Witnesses

Witness statements and personal credibility are critical factors when pursuing truth, as some witnesses and evidence prove more compelling than others. The LDS narrative surrounding the Book of Mormon witnesses presents a labyrinth of conflicting statements, many provided decades after the fact by those not present during the events. Much confusion surrounds the issue of who actually saw or signed what, where and when. Each participant’s actions and affiliations prior to joining, and subsequent to departing Mormonism, are relevant character considerations.

Each witness, except Martin Harris, was derived from just two families. Oliver Cowdery, Hiram Page and the 5 Whitmers were related by marriage; 3 were Joseph’s own family. Each family is well documented to have believed in second sight, the visioning of inanimate objects with spiritual eyes, treasure digging and elaborate occult folklore.

The witness statements promoted by the Church are not dated, nor is any location identified – in similar fashion as the priesthood restoration and first vision narratives. Joseph Smith’s official declaration of the witness episodes, printed in1842, appears to be a composite of more than one event or experience. The few statements provided by the witnesses themselves suggest a far more visionary, supernatural experience than the physical event portrayed in Smith’s declaration.

Martin Harris publicly admitted under oath that they all relied upon a visionary state of viewing. He was reported to have seen them …”as he saw a city through a mountain.” John Whitmer also stated that “…they were shown to me by a supernatural power.” Similar visionary experiences involving angels and deity were common among denominations in upstate New York’s burned over district. Many also provided nearly identical attestations of their experience.

While regularly reminding members that the witnesses never denied their statements, the Church appears fond of cherrypicking only the quotes and aspects it deems faithful, while disparaging or omitting others. Church sponsored art depict events in a manner directly contradicted by its own records, while a number of altered documents strain credibility. Dan Vogel – video links below – thoroughly explores this topic.

None of the witnesses recorded their own contemporary account of the experience, rather they appear to have signed a statement prepared by Joseph Smith. None of the signatures promoted by the Church were penned by the witnesses themselves; Oliver Cowdery hand wrote each one. No original witness signatures are extant today.

Reviewed in isolation, it may be difficult to reach any conclusions regarding what the witnesses experienced. It is a matter of record that Smith later convinced dozens of his most loyal followers to affix their signature and oath to verifiably false statements regarding polygamy. Fuller consideration of related LDS truth claims aids in the understanding of this critical episode.

 

SPIRITUAL EYES


The Smith family, like many revivalists of the period, did not differentiate between dreams and visions. In 1 Nephi 8:2 we learn, “Behold, I have dreamed a dream; or, in other words, I have seen a vision.” 

Joseph’s history offers countless examples of supernatural episodes; many referring to dreams and second sight, things not seen with natural eyes. “Our eyes were opened” means they were seeing things in their mind. See D&C Section 110:1 – “eyes of our understanding were opened”; and D&C 76 – Savior seen by “eyes of our understanding”. LDS scripture contains numerous references to “the eye of faith”, while D&C 17:5 specifically states “By faith the Three Witnesses will see the plates…”

Grant Palmer, former CES Director, documented dozens of personages Joseph claimed to see, including Adam and Eve. Smith, frequently aided by his use of various seer stones, also at times professed to see guardian spirits protecting treasure in the ground.

Affirmations by Smith and the witnesses indicate that their experience occurred as a vision, that they saw the plates with spiritual eyes. (Papers of Joseph Smith, Jesse, p. 296, Also Insider’s View of Mormon Origins p. 197) In a revelation recorded in D&C 17:2, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris were told that it was by faith they would obtain “a view of the plates.” This is consistent with Whitmer’s 1839 statement, “…they were shown to me by a supernatural power.” (History of the Church, vol. 3, p. 307) Dan Vogel concluded that each witness spoke “in terms commonly understood to describe visions.”

Learn More:
Problems With The Gold Plates, Bill McKeever

VISIONS WERE COMMON


Judged by modern standards, visions may seem extraordinary and special; yet seeing God, angels and all manner of supernatural beings was definitely a thing in the early 1800s. The  burned-over district  refers to the western and central regions of New York in the early 19th century, where revivals and the formation of new religious movements of the  Second Great Awakening  took place.

