Response to Joseph T. Carrieres criticisms of the Book of Mormon Witnesses
I have put Joseph T. Carrieres' original comments on this subject in small italics:
I have received several e-mail messages asking how one can explain the fact that there were eleven witnesses to the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was supposed to have been translated. These statements are found in the foreword to the Book of Mormon. Three of these witnesses saw an angel presenting the plates to them, while the other eight viewed them in a more conventional manner. Their statements seem quite straightforward and would appear to be strong testimonies for the authenticity of the gold plates
The interesting thing about these witnesses are the variety of experience that they represent. The Three witnesses had an angel show them the record. The eight witnesses were shown the plates by Joseph Smith and there was no heavenly manifestation. Other members of the Smith family had an oportunity to feel the plates although they were covered, but they could lift them and feel of their weight. We have other witnesses, one witness saw the plates and Joseph wasn't even present. When David Whitmer came to get the prophet and his family to bring them to Fayette to finish the translation, he reports that they were met on the road by "An aged man" who "had the plates." (Anderson 1981, 30) Later David reported, "My mother was going to milk the cows, when she was met out near the yard by the same old man (judging by her description of him) who said to her: 'You have been very faithful and diligent in your labors, but you are tried because of the increase of your toil; it is proper therefore that you should receive a witness that your faith may be strengthended.' Thereupon he showed her the plates". . . "She said that they were fastened with rings. . . He turned the leaves over; this was a stisfaction to her." She also added of the plates "that a portion of them were sealed together." (Anderson 1981, 31)
There are others who were also shown the gold plates. John D. Lee reports the following about Luke Johnson.
I went to St. Joseph, Mo. . . . While there I met Luke Johnson, one of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon. I had a curiosity to talk with him concerning the same. We took a walk down on the river bank. I asked him if the statement he signed about seing the angel and the plates was true, if he did see the plates from which the Book of Mormon was printed or translated. he said it was true. I then said, "How is it that you have left the Church? If the angel appeared to you, and you saw the plates, how can you now live out of the Church? I understand you were one of the twleve apostles. . ." "I was one of the Twelve," said he; "I have not denied the truth of the Book of Mormon. But myself and several others were overtaken in a fault at Kirtland, Ohio. . . . I have come to the conclusion that each man is accountable for his own sins, also that the course I have been pursuing injures me alone, and I intend to visit the Saints and again ask to be admitted into the Church." (Anderson 1981, 162-163)
However, as we examine the witnesses and their statements, several difficulties arise. We should note several preliminary problems. First, when the translation of the Book of Mormon was completed, Joseph Smith stated that the plates were taken away by an angel. Thus, they are not available for examination and analysis. Second, they were written in a language, "Reformed Egyptian," which no one knows. Joseph did write down some characters which he claimed were copied from the gold plates. No linguist can interpret them, nor has any such script been found in the Americas. Nevertheless, since it is an unknown language, Joseph's translation could not and cannot be challenged on that basis.
Moroni tells us that they used "characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech. And if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also; and if we could have written in Hebrew behold, ye would have had no imperfection in our record." (Mormon 9:32-33) The Book of Mormon has plenty of examples of Hebrew influence. They include knowledge of Arabia, Names, Hebrew writing styles, Chiasmus, etc.That is the one area in which the Book of Mormon can easily be examined, but which most critics avoid. The Book of Mormon essentially shouts about its roots in ancient Hebrew culture. But the critics want to ignore the contents and propose worn out theories about Spaulding and others.
As to the witnesses, we should begin with the three special witnesses, Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer, who claimed to have seen an angel who presented the plates to them and told them they had been translated by the power of God.
In reading the testimony of the three witnesses, one is given the distinct impression that they viewed the vision of the angel and the plates together, and that it was a spontaneous event. Such is not the case. The vision was the result of strenuous effort, especially extended and fervent prayer. The first two efforts ended in failure, as reported by Joseph Smith in the History of the Church. Martin Harris blamed himself, and withdrew from the group, whereupon Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer first beheld the vision. Martin Harris, after more prayer with Joseph Smith (doubters might say coaching) was finally rewarded with the vision a couple of days later. Whatever its nature, the vision was quite different than the simple nature of the narrative testimony in the Book of Mormon.
