Part 48: CES Letter Witnesses Questions [Section D]
by Sarah Allen
The claim that the Book of Mormon witnesses didn’t actually see the plates except through “spiritual eyes,” which critics take to mean “imagination,” is one of the more common claims against them that you’ll see. Jeremy’s hardly the first to make this accusation, and it has been answered many, many times over the years. Once you see how flimsy these quotes are, and how dishonest the CES Letter is in packaging them, you’re going to realize that this bit only works if you don’t investigate it at all.
People believed they could see things as a vision in their mind. They called it “second sight.” We call it “imagination.” It made no difference to these people if they saw with their natural eyes or their spiritual eyes as both were one and the same.
Jeremy’s conflating four different things here. Second sight is a type of extrasensory perception, or ESP. It’s also often called clairvoyance or premonition. There’s no concrete evidence it actually exists and it’s not something I personally believe in, but it’s not the same thing as imagination. It’s also not the same thing as seeing things with either your natural eyes or spiritual eyes. Moreover, people who believe in second sight know full well there is a difference between what they believe is a psychic vision and something that happens in person, directly in front of them. They are not “one and the same.”
As mentioned previously, people believed they could see spirits and their dwelling places in the local hills along with seeing buried treasure deep in the ground. This supernatural way of seeing the world is also referred in Doctrine & Covenants as “the eyes of our understanding.”
Some people believed they could see spirits, sure, but the witnesses were not listed among them. None of them ever claimed to have second sight, and those spirits being referenced are not divine messengers sent from God. People who believe they can see spirits are talking about ghosts or other spectral apparitions.
And when the Letter talks about those spirits having their dwelling places in local hills, it’s talking about fairies. Second sight, also sometimes just called the Sight, is a common belief in Celtic mythology. One of its attributes in addition to premonition is when someone can see the fae. Fairies were specifically said to live in mounds in the earth because they went underground to avoid the spread of iron, Christianity, or invading tribes, depending on the source. The mounds were the entrances or gates to the fairy realm, sometimes called Underhill or Fairyland. The most famous of those mounds still standing today is probably Newgrange, though they’re all over the Irish countryside.
The fact that Jeremy is equating something like that with the First Vision or seeing an angel from Heaven is absurd—and the fact that he’s trying to use scripture to do it is even worse. The verse he links to, D&C 110:1, is not about clairvoyance:
The veil was taken from our minds, and the eyes of our understanding were opened.
It’s announcing the arrival of the Savior in the Kirtland temple, and the very next verse states that they saw the Lord standing before them:
We saw the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit, before us; and under his feet was a paved work of pure gold, in color like amber.
And, when you follow the footnote to the word “eyes” in verse 1, it takes you to a series of other verses using that phrase: D&C 76:10, 12, &19, D&C 136:32, and D&C 138:11. From those verses, it’s clear that it’s talking about having the veil lifted. Verse 76:12 in particular explains it very well:
By the power of the Spirit our eyes were opened and our understandings were enlightened, so as to see and understand the things of God—
The scriptures frequently use the word “eyes” to denote “focus,” like having an eye single to the glory of God (D&C 82:19, D&C 4:5), or when it talks about the eye of faith (Alma 32:40, Alma 5:15).
But “the eyes of our understanding” is a little bit different. Because we’re fallen beings who live in a fallen world, and the Father and the Savior are so far above our mortal station, we can’t look on Them and survive unless we’re transfigured first. They’re so glorious, we can’t survive the ordeal without being “perfected,” or given some of Their glory so that we can withstand Their presence.
We recently read about this phenomenon in Come Follow Me. Moses 1:9-11 states:
9 And the presence of God withdrew from Moses, that his glory was not upon Moses; and Moses was left unto himself. And as he was left unto himself, he fell unto the earth.
10 And it came to pass that it was for the space of many hours before Moses did again receive his natural strength like unto man; and he said unto himself: Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.
11 But now mine own eyes have beheld God; but not my natural, but my spiritual eyes, for my natural eyes could not have beheld; for I should have withered and died in his presence; but his glory was upon me; and I beheld his face, for I was transfigured before him.
