Part 51: CES Letter Witnesses Questions [Section G]
by Sarah Allen
In this entry, I’d like to get through as much of the next few pages of the CES Letter as possible, so that we can wrap up the Witnesses section soon and move on to the next topic. There are a lot of different accusations to go through, many of which we’ve already covered, so I’m just going to dive right in.
The Letter picks up, again in big, red, capital letters:
NO DOCUMENT OF ACTUAL SIGNATURES
The closest thing we have in existence to an original document of the testimonies of the witnesses is a printer’s manuscript written by Oliver Cowdery (you can see black/white photo on Joseph Smith Papers here). Every witness name except Oliver Cowdery on that document is not signed; they are written in Oliver’s own handwriting.
The facts surrounding this show why it’s not a very strong argument. There are no actual signatures of the witnesses other than Oliver because the only complete copy of the Book of Mormon manuscript that survived is the printer’s manuscript, thanks in large part to the efforts of David Whitmer and his family.
What happened to the original manuscript? Well, in October of 1841, Joseph Smith put it in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House. More than 40 years later, Emma’s second husband, Lewis Bidamon, was making renovations to the house and discovered it. It was badly damaged by water seepage and mold, and Bidamon displayed the pages and gave many away to visitors to the house. Today, only about 28% of it is still intact, and even many those pages and fragments are badly damaged. Extensive efforts to conserve them have been undertaken by both the Church and by the Wilford Woodruff Museum, the two places where the bulk of the remaining manuscript survives. Private collectors have other fragments.
Printed copies of the Book of Mormon today are derived from a combination of the two manuscripts, as the printer’s manuscript has several small copy errors per page.
We do have three accounts from Joseph F. Smith saying that David Whitmer confirmed the witnesses each signed the original manuscript, and a fourth saying that Oliver copied their names onto the printer’s manuscript. Whitmer initially believed he had the original manuscript, which had previously been in Oliver’s possession until his death, but later came to accept that he had the printer’s copy.
From the interview with Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith that David Whitmer gave in 1878, Joseph F. Smith’s diary recorded the following account:
The fact also appeared that the names of all the witnesses were subscribed in the handwriting of Oliver Cowdery. When the question was asked David Whitmer if he and the other witnesses did not subscribe their own names to the respective testimony, he replied that they did. Then he was asked, “Where are the original documents?” That he did not know, but supposed Oliver had copied them, but this was an exact copy. Someone suggested that he ought to certify to it, he being the only witness left, but the lawyer, Mr. David C. Whitmer, son of Jacob, thought he had better take time to reflect about it.
I suggested it was possible there were two copies, but this was flatly denied by Brother David Whitmer, who said according to the best of his knowledge there never was but the one copy. Now herein he is evidently mistaken, as Joseph Smith expressly states in his history that before the ms. [manuscript] was sent to the printers an exact copy was made and it is my belief that this is that copy and not the original, or if it is the original then there is another copy, or was, and with that no doubt are the actual signatures of the eleven witnesses to their respective testimonies.
Footnote 24, given on that same page of EMD volume 2 repeats another version of this account, which was taken from a letter written by Joseph F. Smith to Samuel Russell on March 19, 1901:
On another occasion, Joseph F. Smith recalled this part of his conversation with Whitmer: “I had the temerity to call the attention of Father Whitmer to the fact that the manuscript in his possess was but the copy of the original, and proved it to him by this circumstance: I asked him if he and the other witnesses each signed their own name to their testimony, and he unhesitatingly replied, ‘Yes, we each signed our name.’ Then I said, calling his attention to the names of the witnesses as inscribed in the manuscript, ‘how is it that all these names are written by one man?’ He eagerly grasped the manuscript containing the testimony and glanced over the names. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I don’t know how this is, Oliver must have copied them.’ Still he persisted [in the idea that] it was the original manuscript, and not wishing to have an argument with him over the matter I let it drop.”
