Examining Book of Mormon Witnesses

This post is a continuation from the previous post where Richard Bushman discussed skeptical theories on the composition of the Book of Mormon.  Now John Dehlin (JD) turns to ask about the reliability of the Book of Mormon witnesses.  The audio can be found on Part 4 of the Bushman interview at Mormon Stories.

JD, “Let’s now turn to the Three and Eight witnesses.  I am going to try and instead of digging into the history like I was doing too much in the beginning previously, I’m just going to try and get to the heart of the issue.  Basically, if you listen to Grant Palmer, or if you listen to others who have written about the witnesses in a disparaging way, the picture that they paint is that the Whitmers weren’t necessarily the brightest of people, even Martin Harris weren’t necessarily the brightest of people, they followed people before Joseph Smith, they followed people after Joseph Smith, they testified to the truthfulness of the Book of Mormons and the plates and the angel or whatever, but at the same time they left the Church, and they testified to Strang or to others and to other books and to other visions or to other angels.  So on the one hand we feel like, and in your book, I was really touched by how you described how Joseph felt when he came back from the Three Witness experience.  Why don’t you just recount that really quick, because that was really moving?”

Bushman, “The story as told by Lucy, his mother that after returning from the Three Witnesses, he threw himself down on the floor and said, ‘At last I no longer have to carry this all by myself.’ (I don’t remember the exact words.)  Now there are others who have to bear testimony.  So you have the feeling this poor kid was carrying the whole thing, and you knew he was surrounded by doubt and intense skepticism, and now he had a few people he could depend on to speak out on the basis of their own visionary experiences.”

JD, “Yeah.  So let’s jump back real quick.  The translation moves from Pennsylvania to the Whitmer home.  Is that right?  Partly because of persecution and stress and other things, but it moves to the home, and the Whitmers become really central players in this whole process.  They were witnesses to parts of the translation process.  Is that right?”

Bushman, “Yes.”

JD, “Ok, so the Book of Mormon gets translated, it gets finished.  At some point they start asking, they really start wanting to see the plates, is that right?”

Bushman, “Well Martin Harris was the one who put the most pressure on to see the plates, but the Whitmers and Oliver Cowdery also were very interested too, yes.”

JD, “And I even remember reading your book where it says that Joseph says you’ll see the plates, and you’ll not only see the plates, but you’ll see the Liahona and the Sword of Laban too.  Is that right?”

Bushman, “That I don’t recall, did I say that?”

JD, “Uh, I’m pretty sure I read it , but it’s not a huge deal.  So then at some point Joseph says today’s the day, is that right?  What can you tell us just about the actual day?  Just a really high level, we won’t dig into it.”

Bushman, “Well why don’t we get right down to the experience itself.  They go down into the woods and pray and see Christ, or they see an angel and see the plates.  They see it in two different groups.  Martin Harris sees it with Joseph, and the others see it together.”

JD, “Right, and Martin didn’t feel like he was worthy at first and so the other two Oliver and one of the Whitmers saw it without Martin, and then Martin had to come back and kind of pray again.”

Bushman, “Well Joseph goes off and finds Martin praying and they pray together.”

JD, “Ok, I guess the big question here, I guess there are two questions that kind of strike at the core of people who are skeptical.  The first is sort of the association with the money digging and the treasure digging.  We have the earlier accounts of where they will go to some hill and they all sort of whip each other up into really believing that they’re seeing something.  And I think if I remember reading Brodie, that’s sort of the allegation.  And that’s that there is some ability or propensity to whip each other up into thinking that they’re seeing something when they’re really not.  That’s where we get into what Grant Palmer talks about, the eyes of our understanding or seeing with our spiritual eyes, so let’s start with that, and then I have a follow up question.”

Bushman, “Well this whipping up business is a psychological theory that Joseph Smith had the capacity to get people all excited and they saw things that didn’t exist, but that’s just a speculation about what might have happened.  The key point is the spiritual eyes business because the witnesses did say that they saw these things with their spiritual eyes or the eyes of their understanding.  That’s a great relief to people who are doubting this, because it implies they didn’t really see anything.  It was just sort of something they imagined, it becomes illusionary.  Therefore the pressure of the plates being in actual existence is relieved because you don’t have to worry about there actually being plates because these people just thought they saw plates.

But the question is, is it any more real if you see it through your spiritual understanding?  Here I am thinking of Charles G. Finney, the later evangelist who in his time of skepticism as a young lawyer in New York, just a year after Joseph Smith‘s First Vision, had a vision iand his law office after he had been converted.  He had been converted in the afternoon out in the woods and comes back to the law office.  In the dark of night he sees Christ standing there, and takes this as a sign of confirmation of his conversion.  In his diary, or in his autobiographical account which he wrote many years later, I think it was 50 years later, he said, I know He couldn’t have really been there.  It was just something in my mind, but it looked as if he we really there, and then sort of left it at that.

