Shortly after a few of us had decided to create a group of films regarding the witnesses of the Book of Mormon, I sought out four of the grand figures in the modern study of Latter-day Saint history, all of them friends of mine. I was hoping for their endorsement of, at least, the importance of the topic that we were planning to address. We needed, among other things, to raise funds to pull the thing off. Potential donors needed to know for sure that the subject is vitally significant. To my pleasure, all four willingly responded.
Now that our project is beginning to bear fruit (after some periods during which, I’ll frankly admit now, I had begun to doubt whether it ever would), I think it worthwhile to revisit the statements provided to me by those historians.
One of them was Richard Lloyd Anderson (1926-2018), who remains by light years the most important single researcher on the witnesses. In gratitude to Professor Anderson, our dramatic film “Witnesses”—the first of our films, which is available in theaters nationally—is dedicated to his role as “a witness to the Witnesses.”
A painstakingly meticulous scholar, Richard Anderson earned a doctorate in ancient history from the University of California at Berkeley after having first completed a juris doctorate from Harvard Law School. Thereafter, he devoted much of his life to pathbreaking work on the lives and characters of the eleven official witnesses to the Book of Mormon—including, but not limited to, what he summarized in his classic, indeed indispensable, book “Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses.”
By the time I approached him for a statement, Dr. Anderson had been retired for many years as an emeritus professor in the Department of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University. But he was still actively engaged in research and writing and, in fact, would remain so until just days before his death. Responding to my request, he kindly provided the following brief statement:
“Thousands of authorized copies of the Book of Mormon have reprinted the signed experience of the eleven Book of Mormon witnesses, three who described that an angel held and turned the individual plates of an ancient New World Bible and eight who narrated how they were given an ordinary experience of “hefting” the record and examining the carefully crafted characters on it. About 200 reported interviews with these eleven are collected, which report the constant affirmation of these witnesses of seeing and lifting this historic, prophetic record, with its independent account of Christ visiting America.”
(It’s appropriate here to note that, since Professor Anderson’s passing in 2018, Susan Easton Black and Larry C. Porter have made a further important contribution to the literature on the witnesses with their biography “Martin Harris: Uncompromising Witness of the Book of Mormon.”)
Another who kindly complied with my request was Thomas G. Alexander, who is Lemuel Hardison Redd, Jr., Professor Emeritus of Western History at Brigham Young University and a former president of the Mormon History Association. Also the holder of a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley, Professor Alexander has had a distinguished career both within and without the Latter-day Saint academic community. He has, for example, served as president of the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters; president of the Association of Utah Historians; chair of the Utah State Board of History; president of the Sons of Utah Pioneers; and president of the Pacific Branch of the American Historical Association. This is what Professor Alexander wrote for me:
“Imagine the publication and distribution of the Book of Mormon without the testimony of the witnesses. If there were none, Joseph Smith would have had to rely on his own word that he translated the plates. Many, perhaps most, people would probably have rejected the word of an uneducated farm boy. Joseph had enough difficulty, even with the witnesses, convincing others of the truthfulness of his story. Other people including the eight witnesses saw the plates, but only the three witnesses saw them in the possession of the heavenly messenger who delivered them to Joseph. The Lord asked them to testify to the truthfulness of Joseph’s ministry, which they did. Most important, during their lifetimes all three witnesses left the church. Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris returned to the fold, but David Whitmer remained in Richmond, Missouri, estranged from Mormonism throughout the remainder of his life. Nevertheless, in spite of rumors to the contrary, all three continued to insist on the truth of their witness.”
James B. Allen, holder of a Ph.D. in history from the University of Southern California, and another scholar who is both Lemuel Hardison Redd Jr. Professor Emeritus of Western History at Brigham Young University and a past president of the Mormon History Association, also generously furnished a statement. A former Assistant Church Historian of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he provided the following:
“The testimonies of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon make Joseph Smith’s account much harder to dismiss than it would otherwise be. Plainly, since others announced that they, too, had seen and “hefted” and heard, this means that, whatever else it was, Joseph’s account must reflect more than merely private imagination or simple personal dishonesty. If the witnesses are judged to be reliable men of good character, their declarations pose a serious challenge to anyone who considers the claims of the Restoration.”
