Historical evidence has led many people to question the authenticity
of the Book of Mormon and the credibility of Joseph Smith's story.
Those who would defend traditional beliefs about Mormon origins
often turn to the testimonies of 11 men. These men signed statements
declaring the Book of Mormon was true, and that they had seen and/or
handled the plates used in the translation. For some people, such
testimony is enough to alleviate their doubts. But is it truly a
solid foundation for faith in the Mormon church? A careful investigation
reveals there are a number of historical details which raise questions
about the objectivity and credibility of these witnesses.
First let's look at the actual testimony of the men known as the
Three Witnesses. They are David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery and Martin
In the printed statement found in the Book of Mormon, all three
of them affirm being shown the plates by an angel, and the LDS church
implies that all three men saw the plates with Joseph on the same
day. It is portrayed as a physical, tangible, and verifiable event.
But, what people are not told is that the experience was visionary
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 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.
Is this providence or convenience? Joseph dictates the part of
the Book of Mormon that mentions three special witnesses while all
three are there with him. They 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 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).
Even in this there is a conflict of testimony, for according to
I never saw the gold plates, only in a visionary or entranced
state. ...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,
Once again, in spite of the revelation that claimed they would
see the plates as well as many other marvelous things, all they
testified to seeing was an angel holding the plates. However, later
in life, in an interview with Zenas Gurley, David Whitmer would
testify that he saw "the Interpreters in the holy vision."
When Harris was asked if he saw the plates with his naked eyes,
he would later admit he only saw the plates 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.)
It becomes apparent from Harris' testimony and that of others,
that this was a "visionary experience".
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 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 as trology and ceremonial folk magic. Early
Mormonism and the Magic World View, p. 35).
Brigham Young related a story from the life of Oliver Cowdery
in which Cowdery claimed that he and Joseph Smith walked right into
the Hill Cumorah with the gold plates of the Book of Mormon and
put them back on a table. In this huge cave were piles of gold plates
and a sword with writing on it. (Journal of Discourses, Vol.
19, p. 38.)
While this experience with a cave of gold plates sounds more like
a vivid dream, it was referred to as the gift of "second sight,"
or "seeing with the eyes of understanding. According to Joseph Smith,
Oliver Cowdery had already seen the gold plates in a vision before
becoming Joseph's scribe (Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings
of Joseph Smith, p. 8.).
Martin Harris, before his experience as one of the three witnesses,
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).
David Whitmer's testimony varied as to the objective versus the
subjective nature of the experience, but he also spoke of the angel
and gold plates in visionary terms. In 1885 he was interviewed by
Gurley asked if Whitmer knew that the plates were real metal.
Whitmer said that he did not touch or handle them. He was then asked
if the table they were on was literal wood or if the whole thing
was a like a vision. Whitmer replied that the table had the appearance
of literal wood as shown in the vision, in the glory of God (Zenas
H. Gurley, Jr., Interview with David Whitmer on January 14, 1885.).
So, according to their own testimonies, all three witnesses describe
a mystical, visionary, almost dreamlike experience in which they
claim they saw an angel with the gold plates.
And, contrary to the LDS church's portrayal, David Whitmer is
the only one who saw the plates for the first time that day in the
woods, since Oliver and Martin had apparently already seen them
in a vision before that day.
According to his own testimony, Martin Harris didn't see the angel
with plates until he was alone in the woods three days later. This
does not appear to be the factual, unquestionably objective event
the Mormon church often portrays it to be.
testimony of the eight other witnesses who claimed they handled
actual plates, also has problems in several areas. The Mormon church
always pictures all eight of them standing together in the woods,
with Joseph showing them the plates. But according to the testimony
of John Whitmer who was one of the eight witnesses, Joseph showed
them to four people at one time in his house, and then later to
four other people (Deseret Evening News, 6 August 1878, Letter to
the editor from P. Wilhelm Poulson, M.D., typed transcript, p. 2).
It is notable that these eight men fall naturally into two groups
The first group is comprised of four brothers of David Whitmer,
who himself was one of the three witnesses: Christian, Jacob, Peter
jun., and John Whitmer.
The second four are Joseph Smith's father, Joseph's two brothers
(Hyrum and Samuel) and Hiram Page, who was married to the Whitmer's
sister, Catherine. Another sister, Elizabeth, married Oliver Cowdery.
So, all the witnesses, except Martin Harris, were closely related
to one another.