I don't know why you discuss whether it was a spontaneous event. There was not a delay of 2 days as you indicate. There is nothing in their statement that would indicate that it was different than what took place. Let us review the events. Martin Harris asked to be excused after they were initially unsuccessful. After David and Oliver had seen the plates and the Angel, Joseph reports, "I now left David and Oliver, and went in pursuit of Martin Harris, whom I found at a considerable distance, fervently engaged in prayer. He soon told me, however, that he had not yet prevailed with the Lord, and earnestly requested me to join him in prayer that he also might realize the same blessings which we had just received. We accordingly joined in prayer, and ultimately obtained our desires, for before we had yet finished, the same vision was opened to our view--at least it was again to me. and I once more beheld, and heard the same things, whilst at the same moment, Martin Harris cried out, apparently in ecstacy of joy, 'Tis enough; mine eyes have beheld,' and jumping up he shouted, hosannah, blessing God, and otherwise rejoiced exceedingly." (Times & Seasons 3:897-898)
Martin Harris, the first convert to Mormonism outside of Joseph's family, is a virtual case study in religious instability. During his life, he changed religious affiliations some twelve or thirteen times, including five shifts in faith even after becoming a follower of Joseph Smith. At one time, after being excommunicated from the Church, he became a follower of Anna Lee, the founder of a sect known as the Shakers. Phineas Young, brother of future prophet Brigham Young, stated that Martin Harris claimed his testimony for the Shaker faith was stronger than his testimony for the Book of Mormon.
Richard L. Anderson discusses these claims:
As discussed, the Book of Mormon remained the mainstay of a life that was repeatedly confused by the loss of family, wealth, friends, and religious security. His decision to oppose Joseph Smith in Kirtland led him into a series of theological adaptations; eight of them brought him back the full circle to rejoin the Latter-day Saints in the West. This figure has been seized upon for condemnation rather than insight. Furthermore, one early source claims that Martin went through five religious positions before becoming a Mormon, so the "case" against the witnesses adds eight and five to exclaim in shock that Martin made thriteen changes. But this ignores my specific explanations of the eight changes after his 1838 excommunication: except for Shakerism, "every affiliation of Martin Harris was with some Mormon group." Beginning algebra teachers caution against adding eight oranges and five apples--the answer is not thirteen because the categories do not mix.
We shall see that the "five changes" prior to Martin's New York conversion are overstated--but differing churches of that period do not mix with Martin's Ohio variations on Mormonism, chich he told visitors he had never left. His specific Ohio stages include the following:
- the Parrish-Boynton party (which he condemned for denying the Book of Mormon at the time he met with them)
- an 1842 rebaptism by a Nauvoo missionary
- an 1846 English mission with a Stangite companion (where documents suggest that the Book of Mormon was really Martin's message)
- participation in McLellin's attempts to set up Mid-west leaders for the Church in 1857-48
- concurrent with one or more stages, sympathy for Shakerism without full participation
- support of Gladden Bishop in his program of further revelations based on the Book of Mormon
- continuation of his original "dissenter" status of stressing the Book of Mormon and early revelations of Joseph Smith--even when occasionally meeting with William Smith and others, he maintained this position for fifteen years after his 1855 conversations with Thomas Colburn
- his 1870 return to the Church in Salt Lake.
Note that the empasis could be on the number "eight" or Martin's support of the Book of Mormon through all stages, which blended as different ways of trying to further the Restoration.
