Three Witnesses

Three Witnesses

The Three Witnesses were a group of three early leaders of the Latter Day Saint movement who signed a statement in 1830 saying that an angel had shown them the golden plates from which Joseph Smith, Jr. translated the Book of Mormon and that they had heard God's voice testifying that the book had been translated by the power of God. The Three are among the eleven Book of Mormon witnesses, of whom the remainder were the Eight Witnesses that affirmed that they "saw and handled" the plates.

The Three Witnesses were Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer, whose joint testimony, in conjunction with a separate statement by Eight Witnesses, has been printed with nearly every edition of the Book of Mormon since its first publication in 1830. All three witnesses eventually broke with Smith and were excommunicated from the church he founded, [In 1838, Joseph Smith called Cowdery, Harris, and Whitmer "too mean to mention; and we had liked to have forgotten them." B.H. Roberts, ed. "History of the Church" (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1905), 3: 232.] but to varying degrees, they also all continued to testify to the divine origin of the Book of Mormon.

Testimony of the Three Witnesses

Probably in early July 1829—but on an unspecified day and in an unspecified place—Joseph Smith Jr., Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris are said to have retired to the woods, praying to receive a vision of the Golden Plates. After some time, Harris left the other three men, believing his presence had prevented the vision from occurring. The remaining three again knelt and soon saw a light in the air over their heads and an angel holding the plates in his hands. Smith retrieved Harris, and after praying at some length with him, Harris too said he saw the vision, shouting, "'Tis enough; 'tis enough; mine eyes have beheld, Hosanna!" [Richard Lyman Bushman, "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling" (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 78.]

An 1830 statement titled "Testimony of Three Witnesses"—one statement signed by three men rather than three separate statements—was published at the end of the first edition of the Book of Mormon:

Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That we, through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, have seen the plates which contain this record, which is a record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites, his brethren, and also of the people of Jared, which came from the tower of which hath been spoken. And we also know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true. And we also testify that we have seeen [sic] the engravings which are upon the plates; and they have been shewn unto us by the power of God, and not of man. And we declare with words of soberness, that an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon; and we know that it is by the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, that we beheld and bear record that these things are true. And it is marvellous [sic] in our eyes. Nevertheless, the voice of the Lord commanded us that we should bear record of it; wherefore, to be obedient unto the commandments of God, we bear testimony of these things. And we know that if we are faithful in Christ, we shall rid our garments of the blood of all men, and be found spotless before the judgment-seat of Christ, and shall dwell with him eternally in the heavens. And the honor be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen.

In subsequent editions of the Book of Mormon, the testimony was moved to the beginning of the book and its spelling standardized.

As a group, the Three Witnesses served only one other role in the church before they were excommunicated in 1837-38. After Joseph Smith had selected the council of the Twelve Apostles from among the veterans of Zion's Camp, the Three Witnesses "called out the twelve men and gave each one a blessing." [Bushman, 255. The choices were announced at a meeting on 14 February 1835. [ History of the Church 2:186-87.] . According to Bushman the implication of the blessing was that the Twelve were to be the "core missionary force."]

The Three Witnesses

Some modern interpreters of Mormonism have argued, as did some of the witnesses' contemporaries, that the Three Witnesses had a magical worldview. One of these, Grant Palmer, a former director of LDS Institutes of Religion who was disfellowshipped by the LDS Church in 2004 for his book "An Insider's View of Mormon Origins", argued that moderns "tend to read into their testimonies a rationalist perspective rather than a nineteenth-century magical mindset....They shared a common world view, and this is what drew them together in 1829." [Grant H. Palmer, "An Insider's View of Mormon Origins" (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 175-76.] Critics of Mormonism have also noted that all three witnesses were closely associated with Joseph Smith and that Martin Harris made a significant financial contribution to the movement. [Harris financed publication of the Book of Mormon. [ Institute for Religious Research website] ]

Oliver Cowdery

Oliver Cowdery was a school teacher and an early convert to Mormonism who served as scribe while Joseph Smith dictated what he said was a translation of the Book of Mormon. Like Smith, who was a distant relative, Cowdery was also a treasure hunter who had used a divining rod in his youth. Cowdery asked questions of the rod; if it moved, the answer was yes, if not, no. [Barnes Frisbie, "The History of Middletown, Vermont" (Rutland: Tuttle and Co., 1867) in "EMD", 1: 603-05.] Cowdery also told Smith that he had seen the Golden Plates in a vision before the two ever met. [Richard Bushman, "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling" (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 73; Palmer, 179.]

