Is it not alarming that several witnesses to the Book of Mormon confessed that they did not see the plates with their natural eyes, but with “visions of the mind?”
From my perspective, the strongest proof of the truthfulness of the foundational claims of the church is the testimony of the witnesses, particularly the three witnesses, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris and David Whitmer.
The following statements by the three are very convincing:
Martin Harris (1875):
“The Book of Mormon is no fake. I know what I know. I have seen what I have seen and I have heard what I have heard. I have seen the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon is written. An angel appeared to me and others and testified to the truthfulness of the record, and had I been willing to have perjured myself and sworn falsely to the testimony I now bear I could have been a rich man, but I could not have testified other than I have done and am now doing for these things are true.”
David Whitmer (1881):
“I have never at any time, denied that testimony or any part thereof, which has so long since been published with that book as one of the three witnesses. Those who know me best, well know that I have adhered to that testimony. And that no man may be misled or doubt my present views in regard to the same, I do now again affirm the truth of all my statement[s], as then made and published.”
Oliver Cowdery (1848):
“I wrote, with my own pen, the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the Prophet Joseph, as he translated it by the gift and power of God, by the means of the Urim and Thummim, or as it is called by the book, Holy Interpreters. I beheld with my eyes, and handled with my hands, the gold plates from which it was transcribed. I also saw with my eyes and handled with my hands the Holy Interpreters. That book is true.”
I also feel that there is no convincing evidence that these three individuals participated in a fraud, rather the evidence points to the fact that, at least at one time, they all honestly believed that Joseph was a true prophet and that the Book of Mormon is what it purports to be.
Nevertheless, there are a few major problems.
I think we need to exercise some caution in judging the witnesses’ 1829 testimony by the rational worldview that most hold today. The three witnesses, like many, perhaps most people in the unsophisticated society of nineteenth-century rural America, viewed second sight, magic, spells, witches, and treasure digging as objective reality, and if anything, it drew them together as a society.
Where did the printed testimony of the ‘Three Witnesses’ Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer come from? Did they write their own personal witness statements?
It is believed that Joseph Smith composed the statement for them to sign. This appears to be evident since, at that time, he knew none of the witnesses had ever seen the plates with their natural eyes, a fact every one of them admitted at one point. Joseph’s wording however deliberately gives the impression that they had.
Stretching or twisting the truth seems to be no problem for Joseph Smith when it suited his purposes. There is clear evidence he altered other revelations and made numerous retroactive changes to the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants. According to Apostle William E. McLellin, “the testimony of the Twelve Apostles contained in the Introduction to the Doctrine and Covenants was a ‘base forgery.’ David Whitmer himself, one of the Three Witnesses, alleged the same thing.”
Notwithstanding, their unsigned witness statement, carefully crafted by Joseph Smith does say they saw the gold plates as well as an angel. They attested to the same at other times that their experience with the plates and the angel were real in the sense that we would view something as ‘real’ today.
The problem is, there is also clear evidence that Cowdery, Harris, and Whitmer, made numerous contradictory statements and admissions, in which they also said that they saw these things only in a ‘visionary state,’ often after being prepared and probably coached by Joseph Smith.
The issue becomes, given this incongruity, which is true?
There is so much damning evidence that the Book of Mormon is nothing more than a work of 19th-century fiction – the lack of archaeological support, the anachronisms, the contrary DNA evidence, the rampant plagiarism and the almost laughable means of translation – A magical peep stone in a top hat. .
This coupled with Smith’s history of money digging, his many run-ins with the law. His many false and failed prophesies, his inaccurate translations of the Egyptian Papyri, and the Kinderhook Plates and most of all his dishonesty and immoral behavior. Lying to Emma and the Saints about his polygamy and polyandry. Convincing teenage girls, some as young as 14, by the use of coercive psychological techniques to marry and have sex with him, must give anyone with an ounce of sense pause.
Were it not for the testimony of these three men I think a reasonable person would be ready to proclaim that the LDS church is false, that Joseph Smith was a narcissistic con-man who used his superior intellect and charisma to acquire wealth, power, and sex. If the testimony of these supposed witnesses is also highly suspect it must surely put the final nail in the Mormon coffin.
But there is Larry, Curly and Moe! – David, Martin, and Oliver.
I think we need to examine each of the three participants carefully, honestly and yes, judiciously, for I believe on them rests the veracity of the whole Mormon narrative.
Background and Life Experiences
Things were going well for Martin Harris by 1827. He had built a comfy life for himself and his wife and cousin Lucy in Palmyra, New York. By all accounts, he was a hard worker and the half section of land he had acquired and worked over the previous 14 years, had made him, by rural New York standards, very close to being a wealthy man.
At age 26, Martin married Lucy Harris, his first cousin, and the couple had five children, three of whom lived to be adults.
But now at age 45, he received a visit from Lucy Mack Smith, the mother of Joseph Smith, Jr., that led to a series of events that would rock his world.
Lucy Smith had come to tell Martin that her son Joseph had finally obtained golden plates from an angel, with a message inscribed in an ancient language that would change the world. Lucy Mack Smith asked Martin if he would visit Joseph. He agreed and thus began their relationship. Joseph Smith and Martin appeared to become friends, at least Martin saw Joseph as his friend hiring Joseph as a day laborer on his farm. Joseph may have viewed Martin as a tool (and I mean that in every sense of the word) as compared to Smith, he was wealthy but none too bright.
Martin likely harbored some doubts about Joseph’s story, undoubtedly stoked by his wife, Lucy. But Martin was also a religious man, as well as a very superstitious one. Indeed some labeled him a “visionary fanatic.” This perspective explains Martin’s willingness to, not just consider, but accept the supernatural buying hook, line and sinker Joseph’s claims of angels and ancient buried golden plates. Martin was acting as a scribe for a time and, of course, he also journeyed to New York City in Joseph’s behalf seeking a reassurance from Professor Anthon, a well-known scholar that the plates were authentic. But Martin’s greatest contribution to the work was as a benefactor.
It is interesting that regardless of Professor Anthon’s caution to Martin, he still proceeded with his, “investment.”
Dr. Anthon’s account of his meeting with Martin Harris is certainly disimilar to the Church’s version of what transpired.
Professor Anthon described Martin’s visit as follows:
New York, Feb. 17, 1834
Dear Sir –
I received this morning your favor of the 9th instant, and lose no time in making a reply. The whole story about my having pronounced the Mormonite inscription to be “reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics” is perfectly false. Some years ago, a plain, and apparently simple-hearted farmer, called upon me with a note from Dr. Mitchell of our city, now deceased, requesting me to decypher, if possible, a paper, which the farmer would hand me, and which Dr. M. confessed he had been unable to understand. Upon examining the paper in question, I soon came to the conclusion that it was all a trick, perhaps a hoax. When I asked the person, who brought it, how he obtained the writing, he gave me, as far as I can now recollect, the following account: A “gold book,” consisting of a number of plates of gold, fastened together in the shape of a book by wires of the same metal, had been dug up in the northern part of the state of New York, and along with the book an enormous pair of “gold spectacles”!.
The farmer added, that he had been requested to contribute a sum of money towards the publication of the “golden book,” the contents of which would, as he had been assured, produce an entire change in the world and save it from ruin. So urgent had been these solicitations, that he intended selling his farm and handing over the amount received to those who wished to publish the plates. As a last precautionary step, however, he had resolved to come to New York, and obtain the opinion of the learned about the meaning of the paper which he brought with him, and which had been given him as a part of the contents of the book, although no translation had been furnished at the time by the young man with the spectacles. On hearing this odd story, I changed my opinion about the paper, and, instead of viewing it any longer as a hoax upon the learned, I began to regard it as part of a scheme to cheat the farmer of his money, and I communicated my suspicions to him, warning him to beware of rogues. He requested an opinion from me in writing, which of course I declined giving, and he then took his leave carrying the paper with him. This paper was in fact a singular scrawl. It consisted of all kinds of crooked characters disposed in columns, and had evidently been prepared by some person who had before him at the time a book containing various alphabets. Greek and Hebrew letters, crosses and flourishes, Roman letters inverted or placed sideways, were arranged in perpendicular columns, and the whole ended in a rude delineation of a circle divided into various compartments, decked with various strange marks, and evidently copied after the Mexican Calender given by Humboldt, but copied in such a way as not to betray the source whence it was derived. I am thus particular as to the contents of the paper, inasmuch as I have frequently conversed with my friends on the subject, since the Mormonite excitement began, and well remember that the paper contained any thing else but “Egyptian Hieroglyphics.” Some time after, the same farmer paid me a second visit. He brought with him the golden book in print, and offered it to me for sale. I declined purchasing. He then asked permission to leave the book with me for examination. I declined receiving it, although his manner was strangely urgent. I adverted once more to the roguery which had been in my opinion practised upon him, and asked him what had become of the gold plates. He informed me that they were in a trunk with the large pair of spectacles. I advised him to go to a magistrate and have the trunk examined. He said the “curse of God” would come upon him should he do this. On my pressing him, however, to pursue the course which I had recommended, he told me that he would open the trunk, if I would take the “curse of God” upon myself. I replied that I would do so with the greatest willingness, and would incur every risk of that nature, provided I could only extricate him from the grasp of rogues. He then left me.
