Book of Mormon Nuggets

Supplementing Jeff Lindsay's Book of Mormon Evidences page.

Nugget #12:
Circumstantial Evidence and the Witnesses of the Book of Mormon:
Can They Be Ignored Any Longer?

In The Prophetic Book of Mormon: New Approaches to Book of Mormon Study, Hugh Nibley makes an excellent observation about the indirect, circumstantial evidence for Book of Mormon authenticity (p. 71):

Circumstantial Evidence. Entirely apart from the contents of the Book of Mormon and the external evidences that might support it, there are certain circumstances attending its production which cannot be explained on grounds other than those given by Joseph Smith. These may be listed briefly:

1. There is the testimony of the witnesses.

] 2. The youth and inexperience of Joseph Smith at the time when he took full responsibility for the publication of the book - proof (a) that he could not have produced it himself and (b) that he was not acting for someone else, for his behavior at all times displayed astounding independence.

3. The absence of notes and sources.

4. The short time of production.

5. The fact that there was only one version of the book ever published (with minor changes in each printing). This is most significant. It is now known that the Koran, the only book claiming an equal amount of divine inspiration and accuracy, was completely re-edited at least three times during the lifetime of Mohammed. This brings up:

6. The unhesitating and unchanging position of Joseph Smith regarding his revelations, a position that amazed Eduard Meyer more than anything else [1]. From the day the Book of Mormon came from the press, Joseph Smith never ceased to spread it abroad, and he never changed his attitude toward it. What creative writer would not blush for the production of such youth and inexperience twenty years after? What impostor would not lie awake nights worrying about the slips and errors of this massive and pretentious product of his youthful indiscretion and roguery? Yet, since the Prophet was having revelations all along, nothing would have been easier, had he the slightest shadow of a misgiving, than to issue a new, revised, and improved edition, or to recall the book altogether, limit its circulation, claim it consisted of mysteries to be grasped by the uninitiated alone, say it was to be interpreted only in a "religious" sense, or supersede it by something else. The Saints who believed the Prophet were the only ones who took the book seriously anyway.

7. There has never been any air of mystery about the Book of Mormon; there is no secrecy connected with it at the time of its publication or today; there is a complete lack of sophistry or policy in discussions of the Book of Mormon; it plays absolutely no role in the history of the Church as a pawn; there is never dispute about its nature or contents among the leaders of the Church; there is never any manipulating, explaining, or compromise. The book has enjoyed unlimited sale at all times.

8. Finally, though the success of the book is not proof of its divinity, the type of people it has appealed to - sincere, simple, direct, highly unhysterical, and nonmystical - is circumstantial evidence for its honesty. It has very solid supporters.

Cited Reference:
1. Eduard Meyer, Ursprung und Geschichte der Mormonen (Halle: Niemeyer, 1912), 59-83, esp. 72, 80-83; published also as The Origin and History of the Mormons, tr. H. Rahde and E. Seaich (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1961), 37-56.

Of these points, let me emphasize the first one, the existence of witnesses. If the Book of Mormon were a forgery, fabricated out of thin air rather than translated from ancient metal plates, surely Joseph Smith would have kept the secret to himself. But he gathered multiple people who saw and handled the plates, and who remained loyal to that witness to the end of their lives, even though many of these witnesses became unhappy with Joseph or the Church, and suffered great persecution for their witness. They made no money and gained no power, but in spite of everything, never denied their witness. Consider Martin Harris, described as honest and reputable even by anti-Mormons who knew him. He was a man of proven integrity in his community, a respected and successful man who sacrificed much to help bring forth the Book of Mormon. Yet he would later disagree with the policies of the Church and be excommunicated in 1837. In spite of that, he repeatedly expressed his testimony of the Book of Mormon, that he had seen an angel, had touched and handled the plates, and knew that it was divine. His testimony was confirmed even on his deathbed.

