Last week, I briefly mentioned some of the insults and ill-treatment that have come my way because of writing these posts. One of the primary accusations made against me was that I was trying to make a name for myself. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
I have personally advertised these posts a grand total of six times: when I made my first Reddit post regarding the CES Letter, I went to a private LDS-related sub with about 30 active members and asked that if anyone had anything further they’d found, to share it in the comments of the post; when FAIR asked if they could repost them, I linked to the first one on my Facebook account and told my friends for the first time what I’d been doing for the past six months; I also mentioned when FAIR and Jennifer Roach each graciously invited me onto their podcasts; I announced this current series on Facebook; and I thanked FAIR for giving me an award at last year’s Conference, as well as all of the people who had been so supportive of me to that point. That’s it.
While I’m incredibly grateful to FAIR for giving me a wider platform and I’m very proud of the work I’ve put out, my goal was never to get attention for myself. I haven’t been searching out ways to put myself in the spotlight. I wasn’t even the one who approached FAIR; it was the other way around. In my offline life, I’m pretty shy and introverted, and attention actually makes me uncomfortable. It’s been an adjustment these past few years, with people suddenly knowing my name and recognizing my face. I don’t regret putting my real name to my writing and numerous blessings have come my way because of it. I’ve made a lot of friends, and the FAIR audience is generous and amazing and inspiring. But honestly, it hasn’t been easy and it wasn’t my intention.
I had five goals when writing the original CES Letter series:
- To say that yes, these questions actually have been answered, and to share a few of those answers;
- To offer up a bunch of resources people could use to investigate the truth for themselves and find their own answers;
- To teach people how to evaluate sources and rank them according to their reliability and trustworthiness;
- To teach people how to study with the Spirit by their side; and
- To point out manipulation tactics and fallacies commonly used by critics in their attacks
Ultimately, my intent was always to teach people how to maintain and grow their faith in Christ and in His restored gospel.
And you know what? Intention matters. It’s why I spent time at the beginning of each of these blog series delving into the background and prior statements of the authors whose documents we’re discussing. It’s why I give background information on some of the notable figures that come up. It’s why we need to learn how to evaluate sources in the first place.
A hostile source has a bias and an agenda. So does a friendly source, and so does a neutral source. Jeremy Runnells and Thomas Faulk have a bias and an agenda against the Church. I have a bias and an agenda in favor of the Church. You need to know that going into this material. Their intention is to tear down your faith. Mine is to build up your faith. I’ve been upfront about that right from the beginning. Have they? Because that’s information that you can use while evaluating our reliability and trustworthiness. Which of us is hiding information from you? Which of us is cutting quotes out of all context to give a false impression? Which of us is telling you to trust them, and which is telling you to trust God, the ultimate source of truth?
I’m bringing this all up because today’s topic involves accounts written by sources that need to be treated with caution. However, Thomas Faulk presents them as being completely truthful. Understanding how to evaluate sources is critical, and it’s only going to become more so as the years go by.
We all know that we can’t trust everything we read on the internet. Or, at least, we should know that. But for some reason, a lot of otherwise very smart, capable people don’t hold history books to the same standard. They need to. People make mistakes, and people have biases that aren’t always immediately clear.
You know the saying, “History was written by the winners”? That’s true. Historians have agendas, too. For a prime example of this, you don’t need to look any farther than D. Michael Quinn’s thoroughly debunked Same-Sex Dynamics Among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon Example.
In today’s chunk of the LFMW, Faulk picks up with a discussion about the Eight Witnesses:
- The 8 Witnesses
On March 25, 1838, Martin Harris testified in public that none of the 3 or 8 witnesses saw or handled the physical plates.
That’s a mischaracterization of what we know.
After the fall of the Kirtland Safety Society bank in 1837, most of the Saints left Kirtland in early 1838. By the time this meeting occurred, a faction led by Warren Parrish had taken control of the temple with the intent, according to George A. Smith, “to renounce the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith, and take the ‘Mormon’ doctrines to overthrow all the religions in the world, and unite all the Christian churches in one general band, and they to be its great leaders.” He also said, “One of them told me that Moses was a rascal and the Prophets were tyrants, and that Jesus Christ was a despot, Paul a base liar and all religion a fudge. And Parrish said he agreed with him in principle.”
