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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
CES Reply: Strangites

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  1. Regarding a divining rod: When we moved to a rural area, we had to decide where the well would be dug ( the very first thing was to test the ground to decide where the septic tank would go, as that would determine where the well could be dug).

    We constantly discussed how we were going to decide where the well would go. My father-in-law said to hire a water diviner. We laughed. My father-in-law said ” Now you laugh. Wait until the diviner finds water, that will shut you up”. We hired the diviner but still scepticle. The diviner covered every square inch of the property. He then marked two spots where there was a good water source. He then told us to try it. He instructed us on how to hold the wires. We did, and were led to the two exact spots the diviner marked. That made a believer out of us. The well was/is a success. Water divining works! There is nothing wrong with using it or doing it. People like Runnels don’t know very much.