Part 53: CES Letter Witnesses Questions [Section I]
by Sarah Allen
We’ll wrap up Jeremy’s issues with the Book of Mormon witnesses this week, and then I’d like to take a little time discussing some of the lesser-known witnesses. We’re all pretty familiar with the three witnesses, but aside from Hyrum and arguably Joseph Smith, Sr., we as a group aren’t as familiar with the eight witnesses or the unofficial witnesses like Mary Whitmer. Their stories are important, though, and I’d like to give them the spotlight for a bit.
Jeremy picks up with his seventh issue/problem:
The Shakers felt that “Christ has made his second appearance on earth, in a chosen female known by the name of Ann Lee, and acknowledged by us as our Blessed Mother in the work of redemption” (Sacred Roll and Book, p.358). The Shakers had a sacred book entitled A Holy, Sacred and Divine Roll and Book; From the Lord God of Heaven, to the Inhabitants of Earth.
Ann Lee was an interesting figure. Born in England, she married but later came to believe that sexual intimacy was forbidden by God after supposedly receiving a vision of Adam and Eve being intimate in the Garden of Eden and subsequently being expelled by an outraged God. Whether that visionary experience actually happened or not, I can’t say. However, since it directly contradicts the command to multiply and replenish the Earth as well as the Plan of Salvation, I do feel safe in saying that if she did have that experience, it did not come from God.
Her followers did indeed see her as a secondary Christ figure:
Mother Ann, as she came to be known, was believed to have ushered in the millennium, for the Shakers asserted that as Christ had embodied the masculine half of God’s dual nature, so she embodied the female half.
As for the Sacred Roll and Book, it was for a time considered to be sacred, just as the title states. It was a series of revelations received by Philemon Stewart during a period known as the “Era of Manifestations,” wherein members of their community claimed numerous visions, spiritual gifts, and revelations.
The book fell out of favor in short time:
… The fortunes of the volume were tied closely to Stewart’s situation within the community. Stewart moved from outsider to insider and back again to the margins of the society in a relatively short time. When he fell from favor, he dragged the Sacred Roll down with him. The volume quickly faded into the background, becoming the province of historians rather than of the living, worshiping Shaker community.
… The story of the Era of Manifestations within Shakerism is now familiar to many. Beginning late in the summer of 1837 and lasting for more than a decade, a wave of spiritualistic activity swept across the society. (Spiritualism is the belief that it is possible to communicate directly with the spirits of the dead.) Members of the society who received these communications or visions were called ‘instruments’ or ‘visionists.’ Today the more common term would be ‘mediums.’ A number of the first instruments among the Shakers were ‘young girls’ at Watervliet, New York, aged ten to fourteen. Most of those who received spirit messages were women, but not all by any means. … It was commonplace for some of the visionists to enter a trancelike state when communicating with the spirits; others shook or whirled. Soon the visionists were reporting the presence of the spirits among the Believers—in their meetinghouses, their shops, and their retiring rooms. The manifestations became more and more elaborate.
… Philemon…became a lifetime Shaker, but the story of his career as a Believer is much more complex. He spent many years on the outside of the power structure, apparently wishing that he could be part of it, often publicly criticizing those in positions of responsibility. … But the Era of Manifestations opened new horizons for Philemon. He was probably the first male instrument at New Lebanon. Considerable evidence suggests that Stewart became very active early on as a visionist at that site. … It was, therefore, as an instrument that Stewart began to move from the outside to the inside of the Shaker establishment. He quickly became one of the principal, if not the principal instrument, at New Lebanon, the headquarters for the entire society. … By the spring of 1842 Stewart was playing a central role in the spiritualistic revival and enjoying expanded influence and prestige within the community.