Before Cowdery served as one of the Three Witnesses, he had already experienced two other important visions. Cowdery said that he and Smith had received the Aaronic Priesthood from John the Baptist in May 1829 after which they had baptized each other in the Susquehanna River. ["Messenger and Advocate" (October 1834), 14-16; Bushman, 74-75.] Cowdery said that he and Smith had later gone into the forest and prayed "until a glorious light encircled us, and as we arose on account of the light, three persons stood before us dressed in white, their faces beaming with glory." One of the three announced that he was the Apostle Peter and named the others as the Apostles James and John. [Charles M. Nielsen to Heber Grant, February 10, 1898, in Dan Vogel, ed., "Early Mormon Documents" (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998), 2: 476.]

By 1838, Cowdery and Smith had engaged in a number of disagreements that included doctrinal differences about the role of faith and works, [Cowdery and Smith publicly argued about the wording of what is now Doctrine & Covenants Section 20:37. The dispute arose partially in part because as Second Elder in the Church of Christ, Cowdery had received parts of the revelation and was part author of the D&C 20. (see Articles of the Church of Christ). Cowdery's version of the revelation was worded differently than the version that was prepared for publication in 1835. Smith's version reads: "All those who humble themselves before God, and desire to be baptized, and come forth with broken hearts and contrite spirits, and witness before the church that they have truly repented of all their sins, and are willing to take upon them the name of Jesus Christ, having a determination to serve him to the end, and truly manifest by their works that they have received of the Spirit of Christ unto the remission of their sins, shall be received by baptism into his church." Cowdery's version reads: "Now therefore whosoever repenteth & humbleth himself before me & desireth to be baptized in my name shall ye baptize them...if it so be that he repenteth & is baptized in my name then shall ye receive him & shall minister unto him of my flesh & blood but if he repenteth not he shall not be numbered among my people that he may not destroy my people." The discussion of how works and faith are intertwined in the repentance process proved to be a dividing factor between Smith and Cowdery during the printing of the Book of Commandments and later the Doctrine and Covenants.] the Kirtland Safety Society fiasco, [See excommunication charges against Cowdery in "History of the Church", 3: 16] and what Cowdery called Smith's "dirty, nasty, filthy affair" with Fanny Alger. [B.H. Roberts, "New Witnesses for God", 2: 308-9; "Encyclopedia of Mormonism" "Book of Mormon Witnesses"; Oliver Cowdery and "History of the Church", 3: 14-17] Smith's growing reliance on Sidney Rigdon as his first counselor, [Although Rigdon was Smith's counselor in the First Presidency, Cowdery was still an "associate president" or "assistant president" of the Church and had more authority than Rigdon. However, David Whitmer was President of the Church in Zion, and Smith led the First Presidency and was president of the Church outside of Zion. It is apparent that Cowdery had a difficult time with the rising influence of Rigdon, and authority of Whitmer. "Encyclopedia of Mormonism", "Cowdery, Oliver"; D. Michael Quinn, "BYU Studies", 16: 193] land purchases and other economic details during the gathering of the Latter-day Saints in Jackson County and Kirtland ["Encyclopedia of Mormonism", "Cowdery, Oliver"] ultimately led to Cowdery's excommunication in April. ["History of the Church"3: 16: "Wednesday, April 11, [1838] --Elder Seymour Brunson preferred the following charges against Oliver Cowdery, to the High Council at Far West: To the Bishop and Council of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I prefer the following charges against President Oliver Cowdery. "First--For persecuting the brethren by urging on vexatious law suits against them, and thus distressing the innocent. Second--For seeking to destroy the character of President Joseph Smith, Jun., by falsely insinuating that he was guilty of adultery. "Third--For treating the Church with contempt by not attending meetings. "Fourth--For virtually denying the faith by declaring that he would not be governed by any ecclesiastical authority or revelations whatever, in his temporal affairs. "Fifth--For selling his lands in Jackson county, contrary to the revelations. "Sixth--For writing and sending an insulting letter to President Thomas B. Marsh, while the latter was on the High Council, attending to the duties of his office as President of the Council, and by insulting the High Council with the contents of said letter. "Seventh--For leaving his calling to which God had appointed him by revelation, for the sake of filthy lucre, and turning to the practice of law. "Eighth--For disgracing the Church by being connected in the bogus business, as common report says. "Ninth--For dishonestly retaining notes after they had been paid; and finally, for leaving and forsaking the cause of God, and returning to the beggarly elements of the world, and neglecting his high and holy calling, according to his profession."] Cowdery also refused to obey a high council decision not to sell lands on which he hoped to make a profit, " [D] eclaring that he would not be governed by any ecclesiastical authority nor Revelation whatever in his temporal affairs." [Bushman, 323, 347-48.]