So there was a feeling among the Latter-day Saints especially afterwards that it was impossible to see God unless you were prepared, so it’s almost a requirement that visions come through prepared eyes, or prepared mind, and that is true for others who use this phrase in those times.  But as they experience it, it’s just as real as if it were not with their spiritual eyes, and so it isn’t lust like sort of fuzzy or vague or blurry.  It’s just that spiritual items have to be viewed with a spiritual understanding.  So I’m not sure that the spiritual eyes means that they didn’t actually experience it as a visual happening.  It isn’t just something they thought they saw in their heads.”

JD, “Yeah, so I mean a really condensed way to say that might be, you know, a spiritual experience or a spiritual miracle is a spiritual miracle, and to try and dissect it—it’s a miracle.  That’s why you can’t—if it were reducible to the material, it would no longer be viewed as a spiritual miracle.  Is that right?  So whether you want to attribute it to actual eyes or spiritual eyes or a combination of the two, 80% this or that. it’s a miracle, it’s spiritual, there’s no way to prove it, it’s not a scientific thing and so it sort of a red herring maybe?”

Bushman, “Well, something close to that.  What I’m really trying to say is that they experienced it as physical as if it was a physical experience.  That is, when Finney looked, he saw Christ.  He didn’t say I’m just imagining Christ.  He saw Christ.  That’s the way he emphasizes it.  But he knew it had to be done through this mental process because he couldn’t believe his own eyes, is what it amounted to. He had to believe that God had just created this in his mind, but the experience was as physical as if Christ were physically present.  So I’m just saying that Martin Harris may have very, or David Whitmer might have said there were really plates there, he saw them, he saw this angel, etc., etc.  But that this would only be possible if only he had been given spiritual eyes to do so.”

JD, “Hmmm, and one of them seems to have been quoted as saying, ‘I didn’t seem them as I see this pen here on the table.’  So it seems like one of them was trying to distinguish between what a temporal experience is and what a spiritual vision might be, right?”

Bushman, “It could be, except that he’s saying that he was maybe saying it was more exalted.  It was filled with glory, my spirits were lifted.  You do have to face the fact that these guys said over and over again that they actually saw these things. It’s not like—we keep trying to find some way to worm around their testimony by saying well, once in a while they spoke about it as being spiritual, when most of the time they speak as if it’s actual.”

JD, “So what is the—do you remember the 1836 event that Grant Palmer talks about where Martin Harris gets up in front of a bunch of people—is it 1836 or 1838 where the Kirtland Bank thing happens, everything is unraveling, and Grant Palmer says that in this climax of catastrophe, Martin Harris stands up in front of everybody and says, ‘oh no, we never really saw the plates with our physical eyes, it was a spiritual thing.’  What is that story, and is it credible?  Why did he do that, and what was the impact of it?”

Bushman, “This statement that was recorded in a letter by Steven Burnett was given at a meeting Kirtland in April 1838 in which all the dissidents were gathering and trying to figure out what kind of a church to organize, now that they’d agreed Joseph Smith was fallen prophet, and Martin Harris was among them.  One of the big decisions that they had to make was what were they going to keep out of the old church?  They wanted to throw out a lot, but they wanted to hold on to something.  And one question was, should they hold on to the Book of Mormon? Steven Burnett was one of those, there were three or four others, who thought that the Book of Mormon had to be jettisoned, and he used as evidence the statement of Martin Harris in which he took to mean that Martin Harris really did not see the plates after all.

What interested me about it was these guys were really dependent on evidence.  It wasn’t just a spiritual thing for them, they wanted to know.  The Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses really meant something to them, as did the scriptural prophecies they make in reference to Isaiah 29, Ezekiel 37 too.  And he writes back after Martin Harris has made his statement that we know see that he really didn’t see the plates.  But once again, it’s that question of spiritual seeing versus actual seeing.  These guys want plain old sight.  They don’t want anything like spiritual eyes, so he interprets Martin Harris’s statement to mean he didn’t really see it, it was just part of his imagination.

