History of the Church, Vol.1
Chapter 6. [June 1829]
The Testimony of the Especial Witnesses To the Book of Mormon.
[For an explanation of the abbreviations see volume 1, chapter 1]
[Copyright © 1997 BOAP all rights reserved]
In the course of the work of translation, we ascertained that three special witnesses were to be provided by the Lord, to whom He would grant that they should see the plates from which this work (the Book of Mormon) should be translated; and that these witnesses should bear record of the same, as will be found recorded, Book of Mormon, page 581, also page 86.(1) Almost immediately after we had made this discovery, it occurred to Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and the aforementioned Martin Harris (who had come to inquire after our progress in the work)(2) that they would have me inquire of the Lord to know if they might not obtain of him the privilege to be these three special witnesses;(3) and finally they became so very solicitous, and urged me so much to inquire that at length I complied; and through the Urim and Thummim, I obtained of the Lord for them the following:
Revelation to Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris, at Fayette, Seneca County, New York, June, 1829, given previous to their viewing the plates containing the Book of Mormon. [D&C 17](3a)
1. Behold, I say unto you, that you must rely upon my word, which if you do with full purpose of heart, you shall have a view of the plates, and also the breastplate, the sword of Laban, the Urim and Thummim, which were given to the brother of Jared upon the mount, when he talked with the Lord face to face, and the miraculous directors which were given to Lehi while in the wilderness, on the borders of the Red Sea.
2. And it is by your faith that you shall obtain a view of them, even by that faith which was had by the prophets of old.
3. And after that you have obtained faith, and have seen them with your eyes, you shall testify of them, by the power of God;
4. And this you shall do that my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., may not be destroyed, that I may bring about my righteous purposes unto the children of men in this work.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. Wherefore you have received the same power, and the same faith, and the same gift like unto him;
8. And if you do these last commandments of mine, which I have given you, the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; for my grace is sufficient for you, and you shall be lifted up at the last day.
9. And, I, Jesus Christ, your Lord and your God, have spoken it unto you, that I might bring about my righteous purposes unto the children of men. Amen.
Not many days after the above commandment was given, we four, viz., Martin Harris, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery and myself, agreed to retire into the woods, and try to obtain, by fervent and humble prayer, the fulfilment of the promises given in the above revelation--that they should have a view of the plates. We accordingly made choice of a piece of woods convenient to Mr. Whitmer's house, to which we retired, and having knelt down, we began to pray in much faith to Almighty God to bestow upon us a realization of these promises.
According to previous arrangement, I commenced prayer to our Heavenly Father, and was followed by each of the others in succession. We did not at the first trial, however, obtain any answer or manifestation of divine favor in our behalf. We again observed the same order of prayer, each calling on and praying fervently to God in rotation, but with the same result as before.
Upon this, our second failure, Martin Harris proposed that he should withdraw himself from us, believing, as he expressed himself, that his presence was the cause of our not obtaining what we wished for. He accordingly withdrew from us, and we knelt down again, and had not been many minutes engaged i0n prayer, when presently we beheld a light above us in the air, of exceeding brightness; and behold, an angel stood before us. In his hands he held the plates which we had been praying for these to have a view of. He turned over the leaves one by one, so that we could see them, and discern the engravings thereon distinctly. He then addressed himself to David Whitmer and said, "David, blessed is the Lord, and he that keeps His commandments;"(4) when, immediately afterwards, we heard a voice from out of the bright light above us, saying,
"These plates have been revealed by the power of God, and they have been translated by the power of God. The translation of them which you have seen is correct, and I command you to bear record of what you now see and hear."(5)
I now left David and Oliver, and went in pursuit of Martin Harris, whom I found at a considerable distance, fervently engaged in prayer. He soon told me, however, that he had not yet prevailed with the Lord, and earnestly requested me to join him in prayer, that he also might realize the same blessings which we had just received. We accordingly joined in prayer, and ultimately obtained our desires, for before we had yet finished, the same vision was opened to our view, at least it was again opened to me, and I once more beheld and heard the same things; whilst at the same moment, Martin Harris cried out, apparently in an ecstasy of joy, " 'Tis enough; 'tis enough; mine eyes have beheld; mine eyes have beheld;" and jumping up, he shouted,"Hosanna," blessing God, and otherwise rejoiced exceedingly.(6)
Having thus, through the mercy of God, obtained these glorious manifestations, it now remained for these three individuals to fulfill the commandment which they had received, viz., to bear record of these things; in order to accomplish which, they drew up and subscribed(7) the following document:(8)
p.56 - p.57
The Testimony of Three Witnesses.(9)
BE IT KNOWN unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That we, through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, have seen the plates which contain this record, which is a record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites, their brethren, and also of the people of Jared, who came from the tower of which hath been spoken. And we also know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true. And we also testify that we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates; and they have been shown unto us by the power of God, and not of man. And we declare with words of soberness, that an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon; and we know that it is by the grace of God the the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, that we beheld and bear record that these things are true. And it is marvelous in our eyes. Nevertheless, the voice of the Lord commanded us that we should bear record of it; wherefore, to be obedient unto the commandments of God, we bear testimony of these things. And we know that if we are faithful in Christ, we shall rid our garments of the blood of all men, and be found spotless before the judgment seat of Christ, and shall dwell with him eternally in the heavens. And the honor be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen.
