Part 45: CES Letter Witnesses Questions [Section A]
By Sarah Allen
When I sat down to gather my sources and figure out how I wanted to open this section of questions/concerns, the topic I kept circling back to was that of unanswered Gospel questions. We all have them. I have plenty of them myself. In that regard, none of us are very different from Jeremy or anyone else who has ever asked these and other questions. Having Gospel questions and the search for answers to those questions is how the restoration of the Gospel came about in the first place. It’s how each of us was able to gain and maintain a testimony. And it’s why Oliver Cowdery was given the revelation I’m going to address later in this post.
But, depending on how we go about it, that search for answers to those questions can lead us down several different paths. We’ve talked at length throughout this series about how to get answers to your questions: pray, study, experiment upon the word, and lean on God to direct your efforts. And if you ask in faith, nothing wavering, the Holy Ghost will manifest to you the truth of all things.
And that’s true; the Holy Ghost will testify of Gospel truths wherever they are found. But what if our question is about Church history events? Or why the Priesthood ban was actually instituted? The Spirit can lead you to sources discussing the information you’re seeking, but He can’t really sit down and explain exactly what happened and why.
The truth is, there are some questions we just won’t get answers to in this lifetime. And we have to learn how to be okay with that. It’s a struggle. It’s probably one of the hardest lessons we’ll ever have to learn. For some people, like perhaps Jeremy Runnells, those unanswered questions lead them out of the Church. Some, like me, reach a point where we just don’t need the answers immediately and are content to wait in faith. Others are somewhere in the middle, unable to find answers but equally unable to let them go.
It can be frustrating and scary, not having all of the answers right when you need them the most. But I promise you that Heavenly Father has not left you alone in your search. And if you do reach out to Him during your search, and you lay all of that frustration and fear at His feet and plead with Him to direct your efforts and guide you to an understanding, He will speak peace to your heart, and He will lead you to all of the information that has already been revealed or discovered. It may not happen immediately. It may even take a few years in some cases. But if you’re leaning on Him and listening to His Spirit, He will not leave you to flounder. He will give you the lifeline you need.
It’s what He did for Joseph when he went to the grove to plead for guidance. It’s what He did for Martin Harris, who was desperately seeking a sign that he really was called of God. It’s what He did for Oliver when he wondered whether he might also be able to translate someday. It’s what He did for me when I was too scared to ask Him if I would’ve accepted the Savior if I were alive during His earthly ministry. And it’s what He’ll do for you, too.
Jeremy kicks off this section with an antagonistic quote of his own, letting us know straight away how he really feels about the witnesses:
At the end of the day? It all doesn’t matter. The Book of Mormon Witnesses and their testimonies of the gold plates are irrelevant. It does not matter whether eleven 19th century treasure diggers with magical worldviews saw some gold plates or not. It doesn’t matter because of this one simple fact:
JOSEPH DID NOT USE THE GOLD PLATES FOR TRANSLATING THE BOOK OF MORMON
It should come as no surprise that I disagree with Jeremy on this. It matters a great deal, and the witnesses are not irrelevant. And no matter how many times Jeremy tries to insult them and invalidate their experiences, he can’t change the fact that they saw and handled the plates, and that three of them also saw an angel.
Moreover, while Joseph may not have read the text from the plates the way Jeremy apparently envisioned him doing, their role in the translation process was invaluable. They were a tangible evidence that Joseph was telling the truth and wasn’t lying about his experiences.
Joseph was not the only person in his day who claimed to see visions, as Jeremy will point out at great length later in this section. Some of those other people even led churches and attempted to produce scripture to varying degrees of success. But what sets Joseph apart from all of them is the Gold Plates. They were a physical evidence of the supernatural. Over a dozen people saw them in different circumstances, and even more handled them and hefted them while they were covered with a cloth. That Joseph had something in his possession that resembled the plates as he described them is well-attested. It was also firmly believed by many of his neighbors, who attempted repeatedly to steal them from him.
The Letter continues:
The testimony of the Three and Eight Witnesses to the Book of Mormon is a key part to the testimonies of many members of the Church. Some even base their testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon on these 11 witnesses and their claims.
