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Three Witnesses

Three Witnesses

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The Three Witnesses were a group of three early leaders of the Latter Day Saint movement
Latter Day Saint movement
The Latter Day Saint movement is a group of independent churches tracing their origin to a Christian primitivist movement founded by Joseph Smith, Jr. in the late 1820s. Collectively, these churches have over 14 million members...

 who signed a statement in 1830 saying that an angel
Angel
Angels are mythical beings often depicted as messengers of God in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles along with the Quran. The English word angel is derived from the Greek ἄγγελος, a translation of in the Hebrew Bible ; a similar term, ملائكة , is used in the Qur'an...

 had shown them the golden plates
Golden Plates
According to Latter Day Saint belief, the golden plates are the source from which Joseph Smith, Jr. translated the Book of Mormon, a sacred text of the faith...

 from which Joseph Smith, Jr. translated the Book of Mormon
Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon is a sacred text of the Latter Day Saint movement that adherents believe contains writings of ancient prophets who lived on the American continent from approximately 2600 BC to AD 421. It was first published in March 1830 by Joseph Smith, Jr...

 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
Book of Mormon witnesses
The Book of Mormon witnesses are a group of contemporaries of Joseph Smith, Jr. who said they saw the golden plates from which Smith said he translated the Book of Mormon...

, of whom the remainder were the Eight Witnesses
Eight Witnesses
The Eight Witnesses were one of the two groups of witnesses who signed a statement stating that they had seen the golden plates which Joseph Smith, Jr. said was his source material for the book...

 who affirmed that they "saw and handled" the plates.

The Three Witnesses were Oliver Cowdery
Oliver Cowdery
Oliver H. P. Cowdery was, with Joseph Smith, Jr., an important participant in the formative period of the Latter Day Saint movement between 1829 and 1836, becoming one of the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon's golden plates, one of the first Latter Day Saint apostles, and the Second Elder of...

, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer
David Whitmer
David Whitmer was an early adherent of the Latter Day Saint movement who eventually became the most interviewed of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon's Golden Plates.-Early life:...

, whose joint testimony, in conjunction with a separate statement by Eight Witnesses
Eight Witnesses
The Eight Witnesses were one of the two groups of witnesses who signed a statement stating that they had seen the golden plates which Joseph Smith, Jr. said was his source material for the book...

, 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 had founded. Harris and Cowdery eventually rejoined the church, and to varying degrees, all three 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
Oliver Cowdery
Oliver H. P. Cowdery was, with Joseph Smith, Jr., an important participant in the formative period of the Latter Day Saint movement between 1829 and 1836, becoming one of the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon's golden plates, one of the first Latter Day Saint apostles, and the Second Elder of...

, David Whitmer
David Whitmer
David Whitmer was an early adherent of the Latter Day Saint movement who eventually became the most interviewed of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon's Golden Plates.-Early life:...

, and Martin Harris are said to have retired to the woods, praying to receive a vision of the Golden Plates
Golden Plates
According to Latter Day Saint belief, the golden plates are the source from which Joseph Smith, Jr. translated the Book of Mormon, a sacred text of the faith...

. 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!"

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
God the Father
God the Father is a gendered title given to God in many monotheistic religions, particularly patriarchal, Abrahamic ones. In Judaism, God is called Father because he is the creator, life-giver, law-giver, and protector...

, and our Lord Jesus
Jesus
Jesus of Nazareth , commonly referred to as Jesus Christ or simply as Jesus or Christ, is the central figure of Christianity...

 Christ
Christ
Christ is the English term for the Greek meaning "the anointed one". It is a translation of the Hebrew , usually transliterated into English as Messiah or Mashiach...

, have seen the plates which contain this record, which is a record of the people of Nephi
Nephi
According to the Book of Mormon, Nephi was the son of Lehi, a prophet, founder of the Nephite people, and author of the first two books of the Book of Mormon, First and Second Nephi.- Early life :Nephi was the fourth of six sons of Lehi and Sariah...

, and also of the Lamanites, his brethren, and also of the people of Jared
Jaredite
The Jaredites are a people written of in the Book of Mormon, principally in the Book of Ether. In the Book of Ether, the Jaredites are described as the descendants of Jared and his brother, at the time of the Tower of Babel. According to the Book of Mormon, the people fled across the Ocean via...

, who came from the tower
Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel , according to the Book of Genesis, was an enormous tower built in the plain of Shinar .According to the biblical account, a united humanity of the generations following the Great Flood, speaking a single language and migrating from the east, came to the land of Shinar, where...