President Smith also recounted this same event in the November, 1899 Improvement Era:
In September, 1878, in company with Apostle Orson Pratt, the writer [Joseph F. Smith] visited David Whitmer at Richmond, Ray County, Missouri. In the presence of David C. Whitmer, the son of Jacob, Philander Page, David J. Whitmer, son of David Whitmer, George Scheweich, Col. James W. Black, J.R.B. Van Cleave and some others, Father David Whitmer was asked if the three witnesses signed their own names to their testimony to the Book of Mormon? Father Whitmer unhestitatingly replied with emphasis:
“Yes, we each signed his own name.”
“Then,” said the questioner, “how is it that the names of all the witnesses are found here, (in D.W.’s manuscript) written in the same hand-writing?”
This question seemed to startle Father Whitmer, and, after examining the signatures, he replied:
“Oliver must have copied them.”
“Then, where are the original documents?” was asked.
He replied, “I don’t know.”
Knowing as we did with what sacredness this manuscript was regarded by Father Whitmer, both Elder Pratt and the writer sounded him to see if he could be induced to part with it, and we found him determined to retain it….
And in the same account from James Henry Moyle that we discussed in an earlier post, it includes the following line:
The witnesses did ~~Dav~~ not sign the original manuscript though [they] were present and ordered Oliver Cowdry to sign for them[.]
The footnote to this line (#8) reads:
Moyle himself noted in his diary, “The statement that the three witnesses did not sign the manuscript but that Oliver Cowdery signed for them and at their request is doubtless true as to the copy which David Whitmer had. The writing itself indicates that. Joseph Fielding Smith, church historian, says his father said that in his interview and that of Orson Pratt, David Whitmer admitted that the three witnesses signed the original manuscript.” … Whitmer was unaware that two manuscript copies of the Book of Mormon had been made and that the manuscript in his possession was the second copy that Cowdery had prepared for the printer.
These are all secondhand reports, some given several decades later, so they should be treated with some skepticism. But, as most of them come from a prophet, I do personally lend them some weight and consider them to be pretty solid sources. You can also read more about the evidences of the signatures at FAIR.
Further, there is no testimony from any of the witnesses, with the exception of David Whitmer, directly attesting to the direct wording and claims of the manuscript or statements in the Book of Mormon.
This simply isn’t true. There are many “testimonies from the witnesses directly attesting to the claims made in the statements in the Book of Mormon.” You can find several such statements made by the witnesses on their individual pages at the Witnesses of the Book of Mormon website.
Here are some notable examples:
- Oliver Cowdery: “I beheld with my eyes, and handled with my hands, the gold plates from which [the Book of Mormon] was transcribed,” and “It was a clear, open beautiful day, far from any inhabitants, in a remote field, at the time we saw the record, of which it has been spoken, brought and laid before us, by an angel, arrayed in glorious light, [who] ascend [descended I suppose] out of the midst of heaven. Now if this is human juggling—judge ye.”
- Martin Harris: “I know that the plates have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice declared it unto us; therefore I know of a surety that the work is true. … And as many of the plates as Joseph Smith translated I handled with my hands, plate after plate,” and “concerning the plates, I do say that the angel did show to me the plates containing the Book of Mormon.”
- John Whitmer: “Herefore I desire to testify to all that will come to the knowledge of this address; that I have most assuredly seen the plates from whence the book of Mormon is translated, and that I have handled these plates, and know of a surety that Joseph Smith, jr. has translated the book of Mormon by the gift and power of God,” and, though it’s taken from Peter Whitmer’s page, “I conclude you have read the Book of Mormon, together with the testimonies thatare thereto attached; in which testimonies you read my name subscribed as one of the Eight witnesses to said Book. That testimony was, is, and will be true henceforth and forever.”
- Hyrum Smith: “I had been abused and thrust into a dungeon, and confined for months on account of my faith, and the testimony of Jesus Christ. However I thank God that I felt a determination to die, rather than deny the things which my eyes had seen, which my hands had handled, and which I had borne testimony to … ; and I can assure my beloved brethren that I was enabled to bear as strong a testimony, when nothing but death presented itself, as ever I did in my life.”
