The Three Witnesses and Reality

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.

About Sharon Lindbloom

Sharon surrendered her life to the Lord Jesus Christ in 1979. Deeply passionate about Truth, Sharon loves serving as a full-time volunteer research associate with Mormonism Research Ministry. Sharon and her husband live in Minnesota.
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70 Responses to The Three Witnesses and Reality

  1. setfree says:

    I’m impressed. 😉

    I have an temple-working LDS friend who told me, when my boy was just a baby, that babies are covered with angels and if she kissed my baby, she’d get some on her. Therefore, she wanted to kiss my baby whenever she saw him.

    What’s the point? I think there is a very fine line, if any, between “magic” and “mystery” and “spirituality” to most Mormons. Anything supernatural is spirit and thus good.

    The trouble is that the truth about God must be found out by finding Him, not by searching yourself, and your imagination. Our imaginations are silly and childlike, and we have been told to grow up. Sure, you can invent whatever you’d like, as kids do, but can you invent the truth? NO. So then, is the truth important? You bet! So grow up! Get out of your dreams and your fun ideas, and go looking for the truth.

    Now, as many people have already said, you can’t depend on a spirit witness by itself. Why not? Well, as can be seen on a global scale, people’s spirits, whether their own or the demonic spirits that would like to help, tell them opposing things. How can it be truth, if it changes or goes against itself?

    Since God is a good God, He provided for lots of evidence for one who goes looking. In the day of the internet, you can readily find any and everyone’s opposing view. But deep underneath all the clamor and chaos… God’s truth will still be there.

    If Joe Smith had golden plates, there is no reason he would have ever had someone try to see them with their “spiritual eyes”, and written into the book of Genesis that Moses used “spiritual eyes” as a backup defense. He could have just said “Look, see?”

    And he would have. Look what he did with the mummies and the papyrii. You read through the History of the Church, vol. 2, and you see how often he showed them off. Why wouldn’t he have shown his closest people, at the very least, the plates?

  2. Ralph says:


    JS was told by Moroni not to show the plates to anyone until God allowed it. He kept true to this mandate. As far as the papyri for the BoA goes, he was given no such mandate so he showed them to whom ever he wanted.

  3. setfree says:

    Ralph, Joseph Smith is the one who said that Moroni told him not to show the plates. Again, can you see? we’re back to going to the source of the suspected lie, and asking for the truth. Know what I mean?

  4. grindael says:

    From Occult to Cult…

    We have all heard the Mormon version of the ‘finding of the plates’, and since this thread is about the witnesses and reality, I thought I would relate some of the ‘REAL’ events about Smith & his Golden Bible.

    We all know Smith was a money-digger, and stole his prize peep-stone from Willard Chase when employed to dig a well for Chase’s father. But well-digging was hard tedious work, and the spirits were calling Smith with dreams of money and buried treasure.

    In October 1825 Josiah Stowell, a well-off farmer, traveled from South Bainbridge (now Afton), New York, to the Smith farm in Manchester township to ask the young Smith to help him locate a lost Spanish silver mine in the Susquehanna Valley.

    Lucy Smith, Joseph’s mother, records that Stowell came to her son “on account of having heard that he [Smith] possessed certain keys, by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye.” (Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith Liverpool, England, 1853, 91-92.) Having failed himself, Stowell now sought the help of Smith & his stone.

    A money-digging band was formed and a contract drawn up spelling out the terms by which the treasure would be divided amongst them. According to Smith’s later recollection, he was paid fourteen dollars a month for his services. After less than a month of discouraging work, they disbanded, although Smith stayed on four additional months in Stowell’s employ. According to Smith, he had successfully located the treasures, but the diggers seemed unable to unearth them. The men would not give up easily though, & followed Smith’s directions in attempting to break the spirit’s enchantment.

