Preface: This is a college paper that I wrote for my Freshman English class years ago. I had been a member of the Church for only about 18 months and was eagerly awaiting my mission in the coming months. I was exposed to anti-mormon claims and literature from even before I was baptized and have been fascinated ever since regarding why people go to such lengths to attack the Church. You will notice there are citations with no references at the bottom. I am working on tracking down my bibliography page and will post that as soon as I am able to locate it.
When investigating the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, one cannot ignore the testimonies of those who lived and experienced in 1830 the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon. Believing the testimony of Joseph Smith, the translator of the plates from which the Book of Mormon was taken, requires much faith on the part of the believer. Many documents have been written to discredit the testimonies of the twelve men who have publicly stated that they have seen and touched with their own eyes and hands the actual plates Smith spoke of. Before considering whether or not the Book of Mormon is an authentic work, it must be remembered that of those twelve men who bore testimony that the record is true, all reaffirmed the validity of their testimonies even before the moments of their deaths.
As one investigates the testimonies and lives of the twelve witnesses of the Book of Mormon, the most critical witness to be considered is that of the actual translator of the book, Joseph Smith. Smith claimed that the true church of Jesus Christ had been restored through him. This process started by what Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) refer to as the “First Vision”. Before this vision, there was great turmoil concerning religious belief in the State of New York. Joseph did not know which church he should join so he decided to pray to God because the Bible said that “if any man lack wisdom he should ask of God” (Smith 48). Joseph went to a nearby grove to his home and received a vision in which he saw two personages whom he learned were God the Father and Jesus Christ. He was told in this vision that none of the sects were completely true and that sometime in the near future the true church would be established through him (Smith 49). After this vision Joseph was filled with much joy and began to share his experience with anyone who would listen. As a result, Joseph was mocked and persecuted for what his critics called a blasphemous story. Joseph began to be very frustrated because he knew he had seen a vision and he knew that God knew it (Smith 51).
Many people have tried to prove that Joseph had no such vision. It has been argued that he made the story up for attention. If this were the case, Joseph could have denied what he saw so that an end could be put to all the persecution he was receiving, but he did not at anytime deny what he saw (West 15). With the information provided, a conclusion can be drawn that Joseph truly believed with all his heart that what he saw, he did actually see. Only one other possibility can be considered that would prove his vision to be false and that is the fourteen year-old boy hallucinated, but did not actually see a vision, believing he had seen one.
In addition to claiming that he had been visited by God himself and Jesus Christ, Joseph claimed that an angel named Moroni had given him a record written upon plates with the appearance of gold of the former inhabitants of the American continent. The “First Vision” was easy to dismiss as a falsehood because only one man could testify of it. After the plates had been translated by inspiration as Emma Smith (Joseph’s wife) describes, eleven other men have publicly testified that they saw and touched the plates with their own eyes and hands (Hill 74). Three of these twelve claim that on a separate occasion than the other eight, a heavenly messenger had been the one to reveal the plates to them and that they heard the voice of God proclaiming the authenticity of the record (West 19).
The first of these three witnesses was a man by the name of Oliver Cowdery. Oliver had heard of Joseph and his obtaining the plates through rumors and could not get the story of these “gold plates” out of his mind (Ludlow 1: 96). When he met Samuel Smith, Joseph’s brother, and found out he was going to Harmony Pennsylvania where Joseph and the plates were, he dropped everything to go along. Oliver claimed that through prayer he was impressed that he had a work to do with Smith (Ludlow 1: 97).
