The Three Witnesses ... all initially describe
their experience with the angel and the plates as subjective and
visionary rather than objective and concrete.
This paper examines the culture, credibility and
relevant testimony of the eleven men the LDS Church presents as
witnesses to the Book of Mormon. It draws extensively from early
sources, both Mormon and non-Mormon, in an attempt to provide an
honest and balanced portrayal of the Witness phenomenon. A careful
analysis of the historical evidence reveals serious problems.
The Three Witnesses, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris
and David Whitmer, all initially describe their experience with
the angel and the plates as subjective and visionary rather than
objective and concrete. Their elaborations on the encounter, their
departure from the LDS Church, as well as other events in their
lives, raise questions about their level of discernment and their
credibility as witnesses.
The testimony of the Eight Witnesses is more objective
but is plagued by its own set of problems. All eight had close personal
ties to Joseph Smith's family four were David Whitmer's brothers,
a fifth was married to a Whitmer sister, and Joseph's father and
two brothers made up the remaining three. These close ties to Joseph
Smith, coupled with discrepancies between the witnesses' published
Book of Mormon statement and later personal statements, as well
as the question of coercion on the part of Joseph Smith, all raise
questions of their credibility as well.
The Witnesses & the Historical Record
For some people, the fact that eleven men would
sign their names to a written statement and never denounce the Book
of Mormon is sufficient evidence for believing the Book of Mormon
is of divine origin. But is the testimony of these eleven men a
solid foundation for faith in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon?
A careful investigation reveals there are a number of historical
details which raise questions about the objectivity and credibility
of these witnesses. To gain an objective perspective on the reliability
of the witnesses and the strength of their testimony, three criteria
will be used to evaluate the historical facts:
- Were they discerning men of sound judgment not
easily swayed by tales of the fantastic or supernatural?
- Were they without conflict of interest, and were
their characters and reputations unquestioned?
- Did their later statements regarding the plates
ever vary, deviate or detract from their original statements?
What Makes a Credible Witness?
In every period of history there are those individuals
who tend to be credulous and suggestible. Such people desire to
be a part of the fantastic or supernatural, and their very desire
leaves them vulnerable to deception or manipulation. Research done
on the period of American history from the late 1700s to early 1800s
shows this time period to be no exception.
Like today, a certain segment of the population
desired and pursued subjective and mystical experiences in a quest
for spiritual significance. Tales of spirit apparitions, buried
treasure and the ability to see things with "spiritual eyes"
that cannot be confirmed with the physical senses, were "reality"
for those who lived through them. Experiences perceived with "second
sight" were taken seriously and held as undeniable fact. But
should testimony of this nature be presented as undeniable empirical
In an article published in the American Quarterly,
Alan Taylor cites many incidents where 18th and 19th century treasure
seekers claimed to have seen spirits and handled treasure that sank
from their grasp. Alan Taylor in his article "The Early Republic's
Supernatural Economy: Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast,
These supernatural encounters were very "real"
to those who experienced them. Childhood exposure to treasure
tales and their careful performance of elaborate ceremonies at
the digging site created a nervous expectation to see the extraordinary.
(Taylor 1986, 14)
Magic circles, incantantions, and a strict code
of silence once the digging commenced were all part of the ceremony.
Any spoken word would break the spell and the whole night's efforts
be lost. Taylor gives several examples including the following:
In 1814 a party of Rochester, New York treasure
seekers barely escaped with their lives when the conducter exclaimed,
'Damn me, I've found it!' With that, a local newspaper recorded,
'the charm was broken! the scream of demons the
chattering of spirits and hissing of serpents rent the
air, and the treasure moved.' (Ibid, p. 12)
While many of the fantastic descriptions are viewed
as folklore and tall tales, Taylor cites evidence that does not
fit a simple explanation of fraud. Treasure seekers often impressed
contemporary audiences with their sincerity and "utter conviction
that their supernatural encounters had been real. Waitsfield, Vermont's
nineteenth-century chronicler wrote of a local treasure seeker,
'The most ridiculous part of this matter, is the fact well attested,
that Mr. Savage believed all this, as long as he lived, and was
never ridiculed out of it.'" (Taylor 1986, p. 13)
In the years immediately preceding any mention of
the gold plates and the Book of Mormon, both Joseph Smith, Jr.,
and his father, Joseph Sr., were money diggers like those described
above. They openly shared their supernatural abilities to see treasure
and other things not visible to the natural eye. William Stafford,
a neighbor and fellow treasure seeker gave the following account:
Joseph, Jr., could see, by placing a stone of
singular appearance in his hat, in such a manner as to exclude
all light; at which time they pretended he could see all things
within and under the earth, that he could see within the
above mentioned caves, large gold bars and silver plates
that he could also discover the spirits in whose charge these
treasures were, clothed in ancient dress."
