Facts On The Book Of Mormon Witnesses — Part 1
This paper examines the culture, credibility and relevance of the testimony of the eleven men the LDS Church presents as witnesses to the Book of Mormon. It draws extensively from early sources, both Mormon and non-Mormon, in an attempt to provide an honest and balanced portrayal of the Witness phenomenon. A careful analysis of the historical evidence reveals serious problems.
The Three Witnesses, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris and David Whitmer, all initially describe their experience with the angel and the plates as subjective and visionary rather than objective and concrete. Their elaborations on the encounter, their departure from the LDS Church, as well as other events in their lives, raise questions about their level of discernment and their credibility as witnesses.
The testimony of the Eight Witnesses is more objective but is plagued by its own set of problems. All eight had close personal ties to Joseph Smith's family — four were David Whitmer's brothers, a fifth was married to a Whitmer sister, and Joseph's father and two brothers made up the remaining three. These close ties to Joseph Smith, coupled with discrepancies between the witnesses' published Book of Mormon statement and later personal statements, as well as the question of coercion on the part of Joseph Smith, all raise questions of their credibility as well.
The Witnesses & the Historical Record
For some people, the fact that eleven men would sign their names to a written statement and never denounce the Book of Mormon is sufficient evidence for believing the Book of Mormon is of divine origin. But is the testimony of these eleven men a solid foundation for faith in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon? A careful investigation reveals there are a number of historical details which raise questions about the objectivity and credibility of these witnesses. To gain an objective perspective on the reliability of the witnesses and the strength of their testimony, three criteria will be used to evaluate the historical facts:
- Were they discerning men of sound judgment not easily swayed by tales of the fantastic or supernatural?
- Were they without conflict of interest, and were their characters and reputations unquestioned?
- Did their later statements regarding the plates ever vary, deviate or detract from their original statements?
What Makes a Credible Witness?
In every period of history there are those individuals who tend to be credulous and suggestible. Such people desire to be a part of the fantastic or supernatural, and their very desire leaves them vulnerable to deception or manipulation. Research done on the period of American history from the late 1700s to early 1800s shows this time period to be no exception. Like today, a certain segment of the population desired and pursued subjective and mystical experiences in a quest for spiritual significance. Tales of spirit apparitions, buried treasure and the ability to see things with "spiritual eyes" that cannot be confirmed with the physical senses, were "reality" for those who lived through them. Experiences perceived with "second sight" were taken seriously and held as undeniable fact. But should testimony of this nature be presented as undeniable empirical evidence?
In an article published in the American Quarterly, Alan Taylor cites many incidents where 18th and 19th century treasure seekers claimed to have seen spirits and handled treasure that sank from their grasp. Alan Taylor in his article "The Early Republic's Supernatural Economy: Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast, 1780-1830" comments:
These supernatural encounters were very "real" to those who experienced them. Childhood exposure to treasure tales and their careful performance of elaborate ceremonies at the digging site created a nervous expectation to see the extraordinary. (Taylor 1986, 14)
Magic circles, incantantions, and a strict code of silence once the digging commenced were all part of the ceremony. Any spoken word would break the spell and the whole night's efforts be lost. Taylor gives several examples including the following:
In 1814 a party of Rochester, New York treasure seekers barely escaped with their lives when the conducter exclaimed, 'Damn me, I've found it!' With that, a local newspaper recorded, 'the charm was broken! — the scream of demons — the chattering of spirits — and hissing of serpents rent the air, and the treasure moved.' (Ibid, p. 12)
While many of the fantastic descriptions are viewed as folklore and tall tales, Taylor cites evidence that does not fit a simple explanation of fraud. Treasure seekers often impressed contemporary audiences with their sincerity and "utter conviction that their supernatural encounters had been real. Waitsfield, Vermont's nineteenth-century chronicler wrote of a local treasure seeker, 'The most ridiculous part of this matter, is the fact well attested, that Mr. Savage believed all this, as long as he lived, and was never ridiculed out of it.'" (Taylor 1986, p. 13)
In the years immediately preceding any mention of the gold plates and the Book of Mormon, both Joseph Smith, Jr., and his father, Joseph Sr., were money diggers like those described above. They openly shared their supernatural abilities to see treasure and other things not visible to the natural eye. William Stafford, a neighbor and fellow treasure seeker gave the following account:
Joseph, Jr., could see, by placing a stone of singular appearance in his hat, in such a manner as to exclude all light; at which time they pretended he could see all things within and under the earth, — that he could see within the above mentioned caves, large gold bars and silver plates — that he could also discover the spirits in whose charge these treasures were, clothed in ancient dress."