Soon after he arrived, Joseph asked Oliver to be a scribe to help him translate since he was a very poor writer. Cowdery was one of a few individuals that served as a scribe to Joseph, but Cowdery was the one who transcribed the majority of the book as the prophet dictated. On April 7, 1829 they began translation and approximately ninety days later the two of them completed what is now the five hundred thirty-one page Book of Mormon (Ludlow 1: 97). Oliver later became one of the three witnesses that had their testimonies of the Book of Mormon published in the beginning of the book. This Testimony of the three Witnesses was also published in local news papers of that era (West 20). It reads as follows:
BE IT KNOWN unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That we, through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, have seen the plates which contain this record of the people of Nephi, and also the Lamanites, their bretheren, and also of the people of Jared, who came from the tower of which has been spoken. And we also know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God, for HIS voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true. And we also testify that we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates: and they have been shown to us by the power of God, and not of man. And we declare with words of soberness, that an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon; and we know that it is by grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, that we beheld and bear record that these things are true. And it is marvelous in our eyes. Nevertheless, the voice of the Lord commanded us that we should bear record of it; wherefore, to be obedient unto the commandments of God, we bear testimony of these things. And we know that if we are faithful in Christ, we shall rid our garments of the blood of men, and be found spotless before the judgement seat of Christ, and dwell with him eternally in the heavens. And the honor be to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen (West 19).
Unfortunately there is a sad side to this story. After nine years of helping Smith organize the church, differences between these two men arose and in a court held by the church, and seven of nine charges were sustained against Cowdery and he was ex-communicated from the church and publicly humiliated (West 17). If this work were a fraud than surely Oliver would have come forward denying his testimony of the Book of Mormon and the prophet Joseph Smith. To support this theory, there have been accounts of Oliver denying his testimony, just as it would be logical that he would do so. It has been recorded several places that Oliver was confronted after he was excommunicated from the church, concerning his statements about the Book of Mormon. One of Oliver’s friends whom he met through his years as a lawyer, asked him about the testimony signed in the beginning of the Book of Mormon. He asked, “Mr. Cowdery, I see your name attached to this book as one of its special witnesses. Do you believe this book?” In several anti-Mormon writings it has been documented that Oliver’s response was “No, sir”, but when searched thoroughly, this response was only partially true. Oliver, in his personal writings and letters, had documented this specific conversation. He states that his friend did inquire of his testimony and he did in fact start his response with “No, sir”, but as Cowdery makes very clear, he went on to proclaim; “My name is attached to that book, and what I said then is true. I did see this, and I know I saw it. Belief and faith has nothing to do with it as a perfect knowledge as I do that the work is true. (21)” While in the courtroom, practicing as an attorney during the time period before he asked to be re-admitted into the church, Oliver’s opposition would try to prove that anything he did or said was untruthful because of his affiliation with Joseph Smith and his “gold Bible”. On one occasion in the courtroom, Oliver stated:
May it please the court and gentleman of the jury: My brother attorney on the other side has charged me with connection with Joseph Smith and his “golden Bible.” The responsibility has been placed upon me, and I cannot escape reply. Before God and man I dare not deny what I have said – what my testimony contains, as written and printed on the first page of the Book of Mormon. May it please your Honor and gentlemen of the jury, this I say: I saw an angel and heard a voice from heaven. How can I deny it? It happened in the daytime when the sun was shining brightly in the firmament, not at night when I was asleep. The glorious messenger from heaven, dressed in a white robe, standing above the ground in a glory I have never seen anything to compare with, the insignificant in comparison, told us if we denied that testimony there is no forgiveness in this life or the world to come. How can I deny it? I dare not, I will not (21).
Those who were in the courtroom at that time had said that anyone who heard Cowdery speak could not possibly believe that he was not a man of honesty (22). At no time in his life did Oliver deny that the Book of Mormon was true or that he did not see an angel that showed him the plates. Upon his death bed, Oliver testified once more to his family who were with him that the plates did exist and the Book of Mormon was an authentic work.