The interesting thing is that Martin Harris in the same meeting got up in the afternoon and said that we certainly should not abandon the Book of Mormon, I know it’s a true book, and affirmed everything he believed all along. George A. Smith wrote a letter of this meeting, saying nothing about Martin Harris giving up on his witness, but wrote back thathe affirmed his faith as ever.  So what I think it boils down to is the issue we were discussing before, which is becoming more and more interesting to me: what it means to see with spiritual eyes.  For us, that decreases the value of a witness immensely, it means nothing.  It’s just his imagination; it’s a psychological reality and not a physical reality.  But for Harris and for others who heard these testimonies, it was just as real and persuasive as not spiritual eyes, so you don’t really know what happens when they see with spiritual eyes.  Did they actually see something like Charles G. Finney did, when I referred to my previous conversation with you, or was it just sort of a phantasm in their imagination?  So, anyway it’s got me very interested in the subject which I think we definitely need to look into, but it also sort of leaves this evidence a little murky.  It isn’t exactly sure that he’s actually repudiating his testimony, he’s just saying the things we’ve heard before that a spiritual eyes experience, and until we know what that means, we won’t know how to exactly how to evaluate it.”

JD, “Alright.  So what do we know about why each of the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses fell away, the ones that weren’t Smiths?  A lot of people would say how can somebody have such an incredible vision?  How can someone see the plates and have a testimony to the divinity of Joseph Smith’s calling or whatever?  Can you just tell us briefly why they fell away, because I never, I always sort of have been given the impression, oh they were weak, oh they were sinful, oh they were bad people.  But then I think some of these people sacrificed more than any of us will ever be called upon to sacrifice, so I don’t feel right to demonize these guys as being weak or lacking faith.  I want to think they had more faith than any of us.  So can you tell us about how they fell away, and whether their reasons for falling away were actually sympathetic versus clueless or bumbling or lacked faith?”

Bushman, “Well it’s complicated, it differs for each one of them of course.  I do think it’s an error to demonize them after the fact, saying because they fell away.  I think now there’s an effort to avoid that.  This recent conference on Oliver Cowdery at BYU really was an attempt to rehabilitate him, and say this was a man of integrity and wisdom, and we need to honor him even though he did fall away from the Church.  I think it’s part of that overall loss of the first generation of leaders that occurs in the church, virtually all of them of these first strong people faltered one way or another, so there has to be a second generation that grows up most of them in the later Quorum of the Twelve who go on to become the leaders who take the Saints west.

I think it’s hard for us to appreciate the pressure on Mormons at that time.  You know John Corrill whom we don’t hear about so much was really an eminent figure, a counselor to Edward Partridge in the bishopric and significant in many ways in Missouri, and a very reasonable man and a good reporter, finally went to Joseph Smith and said nothing you say is going to happen happens.  We’re supposed to establish Zion, we get kicked out of Zion.  Wherever we go we have these promises something wonderful is going to happen and we end up being beaten up again. So there’s just this feeling that it was just hard to carry on, and then you add to that fact that you’ve got all the personal abrasions within the organization as a whole and with Joseph Smith and trying to in Oliver Cowdery’s case, trying to making a living for himself, trying to find some stable financial basis for his life and then being required by Joseph Smith to make all sorts of financial sacrifices and this and that, well it’s just too much for him, and then of course the confusion over polygamy.  Was he having an affair with Fanny Alger?

So if you’re actually dealing with these people close up, whether it’s Joseph Smith or the people around him, there’s just innumerable irritations that grow up and erode you, and I think a lot of them, according to the stuff I’ve read, found ways of saying, ‘I’m not abandoning my first testimony’.  Certainly that’s true of David Whitmer.  The Church left me, not me the Church.  It’s possible top think of Joseph as a fallen prophet, why not think of him as a fallen prophet?

So you have this moment of glory when the powers of God are with you, but then the Church wandered off and the prophet stumbled and you have to carry on your life despite it all, so there are all sorts of ways that can happen.  We have a feeling inevitability of the Church that it just had to be, that anyone who left it must have made a huge error, but at the time it was anything but inevitable.  It was tenuous year after year.  So it doesn’t seem to me hard to imagine these lives sort of taking their own course with leaving Joseph Smith behind.”

JD, “Ok, with Oliver you mentioned a lot of the things he was struggling with.  I still don’t have a sense for why the Whitmers fells away.  Is there one or two issues that might have been top of their mind?  Was it the bank thing?  Do we know what some of the key issues were for the Whitmers to make them fall away?”

Bushman, “Well, they fall away separately and distinctly.  But David Whitmer I think thought of himself as Oliver did, sort of as the founding elders of the Church, that deserved to be leaders alongside Joseph Smith.  David was always jealous of Sidney Rigdon and felt that Sidney Rigdon led Joseph Smith down a primrose path.  He objected to the doctrines of priesthood as they developed.  He thought Joseph Smith made lots of errors, and I think as he was sort of the power in the family and the others followed along with him.  So we are so accustomed to following the prophet as a mantra of our religion but for a lot of these people, you know you never knew when you thought he prophet might head off in the wrong direction.  I think David believed that Joseph Smith did.”

