There are a number of unofficial witnesses of the Book of Mormon who were women—however, of the official witnesses of the Book of Mormon, there are none. Why would this be?
This is the twenty-ninth 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.
Witnesses of the Book of Mormon — Insights
Episode 29: Women Witnesses—Why and Why Not?
Joseph Smith, Sr: What happened?
Joseph Smith, Jr., breathless: I was attacked.
JS, Sr: How many?
JS, Sr: Blasted thievers.
JS: You won’t catch them.
JS: Put them on the table.
Lucy Mack Smith: Fetch some water.
JS: Carlos, go get Hiram.
JS, Sr: Can we not see them?
JS: No. I intend to keep my promise.
LMS: That’s enough, Katherine.
JS: It’s okay, Ma. Go ahead, just keep them covered.
Hyrum Smith: Joseph, are those the . . . ?
Camry Bagley Fox: Welcome to our series on the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. My name is Camry Bagley Fox, and we are back with Daniel Peterson, president of the Interpreter Foundation and executive producer of the Witnesses project. Thanks for being here.
Daniel Peterson: It’s good to be here.
CBF: So, there are kind of three groups of witnesses, right? There’s the three witnesses, the eight witnesses, and then the unofficial witnesses. What is the purpose of having all these different types of witnesses?
DP: I used to think that it was odd that we had the three witnesses and the eight witnesses. What’s the point? The eight witnesses are just—isn’t that gilding the lily? I mean, just eight more to throw in for no particular purpose. And then the unofficial witnesses, what good are they? I now see it very, very differently from that.
The three witnesses have one distinct kind of experience, with this spectacular, supernatural environment in which they are where they hear the voice of God and hear the angel and the plates and all the other objects.
The eight witnesses, very different, very secular, very down-to-earth, matter of fact. They simply see and heft the plates, they turn the pages of the plates, the unsealed portion, anyway.
But they don’t HEAR the voice of God. They don’t hear anything testifying to the truth of the Book of Mormon. They just see a really peculiar object, unusual in their experience. So that, in itself, is very different, and it can’t be explained in the same way that the three witnesses could be explained.
People have said, ‘Well, the three witnesses are hallucinating.’ I don’t find that a plausible explanation at all. ‘Or they’re under hypnosis or something like that.’ But there are actually two groups even there—because you have Joseph Smith and Martin Harris having an experience, AFTER Joseph Smith, David Whitmer, and Oliver Cowdery have had the experience. So, if it’s hypnosis, or hallucination, it’s got to be done twice in the same day, which is a really high bar. But that explanation doesn’t account for the eight witnesses who don’t have anything like a hypnotic experience or a hallucinatory experience. It’s so matter of fact, and their testimony reflects it, that they even sound legalistic in their testimony. “The said Smith… the plates have the appearance of…curious workmanship…” They’re not going to go even an inch beyond what they can see and what they as untrained, but good observers, can verify. So, I see that as a very different set of experiences. And one explanation doesn’t work for both of them. You have to come up with two different explanations. Which, to my view, may not just increase the difficulty of a counter-explanation, arithmetically, it’s geometrically. I mean, it’s not TWICE as hard, it’s four times as hard, because you’ve got to deal with all the elements of both experiences.
But even there, I now see that there was a need for the unofficial, or informal witnesses, who were varied, because it has been said of the three and the eight that, ‘Well, they went out into the wood expecting to see the plates, so they’re primed for it.’ But you can’t say that of the unofficial witnesses.
DP: I mean, Mary Whitmer is surprised, completely taken aback by a messenger who shows up when she’s out doing some sort of farm work and he shows her the plates, under totally non-supernatural conditions. Or others who have very different experiences: Lucy Harris in a kind of vision or dream, Lucy Mack Smith seeing the objects, the breastplate and so on, and hefting it, and turning it over and looking at it and seeing it glint through the cloth. Or Katherine Smith being handed the plates and told, “Go hide these under the bedcovers,” and so that people won’t find them. Or Emma Smith cleaning around the house and having to move the plates. This is TOTALLY matter of fact. She’s not having a spiritual experience.
