CES Reply: Strangites

Continuing my reply to Jeremy Runnell’s “Letter to a CES Director,” with Jeremy’s original words in green:

1.  James Strang and the Voree Plates Witnesses:


This should be good for a laugh.

James Strang and his claims are absolutely fascinating.

If you’re fascinated by pale imitations and weak retreads.

He was basically Joseph Smith 2.0 – but with a twist.

And the twist is – Strang’s church went nowhere and now has less than 300 followers.

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.”

And unlike Joseph, Strang had no other witnesses to this angel or to any of his revelations.

  • Received the “Urim and Thummim.”

And unlike Joseph, nobody else ever saw his Urim and/or Thummim.

  • Produced 11 witnesses who testified that they too had seen and inspected ancient metal plates.

And unlike Joseph, there was nothing remotely supernatural about the experience. 11 people watched Strang dig up eighteen paper-sized plates that had likely been buried there by Strang the night before.

  • 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.”

And unlike Joseph, who translated a 265,000-word, complex, internally consistent 1,000-year history in sixty days despite being functionally illiterate, the well-educated Strang took a decade to produce a book about a fifth as long with no coherent narrative.

– Established a new Church:   The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite).   Its headquarters is still in Voree, Wisconsin.

And unlike Joseph, Strang’s church dwindled to the point where it had “had around three hundred members in 1998.”

  • Like the Book of Mormon, the Book of the Law of the Lord has the testimony of its Witnesses in its preface:


Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, to whom this Book of the Law of the Lord shall come, that James J. Strang has the plates of the ancient Book of the Law of the Lord given to Moses, from which he translated this law, and has shown them to us. We examined them with our eyes, and handled them with our hands. The engravings are beautiful antique workmanship, bearing a striking resemblance to the ancient oriental languages; and those from which the laws in this book were translated are eighteen in number, about seven inches and  three-eights wide, by nine inches long, occasionally embellished with beautiful pictures.

And we testify unto you all that the everlasting kingdom of God is established, in which this law shall be kept, till it brings in rest and everlasting righteousness to all the faithful.


And unlike Joseph, none of these witnesses report any supernatural or even spiritual experience or event. These plates were on public display until the turn of the century – plenty of other people saw them, too. They were not in any identifiable language, and they rival the Kinderhook plates for evidence of authenticity, or lack thereof.

In addition to the above 7 witnesses, there were 4 witnesses who went with Strang as they unearthed the Voree Plates:


1. On the thirteenth day of September, 1845, we, Aaron Smith, Jirah B. Wheelan, James M. Van Nostrand, and Edward Whitcomb, assembled at the call of James J. Strang, who is by us and many others approved as a Prophet and Seer of God. He proceeded to inform us that it had been revealed to him in a vision that an account of an ancient people was buried in a hill south of White River bridge, near the east line of Walworth County; and leading us to an oak tree about one foot in diameter, told us that we would find it enclosed in a case of rude earthen ware under that tree at  the depth of about three feet; requested us to dig it up, and charged us to so  examine the ground that we should know we were not imposed upon, and that it   had not been buried there since the tree grew. The tree was surrounded by a sward of deeply rooted grass, such as is usually found in the openings, and upon the most critical examination we could not discover any indication that it had ever been cut through or disturbed.

2. We then dug up the tree, and continued to dig to the depth of about three feet, where we found a case of slightly baked clay containing three plates of brass. On one side of one is a landscape view of the south end of Gardner’s prairie and the range of hills where they were dug. On another is a man with a crown on his head and a scepter in his hand, above is an eye before an upright line, below the sun and moon surrounded with twelve stars, at the bottom are twelve large stars from three of which pillars arise, and closely interspersed with them are seventy very small stars. The other four sides are very closely covered with what appear to be alphabetic characters, but in a language of which we have no knowledge.

3. The case was found imbedded in indurated clay so closely fitting it that it broke in taking out, and the earth below the soil was so hard as to be dug with difficulty even with a pickax. Over the case was found a flat stone about one foot wide each way and three inches thick, which appeared to have undergone the action of fire, and fell in pieces after a few minutes exposure to the air. The digging extended in the clay about eighteen inches, there being two kinds of earth of different color and appearance  above  it.

4. We examined as we dug all the way with the utmost care, and we say, with utmost confidence, that no part of the earth through which we dug exhibited any sign or indication that it had been moved or disturbed at any time previous. The roots of the tree stuck down on every side very closely, extending below the case, and closely interwoven with roots from other trees. None of them had been broken or cut away. No clay is found in the country like that of which the case is made.

 5. In fine, we found an alphabetic and pictorial record, carefully cased up, buried deep in the earth, covered with a flat stone, with an oak tree one foot in diameter growing over it, with every evidence that the sense can give that it has lain there as long as that tree has been growing. Strang took no part in the digging, but kept entirely away from before the first blow was struck till after the plates were taken out of the case; and the sole inducement to our digging was our faith in his statement as a Prophet of the Lord that a record would thus and there be found.


And, again, unlike Joseph, there’s nothing supernatural or even spiritual in this testimony. There’s also absolutely no reason to doubt it or renounce it. I’m pretty sure these guys actually did dig up the plates Strang had buried the night before.


And there they are. Very cool. Now you’re a witness, too!

Like Joseph, Strang had a scribe (Samuel Graham) who wrote as Strang translated.

And unlike Joseph, Strang, who was well-educated, didn’t actually need one. His use of a scribe was just one more way to imitate Joseph.

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.

I added some emphasis there to highlight your hypocrisy on this point. Because every piece of hearsay that could possibly prove embarrassing to Martin Harris is cited by you as unimpeachable gospel even if it comes from conversations that took place decades after the fact and after Harris was dead, but the contemporaneous hearsay that had two of the witnesses denouncing Strang as a fraud and one of them admitting he helped Strang forge the plates is only indirect evidence, so you can conveniently ignore it.

The hearsay in question, as quoted by from the infallible Wikipedia:

Some have insisted that the Voree plates were forged by Strang. Isaac Scott, an ex-Strangite, claimed that Caleb Barnes, Strang’s former law partner, said that he and Strang had fabricated them from a tea kettle belonging to Strang’s father-in-law, as part of a land speculation scheme they had hatched.[13]

According to Scott, Barnes and Strang “made the ‘plates’ out of Ben [Perce]’s old kettle and engraved them with an old saw file, and … when completed they put acid on them to corrode them and give them an ancient appearance; and that to deposit them under the tree, where they were found, they took a large auger … which Ben [Perce] owned, put a fork handle on the auger and with it bored a long slanting hole under a tree on ‘The Hill of Promise,’ as they called it, laying the earth in a trail on a cloth as taken out, then put the ‘plates’ in, tamping in all the earth again, leaving no trace of their work visible.”[13]

You have to be consistent. If you believe the hearsay that says Martin Harris talked to a deer he thought was Jesus, you also have to believe the hearsay that said the witnesses helped forge these bogus plates.