Then came the most significant of Stewart’s revelations. … The great hopes voiced for the Sacred Roll within the text did not materialize. Likewise, the prominence and influence Stewart may have anticipated were not realized. In fact, already during the printing process there were signs of growing irritation and aggravation among the society’s leaders. Candid letters were exchanged with Stewart at Canterbury in which he was criticized for elevating his own role in the revelation and for soliciting too many testimonies in support of it. … There also had been some collective embarrassment with the revelations and rituals, with the instruments and their behavior. A move away ecstatic activity followed. … On one of these occasions after being upbraided by him, the Central Ministry summoned Stewart and stated forthrightly that they ‘could not accept’ his counsel as ‘the Word of the Lord.’ They directed him to ‘cease writing anything more to them in the line of Inspiration.’ Less than five years later, Stewart was dead. … No doubt, the fortunes and temperament of Philemon Stewart played a part in that rapid decline. Had he continued to exercise influence throughout the society, the fate of the book might have been different. The Sacred Roll was read in public meetings for a few years and even displayed publicly in later times, but apparently not always with pride. (When Charles Nordhoff visited the western Shaker communities in the early 1870s and saw copies of the Sacred Roll, he was told by one elder ‘that their best use was to burn them.”)
With the Era of Manifestations beginning with visions occurring among young girls, which grew increasingly elaborate and eventually formed into ritualistic ceremonies, a comparison with the Salem Witch Trials leapt immediately to my mind. Now seen as an example of mass hysteria, false accusations, and religious extremism, the Witch Trials in Europe and America are some of the most notorious examples of theocratic overreach in history, up there with the Spanish Inquisition. The Era of Manifestations also led to similar false accusations wherein the victims were bullied and driven out of Shaker society rather than executed.
More than 60 individuals gave testimony to the Sacred Roll and Book, which was published in 1843. Although not all of them mention angels appearing, some of them tell of many angels visiting them. One woman told of eight different visions.
Here is the testimony statement (page 304 of Sacred Roll and Book):
We, the undersigned, hereby testify, that we saw the holy Angel standing upon the house-top, as mentioned in the foregoing declaration, holding the Roll and Book.
CATY DE WITT.
LAURA ANN JACOBS.
SARAH MARIA LEWIS.
SARAH ANN SPENCER.
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 Sacred Roll and Book. There are over a hundred pages of testimony from “Living Witnesses.”
They did testify of that, yes. But, as I stated above, even the Shakers themselves view those visions of an angel to be hallucinations. Within twenty years of their commencement, the Era of Manifestations and Stewart’s Sacred Roll and Book, along with other revelations and visions produced during the period, were looked on with embarrassment and were rejected by the Shaker community. That did not happen with the Book of Mormon, as one of the papers I cited expounds upon:
… The Book of Mormon and the Sacred Roll both attempt to fill in details and to supplement the Bible. Both speak directly about their origins and make claims for their special status. In effect, both are nineteenth-century American commentaries upon the Bible. But the similarities cannot overshadow the striking contrast between the two volumes. The Book of Mormon has become a foundational scripture for America’s most successful indigenous religious tradition, a church that is now a world-wide organization, whereas the Sacred Roll has virtually disappeared from view, even from the view of historians.
As long as the Sacred Roll spoke with force to the Shaker community, it was received as scripture and accorded biblical status. But Stewart’s revelation proved to be a short-lived bible. The publication did not attract the same kind of attention as Joseph Smith’s ‘Golden Bible.’ … Even within the community it seems to have faded in importance rather quickly.
As for the Book of Mormon “only” having three witnesses who claimed to see an angel, the Law of Witnesses states that God will prove the witnesses true. Moreover, the Savior Himself testified of the divinity of the Book of Mormon:
And ye shall testify that you have seen them, even as my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., has seen them; for it is by my power that he has seen them, and it is because he had faith.
And he has translated the book, even that part which I have commanded him, and as your Lord and your God liveth it is true.
And, even more than that, the point of the witnesses is not to prove that the Book of Mormon is true. Their testimonies are not meant to be the basis of your testimony. When the Law of Witnesses is in effect, the result is that you can get your own testimony that what they’re testifying of is true. God does not ask you to take them at their word. He asks you to listen to what they say, and then to ask Him in faith if their words are true. He has promised us that He will give us the truth of all things if we only ask. The Sacred Roll does not make the same promise.
The evidence seems to show that Martin Harris accepted the Sacred Roll and Book as a divine revelation. Clark Braden stated: “Harris declared repeatedly that he had as much evidence for a Shaker book he had as for the Book of Mormon” (The Braden and Kelly Debate, p.173)
I don’t own a copy of this book. It’s a $40 book and I didn’t want to purchase it just to verify that it does indeed say that quote on page 173. Luckily, there’s both a copy of the book and a full-length transcript online, so I was able to source this one.