The fourth of the scholars whom I invited to contribute a statement was Richard L. Bushman, another past president of the Mormon History Association. Having earned a doctorate in American history from Harvard University, he has spent most of his distinguished career on the American east coast, most prominently, perhaps, at Columbia University in New York City, from which he now holds the rank of Gouverneur Morris Professor of History Emeritus. A winner of the prestigious Bancroft Prize, which is bestowed for work on the history of the Americas, he is also a former Howard W. Hunter Visiting Professor in Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University, in California. In 2012, the University of Virginia established the Richard Lyman Bushman Chair of Mormon Studies in his honor.
“The testimonies of the three witnesses,” he wrote in response to my request, “are the closest we come to rational evidence for Mormon belief. Three men attest to a sensory encounter with the gold plates and a divine being. In an age of skepticism, when all religious belief is under attack, their statement becomes more relevant every day.”
The “Witnesses” film is now completed. For good or ill, it’s finished. It’s already been transmitted to approximately 350 theaters in forty states of the United States of America. (One has to wonder what’s up with the other ten states!) People will have to decide if they want to go to see it, of course, and, if they do, whether they approve of our effort. Whatever the verdict, though, the experiences and the accounts of both the eleven official witnesses to the Book of Mormon and the additional unofficial or informal witnesses of it—along with the statements of the four scholars whom I’ve quoted above—merit serious consideration.
As David Whitmer, one of the Three Witnesses, put it in his 1887 “Address to All Believers in Christ,” which he published very nearly half a century after his separation from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,
“Kind reader, . . . beware how you hastily condemn that book which I know to be the word of God; for his own voice and an angel from heaven declared the truth of it unto me, and to two other witnesses who testified on their deathbed that it was true.”
One additional small but important thing needs, I think, to be made clear about this film project: None of us who have been principally involved in its creation stands to profit from any success that it might have in theaters or elsewhere; we will not earn royalties from it. Any returns that it generates beyond unavoidable expenses will be plowed back into a fund to create similar projects in the future. We hope, simply, that the movie will generate renewed interest in the testimonies of the Book of Mormon witnesses, both the official eleven and the other, unofficial ones. Our fervent ambition is that it will lead to conversations and to further investigation and reflection. That is what has motivated us.
And we hope to influence such conversations and to provide solid material for such investigations. To that end, we are also creating a two-part documentary or docudrama about the witnesses that will extend coverage beyond the Three, who are the focus of the theatrical film, to the Eight and the others. It will also include interviews with scholars, both believers in the Restoration and others. Furthermore, we have launched and are continuing to build a website called “Witnesses of the Book of Mormon” (https://witnessesofthebookofmormon.org/) where we hope to gather an ever-larger collection of resources that will be helpful to both scholars and non-scholars, to anybody who wants to learn more about the subject.
If you are interested in attending a screening of “Witnesses,” please take a look at the “Get Tickets” section on the movie’s website (https://witnessesfilm.com/) and see whether there will now be a screening near you. If you checked earlier and found none, please check again. We’ve added a great many theaters in just the past few days.
In many of these locations, “Witnesses” will be prominently displayed on the theater marquee, advertised by theatrical posters, and included on the regular schedule of the movie house. In others, though, and particularly in areas where the Latter-day Saint audience is relatively small, the film will be available but may best be accessed via arrangements for screenings to private parties—for example, to wards and stakes, elders quorums, Young Men and Young Women organizations, and family groups. (The instructions for setting up such private showings are available on the website. It’s my understanding that the costs for such events are not prohibitive. But we don’t set the prices, so you will have to determine that in each individual case.)
In my judgment, though I may well be biased, “Witnesses” is certainly appropriate for non-member friends and relatives. The film will, I believe, provide missionary opportunities and spark interesting discussions. It is intended to do so.
One more note: In the improbable but (I’ve found) not impossible event that you yourself happen to own a theater, or if someone whom you know owns a theater, please click on the “Own a Theater?” button on the “Witnesses” website. There, you will be in a position to book the film for your own screen.
And, finally, please tell others about “Witnesses”—at least, please do so if you like it. If you see it and, for some mysterious reason, you dislike it, please take a solemn vow of silence on the matter. That will be greatly appreciated.