Pay special attention to verse 11, where Moses distinguishes between natural eyes and spiritual eyes. This thought is repeated while discussing the “eye of faith” in Ether 12:19:
And there were many whose faith was so exceedingly strong, even before Christ came, who could not be kept from within the veil, but truly saw with their eyes the things which they had beheld with an eye of faith, and they were glad.
This is the entire crux of everything we’re talking about today. The three witnesses, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer, all had to be transfigured to view the plates because they were shown them by an angel. The eight witnesses did not, because they were shown the plates by Joseph Smith.
You’ll note also that Moses fell to the earth, unable to move for “the space of many hours.” This same thing happened to Joseph when he was trying to jump the fence after a vision of Moroni and passed out from exhaustion.
There’s another famous anecdote in the Church where, when Joseph and Sidney Rigdon were having the vision of the Celestial Kingdom from D&C 76, Sidney struggled with the effects of transfiguration:
“Joseph sat firmly and calmly all the time in the midst of a magnificent glory, but Sidney sat limp and pale, apparently as limber as a rag, observing which, Joseph remarked, smilingly, ‘Sidney is not used to it as I am’” (in “Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” Juvenile Instructor, May 1892, 303–4).
And don’t forget that both the Savior (Matthew 17:1-2) and Moses (Exodus 34:29, 2 Corinthians 3:7) had shining, glowing faces during moments of transfiguration. The effects lasted so long for Moses that the Israelites couldn’t bear to look at him afterward and he had to hide his face.
This is not an ordinary situation any of them are describing. They all had to be altered to experience it and it was physically exhausting, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t actually see the things they said they saw. Like it said in Ether, they truly saw with their eyes the things they beheld with an eye of faith. Because of that, I think we can all forgive the Book of Mormon witnesses for not having the vocabulary to describe the experience perfectly.
During the First Vision, Joseph was surely transfigured, but we don’t doubt that the Father and the Son were really there. We don’t doubt that Joseph actually saw them. We don’t doubt that the Savior actually appeared to Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration. Why, then, should we doubt that the three witnesses actually saw an angel holding the golden plates?
And this is where the Letter starts getting ridiculous with its sources:
If the plates and the experiences were real and tangible as 21st century Mormons are led to believe, why would the witnesses make the following kind of statements when describing the plates and the experience?
“I never saw the golden plates, only in a visionary or entranced state.” – EMD 2:346-347
“While praying I passed into a state of entrancement, and in that state I saw the angel and the plates.” – EMD 2:346-347
These two lines are taken from the exact same quote by Anthony Metcalf, just split up to make it look like two different times Martin supposedly said this.
In the original version of the CES Letter, Jeremy reversed these quotes and cited the first from a book called Ten Years Before the Mast by Metcalf and the second from Early Mormon Documents (EMD) volume 2 by Dan Vogel. However, it was the exact same quote from the exact same source, just repeated in two different places. They were deliberately separated like that to make it look even worse for Martin, unless Jeremy didn’t read any of his sources and didn’t realize they were literally taken from the exact same paragraph. So, either he was too lazy to actually read his own sources, or he purposely manipulated them to make them appear as though they were from two different accounts. Neither paints a very good picture of Jeremy’s “research.”
While he now puts them in the correct order and uses the same reference for both of them, he still separates them to give the impression that they were taken from different accounts, rather than the same one. When you look at the page in the Letter, you see multiple quotes, which leaves you thinking that Martin really must’ve said that repeatedly. Except when you actually investigate the quotes, you see that isn’t the case at all.