The Stephen Burnett letter from 15 April 1838
Another significant historical point regarding the eight witnesses
comes from a letter dated April 15, 1838. It was written by a former
Mormon leader named Stephen Burnett. In that letter, Burnett told
how he heard Martin Harris state in public that Harris never saw
the plates with his natural eyes but only in vision or imagination,
and the same was true for Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer. Martin
Harris went on to say that the eight witnesses never actually saw
the plates either, and therefore, were hesitant to sign the statement,
but were persuaded to do so.
According to the letter, Burnett and several other men publicly
renounced the Book of Mormon. After they were done speaking, Martin
Harris got up and said he was sorry for anyone who rejected the
Book of Mormon, for he knew it was true, and said he would have
never told them that the testimony of the eight witnesses was false
if it had not been picked out of him, and that he should have left
it as it was (Stephen Burnett, Letter in Joseph Smith Papers, Letter
Book. Copy and typed transcript on file in office of Institute for
While some LDS scholars and apologists have tried to brush aside
this testimony as "hearsay," it is corroborated by a letter cited
in Wayne C. Gunnell's 1955 BYU dissertation. This letter, written
by George A. Smith to Josiah Fleming and dated March 30, 1838 (a
couple of weeks earlier than the Burnett letter), describes a similar
scene with Martin Harris, Boyington, Parish, and Johnson, all of
whom are mentioned in the Burnett letter.
The situation is further complicated by some puzzling statements
made by the witnesses themselves. Only three of the eight witnesses
made separate statements that they had handled the plates. They
were Joseph's two brothers, Hyrum and Samuel, and John Whitmer.
Hyrum and Samuel's statements are further qualified by their brother
William who, in an interview, also claimed to have handled the plates.
He said, "I did not see them uncovered, but I handled them and hefted
them while wrapped in a tow frock and judged them to have weighed
about sixty pounds. ... Father and my brother Samuel saw them as
I did while in the frock. So did Hyrum and others of the family."
When the interviewer asked if he didn't want to remove the cloth
and see the bare plates, William replied, "No, for father had just
asked if he might not be permitted to do so, and Joseph, putting
his hand on them said; 'No, I am instructed not to show them to
any one. If I do, I will transgress and lose them again.' Besides,
we did not care to have him break the commandment and suffer as
he did before." (Zion's Ensign, p. 6, January 13, 1894, cited in
Church of Christ broadside.)
John Whitmer's statements were the most detailed -- both the 1878
statement mentioned earlier and his 1839 statement to Theodore Turley
where he said, "I now say, I handled those plates; there were fine
engravings on both sides. ... they were shown to me by a supernatural
power" (History of the Church, Vol. 3, p. 307).
Now if these were physical plates, presented to the eight witnesses
while Joseph Smith held them on his knee, why did Whitmer qualify
his statement by saying it happened by means of a supernatural power?
One can only wonder why there was a need for a supernatural presentation
of physical plates. Unless, of course, the Whitmer family was also
shown the plates under a cloth, but was encouraged to see them with
their eyes of faith.
This, however, contradicts John Whitmer's 1878 interview where
he states that his group of four were handed the plates "uncovered
into our hands, and we turned the leaves sufficient to satisfy us."
(Poulson letter to Deseret Evening News, previously cited, p. 2).
Just as puzzling is Hiram Page's testimony regarding his part as
one of the eight witnesses. While he makes a veiled reference to
"what I saw" he never mentions seeing or handling the plates, but
instead emphasizes that Joseph had to have supernatural power to
write such a book.
He also says, "And to say that those holy Angels who came and
showed themselves to me as I was walking through the field, to confirm
me in the work of the Lord of the last days -- three of whom came
to me afterwards and sang a hymn in their own pure language; yes,
it would be treating the God of heaven with contempt, to deny these
testimonies." (Ensign of Liberty, 1848, cited in Dialogue: A
Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol 7:4, Winter 1972, p. 84.)
Statements like these raise serious questions about the witnesses,
and what exactly happened with Joseph Smith. Yet, we still have
the statements from the Mormon church that none of them ever denied
their testimony of the Book of Mormon. This may be the case, but
there is a possible exception.
A reference in an LDS poem published in Times & Seasons, Vol.
2, p. 482, speaks of Oliver denying the Book of Mormon. Oliver Cowdery
did later become a member of the "Methodist Protestant Church" in
Tiffin, Seneca County, Ohio. Before joining, it appears he made
a complete and full renunciation of Mormonism.