Numerous restorationist churches sprang up in America, most claiming visions of God, many incorporating Christ in their name, each claiming to be His restored church. Preachers regularly moved their followers to experience visions, speak in tongues or fall down shaking. Nearly all American conversion experiences mention angelic ministration or visions of Deity. 

HARRIS TELLS THE TRUTH


On March 25, 1838, Martin Harris publicly testified than none of the 3 or 8 witnesses saw or handled physical plates; they were seen only with “spiritual eyes” in faith. “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 a vision and he further states that any man who says he has seen them in any other way is a liar, Joseph (Smith Jr.) not excepted.” (Warren Parrish to E. Holmes, Aug 11, 1838, The Evangelist, Carthage, OH) Multiple second hand accounts confirmed Martin’s words, prompting three Apostles and many other leaders to abandon the Church.

Apostle Lyman E. Johnson is also on record in the Joseph Smith Papers via a letter written by Stephen Burnett. “I have reflected long and deliberately upon the history of this church and weighed the evidence for and 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] and also that the eight witnesses never saw them and 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 and the entire superstructure fell a heap of ruins, … I was followed by W. [Warren] Parish, Luke Johnson and John Boynton, all of who concurred with me.”

“After we were done speaking, Martin Harris arose and 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 air but should have let it passed as it was.” (Stephen Burnett letter to Lyman E. Johnson dated April 15, 1838. Joseph Smith Papers, Letterbook 2)

When questioned by a Palmyra lawyer, who pointedly asked: “Did you see the plates …with your bodily eyes?” Martin replied, “I did not see them as I do that pencil case, 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.” Later he said he “saw the angel turn the golden leaves over and over.”

Few suggest that Martin Harris didn’t see things, as he most likely did. However, many take issue with his proclivity for visions, and well documented ambitions of making money from the sale of the book. He had also committed to fully funding the printing costs, which provided additional incentive to see.

Lucy Harris, Martin’s wife, shared that “His main complaint against me was, that I was always trying to hinder his making money.” “His whole object was to make money by it. I will have one circumstance in proof of it. One day, while at Peter Harris house, I told him he had better leave the company of the Smiths, as their religion was false; to which he replied, if you would let me alone, I could make money by it.” (Lucy Harris affidavit, Nov 29, 1833)

“Nevertheless, he {Martin Harris} had become absolutely infatuated, and believed that an immense fortune could be made out of the enterprise” (The Prophet of Palmyra, Thomas Gregg, 1890, letter from Stephen S. Harding: former Governor of Utah territory, to Thomas Greg, Feb 1882)

Learn More:
Natural Born Seer, Richard Van Wagoner,
• Joseph Smith Papers: Stephen Burnett’s Original Letter
• The Creation of Mormonism, John Hammond
• Testimonies of Abigail Harris and Lucy Harris

 

Oliver Cowdery’s hand wrote each witness’ name

THE 3 WITNESSES


Martin Harris

Martin Harris took great pride in his honesty and upright dealings before God. He was generally respected within his community, while also being known as a pious visionary. Lorenzo Saunders described him as “…a good citizen…a man that would do just as he agreed with you” but that he was also “a great man for seeing spooks.”

Prior to joining Mormonism, he changed his religion at least 5 times. “I have been acquainted with Martin Harris, about thirty years… Although he possessed wealth, his moral and religious character was such, as not to entitle him to respect among his neighbors….He was first an orthodox Quaker, then a Universalist, next a Restorationer, then a Baptist, next a Presbyterian, and then a Mormon. By his willingness to become all things unto all men, he has attained a high standing among his Mormon brethren.” (G.W. Stoddard affidavit, Nov. 28, 1833)

Joseph Smith extracted the first $50 (two months average wage) out of Martin by saying God had directed him to the only honest man he could find. Martin later said “I paid for him…furnished him money for his journey.” Martin also paid many of Joseph’s other debts and incurred the entire Book of Mormon printing cost, despite Smith’s early commitment to pay half. Harris ultimately abandoned “the cultivation of one of the best farms in the neighborhood” to sell books.