Eventually, a growing division between the members of the faction came to a head, and they held a meeting to determine the validity of the Book of Mormon and other revelations Joseph received. This is the meeting referred to in Burnett’s letter.
I’m going to briefly skip ahead in the LFMW, just so the rest of this explanation makes sense:
A letter on Josephsmithpapers.org dated April 15, 1838, Stephen Burnett wrote the following to Lyman Johnson:
“I have reflected long and deliberately upon the history of this church and weighed the evidence for and against it — loth to give it up — but 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 [Cowdery] nor David [Whitmer] and also that the eight witnesses never saw them and hesitated to sign that instrument for that reason, but were persuaded to do it, the last pedestal gave way, in my view our foundations was sapped and the entire superstructure fell a heap of ruins, … I was followed by W. [Warren] Parish, Luke Johnson and John Boynton, all of who concurred with me. After we were done speaking, M[artin] Harris arose and 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 handkerchief over them, but he never saw them only as he saw a city through 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 air but should have let it passed as it was.” (http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/letterbook-2?p=69)
Burnett was a member of Parrish’s band of dissenters, and believed that Martin Harris recanted his testimony during this speech. Parrish agreed with his assessment, though George A. Smith, who was in town during the meeting, reported the opposite. He said that Harris testified in favor of the Book of Mormon’s truthfulness, and said that anyone who rejected it would be damned.
According to a Church Institute Manual handout, “Martin Harris strongly objected to how Burnett described his testimony and ‘remained a convinced Book of Mormon believer.’”
The quote is taken from Richard L. Anderson’s fantastic book, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses:
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….
In fact, Burnett’s own letter says that when Harris realized how Burnett and others interpreted his testimony, he stood back up and testified of the Book of Mormon, then said that his previous comments had been “picked out” of him under duress.
Now, there is a slight discrepancy on what this letter actually says. The Joseph Smith Papers Project transcribes this line as “picked out of air.” However, in his Early Mormon Documents, Volume 5, Dan Vogel transcribes it as “picked out of [h]im.” When you zoom in on the text, it’s hard to tell exactly what it says. Either way, though, the point is clear that in Burnett’s own words, Harris felt like he’d been forced into making whatever statement he may have made about the Eight Witnesses.
So, since none of these are firsthand accounts from Harris himself, we have to try to judge the sources on their merits. Burnett and Parrish claim Harris said one thing, Smith felt he said something else. And, as was just pointed out, Burnett’s letter later shows Harris agreeing with Smith.
Personally, to me, it sounds like Burnett and Parrish mischaracterized the situation. Regardless of where you land on that, however, it’s obvious that the actual situation is a lot more questionable than Faulk’s proclamation makes it seem.
The following sentence actually comes in between the first sentence I quoted from Faulk and the letter:
This statement caused apostles Luke S. Johnson, Lyman E. Johnson, John F. Boynton, high priest Stephen Burnett and LDS Seventy Warren Parish to leave the church.
This is factually untrue. They left the Church because of the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society. As most of the people listed in that sentence were apostles at the time, their departures from the Church are well-documented.
Alongside Warren Parrish and many others, Luke Johnson denounced Joseph in late 1837 and at that point resigned from the Church. It appears that he was formally excommunicated alongside his brother Lyman E. Johnson and David Whitmer on April 13, 1838.
That denunciation took place shortly after December 10, 1837. All of those listed by Faulk were among those who participated in this event. The History of the Church had this to say about it:
I returned to Kirtland on or about the 10th of December. During my absence in Missouri Warren Parrish, John F. Boynton, Luke S. Johnson, Joseph Coe, and some others united together for the overthrow of the Church. Soon after my return this dissenting band openly and publicly renounced the Church of Christ of Latter-day Saints and claimed themselves to be the old standard, calling themselves the Church of Christ, excluding the word “Saints,” and set me at naught, and the whole Church, denouncing us as heretics, not considering that the Saints shall possess the kingdom according to the Prophet Daniel.