It is evident the Smith's believed what Joseph saw
in his stone for they made attempts to retrieve this treasure. In
the same affidavit Stafford recalled one time the made a circle
on the ground and put hazel sticks around the circle to keep off
evil spirits. A steel rod was added to the center of the circle,
a trench dug and then "the older Smith consulted his son who
had been 'looking in his stone and watching the motions of the evil
spirit.'" However, they had made a mistake in how they started
the whole operation, otherwise they would have gotten the money.
(Joseph Smith's New York Reputation Reexamined, Rodger I.
Anderson, SLC, Signature Books, 1990, pp. 143-145)
As noted earlier, money digging and treasure seeking
were generally accompanied by anticipation of the supernatural.
Participants were emotionally excited and desired that something
extraordinary would happen. We find this same pattern of anticipatory
desire preceding the experience of the Three Witnesses.
While Joseph Smith was dictating the Book of Mormon
to Oliver Cowdery, he read off a section that declared there would
be three special witnesses who would be allowed to see the plates
and then "bear witness" to the Book of Mormon. Joseph
Smith's History of the Church states,
Almost immediately after we had made this discovery,
it occurred to Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and the aforementioned
Martin Harris (who had come to inquire after our progress in the
work) that they would have me inquire of the Lord to know if they
might not obtain of him the privilege to be these three special
witnesses; and finally they became so very solicitous, and urged
me so much to inquire that at length I complied (History of
the Church, Vol. 1, pp. 52-53).
Joseph then produced a revelation for Oliver, David
and Martin which stated that if they relied upon God's word and
did so with a full purpose of heart they would "have a view
of the plates, and also the breastplate, the sword of Laban, the
Urim & Thummim, ... and the miraculous directors which were
given to Lehi" (Ibid, p. 53). It would only be by their faith
that they would be able to obtain a view of them.
This is very convenient. Joseph dictates the part
of the Book of Mormon that mentions three special witnesses while
all three are there with him. These men beg Joseph to ask God if
maybe they aren't the ones. When he finally gives in, Joseph immediately
gets a revelation that says, if they have faith, rely on God's word
and have full purpose of heart, they will see not only the plates
but numerous other wonderful things.
So they go to the woods and first spend a prolonged
time in prayer. Nothing happens. They pray more. Nothing happens.
Martin Harris volunteers to leave the group because he senses the
others think he was the reason nothing was happening. As soon as
Harris leaves, the others claim to see the angel and plates, though
there is no mention of any of the other items that had been promised.
According to Joseph Smith's history, Joseph then goes to find Harris,
and while praying together, Harris cries out, "Tis enough,
tis enough; mine eyes have beheld; mine eyes have beheld;"
(Ibid, p. 55).
It becomes clear that all three of these men desired
this prestigious position of being the special chosen witnesses.
They were emotionally primed by what Joseph claimed to translate
and then by the revelation Joseph gave that emphasized their need
for faith. The vision only came to Oliver and David after a prolonged
time in prayer and the departure of Martin Harris.
It would appear from this account and Doctrine &
Covenants 17, that the idea of three witnesses to the Book of Mormon
is a new discovery made by Joseph and Oliver in June of 1829 while
producing the Book of Mormon. Yet, three months earlier in March
of 1829, Joseph received a revelation for Martin Harris which stated
that Joseph had the gift to translate the Book of Mormon but that
God would grant him no other gift, and that God would call and ordain
three special witnesses to whom God would give supernatural power
to "behold and view these things as they are."
The revelation went on to say that no one else
but the three would have the power to receive this same testimony.
It is possible that Joseph did not refer back to this March 1829
revelation regarding the witnesses because by June he already had
in mind to add eight additional witnesses besides Cowdery, Whitmer
and Harris. Adding additional witnesses would go against the earlier
revelation that there would be three and only three witnesses and
that Joseph should not show the gold plates to anyone else (D&C
There is another conflict with the story as recorded
by Joseph in his official history. Supposedly all three men saw
the angel and gold plates the same day. But, Harris provided this
information in an interview with Anthony Metcalf:
I never saw the golden plates, only in a visionary
or entranced state. I wrote a great deal of the Book of Mormon
myself, as Joseph Smith translated or spelled the words out in
English. Sometimes the plates would be on a table in the room
in which Smith did the translating, covered over with a cloth.
