Cover image via Gospel Media Library.
“Another Testament of Jesus Christ”
As we begin our study of the Book of Mormon this year of 2020, (which brings to my mind the idea of 20/20 vision) my desire is that we will open our eyes to the majesty of the book, and read it in a way that we have never done before. Consider this statement by Elder Neal A. Maxwell:
The Book of Mormon will be with us “as long as the earth shall stand.” We need all that time to explore it, for the book is like a vast mansion with gardens, towers, courtyards, and wings. There are rooms yet to be entered, with flaming fireplaces waiting to warm us. The rooms glimpsed so far contain further furnishings and rich detail yet to be savored, but decor dating from Eden is evident. There are panels inlaid with incredible insights, particularly insights about the great question. Yet we as Church members sometimes behave like hurried tourists, scarcely venturing beyond the entry hall.
May we come to feel as a whole people beckoned beyond the entry hall. May we go inside far enough to hear clearly the whispered truths from those who have “slumbered,” which whisperings will awaken in us individually the life of discipleship as never before.
(Neal A. Maxwell, Not My Will, But Thine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft Inc., 1988), 33.)
I hope that this year as we study this incredible book, we can spend more time in its courtyards and wings, and better enjoy its towers and gardens. The Book of Mormon is there for each one of us, but we have to take advantage of it, otherwise we are in no better situation than the millions of people who never had the chance to read it. I hope that this year, and for the rest of our lives, we will treasure these scriptures as the rare and wonderful possession that they are.
Sometimes we skip the introductory pages in our hurry to get to 1 Nephi. But these are the very things that will help our students understand 1 Nephi. Reading the Book of Mormon without an understanding of its purpose would be like driving on the highways of California without a map.
The Book of Mormon can strengthen my faith in Jesus Christ.
How many people realize that the Title Page of the Book of Mormon is also scripture, and was written by an ancient prophet? Most people have at least heard that the primary purpose of the Book of Mormon is to “the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ.” But as Mormon records the reasons why he has included the things he has chosen to preserve, he lists this reason third. It is my hope that as we study and ponder the Book of Mormon this year, we can also concentrate on the first two purposes he records, that our testimonies might be made stronger and our confidence in the Lord’s purposes unshaken.
What does Mormon list first as the purpose of the Book of Mormon?
- “To show unto the remnant of the House of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers;”
As a missionary in Hong Kong, we challenged the people we were teaching to read the Book of Mormon and pray about its truthfulness, citing Moroni 10:3-5 as a springboard. Sometimes we do not give verse three enough attention. Before we pray, we are admonished to “remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.”
How do you feel about someone when you think about all the many things that they have done for you? It is only natural to feel gratitude, sometimesto the point of being overwhelmed by emotion. This engenders powerful feelings of love and appreciation. This is one of the reasons we read the scriptures every day. Alma 37:8 states, “it has hitherto been wisdom in God that these things should be preserved; for behold, they have enlarged the memory of this people.”
Who is the remnant of the House of Israel? We are! When we read about the “great things the Lord has done for our fathers, we gain faith that he will continue to do so in the future. Why doesn’t Satan want the Book of Mormon to be important to us? Because then we will “remember” that God delivered our fathers, and he can deliver us! One of the purposes of the Book of Mormon is to help us REMEMBER!
The next purpose of the Book of Mormon is so
- “That they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever”
What exactly are the covenants that the Lord has made with the House of Israel?
The Abrahamic Covenant
The Book of Mormon is given to reestablish the covenants God made with Abraham. One of the purposes of receiving patriarchal blessings is to learn of our lineage, and that we are descendants of Abraham, whether literal or adopted, and entitled to the blessings (and responsibilities) of being born in that covenant. What are these promises?
Gen. 12:7; 13:15; 15:9-14 The promise of LAND
Gen. 12:2; 15:5; 17:4 The promise of POSTERITY
Abr. 1:18 The promise of PRIESTHOOD BLESSINGS
Abr. 2:10 The promise of SALVATION
Elder Bruce R. McConkie has connected this heritage with the talent of spirituality.
