Facts On The Book Of Mormon Witnesses — Part 2
For reasons that are not completely clear, Smith and Cowdery's relationship soured. Cowdery's elevated status as "second elder" and witness to the Book of Mormon was eventually lost amid accusations of adultery and theft. He was excommunicated from the Church in 1838 and forced to leave the area. "Faith-promoting" material about the Book of Mormon witnesses like Cowdery claims they enjoyed spotless character and reputations, yet, as with Harris, some of the worst accusations against Cowdery come from LDS leaders of that time period. George Q. Cannon, a member of the First Presidency stated:
[Cowdery] transgressed the law of God; he committed adultery; the Spirit of God withdrew from him, and he, the second elder in the Church, was excommunicated from the Church. (Juvenile Instructor, 1885, p. 360)
Joseph Smith himself said, "Such characters as McLellin, John Whitmer, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris, are too mean to mention; and we had liked to have forgotten them" (Smith 1902, 3:232).
These men, and others, were later driven away, after receiving a very threatening letter which included some of the following:
To Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, John Whitmer...there is but one decree for you, which is depart, depart, or a more fatal calamity shall befall you. "After Oliver Cowdery had been taken by a state warrant for stealing, and the stolen property found in the house of William W. Phelps; in which nefarious transaction John Whitmer had also participated. Oliver Cowdery stole the property ... (Senate Document 189 1841, 6-9)
In this same letter Cowdery is accused of misusing his position of justice of the peace, of being "united with a gang of counterfeiters, thieves, liars, and blacklegs of the deepest dye, to deceive, cheat and defraud," and of participating with David Whitmer in a "bogus money business." ( It would appear the crime of counterfeiting had been associated with the Cowdery name from the time Oliver's father took into their home the escaped counterfeiter Paine Wingate and became involved in the Rodman affairs with him.)
LDS leaders made further accusations in this statement in Times and Seasons, Vol. 3, p. 868, August 1, 1842:
... in Kirtland, when persecution raged, Oliver Cowdery [among others] ... had been engaged in extensive frauds in the Bank, and were the principle cause of its not being able to meet its liabilities;
None of this, of course, does anything to help support LDS claims regarding Cowdery's "spotless reputation," or his "unchallenged honesty." However, in all fairness to Cowdery and the other witnesses, it appears that most, if not all the malignings were character assassination intending to discredit these former LDS leaders, like Cowdery, as apostates in the eyes of other Mormons, and thus discourage the Saints from following them in their apostasy. Regardless, we are confronted with inaccuracies in the Mormon Church's portrayal of its witnesses.
There is also evidence that some early LDS Church members believed Cowdery at some point denied his testimony of the Book of Mormon. This is found in Times and Seasons, Vol. 2, p. 482. In this Mormon publication one stanza of a poem reads:
Or prove that Christ was not the Lord
Because that Peter cursed and swore?
Or Book of Mormon not his word
Because denied, by Oliver?
The reason for this belief is likely linked to Cowdery's later association with the Methodist church. After breaking with the Mormon church, there is considerable evidence indicating Cowdery later joined the "Methodist Protestant Church of Tiffin, Seneca County, Ohio." The following is quoted from an affidavit given by G.J.Keen in 1885.
Mr. Cowdery opened a law office in Tiffin, and soon effected a partnership with Joel W. Wilson. In a few years Mr. Cowdery expressed a desire to associate himself with a Methodist Protestant Church of this city.
Rev. John Souder and myself were appointed a committee to wait on Mr. Cowdery and confer with him respecting his connection with Mormonism and the Book of Mormon. We accordingly waited on Mr. Cowdery at his residence in Tiffin, and there learned his connection, from him, with that order, and his full and final renunciation thereof. (Shook 1914, 58-59)
The affidavit recounts Cowdery's reluctance to provide a public recantation but willingness to authorize one and have the church publish it if it were required by the church. They did not demand it and upon submitting his name, Oliver Cowdery was accepted unanimously. Keen continues:
At that time he arose and addressed the audience present, admitted his error and implored forgiveness, and said he was sorry and ashamed of his connection with Mormonism. He continued his membership while he resided in Tiffin, and became Superintendent of the Sabbath-School, and led an exemplary life while he resided with us. (Ibid)
Cowdery went on to act as a clerk for this church, was elected Secretary of a church meeting, and recognized as a charter member. Minutes of a church meeting in his handwriting and signed by him are still extant at the Methodist Church in Tiffin, Ohio (Gunn 1942, 124). While this in itself is not absolute proof that Cowdery denied or retracted his testimony, it is highly improbable that he could have become a member of this church, let alone achieve such respected standing, without disavowing his connection with the Book of Mormon and the Latter-day Saints.
