This entry is part 9 of 13 in Leav­ing the Church — Eric Nel­son.

1. Overview: The tes­ti­mo­ny of the three and eight wit­ness­es to the gold plates is often con­sid­ered a key com­po­nent of the Book of Mormon’s cred­i­bil­i­ty. How­ev­er, the wit­ness­es, by their own admis­sion, seemed to have only seen the angel and plates in a vision­ary state in their minds (as Joseph Smith sug­gest­ed to them) and not with their nat­ur­al eyes as mem­bers are taught. Addi­tion­al­ly, sev­er­al issues call into ques­tion the wit­ness­es’ reli­a­bil­i­ty. For exam­ple, all the wit­ness­es had close ties to Joseph and his fam­i­ly. Mar­tin Har­ris had a sub­stan­tial finan­cial stake in the suc­cess of the Book of Mor­mon. More­over, in sub­se­quent years, many of the wit­ness­es end­ed up leav­ing the Church and fol­low­ing oth­er lead­ers and reli­gions. By 1847, none of the sur­viv­ing eleven wit­ness­es were affil­i­at­ed with the LDS Church. If they believed Joseph Smith’s mirac­u­lous rev­e­la­tions from God were true, why did they leave the Church?

2. Mag­i­cal World­view: In order to under­stand the Book of Mor­mon wit­ness­es and the rel­e­vant issues, one must under­stand the mag­i­cal world­view peo­ple held in ear­ly 19th Cen­tu­ry New Eng­land. Peo­ple of that day believed in folk mag­ic, divin­ing rods, visions, sec­ond sight, peep stones, trea­sure hunt­ing (mon­ey dig­ging or glass look­ing), and so on. (Alan Tay­lor, The Ear­ly Repub­lic’s Super­nat­ur­al Econ­o­my: Trea­sure Seek­ing in the Amer­i­can North­east, 1780–1830.) B.H. Roberts stated:

It may be admit­ted that some of [Smith’s ances­tors] believed in for­tune telling, in war­locks and witch­es… In deed it is scarce­ly con­ceiv­able how one could live in New Eng­land in those years and not have shared in such beliefs. To be cred­u­lous in such things was to be nor­mal peo­ple.” (Roberts, A Com­pre­hen­sive His­to­ry of the Church, vol. 1, pp. 26–27.)

In the years pre­ced­ing the Book of Mor­mon, Joseph Smith, Jr. and his father, Joseph Sr., were referred to as “mon­ey dig­gers,” as they had a fam­i­ly trea­sure hunt­ing busi­ness from 1820–27. Joseph was hired by indi­vid­u­als like Josi­ah Stow­ell, who Joseph men­tions in his his­to­ry. Joseph Jr. open­ly shared his alleged super­nat­ur­al abil­i­ty to see trea­sure and oth­er hid­den objects through a peep stone. William Stafford, a neigh­bor and fel­low trea­sure seek­er gave the fol­low­ing account:

Joseph, Jr., could see, by plac­ing a stone of sin­gu­lar appear­ance in his hat, in such a man­ner as to exclude all light; at which time they pre­tend­ed he could see all things with­in and under the earth, — that he could see with­in the above men­tioned caves, large gold bars and sil­ver plates — that he could also dis­cov­er the spir­its in whose charge these trea­sures were, clothed in ancient dress.”

In the same affi­davit, Stafford recalled a time when the Smiths made a cir­cle on the ground and put hazel sticks around it to ward off evil spir­its. They added a steel rod to the cen­ter of the cir­cle, dug a trench, and then “the old­er Smith con­sult­ed his son who had been ‘look­ing in his stone and watch­ing the motions of the evil spir­it.’ ” How­ev­er, accord­ing to Stafford, they “made a mis­take in the com­mence­ment of the oper­a­tion; if it had not been for that, we should have got the mon­ey.” (William Stafford, affi­davit, as quot­ed in Mor­monism Unveiled, by E.D. Howe, pp. 237–239.)