OLIVER COWDERY, DAVID WHITMER, MARTIN HARRIS.
Soon after these things had transpired, the following additional testimony was obtained:(10)
The Testimony of Eight Witnesses.
BE IT KNOWN unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come; that Joseph Smith, Jun., the translator of this work, has shown unto us the plates of which hath been spoken, which have the appearance of gold; and as many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated we did handle with our hands; and we also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship. And this we bear record with words of soberness, that the said Smith has shown unto us, for we have seen and hefted, and know of a surety that the said Smith has got the plates of which we have spoken. And we give our names unto the world to witness unto the world that which we have seen. And we lie not, God bearing witness of it. CHRISTIAN WHITMER, JACOB WHITMER, PETER WHITMER, JUN., JOHN WHITMER, HIRAM PAGE, JOSEPH SMITH, SEN, HYRUM SMITH, SAMUEL H. SMITH.
Meantime we continued to translate, at intervals, when not under the necessity of attending to the numerous inquirers who now began to visit us--some for the sake of finding the truth others for the purpose of putting hard questions, and trying to confound us. Among the latter class were several learned priests, who generally came for the purpose of disputation. However, the Lord continued to pour out upon us His Holy Spirit, and as often as we had need, He gave us in that moment what to say; so that although unlearned and inexperienced in religious controversies, yet we were able to confound those learned priests of the day; whilst at the same time we were enabled to convince the honest in heart that we had obtained, through the mercy of God, the true and ever lasting Gospel of Jesus Christ; and occasionally we administered the ordinance of baptism for the remission of sins to such as believed.
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Notes Chapter 6
1. In the original manuscript copy of the History, the references here made are to the first edition of the Book of Mormon, but to avoid confusion, the pages, chapters and verses of the later and prevailing editions are given. In the first edition [now very rare] the reference from the Book of Ether is on page 548, toward the middle of chapter 2; and that from Nephi is on page 86, toward the beginning of chapter 8. The quotations are as follows:
"And behold, ye may be privileged that ye may show the plates unto those who shall assist to bring forth this work; and unto three shall they be shown by the power of God; wherefore, they shall know of a surety that these things are true. And in the mouth of three witnesses shall these things be established; and the testimony of three, and this work, in the which shall be shown forth the power of God and also his word, of which the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost bear record:--and all this shall stand as a testimony against the world at the last day."--Book of Ether, v: 2-4.
`And my brother, Jacob also has seen him as I have seen him; wherefore, I will send their words forth unto my children to prove unto them that my words are true. Wherefore, by the words of three, God hath said, I will establish my word. Nevertheless, God sendeth more witnesses, and he proveth all his words."--II Nephi xi: 3. (BHR)
See also 2 Nephi 27:12-13.
2. It is interesting that Joseph does not refer to the later passage in Second Nephi (27). The order in which these references are listed possibly reflects the order of translation. Some evidence suggests that when the 116 ms pages were lost by Harris, the translation had reached a point near the book of Mosiah. Hence when restarting, the translation commenced there and went to the end of the Book of Mormon as we have it now. The team then translated the small plates (see D&C 10; Words of Mormon in The Book of Mormon.) The original ms of the Book of Mormon indicates Cowdery was the scribe (the extant ms does not go beyond Third Nephi) for all text from Mosiah on, but other handwriting (perhaps John Whitmer's and another unknown hand) appears in the First Nephi to Words of Mormon section (essentially the Small Plates of Nephi segment.) If this is Whitmer's hand, then this part of the translation would have taken place at Fayette, not Harmony, and so after the material written by Cowdery in May 1829. Some anti-Mormon or quasi-Mormon writers have suggested that the text shows an evolution on the witness issue (from Ether to the Second Nephi references.) And therefore that Smith was making the thing up as he went along. The silliness of such accusations is made clear by a number of elementary observations [see RBBM 6 no. 1 through 7 no. 2]. When we observe that Cowdery took a whack at the plates himself, and that more than twelve others saw the plates and/or handled them, many of whom had the chance to expose Smith and would have done if they weren't absolutely convinced of the reality of the plates and the angel. The matter of plates is not easily dismissed. For textual evidence regarding translation order and related issues see Royal Skousen, RBBM 6 (1994) 121-144.
