LDS FAQ: Answers to Questions about the Witnesses to the Book of Mormon
Some of the most important evidence for the reality and divine nature of the Book of Mormon comes from detailed scholarship about the witnesses to the Book of Mormon. The story of who they were, what they experienced, and how they lived in light of their claims poses one of the greatest challenges to critics who claim the Book of Mormon was all a fraud. Detailed scholarship into the lives of these witnesses has been swept aside and simply ignored by the critics, who instead regurgitate highly misleading claims that, ironically, often make the case for the reality of the Book of Mormon even stronger. This page is my attempt to address some of the most common anti-Mormon attacks on the witnesses to the Book of Mormon.
This is part of the LDSFAQ (Mormon Answers) suite by Jeff Lindsay dealing with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My writings reflect my personal understanding and are not officially approved by the Church.
One of the best sources of current scholarship on the Book of Mormon and other LDS topics is the new Interpreter Foundation, a site managed by Daniel Peterson. For a huge array of resources, talks, articles, videos, and so forth, go to ChurchofJesusChrist.org or Mormon.org.
Mormanity is my LDS blog, in operation since 2004.
You can also order a free Book of Mormon at ComeuntoChrist.org. Read it and get your own witness!
Recent LDS scholarship offers a cornucopia of reliable information on the witnesses and their integrity, readily overcoming the common allegations of the critics that their statements can be ignored or that they later denied what they gave witness to. In truth, if they had been part of a fraud, they would have had abundant reason later in life to distance themselves from their statements, especially for those who fell out with Joseph for various reasons. But in spite of differences with him and the direction of the Church, and in spite of some having completely withdrawn from the Church, none of the official eleven witnesses ever recanted their witness to the Book of Mormon. Not to their dying day. It's vital to understand what they said and what their lives bore witness to.
There were others besides the eleven official witnesses, both men and women, who gave witness to various aspects of the origins of the Book of Mormon. See, for example, "William Smith: An Often-Overlooked Witness for the Book of Mormon and Joseph's Divine Calling." A collection of histories and statements from various witnesses is available at Moroni10.com's "Witnesses of the Gold Plates." Some who could be called witnesses did fall away from the Church, as I discuss below. Yet the cumulative record of all those who had some kind of experience with the plates and the translation of the Book of Mormon provides a remarkable witness of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as an ancient record translated by the power of God.
Here are some of my favorite resources on this vital topic:
A short article from Daniel C. Peterson (closely related to a chapter by Neal A. Maxwell in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, pp. 204-205, of Peterson et al.) reminds us of the impressive record of Book of Mormon witnesses, who actually saw the gold plates with their eyes:
On the day following the death of David Whitmer in 1888, the Chicago Times reported an interview with an unnamed "Chicago Man." This man related a conversation that he had carried on with another individual some years before, a prominent resident of the county in which David Whitmer had lived, who had been a lawyer and a sheriff there and who had, he said, known the Witness very well and had told him a remarkable story of David Whitmer's later life.In the opinion of this gentleman, no man in Missouri possessed greater courage or honesty than this heroic old man [David Whitmer]. "His oath," he said, "would send a man to the gallows quicker than that of any man I ever knew." He then went on to say that no person had ever questioned his word to his knowledge about any other matter than finding the Book of Mormon. He was always a loser and never a gainer by adhering to the faith of Joseph Smith. Why persons should question his word about the golden plates, when they took it in relation to all other matters, was to him a mystery.[Cited in Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 224.]In an 1878 interview with Elders Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith, David Whitmer gave dramatic and emphatic testimony of his experience as a Witness:I saw [the plates and other Lehite artifacts] just as plain as I see this bed (striking the bed beside him with his hand), and I heard the voice of the Lord, as distinctly as I ever heard anything in my life, declaring that the records of the plates of the Book of Mormon were translated by the gift and power of God. [Interview with Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith (Richmond, Mo., 7-8 September 1878), reported in a letter to President John Taylor and the Council of the Twelve dated 17 September 1878. Originally published in the Deseret News, 16 November 1878, and reprinted in Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 40.]Six years later, Whitmer was interviewed by the leader of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Joseph Smith III:We are fortunate to have, too, the witness of Joseph Smith's family and of many of the other early Latter-day Saints. . . .
