An ongoing series of articles on some common and recurring weak arguments that Christians make against Mormonism.
by Fred W. Anson
“None of the eleven Book of Mormon witnesses ever signed their testimonies.”
Why It’s Weak:
Based on the body of available evidence we don’t really know if the eleven Book of Mormon witnesses ever signed their testimony or not.
Yes, it is true that the signatures on the extant manuscript page that we have for the testimony of the eight and three witnesses were done by Oliver Cowdery. However, that manuscript was “P”, the Printer’s Manuscript, not “O”, the Original Manuscript, which P was copied from. O was water damaged and almost nearly completely destroyed after being placed in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House – Joseph Smith’s divinely mandated (see D&C 124:56-83) but never completed boarding house. As Book of Mormon manuscript expert Royal Skousen explains:
The printed versions of the Book of Mormon derive from two manuscripts. The first, called the original manuscript (O), was written by at least three scribes as Joseph Smith translated and dictated. The most important scribe was Oliver Cowdery. This manuscript was begun no later than April 1829 and finished in June 1829.
A copy of the original was then made by Oliver Cowdery and two other scribes. This copy is called the printer’s manuscript (P), since it was the one normally used to set the type for the first (1830) edition of the Book of Mormon. It was begun in July 1829 and finished early in 1830.
Exhibit A: Testimony of Eight Witnesses, Palmyra, NY, late June 1829; in Book of Mormon Printer’s Manuscript, p. 464; handwriting of Oliver Cowdery; (credit: Joseph Smith Papers Project)
The printer’s manuscript is not an exact copy of the original manuscript. There are on the average three changes per original manuscript page. These changes appear to be natural scribal errors; there is little or no evidence of conscious editing. Most of the changes are minor, and about one in five produce a discernible difference in meaning. Because they were all relatively minor, most of the errors thus introduced into the text have remained in the printed editions of the Book of Mormon and have not been detected and corrected except by reference to the original manuscript. About twenty of these errors were corrected in the 1981 edition.
The compositor for the 1830 edition added punctuation, paragraphing, and other printing marks to about one-third of the pages of the printer’s manuscript. These same marks appear on one fragment of the original, indicating that it was used at least once in typesetting the 1830 edition.
In preparation for the second (1837) edition, hundreds of grammatical changes and a few textual emendations were made in P. After the publication of this edition, P was retained by Oliver Cowdery. After his death in 1850, his brother-in-law, David Whitmer, kept P until his death in 1888. In 1903 Whitmer’s grandson sold P to the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns it today. It is wholly extant except for two lines at the bottom of the first leaf.
The original manuscript was not consulted for the editing of the 1837 edition. However, in producing the 1840 edition, Joseph Smith used O to restore some of its original readings. In October 1841, Joseph Smith placed O in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House. Over forty years later, Lewis Bidamon, Emma Smith’s second husband, opened the cornerstone and found that water seepage had destroyed most of O. The surviving pages were handed out to various individuals during the 1880s.
Today approximately 25 percent of the text of O survives: 1 Nephi 2 through 2 Nephi 1, with gaps; Alma 22 through Helaman 3, with gaps; and a few other fragments. All but one of the authentic pages and fragments of O are housed in the archives of the LDS Historical Department; one-half of a sheet (from 1 Nephi 14) is owned by the University of Utah.
Again, and to summarize, P was copied from O by Oliver Cowdery and two other scribes to prepare it for the typesetting process. Therefore, it’s only logical and reasonable that the dominant handwriting be his. Further, the portions of O that were destroyed were the first outside and last outside pages (water saturation works from the outside in on books – just like it does on a dry sponge) which included the page (or possibly pages) with the testimonies of the witnesses on it.
Therefore, it’s impossible to know for if the witnesses autographed their respective testimonies on O or not. Hard conclusions either way – no matter how dogmatically or emphatically stated – are nothing more than speculation.
Where Did This Weak Argument Come From?
This argument was practically non-existent until a photograph of the page from the P manuscript with the signatures in Oliver Cowdery’s handwriting was published as a part of the Joseph Smith Papers Project (see Exhibit A above). At that point some Mormon Critics who were unfamiliar with the history of the Book of Manuscripts drew wrong conclusions from the photograph based on the presumption that it was the only Book of Mormon manuscript ever created by Joseph Smith and his colleagues. They then went on to make uninformed, absolutist statements publicly which served only to spread ignorant inference as fact to a worldwide audience.