3. As noted, a number of others reported seeing the plates, etc. [See Matthew Roper, "Comments on the Book of Mormon Witnesses: A Response to Jerald and Sandra Tanner," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, vol.2, no. 2, 169]
4. Whitmer verifies this in his independent account.
3a. The revelation fulfills the prediction of D&C 5:15. The earliest ms of this revelation appears to be the one in KRB (pp. 119-120) recorded there after August 27, 1834. The revelation does not appear in BC. No textual variations among copies are of any significance. The exact date of reception in June 1829 is unknown at present. The revelation was first published in MA, Sept. 1835 and appears in the 1835 edition of the D&C as section 42. [Woodford]
5. David Whitmer gave this description:The angel stood before us. He was dressed in white, and spoke and called me by name and said 'Blessed is he that keepeth His commandments.' A table was set before us and on it the Records of the Nephites, from which the Book of Mormon was translated, the breast plates [and also the Urim and Thummim], the Ball of Directors [Liahona], the Sword of Laban and other plates. While we were viewing them the voice of God spoke out of heaven saying that the Book was true and the translation correct [Saints' Herald 29 (Mar. 1, 1882):68].Whitmer stated that the plates were shown to the three men near the end of June 1929 [Kansas City Journal, June 5, 1881]
6. There are some other details connected with the obtaining of the testimony of the Three Witnesses which ought not to be omitted at this point. The day on which the Three Witnesses received their manifestation the usual morning family service was held at the Whitmer residence, namely, scripture-reading, singing, and prayer. Besides the Whitmer family, the Prophet and his wife and Oliver Cowdery, there were present the Prophet's father and mother and Martin Harris. As soon as Joseph rose from his knees, he approached Martin Harris and said, "with a solemnity that thrills through my veins to this day," says the Prophets mother, who relates this circumstance: "Martin Harris, you have got to humble yourself before your God this day, that you may obtain a forgiveness of your sins. If you do, it is the will of God that you should look upon the plates in company with Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer." (History of the Prophet Joseph, by Lucy Smith, ch. xxxi.) When the former transgression of Martin Harris in the matter of betraying the trust of the Prophet, by which part of the translation of the Book of Mormon had been lost (see p. 21)--when this and the pride and self-will of the man's character are taken into account, there was certainly a necessity for the admonition which the Prophet gave Martin Harris that morning. The circumstance also affords an explanation of Martin's difficulty in obtaining a testimony which, after his withdrawal from them, appears to have been given so readily to Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer.
Another circumstance is related by Lucy Smith which is here apropos, namely, the joy of the Prophet in having other witnesses than himself to the truth of the work the Lord was then bringing forth to the world. Speaking of the witnesses returning to the Whitmer home after seeing the plates, she says: "When they returned to the house, it was between three and four o'clock p.m. Mrs. Whitmer, Mr. Smith, and myself were sitting in the bedroom at the time. On coming in, Joseph threw himself down beside me, and exclaimed, `Father, mother, you do not know how happy I am; the Lord has now caused the plates to be shown to three more besides myself. They have seen an angel, who has testified to them, and they will have to bear witness to the truth of what I have said, for now they know for themselves that I do not go about to deceive the people, and I feel as if I was relieved of a burden which was almost too heavy for me to bear, and it rejoices my soul that I am not any longer to be entirely alone in the world.' Upon this, Martin Harris came in. He seemed almost overcome with joy, and testified boldly to what he had both seen and heard. And so did David and Oliver, adding that no tongue could express the joy of their hearts and the greatness of the things which they had both seen and heard."--History of the Prophet Joseph, ch. xxxi. (BHR)
7. In an extended interview between Elders Orson Pratt, Joseph F. Smith (both of the council of the Twelve Apostles) and David Whitmer, at the home of Mr. Whitmer, in Richmond, Missouri, in September, 1878, the question was asked the then aged witness if he and the other witnesses did or did not sign the testimonies themselves. Whitmer replied that each signed his own name.--Pratt and Smith Report, Millennial Star, vol. xi, nos. 49, 50. Report is dated Sept. 17, 1878.(BHR)
8. In the first edition of the Book of Mormon the testimony of Three Witnesses, and also the Testimony of Eight Witnesses appear at the end--or on the last two pages of the volume, instead of being, as in the later editions, on the page following the title-page. The first edition also had the following: [See note 14 chapter 3 this volume] (BHR)
9. The witnesses were well known for honesty and sobriety. Though each of the Three Witnesses was eventually excommunicated from the Church (two returned), none ever denied or retracted his published testimony. Each reaffirmed at every opportunity the veracity of his testimony and the reality of what he had seen and experienced.