Stafford’s state­ments are sup­port­ed by B.H. Roberts, who stat­ed: “Now, most his­to­ri­ans, Mor­mon or not, who work with the sources, accept as fact Joseph Smith’s career as vil­lage magi­cian. Too many of his clos­est friends and fam­i­ly admit­ted as much, and some of Joseph’s own rev­e­la­tions sup­port the con­tention.” (Roberts, Trea­sure Seek­ing Then and Now, Sun­stone, v. 11, p. 5.)
Not every­one in that day believed in Joseph’s abil­i­ty to find buried trea­sure. In 1826, Joseph was arrest­ed and brought to court in Bain­bridge, New York, for tri­al for fraud. He was arrest­ed after Josi­ah Stowell’s nephew accused Joseph of being a “dis­or­der­ly per­son and an imposter.” Specif­i­cal­ly, Joseph was charged with seek­ing lost trea­sure under false pre­tens­es (i.e., that he was guid­ed through super­nat­ur­al pow­ers and a spe­cial peep stone). Joseph was con­vict­ed of the crime (which was a mis­de­meanor). A copy of the judg­ment, which is includ­ed below and signed by Joseph, referred to Joseph as “The Glass Look­er.” Hugh B. Nib­ley stat­ed “if this court record is authen­tic it is the most damn­ing evi­dence in exis­tence against Joseph Smith.” Recent evi­dence cor­rob­o­rates the authen­tic­i­ty of the court records.

Joseph’s appar­ent belief in the super­nat­ur­al was not unique. For exam­ple, Oliv­er Cow­dery often uti­lized a divin­ing rod or dows­ing rod as a source of infor­ma­tion. In fact, Cow­dery’s divin­ing rod is men­tioned in the scrip­tures. In Doc­trine & Covenants 8, the fol­low­ing head­ing pro­vides con­text for the discussion:

Rev­e­la­tion giv­en through Joseph Smith the Prophet to Oliv­er Cow­dery, at Har­mo­ny, Penn­syl­va­nia, April 1829. In the course of the trans­la­tion of the Book of Mor­mon, Oliv­er, who con­tin­ued to serve as scribe, writ­ing at the Prophet’s dic­ta­tion, desired to be endowed with the gift of trans­la­tion. The Lord respond­ed to his sup­pli­ca­tion by grant­i­ng this revelation.”

The rev­e­la­tion found in D&C 8: 6–11 states that Cow­dery is blessed with the “gift of Aaron.” The text does not define the gift of Aaron but does pro­vide pro­vide sev­er­al clues: (1) Cow­dery has a his­to­ry of using it, since “it has told [him] many things”; (2) it is “the gift of God”; (3) it is to be held in Cowdery’s hands (and kept there, imper­vi­ous to any pow­er); (4) it allows Cow­dery to “do mar­velous works”; (5) it is “the work of God”; (6) the Lord will speak through it to Oliv­er and tell him any­thing he asks while using it; (7) it works through faith; and (8) it enables Cow­dery to trans­late ancient sacred documents.

Even with these clues, the “gift of Aaron” remains dif­fi­cult to iden­ti­fy. The task becomes much eas­i­er, how­ev­er, when ana­lyz­ing the orig­i­nal rev­e­la­tion con­tained in the Book of Com­mand­ments, a pre­de­ces­sor vol­ume to the Doc­trine and Covenants, which was used by the LDS Church before 1835. Sec­tion 7 of the Book of Com­mand­ments con­tains word­ing that was changed in the Doc­trine & Covenants 8. The term “gift of Aaron” was orig­i­nal­ly referred to as the “gift of work­ing with the rod” and “rod of nature” in the Book of Commandments:

Now this is not all, for you have anoth­er gift, which is the gift of work­ing with the rod: behold it has told you things: behold there is no oth­er pow­er save God, that can cause this rod of nature, to work in your hands.” Book of Com­mand­ments 7:3

The his­tor­i­cal record demon­strates that the “gift of Aaron” men­tioned in D&C 8 is a “rod of nature” (or a divin­ing rod or dows­ing rod as illus­trat­ed in the above images), which Oliv­er Cow­dery used to hunt for buried trea­sure. Cowdery’s use of a divin­ing rod to search for buried trea­sure evokes sim­i­lar images of Joseph Smith hunt­ing for trea­sure with a stone in a hat. Oliv­er also wished to use his divin­ing rod in the same way Joseph Smith used his stone and hat: to trans­late ancient doc­u­ments. Doc­trine & Covenants 8 indi­cates that the Lord, through Joseph Smith, grant­ed Oliver’s request to trans­late using a divin­ing rod. This is only one of many exam­ples pro­vid­ing insight into the folk mag­ic and super­sti­tion preva­lent among the Church at its inception.

