Unsavory Characters

CES Letter Core Question

Does the fact that the witnesses were excommunicated weaken their testimony?

Unsavory Characters

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.


CES Letter, Page 102

If the experiences of the Book of Mormon witnesses were contrived, excommunicating them would have provided a logical motive for them to expose Joseph Smith. It is clear that their testimonies of the validity of their experiences transcended any devotion to Joseph Smith or the Church he founded.

That Joseph Smith would allow these men to be excommunicated demonstrates his confidence that the experiences of the Three and Eight Witnesses were real and that consequences for denying them would have been between them and God, not between them and himself.

After receiving their witnesses regarding the Book of Mormon, the men were not instantly holy or righteous. According to the printed testimonies, they were commissioned to bear witness of their experiences, but otherwise they were left to their own decisions and choices regarding future beliefs and actions.

John Whitmer, one of the Eight witnesses, was challenged about his decision to apostatize despite his testimony of seeing and handling the plates. He justified himself by saying that he did not have a witness of the Book of Mormon translation, having only handled the plates: “I cannot read it, and I do not know whether it is true or not.”[1]

Hiram Page likewise told an excommunicated apostle that he was sticking to his testimony, despite his estrangement from the Church: “As to the Book of Mormon, it would be doing injustice to myself, and to the work of God of the last days, to say that I could know a thing to be true in 1830, and know the same thing to be false in 1847.”[2] Click here

All the witnesses who left the Church (all Three Witnesses, and three of the Eight Witnesses) continued to affirm their testimony. Two of these six eventually returned; none recanted.  Click here

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...

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?


CES Letter, Page 102

The author seems willing to accept any ad hominem. If this charge were true, why did Cowdery not blow the whistle on the whole scheme? But he didn’t—despite abuse from Sidney and being estranged from Joseph. This strengthens Cowdery’s witness.

 


Additional Resources:

Did the Book of Mormon witnesses ever recant?—Some have tried to argue that some or all of the Witnesses recanted concerning their testimony. They were all faithful to their testimonies to the end of their lives, even though many of them had personal disagreements with Joseph Smith that caused them to leave the Church. (Click here for full article)

Witnesses knew they would be ridiculed and not believed—The Witnesses understood that by giving their names to the witness statements, they would suffer social costs and rejection. (Click here for full article)

Witnesses persisted even in the face of persecution or death—The Witnesses stuck to their claim even in the face of threats or the risk of death. (Click here for full article)

Witnesses who left the Church continued to maintain their witness—Some witnesses were excommunicated and left the Church. However, the staunchly stuck to their witness accounts. (Click here for full article)

Witnesses had shared experiences which they could compare to confirm their reality—The Three and Eight Witnesses did not have merely internal, subjective experiences. These were shared experiences, which they could and did use to confirm their reality and objectivity. (Click here for full article)

Witnesses confirmed the faithfulness of other witnesses—The Three and Eight Witnesses often affirmed that others of their number had maintained their witness. (Click here for full article)

Witnesses reaffirmed published statements in the Book of Mormon— The Three and Eight Witnesses often reaffirmed their written statement and referred others to it. (Click here for full article)

Eight witnesses—Some have tried to argue that the Eight witnesses only claimed a 'spiritual' or 'visionary' view of the plates, not a literal, physical one. The witnesses left concrete statements regarding the physical nature of the plates. There were others besides the eleven who saw and felt the plates, and testified that they were real. (Click here for full article)

Statements—This page collects statements from the witnesses to the Book of Mormon plates in one convenient location. (Click here for full article)

Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Book of Mormon Witnesses," byu.edu

Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/1 (2005): 18–31.

Kenneth W. Godfrey, "David Whitmer and the Shaping of Latter-day Saint History," in The Disciple As Witness: Essays on Latter-Day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, edited by Richard Lloyd Anderson, Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges, (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000),223–256.

Kirk B. Henrichsen, "How Witnesses Described the "Gold Plates"," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10/1 (2001): 16–21.

Jeff Lindsay, "Circumstantial Evidence and the Witnesses of the Book of Mormon: Can They Be Ignored Any Longer?", jefflindsay.com

Matthew Roper, "Comments on the Book of Mormon Witnesses: A Response to Jerald and Sandra Tanner," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/2 (1993): 164–193.

Richard Lloyd Anderson, "The Credibility of the Book of Mormon Witnesses," in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, edited by Noel B. Reynolds and Charles D. Tate (eds.), (Provo, Utah : Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University ; Salt Lake City, Utah : Distributed by Bookcraft, 1996 [1982]),Chapter 9, 213–232.

Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981).

Richard L. Anderson, "Personal Writings of the Book of Mormon Witnesses," in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, edited by Noel B. Reynolds, (Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997), Chapter 3.

Milton V. Backman, Jr., Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book, 1983).

Matthew B. Brown, Plates of Gold: The Book of Mormon Comes Forth (American Fork UT: Covenant, 2007).

John W. Welch and Larry E. Morris, editors, Oliver Cowdery: Scribe, Elder, Witness (Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2006).

Book of Mormon Witnesses, Part 1: Motives (PDF) by Michael Ash

Book of Mormon Witnesses, Part 2: Oliver Cowdery (PDF) by Michael Ash

Book of Mormon Witnesses, Part 3: Martin Harris (PDF) by Michael Ash

Book of Mormon Witnesses, Part 4: David Whitmer (PDF) by Michael Ash

The Book of Mormon Witnesses: Evidence for The Book of Mormon

pt 1 Book of Mormon Witnesses and the Restoration

pt 2 Book of Mormon Witnesses and the Restoration

Tangible Restoration: The Witnesses and What They Experienced (PDF) (2006 FAIR Conference) by Daniel C. Peterson

pt 1, Tangible Restoration: The Witnesses and What They Experienced 2006 FAIR Conference address

pt 2, Tangible Restoration: The Witnesses and What They Experienced 2006 FAIR Conference address

pt 3, Tangible Restoration: The Witnesses and What They Experienced 2006 FAIR Conference address

pt 4, Tangible Restoration: The Witnesses and What They Experienced 2006 FAIR Conference address

pt 5, Tangible Restoration: The Witnesses and What They Experienced 2006 FAIR Conference address

Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses–  by Richard Lloyd Anderson

Comments on the Book of Mormon Witnesses: A Response to Jerald and Sandra Tanner–  by Matthew Roper

David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness–  by Daniel C. Peterson

Personal Writings of the Book of Mormon Witnesses by Richard Lloyd Anderson

Articles of Faith 2: Royal Skousen on Book of Mormon Critical Text Project and Mary Whitmer Witness to the Gold Plates, Royal Skousen, 0:38:05

Faith and Reason 7: Book of Mormon Witnesses, Michael R. Ash, 0:15:32

Mormon FAIR-Cast 150: The Apostasy of the Witnesses, Martin Tanner, 0:19:20

Mormon FAIR-Cast 150: The Apostasy of the Witnesses

Explaining Away the Book of Mormon Witnesses (2004 FAIR Conference) by Richard L. Anderson


[1] "Theodore Turley's Memorandums," Church Archives, handwriting of Thomas Bullock, who began clerking in late 1843; cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:241.; see also with minor editing in Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 3:307–308.

[2] Letter of Hiram Page to William E. McLellin (30 May 1847), Ray County, Mo.; cited in Ensign of Liberty 1 (1848): 63.