A Closer Look

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Importance of the Book of Mormon Witnesses

CES Letter Core Question

Do witnesses of the plates matter since Joseph didn't always use them during the translation? 

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:


CES Letter, Page 85

Most would agree that the additional witnesses of the gold plates strengthens Joseph's case. The eleven witnesses, hardly mentioned in this letter, provide a physical witness and describe "hefting" the plates. The three witnesses add a divine element to their witness of the plates having seen an angel turn the pages of the plates. Thus, the witnesses provide a spiritual and physical witness of the plates.

How much Joseph used the plates in the translation process is a matter of debate. Some accounts describe the plates as covered while others describe them open. The key is there are additional witnesses of these plates and that's consequential.

Richard L. Anderson indicated that Joseph may have used the plates at some point during the process but it may not have mattered since the actual text came through revelation. Samuel Richards, in a very late account said that Oliver Cowdery described Joseph using the plates. See Anderson's quote below:

Samuel Richards interviewed him [Oliver Cowdery] in 1848 because Oliver serendipitously knocked at his door in a snowstorm and Samuel Richards spent two weeks with him. It’s a very late statement of Samuel Richards, after 1900, but he said that he [Joseph] did work directly with the plates. [EMD 1:501]

Emma says, in her interview in 1878 with Joseph Smith III, her son, that the plates were covered with a cloth by Joseph as he translated. And I, you know I keep thinking if the plates are in the room and the plates are preserved, why isn’t he using the plates? Well, if he looks at the characters he doesn’t know anymore than he does if he looks in the Urim and Thummim, so apparently that’s the answer and I think as I read."

Explaining away the Book of Mormon Witnesses, Richard L. Anderson (2004)


CES Letter Core Question

Does the fact that the witnesses are "19th century men" make them less credible? 

The testimony of the Three and Eight Witnesses to the Book of Mormon is a key part to the testimonies of many members of the Church. Some even base their testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon on these 11 witnesses and their claims. As a missionary, I was instructed to teach investigators about the testimonies of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon as part of boosting the book’s credibility.

There are several critical problems for relying and betting on these 19th century men as credible witnesses.

CES Letter, Page 86

Criticizing the witnesses for living in the 19th century is one of the weakest arguments of this letter. The CES Letter attacks the witnesses several times for being "19th century men" as if this makes them less credible. Is an entire century of highly progressive civilization worth disregarding? Hopefully, 22nd century men don't say the same thing about us.

Eight Witnesses

Aside from a few fleeting references, the Eight Witnesses are essentially absent from the CES Letter. This seems more deliberate than accidental since the Eight Witnesses describe a physical encounter with the plates while the Three Witnesses describe more of a spiritual encounter. The Eight Witnesses said that they "hefted" the actual plates.

More details coming.

Eight Witnesses to the Plates

Magical Worldview

CES Letter Related Question

Some early church members held a magical worldview. Does this impact their credibility?

In order to truly understand the Book of Mormon witnesses and the issues with their claims, one must understand the magical worldview of many people in early 19th century New England. These are people who believed in folk magic, divining rods, visions, second sight, peep stones in hats, treasure hunting (money digging or glass looking), and so on.

Next Related Quote

It would not have been unusual during this time for a neighbor, friend, or even a stranger to come up to you and say, “I received a vision of the Lord!” and for you to respond, in all seriousness, “Well, what did the Lord say?”

CES Letter, Page 86


This is flawed reasoning. Should we just throw out all 19th century testimonies because many of them had a magical worldview?

Additionally, what's more amazing is how magic-free the Book of Mormon is.  One would think if Joseph Smith was so impacted by magic that these magical concepts would be found in the Book of Mormon. Stephen E. Robinson provides further context:

“The Book of Mormon, written at a time when Joseph was supposedly most influenced by the magical world view, contains only six references to magic in more than five hundred pages, and two of these are merely quotations from Bible. Nevertheless, even these few references condemn magic in clearly hostile terms."

BYU Studies, 1987

Historian D. Michael Quinn said:

"Many Americans believed in divining rods, seer stones, amulets, talismans, parchments with mystical inscriptions, and buried treasure guarded by enchantments. Such objects and practices were also part of Smith's adolescence and early adulthood. Evidence for this come from the family's artifacts and reminiscences and also later statements by both Mormons and non-Mormons. Many then and now refuse to accept the religious dimension of "superstitious" beliefs and practices of folk magic. However until the mid-nineteenth century in America, scientists, college educated clergymen, lay preachers, civic leaders, wealthy landowners, as well as ill-educated and socially disadvantaged practiced forms of folk magic. This represented an alternative to academic magic which required knowledge of ancient languages and careful attention to written magical texts. Folk magic was often preserved by oral tradition, though its adherents included Oxford and Harvard graduates as well as the poorly educated devout Christians, and non-believers. Likewise, until the mid-nineteenth century, institutional religion was a minority experience in the United States, while folk religion was the experience of 80-90 percent of Americans. Literacy and social class did not determine who participated in folk religion or folk magic in early America."

 - Mormon Hierarchy, Origins of Power. Ch. 1

The Profession of the Smith Family

CES Letter Related Question

Was treasure seeking a primary source of income for the Smith's?

Joseph Smith, his father, and his brother Hyrum had engaged in treasure hunting from 1820–1827. 

CES Letter, Page 86

The Smiths were farmers more than treasure hunters. One can look at their tax records as well as a series of quotes from the Smiths contemporaries on this.

LDS Scholar Daniel Peterson said:

[I]n order to pay for their farm, the Smiths were obliged to hire themselves out as day laborers. Throughout the surrounding area, they dug and rocked up wells and cisterns, mowed, harvested, made cider and barrels and chairs and brooms and baskets, taught school, dug for salt, worked as carpenters and domestics, built stone walls and fireplaces, flailed grain, cut and sold cordwood, carted, washed clothes, sold garden produce, painted chairs and oil-cloth coverings, butchered, dug coal, and hauled stone. And, along the way, they produced between one thousand and seven thousand pounds of maple sugar annually. "Laziness" and "indolence" are difficult to detect in the Smith family.

More quotes can be found on FairMormon.

The 1826 Trial

CES Letter Core Question

Should church members be concerned about the 1826 trial involving Joseph Smith?

Many people believed in buried treasure, the ability to see spirits and their dwelling places within the local hills and elsewhere. This is one reason why treasure digging as a paid service was practiced. Joseph Smith, his father, and his brother Hyrum had engaged in treasure hunting from 1820–1827. Joseph was hired by folks like Josiah Stowell, who Joseph mentions in his history . In 1826, Joseph was arrested and brought to court in Bainbridge, New York on the complaint of Stowell’s nephew who accused Joseph of being a “disorderly person and an imposter.”


CES Letter, Page 86

See Saints Chapter four:

Joseph and his seer stone soon became the subject of gossip in Harmony. Some of the older folks in town believed in seers, but many of their children and grandchildren did not. Josiah’s nephew, claiming that Joseph had taken advantage of his uncle, brought the young man to court and charged him with being a fraud.

Standing before the local judge, Joseph explained how he had found the stone. Joseph Sr. testified that he had constantly asked God to show them His will for Joseph’s marvelous gift as a seer. Finally, Josiah stood before the court and stated that Joseph had not swindled him.

“Do I understand,” said the judge, “that you believe the prisoner can see by the aid of the stone?”

No, Josiah insisted. “I positively know it to be true.”

Josiah was a well-respected man in the community, and people accepted his word. In the end, the hearing produced no evidence that Joseph had deceived him, so the judge dismissed the charge.

More insights can be found at:

Oliver Cowdery and Divining Rods
CES Letter Core Question

Did Oliver Cowdery use a divining rod?

This is one of the reasons why 21st century Mormons, once including myself, are so confused and bewildered when hearing stuff like Joseph Smith using a peep stone in a hat or Oliver Cowdery using a divining rod or dowsing rod such as illustrated below:


CES Letter, Page 86

Like many in his day, Cowdery probably used divining rods to find water or minerals. While it may seem strange to us, it wasn't strange to people of that time. The American Journal of Science and Arts said of divining rods in 1826 "men in various callings, men above the reach of mean arts, and of the most exemplary lives, do not disown the art."

A few verses earlier the Lord refers to Moses: "Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart. Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation; behold, this is the spirit by which Moses brought the children of Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground." (D&C 8:3.) This likely resonated with Oliver and has no relation to magic.

The use of physical objects to augment faith and to facilitate miraculous events is well documented in the Bible.

From the an essay titled "Oliver's Gift"

"The Old Testament account of Moses and his brother Aaron recounted several instances of using rods to manifest God’s will (see Exodus 7:9–12; Numbers 17:8). Many Christians in Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery’s day similarly believed in divining rods as instruments for revelation. Oliver was among those who believed in and used a divining rod.8

The Lord recognized Oliver’s ability to use a rod: “Thou hast another gift which is the gift of working with the sprout [or rod].” Confirming the divinity of this gift, the revelation stated: “Behold there is no other power save God that can cause this thing of Nature to work in your hands for it is the work of God.”9 If Oliver desired, the revelation went on to say, the Lord would add the gift of translation to the revelatory gifts Oliver already possessed."

- Revelations in Context, Oliver Cowdery's Gift

CES Letter Core Question

The Lord acknowledges Oliver's use of divining rods in D&C 8. Does this matter?

The use of divining rods (such as the one above) is actually mentioned in the scriptures. In Doctrine & Covenants 8, the following heading provides context for the discussion:

Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet to Oliver Cowdery, at Harmony, Pennsylvania, April 1829. In the course of the translation of the Book of Mormon, Oliver, who continued to serve as scribe, writing at the Prophet’s dictation, desired to be endowed with the gift of translation. The Lord responded to his supplication by granting this revelation.

The revelation states, in relevant part:

D&C 8:6-11
(Emphasis Added)

6. Now this is not all thy gift; for you have another gift, which is the gift of Aaron; behold, it has told you many things;

7. Behold, there is no other power, save the power of God, that can cause this gift of Aaron to be with you.

8. Therefore, doubt not, for it is the gift of God; and you shall hold it in your hands, and do marvelous works; and no power shall be able to take it away out of your hands, for it is the work of God.

9. And, therefore, whatsoever you shall ask me to tell you by that means, that I will grant unto you, and you shall have knowledge concerning it.

10. Remember that without faith you can do nothing; therefore ask in faith. Trifle not with these things; do not ask for that which you ought not.

11. Ask that you may know the mysteries of God, and that you may translate and receive knowledge from all those ancient records which have been hid up, that are sacred; and according to your faith shall it be done unto you.