I was told by Smith that God would strike him dead if he attempted
to look at them, and I believed it. When the time came for the
three witnesses to see the plates, Joseph Smith, myself, David
Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery, went into the woods to pray. When
they had engaged in prayer, they failed at the time to see the
plates or the angel who should have been on hand to exhibit them.
They all believed it was because I was not good enough, or in
other words, not sufficiently sanctified. I withdrew. As soon
as I had gone away, the three others saw the angel and the plates.
In about three days I went into the woods to pray that I might
see the plates. While praying I passed into a state of entrancement,
and in that state I saw the angel and the plates. (Anthony Metcalf,
Ten Years Before the Mast, n.d., microfilm copy, p. 70-71.)
Like Martin Harris, each of the three witnesses
to the Book of Mormon willingly accepted visionary or second sight
experiences as objective, unquestionable reality. The testimony
of these witnesses contain qualifications which indicate there was
a spiritual, visionary dimension to the encounter with the plates
and the angel. It should be understood that this was not unusual
for those who were actively seeking such experiences.
However, this visionary aspect of the experience
is seldom explained to investigators of Mormonism. In Mormon "faith-promoting"
literature, references to the witnesses "handling" the
plates are prominently featured, but they are not put into a context
of a visionary handling of the plates.
Martin Harris himself claimed to have sat with
the plates, and "held them on his knee for an hour and a half,
..." ("Testimony of Martin Harris" in the Latter
Day Saints Millennial Star, 34:21, August 20, 1859, p. 545;
also in George Reynolds, "Myth of the Manuscript Found,"
in Juvenile Instructor, 1883, as cited in Case Against
Mormonism , Vol. 2, p. 40, Jerald and Sandra Tanner, SLC, 1968).
Did he truly sit with plates said to weigh 45-60
pounds on his lap, or did this occur in the realm of vision and
imagination? We may not know for sure, but it is interesting that
when Mormon apologist Richard Anderson quoted this testimony of
Harris from the Millennial Star he chose to omit with an elipsis,
Harris' claim to have held the plates on his lap.
It is possible Anderson himself recognized this
detracted from Harris' credibility. Regardless of how one interprets
this event, There is ample historical evidence the witnesses shared
a subjective, visionary mindset.
Of the Three Witnesses, Martin Harris was probably
the most affected by this mystical and magical outlook. Contemporaries
of Harris had some of the following to say about him:
"a visionary fanatic" - said Rev. Jesse
"Marvelousness" was his "predominating
phrenological development," - Pomeroy Tucker (a man who appeared
to like and respect M. Harris) who also said he was given to a "belief
in dreams, ghosts, hobgoblins, 'special providences,' terrestrial
visits of angels, [and] the interposition of 'devils' to afflict
"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."
- 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):
Another example comes from John H. Gilbert, one
who participated in the printing of the Book of Mormon. He provides
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. Martin was in the office when I finished
setting up the testimony of the three witnesses, (Harris
Cowdery and Whitmer) I said to him, "Martin,
did you see those plates with your naked eyes?" Martin looked
down for an instant, raise his eyes up, and said, 'No, I saw them
with a spiritual eye.' (Wilford C. Wood, Joseph Smith Begins
His Work, Vol. 1, 1958, introduction. This is a photomechanical
reprint of the first edition  of the Book of Mormon. It
also contains biographical and historical information relating
to the Book of Mormon.)
Martin Harris shows signs of being an unstable person
in terms of his religious convictions. G.W. Stodard, in an affadavit
dated Nov. 28, 1833 states:
I have been acquainted with Martin Harris, about
thirty years... Although he possessed wealth, his moral and religious
character was such, as not to entitle him to respect among his
neighbors....He was first an orthadox Quaker, then a Universalist,
next a Restorationer, then a Baptist, next a Presbyterian, and
then a Mormon. By his willingness to become all things unto all
men, he has attained a high standing among his Mormon brethren.
(Howe 1834, 260-261)
This religious instability continued even after
Harris joined the Mormon Church. The Mormons admitted as much in
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.)
