The "Three Witnesses" to the Book of Mormon

By Richard Packham

    At the front of every copy of the Book of Mormon you will find "The Testimony of Three Witnesses," as signed by Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris:

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, their 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 seen the engravings which are upon the plates; and they have been shown 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 marvelous 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.
    Many people who find reason to doubt Mormonism for various other reasons sometimes have difficulty with this testimony. It seems so sincere and so straightforward. And, remarkably, even though each one of these men later became disillusioned with Joseph Smith and his church, there is no hard evidence that any of them denied this testimony in later life. So this document demands some explanation, if it is not to be accepted as proof for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.

    Randy Jordan points out that there were also other "witnesses" to events of that day surrounding the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and its "translator": those neighbors and acquaintances of Joseph Smith's during the 1820s whose sworn affidavits were collected by Philastus Hurlbut and published in E. D. Howe's book Mormonism Unvailed [sic] in 1834. As Jordan says:

Mormons assert that the "Book of Mormon witnesses" allegedly never recanted their "testimonies." However, not a single one of Hurlbut's more than five dozen testators denied theirs, either, even though some of them lived late into the century and had ample opportunity to do so. Also, Hurlbut's witnesses swore their testimonies as legal affidavits, whereas the "Book of Mormon witnesses" did not. So, whose "testimonies" are more credible? Those which are legally binding, or those which were given to sell books?
Those witnesses interviewed by Hurlbut consistently portrayed Smith as a ne'er-do-well knock-about who picked up money by convincing gullible farmers that he could find buried treasure on their lands through his magical powers and his "peep stone" (the same stone with which he claimed to have translated the sacred golden plates).

    I know a little bit about hypnotism, self-hypnotism and "altered states of consciousness." The techniques of inducing a hypnotic or semi-hypnotic state in a suitable subject are easy to learn, and quite simple. The hypnotist suggests the proper physical state (usually relaxed), and then gives hypnotic suggestions. It has also been found that turning the eyeballs slightly upward (as in an attitude of prayer, or looking for a descending angel) enhances the suggestibility of the subject. The subject can retain full consciousness, even though hallucinating at the suggestion of the hypnotist.

    I have done this. I have seen it done. For instance, I once watched an amateur hypnotist at a party gather a group of about twenty people in a room to "talk about hypnotism." Within a very few minutes, without any warning from him (he didn't say, "now I'm going to hypnotize you!"), just by talking "about" hypnotism, he had about 80% of the people hypnotized. He suggested that a flock of birds were flying overhead (this happened indoors, remember) dropping bird poop on them. Immediately everyone was frantically covering their heads, wiping themselves off, making sounds of disgust. The next moment he suggested they were watching the saddest movie they had ever seen. People immediately began to sob, to cry real tears, to shake with emotion. He then suggested that they were watching the funniest movie they had ever seen, and immediately they were holding their sides with laughter, falling off their chairs, etc.

    Of course Joseph Smith was not a trained hypnotist. The phenomenon had only begun to receive attention a few decades earlier, when Mesmer began to study it, calling it "animal magnetism." But there is no doubt, I would think, that priests, magicians, sorcerers and other charismatic types had discovered by accident, or by trial and error, many of the techniques to induce a hypnotic state. "Spell-binding" is a very old word, and a very old notion. Joseph Smith was charismatic, spell-binding, according to all who met him.

    The situation of the Three Witnesses was ideal for a hypnotically-induced illusion or "vision." Cowdery may have even been an accomplice, a shill, since he had been involved with Smith almost from the beginning. (And it appears, from recent unpublished research, that Cowdery's involvement was even earlier than presently suspected.)

    I see no problem with the fact that none of them denied their testimony, even though they all left the church. There are two very plausible explanations (take your pick), neither of which require us to conclude that they must have seen an angel. Remember, too, that the most that their signed testimony can prove is that they believed they had seen an angel. No one is required to believe such testimony, that is, to accept as conclusive proof that, in fact, they had seen an angel, either in court or in real life. Whether they actually did see an angel is a different issue.

    Explanation 1: As many critics have suggested, any man (even an honest man) hates to admit that he was flummoxed, or that he lied under oath, or that he has contributed to the deception of thousands of trusting people. It is easier, it causes less trouble, just to stick by the original story. (There are probably General Authorities and members of the BYU faculty who are further examples of this attitude.)

    Explanation 2: A hypnotically-induced hallucination is very real. Like any hallucination, it is identifiable as a hallucination only by someone other than the person hallucinating. If the person having the hallucination recognized that it was a hallucination, either at the time or later, it would not be a hallucination. It is very difficult to convince a hallucinator that his experience was not real. I think that the Witnesses had a joint hallucination that was so real that they believed it for as long as they lived (this conclusion may not apply to Cowdery).

    Mormon apologists counter the hallucination hypothesis by saying that joint hallucinations are impossible, i.e. two or more people having the same hallucination at the same time. Strictly speaking, that is probably true. But it is no valid objection here, because we are not suggesting that the Witnesses saw exactly the same thing. Each of them had an individual hallucination that shared only broad similarities. We have no details about what the angel looked like (long brown hair, medium black hair, short sleeves, long sleeves, barefoot, sandals, etc.). They saw and heard what it was suggested to them that they see and hear: angel holding gold plates, voice saying the record is true and commanding them to bear witness. One witness could have heard "Go thou forth and bear witness that this record is true!" but another could have heard: "I testify to you that this is the work of God, and is a true record; you are chosen and elected of God to bear witness to it!" What a shame, that we could not examine these witnesses to see if the details of their vision were identical! I have no doubt that some of the people I saw hallucinating at that party were picturing pigeons flying overhead, but others were seeing seagulls or crows, that some saw them flying east to west, and others north to south, or willy-nilly; I am quite certain that their movies were different. And yet they were all seeing something that in general terms could be described the same: "birds flying overhead, defecating; sad movie."

    Why should one accept that kind of testimony?


Since I wrote the above, two excellent discussions of the Witnesses have appeared:

Dan Vogel's essay "The Validity of the Witnesses' Testimonies", in the essay collection American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, edited by Vogel and Brent Metcalfe, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, 2002, pp 79-121

Chapter 6 ("Witnesses to the Golden Plates") in Grant H. Palmer's book An Insider's View of Mormon Origins, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, 2002, pp. 175-213

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©  2001 Richard Packham    Permission granted to reproduce for non-commercial purposes, provided text is not changed and this copyright notice is included

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?     - John Keats, Ode to a Nightingale