In this debate transcript, Clark Braden consistently refers to Joseph Smith as “Imposter Joe” a whopping total of 103 times. There are multiple inaccurate statements and accusations, such as that Oliver Cowdery died in a drunken delirium, Joseph admitted to Peter Ingersoll that the book was a hoax, or that Sidney Rigdon stole Solomon Spaulding’s Manuscript Found and used it to write the Book of Mormon for Joseph. According to Brian Hales:
Braden actively sought debates and spent a great deal of his life debating what he believed to be error. Braden said he had debated people on “baptism, the work of the Holy Spirit, human creeds, justification by faith only, church organization, soul-sleeping, kingdom-come-ism, Seventh-day-ism, … Universalism, and Mormonism.”
During the debate Braden demonstrated a greater devotion to winning than historical accuracy. Multiple statements, independent of his claims regarding Martin Harris, can be shown to be in error.
Braden, it seems, was a known practitioner of the tactic we discussed way back at the beginning of this series, the Gish gallop. This is the same technique Jeremy uses in the CES Letter, to throw out as many false statements and half-truths as possible in a short space to overwhelm the reader and make them doubt their testimony. Braden didn’t cite any sources during this debate, and he’s Jeremy’s only source. While Martin did accept the Shaker faith for a brief period of time, there’s no evidence other than Braden’s assertion that he believed the Sacred Roll was on the same level as the Book of Mormon.
In Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, Richard Anderson elaborates on this issue:
“Martin Harris is a firm believer in Shakerism, says his testimony is greater than it was of the Book of Mormon.” This word to the Twelve from Phineas Young and others is vague, for we do not know whether these Kirtland Mormons heard Martin Harris say this, or whether they heard it secondhand. His leaning to Shakerism is probably accurate, but Harris’s precise wording is all-important if one claims that he testified of Shakerism instead of the Book of Mormon. This “either-or” reading of the document does not fit Martin’s lifetime summary of all his interviews: “no man ever heard me in any way deny the truth of the Book of Mormon, the administration of the angel that showed me the plates.” For instance, at the same time as the above 1844 letter, Edward Bunker met Martin in the Kirtland Temple, visited his home, “and heard him bear his testimony to the truth of the Book of Mormon.” And six months later Jeremiah Cooper traveled to Kirtland and visited with Martin Harris: “he bore testimony to the truth of the Book of Mormon.”
Martin’s Shaker sympathies terminated some time before 1855, when Thomas Colburn reported his attitude: “he tried the Shakers, but that would not do.” In the meantime Martin was intrigued by their claims of revelation, though he surely never espoused all Shaker beliefs, for thoroughgoing Shakers renounced the married life that Martin had during these years. Fully committed Shakers also lived in communities like nearby North Union, whereas Martin remained in Kirtland during this period. Their appeal lay in a Pentecostal seeking of the Spirit and emphasis on preparation for Christ’s coming. When Phineas Young mentioned Martin’s Shaker belief, a new book of Shaker origin was circulating, “A Holy, Sacred, and Divine Roll and Book, from the Lord God of Heaven to the Inhabitants of Earth.” Since it claimed to come from angels to prepare the world for the Millennium, it would be broadly harmonious with Martin Harris’s commitment to the Book of Mormon, which in a far more historical and rational sense is committed to the same goal. Indeed, the Shaker movement later tended to slough off the “Divine Roll” as produced by an excess of enthusiasm. We do not know whether Martin ever accepted this book as true, but he showed one like it to a visitor. This act does not show belief in that book, since it may have been exhibited as a curiosity, but the following journal entry shows that even if Shaker literature was present in 1850, Martin still gave priority to his Book of Mormon testimony: “I went to see Martin Harris. He was one of the 3 Witnesses to the Book of Mormon and said he knew it was true, for he saw the plates and knew for himself. I heard his little girl—she was 7 years old. I read some in what they called the Holy Roll, but no God.”
So, there was a claim that Martin was more impressed with Shakerism than by the Book of Mormon, which Phineas Young reported to the Twelve, but he doesn’t say whether he heard it himself directly from Martin or whether that was just the rumor going around town. During the same few months from when that letter was written, multiple others reported hearing Martin bear his testimony of the Book of Mormon. There was another instance mentioned in which Martin showed someone a copy of the Sacred Roll, but during the same meeting Martin again testified of the Book of Mormon.