Various sources indicate that Cowdery was also a credulous witness. One of the eight witnesses, Hiram Page, found his own seer stone and began getting revelations from it. Ivan J. Barrett, former professor at Brigham Young University, and writer for the LDS Church contributes the following statements from "More Remarkable Stories of How We Got the Revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants,"
[Hiram Page] obtained a stone through which he received some spurious revelations. ... So Hiram Page decided to settle the question as to where Zion was to be built through his magical stone .... Oliver Cowdery and the Whitmer family were deceived by the false declarations of Hiram Page. (Tanner 1968, 6)
Joseph Smith claimed that Page's revelations were false and admitted that others were being deceived by them.
Brother Hiram Page had in his possession a certain stone, by which he had obtained certain 'revelations' concerning the upbuilding of Zion, the order of the Church, etc., all of which were entirely at variance with the order of God's house .... The Whitmer family and Oliver Cowdery, were believing much in the things set forth by this stone ... (Smith 1902, 1:109-110)
So, according to Joseph Smith, when Oliver Cowdery and the Whitmer family believed Joseph's claim to receive revelations from his seer stone they were people full of faith, but when they believed revelations from Hiram Page's stone they are credulous and deceived.
A Faith-Promoting Story
One of the favorite stories used to defend Cowdery during his years away from the Church is cited by LDS historian B.H. Roberts. He recounts an incident in Michigan where Cowdery, as a prosecuting attorney, is challenged by the defense as to his role in the Book of Mormon. Cowdery's lengthy response includes a solid affirmation of his testimony in the Book of Mormon and the visitation of the angel. A similar story is related by Brigham Young in Journal of Discourses, Vol. 2, p. 258.
Stanley Gunn in his B.Y.U. Master's thesis (1942) could find no record of Cowdery practicing law in Michigan, and stated "The testimony is given here merely as 'possible or probable testimony,' but its authenticity lacks official confirmation." (Gunn 1942, 139) Yet, given the questionable nature of the story, LDS apologist Preston Nibley in his book Witnesses of the Book of Mormon, published in 1953, uses the story and prefaces his quote of the Michigan account with, "The following interesting event... gives conclusive proof that Oliver Cowdery was faithful to his testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon, and that he fearlessly proclaimed that testimony during the years that he was out of the Church, from 1838 to 1848." (Nibley 1958, 42) Whether this was purposefully deceitful cannot be known for sure, but one wonders about the wisdom of not consulting a Master's thesis entitled Oliver Cowdery - Second Elder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, when writing a book on the Book of Mormon Witnesses.
By 1962, when Gunn published his book Oliver Cowdery - Second Elder and Scribe, he still had found no evidence of Cowdery's practicing law in Michigan, or his attaining the office of Prosecuting Attorney. Richard Anderson (Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 1981) admits the third hand-nature of this account, but still uses it as evidence, attributing its most accurate telling to George Q. Cannon. While this was a late recollection on Cannon's part, Anderson justifies using it by stating that Cannon "had a remarkable intellect and a great capacity for accurate detail in his personal writing." However, Cannon's own reliability is questionable since he, "in his biography of Joseph Smith in 1888, admitted the 'paltry things' were left out of his account of 'men of God... pure and holy.'" (Russell 1983, 132) Selective historiography has tended to be sanctioned and at times encouraged by the Mormon Church as long as it is faith-promoting in nature.
Oliver Cowdery did return to the Mormon church, but there are questions as to his motivation, how long he remained a member after rejoining, and the truthfulness of the commonly held belief that he died in full fellowship as a Mormon.
