Doctrine & Covenants/Church History
Lesson 4 - Supplement
WITNESSES OF THE GOLD PLATES
Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote: "Whenever the Lord has established
a dispensation by revealing his gospel and by conferring priesthood and
keys upon men, he has acted in accordance with the law of witnesses which
he himself ordained. This law is: 'In the mouth of two or three witnesses
shall every word be established.' (2 Cor. 13:1; Deut. 17:6; 19:15; Matt.
18:15-16; John 8:12-29.)
"Never does one man stand alone in establishing a new dispensation of revealed truth, or in carrying the burden of such a message and warning to the world. In every dispensation, from Adam to the present, two or more witnesses have always joined their testimonies, thus leaving their hearts without excuse in the day of judgment should the testimony be rejected."
The Lord has provided for witnesses to the original gold plates. In today's legal system, if one eye witness to a criminal activity can be found, chances are that the accused will be convicted. If two or three eyewitnesses testify, conviction is almost certain. The Lord provided twelve eyewitnesses to the existence of the gold plates. If these witnesses can be found as credible, any court would have to declare that the gold plates did in fact exist. Consider these twelve witnesses:
Witness #1 - Joseph Smith
The key witness is Joseph Smith. It was he who claimed to have conversed with an angel. It was he who claimed to have found the plates in the ground. It was he who claimed to have translated the plates. It was he who claimed to have spoken with God. The attacks on his claims are best summarized in his own words, "I have thought since, that I felt much like Paul, when he made his defense before King Agrippa, and related the account of the vision he had when he saw a light, and heard a voice; but still there were but few who believed him; some said he was dishonest, others said he was mad; and he was ridiculed and reviled. But all this did not destroy the reality of his vision. He had seen a vision, he knew he had, and all the persecution under heaven could not make it otherwise; and though they should persecute him unto death, yet he knew, and would know to his latest breath, that he had both seen a light and heard a voice speaking unto him, and all the world could not make him think or believe otherwise.
"So it was with me. I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true; and while they were persecuting me, reviling me, and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart: Why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually seen a vision; and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? for I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation" (Joseph Smith - History 1:24-25).
Joseph never denied the testimony of his visions, the origins of the Book of Mormon, or the work that he began. His testimony remained firm through legal trials, being tarred and feathered, spending a winter in a cold and dark jail, and seeing some of his closest associates turn against him. He was true to his witness until the end of his life. When Joseph consented to go to Carthage, he said to those around him and his guards: "I am going like a lamb to the slaughter, but I am as calm as a summer's morning. I have a conscience void of offense toward God and toward all men. If they take my life, I shall die an innocent man, and my blood shall cry from the ground for vengeance, and it shall be said of me, 'He was murdered in cold blood'." On the afternoon of June 27, 1844, Joseph Smith sealed his testimony with his blood.
THE THREE WITNESSES
Witness #2 - Oliver Cowdery
After Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery is the most important witness of the plates and the work of restoration. Consider his roll in the Restoration:
- While a school teacher in Palmyra, New York, Oliver first learned of Joseph's story. He felt impressed that he should go to Harmony, Pennsylvania, and assist Joseph in the work. On April 7, 1829, Oliver began as Joseph's scribe in the translation. Most of the Book of Mormon was transcribed by Oliver as Joseph translated.
- Oliver was present with Joseph on the banks of the Susquehanna when the Aaronic Priesthood was restored by John the Baptist. He was also with Joseph when Peter, James, and John restored the Melchizedek Priesthood.
- He was one of the Three Witnesses who was shown the gold plates by the Angel Moroni.
- Assisted with the organization of the Church on April 6, 1830. Ordained Second Elder in the Church. Preached the first discourse in the Church a few days later.
- Chosen as a member of the first High Council in Kirtland, Ohio.
- On December 5, 1834, Oliver was ordained by Joseph Smith, at the command of the Lord, as an assistant President of the High Priesthood, to hold the keys of presidency with Joseph Smith.