 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
Moroni (prophet)
The Angel Moroni is an angel that Joseph Smith, Jr. said visited him on numerous occasions, beginning on September 21, 1823. According to Smith, the angel was the guardian of the golden plates, which Latter Day Saints believe were the source material for the Book of Mormon, buried in a hill near...

 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
Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon is a sacred text of the Latter Day Saint movement that adherents believe contains writings of ancient prophets who lived on the American continent from approximately 2600 BC to AD 421. It was first published in March 1830 by Joseph Smith, Jr...

, 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
Quorum of the Twelve
In the Latter Day Saint movement, the Quorum of the Twelve was one of the governing bodies of the church hierarchy organized by the movement's founder Joseph Smith, Jr., and patterned after the twelve apostles of Christ In the Latter Day Saint movement, the Quorum of the Twelve (also known as the...

 from among the veterans of Zion's Camp
Zion's Camp
Zion's Camp was a paramilitary expedition of Latter Day Saints, led by Joseph Smith, Jr., from Kirtland, Ohio to Clay County, Missouri during May and June 1834 in an unsuccessful attempt to regain land from which the Saints had been expelled by non-Mormon settlers...

, the Three Witnesses "called out the twelve men and gave each one a blessing."

The Three Witnesses


Without doubt the Three Witnesses were closely associated with Joseph Smith, and Martin Harris also made a significant financial contribution to the movement. In addition, some modern interpreters of Mormonism have argued (as did some contemporaries) that the Witnesses had a similar magical worldview. One of these, Grant Palmer, a former director of LDS Institutes of Religion who was disfellowshipped by the LDS Church in 2004 after writing An Insider's View of Mormon Origins
An Insider's View of Mormon Origins
An Insider's View of Mormon Origins is a 2003 book on the origins of Mormonism written by Grant H. Palmer, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who is a retired Church Educational System instructor and Institute director with a master's degree in history.Palmer's stated...

, argued 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."

Oliver Cowdery


Oliver Cowdery
Oliver Cowdery
Oliver H. P. Cowdery was, with Joseph Smith, Jr., an important participant in the formative period of the Latter Day Saint movement between 1829 and 1836, becoming one of the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon's golden plates, one of the first Latter Day Saint apostles, and the Second Elder of...

 was a school teacher and an early convert to Mormonism
Mormonism
Mormonism is the religion practiced by Mormons, and is the predominant religious tradition of the Latter Day Saint movement. This movement was founded by Joseph Smith, Jr. beginning in the 1820s as a form of Christian primitivism. During the 1830s and 1840s, Mormonism gradually distinguished itself...

 who served as scribe while Joseph Smith dictated what he said was a translation of the Book of Mormon
Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon is a sacred text of the Latter Day Saint movement that adherents believe contains writings of ancient prophets who lived on the American continent from approximately 2600 BC to AD 421. It was first published in March 1830 by Joseph Smith, Jr...

. 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
John the Baptist
John the Baptist was an itinerant preacher and a major religious figure mentioned in the Canonical gospels. He is described in the Gospel of Luke as a relative of Jesus, who led a movement of baptism at the Jordan River...

 in May 1829 after which they had baptized each other in the Susquehanna River
Susquehanna River
The Susquehanna River is a river located in the northeastern United States. At long, it is the longest river on the American east coast that drains into the Atlantic Ocean, and with its watershed it is the 16th largest river in the United States, and the longest river in the continental United...

. 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.

By 1838, Cowdery and Smith had engaged in a number of disagreements that included doctrinal differences about the role of faith and works, the Kirtland Safety Society
Kirtland Safety Society
The Kirtland Safety Society was a quasi-bank organized in 1836 by leaders and followers of the Church of the Latter Day Saints. According to KSS's 1837 "Articles of Agreement", it was intended to serve the banking needs of the growing Mormon community in Kirtland, Ohio...

, and what Cowdery called Smith's "dirty, nasty, filthy affair" with Fanny Alger
Fanny Alger
Fanny Alger has been alleged to have been the first plural wife of Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of the Latter Day Saint Movement. Scholars have disagreed as to whether Smith's union with Alger was an early plural marriage or simply a sexual indiscretion.-Biography:Frances W...

. Smith's growing reliance on Sidney Rigdon
Sidney Rigdon
Sidney Rigdon was a leader during the early history of the Latter Day Saint movement.-Baptist background:...

 as his first counselor, 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 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."

