short exchange intrigues Whitmer. As the reporter walks away after being rejected, Whitmer calls him back and agrees to share his experience. The rest of the movie gives a Mormon apologetic overview of the early days of Mormonism.

The Gold Plates 

Much of the story revolves, most naturally, around the Book of Mormon gold plates that were said to be compiled by the prophet Mormon, a main character in the LDS scripture. An early scene shows Joseph Smith handling the gold plates that he had hidden in a log near the place where he uncovered them in the Hill Cumorah (upstate New York). When he realizes that hoodlums wanted to steal the plates and melt them down for their 50 pounds of gold content, Smith grabs the stack of plates and places them under his arm before making a bee-line for home three miles away. According to the story recorded by Smith’s mother–part of official church history–Joseph ran through the woods and battled three different thugs. One scene even shows Smith dropping the plates in a scuffle and going back to pick them up, with no strain at all. A viewer who knew no different would have no idea Smith went through major surgery on his leg when he was a child, causing him to walk with a limp for the rest of his days. Against tremendous odds, the escape from the trio was herculean.

The issue of the plates’ composition is discussed.  Kelly seems incredulous that Smith was able to take the plates for such a distance and fight off attackers with one arm and questions whether they were really gold. Whitmer quickly remarked, “Gold, or brass, or tin, it makes no difference?” To the contrary, it does make a difference! First, the angel Moroni told Joseph Smith that the plates were made of “gold” in the Pearl of Great Price (Joseph Smith-History 1:34). In addition, if the plates were made of brass or tin, there is no way they could have been buried in the ground for close to a millennium and a half. Gold would be the one substance that could have survived this long in the damp ground.

“Why not just show them to everyone?” someone in the movie asked. Of course, these were gold plates and thieves would want to steal them (duh!). Indeed, one night the Smith family caused a ruckus to disrupt prowlers who were searching for the plates in the barn, dispersing only when bullets were shot over their heads. Joseph, meanwhile, kept the plates covered during the entire time he possessed them because, he said, the angel told him not to let anyone see the sacred writings.

How much would plates like these have weighed? Unfortunately, the movie gives the wrong impression that the plates did not weigh more than 40-50 pounds, which is what the president of the Interpreter Foundation, Dr. Daniel Peterson, believes is true. To the contrary, the dense plates (measuring at 6 x 4 x 6, Smith said) would have weighed much more. At a sixth of a cubit foot, and with gold at 1200 pounds per cubit foot, they would have tipped the scale at about 200 pounds!

Over the years, Mormon scholars have theorized that the plates were “golden” (with the appearance of gold) but not pure gold. It has been suggested by BYU scholars that the plates might have been “tumbaga,” a South American alloy that would have drastically lowered the weight. If they were made of tumaga, though, this disallows the possibility that the Book of Mormon lands were located in North America. Other apologists have suggested that there were large air gaps between the plates, as depicted in the movie. However, two-thirds of the plates were supposedly “sealed” with a strip across the pages to prevent anyone from looking at them. Thus, only the top two inches could have had these air gaps. Apologists like Peterson fully realize that no human could run with this amount of weight for several miles while climbing over logs, sliding down slippery hills, and fighting off persistent attackers.  Thus, they have to do whatever they can to bring the weight down. Even if the plates were “just” 50 pounds, the actor portraying Smith unrealistically portrays a Heisman Trophy candidate and handles even this difficult weight with ease! Exhausted after his run through the woods, Smith opens the front door and his sister takes the covered plates from him with no help. Who would have imagined that the Smith family were weightlifters!

To their credit, however, the producer did not suggest that Joseph Smith was a “buff farm boy” who naturally carried the plates, nor did they use the word “miracle,” as some Latter-days insist. These are arguments too often used by those who realize the impossibility of anyone having the ability to carry such tremendous weight.

There is much more that can be said about the weight of the gold plates, but I won’t bog this review down with all the details. For a good overall look at this topic, visit The Problem with the Gold Plates in the Book of Mormon published in the Christian Research Journal and written by Bill McKeever.