The same article goes on to state:
...if the Saints wish to know what the Lord hath
said of him, they may turn to the 178th page of the Book of Doctrine
and Covenants, and the person there called a 'wicked man' is no
other than Martin Harris... (Ibid)
Mormon writers have admitted Harris' instability.
E. Cecil McGavin states, "Martin Harris was an unagressive,
vacillating, easily influenced person," (Tanner 1968, 33) and
Mormon apologist Richard Anderson though questioning "five
religious changes before Mormonism," does make several references
to his "religious instability." (Anderson 1981, 111, 167-ff)
While Mormon missionaries and popular literature
of the LDS Church both point out Martin Harris' eventual return
to the Mormon Church as a baptized member in full fellowship, and
attribute this information as coming from David Whitmer (Videocassette
1 - The Three Witnesses, produced by Brigham Young University,)
there is evidence he was neither mentally stable nor in full fellowship.
Rather, he was said to be "feeble both in body and mind"
and "was persuaded by persistent importuning to join his destinies
with the Utah Mormons."
The report in the Des Moines Daily News
of October 16, 1886 went on to say that "Whitmer entertains
no doubt whatever that this singular action upon the part of Harris
was wholly chargeable to the enfeebled condition of his mind..."
(Tanner 1968, 31)
Phineas H. Young, writing to Brigham Young from
Kirtland, Ohio records, "Martin Harris is a firm believer in
Shakerism, says his testimony is greater than it was of the Book
of Mormon." (Gunnell 1955, 52)
W.C. Gunnell in his dissertation on Martin Harris
also notes regardingM. Harris' eventual rejoining of the church
that "Martin's motives in being baptized at that time are not
known, but the data of later events would indicate a lack of sincerity."
(Gunnell 1955, 52) The previously cited interview conducted by A.
Metcalf further substantiates this, and states,
Harris never believed that the Brighamite branch
of the Mormon church, nor the Josephite church, was right, because
in his opinion, God had rejected them; but he did believe that
Mormonism was the pure gospel of Christ when it was first revealed,
I believe he died in that faith. (Metcalf, 73)
When Metcalf asked Harris why he had rejoined the
church and taken the Mormon Temple endowments he answered that "his
only motive was to see what was going on in there." (Ibid,
Martin Harris as a witness appears to be neither
completely competent nor reliable. He was greatly influenced by
a magical mindset and able to blend the mystical and material to
the point where both were equally real. There is considerable evidence
as to his religious instability, as he jumped from one group or
person to the next. Mormon scripture refers to him as "a wicked
man" and Mormons referred to his "monomania" or "mad
fits," as his wife called them. Mormon historians likewise
have had to admit he was an "vacillating, easily influenced
Much emphasis is placed on the assertion that the
BOM Witnesses like Harris, never denounced the Book of Mormon or
denied their testimony of seeing an angel. But given what we know
of Harris, is his lack of denial of great significance? He does
not appear to be a man of sound judgment or discernment and was
easily swayed by tales of the supernatural, especially in a religious
context. There is no evidence he ever denied his testimony of Shakerism
or his experiences with that group.
His experience with the angel was visionary and
was seen with "a spiritual eye" so it is unverifiable
and quite likely was real to him. He had little reason to renounce
the Book of Mormon for its message was consistent with the restorationist
mindset of many people in the nineteenth century.
As the primary financial investor in the Book of
Mormon he had a vested interest in supporting its authenticity.
These factors would be more likely to lead to continued
affirmation of his testimony rather than a denial of it. Throughout
his life and especially toward the end, his role as a BOM witness
attracted considerable attention as numerous people came to ask
him questions and hear him speak. His testimony later in life appears
to be less visionary and contain few if any qualifications about
its subjective nature.
A deadbed account of Martin Harris in the LDS periodical
The Instructor speaks of his reaffirmation of seeing an angel
with gold plates. After speaking of the gold plates Harris went
on to describe a money digging incident that took place after Joseph
found the plates. Harris is quoted as saying:
Three of us took some tools to go to the hill
and hunt for more boxes of gold or something, and indeed we found
a stone box. We got quite excited about it and dug carefully around
it, and by some unseen power it slipped back into the hill. We
stood there and looked at it and one of us took a crow-bar and
tried to drive it through the lid and hold it, but the bar glanced
off and broke off one of the corners of the box. Sometime that
box will be found and you will see the corner broken off, and
then you will know I have told you the truth. ("The Last
Testimony of Martin Harris," by E. Cecil McGavin in The
Instructor, October, 1930, Vol. 65, No. 10, pp. 587-589)
It is evident Martin Harris was something of a celebrity
toward the close of his life. He seemed to enjoy speaking of the
encounter with an angel, and the more the story was repeated, the
more concrete it became while the subjective aspects of the incident
seemed to diminish.