From the D&C 8 account, we don’t really know much about what exactly the “gift of Aaron” is that Oliver Cowdery received. What is “the gift of Aaron”? The text provides several clues:

    • Oliver has a history of using it, since “it has told [him] many things.” (verse 7)
    • It is “the gift of God.” (verse 8 - added to 1835 D&C)
    • It is to be held in Oliver’s hands (and kept there, impervious to any power). (verse 8 - added to 1835 D&C)
    • It allows Oliver to “do marvelous works.” (verse 8 - added to 1835 D&C)
    • It is “the work of God.” (verse 8 - added to 1835 D&C)
    • The Lord will speak through it to Oliver and tell him anything he asks while using it. (verse 9 - isn't clear what "by that means" is referring to. It could be the "power of God" in v. 7 or "working with the rod" v.6)
    • It works through faith. (verse 10 - no reference to the rod. It says "without faith you can do nothing")
    • It enables Oliver to translate ancient sacred documents. (verse 11 - Says nothing of a rod for translation. "Ask that you may know the mysteries of God, and that you may translate and receive knowledge from all those ancient records which have been hid up")

With only these clues, the “gift of Aaron” is difficult to identify. The task becomes much easier, however, when we look at the original revelation contained in the Book of Commandments, a predecessor volume to the Doctrine & Covenants, used by the LDS Church before 1835. Specifically, Section 7 of the Book of Commandments contains wording that was changed in the Doctrine & Covenants 8 . The term “gift of Aaron” was originally “rod” and “rod of nature” in the Book of Commandments:

Now this is not all, for you have another gift, which is the gift of working with the rod: behold it has told you things: behold there is no other power save God, that can cause this rod of nature, to work in your hands.

So, what is the “gift of Aaron” mentioned in D&C 8? It is a “rod of nature.” (Correct. This whole section could be summarized by this last sentence)

CES Letter, Page 87-88

Cowdery’s first gift, according to this text, was “the spirit of Revelation,” (D&C 8:3) the same “spirit by which Moses brought the children of Israel through the red Sea on dry ground.” Cowdery’s second gift was identified as “the gift of working with the sprout,” or rod (v. 6). The Lord recognized Oliver's ability to us the rod. 

Jim Bennett provides good insight here:

These were things that both Joseph and Oliver understood, so the Lord was more than willing to use them for his purposes. The fact that it is strange to our culture shouldn’t allow us to smugly condescend to those whose manner is different than ours.

Remember Ammon talking to King Lamoni about the Great Spirit in Alma 22? Lamoni’s understanding of God was mingled with superstition, but rather than condemn Lamoni for his superstitions, he built on the common ground in his incorrect tradition to lead Lamoni to a better understanding. That’s the way the Lord has always worked, and that’s all he’s doing here by indulging Oliver’s interest in dowsing rods. Aaron’s rod worked miracles in the Old Testament, where the Lord indulged Moses’s use of a rod to part the Red Sea, strike rocks to bring forth water, and raise up with a serpent wrapped around it in order to heal Israel. Could God have accomplished all those things through Moses without using a rod? Of course. But using the rod was apparently helpful to Moses, so God worked through Moses in his weakness, and after the manner of his language and understanding. I don’t see why that’s a problem.

The revision to “gift of Aaron” connects the dowsing rod to Moses’s rod, thereby leading Oliver to a greater understanding of the Lord’s purposes. It’s a rather elegant teaching method, it seems to me, to communicate by means of commonly understood iconography.

A Faithful Reply to the CES Letter, Page 277

Additional Resources

CES Letter Core Question

Did Oliver Cowdery use a divining rod to hunt for treasure?

What is a “rod of nature”? It is a divining rod or dowsing rod as illustrated in the above images, which Oliver Cowdery used to hunt for buried treasure. (no record of Oliver searching for treasure with a rod. Likely minerals and water.)

Cowdery’s use of a divining rod to search for buried treasure evokes similar images of Joseph Smith hunting for treasure with a peep stone in a hat.

CES Letter, Page 88

There is zero evidence outside of D&C 8 that Oliver Cowdery even owned a divining rod. Like many of his contemporaries, Cowdery probably used divining rods to find water or minerals. Some critics outside of the CES Letter have attempted to link William Cowdery, Oliver's father, to a group of money diggers in Vermont in 1801, five years before Oliver was ever born. These links are extremely tenuous. Historian Dan Vogel said that Oliver's father William Cowdery "cannot be linked unequivocally to the Vermont money diggers" and "there is no evidence which directly attributes [Oliver] Cowdery's rod to his father." Early Mormon Documents 1:604

Fairmormon addresses the claim in more depth here.

CES Letter Core Question

Did Oliver Cowdery ask the Lord to translate the Book of Mormon using a divining rod?

Oliver also wished to use his divining rod, in the same way Joseph Smith used his stone and hat, to translate ancient documents. Doctrine & Covenants Section 8 indicates that the Lord, through Joseph Smith, granted Oliver’s request to translate using a...rod. (As described above. This is a misreading of D&C 8:11. It says nothing of a rod for translation. "Ask that you may know the mysteries of God, and that you may translate and receive knowledge from all those ancient records which have been hid up")

CES Letter, Page 88

D&C 8:11 doesn't say that Oliver sought to use a divining rod for translation. See comment above.

CES Letter Core Question

Is the editing of D&C 8 an example of the church whitewashing its history?

If Oliver Cowdery’s gift was really the use of a divining rod – and it was – then this tells us that the origins of the Church are much more rooted in folk magic and superstition than we’ve been led to believe by the LDS Church’s whitewashing of its origins and history.

CES Letter, Page 88

If the church sought to whitewash D&C 8 they're doing a terrible job. The church has published the original 1829 revelation, the 1833 Book of Commandments, the 1835 D&C, and numerous church history articles pertaining to this. 

We do not know why Sidney Rigdon chose to alter the wording but people are free to speculate what his intentions might have been. It is possible that "gift of Aaron" was substituted because if carried fewer negative connotations than "divining rod." One can see why the church might have felt sensitive about any associations with magic given that E.D. Howe had published an anti-Mormon piece of literature in 1834 called Mormonism Unveiled which essentially made Joseph sound like the chief money digger in the United States.

Per FairMormon:

"However, a "cover up" is not usually done by committee, and it is clear that multiple individuals assisted in editing the revelations before they were to be published in the Doctrine and Covenants. It is also difficult to claim a "cover up" since "rod of nature" was to be published in the Book of Commandments in 1833, only two years before change to "gift of Aaron" was published in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants.



We are told that the witnesses never disavowed their testimonies, but we have not come to know these men or investigated what else they said about their experiences.

They are 11 witnesses to the Book of Mormon: Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, Hiram Page, David Whitmer, John Whitmer, Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer Jr., Hyrum Smith, Samuel Smith, and Joseph Smith Sr. – who all shared a common worldview of second sight, magic, and treasure digging – which is what drew them together in 1829. (This was not a magic club. What drew them together is that they believed that Joseph received divine revelations and that his work was of God.)

The following are several facts and observations on three of the Book of Mormon Witnesses:

CES Letter, Page 88

The Witnesses never disavowed their testimonies:

This is highly consequential.

Martin Harris

Martin Harris

"Harris was proverbially a peaceful man as well as an honest man."

Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, Progress of Mormonism (1867). P. 61

"Mr. Harris was among the early settlers of this town, and has ever borne the character of an honorable and upright man, and an obliging and benevolent neighbor. He had secured to himself by honest industry a respectable fortune."

Wayne Sentinal Newspaper May 27, 1831

"Harris consistently affirmed his belief in the Book of Mormon through is life."

Dan Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 2:295

CES Letter Core Question

Was Martin Harris a non-skeptical, unstable, gullible person?

Martin Harris was anything but a skeptical witness. He was known by many of his peers as an unstable, gullible, and superstitious man. Brigham Young once said of Martin:

As for Martin Harris, he had not much to apostatize from; he possessed a wild, speculative brain. I have heard Joseph correct him and exhort him to repentance for teaching false doctrines.

The CES Letter claims "Martin Harris was anything but a skeptical witness." This appears to be a response to Richard L. Anderson's chapter in Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses titled "Martin Harris: Certainty from the Skeptical Witness." Anderson had to say:

Martin Harris was not surpassed in doubt by Thomas nor in absolute assurance by any apostle. His testimony of the Book of Mormon was ridiculed by unbelievers as superstition, but he did not reach such certainty easily, for no witness required more evidence for his faith. This successful farmer of middle age was a seasoned trader, fully aware of possible deception in a business transaction or religious experience. And his examination of Mormonism proceeded with the methodical care that built his material estate.

When he investigated Joseph Smith's claim of possessing an ancient record, Martin waited until his wife and daughter had made personal inquiries first. Only after he saw that his own family was impressed (according to an 1859 interview) did he visit the Smiths. As mentioned, in that household he "talked with them separately, to see if their stories agreed." After satisfying himself that all of the accounts of the Smiths harmonized with Joseph's, he proceeded to lift the box containing the plates, which he concluded must contain metal as heavy as lead or gold, "and I knew that Joseph had not credit enough to buy so much lead."

But this was not enough. How could the untrained farmer know that Joseph's record was ancient? Apparently to satisfy his doubts on this point he took a copy of the characters transcribed from the plates to prominent linguists, including the famous Charles Anthon of Columbia College. The professor's recollection of the interview emphasized that the Book of Mormon witness had come for his opinion "as a last precautionary step" in order to be sure that "there was no risk whatever in the matter" before pledging his money for the printing.

Even after entering into the work of translation in 1828 as Joseph Smith's first secretary, Martin Harris was vigilant. Upon returning to the Church in 1870 Martin reminisced of these days. The summer translation project was tedious, especially to active men accustomed to physical labor, so they broke the tension by recesses at the nearby Susquehanna River, where they exercised by throwing stones into the water. Finding a stone "very much resembling the one used for translating" Martin made a substitution without Joseph Smith's knowledge. The translator became confused and then frustrated, exclaiming, "Martin! What is the matter?" His scribe's guilty expression revealed the situation to the Prophet, who demanded an explanation. Martin's answer shows how constantly the secretary was on guard against deception: "To stop the mouths of fools, who had told him that the Prophet had learned those sentences and was merely repeating them."

Joseph Smith's claims were taken seriously by this mature man conditioned by life to use his analytical powers in all circumstances. But after believing for two years, the vision of June 1829 transformed faith to certainty. Harris's prior history shows why Joseph Smith singled him out on the morning of this vision as in special need to "humble yourself" and why his struggle for faith before the vision was more severe than that of his younger associates. Upon failure of repeated prayers of Joseph Smith and the witnesses, Martin acknowledged that his attitude was probably the cause of their failure to obtain the promised revelation, and he withdrew. After the angel appeared and showed the plates to the remaining group, the Prophet found Martin Harris, and after joint prayer both were overwhelmed with the same vision. Joseph Smith remembered Martin's cry of conviction: " 'Tis enough; mine eyes have beheld!" The ecstasy of that experience was indelibly stamped upon the mind of the former doubter. Lucy Smith especially remembered the return of Martin Harris to the Whitmer home immediately after the vision: "He seemed almost overcome with joy, and testified boldly to what he had both seen and heard." 6 The force of this conviction never diminished in nearly a half-century's ideological transition and personal trial.