As for denying this testimony, what’s to deny? They dug up the homemade plates that Strang had buried the night before. I have no reason to doubt it, because it’s a mundane, everyday sort of event. Similarly, when I was twelve years old, someone put a dead fish in my tent at Boy Scout camp. I’ve never denied my testimony of that event, and I never will.

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.

Which is very peculiar if they actually knew Joseph Smith was fraud. Why seek out a successor to a bogus prophet after the bogus prophet dies? Their interest in perpetuating the cause of the Book of Mormon demonstrates that their belief in it was wholly sincere.

Also, it’s not true. Only two of the Eight Witnesses followed Strang – Hiram Page and John Whitmer. In any case, they were all quickly disillusioned and abandoned Strang completely.

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.”

And then walked away after they realized he wasn’t what he claimed to be.

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?

It says they still believed in Joseph’s prophetic mission and the veracity of the Book of Mormon and were eager to find the appropriate spiritual home for their testimony, and that, after making the mistake of thinking that Strang could provide that home, quickly corrected course.

Tomorrow: Where are the signatures?


CES Reply: Three Witnesses – Whitmer & Cowdery

David Whitmer:

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. – An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, p.179

I can find no 1829 version of this story. Dan Vogel reports that Whitmer told this story “with varying detail” beginning in 1877, almost 50 years after the fact. So many of the statements you rely on to discredit David Whitmer come from a time when he was severely disaffected with Joseph, and that disaffection coupled with advanced age makes it difficult to sort out what’s reliable and what’s not.

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. – Interview with John Murphy, June 1880, EMD 5:63

Nice try. Whitmer himself quickly issued a statement to directly refute this account of the story immediately after it was published.

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, EMD 5:141

Well, good for Moyle. Sounds like it’s more Moyle’s problem than Whitmer’s. In multiple interviews, Whitmer repeatedly made it clear that this was far more than just a spiritual impression. Orson Pratt recounts an interview with Whitmer where he specified all the things he saw “just as plain as I see this bed (striking his hand upon the bed beside him).” Moyle himself describes later conversations with Whitmer that provide a distinct physical context for the angels’ appearance:

“He said that they (Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and Martin Harris) were out in the primitive woods in Western New York; that there was nothing between them and the Angel except a log that had fallen in the forest; that it was broad daylight with nothing to prevent either hearing or seeing all that took place…he did see and hear the Angel and heard the declaration that the plates had been correctly translated; that there was absolutely nothing to prevent his having a full, clear view of it all. I remember very distinctly asking him if there was anything unnatural or unusual about the surroundings or the atmosphere. He answered that question. I do not remember exactly the words he used, but he indicated that there was something of a haze or peculiarity about the atmosphere that surrounded them but nothing that would prevent his having a clear vision and knowledge of all that took place. He declared to me that the testimony which he published to the world was true and that he had never denied any part of it.” (James Henry Moyle, statement, 13 September 1938; in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:146-147.)

The idea seems to be that Moyle wanted some kind of concrete description of the “haze or peculiarity” and was unsatisfied when Whitmer couldn’t directly explain the spiritual element of the vision in more mundane, down-to-earth terms. Both Moyle and Whitmer would be surprised to see this exchange used to support a contention that Whitmer didn’t actually see the plates or the angel.

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.’”

– David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ (promoting his Whitmerite sect)

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?

In June, 1838, David Whitmer had already been excommunicated from the Church for two months. The voice from God, therefore, wasn’t telling him to “apostatize from the Lord’s one and only true Church,” as he was already in a state of apostasy when the voice from heaven reportedly spoke to him. Apostasy tends to warp one’s spiritual perceptions and access to heaven.

Oliver Cowdery:

Like Joseph and most of the Book of Mormon witnesses, Oliver Cowdery and his family were treasure hunters. 

What does that mean? Were they riding around on Captain Kidd’s pirate ship? By profession, Joseph Smith and his family were farmers, and Oliver Cowdery was a schoolteacher. There is no record of Oliver Cowdery engaging in treasure hunting, either professionally or as an amateur treasure hunting hobbyist.

Oliver’s preferred tool of trade, as mentioned above, was the divining rod.

And there is no record of what he did with that divining rod. Most people who used such rods used them to try to find water to dig wells, not find buried treasure.

He was known as a “rodsman.”

He was? You put the word in quotes – can you therefore give me a contemporary firsthand source that labeled him as such? Because he was actually known as a “schoolteacher.” And, later, a “lawyer.” Although “lawyer” is arguably a far more pejorative term than “rodsman.”

Along with the witnesses, Oliver held a magical mindset.

Meaning what? You offer this arbitrary label as if it’s self-explanatory and it somehow disqualifies Oliver from being a serious person. Oliver was quite accomplished, both in and out of the Church, and he was also highly respected, both in and out of the Church, and his career demonstrates that he was a rather practical man, not some wannabe wizard, as you seem to be implying.

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, there was a serious conflict of interest in Oliver being a witness.

Conflict of interest? As a scribe who experienced the translation process firsthand, he was already a witness by default. This is like saying Joseph had a “conflict of interest” by testifying of what he knew, which is sort of ridiculous. Oliver and Joseph were both interested in the Book of Mormon – what’s the interest that conflicts with that?

“Conflict of interest” is a term used to describe people who, say, stand to gain private financial rewards for their action in official public capacities, or lawyers who represent or influence clients on opposite sides of a dispute. Oliver had no official capacity as an elected official or lawyer that would conflict with his being a witness, so you’re misapplying the term here.  To paraphrase Inigo Montoya, you keep using that phrase, but I do not think it means what you think it means.

You also seem to define “objective and independent” as “someone who thinks Joseph Smith was a fraud.”

4. Second Sight:

People believed they could see things as a vision in their mind.  They called it “second sight.” 

Which people?

We call it “imagination.” 

We do? Are you including me in this?

It made no difference to these people if they saw with their natural eyes or their spiritual eyes as they both were one and the same.

So, in other words, some people, presumably 19th Century people based on your context, couldn’t distinguish between reality and imagination, the way we can. Quite a nice little straw man you’ve built there. Really helps with the condescension process.

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.”

“The veil was taken from our minds, and the eyes of our understanding were opened. We saw the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit, before us; and under his feet was a paved work of pure gold, in color like amber.”

That’s the verse you link to to show that the phrase “the eyes of our understanding” has reference to visions of “buried treasure deep in the ground?” They’re talking about something happening right in front of them (“[he was] standing upon the breastwork of the [Kirtland Temple] pulpit, before us”) not underground treasure miles away.

There is absolutely no support in the actual text of D&C 110 for your bizarre interpretation of this phrase.

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:

“While praying I passed into a state of entrancement, and in that state I saw the angel and the plates.” – EMD 2:346-47

“I never saw the gold plates, only in a visionary or entranced state.” – EMD 2:346-47

They wouldn’t. Those two statements are part of a single quote attributed to Martin Harris after his death by Anthony Metcalf, who referred to Joseph Smith as a “pretend prophet” and was trying to discredit the Church. They contradict everything Martin Harris had to say firsthand about the experience, and it is extraordinarily unlikely that Harris would suddenly change his story so radically when being interviewed by an antagonistic critic.