The greatest and most important talent or capacity that any of the spirit children of the Father could gain is the talent of spirituality. Most of those who gained this talent were chosen, before they were born, to come to earth as members of the house of Israel. They were foreordained to receive the blessings that the Lord promised to Abraham and to his seed in all their generations. This foreordination is an election, Paul tells us, and truly it is so, for those so chosen, selected, or elected become, in this life, the favored people. Though all mankind may be saved by obedience, some find it easier to believe and obey than others. Hence the concept, taught by Jesus, that his sheep know his voice and will not follow the dissident voices of the world. (A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, p. 512.)
Thus we see that the “chosen people” were not elected because they were better than others, but chosen in light of the responsibility God placed upon their shoulders to bless the lives of those outside of the covenant. Their responsibility is to stand as witnesses before the world and proclaim truth. As part of the seed of Abraham, we must WE must stand out as a “peculiar people” before our peers. We think of this word as meaning “odd or strange.” But the way it is used here is from the Latin peculiaris meaning private property. It is also related to the word pecuniary meaning something having to do with money. In Hebrew this word segulah (pronounced “she-goo-LAH”) means “treasured possession,” “prized and sedulously preserved,” also “separate, select, guarded, endeared, shut up, protected.” It means Israel is purchased like an expensive treasure. We do not learn how Israel is purchased until much later in the scripture canon.
2 Samuel 7:12-17 records the promise of Davidic succession on the throne which would culminate in the coming of the Savior. We learn that it is through the blood of this precious Savior that we are purchased as this treasure.We could spend hours talking about what these covenants mean, but, alas, this must suffice for now.
As we remember the “covenants of God,” our spirits are stirred. Why doesn’t Satan want us in this book? Because we will remember to keep our covenants. If we can get our students to understand why they have made covenants, they will endeavor to keep them.
Finally, Mormon lists the third reason for the coming forth of the Book of Mormon:
3) To convince both the Jew and the Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.”
Alma 26:36-37 records Ammon’s homecoming report, where he rejoices that God “has been mindful of this people, . . . wanderers in a strange land.” And what is more, “God is mindful of every people, whatsoever land they may be in.” His bowels of mercy are over all the earth.” (This doesn’t sound so great to our 21st century ears, but in the ancient world, “bowels” were the seat of the deepest compassion.)
When I teach this concept to Institute students, I show them my set of Russian nesting dolls. They range in size from big to small. If the doll were large enough, the whole human race could be brought forth.
Mosiah 27:30 The Redeemer “remembereth every creature of his creating.” This is a major thesis statement of the Book of Mormon. He is concerned with EVERY PERSON. Even a LITTLE person. 2 Ne. 26:12-13 The purpose of the Book of Mormon is that Jesus is the Christ, MANIFESTING himself to every people.
When I was in the third grade at East Millcreek Elementary School, I gained my testimony of this truth. In the spring we had “Field Day,” right before school got out for the summer. This was a special occasion because the girls got to wear pants to school. Every other day of the year, girls had to wear dresses to school. I remember that my mother took me to Grand Central and bought me a new “Field Day” outfit. It had turquoise blue shorts and a sleeveless blue plaid top with silver threads woven into the plaid. It was the coolest! I was a tall, skinny kid with little or no athletic ability. When we would choose sides in class before P. E., I would inevitably be chosen last.
In my new blue outfit, I readied myself for the ordeal of choosing sides for the kick soccer team. (For those of you who do not know what this game is, I will try to describe it. The rules are similar to baseball, but instead of a bat and a pitched baseball, the “pitcher” would roll a soccer ball on the ground to the player who was up at “bat.” and he or she would kick it and round the bases.) As I had anticipated, I was again the last to be chosen. It was humiliating, but alas, I was getting used to it. I was assigned to left field, the safest place for one so unqualified, and the game began.
