The Case Against the Three Witnesses to The Book of Mormon

Posted: September 1, 2019 in Book of Mormon, Fred Anson, Mormon Studies

The “three witnesses” to the Book of Mormon: Oliver Cowdrey, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris

compiled by Fred W. Anson
In a nutshell, the case of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon is as follows:

1. All of the 11 witnesses were related either by blood or by business interests. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were cousins. Joseph Smith, Sr. was Joseph Smith’s father. The Whitmers were former business associates of the Smith family. Hiram Page was married to the Whitmer’s sister, Catherine. And Martin Harris was financially invested in the success of the Book of Mormon in a way that it would ruin his estate if it failed.

2. The three witnesses were of questionable character – this assertion is based on what fellow Mormons said about them. For example, Joseph Smith said on Dec 16, 1838: “Such characters as [his former personal secretary William] McLellin, John Witmer, David Witmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris are too mean to mention; and we had liked to have forgotten them.” (see “History of the Church”, vol 3, p.232)

3. All three denied the Latter Day Saint faith at some point converting to other religions. This was confirmed by Brigham Young who, in 1859 said, “Some of the Witnesses of the Book of Mormon, who handled the plates and conversed with the angels of God, were afterward left to doubt and to disbelieve that they had ever seen an angel.” (Brigham Young, “Want of Governing Capacities Among Men—Elements of the Sacrament—Apostasy, Etc.”, Journal of Discourses, vol 7, p.164)

4. All of the three witnesses were eventually excommunicated from the Mormon church. (details below)

5. Two of the three excommunicated witnesses later returned after denying their testimony and joining other churches. This is roughly equivalent to Peter, James, and John denying their testimony that Jesus was the Messiah who rose from the dead, joining Samaritanism (or another middle eastern religion), then reversing themselves and returning to the Church that they had denied and denounced. (details below)

And when you consider the corpus of evidence for each individual, the case against them gets even stronger:

Martin Harris
1. Was known for being very unstable religiously. Over his lifetime he changed his religious affiliation over 13 times. (see Wikipedia, “Martin Harris”)

2. Before joining Mormonism, Martin Harris was first a Quaker, then a Universalist, next a Restorationist, then a Baptist, and then a Presbyterian. (E. D. Howe, “Mormonism Unvailed”, pp.260-261)

3. After Martin Harris’ excommunication from the Mormon Church in 1837, he changed his religion eight more times, going from the Shakers to one Mormon splinter group to the next, and back to the main group in 1842. (see “Improvement Era”, March 1969, p.63; also see Brigham Young, “Journal of Discourses”, vol.7, p.164)

4. In 1846, (after his excommunication in 1837) Martin Harris was preaching among the Saints in England for the Apostate James J. Strang. (see Andrew Jenson, “Church Chronology”, p.31; also see “Millennial Star”, vol.8, Nov. 15, pp.124-128)

5. He signed his name to the following statement: “Testimony of three witnesses: We Cheerfully certify… The Lord has made it known to me that David Witmer is the man. David was then called forward, and Joseph and his counselors laid hands upon him, and ordained him to his station, to succeed him… He will be prophet, seer, Revelator and Translator before God.” Signed Martin Harris, Leonard Rich, Calvin Beebe. As we know from history, this never came to pass as Brigham young became Joseph Smith’s successor. (“Saints’ Herald, Volume 17”, p.555)

6. The Mormons stated of Martin Harris and a few other men within the pages of the church’s official newspaper at the time, “a lying deceptive spirit attend them…they are of their father, the devil…The very countenance of Harris will show to every spiritual-minded person who sees him, that the wrath of God is upon him.” (“Millennial Star”, vol 8, pp.124-128)

7. Phineas Young wrote to his older brother Brigham Young on December 31, 1841, from Kirtland, Ohio: “There are in this place all kinds of teaching; Martin Harris is a firm believer in Shakerism, says his testimony is greater than it was for the Book of Mormon” (see Wayne Cutler Gunnell, “Martin Harris – Witness and Benefactor of the Book of Mormon”, p.52)

8. Martin Harris testified that his testimony for Shakerism was greater than it was for Mormonism. The Shaker’s “Sacred Roll and Book” was also delivered by an angel. (see Jerald and Sandra Tanner, “The Case Against Mormonism”, vol.2, pp.50-58; also see Wayne Cutler Gunnell, “Martin Harris – Witness and Benefactor of the Book of Mormon”, p.52)

