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Witnesses to Book of Mormon Examined  




Joseph Smith (1805-1844), the Mormon founder, claimed to have had golden plates given to him by an angel. To back up this extraordinary claim, he had to have witnesses to silence people who thought that the plates never existed. He chose three witnesses, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris who said they saw the plates as an angel turned the leaves for them to have a look. They testified also that Smith's miraculous translation of the plates was correct. Then he chose eight witnesses who said that they saw the plates close up. This testimony led to the foundation of the Church of Christ which later became the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The translation is called the Book of Mormon.


The circumstances of their seeing the plates are unclear. The witnesses are not as good as made out. Harris was religiously unreliable and tended to be too imaginative. Oliver Cowdery lied in 1835 that Smith was acquitted of money digging fraud when the truth was Smith was found guilty.




The Mormon Church tries to prove on psychological grounds that the witnesses to the Book of Mormon must have been telling the truth. It does this by eliminating the lust for money, the fear of notoriety, the fear of the loss of power, the fear of embarrassment as motives for the witnesses not retracting their testimony. Christians perform the same conjuring trick with the facts in relation to showing the apostles really believed Jesus rose from the dead. The truth of the matter is that religion thrives on pipe-dreams. Humanism shows that we all believe many things just because we want them to be true. Another disability regarding psychological proofs is that they can be used to prove the story of anybody who claims to have had supernatural experiences and every religion has its mystics who contradict the mystics of every other cult. The Book of Mormon gives the most explicit approval for the doctrine of eternal damnation for unforgiven sinners which begins at death that was ever in a Christian book. It threatens anybody who rejects it as the word of God with this everlasting punishing (Mormon 8:17/3 Nephi 29). It says that anybody who believes in Christ and is open to the Holy Spirit will see that the Book is from God. It says that anybody who believes the Bible will believe the Book of Mormon (Mormon 7:9). There was great pressure put by the book itself on the witnesses to make themselves see visions of the plates and the angel saying the book was true.


The Mormon Church rejects the testimony of Harris seeing only with his spiritual eyes as irrelevant for it says he could have seen real plates in a vision. It is adamant that spiritual vision does not add up to seeing just in the imagination. They cite the episode when Harris was accused of having imagined the vision and when he said he saw the plates as sure as others could see his own hand. But all visionaries say what they have seen is as real as anything of this world.


David Whitmer explicitly told Zenos Gurley Junior that the witnesses of the Book of Mormon plates did not touch “the real metal.” The plates however seem to have been handled in a vision. Whitmer said that no man could see an angel except in the spiritual state and that was the kind of vision he had when he saw the angel with the plates. He said the vision was seen in the body too. Whitmer was lying for he knew from his Bible that when Abraham had a vision of three angels the angels looked so normal that he thought they were just men. Whitmer would have followed the thinking of the times that when Jesus appeared after his resurrection nobody needed to be in a spiritual state to see him. What else did he lie about when he lied about the reason for seeing the plates in the vision when there was no need to see them that way?


The Book of Mormon itself justifies a low standard for judging that a vision is from God when it says that Lehi had a dream and accepts that that dream was a revelation (1 Nephi 8:2). When it does that how can you expect the witnesses not to believe that imagination and dreams about gold plates are real?




Brigham Young admitted in his Journal of Discourses, Vol 7, page 164, that some of the Book of Mormon witnesses doubted that they had seen the angel though they had handled the plates and talked with a few angels. This would mean two of the three first and main witnesses. The three witnesses alone were the important ones for only they claimed that the translation was correct and divinely inspired. The others only seen plates. Why should we believe the three when there have been times that more reliable people have reported visions and were not accused of being mean scoundrels by their own Church like the three were? The Catholic Church has had many visionaries with better credentials. Also, the Book of Mormon says that three witnesses are enough. Why then are three witnesses not enough when there are a number of visionaries of the plates and at least three of them doubt their experience and think it was not real?


Incredibly the Mormon Church uses the following answer to avoid the implications of what Brigham wrote. “Immediately after writing that some of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon who hefted the gold plates and spoke to an angel and doubted Brigham referred to the case of a young man in the quorum of the Twelve who had the same experience and apostatised afterwards like many others. Brigham did not accuse the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon or the eight other ones of doubting afterwards. He meant the other unofficial witnesses.”


But in fact when he wrote of the first group of witnesses doubting he did not say if they were the official ones whose witness appears in the Book of Mormon or not. This implies that they were for he would have been clear in case he would weaken their testimony. Weakening the testimony of these witnesses was not a big deal and especially when the people knew of people who had fallen away. We know he meant the official witnesses for he next mentions the young man of the Twelve Quorum and others like him thus demarking them from the witnesses that went before in his text. Another reason the Mormon Church puts forward for saying that Brigham did not mean the official witnesses was that there is no evidence that any of them doubted. But they would have been careful who they told their doubts to and perhaps Brigham knew they doubted. Some of them had other supernatural experiences that they doubted so why not their experiences with Smith? For example, Hiram Page doubted his visions for they were not in accord with Smith’s. There is psychological evidence that they had to have doubted.


What the Mormon Church likes to forget is that if hundreds who had visions of the plates doubted afterwards, they are giving testimony to the doubtfulness of their claim or visions. Their testimony is as good as that of the original eleven official witnesses. Brigham accepts the visions as all being real. But if they doubted that is evidence that they believed they had reason to doubt and that those who remained faithful were too blind to see they should doubt. The point is, there is no logic in saying the eleven witnesses must be reliable when they did not doubt when there are other witnesses who did doubt for that is no better than the eleven doubting. The fact that many Mormons can and do claim visions of the plates need not disturb us for the Shakers and other sects have reported visions that verify some alleged new scripture. The Hindu mystics regularly have visions of their guru appearing to them as a god.




“…when I came to hear Martin Harris state in public that he never saw the plates with his natural eyes only in vision or imagination, neither Oliver nor David & also that the eight witnesses never saw them & hesitated to sign that instrument for that reason, but were persuaded to do it, the last pedestal gave way, in my view our foundation 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 it had not been picked out of—–—[him/me?] but should have let it passed as it was…”



– Letter from Stephen Burnett to “Br. Johnson,” April 15, 1838, in Joseph Smith Letter Book, p. 2




Anson feels that Smith did not want his claims to be convincing for he went an odd way about getting witness testimony. I think that Smith had to make do with what he got.


One problem is that he was unable to provide people he had no close relationship with.


There were no sceptics who converted as a result of seeing the plates or any visions. 


Martin Harris had a financial reason for wanting others to believe in the Book of Mormon as he funded it at huge cost.


None of them wrote their own testimony.


None of them go into detail or seem enthusiastic about what happened.


Nobody checked their stories to see if they matched.


The witnesses were credulous - they already believed much superstitious rubbish such as using divination to locate lost treasure.


The main three witnesses some years later left Smith for a seeress who said a stone showed her the future (Lucy Smith: Biographical Sketches, pp. 211-213).


Hypnosis covers causing a person to FEEL that something has happened even if they have no clear memory of it. The feeling creates the "memories". 


“An individual’s ability to experience suggested alterations in physiology, sensations, emotions, thoughts, or behavior during hypnosis” (American Psychological Association, 2014) is how to sum up what is meant by hypnotic suggestibility. Smith hypnotised them or manipulated them to hypnotise themselves.





The three and the eight witnesses to the Book of Mormon give us no confidence as to the existence of the golden plates or the truth of the Book of Mormon.

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