Martin’s familiarity with visions, both before and after Mormonism, is extremely well documented. Harris claimed in an interview that before his experience as one of the three witnesses he told Joseph Smith, “Joseph, I know all about it. The Lord has showed me ten times more about it than you know.” (Tiffany’s Monthly, 1859, p. 166). Like Oliver Cowdery, he claimed to have seen the gold plates in a vision before ever meeting Joseph Smith.

Harris was said to have walked and talked with a deer, that was actually Jesus. (John Clark letter, Aug 31, 1840 Early Mormon Documents 2:271) While reading the Bible, he interpreted the candle’s sputtering as a sign that the devil desired to stop him. When the candle flickered, Martin proclaimed “…it is the devil trying to put out the light, so that we can’t read any more.” (History of The Church, 1:26-27)

Throughout the remainder of his life, Harris was know to passionately testify of his shifting beliefs and visions. His enthusiasm for sharing his testimony often presented challenges for the Church. One such instance occurred when Harris directly contradicted the official story by describing how his vision experience occurred separately from the others, even days later. “…When they had all engaged in prayer, they failed at that time to see the plates or the angel who should have been on hand to exhibit them. They all believed it was because I was not good enough, or, in other words, not sufficiently sanctified. I withdrew. As soon as I had gone away, the three others saw the angel and the plates. In about three days I went into the woods to pray that I might see the plates. While praying I passed into a state of entrancement, and in that state I saw the angel and the plates.” (Martin Harris Interview with Anthony Metcalf, Circa 1873-1874, Early Mormon Documents, Vogel, 2:346-347)

The LDS Church later threw its star witness under the bus, such as when it defamed him in The Lunacy of Martin Harris. Despite all he had done for the Church, it accused him of being “…an evil man…a strangeness about him…lying deceptive spirit.” Regarding his propensity to shift spiritual allegiance, it reminded readers that, “One day he [Martin Harris] would be one thing, and another day another. He soon became deranged or shattered, as many believed, flying from one thing to another, as if reason and common sense were thrown off their balance. In one of his fits of monomania, he went and joined the ‘Shakers’ or followers of Anne Lee. He tarried with them a year or two, or perhaps longer … but since Strang has made his entry into the apostate ranks, and hoisted his standard for the rebellious to flock too, Martin leaves the ‘Shakers,’ whom he knows to be right, and has known it for many years, as he said, and joins Strang in gathering out the tares of the field.” (Millennial Star, vol. 8, November 15, 1846, p. 124-128)

Upon separating from Mormonism, Harris joined the Strangites, served a mission and bore frequent testimony of that new truth. Soon thereafter, Harris became a Whitmerite, before eventually shifting his allegiance yet again to William Smith as the true successor. Phineas H. Young told Brigham Young that Harris’s later testimony of Shakerism was “greater than it was of the Book of Mormon.” (Letter of Phineas H. Young to Brigham Young, Dec. 31, 1844) There is no evidence that Martin ever denied his testimonies of the varied religions he embraced.

Still penniless and estranged at age 85, Brigham Young provided $200 and logistic support to move Harris to Utah, where he reunited with his family. When Harris re-affiliated with the Brighamite branch of Mormonism late in life, he was said to have been in a feeble state, and remained dependent upon the Church for financial aid until his death in 1875. (Improvement Era, March 1969, p. 63 / Journal of Discourses, vol. 7, p. 164, Brigham Young)

In his final moments, Martin reiterated his witness of the golden plates to the LDS periodical, The Instructor. He then continued to elaborate on a money digging episode he participated in with Joseph Smith, after they had already obtained the gold plates, as he and Smith sought more boxes of gold. “Three of us took some tools to go to the hill and hunt for more boxes of gold or something, and indeed we found a stone box. We got quite excited about it and dug carefully around it, and by some unseen power it slipped back into the hill. We stood there and looked at it and one of us took a crow-bar and tried to drive it through the lid and hold it, but the bar glanced off and broke off one of the corners of the box. Sometime that box will be found and you will see the corner broken off, and then you will know I have told you the truth. (The Instructor: The Last Testimony of Martin Harris, E. Cecil McGavin, Oct 1930, vol. 65, #10, p. 587-589)

His awkward final testimony was ironically attested to by three witnesses. Martin’s sincerity was seldom in question, while his credibility and reliability remain open to investigation.

