The Three Witnesses is the collective name for three men connected with the early Latter Day Saint movement who stated that an angel had shown them the golden plates from which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon; they also stated that they had heard God's voice, informing them that the book had been translated by divine power. The Three are part of twelve Book of Mormon witnesses, who also include Smith and the Eight Witnesses.
The joint statement of the Three Witnesses—Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer—has been printed (with a separate statement by the Eight Witnesses) in nearly every edition of the Book of Mormon since its first publication in 1830. All three men eventually broke with Smith and the church he organized, although Harris and Cowdery were eventually rebaptized into the church after Smith's death. Whitmer founded his own Church of Christ (Whitmerite). All three men upheld their testimony of the Book of Mormon at their deaths.
Testimony of the Three Witnesses
On Sunday, June 28, 1829, Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris went into the woods near the home of Peter Whitmer, Sr. and prayed 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 said they soon saw a light in the air overhead and an angel holding the golden plates. Smith retrieved Harris, and after praying at some length with him, Harris too said he saw the vision.
The three men provided a single written statement titled "Testimony of Three Witnesses", 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, who 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.
The testimony was moved to the beginning of the Book of Mormon in later editions, with standardized spelling.
The Three Witnesses
The Three Witnesses were closely associated with Joseph Smith at the time he founded the church. Martin Harris made a significant financial contribution to the printing of the Book of Mormon. In addition, it has been argued that Smith and the Witnesses had a similar magical worldview. Grant Palmer wrote that moderns "tend to read into [the Witnesses'] 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."
As a group, the Three Witnesses served only one other role in the church before they were excommunicated in 1837–38. After Smith had selected the council of the Twelve Apostles, the Three Witnesses "called out the twelve men and gave each one a blessing."
Oliver Cowdery was a school teacher and an early convert to Mormonism who served as scribe while 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. Cowdery also told Smith that he had seen the golden plates in a vision before the two ever met.
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. Cowdery said that he and Smith had later that year 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 persons claimed to be the Apostle Peter and named the others James and John.
By 1838, Cowdery and Smith had a number of disagreements, including doctrinal differences about the role of faith and works, the Kirtland Safety Society, and what Cowdery called Smith's "dirty, nasty, filthy affair" with Fanny Alger. Smith's growing reliance on Sidney Rigdon as his first counselor and differences over the management of finances during the gathering of the Latter Day Saints in Jackson County and Kirtland ultimately led to Cowdery's excommunication in April. Cowdery also refused a high council decision that he not to sell lands on which he hoped to make a profit.
After Cowdery's excommunication on April 12, 1838, he taught school, practiced law, and became involved in Ohio political affairs. He joined the Methodist church in Tiffin, Ohio, and, according to a lay leader of that church, publicly declared that he was "ashamed of his connection with Mormonism." Later, Cowdery reaffirmed his role in the establishment of Mormonism, though he lost editorship of a newspaper as a result. In 1848, after 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 re-baptism.
Martin Harris was a respected farmer in the Palmyra area who had changed his religion at least five times before he became a Mormon. 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 and that he had met Jesus in the shape of a deer and walked and talked with him for two or three miles. The local Presbyterian minister called him "a visionary fanatic." A friend, who praised Harris as "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. Another friend said, "Martin was a good citizen. Martin was a man that would do just as he agreed with you. But, he was a great man for seeing spooks."
During the early years, Harris "seems to have repeatedly admitted the internal, subjective nature of his visionary experience." 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." 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." Two other Palmyra residents said that Harris told them that he had seen the plates with "the eye of faith" or "spiritual eyes." 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." A neighbor of Harris in Kirtland, Ohio, said that Harris "never claimed to have seen [the plates] with his natural eyes, only spiritual vision."
One account states that in March 1838, 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. Later in life, Harris strongly denied that he ever made this statement.
In 1837, Harris joined dissenters, led by Warren Parrish, in an attempt to reform the 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, William Smith, and declared that William was Joseph's true successor. In 1856, Harris was living in Kirtland and, as caretaker of the temple, gave tours to interested visitors.
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." Even later, Harris affirmed that he had seen the plates and the angel: "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."
In 1870, at the age of 87, Harris accepted an invitation to live in Utah Territory, where he was rebaptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) and spent his remaining years with relatives in Cache County. In his last years, Harris continued to bear fervent testimony to the authenticity of the plates, but a contemporary critic of the church has noted that Harris rejected some important Mormon doctrines and that his sympathy for the LDS Church was tenuous. In a letter of 1870, Harris swore, "no 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."