- In 1835, with the other two witnesses to the Book of Mormon, chose and ordained the first quorum of Twelve Apostles.
- Part of the committee to prepare the revelations for publication as the Doctrine & Covenants.
- Present with Joseph after the dedication of the Kirtland Temple when the Lord, Moses, Elias, and Elijah appeared restoring important priesthood keys.
Oliver was present with Joseph at virtually every important moment during the restoration of the Church. If Joseph Smith was perpetuating a fraud, Oliver was part of the conspiracy.
In September 1837, in a general letter to the brethren, the Prophet stated that Oliver Cowdery "had been in transgression", but he hoped that Oliver would humble himself and magnify his calling. Oliver did not obey Joseph. In April 1838, charges were presented to the high council at Far West and Oliver Cowdery was ex-communicated from the Church. After his ex-communication, he expected Joseph to come with an offer of reconciliation. When this did not occur, Oliver stayed aloof from the Church for more than ten years. Most of this time he lived in Tiffin, Ohio, where he practiced law. He also served as a politician, a journalist, an educator, and a civic servant.
Now that Oliver had been removed from the Church, he was a man with a reason to expose Joseph Smith as a fraud. No one could have done greater damage. Oliver was a prominent man in the communities where he lived and did not need the burden of being listed as one of the Three Witnesses listed in the Book of Mormon. Oliver may have left the church, but he never denied his witness of the Book of Mormon and his role in the restoration.
It has been reported that Oliver was once asked by a lawyer and friend the following question: "Mr. Cowdery, I see your name attached to this book as one of its special witnesses. Do you believe this book?" His response was, "No, sir."
Did Oliver deny his testimony? Oliver's account of this incident, and a letter from the man with whom he had this discussion, record Oliver's answer as follows: "No, sir. My name is attached to this book, and what I then said is true. I did see this, and I know I saw it. Belief and faith has nothing to do with it as a perfect knowledge has swallowed up the belief and faith I formerly had in the work, knowing as I do that the work is true."
At one time Oliver was serving as a county attorney. During his service in that position, he was the prosecuting attorney at a murder trial. After making opening statements to the jury, the attorney for the defense arose and began speaking: "May it please the Court, and gentlemen of the jury, I challenge Mr. Cowdery, since he seems to know so much about this poor defendant, to tell us something about his connection with Joe Smith, and the digging out of the hill of the Mormon Bible, and how Mr. Cowdery helped Joe Smith to defraud the American people out of a whole lot of money by selling the Mormon Bible and telling them that an angel appeared to them from heaven, dressed in white clothes."
The attorney for the defense continued on in this manner and then looked to Oliver for a response. This would have been an opportune time for Oliver to expose Joseph Smith as a fraud and deny his testimony. There were not any Mormons present. Most, if not all, were unaware of Oliver's connection to Joseph Smith. How did Oliver respond?
"If your honor please, and gentlemen of the jury, the attorney of the opposite side has challenged me to state my connection with Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon; and as I cannot now avoid the responsibility, I must admit to you that I am the very Oliver Cowdery whose name is attached to the testimony, with others, as to the appearance of the angel Moroni; and let me tell you that is not because of my good deeds that I am here, away from the body of the Mormon church, but because I have broken the covenants I once made, and I was cut off from the church; but, gentlemen of the jury, I have never denied my testimony, which is attached to the front page of the Book of Mormon and I declare to you here that these eyes saw the angel, and these ears of mine heard the voice of the angel, and he told us his name was Moroni; that the book was true, and contained the fulness of the gospel, and we were also told that if we ever denied what we had heard and seen that there would be no forgiveness for us, neither in this world nor in the world to come."