The second of these three witnesses, who all claimed to have been visited by an angel who showed them the plates was a man by the name of David Whitmer. David was a very well educated man (Ludlow 4: 1565). He first heard of the prophet Joseph Smith in a letter from Oliver Cowdery. Like Cowdery, and at about the same time as Oliver, David Whitmer became hostile towards Joseph and the newly founded church. Whitmer is the only one of the three witnesses to die while no longer a member of the church, but just as Oliver he held true to his testimony as it was written. During the latter years of Whitmer’s life, rumors began to arise that were started by a man named Jacob Murphy that claimed Whitmer denied his testimony of the Book of Mormon as one of its three special witnesses. This bothered Whitmer greatly. In order to put these rumors to rest, he gathered nineteen of his closest friends and asked them to sign a document which stated that he was a truthful man, not one of them being a member of the church. He wanted to testify once and for all that he at no time in his life ever denied his testimony. David had this statement published along with his friends’ statements that he was a truthful man. David was fearful some of them would back out of the agreement when he told them he would be testifying of the “golden plates”, but none of them did. David had these statements printed on the front page of every newspaper possible. This task was very easy because any news about Joseph Smith’s “gold Bible” was big news (West 25). The following was published along with a statement from his good friends:
Unto all nations, tongues, and people unto whom these presents shall come: It having been represented by one Jacob Murphy of Palo, Caldwell County, Missouri, that I in conversation with him last summer, denied my testimony as one of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon; to the end thereof that he may understand me now if he did not then, and that the world may know the truth, I wish now, standing in the very sunset of life and in fear of God, once and for all to make this public statement: I have always adhered to that testimony. I do again affirm the truth of all my statements as then made and published. It was no delusion. In the spirit of Christ I submit these statements unto the world, God being my judge as to the sincerity of my motives (26).
Signed and sealed:
Although David Whitmer did die no longer being a member of the church, it appeared he had no harsh feelings toward the prophet. As he was about to pass, he gathered his family as did Oliver Cowdery and told them that he never joined another church because there was no other true church and once again testified of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.
The last of these witnesses who testified of the angelic vision was Martin Harris. Of these three men, Harris was definitely the most optimistic about the so-called prophet’s story. In spite of this attribute, after he was converted he was the most faithful to Joseph. He stayed faithful in the his testimony of the Book of Mormon unto his death just as the other two witnesses had, but also never doubted Joseph, his prophecies, and dealings with the church (West 29). In 1837 Harris clashed with Sidney Rigdon, another faithful member of the church. Martin then decided to part ways with the church but was re-baptized in 1842. Just as the other two, the last words uttered by Martin Harris, the third of these three special witnesses, were those testifying of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.
Although all these men stayed true to their stories, it can be argued that it can not be proven that what they saw is true because their stories are based on supernatural experiences. Besides the testimonies of these three honest men were given, eight more testimonies concerning the coming forth of the Book of Mormon were given. This time, no supernatural experiences were recorded. These eight individuals were shown the plates by Joseph Smith himself. They held the plates, turned the pages, and from that knew with certainty that the plates existed. Their testimony, found along side those of the three witnesses in the beginning pages of the Book of Mormon, states:
BE IT KNOWN unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That Joseph Smith, Jun., the translator of this work, has shown unto us the plates of which he has spoken, which have the appearance of gold; and as many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated we did handle with our hands; and we also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance ancient work, and of curious workmanship. And this we bear record of with words of soberness, that the said Smith has shown unto us, for we have seen and hefted, and know of a surety that the said Smith has got the plates of which we have spoken. And we give our names unto the world, to witness unto the world that which we have seen. And we lie not, God bearing witness of it.
Joseph Smith, Sen.
Peter Whitmer, Jun.
Samual H. Smith
Just as the three witnesses, these eight men were known to be honest, good men by the people with whom they interacted during the course of their lives. Never at any time did these men’s testimonies contradict nor falter, but stayed alive and were reiterated even until all of their deaths (www.math.byu).
After the facts concerning these twelve men have been presented, few conclusions can be offered. These men did know that the plates which Joseph Smith spoke of existed and Joseph was who he said he was, or these men were dishonest, and only sought after fame and fortune. If the latter is true, these men certainly did not get the glory they were looking for. For the most part, these men lived in poverty and those that were wealthy gave up their fortunes to support the church (Ludlow 4: 1565). In spite of any differences these men encountered with Smith, they all were faithful to the words they spoke. Whether an individual wants to believe these witnesses is personal opinion, but it is historically documented that the twelve men who testified that the Book of Mormon is an authentic record, did not at any time deny that the record was true.