As I sat in left field, I thought about how cool it would be if I got lucky, caught a fly ball, made the winning out, and was a hero for once. In Sunday School, we had been learning about prayer, and that if you prayed and had enough faith, God would give you the answer to your prayer. Right at that moment, I was so sick of the mortification that accompanied every team activity in elementary school that I could scream. I drew an “X” on the ground with my sneaker and silently prayed this prayer: “If I stand on this “X” with my arms out, will you please let me catch a fly ball?” It was the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs. Our team was one run ahead, and the other team was up and had the bases loaded. Their best kicker was up. I stood on the “X” and closed my eyes, dutifully holding out my arms. Well, you can probably guess the end of the story. I wouldn’t be telling the story if it didn’t happen just as I had prayed. The kick was high to left field, and I caught it! I was so excited. Everyone was in shock. That day I learned that my Heavenly Father really cared about me, a gangly, skinny girl with braids. That he remembers “every creature of his creating” (Mosiah 27:30). I pray that each of my children will have experiences that let them know that God is mindful of them.
The Book of Mormon “outlines the plan of salvation.”
The well-known and loved verse, Moses 1:39, states that God’s “work and glory” is to help His children become exalted, and enjoy eternal life, which is the life He enjoys. In fact, this is the purpose of creation, “Man is, that he might have [this] joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). I used to teach the Merrie Miss class, and our song was I Can Follow God’s Plan For Me. The Atonement of Jesus Christ makes this plan possible, and every doctrine, ordinance, covenant, and commandment that God has given is meant to help accomplish the plan. The “Come Follow Me” lesson for this week includes a valuable activity to help discover more about the Father’s plan. It invites us to read the following passages, and list the different names given to God’s plan: 2 Nephi 9:13; 11:5; and Alma 12:32–34; 24:14; 41:2; 42:15–16. Anything students can discover on their own is far superior to anything a teacher can teach – and it will be remembered far longer.
Witnesses are vital in God’s plan for the salvation of His children. The scriptures state that “in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established” (2 Cor. 13:1; D&C 6:28; see also Deut. 19:15). The Lord has made sure that there are witnesses of the Book of Mormon itself.
While Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon, the Lord revealed that, in addition to the Prophet’s testimony, the world would have “the testimony of three of my servants, whom I shall call and ordain, unto whom I will show these things” (D&C 5:11; see also Ether 5:2–4; 2 Ne. 27:12–13). “They shall know of a surety that these things are true,” the Lord declared, “for from heaven will I declare it unto them” (D&C 5:12).
The three men chosen as witnesses of the Book of Mormon were Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris. These witnesses solemnly testify that they “have seen the plates which contain this record” and “the engravings which are upon the plates.” They witness that these writings “have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us.” They testify, “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.”
Further, “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” (“The Testimony of Three Witnesses,” Book of Mormon).
President Dallin H. Oaks delivered a masterful discourse on the Book of Mormon witnesses.
People who deny the possibility of supernatural beings may reject this remarkable testimony, but people who are open to believe in miraculous experiences should find it compelling. The solemn written testimony of three witnesses to what they saw and heard—two of them simultaneously and the third almost immediately thereafter—is entitled to great weight. Indeed, we know that upon the testimony of one witness great miracles have been claimed and accepted by many religious people, and in the secular world the testimony of one witness has been deemed sufficient for weighty penalties and judgments.
Persons experienced in evaluating testimony commonly consider a witness’s opportunity to observe an event and the possibility of his bias on the subject. Where different witnesses give identical testimony about the same event, skeptics look for evidence of collusion among them or for other witnesses who could contradict them.
Measured against all of these possible objections, the testimony of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon stands forth in great strength. Each of the three had ample reason and opportunity to renounce his testimony if it had been false, or to equivocate on details if any had been inaccurate. As is well known, because of disagreements or jealousies involving other leaders of the Church, each one of these three witnesses was excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by about eight years after the publication of their testimony. All three went their separate ways, with no common interest to support a collusive effort. Yet to the end of their lives—periods ranging from 12 to 50 years after their excommunications—not one of these witnesses deviated from his published testimony or said anything that cast any shadow on its truthfulness.