Claiming that they never addressed their testimonies directly does them all a great disservice. They did, repeatedly throughout their lives. Many of them reaffirmed those testimonies on their deathbeds.
While we have “testimonies” from the witnesses recorded in later years through interviews and second eyewitness accounts and affidavits, many of the “testimonies” given by some of the witnesses do not match the claims and wording of the preface statements in the Book of Mormon.
Again, not true. The statements I just quoted above are all from witnesses other than David Whitmer echoing the words made in their official statements inside the Book of Mormon. And, as we discussed back when talking about the different accounts of the First Vision, it’s normal to see minor discrepancies when recounting stories over your lifetime. When you repeat it verbatim every time, it sounds rehearsed. In Maryland, for example, a courtroom testimony has to be substantially different to be discounted because those inconsistencies are so common in witness testimony.
Martin Harris is one of those quoted above reaffirming his testimony. One quote is taken from a letter he wrote, a direct, firsthand source, and the other is from an interview given in the Millennial Star. I’m pointing this out because all of this is just Jeremy’s preface to bringing up, yet again, those statements supposedly made by Martin Harris that he constantly mischaracterizes:
For example, the Testimony of Three Witnesses (which includes Martin Harris) states:
“…that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon;”*
“…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…” — Letter from Stephen Burnett to “Br. Johnson,” April 15, 1838, in Joseph Smith Letter Book, p.2
“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
Remember, this was an account that was contradicted by George A. Smith, who was also there. And, while Warren Parrish did agree that Martin said it happened during a vision (found on that same prior linked page), he didn’t back up any other part of Burnett’s story. It’s unclear what Martin actually said at that meeting, since all of the descriptions we have conflict with one another on various points. It’s also true that both Burnett and Parrish were hostile to the Church by this time, which would naturally induce a bias against testimonies of its truthfulness. We don’t have any record from Martin himself mentioning the meeting. And Burnett’s own letter continues on to say that Martin recanted his statements saying none of the witnesses had seen the plates and that he’d felt coerced to say that in the first place. There’s a lot to distrust about this source. It is not a slam dunk against Martin’s testimony, no matter how many times Jeremy trots it out.
I’m not sure that the eight witnesses made that statement. All eight of them never made that statement, I’ve got something like sixty times when those witnesses say essentially, “yes, what I wrote in the Book of Mormon was true.”
And I’m told by some of the books on this subject now, “oh, well, those statements are just pro forma public statements and we have to go find what really happened.” Well you know that’s like telling your teenage kid “what part of no do you not understand?” What part of ‘hefted’ and ‘seeing the curious characters’ don’t you understand?
And John Whitmer one time when he was asked, Joseph III did this, wrote to him and said “I want you to reiterate your testimony of seeing the plates.” According to the family John Whitmer wrote back and said “I’m not going to reiterate my testimony because I never quit bearing it,” in other words, “go see what I’ve said before.” Another missionary came to John Whitmer and he wrote this, that “what I have said in my testimony was true, is true and will be true for eternities to come.”
So those men said they stood by their testimony and so the testimony said they saw and handled, and I’m supposed to believe on this secondhand statement of a very hostile and angry man in Kirtland that Martin Harris said the eight witnesses admitted that they didn’t see or they only saw in a vision?
And, yet again, we have the exact same quote from John A. Clark that Jeremy has already quoted from several distinct sources, trying to make them look like different quotes instead of the same quote repeated in multiple places. Earlier in that exact same paragraph, Martin said twice that he saw the plates with his actual eyes. It was only when the questioner kept pressing him for a different answer that he said this line about seeing them with “the eye of faith.” And remember, this a secondhand account by a man who spent nearly 150 pages of a book trying to discredit “the Mormon delusion.” It’s not a neutral source.