He later served as a Superintendent of the Sabbath-School, and
Secretary of a church meeting and was recognized as a charter member
(Affidavit quoted in The True Origin of Mormonism, by Charles A.
Shook, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1914, pp. 58-59, cited in Case Against
Mormonism, Vol. 2, p. 16; also The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of
Power, by D. Michael Quinn, Signature Books, 1994, p. 545.).
Oliver Cowdery did return to the Mormon church and was rebaptized
in October of 1848, but there are questions as to his motivation
for joining and how long he remained a member after rejoining. Some
Mormons were suspicious of his motives and against his rebaptism.
There is interesting evidence that indicates Cowdery was never completely
reconciled to the Mormon church. The Gospel Herald of November
1, 1849 carried the following comments:
You will observe also that they make no mention of Oliver Cowdery
filling up their organization. The truth is, he is not the sort
of man for them. It was a singular fit of mania by which he was
led off after them, and seems to have lasted him but a few weeks
... they would not trust power in his hands a single moment. (Cited
in Case Against Mormonism, by Jerald & Sandra Tanner, 1968, p.
Oliver Cowdery died, not in Utah, but at the home of fellow witness
David Whitmer, who had also left the Mormon church. Whitmer makes
it clear that Cowdery "died believing as I do to-day," which included
a belief that Joseph was a fallen prophet, and that the Doctrine
and Covenants contained false revelations (An Address to All Believers
in Christ, 1887, pp. 1-2).
Martin Harris is also said to have rejoined the Mormon church and
died in full fellowship, affirming his commitment to the Book of
Mormon. Yet sources contemporary with Martin Harris referred to
him as "feeble both in body and mind" (Des Moines Daily News,
Oct. 16, 1886, cited in Case, p. 31).
In fact, Anthony Metcalf who interviewed Harris wrote, "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" (Ten Years Before the Mast, Anthony Metcalf, p. 73,
Mormon writers have also acknowledged that Harris was religiously
unstable, saying, "Martin Harris was an unaggressive, vacillating,
easily influenced person" (E. Cecil McGavin, The Historical Background
for the Doctrine & Covenants, p. 23, cited in Case, Vol. 2, p. 33).
Wayne C. Gunnell in his 1955 BYU thesis on Martin Harris wrote,
"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 goes on to quote a letter written in 1844 by Phineas Young
to Brigham Young, "Martin Harris is a firm believer in Shakerism,
says his testimony is greater than it was of the Book of Mormon"
(Martin Harris - Witness and Benefactor to the Book of Mormon, Wayne
C. Gunnell, BYU thesis, 1955, p. 52).
It is very significant that Joseph Smith himself called into question
the moral integrity of at least four of the eleven witnesses. In
History of the Church, vol. 3:232 he wrote: "Such characters
as McLellin, John Whitmer, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery and Martin
Harris, are too mean to mention; and we had liked to have forgotten
Because they had dared leave the Latter-day Saint church, these
men and others were later driven away after being accused of being
"united with a gang of counterfeiters, thieves, liars and blacklegs
of the deepest dye, to deceive cheat and defraud" (Senate Document
189, 1841, p. 9).
In all fairness to the witnesses, this appears to be character
assassination with the intent of discrediting these men in the eyes
of other Mormons. That way other people would think twice about
leaving the Mormon church or listening to any further testimony
from these witnesses.
According to historical evidence, the Mormon church's customary
portrayal of the witnesses as eleven men of rational and critical
mindsets, unquestioned honesty and integrity and unwavering commitment
to the Mormon church and the Book of Mormon is far from true. Joseph
Smith himself questioned their integrity, and many of them left
the church and did not return.
There are also some questions left unanswered, such as, were there
really gold plates, or did Joseph produce a prop which he kept covered
in a cloth and allowed only certain relatives to see and lift?
He had four years between when he announced he discovered the
gold plates, and when he actually claimed to get them out of the
When did Joseph, Harris, Whitmer & Cowdery first find out there
would be three special witnesses? The D&C records two different
times when Joseph claimed to receive a revelation regarding BOM
witnesses. The first came at the request of Martin Harris in March
of 1829 (D&C 5). It warned Joseph not to show the plates except
to those whom God commanded (vs. 3). This revelation went on to
say that three witnesses would be given special power to see the
plates, but "to none else will I grant this power" (D&C 5:13-14).
According to this revelation, there would only be three witnesses.
