Thursday, May 21, 2015

True or False: The Three Witnesses

       "None of the the Three Witnesses ever denied their testimony." You've probably heard this over and over in Sunday school or seminary. But is it true? Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer all left the Church at some point and each had ample opportunity to deny their testimony and thereby denounce the Book of Mormon. Did they ever take advantage of that opportunity? If so, what does that mean for faithful latter-day saints? To answer these questions, let's play our favorite fact-checking, myth-busting, Mormon-loving game! It's time for...

Today's Question: Is it true that none of the Three Witnesses ever denied their testimony of seeing the gold plates and the angel Moroni? 

What do you think? 





       This is one historical claim you can hang your hat on. Every one of the Three Witnesses eventually became disillusioned with the Church, but not a single one ever denied his experience seeing the plates and the angel. Some may dismiss this fact by thinking the witnesses never had a good opportunity to renounce their testimonies or that denying their story would have hurt some underlying agenda. Here are just a few stories which prove otherwise:

       Martin Harris had left the Church in 18371 and was traveling in Birmingham, England when he entered a Mormon meeting and demanded to be heard. Since he was a known apostate, he was denied the opportunity to speak. He then went out into the street, where a crowd soon gathered. Someone in the crowd asked him if he believed Joseph Smith was a true prophet and if the Book of Mormon was true. Harris answered: "Do you know that is the sun shining on us? Because as sure as you know that, I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, and that he translated that book by the power of God."2

       Oliver Cowdery was alienated from Joseph Smith and left the Church, after which he took up law. According to an account by George Q. Cannon, Cowdery was in court in Ohio one day when a lawyer on the opposing side tried to throw doubt on Cowdery's reputation. The man said Cowdery's legal testimony couldn't be believed because, after all, this was a person who claimed to have seen angels and gold plates. Oliver, who rarely spoke about his Mormon past, rose to answer his opponent, saying that "whatever his faults and weaknesses might be, the testimony which he had written, and which he had given to the world, was literally true."3

       David Whitmer was excommunicated in 1838 and unlike Cowdery and Harris, he never returned to the Church. He spent the remainder of his days in business and civic life, taking part in city councils and even serving as mayor of Richmond, Missouri.4 Because he was a prominent figure in his community and had renounced the Mormon Church, Whitmer became the most interviewed of the Three Witnesses. Still, he held firm in his testimony of the Book of Mormon. Once, when asked by a local soldier if he might have been hypnotized or deceived while viewing the plates, Whitmer drew himself up to his full height and said adamantly, "No, sir! I was not under any hallucination, nor was I deceived! I saw with these eyes, and I heard with these ears! I know whereof I speak!"5

       There are so many stories like these (more than could ever fit in this post) and each begs the question: what did these men have to gain from maintaining their story? They could have exposed Joseph Smith as a fraud, or at least admitted that they had no supernatural proof of his prophetic calling. Why perpetuate a myth when they had nothing to lose by renouncing it? The answer seems clear: this was no myth at all. Each witness went to his grave reaffirming his testimony and each one insisted there was no hallucination involved. The experience made a lasting impression on them and each was convinced he had witnessed the power of God. Rather than deny or bury their testimony, they insisted their account was factual and let it stand for the world to see. Like Joseph Smith with his first vision, they could not deny what God had revealed to them.

"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 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." —Martin Harris6

*(Note: Several forgeries have been circulated which purport to be the work of one of the Three Witnesses. One of these is attributed to Oliver Cowdery. In it Oliver says he may have been deceived while translating the Book of Mormon and that Jesus later appeared to him telling him to leave the Church. This account was "discovered" in 1906 by a leader of the American Anti-Mormon Association. Scholars have traced the source material used to create this document and it has been proven to be a forgery.)7

1. James, Rhett Stephens. "Harris, Martin." Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Brigham Young University, 1992. Web. 21 May 2015.
2. Anderson, Richard Lloyd. "Martin Harris: Certainty from the Skeptical Witness." Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981. 112-113. Print.
3. Anderson, Richard Lloyd. "Oliver Cowdery: The Scribe as a Witness." Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981. 60. Print.
4. Perkins, Keith W. "Whitmer, David." Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Brigham Young University, 1992. Web. 21 May 2015.
5. Anderson, Richard Lloyd. "David Whitmer: The Most Interviewed Witness." Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981. 87-88. Print.
6. Godfrey, George.  “Testimony of Martin Harris,” from an unpublished manuscript copy in the possession of his daughter, Florence (Godfrey) Munson of Fielding, Utah.
7. "Oliver Cowdery's 1839 Defence in a Rehearsal of My Grounds for Separating Myself from the Latter Day Saints." Web. 21 May 2015.

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