It appears that certain persons of the Council of the Twelve wrote to Oliver, encouraging him to return to the Church. One of his responses to Phineas Young, who had also called on Oliver personally, states: "I am poor, very poor, and I did hope to have health and means sufficient last spring to go West and get some gold, that I might so situate my family, that I could be engaged in the cause of God;" (Gunn 1942, 144).
Oliver was rebaptized in October of 1848, but some of the Mormons were apparently against his return to the Church. A March 1911 Improvement Era, published by the LDS church, records that "Some thought that he could not possibly be sufficiently repentant to entitle him to return; but Orson Hyde stood up for him — declared...that he should be restored to full fellowship. This view prevailed, and he was so received, by re-baptism." (Tanner 1968, 28)
There is interesting evidence that indicates Cowdery was never completely reconciled to the Mormon Church. The Gospel Herald, November 1, 1849, contained the following comments:
You will observe also that they make no mention of Oliver Cowdery filling up their organization. The truth is, he is not the sort of man for them. It was a singular mania by which he was led off after them, and seems to have lasted him but a few weeks .... they would not trust power in his hands a single moment. (Ibid)
Oliver Cowdery died, not in Utah, but at the home of fellow witness David Whitmer on March 3, 1850. Whitmer makes it very clear that Cowdery "died believing as I do today," which included a belief that Joseph was a fallen prophet, and that the Doctrine and Covenants contained false revelations. He states, "I have proof to verify my statement. If anyone chooses to doubt my word, let them come to my home in Richmond and be satisfied." He goes on to say:
Now, in 1849, the Lord saw fit to manifest unto John Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery and myself nearly all the remaining error in doctrine into which we had been led by the heads of the old church. We were shown that the Book of Doctrine and Covenants contained many doctrines of error, and that it must be laid aside; (Whitmer 1887a, 1-2).
In summary, we encounter many problems with Oliver Cowdery's reliability as a witness. Besides succumbing to the common culture of the day and possessing a "rod," which was at first sanctioned by Joseph Smith, and then later covered up by changing the revelation currently found in Doctrine and Covenants 8:6-7, he also was quite credulous. This is indicated by the visionary account of entering the hill Cumorah and seeing a supposed Jewish sword that was engraved in English, as well as being led astray by Hiram's "peep stone." He raised questions regarding Joseph Smith's adultery, and subsequently was himself accused of adultery. He later joined the Methodist Church and is thought to have denied his testimony at least for a time, due to both his status in the Methodist Church and a poem published by the Mormons stating the Book of Mormon was "denied by Oliver." He was included with those called "liars, counterfeiters, thieves and blacklegs," and referred to by Joseph Smith as one "too mean to mention." Whitmer claimed Cowdery died believing Joseph was a fallen prophet, something supported by a writer for the Saints Advocate, who recorded Whitmer saying that the reason Oliver was rebaptized at Council Bluffs, Iowa in 1847 was:
in order to reach his relatives and others among the Brighamites, and redeem them from the errors and evils of polygamy, etc .... Besides this, a sister of O. Cowdery, now living, says that O. Cowdery, when at Council Bluffs, previous to his death, expressed, in her presence his regret and sorrow over the base doctrines and corrupt practices of the Brighamite leaders. (Tanner 1968, 28)
Given the preceding evidence, it is difficult to accept Oliver Cowdery as a reliable, credible and unbiased witness to the divinity of the Book of Mormon.
David Whitmer's testimony varied as to the objective versus the subjective nature of the experience, but he also spoke of the angel and gold plates in visionary terms. In 1885 he was interviewed by Zenas Gurley. Gurley asked if Whitmer knew that the plates were real metal. Whitmer said that he did not touch or handle them. He was then asked if the table they were on was literal wood or if the whole thing was a like a vision. Whitmer replied that the table had the appearance of literal wood as shown in the vision, in the glory of God (Zenas H. Gurley, Jr., Interview with David Whitmer on January 14, 1885.).
As mentioned earlier, David Whitmer left the Mormon Church, was also accused of being unreliable and morally deficient by LDS leaders. He came to the conclusion that Joseph Smith was a fallen prophet and that LDS scriptures contained false revelations.
