Saturday, March 9, 2013

Witnesses to the Book of Mormon and the Validity of Their Testimonies

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).
                       Oliver Cowdery
                       David Whitmer
                       Martin Harris 

            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:

David Whitmer
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.

Christian Whitmer
Hiram Page
Jacob Whitmer
Joseph Smith, Sen.
Peter Whitmer, Jun.
Hyrum Smith
John Whitmer
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. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Why Involvement With Organizations Such as Mormon Stories Can Be A "Net Negative" Experience.

What's the purpose of this article? To make readers and consumers of information from groups such as Mormon Stories aware of the positives and negatives associated with interaction with these groups and to make a call to other members of the Church that are well informed to get involved in the conversation of maintaining faith in lieu of abandoning it as a result of learning about the so called "problems" of the LDS Church.

What this is not: This is not an attempt to stop people from listening to Mormon Stories podcasts. There is a TON of information that has been posted there, some of which I have really enjoyed and learned from. This also is not a post to hash out individual issues brought by such groups. For resources on topics raised by critics of the church, see my favorite place to start HERE.

Below is a list and explanation of each positive and negative aspect of Mormon Stories and other similar organizations.

(+) Positive - John Dehlin & the other moderators of Mormon Stories are educated people that sincerely mean well and want to help others.

(+) Positive - There are a lot of members of the Church struggling with their testimonies and there is some positive reinforcement to alleviate some of the anguish that they are going through.

(+) Positive - There is currently a lack of bishops and other ecclesiastical leaders in the Church that are capable of addressing some of the questions raised by "thinking Mormons". Mormon Stories provides some of that information and explanation that is missing from main stream Sunday school class.

(-) Negative - While it appears Mormon Stories began (2005) as taking a neutral standpoint, the amount of positive, faith promoting podcasts to date are small.

(+) Positive - There are however some real gems. Great faith promoting podcasts to date are: Richard Bushman, Daniel Peterson, & Bishop Bill Reel. My favorite faith promoting interview so far was with Terryl Givens.

(-) Negative - The organizers and leaders of Mormon Stories are mostly non-believers, or at best members who reject the Church as the "only true Church." It is just not a good idea to ask someone who doesn't have a testimony to help you with yours. Some of the founders of these organizations are financially supported so they can do this full time. Is that healthy? I believe moderation in all things. Anyone who spends 8 hours a day researching topics and interviewing people concerning controversial topics of the Church is going to struggle with their testimony. Just the same it is not healthy to read our scriptures, study gospel topics, and pray all day every day. If you're one of the many that have spent hours, days, months and even years ruminating over the more troublesome or at least more difficult aspects of Church history and doctrine, you know this was not a happy, healthy time of your life. Take caution in seeking help from such individuals.

(-) Negative - One sided views to justify their lack of faith. These groups pride themselves on being "rational thinkers" and "intelligent", and they are. When it comes down to facts and recorded history you can make a case that the church is not true, but with the same logic you can also make a case (and a far more convincing one in my opinion) that it is true through the same "rational thought" and history alone. This side of the logic is not emphasized and is sometimes blatantly ignored. For an example of the types of questions that are ignored see THIS.

(-) Negative - The Dr. Kavorkian of faith. Critics of Dehlin and organizations such as Mormon Stories call him a "Wolf in sheep's clothing." I'm not sure this is a fair assessment. These people and organizations truly have good intentions that they should get some credit for. However the best analogy that might be taken as both offensive and as a compliment would be that individuals such as John Dehlin are a sort of Dr. Kavorkian of faith in the LDS Church and what it claims to be. They bring relief and comfort to those struggling with intense feelings of doubt. When those struggling with doubt find others that feel like them, they feel support and justified in their feelings. While it is good that people find relief, the end result more often than not with continued interaction with people who have rationalized away belief, is the death of their faith as well.

(-) Negative - Organizations such as Mormon Stories remove the Holy Ghost from the equation of seeking truth completely. This point, while will most likely will be mocked and dismissed by doubters is the most serious and troublesome aspect of these groups that claim to be seeking the truth about the Church. Those who are familiar with the workings of the Holy Ghost know that there is a difference between the influence of the Holy Ghost and those produced by human emotion alone. It is correct to point out that some members of the Church portray large amounts of emotionalism during testimony meetings etc. laying claim to "know" something because they had some goosebumps. However as stated by Dehlin, the idea that someone cannot know the Church is true but instead only be "certain" is false. Glenn Pace of the Seventy said, "those who rely entirely on intellect may point at those whose testimony cannot and will not be shaken and accuse them of blind faith. The very fact that they would make such an accusation suggests that they have not yet learned there is an avenue to truth greater than intellect and more certain than the five senses."

While there may be many in the Church who have not yet studied the controversial aspects of Church history, "they know enough"(Neil A. Anderson) and their testimony by the Holy Ghost is just as valid as anyone else who has studied all the historical data incessantly.

(-) Negative - Mormon Stories promotes a false sense that those going through a crisis of faith are the only ones who know the "real" church history. This atmosphere is indirectly created since doubters and anti-mormons have the loudest voices on the internet, why? Because think about it,TBMs (doubting Mormons acronym for True Believing Mormons) have no need to be on the internet. The only reason I am here is because I became aware of the growing problem through friends introducing me to these sites and organizations. There are many of us out there that are educated and informed about Joseph Smith's life, the history of the Church, the imperfectness of LDS past and present leaders (it has never been taught that they are perfect) and continue on with our lives with our testimonies stronger than ever. My continuing investigation of the Church has only further strengthened my testimony. Have there been bumps along the way, absolutely. Were there things that didn't make total sense, yes!, are there currently things that I don't totally understand, yep. But there is plenty that I do understand or at least that can satisfy the intellectual side of a testimony.

Those of us who are just as informed and just as intelligent and rational as those who have “studied their way out of the church" need to make their voices heard to dispel the myth that groups such as Mormon Stories suggest and allude to, which is that anyone intelligent that learns the "real truth" about the Church and its history will end up losing their testimony and find it impossible to believe anymore. This is simply false.

Concluding Thoughts:

At the end of several of Mormon Stories podcasts, Dehlin raises the question, "where can people go with struggling testimonies and doubts for support? By not answering his own question he suggests that there is nowhere to go, and in that regard suggests the Church is failing. These groups claim that if you question anything you will be shunned and alienated by most members, I don't believe this is true. I'm sure there is good reason for this assumption because it probably happens. Should it happen? No. But to instill fear in listeners that they cannot go to believing members at all with their questions is a misleading approach. There are plenty of individuals in my ward I can think of that are educated and would not dismiss doubts as foolishness, but maybe my ward is more the exception than the rule. For this reason, I am writing this. There are lots of informed believers in the Church, this is a call to all others out there to speak up.

For a more in depth review and analysis of Mormon Stories, please see Greg Smith's Dubious “Mormon” Stories: A Twenty-First Century Construction of Exit Narratives