  5. grindael says:

    Smith reportedly used various magic devices—animal sacrifice, magic circles, zodiac, and other things—in order to win the treasures from their guardian spirits. Emily M. Austin, for example, testified that Smith told the money diggers to sacrifice a dog (Emily M. Austin, Mormonism; or, Life Among the Mormons [Madison, WI, 1882], 32-33). This incident was apparently discussed at Smith’s 1830 trial in Colesville; Judge Joel K. Noble remembered testimony to that effect. Smith’s own mother Lucy Smith spoke freely of her family’s involvement with the “faculty of Abrac,” “magic circles,” and “sooth saying,” adding that such pursuits that ‘did not cause them to neglect their other work.’ ( The preliminary draft of her history is located in Mormon church archives, Salt Lake City, and is quoted in Walters, “From Occult to Cult,” 127)

    Yes, the faculty of Abracadabra! Hocus Pocus, now you see ‘em, now you don’t. Those dang spirits, just when you got to the treasure, it would slip away! But it seems that some did not like Smith sponging off ol’ Josiah & his nephew swore out a warrant against the young magician. A warrant was issued for Smith, calling him a disorderly person & an imposter, and at the ‘pre-trial’ Smith testified that he could “determine where hidden treasures in the bowels of the earth were” and that he had been stone-gazing for “three years.”

    Josiah was all for his young hireling though and testified in his behalf, claiming Smith ‘had the gift’ to find treasures. Horace Stowell also was duped by Smith & testified that Smith would look into the stone placed in a hat to exclude light and then claim to see a chest of money buried several miles away. Jonathan Thompson described one excursion where Smith said he located an Indian treasure by looking into his stone placed in a hat. However, an enchantment kept the men from obtaining the treasure.

  6. grindael says:

    Two witnesses, Arad Stowell and a Mr. McMaster, gave the only negative appraisals of Smith’s ability with the stone, both claiming that they could see through his tricks. According to the court record, Smith was found guilty of disorderly conduct but because of his youth was allowed to take ‘leg-bail’.

    Smith was becoming quite adept at deceiving folk. This would work well for him when he assumed his ‘prophetic’ mantle later in life. Returning to Palmyra, Smith resumed his money-digging operations. Martin Harris, gives this reminiscence of the money diggers:

    There was a company there in that neighborhood, who were digging for money supposed to have been hidden by the ancients. Of this company were old Mr. Stowel—I think his name was Josiah—also old Mr. Beman, also Samuel Lawrence, George Proper, Joseph Smith, jr., and his father, and his brother Hiram Smith. They dug for money in Palmyra, Manchester, also in Pennsylvania, and other places … It was reported by these money diggers, that they had found boxes, but before they could secure them, they would sink into the earth. (“Mormonism—No. II,” Tiffany’s Monthly 5, 1859: 164-65)

    In September 1827 Josiah Stowell came to visit the Smiths in Palmyra and to dig for money. Joseph Knight, Sr., Alvah Beaman, a “great rodsman” in his own right [like Oliver Cowdery], and Samuel Lawrence, a “seer,” were also there. It was during this reunion of money diggers that Joseph claimed to have come into possession of the gold plates. (Dean Jessee, ed., “Joseph Knight’s Recollection of Early Mormon History,” Brigham Young University Studies 17 (Autumn 1976): 32-33; Smith, Biographical Sketches, 99.)

    You think they would have learned by now. But no, Smith kept at it – deceiving any who crossed his path. There was no ‘first vision’ to temper this young magician. Then Smith heard a story about a Canadian ‘golden bible’ and thought to embellish it a bit. This is related by Peter Ingersoll who said Smith told him:

  7. setfree says:

    Janet suggests that seeing the evidence does not give one faith in the truth.

    Ralph suggests that seeing the evidence would condemn a person who rejected the truth.

    Both of these things are true.

    The fact is that God did not expect people to have faith, without giving them evidence. And still, even with the evidence, some people rejected (and still reject) the truth, and thus have left themselves under condemnation.

    God does NOT force people to have faith just because they see the evidence. He also does NOT expect people to have faith without any evidence.