“Seeing” the plates

For those Mormons who may not have read the Gospel Topics essay on this issue, Joseph Smith used a seer stone placed in a top hat to translate the plates. In fact, Smith kept the plates covered in a cloth sack with a curtain separating him and his first scribe, Martin Harris. (When Oliver Cowdery takes over the scribal duties later, the curtain is abandoned.) However, in earlier years the image portrayed was Smith literally using his forefinger to read the gold plates, so this scene may have been a bit jarring for some of those not up-to-date on their church’s stance on the translation of the plates. Harris is portrayed in one scene as secretly replacing Smith’s magical rock with one he found earlier that day at the river. When Smith claimed that he was unable to translate with this new stone, Harris was forced to confess the switcheroo. What caused him to try to trick his friend? Harris claimed that he merely wanted to see if the prophet was really translating with the stone as he had many critical neighbors who doubted Smith could. It ought to be mentioned that the “urim and thummim”–the spectacles supposedly left with the plates and used by Smith in the early part of translating–are never depicted in the film. The stone is the only instrumental aid shown.

Meanwhile, the claim to fame for the witnesses is that they “saw” the plates with their own eyes. According to the Testimony of the Three Witnesses found at the beginning of every Book of Mormon: “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.” Although the eight other witnesses did not play a major role in the movie, the Testimony of the Eight Witnesses states that Smith “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.”

Given these testimonies, it would be easy to assume that the “witnesses” not only saw but also handled the plates while looking upon their engravings. To the film’s credit, this assumption is not entertained. A scene toward the end of the movie shows what it means when it is said that the witnesses “saw” the plates. For one, Smith directed the three men to go into the woods and pray. When they received no answer, Martin Harris leaves because he felt he was hindering the Spirit. Once Harris is gone, the angel Moroni appears in a beaming light and supposedly produces the plates in a vision–though the audience can’t see what the witnesses are looking at. When Smith catches up with the praying Harris, the angel again appears and produces the plates so the doubting Martin can believe.

Somehow, this visionary experience is supposed to be impressive and help a doubter believe the Book of Mormon is true. The problem is a vision of the plates proves nothing. Instead of having Joseph Smith simply go into the house and uncover the plates to show them to the witnesses, the charismatic prophet uses his charm to get the three men to believe they have really seen the plates. Seriously, if the plates were real, having to see them “by your faith” (as D&C 17:2 puts it) is suspicious. Those who have no problem with this might be interested in purchasing a bridge for sale in Brooklyn or perhaps prime land near the water in Florida.

See, it doesn’t make sense that the real plates were not made available for the witnesses to ascertain that they were true. This would have provided more proof. However, there is absolutely no evidence that any witness saw the literal “gold plates” with their own eyes and lifted them by their own strength. A Mormon might counter, “The witnesses needed to have faith just like we need to.” Of course, I believe in faith. But, is it reasonable to expect an outsider to believe that the Book of Mormon is true because these men claimed to have had visionary experiences? Why even point to this event or the story of the witnesses as proof for the veracity of this most important scripture?

The Character of the Witnesses

While the movie does portray the three men as being immature, selfish, and contentious, it describes them as remaining faithful witnesses who should be trusted in their assertion that the Book of Mormon is true. While the witnesses held to their belief in the Book of Mormon, the fact that all of them had such conflict with Joseph Smith and were later excommunicated in the late 1830s is often ignored (or perhaps not known?) by faithful members of the LDS Church. It is the wrong impression to assume these were trustworthy souls.

For example, Harris was called a “wicked man” by God in July 1828 in D&C 3:12-13. It reads, “Who has set at naught the counsels of God, and has broken the most sacred promises which were made before God, and has depended upon his own judgment and boasted in his own wisdom.” The same charge is made in D&C 10:6-7. In addition, Smith believed that Martin Harris and others were guilty of “swearing, lying, cheating, swindling, drinking, with every species of debauchery. . . ” (Elders’ Journal, August 1838, 59). Harris ended up joining other religious movements, including the Strangites, and he even went on a mission to England for his new church. Later, five of the 11 witnesses supported William McLellin’s religious movement, including Harris. Other religious movements he entertained included the Quakers, Universalists, Restorationists, Baptists, and Presbyterians. An LDS magazine even reported that Harris “changed his religious position eight times” (Improvement Era, March 1969, 63).