Now, I don’t know about any of you, but I don’t know anyone who bases their testimony on that of the witnesses. I personally believe they saw what they said they saw, but it isn’t an integral part of my testimony and definitely isn’t one of the pillars of it. My testimony is built on the Savior, the scriptures, ongoing revelation, and the Restoration of the Priesthood. The witnesses and their testimonies make up maybe half a tile on the floor of that foundation? But that doesn’t mean they don’t serve an integral purpose of their own.
As a missionary, I was instructed to teach investigators about the testimonies of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon as part of boosting the book’s credibility.
This is a strange assertion to me. I never served a mission, but I’ve had plenty of friends and family members who have, and I’m familiar with the discussions. Jeremy doesn’t say who instructed him to do this; was it his mission president, or was it just a companion? Because, as Jim Bennett points out in his own reply to the CES Letter, the testimony of the witnesses is not currently part of any of the discussion curriculum, nor was it back in Bennett’s time as a missionary. It’s not part of any of the discussions, so if Jeremy and his companions did that, they were going off-book. Whether that was at their mission president’s behest or not, I don’t know, but it wouldn’t have been an official direction from the Church itself. And that’s assuming Jeremy was telling the truth and not just saying that to bolster his other claims.
There are several critical problems for relying and betting on these 19th century men as credible witnesses.
There really aren’t, and the ones he comes up with are not problems at all in my opinion, let alone critical ones. Before he even dives into any of those questions, however, he begins by mischaracterizing their backgrounds as a way to discredit the witnesses.
In order to truly understand the Book of Mormon witnesses and the issues with their claims, one must understand the magical worldview of many people in early 19th century New England. These are people who believed in folk magic, divining rods, visions, second sight, peep stones in hats, treasure hunting (money digging or glass looking), and so on.
Many people believed in buried treasure, the ability to see spirits and their dwelling places within the local hills and elsewhere. This is one reason why treasure digging as a paid service was practiced.
The line about the “magical worldview” is pretty clearly an allusion to a book entitled Early Mormonism and the Magic World View by D. Michael Quinn, one of the infamous “September Six.” (If I recall correctly, we’ll be discussing them in more detail toward the end of the Letter.) This book is very well-documented in places—particularly in the revised edition—but it also has a lot of flaws, chiefly that Quinn makes broad pronouncements without evidence to back them up. For example, he’ll cite evidence that some people believed in a practice such as divination, and then extrapolate that to say that everyone living in that day and age believed in it.
It’s also worth pointing out that Quinn was excommunicated six years after writing the first edition of this book, which I do feel is relevant information when evaluating and weighing sources. Over the years since then, Quinn has published several books that could be considered attacks against the Church. Notably, both Quinn and Grant Palmer, author of Jeremy’s favorite anti-LDS book, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, each cited and praised the other at different times in their works. (See this paper by Louis Midgley for details.)
Some of this is absolutely true. Obviously, we know that Joseph had seer stones and that Oliver Cowdery had a divining rod. “Glass-looking” is crystal-gazing or scrying, which could be other names for using the seer stone—and again, you’ll note Jeremy’s use of the derogatory “peep stones,” which he uses repeatedly throughout this Letter. “Money digging” is another term he likes to throw around to be insulting.
There is no evidence, however, that Joseph or any of the witnesses believed in second sight or the ability to see ghosts traversing the earth. (“Spirits” in this context does not mean “divine messengers sent from God.”) These were inherently practical men whose lives were grounded in reality. If some of them also believed in the supernatural, that did not make them untrustworthy or even unusual.
An excellent blog post at FAIR by Oliver Mullins says:
…I first want to paint a picture of the world of Joseph Smith in the early to mid 1800s. It was in many ways completely different then the modern world in which we now live. Practices like dowsing (also known as divining—the practice of using a rod to find water or ore) was commonplace in that century, and was believed to be scientifically valid, the rod pointing towards the water like a compass points towards magnetic north. (An interesting side note, while certainly not as common now, dowsers are still employed by many farmers today). Seers who used stones to find lost objects were also not uncommon; in fact around the vicinity of the small town of Palmyra at least four people were operating as such. These practices certainly seem extremely strange to us in our day, and it is easy to dismiss them as the superstitions of simple, uneducated country folk. But it was not limited to them. It truly was part of the early modern worldview. For example, Sir Isaac Newton, arguably the greatest scientific mind of all time—who died 78 years before Joseph Smith was born—believed in alchemy (that common metals could be transformed to gold or silver). As we can see, if we are to try and understand why Joseph Smith may have done some of the things he did, we need to look at it under a 19th century lens, not our 21st century one.