Why should we believe the Book of Mormon Witnesses but not the Shakers witnesses? What are we to make of the reported Martin Harris comment that he had as much evidence for the Shaker book he had as for the Book of Mormon?
The Book of Mormon witnesses never later abandoned the Book of Mormon or their testimonies, the way the Shakers did with the Sacred Roll. But if you want a reason to believe one set of witnesses over another, all you have to do is get on your knees and ask God which group is telling the truth and which isn’t. I know Jeremy doesn’t think much of the Spirit’s guidance, but the Lord certainly does.
As for Martin, Jeremy has yet to produce a single firsthand quote from Martin saying any of the things he’s claimed he said, including this line. His source for this particular quote is a known liar who used any argument he could scrape together, regardless of its accuracy, to rail against religions he disagreed with.
In light of the James Strang/Voree Plates witnesses, the fact that all of the Book of Mormon Witnesses — except Martin Harris — were related to either Joseph Smith or David Whitmer, along with the fact that all of the witnesses were treasure hunters who believed in second sight, and in light of their superstitions and reputations…why would anyone gamble their lives by believing in a book based on anything these men said or claimed, or what’s written as the testimonies of the Witnesses in the preface of the Book of Mormon?
Again, Jeremy didn’t offer any evidence whatsoever that “all of the witnesses were treasure hunters who believed in second sight.” All he did was repeat it a few times as if we should just take his word for it. I don’t. He needs to provide evidence if he expects me to believe it.
I don’t consider the James Strang witnesses to be compelling. After investigating Strang, I don’t think he was an honest man, and I don’t think his claims hold any water. Beyond that, his witnesses never testified to any spiritual experiences. They only testified to seeing the plates, which we know existed. That doesn’t mean they weren’t hoaxes. The testimony of those witnesses is not anything that I pay attention to. Heavenly Father has assured me that the Book of Mormon witnesses were testifying of real events. He has never given me any such assurance regarding Strang or his plates and witnesses.
As for the witnesses being related, we’ve been over that. Several of the Savior’s Apostles were related, too. It doesn’t mean they were colluding with one another to trick those around them. And, as I pointed out last week, this is an especially absurd argument that Jeremy himself also contradicted when he speculated that Joseph was manipulating them.
I’m not gambling my life or anything else on the words of the witnesses. I find their testimonies to be faith-affirming, but they are not the basis of my own testimony. But even if I did lean on their testimonies more than I do currently, nobody’s asking anyone to gamble on them. The Book of Mormon asks us repeatedly to put God to the test, the same way our other books of scriptures do. The scriptures are full of the promise that if we ask God in faith for answers to our questions, He will give us answers. He will confirm the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. He will confirm the testimonies of the witnesses. He will confirm that Joseph Smith was truly His prophet, called to help restore the fulness of the Gospel and the Priesthood to the world. Nobody, not even God Himself, is asking us to just accept the witnesses at their word. He asks us to consider their words and to take it upon ourselves to find out for ourselves if their words are true.
The only one here asking me to take a gamble and simply trust his words without any evidence to back them up is Jeremy. And I refuse to do that.
The mistake that is made by 21st century Mormons is that they’re seeing the Book of Mormon Witnesses as empirical, rational, nineteenth-century men instead of the nineteenth-century magical thinking, superstitious, inconsistent, and treasure digging men they were. They have ignored the peculiarities of their worldview, and by so doing, they misunderstand their experiences as witnesses.
This paragraph calls to mind a presentation by Dan Peterson at the 2014 FAIR Conference, “Some Reflections on that Letter to a CES Director.” The quote that I was thinking of was repurposed for that presentation from an article written by Dan for the Deseret News in 2010:
Recently, the preferred method of disposing of the witnesses has been to suggest — quite falsely — that they never claimed to have literally seen or touched anything at all, or to insinuate that they were primitive and superstitious fanatics who, unlike us sophisticated moderns, could scarcely distinguish reality from fantasy. Honest, but misguided.