This does not prove nor disprove the authenticity
of the events recounted by Harris. It does, however, confirm that
with the passage of time these events became more real and more
concrete for Harris so that his later testimony is understood in
light of earlier qualifications.
This evidence creates some serious problems for
the manner in which the LDS church presents the person and life
of Martin Harris. He does not appear to be a man of discernment
or sound judgment and was easily swayed by tales of the fantastic
and supernatural. He had a vested interest in the success of the
Book of Mormon and his reputation was questioned by the Latter-day
Harris added elements to his story of the angel
and his connection with Joseph Smith as he told it through the years,
allowing it to become less visionary and subjective and more concrete.
For example, Martin Harris, claimed in an interview that before
his experience as one of the three witnesses he told Joseph Smith,
"Joseph, I know all about it. The Lord has showed me ten times
more about it than you know." (Interview with Martin Harris
in Tiffany's Monthly, 1859, p. 166). While quite likely a
sincere man, he would appear to be neither reliable nor credible
as a witness.
Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith were third cousins
(Oliver Cowdery: The Elusive Second Elder of the Restoration,
Phillip R. Legg, p. 17), and Cowdery also shared what must be considered
a magical, mystical mindset. D. Michael Quinn in his book, Early
Mormonism & the Magic World View, states, "Cowdery's
use of a divining rod, however, does suggest that before 1829, he
may have also had at least some knowledge of and experience with
astrology and ceremonial folk magic" (p. 35).
Quinn's and other extensive research has turned
up some interesting facts. William Cowdery, Oliver's father was
closely associated with, if not a member of Vermont's Wood Scrape,
and participated in folk magic. Quinn has linked him closely with
Nathanael Wood's "Fraternity of Rodsmen." (Quinn 1987,
Alan Taylor also discovered this connection in his
research on the previously cited "Treasure Seeking In the American
Northeast," and states:
In 1799 a seer named Wingate arrived in Middletown
as a guest of the Woods and of William Cowdry [sic] in adjoining
Wells, Vermont. The Woods began to feature divining rods in their
rituals, insisting that the rods' jerks in answer to their questions
represented divine messages. (Taylor 1986, 24)
Oliver Cowdery followed his father's lead in folk
magic practices with his own occultic use of a divining rod. This
has been documented by RLDS Church Historian Richard P. Howard.
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,
This is further supported by research done by Marvin
S. Hill of the Mormon Church's Brigham Young University who, along
with confirming Cowdery's use of a rod also stated, "Some of
the rodsmen or money diggers who moved in Mormonism were Oliver
Cowdery, Martin Harris, Orrin P. Rockwell, Joseph and Newel Knight,
and Josiah Stowell." (Hill 1972, 78)
Jerald and Sandra Tanner point out an interesting
and important change Joseph Smith made in one of his revelations
as he attempted to cover up Cowdery's ability to work with a divining
rod. Here is a comparison of the original revelation as found in
the Book of Commandments with the altered version as it now appears
in the Doctrine and Covenants.
Book of Commandments
Now this is not all, for you have another gift,
which is the gift of working with the rod: behold it has told
you things: behold there is no other power save God, that can
cause this rod of nature, to work in your hands... (7:3)
Doctrine and Covenants
Now this is not all thy gift, for you have another
gift, which is the gift of Aaron; behold, it has told you many
things; Behold, there is no other power, save the power of God,
that can cause this gift of Aaron to be with you. (8:6-7)
LDS historians have attempted to justify the extensive
involvement of the founders of the Mormon church in occultic and
folk magic practices by claiming this was simply part of the culture
of the time. This may be true to some extent, but laws in both New
York and Vermont made divining illegal and the better educated ridiculed
it in books and newspapers of the day. Furthermore, it does not
change the fact that God has clearly condemned such practices as
well as those who are involved in them (Deuteronomy 8:10-11).
True prophets of God in biblical times, rather than
going along with their cultures (which often were engaging in these
things) stood against the common culture and condemned such activities.
We do not find Joseph Smith taking any such stand against occultic
practices, as would be expected of a true prophet of God.