Oliver returned to the Church in 1848 and spoke to the Saints at a meeting in Kanesville, Iowa on October 21, 1848. He testified that he penned almost the entire Book of Mormon as it fell from the lips of the Prophet. He then bore this testimony: "I beheld with my eyes, and handled with my hands, the gold plates.... I also saw with my eyes and handled with my hands the 'holy interpreters.' That book is true.... It contains principles of salvation; and if you, my hearers, will walk by its light and obey its precepts, you will be saved with an everlasting salvation in the kingdom of God on high."
Oliver had planned to migrate to the Salt Lake Valley, but it was too late in the season. He and his wife and daughter journeyed to Richmond, Missouri to visit with his wife's relatives, the Whitmers. There he died on March 3, 1850. Phineas H. Young was present at Oliver's death. He reported: "His last moments were spent bearing testimony of the truth of the Gospel revealed through Joseph Smith and the power of the holy Priesthood which he had received through his adminsitrations.... After shaking hands with the family and kissing his wife and daughter, he said, 'Now I lay me down for the last time, I am going to my Savior,' and died immediately, with a smile on his face."
Witness #3 - David Whitmer
David Whitmer, a young man like Joseph & Oliver, became acquainted with Oliver Cowdery while he was a school teacher in Palmyra. Oliver and David became friends, and Oliver shared the story of Joseph Smith. After Oliver went to Harmony to assist the Prophet in the translation he wrote David of the difficulties they were having in the Harmony area. David came to Harmony, where he met the Prophet. He then helped the Prophet move to his family home in Fayette, where they could have sufficient peace to finish the translation.
- David was present with Joseph and Oliver when the angel Moroni appeared to show the plates.
- Assisted with the organization of the Church on April 6, 1830.
- David Whitmer served as a missionary, a teacher of doctrine and Church policy to the branches of the Church and as head of the Church in Missouri. He suffered persecution in Jackson County and after his exile helped found a new town and gathering place known as Far West.
The day following the excommunication of Oliver Cowdery, the high council met again and considered five charges against David. David refused to appear before the council. He sent a letter to the council desiring to withdraw from the fellowship and communion of the Saints. The council sustained the charges and voted David no longer a member of the Church. After leaving the Church, David moved to Richmond, Missouri, where he lived the rest of his life. He served two terms as the mayor of Richmond.
Again, here was one of Joseph Smith's closest associates and one who could destroy the Church by denying his testimony. Did David Whitmer ever deny his testimony of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon?
On September 7, 1878, David Whitmer, in the presence of Elder Joseph F. Smith, Elder Orson Pratt, and others bore this testimony: "He (the angel) stood before us. Our testimony as recorded in the Book of Mormon, is strictly and absolutely true." David reaffirmed his testimony to Elder Edward Stevenson in 1886: "As sure as the sun shines and I live, just so sure did the angel appear unto me and Joseph Smith and I heard his voice and did see the angel standing before us."
David Whitmer was accused by one of his Missouri neighbors of having denied his testimony. Reports of that denial were published in two encyclopedias. David replied to that report in 1881 with a statement published in the Richmond Conservator, the New York Times, and the London Times: "Unto all nations, tongues, and people unto who these presents shall come: It having been represented by one Jacob Murphy of Palo, Caldwell County, Missouri, that I in conversation with him last summer, denied my testimony as one of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon; to the end thereof that he may understand me now if he did not then, and that the world may know the truth, I wish now, standing in the very sunset of life and in the fear of God, once for all to make this public statement: I have never at any time denied that testimony or any part thereof. I have always adhered to that testimony. I do again affirm the truth of all my statements as then made and published. It was no delusion. In the spirit of Christ I submit these statements unto the world, God being my judge as the sincerity of my motives. Signed and sealed: David Whitmer."
Published along with David's response, is the following statement signed by twenty-one prominent business and professional men of Richmond: "We the undersigned citizens of Richmond, Ray Colesville., Mo., where David Whitmer Sr. has resided since 1838, certify that we have been long and intimately acquainted with him, and know him to be a man of highest integrity and of undoubted truth and veracity. Given at Richmond, Missouri, this March 20th A.D., 1881."