3. Analy­sis of Three Wit­ness­es: The Church often empha­sizes that the three wit­ness­es nev­er dis­avowed their tes­ti­monies of the Book of Mor­mon. To place this claim in its prop­er con­text, it is impor­tant to ana­lyze each wit­ness and dis­cuss what oth­er state­ments they made about their expe­ri­ences. The fol­low­ing is an analy­sis of the Three Wit­ness­es to the Book of Mormon:

Mar­tin Harris

A com­pelling analy­sis of Mar­tin Har­ris’ per­son­al­i­ty and cred­i­bil­i­ty can be found here. LDS lead­ers paint Mar­tin Har­ris as a smart busi­ness­man with an unwa­ver­ing tes­ti­mo­ny of the Book of Mor­mon. Har­ris, how­ev­er, was known by many of his peers as unsta­ble, gullible, and super­sti­tious. More­over, Har­ris acknowl­edged that he, and the oth­er wit­ness­es, nev­er lit­er­al­ly saw the gold plates but only an object said to be the plates cov­ered with a cloth. Har­ris believed Joseph when told that if he were to look upon the plates God would strike him dead, so he dared not look.

Before dis­cussing his state­ments with respect to the Book of Mor­mon, two impor­tant fac­tors are worth not­ing. First, Har­ris had a direct con­flict of inter­est in being a wit­ness; he was deeply invest­ed finan­cial­ly in the Book of Mor­mon as he mort­gaged his farm to finance the book. Sec­ond, Har­ris was incred­i­bly super­sti­tious. Con­sid­er the fol­low­ing accounts:

  • 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.” (BYU pro­fes­sor Ronald W. Walk­er, “Mar­tin Har­ris: Mor­monis­m’s Ear­ly Con­vert,” p.34–35)
  • No mat­ter where he went, he saw visions and super­nat­ur­al appear­ances all around him. He told a gen­tle­man in Palmyra, after one of his excur­sions to Penn­syl­va­nia, while the trans­la­tion of the Book of Mor­mon was going on, that 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.” (John A. Clark let­ter, August 31, 1840 in Ear­ly Mor­mon Doc­u­ments, 2: 271)
  • Accord­ing to two Ohio news­pa­pers, after Har­ris arrived in Kirt­land he began claim­ing to have “seen Jesus Christ and that he is the hand­somest man he ever did see. He has also seen the Dev­il, whom he described as a very sleek haired fel­low with four feet, and a head like that of a Jack-ass.” (Ear­ly Mor­mon Doc­u­ments 2: 271, note 32)

Before Har­ris became a Mor­mon, he had already changed his reli­gion at least five times. After Joseph’s death, Har­ris con­tin­ued this ear­li­er pat­tern by join­ing and leav­ing five more dif­fer­ent sects, includ­ing James Strang’s con­gre­ga­tion, oth­er Mor­mon off­shoots, and the Shak­ers. In fact, Har­ris even served a mis­sion in Eng­land for James Strang’s church.

Dur­ing Har­ris’ life­time, he claimed to have expe­ri­enced the following:

  • Con­versed with Jesus, who took the form of a deer;
  • Saw the dev­il, who had four feet and don­key head;
  • Chipped off a chunk of a stone box that mys­te­ri­ous­ly moved beneath the ground to avoid capture;
  • Inter­pret­ed sim­ple things like a flick­er­ing of a can­dle as a sign of the devil;
  • Expe­ri­enced a crea­ture jump­ing on his chest that no one else could see.

Con­sid­er, for a moment, if an indi­vid­ual tes­ti­fied of expe­ri­enc­ing some mirac­u­lous spir­i­tu­al encounter, but also claimed to have expe­ri­enced the pre­ced­ing events. Would you believe these claims? With incon­sis­ten­cy, con­flict of inter­est, mag­i­cal think­ing, and super­sti­tion like this, it is dif­fi­cult to view Har­ris as a cred­i­ble wit­ness to the Book of Mormon.