It is evident the Smith's believed what Joseph saw in his stone for they made attempts to retrieve this treasure. In the same affidavit Stafford recalled one time the made a circle on the ground and put hazel sticks around the circle to keep off evil spirits. A steel rod was added to the center of the circle, a trench dug and then "the older Smith consulted his son who had been 'looking in his stone and watching the motions of the evil spirit.'" However, they had made a mistake in how they started the whole operation, otherwise they would have gotten the money (Joseph Smith's New York Reputation Reexamined, Rodger I. Anderson, SLC, Signature Books, 1990, pp. 143-145).
As noted earlier, money digging and treasure seeking were generally accompanied by anticipation of the supernatural. Participants were emotionally excited and desired that something extraordinary would happen. We find this same pattern of anticipatory desire preceding the experience of the Three Witnesses.
While Joseph Smith was dictating the Book of Mormon to Oliver Cowdery, he read off a section that declared there would be three special witnesses who would be allowed to see the plates and then "bear witness" to the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith's History of the Church states:
Almost immediately after we had made this discovery, it occurred to Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and the aforementioned Martin Harris (who had come to inquire after our progress in the work) that they would have me inquire of the Lord to know if they might not obtain of him the privilege to be these three special witnesses; and finally they became so very solicitous, and urged me so much to inquire that at length I complied (History of the Church, Vol. 1, pp. 52-53).
Joseph then produced a revelation for Oliver, David and Martin which stated that if they relied upon God's word and did so with a full purpose of heart they would "have a view of the plates, and also the breastplate, the sword of Laban, the Urim & Thummim ... and the miraculous directors which were given to Lehi" (Ibid, p. 53). It would only be by their faith that they would be able to obtain a view of them.
This is very convenient. Joseph dictates the part of the Book of Mormon that mentions three special witnesses while all three are there with him. These men beg Joseph to ask God if maybe they aren't the ones. When he finally gives in, Joseph immediately gets a revelation that says, if they have faith, rely on God's word and have full purpose of heart, they will see not only the plates but numerous other wonderful things.
So they go to the woods and first spend a prolonged time in prayer. Nothing happens. They pray more. Nothing happens. Martin Harris volunteers to leave the group because he senses the others think he was the reason nothing was happening. As soon as Harris leaves, the others claim to see the angel and plates, though there is no mention of any of the other items that had been promised. According to Joseph Smith's history, Joseph then goes to find Harris, and while praying together, Harris cries out, "Tis enough, tis enough; mine eyes have beheld; mine eyes have beheld;" (Ibid, p. 55). It becomes clear that all three of these men desired this prestigious position of being the special chosen witnesses. They were emotionally primed by what Joseph claimed to translate and then by the revelation Joseph gave that emphasized their need for faith. The vision only came to Oliver and David after a prolonged time in prayer and the departure of Martin Harris.
It would appear from this account and Doctrine & Covenants 17, that the idea of three witnesses to the Book of Mormon is a new discovery made by Joseph and Oliver in June of 1829 while producing the Book of Mormon. Yet, three months earlier in March of 1829, Joseph received a revelation for Martin Harris which stated that Joseph had the gift to translate the Book of Mormon but that God would grant him no other gift, and that God would call and ordain three special witnesses to whom God would give supernatural power to "behold and view these things as they are." The revelation went on to say that no one else but the three would have the power to receive this same testimony. It is possible that Joseph did not refer back to this March 1829 revelation regarding the witnesses because by June he already had in mind to add eight additional witnesses besides Cowdery, Whitmer and Harris. Adding additional witnesses would go against the earlier revelation that there would be three and only three witnesses and that Joseph should not show the gold plates to anyone else (D&C 5:3, 12-14).