Cowdery, in conjunction with his magical involvement,
appears to have shared a visionary mindset similar to other Mormons.
Brigham Young, second president of the Mormon church, at a special
conference on Sunday, June 17, 1877 told of an incident from the
life of Oliver Cowdery. On more than one occasion they were able
to enter into the hill Cumorah and see many wonderful things. Young
When Joseph got the plates, the angel instructed
him to carry them back to the hill Cumorah, which he did. Oliver
says that when Joseph and Oliver went there, the hill opened,
and they walked into a cave, in which there was a large and spacious
room... They laid the plates on a table; it was a large table
that stood in the room. Under this table there was a pile of plates
as much as two feet high, and there were altogether in this room
more plates than probably many wagon loads; they were piled up
in the corners and along the walls. The first time they went there
the sword of Laban hung upon the wall; but when they went in again
it had been taken down and laid upon the table across the gold
plates; it was unsheathed and on it was written these words: "This
sword will never be sheathed again until the kingdoms of this
world become the kingdoms of our God and his Christ." I tell
you this as coming not only from Oliver Cowdery, but others who
were familiar with it... Carlos Smith was a young man of as much
veracity as any young man we had, and he was a witness to these
things. Samuel Smith saw some things, Hyrum saw a good many things,
but Joseph was the leader. (Journal of Discourses 1878, 19:38)
This is another example of having second sight,
and was claimed not only by Joseph and Oliver but others of their
friends and neighbors as well. Some of those who did not claim to
have this ability did believe that other people possessed such gifts.
According to Lucy Smith, this was the reason Josiah Stowell hired
Joseph for treasure hunting on his property. He firmly believed
Joseph "could discern things invisible to the natural eye.
(Smith 1958, 92).
For this reason the witnesses could make statements
like those of Oliver and Joseph where, through the power of second
sight, or with the eyes of understanding, they claim to enter a
mountain and handle plates, putting them back on a table. None of
this, however, is subject to objective or empirical scrutiny, so,
statements like Cowdery's oft quoted "I beheld with my eyes
and handled with my hands the gold plates from which it was translated,"
(Millennial Star 1859, 544) should at least be considered
in this context of visionary second sight.
A statement made by Brigham Young furthers this
type of understanding.
Some of the witnesses of the Book of Mormon, who
handled the plates and conversed with the angels of God, were
afterwards left to doubt and to disbelieve that they had ever
seen an angel. One of the Quorum of the Twelve a young
man full of faith and good works, prayed and the vision of his
mind was opened, and the angel of God came and laid the plates
before him, and he saw and handled them, and saw the angel. (Journal
of Discourses 1860, 7:164)
First we have the "vision of his mind opened,"
and then a handling of the plates with the aid of an angel. The
question to ask is, would he, when retelling the story of the angel
and plates, always qualify his statement "I handled the plates"
with the disclaimer that this was in a vision? Not likely, which
would provide us with many of his friends and family that could
testify that Bro. So and so of the Quorum handled the plates.
I believe that in a similar manner, many of the friends and relatives
of the Book of Mormon witnesses could make statements to the effect
that "so and so told me that they handled the plates,"
without mentioning that it was a visionary experience.
This quote by Brigham Young is also significant
for it provides evidence that some of the witnesses had doubts.
Young may or may not be referring to some of those who signed their
name to the Book of Mormon, but this is of secondary importance.
The point is, some who had an experience with an angel and gold
plates later had reason to doubt the veracity of the experience,
and this detracts from the reliability of those who founded their
faith and testimony on the visionary and subjective.
Adding futher confusion to what actually happened
with the Three Witnesses is testimony by Joseph Smith that Oliver
Cowdery actually saw the gold plates in a vision before the Three
Witnesses event. In a history of his own life and work Joseph Smith
...[the] Lord appeared unto a young man by the
name of Oliver Cowdery and shewed unto him the plates in a vision
and also the truth of the work and what the Lord was about to
do through me... (Jessee 1984, 8)
It would appear then that David Whitmer was the
only witness to see the gold plates for the first time on the day
mentioned by the Three Witnesses statement. Oliver Cowdery had already
seen them once before, and Martin Harris, according to his own statements,
did not see them until three days later. Most Mormons do not know
this, and it is quite unlikely to be incorporated into the material
presented by the Mormon missionaries.