So, according to their own testimonies, all three witnesses describe a mystical, visionary, almost dream-like experience in which they claim they saw an angel with the gold plates. And, contrary to the LDS church's portrayal, David Whitmer is the only one who saw the plates for the first time that day in the woods, since Oliver and Martin had apparently already seen them in a vision before that day. According to his own testimony, Martin Harris didn't see the angel with plates until he was alone in the woods three days later. This does not appear to be the factual, unquestionably objective event the Mormon church often portrays it to be.
Testimony of the Eight Witnesses
The testimony of the eight other witnesses who claimed they handled actual plates, also has problems in several areas. The Mormon church always pictures all eight of them standing together in the woods, with Joseph showing them the plates. But according to the testimony of John Whitmer who was one of the eight witnesses, Joseph showed them to four people at one time in his house, and then later to four other people (Deseret Evening News, 6 August 1878, Letter to the editor from P. Wilhelm Poulson, M.D., typed transcript, p. 2). It is notable that these eight men fall naturally into two groups of four. The first group is comprised of four brothers of David Whitmer, who himself was one of the three witnesses: Christian, Jacob, Peter jun., and John Whitmer. The second four are Joseph Smith's father, Joseph's two brothers (Hyrum and Samuel) and Hiram Page, who was married to the Whitmer's sister, Catherine. Another sister, Elizabeth, married Oliver Cowdery. So, all the witnesses, except Martin Harris, were closely related to one another.
Another significant historical point regarding the eight witnesses comes from a letter dated April 15, 1838. It was written by a former Mormon leader named Stephen Burnett. In that letter, Burnett states:
I have reflected long and deliberately upon the history of this church & weighed the evidence for & against it loth (sic) to give it up - but when I came to hear Martin Harris state in public that he never saw the plates with his natural eyes only in vision or imagination, neither Oliver [Cowdery] nor David [Whitmer] & that the eight witnesses never saw them & hesitated to sign that instrument for that reason, but were persuaded to do it, the last pedestal gave way, in my view our foundation was sapped & the entire superstructure fell in heap of ruins. (Stephen Burnett letter to Lyman E. Johnson dated April 15, 1838. Typed transcript from Joseph Smith Papers, Letter book, April 20, 1837 - February 9, 1843, microfilm reel 2, pp. 64-66, LDS archives.)
Stephen Burnett goes on to say in his letter that after hearing that testimony he publicly renounced the Book of Mormon, and further states:
I was followed by W Parrish, Luke Johnson & John Boynton [Boyington] all of who concurred with me, after we were done speaking M Harris arose & said he was sorry for any man who rejected the Book of Mormon for he knew it was true, he said he had hefted the plates repeatedly in a box with only a tablecloth or handkerchief over them, but he never saw them only as he saw a city through a mountain. And said that he never should have told that the testimony of the eight was false, if it had not been picked out of [him/me?] but should have let it passed as it was... (Ibid.)
While some LDS scholars and apologists have tried to brush aside this testimony as "hearsay," it is corroborated by a letter cited in Wayne C. Gunnell's 1955 BYU dissertation. This letter, written by George A. Smith to Josiah Fleming and dated March 30, 1838 (a couple of weeks earlier than the Burnett letter), describes a similar scene with Martin Harris, Boynton, Parish, and Johnson, all of whom are mentioned in the Burnett letter.
The question of what exactly happened with the Eight witnesses is further complicated by some puzzling statements made by the witnesses themselves. It appears that only three of the eight witnesses made separate statements that they had handled the plates. They were Joseph's two brothers, Hyrum and Samuel, and John Whitmer. Hyrum and Samuel's statements are further qualified by their brother William who, in an interview, also claimed to have handled the plates. He said:
I did not see them uncovered, but I handled them and hefted them while wrapped in a tow frock and judged them to have weighed about sixty pounds. ... Father and my brother Samuel saw them as I did while in the frock. So did Hyrum and others of the family.
When the interviewer asked if he didn't want to remove the cloth and see the bare plates, William replied:
No, for father had just asked if he might not be permitted to do so, and Joseph, putting his hand on them said; 'No, I am instructed not to show them to any one. If I do, I will transgress and lose them again.' Besides, we did not care to have him break the commandment and suffer as he did before. (Zion's Ensign, p. 6, January 13, 1894, cited in Church of Christ broadside.)