9. In the Elder’s Journal for August 1838, Joseph Smith denounced Martin Harris as “so far beneath contempt that to notice him would be too great a sacrifice for a gentleman to make. The Church exerted some restraint on him, but now he has given loose to all kinds of abominations, lying, cheating, swindling, and all kinds of debauchery.” (see J. A. Clark, “Gleanings by the Way”, pp.256-257)

10. Like David Whitmer, Martin Harris later testified that he did not see the plates literally with his physical eyes: He said he saw the plates with “the eyes of faith and not with the natural eyes”, that is, with spiritual eyes. (see E.L. Kelley and Clark Braden, “The Braden & Kelly Debate”, p.173)

David Whitmer
1. David Whitmer said in 1887: “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…'” (see David Whitmer, “An Address to all believers in Christ”, p.27)

2. David Whitmer belonged to at least three Mormon splinter groups at different times, but he died in opposition to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – that is the original church started by Joseph Smith as well as what later became today’s Brighamite denomination of that church – and its priesthood doctrine and claims.  (see David Whitmer, “An Address to all believers in Christ”, also see John Farkas, “Fabricating The Mormon Priesthood: By God Or By Man?”, Beggar’s Bread website) 

3. Like Martin Harris, David Whitmer later testified that he did not see the plates literally with his physical eyes: Whitmer told Theodore Turley that the plates were shown to him by a “supernatural power”, “…all I know, you have published to the world that an angel did present those plates to Joseph Smith.” Whitmer replied “I now say I handled those plates. there was fine engravings on both sides. I handled them.” and he described how they were hung “and they were shown to me by a supernatural power.” he acknowledged all. Turley asked him why the translation is not now true, & he said “I cannot read it, and I do not know whether it is true or not.” (see “Theodore Turley’s Memorandums” LDS Church Archives, in the handwriting of Thomas Bullock, who began clerking for Turley in late 1843; also cited in Dan Vogel (editor), “Early Mormon Documents” vol.5, p.241.; also, with minor editing, Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, vol.3, pp. 307–308)

4. David Whitmer changed his story about seeing the plates and later told of finding them lying in a field and later still, told Orson Pratt that they were on a table with all sorts of brass plates, gold plates, the Sword of Laban, the ‘Director’ and the Urim and Thummim. (Millennial Star, vol.40, pp.771-772)

5. During the summer of 1837, while in Kirtland, David Whitmer pledged his new loyalty to a prophetess (as did Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery) who used a black seer stone and danced herself into ‘trances.’ (Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches”, pp.211-213)

6. His association with the aforementioned prophetess was the beginning of the end for Whitmer in regard to the Mormon Church. It ended in 1847 in his declaration to Oliver that he (Whitmer) was to be the Prophet of the New Church of Christ and Oliver a Counselor. (Letter to Oliver Cowdery, by David Whitmer, Sept. 8, 1847, printed in the “Ensign of Liberty”, 5/1848, p.93; also see “Ensign of Liberty”, 8/1849, pp.101-104)

7. In the meantime, he was excommunicated and roughly put out. He and Oliver Cowdery’s families were driven into the streets and robbed by the Mormons while they were away trying to leave to make arrangements for a safe place to flee to. (see “John Whitmer’s History of the Church”)

8. Cursed by leaders such as Sidney Rigdon, David Whitmer was denounced by the Prophet Joseph Smith as a “dumb ass to ride ” and someone “prays out cursings instead of blessings. Poor ass!” (“History of the Church”, vol.3, p.228)

9. David Whitmer never returned to the LDS Church but joined splinter groups that denied and denounced the original Latter Day Saint church he helped found. (see Wikipedia, “David Whitmer”)

10. He went to his grave denying his testimony of Joseph Smith as a true prophet of God, while still affirming his testimony of the book of Mormon. (see Wikipedia, “David Whitmer”)

Oliver Cowdery
1. Oliver Cowdery was excommunicated from the Mormon church and joined the Methodist church. (see Wikipedia, “Oliver Cowdery”)

2. In 1841 the Mormons published a poem which stated: “Or Book of Mormon, not his word, because denied by Oliver”. (see “Times and Seasons”, vol.2, p.482)

