Part 52: CES Letter Witnesses Questions [Section H]
by Sarah Allen
This post officially marks the one-year mark for this series (on Reddit, Part 1 was split into two parts). I honestly never thought this would take so long, or that anyone would still be interested. I thought that maybe five people at most would read them, and they’d peter out after a month or two due to lack of interest. Instead, you’ve all been very kind and encouraging, and I wanted to thank you all for that. The other Reddit mods, especially, have been incredibly supportive despite the influx of trolls it’s brought to the sub.
On August 17, 2021, Elder Uchtdorf gave a BYU devotional in which he said the following:
Perhaps, at times, we see ourselves as a little less than we are. Unworthy. Untalented. Nothing special. Lacking the heart, mind, resources, charisma, or stature to be of much use to God.
You say you’re not perfect? You’re not good enough? Well, welcome to the club! You may be just the person God is looking for.
I can testify that this is true. Now, I’m not saying that I’m the only one who could have done this series, not by a long shot. Many people out there could have done something similar, and probably done it better. What I am saying, though, is that Heavenly Father has magnified my talents to allow me to do it.
When I was contemplating this series, I felt exactly as Elder Uchtdorf describes: unworthy, untalented, nothing special, lacking in so many ways to be of service to God. It was a daunting prospect, and who was I to think I could tackle something so huge and have it actually reach people and be of any use? I’m not a historian, theologian, Egyptologist, philosopher, or teacher. I’m just me.
But then, Heavenly Father reminded me of other times when I’ve been able to successfully go back to the source material and use quotes and links to give history and context to controversial topics so that people are able to understand why things unfolded the way that they did. He also let me know that with His help, I could do this.
And He was right. Over the past year, my own testimony has grown, I’ve learned a lot on a variety of topics, I’ve stepped well outside of my comfort zone, I’ve made new friends, and I’ve been offered opportunities I never anticipated. I’ve better learned how to trust His guidance and to accept offers that I would have rejected in the past due to insecurity. It’s been a series of blessings right from the beginning. I’ve grown in ways that never would have been possible had I not followed that prompting and started this project.
Before we jump back into the topic at hand, I just wanted to let you all know that if you are feeling untalented, like you have nothing to offer and you have no idea how God could ever use you to further His work, He will find a way to put you to work. You just have to be willing to step up to the plate when He asks you to. If you do, He will push you in directions you never anticipated, but He will also give you the tools you need to succeed. All you have to do in return is trust in Him and put in the work. Whatever your strengths and talents are, He will find a way to use them if you allow Him to.
Thank you all for the kindness and generosity you’ve shown me. It’s meant a lot to me over the past year, and it’s helped me push forward on difficult topics that are hard to discuss. I appreciate every one of you.
That being said, let’s pick up with the CES Letter and Jeremy’s seven issues with the witnesses:
In discussing the witnesses, we should not overlook the primary accounts of the events they testified to. The official statements published in the Book of Mormon are not dated, signed (we have no record with their signatures except for Oliver’s), nor is a specific location given for where the events occurred. These are not eleven legally sworn affidavits but rather simple statements pre-written by Joseph Smith with claims of having been signed by three men and another by eight.
Well, that first line is rich when taken in context with the rest of the paragraph. The primary accounts from the witnesses all back up the signed statements inside the Book of Mormon. Dan Peterson collected a bunch of them in a presentation you can read here. Trying to use their own primary accounts to claim the witnesses didn’t experience what they claimed repeatedly to experience is a stretch.
No, they aren’t sworn legal affidavits, but no one except Jeremy ever claimed they were intended to be viewed as such. Saying that Joseph wrote the statements and then claimed they all signed them is laughable. The witnesses had decades after attaching their names to those testimonies to recant them, but they never did. They all confirmed repeatedly that they experienced the things the testimonies said they experienced. David Whitmer apparently stated that at least the three witnesses did sign their own names to the original manuscript. The others all agreed with their testimonies whether they physically signed them or not, though none of them ever claimed they didn’t sign them. Insinuating otherwise is simply dishonest.
All of the Book of Mormon witnesses, except Martin Harris, were related by blood or marriage either to the Smiths or Whitmers. Oliver Cowdery (married to Elizabeth Ann Whitmer and cousin to Joseph Smith), Hiram Page (married to Catherine Whitmer), and the five Whitmers were all related by marriage. Of course, Hyrum Smith, Samuel Smith, and Joseph Smith Sr. were Joseph’s brothers and father.