Furthermore, their testimony stands uncontradicted by any other witnesses. Reject it one may, but how does one explain three men of good character uniting and persisting in this published testimony to the end of their lives in the face of great ridicule and other personal disadvantage? Like the Book of Mormon itself, there is no better explanation than is given in the testimony itself, the solemn statement of good and honest men who told what they saw. (April 1999 General Conference, “The Witness: Martin Harris”)
President Oaks shared his connection with the witness Martin Harris in this same discourse:
In 1832 Martin Harris’s older brother, Emer, who is my great-great-grandfather, was called on a mission from Ohio (see D&C 75:30). Emer spent a year preaching the gospel near his former home in northeastern Pennsylvania. During most of this time Emer’s companion was his brother Martin, whose zeal in preaching even caused him to be jailed for a few days. The Harris brothers baptized about 100 persons. Among those baptized was a family named Oaks, which included my great-great-grandfather. Thus, my middle name and my last name come from the grandfathers who met in that missionary encounter in Susquehanna County in 1832–33.
I read the book Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses by Richard Lloyd Anderson in preparation for writing this article. He has meticulously gathered information from primary sources in his research. Daniel C. Peterson has also written an article called Tangible Restoration: The Witnesses and What They Experienced which was presented at the 2006 FAIR Conference. The complete transcript can be read at https://www.fairmormon.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/2006-Daniel-Peterson.pdf and the video viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V38jsyMnyIs . These sources are rich with detail for those that wish to immerse themselves in the subject, but might be TMI (too much information) for some. I will try to share a few of my favorite gems.
From Daniel Peterson:
A representative statement is that given by David Whitmer during an 1878 interview with Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith:
It was in June, 1829, the latter part of the month . . . Martin Harris was not with us at this time; he obtained a view of [the plates] afterwards (the same day). Joseph, Oliver, and myself were together when I saw them. We not only saw the plates of the Book of Mormon, but also the brass plates [a set of records mentioned early in the Book of Mormon has having been carried by Lehi from Jerusalem to the New World], the plates of the book of Ether, the plates containing the record of the wickedness and secret combinations of the people of the world down to the time of their being engraved, and many other plates. The fact is, it was just as though Joseph, Oliver and I were sitting just here on a log, when we were overshadowed by a light. It was not like the light of the sun nor like that of a fire, but more glorious and beautiful. It extended away round us, I cannot tell how far, but in the midst of this light about as far off as he sits (pointing to John C. Whitmer, sitting a few feet from him), there appeared, as it were, a table with many records or plates upon it, besides the plates of the Book of Mormon, also the sword of Laban, the directors [i.e. the ball with spindles which Lehi had, and the interpreters].
Lucy Mack Smith, who had seen the chosen witnesses leave for their encounter with the angel and the plates, recalled, many years later, the scene that ensued at their return:
When they returned to the house, it was between three and four o’clock P. M. Mrs. Whitmer, Mr. Smith, and myself, were sitting in a bedroom at the time. On coming in, Joseph threw himself down beside me, and exclaimed, “Father, mother, you do not know how happy I am: the Lord has now caused the plates to be shown to three more besides myself. They have seen an angel, who has testified to them, and they will have to bear witness to the truth of what I have said, for now they know for themselves, that I do not go about to deceive the people, and I feel as if I was relieved of a burden which was almost too heavy for me to bear, and it rejoices my soul, that I am not any longer to be entirely alone in the world.” Upon this, Martin Harris came in: he seemed almost overcome with joy, and testified boldly to what he had both seen and heard. And so did David and Oliver, adding, that no tongue could express the joy of their hearts, and the greatness of the things which they had both seen and heard.
Ultimately, each of the Three Witnesses—Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer—signed his name to a statement that has appeared in every edition of the Book of Mormon from the beginning.
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, than 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.
According to David Whitmer, the quite distinct experience of the Eight Witnesses to the Book of Mormon occurred one or two days after the experience of the Three.
Soon thereafter, all of the Eight signed their names to a statement that has accompanied the testimony of the Three in every printed version of the Book of Mormon.
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.
Daniel Peterson suggests that “it is worth examining the contrasting character of the experiences reported by the Three Witnesses and the Eight, since, I believe, their very difference reinforces them. First of all, the experience of the Three, as they report it, was suffused with the glory and power of God. In a brilliant light, an angel came down and showed them the plates. They heard the voice of God testifying that the translation had been accomplished “by the gift and power of God.” Their written testimony is characterized by a marked religious or spiritual tone. It might be termed a supernatural or miraculous testimony.”