I have thus given you a full statement of all that I know respecting the origin of Mormonism, and must beg you, as a personal favor, to publish this letter immediately, should you find my name mentioned again by these wretched fanatics.
Yours respectfully, CHAS. ANTHON
Following a revelation from the Lord, given through Joseph Smith, Martin was commanded: “Thou shalt not covet thine own property, but impart it freely to the printing of the Book of Mormon.” Harris mortgaged his home and farm for $3,000, a generous loan in that era. By some estimates, comparing Martin’s wealth to the local economy at that time, his gift would be worth about $1.6 million today.
Other Religious Affiliations
To say that Martin Harris was unstable religiously would be an understatement. He changed his religious affiliations 13 times. Even after his excommunication from the Mormon Church, he changed his religion beliefs eight more times.
Pick virtually any Protestant denomination, and Martin had at one time been an adherent!
Character, Gullibility and Mental Stability
His contemporaries found him to be somewhat odd, to say the least, “Once while reading scripture; he reportedly mistook a candle’s sputtering as a sign that the devil desired him to stop. Another time he excitedly awoke from his sleep believing that a creature as large as a dog had been upon his chest, though a nearby associate could find nothing to confirm his fears. Several hostile and perhaps unreliable accounts told of visionary experiences with Satan and Christ, Harris once reporting that Christ had been poised on a roof beam.” 1
Presbyterian minister Jesse Townsend of Palmyra called Harris a “visionary fanatic,” and Lorenzo Saunders said Harris was a “great man for seeing spooks.”
John A. Clark, reported that during the time the Book of Mormon was being translated, “on the way he met the Lord Jesus Christ, who walked along by the side of him in the shape of a deer for two or three miles, talking with him as familiarly as one man talks with another.”2
Martin Harris testified that his testimony for Shakerism was greater than it was for Mormonism. The Shaker’s “Sacred Roll and Book” was also delivered by an angel. 3
Regarding his honesty, after getting in Smith’s bad books, the official Mormon newspaper of the day included Martin Harris with a few other men, as having, “a lying deceptive spirit attend them…they are of their father, the devil…the very countenance of Harris will show to every spiritual-minded person who sees him, that the wrath of God is upon him.” 4
In the Elder’s Journal for August 1838, Joseph Smith himself denounced Martin Harris as “so far beneath contempt that to notice him would be too great a sacrifice for a gentleman to make. The Church exerted some restraint on him, but now he has given loose to all kinds of abominations. “
Surprisingly, the non-Mormon press was more generous toward Martin:
“Mr. Harris was among the early settlers of this town, and has ever borne the character of an honorable and upright man, and an obliging and benevolent neighbor. He had secured to himself by honest industry a respectable fortune—and he has left a large circle of acquaintances and friends to pity his delusion. 5
“We have ever regarded Mr. Harris as an honest man. We first became acquainted with him at Palmyra, in the spring of 1828, shortly after the plates from which the Book of Mormon is said to have been translated, were found.. . . Though illiterate and actually of a superstitious turn of mind, he had long sustained an irreproachable character for probity. . . . By his neighbors and townsmen with whom he earnestly and almost incessantly labored, he was regarded rather as being deluded himself, than as wishing to delude others knowingly; but still he was subjected to many scoffs and rebukes, all of which he endured with a meekness becoming a better cause.” 6
Dan Vogel reports that a friend, who praised Harris as being “universally esteemed as an honest man,” also declared that Harris’s mind “was overbalanced by ‘marvellousness‘” (sic) and that his belief in earthly visitations of angels and ghosts gave him the local reputation of being crazy. 7
Education and Intelligence
Martin had what passed for a normal education for people who worked the land in rural upstate New York at that time, not unlike that which David Whitmer and Joseph Smith received. Oliver Cowdery’s formal education was a step above these three.
Motivations for His Involvement
Martin was deeply invested in the success of the Book of Mormon. He went as far as to mortgage his farm to make the publication of the Book of Mormon possible. If the book failed, Martin stood to lose the most.
I think we need to keep in mind that Martin’s motivation, as could be argued of Smith’s, was not altogether altruistic.
Abigail Harris, Martin’s sister-in-law, spoke to this important feature of his motivation:
“… Martin Harris and Lucy Harris, his wife, were at my house (1828).In conversation with the Mormonites, she [Lucy Harris] observed that she wished her husband would quit them, as she believed it all false and a delusion. To which I heard Mr. Harris reply: ‘What if it is a lie; if you will let me alone I will make money out of it!’ I was both an eye- and ear-witness of what has been above stated, which is now fresh in my memory, and I speak the truth and lie not, God being my witness.”
Nevertheless, one of the most powerful confirmations of Martin’s testimony was recorded by William Harrison Homer, which was replicated in the Improvement Era.
“Young man,” answered Martin Harris with impressiveness, “Do I believe it! Do you see the sun shining! Just as surely as the sun is shining on us and gives us light, and the [moon] and stars give us light by night, just as surely as the breath of life sustains us, so surely do I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, chosen of God to open the last dispensation of the fullness of times; so surely do I know that the Book of Mormon was divinely translated. I saw the plates; I saw the Angel; I heard the voice of God. I know that the Book of Mormon is true and that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God. I might as well doubt my own existence as to doubt the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon or the divine calling of Joseph Smith.” 8
In law, a ‘deathbed’ confession or statement is given great credence as it should. The following is what amounts to Martin’s deathbed testimony:
“A few hours before his death and when he was so weak and enfeebled that he was unable to recognize me or anyone, and knew not to whom he was speaking, I asked him if he did not feel that there was an element at least, of fraudulence and deception in the things that were written and told of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and he replied as he had always done so many, many times in my hearing the same spirit he always manifested when enjoying health and vigor and said: ‘The Book of Mormon is no fake. I know what I know. I have seen what I have seen and I have heard what I have heard. I have seen the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon is written. An angel appeared to me and others and testified to the truthfulness of the record, and had I been perjured myself and sworn falsely to the testimony I now bear I could have been a rich man, but I could not have testified other than I have done and am now doing for these things are true.” 9
However, Martin also said repeatedly that he, and the other witnesses, only saw the plates in vision.
“Martin Harris, one of the subscribing witnesses, has come out at last, and says he never saw the plates, from which the book purports to have been translated, except in vision and he further says that any man who says he has seen them in any other way is a liar, Joseph [Smith] not excepted.” 10
In 1838 when the Church was in crisis and experiencing massive apostasy. Martin’s statement about not really seeing the angel and plates, was the final straw that caused apostles Luke S. Johnson, Lyman E. Johnson, and John F. Boynton, high priest Stephen Burnett and seventy Warren Parrish to leave the Church, Burnett comments:
“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 nor David & also 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 foundations was (sic) sapped & the entire superstructure fell a heap of ruins,…I was followed by W. Parish[,] Luke Johnson & John Boynton[,] all of the[m] concurred with me. After we done speaking M Harris arose & said he was sorry for any man who rejected the Book of Mormon for he knew it was true, he said he had hefted the plates repeatedly in a box with only a tablecloth or handkerchief over them, but he never saw them only as he saw a city through a mountain. And said that he never should have told that the testimony of the eight was false, if it had not been picked out of him but should have let it passed as it was… “ 11
And a few more of many more statements by Martin:
“While praying I passed into a state of entrancement, and in that state, I saw the angel and the plates.” 12
“I never saw the gold plates, only in a visionary or entranced state.” 13
Harris’ myriad public statement that he and his fellow witnesses only saw the plates and the angel in a ‘visionary’ or ‘second sight’ way caused many to leave the church as this letter from Stephen Burnett shows:
“. . . 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 nor David & also 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, I therefore three week since in the Stone Chapel…renounced the Book of Mormon…after we were done speaking M Harris arose & said he was sorry for any man who rejected the Book of Mormon for he knew it was true, he said he had hefted the plates repeatedly in a box with only a tablecloth or a handkerchief over them, but he never saw them only as he saw a city throught [sic] a mountain. And said that he never should have told that the testimony of the eight was false, if it had not been picked out of—[him/me?] but should have let it passed as it was…” 14
The foreman in the Palmyra printing office that produced the first Book of Mormon said that Harris “used to practice a good deal of his characteristic jargon and ‘seeing with the spiritual eye,’ and the like.” 1
Two other Palmyra residents said that Harris told them that he had seen the plates with “the eye of faith” or “spiritual eyes.” 16
John H. Gilbert, the typesetter for most of the Book of Mormon, said that he had asked Harris, “Martin, did you see those plates with your naked eyes?” According to Gilbert, Harris “looked down for an instant, raised his eyes up, and said, ‘No, I saw them with a spiritual eye.” 17
When Martin Harris was asked, “But did you see them [plates] with your natural, your bodily eyes, just as you see this pencil-case in my hand? Now say no or yes to this.” Martin answered, “I did not see them as I do that pencil-case, yet I saw them with the eye of faith; I saw them just as distinctly as I see anything around me, though at the time they were covered over with a cloth.” 18
“Martin Harris later testified that he did not see the plates literally with his fleshly eyes: He said he saw the plates with ‘the eyes of faith and not with the natural eyes’. This we believe is the truth but it should eliminate him automatically as a witness none the less. This, of course, proves Mormonism is a fraud and that the Nephi Plates never existed and no one actually saw them.” 19
While Martin was not perhaps the smartest of men, I think he was a decent man. I think a case can be made that he might have been used and by a guileful and manipulative Joseph Smith. I think the conflicting statements Martin made throughout his life, his superstition, his magical mindset, and his mental instability coupled with his conflict of interest assail his credibility.