David Whitmer first became involved with Joseph Smith and the golden plates through his friend Oliver Cowdery, and, because of his longevity, 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 visions and owned a seer stone. In 1829, before testifying to the truth of the golden plates, Whitmer reported that while traveling with Smith to his father's farm in Fayette, New York, they had seen a Nephite on the road who suddenly disappeared. Upon arrival at his father's house, they were "impressed" that the same Nephite was under the shed.
Recounting the vision to Orson Pratt in 1878, Whitmer claimed to have seen not only the golden plates but the, Brass Plates, "... the sword of Laban, the Directors and the Interpreters." 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 said 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.
James Henry Moyle, a young Mormon lawyer, interviewed Whitmer in 1885 and 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."
In 1831, Whitmer moved with early Mormon believers to Kirtland, Ohio. In 1832, he followed the church to Jackson County, Missouri, and was named president of the church 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 collapse of the Kirtland Bank, confrontation grew between the dissenters and those loyal to 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.
Whitmer 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 he also criticized Smith, including the 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'". Nevertheless, Whitmer is regarded by Mormons as an "enduring witness to the genuineness of the prophet Joseph Smith and his message."
- Bushman & 2005 (78)
- Oaks, Dallin H. "The Witness: Martin Harris". Retrieved 14 February 2014.
- Faulring, Scott H. "The Return of Oliver Cowdery". The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarshup. Retrieved 14 February 2014.
- Givens, Terryl (2009), The Book of Mormon: a very short introduction, Oxford University Press, p. 99 ("the three witnesses all defected from Smith and his church, (only Whitmer permanently), though all maintained until death the truth of the affidavits.")
- 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. Technically, Whitmer resigned before the High Council decided that he "be no longer considered a member of the Church of Christ of Latter day Saints." Ronald E. Romig, "Faithful Dissenter, Witness Apart," in Roger D. Launius and Linda Thatcher, Dissenting Visions: Dissenters in Mormon History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, p. 36; Michael Marquardt, "David Whitmer: His Evolving Beliefs and Recollections," in Scattering of the Saints, Schism within Mormonism, eds. Newell G. Bringhurst and John C. Hamer, (Independence, MO: John Whitmer Books, 2007) p. 50.
- Anderson, Gale Yancey (Spring 2012), "Eleven Witnesses Behold the Plates", Journal of Mormon History, 38 (2): 146–52
- Vogel, Dan, ed., Early Mormon Documents, Signature Books, 2003, Vol. V, p. 421.
- Vogel, p. 9.
- Bushman, Richard Lyman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, p. 78.
- Manuscript History, A-2:26, in Selected Collections, Vol. 1, DVD #1, MH8_29.
- History of the Church, 1:54.
- Bushman, 78.
- In Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, p. 80, Richard Bushman notes: "Martin Harris mortgaged his farm for $3,000 as security in case the books did not sell."
- Grant H. Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002) pp. 175–76.
- 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."
- Palmer, 179: "Oliver Cowdery came from a similar background. He was a treasure hunter and 'rodsman' before he met Joseph Smith in 1829. William Cowdery, his father, was associated with a treasure-seeking group in Vermont, and it is from them, one assumes that Oliver learned the art of working with a divining rod. Joseph told Oliver that he knew the 'rod of nature' Oliver used 'has told you many things.'" See Vogel EMD, 1: 599-621.
- Palmer, 179; Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith: Autobiographical and Historical Writings (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1989), I: 10.
- Messenger and Advocate (October 1834) pp. 14–16; Bushman, 74–75.
- Charles M. Nielsen to Heber Grant, February 10, 1898, in Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998) 2: 476.
- Cowdery and Smith publicly argued about the wording of what is now Doctrine and Covenants 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. Bushman, 323, 347–48.
- See excommunication charges against Cowdery in History of the Church, 3: 16.
- Brodie, 182. The Cowdery quotation is from a letter to his brother. B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God, 2: 308–09; Encyclopedia of Mormonism "Book of Mormon Witnesses"; Oliver Cowdery and History of the Church, 3: 14–17.
- 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 the authority of Whitmer. Encyclopedia of Mormonism, "Cowdery, Oliver"; D. Michael Quinn, BYU Studies, 16: 193.