Martin Harris, in the last years of his life, had this to say:

“The Prophet Joseph Smith, and Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer and myself, went into a little grove to pray to obtain a promise that we should behold it with our eyes natural eyes, that we could testify of it to the world” (EMD 2:375). [Emphasis added, strikethrough in original.] Deliberate use of the phrase “natural eyes” is in direct contradiction to your straw-man premise of “second sight” or “eyes of our understanding.”

Or how about this one:

“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.” (Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981), 116)

Why do you ignore everything Martin Harris actually said and instead take the word of a hostile critic citing posthumous hearsay at face value?

“He only saw the plates with a spiritual eye” – Joseph Smith Begins His Work, Vol. 1, 1958

More posthumous hearsay from a hostile critic of the Church written in 1892, seventeen years after Martin’s death and at least sixty years after this likely-bogus confession allegedly took place.

“As shown in the vision” – Zenas H. Gurley, Jr., Interview with David Whitmer on January 14, 1885

You’re splitting hairs here. Describing a visit from an angel as a “vision” does not preclude that it was a literal experience. We refer to Joseph Smith’s “First Vision,” but we do not deny that the Father and the Son were physically present for the experience with that description.

“Never saw the plates with his natural eyes but only in vision or imagination”

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

Another hearsay statement from a bitter ex-Mormon. He claims Martin and the other witnesses admitted this in public, which is extraordinarily curious, as such a damning admission would no doubt have prompted a wave of apostasy and a great deal of consternation that would surely have made its way into someone else’s journal. As it stands, without any shred of corroborating evidence that Martin made such a public statement, there’s every reason to believe that Burnett is making this up.

“They were shown to me by a supernatural power”

History of the Church Vol. 3, Ch. 21, p. 307-308

Yes. An angel.

Also, your link here is broken. I don’t know who supposedly said this or if the statement is reliable.

“…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

Oh, so you do have a second witness about Martin Harris’s daring public admission of fraud.

No, wait – this is exactly the same unreliable guy you quoted two sentences earlier. In fact, this is exactly the same quote. Is your case so flimsy that you have to dress up the same quote twice to give the illusion that Martin had more detractors than he actually had?

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 and ‘seeing with the spiritual eye,’ and the like.” – Mormonism: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress, p.71

And you did it again! This is just another excerpt from John Gilbert’s hostile 1892, 17-years-after-Martins-death, over-six-decades-after-the-conversation-took-place account that you quoted five quotes earlier. Why only quote the same statement from Gilbert twice? Why not break this into three quotes to give an even greater illusion of credibility?

Two other Palmyra residents said that Harris told them that he had seen the plates with “the eye of faith” or “spiritual eyes” – EMD 2:270 and 3:22

The first comes from John A. Clark, the same guy who made up the stuff about Martin talking to Jesus as a deer. Clark’s claim to fame is his lengthy treatise “proving” that the Book of Mormon was lifted from the Spaulding manuscript, a theory which has since been thoroughly debunked and has been rejected by critics as well as supporters, except for a handful of people like Vernal Holley, who provided your bogus Book of Mormon geography maps. The second comes from a Presbyterian pastor who was hostile to the Church, and it comes with an admission that it is hearsay that came to him by way of gossip – the pastor never heard Martin say “spiritual eyes,” as Martin had left Palmyra before any such supposed confession took place.

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.” – EMD 2:548

And there it is! Ladies and gentlemen, we have a John Gilbert trifecta! You quote the same guy three times from the same document as if you have amassed three separate statements against Martin Harris’s testimony! In other words, you say we ought to reject Martin Harris based on the statements of five different witnesses: Stephen Burnett, Stephen Burnett, John Gilbert, John Gilbert, and John Gilbert.

Honestly, Jeremy, this is extraordinarily sloppy and misleading “scholarship” on your part.

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”?   What does that even mean?  

It means Stephen Burnett made it up.

I’ve never seen a city through a mountain. Have you?

No, but I’ve seen you pretend that one guy is actually three different guys.

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

There are at least three fewer bizarre statements than you claim there to be, and the three that remain are demonstrably fraudulent and contradict the over 60 firsthand statements from the actual witnesses themselves that you choose to ignore.

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?

You wouldn’t. That’s why the Eight Witnesses describe the utterly mundane experience of having “seen and hefted” the plates, minus any supernatural power. The testimony of the Three Witnesses, however, includes more than just a physical interaction with sheets of metal – it includes a visit from an angel, which is a supernatural experience by definition.

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.”

Origin and History of the Mormonites, p. 406

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

Because this whole conversation never took place. This is John Clark that you’re re-quoting, the discredited Spaulding guy. So now we’re up to seven distinct witnesses against Martin – Stephen Burnett, Stephen Burnett, John Gilbert, John Gilbert, John Gilbert, John A. Clark, and John A. Clark. All three of the seven are bogus.

Many of the 11 Witnesses may have had the same last name, but at least none of them were the same person.

Tomorrow: Strangites!

CES Reply: The Three Witnesses – Martin Harris

Picking up where I left off with my reply to Jeremy Runnell’s “Letter to a CES Director,” with Jeremy’s original words in green:

3. Witnesses:

We are told that the witnesses never disavowed their testimonies,

Which is both true and not unimportant. At different points in their lives, all of the Three Witnesses were bitterly opposed to Joseph Smith and could have profited greatly from exposing him as a fraud. They never did, even at great personal cost to their own reputations. David Whitmer never came back and had plenty of nasty things to say about Joseph, yet he never once denied his testimony and reaffirmed it on his deathbed.

but we have not come to know these men or investigated what else they said about their experiences.

We haven’t? Who’s “we?” People in and out of the Church have scrutinized the Three and Eight Witnesses for the better part of two centuries. Maybe you hadn’t, but don’t drag “we” into this.

They are 11 individuals: 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.

No, what drew most of them together was that they were related to each other. You keep citing people believing in harmless superstitions as some kind of indictment, but it certainly wouldn’t have been seen as such in the early 19th Century, nor was it, as you falsely imply, the defining characteristic of these people’s lives.

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

  • Martin Harris:

Martin Harris was anything but a skeptical witness. 

Martin Harris was a remarkably skeptical witness. He swapped out Joseph’s seer stone with another one to test its veracity. The reason we don’t have the lost 116 pages is that he begged Joseph to have something tangible to satisfy his wife’s skepticism. He undertook an expensive journey to New York to have an academic – Charles Anthon, to be precise – verify the particulars of the translated characters. The record shows that he was constantly looking for external validation of Joseph’s claims, which is what skeptical witnesses do.

He was known by many of his peers as an unstable, gullible, and superstitious man.