Anthony Metcalf, by the way, was a harsh critic of the Church who labels Joseph “the pretended prophet” just two lines above Martin’s supposed first quote. The subtitle of his book Ten Years Before the Mast is How I Became a Mormon and Why I Became an Infidel! The book was written to try to discredit Joseph Smith and the Church. Metcalf claims to have interviewed Martin in the winter of 1875-76, but Martin died in July of 1875, so that would have been impossible. If he did interview him, it would have had to have been winter of 1874-75 at the very latest. The book wasn’t published until 1888, at a minimum 13 years after this interview. Later in the same account, Metcalf claims that, despite Martin Harris rejoining the Church, he didn’t believe in it and thought that God had rejected both the Saints in Utah and the RLDS breakaway sect. He then claims that Martin planned to lead the Saints back to Jackson County, Missouri, to reclaim Zion after his health improved, but it never did. At another point in the same account, he also says that Martin never called Joseph “Joseph,” but rather, “Joe Smith,” which of course, nobody who actually knew him ever did and of which we have no record of Martin ever having done.
And, almost in direct rebuttal to this, from an interview given just a few days before Martin died, another account from EMD volume 2 was given by Ole A. Jensen. This is the same account where Martin talked about seeing the stone box in the mountain. Earlier in the account, he says the following:
The Prophet Joseph Smith, and Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer and myself, went into a little grove to pray to obtain a promise that we should behold it with our eyes natural eyes, that we could testify of it to the world….
The strikethrough and the subsequent rewording were in the original text, showing that the correction was deliberate and done to capture Martin’s actual words.
The Letter continues with more quotes:
“He only saw the plates with a spiritual eye” – Joseph Smith Begins His Work, Vol. 1, 1958
I don’t have a copy of Joseph Smith Begins His Work and there isn’t a text version online that I can find. It’s not in ebook form, and it would have taken too long to arrive had I bought a physical copy. I also wasn’t keen on spending $54 just to source one quote, not gonna lie.
However, Wilford C. Wood, the book’s author, was a lifelong, faithful Latter-day Saint who did much to preserve Church-related historical artifacts and locations. I doubt he’d be pleased that someone was using his work to try to undermine the testimony of others.
As far as the quote goes, I did find this from Brian Hales:
The reference listed on page 55 is: “Joseph Smith Begins His Work, Vol. 1, 1958,” which fails to disclose the actual source, neither when Martin allegedly spoke it, nor when the statement was recorded. This is a very late recollection recorded in 1892 claiming to be an accurate verbatim quotation.
The closest we have to that line elsewhere is a quote from John H. Gilbert, which we’ll discuss in detail a bit later. I thought it was possible that Wood was quoting Gilbert here, since nearly all of the quotes about “spiritual eyes” were taken from Gilbert’s many recollections, and with a little digging, it looks like that is true. You can find the full quote on MormonWiki, which is identical to that taken from a memorandum by Gilbert that we’ll discuss later in this post:
“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.'” -John H. Gilbert (Wilford C. Wood, Joseph Smith Begins His Work, Vol. 1, 1958, introduction)
So, yet again, Jeremy is doubling up on his sources and claiming they’re from separate instances when they’re the exact same quotes taken from the exact same sources, just repeated far and wide. It’s funny, isn’t it, how all of the anti-LDS sources all quote from and repeat the exact same few lines? It seems like there are so many of these different quotes out there, but it’s all the same four or five repeated everywhere.
“I saw them with the eye of faith.” – John A. Clark to Dear Brethren, 31 Aug. 1840, Episcopal Recorder (Philadelphia) 18 (12 Sept. 1840): 98
Personally, I find this quote to be reaffirming, not denigrating. Remember Ether 12:19, which says that people “truly saw with their eyes the things which they had beheld with the eye of faith.” This is exactly what Martin, the man who “could quote more scripture than anyone in the neighborhood,” appeared to be saying.
John A. Clark wrote multiple chapters of at least one book, Gleanings by the Way, trying to refute what he referred to as “The Mormon Delusion.” Literally, the entire rest of the book after the linked page is devoted to the topic. This quote can be found verbatim in both EMD volume 2 and Gleanings:
To know how much this testimony [that of the three witnesses taken from the Book of Mormon] is worth I will state one fact. A gentleman in Palmyra, bred to the law, a professor of religion, and of undoubted veracity, told me that on one occasion, he appealed to Harris and asked him directly,—“Did you see those plates?” Harris replied, he did. “Did you see the plates, and the engravings on them with your bodily eyes?” Harries replied, “Yes, I saw them with my eyes,—they were shown unto me by the power of God and not of man.” “But did you see them with your natural,—your bodily eyes, just as you see this pencil-case in my and? Now say no or yes to this.” Harris replied,—“Why I did not see them as I do that pencil-case, yet I saw them with the eye of faith; I saw them just as distinctly as I see anything around me,—though at the time they were covered over with a cloth.”