Remember, The History of the Church was written to sound like it was Joseph speaking, but there’s no guarantee this paragraph was actually taken from his own words. It may have been the recollection of someone else entirely that was rewritten to sound like Joseph’s voice.
John F. Boynton was excommunicated in 1837. So was Warren Parrish. In fact, between July and August of 1837, Parrish was the one who led the armed riot inside the Kirtland Temple, an incident in which Boynton participated. They were well out of the Church before that letter of Burnett’s was ever written.
The only one whose timeline of apostasy is at all murky is Stephen Burnett. Most sources just say that he apostatized “by 1838.” He was one who participated in that denunciation of Joseph in December of 1837, but it’s unclear whether he actually left the Church at this point or within the next few months of early 1838.
There was no love lost between Burnett and Joseph. In the Elder’s Journal from August 1838, Joseph described Burnett as a “little ignorant blockhead … whose heart was so set on money that he would, at any time, sell his soul for fifty dollars and then think he had made an excellent bargain; and who had got wearied of the restraints of religion, and could not bear to have his purse taxed.”
So, clearly, by the time April 1838 rolled around, Burnett and Parrish were both incredibly hostile toward the Church and particularly toward Joseph Smith. That bias has bearing on how we should view their characterization of the meeting featuring Martin Harris, just like Richard L. Anderson explained above.
We should also remember that George A. Smith was Joseph’s cousin and had a bias of his own. So, we need to ask ourselves, which bias leads to a more accurate description of the event?
On April 5, 1839 member of the Church, Theodore Turley, challenged John Whitmer, one of the 8 witnesses, to either affirm or deny his testimony regarding the gold plates. Whitmer responded by saying “I now say, I handled those plates … they were shown to me by a supernatural power.” (History of the Church, vol.3 p307).
As FAIR explains, three years before this report by Turley, John Whitmer said:
I desire to testify unto all … that I have most assuredly seen the plates from whence the Book of Mormon [was] 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.
Then, in 1839, Turley reports Whitmer as making this statement:
Whitmer replied: ‘I now say, I handled those plates; there were fine engravings on both sides. I handled them;’ and he described how they were hung [on rings], and [said] ‘they were shown to me by a supernatural power;’ he acknowledged all.
And in late 1877 or early 1878, Myron Bond reported Whitmer as saying:
John Whitmer told me last winter … [that he] ‘saw and handled’ [the plates and] … helped to copy [the Book of Mormon manuscript] as the words fell from Joseph’s lips by supernatural or [A]lmighty power.
In each of these three statements, he declared that he both physically saw and handled the plates. Then he closed each statement by also testifying of the miraculous nature of the Book of Mormon. In the Turley incident, if it was reported accurately, he wasn’t saying that he didn’t literally see and handle the plates. He was saying that the plates themselves were miraculous. It was miraculous that Joseph received them, that he was able to translate them, and that Whitmer was allowed to see them for himself.
Again, situations like this are why we need to research these questions. If we only looked at one quote presented in a slanted manner, we wouldn’t know that this was a common pattern of Whitmer’s, and that he didn’t mean what Faulk implies he meant.
Why would a supernatural power be necessary if the plates actually existed? Couldn’t Joseph just invite the men he wanted to be witnesses over to his house, take the plates out of the box where he kept them and pass them around?
That’s exactly what was done when the Eight Witnesses saw the plates. They went into the woods to do it, but Joseph is the one who handed the plates over to them and let them hold them and turn the leaves.
The Three Witnesses were a different story, but there’s a reason why they were shown the plates by an angel. If their testimony was exactly the same as that of the Eight Witnesses, critics could claim that Joseph just manufactured the plates himself and there was nothing miraculous about it. And if all of the testimonies were like that of the Three Witnesses, they could claim that the plates never actually existed and that Joseph made the entire thing up. But this way, it’s a lot harder to account for the two different types of testimony.
Why are visions and supernatural means necessary to see these plates?