Another important point to consider is the American frontier at the time was steeped in a religious and biblical culture—much more so than we are today—and many (though not all) would have certainly viewed these practices as falling under biblical approval. The Bible certainly lends credit to God use of physical objects in miraculous ways. Consider Jacob’s use of peeled poplar and hazel sticks to produced striped and spotted stock, Moses’ and Aaron’s rods, the Urim and Thummim, and consecrated oil to heal the sick as examples. It is critical to note, however, that the Bible absolutely condemns magic and sorcery. This is important: all who believe in the Bible (or virtually any other book of scripture for that matter) most certainly believe in supernatural, unexplainable miracles, but point to God as the source, not magic. Most of these practitioners—be it “dowsers” or “seers”—were practicing Christians, and as such they would have believed that they were given their gifts from God, not that they had some inherent magical power.
You can read a bit about some of those other village seers in and around Palmyra here. And, as Michael Ash points out, this was not something contained in the 19th Century:
It’s easy to sit in an ivory tower and poke fun at the gullible 19th century bumpkins who believed in dowsing and seer stones, but the truth is that many people today still believe in supernatural things that can only be taken on faith. According to various polls, for instance, nearly half of Americans believe that the body can be healed by psychic, spiritual, or mind powers. Nearly half believe in ESP. Nearly 6 out of 10 believe in ghosts, and nearly 1 in 5 Americans claim they’ve seen a ghost. Nearly 1 in 3 believe they have felt in touch with someone who has died, and an equal number believe that a power exists to see into the past or the future. Ironically, despite fewer Americans laying claim to organized religion, belief in the supernatural seems to be rising.
Before moving on, I wanted to touch a little more on the idea of some of these things being scripturally backed and at home in a Christian world. In addition to Jacob’s rod of poplars, the staffs of Moses and Aaron, the Urim and Thummim, and the consecrated oil mentioned by Mullins, there’s also the lots cast by the Apostles, the Nephite Interpreters, the Liahona, the Ark of the Covenant, the brass serpent, the glowing stones used by the Brother of Jared and, as the Gospel Topics essay on the Translation of the Book of Mormon mentions, dirt and saliva that were used in a similar manner. Heavenly Father has a lengthy history of using physical objects to help us channel our faith and receive revelation. This wasn’t a bizarre, unheard-of thing He did just for Joseph and Oliver. It was something He’d done over and over again throughout the history of His Church.
As President Oaks once taught:
It should be recognized that such tools as the Urim and Thummim, the Liahona, seerstones, and other articles have been used appropriately in biblical, Book of Mormon, and modern times by those who have the gift and authority to obtain revelation from God in connection with their use. At the same time, scriptural accounts and personal experience show that unauthorized though perhaps well-meaning persons have made inappropriate use of tangible objects while seeking or claiming to receive spiritual guidance. Those who define folk magic to include any use of tangible objects to aid in obtaining spiritual guidance confound the real with the counterfeit. They mislead themselves and their readers.
In our own history, Hiram Page’s black seer stone is an example of someone using those objects inappropriately. But when you have the gift and the authority to gain revelation from God using those tools, there is nothing wrong with it.
Joseph Smith, his father, and his brother Hyrum had engaged in treasure hunting from 1820-1827. Joseph was hired by folks like Josiah Stowell, who Joseph mentions in his history. In 1826, Joseph was arrested and brought to court in Bainbridge, New York on the complaint of Stowell’s nephew who accused Joseph of being a “disorderly person and an imposter.”
The way that first sentence reads, Joseph, Hyrum, and Joseph Sr. were employed in treasure-hunting for seven years. That isn’t at all accurate. They were farmers. While they may have hired out occasionally to search for buried treasure the way that Joseph did with Josiah Stowell, those times were few and far between.