Poor Martin, what a series of labels to be attacked with. Generally speaking, the rules of evidence in the United States insist that a witness tell specific experiences, and leave to the court or jury the function of forming opinions from them. This list of pejorative adjectives directed at Martin Harris are not specific and are actually lifted from a previous Wikipedia post

More detailed response coming but FairMormon does a very good job answering this with specific examples to the contrary. Click here.

One can decide for themselves if they feel Martin was a skeptical witness. In his 1859 interview with Joel Tiffany of Tiffany's Monthly, Martin describes how he cross examined three people separately to see if their stories corroborated. 

I talked with Joseph respecting the plates. But I had the account of it from Joseph, his wife, brothers, sisters, his father and mother. I talked with them separately, that I might get the truth of the matter. The first time I heard of the matter, my brother Presarved Harris, who had been in the village of Palmyra, asked me if [I] had heard about Joseph Smith, jr., having a golden bible. My thoughts were that the money-diggers had probably dug up an old brass kettle, or something of the kind. I thought no more of it. This was about the first of October, 1827. The next day after the talk with my brother, I went to the village, and there I was asked what I thought of the Gold Bible? I replied, The Scripture says, He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is foolishness unto him. I do not wish to make myself a fool. I don’t know anything about it.

Interview with Martin Harris in Tiffany's Monthly 1859 New York

CES Letter Core Question

Did Martin claim that he never really saw the plates but only saw a covered object?

This is a first of four references to this Stephen Burnett quote while excluding the countless other accounts which indicate otherwise. This is a case of cherry-picking that is further addressed in the "Second Sight" section later on. It should also be considered that Burnett is a person who referred to Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon as "notorious liars."

See the fairmormon response here

CES Letter Core Question

Did Martin have a conflict of interest because he helped finance the Book of Mormon?

Additionally, Martin Harris had a direct conflict of interest in being a witness. He was deeply financially invested in the Book of Mormon as he mortgaged his farm to finance the book.

No question Martin was financially invested. But the CES Letter has it backwards. Martin was a rich man and mortgaged half of his farm and financed the Book of Mormon because he firmly believed in it until the day he died. Martin made a major sacrifice and ended up in poverty as an old man. While Martin was on his deathbed he told George Godfrey, "had I been willing to have perjure myself and sworn falsely to the testimony I now bear, I could have been a rich man, but I could not have testified other than I have done." (Early Mormon Documents 2:392)

Three Quotes Concerning Whether Martin was Superstitious

These three quotes in the CES Letter came from a previous edition of Wikipedia. One can see them addressed here in the FairMormon response. Click here

Updates coming

Quote 1 - Ronald Walker

“Once while reading scripture, he reportedly mistook a candle’s sputtering as a sign that the devil desired him to stop. (editorial note: source Thomas Gregg's 1890 anti-Mormon letter. Details below) Another time he excitedly awoke from his sleep believing that a creature as large as a dog had been upon his chest, though a nearby associate could find nothing to confirm his fears. (editorial note: this was a nightmare Martin had. Details below) Several hostile and perhaps unreliable accounts told of visionary experiences with Satan and Christ, Harris once reporting that Christ had been poised on a roof beam.” (editorial note: anti-Mormon quotes)


The CES Letter chose to leave out Walker's next paragraph which spoke highly of Harris:

"Yet despite these eccentricities, more than a dozen of Harris's Palmyra contemporaries left descriptions of the man that describe his honor, honesty, industry, peacefulness, and respectability, his hard-headed, Yankee shrewdness and his growing wealth."

Walker's quote is based upon the following three sources. 

FIRST: "Once while reading scripture, he reportedly mistook a candle’s sputtering as a sign that the devil desired him to stop."

In the above quote Walker paraphrases S.S. Harding's 1882 letter found in Thomas Gregg's 1890 anti-Mormon book titled The Prophet of Palymra. Two chapters in the book are a letter from Harding, who apparently knew the Smiths. Harding briefly served as the appointed Governor of Utah but was ousted after two years due to his tensions with the Mormons in Utah primarily revolving around polygamy.  Harding's letter to Gregg was written 20 years after his unsuccessful stint as Governor in Utah and nearly 60 years after his encounters in Palmyra entertaining and reads almost like a novel with lots of dialogue. It's questionable that someone recalls such vivid details on a variety of topics nearly 60 years after the fact. Additionally, Harding was a cousin of Pomery Tucker, the author of an anti-mormon work in 1867 Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism.

SECOND: "Another time he excitedly awoke from his sleep believing that a creature as large as a dog had been upon his chest, though a nearby associate could find nothing to confirm his fears."

This is a rather funny story actually. Don't we all have nightmares that cause us to awake in the middle of the night feeling disoriented? If Martin can be convicted for this then we're all at risk. Find the original source on page 34 here.

THIRD: "Several hostile and perhaps unreliable accounts told of visionary experiences with Satan and Christ, Harris once reporting that Christ had been poised on a roof beam."

Like Walker says, these last two references are "hostile and perhaps unreliable." Links to both original works can be found here. Walker's sources for the quote are Reverend John A. Clark and a 1880 publication by journalist Fredric G. Mather who was born after Joseph Smith died in 1844.

Quote 2 - Reverend John A. Clark (1840)

No matter where he went, he saw visions and supernatural appearances all around him. He told a gentleman in Palmyra, after one of his excursions to Pennsylvania, while the translation of the Book of Mormon was going on, that on the way he met the Lord Jesus Christ, who walked along by the side of him in the shape of a deer for two or three miles, talking with him as familiarly as one man talks with another.


There is no indication that Episcopal Reverend John A. Clark ever met Martin Harris or Joseph Smith -- he is a third-hand witness at best. Clark’s actual statement clearly says that he received his information from a “gentleman in Palmyra…a professor of religion,” who said that he had talked with Harris.  The CES Letter quotes him several times while neglecting more reliable firsthand accounts.

An introduction to John A. Clark can be found here:

"During the period between 1824 and 1828, the Reverend John A. Clark was quite active in organizing and leading Episcopal congregations in Palmyra and surrounding areas. According to a nineteenth-century history of Wayne County, New York, Clark was elected pastor of Palmyra’s Zion Episcopal Church in 1824 but “was compelled, by severe domestic affliction, to resign, and was succeeded, in 1826, by another pioneer missionary.” On August 14, 1826, Clark presided at the first organization of an Episcopal society in Lyons (fifteen miles east of Palmyra) and twelve days later presided at the organization of a society in Sodus (twenty-two miles northwest of Palmyra). Clark also officiated at meetings in Geneva and Pultneyville. He continued services in Lyons until at least 1828. In the letters featured here, Clark gives every appearance of being open and truthful about what he knows. Indeed, several of his details are confirmed by other sources. The main difficulty, however, is that Clark, like Willard Chase and Fayette Lapham, is a third-hand witness—they all got their information from someone else (Martin Harris for Clark, Joseph Sr. for Chase and Lapham) who reportedly got it from the first-hand source—Joseph Jr. Clark gives no indication that he ever met Joseph Smith."

A Documentary History of the Book of Mormon, Page 88

Quote 3 - Guernsey Times (1831)

According to two Ohio newspapers, shortly after Harris arrived in Kirtland he began claiming to have ‘seen Jesus Christ and that he is the handsomest man he ever did see. He has also seen the Devil, whom he described as a very sleek haired fellow with four feet, and a head like that of a Jack-ass.’


It's highly unlikely this quote is a true representation of Martin Harris' actual words. The original source is the March 15, 1831 Geauga Gazette, a newspaper that viewed the leaders of the church as "gross impostures" and regularly published embellished stories about the church. Just six weeks earlier, on February 1st, the Geauga Gazette described the Book of Mormon translation process in this sensationalized and false way:

It is alleged that some of them have received white stones promised in the second chapter of the Revelations. Such of them as have "the spirit" will declare that they see a white stone moving about the upper part of the room, and will jump and spring for it, until one more fortunate than the others catches it, but he alone can see it. Others however, profess to hear it roll across the floor. These two stories, and others of a similar character, are told by them with solemn asseverations of their truth. 

Among them is a man of color, a chief man, who is sometimes seized with strange vagaries and odd conceits. The other day he is said to have jumped twenty-five feet down a wash bank into a tree top without injury. He sometimes fancies he can fly."

Flying men, devils with 4 legs, and Urim and Thummims that float around the room hardly sounds like objective reporting. One can read original copies of the newspaper here as well as further background on this particular publication. 

It's clear the CES Letter didn't bother to research this quote and lifted it from a footnote in Early Mormon Documents Vol. 2:271.  The footnote attributes the original source to the Guernsey Times on 16 April 1831 and the American Friend and Marietta Gazette, 30 April 1831. It's worth noting that these two papers simply republished the article originally featured in the Geauga Gazetta's on March 15, 1831. 

Martin's Different Faiths
CES Letter Core Question

Did Martin change his faith at least five times before joining the church?

Before Harris became a Mormon, he had already changed his religion at least five times.

CES Letter, Page 90

The CES Letter omits Martin Harris' personal interview with Edward Stevenson where he states, "in the year 1818-- 52 years ago—I was inspired of the Lord and taught of the Spirit that I should not join any church... So I remained until the Church was organized by Joseph Smith the Prophet. Then I was baptized." (Early Mormon Documents Volume 2, p. 331-332)

Instead the CES Letter chooses to rely upon the G.W. Stoddard characterization of Harris' religious views in the anti-Mormon book Mormonism Unvailed. Additionally, the evidence doesn't support Stoddard's claim:

There is no evidence that formally connects Harris with the Baptist or Presbyterian churches. Universalist and Restorationist could refer to personal belief, rather than to a specific organization. John A. Clark, former pastor tor of Palmyra’s Zion’s Episcopal Church, said that before 1828 Harris “had occasionally attended divine service in our Church” and “had been, if I mistake not, at one period, a member of the Methodist Church, and subsequently had identified himself with the Universalist”

Early Mormon Documents Volume 2, p. 29-30

Richard L. Anderson addresses this old claim:

The arithmetic of Martin's five religious changes before Mormonism is also faulty. The claim comes from the hostile Palmyra affidavits published by E. D. Howe; G. W. Stoddard closed his in sarcasm against Martin Harris: "He was first an orthodox Quaker, then a Universalist, next a Restorationer, then a Baptist, next a Presbyterian, and then a Mormon." Palmyra sources do not yet prove that Martin was a Quaker, though his wife probably was. And no evidence yet associates Martin with the Baptist or Presbyterian churches. Note that the other two names are religious positions, not necessarily churches—philosophical Universalists dissent from traditional churches in believing that God will save all, and Restorationists obviously take literally the many Bible prophecies of God's reestablished work in modern times. An early Episcopal minister in Palmyra interviewed Martin and reduced his five positions to two: "He had been, if I mistake not, at one period a member of the Methodist Church, and subsequently had identified himself with the Universalists." Of course Martin could have been a Universalist and Restorationer simultaneously. This view fits what other Palmyra sources say about Martin Harris. In the slanted words of Pomeroy Tucker, who knew him personally, "He was a religious monomaniac, reading the Scriptures intently, and could probably repeat from memory nearly every text of the Bible from beginning to end, chapter and verse in each case."

Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981), 169-170.

CES Letter Core Question

Did Martin change his faith at least five times after joining the church?

After Joseph’s death, Harris continued this earlier pattern by joining and leaving 5 more different sects, including that of James Strang (whom he went on a mission to England for) (Strang is addressed later)

CES Letter, Page 90

Fairmormon does a good job addressing this claim here:

CES Letter Core Question

Did Martin believe that "he had as much evidence for a Shaker book he had as for the Book of Mormon”?

It has been reported that Martin 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).

CES Letter, Page 90

This quote is questionable. Martin had a lifelong testimony of the Book of Mormon and spent around a year with the Shakers in 1845-46. Any feelings Martin had for the Shakers were short-lived. In 1855 LDS missionary Thomas Colburn visited with Martin and said Martin "confessed he had lost confidence in Joseph Smith; consequently his mind became darkened, and he was left to himself; he tried the Shakers, but that would not do." (Colburn Letter, May 2, 1855)

Additionally, this quote comes from Clark Braden during a debate who was a notable but he was also known to be fast and free with his accusations and facts. Braden never met Harris and related uncorroborated hearsay nine years after Martin's death and decades after Harris allegedly said this.  

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. This debate occurred nine years after Martin Harris’ death in 1875 so Martin was unable to respond to his claims. More details can be found here. The full debate can be found here



He may have found ___ attractive about the shaker community

See Martin Harris, Uncompromising Witness of the Book of Mormon, p. 322-327.

Phineas Young is where we learn of Martin Harris' associations with the Shakers. He wrote his brother Brigham Young in 1844, "Martin Harris is a firm believer in Shakerism, says his testimony is greater that it was of the Book of Mormon." While there quote is contemporary and by a believing member it doesn't corroborate with other quotes. Additionally, given Martin's lifelong conviction of

Richard L. Anderson said:

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.”

Phineas Young letter, Dec. 31, 1844, Kirtland, Ohio, quoted Richard L. Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, p. 164

CES Letter Core Question

Was Martin a witness of self-proclaimed prophet Gladden Bishop?

Martin Harris was a follower to another self-proclaimed Mormon prophet by the name of Gladden Bishop. Like Strang, Bishop claimed to have plates, a Urim and Thummim, and that he was receiving revelation from the Lord. Martin was one of Gladden Bishop’s witnesses to his claims. (Gladden wanted Martin as a witness. There is zero historical evidence that Martin took him up on that.)

CES Letter, Page 90

To say that Martin was a witness to Gladden Bishop is a gross exaggeration. There is no evidence that Martin was actually a witness to Gladden Bishop or any of his claims. Bishop did, however, dictate a revelation in on April 8, 1851 outlining that he "should call witnesses" and lists Martin as on of those that should be called.

The full quote can be found in Gladden Bishop's 2 page publication titled Proclamation from the Lord to His people scattered throughout all the Earth. The relevant excerpt says:

"And therefore that my word might be fulfilled, and also that my people might believe, have I caused that my servant Gladden should call Witnesses of these things; even he, who was one of the three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, (viz: my servant Martin [Harris], and also my daughter Phebe [Bishop's wife], whom I have called these many years that she might be a witness in this, my great and glorious work, which I have now begun, and which shall never be overthrown;) and behold! my Witnesses have borne their testimony before my people in this place, yea, and in my house, even that which my people have built and dedicated unto me in Kirtland.

Any encounter Martin had with Gladden Bishop was short-lived. The biography on Martin Harris said:

"To what degree Martin was initially impressed by Francis Gladden Bishop is unknown. He had certainly interacted with Bishop and examined his publications. Elder Thomas Colburn later commented on Martin's standing after visiting with him. He observed that Martin had "tried Gladden Bishop but, no satisfaction." Martin was carefully screening the respective contenders for any legitimate link with the true church of the Restoration."

- Martin Harris Uncompromising Witness of the Book of Mormon, P. 367

CES Conclusion of Attacks on Martin Harris

If someone testified to you of an unusual spiritual encounter he had, but he also told you that he...

  • Conversed with Jesus who took the form of a deer (unreliable quote addressed above)
  • Saw the devil with his four feet and donkey head (unreliable quote addressed above)
  • Chipped off a chunk of a stone box that would mysteriously move beneath the ground to avoid capture (first time referencing Ole A. Jensen. Martin and many other reputable citizens did hold a magical worldview)
  • Interpreted simple things like a flickering of a candle as a sign of the devil (unreliable quote addressed above)
  • Had a creature appearing on his chest that no one else could see (a funny story of a nightmare addressed above)

...would you believe his claims? Or would you call the nearest mental hospital?

With inconsistencies, a conflict of interest, magical thinking, and superstition like this, exactly what credibility does Martin Harris have and why should I believe him?

CES Letter, Page 90-91

David Whitmer


David Whitmer Speaks to a Skeptic

A man who was pretty secular and skeptical said to David Whitmer to his face, “well, you might believe that you saw the plates and the angel, but you were probably deceived.” And Joseph III said David Whitmer stood up to his full height which was nearly six feet and said, “No sir. I was not deceived. I saw, I heard.” And he said it with such force that the man was uncomfortable and left the room and Joseph III left the room with him and said “Mr. Smith, this is preposterous that somebody could believe that, but one thing is sure and that is that David Whitmer is certain that he saw and he heard.”

Explaining away the Book of Mormon Witnesses, Richard L. Anderson (2004)

Four Quotes Pertaining to David Whitmer
Quote #1 Grant Palmer

David claimed in early June 1829 before their group declaration that he, Cowdery, and Joseph Smith observed ‘one of the Nephites’ carrying the records in a knapsack on his way to Cumorah. Several days later this trio perceived ‘that the Same Person was under the shed’ at the Whitmer farm.


CES Letter, Page 91

A single second-hand source nearly 50 years after the event doesn't make for a very compelling case. Edward Stevenson's 1877 journal is the lone reference to a person 'under the shed.' It's not fully clear what that even means. In that entry Stevenson describes a conversation he had just had with David Whitmer in which Whitmer relates the seeing a Nephite while walking in New York. He added, "On arriveing at home they were impressed that the Same Person was under the Shed & again they were informed that it was So." (EMD, 5:30-31).  Stevenson met with Whitmer again in February 1886 and they discussed the same story. This time there was no mention of the shed discussion and instead Whitmer said, "After their arival home the[y] felt the influence of this same personage around them for he said thare was a Heavenly feeling with this Nephite." (EMD 5:160)

Joseph F. Smith's 1918 journal entry is the only other reference to Whitmer seeing the Nephite (see here). It's unclear where Smith learned his details from. Possibly from when he personally interviewed Whitmer in the 1870s as a young man.

From the three accounts it's clear that Whitmer believed the man walking by in 1829 was a Nephite. It's possible Joseph and Oliver shared that same view as well but we don't have any of their recollections on this encounter. The 'person under the shed' description is uncorroborated by any other sources and rather unclear what it means without more details. Did Whitmer believe he was buried under the shed? 

Quote #2 John Murphy

In 1880, David Whitmer was asked for a description of the angel who showed him the plates. Whitmer responded that the angel ‘had no appearance or shape.’ When asked by the interviewer how he then could bear testimony that he had seen and heard an angel, Whitmer replied, ‘Have you never had impressions?’ To which the interviewer responded, ‘Then you had impressions as the Quaker when the spirit moves, or as a good Methodist in giving a happy experience, a feeling?’ ‘Just so,’ replied Whitmer.


CES Letter, Page 91

The CES Letter does not disclose that Whitmer was furious about this report and how it had misrepresented him. He published a rebuttal and correction, which are not mentioned here.

Quote #3 James Henry Moyle

A young Mormon lawyer, James Henry Moyle, who interviewed Whitmer in 1885, asked if there was any possibility that Whitmer had been deceived. “His answer was unequivocal... that he saw the plates and heard the angel with unmistakable clearness.” But Moyle went away “not fully satisfied...It was more spiritual than I anticipated.” – Moyle diary, June 28, 1885, Early Mormon Documents 5:141

CES Letter, Page 91

Moyle would likely be surprised to see his words used in a publication criticizing the church. Moyle was a believing member and eventually served as a mission president. Moyle also said of David Whitmer:

I inquired of those whom I met: What kind of a man is David Whitmer? From all I received the same response, that he was a good citizen, an honest man, and that he was highly respected in the community. I went to his humble home, for it was a humble home, and I told him of my origin, my belief, and as a young man starting out in life I wanted to know from him, older than my grandfather, what he knew about the Book of Mormon, and what about the testimony he had published to the world concerning it. He told me in all the solemnity of his advanced years, that the testimony he had given to the world, and which was published in the Book of Mormon, was true, every word of it, and that he had never deviated or departed in any particular from that testimony, and that nothing in the world could separate him from the sacred message that was delivered to him. I still wondered if it was not possible that he could have been deceived. I wondered if there was not something in that psychological operation which some offer as the cause of these miraculous declarations and by which he could have been deceived—although there were three witnesses present besides the Prophet Joseph Smith, who saw and heard the same mighty and solemn truths; so I induced him to relate to me, under such cross-examination as I was able to interpose, every detail of what took place. He described minutely the spot in the woods, the large log that separated him from the angel, and that he saw the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated, that he handled them, and that he did hear the voice of God declare that the plates were correctly translated. I asked him if there was any possibility for him to have been deceived, and that it was all a mistake, but he said, “No.” I asked him, then, why he had left the Church, He said he had not, but the Church had left him. He said that his faith in the fundamental principles of the gospel, which had been revealed prior to the year 1835, had never been changed; that he was still devoted to them and believed in them just as much as he ever did, and was trying to live those principles and exemplify them in his life. He said he knew Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, that through him had been restored the gospel of Jesus Christ in these latter days. To me this was a wonderful testimony."

Early Mormon Documents 5:142-43

The CES Letter does not include the many other statements that are even clearer. The CES letter does not give its readers the explanation given by Moyle, which is provided in the same source cited. He was struggling to describe the divine power being manifest, not upset because the experience wasn't "real."(Click here)

Quote #4 David Whitmer Separating From the Church

Whitmer’s testimony also included the following:

If you believe my testimony to the Book of Mormon; if you believe that God spake to us three witnesses by his own voice, then I tell you that in June, 1838, God spake to me again by his own voice from the heavens and told me to ‘separate myself from among the Latter Day Saints, for as they sought to do unto me, so it should be done unto them.’

If David Whitmer is a credible witness, why are we only using his testimony of the Book of Mormon while ignoring his other testimony claiming that God Himself spoke to Whitmer “by his own voice from the heavens” in June 1838, commanding Whitmer to apostatize from the Lord’s one and only true Church?