It seems implausible, though, to assume that the witnesses, early 19th-century farmers who spent their lives rising at sunrise, pulling up stumps, clearing rocks, plowing fields, sowing seeds, carefully nurturing crops, herding livestock, milking cows, digging wells, building cabins, raising barns, harvesting food, bartering (in an often cashless economy) for what they could not produce themselves, wearing clothes made from plant fibers and skins, anxiously watching the seasons, and walking or riding animals out under the weather until they retired to their beds shortly after sunset in “a world lit only by fire,” were estranged from everyday reality.
It’s especially unbelievable when the claim is made by people whose lives, like mine, consist to a large extent of staring at digital screens in artificially air-conditioned and artificially lit homes and offices, clothed in synthetic fibers, commuting between the two in enclosed and air-conditioned mechanical vehicles while they listen to the radio, chat on their cell phones, and fiddle with their iPods (whose inner workings are largely mysterious to them), who buy their prepackaged food (with little or no regard for the time or the season) by means of plastic cards and electronic financial transfers from artificially illuminated and air-conditioned supermarkets enmeshed in international distribution networks of which they know virtually nothing, the rhythms of whose daily lives are largely unaffected by the rising and setting of the sun. Somehow, the current generation seems ill-positioned to accuse the witnesses’ generation of being out of touch with reality.
It’s condescending to look back on past generations and think they were naïve, unenlightened men and women who were out of touch and didn’t understand reality. Yes, there are some things we know now that they didn’t know, but there are things they knew that we didn’t, too. We still aren’t even sure what Stonehenge or the Nazca lines were used for, who wrote the Voynich manuscript or what language it’s in, how the Antikythera mechanism was built with technology that seemingly didn’t exist for another 1500 years, or what exactly the Tunguska Incident was. Thinking we’re so much more enlightened and knowledgeable than they were, and judging them by today’s standards, is a fallacy known as presentism.
At the end of the day? It all doesn’t matter. The Book of Mormon Witnesses and their testimonies of the gold plates are irrelevant. It does not matter whether eleven 19th century treasure diggers with magical worldviews saw some gold plates or not. It doesn’t matter because of this one simple fact:
JOSEPH DID NOT USE THE GOLD PLATES FOR TRANSLATING THE BOOK OF MORMON
The Book of Mormon witnesses and their testimonies are not irrelevant. For one thing, they are a divine evidence that the Lord keeps His promise that in the mouths of two or three witnesses shall every word be established. This promise is given several times throughout the scriptures in addition to the verse I just cited: Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1; Ether 5:4; 2 Nephi 27:14; and Deuteronomy 19:15.
For another, they’re testifying of Christ and the restoration of His Gospel and Priesthood. The two different types of testimony, one spiritual and one practical, make it that much harder for their testimonies to be waved away.
As for the claim that Joseph didn’t use the plates during the translation, perhaps he didn’t read the words directly off the plates, but he still used them: they were a tangible evidence that what he was saying was true; the effort he put into preparing to receive them helped him mature and prepared him for the responsibility he was about to take on; he had to put even more effort into protecting them once he already had them; and he used them to copy the characters to give to Martin Harris to take to Charles Anthon, fulfilling Biblical prophecy.
Ancient prophets go through all the time, trouble, and effort in making, engraving, compiling, abridging, preserving, transporting, hiding, and burying gold plates.
Moroni dies and comes back as a resurrected angel to deliver the gold plates to Joseph for translating the Book of Mormon.
Joseph uses his rock and hat instead for dictating the Book of Mormon we have today.
Actually, Joseph used both the Interpreters and his own personal seer stone during the translation process at different times. And, as stated, Joseph had the plates, or at least something resembling them. There are numerous witnesses to that fact. That he had them meant that at least part of his story was true. That fact gave credence to his other claims, as well.
I’m not sure exactly what Jeremy envisioned Joseph doing with the plates, because he’s never fully articulated that. What is clear, though, is that he can’t shake off the belief that his assumptions had to be true for the Church to be true. Because he wasn’t willing to adjust his perception of events, he wasn’t able to accept the fact that he was wrong. And because he couldn’t accept that he was wrong, he threw the entire religion out the window rather than consider that maybe he just didn’t know the details as well as he thought he did.
Please don’t let that happen to you. New historical discoveries are being made all the time. Be willing to change your assumptions whenever new information comes to light.
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.