Yet, in Joseph Smith's History of the Church, Vol. 1, pp. 52-53
previously cited, Joseph and Oliver did not discover there would
be three witnesses until they were translating the Book of Mormon
in late June of 1829 - at least three months later. A little while
after this (no date is given) Joseph took it upon himself to show
what he claimed were the BOM plates to the eight witnesses who were
all related to one another. Joseph had them sign a testimonial.
Apparently, showing the plates to his father and brothers did not
require the power of God, but supernatural power was needed for
showing them to John Whitmer.
There was also no revelation giving him permission to show the
plates, just a private meeting. At least one source indicates that
Joseph showed the plates to two groups of four on separate occasions
in his house, while other accounts say that all eight were together
out in a grove.
One of the problems with relying on the Witnesses for the authenticity
of Mormonism is the testimony of David Whitmer given later in life.
In his Address to All Believers in Christ, page 27, Whitmer declares,
If you believe my testimony to the Book of Mormon; if you believe
that God spake to us three witnesses by his own voice, then I
tell you that in June, 1838, God spake to me again by his own
voice from the heavens, and told me to 'separate myself from among
the Latter-day Saints, for as they sought to do unto me, so should
it be done unto them.' In the spring of 1838, the heads of the
church and many of the members had gone deep into error and blindness.
I had been striving with them for a long time to show them the
errors into which they were drifting, and for my labors I received
This quote creates a quandary. If we accept Whitmer's testimony
regarding his experience with the angel and the gold plates, then
we must also accept his testimony that God also declared the current
Mormon church is in a fallen state. To disavow the revelation he
received stating that the Mormon church since 1838 has "gone deep
into error and blindness" means we must hold as suspect his testimony
to the Book of Mormon. Whitmer inseparably links the two events.
Even if the majority of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon did
not deny their testimony of the book itself, this does little to
support Mormonism today. Current Mormon doctrine on the nature of
God, the priesthood, use of temples, baptism for the dead, and men
becoming gods, is nowhere contained in the Book of Mormon.
By 1847 not a single one of the surviving eleven witnesses was
part of the Mormon church. Five of these witnesses joined The Church
of Christ started by William McLellin, and Oliver Cowdery indicated
he was supportive of this group, though he never joined. (D. Michael
Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy - Origins of Power, Signature Books,
1994, p. 188).
If these men were alive today, they would be considered apostates
who had turned their back on the Spirit of God. They would be cut
off from the LDS church and condemned to outer darkness, regardless
of whether or not they still believed in the Book of Mormon.
What are the facts?
- Eleven men claimed to witness the existence of plates they
believed were the source for the Book of Mormon.
- Three of these men admitted the experience was subjective and
- Each of the first three witnesses saw the plates in a vision
for the first time in a different place and time.
- The other eight witnesses were closely related to Joseph Smith
either by blood or marriage.
- Only three of them claimed to see and handle that which had
the appearance of being plates of gold, and could testify Joseph
did have something that resembled plates with etchings after signing
their name to the testimony document.
- Many of these witnesses left Joseph Smith and the organization
that he started, believing at best that he was a fallen and false
- Joseph Smith himself, called into question the general character
and reliability of several of these men. This, in spite of the
fact that they were close friends and family of Joseph Smith.
These historical facts highlight another thread of Mormon history
that has been misrepresented by LDS Church leaders. The witnesses'
testimonies as a whole are presented as objective, solid, and irrefutable,
but upon close examination are seen to be subjective, ambiguous
and, at times, contradictory. The traditional portrayal of a tightly
woven story of Mormon origins is slowly being unraveled by the historical
evidence, much of which is now being compiled and published within
the Mormon community itself.
Another thread of the traditional Mormon story that is seriously
misrep- resented by the LDS church has to do with the discovery
and translation of the supposed gold plates of the Book of Mormon.
The testimony of those who were closest to Joseph Smith state
uniequivocally that Joseph never used the plates while doing the
translation, he used his seer stone in his hat to both discover
and translate the Book of Mormon. (Richard Van Wagoner & Steve
Walker, "Joseph Smith: 'The Gift of Seeing,'" in Dialogue:
A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 15:2, Summer 1982, p. 53)
If the plates were never used in the translation process, why the
need for witnesses? Why focus so much attention on gold plates in
the first place? We attempt to answer these and related questions
in the post entitled "Problems with the Book of Mormon Story."
Does this prove the plates were a true historical artifact versus
a prop Joseph put together? No. The witnesses could only testify
as to appearance, and Joseph Smith himself was later duped by forged
plates in the Kinderhook incident.