Regard­less, Mar­tin Har­ris’ state­ments make it clear that he nev­er phys­i­cal­ly saw the gold plates. Specif­i­cal­ly, Har­ris made the fol­low­ing statements:

  • In 1838, Har­ris told an Ohio con­gre­ga­tion: “I nev­er saw the gold plates only in a vision­ary or entranced state.” (Ear­ly Mor­mon Doc­u­ments, 2:346–47, quot­ed from Insider’s View of Mor­mon Ori­gin”, p. 198.) This state­ment, made in the wake of the Kirt­land bank­ing scan­dal, caused a great deal of dis­sention among Church mem­bers and induced five influ­en­tial mem­bers, includ­ing three apos­tles, to leave the church.
  • In March 1838, dis­il­lu­sioned church mem­bers con­firmed that Har­ris had pub­licly admit­ted that none of the wit­ness­es to the Book of Mor­mon had ever seen or han­dled the gold plates—although Har­ris had not been present when Whit­mer and Cow­dery first claimed to have viewed them. These church mem­bers also claimed that Har­ris’s recan­ta­tion, made dur­ing a peri­od of cri­sis in ear­ly Mor­monism, induced five influ­en­tial mem­bers, includ­ing three apos­tles, to leave the church.

Specif­i­cal­ly, church leader Stephen Bur­nett wrote in a let­ter to apos­tle Lyman E. John­son in 1838, which stat­ed in per­ti­nent part: “I have reflect­ed long and delib­er­ate­ly upon the his­to­ry of this church & weighed the evi­dence for & against it – loth to give it up – but when I came to hear Mar­tin Har­ris state in pub­lic that he nev­er saw the plates with his nat­ur­al eyes only in vision or imag­i­na­tion, nei­ther Oliv­er [Cow­dery] nor David [Whit­mer] & 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 sapped & the entire struc­ture fell a heap of ruins .…” (Stephen Bur­nett to Luke S. John­son, April 15, 1838, in Joseph Smith’s Let­ter­book, Vogel, 2:290–92).

  • When ques­tioned whether he (Mar­tin Har­ris) saw the plates and engrav­ings with his bod­i­ly eyes, he said, “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 with a cloth.” (Ear­ly Mor­mon Doc­u­ments, 2:270; see also Ori­gin and His­to­ry of the Mor­monites, p. 406)
  • Dur­ing the print­ing of the first edi­tion of the Book of Mor­mon, Har­ris was in the print shop while the type was being set for the tes­ti­mo­ny of the three wit­ness­es. The print­er, John Gilbert, asked him if he had seen the plates with his naked eye. Har­ris said, “No, I saw them with the spir­i­tu­al eye.” (John H. Gilbert, Mem­o­ran­dum, Sep­tem­ber 8, 1892.)
  • Har­ris said he nev­er saw the plates in the tra­di­tion­al sense, rather, he saw them as he saw a “city through a moun­tain.” (Ear­ly Mor­mon Doc­u­ments, Vol. 2, pp. 291–92.)
  • Near the end of his life, Har­ris said that he had seen the plates in “a state of entrance­ment.” (Ear­ly Mor­mon Doc­u­ments, 2:347.)

David Whit­mer

A com­pelling analy­sis of David Whitmer’s per­son­al­i­ty and cred­i­bil­i­ty can be found here. Like Mar­tin Har­ris, Whit­mer could be con­sid­ered both gullible and super­sti­tious. For exam­ple, in ear­ly June 1829 (before see­ing the gold plates), he claimed that he, Cow­dery, and Joseph Smith observed “one of the Nephites” car­ry­ing the plates in a knap­sack on his way to Cumorah. Sev­er­al days lat­er this trio per­ceived “that the Same Per­son was under the shed” at the Whit­mer farm. (Palmer, An Insider’s View of Mor­mon Ori­gins, p.179).

With respect to the gold plates, con­sid­er the following:

  • In 1880, David Whit­mer was asked for a descrip­tion of the angel who showed him the plates. Whit­mer respond­ed that the angel “had no appear­ance or shape.” When the inter­view­er asked how he 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. (Inter­view with John Mur­phy, June 1880, EMD 5:63)
  • Whit­mer lat­er tes­ti­fied that he did not see the plates lit­er­al­ly with his nat­ur­al eyes, rather, he said he saw the plates “by the eye of faith” han­dled by an angel. (Palmyra Reflec­tor, March 19, 1831)
  • A Mor­mon lawyer, James Hen­ry Moyle, inter­viewed Whit­mer in 1885 and asked if there was any pos­si­bil­i­ty that Whit­mer 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.” (Moyle diary, June 28, 1885, EMD 5:141)

The fact that the Church touts Whitmer’s tes­ti­mo­ny of the Book of Mor­mon seems to indi­cate that it finds him to be a cred­i­ble indi­vid­ual. If that is the case, how does the Church explain the fol­low­ing state­ment Whit­mer made in 1887: “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.” (Address to all Believ­ers in Christ, p. 27, 1887.)