Background and Life Experiences
David Whitmer was born near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the fourth of nine children of Peter Whitmer, Sr. and Mary Musselman both of German ancestry. By the 1820s, the Whitmer family had moved to a farm in Fayette, New York. Whitmer and his family were among the earliest adherents to the Latter-Day Saint movement. Whitmer first heard of Joseph Smith and the golden plates in 1828 when he made a business trip to Palmyra, New York, and there talked with his friend Oliver Cowdery.
When the Church moved from New York to Ohio in 1831, the Whitmers went along as they did to Jackson County, Missouri the short-lived Zion or gathering place for the Saints. When the differences between the Latter-day Saints and their neighbors erupted again into open conflict. Driven from Jackson County, the Whitmers settled in adjacent Clay County, Missouri.
By 1838 things were going sideways quickly. David described the situation: “In the spring of 1838, the heads of the church and many of the members had gone deep into error and blindness. I had been striving with them for a long time to show them the errors into which they were drifting, and for my labors, I received only persecutions. In June 1838, a secret organization was formed, Doctor Avard being put in as the leader of the band; a certain oath was to be administered to all the brethren to bind them to support the heads of the church in everything they should teach. All who refused to take this oath were considered dissenters from the church, and certain things were to be done concerning these dissenters, by Dr. Avard’s secret band.”
In response to the Church’s threats against him as well as Oliver Cowdery, John Whitmer, William W. Phelps and Lyman Johnson, David left town and the Church.
This was Sidney Rigdon’s letter:
“To Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, John Whitmer, William W. Phelps, and Lyman E. Johnson, greeting: Out of the county you shall go, and no power shall save you. And you shall have three days after you receive this communication…for you to depart with your families peaceably;…and unless you heed us,…there shall be no escape; for there is but one decree for you, which is depart, depart, or a more fatal calamity shall befall you…we will put you from the county of Caldwell: so help us God.”
Whitmer went on to condemn Smith’s church and raise some question as to the validity of his Book of Mormon witness statement. “If you believe my testimony to the Book of Mormon,” wrote Whitmer, “if you believe that God spake to us three witnesses by his own voice, then I tell you that in June, 1838 God spake to me again by his own voice from the heavens and told me to ‘separate myself from among the Latter Day Saints, for as they sought to do unto me, so it should be done unto them.”
After Joseph’s death in 1844, many of Rigdon’s followers became disillusioned, and by 1847, William E. McLellin and Benjamin Winchester, remembering Whitmer’s 1834 ordination to be Smith’s successor, urged Whitmer exercised his claim to be Smith’s successor and the Church of Christ (Whitmerite) was formed in Kirtland, Ohio. However, Whitmer never joined the body of the new church, and it dissolved relatively quickly.
David Whitmer belonged to at least three Mormon splinter groups at different times, but he died still rejecting the LDS Church and its priesthood.
Like Martin Harris, David Whitmer later testified that he did not see the plates with his real eyes but, “by the eye of faith” handled by an angel. 20
During the summer of 1837, while in Kirtland, like Oliver and Martin, David pledged his loyalty and allegiance to a prophetess who used a black seer stone and danced herself into ‘trances.’ 21
Education and Intelligence
David also had what passed for a normal education for people who worked the land in rural upstate New York at that time. Somewhat like that which Martin Harris and Joseph Smith had received.
David Whitmer was excommunicated from the Church, and he never returned to it, nonetheless near the end of his life, he made the following statement in the Richmond, Missouri, Conservator on March 25, 1881:
“Unto all Nations, Kindreds, Tongues, and People, unto whom these presents shall come: . . . I wish now, standing as it were, in the very sunset of life, and in the fear of God, once [and] for all to make this public statement: That I have never at any time denied that testimony [of the Book of Mormon] or any part thereof, which has so long since been published with that book, as one of the Three Witnesses. Those who know me best well know that I have always adhered to that testimony. And that no man may be misled or doubt my present views in regard to the same, I do again affirm the truth of all my statements as then made and published. “He that hath an ear to hear, let him hear;” it was no delusion; what is written is written, and he that readeth let him understand. “And if any man doubt, should he not carefully and honestly read and understand the same before presuming to sit in judgment and condemning the light, which shineth in darkness, and showeth the way of eternal life as pointed out by the unerring hand of God?” In the Spirit of Christ, who hath said: “Follow thou me, for I am the life, the light and the way,” I submit this statement to the world; God in whom I trust being my judge as to the sincerity of my motives and the faith and hope that is in me of eternal life. My sincere desire is that the world may be benefited by this plain and simple statement of the truth. And all the honor to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen!”
However, again in the same document Whitmer testifies:
“If you believe my testimony to the Book of Mormon; if you believe that God spake to us three witnesses by his own voice, then I tell you that in June 1838, God spake to me again by his own voice from the heavens and told me to ‘separate myself from among the Latter Day Saints, for as they sought to do unto me, so it should be done unto them.” In the spring of 1838, the heads of the church and many of the members had gone deep into error and blindness. I had been striving with them for a long time to show them the errors into which they were drifting, and for my labors I received only persecutions.” 22
Statements by Whitmer that He Saw the Gold Plates and the Angel in Vision
While more stable than Martin Harris, David also had a magical view of the world and spoke of seeing things with his “spiritual” eyes.
He was once asked to describe the angel who showed him the plates. He responded that the angel “had no appearance or shape.” When asked how he could then could bear testimony that he had seen and heard an angel, Whitmer replied, “Have you never had impressions?” To which the interviewer responded, “Then you had impressions as the Quaker when the spirit moves, or as a good Methodist in giving a happy experience, a feeling?” “Just so,” replied Whitmer. 23
James Henry Moyle, a Mormon lawyer, interviewed Whitmer in 1885 He asked him if there was any possibility that he had been deceived. “His answer was unequivocal…that he saw the plates and heard the angel with unmistakable clearness.” But Moyle went away “not fully satisfied…It was more spiritual than I anticipated.” 24
“While praying I passed into a state of entrancement, and in that state, I saw the angel and the plates.” 25
“I never saw the gold plates, only in a visionary or entranced state.” 26
“In regards to my testimony to the visitation of the angel, who declared to us three witnesses that the Book of Mormon is true, I have this to say: Of course we were in the spirit when we had the view, for no man can behold the face of an angel, except in a spiritual view, but ‘we were in the body also, and everything was as natural to us, as it is at any time. Martin Harris, you say, called it “being in vision.” We read in the Scriptures, Cornelius saw, in a vision, an angel of God, Daniel saw an angel in a vision, also in other places, it states they saw an angel in the spirit. A bright light enveloped us where we were, that filled [the woods as] at noon day, and there in a vision or in the spirit, we saw and heard just as it is stated in my testimony in the Book of Mormon.” 27
David Whitmer changed his story about seeing the plates and later told of finding them lying in a field and later still told Orson Pratt that they were on a table with all sorts of brass plates, gold plates, the Sword of Laban, the ‘Director’ and the Urim and Thummim. 28
David Whitmer informed Zenas Gurley Jr. on January 14, 1885, when asked if the witnesses touched “the real metal,” “We did not.” The witnesses handled “the plates” in a vision only, according to Whitmer. 29
Also, the eight witnesses did not “imagine” seeing the plates or an angel at the same time as most members believe and as is popularized in church paintings. Rather the plates were imagined in two groups of four. 30
Marvin S. Hill, an LDS writer, remarked:
“. . . there is a possibility that the witnesses saw the plates in vision only. . . . There is testimony from several independent interviewers, all non-Mormon, that Martin Harris and David Whitmer said they saw the plates with their “spiritual eyes” only. . . . This is contradicted, however, by statements like that of David Whitmer in the Saints Herald in 1882, “these hands handled the plates, these eyes saw the angel.” But Z. H. Gurley elicited from Whitmer a not so positive response to the question,” did you touch them?” His answer was, “We did not touch nor handle the plates.” So far as the eight witnesses go, William Smith said his father never saw the plates except under a frock…” 31
Background and Life Experiences
Of the three witnesses, Oliver played the most significant role in the creation of the Church. He is also the most likely co-conspirator with Joseph Smith if the Mormon Church is a fraud.