Soon after the experience of the three witnesses, at the Smith farm in New York, eight others were allowed to view and handle the plates: Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer, Jr., John Whitmer, Hiram Page, Joseph Smith, Sr., Hyrum Smith, and Samuel H. Smith. Their signed "Testimony of Eight Witnesses" reports that Joseph Smith showed these eight men the metal plates, which they "hefted" while turning the individual "leaves" and examining the engravings of "curious workmanship." In 1829 the word curious carried the meaning of the Latin word for "careful," suggesting that the plates were wrought "with care and art." Five of these Eight Witnesses remained solidly with the Church; John Whitmer was excommunicated in 1838, and his brother Jacob Whitmer and brother-in-law Hiram Page then became inactive.
Most of these eleven witnesses were members of the large Smith and Whitmer families--families who had assisted in guarding and in translating the ancient record. Not surprisingly, other family members reported indirect contact with the plates and the translation. Young William Smith once helped his brother Joseph carry the plates wrapped in a work frock. Joseph's wife Emma Smith felt the pliable plates as she dusted around the cloth-covered record on her husband's translating table. Burdened with daily chores and caring for her family and visitors working on the translation, Mother Whitmer (Peter Whitmer, Sr.'s, wife) was shown the plates by a heavenly messenger to assure her that the work was of God.
Martin Harris, a prosperous farmer of Palmyra, New York, who had long sought a religion fulfilling biblical prophecy, assisted with the translation previous to his experience as a witness. In 1828 he spent two months transcribing as Joseph Smith dictated the first major segment of Book of Mormon translation--116 handwritten pages. After Martin lost these pages, he wrote no more for the Prophet, but he later financed the publication of the book.
Oliver Cowdery was the main scribe for the Book of Mormon. A schoolteacher, he learned of the gold plates and the translation while boarding with Joseph Smith's parents near Palmyra, New York. In early April 1829, Oliver walked from the Smith home to Harmony, Pennsylvania, where Joseph Smith was translating. On the way Oliver visited his friend David Whitmer, who also developed an intense interest in the new scripture. When persecution increased in Harmony, David came as requested and moved Joseph and Oliver to his family farm near Fayette (more than 100 miles away), about June 1.
Joseph Smith later recalled the insistent pleading of Harris, Whitmer, and Cowdery after they learned that three would be permitted to see the plates. The June 1829 revelation confirmed that they would be the Three Witnesses--and that they would then testify both from firsthand knowledge and "by the power of God" to the end "that my servant Joseph Smith, Jr., may not be destroyed" (D&C 17:3-4). Of the perhaps 200 recorded interviews with the Three Witnesses, a significant percentage stress the spiritual intensity of the witnesses as they described the angel and the plates. By themselves, the Prophet's reputation and claims were vulnerable, but the testimony of additional reputable, solemn witnesses who shared a divine experience added credibility.
Lucy Mack Smith's biography records the overwhelming gratitude of the Three Witnesses as they returned to the Whitmer house after sharing this experience.
By early 1838, disagreements on Church policies brought disaffection and excommunication for each of the Three Witnesses, and they separated; Cowdery died in 1850, Harris in 1875, and Whitmer in 1888. Throughout their lives, each witness freely answered questions about his firsthand experience with the angel and the plates. Obviously not relying on Joseph Smith's account, which was not written until the months following their excommunication, each spoke spontaneously and independently; yet the details harmonized with each other and with Joseph Smith's history.