Rather suggestively [Colonel Giles] asked if it might not have been possible that he, Mr. 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 Personage, the Angel, the plates, the Urim and Thummim, and the sword of Laban.
How well and distinctly I remember the 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!" [Interview with Joseph Smith III et al. (Richmond, Mo., July 1884), originally published in The Saints' Herald, 28 January 1936, and reprinted in Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 134-5, emphasis in the original.]
Remember, Joseph didn't just claim to have seen an angel and some ethereal plates in a vision. He had many others touch and feel the plates, and some even saw, heard, and felt angels (such as Oliver being ordained under the hands of John the Baptist). And these men, men like Martin Harris, were well known and respected for their integrity, though they were naturally mocked for their "crazy" religious ideas. How to make sense of all this? They were actual witnesses of genuine divine events.
Nevertheless, critics attempt to downplay the emphatic testimony of the witnesses, and have even gone so far as to claim that they didn't really see anything with their own eyes. I just found a good resource which discusses some aspects of their efforts, one that also clarifies some issues that were raised in my last couple of posts regarding William Smith. Yes, his experience with the covered plates did occur in 1827, and his statement must be understood as referring to a time before the official witnesses saw the uncovered plates in 1829. The resource is "Historical or Hysterical: Anti-Mormons and Documentary Sources" by Matthew Brown at FAIRlatterdaysaints.org. Here is an excerpt (see the original for the references that I have deleted here):
Now, let us take a look at the related idea that none of the Book of Mormon witnesses ever actually saw the golden plates. It is claimed by some critics that since the Three Witnesses had a 'visionary' experience they did not actually view the plates with their natural sight, and therefore their testimony cannot be accepted as recounting something that happened in the real or empirical world. Critics typically construct their 'visionary' argument using second-hand accounts of things that Martin Harris supposedly said. These retellings originated with opponents of the LDS faith such as Stephen Burnett, Jesse Townsend, Anthony Metcalf and John Gilbert.
In response to this accusation I would like to point out the three quotations on the left-hand portion of this slide. Here you will see statements from each of the Three Witnesses which were recorded by persons who were not antagonistic toward Mormonism. I have highlighted words that I would like to draw your attention to. Here we see that each of the Three Witnesses testified, independent of each other and at different times, that their experience was registered by both their physical "eyes" and "ears." In addition, David Whitmer provided an invaluable perspective on the nature of the Three Witnesses' experience when he said,Of course we were in the Spirit when we had the view, for no man can behold the face of an angel, except in a spiritual view. But we were in the body also, and everything was as natural to us, as it is at any time.
As the documents on this slide show, the witnesses were careful to clarify that they were not fooled by an illusion, they were not suffering from any type of hallucination, and they most certainly were not having a dream.
Modern anti-Mormons claim that as far as the Eight Witnesses are concerned, none of them saw the golden plates either--they only saw an object that was covered over with a cloth! But take a look at what two of the Eight Witnesses had to say about their experience and determine whether or not the anti-Mormon view can be sustained. When John Whitmer was asked point blank, "Did you see [the plates] covered with a cloth?" He answered, "No. [Joseph Smith] handed them uncovered into our hands, and we turned the leaves sufficient to satisfy us." In this same interview John Whitmer stated that the plates were a material substance, they were gold, they were heavy, they measured 8 by 6 or 7 inches, they had engravings on both sides, and they were connected together by three rings in the shape of the letter D. In the Spring of 1832 Samuel H. Smith (the Prophet's younger brother) informed a group of people that he was a witness to the Book of Mormon. He said "he knew his brother Joseph had the plates, for the Prophet had shown them to him, and he had handled them and seen the engravings thereon." These men obviously saw and handled an identifiable, physical object and were able to supply a detailed description of it. The anti-Mormon stance on this issue simply cannot be taken with any degree of seriousness.
