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.
For the sake of discussion let’s assume that an apparition
truly appeared before these witnesses as claimed here. These events would
have happened prior to 1830. Yet these men did not have the keys necessary to
discern angels. Those keys were given in 1843 in D&C 129 which
acknowledges the LDS teaching that the devil can appear as an angel of light
and provides the keys to determine whether an apparition is a true angel or
devil. “If it be the devil as an angel of light, when you ask him to shake
hands he will offer you his hand, and you will not feel anything you may
therefore detect him” (D&C 129:8). Even if the experiences actually
happened as described, these men would not have known if it was an angel of
light or the devil according to D&C 129.
It’s common for believers to claim that the testimony of the three witnesses
is more significant, reliable, or convincing because it resulted from a
vision or visitation of an angel. By what epistemological justification does
that make for a more credible witness? As far as I can tell, things revealed and
inspired by angelic visits supporting other religions’ claims that contradict
truth claims of the LDS Church are not seen as reliable or accurate by LDS
Besides, others testified on behalf of Joseph to something that wasn’t true.
In the October 1, 1842 “Times and Seasons” various leaders declared that they
knew of no other rule or system of marriage except that published in the 1835
version of the Doctrine and Covenants. It says, “Inasmuch as this Church of
Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication and polygamy, we
declare that we believe that one man should have one wife, and one woman but
one husband” (“Statement on Marriage”).
- Newel K. Whitney and Elizabeth Ann Whitney (as a counselor in the Relief Society) signed this. They had previously given their daughter to Joseph to be sealed to him in July 1842.
- Eliza R. Snow signed this as Relief Society Secretary. She had been polygamously sealed to Joseph in June 1842.
- Sarah M. Cleveland signed this as a counselor in the Relief Society. She was apparently “a polygamy insider” by June 1842 (Sarah Kingsley Cleveland).
- John Taylor signed this. He said he learned about polygamy shortly after returning from England in 1841 (Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, Vol. 16, pp. 17-18).
The three witnesses were close associates to Joseph, and
Oliver was related to Joseph. They could hardly be considered impartial.
Consider also that false memories can be implanted by social influence (a
process called social contagion of memory). Any acquaintance can offer
suggestions that might change memory, but “the more one dominates a
conversation the greater impact they will have on shaping the group’s
collective memory, a conversational role referred to as the ‘dominant
narrator’” (Memory’s malleability: its role in shaping collective memory and social identity),
and Joseph was certainly a dominant narrator among the Saints.
In addition, each of these witnesses had a propensity to extraordinary
superstition. The following is from this article about the Three Witnesses.
One could argue this is not the most scholarly source, but this information
is common knowledge and admitted by LDS apologists.
Oliver Cowdery: “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.”
Martin Harris: “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.”
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. 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.”
Though many defenders of the faith claim the witnesses never denied this
testimony, there’s reason to believe some may have. “Some of the witnesses of
the Book of Mormon who handled the plates and conversed with the angels of
God were afterwards left to doubt and to disbelieve that they had ever seen
an angel” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Vol 7, page 164).