Regarding David Whitmer, a BYU online encyclopedia explains that “though Whitmer was excommunicated from the Church in 1838, he never repudiated his testimony of the Book of Mormon, reaffirming it thereafter on at least seventy recorded occasions.” Source  However, Smith became so upset with Whitmer that he mocked him, as recorded in History of the Church 3:228: “God suffered such kind of beings to afflict Job. . . This poor man who professes to be much of a prophet, has no other dumb ass to ride but David Whitmer, . . . Poor ass!”

Oliver Cowdery was involved in a counterfeit money scheme and was charged by Smith as “disgracing the Church by being connected in the bogus business, as common report says” (History of the Church 3:16). Page 17 records that six of the nine charges against Cowdery were sustained on April 12, 1838, and he was “considered no longer a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” After he left the church, Cowdery rejoined a Methodist church in Ohio, saying “he was sorry and ashamed of his connection with Mormonism” (Charles A. Shook, The True Origin of the Book of Mormon, 58-59).

In December 1838, Joseph Smith condemned the three witnesses along with a couple of others in History of the Church 3:232:

Such characters as [William] McLellin, John Whitmer, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris, are too mean to mention; and we had liked to have forgotten them . . . Again, if men sin willfully after they have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sin, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation to come, which shall devour these adversaries. . . . therefore we say unto you, dear brethren, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we deliver these characters unto the buffetings of Satan until the day of redemption, that they may be dealt with according to their works; and from henceforth their works shall be made manifest.

While the three may have held to their belief in the Book of Mormon, they certainly did not give Joseph Smith a hearty endorsement. They all rejected the teachings found in the Doctrine and Covenants produced by Smith. In his 1887 book An Address to All Believers in Christ written six years after the setting in the movie and just a year before he died, David Whitmer reported that “in 1849 the Lord saw fit to manifest unto John Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery and myself nearly all the errors in doctrine into which we had been led by the heads of the old church. We were shown that the Book of Doctrine and Covenants contained many doctrines of error, and this it must be laid aside” (1-2). It was this book where “he challenged the Mormons by saying that if they believed his testimony with regard to the Book of Mormon, they must also believe that God Himself told him to leave the Mormon Church” (Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Major Problems of Mormonism, 146).

The Tanners explained,

Mormons ask us to accept David Whitmer’s testimony to the Book of Mormon, but will they accept Whitmer’s revelations which he gave when he was with the McLellin group? Certainly not. Neither will they accept his statement that “God spake to me again by His own voice from the heavens, and told me to ‘separate myself from among the Latter Day Saints.'” While Mormon apologists often argue that we do not have any evidence that David Whitmer ever denied his testimony to the Book of Mormon, they seem to be oblivious to the fact that they do not have any evidence to show that Whitmer ever denied that God told him to leave the Mormons or that he ever actually repudiated the revelations he gave while he was with the McLellin group. (Ibid. For more on the character on the witnesses, see chapter 5 in Mormonism: Shadow or Reality).

It just seems strange that men of questionable character should be considered to be solid witnesses for the Book of Mormon.

Confusing scenes

While the movie generally depicts the faith-promoting parts of the story, there are several scenes that portray controversial aspects of Mormon history. Of course, there is bickering between the witnesses on several issues, which must have been a bit jolting for some faithful Mormons in the audience. The Kirtland (OH) banking scandal is also a major scene describing how a number of innocent victims were defrauded of their money. Because of the controversy, the film shows an argument ensuing in the Kirtland temple, with shots being fired. Read The Demise of the LDS Church in Kirtland. 