On the evening prior to his death, David Whitmer made this statement: "Now, you must all be faithful in Christ. I want to say to you all, that the Bible and the Record of the Nephites (Book of Mormon), are true, so you can say you have heard me bear my testimony on my deathbed."
Witness #4 - Martin Harris
Martin Harris was a farmer living in the Palmyra area. He was regarded as a fine neighbor and a cautious man. He was not wealthy, but had sufficient means. He became acquainted with Joseph Smith about two years earlier than Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer. He assisted Joseph with the early translation.
- Martin took the characters to New York to have them examined by Dr. Anthon & Dr. Mitchell.
- Shown the plates by the angel Moroni.
- Mortgaged part of his farm to raise the $3,000 necessary the pring the first 5,000 copies of the Book of Mormon.
- Served on the first high council of the Church.
- Went on several missions.
Along with many others, Martin became disaffected from the Church in 1837 and was excommunicated in December of that same year. Four years later he was rebaptized, but shortly thereafter joined the Strangites and went on a mission to England for that group.
Martin was separated from the Church for 33 years. He lived near Kirtland most of that time. As an elderly man, he was caretaker of the Kirtland Temple. He was poor and ill-kempt. If Joseph Smith had been a fraud, Martin would have had sufficient cause to expose him. Did Martin ever deny his testimony?
Once a number of his old acquaintances treated him to wine. When he began talking glibly, they asked him, "Well, now, Martin, we want you to be frank and canded with us in regard to this story of your seeing an angel and the golden plates of the Book of Mormon that are so much talked about.. We have always taken you to be an honest, good farmer and neighbor of ours, but could not believe that you ever did see an angel. Now Martin, do you really believe that you did see an angel, when you were awake?"
Martin soberly replied: "No, I do not believe it. Gentlemen, what I have said is true, from the fact that my belief is swallowed up in knowledge; for I want to say to you that as the Lord lives I do know that I stood with the Prophet Joseph Smith in the presence of the angel, and it was in the brightness of day."
In 1869, Martin was brought to Utah by Edward Stevenson. Upon his arrival he was rebaptized by Edward Stevenson and confirmed by Orson Pratt. Martin Harris died at Clarkston, Cache County, Utah on July 9, 1875 at the age of 93. Shortly before his death, Martin made the following statement to visitors at his home in Clarkston: "The angel stood before me and said, 'Look!' When I gazed upon him, I fell to the earth, but I rose to my feet again and saw the angel turn the golden leaves over and over, and I said, 'That is enough, my Lord and my God.' Then I heard the voice of God say, 'The book translated from these plates is true and translated correctly.'
"As sure as you are standing here and see me, just as sure did I see the angel with the gold plates in his hand as he showed them to me. I have promised that I will bear witness of this both here and hereafter."
THE EIGHT WITNESSES
A few days after the three witnesses were shown the plates by the angel Moroni, Joseph Smith showed the plates to eight others. These witnesses had the opportunity to both view and hold the plates. That same evening they held a meeting at the Smith residence and composed the testimony which has appeared in all editions of the Book of Mormon.
Witness #5 - Christian Whitmer
Christian was baptized, along with his wife, the Sunday after the Church was organized. He was the first to hold the office of teacher. He was chosen as a member of the high council in Missouri. While there he endured much in the way of mob persecution. He remained faithful to the Church and true to his testimony until the he died. He died at the age of thirty-seven as a result of an ugly sore on his leg. He sealed his testimony with his death.
Witness #6 - Peter Whitmer
Peter viewed the plates at the age of nineteen. He joined Oliver Cowdery, Parley P. Pratt, and Ziba Peterson on their one thousand mile journey to the western frontier to deliver the Book of Mormon to the Indians. Peter remained faithful to the Church until he died. He passed away at the age of twenty-seven of consumption, most likely as a result from the hardships he endured when forced from his home by mobs in during winter weather.