As a side note, I would like to draw attention to the attempt made by some anti-Mormons to 'qualify' the published testimonies of Joseph Smith, Sr., Hyrum Smith and Samuel Smith by appealing to a statement made by William Smith--who did in fact speak of these men handling the plates while they were concealed by a piece of cloth. This is a prime example of the type of 'hysterical but not historical' scholarship that some critics of the Church engage in. William's statement refers only to his brother bringing the golden plates into his family's home in late September 1827, not to the experience of the Eight Witnesses which occurred in June 1829. Anti-Mormons would do well to educate themselves on this point so that they can avoid any future embarrassment by employing this bogus argument.
It's understandable that good LDS people encountering William Smith's quote in anti-Mormon literature would be troubled by it. That's what anti-Mormon literature is meant to do, of course. But the details that are cleverly left out, such as the time of the experience and the rest of William's statement, do more to tell us about the motives of the anti-Mormons than the origins of the Book of Mormon. To a few of my readers who have been bothered by the anti-Mormon material they've encountered, I'd encourage you to press forward and move past such sources, turning more fully to a careful study of the Book of Mormon itself.
It really is true. There really were golden plates and eye witnesses who were not hallucinating.
Of course those taking sides on such controversial issues as religion will have a bias. Yet high standards of scholarship and integrity can be applied by genuine scholars who discuss their findings and analysis openly. Those with integrity, although we may disagree with them, can provide us with meaningful information and insights that need to be evaluated based on the merits of the work, and not simply dismissed because we claim that bias must have influenced their work. When the man at the cashier adds up your bill and tells you that your $10 bill is not enough for the five boxes of $3 chocolates you are trying to buy, he's certainly biased toward getting full payment, but that doesn't invalidate his math.
The lifetime of scholarship on the witnesses by a careful historian, Dr. Richard Lloyd Anderson, has not been refuted by our critics. It provides detailed, carefully documented, readily verified analysis that refutes sloppy claims by our critics and builds an impressive case for the sincerity and integrity of the witnesses. See some of his many publications on this topic at the Maxwell Institute's author's page for Richard L. Anderson. See, for example, his chapter on "The Credibility of the Book of Mormon Translators."
An old lecture from Dr. Anderson to LDS students on the topic of the witnesses is in the video below. It begins with a consideration of the role of witnesses in the Bible, and then explores what the witnesses said and did. Some interesting points are made about the physical and spiritual evidence from the experiences of the witnesses. He also addresses some common questions about the witnesses.
We find something similar among the Apostles of Christ in the New Testament with sets of brothers. Relatives teaming up is not a valid reason to dismiss their witness. In frontier America, there was little privacy in families and it's natural that multiple people in a family would be involved in major projects and events. Including them as witnesses is natural. They were still independent men who would go off on their own and choose their own paths--all without denying their witness in spite of no financial gain and plenty of risk for staying true to what they said. Whether it was a few lone men or several sets of brothers, their individual and cumulative testimonies count a great deal.
Interesting question, but not a valid point. For a detailed treatment, see FAIR Wiki's "Strangite Parallels." Yes, James J. Strang, an apostate from the Church did form a splinter group and claim to have witnesses to his own new sacred record on plates. But Strang's witnesses differed in key ways from those of the Book of Mormon. Strang's witnesses:
The collective testimony of the Book of Mormon Witnesses is, in terms of its evidentiary value and strength, far more challenging to critics than is the testimony of James J. Strang's witnesses. For more details on the Strangites and the plates Strang led his witnesses to, see "The Other Plates: Deja Vu or Something New?" by Jeremy Talmage.