Three witnesses saw an angel and the plates, eight others handled the plates and bore formal witness, and a handful of others, including Joseph's wife, Emma, were witnesses to the physical reality of the gold plates and the divinity of the Book of Mormon. No witness ever denied the authenticity and divinity of that book. What forger, foolish enough to let others know of his fraud, could get his accomplices to sacrifice all and keep repeating the lie - even after they had become angry and bitter with the source of the lie? What forger could afford to alienate his fellow conspirators, when all they had to do was admit what everyone suspected, that it was a fraud, to bring sweet vengeance to the alienated?

It simply makes no sense that the Book of Mormon was a forgery. Nitpick at the King James language or other details, but how can you explain away the most basic issue here: the reality and divinity of the ancient record has multiple reliable witnesses who insisted that the Book of Mormon was true to the end of their lives, even though they would have had abundant motivation to expose the fraud if it were actually fraudulent. How can such testimony be ignored?

The witnesses were not rogues of ill repute in their communities, but were respected men who risked and lost much by their support of the Book of Mormon. Consider the testimony of many non-Mormons regarding Martin Harris, as documented by Milton V. Backman, Jr., in Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1983), pages 144 - 145:

After becoming close friends or acquaintances with various witnesses to the Book of Mormon, many non-Mormons also declared that the witnesses they knew were men of integrity. Not one individual who had more than a fleeting acquaintance with these men wrote that they were dishonest, lacked sincerity, or were incompetent judges of events. Instead of denouncing their characters, many critics of the Church who knew the witnesses declared that they were trustworthy individuals. In 1830, for example, Martin Harris traveled to Geneva, New York, in an attempt to secure a loan of thirteen hundred dollars from Charles Butler, a financier and philanthropist who founded the Union Theological Seminary. Butler wrote that Harris brought a letter of introduction to him from Mr. Jessup (probably Henry Jessup), a leading elder in the Presbyterian Church. Butler depended on Jessup's recommendations respecting character and financial status for all seeking loans who lived in the area of Palmyra. According to Butler, Jessup introduced Martin Harris as a "very worthy and substantial farmer, possessing a very excellent farm which would furnish a very ample security for the amount of money which he wished to obtain." Although Butler was favorably impressed with Harris' credentials, the financier decided not to grant him a loan when he learned that the money was to be used for the publication of a "Mormon Bible. " [1]

In addition to Henry Jessup, others living in Palmyra judged Martin Harris to be honest and responsible. In 1829, the Palmyra Freeman reported that one of the few individuals who believed in the story of the "Golden Bible" was Martin Harris, "an honest and industrious farmer" of Palmyra. [2] While traveling in western New York in 1831, James Gordon Bennett, a journalist for the New York Courier and Enquirer learned from those he interviewed that Martin Harris had a reputation of being a "respectable . . . hard working . . . substantial farmer" and was known for his "sobriety." [3] When Martin Harris left Palmyra to gather with the Latter-day Saints in Ohio, the Wayne Sentinel reported that Harris was one of the earliest settlers of that town and "has ever borne the character of an honorable and upright" citizen. [4] And after publishing the testimony of the Three Witnesses in his history of Mormonism, Pomeroy Tucker wrote, "How to reconcile the act of Harris in signing his name to such a statement, in view of the character of honesty which had always been conceded to him, could never be easily explained." [5]

References Cited by Backman:

  1. A portion of a typescript of this letter is located in the Charles Butler Collection, Library of Congress.
  2. "Golden Bible," Rochester Advertiser and Telegraph, August 31, 1829, reprinting an article published in the Palmyra Freeman.
  3. Leonard J. Arrington, "James Gordon Bennett's 1831 Report on 'The Mormonites," BYU Studies 10 (Spring 1970):355, 358 and Hillsborough Gazette (Ohio), October, 29, 1831.
  4. Wayne Sentinel, May 27, 1831.
  5. Tucker, Origin, Rise and Progress of Mormonism, pp. 69-71. For additional references that Martin Harris was "considered an honest, industrious citizen by his neighbors," see E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, p. 13 and the Palmyra Courier, May 24, 1872.
Richard Lloyd Anderson in Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1981, pp. 101-103) also discusses testimony by non-Mormons regarding Martin Harris:
The most unusual tribute to this Book of Mormon witness came in an obituary written thirty-four years before his death. Probably because of activities of another Harris, the report spread throughout U.S. newspapers in 1841 that Martin Harris had been assassinated in Illinois for lecturing against Mormonism. This was soon corrected by the Painesville Telegraph, which reported from Harris's residence in Ohio that he was still alive to read "what shall be said of him after his death." In the meantime Alvah Strong at Rochester had relied upon the nationally circulated story of the murder and had written his detailed estimate of his former acquaintance. Strong, a distinguished editor and respected community leader in Rochester, had earlier worked as a young printer in Palmyra just after the publication of the Book of Mormon and during the peak of Martin Harris's public preaching in that community. Based upon this and other personal knowledge, he summarized the admiration for this witness and the prejudice against his testimony that characterized the community that knew him:
"We have ever regarded Mr. Harris as an honest man. We first became acquainted with him at Palmyra, in the spring of 1828, shortly after the plates from which the Book of Mormon is said to have been translated, were found. . . . Though illiterate and actually of a superstitious turn of mind, he had long sustained an irreproachable character for probity. . . . By his neighbors and townsmen with whom he earnestly and almost incessantly labored, he was regarded rather as being deluded himself, than as wishing to delude others knowingly; but still he was subjected to many scoffs and rebukes, all of which he endured with a meekness becoming a better cause." [Rochester Daily Democrat, June 23, 1841.]
The only extended evaluation of Martin Harris made in the early period is also the most complimentary. His exodus from Palmyra occasioned a touching tribute placed before the public by E. B. Grandin. Editor of the Wayne Sentinel in the crucial years of 1827-32 and printer of the Book of Mormon, Grandin perhaps knew Harris more intimately than any other non-Mormon. Grandin's diary is still in existence for the period immediately after these events, and it reveals him as a thoughtful, religiously independent man. This editor penned a valedictory upon the occasion of Martin Harris's leaving for Ohio with other early Latter-day Saints in 1831. It is impressive that direct approval of the honesty of the financier of the Book of Mormon should come from the man who had continual business dealings with him. Martin Harris passed this practical test with distinction:
"Mr. Harris was among the early settlers of this town, and has ever borne the character of an honorable and upright man, and an obliging and benevolent neighbor. He had secured to himself by honest industry a respectable fortune - and he has left a large circle of acquaintances and friends to pity his delusion." [Wayne Sentinel, May 27, 1831.]
Orasmus Turner, who had been a printer's apprentice in Palmyra, wrote negatively about Mormonism in 1852, depicting Harris as a fanatic who nevertheless was "the owner of a good farm, and an honest worthy citizen" (O. Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham's Purchase (Rochester, 1852), p. 215, as cited by R.L. Anderson, "Martin Harris: The Honorable New York Farmer," Improvement Era, Vol. 72, No. 2 (Feb. 1969), pp. 18-21).

Similar testimony from those outside the Church was offered for the character of Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer as well (quoting Backman, pp. 146-148):

After leaving the Church in 1838, Oliver Cowdery established warm friendships with a number of non-members. Samuel Murdock, an attorney who became "intimately acquainted" with Cowdery while he was residing in Kirtland, wrote that he was indebted to him for his "special kindness" and "the many lessons of instruction" he received from him. Murdock concluded that Oliver Cowdery was one of the most "amiable, generous, and kindhearted" individuals he had ever known. [1] Judge William Lang, Oliver Cowdery's law partner in Tiffin, Ohio, wrote that he was granted many opportunities "to study and love his noble and true manhood." According to Lang, Cowdery was "an able lawyer and a great advocate. . . . He was modest and reserved, never spoke ill of any one, [and] never complained." [2] Shortly after Oliver Cowdery moved from Tiffin, The Seneca Advertiser reported that Cowdery had been nominated as the democratic candidate for the House of Representatives in Wisconsin. During his seven year residency in Tiffin, the article continued,
our esteemed friend . . . earned himself an enviable distinction at the Bar of this place and of this Judicial circuit, as a sound and able lawyer, and as a citizen none could have been more esteemed. His honesty, integrity, and industry were worthy the imitation of all, whilst his unquestioned legal abilities reflected credit as well upon himself as upon the profession of which he was a member. [3]
Following the death of Oliver Cowdery, the Ray County Missouri Bar Association formally declared that the law "profession has lost an accomplished member, and the community a valuable and worthy citizen." [4] And The Seneca Advertiser declared that they were "pained to learn . . . of the death of . . . (their) much esteemed friend and former fellow citizen, Oliver Cowdery. . . . He was a man of more than ordinary ability, and during his residence among us had endeared himself to all who knew him in the private and social walks of life." [5]