After Cowdery's excommunication on April 12, 1838, he taught school, practiced law, and was involved in Ohio political affairs. Until 1848, Cowdery put the Latter Day Saint church behind him. There is even the possibility, though no direct evidence, that he may have briefly denied his testimony regarding the Golden Plates. [The following verse was published in "Times and Seasons" (1841), [ 2: 482] :"Or does it prove there is no time,/Because some watches will not go?/...Or prove that Christ was not the Lord/Because that Peter cursed and swore?/Or Book of Mormon not His word/Because denied, by Oliver?"] Following his relocation to Tiffin, Ohio in 1840, Cowdery reaffirmed his role in the establishment of Mormonism even though the confession cost him the editorship of a newspaper. In 1848, after Joseph Smith's assassination, Cowdery reaffirmed his witness to the Golden Plates and asked to be readmitted to the church. He never held another high office in the church, in part because he died sixteen months after his rebaptism. [Randall Cluff, "Cowdery, Oliver" [ American National Biography Online Feb. 2000] .]

Martin Harris

Martin Harris was a respected farmer in the Palmyra area who had changed his religion at least five times before he became a Mormon. [Harris had been a Quaker, a Universalist, a Restorationist, a Baptist, a Presbyterian, and perhaps a Methodist. Ronald W. Walker, "Martin Harris: Mormonism's Early Convert," "Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought" 19 (Winter 1986):30-33).] A biographer wrote that his "imagination was excitable and fecund." One letter says that Harris thought that a candle sputtering was the work of the devil [Walker, 34: "Once whild reading scripture, he reportedly mistook a candle's sputtering as a sign that the devil desired to stop him."] and that he had met Jesus in the shape of a deer and walked and talked with him for two or three miles. [John A. Clark letter, August 31, 1840 in "EMD", 2: 271.] The local Presbyterian minister called him "a visionary fanatic." [Walker, 34-35.] A friend, who praised Harris as a "universally esteemed as an honest man" but disagreed with his religious affiliation, declared that Harris's mind "was overbalanced by 'marvellousness'" and that his belief in earthly visitations of angels and ghosts gave him the local reputation of being crazy. [Pomroy Tucker Reminiscence, 1858 in "Early Mormon Documents" 3: 71.] Another friend said, "Martin was a man that would do just as he agreed with you. But, he was a great man for seeing spooks." [Lorenzo Saunders Interview, November 12, 1884, "Early Mormon Documents" 2: 149.]

During the early years, Harris "seems to have repeatedly admitted the internal, subjective nature of his visionary experience." [Vogel, "EMD", 2: 255.] 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." [Pomeroy Tucker, "Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism" (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1867), 71 in "EMD", 3: 122.] John H. Gilbert, the typesetter for most of the book, 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." [John H. Gilbert, "Memorandum," 8 September 1892, in "EMD", 2: 548.] Two other Palmyra residents said that Harris told them that he had seen the plates with "the eye of faith" or "spiritual eyes." [Martin Harris interviews with John A. Clark, 1827 & 1828 in "EMD", 2: 270; Jesse Townsend to Phineas Stiles, 24 December 1833, in "EMD", 3: 22.] In 1838, Harris is said to have told an Ohio congregation that "he never saw the plates with his natural eyes, only in vision or imagination." [Stephen Burnett to Lyman E. Johnson, 15 April 1838 in "EMD", 2: 291.] A neighbor of Harris in Kirtland, Ohio, said that Harris "never claimed to have seen [the plates] with his natural eyes, only spiritual vision." [Reuben P. Harmon statement, c. 1885, in "EMD", 2: 385.]