It's remarkably difficult to be completely wrong, and Wikipedia is almost never that bad. They strive to display both sides of complex issues, meaning that they are almost sure to be partially right, as they are with their article on Martin Harris. But this article has clearly been influenced by an editor hostile to Mormonism who has cleverly suppressed and distorted information to lead to conclusions that are absolutely wrong, even ridiculous. The numerous distortions in Wikipedia's article on Martin Harris, at least as of Jan. 15, 2013, are analyzed in the FAIRLDS Blog's article, "Wikipedia's Deconstruction of Martin Harris." One key excerpt follows:
Did Harris Recant His Testimony?
Next, Wikipedia continues the attempt to destroy Harris's testimony by offering a paragraph claiming that a number of members who apostatized during the Kirtland period did so because of Harris's "recantation" of having seen or handled the gold plates. According to Wikipedia,
In March 1838, disillusioned church members said that Harris had publicly denied that any of the Witnesses to the Book of Mormon had ever seen or handled the golden plates--although he had not been present when Whitmer and Cowdery first claimed to have viewed them--and they claimed that Harris's recantation, made during a period of crisis in early Mormonism, induced five influential members, including three Apostles, to leave the Church.
The Wikipedia editor then implies that Harris from this point onward denied his testimony even until the end of his life by stating,
Even at the end of his long life, Harris said that he had seen the plates in "a state of entrancement."
The facts, however, are quite the opposite of what Wikipedia is attempting to portray. At the "end of his long life," while on his deathbed, Martin was quite clear about what he saw,
I stood by the bedside holding the patient's right hand and my mother at the foot of the bed. Martin Harris had been unconscious for a number of days. When we first entered the room the old gentleman appeared to be sleeping. He soon woke up and asked for a drink of water. I put my arm under the old gentleman, raised him, and my mother held the glass to his lips. He drank freely, then he looked up at me and recognized me. He had been unconscious several days. He said, "I know you. You are my friend." He said, "Yes, I did see the plates on which the Book of Mormon was written; I did see the angel; I did hear the voice of God; and I do know that Joseph Smith is a Prophet of God, holding the keys of the Holy Priesthood." This was the end. Martin Harris, divinely-chosen witness of the work of God, relaxed, gave up my hand. He lay back on his pillow and just as the sun went down behind the Clarkston mountains, the soul of Martin Harris passed on.
This testimony, unsurprisingly, is not used or referenced by the Wikipedia article.
After all of the effort to discredit Martin Harris through the words of second- and third-hand witnesses, the Wikipedia article then finally includes quotes from interviews with Harris himself. He clearly and unequivocally states that he saw and handled the plates. According to Wikipedia,
Nevertheless, in 1853, Harris told one David Dille that he had held the forty- to sixty-pound plates on his knee for "an hour-and-a-half" and handled the plates with his hands, "plate after plate." Even later, Harris affirmed that he had seen the plates and the angel with his natural eyes: "Gentlemen," holding out his hand, "do you see that hand? Are you sure you see it? Or 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." The following year Harris affirmed that "No man heard me in any way deny the truth of the Book of Mormon [or] the administration of the angel that showed me the plates."
It would be nice if Wikipedia gave as much attention to Martin's statements regarding what he actually saw as it does to his "spiritual eye" and "eye of faith" comments. Martin testified of the Book of Mormon many times in such clear language.
"Young man," answered Martin Harris with impressiveness, "Do I believe it! Do you see the sun shining! Just as surely as the sun is shining on us and gives us light, and the [moon] and stars give us light by night, just as surely as the breath of life sustains us, so surely do I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, chosen of God to open the last dispensation of the fulness of times; so surely do I know that the Book of Mormon was divinely translated. I saw the plates; I saw the Angel; I heard the voice of God. I know that the Book of Mormon is true and that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God. 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."
Wiki's treatment of Harris is wrong, eerily wrong. So eerie that I am reminded of Ray Bradbury's old book, Something Wiki This Way Comes. Or something like that.
Decades after the Book of Mormon came out, Martin Harris wrote the following to Hannah Emerson in 1870:
Concerning the plates, I do say that the angel did show to me the plates containing the Book of Mormon. Further, the translation that I carried to Prof. Anthon was copied from these same plates; also, that the Professor did testify to it being a correct translation. I do firmly believe and do know that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, for without I know he could not [have] had that gift, neither could he have translated the same. I can give if you require it one hundred witnesses to the proof of the Book of Mormon.
