Every edition of the Book of Mormon has included a copy of the Testimony of the Three Witnesses. Who wrote it? And if each of the three witnesses didn’t actually write the words themselves, does that somehow invalidate that testimony?
This is the twentieth in a series compiled from the many interviews conducted during the course of the Witnesses film project. This series of mini-films is being released each Saturday at 7pm MDT. These additional resources are hosted by Camrey Bagley Fox, who played Emma Smith in Witnesses, as she introduces and visits with a variety of experts. These individuals answer questions or address accusations against the witnesses, also helping viewers understand the context of the times in which the witnesses lived. This week we feature Daniel C. Peterson, President of the Interpreter Foundation and Executive Producer of Witnesses. For more information, go to https://witnessesofthebookofmormon.org/ or watch the documentary movie Undaunted.
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Witnesses of the Book of Mormon — Insights
Episode 20: Who Wrote the Testimony of the Witnesses?
Martin Harris: Gentlemen, do you see that hand? Are you sure you see it? Are your eyes playing a trick or something? No.
Well as sure as you see my hand, so sure, did I see the angel and the plates.
Camrey Bagley Fox: Welcome to our series on the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. My name is Camrey Bagley Fox and we are joined today by Daniel Peterson, President of the Interpreter Foundation and executive producer of the Witnesses project. Thanks for being here, Dan.
Daniel Peterson: Thank you.
CBF: So, tell me about the actual writing of the testimony of the three witnesses that we have in the Book of Mormon. How did that come about?
DP: We think that the actual testimony, probably, was written by Oliver Cowdery, and the copy that we have now is Oliver Cowdery’s handwriting. If they’re original signatures by the three witnesses, for example, and there are sources that say that they each signed it, what we have now is Oliver Cowdery’s copy of those signatures.
Now, when I say that Oliver Cowdery was probably the author of two witnesses’ statements, I’m reflecting what up until now has been the historical consensus. But that may not be true. Royal Skousen, who always ought to be taken seriously on such things, has argued that Joseph Smith is the likely author of the three witnesses’ statement under, he believes, the spirit of revelation—it’s saturated with language from the Book of Mormon—and that Joseph may also be the author of the eight witnesses’ statement though, he says, not as a revelation. It’s a nineteenth-century document.
CBF: Okay, so they didn’t even write it, does that negate the validity of the signatures and the statement that is in that?
DP: I don’t think it does it all. First of all, obviously then, that’s the testimony of Oliver Cowdery. But we have a huge historical record of Martin Harris and David Whitmer and many of the eight witnesses affirming exactly that testimony, in some cases even saying, ‘You know the testimony that’s published with The Book of Mormon? That’s my testimony.’
CBF: Do we have any historical evidence of them like, being there with Oliver?
DP: We know they were there for the experience.
DP: And they saw and approved the document that he drafted. But Oliver was the most literate of them, he was the best educated, the one with a flair for writing. And so I have no reason to doubt that’s the reason that Joseph asked him to do it and the others were happy to let him do that. But some critics have said, ‘Well, then this points to a conspiracy of Joseph and Oliver. Oliver wrote the testimony. He signed their signatures to it. How do we even know that David and Martin agreed with it, or that the eight witnesses agreed with the testimony that is attributed to them?’ Well we know it because there’s a sea of documents, a sea of interviews and so on, in David Whitmer‘s case extending over almost 6 decades. They reaffirm their testimonies over and over and over again in various different contexts. We are not reliant only on those official statements in The Book of Mormon. Even members of the Church have come to me and said, ’Isn’t that all we have?’ NO. That’s nothing near all we have.
DP, cont’d: Many of them were interviewed multiple times. David Whitmer was the most interviewed witness, possibly because he lived the longest. But we have a couple score comments from Martin Harris after comes out to Utah where people go to him in his old age and ask him, ‘So tell me, did you REALLY see the angel and the plates?’ And he would reaffirm his testimony. In fact, he has a kind of peculiar way of doing it that you can tell it’s Martin Harris. He’ll say, ‘Do you see that tree over there? As clearly as you see that tree, I SAW the angel and the plates. He always uses that kind of comparison.
But in the case of the three witnesses and several of the eight witnesses, they reaffirm their testimonies multiple times. Even if we were to LOSE the official statements in The Book of Mormon, we’d still have lots of testimonial material from the witnesses.
CBF: That’s great. The signatures, and like the controversy over that, was that something that was an issue during their time or something that people have kind of speculated on after their passing?
DP: As far as I know it’s something that’s come up in modern time. Because when David Whitmer was still alive all you had to do was ask him.
DP: And he’d tell you, and Martin Harris. Oliver Cowdrey died young in 1850, but even so, we have accounts of his bearing his testimony again after his departure from the Church and upon his return to the Church. So, we’re just not short of statements from them.
There was a book called David Whitmer interviews. I think there’s something like 80, or something like that, interviews in that book from a lengthy period over multiple decades, and even there, there have been some interviews or some accounts of his testimony found since that book appeared.
DP: So, there’s probably more out there we just don’t know about. And I would even add, and I’ve always thought this was significant, that on his tombstone, David Whitmer reiterates his testimony. On one side of the stone pillar that stands at his grave in Richmond, Missouri it says, “The record of the Jews and the record of the Nephites are one. Truth is eternal.” I mean, he made it a point to get that out there even after his death.
CBF: Right. I love that. Thank you.