Oliver didn’t marry Elizabeth Ann Whitmer until three years after he signed his testimony, and he was Joseph’s third cousin once removed, not his first cousin. They had never met before Oliver sought out Joseph to become his scribe, and there’s no indication they were even aware of the relation. Reddit user WooperSlim once calculated that Joseph would have had roughly 32,550 third cousins once removed, so it’s not at all surprising that he wouldn’t have known that Oliver was one of them.
As for the rest of that paragraph, yes, they were largely related. I pointed out the exact same thing several weeks ago when Jeremy said these men were all drawn together because they believed they could see fairies, or some other such nonsense.
Mark Twain made light of this obvious problem:
“…I could not feel more satisfied and at rest if the entire Whitmer family had testified.” — Roughing It, p.113
He did, and it was hilarious. I laugh every time I read that quote. Mark Twain had a gift for satire that few have been able to match and despite his antagonism toward the Church, he’s always been one of my favorites. Huckleberry Finn is a masterpiece.
I personally don’t think it’s a problem, obvious or otherwise, that many of the witnesses were related. Several of Christ’s original Apostles were related, too. It doesn’t make them less effective at bearing witness. Besides, it didn’t stop several of the Whitmers, as well as Martin, Oliver, and Hiram Page, from leaving the Church and allowing their relationships with Joseph to turn quite bitter for a time. But even so, not one of them ever recanted their testimonies or even hinted that they might be lying. Nearly all of them suffered professional losses that would have been avoided had they declared the Book of Mormon a hoax. Instead, they all testified of the things they’d seen until their dying days.
It’s also interesting that in these paragraphs, Jeremy’s insinuating that because they were related they were in collusion to perpetrate a hoax with their testimonies, while in the first paragraph of this section he said that Joseph is the only one doing it and “claiming” they agreed with the testimonies. Which is it? Were they all in it together, or did Joseph trick them into it? Jeremy can’t have it both ways.
Within eight years, all of the Three Witnesses were excommunicated from the Church. This is what Joseph Smith said about them in 1838:
“Such characters as…John Whitmer, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris, are too mean to mention; and we had liked to have forgotten them.” — History of the Church Vol. 3, Ch. 15, p.232
Joseph did say that, yes, in a letter written from Liberty Jail in which he discussed the various persecutions the Saints had endured. Liberty Jail was one of the most torturous experiences of Joseph’s life. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland once gave a talk wherein he described some of the circumstances Joseph and his friends faced in that jail:
In the dungeon the floor-to-ceiling height was barely six feet, and inasmuch as some of the men, including the Prophet Joseph, were over six feet tall, this meant that when standing they were constantly in a stooped position, and when lying it was mostly upon the rough, bare stones of the prison floor covered here and there by a bit of loose, dirty straw or an occasional dirty straw mat.
The food given to the prisoners was coarse and sometimes contaminated, so filthy that one of them said they “could not eat it until [they] were driven to it by hunger.” On as many as four occasions they had poison administered to them in their food, making them so violently ill that for days they alternated between vomiting and a kind of delirium, not really caring whether they lived or died. In the Prophet Joseph’s letters, he spoke of the jail being a “hell, surrounded with demons … where we are compelled to hear nothing but blasphemous oaths, and witness a scene of blasphemy, and drunkenness and hypocrisy, and debaucheries of every description.”
“We have … not blankets sufficient to keep us warm,” he said, “and when we have a fire, we are obliged to have almost a constant smoke.” “Our souls have been bowed down” and “my nerve trembles from long confinement.” “Pen, or tongue, or angels,” Joseph wrote, could not adequately describe “the malice of hell” that he suffered there. And all of this occurred during what, by some accounts, was considered then the coldest winter on record in the state of Missouri.
You can take a virtual tour of the jail on the Church’s website, if you’re interested in seeing what it would have been like for them.
Anyway, the reason Joseph was so bitter toward those particular witnesses was because, when they fled Caldwell County after the Danites threatened them, they settled in nearby counties and rumors began to spread of their ill treatment at the hands of their former friends. This infuriated the locals, who were already stewing in anti-Mormon sentiment, which in turn amped up the persecutions and eventually, led toward Joseph’s imprisonment and that of several of his good friends.
In short, he blamed them for his being in that jail in the first place. When you take that into consideration, his calling them “too mean to mention” is hardly surprising.
You can read more about these events and the build-up to Liberty Jail in chapter 4 of Alexander Baugh’s excellent dissertation “A Call to Arms: The 1838 Mormon Defense of Northern Missouri.”