They weren’t. They are now, because the plates were returned to the Angel Moroni, but that wasn’t the case in 1829. They needed to pray for permission to see the plates, but they didn’t need to be shown them through miraculous means. The Three Witnesses were shown the plates by an angel to prove as true the Lord’s revelation that they had to see them by faith.
However, the two different types of testimony, one spiritual and one practical, make it that much harder to dismiss their testimonies:
It is to be observed that what may be called two kinds of testimony to the truth of the Book of Mormon is found in the statements of the three and eight witnesses respectively; viz: what men would call miraculous testimony, and ordinary testimony. Had there been but one kind of testimony the matter would have been much simplified for the objector. Had the testimony of the three witnesses been the only kind given; that is, if the plates had been exhibited to the eight witnesses in the same manner as they had been revealed to the three, then, perhaps, mental hallucination might have been urged with more show of reason. Or, if the three witnesses had seen the plates in the same manner as the eight did, in a plain, matter-of-fact way, without display of the divine power, then the theory of pure fabrication, with collusion on the part of all those who assisted in bringing forth the work, would have more standing. But with the two kinds of testimony to deal with it is extremely difficult for objectors to dispose of the matter.
It is just at this point that the two kinds of testimony — the testimony of the three witnesses and the eight, respectively, act and react upon each other in a manner quite remarkable. The “mental mirage” theory might offer a possible solution for the vision of the three witnesses, but what of the testimony of the eight witnesses — all so plain, matter-of-fact, straightforward and real? How shall that be accounted for? Here all the miraculous is absent. It is a man to man transaction. Neither superstition, nor expectation of the supernatural can play any part in working up an illusion or “mental mirage” respecting what the eight witnesses saw and handled. Their testimony must be accounted for on some other hypothesis than that of hallucination. And indeed it is. Some regard it as a mere fabrication of interested parties to the general scheme of deception. This, however, is an arbitrary proceeding, not warranted by a just treatment of the facts involved. Others, being impressed with the evident honesty of the witnesses, or not being able to account for the matter in any other way, admit that Joseph Smith must have had plates which he exhibited to the eight witnesses, but deceived them as to the manner in which he came in possession of them. … The net result then of the anti-“Mormon” speculations in relation to the testimony of the three witnesses and the eight is the theory of hallucination to account for the testimony of the three witnesses, and pure fabrication, with the possibility of deception by Joseph Smith as to the existence of some kind of plates lurking in the background, to account for the testimony of the eight witnesses.
But the testimony of the three and the eight witnesses, respectively, stands or falls together. If the pure fabrication theory is adopted to explain away the testimony of the eight witnesses, there is no reason why it should not be adopted to explain away the testimony of the three. But every circumstance connected with the testimony of all these witnesses … cries out against the theory of “pure fabrication.” It is in recognition of the evident honesty of the three witnesses that the theory of mental hallucination is invented to account for their testimony; as it is also the evident honesty of the eight witnesses that leads to the admission by many anti-“Mormon” writers that Joseph Smith must have had some kind of plates which he exhibited to the eight witnesses, though he may not have obtained them through supernatural means.
I have no doubt this was all done by design.
Published on Josephsmithpapers.org are the signed statements by the 3 and 8 witnesses. JosephSmithPapers reveals that both statements and all signatures are in the handwriting of Oliver Cowdery. The official statements printed in the Book of Mormon are not signed with original signatures, dated or given a specific location where the events occurred.
The only surviving full copy of the Book of Mormon manuscript is the printer’s manuscript. It’s in Oliver’s handwriting because he copied it from the original manuscript so that they’d have two copies available.
In October of 1841, Joseph put the original copy in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House. More than 40 years later, Emma’s second husband, Lewis Bidamon, made some renovations to the house and rediscovered it. It was badly damaged by water seepage and mold, and the Witness statements were some of the most damaged because they were at the back of the original Book of Mormon, not the front. 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 of those pages and fragments are damaged. Extensive efforts to conserve them have been undertaken by both the Church and the Wilford Woodruff Museum, the two places where the bulk of the remaining pages survive. Private collectors have other additional fragments.