He was the principal scribe, was a member of the Congregational church where Ethan Smith, the author of the View of the Hebrews preached and Oliver attended, and no doubt had a copy of it, as well, he was Joseph’s cousin.
There is evidence that Oliver knew Joseph before the time the Church claims. Lorenzo Saunders placed Oliver Cowdery on the Smith farm in Palmyra several years earlier in 1826:
“As respecting Oliver Cowdery, he came from Kirtland in the summer of 1826 and was about there [i.e., the Smith’s farm] until fall and took a school in the district where the Smiths lived and the next summer he was missing and I didn’t see him until fall and he came back and took our school in the district where we lived and taught about a week and went to the school board and wanted the board to let him off and they did and he went to Smith and went to writing the Book of Mormon and wrote all winter. The Mormons say it wasn’t wrote there but I say it was because I was there…” 32
Oliver also claimed, “second sight,” he reports seeing convoy after convoy of angels at a worship service in Ohio.
It is rarely mentioned in the discussion of the veracity of the witnesses but should be remembered that we do not have an actual document of actual signatures of the Book of Mormon witnesses. The closest we have is a document in Oliver’s handwriting, providing the names of the Witnesses.
Without the original document, it is impossible to know with certainty whether the witnesses truly signed it.
As well, the Church is not forthcoming about the statements by the witnesses, who claim to have seen Smith’s gold plates and handled them. The faith-promoting accounts do not tell us that their experience was one that took place in their imaginations, that they saw with their, “spiritual eyes,” “visions of the mind,” or through the “eyes of our understanding.”
David Whitmer informed Zenas Gurley Jr. on January 14, 1885, when asked if the witnesses touched “the real metal,” “We did not.” The witnesses handled “the plates” in a vision only, according to Whitmer. 3
Other Religious Experiences
There are often statements made within the Church to the effect that none of the three witnesses recanted their statements and I have no reason to believe that is not the case. However, there is some evidence that Oliver Cowdery came very close.
When Oliver joined the Methodist Church later in his life, he apparently offered to repudiate his witness to the Book of Mormon in writing but was not required to do so by the elders of the Methodist Church.
“We accordingly waited on Mr. Cowdery at his residence in Tiffin, and there learned his connection, from him, with that order, and his full and final renunciation thereof.
We then inquired of him if he had any objection to making a public recantation. He replied that he would if it were required of him. The following I from a sworn statement by G.J. Keen, one of the elders who interviewed Oliver.
“In a few years, Mr. Cowdery expressed a desire to associate, himself with a Methodist Protestant church of this city. Rev. John Souder and myself were appointed a committee to wait on Mr. Cowdery and confer with him respecting his connection with Mormonism and the Book of Mormon had objections; that, in the first place, it could do no good; that he had known several to do so and they always regretted it. And, in the second place, it would have a tendency to draw public attention, invite criticism, and bring him into contempt.
“But,” said he, “nevertheless, if the church requires it, I will submit to it, but I authorize and desire you and the church to publish and make known my recantation.”
We did not demand it but submitted his name to the church, and he was unanimously admitted a member thereof. At that time he arose and addressed the audience present, admitted his error and implored forgiveness, and said he was sorry and ashamed of his connection with Mormonism.
He continued his membership while he resided in Tiffin, and became superintendent of the Sabbath-school, and led an exemplary the while he resided with us. I have lived in this city upwards of fifty-three years, was auditor of this county, was elected to that office in 1840.
I am now in my eighty-third year, and well remember the facts above related.
(Signed) G. J. KEEN.”
Sworn to before me and subscribed in my presence, this 14th day of April 1885. FRANK L. EMICH, Notary
The Mormon Church claims Oliver came back to the Church, but if he did, he might have left shortly thereafter as he was buried by a Methodist minister in Richmond, Missouri. 34
Motivations for his Involvement
What was Oliver’s motivation?
He was in on many of the most important policies and revelations of the Church, including:
An Angelic Witness of the Plates
Translation of the Plates
Restoration of Aaronic Priesthood
Restoration of Melchizedek Priesthood
Restoration of sealing keys and return of Elijah
When anything important happens, Oliver is there. When Smith hit a roadblock with Emma and Martin acting as scribes, Oliver shows up and gets things moving – quickly. Suddenly, hundreds of pages are translated in just a few months.
There are some suspicious actions involving Oliver and Sidney Rigdon. Upon the event of his death, Rigdon commanded his wife to burn all his papers, which were many. A man of letters does not destroy the collection of a lifetime unless there is something damning within it. Why else would he have had them burnt? I don’t imagine we will ever know what was so incriminating. Was there a reworking of the View of the Hebrews, or the Late War or was it a rough draft of the framework of the Book of Mormon, entitled Manuscript Found at Conneaut Creek by a failed preacher named Solomon Spaulding?
Spaulding failed at most everything he put his hand to, one of those flops was writing and selling novels. He wrote a story called Manuscript Found at Conneaut Creek but failed to get it published, as the story goes, Spaulding reworked the book and renamed it Manuscript Found. He took the manuscript to a publisher in Pittsburgh who agreed to publish it if he could come up with the money, but Spaulding never did find a backer, so the manuscript sat in the publisher’s office gathering dust.
At it happens somewhere in the 1810s, a man named Sidney Rigdon was visiting that same publisher’s office, and he came across Manuscript Found. By then Spaulding had died, so Rigdon takes it. Now Rigdon was also an adherent of Campbellism, which sought to restore Christianity to its first-century form and Rigdon sees an opportunity, a promote Campbellism and unite the various Christian denominations as well as Native Americans. He hatches a plan, an idea incidentally that he shares with his closest friends in and around 1825 to 1827 Rigdon tells his closest friends that soon a new book of scripture that would unite Christian Americans, convert Native Americans, and explain where the people who built the thousands of mounds around the eastern U.S. came from.
During this same period, Oliver Cowdery who lived in Rigdon’s area gets wind of Rigdon’s idea. Cowdery used to live in New York and at one point went back to New York to visit with Joseph Smith, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Speculation, certainly but not wildly so. Several of Spaulding’s relatives familiar with Manuscript Found in the Wilds of Mormon swore affidavits that The Book of Mormon was a rip-off of Solomon’s second, missing manuscript. In fact, they claimed that “Nephites,” “Lamanites,” “Lehi,” “Mormon” and “Moroni” – these exact words were found in Solomon’s novel.
As we saw with the Hoffman affair, the church is quick to purchase and stick away in their vaults anything casting doubt on the official story.
I often wonder what we would find if Jeraldo got into that their safe!
Cowdery publicly confessed his sorrow and shame for his connection with Mormonism. But did not go so far as to expose it as a fraud? Why would he not admit that his witness statement was false?
Obviously, no one relishes the admission that they have been deceitful, or that they have perjured themselves and lied under oath. Oliver may have been a lot of things, but he was not a fool. He understood that if he came clean, he would put himself in a very bad position. People had invested their fortunes, their time, even sacrificed their children to the carnal desires of the polygamists. Any admission on his part would certainly put him in legal jeopardy.
Is it not just easier and less trouble to just to stick to the original story? There are literally millions of people on the Mormon rolls today that do not believe the church is true and want nothing whatever to do with it but just move on without making a fuss like the one I am making here. Just look at the statistics I have presented in my letter. Oliver was interested in pursuing a political career, being associated with the Mormons was bad enough but admitting that he was involved in the creation of a fraud would be political suicide.
Education and Intelligence
The fact that Oliver accepted the position of teacher in a small rural school in Manchester Township in 1828 and 1829 speaks to the fact that he was the better educated of the witnesses. We also know that after his disaffection with the Mormon church he became an attorney. 35
Oliver Opens His Heart
Oliver Cowdery published the following, “Defense in a Rehearsal of My Grounds for Separating Myself from the Latter-Day Saints,”
“DEAR PEOPLE OF GOD: — I offer you a “Defense” which I am grieved to make, but my opposers have put me to the necessity, and so far as my memory serves, I pledge my veracity for the correctness of the account.
I deny that I have ever conspired with any, or ever exerted any influence to destroy the reputation of the First Elder [Joseph Smith], although evidence which is to be credited assures me that he has done everything he could to injure my standing, and his influence has been considerably exerted to destroy my reputation and, I fear, my life.
You will remember in the meantime, that those who seek to vilify my character have been constantly encouraged by him. There was a time when I thought myself able to prove to the satisfaction of every man that the translator of the Book of Mormon was worthy of the appellation of a Seer and a Prophet of the Lord, and in which he held over me a mysterious power which even now I fail to fathom; but I fear I may have been deceived, and especially so fear since knowing that Satan has led his mind astray.
When the Church of Christ was set up by revelation, he was called to be First Elder, and I was called to he Second Elder, and whatever he had of Priesthood (about which I am beginning to doubt).