CES Letter, Page 91

This quote is taken out of context and misleads the reader.  David Whitmer had already been excommunicated in April 1838 but still lived in Missouri. In June 1838 he and other former members were pressured  by the Danites to leave the state (more details found in the Joseph Smith Papers project here). Understandably, Whitmer felt unsafe and it's entirely possible the Lord did direct him to leave.

Whitmer provided further important detail that the CES Letter neglects:

In June, 1838, at Far West, Mo., a secret organization was formed, Doctor Avard being put in as the leader of the band; a certain oath was to be administered to all the brethren to bind them to support the heads of the church in everything they should teach. All who refused to take this oath were considered dissenters from the church, and certain things were to be done concerning these dissenters, by Dr. Avard's secret band. I make no farther statements now; but suffice it to say that my persecutions, for trying to show them their errors, became of such a nature that I had to leave the Latter Day Saints; and, as I rode on horseback out of Far West, in June, 1838, the voice of God from heaven spake to me as I have stated above.

David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ by a Witness to the Divine Authenticity of The Book of Mormon (David Whitmer: Richmond, Virginia, 1887)

Oliver Cowdery

Oliver Cowdery
CES Letter Core Question

Was Oliver a treasure hunter? Was his preferred tool of the trade a divining rod?

Like Joseph and most of the Book of Mormon witnesses, Oliver Cowdery and his family were treasure hunters. Oliver’s preferred tool of trade, as mentioned above, was the divining rod. He was known as a “rodsman.” Along with the witnesses, Oliver held a magical worldview.

CES Letter, Page 92

Oliver had a rod he used but there is no evidence how Oliver or his family used the rod. Treasure hunting goes beyond the evidence.

CES Letter Core Question

Does being a cousin make Oliver a non-credible witness with a conflict of interest?

Also, Oliver Cowdery was not an objective and independent witness. As scribe for the Book of Mormon, co-founder of the Church, and cousin to Joseph Smith, a conflict of interest existed in Oliver being a witness.

CES Letter, Page 92

Are you very close with your second or third cousins?

There is no evidence that Oliver met the Smiths before 1828 or that he then knew they were related (Oliver Cowdery was a third cousin to Lucy Mack Smith). Similarly Lucy says the Joseph Sr. family met Oliver for the first time in 1828 and does not mention any awareness of their distant family connection. In Lucy Mack's biographical sketches there is no indication that they had any familiarity with Oliver. Read her description here. 

Criticizing Oliver and Joseph for being distant cousins who did not know each other beforehand seems to demonstrate the extreme willingness of the author of The CES Letter to exploit minutia that, practically speaking, is meaningless.

Fairmormon adds excellent insight here as well:

The fact that they were distantly related has no bearing upon Oliver's reliability as a scribe or as a witness. How does this relationship make him an unreliable witness? What is the conflict of interest?

More to the point, if Oliver was covering up a fraud on the part of Joseph Smith when he acted as a scribe during the translation of the Book of Mormon simply because he was related to Joseph Smith, or if he was covering for Joseph when he acted as one of the Three Witnesses, then why didn't Oliver expose the fraud after he fell into disagreement with Joseph Smith and was excommunicated from the Church? This would have been the perfect opportunity to expose a fraud.

Second Sight

CES Letter Core Question

Did the witnesses just use "second sight" or "imagination" to see the plates?

People believed they could see things as a vision in their mind. They called it “second sight.” We call it “imagination.” (non-believers call it imagination. Apostate Ezra Booth in 1831 may have been the first to equate faith with imagination.) It made no difference to these people if they saw with their natural eyes or their spiritual eyes (editorial note: a phrase is only used by Jesse Townsend and John Gilbert) as both were one and the same.

As mentioned previously, people believed they could see spirits and their dwelling places in the local hills along with seeing buried treasure deep in the ground. This supernatural way of seeing the world is also referred in Doctrine & Covenants as “the eyes of our understanding.”

CES Letter, Page 93

Among the favorite anti-Mormon charges is that the Three Witnesses only imagined that they saw the Book of Mormon plates. Most of the “evidence” for such an argument is based on second and third-hand statements of things purportedly said by Martin Harris. John Gilbert said he was once asked Martin if he saw the plates with his “naked eyes” to which he responded, “No, I saw them with a spiritual eye.” In another interview with Anthony Metcalf, Harris allegedly claimed that he only saw the plates in a “visionary or entranced state.”

Michael Ash provides further insight:

Does “visionary” mean “imaginary?” Does the belief that the experience had visionary qualities contradict the claim that the plates were real? Consider this: On separate occasions Harris also claimed that prior to his witnessing the plates he held them (while covered) “on his knee for an hour and a half” and that they weighed approximately fifty pounds. It seems unlikely– from his physical descriptions as well as his other testimonies and the testimonies of the other two witnesses— that the entire experience was merely in his mind. On one occasion, for example, critics charged Harris with delusion— that he had merely imagined to see an angel and the plates. Martin responded by extending his right hand: Gentlemen, do you see that hand? Are you sure you see it? Are your eyes playing a trick or something? No. Well, as sure as you see my hand so sure did I see the angel and the plates. David Whitmer helps clear up the “spiritual” vs. “natural” viewing of the plates. Responding to the interviewer who questioned Harris, Whitmer replied, Of course we were in the spirit when we had the view, for no man can behold the face of an angel, except in a spiritual view, but we were in the body also, and everything was as natural to us, as it is at any time. Paul understood the difficulty of describing spiritual experiences when he wrote:

I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) (2 Cor. 12:2-3.)

Paul’s vision was real, yet he was unsure whether he had the experience in or out of his body. Harris may have felt a similar experience. He knew the plates were real, yet he also knew that when the angel showed him the plates he was only able to see them by the power of God.

Book of Mormon Witnesses, Part 3: Martin Harris

Nine Quotes Pertaining to Second Sight
Second Sight CES Letter Sources

There are literally hundreds of cases where the three witnesses describe their experience seeing the plates. However, the CES Letter clearly cherry picked six of those quotes and uses three repeatedly. 

Additionally, all but one of the quotes refer to Martin Harris. Martin may have been more inclined to discuss the "faith" aspect of his encounter with the angel due to the fact that he was the one who struggled the most with his faith and needed to pray separately to have his experience. Almost as if Martin may have been overcompensating for his perceived greatest weakness.

Terryl Givins provides additional insight :

One historian has written of Martin Harris’s alleged equivocation about his vision, pointing out that he claimed to have seen the plates with his “spiritual eyes,” rather than his natural ones, and thus that he “repeatedly admitted the internal, subjective nature of his visionary experience.” It is not clear, however, that visionaries in any age have acquiesced to such facile dichotomies. . . . Paul himself referred to one of his own experiences as being “in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell” (2 Cor. 12:3). He obviously considered such a distinction irrelevant to the validity of his experience and the reality of what he saw. It is hard to imagine a precedent more like Harris’s own versions in which he emphatically asserts until the day of his death the actuality of the angel who “came down from heaven” and who “brought and laid [the plates] before our eyes, that we beheld and saw,” while also reporting, according to others, that he “never claimed to have seen them with his natural eyes, only with spiritual vision.”


Terryl L. Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture That Launched a New World Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 41–42

If the plates and the experiences were real and tangible as 21st century Mormons are led to believe, why would the witnesses make the following kind of statements when describing the plates and the experience?

CES Letter, Page 93

Quote #1 & #2 - Anthony Metcalf on Martin Harris (1873-4)
CES Letter Quote
“I never saw the golden plates, only in a visionary or entranced state.”

– Early Mormon Documents 2:346-347

CES Letter Quote
“While praying I passed into a state of entrancement, and in that state I saw the angel and the plates.”

– Early Mormon Documents 2:346-347

Anthony Metcalf, who believed Joseph Smith was a "pretended prophet" is the source of these first two quotes. Thus, we're getting them through his perspective. Additionally, the CES Letter breaking this quote into two quotes is misleading and creates the false illusion that there is more evidence than actually shown.  Here is the full quote below:

Following is the history as related to me, including all his connections with Joseph Smith, the pretended prophet and the founder of the Mormon church: He told me all about the translating of the Book of Mormon, and said he had give $5,000 towards its publication. He said "I never saw the golden plates, only in a visionary or entranced state. I wrote a great deal of the Book of Mormon myself, as Joseph Smith translated or spelled the words out in English. Sometimes the plates would be on a table in the room in which Smith did the translating, covered over with cloth. I was told by Joseph Smith that God would strike him dead if he attempted to look at them, and I believed it. When the time came for the three witnesses to see the plates, Joseph Smith, myself, David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery, went into the woods to pray. When they had all engaged in prayer, they failed at that time to see the plates or the angel who should have been on hand to exhibit them. They all believed it was because I was not good enough, or, in other words, not sufficiently sanctified. I withdrew. As soon as I had gone away, the three others saw the angel and the plates. In about three days I went into the woods to pray that I might see the plates. While praying I passed into a state of entrancement, and in that state I saw the angel and the plates."

Quote #3 John H. Gilbert Quoting Martin Harris (1892)
CES Letter Quote
“He only saw the plates with a spiritual eye”


This is the second of five times the CES Letter quotes John Gilbert's use of the term "spiritual eye." See Quote #9 for the exact same quote in a longer version.

Quote #4 - John A. Clark Quoting a Palmyra Gentleman Quoting Martin Harris (1840)
CES Letter Quote
“I saw them with the eye of faith.”

– John A. Clark to Dear Brethren, 31 Aug. 1840, Episcopal Recorder (Philadelphia) 18 (12 Sept. 1840): 98

This is the second of seven references to quoting John A. Clark's description of Martin Harris. John A. Clark is a former pastor who considered Joseph Smith a fraud.

Clark’s actual statement clearly says that he received his information from a “gentleman in Palmyra…a professor of religion,” who said that he had talked with Harris. This is not an interview between Clark and Harris. Larry E. Morris notes that the “claim that Harris told John A. Clark’ is not accurate. This is not secondhand testimony but third-hand-he said that he said that he said.’….As if that weren’t enough, Clark does not name his source-making it impossible to judge that person’s honesty or reliability. What we have is a third-hand, anonymous account of what Martin Harris supposedly said.” ("The Private Character Of The Man Who Bore That Testimony”: Oliver Cowdery And His Critics)

Quote #5 - Zenas Gurley on David Whitmer (1885)
CES Letter Quote
“As shown in the vision”

– Zenas H. Gurley, Jr., Interview with David Whitmer on January 14, 1885

Describing the experience as a "vision" doesn't preclude it from being a literal experience. David Whitmer is the most documented of any of the witnesses about the actuality of his experience. The CES Letter excludes numerous accounts that where David Whitmer indicates that he saw the plates as a literal experience, despite also being visionary.

Joseph Smith III related.

How well and distinctly I remember the manner in which Elder Whitmer arose and drew himself up to his full height--a little over six feet--and said, in solemn and impressive tones: "No sir! I was not under any hallucination, nor was I deceived! I saw with these eyes, and I heard with these ears! I know whereof I speak!"

