Critics of the Church have claimed through the years that one or more of the witnesses of the Book of Mormon—and of the Gold Plates—eventually denied their testimonies. Is there any truth to these claims?
This is the seventh in a series providing insights 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. 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 7: Did the Witnesses Ever Deny their Testimonies?
Actor: In accordance with Ohio law, the trustees have been recorded, and we are incorporated. The Church of Christ!
Same actor: Now, the trustees named are Joseph Coe, Cyrus Smalley, and our brother, Martin Harris.
Warren Parrish: Now then, to other orders of business. As to our tenets of belief, I feel it necessary to separate ourselves from the previous church, and as such, hold that the Book of Mormon, that so-called ‘revelation,’ coming from the mouth of the vile, fallen prophet, Joseph Smith, should be renounced. This church will rise to prominence—
[Martin Harris rises from his seat, Book of Mormon in hand.]
Warren Parrish: Brother Harris? You have something to say?
Martin Harris: Hear me well. The Book of Mormon is no fake. I know what I know. I have seen what I have seen, and I have heard what I have heard. I have seen the gold plates, from which The Book of Mormon is written. I have seen an ANGEL bear record of truth. And I have heard the voice of God. Never doubt it. You do so at your own peril.
Camrey Bagley Fox: Welcome to our series about the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. My name is Camrey Bagley Fox. And we are joined again by Dr. Gerritt Dirkmaat, Associate Professor of Church history and Doctrine at Brigham Young University. I recently had the opportunity to play Emma Smith in the movie Witnesses. That experience was both fascinating and enlightening, but it also raised a lot of questions for me, and that is why I have invited Dr. Dirkmaat to join me. Thanks for being here.
Gerritt Dirkmaat: Thank you for having me.
CBF: So we talk a lot about who said what in history. As a historian, how do you know what sources are valid? Nowadays we can get so many sources for pretty much anything we want to find out, there’ll be somebody backing it up. So how do you know what to trust?
GD: Yeah, I think that’s one of the problems of living in the information age. There’s a LOT of information, but a lot of times you’re drinking from a firehose, right? I mean, it’s —
GD: There’s so much information, how do you determine what is valid, or what should carry weight for me. I think it’s important when you’re talking about religion, recognizing that historians can only go so far in religious questions, because once we get to the idea of a miracle, I mean, look, I can have a fond discussion with someone about the reasons why the Kirtland Safety Society failed, right? But once I get into a discussion of whether or not someone HAD an angelic experience, whether they had a visitation, that’s beyond what a historian can prove.
I think it’s important that we, when we’re talking about miraculous events, that we rely on the first-hand accounts of the people who claimed to experience them. With the witnesses, they all adamantly claim in their OWN expression, that they had a miraculous experience with God. That they SAW an angel, that they SAW plates, and that it was a miraculous event. There actually isn’t a way to prove that that didn’t happen.
GD: And so anyone who’s trying desperately to do that, you already know they are not following the rules of history. They’re simply, they don’t want to have to believe it. That’s great, you don’t have to believe it.
GD: But there’s a big difference between not wanting to believe it yourself and claiming the person never even said it.
CBF: So, we have a lot of records of critics saying that the witnesses denied their testimonies. Is that valid? Do we have historical sources that back up? Did they deny their testimonies?
GD: There are certainly people who make claims in that regard. Probably one of the most well-known one comes from a guy by the name of Steven Burnett. He claimed that in 1838, that he heard Martin Harris give a public statement, that he had never actually seen the gold plates, and that actually none of the other witnesses had seen the plates, and that actually none of the eight witnesses had seen the plates, and in fact, no one had ever seen the plates, and they had all just been persuaded to sign the document that they had signed. And he makes that attribution to it. Now, is that a historical source? Yes, it’s a letter that Steven Burnett’s writing to a friend of his trying to convince him to also leave the Church, as he’s just left the Church.
GD: And, so is it a source? Yes. But is it a source that we would use to determine whether or not those witnesses actually denied their own testimony? First and foremost, I don’t even know if this event actually happened, right. I don’t have any record of, aside from him, saying that Martin Harris gave a public meeting. And then, I’m pretty sure that not all eight witnesses said that they never saw the plates, given the fact that Father Smith and Samuel Smith are among those people. I mean, the reality is, you know Hyrum Smith isn’t saying, ‘By the way, I never saw the plates.’ That is what Steven Burnett is claiming, that ALL of them said that they were just all convinced to do it.
But when we’re dealing with something that’s a miraculous event, remember Martin Harris isn’t just saying, ‘Hey. I picked up plates,’ he’s saying that an angel of God came down and showed the plates to him. So that’s a miraculous event. That’s not something that can be proven, that is an experience that he had or didn’t have, but a historian has to go off of: What does this person say happened? So Martin Harris has his name signed to the Three Witnesses statement. He, multiple times publicly and privately, says that he had that experience, he preaches for The Book of Mormon throughout his life. While you might footnote the fact that there was someone who claimed that Martin Harris once said that he hadn’t seen the plates, that wouldn’t be definitive, because it’s not actually coming from him.
GD: And, what do you have in the rest of his life? That he certainly believes that The Book of Mormon is the word of God. You don’t have Martin Harris saying, ‘Well, it wasn’t really an angel, I think it was just a pillar of light,’ right? You have them all. First of all, they all sign a document saying that this is what they saw, and they all refer back to that document, ‘This is what we saw.’ And whenever they give a testimony, they’re reiterating that that’s what they saw. So you don’t have internal conflicts with themselves, you don’t have Martin Harris saying, ‘I think it was just a light,’ and Oliver Cowdery saying, ‘It was seven angels.’ You have a consistency which suggests that they all believe that they had the same experience.
CBF: Interesting, thank you.
GD: You’re welcome.