There is another conflict with the story as recorded by Joseph in his official history. Supposedly all three men saw the angel and gold plates the same day. But, Harris provided this information in an interview with Anthony Metcalf:
I never saw the golden plates, only in a visionary or entranced state. I wrote a great deal of the Book of Mormon myself, as Joseph Smith translated or spelled the words out in English. Sometimes the plates would be on a table in the room in which Smith did the translating, covered over with a cloth. I was told by Smith that God would strike him dead if he attempted to look at them, and I believed it. When the time came for the three witnesses to see the plates, Joseph Smith, myself, David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery, went into the woods to pray. When they had engaged in prayer, they failed at the time to see the plates or the angel who should have been on hand to exhibit them. They all believed it was because I was not good enough, or in other words, not sufficiently sanctified. I withdrew. As soon as I had gone away, the three others saw the angel and the plates. In about three days I went into the woods to pray that I might see the plates. While praying I passed into a state of entrancement, and in that state I saw the angel and the plates. (Anthony Metcalf, Ten Years Before the Mast, n.d., microfilm copy, p. 70-71.)
Like Martin Harris, each of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon willingly accepted visionary or second sight experiences as objective, unquestionable reality. The testimony of these witnesses contain qualifications which indicate there was a spiritual, visionary dimension to the encounter with the plates and the angel. It should be understood that this was not unusual for those who were actively seeking such experiences. However, this visionary aspect of the experience is seldom explained to investigators of Mormonism. In Mormon "faith-promoting" literature, references to the witnesses "handling" the plates are prominently featured, but they are not put into a context of a visionary handling of the plates. Martin Harris himself claimed to have sat with the plates, and "held them on his knee for an hour and a half ..." ("Testimony of Martin Harris" in the Latter Day Saints Millennial Star, 34:21, August 20, 1859, p. 545; also in George Reynolds, "Myth of the Manuscript Found," in Juvenile Instructor, 1883, as cited in Case Against Mormonism , Vol. 2, p. 40, Jerald and Sandra Tanner, SLC, 1968). Did he truly sit with plates said to weigh 45-60 pounds on his lap, or did this occur in the realm of vision and imagination? We may not know for sure, but it is interesting that when Mormon apologist Richard Anderson quoted this testimony of Harris from the Millennial Star he chose to omit with an elipsis, Harris' claim to have held the plates on his lap. It is possible Anderson himself recognized this detracted from Harris' credibility. Regardless of how one interprets this event, There is ample historical evidence the witnesses shared a subjective, visionary mindset.
Of the Three Witnesses, Martin Harris was probably the most affected by this mystical and magical outlook. Contemporaries of Harris had some of the following to say about him:
"a visionary fanatic" - said Rev. Jesse Townsend,
"Marvelousness" was his "predominating phrenological development," - Pomeroy Tucker (a man who appeared to like and respect M. Harris) who also said he was given to a "belief in dreams, ghosts, hobgoblins, 'special providences,' terrestrial visits of angels, [and] the interposition of 'devils' to afflict sinful men"
"There can't anybody say a word against Martin Harris. Martin was a good citizen ...a man that would do just as he agreed with you. But, he was a great man for seeing spooks." - Lorenzo Sauders, one who claimed to know the Harris family well. (Ronald W. Walker, "Martin Harris: Mormonism's Early Convert," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol. 19 (Winter 1986): 34-35).
Another example comes from John H. Gilbert, one who participated in the printing of the Book of Mormon. He provides this information:
Martin was something of a prophet: — He frequently said that "Jackson would be the last president that we would have; and that all persons who did not embrace Mormonism in two years would be stricken off the face of the earth.: He said that Palmyra was to be the New Jerusalem, and that her streets were to be paved with gold. Martin was in the office when I finished setting up the testimony of the three witnesses, — (Harris — Cowdery and Whitmer) I said to him, — "Martin, did you see those plates with your naked eyes?" Martin looked down for an instant, raise his eyes up, and said, 'No, I saw them with a spiritual eye.' (Wilford C. Wood, Joseph Smith Begins His Work, Vol. 1, 1958, introduction. This is a photomechanical reprint of the first edition  of the Book of Mormon. It also contains biographical and historical information relating to the Book of Mormon.)
