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The Three and Eight Witnesses on Trial

Contender Ministries

We recently received an email from a Mormon that stated, “Try as you might, you cannot refute the testimonies of the three and eight witnesses found in every copy of the Book of Mormon.  They saw what they saw and bore witness of it, and nothing you write to the contrary can alter the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, of the testimonies of its witnesses, and of the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ through the Prophet Joseph Smith.”  Indeed, much weight is given to the testimony of the three and eight witnesses, which preface every Book of Mormon. Another Mormon wrote to us saying, “I am amazed that not one of the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon ever denied his testimony of seeing the gold plates and the angel Moroni.”  Given this input, let’s examine the testimony of the three and eight witnesses.

I’m not a lawyer, but I do have experience in a courtroom setting, providing factual witness testimony and expert witness testimony.  To answer the arguments given above, we shall examine the substance of the witnesses’ testimony, the credibility of the witnesses, and the relevance of their testimony.  In this scenario, the reader will be the jury.  The question before us is whether these eleven witnesses support the argument that the Book of Mormon is true.  First, let’s turn to the substance of their testimony.  The testimony of the three witnesses is 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, which is a record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites, their brethren, and also of the people of Jared, who came from the tower of which hath 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 unto 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 the 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 all men, and be found spotless before the judgment-seat of Christ, and shall dwell with him eternally in the heavens. And the honor be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen.” [emphasis added]

               OLIVER COWDERY

               DAVID WHITMER

               MARTIN HARRIS

The three witnesses above gave testimony that they saw the golden plates from which Joseph Smith allegedly translated the Book of Mormon.  It is important to note, however, that they did not physically see these plates in a literal sense.  Rather, they claim an angel showed them the plates.  Elsewhere, these three witnesses describe how Smith translated the plates, while they were on a table, covered with a cloth.  While it would have been easy for Smith to remove the cloth, and allow these men to literally behold the plates, this did not happen.  They had to rely on a spiritual vision of the plates for their testimony.

Am I suggesting that angels do not exist?  Not at all!  However, since this angel gave them a spiritual glance at what would become “another gospel” (as mentioned in Galations 1:6-9), we must then keep in mind the words of 2 Corinthians 11:14, which says, “And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.”  Galatians 1:8 says, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!  Does this warning not strike you as particularly relevant to the circumstances described by the three witnesses?  Cowdery, Harris, and Whitmer testified that they saw a vision of this new gospel presented to them by an angel, “by the power of God, and not of man.”  These Bible verses do not mean that the three witnesses did not receive some kind of angelic vision of the plates, but they would give us pause, indicating that the angel in question might just be Satan working undercover.

Before we move on to the issue of witness credibility, let us take a look at the testimony of the eight witnesses:

“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 hath been 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 of ancient work, and of curious workmanship. And this we bear record 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.”





Do you notice anything familiar about the surnames of the witnesses?  Four of them are Whitmers – directly related to David Whitmer, one of the three witnesses.  Actually, a fifth is related to the Whitmer family, as Hiram Page is the husband of David Whitmer’s sister.  Of the remaining three, one is Joseph Smith’s father, and the other two are Joseph’s brothers.  This isn’t exactly a variety of witnesses, and is actually quite nepotistic!  However, as this goes to the credibility of the witnesses, as opposed to the substance of their testimony, let me digress.  Some Mormons would understandably point out that the eight witnesses gave a more specific testimony of the plates, and did not say they only saw them in a vision.  That much is true, to be sure.  However, let me introduce into evidence some statements that some of the eight witnesses made after this original testimony.

First, only three of the eight witnesses made separate statements that they actually handled the plates.  They were Joseph Smith’s brothers, along with John Whitmer.  However, another Smith that was not among the witnesses, also claims to have handled the plates.  Joseph’s brother William Smith said, "I did not see them uncovered, but I handled them and hefted them while wrapped in a tow frock and judged them to have weighed about sixty pounds. ... Father and my brother Samuel saw them as I did while in the frock. So did Hyrum and others of the family." When the interviewer asked if he didn't want to remove the cloth and see the bare plates, William replied, "No, for father had just asked if he might not be permitted to do so, and Joseph, putting his hand on them said; 'No, I am instructed not to show them to any one. If I do, I will transgress and lose them again.' Besides, we did not care to have him break the commandment and suffer as he did before." (Zion's Ensign, p. 6, January 13, 1894.)  Oops.  Members of the jury, this witness claims that Joseph Smith forbade anyone from seeing the bare plates that they were lifting.  Without uncovering the plates, how can the witnesses conclusively testify that what they were lifting were gold plates as opposed to another heavy metal, such as lead?