Further exacerbating the problem was Jeremy T. Runnells’ “Letter to a CES Director” in which he used the following as an argument against the Book of Mormon:
The closest thing we have in existence to an original document of the testimonies of the witnesses is a printer’s manuscript written by Oliver Cowdery. Every witness name on that document is not signed; they are written in Oliver’s own handwriting. Further, there is no testimony from any of the witnesses directly attesting to the direct wording and claims of the manuscript or statements in the Book of Mormon.
Exhibit B: MormonInfographics meme with the questionable “Book of Mormon ‘Witnesses’ didn’t even sign their names” headline.
Mr. Runnells’ argument is, at it’s core and presented in it’s entirety, for the most part sound. But again, his point can easily be misunderstood by those who don’t have a full understanding of the manuscript history of the Book of Mormon thus leading to misstatement and wrong conclusions.
For example, after the “Letter to a CES Director” was published a graphic (see Exhibit B) appeared on the MormonInfographics website with the words, “Book of Mormon ‘Witnesses’ didn’t even sign their names” as the headline – that is, as if their missing signatures on the original testimonies were an established and verified fact rather than speculation based on the absence of evidence.
The MormonInfographics meme quickly went viral on social media further disseminating this weak argument. Further, weakening the argument was the fact that Mr. Runnells overstated his case since Oliver Cowdery’s signature as a Book of Mormon witness on the page is legitimate. This oversight was later corrected in the revised 2014 edition of his “Letter to a CES Director”.
And, as they say, the rest is history – this argument continues to be used by critics despite it’s fragility.
The Stronger Arguments:
When it comes to the Book of Mormon witnesses it often seems like there’s no end to strong, compelling, cogent, persuasive arguments against them and their testimonies to choose from. MormonThink has pages of them (click here) as does the aforementioned “Letter to a CES Director” (click here). And if that’s not enough the “Letter to a CES Director” companion piece “Debunking FAIR’s Debunking” (click here) has yet more. That said, we offer a small sampling of those arguments for your consideration.
First Suggested Stronger Argument:
Use the fully formed and nuanced argument that Jeremy Runnells uses in “Letter to a CES Director” and “Debunking FAIR’s Debunking” in it’s entirety rather than anything short or cryptic:
From “Letter to a CES Director”:
From a legal perspective, the statements of the testimonies of the Three and Eight witnesses hold no credibility or weight in a court of law as there are a) no signatures, b) no specific dates, c) no specific locations, and d) most of the witnesses made statements after the fact that contradict and cast doubt on the specific claims made in the statements contained in the preface of the Book of Mormon.
(page 61, revised edition)
In discussing the witnesses, we should not overlook the primary accounts of the events they testified to. The official statements published in the Book of Mormon are not dated, signed (we have no record with their signatures), nor is a specific location given for where the events occurred. These are not eleven legally sworn affidavits but rather simple statements pre-written by Joseph Smith with claims of having been signed by three men and another by eight.
(page 62, revised edition)
From “Debunking FAIR’s Debunking”:
[LdS Apologist group] FAIR again misses the point, which is that no original, signed document of the witnesses’ testimonies exists.
We do not have an actual document of actual signatures of the Book of Mormon witnesses. We just have a document, in Oliver’s own handwriting, of the names of the Witnesses. We have a claim that there was a document of actual signatures and a claim that this document was “placed in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House” and that it was “destroyed by water damage” years later.
We’re asked to put faith in a claim as opposed to being able to observe and analyze actual individual signatures written by actual individual witnesses. Without the original document, of course, there is no way of knowing with certainty whether the witnesses actually signed it. And, as explained below, subsequent accounts of two of the witnesses (Martin Harris and David Whitmer) conflict with key details of the account given in the Book of Mormon.
(link to source)
Second Suggested Stronger Argument:
Instead of using this argument argue that the body of evidence that strongly suggests that the witnesses never physically or tangibly saw or handled the golden plates. Mormon Researcher Bill McKeever explains:
Several LDS sources give the eleven men who bore their testimony to the authenticity of the Book of Mormon the special title of eyewitness; however, it appears doubtful that any of them actually saw the plates apart from a supernatural and subjective experience. While they all claimed to have handled what they were told were ancient plates, they did so while the plates were covered up and not visible. That being case, how is their experience any different from others who also claimed to handle the plates? Such persons include Joseph Smith’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith. Lucy admitted she never saw the plates, but she claimed to have handled what she was told were plates of “pure gold.” As mentioned earlier, Joseph Smith’s wife Emma also claimed that she handled the plates when she moved them to “do her work” in the Smith home, though she insisted that she never uncovered them.