JD, “And to some extent that was fair because maybe Joseph Smith was learning as he went along and did make some mistakes and so it’s not—that’s valid right?  It’s not for them too hard to jump from he’s making mistakes to he’s fallen.  Is that correct?”

Bushman, “Right, Right.”

JD, “What do we make of—what would you say to someone who says well you can’t have it all.  You can’t say that we value their credibility as people whose testimonies should be relied on, yet at the same time we said all sorts of nasty things about Oliver when he was excommunicated, that he was doing counterfeiting, and he was lying, etc.  And David Whitmer and Martin Harris, they claimed that God physically or in a dream or in a vision told them to leave the church, and that they went on to follow other leaders and be testaments to the other non-Joseph prophet leaders and their scriptures, etc.  So how do we on the one hand rely on them as witnesses and at the same time say, well when they were testifying of things that we happen to agree with, then we’re going to accept their testaments as valid, but whenever they went off and testified of other things and claimed other visions, well those were clearly deceived and it was Satan. How do you work though that?  Or have I mischaracterized the history?”

Bushman, “No I think that’s a very good question, and Richard Anderson has dedicated his life to proving that these people were men of integrity from the beginning to the end of their lives and therefore we can trust them. But I think you always get in trouble if you think a person is going to be impeccable in every act of theirs, and there just certain to have done something that was slightly dishonest, or questionable in our eyes and that is inevitably going to cast a shadow on their original testimony. So we can’t say that those testimonies are iron clad, that there’s no questions at all that can be raised about the men or their lives.  I think the fact that you don’t find many instances of them repudiating their testimonies, you’re prompting me to go hunt up all of these supposed repudiations and see where they stood.  Unless you can find really clear and consistent accounts of ‘we were mistaken’ and ‘I was wrong’, and ‘I don’t believe that at all now’, which they easily could have done having left the Church, the testimonies have to stand as something you can’t dismiss out of hand.  They’re there, those words are there, so that’s about all I can say. I don’t want to claim too much for them, but I also don’t want to discount them and say they’re absolutely worthless.  That I think would be a big mistake.”

JD, “Right”

End of Part 4.


6 comments on “Examining Book of Mormon Witnesses

  1. Concepts are the intangible result of intelligent thought.  Are concepts “real”?  I think most people would say they are.  If you’re an architect your concepts are manifested first in the form of a blueprint or CAD (computer) image.  The CAD image is visable but intangible, so is it “real”?  Finally your concepts are tangibly manifested in the form of a building.  In the spirit world, intelligent thought produces concepts that can be transferred by one’s intent to others by telepathy and/or manifested similarly to the intangible CAD image in the form of a vision.  What is an answered prayer if it is not telepathy?  What is a dream if it is not a vision?  Visions may be experienced as if they are being viewed through one’s eyes as Joseph was doing with a seer stone, as being viewed or experienced in one’s mind as a dream, an image or as an instantaneous description of an image or as shamanic journeying which the US government apparently calls remote viewing in which one perceives themselves leaving their bodies and instantaneously traveling somewhere else to view what is there.  Brigham Young talked about this journeying concept. The witnesses vision descriptions sound creditable to me.

  2. All perceptions of reality are filtered through our brains, so, in a sense, all we can experience is “virtual reality”. I’m interested in the difference between “spiritual eyes” and “physical eyes”, but I’m unsure that the distinction equates to “real” or “more real”.

  3. Yes I agree Fire Tag, all we can experience is virtual reality which I think biases reality if there is such a thing toward knowledge or intelligence and removes the bias of physical eyes being more real than spiritual eyes.

  4. “They go down into the woods and pray and see Christ, or they see an angel and see the plates. They see it in two different groups. Martin Harris sees it with Joseph, and the others see it together.” Datura?

    Look up Joseph and datura, which is a strange theory but makes the BOM more valid for me personally as a brilliant shamanic work.

  5. […] Examining Book of Mormon Witnesses […]

  6. I think Richard here is very wise to put the spirit back into the spiritual experience of the Book of Mormon witnesses. This was a spiritual event that had real life-changing consequences for everyone involved. Attempts to make this vision into something it is not — a visitation — robs it of its spiritual power and transforms it some very strange physical experience with extra terrestrials. (And since the latter does not occur in real life, it makes the whole thing into a hoax.) Instead, we should understand it for what it was: a vision that was an intense spiritual experience for everyone involved.

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