I’d also point out that in the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary, “mean” had a variety of definitions, including “destitute of honor,” “contemptible or despicable,” and “worthy of little or no regard.” So, he could have meant that they were cruel, that they didn’t have any honor, or that the Saints should pay them no mind. It’s not entirely clear from the context of the letter which definition he meant. Regardless, he was upset with them and the way that he felt he’d been treated, and that came out in the letter detailing their persecutions.
This is what first counselor of the First Presidency and once close associate Sidney Rigdon had to say about Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer:
“Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer…united with a gang of counterfeiters, thieves, liars, and blacklegs in the deepest dye, to deceive, cheat, and defraud the saints out of their property, by every art and stratagem which wickedness could invent…” — February 15, 1841 Letter and Testimony, p.6-9
So, this is interesting. This “letter and testimony” is the Danite Manifesto. I didn’t realize the JSP had a copy of it until I went looking for it. That’s pretty cool. It’s author is unknown, though Sampson Avard, the leader of the Danites who blamed it entirely on Joseph during his testimony, said that Sidney wrote it. There’s no proof of that, though, and that entire testimony is suspect as he was trying to shift the blame off himself and onto Joseph and his friends. And remember, Sidney was in Liberty Jail, too. He was also a target of Avard’s.
At any rate, the Danite Manifesto was full of scurrilous charges against those it was addressed to. Oliver Cowdery was deeply hurt by the accusations from his former friends, and in a letter to Phineas Young, addressed why it was so troubling:
“But from your last [letter], I am fully satisfied, that no unjust imputation will be suffered to remain upon my character. And that I may not be misunderstood, let me here say that I have only sought, and only asked, that my character might stand exonerated from those charges which imputed to me the crimes of theft, forgery, &c. Those which all my former associates knew to be false. I do not, I have never asked, to be excused, or exempted from an acknowledgement, of my actual fault or wrong—for of these there are many; which it always was my pleasure to confess. I have cherished a hope, and that one of my fondest, that I might leave such a character as those who might believe in my testimony, after I should be called hence, might do so, not only for the sake of the truth, but might not blush for the private character of the man who bore that testimony. I have been sensitive on this subject, I admit; but I ought to be so—you would be, under the circumstances, had you stood in the presence of John, with our departed brother Joseph, to receive the Lesser Priesthood—and in the presence of Peter, to receive the Greater, and looked down through time, and witnessed the effects these two must produce,—you would feel what you have never felt, were wicked men conspiring to lessen the effects of your testimony on man, after you should have gone to your long sought rest. But, enough, enough, on this.”
He was worried that people would believe he was dishonest and then disbelieve his testimony of the Restoration. His reputation for personal integrity mattered to him, and being accused of the things he was accused of was mortifying. It wasn’t so much the personal and professional hardships he’d suffered because of those accusations, but he wanted desperately to be known as an honest, upright man so that people would know that he was telling the truth in his testimony.
… Always Oliver’s staunchest supporter and ever the sympathetic observer, Phineas believed that his brother-in-law had been unjustly driven out by jealous, conspiring elders. He expressed his opinion that men such as Sidney Rigdon, Thomas Marsh, George Hinkle, George Robinson, and others, nurturing ulterior motives, testified against President Cowdery and gave Joseph Smith prejudicial information. Oliver, feeling outnumbered, believed that defending himself against these biased witnesses was futile.
Phineas’s December 1842 correspondence with the Twelve clarified several issues raised during Oliver Cowdery’s high council hearing four years earlier. Cowdery contradicted persistent reports of his supposed claim that if he left the church, it would collapse. Phineas reported that Oliver never harbored such a pretentious attitude, that such an arrogant disposition never entered the Second Elder’s heart. In addition, Oliver had concerns that promissory notes he once held against Brigham Young and others, which were paid off or settled, had been turned over to Oliver Granger for delivery to the parties concerned. Somehow these obligations were sold or given to Granger’s son Gilbert for collection. The fraudulent use of these notes caused Cowdery “great anxiety” because he felt personally responsible for their proper and lawful disposition. These and other issues had not been resolved, and Cowdery felt that they tarnished his reputation and wanted them settled.