By contrast, the experience of the Eight involves no glory, nothing miraculous. It is as mundane as anything can be. No angel shows the plates to them; Joseph Smith does. There is no miraculous light. Unlike the Three, who seem simply to have observed the plates in the hands of the angel, the Eight handled the plates and turned their pages. They “hefted” them. The language of their official account is cool and even formal or legalistic to the point of emotional distance (“the said Smith”). God figures in their testimony only as witness to their concluding oath. His voice does not testify to the correctness of the translation. The Eight Witnesses are manifestly in full possession of their senses and mental faculties. Theirs might be labeled an ordinary or natural testimony.
Why the differences? In order, I think, for the task of skeptics to be rendered more difficult. One might be tempted to dismiss the testimony of the Three, with its spectacular divine accompaniments, as hallucinatory (however untenable that dismissal would be) or mere superstition. By contrast, there is absolutely nothing in the testimony of the Eight that points to superstition or hallucination. It is the most matter-of-fact kind of experience—nine men in the woods in the early afternoon—except for the object at the center of it.
The following is one of my favorite quotes by Daniel Peterson regarding those who try to discredit these witnesses:
I’ve commented elsewhere on how bizarre it is to me that the witnesses, a group of early nineteenth-century farmers who spent their lives rising at sunrise, pulling up stumps, clearing rocks, plowing fields, sowing seeds, carefully nurturing crops, raising livestock, milking cows, digging wells, building cabins, raising barns, harvesting their own food, bartering (in an often cashless economy) for what they could not produce themselves, wearing clothes made from plant fibers and skins, anxiously watching the seasons, and walking or riding animals out under the weather until they retired to their beds shortly after sunset in “a world lit only by fire,” are being portrayed as estranged from everyday empirical reality by people whose lives, like mine, consist to a large extent of staring at computer and television screens in artificially air-conditioned and artificially lit homes and offices, clothed in synthetic fibers, commuting between the two in enclosed and air-conditioned mechanical vehicles while they listen to the radio, chat on their cell phones, and fiddle with their iPods—all of whose inner workings are largely mysterious to them—who buy their prepackaged food (with little or no regard for the time or the season) by means of plastic cards and electronic financial transfers from artificially illuminated and air-conditioned supermarkets enmeshed in international distribution networks of which they know virtually nothing, the rhythms of whose daily lives are largely unaffected by the rising and setting of the sun.
Although all three of these witnesses left the Church for lengthy periods of time, they never denied their testimonies as witnesses of the Book of Mormon.
In 1848, the year before he died, Oliver Cowdery received rebaptism into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at Kanesville, Iowa. Before an audience of approximately two thousand, including non-members of the Church, Cowdery bore witness of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, the restoration of the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods, and the divine calling of Joseph Smith. “I beheld with my eye and handled with my hands the gold plates from which it was translated. I also beheld the Interpreters. That book is true.” (Journal of Reuben Miller, 1848, or Millennial Star, Aug. 20, 1859, 544.)