As for the incident in 1826, there are multiple different accounts of that event. It’s unclear whether it was Stowell’s nephew or sons who took out the complaint against Joseph, or what the charges were. What we do know, however, is that Josiah Stowell testified in favor of Joseph at a pre-trial hearing, as did several other people, and that Joseph was acquitted and discharged. Per New York law at the time, Stowell was the only one who could bring charges against Joseph for cheating him, and he sided with Joseph. Joseph was the one who called off the dig, rather than continue taking Stowell’s money, and Stowell joined the Church and remained a faithful member throughout the rest of his life.
It would not have been unusual during this time for a neighbor, friend, or even a stranger to come up to you and say, “I received a vision of the Lord!” and for you to respond, in all seriousness, “Well, what did the Lord say?”
Perhaps, though obviously Joseph wasn’t shown that courtesy. But regardless, I don’t consider it a bad thing that some people might have believed a statement like that. The Lord can and does visit us, and why wouldn’t He seek out those willing to believe, rather than those who are not?
This is one of the reasons why 21st century Mormons, once including myself, are so confused and bewildered when hearing stuff like Joseph Smith using a peep stone in a hat or Oliver Cowdery using a divining rod or dowsing rod…
Jeremy then shows some drawings of people using dowsing rods. And yes, Oliver used one. So did Joseph, as a matter of fact. According to FAIR, in a link provided by Reddit user WooperSlim, Joseph may have also given Heber C. Kimball and Brigham Young divining rods as gifts. And again with the “peep stone in a hat,” because repetition reinforces the phrase in your mind.
He then goes on for two more pages about this divining rod, just warning you all in advance. This is not a controversial topic to me personally. People still use dowsing rods today, though it’s not as common as it once was. Clearly, though, Jeremy thinks it’s highly important that Oliver used one.
The use of divining rods (such as the one above) is actually mentioned in the scriptures. In Doctrine & Covenants 8, the following heading provides context for the discussion:
“Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet to Oliver Cowdery, at Harmony, Pennsylvania, April 1829. In the course of the translation of the Book of Mormon, Oliver, who continued to serve as scribe, writing at the Prophet’s dictation, desired to be endowed with the gift of translation. The Lord responded to his supplication by granting this revelation.”
The revelation states, in relevant part:
D&C 8:6-11 (Emphasis Added)
- 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.
- Therefore, doubt not, for it is the gift of God; and you shall hold it in your hands, and do marvelous works; and no power shall be able to take it away out of your hands, for it is the work of God.
- And, therefore, whatsoever you shall ask me to tell you by that means, that I will grant unto you, and you shall have knowledge concerning it.
- Remember that without faith you can do nothing; therefore ask in faith. Trifle not with these things; do not ask for that which you ought not.
- Ask that you may know the mysteries of God, and that you may translate and receive knowledge from all those ancient records which have been hid up, that are sacred; and according to your faith shall it be done unto you.
From the D&C 8 account, we don’t really know much about what exactly the “gift of Aaron” is that Oliver Cowdery received.
I think we know the most important thing, which is that it came from God and it worked by His power because of Oliver’s faith. The Lord also promised Oliver that if he continued to ask in faith for the things for which he was allowed to seek, he would be given them, including the gift of translation.
From the “Revelations in Context” portion of the Church website, in an article written by Jeffrey Cannon, it explains:
Oliver Cowdery lived in a culture steeped in biblical ideas, language, and practices. The revelation’s reference to Moses likely resonated with him. The Old Testament account of Moses and his brother Aaron recounted several instances of using rods to manifest God’s will (see Exodus 7:9-12; Numbers 17:8). Many Christians in Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery’s day similarly believed in divining rods as instruments for revelation. Oliver was among those who believed in and used a divining rod.
The Lord recognized Oliver’s ability to use a rod: “Thou hast another gift which is the gift of working with the sprout [or rod].” Confirming the divinity of this gift, the revelation stated: “Behold there is no other power save God that can cause this thing of Nature to work in your hands for it is the work of God.” If Oliver desired, the revelation went on to say, the Lord would add the gift of translation to the revelatory gifts Oliver already possessed.