Martin Harris shows signs of being an unstable person in terms of his religious convictions. G.W. Stodard, in an affadavit dated Nov. 28, 1833 states:
I have been acquainted with Martin Harris, about thirty years... Although he possessed wealth, his moral and religious character was such, as not to entitle him to respect among his neighbors....He was first an orthadox Quaker, then a Universalist, next a Restorationer, then a Baptist, next a Presbyterian, and then a Mormon. By his willingness to become all things unto all men, he has attained a high standing among his Mormon brethren. (Howe 1834, 260-261)
This religious instability continued even after Harris joined the Mormon Church. The Mormons admitted as much in 1846:
One day he [Martin Harris] would be one thing, and another day another. He soon became deranged or shattered, as many believed, flying from one thing to another, as if reason and common sense were thrown off their balance. In one of his fits of monomania, he went and joined the 'Shakers' or followers of Anne Lee. He tarried with them a year or two, or perhaps longer ... but since Strang has made his entry into the apostate ranks, and hoisted his standard for the rebellious to flock too, Martin leaves the 'Shakers,' whom he knows to be right, and has known it for many years, as he said, and joins Strang in gathering out the tares of the field. (Millennial Star, vol. 8, November 15, 1846, p. 124.)
The same article goes on to state:
... if the Saints wish to know what the Lord hath said of him, they may turn to the 178th page of the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and the person there called a 'wicked man' is no other than Martin Harris ... (Ibid)
Mormon writers have admitted Harris' instability. E. Cecil McGavin states, "Martin Harris was an unagressive, vacillating, easily influenced person," (Tanner 1968, 33) and Mormon apologist Richard Anderson though questioning "five religious changes before Mormonism," does make several references to his "religious instability." (Anderson 1981, 111, 167-ff)
While Mormon missionaries and popular literature of the LDS Church both point out Martin Harris' eventual return to the Mormon Church as a baptized member in full fellowship, and attribute this information as coming from David Whitmer (Videocassette 1 - The Three Witnesses, produced by Brigham Young University,) there is evidence he was neither mentally stable nor in full fellowship. Rather, he was said to be "feeble both in body and mind" and "was persuaded by persistent importuning to join his destinies with the Utah Mormons." The report in the Des Moines Daily News of October 16, 1886 went on to say that "Whitmer entertains no doubt whatever that this singular action upon the part of Harris was wholly chargeable to the enfeebled condition of his mind..." (Tanner 1968, 31) Phineas H. Young, writing to Brigham Young from Kirtland, Ohio records, "Martin Harris is a firm believer in Shakerism, says his testimony is greater than it was of the Book of Mormon." (Gunnell 1955, 52) W.C. Gunnell in his dissertation on Martin Harris also notes regarding M. Harris' eventual rejoining of the church that "Martin's motives in being baptized at that time are not known, but the data of later events would indicate a lack of sincerity." (Gunnell 1955, 52) The previously cited interview conducted by A. Metcalf further substantiates this, and states:
Harris never believed that the Brighamite branch of the Mormon church, nor the Josephite church, was right, because in his opinion, God had rejected them; but he did believe that Mormonism was the pure gospel of Christ when it was first revealed, I believe he died in that faith. (Metcalf, 73)
When Metcalf asked Harris why he had rejoined the church and taken the Mormon Temple endowments he answered that "his only motive was to see what was going on in there." (Ibid, 72)
Martin Harris as a witness appears to be neither completely competent nor reliable. He was greatly influenced by a magical mindset and able to blend the mystical and material to the point where both were equally real. There is considerable evidence as to his religious instability, as he jumped from one group or person to the next. Mormon scripture refers to him as "a wicked man" and Mormons referred to his "monomania" or "mad fits," as his wife called them. Mormon historians likewise have had to admit he was an "vacillating, easily influenced person."
Much emphasis is placed on the assertion that the BOM Witnesses like Harris, never denounced the Book of Mormon or denied their testimony of seeing an angel. But given what we know of Harris, is his lack of denial of great significance? He does not appear to be a man of sound judgment or discernment and was easily swayed by tales of the supernatural, especially in a religious context. There is no evidence he ever denied his testimony of Shakerism or his experiences with that group. His experience with the angel was visionary and was seen with "a spiritual eye" so it is unverifiable and quite likely was real to him. He had little reason to renounce the Book of Mormon for its message was consistent with the restorationist mindset of many people in the nineteenth century. As the primary financial investor in the Book of Mormon he had a vested interest in supporting its authenticity. These factors would be more likely to lead to continued affirmation of his testimony rather than a denial of it. Throughout his life and especially toward the end, his role as a BOM witness attracted considerable attention as numerous people came to ask him questions and hear him speak. His testimony later in life appears to be less visionary and contain few if any qualifications about its subjective nature. A deathbed account of Martin Harris in the LDS periodical The Instructor, speaks of his reaffirmation of seeing an angel with gold plates. After speaking of the gold plates Harris went on to describe a money digging incident that took place after Joseph found the plates. Harris is quoted as saying:
Three of us took some tools to go to the hill and hunt for more boxes of gold or something, and indeed we found a stone box. We got quite excited about it and dug carefully around it, and by some unseen power it slipped back into the hill. We stood there and looked at it and one of us took a crow-bar and tried to drive it through the lid and hold it, but the bar glanced off and broke off one of the corners of the box. Sometime that box will be found and you will see the corner broken off, and then you will know I have told you the truth ("The Last Testimony of Martin Harris," by E. Cecil McGavin in The Instructor, October, 1930, Vol. 65, No. 10, pp. 587-589).