(This is also the exact same account in which he claims Martin saw Jesus Christ in the form of a talking deer and that they chatted together as they walked for several miles.) In the very next paragraph after the “eye of faith” one, Clark refers to this as a “cunningly devised fable” and “jugglery to blind people’s eyes.” He’s not exactly an unbiased author.
Additionally, did you catch his source for this story? An unnamed “gentleman of Palmyra” who told Clark that Martin told him something. This is a thirdhand, anonymous source recounted in 1840, 11 years after these events supposedly took place. Jeremy is literally saying, “He said that he said that he said this,” and expects you to take that as a valid source.
“As shown in the vision” – Zenas H. Gurley, Jr., Interview with David Whitmer on January 14, 1885
In reference to Zenas Gurley Jr., this interview has already been cited in the Witnesses section, too. I don’t see why this quote is an issue in the slightest. David Whitmer said he saw an angel of God. What else would that be a but a vision? Again, just because it was a vision does not mean the angel wasn’t literally there, just like the Father and the Son were literally there when They appeared to Joseph in the Sacred Grove. We still refer to that as a vision, because it was a visitation from divine beings. Why wouldn’t David refer to his experience as a vision, too?
“…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 nor David & also 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, I therefore three week since in the Stone Chapel…renounced the Book of Mormon…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 a handkerchief over them, but he never saw them only as he saw a city throught [sic] 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…” — Letter from Stephen Burnett to “Br. Johnson,” April 15, 1838, in Joseph Smith Letter Book, p. 2
This is not taken from the Joseph Smith Letterbook page 2, the way that Jeremy describes. It’s taken from the Joseph Smith Letterbook 2, page 64. It’s also available in EMD volume 2. This letter was written to Lyman Johnson, who was in Far West at the time, from Kirtland, explaining that there was a rift going on with those apostates who’d left the Church in Ohio.
According to the Editorial Note in EMD, Burnett joined the Church in November, 1830, and “[b]y late 1837 he had become disillusioned with church leaders, and by 1838 had publicly denounced Joseph Smith.” Joseph, in response, stated that Burnett “could not bear to have his purse taxed,” so he eventually “proclaimed all revelation lies.”
As the Editorial Note further adds, Warren Parrish, another once-close confidante of Joseph turned bitter enemy, also stated that Martin claimed to have only seen the plates in vision. Conversely, George A. Smith, who was also at that meeting, refuted it, saying, “Martin Harris then bore testimony of [the Book of Mormon’s] truth and said all would be damned if they rejected it.” Therefore, what Martin actually said is unclear. They’re all secondhand accounts and they’re all biased to some degree, whether in favor of the Church or against it.
Richard L. Anderson, however, casts doubt on Burnett’s report:
We are of course seeing Harris through the mind of a frustrated intermediary, one who thinks Mormonism presents a “whole scene of lying and deception.” He thinks that Martin Harris has not really seen the plates. If “only in vision,” then Burnett (not Harris) says it was really just “imagination.” If the Three Witnesses “only saw them spiritually,” then Burnett (not Harris) can explain it as essentially “in vision with their eyes shut.” But Martin Harris felt misrepresented, or he would not have stood up in the Kirtland Temple to challenge the explanations of Burnett and his disaffected associates. Note that there are two distinct experiences of Harris: (1) “he said that 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”; (2) “he never saw the plates with his natural eyes, only in vision.” Getting at the real Martin Harris requires subtracting Burnett’s sarcasm that seeps into the above wording. … In other words, Burnett heard Martin say that he had seen the plates in vision, and when Burnett uses “only” four times to ridicule the experience, that shows his disbelief, not Martin’s speech. Martin’s candid denial of seeing the plates while translating was sometimes exaggerated into a denial of ever seeing the plates, but even Burnett reports Martin claiming two types of contact with the plates: lifting them thinly covered, plus later seeing them in the hands of the angel. … So Burnett paraphrased Martin Harris with the evident rationalizations of a skeptic. But Martin knew his own experience and remained a convinced Book of Mormon believer. Study of his interviews shows how strongly he insisted that the sight of the angel and plates was as real as the sight of the physical objects around him….