Learn More:
Dialogue, Martin Harris: The Kirtland Years, H. Michael Marquardt
• Recovery from Mormonism: The Book of Mormon Witnesses

David Whitmer

David Whitmer was one of six original members of the Church of Christ that Joseph Smith organized in 1830. Much of the Book of Mormon was translated in the home of his father, Peter Whitmer, as he hosted the Smiths. He rose to positions of prominence, becoming President of the church in Missouri.

Like Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery, the extended Whitmer family embraced a supernatural, often magical world view. David Whitmer possessed his own seer stone and experienced many visionary episodes. Lyndon Cook, a teacher of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University, suggested that Whitmer’s accounts of “other supernatural experiences…must be seen in connection with the more frequently printed evidence to fully this eyewitnesses’s testimony” (David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness, 1991)

Whitmer’s experience with the gold plates was unique, as he was the sole primary witness to see the plates for the first time during the episode Joseph Smith later described. Cowdery and Harris attested to having already seen them in vision before meeting Joseph Smith.

On June 18, 1830, in one of the earliest descriptions of the new church, Reverend Diedrich Willers wrote that the Whitmers “…even believe in witches. Hiram Page (married to a Whitmer daughter) is likewise full of superstition.” (Willers letter, 1830) Mark Twain, sarcastically referring to the family’s known proclivity for visions and mysticism, said “I could not feel more satisfied and at rest if the entire Whitmer family had testified.” (Roughing It, p. 113)

David’s account of his experience changed over time, to include him describing the angel (Moroni) as having no appearance or shape. (John Murphy interview, June 1880) Whitmer later expanded his narrative to include viewing many other items, such as “…the brass plates, the plates of the Book of Ether…and many other plates…the Sword of Laban…the ball which Lehi had, and the interpreters [Urim & Thummim]. (Book of Mormon Compendium, Orson Pratt interviewing Whitmer, 1878) None of these fantastic items were referenced in Joseph’s account.

One of David’s most remarkable experiences with the supernatural occurred while he was transporting Joseph Smith to his [Whitmer’s] fathers house, where he would be hosted. They encountered an old man who walked alongside their wagon for some distance, carrying “an old fashioned army knapsack strapped over his shoulder and something square in it…” Declining their offered ride, he declared that he was “going across to the hill Cumorah.” The mysterious traveler disappeared the moment they looked away. Whitmer said “the prophet looked as white as a sheet and said that it was one of the Nephites and that he had the plates.” Upon arriving at their destination in Fayette, “they were impressed that the same person was under the shed and again they were informed [by Smith] that it was so.” (Edward Stevenson’s journal, Dec 22-23, 1877) David retellings of this episode, which he shared with others over the years, incorporated varied and sometimes conflicting details.

Strongly disaffected by the Kirtland Safety Society banking scandal, Mr. Whitmer resigned from Mormonism in August 1837. Following Sidney Rigdon’s inflammatory Salt Sermon speech of June 1838 and related Danite Manifesto, each directed at the growing number of apostate Mormons, the Whitmers fled town.

He publicly criticized Smith for modifying prior revelations, an accusation which has since been thoroughly validated. After departing Mormonism, he later declared, “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.” (An Address to All Believers in Christ, Whitmer) Like Harris, he followed James Strang’s leadership after Joseph’s death, but never rejoined the Church.

 

Whitmer’s Anthon Script

David Whitmer claimed to possess the original script which Martin Harris carried to Charles Anthon to confirm the veracity of Smith’s mysterious characters. The authenticity and source of the script, now owned by Community of Christ, are disputed. The LDS Church confirms that David Whitmer “claimed that it was the same one Martin Harris showed to scholars in New York in early 1828.”