- Encyclopedia of Mormonism, "Cowdery, Oliver"
- History of the Church 3: 16: "Wednesday, April 11, —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."
- Bushman, 323, 347–48.
- 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?" In 1881, both Cowdery’s law partner and his adopted daughter testified that Cowdery had joined the Methodist church in Tiffin, Ohio in 1841 or 1842. In 1844, Cowdery was chosen secretary of “a meeting of Male Members of the Methodist Protestant Church of Tiffin, Ohio.” G. J. Keen, a lay leader in that church, said that when joining the Methodist Church, Cowdery “arose and addressed the audience present, admitted his error and implored forgiveness, and said he was sorry and ashamed of his connection with Mormonism. He continued his membership while he resided in Tiffin and became superintendent of the Sabbath-school, and led an exemplary life while he resided with us." Charles Augustus Shook, The True Origin of the Book of Mormon (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Co., 1914) pp. 54–61.
- Randall Cluff, "Cowdery, Oliver" American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
- 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).
- Walker, 34: "Once while reading scripture, he reportedly mistook a candle's sputtering as a sign that the devil desired to stop him."
- John A. Clark letter, August 31, 1840 in EMD, 2: 271.
- Walker, 34-35.
- Pomeroy Tucker reminiscence, 1858 in Early Mormon Documents 3: 71.
- Lorenzo Saunders Interview, November 12, 1884, Early Mormon Documents 2: 149.
- Vogel, EMD, 2: 255.
- Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1867), 71 in EMD, 3: 122.
- John H. Gilbert, "Memorandum," 8 September 1892, in EMD, 2: 548.
- 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.
- Stephen Burnett to Lyman E. Johnson, 15 April 1838 in EMD, 2: 291.
- Reuben P. Harmon statement, c. 1885, in EMD, 2: 385.
- Stephen Burnett to Luke S. Johnson, 15 April 1838, in Joseph Smith's Letterbook, Early Mormon Documents 2: 290–92.
- 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) p. 118.
- EMD, 2: 258.
- Martin Harris interview with David B. Dille, 15 September 1853 in EMD 2: 296–97.
- Martin Harris interview with Robert Barter, c. 1870 in EMD, 2: 390.
- 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.
- 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.
- Palmer, 180–81, 193–94, 197–99.
- EMD, 5: 10-11, Whitmer interview with Edward Stevenson, December 1877, EMD 5: 30-31.
- David Whitmer interview with Orson Pratt, September 1878, in EMD, 5: 43.
- Whitmer interview with John Murphy, June 1880, in EMD 5: 63.
- Moyle diary, June 28, 1885 in EMD 5: 141.
- Michael J. Latzer, "Whitmer, David" American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
- "I wish now, standing as it were, in the very sunset of life, and in the fear of God, once for all to make this public statement: 'That I have never at any time denied that testimony or any part thereof, which has so long since been published with that Book, as one of the three witnesses. Those who know me best, will know that I have always adhered to that testimony. And that no man may be misled or doubt my present views in regard to the same, I do again affirm the truth of all of my statements, as then made and published." ThreeWitness.org website.
- "An Address," 27, in EMD, 5: 194.
- Anderson, Richard Lloyd (1981). Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company. ISBN 978-0-87747-846-1.
- Brodie, Fawn McKay (1995). No Man Knows My History: the Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet (2nd., rev. and enl. ed.). New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 0-679-73054-0.
- Bushman, Richard L. (1984). Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-06012-0.
- Bushman, Richard L. (2005). Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 1-4000-4270-4.
- Cook, Lyndon W. (ed) (1991). David Whitmer Interviews, A Restoration Witness. Orem, Utah: Grandin Book. ISBN 978-0-910523-38-7.
- Jessee, Dean C. (ed) (1989). The Papers of Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company. ISBN 0-87579-199-9.
- Latzer, Michael J (2000). "Whitmer, David". American National Biography Online. Oxford University Press.
- Palmer, Grant H. (2002). An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins. Salt Lake City: Signature Books. ISBN 1-56085-157-0.
- Roberts, Brigham Henry (1911). New Witnesses for God. (Vols. 1-3). Salt Lake City: Deseret News.
- Vogel, Dan (ed) (1996–2003). Early Mormon Documents. (Vols. 1-5). Salt Lake City: Signature Books. ISBN 1-56085-072-8.