Additionally, David said, "I saw the angel as plainly as I see you" as well as the plates "I saw them as plain as I see this bed." FairMormon provides numerous other quotes where David used wording affirming the literal nature of his experience. See here.

The actual quote context is helpful as well:

  • Zenas Gurly Question: "Was the table literal wood? or was the whole vision such as often occurs in dreams &c?
  • Whitmer Answer: "The table had the appearance of literal wood as shown in the vision, in the glory of God."

Early Mormon Documents, Volume 5 p. 135

Quote #6 - Stephen Burnett on Martin Harris (1838)

'...when I came to hear Martin Harris state (Editorial Note: this first part appears to be hearsay interpretation) in public that he never saw the plates with his natural eyes only in vision or imagination (Historian Dan Vogel said, "the word 'imagination' is likely that of Burnett." See EMD 5:291), neither Oliver nor David & also that the eight witnesses never saw them (Editorial Note: completely inconsistent with hundreds of other statements) & 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 & the entire superstructure fell in heap of ruins, I therefore three week since in the Stone Chapel...renounced the Book of Mormon...

after we were done speaking M Harris arose & 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 a handkerchief over them, but he never saw them only as he saw a city throught [sic] a mountain. And said that he never should have told that the testimony of the eight was false, if if it had not been picked out of air but should have let it passed as it was...'


CES Letter, Page 

This is the first of four times that the CES Letter uses pieces of this quote.

This is clearly disbelieving Stephen Burnett's interpretation of what Martin Harris said and not how Martin wished to be understood. Martin was convinced of his experience and a convinced believer in the Book of Mormon all of his life.

George A. Smith was at that same meeting as Burnett but had a far different experience. This was a tense meeting where several disaffected apostates spoke as well as Harris, who defended his testimony of the Book of Mormon. It was at the height of stress of the Kirtland banking crisis (see more details in Ch. 24 in Saints). George described the meeting in his 1838 letter:

The state of affairs in Kirtland is very unsettled; the Warren Parrish party has become divided, three against two, and two against three, and they are entering into a long debate upon the Book of Mormon and the revelations. 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 . . . .

Last Sabbath a division arose among the Parrish party about the Book of Mormon; John F. Boynton, Warren Parrish, Luke S. Johnson, and others said it was nonsense. Martin Harris then bore testimony of its truth and said all would be damned if they rejected it. Cyrus Smalling, Joseph Coe and others declared his testimony was true. In this way a division arose to bring about the above-mentioned debate and thus the enemies of truth are divided, while the Saints are growing in grace and in union and knowledge and increasing in number.

Steven C. Harper provides extensive analysis of Burnett's account in his essay Evaluating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, Steven Harper (2010). Below is a pertinent excerpt:

Book of Mormon witnesses responded to these hearings with corrections. When he [Martin Harris] learned how Burnett and Parrish were interpreting his statements, Martin Harris “arose & said he was sorry for any man who rejected the Book of Mormon for he knew it was true.”[25] He maintained his faith and understood what he had said differently than Stephen Burnett and Warren Parrish did, as Burnett acknowledged. “No man ever heard me in any way deny . . . the administration of the angel that showed me the plates,” Harris wrote later.[26] 

Richard L. Anderson gives background on this quote as well:

hearsay situations raise the question of whether secondhand evidence started with observation. A related flaw is reporting only a part of what was first said. Lawyers insist on cross-examination to get the whole story, for a firsthand report of a half-truth is still misrepresentation. This kind of reporting occurs in a version of Martin Harris's speech by Stephen Burnett, writing at the height of his angry disillusionment with Joseph Smith. His letter is contemporary, though heavily interpretive. Burnett stresses what he heard, but undoubtedly bends words to his theory...

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. Note the two italicized appearances of only (italics added), used in the sense of merely, to say that besides lifting the box of plates Martin had also seen them "in vision," the point restated at the end of the quotation: "only saw them spiritually or in vision"; "only visionary." 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.  Some interviews add a third type of contact: handling the plates or turning their leaves. This probably happened long after the earliest experiences with the covered plates.

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. His simple language in an 1870 letter is typical: "I do say that the angel did show to me the plates containing the Book of Mormon."  Here the "what" is more important than the "how." Martin saw the plates, his written testimony says, by means of the "marvelous" revelation of "an angel of God." Martin Harris never applied "only" to that experience. When Burnett says that the witness did not see "with his natural eyes," he fails to add that he still claimed vivid sight. John Gilbert, Book of Mormon typesetter, also remembered this kind of conversation: "I asked Harris once if he had really seen the plates with his naked eyes—his reply was 'No, but with spiritual eyes.' " But the devout witness was confidently claiming something more, not something less than normal sight. Burnett represents Harris as equating his experience with that of David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery. And as discussed, David rejected "either-or" by saying that he saw by both spiritual and natural means. The superb interview of Nathan Tanner, Jr. recorded David Whitmer's own words on this point: "He then explained that he saw the plates, and with his natural eyes, but he had to be prepared for it—that he and the other witnesses were overshadowed by the power of God and a halo of brightness indescribable."

Oversimplification is distortion. Thus Burnett's report may be quite direct but lacks the second element in the courtroom oath: not only "tell the truth," but "the whole truth." Stephen Burnett's letter claims additional light on the Eight Witnesses, but there is a clear flaw in the source of his information. As discussed, Burnett heard original comments of Martin Harris, and then added that Martin Harris stood up later to refute the dissenters' interpretation of them. After mentioning "Oliver nor David" in the 1838 letter just quoted, Burnett continued his version of Harris's first talk: "and also that the eight witnesses never saw them and hesitated to sign that instrument for that reason, but were persuaded to do it." When Martin attempted to correct this view of what he said, Burnett attributes this explanation to him: "and said he never should have told that the testimony of the eight was false, if it had not been picked out of him, but should have let it passed as it was." What was really said? If Harris accused the bitter dissenters of twisting his first comments on the Eight Witnesses, can we trust them not to abuse his explanation? And what was the source of Harris's information anyway? No one claims he was quoting one of the Eight Witnesses. But we know that skeptical rumors thrived in the disbelieving climate at Kirtland, and Harris was probably alluding to one of those, most likely in disagreement. Burnett's letter is only one of several 1838 documents that clearly say that Martin would not give an inch on his testimony: "he [Martin] was sorry for any man who rejected the Book of Mormon, for he knew it was true." Beyond Martin Harris, Burnett gives multiple hearsay from an unidentified source, and it has no value when the Eight Witnesses themselves contradict it consistently and clearly."

Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses. Richard Lloyd Anderson p. 155-57

Relevant Part of Burnett's Letter Not Included

Harris and others still . . . believe the Book of Mormon . . . I am well satisfied for myself that if the witnesses whose names are attached to the Book of Mormon never saw the plates as Martin admits that there can be nothing brought to prove that any such thing ever existed for it is said on the 171st page of the book of covenants [D&C 17:5] that the three should testify that they had seen the plates even as J[oseph] S[mith] Jr. & if they saw them spiritually or in vision with their eyes shut—J S Jr never saw them any other light way & if so the plates were only visionary.


CES Letter, Page 

Harper adds the following insight on Burnett's reasoning here:

One is struck by the three instances of if in Burnett’s statement. He built his interpretation of the witnesses on hypotheticals: if the witnesses never saw the plates as he believed Martin Harris had said, and if Joseph never saw them, then they were only visionary. After listening to Burnett expound that rationale, Martin Harris asserted unequivocally, in contrast, that the plates were real. As Burnett reported, Harris said “he had hefted the plates repeatedly in a box with only a tablecloth or a handkerchief over them.” Harris did not wish to be understood as Burnett understood him.

The hearsay accounts like Burnett’s have been useful to others for building a believable alternative to the straightforward statements of the witnesses.Grant Palmer wrote of his own youthful faith being undermined by later doubts. His chapter on the Book of Mormon witnesses expresses his doubts about the authenticity of accounts by the witnesses in the Book of Mormon and instead draws on the hearsay accounts, where he finds some threads that enable him to conclude that the witnesses thought they had experienced the plates but had not. This explanation is appealing to some because it does not completely dismiss the compelling testimonies of the Book of Mormon witnesses even as it categorizes them as unreal.

Evaluating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, Steven Harper (2010)

Quote #7 - Pomeroy Tucker Referring to John H. Gilbert Quoting Martin Harris (1871)
CES Letter Quote
"The foreman in the Palmyra printing office that produced the first Book of Mormon said that Harris “used to practice a good deal of his characteristic jargon about ‘seeing with the spiritual eye,’ and the like.”

– Mormonism: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress, p. 71

Editorial Note: the PDF version of the CES Letter includes this quote but the HTML version has a typo and inadvertently quotes the prior quote twice.

This is the third of five times the CES Letter quotes John Gilbert's use of the term "spiritual eye."

The "foreman" that Pomeroy Tucker is referencing a conversation John H. Gilbert who is referencing with Martin Harris. Thus, this is essentially a third-hand version of the John H. Gilbert story he relates in Quote #9. Gilbert viewed Mormonism as a "monsterous fraud and humbug." See the Gilbert quote below for more discussion on this.

Quote #8 - Reverend John A. Clark (1840) & Pastor Jesse Townsend (1833) on Martin Harris
CES Letter Quote
Two other Palmyra residents said that Harris told them that he had seen the plates with “the eye of faith” or “spiritual eyes”


This is the third of seven times the CES letter quotes John A. Clark. In this case, Clark is quoting an unnamed "gentleman in Palmrya" who said Martin saw the plates by the "eye of faith." Thus, this is a third-hand account at best. 

The "spiritual eyes" statement attributed to Martin Harris is found in an 1833 letter by Jesse Townsend, who was no fan of Mormonism. Townsend said Harris was a “visionary fanatic” and a “dupe” who was fooled by the “wily deceiver” Joseph Smith.  Additionally, Townsend had just signed his name in an anti-Mormon publication called Mormonism Unvailed when he wrote the letter. The letter first appears in Pomeroy Tucker's 1867 anti-Mormon book called the Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism.

Roger Nicholson's article in Meridian Magazine titled Wikipedia Attacks Martin Harris provides additional context on this on this quote and others by Martin Harris.

Quote #9 - John H. Gilbert on Martin Harris (1892)
CES Letter Quote
John H. Gilbert, the typesetter for most of the Book of Mormon, said that he had asked Harris, “Martin, did you see those plates with your naked eyes?” According to Gilbert, Harris “looked down for an instant, raised his eyes up, and said, ‘No, I saw them with a spiritual eye.”


This is the fourth of five times the CES Letter quotes John Gilbert's use of the term "spiritual eye."