The bolded statement is one we’ll be discussing more later. Martin’s declarations that he never saw the plates uncovered during his work as a scribe is often conflated into him saying he never saw them uncovered at all. But the vision the three witnesses received occurred after his role in transcribing the translation was finished. We’ll discuss that in a future installment, though. The CES Letter continues with more quotes:
The foreman in the Palmyra printing office that produced the first Book of Mormon said that Harris “used to practice a good deal of his characteristic jargon about ‘seeing with the spiritual eye,’ and the like.” – Mormonism: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress, p.71
This line is taken from Pomeroy Tucker’s book. Tucker is likely quoting John Gilbert here, though he doesn’t clarify who the printing office foreman was, and according to Brian Hales, Tucker never met Martin Harris himself. Tucker did work in the Palmyra printing office when the Book of Mormon was being printed, though, so it’s possible they did know one another. FAIR believes they did, and it was also published in the Ensign, so I think Hales is probably incorrect on that point unless he has information I don’t.
Yet again, however, at best it’s an anonymous, thirdhand account taken from a biased source. Tucker was not shy about thinking Joseph was a fraud, and his book was described as “[p]robably the most influential anti-Mormon work in [its] period.” We don’t know for certain who Tucker was quoting, what they actually said, or how many people removed from Martin Harris they were. Tucker got a few things right and a lot of things wrong in his book, so this paraphrase needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
Two other Palmyra residents said that Harris told them that he had seen the plates with “the eye of faith” or “spiritual eyes” – EMD 2:270 and 3:22
Nice try, Jeremy, but no. These are not “two other” Palmyra residents. Only one of them is new. The first is the exact same quote taken from the exact same John A. Clark account that was recounted in both EMD volume 2 and Gleanings By the Way that we discussed a few paragraphs ago. This time, all he did was change the source to EMD and requote it.
The second account is taken from a letter from a Mr. Jesse Townsend to a Mr. Phineas Stiles. Townsend, a Presbyterian pastor from Palmyra, is giving a brief, extremely biased and antagonistic history of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon to Stiles. Though he puts the term “spiritual eyes” in quotation marks, he doesn’t cite anyone. It’s not entirely clear if he’s merely using quotation marks for emphasis and derision or whether he’s actually quoting someone. If he’s quoting Martin, as is implied, there is no direct quote, nor are the circumstances of the quote given.
As far as “spiritual eyes” quotes go in general, there are no firsthand accounts of Martin ever saying that. We have a few second- or thirdhand accounts, taken from mostly hostile sources. But, as shown above, we also have a secondhand account from Martin saying that he saw them with his natural eyes.
It’s hard to know whether he said anything about “spiritual eyes” or not. If he did, it doesn’t bother me. As demonstrated by Moses 1:11, the angel (and by extension the plates he was holding) would have to be seen with spiritual/transfigured eyes. That does not mean Martin didn’t see them plainly in front of him with his actual eyes. He was just transfigured. It wasn’t in his imagination, it literally happened. If he struggled with the words to perfectly describe that experience, I don’t blame him. I doubt I’d have the words to describe it, either.
John H. Gilbert, the typesetter for most of the Book of Mormon, said that he had asked Harris, “Martin, did you see those plates with your naked eyes?” According to Gilbert, Harris “looked down for an instant, raised his eyes up, and said, ‘No, I saw them with a spiritual eye.” – EMD 2:548
This quote was taken from a memorandum Gilbert typeset himself in 1892, 62 years after this supposedly happened. This is the same document that Wilford C. Wood quoted above in Joseph Smith Begins His Work, Vol. 1. Virtually all of the quotes about “spiritual eyes” come from Gilbert or people quoting Gilbert. This was something he told and retold many, many times in his life. There’s an entire section of EMD volume 2 just about Gilbert and his memories.