John Whitmer doesn’t help the testimony either, when he said to Theodore Turley in 1839, "I now say, I handled those plates; there were fine engravings on both sides…they were shown to me by a supernatural power" (History of the Church, Vol. 3, p. 307).  If John Whitmer had physically seen the plates with his own eyes, why would he need a supernatural power to see them?  Unless, of course, he saw them through the same spiritual eye described by the three witnesses.  Therefore, while the eight witnesses testify to seeing the plates and handling them, the question as to whether this was a literal or a spiritual occurrence is, as yet, unanswered.

Having provided the testimony of the witnesses, it is now incumbent upon us to examine the credibility of the witnesses.  Are these witnesses believable, or do they have conflicts of interest that might taint their testimony?  How did their other statements and actions buttress or compromise their testimony. 

First, let’s cover the three witnesses: Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer.  A contemporary of Martin Harris said, "There can't anybody say a word against Martin Harris. Martin was a good citizen ...a man that would do just as he agreed with you. But, he was a great man for seeing spooks."  [emphasis added] - Lorenzo Sauders, one who claimed to know the Harris family well. (Ronald W. Walker, "Martin Harris: Mormonism's Early Convert," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol. 19 (Winter 1986): 34-35).  John H. Gilbert, who participated in printing the Book of Mormon, said, “Martin was something of a prophet: — He frequently said that Jackson would be the last president that we would have; and that all persons who did not embrace Mormonism in two years would be stricken off the face of the earth.: He said that Palmyra was to be the New Jerusalem, and that her streets were to be paved with gold.”  (Wilford C. Wood, Joseph Smith Begins His Work, Vol. 1, 1958, introduction. This is a photomechanical reprint of the first edition [1830] of the Book of Mormon. It also contains biographical and historical information relating to the Book of Mormon.)  Martin Harris was also unstable in his religious beliefs, as evidenced by the following: “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.)  Apparently, Joseph Smith was himself not too taken with his witnesses, as he wrote, “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. 3:232).  Finally, Harris seems to have a conflict of interest.  J.H. Beadle wrote, “Martin Harris was a credulous farmer who lived near the Smiths.  He had imbibed the notion, so common in the religious excitement of that period, that ‘the last days were at hand,’ and mortgaged his farm for three thousand dollars, to pay for printing the first edition of the book [of Mormon].  He continued with the Mormons till his means were exhausted, and, having quarreled with Joe Smith, in Missouri, returned to his old residence in New York.” (Life in Utah; or, The Mysteries and Crimes of Mormonism, J.H. Beadle, 1870, p.26).  Mortgaging his farm?  Is this the action of a true believer, or that of an investor?

While I’m anxious to get to David Whitmer, we should take a moment to say a couple of things about Oliver Cowdery.  First, the previously stated rebuke of Joseph Smith should not be quickly forgotten.  Second, as we have already mentioned nepotism among the witnesses, I would be remiss if I did not present that Cowdery and Joseph Smith were third cousins.  Cowdery, like Smith, was prolific in his occultic use of a divining rod.  RLDS historian Richard P. Howard writes, “For example, the 'divining rod' was used effectively by one Nathanael Wood in Rutland County, Vermont, in 1801. Wood, Winchell, William Cowdery, Jr., and his son Oliver Cowdery, all had some knowledge of and associations with the various uses, both secular and sacred, of the forked witch hazel rod. Winchell and others used such a rod in seeking buried treasure;...when Joseph Smith met Oliver Cowdery in April 1829, he found a man peculiarly adept in the use of the forked rod...” (Howard 1969, 211-214)  I submit to you that all of the historians agree that Cowdery had an intense interest in the supernatural, particularly in visions and folk magic.  J.H. Beadle said, “Oliver Cowdery was at that time a sort of wandering schoolmaster, rather noted as an elegant scribe.  He assisted in translating the inscriptions on the plates, continued an active Saint for many years, and was finally expelled from the Church in Missouri, ‘for lying, counterfeiting and immorality.’  He led a rambling life for many years, and died a short time since a miserable drunkard.” (Beadle 1870, 25-26). 

Before we get to the issue of David Whitmer, let me briefly give attention to the matter of the eight witnesses.  As we said before, the eight witnesses were closely related, and their testimony is placed in conflict by statements made later.  Due to limited space, we’ll let those issues stand regarding their credibility. 