After Cowdery's excommunication on April 12, 1838, he taught school, practiced law, and became involved in Ohio political affairs. Until 1848, Cowdery put the Latter Day Saint church behind him. He joined the Methodist church in Tiffin, Ohio
Tiffin, Ohio
Tiffin is a city in and the county seat of Seneca County, Ohio, United States. The population was 18,135 at the 2000 census. The National Arbor Day Foundation has designated Tiffin as a Tree City USA....

, 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 even though that confession cost him the editorship of a newspaper. In 1848, after Joseph Smith's assassination, Cowdery reaffirmed his witness to the Golden Plates
Golden Plates
According to Latter Day Saint belief, the golden plates are the source from which Joseph Smith, Jr. translated the Book of Mormon, a sacred text of the faith...

 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.

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. 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' 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, 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
Third eye
The third eye is a mystical and esoteric concept referring in part to the ajna chakra in certain spiritual traditions. It is also spoken of as the gate that leads within to inner realms and spaces of higher consciousness...

." 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, 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. Later in life, Harris strongly denied that he ever made this statement.

In 1837, Harris joined dissenters, led by Warren Parrish
Warren Parrish
Warren Parrish was a leader in the early Latter Day Saint or Mormonism movement. Parrish held a number of positions of responsibility, including that of scribe to church president Joseph Smith Jr. Parrish and other leaders became disillusioned with Smith after the failure of the Kirtland Safety...

, 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
Voree Plates
The Voree Plates, sometimes called The Record of Rajah Manchou of Vorito, or the Voree Record, were a set of three tiny metal plates allegedly discovered by James J. Strang in 1845 in Voree, near Burlington, Wisconsin...

. By 1847, Harris had broken with Strang and had accepted the leadership of fellow Book of Mormon witness, David Whitmer
David Whitmer
David Whitmer was an early adherent of the Latter Day Saint movement who eventually became the most interviewed of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon's Golden Plates.-Early life:...

. Harris then left Whitmer for another Mormon factional leader, Gladden Bishop
Gladden Bishop
Francis Gladden Bishop was a minor leader in the Latter Day Saint movement after the 1844 succession crisis. Bishop claimed to be the rightful successor to Joseph Smith, Jr.; from the 1850s until his death, Bishop led a succession of small groups of Latter Day Saints and converts...

. In 1855, Harris joined with the last surviving brother of Joseph Smith Jr., William Smith
William Smith (Mormonism)
William Smith was a leader in the Latter Day Saint movement and one of the original members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Smith was the eighth child of Joseph Smith, Sr...

, and declared that William was Joseph's true successor. "In 1856 Harris's wife left him to gather with the Mormons in Utah. Harris remained 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 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."

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. In his last years Harris continued to bear fervent testimony to the authenticity of the plates, but a contemporary critic of the Church noted that Harris rejected some important LDS doctrines and that his sympathy for the Utah church was tenuous. 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."

David Whitmer


David Whitmer
David Whitmer
David Whitmer was an early adherent of the Latter Day Saint movement who eventually became the most interviewed of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon's Golden Plates.-Early life:...

 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
Nephite
According to the Book of Mormon, a Nephite is a member of one of the four main groups of settlers of the ancient Americas. The other three groups are the Lamanites, Jaredites and Mulekites. In the Book of Mormon, the Nephites were a group of people descended from or associated with Nephi, the...

 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.

Recounting the vision to Orson Pratt
Orson Pratt
Orson Pratt, Sr. was a leader in the Latter Day Saint movement and an original member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles...

 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
Lehi
Lehi refers to:In Mormonism:* Lehi , a prophet in the Book of Mormon of the 7th-6th centuries BC* Lehi, son of Helaman, another prophet in the Book of Mormon of the late 1st century BC...

 had) and the Interpreters. I saw them just as plain as I see this bed...." 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.

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."

In 1831, Whitmer moved with early Mormon believers to Kirtland, Ohio; and then 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
Warren Parrish
Warren Parrish was a leader in the early Latter Day Saint or Mormonism movement. Parrish held a number of positions of responsibility, including that of scribe to church president Joseph Smith Jr. Parrish and other leaders became disillusioned with Smith after the failure of the Kirtland Safety...

 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 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.

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
James Strang
James Jesse Strang was an American religious leader, politician and self-proclaimed monarch who founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints , a faction of the Latter Day Saint movement...

, 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 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....'" Nevertheless, Whitmer is regarded by Mormons as an "enduring witness to the genuineness of the prophet Joseph Smith and his message."

Importance


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.

See also


  • Eight Witnesses
    Eight Witnesses
    The Eight Witnesses were one of the two groups of witnesses who signed a statement stating that they had seen the golden plates which Joseph Smith, Jr. said was his source material for the book...