The Church asks mem­bers to believe Whit­mer when he claims that Joseph Smith was inspired, but to reject his state­ments when they depart from a con­ve­nient narrative.

Oliv­er Cowdery

There is no direct evi­dence that Cow­dery denied his tes­ti­mo­ny of the Book of Mor­mon. There is, how­ev­er, a great deal of cir­cum­stan­tial evi­dence that he did so. Cowdery’s law part­ner, Judge W. Lang, and for­mer apos­tle, William McClel­lan, both said that Cow­dery admit­ted to them that the Book of Mor­mon was a hoax.

Regard­less, like Joseph and most of the Book of Mor­mon wit­ness­es, Cow­dery and his fam­i­ly were trea­sure hunters. Cowdery’s pre­ferred tool of trade was the divin­ing rod. He was known as a “rods­man.” Along with the wit­ness­es, Cow­dery held a mag­i­cal mind­set. Cow­dery was not an objec­tive and inde­pen­dent wit­ness. As scribe for the Book of Mor­mon and cousin to Joseph Smith, Cow­dery had a con­flict of inter­est in serv­ing as a witness.

If, in fact, mem­bers view Cow­dery was a cred­i­ble wit­ness, oth­er prob­lems arise. Like Har­ris and Whit­mer, Cow­dery also left the Church. More­over, in a let­ter dat­ed Jan­u­ary 21, 1838, Cow­dery accused Joseph of hav­ing an affair with 16-year-old Fan­ny Alger, writ­ing: “When he [Joseph Smith] was there we had some con­ver­sa­tion in which in every instance I did not fail to affirm that what I had said was strict­ly true. A dirty, nasty, filthy affair of his and Fan­ny Alger’s was talked over in which I strict­ly declared that I had nev­er devi­at­ed from the truth in the mat­ter, and as I sup­posed was admit­ted by him­self.” (Let­ter writ­ten by Oliv­er Cow­dery and record­ed by his broth­er War­ren Cow­dery; see pho­to­graph in The Mor­mon King­dom, vol. 1, page 27.)

As with Whit­mer, the Church asks mem­bers to believe Cowdery’s state­ments that bol­ster Church doc­trine but reject those state­ments that under­mine Joseph Smith’s credibility.

4. Analy­sis of Eight Wit­ness­es: In view of the total­i­ty of the evi­dence, the tes­ti­mo­ny of the eight wit­ness­es is also sus­pect. Three of the eight wit­ness­es were mem­bers of Joseph’s imme­di­ate fam­i­ly (includ­ing his father, Joseph Smith Sr., and two broth­ers, Hyrum Smith and Samuel Smith). The fol­low­ing is a list of the remain­ing five witnesses:

  • Jacob Whit­mer: Left the Church in 1838.
  • John Whit­mer: Excom­mu­ni­cat­ed in 1838.
  • Hiram Page: Left the Church in 1838 when mem­bers of the Whit­mer fam­i­ly were excommunicated.
  • Chris­t­ian Whit­mer: Died in 1835, three years before his entire fam­i­ly left the church or were excommunicated.
  • Peter Whit­mer, Jr.: Died in 1836, two years before his entire fam­i­ly left the church or were excommunicated.

5. Close Rela­tion­ship Between BOM Wit­ness­es and Joseph Smith: All of the Book of Mor­mon wit­ness­es, with the excep­tion of Mar­tin Har­ris (who was one of the Smith’s neigh­bors), were relat­ed by blood or mar­riage either to the Smiths or Whit­mers. The fol­low­ing graph­ic shows the close rela­tion­ship between Joseph Smith and the Book of Mor­mon wit­ness­es as well as authors of books sim­i­lar to the Book of Mormon:

Graphic of JS Relationship with BOM Witnesses

6. Wit­ness­es Saw Gold Plates Via Sec­ond Sight: In Joseph’s day, peo­ple believed in see­ing things as a vision in their mind. They called it “sec­ond sight” or view­ing objects/events with “spir­i­tu­al eyes.” Today, we would refer to sec­ond sight as using our imag­i­na­tion. In Joseph’s day, it appar­ent­ly made lit­tle dif­fer­ence if they saw things with their nat­ur­al or spir­i­tu­al eyes. This super­nat­ur­al way of see­ing the world is also referred in Doc­trine and Covenants as “the eyes of our under­stand­ing.”