John Whitmer's statements were the most detailed — both the 1878 statement mentioned earlier and his 1839 statement to Theodore Turley where he said, "I now say, I handled those plates; there were fine engravings on both sides. ... they were shown to me by a supernatural power" (History of the Church, Vol. 3, p. 307). He appears to be the only witness giving independent testimony that he handled the plates uncovered. Yet, even his testimony is qualified by the statement "they were shown to me by a supernatural power." Now if these were physical plates, presented to the eight witnesses while Joseph Smith held them on his knee, why did Whitmer qualify his statement by saying it happened by means of a supernatural power? One can only wonder why there was a need for a supernatural presentation of physical plates. Unless, of course, the Whitmer family was also shown the plates under a cloth, and was encouraged to see them with their eyes of faith. This, however, conflicts with John Whitmer's 1878 interview where he states that his group of four were handed the plates "uncovered into our hands, and we turned the leaves sufficient to satisfy us." (Poulson letter to Deseret Evening News, previously cited, p. 2).
Just as puzzling is Hiram Page's testimony regarding his part as one of the eight witnesses. While he makes a veiled reference to "what I saw" he never mentions seeing or handling the plates, but instead emphasizes that Joseph had to have supernatural power to write such a book. He also says:
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 a hymn in their own pure language; yes, it would be treating the God of heaven with contempt, to deny these testimonies. (Ensign of Liberty, 1848, cited in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol 7:4, Winter 1972, p. 84.)
Statements like these raise serious questions about the witnesses, and what exactly happened with Joseph Smith. It is significant that Joseph Smith himself called into question the moral integrity of at least four of the eleven witnesses. In History of the Church, vol. 3:232 he wrote: Such characters as McLellin, John Whitmer, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris, are too mean to mention; and we had liked to have forgotten them." Because they had dared leave the Latter-day Saint church, these men and others were later driven away after being accused of being "united with a gang of counterfeiters, thieves, liars and blacklegs of the deepest dye, to deceive cheat and defraud" (Senate Document 189, 1841, p. 9). In all fairness to the witnesses, this appears to be character assassination with the intent of discrediting these men in the eyes of other Mormons. That way other people would think twice about leaving the Mormon church or listening to any further testimony from these witnesses.
According to historical evidence, the Mormon church's customary portrayal of the witnesses as eleven men of rational and critical mindsets, unquestioned honesty and integrity and unwavering commitment to the Mormon church and the Book of Mormon is far from true. Joseph Smith himself questioned their integrity, and many of them left the church and did not return.
There are also some questions left unanswered, such as, were there really gold plates, or did Joseph produce a prop which he kept covered in a cloth and allowed only certain relatives to see and lift? He had four years between when he announced he discovered the gold plates, and when he actually claimed to get them out of the ground. When did Joseph, Harris, Whitmer & Cowdery first find out there would be three special witnesses? The D&C records two different times when Joseph claimed to receive a revelation regarding BOM witnesses. The first came at the request of Martin Harris in March of 1829 (D&C 5). It warned Joseph not to show the plates except to those whom God commanded (vs. 3). This revelation went on to say that three witnesses would be given special power to see the plates, but "to none else will I grant this power" (D&C 5:13-14). According to this revelation, there would only be three witnesses.
Yet, in Joseph Smith's History of the Church, Vol. 1, pp. 52-53 previously cited, Joseph and Oliver did not discover there would be three witnesses until they were translating the Book of Mormon in late June of 1829 - at least three months later. A little while after this (no date is given) Joseph took it upon himself to show what he claimed were the BOM plates to the eight witnesses who were all related to one another. Joseph had them sign a testimonial. Apparently, showing the plates to his father and brothers did not require the power of God, but supernatural power was needed for showing them to John Whitmer. There was also no revelation giving him permission to show the plates, just a private meeting. At least one source indicates that Joseph showed the plates to two groups of four on separate occasions in his house, while other accounts say that all eight were together out in a grove.