Cowdery & Conflict of Interest
The close association of Joseph Smith and Oliver
Cowdery during the production of the Book of Mormon raises the question
of whether or not Cowdery was free of any conflict of interest as
a witness to the Book of Mormon. Did he have anything to gain by
endorsing the supernatural origins of the book? Is there any indication
he was a willing participant in a deliberate deception? Recently
published historical evidence reveals problems with the common LDS
view that the Aaronic Priesthood was given to Oliver and Joseph
by John the Baptist and the Melchizedek Priesthood was conferred
upon Joseph and Oliver by the biblical apostles Peter, James and
John in 1829. Cowdery and Smith both testified repeatedly that they
were together when an angel (later identified as John the Baptist)
appeared to them, as did Peter, James and John at a later date.
Both of these ordinations are mentioned in Doctrine & Covenants
27:6-13. D. Michael Quinn, a researcher and writer on the area of
LDS history, discovered that:
A closer look at contemporary records indicates
that men were first ordained to the higher priesthood [in June
of 1831] over a year after the church's founding [on April 6,
1830]. No mention of angelic ordinations can be found in original
documents until 1834-35. Thereafter accounts of the visit of Peter,
James, and John by Cowdery and Smith remained vague and contradictory.
Mormon Hierarchy - Origins of Power, D. Michael Quinn,
Signature Books, 1994, p. 15.)
Here is a chronology of key events that can be historically
documented: Book of Mormon published in March of 1830; Church of
Christ organized in April 1830; June 1831 conference Joseph Smith
announces there was a "high priesthood."
Up until this time, according to Quinn's research,
apart from Joseph being the "first elder" and Oliver being
the "second elder" there were different priesthood offices
in the church, ie. priest, elder, teacher, but no discernable difference
in status or level of authority (The Mormon Hierarchy, p.
28). The announcement of a "high priesthood" now implied
that all previous authority was of a lower status. At this June
1831 conference Joseph conferred this "high priesthood"
on Lyman Wight. Wight then "ordained" Joseph Smith to
the "high priesthood." At this time there is no indication
Joseph mentioned any kind of angelic source for this new development
in church authority, nor is the new priesthood named either Aaronic
This continued to be the case for the next few years.
Quinn makes the important observation that:
Until Cowdery's 1834 history and retroactive changes
in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, there was nothing in Mormonism
to attract converts who expected a literal restoration of apostolic
authority. Charisma [spiritual sign gifts like healing and prophecy]
and the voice of God [coming through Joseph Smith] were the only
bases of authority that early Mormon converts knew until the publication
of Cowdery's history in 1834 (Mormon Hierarchy, p. 32).
An interesting picture begins to emerge. Historical
data indicates that starting in 1834, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery
together began introducing the idea that they had been given divine
authority by God via an angel. Quinn found that the first public
discussion of an angelic restoration came from Oliver Cowdery in
Cowdery's history of Mormonism, written with the
assistance of Joseph Smith, speaks of an angel from heaven, (but
later identified as John the Baptist), restoring "the Holy
Priesthood." Cowdery claimed that he and Joseph were pondering
who had authority and were waiting for a command to be baptized
when an angel appeared and said,
upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah
I confer this priesthood and this authority, which shall remain
upon earth, that the sons of Levi may yet offer an offering unto
the Lord in righteousness! (Messenger and Advocate, Vol. 1, No.
1, October 1834).
Though no prior mention of such an event can be
found, starting in 1834, both Joseph and Oliver claimed the angel
appeared to them in 1829, and gave them "the holy priesthood."
Mormon people today understand "the holy priesthood" to
refer to the higher or Melchizedek priesthood, and it is very possible
that this was Cowdery's intent in his 1834 history, since Smith,
in 1831, only announced one "high priesthood." This has
generally been linked to what was later called the Melchizedek priesthood.
But when Cowdery first mentions this "holy priesthood"
in October of 1834, he links it to Levi, who, in the Old Testament,
was an Aaronic priest.
Later material provided by Cowdery and Smith changes
both the identity of the messenger and the priesthood that he confers.
For example, Oliver Cowdery originally spoke of an unnamed angel,
but later the angel becomes John the Baptist according to the testimony
of Joseph and Oliver. What is conferred upon them is no longer "the
holy priesthood" associated with Melchizedek, but the Aaronic
priesthood. Quinn notes that Cowdery's history speaks of only one
angelic visit and the conferring of only one priesthood (Mormon
Hierarchy, pp. 15-16).