It is evident Martin Harris was something of a celebrity toward the close of his life. He seemed to enjoy speaking of the encounter with an angel, and the more the story was repeated, the more concrete it became while the subjective aspects of the incident seemed to diminish. This does not prove nor disprove the authenticity of the events recounted by Harris. It does, however, confirm that with the passage of time these events became more real and more concrete for Harris so that his later testimony is understood in light of earlier qualifications. This evidence creates some serious problems for the manner in which the LDS church presents the person and life of Martin Harris. He does not appear to be a man of discernment or sound judgment and was easily swayed by tales of the fantastic and supernatural. He had a vested interest in the success of the Book of Mormon and his reputation was questioned by the Latter-day Saints themselves. Harris added elements to his story of the angel and his connection with Joseph Smith as he told it through the years, allowing it to become less visionary and subjective and more concrete. For example, Martin Harris, claimed in an interview that before his experience as one of the three witnesses he told Joseph Smith, "Joseph, I know all about it. The Lord has showed me ten times more about it than you know." (Interview with Martin Harris in Tiffany's Monthly, 1859, p. 166). While quite likely a sincere man, he would appear to be neither reliable nor credible as a witness.
Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith were third cousins (Oliver Cowdery: The Elusive Second Elder of the Restoration, Phillip R. Legg, p. 17), and Cowdery also shared what must be considered a magical, mystical mindset. D. Michael Quinn in his book, Early Mormonism & the Magic World View, states, "Cowdery's use of a divining rod, however, does suggest that before 1829, he may have also had at least some knowledge of and experience with astrology and ceremonial folk magic" (p. 35). Quinn's and other extensive research has turned up some interesting facts. William Cowdery, Oliver's father was closely associated with, if not a member of Vermont's Wood Scrape, and participated in folk magic. Quinn has linked him closely with Nathanael Wood's "Fraternity of Rodsmen." (Quinn 1987, 84-86)
Alan Taylor also discovered this connection in his research on the previously cited "Treasure Seeking In the American Northeast," and states:
In 1799 a seer named Wingate arrived in Middletown as a guest of the Woods and of William Cowdry [sic] in adjoining Wells, Vermont. The Woods began to feature divining rods in their rituals, insisting that the rods' jerks in answer to their questions represented divine messages. (Taylor 1986, 24)
Oliver Cowdery followed his father's lead in folk magic practices with his own occultic use of a divining rod. This has been documented by RLDS Church Historian Richard P. Howard.
For example, the 'divining rod' was used effectively by one Nathanael Wood in Rutland County, Vermont, in 1801. Wood, Winchell, William Cowdery, Jr., and his son Oliver Cowdery, all had some knowledge of and associations with the various uses, both secular and sacred, of the forked witch hazel rod. Winchell and others used such a rod in seeking buried treasure;...when Joseph Smith met Oliver Cowdery in April 1829, he found a man peculiarly adept in the use of the forked rod ... (Howard 1969, 211-214)
This is further supported by research done by Marvin S. Hill of the Mormon Church's Brigham Young University who, along with confirming Cowdery's use of a rod also stated, "Some of the rodsmen or money diggers who moved in Mormonism were Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, Orrin P. Rockwell, Joseph and Newel Knight, and Josiah Stowell." (Hill 1972, 78)
Jerald and Sandra Tanner point out an interesting and important change Joseph Smith made in one of his revelations as he attempted to cover up Cowdery's ability to work with a divining rod. Here is a comparison of the original revelation as found in the Book of Commandments with the altered version as it now appears in the Doctrine and Covenants.