That reputation befell him largely as a result of his belief in Mormonism. Prior to his acceptance of a religion his neighbors despised, he was a well-respected and wealthy landowner with a stellar reputation. Even after the Mormons got him, a virulent anti-Mormon critic conceded that “only his [belief in Mormonism] was Martin deemed insane; on other subjects he exhibited all of his former clearness of brain; he could drive a good bargain, and manage his farming matters as well as ever.” Another non-Mormon contemporary of Martin reported that “There can’t anybody say a word against Martin Harris. Martin was a good citizen . . . a man that would do just as he agreed with you.” None of that jibes with a reputation for instability or gullibility.

As for superstition, the 19th Century standard is quite different from today’s standard, and anyone willing to hang out with the Mormons probably got tarred with that particular brush. Even after he cast his lot with the Mormons, he had a reputation for honesty. As one critic wrote, “How to reconcile the act of Harris in signing his name to such a statement [i.e. the Testimony of the Three Witnesses], in view of the character of honesty which had always been conceded to him, could never easily be explained.” That comes from our old friend Pomeroy Tucker, who was certainly no fan of Harris or the Church.

In any case, this is all ad hominem nonsense. If it was a fraud, Martin, no matter how unstable, gullible, or superstitious he was, he had plenty of opportunity and motive to come clean. In fact, if he truly was gullible and unstable, it’s likely that he would have cracked under pressure, and there was plenty of pressure on him to expose Joseph as a fraud.

Reports assert that he and the other witnesses never literally saw the gold plates, but only an object said to be the plates, covered with a cloth.

Which reports? Because I think there’s a big issue of the report published at the beginning of every edition of the Book of Mormon – i.e. the Testimony of the Three Witnesses, of which Harris was one, and its firsthand account directly contradicts such reports in every respect.

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.

He lost that farm, too, as I recall. When he was excommunicated and disaffected with Joseph Smith, his financial losses would have given him extra incentive to deny his testimony. Why didn’t he?

The following are some accounts that show the superstitious side of Martin Harris:

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

– BYU professor Ronald W. Walker, “Martin Harris: Mormonism’s Early Convert,” p.34-35 [I added some emphasis there for you.]

Please quote the next sentence of Professor Walker’s paragraph. “But such talk came easy. His exaggerated sense of the supernatural naturally produced caricature and tall and sometimes false tales.” [Emphasis added.]

So much of this information comes from people eager to discredit Martin that it’s impossible to sort out what’s true and what’s nonsense. If the best indictment you can come up with is that once got weirded out by a sputtering candle and he had a bad dream about a dog, I don’t think you’re making a compelling case that the guy was a loon. I do think he was probably more superstitious than most 21st Century folks, but as we’ve observed with Joseph and Oliver, that kind of world view actually opened his mind to the possibilities of revelation, so it wasn’t necessarily a negative.

“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.”
– John A. Clark letter, August 31, 1840 in Early Mormon Documents 2:271

This can also be found in John A. Clark’s book “Gleanings by the Way,” page 258, a book dedicated to exposing the “Mormon delusion” by highlighting the thoroughly debunked and discredited theory that the Book of Mormon was copied from Solomon Spaulding’s lost manuscript. (Everyone now knows it was copied from View of the Hebrews, the Late War Between the United States and Great Britain, and the First Book of Napolean, with sprinkles of Captain Kidd, obscure African maps, and names from a 2,000 square mile radius on local maps.)

Clark never met Martin Harris, and there is every reason to believe this second-hand hearsay story is a complete fabrication.

“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.’”

– Early Mormon Documents 2:271, note 32.

Another unreliable John Clark hearsay fable. Next.

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

False. Your link takes us to the Wikipedia article about Martin Harris, which sources this bogus assertion by referencing the Dialogue Article “Martin Harris, Mormonism’s Early Convert,” pp. 30-33. You can read the actual article online. Nowhere in pages 30-33 of this article – or anywhere else in the article, for that matter – does Ronald Walker make this claim. Richard L. Anderson, however, has this to say about the subject.

“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 as 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. (Anderson 1981, 168-169)

After Joseph’s death, Harris continued this earlier pattern by joining and leaving 5 more different sects, including James Strang (whom Harris went on a mission to England for), other Mormon offshoots, and the Shakers. 

The Strangs actually pulled Martin out of the Strangite mission field, because his only interest was in the Book of Mormon, not Strang. As soon as he was yanked off of Strangite missionary duty, Harris abandoned and repudiated the Strangites. His repeated affiliations with splinter groups demonstrates an eagerness to cling to the testimony of the Book of Mormon, which never wavered. Since he refused to accept plural marriage and the authority of the mainstream Church, he was clearly seeking some way to stay true to his testimony when he could not stay true to Joseph. His flirtation with the Shakers didn’t last long, and he eventually found his way back to full fellowship with the Saints, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Again, all of this is ad hominem hooey that doesn’t erase Martin Harris’s consistent and credible witness for the Book of Mormon.

Not only did Harris join other religions, he testified and witnessed for them.

No, he testified and witnessed for the Book of Mormon, using splinter groups as the vehicle to do so. The splinter groups grew impatient with the fact that this was the only thing Harris really wanted to discuss, which is why he fell out with them so quickly.

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).

The Braden and Kelley debate took place thirteen years after Martin Harris’s death, and this is the first time anyone made such a charge. The person making the charge had never met Harris and had no way to substantiate this allegation, and, furthermore, neither do you.

In addition to devotion to self-proclaimed prophet James Strang, Martin Harris was a follower to another self-proclaimed Mormon prophet by the name of Gladden Bishop.  Like Strang, Bishop claimed to have plates, Urim and Thummim, and that he was receiving revelation from the Lord.  Martin was one of Gladden Bishop’s witnesses to his claims.

A gross exaggeration. Martin never gave any witness that Gladden Bishop actually had any plates or a Urim and Thummim or anything else. His testimony in this splinter group, as in all the splinter groups he joined, was focused on the Book of Mormon and his original witness.

If someone testified of some strange spiritual encounter he had, but he also told you that  he…

conversed with Jesus who took the form of a deer

As noted above, it’s highly unlikely Martin ever said this.

saw the devil with his four feet and donkey head

Martin almost certainly didn’t say this, either.

chipped off a chunk of a stone box that would mysteriously move beneath the ground to avoid capture

First time you’ve mentioned this one. Source, please?

interpreted simple things like a flickering of a candle as a sign of the devil

Hearsay and dubious, but harmless even if it’s accurate.

had a creature appearing on his chest that no one else could see

More like woke up from a bad dream. (Also dubious hearsay.)

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

I’d do neither. Instead, I’d verify my sources for these claims, as all of them are either grossly exaggerated or altogether bogus.

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

With all the faults and statements that you falsely attribute to him, all the while ignoring the voluminous evidence that Harris was a well-respected man known for his honesty and good character, no one would believe the testimony of such a caricature, because the straw man you’ve created bears little or no resemblance to the actual Martin Harris.

Tomorrow: David Whitmer

CES Reply: The Priesthood and Magic

Continuing my reply to Jeremy Runnell’s “Letter to a CES Director,” with Jeremy’s original words in green:

Priesthood Restoration Concerns & Questions:

“The late appearance of these accounts raises the possibility of later fabrication.”LDS Historian Richard Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, p. 75

Are you saying that Richard Bushman believes that these accounts were fabricated? Because Richard Bushman doesn’t believe these accounts were fabricated, and it’s dishonest of you to yank a single sentence out of a paragraph to give the impression that he does.