If the gold­en plates were real and tan­gi­ble as the Church teach­es, why would the wit­ness­es make the fol­low­ing kinds of state­ments when describ­ing the plates and the experience?

  • While pray­ing I passed into a state of entrance­ment, and in that state I saw the angel and the plates.” (Mar­tin Har­ris, (Antho­ny Met­calf, Ten Years Before the Mast, n.d., micro­film copy, p. 70–71))
  • I nev­er saw the gold plates, only in a vision­ary or entranced state.” (Ear­ly Mor­mon Doc­u­ments, 2:346–47)
  • He only saw the plates with a spir­i­tu­al eye.” (Joseph Smith Begins His Work, Vol. 1, 1958)
  • As shown in the vision.” (Zenas H. Gurle, Inter­view with David Whit­mer on Jan 14, 1885)
  • Nev­er saw the plates with his nat­ur­al eyes but only in vision or imag­i­na­tion” (Let­ter from Stephen Bur­nett to “Br. John­son,” April 15, 1838, in Joseph Smith Let­ter Book, p. 2.)
  • I did not see them uncov­ered, but I han­dled them and heft­ed them while wrapped in a tow frock.” (Ear­ly Mor­mon Doc­u­ments 1:497)
  • … 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.…” (Let­ter from Stephen Bur­nett to “Br. John­son,” April 15, 1838, in Joseph Smith Let­ter Book, p. 2)
  • 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.” (Mor­monism: Its Ori­gin, Rise, and Progress, p.71)
  • Two oth­er Palmyra res­i­dents said that Har­ris told them that he had seen the plates with “the eye of faith” or “spir­i­tu­al eyes.” (Ear­ly Mor­mon Doc­u­ments 2:270 and 3:22)
  • 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.” (Ear­ly Mor­mon Doc­u­ments 2:548.)

7. No Doc­u­ment of Wit­ness­es’ Sig­na­tures: The clos­est thing we have in exis­tence to an orig­i­nal doc­u­ment of the Book of Mor­mon wit­ness­es’ tes­ti­monies is a printer’s man­u­script writ­ten by Oliv­er Cow­dery. None of the wit­ness names on that doc­u­ment are signed, rather, they are writ­ten in Cowdery’s hand­writ­ing. Fur­ther, there is no tes­ti­mo­ny from any of the wit­ness­es direct­ly attest­ing to the actu­al word­ing and claims con­tained in the tes­ti­mo­ny pref­ac­ing the Book of Mormon.

While we have “tes­ti­monies” from the wit­ness­es record­ed in lat­er years through inter­views and sec­ond eye­wit­ness accounts and affi­davits, many of the “tes­ti­monies” giv­en by the wit­ness­es do not match the claims and word­ing of the state­ments in the Book of Mormon.

8. James Strang and the Voree Plates Wit­ness­es: James Strang is one of three indi­vid­u­als (along with Syd­ney Rig­don and Brigham Young) who attempt­ed to lead the Church fol­low­ing Joseph Smith’s death. Strang made a num­ber of claims that impli­cate the Book of Mor­mon and its sup­posed wit­ness­es. In fact, Strang claimed to have found the brass plates (that Nephi took from Laban) and trans­lat­ed them. Like Joseph Smith, Strang did the following:

  • Claimed he was vis­it­ed by an angel who reserved the brass plates for him to trans­late into the word of God. “The record which was sealed from my ser­vant Joseph. Unto thee it is reserved.”
  • Received the Urim and Thummim.
  • Pro­duced 11 wit­ness­es who tes­ti­fied that they saw and inspect­ed the ancient met­al plates.
  • Intro­duced new scrip­ture from the brass plates that are now referred to as the Voree Plates. After unearthing the plates (the same brass plates Nephi took from Laban), Strang trans­lat­ed the plates into scrip­ture called the “Book of the Law of the Lord.”