Prior to the publication of the 1835 Doctrine and
Covenants, Joseph had not claimed to receive any revelations that
mentioned priesthood authority. Yet, when the 1835 D&C was published,
not only was there new material on divine priesthood authority,
some of the earlier revelations published in 1833 had been altered.
A careful comparison of what is now section 27
of the Doctrine & Covenants with how it was originally published
in 1832 in The Evening and the Morning Star and then in the
1833 Book of Commandments (Section XXIII, p. 60), reveals the original
revelation was considerably shorter.
This revelation, as first given by Joseph Smith
in 1830, only had 7 verses prohibiting the purchase of wine or strong
drink from the Saint's enemies. When published in the 1835 D&C,
it unexplainably had 9 additional verses.
These spoke of Moroni, John the son of Zacharias,
the Aaronic priesthood as the "first" priesthood, and
an additional ordination of Joseph and Oliver by Peter James and
John, who gave them "keys of your ministry" and "keys
of the kingdom." Quinn notes, without providing an explanation,
that "the added text cannot be found in any document before
1835, nor can any similar wording or concept be found prior to 1834."
(Ibid, p. 16).
Historical evidence suggests one logical explanation
for these changes. Cowdery and Smith, who were in charge of the
edits to the 1835 D&C, together developed the idea of an angelic
source for their authority sometime after 1833. Cowdery, writing
his history in 1834 with Joseph's assistance, added the story of
the appearance of the angel.
Then, together they added extra material to a revelation
Smith had already given in 1830, to make it look like the appearance
of both John the Baptist and Peter James and John had been known
since 1830 and not 1834 as was truly the case. Their attempts at
altering history and adding a supernatural element did not go unnoticed.
David Whitmer, one of the three Witnesses along
with Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris, broke off his association
with Cowdery, Smith and the church, because they had dared to alter
what was said to be a revelation from God (Address to All Believers
in Christ, pp. 56ff).
There is little attempt to explain where Cowdery
or Smith derived the sudden appearance of Peter, James & John
in D&C section 27, and how they become the source for the both
the high priesthood and the concept of "keys" that today
play such an important part in Mormon theology. There appears to
be nothing in the earlier writing of Smith or Cowdery that associates
keys with these three New Testament apostles. Quinn noted that no
similar wording or concept can be found prior to 1834.
However, correspondence between Oliver Cowdery
and W. W. Phelps, published in the Messenger and Advocate
from October 1834 to July 1835 provides both a link to Cowdery and
Smith and a source for these new theological developments. Cowdery
first writes of an angelic ordination in October of 1834 (Messenger
and Advocate, pp. 15-16).
In the April 1835 Messenger and Advocate Cowdery
writes to Phelps regarding Moses' awareness of blessings for the
Gentiles, drawing Phelps' attention to Moses' prayer in Deuteronomy
32:43 ("Rejoice O ye nations, with his people!", p. 111.)
In the July 1835 issue of Messenger and Advocate,
Phelps responds to Cowdery and suggests and develops the idea of
Moses conferring special keys to Peter James and John on the Mount
of Transfiguration (pp. 145).
In the same letter Phelps also gives a detailed
exposition of the importance of "blessing" and connects
this with the conferring of keys to Peter, James and John. Is it
merely coincidence that later this same year Cowdery and Smith introduce
the ideas of priesthood blessings that bring about the "keys"
of authority through the Melchizedek priesthood?
Cowdery and Smith would later claim they received
these from Peter, James and John. Some of these appear as part of
"unannounced changes and expansions of revelations" in
the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants which was accepted at a special
conference in August of 1835 (Quinn, Mormon Hierarchy, p.
Quinn observed that by late 1835 Cowdery was writing
about two angelic minstrations and also a blessing given him by
Smith which spoke of Smith and Cowdery being ordained "by the
hand of the angel in the bush, unto the lesser priesthood and after
received the holy priesthood under the hands of they who had been
held in reserve for a long season, even those who received it under
the hand of the Messiah" (Ibid, p. 17).
These historical discoveries about the development
of priesthood authority and the altering of previously given revelations
suggest that Cowdery and Smith were working together to introduce
a divine element into the story of Mormon origins. Cowdery's close
collaboration with Smith in these areas raises serious questions
regarding whether or not there truly were any divine angelic visitations,
and also casts doubt on Cowdery's status as an unbiased, reliable
witness to the divine origin of the Book of Mormon.