The full paragraph:

The late appearance of these accounts raises the possibility of later fabrication. Did Joseph add the stories of angels to embellish his early history and make himself more of a visionary? If so, he made little of the occurrence. Cowdery was the first to recount the story of John’s appearance, not Joseph himself. In an 1834 Church newspaper, Cowdery exulted in his still fresh memory of the experience. “On a sudden, as from the midst of eternity, the voice of the Redeemer spake peace unto us, while the vail was parted and the angel of God came down clothed with glory, and delivered the anxiously looked for message, and the keys of the gospel of repentance!” When Joseph described John’s visit, he was much more plainspoken. Moreover, he inserted the story into a history composed in 1838 but not published until 1842. It circulated without fanfare, more like a refurbished memory than a triumphant announcement. [Emphasis added]

1. Like the First Vision story, none of the members of the Church or Joseph Smith’s family had ever heard prior to 1834 about a priesthood restoration from John the Baptist or Peter, James, and John.

And like your error with regard to the First Vision story, you assume that if something wasn’t yet written down in its entirety, that constitutes proof that it was never spoken of or discussed, which is a wholly ridiculous assumption.

Although the priesthood is now taught to have been restored in 1829, Joseph and Oliver made no such claim until 1834.

Nonsense. People were being ordained to the priesthood beginning in 1830. How could they be ordained if Joseph and Oliver made no claim to its restoration? As for the details about Peter, James, and John, actually, only Oliver provided those details in written form in 1834. Joseph didn’t mention anything about this until 1838, as Bushman recounts above. When Joseph did make the claim, it “circulated without fanfare,” which would be surprising if this were a sensational piece of information that the Saints had never heard before.

Why did it take five years for Joseph or Oliver to tell members of the Church about the priesthood?

It didn’t. Joseph and Oliver announced they had been baptized and ordained the day the Church was organized, and revelations prior to 1834 make reference to their priesthood authority.

2.Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery did not teach anyone or record anything prior to 1834 that men ordained to offices in the Church were receiving “priesthood authority.”

That’s a nonsensical statement. Read Section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants, recorded in 1830, which outlines the offices and duties of the priesthood. You’re suggesting that people who were “ordained” to be “priests,” the quoted words being used in the revelation, didn’t realize they had priesthood authority? What kind of priest has no priesthood?

Also, look at the Book of Mormon. Alma 13 described priesthood authority in great detail, and there are several other references to priesthood throughout the book. The Book of Mormon was also published in 1830.

3. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery changed the wording of earlier revelations when they compiled the 1835 Doctrine & Covenants, adding verses about the appearances of John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John as if those appearances were mentioned in the earlier revelations in the Book of Commandments, which they weren’t.

And, as mentioned earlier, Joseph changed the wording of several verses in the Book of Mormon after it was first published. He edited a number of his revelations over the course of his life. That’s actually the very nature of the Restoration – we do not believe in inerrant prophets or in inerrant scripture, and, unlike Catholics or Protestants who believe in a closed canon, we believe more light and knowledge is always welcome.

4.Were the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood under the hand of John the Baptist recorded in the Church prior to 1833, it would have appeared in the Book of Commandments.

Really? Why? The First Vision was recorded in 1832. Why doesn’t it appear in the Book of Commandments? Isn’t a visit from the Lord a bigger deal than a visit from John the Baptist?

It’s not recorded anywhere in the Book of Commandments.

There’s no biographical info at all recorded in the Book of Commandments. This was not a book used to establish Joseph’s authority; it was a book used to catalogue revelations of direct relevance to the early members of the Church. That’s why several early revelations didn’t make the cut.

Were the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood under the hands of Peter, James, and John recorded prior to 1833, it would have appeared in the Book of Commandments.  It’s not recorded anywhere in the Book of Commandments.

Look at the New Testament. How many times do the apostles make reference to Jesus’s biography in their epistles? How many times do they mention the Virgin Birth, or his baptism at the hands of John the Baptist, or the keys he received from Moses and Elias on the Mount of Transfiguration? Precisely zero times. Epistles, like the Book of Commandments, were written directly to believers who already accepted the authority of the people writing to them.

5.It wasn’t until the 1835 edition Doctrine & Covenants that Joseph and Oliver backdated and retrofitted Priesthood restoration events to an 1829-30 time period – none of which existed in any previous Church records; including Doctrine & Covenants’ precursor, The Book of Commandments, nor the original Church history as published in The Evening and Morning Star.

For them to be “backdating and retrofitting” events, they would have to be correcting an erroneous record. There’s no alternative record of different priesthood restoration events, so no “retrofit” was necessary. Members of the Church were well acquainted with the priesthood by 1835, so they obviously believed it came from somewhere before Joseph and Oliver got around to writing down the details. If Joseph and Oliver were suddenly making it all up five years after the fact, members would have likely noticed. The fact that Joseph, in particular, is relatively casual about the whole thing until 1838 is clear evidence that this was not a new story to the Saints.

6.David Whitmer, one of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, had this to say about the Priesthood restoration:

“I never heard that an Angel had ordained Joseph and Oliver to the Aaronic Priesthood until the year 1834[,] [183]5, or [183]6 – in Ohio…I do not believe that John the Baptist ever ordained Joseph and Oliver…”

– Early Mormon Documents, 5:137

Whitmer himself was given priesthood authority in 1829, as referenced in a contemporaneous revelation recorded in D&C 18:9. He didn’t doubt the veracity of that authority while he was a member of the Church. Only decades later, when he was severely disaffected from Joseph Smith, does he begin to criticize the details.

Witnesses Concerns & Questions:

1.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 testimonies.

If they do, then they’re not following the instructions of the Book of Mormon itself, which counsels members to base their testimonies in the witness of the Holy Ghost. That’s not to discount the value of the testimony of these 11 witnesses, which are remarkably consistent and reliable, but rather to emphasize that this kind of evidence ought to confirm faith rather than establish it.

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.

When did you serve your mission? None of the six discussions I taught made any reference to Book of Mormon witnesses, although I’m older than you, and they’ve changed the discussions since. I’d be surprised, however, if these testimonies were actually included in the prescribed lessons to be taught to investigators.

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

The problems you proceed to enumerate are based largely on the premise that these people are, in fact “19th century men” who believed things common to many 19th century men. How could the Book of Mormon have had any witnesses who were not “19th century men,” given that it came forth in the 19th Century?

2. Magical Worldview: In order to truly understand the Book of Mormon witnesses and the issues, one must understand the magical worldview of 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.

Your point being? People then – and people now – believed and believe in a number of harmless superstitions. Why does this disqualify them from being instruments in the hands of the Lord? The evidence suggests that belief in folk magic left Joseph and Oliver open to the idea of genuine revelation.