--Martin Harris to Mr. Emerson, Sir [sic] 23 November 1870, in True Latter Day Saints' Herald, 1875, 630, as cited by Harper, 2010.
Sounds like an emphatic affirmation of his early witness.
In Richard L. Anderson's scholarly tour de force, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981), pp. 83Ð84, he recounts a telling event from David Whitmer's life. In Missouri in 1833 a mob of about five hundred men too David to a public square where he was stripped, tarred, and feathered. With guns aimed at him and some others, they were told to confess that the Book of Mormon was a fraud or die on the spot. This is a man on the verge of death. As he faced death, was he wracked with guilt for the fraud he had committed? Perhaps he now had a chance and incentive to repent and abandon his sin or send his soul out of this world stained with fraud. Ponder this scene and the impact of what happened next. With guns leveled at his head, David Whitmer raised his hands and bore witness that the Book of Mormon was the Word of God. The perplexed mob let them go. David's fearless testimony would reportedly make one of the mobbers a believer in the Book of Mormon.
That story is retold at the beginning of a handy resource on Whitmer: FAIRMormon's "Book of Mormon Witnesses, Part 4: David Whitmer."
After bearing witness of the plates, David Whitmer did later leave the Church. He wrote a pamphlet explaining his differences and disappointment. While criticizing Church leaders, he also took the opportunity in that pamphlet to again bear testimony of the authenticity and divinity of the Book of Mormon. Later, he became concerned that another critic had misrepresented his words to make it sound like he doubted the Book of Mormon. He then wrote and paid the costs to publish An Address to All Believers in Christ in 1887, where he wrote:
A PROCLAMATION. Unto all Nations, Kindred Tongues and People, unto whom these presents shall come: It having been represented by one John Murphy, of Polo, Caldwell County, Mo., that I, in a conversation with him last summer, denied my testimony as one of the three witnesses to the 'BOOK OF MORMON.'
To the end, therefore, that he may understand me now, if he did not then; and that the world may know the truth, I wish now, standing as it were, in the very sunset of life, and in the fear of God, once for all to make this public statement:
That I have never at any time denied that testimony or any part thereof, which has so long since been published with that Book, as one of the three witnesses. Those who know me best, well know that I have always adhered to that testimony. And that no man may be misled or doubt my present views in regard to the same, I do again affirm the truth of all of my statements, as then made and published. "He that hath an ear to hear, let him hear, it was no delusion! What is written is written, and he that readeth let him understand."
As the last surviving of the Three Witnesses, Whitmer also said this in his 1887 statement:
I will say once more to all mankind, that I have never at any time denied that testimony or any part thereof. I also testify to the world, that neither Oliver Cowdery or Martin Harris ever at any time denied their testimony. They both died reaffirming the truth of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon. I was present at the deathbed of Oliver Cowdery, and his last words were, "Brother David, be true to your testimony of the Book of Mormon."
As far as we know, none ever denied their testimony of the Book of Mormon. Three of them left additional written accounts after their original statement. In "Evaluating the Book of Mormon Witnesses," Steven C. Harper summarizes what we learn from their later written statements (references in the original, here removed):
After escaping from jail in Liberty, Missouri, Hyrum Smith wrote in 1839, "Having given my testimony to the world of the truth of the book of Mormon, the renewal of the everlasting covenant, and the establishment of the Kingdom of heaven, in these last days; and having been brought into great afflictions and distresses for the same, I thought that it might be strengthening to my beloved brethren, to give them a short account of my sufferings, for the truth's sake." As part of the subsequent narrative, Hyrum summed up what he had suffered and why. "I thank God that I felt a determination to die, rather than deny the things which my eyes had seen, which my hands had handled, and which I had borne testimony to, wherever my lot had been cast; and I can assure my beloved brethren that I was enabled to bear as strong a testimony, when nothing but death presented itself, as ever I did in my life."