But I certainly followed him too far when accepting and reiterating, that none had authority from God to administer the ordinances of the gospel, as I had then forgotten that John, the beloved disciple, was tarrying on earth and exempt from death.
I am well aware that a rehearsal of these things at this day will be unpleasant reading to the First Elder; yet so it is, and it is wisdom that it should be so. Without rehearsing too many things that have caused me, to lose my faith in Bro. Joseph’s seership. I regard his frequent predict devils nor the malice of men shall ever cause him to fall by the hand of his enemies until he has seen Christ in the flesh at his final coming, as little short of a piece of blasphemy; and it may be classed with that revelation that some among you will remember which sent Bro. Page and me so unwisely to (3) Toronto with a prediction from the Lord by Urim and Thummim that we would there find a man anxious to buy the First Elder’s copyright.
I well remember we did not find him, and had to return surprised and disappointed. But so great was my faith, that, in going to Toronto, nothing but calmness pervaded my soul, every doubt was banished, and I as much expected that Bro. Page and I would fulfill the revelation as that we should live. And you may believe without asking me to relate the particulars, that it would be no easy task to describe our desolation and grief.
Bro. Page and I did not think that God would have deceived us through “Urim and Thummim,” exactly as came the Book of Mormon; and I well remember how hard I strove to drive away the foreboding which seized me, that the First Elder had made tools of us, where we thought, in the simplicity of out hearts, that we were divinely commanded.
And what served to render the reflection past expression in its bitterness to me, was, that from his hand I received baptism, by the direction of the Angel of God, whose voice, as it has since struck me, did most mysteriously resemble the voice of Elder Sidney Rigdon, who, I am sure, had no part in the transactions of that day, as the Angel was John the Baptist, which I doubt not and deny not. When I afterward first heard Elder Rigdon, whose voice is so strikingly similar, I felt that this “dear” brother was to be in some sense, to me unknown, the herald of this church as the Great Baptist was of Christ.
I never dreamed, however, that he would influence the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator to the Church of Latter Day Saints, into the formation of a secret band at Far West, committed to depredations upon Gentiles and the actual assassination of apostates from the church, which was done in June last and was only one of many wrong steps.
These are facts which I am rehearsing, and if they shall be called into question, I am able to establish them by evidence which I can bring forward in abundance. Still, although favored of God as a chosen witness to bear testimony to the divine authority of the Book of Mormon, and honored of the Lord in being permitted, without money and without price, to serve as scribe during the translation of the Book of Mormon, I have sometimes had seasons of skepticism, in which I did seriously wonder whether the prophet and I were men in our sober senses when we would be translating from plates through “the Urim and Thummim” and the plates not be in sight at all.
But I believed both in the Seer and in the “Seer Stone,” and what the First Elder announced as revelation from God, I accepted as such, and committed to paper with a glad mind and happy heart and swift pen; for I believed him to be the soul of honor and truth, a young man who would die before he would lie.
Man may deceive his fellow man, deception may follow deception, and the children of the wicked one may seduce the unstable, untaught in the ways of righteousness and peace, for I felt a solemn awe about me, being deep in the faith, that the First Elder was a Seer and Prophet of God, giving the truth unsullied through “Urim and Thummim,” dictated by the will of the Lord, and that he was persecuted for the sake of the truth which he loved. Could I have been deceived in him?
I could rehearse a number of things to show either that I was then deceived, or that he has since fallen from the lofty place in which fond affection had deemed him secure.
I remember his experience as he had related it to me, and lacking wisdom, I went to God in prayer. I said: “O Lord, how dark everything is! Let thy glory lighten it, and make bright the path for me. Show me my duty. Let me be led of thy Spirit.”
Shall I relate what transpired? I had a message from the Most High, as from the midst of eternity; for the vail was parted and the Redeemer Himself, clothed in glory, stood before me. And He said:
“After reproving the Latter-Day Saints for their corruption and blindness in permitting their President, Joseph Smith, Jr., to lead them forth into errors, where I led him not, not commanded him, and saying unto them, Thus saith the Lord,’ when I said it not unto him, thou shalt withdraw thyself from among them.”
And I testify that Jesus, whose words I have been rehearsing, hath even so commanded me in an open vision.
The Lord revealed to me that the First Elder is leading the Saints astray, and ordered me to quit them after delivering the message which this “Defense” delivers. I shall ever remember this expression of the Saviour’s grace with thanksgiving, and look upon his amazing goodness to me with wonder.
When I had sufficiently recovered my self-possession to ask in regard to the errors into which Joseph Smith, Jr., was taking the Saints, the Redeemer instructed me plainly: “He hath given revelations from his own heart and from a defiled conscience as coming from my mouth and hath corrupted the covenant and altered words which I had spoken. He hath brought in high priests, apostles and other officers, which in these days, when the written word sufficeth, are not in my church, and some of his deeds have brought shame to my heritage by the shedding of blood. He walketh in the vain imaginations of his heart, and my Spirit is holy and does not dwell in an unholy temple, nor are angels sent to reveal the great work of God to hypocrites.”
I bowed my face in shame and said: “Lord! I entreat thee, give me grace to hear thy message in print where I fear to take it by word of mouth.”
And he said, “The grace is given thee,” and he vanished out of my sight.
Prepare your hearts, O ye saints of the Most High, and come to understanding. The prophet hath erred and the people are gone astray through his error. God’s word is open. We may read it.
There is no “First Presidency” there, no “High Priesthood” save that of Christ himself, no Patriarch to the Church, and wonderful to tell, the “First Elder” hath departed from God in giving us these things, and in changing the name of the church.
Oh, the misery, distress and evil attendant upon giving heed unto the “doctrines of men”! The gospel has been perverted and the Saints are wandering in darkness, while a full cup of suffering is poured upon them. A society has been organized among them to inflict death upon those who are deemed apostates, with the knowledge and sanction of the First Elder.
This, I confess, is a dark picture to spread before those whom I am to warn, but they will pardon my plainness when I assure them of the truth of what I have written.
Bearing this message to them is the hardest work of my life, although many have been the privations and fatigues which have fallen to my lot to endure for the Gospel’s sake since April 5th, 1829.
It is disgraceful to be led by a man who does not scruple to follow his own vain imagination, announcing his own schemes as revelations from the Lord. And I fear he is led by a groundless hope, no better than the idle wind or the spider’s web. Having cleared my soul by delivering the message, I do not deem it necessary to write further on the subject now.
Jesus has saved men in all ages and saves them now, and not by our Priesthood either. The “First Elder” errs as to that. The Lord has said, long since, and his word remains steadfast as the eternal hills, that to him who knocks it shall be opened, and whosoever will, may come and partake of the waters of life freely; but a curse will surely fall upon those who draw near to God with their mouths, and honor him with their lips, while their hearts are far from him.
I no longer believe that all the other churches are wrong.
Get right, O ye people, get right with God, and may the Lord remove his judgments from you, preserve you in his kingdom from all evil, and crown you in Christ. Amen.
- COWDERY, March 3, 1839.” 35
In 1841 the Mormons published a poem which stated, “Or Book of Mormon not his word because denied by Oliver.”
A poem of the time declares that Cowdery denied his Mormon testimony:
“Amazed with wonder! I look round
To see most people of our day
Reject the glorious gospel sound
Because the simple turn away:
But does it prove there is no time,
Because some watches wilt not go?
“Or prove that Christ was not the Lord
Because that Peter cursed and swore,
OR BOOK OF MORMON NOT HIS WORD
BECAUSE DENIED BY OLIVER?
Or prove that Joseph Smith is false
Because apostates say ’tis so?” (emphasis added) 36
The Church and her apologists quote David Whitmer’s account of Oliver’s alleged death-bed revival. Whitmer is reported to have told Apostles Joseph F. Smith and Orson Pratt the following on September 8, 1878, regarding Cowdery’s death: “Oliver died the happiest man I ever saw. After shaking hands with the family and kissing his wife and daughter, he said, ‘Now I lay down for the last time; I am going to my Savior,’ and he died immediately with a smile on his face.’” Forgive me, but this has a Paul Dunn ring to it.
Oliver Cowdrey is an enigma. He certainly gave testimony that he had seen an angel and the golden plates, yet he was excommunicated, fought with Joseph Smith accusing him of adultery with a teenage girl. After leaving the Church, he moved his devotion to a competing seeress, who like Joseph saw much in her ‘magic stone.’ He became a faithful member of the Methodist Church.
He stated publicly that he was ashamed of his association with the ‘Mormons’ and there is at least the suggestion that he admitted that it was all a fraud to his closest friend and law partner. Oliver was a political man, and one must wonder if his rejoining the LDS Church was to attempt to wrest control of it away from Brigham Young and take authority unto himself. On July 28, 1847, Cowdery wrote to David Whitmer that ‘we have the authority and do hold the keys. It is important, should we not be permitted to act in that authority…,”
Oliver Cowdrey’s funeral and burial were conducted by a Methodist minister.