Additionally, Martin was also once described as being able to “quote more scripture than any man in the neighborhood.” As someone who did frequently and easily quote scripture in his daily interactions, it’s not at all surprising that he would turn to scripture verses when trying to describe something impossible to describe. Remember, Moses 1:11 tells us that seeing things with spiritual eyes means being transfigured, and Ether 12:19 explains that the people “truly saw with their eyes the things which they had beheld with an eye of faith.” It would not have been unusual for Martin to use scriptural phrases like that.
It’s also not unusual for those hostile to the Church to twist the words of its leaders into something unrecognizable to further their own agenda. We see that all the time, even today. We don’t have Martin’s exact words in any of these cases, but I think it’s entirely possible that these critics took statements that were meant to convey one thing and put a completely different spin on them so that they conveyed something else.
There is a difference between saying you “beheld and saw the plates and the engravings thereon” and saying you “hefted the plates repeatedly in a box with only a tablecloth or a handkerchief over them” or that the plates “were covered over with a cloth” and that you “did not see them as [you] do that pencil-case, yet [you] saw them with the eye of faith” or “with a spiritual eye.”
Yes, there is a difference, but only one of those things is a direct statement contemporarily attested to by the man in question. The others were all second- or thirdhand accounts, most of them given many years later after Martin was dead, and all of them given by people seeking to tear down the Church and discredit the Book of Mormon.
If you’re going to study history, you have to learn how to weigh and evaluate sources. You have to learn how to rank their reliability. These sources Jeremy keeps repeating are not as reliable as the firsthand accounts from Martin himself that directly contradict them. The only time in this Letter that Jeremy has ever been honest about a source’s reliability is when he said that there was “no direct evidence” that any of James Strang’s witnesses recanted their stories. He blatantly doesn’t care that there’s also “no direct evidence” that Martin ever said any of these things, or that he meant what Jeremy is claiming he meant if he did say them.
When I was a missionary, my understanding and impression from looking at the testimony of the Three and Eight Witnesses in the Book of Mormon was that the signatures and statements were legally binding documents in which the names represented signatures on the original document similar to those you would see on the original US Declaration of Independence. This is how I presented the testimonies to investigators.
Why would anyone ever assume these were legally binding documents? They’re typeset pages in a book. They’re statements of fact that they’re testifying to, but they aren’t doing so in a legal setting. They’re not sworn court or deposition testimony, they weren’t notarized, they aren’t legal affidavits—nor, as implied, are they formal declarations of treason against the Crown.
Should we assume Jeremy’s conclusion to his Letter is a legally binding document that can be used to sue and imprison him if found to be untrue? Because as I pointed out way back in Part 1 of this series, he was saying one thing in private to his friends and something else entirely to the general public during the same time period. If his statements are legally binding, there are decent grounds for a perjury case against him.
But clearly, that would be ridiculous, just like it’s ridiculous to assume that the witness statements are formal legal declarations. And if Jeremy was presenting those testimonies like that to investigators, he probably should have run that past his mission president first.
According to the above manuscript that Oliver took to the printer for the Book of Mormon, they were not signatures. Since there is no document or evidence of any document whatsoever with the actual signatures of all of the witnesses, the only real testimonies we have from the witnesses are later interviews given by them and eyewitness accounts/affidavits made by others, some of which are shown previously.
It was never claimed that there were signatures on the printer’s copy. It was a handwritten copy of the original. Nearly the entire thing was in Oliver’s handwriting. Besides, in 1830, they didn’t have the ability to print a signature. It had to be typeset manually on a printing press. There wasn’t a wide variety of fonts available like you have on your laptop.
However, as we’ve seen, David Whitmer apparently confirmed that the witnesses did sign the original manuscript. Additionally, none of the witnesses ever publicly claimed otherwise or were confirmed to have denied their testimonies. In fact, they reiterated those testimonies on multiple occasions across several decades, despite the fact that most of them, at one time or another, left the Church and had strained relationships with Joseph.
From a legal perspective, the statements of the testimonies of the Three and Eight witnesses hold no credibility or weight in a court of law as there are a) no signatures of any of the witnesses except Oliver, b) no specific dates, c) no specific locations, and d) some of the witnesses made statements after the fact that contradict and cast doubt on the specific claims made in the statements contained in the preface of the Book of Mormon.
