On March 18, 2010 LDS professor Daniel Peterson authored a guest blog for Mormon Times. In “The three witnesses and the reality of the Book of Mormon” Dr. Peterson writes,
“Serious critics of the Book of Mormon must neutralize the testimonies of the witnesses to the golden plates. “
Dr. Peterson praises another LDS professor, Richard Lloyd Anderson. He credits Dr. Anderson’s research into the lives and character of these three Book of Mormon witnesses, “both when they were dedicated followers of Joseph Smith and after they had been alienated from him and his church,” with providing people “a great deal of information about them.” Based on Dr. Anderson’s research, Dr. Peterson decides,
“They [the three witnesses] were plainly sane, honest, reputable men.”
Therefore, Dr. Peterson believes, “it may be impossible” to “neutralize the testimonies of the witnesses to the golden plates.”
Dr. Peterson is entitled to his opinion. When I look at the various testimonies by and about Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, I believe the witnesses themselves “neutralize” their testimonies.
Consider the following very brief overview of parts of the lives of these three men (please find references and a fuller treatment of these facts in The Changing World of Mormonism, chapter 5).
Martin Harris: Belonged to five different religions before becoming a Mormon; after leaving the LDS Church he changed his religious affiliation 8 more times. The LDS publication Millennial Star reported that Harris “became partially deranged…flying from one thing to another.” Phineas Young wrote his brother Brigham, “Martin Harris is a firm believer in Shakerism, says his testimony is greater than it was of the Book of Mormon” Harris later joined the Strangites, a rival Mormon church, and even went on a mission to England for that group. The Millennial Star said, “In one of his fits of monomania, he [Harris] went and joined the ‘Shakers’ or followers of Anna Lee. …but since Strang has made his entry…Martin leaves the ‘Shakers,’ whom he knows to be right,…and joins Strang….if the Saints wish to know what the Lord hath said to him they may turn to…the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and the person there called a ‘wicked man’ is no other than Martin Harris…Elder Wheelock will remember that evil men, like Harris, out of the evil treasure of their hearts bring forth evil things….” Harris became part of another “Testimony of Three Witnesses” which supported David Whitmer as the rightful successor to Joseph Smith. Harris rejoined the LDS Church late in his life, but one can’t help but wonder how things may have played out if his life had been extended a few more years.
Oliver Cowdery: According to Joseph Smith, while still a Mormon in good standing, Cowdery was deceived by false revelations received via a peep-stone belonging to a different Book of Mormon witness, one of the eight, Hiram Page. Years later Cowdery accused Joseph Smith of adultery and heresy. Smith accused Cowdery of stealing and uniting “with a gang of counterfeiters, thieves, liars, and blacklegs of the deepest dye, to deceive, cheat, and defraud the saints…” After Cowdery was excommunicated from the LDS Church, the Mormon publication Times and Seasons published a poem suggesting Cowdery had doubts about his testimony of the Book of Mormon. About the same time (1841), Cowdery joined the Methodist Protestant Church in Tiffin, Ohio. A sworn affidavit by a man named C.J. Keen recounts, “Mr. Cowdery expressed a desire to associate himself with a Methodist Protestant Church of this city….he was unanimously admitted a member thereof. At that time he arose and addressed the audience present, admitted his error and implored forgiveness, and said he was sorry and ashamed of his connection with Mormonism.” Cowdery was rebaptized LDS in 1848. However, according to David Whitmer, Cowdery died with a firm testimony that Joseph Smith was a fallen prophet and that Doctrine and Covenants was filled with errors.
David Whitmer: Was also deceived by Hiram Page’s peep-stone, and was accused of joining the same gang of “blacklegs” with which Cowdery was accused of being involved. Years after his 1838 excommunication from the LDS Church, Whitmer supported the Strangite movement for a time, but switched to a church being formed by William McLellin in 1848. Whitmer was to be the prophet of this new church, and in one revelation he claimed he received from God, he was told that the Mormons “polluted my name, and have done continually wickedness in my sight.” Whitmer never rejoined the LDS Church. In 1887, the year before his death, he published An Address to All Believers in The Book of Mormon. Whitmer wrote, “Now, in 1849 the Lord saw fit to manifest unto John Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery and myself nearly all the errors in doctrine into which we had been led by the heads of the old [LDS] church. We were shown that the Book of Doctrine and Covenants contained many doctrines of error, and that it must be laid aside…. They were led out of their errors, and are upon record to this effect, rejecting the Book of Doctrine and Covenants… ” In another 1887 publication, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Whitmer wrote, “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’… In the spring of 1838, the heads of the church and many of the members had gone deep into error and blindness.”
So were the three Book of Mormon witnesses “plainly sane, honest, reputable men”? I don’t have any reason to doubt that they were. But the real question is: Were they reliable witnesses?
It seems to me that these men demonstrated great instability on spiritual matters. They had no discernment regarding revelation and the claims of so-called prophets. On one hand they ask us to believe that an angel showed them gold plates and told them the Book of Mormon was true; on the other hand they ask us to believe that Ann Lee (leader of the Shakers) was Jesus Christ come again in the form of a woman. Or that the book of Doctrine and Covenants is filled with false revelations. Or that God said to get out of the Mormon Church because by 1838 it had gone deep into error and blindness.
Critics of the Book of Mormon do not need to “neutralize the testimonies of the witnesses.” The witnesses have already done that all on their own.