That doesn’t sound like something the Lord was displeased with to me. It sounds like He approved of using the rod by faith.
What is “the gift of Aaron”? The text provides several clues:
- Oliver has a history of using it, since “it has told [him] many things.”
- It is “the gift of God.”
- It is to be held in Oliver’s hands (and kept there, impervious to any power).
- It allows Oliver to “do marvelous works.”
- It is “the work of God.”
- The Lord will speak through it to Oliver and tell him anything he asks while using it.
- It works through faith.
- It enables Oliver to translate ancient sacred documents.
Wow. Okay. So, first of all, it is not “impervious to any power.” Verse 8 simply says that no one will be able to take it from Oliver’s hands. Those are two very, very different things. Second, the Lord did not say He would speak through the rod to Oliver, or that He would tell Oliver anything he wanted if he asked while using it. The Lord stated He would grant Oliver the knowledge he asked for if he asked in faith, but not to ask for those things which he shouldn’t. Jeremy is twisting things again to say things the source material never said.
With only these clues, the “gift of Aaron” is difficult to identify. The task becomes much easier, however, when we look at the original revelation contained in the Book of Commandments, a predecessor volume to the Doctrine & Covenants, used by the LDS Church before 1835.
As we went over recently, the printing of the Book of Commandments was interrupted by the mob who destroyed the press and burned most of the copies. A few dozen books were later bound out of what remained, but they were incomplete and there weren’t many made. That said, there were other handwritten copies of those revelations that were passed around in addition to the relatively few copies of the Book of Commandments, and yes, people were familiar with the original. And, as that was printed only two years before the Doctrine and Covenants was, it’s not as though people had a lot of time to forget what the revelation said.
Specifically, Section 7 of the Book of Commandments contains wording that was changed in the Doctrine & Covenants 8. The term “gift of Aaron” was originally “rod” and “rod of nature” in the 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.” — The Book of Commandments 7:37 (Emphasis added)
Yep, it was changed, just like the wording in a lot of other revelations was changed for the Doctrine and Covenants. As stated on the new Witnesses of the Book of Mormon website, Sidney Rigdon was actually the one who made these specific changes, though it was likely done with Joseph’s approval.
In fact, the version that Jeremy cited wasn’t the original, either, and those words had been altered, too. In the original, found in the Revelation Book 1, it’s referred to as a “sprout” and a “thing of nature.” Those words were cited by the “Revelations in Context” article above, as well. And it’s also worth noting that Oliver saw nothing contradictory in these alterations, as he never mentioned them even when he was at his angriest at Joseph and the Church.
So, what is the “gift of Aaron” mentioned in D&C 8? It is a “rod of nature.” What is a “rod of nature”? It is a divining rod or dowsing rod as illustrated in the above images, which Oliver Cowdery used to hunt for buried treasure.
There’s no evidence that Oliver used his divining rod to hunt for buried treasure. That’s a claim made by Grant Palmer in his An Insider’s View, a book that Jeremy has repeated claims from multiple times throughout this Letter.
According to the Witnesses website, Palmer’s book states:
Oliver Cowdery came from a similar background. He was a treasure hunter and “rodsman” before he met Joseph Smith in 1829. William Cowdery, his father, was associated with a treasure-seeking group in Vermont, and it is from them, one assumes, that Oliver learned the art of working with a divining rod.
His source for that claim was “Barnes Frisbie, The History of Middletown, Vermont (Rutland, VT:Tuttle and Co., 1867),43-64; rptd. in Abby Maria Hemenway, ed., Vermont Historical Gazetteer (Claremont, NH: Claremont Manufacturing Co., 1877),3:810-19 quoted in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:599-621.”