Again, it’s unknown whether Martin actually said that or not, and again, I don’t think it matters if he did. It was both a physical and a spiritual experience, and if he wanted to describe it occasionally as more spiritual than physical, that’s fine by me. Regardless of what words he uses, he never claimed it was imaginary.
If these witnesses literally really saw the plates like everyone else on the planet sees tangible objects…why strange statements like, “I never saw them only as I see a city through a mountain”? What does that even mean? I have never seen a city through a mountain. Have you?
No, I haven’t seen a city through a mountain, but I also don’t believe everything I read, so there’s that.
It was a secondhand quote from a hostile source that no one else ever backed up. Even Warren Parrish’s account, which agreed Martin said he saw the plates in vision, never said anything about seeing a city through a mountain. We have no idea whether Burnett made it up or Martin actually said it, what the exact wording was if he did say it, or what led to Martin making such a statement in the first place. The rest of that quote from Burnett’s letter openly states that Martin felt under duress when making the original comment that he never saw the plates.
So, the question then becomes, can we trust a secondhand account from a hostile witness who no one else backs up, and whose own recollection describes the speaker as regretting his words and feeling coerced into saying them? To me, this is far from a smoking gun.
Why all these bizarre statements from the witnesses if the plates were real and the event literal?
Jeremy never actually quoted any firsthand statement from any of the witnesses that he found to be bizarre. They were all at least secondhand, many of them were anonymous or uncited, and at least one was contradicted by another witness to the same speech. If you want to take the word of anonymous sources over the firsthand words of the witnesses themselves, you’re welcome to do so. But I personally think that’s not very effective scholarship.
In an article at the Interpreter, Dan Peterson states:
…I routinely encounter the confident declaration that the witnesses to the Book of Mormon didn’t really see or touch anything at all and didn’t actually claim to have seen or touched anything. They only “saw” the plates with their “spiritual eyes,” I’m assured, and “spiritual eyes,” to them, means “in their imaginations.”
I’ll leave aside the question of whether it’s even remotely plausible that the witnesses sacrificed so very much for something they recognized as merely imaginary. Let’s look at their explicit verbal testimonies. Several of the eleven official witnesses were obviously confronted during their lifetimes with accusations that they had merely hallucinated, and they repeatedly rejected such proposed explanations.
In fact, David Whitmer, one of the initial Three Witnesses, could easily have been addressing today’s skeptics when he declared “I was not under any hallucination, nor was I deceived! I saw with these eyes and I heard with these ears! I know whereof I speak!”
It’s difficult to imagine how he could have been any clearer.
And listen, once more, to Hyrum Smith’s declaration about the months he spent in Liberty Jail, condemned to death: “I thank God that I felt a determination to die, rather than deny the things which my eyes had seen, which my hands had handled.”
Those don’t sound like imaginary experiences to me.
Why would you need a vision or supernatural power to see real physical plates that Joseph said were in a box that he carried around? When Martin Harris was asked, “But did you see them [plates] with your natural, your bodily eyes, just as you see this pencil-case in my hand? Now say no or yes to this.” Martin answered, “I did not see them as I do that pencil-case, yet I saw them with the eye of faith; I saw them just as distinctly as I see anything around me, though at the time they were covered over with a cloth.” – Origin and History of the Mormonites, p.406
Why couldn’t Martin just simply answer “yes”?
Oh, for heaven’s sake. This quote is taken, yet again, from the exact same John A. Clark account that Jeremy has already quoted ad nauseam. This is not a new source, though he pretends it is by quoting a different article title.