In another scene, Joseph Smith is criticized by Cowdery for the martial affair he had with Fanny Alger, whom historians say was Joseph Smith’s first plural wife. The entire scene could have been confusing to anyone with no knowledge of Smith’s relationship with a female teenager who worked in his home. It was in the spring of 1836 when Emma Smith–Joseph’s first wife– “went to the barn and saw him and Fanny in the barn together alone. She looked through a crack and saw the transaction!!! She told me this story too was verily true.” In real life (but not cited in the movie), Cowdery called this a “dirty, nasty, filthy affair.” Of course, the scandal is not detailed in the movie. Imagine the surprise of those moviegoers who go home and do a search on Fanny Alger! (I recommend it1) A can of unopened worms, for sure.

The scene portraying Joseph Smith’s murder at the Carthage Jail glorifies Smith as a martyr. A viewer could wonder how Smith all of a sudden had gotten himself in such a predicament that led to his death, yet there is little discussed about why he was in jail in the first place. Of course, there is a historical reason for this. In his capacity as mayor of Nauvoo, the prophet had ordered the illegal destruction of the printing press that produced the first and only edition of the Nauvoo Expositor, a newspaper put together by former members who criticized Smith’s secret polygamous affairs. David Whitmer’s opposition to polygamy is never detailed, but he once said, “I do not endorse polygamy or spiritual wifeism. It is a great evil, shocking to the moral sense, and the more so, because practiced in the name of religion. It is of man and not God, and is especially forbidden in the Book of Mormon itself.”

It was also not explained how Smith used a smuggled pistol to defend himself and his friends. Of course, a Mormon can argue that Smith was entitled to defend himself while he was incarcerated. Still, the producer did not give the viewers the accurate detail so they could be allowed make a reasonable conclusion about Smith firing several shots and killing two of his attackers. Creative license is certainly a part of any movie, but purposely leaving out pertinent facts is not fair. For more information on the murder of Smith, see Final Moments at Carthage Jail and the Death of Joseph Smith.

Conclusion

Let’s write down everything we know about the three witnesses:

  • None literally saw the Book of Mormon plates nor did they ever hold them. Rather, they saw them in a visionary state.
  • All three rejected the later Joseph Smith as well as his “revelation,” the Doctrine and Covenants.
  • All three of these witnesses were excommunicated from the LDS Church in the last 1830s. None returned for good.
  • All three found other religions to join, quite strange when they were once part of God’s “restored” church.

In other words, the witnesses are not as credible as the LDS Church leaders want people to think. While the movie comes across as telling the whole story, it does fall short. As a result, most Mormon movie-goers will walk down the sticky floor aisle of the theater with a feel-good attitude. And that’s what the producer intended. Read between the lines and flesh out the whole story, however, and it is obvious that the story of the witnesses is not as clean cut as the producer portrayed.

Should a Christian see the movie? It’s a bit over dramatic, but I recommend you should see it (even if you have to rent it). Consider having your LDS friends join you for an evening and make plenty of popcorn. Then, after the credits roll, offer dessert and ask lots of questions, including maybe some of these:

  • Why did the three witnesses all lose their confidence in Joseph Smith?
  • Why did Smith excommunicate all of them?
  • Why did the witnesses all join other churches after being church members?
  • Why did they all end up rejecting the Doctrine and Covenants?
  • Why should I, as a non Mormon, accept the testimony of men with such questionable character?
  • How could Joseph Smith have run with the plates for three miles and fend off attackers if they were really made of gold?
  • Why did Joseph Smith never let the witnesses see or touch the plates?
  • Why should I take the witnesses’ vision of the plates as reason to believe that these were historical words of scripture in the same way as the Bible?
  • Why do you think the film introduces Fanny Alger without giving a lot of detail about this affair? (Do you know the story of Fanny Alger?)
  • Why did Joseph Smith not have foresight to avoid the Kirtland Bank scandal? And why did he run away from Ohio once the scandal broke? (See here.)
  • Why did the movie not portray Joseph Smith shooting a pistol at his attackers at the Carthage Jail battle and killing two people? (Why is someone who returned fire at his attackers considered a martyr for his faith?)

I think it would be a great discussion!


Other articles to consider:

Share this

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on email

Check out these related articles...