John H. Gilbert set much of the type for the Book of Mormon in 1829. Gilbert was an anti-Mormon and told James T. Cobb in a letter "That you may succeed in exposing this monstrous fraud and humbug from beginning to end, beyond dispute, is my sincere wish." (Feb. 10, 1879, Gilbert to Cobb) He said Joseph Smith was a "lazy, good-for-nothing lout." (Detroit's Post and Tribune, Dec. 1, 1877: Cobb Interview) Gilbert said of his work on printing the Book of Mormon. "Although I was <the> principal typesetter of the first Mormon Bible, I had no acquaintance with any of the originators of this great humbug, except Martin Harris. Jo Smith I never saw but once—the Whitmars from your County, I never saw, and know nothing of them—so that from my own knowled[g]e of any of the originators of this fraud, I am unable to furnish anything raliable worth preserving." When asked if he was religious Gilbert said, "Not by a damsite, I do not believe in Joseph Smith, God nor the Bible.'

Gilbert, like other critics of the Mormonism, had a hard time reconciling how someone like Martin Harris could have such an upstanding reputation of honesty within the community yet have believe in what he called a "monsterous fraud and humbug." Gilbert essentially compartmentalized the two by saying, "Martin,—as every body called him,—was considered by his neighbors a very honest man; but on the subject of Marmonism, he was said to be crazy. (Memorandum, made by JohnH. Gilbert Esq, September]. 8th, 1892[,] Palmyra, N.Y.,”) 

Thus, we need to recognize Gilbert's recollection is coming through a filtered perspective 63 years after the fact. Additionally, Martin Harris may have trumped up his talk of needing faith due to that fact that it was his greatest shotcoming. Harris had to separate himself from the others before having his revelation. Richard L. Anderson provided further context on this:

He [Martin] talked about his experience in terms of “the eye of faith.” I have to believe that people remembered that accurately, but John H. Gilbert is the person that says most about this and I’d like to deal with Gilbert just a bit.

He [Gilbert] was the compositor of the Book of Mormon ... Martin Harris had to have faith in the experience; he separated himself from the other two. That was his Achilles’ heel–that he didn’t have enough faith and maybe he was trying to explain to Gilbert how it happened and Gilbert took that in more simplistic terms.

All I can say is that when I deal with Martin Harris and his own statement, I want to make a comment on that in a moment, this is what he actually wrote to a person who inquired: “I received your favor. In reply I will say concerning the plates, I do say that the angel did show to me the plates containing the Book of Mormon.” He saw the angel, he saw the plates; so whether you talk about “eye of faith” or not, if you take what Martin Harris actually said and then start to measure all these other things by that and see how consistent they are; sometimes witnesses are getting misquoted, sometimes they’re quoted accurately but not with a realization of their whole experience and I feel that this fits within that dimension.

Explaining Away the Book of Mormon Witnesses, Anderson (2004)

CES Letter "Second Sight" Conclusion

If these witnesses literally really saw the plates like everyone else on the planet sees tangible objects...why strange statements like, “I never saw them only as I see a city through a mountain”? (The 2nd of 4 times quoting Stephen Burnett) What does that even mean? I have never seen a city through a mountain. Have you?

Why all these bizarre statements from the witnesses if the plates were real and the event literal?

Why would you need a vision or supernatural power to see real physical plates that Joseph said were in a box that he carried around? When Martin Harris was asked, “But did you see them [plates] with your natural, your bodily eyes, just as you see this pencil-case in my hand? Now say no or yes to this.” Martin answered, “I did not see them as I do that pencil-case, yet I saw them with the eye of faith; I saw them just as distinctly as I see anything around me, though at the time they were covered over with a cloth.” (The 4th of 7 John A. Clark references) – Origin and History of the Mormonites, p.406

Why couldn’t Martin just simply answer “yes”?

CES Letter, Page 94

These few paragraphs are clearly redundant. The same quotes are repeated over and over.

James Strang

James Strang
CES Letter Core Question

Is James Strang basically Joseph Smith 2.0?


James Strang and his claims are fascinating. He was basically Joseph Smith 2.0 – but with a twist. Like Joseph, Strang did the following:

  • Claimed that he was visited by an angel who reserved plates for him to translate into the word of God. “The record which was sealed from my servant Joseph. Unto thee it is reserved.” (Since Joseph Smith’s story was well known, for an imitator to claim a similar experience is not unexpected or even noteworthy.)
  • Received the “Urim and Thummim”. (Strang claimed to have a Urim and Thummim, but provided no witnesses to substantiate that claim. In contrast, the Three Witnesses were promised to see Joseph’s Urim and Thummim (D&C 17:1) and later testified to the same.)
  • Produced 11 witnesses who testified that they too had seen and inspected ancient metal plates. (Strang's eleven witnesses experienced nothing supernatural. Several repudiated their testimonies and others reported they participated in fabricating the plates. None of the Book of Mormon witnesses recanted their testimonies. The Three Witnesses reported a vision where they saw an angel who presented the gold plates to them.)
  • Introduced new scripture. After unearthing the plates (the same plates as Laban from whom Nephi took the brass plates in Jerusalem), Strang translated it into scripture called the “Book of the Law of the Lord.” (Many religionists then and now claim revelation. This is not singular or significant.)
  • Established a new Church: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite). Its headquarters is still today in Voree, Wisconsin. (Many new churches were formed in the nineteenth century. This is insignificant.)

CES Letter, Page 95

Much like the 1990's Gatorade commercial, "Be like Mike" that every Michael Jordan fan could identify with, Strang wanted to 'Be Like Joseph.' But he wasn't, he was a pretender.

Strang joined the church in 1844 and there is no indication that he ever met Joseph Smith.  After Joseph's assassination he produced a letter that had purportedly been written by Joseph Smith claiming he was to be Smith's successor. Historian Michael Quinn, who has thoroughly studied claims to be Joseph Smith's successor, said Strang's letter of ordination is an "absolute fraud." (See Quinn on Strang 1:25 here). Additionally, Strang Biographer,  biographer, Roger Van Noord, concludes that "based on the evidence, it is probable that Strang — or someone under his direction — manufactured the letter of appointment and the brass plates to support his claim to be a prophet and to sell land at Voree. If this scenario is correct, Strang's advocacy of himself as a prophet was more than suspect, but no psychological delusion."

(Assassination of a Michigan King: The Life of James Jesse Strang
By Roger Van Noord, p. 274)

Below are more details on the comparison the CES Letter makes between Smith and Strang:

Five Bulletpoints Comparing Strang and Smith

1. Since Joseph Smith's story was well known, for an imitator to claim a similar experience is not unexpected or even noteworthy.

2. Strang claimed to have a Urim and Thummim, but provided no witnesses to substantiate that claim. In contrast, the Three Witnesses were promised to see Joseph's Urim and Thummim (D&C 17:1) and later testified to the same.

3. Strang's eleven witnesses experienced nothing supernatural. Several repudiated their testimonies and others reported they participated in fabricating the plates. None of the Book of Mormon witnesses recanted their testimonies. The Three Witnesses reported a vision where they saw an angel who presented the gold plates to them.

4. Many religionists then and now claim revelation. This is not singular or significant.

5. Many new churches were formed in the nineteenth century. This is insignificant.

CES Letter Core Question

Is there there is no direct evidence that any of the above 11 Strang witnesses ever denied their testimony of James Strang, the Voree Plates, Strang’s church, or Strang’s divine calling?

Like Joseph, Strang had a scribe (Samuel Graham) who wrote as Strang translated. Along with several of the witnesses, Graham was later excommunicated from Strang’s Church.

There is no direct evidence that any of the above 11 Strang witnesses ever denied their testimony of James Strang, the Voree Plates, Strang’s church, or Strang’s divine calling.

CES Letter, Page 98-99

The claim that there is no evidence that the witnesses denied their testimony of Strang or his creations is completely false. One needs to look at the first two people listed as witnesses to the Book of the Law of the Lord to find this. Samuel Graham claimed that he assisted Strang in the creation of the plates.  Samuel P. Bacon eventually denied the inspiration of Strang's movement and denounced it as mere "human invention." Additionally, there are hundreds of testimonies of the three witnesses throughout their lives. They are incredibly well documented. The same cannot be said of Strang's witnesses.

See: The Story Behind James Strang and his Sect, Daniel Peterson

CES Letter Core Question

Did nearly every Book of Mormon witness and member of the Smith family sustain James Strang as a "Prophet, Seer, and Revelator?

Every single living Book of Mormon witness besides Oliver Cowdery accepted Strang’s prophetic claim of being Joseph’s true successor and joined him and his church. Additionally, every single member of Joseph Smith’s family except for Hyrum’s widow also endorsed, joined, and sustained James Strang as “Prophet, Seer, and Revelator.”

What does this say about the credibility of the Book of Mormon witnesses if they were so easily duped by James Strang and his claims of being a prophet called of God to bring forth new scripture from ancient plates only to later turn out to be a fraud?

CES Letter, Page 99

This is blatantly false. None of the prominent Mormons remained very long with the Strang movement (see The Mormon Succession Crisis: A Family View. John Whitmer Historical Association -- p. 100). Martin Harris was the only one of the three witnesses who had a brief stint following Strang. Hiram Paige and John Whitmer were the only two of the eight witnesses followed Strang for a brief period. Among the Smiths Emma had no interest in following Strang, William Smith was in and out of Strang's church in a year, and Lucy Mack briefly followed Strang.

That said, Robin Jensen provides further insight on why Strang might have had appeal among some of the LDS faithful:

Latter-day Saints had given up much for their faith, including their lives insome cases. This level of commitment was not easily thrown aside—not even for thoserejecting Brigham Young or the move westward. Yet there had to be a viable alternative for those wanting to maintain their faith in the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith’s calling, and the Mormon doctrines they espoused. Strangism offered that alternative. But Mormons converting to Strangism did far more than just add numbers to the Strangite membership records. Many of these converts seeking to maintain their faith in Mormonism hoped and prayed that Strang’s calling was from God—resulting in an unusually supportive group of individuals. However, when this desire for a prophet was shattered, a large falling away from the Strangite Church resulted.

Lucy Smith did not maintain her faith in Strang. In fact, there is little reference to her further endorsing Strang."

Additionally, Strang lobbied William Smith in hopes he could attract the entire Smith family. "Strang was more than eager to have William's support, especially since William promised to also deliver his mother, three sisters, and the Egyptian mummies to Voree." (See William B. Smith and the "Josephites". Journal of Mormon History 40:4 (2014) p. 81

Historian Michael Quinn provided the following insight on Strang's appeal:

He [Strang] was this charismatic alternative to Brigham Young. Those who had already fallen out with Brigham Young for other reasons, like Joseph Smith's brother William, some members of the Council of Fifty, and others who saw Brigham Young as not the the kind of leader that they wanted to follow gravitated to Strang. Strang left open, kind of tantalizingly, the possibility for [Joseph's] living son to ascend and to have prominence, if not the successor-ship. For this reason members of Joseph Smith's family; his mother, his sister, and William Smith signed a document endorsing John Strang.  Emma didn't sign the document.

Smith and Strang Translation Process, Michael Quinn Interview

No Document of Actual Signatures

Nauvoo House Cornerstone
Original Book of Mormon Manuscript
Cornerstone Nauvoo House

The Nauvoo House had a cornerstone at its southeast corner in which the Prophet Joseph Smith placed the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon. Only about 28% of that manuscript survived today due to severe mildew and water damage when the cornerstone was opened in 1879.