One account states that in March 1838, Martin Harris publicly denied that either he or the other Witnesses to the Book of Mormon had literally seen the golden plates—although, of course, he had not been present when Whitmer and Cowdery first claimed to have viewed them. This account says that Harris's recantation, made during a period of crisis in early Mormonism, induced five influential members, including three Apostles, to leave the Church. [Stephen Burnett to Luke S. Johnson, 15 April 1838, in Joseph Smith's Letterbook, "Early Mormon Documents" 2: 290-92.] Later in life, Harris strongly denied that he ever made this statement. [Letter of Martin Harris, Sr., to Hanna B. Emerson, January 1871, Smithfield, Utah Territory, in "EMD", 2: 338. See also Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses," (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981), 118. Nevertheless, some years later, even Brigham Young referred to "witnesses of the Book of Mormon, who handled the plates and conversed with the angels of God, [but who] were afterwards left to doubt and to disbelieve that they had ever seen an angel." "Journal of Discourses" (1860), 7:164]

In 1837, Harris joined dissenters, led by Warren Parrish, in an attempt to reform the Mormon church. But Parrish rejected the Book of Mormon, and Harris continued to believe in it. By 1840, Harris had returned to Smith's church. Following Smith's assassination, Harris accepted James J. Strang as a new prophet, and Strang also claimed to have been divinely led to an ancient record engraved upon metal plates. By 1847, Harris had broken with Strang and had accepted the leadership of fellow Book of Mormon witness, David Whitmer. Harris then left Whitmer for another Mormon factional leader, Gladden Bishop. In 1855, Harris joined with the last surviving brother of Joseph Smith Jr., William Smith, and declared that William was Joseph's true successor. ["EMD", 2: 258.] In 1856 Harris's second wife left him to gather with the Mormons in Utah. Harris remained in Kirtland, Ohio and, as caretaker of the temple there, gave tours to interested visitors. ["EMD", 2: 258.]

Despite his earlier statements regarding the spiritual nature of his experience, in 1853, Harris told one David Dille that he had held the forty- to sixty-pound plates on his knee for "an hour-and-a-half" and handled them "plate after plate." [Martin Harris interview with David B. Dille, 15 September 1853 in "EMD" 2: 296-97.] Even later, Harris affirmed that he had seen the plates and the angel with his natural eyes: "Gentlemen," holding out his hand, "do you see that hand? Are you sure you see it? Or are your eyes playing you a trick or something? No. Well, as sure as you see my hand so sure did I see the Angel and the plates." [Martin Harris interview with Robert Barter, c. 1870 in "EMD", 2: 390.]

In 1870, at the age of 87, Harris accepted an invitation to live in Utah, where he was rebaptized and spent his remaining years with relatives in Cache County. As an old man, Harris bore fervent testimony to the authenticity of the plates, although a contemporary critic of the Church speculated that his sympathy for the Utah church may have been tenuous. [In an interview with ex-Mormon Anthony Metcalf, Metcalf asked him why, if he did not believe that polygamy, baptism for the dead, or temple endowments were part of Mormonism, he had taken the endowment when he arrived in Salt Lake City. Harris replied "to see what was going on in there." Martin Harris interview with Anthony Metcalf, c. 1873-74 in "EMD", 2: 348.] In a letter of 1870, Harris swore, " [N] o man ever heard me in any way deny the truth of the Book of Mormon, the administration of the angel that showed me the plates, nor the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints under the administration of Joseph Smith, Jun., the prophet whom the Lord raised up for that purpose in these the latter days, that he may show forth his power and glory." [Letter of Martin Harris, Sr., to Hanna B. Emerson, January 1871, Smithfield, Utah Territory, in "EMD", 2: 338. See also Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses," (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981), 118.]