Okay, sure. But they were never presented in a court of law, nor were they ever intended to be. And the same all holds true for Jeremy’s Letter. His signature is nowhere to be found inside, there are no specific dates listed for the letter he wrote to the CES director or the events laid out in his conclusion, no specific locations are mentioned for any of those events, he doesn’t even tell us where the CES director was working, and some of Jeremy’s statements and arguments contradict others he makes, both publicly and inside the Letter itself. And those are direct quotes from Jeremy himself, not secondhand quotes from a hostile source seeking to tear him down and cast doubt on his intentions. From where I’m sitting, it sounds like we should reject the CES Letter on the same grounds for which he wants us to reject the Book of Mormon witness testimonies.
Jeremy has not shown a single firsthand statement from any of the witnesses that contradicts anything in the Book of Mormon testimonies. Not one of them is confirmed to be genuine. That carries more weight than any of Jeremy’s arguments.
“THE WITNESSES NEVER RECANTED OR DENIED THEIR TESTIMONIES”
Neither did James Strang’s witnesses; even after they were excommunicated from the church and estranged from Strang.
There are secondhand sources that say otherwise (see here and here). If we give weight to secondhand sources saying that Martin recanted his testimony, we have to the same for Strang’s witnesses. Jeremy can’t have it both ways. Either a secondhand account given decades later from a hostile source is reliable, or it’s not. If it’s not reliable for Strang’s witnesses, then it can’t be reliable for the Book of Mormon witnesses, either.
Neither did dozens of Joseph Smith’s neighbors and peers who swore and signed affidavits on Joseph’s and his family’s characters.
Why would they? They didn’t have their lives threatened for their testimonies. They weren’t chased out of their homes on multiple occasions, or arrested and put on trial numerous times. They didn’t suffer other personal and professional losses for holding onto those testimonies. They weren’t tarred and feathered for them. Nobody attempted to castrate them for their words. No, they were being celebrated for refuting “the Mormon delusion.”
But nobody ever forced them to account for their discrepancies, or even seriously questioned their claims. Nobody put them under the slightest bit of scrutiny. We don’t have any idea what they would have said if that had happened. They may well have recanted under those circumstances.
Neither did many of the Shaker witnesses who signed affidavits that they saw an angel on the roof top holding the Sacred Roll and Book written by founder Ann Lee.
Again, not true. For starters, the Holy, Sacred and Divine Roll and Book was not written by Ann Lee, but by Philemon Stewart. It was written in 1843, and Ann Lee died in 1784. The book came out during a period in Shaker history known as the Era of Manifestations, wherein multiple people claimed visionary experiences and revelations that they believed were being sent to them by Ann Lee, who they believed was a secondary Christ figure. This era occurred between 1837 and the mid-1850s. It was such a confusing time that many members didn’t know what was actual revelation and what was hallucination. Those “visions” were being used to “expose sins” of others and force them out of the community, according to that linked article.
In an exchange with Gerald and Sandra Tanner, notorious lifelong critics of the Church who run the Lighthouse Ministry, Matthew Roper addressed this charge:
“Joseph Smith only had three witnesses who claimed to see an angel. The Shakers, however, had a large number of witnesses who claimed they saw angels and the book. [In Shaker writings,] there are over a hundred pages of testimony from ‘Living Witnesses.’” But the quantity of witnesses has little meaning if those witnesses afterwards admit that they were wrong. Unlike the Book of Mormon, the Shaker Roll and Book afterwards fell into discredit and dishonor among the Shakers themselves and was abandoned by its leaders and most believers, while the Book of Mormon continued to be a vitally important part of Mormon scripture to which each of the witnesses, including Martin Harris, continued to testify, even while outside of the Church.