… Cowdery longed to put the strife associated with his June 1838 departure from Far West behind him. The situation, he explained, was “painful to reflect on.” In a genuine spirit of reconciliation, Oliver offered his personal interpretation of the circumstances leading to his dismissal. He observed candidly:
“I believed at the time, and still believe, that ambitious and wicked men, envying the harmony existing between myself and the first elders of the church, and hoping to get into some other men’s birthright, by falsehoods the most foul and wicked, caused all this difficulty from beginning to end. They succeeded in getting myself out of the church; but since they themselves have gone to perdition, ought not old friends—long tried in the furnace of affliction, to be friends still?”
Oliver also told Brigham and the other members of the Twelve that he did not believe any of them had contributed to his removal and thus could speak freely with them about returning. In his reply to the Twelve’s invitation, Oliver mentioned a “certain publication,” signed by some eighty-three church members then living in Missouri, charging him and others with conspiring with outlaws. Cowdery emphatically denied such a vile indictment. He conceded that he had not seen the offending declaration but had heard of its existence and the accusations made in it.
He was anxious to put the past behind them all, clarify the situation once the wounds were no longer fresh, and rejoin the fold. So was Joseph. Joseph instructed the Twelve to reach out to Oliver and make amends. It was written in April, 1843 and somehow, didn’t get sent until December, but Oliver replied warmly to it. He was still in correspondence with them all when Joseph died, which affected him deeply. His law partner later said he’d never forget the look on Oliver’s face when he read the news in the paper.
These were not the actions or words of men who hated each other. They were the actions and words of old, estranged friends trying to repair a fractured relationship and forgive one another for their mistakes. I have no doubt they’ve made amends with one another and are once again close friends, whatever angry words might have been said in the heat of the moment.
What does it say about the Witnesses and their characters if even the Prophet and his counselor in the First Presidency thought they were questionable and unsavory?
It says that Joseph was just as hurt by false charges against him as Oliver was, and both reacted in ways they perhaps shouldn’t have. (For example, there are stories that may or may not be true of Oliver mocking people for still believing in Joseph and his claims after his excommunication.) Being a prophet and a witness doesn’t make you sinless. They were both still human and they both said things at times that they later regretted, just like we all do.
It does not mean that the testimonies of the witnesses are suspect—and again, I’m not asking you to take my word for it. Neither are they. That’s the beauty of it: you can get your own witness. You don’t have to accept my views or Jeremy’s or anyone else’s. Just get on your knees and ask Heavenly Father what He thinks of the witnesses and their claims. He’ll tell you.
As mentioned in the above “Polygamy | Polyandry” section, Joseph was able to influence and convince many of the 31 witnesses to lie and perjure in a sworn affidavit that Joseph was not a polygamist.
Nope. As we went over at the time, there is no evidence that Joseph was involved in those affidavits at all. John C. Bennett was giving a lecture tour to promote his new book all about “spiritual wifery” in Nauvoo and the supposedly corrupt nature of Joseph Smith. The Saints in Nauvoo knew as early as August, 1842 that this exposé was coming, and they knew they had to respond to it.
You can read both pages of the affidavits, as published in the Times and Seasons on October 1, 1842, here and here. Joseph isn’t mentioned at all in them because they weren’t about him. They were about John C. Bennett. As Eliza R. Snow (apparently already a wife of Joseph at this point) explained, they viewed Bennett’s charges and Joseph’s teachings as two completely different things:
At the time the sisters of the Relief Society signed our article, I was married to the prophet—we made no allusion to any other system of marriage than Bennett’s—his was prostitution, and it was truly his, and he succeeded in pandering his course on the credulity of the unsuspecting by making them believe that he was thus authorized by the Prophet. In those articles there is no reference to divine plural marriage. We aimed to put down its opposite.
Jeremy’s fourth “problem” continues:
Is it outside the realm of possibility that Joseph was also able to influence or manipulate the experiences of his own magical thinking, treasure digging family and friends as witnesses? Biased Mormon men who already believed in second sight and who already believed that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God?
Sure, you can assume Joseph manipulated them, but Jeremy hasn’t shown any evidence that the witnesses believed in second sight or magical thinking. He also hasn’t addressed why the witnesses already believed that Joseph was a true prophet of God, or given us any evidence of a hoax. He hasn’t been able to explain how Joseph was able to show the eight witnesses a physical copy of the golden plates which they were able to hold and examine and turn its pages, and to show an angel to the three witnesses, who in turn showed them the plates, the sword of Laban, the Interpreters, and the Liahona, or to replicate the voice of God declaring that the Book of Mormon translation was accurate. Until Jeremy can give us a plausible explanation accounting for all of those things, he can’t claim Joseph tricked them into believing it.