CES Letter Core Question

Why don't we have the original signatures from the witnesses?

There is zero evidence for this theory and is a rather straightforward answer to why we don't have the original signatures. The original manuscript to the Book of Mormon was put in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House and most of it rotted away. An estimated 28% still survived -- which includes the signatures of the witnesses. the first pages and the last pages that the insects get and the middle is intact. We don’t have the testimony of the witnesses which was at the end of the Book of Mormon and is at the end of the printer’s manuscript. But we do have the printer’s manuscript where, in Oliver Cowdery’s hand, we have the testimony of the three and the eight. Oliver signed his own testimony in copying the testimony of the three witnesses in the printer’s manuscript.

That said, the CES Letter seems to lightly touch again on this conspiracy theory supposedly involving Oliver Cowdery. Are you implying that Oliver Cowdery created a fake signed testimonial of all of the witnesses? There is absolutely zero evidence of this and evidence to the contrary.

CES Letter Core Question

Are the subsequent statements of Martin Harris notably different than the original statement by the three witnesses?

The CES Letter becomes completely redundant in this section and repeatedly uses the same quotes uses earlier by John A. Clark, John H. Gilbert and Stephen Burnett. See the earlier points on these three men.


CES Letter Core Question

Do the testimonies of the witnesses not matter because there are testimonies of all sorts of false things like UFOs, big foot, etc?

This is faulty reasoning. Under this logic no witnesses can ever be trusted. Why call witnesses in a court case if they can be disregarded because at some point in human history a random person gave a false testimony on a random subject? 

1. Signatures
CES Letter Core Question

We don't have the original signed documents. Are these testimonies just pre-written documents by Joseph Smith with "claims of having been signed" by the witnesses?

In discussing the witnesses, we should not overlook the primary accounts of the events they testified to. The official statements published in the Book of Mormon are not dated, signed (we have no record with their signatures except for Oliver’s), nor is a specific location given for where the events occurred. These are not eleven legally sworn affidavits but rather simple statements pre-written by Joseph Smith with claims of having been signed by three men and another by eight.

CES Letter, p. 101

This is a redundant point. Not being “dated” is irrelevant. We know when the manuscript was produced (1829) and we know when the Book of Mormon was published (1830). We also have repeated affirmations of the testimony. The CES Letter is hung up on a legal document theory that the author mistakenly believes is necessary.

2. Relatives
CES Letter Core Question

Does it discredit the witnesses that all of them, except for Martin Harris, were related by blood or marriage either to the Smiths or Whitmers?

All of the Book of Mormon witnesses, except Martin Harris, were related by blood or marriage either to the Smiths or Whitmers. Oliver Cowdery (married to Elizabeth Ann Whitmer and cousin to Joseph Smith), Hiram Page (married to Catherine Whitmer), and the five Whitmers were all related by marriage. Of course, Hyrum Smith, Samuel Smith, and Joseph Smith Sr. were Joseph’s brothers and father.

Mark Twain made light of this obvious problem:

...I could not feel more satisfied and at rest if the entire Whitmer family had testified.

CES Letter, Page 102

Familial relationships could facilitate collusion in a deception, but they could also play a reverse role, especially as time passes and family members chose different life courses.

Jeff Lindsay provides the following insight on this point:

We find something similar among the Apostles of Christ in the New Testament with sets of brothers. Relatives teaming up is not a valid reason to dismiss their witness. In frontier America, there was little privacy in families and it's natural that multiple people in a family would be involved in major projects and events. Including them as witnesses is natural. They were still independent men who would go off on their own and choose their own paths--all without denying their witness in spite of no financial gain and plenty of risk for staying true to what they said. Whether it was a few lone men or several sets of brothers, their individual and cumulative testimonies count a great deal."

Many of the witnesses were related. Isn't that suspicious?

3. 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.

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

Why was Joseph willing to excommunicate the men who could expose his alleged scam? Joseph was utterly confident that he could excommunicate them because he knew what kind of a witness they had and the penalty from God, which they believed they would receive if they lied. His confidence was not misplaced. This strengthens their witness.

1838 was a very challenging time for Joseph and the saints. One can feel Joseph's frustration after having been locked up in the Missouri jail for nine months. See the full context below:

"Following the sustaining of certain charges against Martin Harris's fellow witnesses to the Book of Mormon, Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, the Far West high council excommunicated both of these brothers on April 12 and 13 1838, respectively, in Caldwell County Missouri.

Martin's previous excommunication in December 1837 now left all three of the special witnesses effectively separated from the body of the Saints who continued to sustain Joseph Smith. Later that same year, between November 12 and 29, the Prophet Joseph and certain others of the Saints were arraigned before a court of inquiry convened at Richmond, Missouri. At the conclusion of this trial, the Prophet was sentenced to confinement at Liberty Jail in clay county, Missouri, where he and other selected defendants arrived on December 1, 1838. After experiencing some two weeks of languishing under intolerable circumstances created by cold, darkness, filthy food, unsanitary conditions, and other evidences of inhumane treatment by their captors, Joseph prepared an early letter on December 16, 1838, addressed "to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Caldwell county, and all the Saints who are scattered abroad, who are persecuted and made desolate, and who are afflicted in divers manners for Christ's sake." His message was one of encouragement and peace in the fact of "cruel mobs," "tyrannical authorities," and "corruption of false brethren." To the persecuted Saints, he promised that "the very God of peace shall be with you, and make a way for your escape from the adversary of your souls." He also took occasion to identify certain of his former brethren whom he cosidered ahd been instrumental in creating many of the difficulties now facing the Latter-day Saints both in Ohio and Missouri. Among those who taught the ire of his scrutiny were "such characters as [William E.] McClellin, John Whitmer, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Marting Harris," whom he labeled "too mean to mention; and we had liked to have forgotten them."

Martin Harris Uncompromising Witness of the Book of Mormon, p. 312-13

Sidney Rigdon's Statement on Cowdery & Whitmer

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.

4. Prophetic Influence
CES Letter Core Question

Did Joseph get the magical thinking treasure digging family member witnesses to believe by "influencing or manipulating their experiences"?

As mentioned in the above “Polygamy | Polyandry” section, Joseph was able to influence and convince many of the 31 witnesses to lie and perjure in a sworn affidavit that Joseph was not a polygamist. (already addressed this misleading statement in the polygamy section) Is it outside the realm of possibility that Joseph was also able to influence or manipulate the experiences of his own magical thinking, treasure digging family and friends as witnesses? Biased Mormon men who already believed in second sight and who already believed that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God?

CES Letter, p. 102

It is remarkably inaccurate to mention "31 witnesses to lie and perjure" themselves. They were not "witnesses." Only a few of the 31 likely even knew of celestial marriage on the day they signed the document. Only two had entered into it. The CES Letter's accusation that Joseph could influence and convince a large group of people is not proven and is based upon an assumption. Joseph's involvement with the creation of the document, if any, is unknown.

5. Duped
CES Letter Core Question

How is having gullible men like Martin Harris handling the covered plates going to prove anything?

If the Prophet Joseph Smith could get duped with the Kinderhook Plates, thinking that the 19th century fake plates were a legitimate record of a “descendent of Ham,” (Do we have a Book of Kinderhook? Addressed elsewhere) how is having gullible men like Martin Harris (addressed earlier) handling the covered plates (Stephen Burnett account addressed above) going to prove anything?

CES Letter, p. 102

The CES Letter is repeating charges already discussed. Can one find the Book of Kinderhook in our standard works? This is addressed elsewhere. Martin's handling of the plates and skepticism was already addressed.

6. Strang Witnesses
CES Letter Core Question

Are Strang's witnesses more impressive than the Book of Mormon Witnesses?

James Strang’s claims and Voree Plates Witnesses are distinctive and more impressive compared to the Book of Mormon Witnesses:

  • All of Strang’s witnesses were not related to one another through blood or marriage like the Book of Mormon Witnesses were.
  • Some of the witnesses were not members of Strang’s church.
  • The Voree Plates were displayed in a museum for both members and non-members to view and examine.
  • Strang provided 4 witnesses who testified that on his instructions, they actually dug the plates up for Strang while he waited for them to do so. They confirmed that the ground looked previously undisturbed.

CES Letter, p. 103

Claiming Strang's witnesses are more "impressive" is a highly subjective interpretation. I find it less impressive that several of his witnesses denied their testimonies. Multiple references to Strang's witnesses in The CES Letter's cannot create a valid parallel. Numerous significant differences are demonstrated.

7. Shakers
Shakers Dancing
CES Letter Core Question

The Shakers had over sixty witnesses of their Living Roll book. Why not trust them?

The comparison between the Shaker witnesses and the Book of Mormon witnesses doesn't hold up. The Book of Mormon witnesses are some of the most well documented witnesses available. There are over 200 recorded testimonies of the three witnesses alone that are all remarkably similar with the exception of a few antagonistic exceptions.

Unlike the Book of Mormon witnesses, little is known of these Shaker witnesses except that the Shakers quickly fell out of love with the Holy Sacred Roll after it was published in 1843.  It 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.' (Stein, p. 375)

Philemon Stewart, the primary instrument who received the revelation, fell from favor among the Shaker leadership. The central ministry admonished him to "cease writing anything more to them in the line of revelation." (Stein, p. 373)

The testimonies of the Book of Mormon witnesses and Philemon Stewart's witnesses vary significantly. The Book of Mormon witnesses testify of an event in the woods where the eight witnesses "hefted" the plates and the three witnesses experience included a vision of an angel. The Shaker testimonies, on the other-hand, contain numerous messages from the dead. Today this means of communication would be a 'medium.'  These communications included messages from Ann Lee and numerous Biblical prophets, Noah, Ezekiel, and others. 

The Shaker headquarters in New Lebanon, NY was over 1,000 miles from Nauvoo in 1843 and the faiths couldn't have more different trajectories. Philemon Stewart published the Sacred and Holy Roll at the height of the Era of Manifestations -- a time in which members across the Shaker community experienced diverse spiritual gifts, visions, revelations, communications with the dead.  One can read about the era and writings to form their own opinion. Stein describes the time,

"Astonishment and excitement filled the Shaker dwellings when instruments told of spirit journeys to the invisible world where they witnessed scenes of celestial glory as well as places of eternal torment. They reported conversations with Ann Lee,the founder of Shakerism, and with other early leaders and former Believers... The manifestations became more and more elaborate.  Some of the trances went on for hours... innovations involved ecstatic possession as the instruments spun, or stooped, or rolled on the floor. Many required that the Shaker brothers and sisters act out in mime the activities commanded by the spirits—eating, drinking (sometimes to excess or to the point of drunkenness), fighting, sweeping, washing, planting, harvesting. Each of these actions potentially possessed spiritual meaning for the Believers as they followed directions delivered through the instruments.'"

Inspiration, Revelation, and Scripture: The Story of a Shaker Bible, Stephen J. Stein