At one time, it was alleged that David Whitmer later recanted his testimony regarding the Book of Mormon.  Let us say that this is not true.  However, Mormons should be careful when they hold up the testimony of David Whitmer, as Whitmer also called Joseph Smith a fallen prophet, and condemned the Mormon Church in strong terms.  Whitmer was not a Mormon, as he did not follow Brigham Young.  In his 1887, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Whitmer notes three main sects that believe in the Book of Mormon:  The Church of Christ, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  Of those, Whitmer belonged to the first – The Church of Christ.  In his Address, Whitmer ferociously condemns polygamy as being contrary to both the Bible and the Book of Mormon, and also wrote, “We do not indorse the teachings of any so-called Mormons or Latter Day Saints, which are in conflict with the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, as taught in the New Testament and the Book of Mormon. They have departed in a great measure from the faith of the CHURCH OF CHRIST as it was first established, by heeding revelations given through Joseph Smith, who, after being called of God to translate his sacred word--the Book of Mormon--drifted into many errors and gave many revelations to introduce doctrines, ordinances and offices in the church, which are in conflict with Christ's teachings.”  While this does not count toward the credibility of David Whitmer, it does present an interesting dilemma.  Mormons count Whitmer among the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, and consequently grant him credibility as a witness.  However, Whitmer was quite critical of Joseph Smith (a sentiment that was mutual), and openly condemned Mormon beliefs.  Therefore, are we to accept his testimony regarding the Book of Mormon, but assume he lost his credibility later?  Should we accept him as a credible witness, and conclude that Mormonism is wrong?  Or should we discount the credibility of his testimony – including his testimony regarding the Book of Mormon?

Enough arguments have been made regarding the issue of witness credibility.  At this point, you the jury have the information to decide how much weight you wish to give their testimony.  Now, let’s examine how relevant their testimony is to the question of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.

First, whether the witnesses saw actual plates, or only had visions of the plates, it is apparent that the plates where not necessary in the translation of the Book of Mormon.  In Whitmer’s address, he describes the translation process:

“I will now give you a description of the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated. Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.”

So by the accounts of the witnesses, the plates remained covered during the translation.  The Book of Mormon came about because Joseph Smith stuck a rock in his hat, followed it with his face, and spoke the translation for Cowdery to write down.  How does the existence of plates fit into this scenario?  It does not.

Second, as David Whitmer rightly pointed out, there is precious little Mormon doctrine within the Book of Mormon.  Most Mormon doctrine is found in the Doctrine and Covenants and in the revelation of LDS prophets.  Polygamy was a commandment in the D&C, but is openly condemned in the Book of Mormon.  The doctrine of eternal progression is refuted in the Book of Mormon.  LDS doctrines on the nature of God, Jesus Christ, and the destiny of man, are not found in the Book of Mormon.  Even temple endowments are not spoken of in the Book of Mormon.  It could easily be argued that the Book of Mormon itself is irrelevant to LDS doctrine. 

So if Mormons don’t use the Book of Mormon for doctrine, do they use it for history?  So much has been written on the fallacy of Book of Mormon history, that space does not permit its inclusion here.  The fact that the Book of Mormon describes things in the Americas that we know did not exist at the time is well documented.  The fact that the Lamanites (American Indians) were not of Jewish descent is also well documented.  Some Mormons claimed that the Smithsonian Institute used the Book of Mormon as a guide to Central and South American archaeology, but this has been openly refuted by the Smithsonian itself.  In fact, the Smithsonian stated, “The Book of Mormon is a religious document and not a scientific guide.”  While Biblical archaeology is a large and exciting field, wherein the Bible is used as a guide to the past, the Book of Mormon does not share that distinction. 

Mormon scholars understand that the Book of Mormon is not historically accurate, and have been treated harshly by LDS leadership.  Mormon anthropologist Thomas W. Murphy set out to test a key principle of his Mormon faith with the latest technology.  His DNA studies revealed that the early American Indians (both in North and South America) came from Asia, as opposed to the Middle East, as the Book of Mormon contends.  He faced a church disciplinary committee, and was expected to be excommunicated.  Mormon Egyptologist Ed Ashment was under ecclesiastical investigation and expects to be excommunicated for publishing articles that assert church founder Joseph Smith fabricated key LDS texts he said were translations of ancient scriptures.  David Wright, a professor of Hebrew studies and the Bible at Brandeis University, was excommunicated in April 1994 for articles asserting the Book of Mormon was a 19th-century creation of church founder Joseph Smith.  Why don’t more LDS scholars stand up and state the truth about the Book of Mormon?  After the way the LDS Church treated the scholars mentioned above, I would say a sense of fear and self-preservation keeps them in check. 

Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, the case has been presented.  Have the eleven witnesses given objective, unimpeachable testimony?  Has their testimony convinced you of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon?  I assert that the Book of Mormon is “another gospel” given by an angel, as spoken of in Galatians 1:6-9.  What kind of angel would give another gospel?  None other than Satan, who the Bible tells us will masquerade as an angel of light to lead people away from the truth.  Joseph Smith was a false prophet.  The Book of Mormon is a false gospel.  And we must make every effort to show Mormons that the true gospel of Jesus Christ still stands.  It is time to abandon the evil doctrines that say we are gods in infancy who must earn our salvation, and return to the truth of the gospel that says we are completely unworthy, but the blood of Jesus Christ is sufficient to cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).  We cannot afford to rest our case while there are still people in this world that do not know the truth.