The arithmetic of Martin's five religious changes before Mormonism is also faulty. The claim comes from the hostile Palmyra affidavits published by E. D. Howe; G. W. Stoddard closed his in sarcasm against Martin Harris: "He as first an orthodox Quaker, then a Universalist, next a Restorationer, then a Baptist, next a Presbyterian, and then a Mormon." Palmyra sources do not yet prove that Martin was a Quaker, though his wife probably was. And no evidence yet associates Martin with the Baptist or Presbyterian churches. Note that the other two names are religious positions, not necessarily churches--philosophical Universalists dissent from traditional churches in believing that God will save all, and Restorationists obviously take literally the many Bible prophecies of God's reestablished work in modern times. An early Episcopal minister in Palmyra interviewed Martin and reduced his five positions to two: "He had been, if I mistake not, at one period a member of the Methodist Church, and subsequently had identified himself with the Universalists." Of course Martin could have been a Universalist and Restorationer simultaneously. This view fits what other Palmyra sources say about Martin Harris. In the slanted words of Pomeroy Tucker, who knew him personally, "He was a religious monomaniac, reading the Scriptures intently, and could probably repeat from memory nearly every text of the Bible from beginning to end, chapter and verse in each case" (Anderson 1981, 168-169)
The most damaging evidence against the Book of Mormon witnesses comes from Martin Harris. In a letter by an early Mormon convert, Stephen Burnett, he explains why he decided to leave the Church:...but when I came to hear Martin Harris state in public that he never saw the plates with his natural eyes only in vision and imagination, neither Oliver nor David & also that the eight witnesses never saw them & hesitated to sign that instrument for that reason, but were persuaded to do it, the last pedestal gave away...I therefore three weeks since in the Stone Chapel...the reasons why I took the course which I was resolved to do, and renounced the Book of Mormon. I was followed by W. Parrish, Luke Johnson & John Boynton, all of who concurred with me, after we were done speaking M. Harris arose & said he was sorry for any man who rejected the Book of Mormon for he knew it was true, he said he had hefted the plates repeatedly in a box with only a tablecloth or handkerchief over them, but he never saw them, only as he saw a city through a mountain. And said that he never should have told that the testimony of the eight was false, if it had not been picked out of [him] but should have let it passed as it was. (Stephen Burnett letter, as quoted in Persuitte's Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon, p. 47)
Again, speaking of this experience, Richard Anderson states:
If the Three Witnesses "only saw them spiritually," then Burnett (not Harris) can explain it as essentially "in vision with their eyes shut." But Martin Harris felt misrepresented, or he would not have stood up in the Kirtland Temple to challenge the explanations of Burnett and his disaffected associates. Note that there were two distinct experiences of Harris: (1) "he said that he had hefted the plates repeatedly in a box with only a tablecloth or handkerchief over them, but he never saw them, only as he saw a city through a mountain"; (2) "he never saw the plates with his natural eyes, only in vision." Getting at the real Martin Harris requires subtracting Burnett's sarcasm that seeps into the above wording. . . .
Martin Harris never applied "only" to that experience. When Burnett says that the witness did not see "with his natural eyes," he fails to add that he still claimed vivid sight. John Gilbert, Book of Mormon typesetter, also remembered this kind of conversation: "I asked Harris once if he had really seen the plates with is naked eyes--his reply was 'No, but with spiritual eyes.'". . .
The superb interview of Nathan Tanner, Jr. recorded David Whitmer's own words on this point: "He then explained that he saw the plates, and with his natural eyes, but he had to be prepared for it--that he and the other witnesses were overshadowed by the power of God and a halo of brightness indescribable." (Anderson 1981, 156)
Burnett would like us to believe that seeing the plates, "only in vision" means that he didn't actually see the plates at all. But Martin repeated his testimony throughout his life with a vividness so that no one would doubt his conviction. Among the various testimonies that he bore are the following:
"It is not a mere belief, but is a matter of knowledge. I saw the plates and the inscriptions thereon. I saw the angel, and he showed them unto me." . . . Martin Harris held out his right hand and insisted: "Gentlemen, do you see that hand? Are you sure you see it? Are your eyes playing you a trick or something? No. Well, as sure as you see my hand so sure did I see the angel and the plates". . . "Just as sure as the sun comes up in the east and sets in the west, I did" . . . "I might as well doubt my own existence as to doubt the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon or the divine calling of Joseph Smith." (Anderson 1981, 116-117)
Martin Harris was true to this testimony to his final days. William W. Homer visited with Martin Harris just before he died.
He asked me for a drink of water. I raised his head with my arm, and mother put the glass to his lips. He drank freely, then looked up and recognized me. he said, "I know you, you are my friend." Then said, "Yes, I did see the Plates from which the Book of Mormon was taken. I did see the angel, I did hear the voice of God, and I know that Joseph was a Prophet of God, holding the Keys of the Holy Priesthood." Then came the end of his life. He relaxed and gave up my hand, and laid back on the pillow. (Crockett 1942, 164)
Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer also were extremely gullible men. When Hiram Page (one of the eight witnesses) challenged Joseph Smith's authority by receiving revelations through a peepstone of his own, both Cowdery and Whitmer accepted them as real. It required a further revelation from Joseph to set them straight and convince them that Hiram Page's communications were demonic:
Just because Oliver and David believed Hiram Page received valid revelations, is no reason to call them "extremely gullible." They had no reason to assume that Hiram couldn't receive revelations. The Church was young and everyone was inexperienced and learning. Joseph didn't know what to make of Hiram Page's revelations either until he asked of the Lord and received direction.