Gilbert, Clark, and Metcalf each receive multiple mentions in this little collection of quotes, and they’re all taken from the same accounts. We just went through 11 different quotes. Jeremy pretended they were all unique. However, two were from the same quote by Anthony Metcalf. Four of them—quite likely five: the Townsend quote is anonymous but with the same wording as the others—were from John H. Gilbert. Three were from John A. Clark. That means, at best there are six original quotes we’re dealing with, most likely five. Again, either Jeremy Runnells is too lazy to actually read his own sources and doesn’t realize that they’re duplicates, or he’s deliberately lying and trying to cover that fact up. There is no other explanation for this mess.
As for why Martin simply couldn’t answer “yes” to these questions, how do we know that he didn’t? Again, none of these are firsthand sources, and most of them are from people actively working to disprove the Church’s truth claims. They’re all secondhand at best, and several of them are anonymous hearsay. And in the full quote from the John A. Clark account, Martin actually did just say yes twice, but the interviewer kept pestering him until he said something else:
A gentleman in Palmyra…appealed to Harris and asked him directly,—“Did you see those plates?” Harris replied, he did. “Did you see the plates, and the engravings on them with your bodily eyes?” Harries replied, “Yes, I saw them with my eyes,—they were shown unto me by the power of God and not of man.” “But did you see them with your natural,—your bodily eyes, just as you see this pencil-case in my and? Now say no or yes to this.” Harris replied,—“Why I did not see them as I do that pencil-case, yet I saw them with the eye of faith; I saw them just as distinctly as I see anything around me,—though at the time they were covered over with a cloth.
Anyway, I just wanted to wrap up this section by sharing some additional words by Richard Anderson:
I have in my files, over the years, about fifty so-called interviews with Oliver Cowdery. “Interview” is a contact, basically, where they said something about The Book of Mormon, it might be detailed; it might be a speech; it might be something he wrote, and so on. And, in the case of David Whitmer, a long interview.
So, here are the statistics about… did I say fifty? Thirty for Oliver Cowdery; a minimum of seventy for David Whitmer; about fifty for Martin Harris; and a minimum of forty–probably one and a half times that much.
So I’ve got about two hundred times when one of the witnesses said, “I did sign the statement.” “The statement means what it says.” “I saw the angel.” “I saw the plates.” Or in the case of the eight witnesses, “I handled the plates.” So two hundred very positive and specific statements in many cases and I’m dealing today with about eight or ten documents, in other words, five percent. And the question is: “Do you believe the 95 percent or do you believe the five?”
Personally, I believe the 95%. It makes no sense to put your faith in these same few quotes repeated over and over again, rather than in the numerous times the witnesses themselves contradicted them.
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.
John Perry says
Thank you for all the work you do in putting together these well-researched rebuttals.
Back in the late early 2000s I was in the religion section of a Hastings book store and, due to some recent publicity regarding scientology (Tom Cruise and John Travolta were well-known adherents), I decided to see if I could find a book to learn more about it. I finally found one that offered individual chapters on various “new” religions. Before reading about Scientology, I noticed the book also had a chapter on “The Mormon Church”, so I started reading that first. After just a few pages I realized that the author was uninformed and bent on casting the Church in a negative light. I placed the book back on the shelf and concluded that if it couldn’t get it right about something I knew well like the Church I belonged to, I could also conclude that it would treat areas where I had little knowledge with the same disdain and poor scholarship.
My experience with the CES Letter is similar. When I first came in contact with it 7 or 8 years ago, I looked for topics that I knew very well. When I’d read what the Letter claimed about several of them, and seeing that it either lied, exaggerated, misled, failed to engage the most recent scholarship, and/or provided completely one-sided arguments, I concluded that it likely took the same approach to the topics about which I knew less. I then discarded the entire work as useless and unworthy of my time.
Since that encounter, my first impression has been confirmed on many occasions.
Unfortunately, the Letter relies upon its readers having but a superficial knowledge of the questions it addresses, and that they will be impatient and unwilling to spend the hours necessary to explore each topic from several different angles.
I am reminded of the little rhyme from Alexander Pope about a “little knowledge” being a dangerous thing wherein he invites the readers to drink more deeply from the profound wellsprings of learning lest they be deceived.
Thank you for covering all of the topics and for exposing the Letter, its research, and its motivations for what they really are.