One of the problems with relying on the Witnesses for the authenticity of Mormonism is the testimony of David Whitmer given later in life. In his Address to All Believers in Christ, page 27, Whitmer declares:
If you believe my testimony to the Book of Mormon; if you believe that God spake to us three witnesses by his own voice, then I tell you that in June, 1838, God spake to me again by his own voice from the heavens, and told me to 'separate myself from among the Latter-day Saints, for as they sought to do unto me, so should it be done unto them.' In the spring of 1838, the heads of the church and many of the members had gone deep into error and blindness. I had been striving with them for a long time to show them the errors into which they were drifting, and for my labors I received only persecutions."
This quote creates a quandary. If we accept Whitmer's testimony regarding his experience with the angel and the gold plates, then we must also accept his testimony that God also declared the current Mormon church is in a fallen state. To disavow the revelation he received stating that the Mormon church since 1838 has "gone deep into error and blindness" means we must hold as suspect his testimony to the Book of Mormon. Whitmer inseparably links the two events.
Even if the majority of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon did not deny their testimony of the book itself, this does little to support Mormonism today. Current Mormon doctrine on the nature of God, the priesthood, use of temples, baptism for the dead, and men becoming gods, is nowhere contained in the Book of Mormon. By 1847 not a single one of the surviving eleven witnesses was part of the Mormon church. Five of these witnesses joined The Church of Christ started by William McLellin, and Oliver Cowdery indicated he was supportive of this group, though he never joined. (D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power, Signature Books, 1994, p. 188). If these men were alive today, they would be considered apostates who had turned their back on the Spirit of God. They would be cut off from the LDS church and condemned to outer darkness, regardless of whether or not they still believed in the Book of Mormon.
What are the facts? Joseph Smith produced two written documents containing the signatures of eleven men. According to those signed statements, Eleven men claimed to witness the existence of plates they believed were the source for the Book of Mormon. Three of these men admitted the experience was subjective and visionary. Each of the first three witnesses saw the plates in a vision for the first time in a different place and time. The other eight witnesses were closely related to Joseph Smith either by blood or marriage. Apart from the testimony document only three of them claimed to see and handle that which had the appearance of being plates of gold, and could testify Joseph did have something that resembled plates with etchings after signing their name to the testimony document. Many of these witnesses left Joseph Smith and the organization that he started, believing at best that he was a fallen and false prophet. Joseph Smith himself, called into question the general character and reliability of several of these men. This, in spite of the fact that they were close friends and family of Joseph Smith.
These historical facts highlight another thread of Mormon history that has been misrepresented by LDS Church leaders. The witnesses' testimonies as a whole are presented as objective, solid, and irrefutable, but upon close examination are seen to be subjective, ambiguous and, at times, contradictory. The traditional portrayal of a tightly woven story of Mormon origins is slowly being unraveled by the historical evidence, much of which is now being compiled and published within the Mormon community itself.
Another thread of the traditional Mormon story that is seriously misrepresented by the LDS church has to do with the discovery and translation of the supposed gold plates of the Book of Mormon. The testimony of those who were closest to Joseph Smith state unequivocally that Joseph never used the plates while doing the translation, he used his seer stone in his hat to both discover and translate the Book of Mormon. (Richard Van Wagoner & Steve Walker, "Joseph Smith: 'The Gift of Seeing,'" in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 15:2, Summer 1982, p. 53) If the plates were never used in the translation process, why the need for witnesses? Does this prove the plates were a true historical artifact versus a prop Joseph put together. No. The witnesses could only testify as to appearance, and Joseph Smith himself was later duped by forged plates in the Kinderhook incident.
1. Michael H. Marquardt and Wesley P. Walters, Inventing Mormonism: Tradition & the Historical Record, Smith Research Assoc. [Signature Books], 1994, p. 66.
2. This is how D&C 5:4 read when it was originally recorded in the 1833 Book of Commandments, section 4, verse 2. Joseph changed the wording of the revelation to read "no other gift until it [the Book of Mormon] is finished." He then added this revelation to the Doctrine & Covenants for he was claiming to have the gift of retranslating the Bible, which, according to Joseph, had many errors.
3. The late Wesley Walters adds, "This change still reflected to persons acquainted with dowsing the use of the forked stick, for in money digging circles such rods were often called Aaron's rod." (Author's personal conversation with W. Walters).