We have one statement from John Whitmer saying he signed the original copy, and three accounts of Joseph F. Smith saying that David Whitmer said he signed it as well (here, here, and here). There’s also a fourth David Whitmer account 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.
Aside from the John Whitmer account, these are all secondhand reports, some given several decades later. As such, they should be treated with some caution. But, as most of them come from a prophet, I do personally lend them some weight and consider them to be solid sources.
It’s true the Witness statements are not dated, but we know approximately when the experiences happened (in June of 1829) and where they happened. The Three Witnesses were shown the plates by the angel in the woods near the Whitmer home, while a few days later, the Eight Witnesses were shown them in the woods near the Smith home in Palmyra.
It should be noted that in John Whitmer’s final interview, published after his death, the details differ from the other accounts. He’s quoted as saying that they were shown the plates inside Joseph’s home, in two groups of four rather than all at once. However, this does conflict with other accounts, and David Whitmer publicly disputed the accuracy of the interview when it was published.
These are not 11 legally sworn statements; rather it seems possible that they are simple accounts pre-written, pre-signed and agreed upon at some later time.
This is a comment ripped straight out of the CES Letter. No, these are not legally sworn statements, but who on earth ever claimed that they were? Why would anyone think that? There’s no notary information on the statement.
And obviously, the printer’s manuscript was pre-written and pre-signed, since it’s not the original manuscript. But nothing other than the content of the statement was agreed upon at a later time. They all declared repeatedly, until the end of their lives, that they experienced the things they testified in those statements that they experienced.
In addition, consider the statement by Martin Harris (one of the 3 witnesses): “…and also that the eight witnesses never saw them and hesitated to sign that instrument for that reason, but were persuaded to do it.”
As we covered in the beginning of this post, that statement is suspect. It’s not a direct quote, it’s a summary from a hostile source’s letter—and that same letter said that Harris disavowed this statement.
Let’s not forget the words of Martin Harris himself:
[N]o 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; nor the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, under the administration of Joseph Smith Jun., the prophet the Lord raised up for that purpose, in these the latter days, that he may show forth his power and glory. The Lord has shown me these things by his Spirit–by the administration of holy angels–and confirmed the same with signs following….
I have never heard that any one of the three or eight witnesses ever denied the testimony that they have borne to the Book as published in the first edition of the Book of Mormon. There are only two of the witnesses to that book now living, to wit., David Whitmer, one of the three, and John Wh[itmer], one of the eight. Our names have gone forth to all nations, tongues and people as a divine revelation from God. And it will bring to pass the designs of God according to the declaration therein contained.
These men were firm in their testimonies. Each one of the Witnesses died still declaring their testimonies to the world.
Also, I think it’s worth pointing out that Martin Harris was not present when the Eight Witnesses handled the plates. He didn’t know what they experienced any more than we do. All any of us can go on is their signed statement and the other comments they made about their experiences over the years. It’s not our place, nor is it Harris’s place, to redefine their experiences for them.
Reportedly this source document is printer’s manuscript and the original was only partially ruined, however the Church has never been able to produce the original.
Oh, good heavens. Yes, this is the printer’s manuscript, as we went over, and yes, the original was mostly damaged. The Church has produced the original on the Joseph Smith Papers Project website. However, they did not obtain it until 2017. Prior to that, it was owned by the RLDS/Community of Christ Church, and the Church could not publish it in full color due to copyright reasons. However, there was a black and white copy copyrighted to the Community of Christ available on the website before that point.
So, in wrapping this all up, there was a clear, consistent theme running throughout this entire post. Vet your sources, guys. People lie, they twist the facts, and they have agendas. Be aware of that, and do your homework. Yeah, it can take a long time to do that, I get it. But the truth is important. When we hear slanted rhetoric like this, it’s not always obvious what the truth really is. We have to put in the work to figure it out. The Lord rewards us when we do. Remember, it’s after the trial of our faith that the witness of the truth comes to us.
Sarah Allen is relatively new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. An avid reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her friends lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises. That’s when she began sharing what she’d 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.