Witness #7 - John Whitmer
John lost his membership due to misunderstandings with the Prophet and other leading brethren. He joined the enemies of the Saints and with them harassed and abused his former brethren. He never denied his testimony of the plates. One time when he and the mob were troubling Theodore Turley, Theodore questioned John about his testimony. John replied: "I now say, I handled those plates; there were fine engravings on both sides." Turley said that John acknowledged all relating to the plates.
Witness #8 - Jacob Whitmer
Like his brother, John Whitmer, Jacob also lost his membership due to misunderstandings with the leading brethren. He also never denied his testimony. Philander Page, his nephew, said: "...Jacob, John, and David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery died in full faith in the divinity of the Book of Mormon. I was with all these witnesses on their deathbeds and heard each of them bear his last testimony."
Witness #9 - Hiram Page
Hiram, like his brothers-in-law, John and Jacob Whitmer, fell by the wayside and lost his membership. He never denied his testimony. His son, Philander, reported: "I knew my father to be true and faithful to his testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon until the very last. Whenever he had an opportunity to bear his testimony to this effect, he would always do so, and seemed to rejoice exceedingly in having been privileged to see the plates and thus become one of the Eight Witnesses."
Witness #10 - Joseph Smith, Sr.
The father of the Prophet was true to his testimony and supported his sons in the Lord's work. He was driven from his home in Missouri following the extermination order of Governor Boggs. Weakened from the toils and exposure of the Missouri experience, he sealed his testimony with his death in 1840.
Witness #11 - Hyrum Smith
Hyrum was absolutely faithful to his brother Joseph and his testimony throughout his life. After spending several months in Liberty Jail, he bore this testimony: "I had been abused and thrust into a dungeon, and confined for months on account of my faith, and the testimony of Jesus Christ. However I thank God that I felt a determination to die, rather than deny the things which my eyes had see, which my hands had handled, and which I had borne testimony to." Hyrum sealed his testimony with his blood on the fateful day in Carthage Jail in June 1844.
Witness #12 - Samuel Smith
Samuel, the Prophet's younger brother, went on the first mission of
the Church in June 1830. He was chosen as a member of the first high council
in Kirtland. Always faithful to the work and his testimony, Samuel sealed
his testimony with his death on July 30, 1844. He died as a result of a
fever caused by overexertion in escaping the mobs when his brothers were
killed a few weeks earlier.
Heber J. Grant stated: "I do not believe that in any court of justice
in the world if a man was being tried for murder and twelve reputable citizens
testified of their knowledge of the circumstances leading to the murder,
and there was no one who could testify against what they said, there would
be a failure to convict the man. We have the testimony of Joseph Smith
and the testimony of three witnesses to the effect that God gave them a
knowledge regarding the Book of Mormon, that an angel of God declared from
heaven that the book had been translated by the gift and power of God.
These men were Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and Martin Harris. They left
the Church, but to the day of their death they maintained their testimony
regarding the declaration of the angel, and that they were commanded to
bear witness of the divinity of this book, and they did so. Eight men,
some of whom were excommunicated from the Church, maintained their testimony
that they had seen and handled the plates from which the Book of Mormon
was translated, and they remained true to that testimony to the day of
their death. The disbelief of all the world does not prove that those men
did not tell the truth, because there are no witnesses on the other side."
(Conference Report, Apr 1929)
Barrett, Ivan Joseph. Joseph Smith and the Restoration. Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1973.
Ludlow, Daniel H. A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976.
McConkie, Bruce R. Mormon Doctrine. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966.
Smith, Joseph. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. 7 vols. Salt Lake City: The Deseret Book Company, 1978.
West, Jack A. Trial of the Stick of Joseph. Sacramento: Rich
Publishing Company, 1974.
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