  8. grindael says:

    “As I was passing yesterday across the woods after a heavy shower of rain I found in a hollow some beautiful white sand that had been washed up by the water. I took off my frock and tied up several parts of it, and then went home. On my entering the house I found the family at the table eating dinner. They were all anxious to know the contents of my frock. At that moment, I happened to think of what I had heard about a history found in Canada, called the golden Bible; so I told them it was the golden Bible. To my surprise they were credulous enough to believe what I said.” (Howe, Mormonism Unvailed)

    Smith would use the frock idea for the whole time he was translating his ‘gold bible’. He evolved his Book of Mormon story over time, but there are plenty of witnesses to the events that really took place. As Smith told his ‘money-digging’ associates:

    One night in September 1823 a “spirit” appeared to him three times to tell him of an ancient Indian history engraved on gold plates. The book, the messenger explained, had been deposited (about A.D. 421) in a stone box hidden under a large rock near the summit of a large mound of earth only a few miles south of his father’s farm. The following day, Smith reportedly climbed the near-by hill and located the stone box by looking into his seer stone. Using a lever, he pried the large rock away from the ancient vault and gazed in at the gold plates. There are different accounts of what happened, but it seems Smith was again unable to obtain his ‘treasure’. Willard Chase, from whom Smith had stolen his peep-stone, learned of the matter from Smith’s father in 1827. He was told young Joseph”

    “took out the book of gold; but fearing some one might discover where he got it, he laid it down to place back the top stone, as he found it; and turning round, to his surprise there was no book in sight. He again opened the box, and in it saw the book, and attempted to take it out, but was hindered.

  9. grindael says:

    He saw in the box something like a toad, which soon assumed the appearance of a man, and struck him on the side of his head—Not being discouraged at trifles, he again stooped down and strove to take the book, when the spirit struck him again, and knocked him three or four rods, and hurt him prodigiously.”

    Smith met with the spirit for four years and there were many events, some involving his brother Alvin, and tales of being chased though the woods while carrying his heavy ‘gold bible’ but Smith finally came home with his treasure wrapped in a frock. But when Smith received the gold bible on 22 September 1827, his money-digging friends believed that they also had rights to the treasure, sacred or not. As Martin Harris related:

    The money diggers claimed that they had as much right to the plates as Joseph had, as they were in company together. They claimed that Joseph had been traitor, and had appropriated to himself that which belonged to them.” Smith abandoned his money digging friends after this.

    According to Harris, “Joseph said an angel told him he must quit the company of the money-diggers. That there were wicked men among them. He must have no more to do with them. He must not lie, nor swear, nor steal.” (Tiffany’s Monthly 5 (1859): 167; cf. Jessee, “Joseph Knight’s Recollection,” 33-34.)

    But Smith cut them all out of the deal & ran off to Harmony Pennsylvania to live near his father-in-law. Smith never gave up his peep-stone though, and used it and the old ‘hat trick’ to ‘translate’ his ‘golden bible’. The stone he carried for the rest of his life. Wilford Woodruff would relate years later when Smith and some of the brethren were in the Kirtland Temple looking in the stone ‘to see what they might see’, that they were so startled when Heber C. Kimball came in they thought he was a ghost! Makes you wonder what they were looking for.

  10. grindael says:

    Smith always eyed the Indian mounds with longings of finding that elusive treasure, and when digging up a mound in Missouri in 1834 found a skeleton who he named ‘Zelph’. In 1838 Smith again visited some Indian mounds in Missouri which he believed “were probably erected by the aborigines of the land, to secrete treasures.”A few days later, Joseph wrote his brother Hyrum to come and obtain “grate [great] treasure in the earth.” (Dean C. Jessee, Writings of Joseph Smith, 358.)

    It is obvious from the events detailed above that God had nothing to do with Joe Smith the moneydigger. Reading the real history of Smith will only help those who might think of casting their pearls before swine and stop them before they mistakenly get on their knees & pray about Smith’s ‘gold bible’ & the Mormon Churches fabricated story of his life.

    The stories about why there are no gold plates now are so disingenuous. Why then did Jesus heal the sick, raise the dead & why did his apostles do the same? Did that hinder anyone from having faith? According to Mormons, there was a great apostasy and all of this stopped until …. Joe had his ‘restoration’. But all I see now are funeral like Sacrament Meetings where the LDS gather to hear a ‘speaker’ extol the miracles of ….Smith the magician. Why have any witnesses to the BOM at all then? Nah, Smith was a con-man, the Lord Jesus came and his Apostles bore witness and we have the Bible and our Faith. No Phony ‘Modern Revelation’ needed, just as it doesn’t seem to be needed anymore in the Mormon Church, whose leaders have said ‘they have enough revelation’, & all you need are the ‘standard works’. Seems the Mormons are trying to turn into what Smith so hated in his life, a religion devoid of any ‘new’ revelations, where prophets don’t prophecy, seer’s don’t see, and revelators reveal…nothing at all.