A footnote (#12) to this paragraph states the following:
One nineteenth-century authority on the Shakers relates, “Some of the most curious literature of the Shakers dates from this period [early-to-mid nineteenth century]; and it is freely admitted by their leading men that they were in some cases misled into acts and publications which they have since seen reason to regret. Their belief is that they were deceived by false spirits, and were unable, in many cases, to distinguish the true from the false. That is to say, they hold to their faith in ‘spiritual communications,’ so called; but repudiate much in which they formerly had faith, believing this which they now reject to have come from the evil one. … The most curious relics of those days are two considerable volumes, which have since fallen into discredit among the Shakers themselves, but were at the time of their issue regarded as highly important. One of these is entitled ‘A Holy, Sacred, and Divine Roll and Book, from the Lord God of Heaven to the Inhabitants of the Earth.’ … The second work is called ‘The Divine Book of Holy and Eternal Wisdom, revealing the Word of God, out of whose mouth goeth a sharp Sword.’ … These two volumes are not now, as formerly, held in honor by the Shakers. One of their elders declared to me that I ought never to have seen them, and that their best use was to burn them,” in Charles Nordhoff, The Communistic Societies of the United States (New York: Hillary House Publishers, 1961), 235, 245, 248, 250; this is a reprint of the 1875 edition.
That statement was originally published in 1875, only 32 years after the Sacred Roll and Book was originally published. The community itself rejects it and considers the revelations that led to it and other similar such revelations as coming from “false spirits” and “the evil one,” rather than from God or even Ann Lee.
The witnesses to the angel and the book may not have formally recanted their testimonies, but they certainly didn’t stand by them in the decades to come.
Same goes for the numerous people over the centuries who claimed their entire lives to have seen the Virgin Mary and pointing to their experience as evidence that Catholicism is true.
This, at least, is true, and I’m not going to criticize the sincere religious beliefs of others that they don’t later recant or reject as false. I’ll just say that I don’t know what was happening in those various instances and leave it at that. Maybe they saw what they claimed to see, and maybe they didn’t. It’s not for me to say. But, for the record, I am personally unfamiliar with any claims of the Virgin Mary stating that the Catholic Church is the only true and living church of Christ, led by Him through His representatives on Earth. Some may exist, but if they do, I haven’t heard of them.
There are also numerous witnesses who have never recanted their sincere testimonies of seeing UFOs, Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, Abominable Snowman, Aliens, and so on.
Sure. But those testimonies can’t be backed by personal revelation from the Holy Ghost confirming their truthfulness, the way that the testimonies of the witnesses can. You can’t receive a spiritual witness that UFOs or the Loch Ness Monster are real, the way you can with the Book of Mormon or Joseph’s claims to be a prophet. You can’t pray for a witness that people really saw Big Foot or the Abominable Snow Man, the way you can pray to know that the witnesses really did see the golden plates. They’re entirely different things.
It simply doesn’t mean anything. People believe in false things their entire lives and never recant. Just because they never denied or recanted their testimonies does not follow that their experience and claims are authentic or that reality matches to what their perceived experience was.
On the contrary, I think it means a lot. The witnesses suffered greatly in both their personal and professional lives for their testimonies, and they still continually reaffirmed them. And the truly beautiful thing about it is that we don’t just have to take their word for it. We can get on our knees and ask God if they really saw the things they claimed to have seen, and He will send us a witness of our own.
Anyway, I’m going to end this post here. Next week, we’ll address seven “problems” Jeremy finds with the witness statements, as well as try to wrap up the rest of the Witnesses section. The week after, I’d like to discuss some of the lesser-known witnesses that don’t get much attention, and then we’ll move on to the next topic.
In closing, just remember this: we’re not asked to blindly put our faith in the Book of Mormon witnesses and their testimonies. We’re asked to weigh those testimonies and then seek to gain our own. That’s the goal, and it’s the single most important thing we can do in this lifetime. If we don’t have a testimony, we will not be able to face what’s coming in the days ahead. There’s a reason President Nelson is pushing so hard for us to be able to gain a testimony, you guys. So, let’s all do what we need to do in order to get and maintain one, okay? Let’s learn how to move mountains.
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.