David Whitmer and Martin Harris were later influenced by a man named James Jesse Strang. Strang claimed to have found plates that he translated by means of the Urim and Thummim. Like Joseph Smith, he recorded the testimony of witnesses who saw the plates in almost exactly the same manner that Joseph had done. He claimed to be Joseph's successor, and it appears that all of the witnesses who were still living, except Oliver Cowdery, gave their support to him. Martin Harris even served a mission to England for the Strangites, as they were known.
Some two years after Joseph Smith's death the unstable Kirtland branch was largely converted to the pretensions of James J. Strang to Mormon leadership. Apparently a disciple, the Book of Mormon witness [Martin Harris] embarked for England with the Strangite leader Lester Brooks. But private correspondence from this companion proves that Martin was not committed to the Strangite cause and for this reason was hastened back to the States. Yet the eyewitnesses of the mission to England in 1846 agree that he powerfully reiterated his Book of Mormon testimony. (Anderson 1981, 112)
At still another time, the three main witnesses gave support to William McClellin, who had previously served as one of the Church's twelve apostles, but had broken away from the Church believing that Joseph was a fallen prophet. He convinced David Whitmer to take charge of the new church, and Whitmer began to receive revelations in support of its new teachings. This movement never took root, and David Whitmer later formed his own church, based on the Book of Mormon, but also teaching that Joseph Smith had led the Mormons deeply into error.
David Whitmer is attacked because he allowed William E. McLellin to appoint him president of a reoganized church in 1848, after which David received some revelations. It was not an easy decision for David; praying beforehand "his whole frame trembled and shook . . . and he cried out, 'Brethren, lay hands upon me that I may have strength to do my duty.'" Some months afterward David directed a letter explaining that his actions were not proper and had been made "after three days successive intreaties." Prior to the 1835 appointment of the Twelve, David Whitmer had been set apart as the successor to Joseph, but he did not use this precedent for personal aggrandizement. The above false start was four years after Joseph's death; it was followed years later by David's small Church of Christ that claimed the identical organization of 1829-30 while Joseph Smith was at the Whitmer home in New York. William E. McLellin's later letters show constant pressure to reinterest David in a presidency over a reorganized church, which David steadfastly declined. In fifty years out of the Church the main theme of David's career is conservativsm and not advancing beyond the first revelations of the Restoration. (Anderson 1981, 167)
Overall, even this cursory examination of the characters of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon reveals they were impressionable to an extreme degree. Seeing that they were blown about like chaff in the wind by almost every person making a claim to contact with divinity, it comes as no surprise that a man of Joseph Smith's power and charisma could convince them of almost anything he desired them to believe.
On the contrary, the facts show that Martin and David where not swayed. Before Martin was baptized in 1830 he did not participate in traditional churches. And after the church left him in Kirtland, he never supported anyone else but the Book of Mormon. he was firm at all times on that point. But why was he prepared for the restoration of the gospel? He tells us in his autobiography.
In the year 1818 -- 52 years ago -- I was inspired of the Lord and taught of the Spirit that I should not join any church, although I was anxiously sought for by many of the sectarians. I was taught two could not walk together unless agreed. What can you not be agreed in the Trinity because I cannot find it in the Bible. Find it for me, and I am ready to receive it. . . Others' sects, the Epicopalians, also tried me -- they say 3 persons in one God, without body, parts, or passions. I told them such a God I would not be afraid of: I could not please or offend him . . . The Methodists took their creed from me. I told them to release it or I would sue them. . . The Spirit told me to join none of the churches, for none had authority from the Lord, for there will not be a true church on the earth until the words of Isaiah shall be fulfilled. . . So I remained until the Church was organized by Joseph Smith the Prophet. Then I was baptized. . . being the first after Joseph and Oliver Cowdery. And then the Spirit bore testimony that this was all right, and I rejoiced in the established Church. Previous to my being baptized I became a witness of the plates of the Book of Mormon. (Anderson 1981, 170)
After all, Joseph, scarcely out of adolescence, had been able to convince many men quite older than himself of his ability to see through the earth with his peepstone, and was the acknolwedged leader of his treasure-digging band.