Book of Commandments
Now this is not all, for you have another gift, which is the gift of working with the rod: behold it has told you things: behold there is no other power save God, that can cause this rod of nature, to work in your hands... (7:3)
Doctrine and Covenants
Now this is not all thy gift, for you have another gift, which is the gift of Aaron; behold, it has told you many things; Behold, there is no other power, save the power of God, that can cause this gift of Aaron to be with you. (8:6-7)
LDS historians have attempted to justify the extensive involvement of the founders of the Mormon church in occultic and folk magic practices by claiming this was simply part of the culture of the time. This may be true to some extent, but laws in both New York and Vermont made divining illegal and the better educated ridiculed it in books and newspapers of the day. Furthermore, it does not change the fact that God has clearly condemned such practices as well as those who are involved in them (Deuteronomy 18:10-11).
True prophets of God in biblical times, rather than going along with their cultures (which often were engaging in these things) stood against the common culture and condemned such activities. We do not find Joseph Smith taking any such stand against occultic practices, as would be expected of a true prophet of God.
Cowdery, in conjunction with his magical involvement, appears to have shared a visionary mindset similar to other Mormons. Brigham Young, second president of the Mormon church, at a special conference on Sunday, June 17, 1877 told of an incident from the life of Oliver Cowdery. On more than one occasion they were able to enter into the hill Cumorah and see many wonderful things. Young explained:
When Joseph got the plates, the angel instructed him to carry them back to the hill Cumorah, which he did. Oliver says that when Joseph and Oliver went there, the hill opened, and they walked into a cave, in which there was a large and spacious room ... They laid the plates on a table; it was a large table that stood in the room. Under this table there was a pile of plates as much as two feet high, and there were altogether in this room more plates than probably many wagon loads; they were piled up in the corners and along the walls. The first time they went there the sword of Laban hung upon the wall; but when they went in again it had been taken down and laid upon the table across the gold plates; it was unsheathed and on it was written these words: "This sword will never be sheathed again until the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our God and his Christ." I tell you this as coming not only from Oliver Cowdery, but others who were familiar with it... Carlos Smith was a young man of as much veracity as any young man we had, and he was a witness to these things. Samuel Smith saw some things, Hyrum saw a good many things, but Joseph was the leader. (Journal of Discourses 1878, 19:38)
This is another example of having second sight, and was claimed not only by Joseph and Oliver but others of their friends and neighbors as well. Some of those who did not claim to have this ability did believe that other people possessed such gifts. According to Lucy Smith, this was the reason Josiah Stowell hired Joseph for treasure hunting on his property. He firmly believed Joseph "could discern things invisible to the natural eye. (Smith 1958, 92).
For this reason the witnesses could make statements like those of Oliver and Joseph where, through the power of second sight, or with the eyes of understanding, they claim to enter a mountain and handle plates, putting them back on a table. None of this, however, is subject to objective or empirical scrutiny, so, statements like Cowdery's oft quoted "I beheld with my eyes and handled with my hands the gold plates from which it was translated," (Millennial Star 1859, 544) should at least be considered in this context of visionary second sight.
A statement made by Brigham Young furthers this type of understanding.
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. (Journal of Discourses 1860, 7:164)
First we have the "vision of his mind opened," and then a handling of the plates with the aid of an angel. The question to ask is, would he, when retelling the story of the angel and plates, always qualify his statement "I handled the plates" with the disclaimer that this was in a vision? Not likely, which would provide us with many of his friends and family that could testify that Bro. So and so — of the Quorum handled the plates. I believe that in a similar manner, many of the friends and relatives of the Book of Mormon witnesses could make statements to the effect that "so and so told me that they handled the plates," without mentioning that it was a visionary experience.
This quote by Brigham Young is also significant for it provides evidence that some of the witnesses had doubts. Young may or may not be referring to some of those who signed their name to the Book of Mormon, but this is of secondary importance. The point is, some who had an experience with an angel and gold plates later had reason to doubt the veracity of the experience, and this detracts from the reliability of those who founded their faith and testimony on the visionary and subjective.
Adding futher confusion to what actually happened with the Three Witnesses is testimony by Joseph Smith that Oliver Cowdery actually saw the gold plates in a vision before the Three Witnesses event. In a history of his own life and work Joseph Smith writes:
... [the] Lord appeared unto a young man by the name of Oliver Cowdery and shewed unto him the plates in a vision and also the truth of the work and what the Lord was about to do through me ... (Jessee 1984, 8)
It would appear then that David Whitmer was the only witness to see the gold plates for the first time on the day mentioned by the Three Witnesses statement. Oliver Cowdery had already seen them once before, and Martin Harris, according to his own statements, did not see them until three days later. Most Mormons do not know this, and it is quite unlikely to be incorporated into the material presented by the Mormon missionaries.