Based largely on the handwriting, the Church suggests that the document was written by David’s brother, John Whitmer, while pointing out that he “did not meet [Smith] until 1829, more than a year after Harris’s journey to New York.” It reaffirms “The earliest John Whitmer could have produced this document was after he first met [Smith] in June 1829…” Other scholars, such as Brent Metcalfe, suggest the author was his other brother, Christian Whitmer.

In sharp contrast to Whitmer’s document, Anthon described the characters he saw as being arranged in vertical columns ending in a “rude delineation of a circle divided into various compartments, decked with various strange marks, and evidently copied after the Aztec calendar given by Humboldt…”

In any event, the characters are almost certainly no the actual ones Anthon viewed. The authenticity of the script, contested by the LDS Church itself, brings David’s ability to sort fact from fiction into serious question. Further, it strongly suggests that the Whitmer family engaged in the production of a fraudulent religious document.

Learn More: Joseph Smith Papers: Characters copied by John Whitmer, circa 1829-1831.

The LDS Church itself takes issue with Whitmer’s credibility, affirming his stories when it suits its narrative, disavowing him when his first-hand witness experiences contradict. “In our judgment, Mr. Whitmer is not a reliable source on this matter. We are entirely respectful of and grateful for the testimony to which he appended his name as one of the three witnesses of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and its divine origin. That, however, does not make him a competent witness to the process of translation.” (David Whitmer Interviews, Cook, 115, 157-58)

Oliver Cowdery

Oliver Cowdery served as scribe for 80% of the Book of Mormon. Oliver was a third cousin to Lucy Smith, while Joseph Smith Sr. was a close friend of Oliver’s father.

At the turn of the 19th century, Nathaniel Wood founded a group in Vermont known as the New Israelites, Wood Scrape group, even Fraternity of Rodsmen. (Magic World View, Quinn / Making of a Prophet, Vogel) The sect used dowsing rods to seek buried treasure, claimed to be descendants of Israelites, and faced multiple accusations of counterfeiting. Joseph Smith Sr. and William Cowdery, Oliver’s father, were members.

Though Smith Senior’s involvement has been disputed, it aligns well with the family’s well documented subsequent money digging practices, and his 1837 boast, ”I know more about money-digging than any man in this generation for I have been in the business for more than thirty years!” (James C. Brewster, 1837) Further, Joseph Junior’s involvement in money digging is indisputable at this point. D. Michael Quinn addressed the Wood Scrape group in Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, while Oliver’s inherited “gift of working with the rod” was confirmed in the Doctrine & Covenants – before the Church altered the revelation to read “gift of Aaron”. (see Alterations, D&C 8)

Oliver lived in Poultney, Vermont from 1809-1825, where his three half-sisters were baptized into Ethan Smith’s church. Oliver was also a member of Ethan’s congregation (see View of the Hebrews). When Oliver Cowdery accepted a teaching position in Manchester, his employment was approved by Hyrum Smith as trustee of the school; Oliver then boarded at the Smith home. The notion that Oliver Cowdery happened into the Smith family either by divine intervention or chance in 1829 remains dubious.

Like Martin Harris, Oliver also claimed to vision the plates before ever meeting Smith. This was confirmed by Joseph Smith himself as he recorded his own history. “… [the] Lord appeared unto a young man by the name of Oliver Cowdery and shewed unto him the plates in a vision and also the truth of the work and what the Lord was about to do through me…” (Dean Jessee 1984)

Oliver is unique among all other witnesses due to his extensive and intimate experience with Joseph Smith. He worked directly with Joseph to produce the 1835 D&C, which contained numerous significant edits to prior revelations. The sudden appearance of Peter, James, John and the entire priesthood restoration in D&C section 27 is very much worth examining separately. Their joint work product suggests a complicit relationship which resulted in unsupported new claims, enhanced authority and demonstrably altered revelations. 