Martin Harris stated in public that he never saw the plates with his natural
eyes only in vision or imagination and that neither did Oliver or David see
them except in vision.
If the golden plates did exist and were real, why would the witnesses make
the following kinds of statements:
“While praying I passed into a state of entrancement, and in that state, I saw
the angel and the plates.” 37
“I never saw the gold plates, only in a visionary or entranced state.” 38
“He only saw the plates with a spiritual eye.” 39
“As shown in the vision.” 40
“Never saw the plates with his natural eyes but only in vision or imagination.” 41
“I did not see them uncovered, but I handled them and hefted them while wrapped in a tow frock.” 42
There are also several other things that call the witnesses’ reliability and trustworthiness into question. We know that all the witnesses had close ties to Joseph and his family. Some like Martin Harris had a substantial financial investment in the success of the Book of Mormon.
“The witnesses” experiences may have only been visionary in nature. There are many statements given by the witnesses that indicate they only saw the angel and the plates in a visionary experience. Why would people need to see real, physical plates in a vision or a real angel that was physically on the earth? There are also several statements saying that the only time they saw the plates was when the plates were covered with a cloth or tow frock.
The three witnesses did not all see the plates or angel at the same time. Only David Whitmer and perhaps Oliver Cowdery saw the angel together. Martin Harris removed himself from the group and did not see the angel until perhaps three days later.” 43
FAIR says that this is well-documented in official Church sources but why then do the clear majority of members not know of this? Every
Painting and image of the three witnesses have them all together – does this constitute ‘well-documented.’
These men lived in the early 1800s and believed in magical things as many people did during that time-period such as divining rods, second sight, magic, dreams, seer stones, etc. Some of the witnesses, especially Martin Harris, were easily swayed by tales of the supernatural, especially in a religious context.
Many of the witnesses ended up leaving the church and following other leaders and religions such as James Strang, the Shakers, Methodists, etc. By 1847 not a single one of the surviving eleven witnesses was part of the LDS Church.
“Of the witnesses that left the church, most believed that Joseph was at best a fallen prophet, the church changed its doctrines in error and changed revelations against God’s will.
The witnesses, who have been heralded as good, honest, Abe Lincoln-type of men were later called liars, counterfeiters, thieves, etc. by Joseph Smith himself.
The “testimony of the witnesses” is similar to testimonials which were commonly included in books etc. in those days to help spur sales. And of course, the BOM’s producers originally intended to sell copies for $1.75 each.
All three witnesses believed that God Himself had told them (through Joseph Smith) that they had been specially chosen to testify to the world that they had seen the angel and the plates –– if they had enough faith. Martin Harris was even told the exact words he must use: Joseph Smith said he had a revelation in which the Lord commanded Harris to say, “I have seen the things which the Lord hath shown unto Joseph Smith Jun., and I know of a surety that they are true, for I have seen them.” And just to clinch the command, God threatened Martin Harris, saying, “But if he deny this he will break the covenant which he has before covenanted with me, and behold, he is condemned.” A personal promise (and a threat of condemnation) coming directly from God is bound to have a powerful influence on a person’s thinking! 44
Fred Anson remarks that if Joseph Smith’s goal was to provide truly convincing witness statements, there were several things he SHOULD NOT have done:
- None of the witnesses should have been related to Joseph or each other. Most of the witnesses were either related or good friends. Having unrelated people as witnesses would be far more effective than using your brothers and father.
- The witnesses should not have already been eager believers.
There should have been some skeptics.
- There should have been no financial motive. Martin Harris mortgaged his farm and invested at least $3,000 of his own money into printing the Book of Mormon, so of course, he had incentives to ‘promote’ the book.
- Each of the witnesses should have written their own testimony instead of merely signing a prepared statement written by Joseph. If the prepared document wasn’t 100%, accurate many people would simply sign it anyway as it would be too much of a hassle to have it completely rewritten by hand – especially in the 1800s.
- The witnesses should have been much more detailed about this amazing event. What did the angel look like? What exactly did he say? How did he speak? There are almost no details provided which can be analyzed and compared. If each witness had simply written their own account and provided significant details, then their testimonies could corroborate each other.
- The witnesses should have been interviewed independently immediately after going public. They should have been interviewed the same way police do with witnesses to crimes or that investigators do with UFO cases. Ask questions to see if their stories match; How was the angel dressed? How tall was he? How did he speak?
- The witnesses should not have used subjective language and say strange things like comparing seeing the plates with seeing a city through a mountain or using spiritual eyes instead of their natural eyes to view physical plates.
- The witnesses should not have been gullible people that believed in things like ‘second sight,’ divining rods, finding treasure by placing a rock in a hat, etc. That the Three Witnesses were a gullible sort is illustrated by an incident in July 1837. Joseph had left on a five-week missionary tour to Canada, only to find on his return that all three of the Witnesses had joined a faction opposing him. This faction rallied around a young girl who claimed to be a seeress by virtue of a black stone in which she read the future. David Whitmer, Martin Harris, and Oliver Cowdery all pledged her their loyalty, and Frederick G. Williams, formerly Joseph’s First Counselor, became her scribe. The girl seeress would dance herself into a state of exhaustion, fall to the floor, and burst forth with revelations. See Lucy Smith: Biographical Sketches, pp. 211-213).
- All the witnesses should have been much more vocal and been interviewed much more often. There are very few interviews done with the witnesses that provide any additional information or corroboration of their statements. You would think that these people, after seeing such a magnificent sight, would spend their time testifying to the world about their experience instead of largely just signing a prepared statement and avoiding interviews by the media. Only three of the eight witnesses made separate statements that they had handled the plates. They were Joseph’s two brothers, Hyrum and Samuel, and John Whitmer.
- And of course, it would have helped had all the witnesses remained loyal to the Church for the rest of their lives instead of having most of them abandoning it. It doesn’t make much sense to leave the one, true Church of God if you have received an indisputable witness that it was true. Why would these people risk being cast in Outer Darkness for all eternity for denying what they KNEW to be true unless they maybe had some doubts? 45
And then there is Hypnotism
The 2014 American Psychological Association definition of hypnotic suggestibility;
“An individual’s ability to experience suggested alterations in physiology, sensations, emotions, thoughts, or behavior during hypnosis.” (APA, 2014)
A man they called Reveen, one of the world’s greatest concert hypnotists, put on a brilliant hypnotism show in the 1960s and 1970s. I attended more than a few of his performances and was greatly impressed by his ability to get regular people to do crazy things under a state of, “hypnosis.” He would have people shake hands and then tell them their hands were cemented together, and sure enough hard as they tried, they couldn’t separate them. I remember him telling a rather portly gentleman he was a famous ballerina after which he danced across the stage and doing pirouettes!
Incidentally, I was sitting in a typically dull sacrament meeting in Edmonton, Canada one Sunday when Raveen and his family walked in! Yes, he was a Mormon (at least for a time), and while touring would attend church.
We have often heard Joseph Smith described as charismatic and captivating, having a magnetic personality. Is it not possible that Joseph Smith understood the principles of hypnosis or mesmerism as it was called then? The English translation of Frans Anton Mesmer’s ground-breaking book, Mesmerism: The Discovery of Animal Magnetism (1779), was certainly known and available in the United States in Joseph’s day. No less than George Washington discussed Mesmer’s theories in a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette on November 25, 1784.
Put yourself in Martin’s place, you have a little formal education; you live in a place where news from the broader world is limited. Many perhaps most of your friends and family see the world as almost a mystical place. You believe in God, but you also believe in evil spirits and demons and witches and buried treasures. You have been affiliated with many churches and denominations, but none have excited you as much as Joe’s religion. You have invested heavily in this divine work, your time, your treasure, even your relationship with your wife have been sacrificed to the cause. You know the work is true. You know Joseph talks with God.
It is a beautiful warm morning as you go to the woods with David and Oliver and the Prophet. You have all knelt in prayer asking that the Lord will show you the plates, but nothing is happening. It must be you. You know how weak you are. You lack the faith of the others. You need to leave; you are ruining the experience for Oliver and David. Your heart aches as you walk on alone to another opening in the woods, where you again prey to your God for faith and forgiveness. Then suddenly Joseph is with you, comforting you and together you again knell down in prayer, with the prophet at your side, with your eyes closed.
You desire with all your heart, more than anything to have ever wanted to have the sure witness promised by a man you ‘know’ to be a true prophet of God, if only you could have enough faith.
Joseph begins, slowly, in that monotone ‘conference-ease’ voice that all of today’s general authorities seek to emulate. Joseph prays, “Oh God, our heavenly Father, we come to you in fervent prayer and petition that you will show your dear and faithful servant, Martin the golden plates of which are spoken. Lord, I ask that you send an angel from your presence to show your loving servant Martin the same vision that your servants Joseph, David, and Oliver have been blessed with. That he may know the truth.”