And what that source actually says is this:
Because Joseph Smith, Sr., and William Cowdery cannot be linked unequivocally to the Vermont money diggers, Frisbie’s late account must be approached cautiously. (p.600)…Quinn states, “From 1800 to 1802, Nathaniel Wood’s ‘use of the rod was mostly as a medium of revelation.’…Thus, a connection between William Cowdery and the Wood Scrape would help to explain why his son Oliver had a rod through which he received revelations” before he met Joseph Smith in April 1829” (1987, 32). Yet, there is no evidence which directly attributes Cowdery’s rod to his father. (p. 604)
So, William Cowdery, Oliver’s father, can’t be linked more than circumstantially to this group of “rodsmen” who used their divining rods to hunt for treasure, and there’s no evidence that Oliver’s rod had any connection to his father. Claiming that he used it to hunt for buried treasure is conjecture unsupported by the source material.
…According to [Richard L.] Anderson, “no known source tells whether Oliver did money digging before becoming the Book of Mormon scribe.” In fact, Anderson argues that the rod had many uses in addition to locating hidden treasure. Even during the Wood Scrape, diviners used the rod to seek spiritual answers of all kinds, including healings and answers to prayers. Whether Winchell’s money-digging activities almost thirty years earlier had anything to do with Oliver’s use of the rod is unknown. Perhaps, as [Richard] Bushman has suggested, Oliver employed the rod to locate water and minerals, like many of his New England contemporaries.
In fact, Saints, Volume 1, agrees with Bushman:
They returned to work, and Oliver began to wonder if he could translate as well. He believed that God could work through instruments like seer stones, and he had occasionally used a divining rod to find water and minerals. Yet he was unsure if his rod worked by the power of God. The process of revelation was still a mystery to him.
So, again, there’s no evidence for Oliver using his rod to hunt for buried treasure. But even if there was, so what? Plenty of people even now still hunt for buried treasure. Look at the recent flurry of activity surrounding the Forrest Fenn treasure. I personally own a necklace made from a Spanish coin recovered from the wreck of the Atocha. There are scores of movies and books about it. It’s still a fairly common thing.
Cowdery’s use of a divining rod to search for buried treasure evokes similar images of Joseph Smith hunting for treasure with a peep stone in a hat. Oliver also wished to use his divining rod, in the same way Joseph Smith used his stone and hat, to translate ancient documents. Doctrine & Covenants Section 8 indicates that the Lord, through Joseph Smith, granted Oliver’s request to translate using a…rod.
Yes, it does indicate that. This might be a bit strange to us today, but it’s hardly the scandal Jeremy is making it out to be. Remember what President Oaks said earlier in this post: when you have the gift and authority to receive revelation through tangible objects, when their use is sanctioned by God, there is nothing wrong with that. This was clearly sanctioned and Oliver’s gift was acknowledged to have been given to him by God. And in this revelation, the Lord was granting Oliver the authority to use it.
If Oliver Cowdery’s gift was really the use of a divining rod—and it was—then this tells us that the origins of the Church are much more rooted in folk magic and superstition than we’ve been led to believe by the LDS Church’s whitewashing of its origins and history.
No one ever denied that one of Oliver’s gifts was to receive revelation through a divining rod. Again, the members of the Church all knew that the revelations were being edited and updated. As Brian Hales points out, there is no evidence that anyone at the time found the rod controversial. There was no whitewash, there was no cover-up, this is just Jeremy making a mountain out of a molehill because he finds the idea strange.
There are plenty of unusual things in the scriptures, too: talking animals, glowing stones, staffs that sprout blossoms or strike water from stone, turning water into wine, towers built to reach heaven, a golden ball that directs you according to your faith, curing blindness with mud, raising people from the dead, giving people an electric shock simply by reaching out your hand to them, eternal intelligences formed into souls, seas of glass and fire, four-faced beasts with six wings, someone being swallowed by a fish, etc.
When you put your faith in God, sometimes that means putting your faith in things that others find strange. That doesn’t mean those things aren’t true.
God speaks to us in our language, according to our understanding. Sometimes, He uses things we’re familiar with to teach us larger lessons. Joseph and Oliver were already familiar with seer stones and divining rods, so God used those to teach them how to receive revelation. Becoming like God is a process. It means learning step by step. The first step for Joseph and Oliver was to begin with something they understood and to progress from there. I don’t think that’s strange, I think that’s wonderful. It’s how most of us learn: by building on the things we already know as we progress to a deeper understanding.
Sources in this entry:
Sarah Allen is brand new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. A voracious reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises and began sharing what she learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.