And again, he’s directly contradicting the insinuation that they all collaborated together as friends and family members to fool everyone. Like I said above, those positions conflict with each other. They could not have both happened at once. Either Joseph manipulated them or they were in on it. There is no other option except that they were telling the truth, something Jeremy has already rejected.
If the Prophet Joseph Smith could get duped with the Kinderhook Plates, thinking that the 19th century fake plates were a legitimate record of a “descendent of Ham,” how is having gullible men like Martin Harris handling the covered plates going to prove anything?
As we went over during the Kinderhook Plates section, the evidence only shows that Joseph took a brief look at the GAEL, determined that one of the symbols of the Kinderhook Plates resembled a symbol on the GAEL, and gave what he believed its definition was. He did not elaborate any further, and he never claimed to have translated anything by the power of God the way he did with the Book of Mormon or the Book of Abraham.
And there’s no “direct evidence” that Martin only handled the covered plates and never saw them uncovered. Martin made some statements saying that during his work as a scribe he never saw the plates uncovered, but that period was well before his experience with the angel and the plates. There’s also no “direct evidence” that he was gullible, when he was the one who repeatedly tried to test Joseph’s claims as a prophet and who continuously sought evidence that what he was experiencing was real.
James Strang’s claims and Voree Plates Witnesses are distinctive and more impressive compared to the Book of Mormon Witnesses:
- All of Strang’s witnesses were not related to one another through blood or marriage like the Book of Mormon Witnesses were.
- Some of the witnesses were not members of Strang’s church.
- The Voree Plates were displayed in a museum for both members and non-members to view and examine.
- Strang provided 4 witnesses who testified that on his instructions, they actually dug the plates up for Strang while he waited for them to do so. They confirmed that the ground looked previously undisturbed.
As far as I can ascertain, Strang’s witnesses were not related to one another, that’s true. Strang did marry one of Phineas Wright’s daughters, though, four years later. Since Jeremy counted Oliver’s marriage to Elizabeth Ann Cowdery three years later as Oliver being related to the Whitmers, he has to count Wright as one of Strang’s relatives by marriage.
Beyond that, they were all members of Strang’s church. If they weren’t at the time they signed those documents, they became members later, with most of them becoming Strangite apostles: Samuel Graham was an apostle; Samuel P. Bacon was a high priest; Warren Post was an apostle; Phineas Wright was an apostle; Albert Hosmer was an apostle; Ebenezer Page was an apostle; Jehiel Savage was an apostle; Aaron Smith was a councilor; Jirah B. Wheelan was a Voree Stake high councilor; James M. Van Nostrand was Elder’s Quorum president pro tempore; and Edward Whitcomb was the teacher’s quorum president.
Moreover, Joseph formally restored the Church of Jesus Christ on April 6, 1830. The witnesses saw the plates in June, 1829, nearly a full year before the Church existed. So, none of them were members of “Joseph’s” church at the time, either.
As far as the Voree Plates being on display, yes, they were. Strang’s family kept them and let people come see them, until they vanished sometime around the year 1900. But just because people saw them, it doesn’t mean they aren’t forgeries. We’ve already addressed one account that says they were. Whether that account is true or not, I can’t say, though I think it’s a distinct possibility. In fact, I’d say the fact that the plates were left behind and not taken back by an angel, the way the golden plates were, points to them being fake. Why wouldn’t Heavenly Father show them the same reverence shown to the golden plates if they were a similarly buried record He brought forth?
And yes, Strang’s witnesses dug up his plates on his orders while he sat back and watched. I think that also speaks volumes. Heavenly Father made Joseph work for the golden plates. He had to visit them for years before being allowed to take them, he had to dig them up himself, he was attacked and injured while retrieving them, numerous people tried to steal them while he was responsible for keeping them safe, etc. As we learned from President Nelson recently, the Lord loves effort on His behalf. He made His prophets climb to the top of high mountains to speak to Him, rather than coming to where they were, after all. So, why didn’t He also make Strang work for the Voree Plates? Strang made his witnesses work for them while he hung back and did nothing. That isn’t Heavenly Father’s pattern.
Jeremy’s last problematic issue is a long one, so I’m going to save it and the conclusion of this section for next week.
For now, just know that these “problems” are not actually problems when you research them. They’re only controversial if you only have a surface-level understanding of the facts. When you really dig in and see what’s going on, and put the history and context back into them, they aren’t anything to worry about.
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.