  11. falcon says:

    Excellent work grindael!
    Your posts will be very helpful for those who are taking their first steps to learning the truth about Mormonism and also for those who are on the way out the door. Those who are dealing with the tension of the cognitive dissonance need information like you have provided here to see the truth behind the lie (of Mormonism).

  12. grindael,

    What a fascinating story (and a great conclusion).

    Its the ultimate nightmare – always digging for treasure and never being able to get hold of it. Mormonism in a nutshell.

  13. MJP says:

    Martin said, “Its the ultimate nightmare – always digging for treasure and never being able to get hold of it. Mormonism in a nutshell.”

    Yet, it seems LDS have turned the process into one of rewards. The more you seek and the more you believe despite the lack of evidence, the more you should be rewarded.

  14. Jim says:

    God does NOT force people to have faith just because they see the evidence. He also does NOT expect people to have faith without any evidence.

    That harmonizes with Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction [fn: Or evidence] of things not seen.” (NASB) One book defines faith thusly:

    True faith is not credulity, that is, a readiness to believe something without sound evidence or just because a person wants it to be so. Genuine faith requires basic or fundamental knowledge, acquaintance with evidence, as well as heartfelt appreciation of what that evidence indicates. Thus, although it is impossible to have real faith without accurate knowledge, the Bible says that it is “with the heart” that one exercises faith.—Rom. 10:10.

    Thus, objectivity being an element to faith is in accord with the Bible.

  15. Jim says:

    In other words, faith should be based on reality. We don’t believe in things that are fake. There is an element of objectivity to faith.

  16. setfree says:

    thanks for that addition Jim. Well said.

  17. falcon says:

    It’s kind of ironic that Mormons will believe all sorts of fool hearty things but they won’t believe the Bible. In fact, I’m beginning to think that a Mormon can’t understand the Bible. The reason I say this is because their frame of reference is anti-Bible. They would sooner believe and follow a man with a magic rock than they would the revealed Word of God. This rejection of God for an idol and a belief that they themselves will become gods, places a gulf between them and God’s Word.
    Let’s face it, Mormons would not only sooner believe a man with a magic rock than the Bible, but they would sooner believe the testimonies of some real flakey guys who followed the man with the magic rock. It’s really unbelievable that Mormons would sooner worship a graven image of themselves before they would worship the One, true, living God who deserves our praise and adoration. Is it any wonder they are blinded to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ when they wholesale reject it for an occult based con man and his Satanically inspired revelations.
    In Christianity, the Bible is the standard by which we judge personal revelation. In Mormonism the Bible is judged by personal revelation. That’s why guys running around the country side with magic rocks and divination rods are held in high esteem and believed by Mormons. Joseph Smith was sure to instill doubt in his followers that the Bible was a reliable and only standard by which to judge revelation. He became more important than the Bible as a source of truth. Once someone buys into that lie, it’s all over. The Bible will be of no use to them. They cannot understand it and in fact have no reason to. Smith’s magic rock is a more important source of truth to a Mormon than is the Bible.
    What fools these Mormons are and totally duped.

  18. MJP commented

    Yet, it seems LDS have turned the process into one of rewards. The more you seek and the more you believe despite the lack of evidence, the more you should be rewarded.

    …no, the picture that came to my mind was spending so much time, money and effort in digging the hole, only to find that the treasure you were seeking was an illusion that slipped through your fingers at the final, crucial minute. Then, the “prophet” says “the treasure is over there”, and off you go to start all over again.

    Maybe you are right; you should be rewarded for your obediance and belief. But there’s no treasure in any of those holes, and there never was.

  19. MJP says:

    Martin, perhaps I was unclear in my intention. My apologies. But my intention was to suggest the one who then dutifully hops to the next direction where he may find the treasure will be rewarded for having such faith to follow. My intention was to suggest this is true under the LDS mindset.

    How often have we heard from them how it is more important to have faith that is not based on tangible evidence? Or that the stronger the faith based on less tangible evidence the better?

    On the other hand, there, in reality, is no treasure in these directions, and these chases and the “rewards” leadership gives to pursuing them are designed to keep folks faithful to the LDS church. Its, I think, a mind game.

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