Hiram Page, another of the Eight Witnesses, was whipped in Jackson County, Missouri, in 1833 for his profession of Mormonism. He left activity in the Church in 1838 and in 1847 wrote to William McLellin. "As to the Book of Mormon," he affirmed:it would be doing injustice to myself and to the work of God of the last days, to say that I could know a thing to be true in 1830, and know the same thing to be false in 1847. To say my mind was so treacherous that I had forgotten what I saw. To say that a man of Joseph's ability, who at that time did not know how to pronounce the word Nephi, could write a book of six hundred pages, as correct as the Book of Mormon, without supernatural power. 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 an hymn in their own pure language. Yea, it would be treating the God of heaven with contempt to deny these testimonies, with too many others to mention here.
Joseph Smith's history mentions that John Whitmer, another of the Eight Witnesses, assisted much in scribing the Book of Mormon translation. Writing subsequently as the Church's historian, John wrote in third person that his brother "David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris, were the Three Witnesses, whose names are attached to the book of Mormon according to the prediction of the Book, who knew and saw, for a surety, into whose presence the angel of God came and showed them the plates, the ball, the directors, etc. And also other witnesses even eight viz: Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, John Whitmer, and Peter Whitmer Jr., Hiram Page, Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, and Samuel H. Smith, are the men to whom Joseph Smith, Jr., showed the plates, these witnesses names go forth also of the truth of this work in the last days. To the convincing or condemning of this generation in the last days." In 1836 John wrote further: "To say that the Book of Mormon is a revelation from God, I have no hesitancy, but with all confidence have signed my name to it as such." This was John's last editorial in his role as editor of the Church's newspaper, and he asked his readers' indulgence in speaking freely on the subject. "I desire to testify," he wrote, "to all that will come to the knowledge of this address; that I have most assuredly seen the plates from whence the book of Mormon is translated, and that I have handled these plates, and know of a surety that Joseph Smith, jr. has translated the book of Mormon by the gift and power of God." Three decades later, John and his brother David were the only two surviving Book of Mormon witnesses. At that point, just two years before his own death, John responded to an inquirer about the witnesses. John replied, "I have never heard that any one of the three or eight witnesses ever denied the testimony that they have borne to the Book as published in the first edition of the Book of Mormon."
Critics have attempted to redefine what the Eight Witnesses said. Richard Lloyd Anderson's careful scholarship clarifies the record thoroughly. See his "Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 14/1 (2005): 18Ð31, 125Ð27.
Several of the official witnesses to the Book of Mormon appear to have doubted the Church or Joseph since they departed from the Church, some permanently, some for a while. But none of these ever denied their witness of the Book of Mormon. However, if we define "Book of Mormon witness" broadly, as Brigham Young did, then yes, there were others who were witnesses of the Book of Mormon, some of whom even claim to have seen angels or the plates, who later fell away and may have even doubted the Book of Mormon. Brigham Young once said this, giving an extreme and troubling example:
Some of the witnesses of the Book of Mormon, who handled the plates and conversed with the angels of God, were afterwards left to doubt and to disbelieve that they had ever seen an angel. One of the Quorum of the Twelve--a young man full of faith and good works, prayed, and the vision of his mind was opened, and the angel of God came and laid the plates before him, and he saw and handled them, and saw the angel, and conversed with him as he would with one of his friends; but after all this, he was left to doubt, and plunged into apostacy [sic], and has continued to contend against this work. There are hundreds in a similar condition.
--Journal of Discourses, 7:164
Young's statement clearly does not refer to the orignal Three Witnesses or the Eight Witnesses, contrary to deceptive claims of certain critics taking Brigham's words out of context, for none of those eleven men served as an Apostle. Indeed, other statements from Brigham Young confirm that official witnesses remained true to their testimonies of the Book of Mormon, even after leaving the Church. For a detailed discussion of President Young's statement and its abuse by some critics, see Matthew Roper, "Comments on the Book of Mormon Witnesses: A Response to Jerald and Sandra Tanner," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 2/2 (Fall 1993): 164-193. Roper shows that President Young used the term "witness" broadly to refer to many who had received a divine manifestation of the Book of Mormon, not just the official eleven. Thus, there could be hundreds of thousands of witnesses, and, as he said "hundreds in a similar condition" of apostasy. But not the official eleven.