He reported many other visions throughout his life, including how he accompanied Smith multiple times to return the plates into the Hill Cumorah. He reported that a cave opened before them, containing the sword of Laban upon a table, and “wagon loads” of plates stacked high around the cavern. (Journal of Discourses 1878, 19:38)

Promptly following the Kirtland Safety Society financial scandal of 1837 and related collapse of the Church in Kirtland, Oliver heavily criticized Joseph for his affair with Fanny Alger, a teenage maid living in the Smith home. Oliver refused to recant his testimony and was excommunicated in April 1838, congruent with his letter of resignation.

The Church at various times of convenience accused Oliver of theft, fraud, adultery and even formally threatened his life if he did not depart the scene. (Senate Document 189 1841, 6-9) Smith himself said, “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” (History of the Church vol. 3, ch. 15, p.232)

Oliver later became a Methodist and was re-baptized into the LDS Church in October of 1848. His involvement in Mormonism remained very limited until his passing in 1850 at David Whitmer’s Missouri home.

THE WITNESSES ABANDON JOSEPH


The three primary witnesses were a fickle sort, as illustrated by an incident in July, 1837. Joseph had left on a five-week missionary tour to Canada, only to find upon his return that all three of the witnesses had joined a faction opposing him. They had rallied around a young girl who claimed to be a seeress by virtue of a black stone through which she read the future. David Whitmer, Martin Harris, and Oliver Cowdery all pledged her their loyalty, while Frederick G. Williams, Joseph’s former First Counselor, became her scribe. “The girl seeres was known to dance herself into a state of exhaustion, fall to the floor, and burst forth with revelations.” (Biographical Sketches, Lucy Smith, p. 210-213)

Joseph Smith, in 1838, summarized his falling out with the witnesses in stating, “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)

Sidney Rigdon, an early member of Joseph’s First Presidency, said, “Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer…united with a gang of counterfeiters, thieves, liars, and blacklegs in the deepest dye, to deceive, cheat, and defraud the saints out of their property, by every art and stratagem which wickedness could invent…” (Letter and Testimony, February 15, 1841, p. 6-9)

Learn More:
Lucy Smith: Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, p. 211-213

THE 8 WITNESSES


  • Hyrum Smith (Joseph Jr’s brother)
  • Joseph Smith, Sr. (Joseph Jr’s dad)
  • Samuel Smith (Joseph Jr’s brother)
  • Jacob Whitmer
  • John Whitmer
  • Christian Whitmer
  • Peter Whitmer, Jr.
  • Hiram Page (son-in-law to Peter Whitmer, Sr.)

All eight witnesses were closely tied to Joseph Smith’s family. Aside from Joseph’s father and two brothers, four were David Whitmer’s brothers, while Hyrum Page was married to a Whitmer sister.

The extended Smith family was completely dependent upon the Church for its livelihood, and thus had everything to gain by sticking with their story. The Whitmer’s were excommunicated in 1838 and joined the Church of Christ, also known as Whitmerites. They couldn’t effectively deny their prior witness without undermining their new church’s truth claims.

None of the 8 witnesses provided a detailed description of their experience. The lack of accounts in any of the witnesses’ journals is interesting, as signing such a document would have been a major event in any of their lives. There is not a single piece of evidence to support the notion that anyone every saw an original, signed witness statement.

John Whitmer contradicted the official LDS narrative by recounting to journalist Wilhelm Poulson that he experienced his witness in Joseph Smith’s house, with only four others present, and that the other four experienced the event separately. (Deseret Evening News, Aug 16, 1878)

Thomas Ford, former Governor of Illinois, reflected upon his impression of the witnesses. “…I have been informed by men who were once in the confidence of the prophet, that he privately gave a different account of the matter… He set them to continual prayer, and other spiritual exercises…and at last, when he could delay them no longer, 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…”

The prophet promptly chastised their lack of faith, commanding them to their knees to beg forgiveness and increased faith. “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.” (A History of Illinois, from its Commencement as a State in 1818 to 1847, Thomas Ford, Chicago, S. C. Griggs & Co., 1854, p 256–58)

JAMES STRANG


James Strang entered the fray in 1844 to compete as Joseph Smith’s legitimate successor. To bolster his authority, he claimed to have been ordained to the office by an angel, while providing a personal letter of appointment that Joseph Smith allegedly mailed him from Nauvoo on June 18, 1844, just nine days prior to his death.