Many people believed in buried treasure, the ability to see spirits and their dwelling places within the local hills and elsewhere. This is why treasure digging existed.

Yes! Treasure digging existed because people believed in buried treasure. 
Seems a bit obvious.

Joseph Smith, his father, and his brother (Hyrum) had a family business treasure hunting from 1820 – 1827.

No, they didn’t. Joseph Smith, his father, and his brother (Hyrum) had a family business called a “farm.” Check the tax records.

Joseph was hired by folks like Josiah Stowell, who Joseph mentions in his history.

It’s kind of disingenuous to say that “Joseph was hired by folks like Josiah Stowell” when we only have record of Joseph being hired by one “folk” – i.e. Josiah Stowell. If you can produce other clients for this non-existent treasure hunting business, that would bolster your case considerably. 

As for Josiah Stowell, Joseph worked for him for less than a month digging for silver with no success, until he “finally… prevailed with the old gentleman to cease digging after it.” (JS-H 1:56.) Hardly a long-term career pursuit.

In 1826, Joseph was arrested and brought to court in Bainbridge, New York, for trial on fraud.

Joseph was neither arrested nor brought to trial. He was called to appear at a preliminary hearing on the matter of being a “disorderly person,” and the hearing was dismissed with no charges filed. The matter was so insignificant that it was never raised again, even as Joseph was forced to confront a host of other far more serious legal charges throughout his life.

He was arrested on the complaint of Stowell’s nephew who accused Joseph of being a “disorderly person and an imposter.”

The word “arrested” has a specific meaning that implies Joseph was taken into custody, which he was not. The word first appears in an 1877 anti-Mormon account half a century later, but there is reason to assume this is hyperbole. There’s no record that Joseph went to jail. The judge considered the accusation baseless, and the matter was quickly dismissed.

It would not be unusual 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, “What did the Lord say?”

It would also not be unusual for a neighbor, friend, or even a stranger to say “Does anyone know what we’re having for dinner?” I don’t get your point here, or how it in any way discredits anybody of anything.

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:


I, too, am a 21st Century Mormon, and I find this neither confusing nor bewildering. I find it evidence that Joseph and Oliver lived in a different place and time and believed in harmless superstitions that were common to their era.

My wife was a missionary in Chile. In almost every home she visited, including homes of Church members, people had an inflated brown paper bag in the center of the main living area, because they were convinced that the bag kept bugs away. They also chastised her for drinking cold drinks on a hot day, or hot drinks on a cold day, as they insisted that would make a person “chueca,” which roughly translates as “crooked.” Both of these ideas have no factual basis and are firmly in the realm of superstition, yet members who believe them don’t get denied temple recommends.

The above divining rod is 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:

    1. Now this is not all they gift; for you have another gift, which is the gift of Aaron; behold, it has told you many things;
    2. Behold, there is no other power, save the power of God, that can cause this gift of Aaron to be with you.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
    5. 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.
    6. 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.

(D&C 8:6-11, emphasis added)

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.”
  • It is “the gift of God.”
  • It is to be held in Oliver’s hands (and kept there, impervious to any power).
  • It allows Oliver to “do marvelous works.”
  • It is “the work of God.”
  • The Lord will speak through it to Oliver and tell him anything he asks while using it.
  • It works  through  faith.
  • It enables  Oliver  to  translate  ancient  sacred  documents.

With only these clues, the “gift of Aaron” remains very hard 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.  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.”

The Book of Commandments 7:3

So, what is the “gift of Aaron” mentioned in D&C 8?  It is a “rod of nature.”

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.

Didn’t want to interrupt you until you had fully made your point on this one, although I’m still not quite sure what your point is.  What seems evident is that the Lord was communicating with Oliver by means of a common frame of reference he was likely to understand.  If Oliver had confidence in a harmless superstition, then why shouldn’t the Lord use that superstition as a stepping stone toward a better appreciation of spiritual gifts?  “Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.” (D&C 1:24, Emphasis Added.) That’s the same reason he let Joseph use a seer stone, as it was something to which Joseph was already culturally accustomed. 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. In the Old Testament, 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.

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

Stone in a hat?! Why haven’t you ever mentioned that before?

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 8 indicates that the Lord, through Joseph Smith, granted Oliver’s request to translate using a…rod.

Yes, he… did. Again, I don’t understand what your problem is. The Lord was speaking to Oliver in his weakness, after the manner of his language, so to speak, just as he promised to do. What’s wrong with a rod? Should we think Moses was a weirdo for using one, too?

If Oliver Cowdery’s gift was really a divining rod 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.

“Whitewashing,” huh? All right, let’s return to the version of history that you remember. Here’s one of the pictures you provided that represented your “whitewashed” understanding of how Joseph translated.
urim See? Now THIS makes a lot more sense, what with Joseph wearing a pair of granny spectacles attached to a suit of armor and all. That’s how translation is supposed to be done – two rocks and a coat of armor, not one rock and a hat. (This picture, incidentally, accurately represents at least part of how the translation took place.)

Do you see yet just how petty your objection is? From my perspective, this “whitewashed” picture looks far weirder than the rock in the hat. But since this culturally fits your own expectations, it’s acceptable to you, but something that uses something more akin to a 19th Century person’s cultural expectations is entirely unacceptable. Presentism, thy name is Runnells.

Tomorrow: The Three Witnesses


CES Reply: Following the Spirit

Continuing my reply to Jeremy Runnell’s “Letter to a CES Director,” with Jeremy’s original words in green:

6. Paul H. Dunn:  Dunn was a General Authority of the Church for many years. 

Indeed! I adored Paul H. Dunn. Still do. Marvelous speaker – funny, engaging, and perceptive.

He was a very popular speaker who told incredible faith-promoting war and baseball stories.

He told a lot of other stories, too. He spoke on a great deal of subjects, and, while he clearly made serious errors in judgment, he was, on the whole, a good and decent man.

Stories like how God protected him as enemy machine-gun bullets ripped away his clothing, gear, and helmet without ever touching his skin and how he was preserved by the Lord.  Members of the Church shared how they really felt the Spirit as they listened to Dunn’s testimony and stories.

Well, I realize this is going to sound self-serving, but I was on my mission in an apartment in Dundee, Scotland, when I first heard a talk with that particular story. I remember thinking, “Hunh. That sounds a little too good to be true.” This wasn’t a major revelation – there were no alarm bells clanging, and I didn’t feel prompted to toss my Paul Dunn tapes into the trash.

But what that says to me is that the Spirit testifies of truth even when it’s being delivered by imperfect vessels, mainly because it is always being delivered by imperfect vessels. Paul Dunn’s false stories did not negate the confirmation of his true ones, and I’m willing to bet that other people had the same kind of nagging doubts I did about the stuff he was making up.

Unfortunately, Dunn was later caught lying about all his war and baseball stories and was forced to apologize to the members.  He became the first General Authority to gain “emeritus” status and was removed from public Church life.

He was caught lying, yes. Don’t think that’s accurate re: first G.A. to gain “emeritus” status, but I can’t pinpoint it one way or the other. I remember being in the Tabernacle after the scandal when Paul Dunn received an award for something or other, so I think it’s a bit over-the-top to say he was “removed from public Church life.”