So what do we know about Apostles who lost their testimony of the Book of Mormon? Here is an excerpt from Roper which raises a possible candidate:
In 1846 John D. Lee visited Luke Johnson in St. Joseph, Missouri. Johnson had been one of the original twelve apostles who had left the Church during the Kirtland apostasy of 1837-38. Not insignificantly, Lee described Johnson as "one of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon" even though he was not one of the eleven. According to Lee: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 seeing 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 twelve apostles at the first organization of the Church?' '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. . . . But I have reflected over the matter much since that time, and 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 to the Church.
Luke Johnson returned to the Church in time to accompany the first Saints west and would later become a bishop in the Church. Consequently, Brigham Young's statement, "and has continued to contend against this work," may refer to yet another apostle who left the Church during the Kirtland apostasy. Brigham's statement may in fact refer to Luke's brother Lyman Johnson who reportedly apostatized after having seen an angel. "Lyman Johnson had wonderful manifestations given unto him; but when he fell into transgression . . . the power and authority that had distinguished him before was withdrawn." " I remember hearing President Snow say on more than one occasion," recalled Mathias Cowley, "how determined Lyman E. Johnson was to see an angel from the Lord. He plead [sic] with and teased the Lord to send an angel to him until he saw an angel; but President Snow said the trouble with him was that he saw an angel one day and saw the devil the next day, and finally the devil got away with him."
Although the Tanners claim that Brigham Young said the Three Witnesses doubted their testimony of the Book of Mormon, available historical evidence does not support that position. Since many early members of the Church claimed powerful spiritual experiences connected with the Book of Mormon, and since these individuals are also referred to by early Mormons as Book of Mormon "witnesses," we can justifiably conclude that the phrase "some of the witnesses," contrary to the Tanners, does indeed refer to some early Mormons who had similar experiences, but not to one of the official Book of Mormon witnesses.
The substance of the the witnesses shines through their lifetime of commitment to their accounts. But the "substance" and depth of their sincerity is also evident in other ways. Consider what William McLellin observed when the lives of the two of the Three Witnesses were on the line.
The account I refer to was shared by the impeccable Richard Lloyd Anderson when he gave the Neal. A. Maxwell lecture at BYU on March 20, 2009. His lecture, "Probing the Lives of Christ and Joseph Smith," was published in the Farms Review of Books, Vol. 21, No. 2, 2009. He points out some serious errors by modern scholars who say that the story of the Gospels are not based on eye-witness accounts but evolved from story-telling over decades. He also turns to the Joseph Smith story, including the First Vision and the Book of Mormon, where there is overwhelming evidence that these primary witnesses never denied their witness of the Book of Mormon, even when some had left the Church over other issues, and even when they had nothing to gain and everything to lose for their stand.
One relatively unknown tidbit that Brother Anderson shared comes from an 1871 notebook by William McLellin. The notebook was long missing and only recently acquired by Brent Ashworth. It describes a scene in 1833 when McLellin was being sought by mobs in Missouri, shortly after Bishop Partridge had been tarred and feathered. Armed men were out looking for McLellin and Oliver Cowdery, who were in hiding in woods west of Independence. They met with David Whitmer there, and McLellin recalls his conversation there with two of the Three Witnesses in those dire circumstances, facing death for their religion:
I said to them, "brethren I never have seen an open vision in my life, but you men say you have, and therefore you positively know. Now you know that our lives are in danger every hour, if the mob can catch us. Tell me in the fear of God, is that book of Mormon true?" Cowdery looked at me with solemnity depicted in his face, and said, "Brother William, God sent his holy Angel to declare the truth of the translation of it to us, and therefore we know. And though the mob kill us, yet we must die declaring its truth." David said, "Oliver has told you the solemn truth, for we could not be deceived. I most truly declare to you its truth!!" Said I, boys I believe you. I can see no object for you to tell me falsehood now, when our lives are endangered."