Richard Anderson comments: “Nothing short of biblical Christianity furnishes such a concrete statement of supernatural reality. One cannot dismiss the experience easily, for each man so testifying impressed his community with his capacity and unwavering honesty, and all three consistently reaffirmed the experience in hundreds of interviews throughout their lives. Oliver Cowdery was generally recognized by Mormon and non-Mormon alike as an astute and highly intelligent individual, and his mature life was spent in the practical vocation . . . of law and politics. The fact that he considered the above experience the most impressive and solemn event of his life must weigh heavily in favor of objective reality of the vision. Above all, he had the emotional and intellectual capacity to know whether he was deceived. If this vision was real to him, there is a burden upon every informed person to face the great probability that the Latter-day Saints have indeed received modern revelation. . . Of greatest weight is the unvarying reiteration of this testimony throughout a lifetime. He told the same simple story of the vision, whether under privatization, persecution, resentment against the translator of the book of Mormon, ridicule by non-Mormons, or knowledge of imminent death. Beyond all doubt, he was repeating his inmost convictions as he testified of the truth of the book of Mormon.” (pages 53-54)
Cowdery was bedridden for most of 1849, probably as a result of chronic pulmonary tuberculosis, and died at Richmond, Missouri, on 3 March 1850. A few months before his death, Cowdery was visited by Jacob Gates, a Latter-day Saint traveling eastward on a mission to England who had been a friend since before Cowdery’s 1838 excommunication. In the course of conversation, Gates asked him about his experience as one of the Witnesses to the Book of Mormon. Had it been a dream? Was it imagination, or illusion, or mere mythology? Cowdery rose from the place where he was resting, retrieved a first edition copy of the Book of Mormon, and read aloud the Testimony of the Three Witnesses. Then, turning to face Gates, he said, Jacob, I want you to remember what I say to you. I am a dying man, and what would it profit me to tell you a lie? I know . . . that this Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God. My eyes saw, my ears heard, and my understanding was touched, and I know that whereof I testified is true. It was no dream, no vain imagination of the mind—it was real. (Improvement Era 15. 5 (March 1912)
Richard Anderson notes: “Joseph Smith took the initiative to invite Oliver Cowdrey to return to the Church in 1843, an invitation likely based on Joseph Smith’s estimate that Oliver was then in the frame of mind to accept it. Oliver waited another four years for some form of public apology and vindication, but then swallowed his pride by traveling to Kanesville with Phineas Young and asking for baptism.” (page 60)
David Whitmer lived until 1888, the last of the Witnesses to the Book of Mormon. Consequently, he was the most interviewed of all of them. Richard Lloyd Anderson rightly observes,
Each witness of the Book of Mormon was an individualist. In David Whitmer, this quality verged on the stubborn. Whether in Mormon society or not, he stood like a rock for his principles. This outspoken and utterly honest personality would have been the first to detect fraud and expose it. (page 67)
Whitmer was excommunicated from the Church on 13 April 1838 after a period of doctrinal disagreement, financial stress, persecution, and upheaval. Yet when, in 1886, the Omaha Herald asked him whether he “still believed that Joseph Smith was a divinely inspired prophet,” David Whitmer replied, “I know he was, it is not a matter of belief.”
In a letter to Anthony Metcalf dated 2 April 1887, Whitmer again insisted on the literal reality of what he had seen:
“Of course we were in the spirit when we had the view, for no man can behold the face of an angel, except in a spiritual view, but we were in the body also, and everything was as natural to us, as it is at any time.” To Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith, nearly a decade earlier, he testified:
I saw [the plates, the Sword of Laban, the Urim and Thummim, and other artifacts] just as plain as I see this bed (striking his hand upon the bed beside him), and I heard the voice of the Lord, as distinctly as I ever heard anything in my life, declaring that the records of the plates of the Book of Mormon were translated by the gift and power of God.”
“I saw them as plain as I see you now,” he told a reporter from the Kansas City Journal in 1881. He frequently emphasized that the angel and the table on which the plates and other objects rested was very close to him and the other Witnesses, within about three to six feet. “Mr. Whitmer describes every detail of the ‘vision’ with great precision,” reported the Omaha Herald in 1886, “and much fervency.”
Richard Anderson characterizes this skeptical witness in this way, “Martin Harris was not surpassed in doubt by Thomas nor in absolute assurance by any apostle. His testimony of the Book of Mormon was ridiculed by unbelievers as superstition, for he did not reach such certainty easily, for no witness required more evidence for his faith.” (page 107)
True to his reputation as a careful, prudent man, Martin Harris initially approached the claims of Joseph Smith with hope but also with cautious skepticism. It was Harris who took a transcript of characters from the plates to New York City, for the evaluation of Professor Charles Anthon of Columbia University, and others. And, while he was serving as Joseph’s first scribe for the translation, he once surreptitiously substituted a similar-looking stone for the seer stone that the Prophet was using, in order to see if it made any difference. (It did.)