“And Martin my brother, have faith in our Lord. Martin concentrate on the glory of God, forget all your daily cares, the Lord will take care of all your needs, put these foolish things out of your mind as you pray to our God to show unto you the golden plates, Martin with every breath you take feel the spirit fill you, Martin, the veil begins to lift, see the veil between this world and the heavens parting and behold…” and on and on and on.
Joseph goes on until he feels Martin is ready. Then Joseph declares, “Oh Martin can you see the angel, in that dazzling robe, so gloriously white? Martin can you see, look, he turns over the leaves one by one so that we can see, and discern the engravings thereon distinctly? He is talking to you, can you hear him, he says, ‘Martin, blessed is the Lord, and he that keeps His commandments;’ listen Martin, to that voice declaring, ‘These plates have been revealed by the power of God, and they have been translated by the power of God. The translation of them which you have seen is correct, and I command you to bear record of what you now see and hear.’ Oh Martin, blessed are you can you see, can you see?
Yes, Yes, you cry out in an ecstasy of joy, ’Tis enough; ’tis enough; mine eyes have beheld; mine eyes have beheld;’ and jumping up, you shout, ‘Hosanna,’ I bless God, I bless God.”
Was what Martin and the others saw a product of their own mind? Remember, by Harris’ own admission, everything he and the others saw came as a vision. Historical accounts reflect that the witnesses could very well have been induced to see the plates in a vision because of Smith’s mesmerizing methods.
Smith persistently badgered them that only the faithful could see them. A persuasive but illogical technique Mormon missionaries still use today when they direct prospects to Moroni’s promise at the end of the Book of Mormon, which says that if one, “asks God, in the name of Christ, with a sincere heart, the truth will be manifest by the Holy Ghost.”
One of the weakest arguments that members of the church too often make is that if a person sincerely prays to Heavenly Father, he will not be deceived, again the Holy Bible never gives that assurance. 2 Cor. 11:14 says that Satan often transforms himself into an angel of light, and 1 Timothy 4:1 warns of seducing spirits.
Did Smith use this same wily manipulative manner of intimidation? Did he pray upon these simple witnesses’ emotions, inducing them to conjure up a vision by telling them that God was not allowing them to see the plates because they were ‘not worthy’ and needed to ‘repent,’ and have ‘greater faith? Under this kind of pressure, is it possible that individuals will see exactly what they are expected to see?
We know that Joseph had from an early age what only the most gifted revivalist preacher could boast of, the talent for making men see visions.
“An example of how Smith coerced the ‘Eight Witnesses’ to see a vision was told to the Governor of Illinois, Thomas Ford, by more than one of Smith’s key men:
‘They [Smith’s men] told Ford that the witnesses were “set to continual prayer and other spiritual exercises.” Then, at last “he assembled them in a room and produced a box which he said contained the precious treasure. The lid was opened; the witnesses peeped into it, but making no discovery, for the box was empty, they said, “Brother Joseph, we do not see the plates.” The prophet answered them, “O ye of little faith! how long will God bear with this wicked and perverse generation? Down on your knees, brethren, every one of you, and pray God for the forgiveness of your sins, and for a holy and living faith which cometh down from heaven.” The disciples dropped to their knees and began to pray in the fervency of their spirit, supplicating God for more than two hours with fanatical earnestness; at the end of which time, looking again into the box, they were now persuaded that they saw the plates.”
That they saw the plates in vision, or with their ‘spiritual eyes,’ rather than their natural eyes, makes it more likely, as Fawn Brodie notes in her book, ‘No Man Knows My History,’ ‘that the men were not conspirators but victims of Joseph’s unconscious but positive talent at hypnosis.’
The Three Witnesses and Hypnotic Susceptibility
Hypnotic susceptibility is a personality trait which remains remarkably stable over time. Hypnotizability, if I can call it that, or suggestibility have certain predictors.
Predictors and Correlates of Hypnotic Susceptibility
Absorption: Absorption is a disposition or personality trait in which a person becomes absorbed in their mental imagery, particularly fantasy. This trait thus correlates highly with a fantasy-prone personality. The original research on absorption was done by American psychologist Auke Tellegen.
Fantasy Proneness: Fantasy Proneness: ‘Fantasy-prone personality’ (FPP) is an expression coined by psychologists Cheryl Wilson and Theodore Barber in a 1983 paper based on a small study on hypnotic susceptibility. Their work developed a theme put forth by Josephine R. Hilgard, a pioneer in the study of hypnosis. FPP is a personality peculiarity in which a person experiences a lifelong extensive and deep involvement in fantasy. This disposition is commonly described as having an “overactive imagination” or “living in a dream world.” An individual with this trait (termed a fantasizer) may have difficulty differentiating between fantasy and reality and may experience hallucinations, as well as self-suggested psychosomatic symptoms. This is closely related psychological constructs include absorption and eidetic memory.
Graham Wagstaff cautions against using the terms “suggestible” and “susceptible” interchangeably, about the extent to which one individual responds to incoming suggestions from another.
“The two terms are not synonymous, however, as the latter term carries inherent negative bias absent from the neutral psychological factor described by suggestibility.”
In scientific research and academic literature on hypnosis and hypnotherapy, the term “suggestibility” describes a neutral psychological and possibly physiological state or phenomena. This is distinct from the culturally biased common parlance of the term “suggestible”. Both terms are often bound with undeserved negative social connotations not inherent in the word meanings themselves.
To be suggestible is not to be gullible. The latter pertains to an empirical objective fact that can be shown accurate or inaccurate to any observer; the former term does not. To be open to suggestion has no bearing on the accuracy of any incoming suggestions, nor whether such an objective accuracy is possible (as is with metaphysical belief).” 46
Hypnotic State, Suggestion, and Hypnotic Suggestion
Matthew Whalley provides clarification between a hypnotic state, suggestion and hypnotic suggestion. He holds simply that a suggestion is hypnotic if it is delivered in the context of hypnosis. For example, if it is delivered after a hypnotic induction. The same suggestions can also be delivered outside of hypnosis, to an unhypnotized individual. In this, the latter case, it is known as a non-hypnotic suggestion or an imaginative suggestion. There is considerable research showing that hypnotic suggestions are only marginally more effective than imaginative suggestions. A fact that may be significant as we evaluate the three witnesses’ susceptibility.
This brief discussion on hypnosis has shown that is not about a ‘battle of wills.’ People feel more comfortable when receiving positive suggestions in the understanding framework or context. People are less likely to resist the ideas for optimism or a positive perspective if they:
- Correspond with other ideas already held
- Contain positive rather than negative enforcement toward something good rather than away from something bad
- Flatter our self-identity to a level we accept.
Clearly, all three of these features were present regarding the ‘Three Witnesses.’ In fact, in every way, the position of the ‘Three Witnesses’ was ideal for a hypnotically-induced illusion or “vision.”
Was Smith trained in hypnosis or mesmerism, of course not, but neither were the magicians, priests, sorcerers or other charismatic individuals in the past who discovered it by accident?
How could the witnesses all make statements that suggest that their experience with the gold plates and the angel were visionary and later vehemently state they were real as you and I understand that word?
Remember a hypnotically-induced hallucination is very real to the person having it. In fact, it is only identifiable as a hallucination by someone other than the person hallucinating. If the individual having the hallucination recognized it as a hallucination, it would not then be a hallucination. It is almost impossible to convince a hallucinator that his or her experience is not real.
It is not that difficult to understand. Think of someone who witnesses a heated argument after school. When later asked about the “huge fight” that occurred, they recall the memory, but unknowingly exaggerate or distort it, because they now think of the event as a “huge fight” instead of a simple argument and the further away they get in time from the original event, the greater the distortion. There was no conscious attempt to mislead; it is just a feature of memory and the human mind.
There are, of course, examples of where suggestibility can also be seen in extremes which result in negative consequences.
Witness testimony is altered because the police make ‘suggestions’ during an interview, which causes that individual’s already uncertain observations to become distorted memories.
Another example might be a young girl suffering migraine headaches leading to sleep deprivation and depression. Her therapist, a specialist in child sexual abuse, repeatedly asked her whether her father had sexually abused her. This persistent suggestion causes the young girl to fabricate memories of her father molestation, which leads to her being placed in foster care and her father being tried on charges of abuse.
Were the ‘Three Witnesses’ targets of hypnosis or suggestion? We can only speculate, but one must consider the power Joseph Smith had over his followers and the differential in intellect and authority between these simple men and an ambitious, self-assured Svengali.
The subject’s attitude towards authority plays an important part as well. It has been long known that army officers are much more difficult to hypnotize than enlisted men and women. Why? Because enlisted men and women, through the process of indoctrination and training, are taught to obey and follow orders without thought or reason. The transference of authority by Smith was readily accomplished then as it is now through the authoritarian construction and structure of the Church.
Apologists Responses to the Witnesses to the Book of Mormon
In what I assume was a presentation delivered at the FairMormon Conference in 2004, this apologist begins with the comment, “Columbus started on faith, Edison started on faith, and it’s that faith that is called a hypothesis in this scientific method. You have to conceive of something in terms of imagination and logical extension, extrapolation before you ever really verify something beyond your little reality and so we’re really dealing with that basic issue below.”