The faithful and adamant testimony of the Book of Mormon from every witness of the gold plates, to the end of their lives, is one of the most insurmountable barriers yet to be scaled by those who claim there were no plates, no angel, no divine record translated by the power of God, but merely a fraud concocted by a charlatan. As one observer quipped, it's one thing to talk about seeing an angel, but it's quite a different thing to introduce him to your friends.
The vast body of scholarship on the witnesses to the Book of Mormon paints a consistent story of real people who really saw something and, in spite of whatever problems or differences they later faced, never denied the reality of their witness. The scholarship on their lives also includes studies on many peripheral figures whose words add to our understanding of what the witnesses said. One such figure is Sally Parker. See Janiece L. Johnson , "'The Scriptures Is a Fulfilling': Sally Parker's Weave," BYU Studies, vol. 4, no. 2 (2005). This publication features a letter written by Sally Bradford Parker to her brother-in-law John Kempton on August 26, 1838. The young convert shares her experience in hearing the testimony of Hyrum Smith and also of Lucy Mack Smith. On page 1 of her letter (the edited version with conventional spelling and grammar), she states:
And you said you wanted if we could send you something to comfort you, which I don't know as I can. For I have not heard but one sermon since we have been in the place and that by Hyrum Smith. As he was moving to Missouri he tarried with us a little while. His discourse was beautiful. We were talking about the Book of Mormon, [of] which he is one of the witnesses. He said he had but two hands and two eyes. He said he had seen the plates with his eyes and handled them with his hands and he saw a breast plate and he told how it was made. It was fixed for the breast of a man with a hole in [the] stomach and two pieces upon each side with a hole through them to put in a string to tie it on, but that was not so good gold as the plates for that was pure. Why I write this is because they dispute the Book so much.
I lived by his Mother [Lucy Mack Smith, in Kirtland] and she was one of the finest of women, always helping those that stood in need. She told me the whole story. The plates were in the house and sometimes in the woods for eight months on account of people trying to get them. They had to hide them once. They hid them under the hearth. They took up the brick and put them in and put the brick back. The old lady told me this herself with tears in her eyes and they run down her cheeks too. She put her hand upon her stomach and said she, "O the peace of God that rested upon us all that time." She said it was a heaven below. I asked her if she saw the plates. She said no, it was not for her to see them, but she hefted and handled them and I believed all she said for I lived by her eight months and she was one of the best of women.
She testifies to the character of Lucy Mack Smith and observes that while she had not seen them directly, she had "hefted and handled them" (apparently while covered) and thus, of course, was a witness of their physical reality. Of Hyrum Smith, she heard him directly describe what he had seen. He made it unmistakeable that it was with his real eyes that he saw and his real hands that he handled the plates. These accounts are numerous, consistent, and granular. The witnesses were genuine witnesses and the plates were real. That's the most logical conclusion that can be made.
FAIRMormon resources on the question, "Did Martin Harris say he only saw the Book of Mormon with 'spiritual eyes' or 'the eye of faith?"
Did Martin Harris claim that the eight witnesses hesitated to sign their testimony and the he only saw the plates as they were covered "as a city through a mountain"? - information from FAIRMormon.org.
Additional Witnesses of the Book of Mormon -- article by Dennis B. Horne.
Edward Stevenson's Journal Entry about Martin Harris -- John Gee reports a newly discovered brief statement paraphrasing Martin Harris as recorded by Edward Stevenson. With Gee's sleuthing and transcribing skills, an important little twist is uncovered. Interesting find.
Richard Lloyd Anderson, "The Whitmers: A Family That Nourished the Church," Ensign, August 1979. Historical information on the Whitmer family.