David Whitmer

David Whitmer first became involved with Joseph Smith and the Golden Plates through his friend Oliver Cowdery; and because of his longevity, Whitmer became the most interviewed of the Three Witnesses. Whitmer gave various versions of his experience in viewing the Golden Plates. Although less credulous than Harris, Whitmer had his own visionary predilections and owned a seer stone. [Palmer, 180-81.] In 1829, before testifying to the truth of the Golden Plates, Whitmer reported that when traveling with Smith to his father's farm in Fayette, New York, they had seen a Nephite on the road who suddenly disappeared. Then when they arrived at his father's house, they were "impressed" that the same Nephite was under the shed. ["EMD", 5: 10-11, Whitmer interview with Edward Stevenson, December 1877, "EMD" 5: 30-31.]

Recounting the vision to Orson Pratt in 1878, Whitmer claimed to have seen not only the Golden Plates but the "Brass Plates, the plates containing the record of the wickedness of the people of the world....the sword of Laban, the Directors (i.e. the ball which Lehi had) and the Interpreters. I saw them just as plain as I see this bed...." [David Whitmer interview with Orson Pratt, September 1878, in "EMD", 5: 43.] On other occasions, Whitmer's vision of the plates seemed far less corporeal. When asked in 1880 for a description of the angel who showed him the plates, Whitmer replied that the angel "had no appearance or shape." 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. [Whitmer interview with John Murphy, June 1880, in "EMD" 5: 63.]

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 in "EMD" 5: 141.]

In 1831, Whitmer moved with early Mormon believers to Kirtland, Ohio where he briefly supported a woman named Hubble, who professed to be prophetess and used a seer stone. In 1832 he followed the church to Jackson County, Missouri, and was named Smith's successor even though he had criticized Smith's more recent innovations. By December 1837, a movement led by Warren Parrish plotted to overthrow Smith and replace him with Whitmer. After the Kirtland Bank fiasco, confrontation grew between the dissenters and those loyal to Joseph Smith. Whitmer, his brother John, Oliver Cowdery, and others were harassed by the Danites, a secret group of Mormon vigilantes, and were warned to leave the county. Whitmer was formally excommunicated on April 13, 1838 and never rejoined the church. [Michael J. Latzer, "Whitmer, David" [ "American National Biography Online" Feb. 2000] .]

Whitmer then moved to Richmond, Missouri, where he ran a livery stable and became a civic leader. After Smith's assassination, Whitmer, like Martin Harris, briefly followed James Strang, who had his own set of supernatural metal plates. Later Whitmer organized his own splinter group based on his authority as one of the Three Witnesses and even later supported another group headed by his brother John. In his pamphlet, "An Address to All Believers in Christ" (1887), Whitmer reaffirmed his witness to the Golden Plates but also criticized what he viewed as the errors of Joseph Smith, including his introduction of plural marriage. "If you believe my testimony to the Book of Mormon, if you believe that God spake to us three witnesses by his own voice," wrote Whitmer,"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....'" ["An Address," 27, in "EMD", 5: 194.] Nevertheless, Whitmer is regarded by Mormons as an "enduring witness to the genuineness of the prophet Joseph Smith and his message." [Michael J. Latzer, "Whitmer, David" [ "American National Biography Online" Feb. 2000] .]


The example of the Three Witnesses has encouraged the practice within Latter Day Saint churches of having members regularly bear their testimony to the truth of the Mormon gospel based on personal spiritual experiences and impressions. [An example of this sort of thinking is illustrated in a statement about The Three Witnesses by Quorum of the Twelve Apostles member Dallin Oaks: "People who deny the possibility of supernatural beings may reject this remarkable testimony, but people who are open to believe in miraculous experiences should find it compelling. The solemn written testimony of three witnesses to what they saw and heard—two of them simultaneously and the third almost immediately thereafter—is entitled to great weight. Indeed, we know that upon the testimony of "one" witness great miracles have been claimed and accepted by many religious people, and in the secular world the testimony of one witness has been deemed sufficient for weighty penalties and judgments." Dallin H. Oaks, "The Witness: Martin Harris," "Ensign" (May 1999), 35.]


ee also

*Eight Witnesses

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