This one sentence is filled with assumptions, conjecture and misapplication of historical knowledge. A reply will have to wait for a much longer response.
Still, other than the quote from Stephen Burnett, why are there so few indications of the witnesses pointedly denying their testimonies? There are several possibilities. First, although most of the witnesses later became disillusioned with Joseph Smith, their initial experiences with him maybe have been so powerful that they truly were convinced of the authenticity of the plates and Joseph's work in translating them.
Isn't that exactly what is claimed. Don't you think it would be a powerful witness if you heard God proclaim that you were to bear witness of the truthfulness of the record. Don't you think that type of witness and experience would stay with you throughout your life even if you didn't agree with everything that Joseph did? Why must we assume that it didn't occure when the evidence of the witnesses is overwhelming that they experienced just what they claimed they witnessed. Any other explanation doesn't come close to meeting the requirements for what they continued to affirm.
Perhaps there was a set of plates that Joseph had made to further his claims. He himself was later fooled by a bogus set of plates which he claimed to be able to translate--the so-called Kinderhook Plates, which we will examine later. In addition, if any of the witnesses did harbor serious doubts, to have spoken out would have required them to admit either to fraud or credulousness, in both cases inviting ridicule and abuse from Mormons and non-Mormons alike."Perhaps," "Maybe," It just won't wash. These supposed possibilities are even more farfetched than to accept the testimony of the witnesses. It was a diverse group. You can't have any other explanation that would have bound them together in the clear affirmation of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. They knew they had seen the plates, and they knew they would offend God if they denied that experience. The Kinderhook plates were a hoax that Joseph Smith never attempted to translate.
A simple examination of the Church's own historical documentation is enough to overwhelmingly contradict the above contention. The witnesses were in constant trouble with the Church, and were, at various times, accused of lying, stealing, counterfeiting, apostasy, and fraudulent business activities. On such men rest the testimonials for the Book of Mormon.
These examples of the witnesses being excommunicated or falling out of favor with the church are some of the strongest supports for their testimonies. If they had concocted the story or their was some doubt in their mind about whether Joseph had deceived them, then they could have held that over the Prophet and constantly threatened exposure. But they didn't have anything to expose. They knew what they had seen and even when out of the church they couldn't deny what they knew to be true.
After Oliver Cowdery humbly returned to the church and asked to be rebaptized, Reuben Miller recorded this testimony from him in his journal, "I wrote with my own pen the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the Prophet, as he translated it by the gift and power of God, by means of the Urim and Thummim, or as it is called by that book, Holy Interpreters, I beheld with my eyes, and handled with my hands, the gold plates from which it was translated. I also beheld the Interpreters. That book is true." (Anderson 1981, 61)
In 1884 in the David Whitmer home they were examining the manuscript of the Book of Mormon.
Since this event acquired some notoriety, onlookers were often present, one of which was a skeptical Richmond military officer. The soldier discussed the Book of Mormon testimony with the aging witness in a cordial but frank manner, suggesting the possibility that Whitmer "had been mistaken and had simply been moved upon by some mental disturbance or hallucination, which had deceived him into thinking he saw" the angel, plates, and other objects. The immediate reaction of the witness was described by a spectator, Joseph Smith III: "How well and distinctly I remember that manner in which Elder Whitmer arose and drew himself up to his full height -- a little over six feet -- and said, in solemn and impressive tones: '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!'" (Anderson 1981, 87-88)
David Whitmer was the last of the three witnesses to die. Oliver had come to live in Richmond after his return to the church and David was present for his last testimony. Later David stated, "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 is true." (Anderson 1981, 90)
Why do people have to assume that these men did not see what they say they saw? How much stronger does their testimony have to be? What must they say to actually be convincing? Think about a best case senario. What types of witnesses would you think God should have provided. Do not these various witnesses fit those needs. Why do we ignore their witness? Because otherwise we must accept the implications of the importance of the Book of Mormon and the reality of the work of God in this latter day.
Anderson, Richard L. (1981) Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses Salt Lake City: Deseret Book
Crokett, Rachel Maretta Homer (1942) Homer Family History Salt Lake City