Cowdery & Conflict of Interest
The close association of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery during the production of the Book of Mormon raises the question of whether or not Cowdery was free of any conflict of interest as a witness to the Book of Mormon. Did he have anything to gain by endorsing the supernatural origins of the book? Is there any indication he was a willing participant in a deliberate deception? Recently published historical evidence reveals problems with the common LDS view that the Aaronic Priesthood was given to Oliver and Joseph by John the Baptist and the Melchizedek Priesthood was conferred upon Joseph and Oliver by the biblical apostles Peter, James and John in 1829. Cowdery and Smith both testified repeatedly that they were together when an angel (later identified as John the Baptist) appeared to them, as did Peter, James and John at a later date. Both of these ordinations are mentioned in Doctrine & Covenants 27:6-13. D. Michael Quinn, a researcher and writer on the area of LDS history, discovered that:
A closer look at contemporary records indicates that men were first ordained to the higher priesthood [in June of 1831] over a year after the church's founding [on April 6, 1830]. No mention of angelic ordinations can be found in original documents until 1834-35. Thereafter accounts of the visit of Peter, James, and John by Cowdery and Smith remained vague and contradictory. (The Mormon Hierarchy - Origins of Power, D. Michael Quinn, Signature Books, 1994, p. 15.)
Here is a chronology of key events that can be historically documented: Book of Mormon published in March of 1830; Church of Christ organized in April 1830; June 1831 conference Joseph Smith announces there was a "high priesthood."
Up until this time, according to Quinn's research, apart from Joseph being the "first elder" and Oliver being the "second elder" there were different priesthood offices in the church, i.e. priest, elder, teacher, but no discernable difference in status or level of authority (The Mormon Hierarchy, p. 28). The announcement of a "high priesthood" now implied that all previous authority was of a lower status. At this June 1831 conference Joseph conferred this "high priesthood" on Lyman Wight. Wight then "ordained" Joseph Smith to the "high priesthood." At this time there is no indication Joseph mentioned any kind of angelic source for this new development in church authority, nor is the new priesthood named either Aaronic or Melchizedek.
This continued to be the case for the next few years. Quinn makes the important observation that:
Until Cowdery's 1834 history and retroactive changes in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, there was nothing in Mormonism to attract converts who expected a literal restoration of apostolic authority. Charisma [spiritual sign gifts like healing and prophecy] and the voice of God [coming through Joseph Smith] were the only bases of authority that early Mormon converts knew until the publication of Cowdery's history in 1834 (Mormon Hierarchy, p. 32).
An interesting picture begins to emerge. Historical data indicates that starting in 1834, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery together began introducing the idea that they had been given divine authority by God via an angel. Quinn found that the first public discussion of an angelic restoration came from Oliver Cowdery in 1834. Cowdery's history of Mormonism, written with the assistance of Joseph Smith, speaks of an angel from heaven, (but later identified as John the Baptist), restoring "the Holy Priesthood." Cowdery claimed that he and Joseph were pondering who had authority and were waiting for a command to be baptized when an angel appeared and said:
Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah I confer this priesthood and this authority, which shall remain upon earth, that the sons of Levi may yet offer an offering unto the Lord in righteousness! (Messenger and Advocate, Vol. 1, No. 1, October 1834).
Though no prior mention of such an event can be found, starting in 1834, both Joseph and Oliver claimed the angel appeared to them in 1829, and gave them "the holy priesthood." Mormon people today understand "the holy priesthood" to refer to the higher or Melchizedek priesthood, and it is very possible that this was Cowdery's intent in his 1834 history, since Smith, in 1831, only announced one "high priesthood." This has generally been linked to what was later called the Melchizedek priesthood. But when Cowdery first mentions this "holy priesthood" in October of 1834, he links it to Levi, who, in the Old Testament, was an Aaronic priest. Later material provided by Cowdery and Smith changes both the identity of the messenger and the priesthood that he confers. For example, Oliver Cowdery originally spoke of an unnamed angel, but later the angel becomes John the Baptist according to the testimony of Joseph and Oliver. What is conferred upon them is no longer "the holy priesthood" associated with Melchizedek, but the Aaronic priesthood. Quinn notes that Cowdery's history speaks of only one angelic visit and the conferring of only one priesthood (Mormon Hierarchy, pp. 15-16).