I’ve sometimes said to my wife, really, when she’s unhappy about the piles of things that tend to grow up around my bed, and during housework has to move all this stuff that I’ve accumulated, and I say, ‘It’s not really there.’ I’m borrowing a leaf from the critics. ‘No, you’re just having a revelation, it’s a spiritual experience. You’re just imagining this stuff. It’s hallucinatory.’
CBF: I’m sure she loves that.
DP: Oh, yeah, she does.
Josiah Stowell catches a glimpse of one of the plates when it’s being moved. It’s coming through a window, and the cloth comes off and he sees the plates. He’s not primed in some sort of spiritual ecstasy to see that. But he does see it. And he testifies under oath, by the way, that he saw the plates, when he’s asked, “How do you know he had them?” “I saw them.”
The other thing that I like about the informal witnesses, is that some of them are women.
CBF: That’s what I was going to ask about. I’ve noticed a lot of the ones you’ve brought up are women, which is very interesting to me, because, in general, I would LOVE to see more women represented in Church history, and in Church workings, and Church authority.
CBF: So, I’m curious. Obviously, we have those unofficial witnesses that come from women. I’m curious if you have any insight, or thoughts on why there were no women included as the three or eight witnesses.
DP: I have a speculative reason, I can’t mind-read the Lord, He doesn’t say.
CBF: Or mind-read Joseph, or whatever.
DP: Right. But I think one reason may simply be this: that in early 19th-century America, women were not allowed to serve on juries —
DP: They weren’t allowed to vote. They weren’t allowed to own property, mostly, in their own names, except under very special circumstances. They weren’t called as witnesses in cases unless there were very specific KINDS of cases. They just weren’t given credibility as witnesses and so, I think, it would have been wasted, in a sense, it would have been mocked, in early 19th-century America, and not just in the Americas, other places, too; ‘They’re hysterical, they’re imagining things.’ All the dismissive things that were said about women at that time, which you can read in the record when the debates come up about it, admitting women as witnesses, or allowing women to serve as jurors, or allowing them to vote, all those sorts of things are said.
But it goes back to the ancient times. You can find a parallel case in the New Testament account. Who are the first people at the tomb of Jesus, after he’s risen from the dead?
DP: It’s women.
DP: And that’s really important. And yet, when they go back and report to the apostles, the apostles have not yet seen the empty tomb. The Bible says, the New Testament says, ‘That it seemed to them as idle tales.’
So, Peter and John run to the tomb to check it out, and find out the tomb is, in fact, empty. But that was the attitude towards the testimony of women at that ancient time, and you see it illustrated, I think, in First Corinthians 15, where Paul, who was a Pharisaic lawyer, that has to be remembered, who is a trained Pharisaic lawyer, lists off the witnesses to the resurrection. He goes through the apostles and so on, and then Jesus appeared to 500 brethren. But it’s notable who he DOESN’T mention. He doesn’t mention the women. And it’s possible Paul didn’t now the story. Maybe the gospels hadn’t been written yet, or hadn’t reached him yet, and he doesn’t know the story.
But I think a more likely explanation is they’re women, and they wouldn’t be acceptable in a court of law, so why mention it? This is also, by the way, an argument to my mind, for the truthfulness of the New Testament account. If you’ve just been making it up, and you could choose anybody to be first there at the tomb, you wouldn’t have chosen women, because people wouldn’t have taken it seriously. Why does the account say that it was women? Because that’s what really happened. So, the story is true. It’s one of the most moving stories connected with Easter.
And likewise, I would say, with the unofficial, or informal witnesses of the Book of Mormon, I think we’re beginning to appreciate more and more how important they are, because they are so different. And to show that the voice of women is important, even in the early events of the Restoration. They didn’t make it into the official lists for reasons that I think pertained to the society of that time.
But they are there. And several of them had experiences that are as good as those of the official witnesses. I mean, they see angelic personages, they see the plates, touch them, turn the pages, all those sorts of things. They are very worthwhile, just as worthwhile as the testimonies of the official witnesses are.
CBF: Thank you.