I maintain that if the eleven are called eyewitnesses, why not Lucy and Emma as well? After all, their experiences with what they thought were gold plates are really not much different than that of the eleven. Mormons might find this conclusion troubling since it tends to take away some of the mysterious sensation associated with the accepted folklore, but it is a consistent conclusion when it comes to comparing the experiences of those involved. If Mormons want to insist that a person can’t be considered an eyewitness to the authenticity of the gold plates unless they actually saw them, then there were no eyewitnesses to Joseph Smith’s gold plates.
Third Suggested Stronger Argument:
Compare and contrast how credible testimony should be done versus how it was done in the case of the Book of Mormon Witnesses. Here’s an example of how to present this argument from MormonThink:
If someone was going to have witnesses to some earth-shattering event, and they wanted people to believe them, they would have done it very differently than Joseph did. The whole witnesses’ portion of the BOM would have been much better served if the following things had been done:
- None of the witnesses should have been related to Joseph or each other.
Most of the witnesses were either related or good friends. Having unrelated people as witnesses would be far more effective than using your brothers and father.
- The witnesses should not have already been eager believers.
There should have been some skeptics.
- There should have been no financial motive.
Martin Harris mortgaged his farm and invested at least $3,000 of his own money into printing the Book of Mormon, so of course he had incentive to ‘promote’ the book.
- Each of the witnesses should each have written their own testimony instead of merely signing a prepared statement written by Joseph.
If the prepared document wasn’t 100% accurate many people would simply sign it anyway as it would be too much of a hassle to have it completely rewritten by hand – especially in the 1800s.
- The witnesses should have been much more detailed about this amazing event.
What did the angel look like? What exactly did he say? How did he speak? There are almost no details provided which can be analyzed and compared. If each witness had simply written their own account and provided significant details then their individual testimonies could corroborate each other.
- The witnesses should have been interviewed independently immediately after going public.
They should have been interviewed the same way police do with witnesses to crimes or that investigators do with UFO cases. Ask questions to see if their stories match; How was the angel dressed? How tall was he? How did he speak?, etc.
- The witnesses should not have used subjective language and say strange things like comparing seeing the plates with seeing a city through a mountain or using spiritual eyes instead of their natural eyes to view physical plates.
- The witnesses should not have been gullible people that believed in things like ‘second sight’, divining rods, finding treasure by placing a rock in a hat, etc.
That the Three Witnesses were a gullible sort is illustrated by an incident in July, 1837. Joseph had left on a five-week missionary tour to Canada, only to find on his return that all three of the Witnesses had joined a faction opposing him. This faction rallied around a young girl who claimed to be a seeress by virtue of a black stone in which she read the future. David Whitmer, Martin Harris, and Oliver Cowdery all pledged her their loyalty, and Frederick G. Williams, formerly Joseph’s First Counselor, became her scribe. The girl seeress would dance herself into a state of exhaustion, fall to the floor, and burst forth with revelations. (See Lucy Smith: Biographical Sketches, pp. 211-213).
- All of the witness should have been much more vocal and been interviewed much more often.
There are very few interviews done with the witnesses that provide any additional information or corroboration of their statements. You would think that these people, after seeing such a magnificent sight, would spend their time testifying to the world about their experience instead of largely just signing a prepared statement and avoiding interviews by the media. Only three of the eight witnesses made separate statements that they had handled the plates. They were Joseph’s two brothers, Hyrum and Samuel, and John Whitmer.
- And of course it would have helped had all the witnesses remained loyal to the Church for the rest of their lives instead of having most of them abandon it later on.
It doesn’t make much sense to leave the one, true Church of God if you have really received an indisputable witness that it was true. Why would these people risk being cast in Outer Darkness for all eternity for denying what they KNEW to be true unless they maybe had some doubts?
(link to source)
The “three witnesses” to the Book of Mormon: Oliver Cowdrey, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris
 Royal Skousen, “Book of Mormon Manuscripts”, article in The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1992 edition. For those who would like to go deeper on this subject the following video is recommended: Royal Skousen, “The Original and Printer’s Manuscripts”
 Jeremy T. Runnells, “Letter to a CES Director” (first edition), p.55
 Jeremy T. Runnells, “Letter to a CES Director” (revised edition), p.60
 Bill McKeever, “Did the Eleven Witnesses Actually See the Gold Plates?”
 Author uncredited, “How should it have been done?”, Mormon Think website
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