Richard Anderson continues:
But after believing for two years, this is modern Thomas came to certainty through the vision. Harris’s prior history shows why Joseph Smith singled him out on the morning of this vision as in special need to “humble yourself” and why his struggle for faith before the vision was more severe than that his younger associates. Upon failure of repeated prayers of Joseph Smith and the witnesses, Martin acknowledged that his attitude was probably the cause of their failure to obtain the promised revelation, and he withdrew. After the angel appeared and showed the plates to the remaining group, the Prophet found Martin Harris, and after joint prayer both were overwhelmed with the same vision. Joseph Smith remembered Martin’s cry of conviction: “’Tis enough; mine eyes have beheld!” (pages 108-109)
In a notarized statement dated 29 October 1921, George Godfrey, who prepared Martin Harris’s grave in Clarkston, Utah, summarized his lengthy acquaintance with the Witness. Then he offered this interesting statement:
Prior to his death and in his last sickness I sat up nights with him upon many an occasion, in connection with my Brothers, John E. Godfrey and Thomas Godfrey, both of whom now reside at Clarkston, aforesaid, and who can make affidavit to the things I am herein stating: that many times I have heard the said Martin Harris bear witness to the truthfulness and genuineness of the Book of Mormon, at times when he was enjoying good health and spirits and when he was on his deathbed; that his testimony never varied; that I have seen others and that I myself have tried to entrap him relative to the testimony which he bore, by cros [sic] questioning him relative to the scenes and events which are Church History in connection with the bringing forth of the Book of Mormon; that upon all of these questions his mind was clear as it is possible for the human mind to be, and that his testimonies have left no tract [sic] in my mind that he actually converse with an angel who bore testimony to him of the truthfulness of the records contained in the Book of Mormon; that he saw and handled the gold plates from which the said records were taken; that a few hours before his death, and when he was so weak and enfeebled that he was unable to recognize me or anyone, and knew not to whom he was speaking, I asked him if he did not feel that there was an element, at least, of fraudulence and deception in the things that were written and told of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and he replied as he had always done, and many, many times in my hearing, and with the same spirit that he always manifested when enjoying health and vigor: “The Book of Mormon is no fake. I know what I know. I have seen what I have seen, and I have heard what I have heard. I have seen and handled the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon is written. An angel appeared to me and others and testified to the truthfulness of the record, and had I been willing to have perjured myself and sworn falsely to the testimony I now bear, I could have been a rich man, but I could not have testified other than I have done and am now doing, for these things are true.”
Richard Anderson poses a question (the elephant in the room question): “If these men had seen the angel and the plates, how could they permit themselves to leave the Church? The fundamental answer is that those who had received such special favor had special problems with egotism. Because they had seen for themselves with regard to the Book of Mormon, the time came when the majority of the witnesses considered their judgment equal to Joseph Smith on all other matters. If specific details are different in the excommunications of Oliver Cowdery and his two brothers-in-law, David and John Whitmer, there is a common theme of a clash of wills in which these witnesses failed to acknowledge Joseph Smith in his appointed role as their leader. Yet at the peak of their personal rebellion against the Prophet, each witness insisted on the strict truth of his signed testimony.” (page 56)
As Richard Anderson points out, ten of the forty-two surviving testimonies from the Eight Witnesses mention handling the plates. Lucy Mack Smith, who knew the Witnesses well and was there that day, says that they “looked upon the plates and handled them.” (pages 123-124)
Hyrum himself wrote, in December 1839, of his sufferings in Missouri, where he had been arrested in the fall of 1838 and then imprisoned in the ironically named Liberty Jail from the beginning of December to the beginning of April: “I had been abused and thrust into a dungeon, and confined for months on account of my faith, and the “testimony of Jesus Christ.” However I thank God that I felt a determination to die rather than deny the things which my eyes had seen, which my hands had handled, and which I had borne testimony to, wherever my lot had been cast. And I can assure my beloved brethren that I was enabled to bear as strong a testimony, when nothing but death presented itself, as ever I did in my life.” (“A History, of the Persecution, of the Church of Jesus Christ, of Latter-day Saints in Missouri,” Times and Seasons, Dec. 1839, p. 23.)