Like the Book of Mor­mon, the Book of the Law of the Lord has the tes­ti­mo­ny of its Wit­ness­es in its pref­ace, enti­tled “Tes­ti­mo­ny,” which reads as follows:

Be it known unto all nations, kin­dreds, tongues and peo­ple, to whom this Book of the Law of the Lord shall come, that James J. Strang has the plates of the ancient Book of the Law of the Lord giv­en to Moses, from which he trans­lat­ed this law, and has shown them to us. We exam­ined them with our eyes, and han­dled them with our hands. The engrav­ings are beau­ti­ful antique work­man­ship, bear­ing a strik­ing resem­blance to the ancient ori­en­tal lan­guages; and those from which the laws in this book were trans­lat­ed are eigh­teen in num­ber, about sev­en inch­es and three-eights wide, by nine inch­es long, occa­sion­al­ly embell­ished with beau­ti­ful pictures.

And we tes­ti­fy unto you all that the ever­last­ing king­dom of God is estab­lished, in which this law shall be kept, till it brings in rest and ever­last­ing right­eous­ness to all the faithful.

The Tes­ti­mo­ny was then signed by the fol­low­ing sev­en wit­ness­es: Samuel Gra­ham, Samuel P. Bacon, War­ren Post, Phineas Wright, Albert N. Hos­mer, Ebenez­er Page, and Jehiel Savage.

In addi­tion to the above sev­en wit­ness­es, four addi­tion­al wit­ness­es were with Strang when the Voree Plates were unearthed. The fol­low­ing link con­tains the “Tes­ti­mo­ny of Wit­ness­es to the Voree Plates,” which bears a num­ber of strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties to the Book of Mor­mon story.

Like Joseph, Strang had a scribe, Samuel Gra­ham, who wrote as Strang trans­lat­ed. Along with sev­er­al of the wit­ness­es, Gra­ham was lat­er excom­mu­ni­cat­ed from Strang’s Church. There is no direct evi­dence that any of the above 11 Strang wit­ness­es ever denied their tes­ti­mo­ny of James Strang, the Voree Plates, Strang’s church, or Strang’s divine calling.

9. Book of Mor­mon Wit­ness­es and Joseph Smith’s Fam­i­ly Sus­tained Strang as Prophet: Notably, every liv­ing Book of Mor­mon wit­ness except Oliv­er Cow­dery accept­ed Strang’s prophet­ic claim of being Joseph’s true suc­ces­sor and joined Strang’s church. Addi­tion­al­ly, Joseph’s broth­er, William Smith, stat­ed that all mem­bers of Joseph’s fam­i­ly, except for Hyrum’s wid­ow, sus­tained Strang as “Prophet, Seer, and Rev­e­la­tor.” In fact, Lucy Mack Smith wrote a let­ter to Reuben Hed­lock stat­ing: “I am sat­is­fied that Joseph appoint­ed J.J. Strang. It is ver­i­ly so.” (Palmer, Insider’s View of Mor­mon Ori­gins, p. 211.) What does this say about the cred­i­bil­i­ty of the Book of Mor­mon wit­ness­es if they were so eas­i­ly duped by Strang’s fraud­u­lent claims?

10. Prob­lems with Church’s Reliance on Wit­ness­es: There are many prob­lems with the tes­ti­monies and cor­re­spond­ing argu­ments in sup­port of the Three and Eight Wit­ness­es. For example:

  • The Wit­ness­es nev­er recant­ed or denied their tes­ti­monies”: Nei­ther did the wit­ness­es to the Voree plates, even after they were excom­mu­ni­cat­ed or estranged from Strang’s church. Nei­ther did dozens of Joseph Smith’s neigh­bors and peers who signed affi­davits as to Joseph’s mis­con­duct and decep­tion. Nei­ther did many of the Shak­er wit­ness­es who signed affi­davits that they saw an angel on the roof top hold­ing the “Sacred Roll and Book” writ­ten by founder Ann Lee (which lat­er turned out to be fraud­u­lent). Same goes with the thou­sands of peo­ple over the cen­turies who claim to have seen the Vir­gin Mary and point to this expe­ri­ence as evi­dence that Catholi­cism is true. Many peo­ple whole­heart­ed­ly believe the Book of Mor­mon wit­ness­es because they have dif­fi­cul­ty believ­ing that these wit­ness­es were lying or had been deceived. Using that same log­ic, one could also make the case for Big Foot. Like­wise, thou­sands of peo­ple claim to have been abduct­ed by aliens. In fact, there were sev­en wit­ness­es to the abduc­tion have Travis Wal­ton. All sev­en wit­ness­es passed lie detec­tor tests and none of them have ever recant­ed their story.
  • In dis­cussing the wit­ness­es, we should not over­look the pri­ma­ry accounts of the events they tes­ti­fied to. The offi­cial state­ments pub­lished in the Book of Mor­mon are not dat­ed, signed (there is no record with their sig­na­tures), and there is no spe­cif­ic loca­tion giv­en for where the events occurred. These are not 11 legal­ly sworn affi­davits; rather they are sim­ple state­ments pre-writ­ten by Joseph Smith with claims of hav­ing been signed by three men and anoth­er by eight.
  • All of the Book of Mor­mon wit­ness­es, with the excep­tion of Mar­tin Har­ris, were relat­ed by blood or mar­riage either to the Smiths or Whit­mers. Oliv­er Cow­dery (mar­ried to Eliz­a­beth Ann Whit­mer and cousin to Joseph Smith), Hiram Page (mar­ried to Cather­ine Whit­mer), and the five Whit­mers were relat­ed by mar­riage. Of course, Hyrum Smith, Samuel Smith, and Joseph Smith Sr. were Joseph’s broth­ers and father.
  • With­in eight years after alleged­ly see­ing the gold plates, all of the three wit­ness­es were excom­mu­ni­cat­ed from the Church. This is what Joseph Smith said about them in 1838: “Such char­ac­ters as … John Whit­mer, David Whit­mer, Oliv­er Cow­dery, and Mar­tin Har­ris, are too mean to men­tion; and we had liked to have for­got­ten them.” (His­to­ry of the Church Vol. 3, Ch. 15, p. 232) What does it say about the wit­ness­es and their char­ac­ter if even the prophet thought they were questionable?
  • As men­tioned in the above Polygamy/Polyandry sec­tion, Joseph was able to influ­ence and con­vince up to 31 wit­ness­es to lie and per­jure them­selves in a sworn affi­davit that Joseph was not a polyg­a­mist. Is it out­side the realm of pos­si­bil­i­ty that Joseph was also able to influ­ence or manip­u­late the expe­ri­ences of his own super­sti­tious fam­i­ly and friends as wit­ness­es (par­tic­u­lar­ly Mor­mon men who already believed in sec­ond sight and who already believed that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God)?
  • James Strang’s claims and wit­ness­es to the Voree plates are dis­tinc­tive and more impres­sive com­pared to the Book of Mor­mon Wit­ness­es. For example: 
    • None of Strang’s wit­ness­es were relat­ed to one anoth­er through blood or mar­riage like the Book of Mor­mon Witnesses.
    • Some of the wit­ness­es were not mem­bers of Strang’s church.
    • The Voree Plates were dis­played in a muse­um for both mem­bers and non-mem­bers to view and examine.
    • Four wit­ness­es tes­ti­fied that they dug up the plates for Strang while he wait­ed for them to do so. They con­firmed that the ground looked pre­vi­ous­ly undisturbed.

11. Con­clu­sion: It seems as if any unbi­ased observ­er would have dif­fi­cul­ty plac­ing much, if any, weight in the tes­ti­mo­ny of the three and eight wit­ness­es in light of the fact that (1) these same wit­ness­es also believed James Strang to be a prophet and the Voree plates to be of divine ori­gin; (2) all of the Book of Mor­mon wit­ness­es except Mar­tin Har­ris were relat­ed to either Joseph Smith or David Whit­mer; (3) all of the wit­ness­es came from a super­sti­tious era and believed in sec­ond sight; and (4) vir­tu­al­ly all of the 11 wit­ness­es not relat­ed to Joseph Smith left the Church.

Regard­less, the tes­ti­monies of the three and eight wit­ness­es are ren­dered irrel­e­vant by virtue of the fact that Joseph Smith did not use the gold plates in trans­lat­ing the Book of Mormon.

Series Nav­i­ga­tion: Leav­ing the Church — Eric Nel­son« Leav­ing the Church, Part 8 — Polygamy and PolyandryLeav­ing the Church, Part 10 — Prophets »
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x