Prior to the publication of the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, Joseph had not claimed to receive any revelations that mentioned priesthood authority. Yet, when the 1835 D&C was published, not only was there new material on divine priesthood authority, some of the earlier revelations published in 1833 had been altered. A careful compari son of what is now section 27 of the Doctrine & Covenants with how it was originally published in 1832 in The Evening and the Morning Star and then in the 1833 Book of Commandments (Section XXIII, p. 60), reveals the original revelation was considerably shorter. This revelation, as first given by Joseph Smith in 1830, only had 7 verses prohibiting the purchase of wine or strong drink from the Saint's enemies. When published in the 1835 D&C, it unexplainably had 9 additional verses. These spoke of Moroni, John the son of Zacharias, the Aaronic priesthood as the "first" priesthood, and an additional ordination of Joseph and Oliver by Peter James and John, who gave them "keys of your ministry" and "keys of the kingdom." Quinn notes, without providing an explanation, that "the added text cannot be found in any document before 1835, nor can any similar wording or concept be found prior to 1834." (Ibid, p. 16).
Historical evidence suggests one logical explanation for these changes. Cowdery and Smith, who were in charge of the edits to the 1835 D&C, together developed the idea of an angelic source for their authority sometime after 1833. Cowdery, writing his history in 1834 with Joseph's assistance, added the story of the appearance of the angel. Then, together they added extra material to a revelation Smith had already given in 1830, to make it look like the appearance of both John the Baptist and Peter James and John had been known since 1830 and not 1834 as was truly the case. Their attempts at altering history and adding a supernatural element did not go unnoticed. David Whitmer, one of the three Witnesses along with Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris, broke off his association with Cowdery, Smith and the church, because they had dared to alter what was said to be a revelation from God (Address to All Believers in Christ, pp. 56ff).
There is little attempt to explain where Cowdery or Smith derived the sudden appearance of Peter, James & John in D&C section 27, and how they become the source for the both the high priesthood and the concept of "keys" that today play such an important part in Mormon theology. There appears to be nothing in the earlier writing of Smith or Cowdery that associates keys with these three New Testament apostles. Quinn noted that no similar wording or concept can be found prior to 1834. However, correspondence between Oliver Cowdery and W. W. Phelps, published in the Messenger and Advocate from October 1834 to July 1835 provides both a link to Cowdery and Smith and a source for these new theological developments. Cowdery first writes of an angelic ordination in October of 1834 (Messenger and Advocate, pp. 15-16). In the April 1835 Messenger and Advocate Cowdery writes to Phelps regarding Moses' awareness of blessings for the Gentiles, drawing Phelps' attention to Moses' prayer in Deuteronomy 32:43 ("Rejoice O ye nations, with his people!", p. 111.) In the July 1835 issue of Messenger and Advocate, Phelps responds to Cowdery and suggests and develops the idea of Moses conferring special keys to Peter James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration (pp. 145). In the same letter Phelps also gives a detailed exposition of the importance of "blessing" and connects this with the conferring of keys to Peter, James and John. Is it merely coincidence that later this same year Cowdery and Smith introduce the ideas of priesthood blessings that bring about the "keys" of authority through the Melchizedek priesthood? Cowdery and Smith would later claim they received these from Peter, James and John. Some of these appear as part of "unannounced changes and expansions of revelations" in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants which was accepted at a special conference in August of 1835 (Quinn, Mormon Hierarchy, p. 623).
Quinn observed that by late 1835 Cowdery was writing about two angelic minstrations and also a blessing given him by Smith which spoke of Smith and Cowdery being ordained "by the hand of the angel in the bush, unto the lesser priesthood and after received the holy priesthood under the hands of they who had been held in reserve for a long season, even those who received it under the hand of the Messiah" (Ibid, p. 17). These historical discoveries about the development of priesthood authority and the altering of previously given revelations suggest that Cowdery and Smith were working together to introduce a divine element into the story of Mormon origins. Cowdery's close collaboration with Smith in these areas raises serious questions regarding whether or not there truly were any divine angelic visitations, and also casts doubt on Cowdery's status as an unbiased, reliable witness to the divine origin of the Book of Mormon.