“The essence of the Smiths’ witness to the book of Mormon plate is deeds not words,” observes Richard Anderson. “The constancy of faithful sacrifice places a force upon their testimonies that no amount of eloquence may produce. The supernatural power of the angel’s visit to the Three Witnesses finds its physical foundation in the fact that eight ordinary men insisted all of their lives that they had carefully examined and handled to ancient plates of the Book of Mormon. That practical reality is emphasized by the lives of this Smiths who handled the plates. Worn out by middle-aged privatization for the cause of the restoration, Joseph Smith, Sr. died from lung and stomach disorders a year after the Mormon expulsion from Missouri. The strain of a dangerous horseback ride in an attempt of Samuel to reach his brothers before their murder, and the shock of their deaths, brought fatal sickness to this last surviving witness of the Smiths, who died a month later. With his beloved Prophet-brother, Hyrum earlier faced the guns of a murderous mob in his last moments.” (page 147)
The Challenge of the Witnesses is Our Challenge
These eleven men carried their God-given obligation to bear testimony to the world throughout their lives. Richard Anderson said, “The greatest people have been burdened by their inner light.” (page 184) The challenge of the witnesses was to determine whether they would have the integrity to stand by their God-given witness, or to succumb to the pressures of the world – danger to their reputations, or “the soft whisperings of self interest.” One may easily miss the real point. Anderson asserts, “Their commission was to speak firsthand of the Book of Mormon. If they did that convincingly while dissenting from other Mormon doctrines, their witness is really more, not less impressive.” (p. 184) He continued:
“What is at stake in the testimony of the book of Mormon witnesses? A greater conception of the purposes of God, whose revelations reach beyond one area in the world and are not limited to antiquity. A Savior whose power extended to those seeking righteousness before he came upon earth, whose work today reaches out to every human soul, living or dead, ancient or modern.” (page 189)
I can be a witness of the Book of Mormon.
We, too, have made covenants with God to stand as his witnesses “at all times and in all things, and in all places that you may be in.” (Mosiah 18:9)The Holy Ghost can testify to you that the Book of Mormon is true, even if you haven’t seen the golden plates as the Three Witnesses and Eight Witnesses did.
How do the testimonies of the special witnesses strengthen yours? How can you “give [your name] unto the world, to witness unto the world” what you know about the Book of Mormon? The world badly needs the Book of Mormon and its compelling testimony of Jesus Christ. The people in your circle of influence need to know that you know of its truthfulness.
I love this powerful statement by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:
To consider that everything of saving significance in the Church stands or falls on the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and, by implication the Prophet Joseph Smith’s account of how it came forth is as sobering as it is true. It is a ‘sudden death’ proposition. Either the Book of Mormon is what the Prophet Joseph said it is, or this Church and its founder are false, a deception from the first instance onward.
Not everything in life is so black and white, but the authenticity of the Book of Mormon and its keystone role in our religion seem to be exactly that. Either Joseph Smith was the prophet he said he was, a prophet who, after seeing the Father and the Son, later beheld the angel Moroni, repeatedly heard counsel from Moroni’s lips, and eventually receiving at his hands a set of ancient gold plates which he then translated by the gift and power of God—or else he did not. And if he did not, he would not be entitled to the reputation of New England folk hero, or well-meaning young man or writer of remarkable fiction. No, nor would he be entitled to be considered a great teacher, a quintessential American religious leader, or the creator of a great devotional literature. If he had lied about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, he would certainly be none of these.
I am suggesting that one has to take something of a do-or-die stand regarding the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the divine origins of the Book of Mormon. Reason and righteousness require it. Joseph Smith must be accepted either as a prophet of God or else as a charlatan of the first order, but no one should tolerate any ludicrous, even laughable middle ground about the wonderful contours of a young boy’s imagination or his remarkable facility for turning a literary phrase. That is an unacceptable position to take – morally, literally, historically, or theologically. (Christ and the New Covenant , pages 345-46.)
President Russell M. Nelson said to new mission presidents: The Book of Mormon is the instrument by which the promised gathering of Israel will be accomplished—it was written for our day . . . It is the tangible and irrefutable evidence that Joseph Smith is the prophet of this last dispensation—the dispensation when the world is to be prepared for the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Church News, July 1, 2018)
As I read the Book of Mormon every day, I continue to be overwhelmed by its power to edify me. I have no doubts of its ancient origins as I see so many Hebrew-influenced phrases within its pages. I am amazed by the magnificence of the theology it proclaims. I stand as a witness that the Book of Mormon is true, and that it was brought forth in these last days to give hope and happiness to mankind.