What about the members who felt the Spirit from Dunn’s fabricated and false stories? 

I’m not convinced they did feel the Spirit when Paul Dunn was not telling the truth. They may have felt emotionally moved – Paul Dunn was a very dynamic speaker, after all, and his stories tugged at the heartstrings – but that’s not the same thing as feeling the spirit.

What does this say about the Spirit and what the Spirit really is?

Quite a lot, actually. It says the Spirit testifies of truth wherever it is found, and even in unlikely places and from imperfect vessels. The vast majority of what Paul Dunn said was true, and the Spirit didn’t deprive those listening to him of confirmation of the truths he told even though Elder Dunn made poor choices. It also tells us that we each have a responsibility to discern truth from error, and we do not abdicate that responsibility to someone else’s ecclesiastical position, because even our leaders are fallible.

7. The following are counsel from Elder Boyd K. Packer, Elder Dallin H. Oaks and Elder Neil L. Andersen on how to gain a testimony:

“It is not unusual to have a missionary say, ‘How can I bear testimony until I get one? How can I testify that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, and that the gospel is true? If I do not have such a testimony, would that not be dishonest?’   Oh, if I could teach you this one principle: a testimony is to be found in the bearing of it!” – Boyd K. Packer, The Quest for Spiritual Knowledge

This is one of my favorite talks by Elder Packer, and you seem to be missing the point of it entirely. Elder Packer is not instructing people to lie; quite the opposite, in fact. “You cannot force spiritual things,” he says. “You must await the growth.” These are not the instructions of someone telling people to get out and lie for the Lord.

The next paragraph after the one you quote clarifies his intent:

“Somewhere in your quest for spiritual knowledge, there is that “leap of faith,” as the philosophers call it. It is the moment when you have gone to the edge of the light and stepped into the darkness to discover that the way is lighted ahead for just a footstep or two. “The spirit of man is,” as the scripture says, indeed “the candle of the Lord” (Proverbs 20:27).

It is one thing to receive a witness from what you have read or what another has said; and that is a necessary beginning. It is quite another to have the Spirit confirm to you in your bosom that what you have testified is true. Can you not see that it will be supplied as you share it? As you give that which you have, there is a replacement, with increase!

To speak out is the test of your faith.”

This talk helped me to understand faith and how it works, namely that if you push yourself to your limit, the Lord shows you the next steps. It’s a talk that confirms the principle found in Ether 12:6 –  “I would show unto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.”

Indulge me as I share a practical example from my own life. Every year since the beginning of time, my extended family attends Aspen Grove Family Camp up in Provo Canyon. Being morbidly afraid of heights, I spent years avoiding Aspen Grove’s massive ropes course, where you climb up into the trees and walk around on metal wires that are about thirty feet above the ground. You’re attached to belay lines and are perfectly safe, but even though I mentally understood that, that didn’t keep my legs from wobbling like jelly with every step I took when I finally tried the thing. It wasn’t until I actually fell and the belay mechanisms caught me that I got a feel for just how safe I was, and I was able to move forward in a terror-free manner.

That’s the experience that gave me a hands-on practical lesson in faith.

The reason we “receive no witness until after the trial of [our] faith” is not because God is refusing to let us in on His secrets. The truth is that that’s the way faith works. No matter how much one of those nice Aspen Grove staffers were to describe to me the safety features of the helmets and the ropes and the carabiners – I dig the word “carabiner” – it wasn’t until I actually tested the stuff for myself that I was able to develop the faith and confidence to rely on them.

“Faith,” therefore, is not synonymous with “belief,” or passive intellectual assent. Intellectually, I believed I was safe from the first moment. But my negligible faith – my willingness and confidence to act on that belief – didn’t gain strength until after it had been tried. Elder Packer is merely pointing out that exercising enough faith to bear a testimony will provide the spiritual confirmation necessary to strengthen it. That’s a true principle that has been verified time and time again.

“Another way to seek a testimony seems astonishing when compared with the methods of obtaining other knowledge.  We gain or strengthen a testimony by bearing it.   Someone even suggested that some testimonies are better gained on the feet bearing them than on the knees praying for them.”

– Dallin H. Oaks, Testimony

Context is helpful here, too. In this talk, Elder Oaks also counsels people to fast, pray, and study in order to build a testimony. Neither he nor Elder Packer are asking people to bear a testimony that they do not believe to be true.

As a young man, I remember asking my own father how I could bear a testimony when I didn’t actually know that the Church was true. “Do you believe the Church is true?” he asked me. I said that I did. “Well, why can’t you say that? If that’s the extent of your testimony, there’s no shame in sharing where you are.” I then found that bearing that degree of testimony – I had faith and belief – strengthened my personal conviction. Accompanied with study and prayer, I can now stand up and testify to my knowledge of the truthfulness of the Restored Gospel, and my bearing of the testimony I had was instrumental in building the testimony I have.

“It may come as you bear your own testimony of the Prophet…Consider recording the testimony of Joseph Smith in your own voice, listening to it regularly…Listening to the Prophet’s testimony in your own voice will help bring the witness you seek.”

– Neil  L.  Andersen,  Joseph Smith

When I read this with your ellipses, I assumed Elder Andersen was counseling people to record their own personal testimony of the prophet and listen to it, which admittedly seemed strange. You’ve done some very selective and misleading editing here, as that isn’t what Elder Andersen was saying at all.

The first sentence you quote is from an entirely different paragraph and is not connected to the rest of the text. Here’s his pertinent statement without the ellipses:

Next, read the testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith in the Pearl of Great Price or in this pamphlet, now in 158 languages. You can find it online at LDS.org or with the missionaries. This is Joseph’s own testimony of what actually occurred. Read it often. Consider recording the testimony of Joseph Smith in your own voice, listening to it regularly, and sharing it with friends. Listening to the Prophet’s testimony in your own voice will help bring the witness you seek.

He’s not asking people to bear their own testimonies and listen to themselves saying “I know Joseph Smith was a prophet.” He’s asking people to read Joseph Smith – History, which will strengthen their testimony. He then asks them to consider recording the testimony of Joseph Smith – i.e. “I saw a pillar of light, etc.” – not recording their testimony of Joseph Smith – i.e. saying “I know it’s true” over and over again.

In other words, repeat things over and over until you convince yourself that it’s true.   Just keep telling yourself, “I know it’s true…I know it’s true…I know it’s true” until you believe it and voilà!   You now have a testimony that the Church is true and Joseph Smith was a prophet.

Nope. If you follow Elder Andersen’s instructions – a suggestion, really, as advice to “consider” something isn’t really an apostolic mandate –  you won’t be telling yourself “I know it’s true” over and over again; you’ll be listening to and pondering Joseph’s words, not your own.

You’ve grossly distorted both Elder Andersen’s words and his intent here.

How is this honest?  How is this ethical?  

It certainly isn’t honest or ethical to grossly distort an apostle’s words and intent.