Well, where do I start? The writer does not understand the scientific method nor for that matter faith. Faith and a hypothesis are not the same thing. A hypothesis is where – after doing your research, you try to predict the answer to your problem. Another term for a hypothesis is an ‘educated guess.’
Merriam-Webster defines ‘Faith’ as “a firm belief in something for which there is no proof.”
Columbus was a self-taught man, but he was not an ignorant man, ‘after doing his research,’ he set out to find to find a western sea route to China, India, and the fabled gold and spice islands of Asia.
He was aware that Pythagoras in the sixth century B.C. proved the earth was round, and that Aristotle in the fourth century B.C. provided the physical evidence, such as the shadow of the Earth on the moon, and like all sailors, he witnessed the curvature of the Earth approaching land.
I would suggest to you that my approach to the ‘witnesses’ to the Book of Mormon is a true application of the scientific method. I didn’t start with ‘faith’ I started by doing my research. Then I formulated the hypotheses that the ‘witnesses’ did not see the plates, angels, et cetera, with their ‘real’ eyes and/or they, for reasons best known to themselves, were not truthful.
The author of this article I quoted above goes on to beg the question, “Why in their personal statements do the eight witnesses consistently use the formulaic language that they ‘saw’ and ‘hefted’ and ‘handled’ rather than using other language or giving greater detail? Doesn’t this suggest a conspiracy?” Which he then goes on to answer his own question, “I come back to this issue where John Whitmer said if you doubt what happened… if you want my testimony go read it. I don’t see ‘hefted’ as formulaic. I think that’s, as I said, a very specific term of the period meaning they tried to estimate their weight. And whether it’s William Smith estimating the weight when he got handed the plates in a sack or the tow frock in the house when Joseph brought them home; or Martin Harris estimating the weight as he held the plates in a box, 40 to 60 pounds is basically what anybody who lifted the plates say.” 47
All this is, of course, meaningless as Joseph Smith carefully crafted the witness affidavits, which the individual witnesses simply signed.
The witnesses are a hard call. They clearly state they saw the plates and the angel. But there are also many statements made by the witnesses themselves that their admissions were more visionary than real. The Witnesses,’ particularly Martin Harris’s, use of terms such as, ‘second sight,’ ‘with spiritual eyes,’ ‘visions of the mind,’ or through the “eyes of our understanding,” certainly give one pause.
I think to truly understand the Book of Mormon witnesses; one must appreciate the magical worldview people held in early 19th Century in the backwoods of New England. Many folks believed in folk magic, visions, glass looking, divining rods, second sight, peep stones, treasure hunting and so on.
Additionally, several issues call into question the witnesses’ independence. All had close ties to Joseph and his family. Martin Harris had a substantial financial stake in the success of the Book of Mormon. And to be kind, the witnesses were not society’s ‘cream of the crop.’
As well they all left the Church at some point and most held Joseph Smith in very low esteem as he did them. Joseph Smith said Dec 16, 1838, “Such characters as McLellin, John Whitmer, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris are too mean to mention; and we had liked to have forgotten them.” 48
David Whitmer—like the other witnesses—had been charged with being deluded into thinking he had seen an angel and the plates. Joseph Smith III remembered when David was such accused and said:
“How well and distinctly I remember the manner in which Elder Whitmer arose and drew himself up to his full height—a little over six feet—and said, in solemn and impressive tones: ‘No sir! I was not under any hallucination, nor was I deceived! I saw with these eyes, and I heard with these ears! I know whereof I speak!’.
Martin Harris used the same qualifying statements to describe his experience in 1829:
“In introducing us, Mr. Godfrey said, ‘Brother Harris, I have brought these young men to hear your statement as to whether or not you believe the Book of Mormon to be true.’ His face was turned to the wall. He turned and faced us and said, ‘Now I don’t believe, but I know it to be true, for with these eyes I saw the angel and with these ears, I heard him say it was a true and correct record of an ancient people that dwelt upon this the American continent’. 49
As I had mentioned above, a hypnotically-induced hallucination is very real to the person having it. In fact, it is only identifiable as a hallucination by someone other than the person hallucinating. I have said it before, but it is worth repeating, if the individual having the hallucination recognized it as a hallucination, it would not then be a hallucination. It is almost impossible to convince a hallucinator that his or her experience was not real.
1 Ronald W. Walker, “Martin Harris:
2 John A. Clark letter, August 31, 1840, in EMD, 2: 271
3 Martin Harris-Witness & Benefactor, BYU 1955 Thesis, Wayne C. Gunnell, p.52.)
4 Latter-Day Saints, Millennial Star, Vol 8 pp124-128
5 Wayne Sentinel, May 27, 1831, as quoted in Richard Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 1981
6 Rochester Daily Democrat, June 23, 1841, as quoted in Richard Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 1981
7 Pomeroy Tucker reminiscence, 1858, in Vogel & 1996-2003, 3: 71 Education and Intelligence
8 “The Passing of Martin Harris,” in the Improvement Era Vol. 29, No. 5 (March 1926):
9 George Godfrey, “Testimony of Martin Harris,” from an unpublished manuscript copy in the possession of his daughter, Florence (Godfrey) Munson of Fielding, Utah; quoted in Eldin Ricks, The Case of the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1971), 65–66 (Is that third hand?)
10 Warren Parris to E. Holmes, August 11, 1838.
11 Stephen Burnett, Early Mormon Documents, 2:288-93
12 Martin Harris, (Anthony Metcalf, Ten Years Before the Mast, n.d., microfilm copy, p. 70-71
13 Early Mormon Documents, 2:346-47
14 Letter from Stephen Burnett to “Br. Johnson,” April 15, 1838, in Joseph Smith Letter Book, p. 2
15 Mormonism: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress, p.71
16 Early Mormon Documents 2:270 and 3:22
17 Eric Nelson, Leaving the Church, Part 9 Oct. 24, 2015
18 History of the Mormonites, Kirtland, 1831. Josiah Jones, The Evangelist (1 June 1831) p.40
19 The Braden & Kelly Debate, p. 173
20 Palmyra Reflector, March 19, 1831
21 Biographical Sketches, Lucy Smith, pp. 211-213
22David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ
Statements by Whitmer that He Saw the Gold Plates and the Angel in Vision
23 Interview with John Murphy, June 1880, Early Mormon Documents 5:63
24 Moyle diary, June 28, 1885, in Early Mormon Documents, Dan Vogel, Signature Book, Salt Lake City, October 1996
25 Early Mormon Documents, Dan Vogel, Signature Book, Salt Lake City, October 1996, 2:346-47
26 Early Mormon Documents, Dan Vogel, Signature Book, Salt Lake City, October 1996, 2:346-47
27 David Whitmer, to Anthony Metcalf, 2 April 1887; printed in A[nthony] Metcalf, Ten Years before the Mast (Malad City, Idaho: n.p., 1888, 73-74
28 Millennial Star, vol. XL, pp. 771-77
29 Grant Palmer, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, Chapter 6
30 Deseret Evening News, 6 Aug. 1878
31 Marvin S. Hill, “Brodie Revisited: A Reappraisal,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, (Winter, 1972): pp. 83-84
32 Early Mormon Documents, 3:177-79
33 Grant Palmer, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins Chapter
34 The True Origin of The Book of Mormon, Charles Shook, 1914, pp. 58-59
35 Defense in a Rehearsal of My Grounds for Separating Myself from the Latter-Day Saints,” Presley Job Office, Norton, Ohio, 183
36 Seasons and Times, Vol 2, p. 482
37 Martin Harris, (Anthony Metcalf, Ten Years Before the Mast, n.d., microfilm copy, p. 70-71)
38 Early Mormon Documents, 2:346-47
39 “He only saw the plates with a spiritual eye
40 Joseph Smith Begins His Work, Vol. 1, 1958
41 Letter from Stephen Burnett to “Br. Johnson,” April 15, 1838, in Joseph Smith Letter Book, p. 2.
42 Early Mormon Documents 1:497
43 Anthony Metcalf, Ten Years Before the Mast, n.d., microfilm copy, p. 70
44 Facts on the Book of Mormon Witnesses, Jole B. Groat, July 8, 2011, Institute for Religious Research The Book of Mormon Witnesses, Recovery From Mormonism, http://exmormon.org/d6/drupal/file9
45 September 7, 2014, in Book of Mormon, Fred Anson, Mormon Studies
46 Wagstaff, Graham F. (1991). “Suggestibility: A social psychological approach.” Florence Kentucky: Taylor & Frances/Routledge. p. 141
47 Unnamed source, 2004 FairMormon Conference
48 History of the Church, Vol 3, p232
Several witnesses to the Book of Mormon confessed that they did not see the plates with their natural eyes, but with ‘visions of the mind.’
Again, FairMormon, as is their custom, talks about errors and suggests there is erroneous or incorrect information without providing any collaborating evidence or details.