The alienation of the witnesses from the Church stemmed largely from conflicts regarding authority. After receiving revelation, the Three Witnesses felt they shared equally with Joseph Smith in foundational experiences, and their certainty about a past vision contributed to their inflexibility concerning future revelations. They sided with the Prophet's critics who reacted negatively to the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society, and they opposed Joseph Smith's vigorous doctrinal and administrative leadership. After their excommunication, each felt deep rejection, resulting, predictably, in their harsh criticisms of Church leadership. Even in these circumstances, each of the Three Witnesses continued to maintain vigorously the authenticity of their published testimony. None expressed any doubt as to what they had testified. Both Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris returned to the Church at the end of their lives; David Whitmer retained religious independence but to the end aggressively defended the Book of Mormon.
Skeptics have discounted the "Testimony of Three Witnesses" on the ground of collusion or deception. Yet each of the three was a respected and independent member of non-Mormon society, active in his community. Their lives, fully documented, clearly demonstrate their honesty and intelligence. David Whitmer repeatedly reacted against charges of possible "delusion." To one skeptic, he responded: "Of course we were in the spirit when we had the viewbut we were in the body also, and everything was as natural to us, as it is at any time." Perhaps their later alienation makes them even more credible as witnesses, for no collusion could have withstood their years of separation from the Church and from each other.
The testimonies of the Three and Eight Witnesses balance the supernatural and the natural, the one stressing the angel and heavenly voice, the other the existence of a tangible record on gold plates. To the end of their lives, each of the Three said he had seen the plates, and each of the Eight insisted that he had handled them. Most of the Eight and all of the Three Witnesses reiterated their Book of Mormon testimonies just before death. Together with Joseph Smith they fulfill Nephi's prophecy: "They shall testify to the truth of the book and the things therein" (2 Ne. 27:12). [EM, Vol.1, BOOK OF MORMON WITNESSES; Richard L. Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, (corr. ed.; Salt Lake City, 1989); Preston Nibley, Witnesses of the Book of Mormon, (Salt Lake City, 1953).]
Cowdery later recalled his experience at Council Bluffs, Iowa in 1848:
I beheld with my eyes. And handled with my hands the gold plates from which it was translated. I also beheld the Interpreters. That book is true. Sidney Rigdon did not write it. Mr Spaulding did not write it. I wrote it myself as it fell from the Lips of the prophet. It contains the everlasting gosple, and came in fulfillment of the revelations of of John where he Says he seen an angle come with the everlasting gosple to preach to every nation tunge and people. It contains principles of Salvation. And if you will walk by its light and obey it[s] precepts you will be Saved in the everlasting Kingdom of God. [Rueben Miller journal October 21, 1848]
Whitmer stated,I was plowing in the field one morning and Joseph and Oliver came along with a revelation stating that I was to be one of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon. I got over the fence and we went out into the woods near by, and sat down on a log and talked awhile. We then kneeled down and Joseph prayed. We then got up and sat on a log and were talking, when all at once a light came down from above us and encircled us for quite a little distance around; and the angel stood before us. He was dressed in white, and spoke and called me by name and said "Blessed is he that keepeth His commandments." This is all that I heard the angel say. A table was set before us and on it the records were placed. The Records of the Nephites, from which the Book of Mormon was translated, the breast plates, the Ball or Directors, the Sword of Laban and other plates. While we were viewing them the voice of God spoke out of heaven saying that the Book was true and the translation correct. [The Saints' Herald (Plano, Illinois), 1 March 1882.]
Harris related that he handled the individual plates, turning them over one by one. [MS 21 (Aug. 20, 1859), 545]
10. According to Lucy Smith (see History of the Prophet Joseph, ch. xxxi) the eight witnesses obtained a view of the plates near the Smith residence at Manchester. It was on the occasion of the Prophet Joseph's coming over to Manchester from Fayette, accompanied by several of the Whitmers and Hiram Page to make arrangements about getting the Book of Mormon printed. After arriving at the Smith residence Joseph Smith, Sen., Hyrum Smith, and Samuel H. Smith joined Joseph's company from Fayette and together they repaired to a place in the woods where members of the Smith family were wont to hold secret prayer and there the plates were shown to these eight witness by the Prophet himself The difference between the testimony given the Three Witnesses and that given to the Eight, is that the former was attended by a splendid display of the glory and power of God and the ministration of an angel, while the latter was attended by no such display but was a plain matter-of-fact exhibition of the plates by the Prophet to his friends, and they not only saw the plates, but handled them and examined the engravings upon them. (BHR)
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