What kind of advice are these Apostles giving when they’re telling you that if you don’t have a testimony, bear one anyway? 

That’s not what they’re saying.

How is this not lying? 

Because no one is being asked to say anything they don’t believe is true.

There’s a difference between saying you know something and you believe something.

Yes, and one can bear a testimony of both. Bearing testimony of one will strengthen the testimony of the other.

What about members and investigators who are on the other side listening to your “testimony”?  How are they supposed to know whether you actually do have a testimony of Mormonism or if you’re just following Packer’s, Oaks’ and Andersen’s counsel and you’re lying your way into one?

Elders Packer, Oaks, and Andersen would agree that nobody should lie when they’re bearing their testimony.

8. There are many members who share their testimonies that the Spirit told them that they were to marry this person or go to this school or move to this location or start up this business or invest in this investment. They rely on this Spirit in making critical life decisions.

Indeed, and I am very skeptical of such members. When teaching Sunday School, I will occasionally ask the class which brand of toothpaste the Lord would want them to use. This usually gets a laugh, as most people realize that the Lord doesn’t care. People who expect spiritual confirmations to guide them through every decision in their life are conducting themselves contrary to D&C 58:26, where the Lord says, “For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.”

The reason we were sent to Earth was to exercise our own agency and use our own judgment. Waiting around for the Lord to tell us what to do at every turn is essentially a low-grade version of the plan we rejected in the pre-mortal life.

But what about the big decisions? Who we marry, where we go to school, what we should do for a living? Personally, I prayed very hard to get a confirmation as to whether or not I should marry my wife. I received no answer one way or the other. Then I was kneeling across the altar from her in the Salt Lake Temple, and I got a very clear, sweet message from the Spirit that I was doing the right thing. That actually made me somewhat frustrated. I was thinking, “You know, Lord, I would have appreciated this if you’d given me this message just a few days ago.” But in my experience, that’s not how the Lord works. He expects me to make decisions and act on them, and only afterward does the confirmation come. I receive no witness until after the trial of my faith.

When the decision turns out to be not only incorrect but disastrous, the fault lies on the individual and never on the Spirit. 

The Spirit never overrides our agency, so we are always accountable for our own decisions. That’s the plan. And the Lord also knew that we would make mistakes, some of them disastrous. That’s why the Infinite Atonement is at the center of the plan.

The individual didn’t have the discernment or it was the individual’s hormones talking or it was the individual’s greed that was talking or the individual wasn’t worthy at the time.

Those are all possibilities, but none of us are in a position to judge another’s heart. We’re also not always able to see if things that look like huge mistakes work out as blessings down the road.

This poses a profound flaw and dilemma:  if individuals can be so convinced that they’re being led by the Spirit but yet be so wrong about what the Spirit tells them, how can they be sure of the reliability of this same exact process in telling them that Mormonism is true?

I think the process you’re describing is not the same process the Lord uses to communicate with his children. There’s a reason the Spirit is referred to as a “still, small voice.” It requires experience and effort and commitment to know how and when to listen, and the Spirit’s gentle promptings can be overlooked or ignored when our focus is elsewhere. You seem to be advocating a process where the Spirit screams at us through a megaphone. Certainly that would be harder to ignore, but it would also defeat the purpose of mortality, which is to learn to exercise faith.

9. I felt the Spirit watching “Saving Private Ryan” and the “Schindler’s List.” Both R-rated and horribly violent movies.

Me, too. Other R-rated movies where I’ve felt the Spirit include “The Shawshank Redemption,” and, most recently, “Spotlight.” I think the counsel to avoid R-rated movies is a good general rule, but I don’t think the Motion Picture Association of America is infallible, either, nor do I think they have a mandate from heaven. There are valuable lessons and profound truths in both of those movies, so it doesn’t surprise me that the Spirit would bear witness to them.

I also felt the Spirit watching “Forrest Gump” and the “Lion King.”

Well, okay. Except I think “Lion King” in particular is just plain awful, although I recognize that’s a minority position.

After I lost my testimony, I attended a conference where former Mormons shared their stories. The same Spirit I felt telling me that Mormonism is true and that Joseph Smith was a true prophet is the same Spirit I felt in all of the above experiences.

Well, here I begin to wonder what it is you think is the Spirit, especially since you no longer really believe there is a Spirit.

Does this mean that Lion King is true?   That Mufasa is real and true?   Does this mean that Forrest Gump is real and the story happened in real life?  

This is a clear indication that you have a very warped understanding of what the Spirit actually is – or, more appropriately, who He is. When you felt the Spirit during “Forrest Gump,” was He telling you Forrest Gump was a historical figure? Because the Spirit isn’t an inanimate object; He is a member of the Godhead who imparts information, not just warm and pleasant feelings. As Joseph Smith taught, “No man can receive the Holy Ghost without receiving revelations. The Holy Ghost is a revelator.”(Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 328)

The Holy Ghost actually tells you what it is that He’s confirming.

When feeling the Spirit during Schindler’s List, for instance, He confirmed the truth that sacrifices made to save Jews during World War II were noble and good, and that I was seeing a story that reinforced true and good virtues. During The Shawshank Redemption, He confirmed that friendship and compassion are of infinite worth. During “Spotlight,” He confirmed that it was right to call attention to the terrible child abuse taking place in the Catholic church.

For you to ask whether feeling the Spirit means that Mufasa truly exists, you give the impression that you see the Spirit as something akin to the buzzer that rings at church when there are five minutes left in Sunday School. To you, He’s a thing, not a person, and, furthermore, He’s a thing that can only impart binary information. (I.E. Warm feelings means this is historical; no warm feelings means this is not.) This actually makes me very sad, because if you could spend your whole life in the Church and ask if a good feeling you have during the Lion King is spiritual confirmation that Mufasa was a historical figure, then there is something fundamentally wrong with how we teach children – and adults, for that matter – about how the Spirit operates.

Why did I feel the Spirit as I listened to the stories of apostates sharing how they discovered for themselves that Mormonism is not true?

How can you say you felt the Spirit after you rejected the existence of a Spirit as you listened to people deny that there actually is a Spirit? Especially after you think feeling the Spirit confirms the physical existence of cartoon characters?

Why is this Spirit so unreliable and inconsistent?

He isn’t. Your own spiritual education, however, seems to have been far more unreliable and inconsistent than it ought to have been.

How can I trust such an inconsistent and contradictory Source for knowing that Mormonism is worth betting my  life, time, money, heart, mind, and obedience  to?

You can’t. Because based on your observations here, whatever source you’ve been listening to bears little or no resemblance to the Spirit.

This thought–provoking video raises some profound questions and challenges to the Latter-day Saint concept of “testimony” and receiving a witness from the Holy Ghost or Spirit as being a unique, reliable, and trustworthy source to discerning truth and reality:

I can’t seem to embed the video here on my blog. (It’s in my PDF reply.) The video raises essentially the same questions and challenges you’ve raised in your text, and my above responses apply to this video as well.

Tomorrow: The Priesthood and Magic