Non-Mormons also certified that John and David Whitmer were "truthful, honest and law abiding citizens." After living in Richmond, Missouri, for forty-three years, David Whitmer secured the signatures of twenty-two leading citizens of that town, including the mayor, attorneys, judges, bankers, merchants, and public servants who verified that they had "been long and intimately acquainted with him" and knew "him to be a man of the highest integrity, and of undoubted truth and veracity." [6] A few days following his death, the Richmond Democrat published an article which apparently expressed the views of many of the friends of David Whitmer regarding his character and his testimony regarding the Book of Mormon.

No man ever lived here, who had among our people, more friends and fewer enemies. Honest, conscientious and upright in all his dealings, just in his estimate of men, and open, manly and frank in his treatment of all, he made lasting friends who loved him to the end . . .

Skeptics may laugh and scoff if they will, but no man can listen to Mr. Whitmer as he talks of his interview with the angel of the Lord, without being most forcibly convinced that he has heard an honest man tell what he honestly believes to be true. [7]

Because more than one hundred detailed personal statements or descriptions of interviews with the Three Witnesses have been preserved (and additional testimonies of the Eight Witnesses also exist), the testimony of the Book of Mormon witnesses is better documented than any other declaration of direct revelation in the world's history. [8] The striking harmony of reports spanning a variety of times and circumstances, coupled with numerous character references that portray the witnesses as men of integrity, is compelling evidence of the truthfulness of the testimonies published in the Book of Mormon. These numerous personal statements and interviews also serve as evidence that amidst persecution, economic trials, public criticism, and apostasy from the Church the eleven never deviated from their conviction that they carefully examined the metallic plates and that the Book of Mormon was a product of the translation of this record. Even though six of the eleven rejected the leadership of Joseph Smith in the late 1830s, there is no reliable evidence that any of the witnesses at any time deviated from their conviction in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. The published testimonies of the eleven witnesses, therefore, enable us to better understand a unique event in the ecclesiastical history of mankind and substantiate Joseph Smith's testimony that eleven men did indeed examine the ancient record which he translated "by the gift and power of God."

References Cited by Backman:

  1. Samuel Murdock to Editor of Dubuque Daily Times, April 13, 1893, cited in R. Etzenhouser, From Palmyra, New York, 1830, to Independence, Missouri, 1894 (Independence, Mo.: Ensign Publishing House, 1894), pp. 338-41.
  2. W. Lang, History of Seneca County (Springfield, Ohio: Transcript Printing Co., 1880), pp. 364-65.
  3. The Seneca Advertiser (Tiffin, Ohio), May 5, 1848, p. 2.
  4. Circuit Court Journal, Ray County, Missouri, March 5, 1850. For additional character references on Oliver Cowdery and his activities after he left the Church, see Richard L. Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1981), pp. 38-44.
  5. The Seneca Advertiser (Tiffin, Ohio), November 1, 1850, p. 2.
  6. Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, pp. 72-76, 131-33. The statement regarding the character of David Whitmer signed by twenty-two leading citizens of Richmond, Missouri, was published in the Richmond Conservator, March 25, 1881, and in a pamphlet written by David Whitmer, Address to All Believers in Christ, pp. 9-10. A photocopy of the document is located in the Church Archives and in Ebbie L. V. Richardson, "David Whitmer: A Witness to the Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon" (Master's thesis, Brigham Young University, 1952.) See also Appendix F of Backman.
  7. Richmond Democrat, January 26, 1888, and reprinted February 2, 1888, in the same newspaper. See also Richmond Conservator, January 26, 1888. The Richmond Conservator reported that David Whitmer had lived in Richmond for forty-six years "without stain or blemish." He enjoys the "confidence and esteem of his fellow men," this report added and is considered "a good citizen." (Richmond Conservator, August 22, 1881.)
  8. Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, p. 79.
Shortly before Whitmer died, the Chicago Tribune Correspondent printed a report on Whitmer:
David Whitmer, the last one of the three witnessed to the truth of the Book of Mormon, is now in a dying condition at his home in Richmond. Last evening he called the family and friends to his bedside, and bore his testimony to the truth of the Book of Mormon and the Bible. (Chicago Tribune Correspondent, 23 January 1888, quoted in Lyndon W. Cook, David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness (Grandin Book Co., 1993), p. 220, and cited on Mike Ash's page, "Book of Mormon Criticisms: David Whitmer.")
After his death, another newspaper, the Richmond Conservator, carried this report:
On Sunday evening before his death he called the family and his attending physician, Dr. George W. Buchanan, to his bedside and said, "Doctor do you consider that I am in my right mind?" to which the Doctor replied, "Yes, you are in your right mind, I have just had a conversation with you." He then addressed himself to all present and said: "I want to give my dying testimony. You must be faithful in Christ. I want to say to you all that the Bible and the record of the Nephites, (The Book of Mormon) are true, so you can say that you have heard me bear my testimony on my death bed...."

On Monday morning he again called those present to his bedside, and told them that he had seen another vision which reconfirmed the divinity of the "Book of Mormon," and said that he had seen Christ in the fullness of his glory and majesty, sitting upon his great white throne in heaven waiting to receive his children. (Richmond Conservator Report, 26 January 1888, quoted in Cook, p. 226, as cited on Mike Ash's page, "Book of Mormon Criticisms: David Whitmer; see also Andrew Jenson, Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia: A Compilation of Biographical Sketches of Prominent Men and Women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 4 vols, Salt Lake City, p. 269.)

For further impressive details, please see the following pages: It simply defies logic that men of widely acclaimed character would all be part of a fraudulent scheme that brought them no gain and then stick to that scheme and go out of their to endorse the fraud to the very end of their lives, even after they had become unhappy with the organizer whom they had opposed on other issues. They would have had every motivation to expose Joseph Smith as a fraud if their testimony were not truthful. The reliability and consistency of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon exceed every legal standard for reliable testimony. No motive can be offered for their testimony throughout their lives other than their widely recognized integrity, causing them to maintain their position because they knew it to be true, in spite of all the trouble this brought them.

Many anti-Mormons have tried to discredit the witnesses, but their efforts require abandonment of what the witnesses were well known for: honesty. To date, no anti-Mormon critic has been able to refute or explain away the overwhelming evidence surrounding the testimony of numerous witnesses to the Book of Mormon. In fact, when anti-Mormons try to discredit the witnesses, they almost universally pretend like the massive documentation of Richard L. Anderson and other serious scholars on this issue does not exist. Rather than confront the existing scholarship, they will try to dismiss the witnesses with a few snide remarks about low intelligence, family relationships (several of the eight witnesses being related to each other), hypnotic delusion, and the like, or point to red herrings like the fact that some left the Church, trying to falsely suggest that they must have denied their testimony by so doing. But the record is clear: no witness ever denied his or her testimony of the Book of Mormon, and many heard them repeat their testimony to the end of their lives. Can we conclude anything other than the obvious: these people saw the gold plates and knew beyond doubt that it was of God. Whether you agree with anything else Joseph Smith ever did or said, it's time to seriously consider the possibility that the Book of Mormon is an authentic and divine record with compelling and reliable support.

Finally, please see "One Day in the Life of Joseph Smith," my satirical skit involving the witnesses and others, showing what things might have been like if the critics were right about the Book of Mormon. Fortunately, the truth about the witnesses of the Book of Mormon is a compelling story of men of noble integrity and courage bearing witness of something divine.

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Created: Nov. 19, 2002;    Updated: Jan. 20, 2004
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