3. The Mormon church accused Oliver Cowdery of Adultery and claimed he, David Whitmer, and Lyman E. Johnson (another Early Mormon Leader) had joined “a gang of counterfeiters, thieves, liars, and blacklegs”. (see Rollin J. Britton, “Early Days on Grand River and the Mormon War”, p.77)

4. Oliver Cowdery was the Church’s second Elder, often called the “Second President.” The early day companion of Joseph Smith, he was a scribe for the Book of Mormon, present at the “Restoration of the Priesthood,’ and as close to the real truth as any man. (see “Pearl of Great Price”, Joseph Smith – History 1:66–75; Joseph Smith History vol.2, pp. 72-76)

5. However, in 1838 in Kirtland, Oliver Cowdery confronted Joseph Smith with the charge of adultery with Fanny Alger, and with lying and teaching false doctrines. (see Private Letter to Brother, Warren Cowdery, by Oliver Cowdery, Jan. 21, 1838)

6. Joseph Smith denied this and charged Cowdery with being a liar. (see “History of the Church”, vol.3 pp.16-18; also see “Elder’s Journal”, Joseph Smith, July 1838, p.45)

7. Church records now show Miss Alger was Smith’s first “spiritual wife.” Cowdery was telling the truth. (see Andew Jenson, “Historical Record”, 1886, vol.6, p.233; also see Wikipedia, “Fanny Alger”)

8. Cowdery was excommunicated for this and other “crimes”. (see “History of the Church”, vol.3, pp.16-18)

9. Later, as a Methodist, he denied the Book of Mormon. (“Times and Seasons”, vol.2, p.482; also see “Improvement Era”, Jan. 1969, p.56; and Joseph Greehalgh, “Oliver Cowdery-The Man Outstanding”, p.28)

10. Cowdery publicly confessed his sorrow and shame for his connection with Mormonism. (Charles Shook, “The True Origin of The Book of Mormon”, pp.58-59)

11. While the Mormon church claims he rejoined them in the fall of 1848, ( see Andew Jenson, “Historical Record” vol.5, p.201) they also accused him later that year, with trying to “raise up the Kingdom again” with the Apostate, William E. McLellin. (see Juanita Brooks, “On The Mormon frontier, Diary of Hosea Stout”, vol.2, p.336)

12. Oliver Cowdery was publicly charged by Joseph Smith and leading Mormons with stealing, lying, perjury, counterfeiting, adultery, and being the leader of a gang of “scoundrels of the deepest degree!” (see “Senate Document 189”, Feb. 15, 1841, pp.6-9; also see B. H. Roberts, “Comprehensive History of the Church”, vol.1, pp.438-439)

13. Joseph Smith listed Oliver Cowdery as among those, “too mean to mention; and we had liked to have forgotten them.” (“History of the Church”, vol.3, p.232)

14. Oliver Cowdery died claiming that the book of Doctrines & Covenants must be discarded. This was a stance that he first publicly articulated in “An Address to All Believers in Christ” in 1887 and never wavered from until his death a year later. (see David Whitmer, “An Address to All Believers in Christ”)

Stated plainly, with witnesses like this, who needs enemies?

Compiled by Fred W. Anson from the author uncredited “The Case Against the Three Witnesses to The Book of Mormon”. Editing was required to eliminate or minimize the original’s polemic rhetoric, inconsistent formatting, and to improve overall clarity and the quality of the presentation. All that to say, with the greatest sense of appreciation to the unknown, original author who did the heavy lifting of original research for this piece: Thank you! 

Richmond, Missouri, is the location of the log cabin in which Joseph Smith and other Church leaders were imprisoned before being taken to Liberty Jail. David Whitmer and his family lived in Richmond for many years, and Oliver Cowdery lived here for a time before his death. Both David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery are buried in Richmond. A monument honoring Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris—the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon—was erected in Richmond under the direction of Junius F. Wells. On November 22, 1911, the monument was dedicated under the direction of Elder Heber J. Grant. In this photograph, taken during a light rain, prayer is being offered at the dedication ceremony. A metal box within the base of the monument contained copies of the Latter-day Saint scriptures, the History of the Church, and other documents. (photograph by George Anderson, 1911)

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