While the handwriting of the letter does not match Smith’s, and the meaning of the vague letter remains in dispute, U.S. postal records from two cities along the mail route confirm that a letter was in fact mailed to Strang from Nauvoo.

Lucy Smith (Joseph’s mother) wrote a letter on May 11, 1846 upholding James Strang as a prophet, while Emma Smith testified that Joseph held a council of trusted advisors before penning a letter to Strang.

In January 1845, Strang revealed to his followers that God had revealed to him the location of another record of an ancient, lost civilization. By September, he revealed the exact location of the plates, before leading four witnesses to participate in their extraction from the earth near a tree. The record contained inscriptions in an unknown language and became known as the Voree Plates. Strang soon thereafter claimed the ability to translate ancient records.

Strang’s witnesses were arguably more credible than Smith’s. Each clearly testified of seeing physical plates, with their natural eyes. Many of their statements were contemporaneously recorded by their own hand, with date and location identified. Further, he placed his plates on open public display for all to inspect, rather than hiding them under a cloth or in the woods.

Strang mirrored many of Joseph Smith’s doctrines and methods. He gathered his followers to remote Beaver Island in Lake Michigan and began taking multiple wives, despite his prior opposition to the practice of polygamy. Also like Smith, he was ultimately murdered by his disillusioned followers.

All the Whitmers and Smiths aligned with Strang, as did at least three apostles and thousands of Saints. Thus, we find every living Book of Mormon witnesses, except Oliver Cowdery, accepting Strang as their prophet, at least for a time. By 1847, not a single one of the surviving eleven witnesses was part of the Mormon church.

Given that his plates and professed abilities were later confirmed be a hoax, how much credibility should we afford those who so easily embraced Strang? This episode appears to demonstrate a profound lack of discernment, coupled with a strong desire to believe the supernatural.

OTHER WITNESSES


Any trained investigator will confirm that witness statements are fraught with challenges. Scientific studies have confirmed that about half of all individuals will come to believe that a fictional event occurred if they are told about that event and then repeatedly imagine it happening. Breakthroughs in human neurological understanding are providing new insights into the fascinating human brain. Regardless of the extraordinary claims people sometimes make, that does not always mean an extraordinary event occurred.

Solomon Spalding, like Hyrum Smith and other Smith family relatives, studied at Dartmouth College and shared similar theological views of Native Americans. E. D. Howe’s 1834 publication of  Mormonism Unvailed provides the sworn affidavits of seven witnesses confirming that the Book of Mormon closely mirrors an early draft of minister Solomon Spalding’s work. Their affidavits were personally prepared, dated and witnessed by multiple people.

QUESTIONS


Q: Why did a small group of evangelical visionaries require hours of fervent prayer and exhortation to see a supposedly tangible, physical object?

Q: Why did the Church promote witness signatures written solely in Oliver’s hand – is that honest?

Q: Why go through the trouble to obtain witness signatures, only to destroy the only copy by burying it under rocks?

Q: Is it evidence for the Book of Mormon that the witnesses never denied it?

Q: Does the fact that the witnesses were admonished that it was by faith that they could obtain “a view of the plates” confirm that they saw the plates only with spiritual eyes?

Q: What do we make of Martin Harris’s sworn statement on April 15, 1838 that the witnesses never saw the plates, hesitated to sign their names, and were persuaded by Joseph?

Q: Given that occult folklore grew increasingly ridiculed, even within Mormonism, is it reasonable to conclude that the witnesses could not publicly recant their statements without inviting additional scorn upon their families?

Q: What are we to make of the fact that nearly every witness readily sustained James Strang after Joseph’s death? What does it say about their discernment, judgement and desire to believe?


LEARN MORE


• MormonThink: The Witnesses
 Book of Mormon Witnesses – The Three – Part 1, Dan Vogel
 Book of Mormon Witnesses – The Eight – Part 2, Dan Vogel
• Institute for Religious Research – Book of Mormon Witnesses, Joel Groat
• The Book of Mormon Witnesses