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What price did the witnesses pay for being witnesses—and for never denying their testimonies of the Book of Mormon?
This is the eighth 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. For more information, go to https://witnessesofthebookofmormon.org/ or watch the documentary movie Undaunted.
Short clips from this episode are also available on TikTok and Instagram.
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Witnesses of the Book of Mormon — Insights
Episode 8: What was the Cost of Being a Witness?
Defense Lawyer: May it please the court, and gentlemen of the jury. Since Mr. Cowdery claims to know so much about the poor defendant, I would like to challenge him to tell us something about his connection with Joe Smith, and his digging out of the hill of the Mormon Bible.
Judge: I will have order.
Prosecution: Your honor, we protest. Mr. Cowdery’s personal life has no bearing on the case at hand.
Defense Lawyer: On the contrary, if we can’t trust Mr. Cowdery, then why are we even listening to him?
Cowdery: May it please the court, and the gentlemen of the jury. My brother attorney on the other side has charged me with the involvement of Joseph Smith and the golden Bible. It is true. I knew Joseph Smith.
Judge: Let the man be heard.
Cowdery: Yes, I knew Joseph Smith and I have not denied my testimony which is attached to The Book of Mormon, nor will I. Because it is TRUE. I saw an angel. I heard the voice of God. It was no dream.
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 today by Dr. Gerritt Dirkmaat, associate professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University. Gerritt has worked as a historian and writer on the Joseph Smith Papers project for over the last decade.
I recently had the opportunity to play Emma Smith in the movie Witnesses. That experience was both fascinating and informative, but it also raised a lot of questions for me. So that’s why I have invited Dr. Dirkmaat to join me. Thank you for being here.
Gerritt Dirkmaat: I’m excited to be here.
CBF: So, talking about the Witnesses, I want to know about the price that they maybe paid, for being a witness of The Book of Mormon.
GD: Well, I mean, I think there’s a lot of ways you can talk about that. In general, Latter-day Saints who, joining the Church in that early time period are all going to pay some kind of price, certainly socially, as far as everyone thinks you’re crazy, so that’s a pretty big price to pay socially. But they are also going to suffer much greater difficulties, than say, your average member would, because, their testimony is part of what is buoying up the entire movement. Now Martin Harris, of course, is going to make a gigantic sacrifice even in the publication of The Book of Mormon, by, you know, selling his property to pay for the printing of it.
Throughout their lives, their connection with the Church, at all, is going to be seen as a negative by most people in the world. And then the fact that they’re not just claiming they were a member, they’re claiming they saw an angel, they’re claiming that they saw these plates in a miraculous way.
And one of the people that you can see it REALLY affect is actually Oliver Cowdery. I mean, Cowdery, after he leaves the Church, he’s a lawyer, and he’s practicing law in several places, but he is also really politically active. He WANTS to be a part of party politics, which is a pretty rough and tumble game in the 19th Century. People think politics is rough today, they need to just go read some 19th Century newspapers, and they’ll be like, ‘Maybe we could try to not be like that.’ I mean, it’s a rough game.
And in fact, there’s a group of Democrats, their plan is to have Cowdery help edit this political newspaper for them. And when they realize, ‘Oh, wait, this is Oliver Cowdery who said he saw an angel?’ They rescind that invitation. You can see that his affiliation with the gold plates, stating that he miraculously saw an angel is actually something that’s hurting him professionally. He could have, perhaps, become an important person, in the Ohio party politics. I think that’s what he wanted to do. But the fact that he has this witness that he’s clearly not rescinding makes him a really big political liability. In fact, in the 19th Century, calling someone a Mormon sympathizer is a really good way to win the political debate.
CBF: So they obviously paid a price in their careers, and in their lives. Were there any ways that they benefited, like temporally, from being a witness?
GD: It’s hard to see how that would be the case. Since, what little wealth they might have accrued over the course of time, being in the Church, many of them are losing it in things like the Kirtland Safety Society, or when their lands are stolen from them in Missouri. Oliver Cowdery’s practicing law for a reason, because that’s how he’s going to make money. David Whitmer is farming for a reason, that’s how he’s making his money.
GD cont’d: It’s hard for modern Latter-day Saints to understand how universally despised the Church was in the mid-19th Century. It’s certainly something that, if they wanted to improve their social standing, and frankly, if they wanted to REALLY undermine Joseph Smith after they had left the Church, the fastest way to do it would have been to simply say, ‘Look, we never really saw an angel. We didn’t really see plates.’
GD: He wrote that and signed our names to it. And that would have greatly increased the way people thought about them. But you don’t really get that. I mean, both Martin Harris and David Whitmer are clearly still desperately devoted to the idea of The Book of Mormon, and a restoration, and truth, and that’s why they keep bouncing around to different religious movements even after they leave the Church, different off-shoot branches of the Church.
Oliver Cowdery’s a little different. It seems more like for him, that when he withdraws, he really withdraws. He, at least according to some sources, begins attending a Methodist Church. But he’s also not denouncing The Book of Mormon. He’s kind of taken this middle path of, ‘Maybe I just won’t talk about it at all.’ Or maybe it’s too painful for him to talk about. Whatever the case is, when he is challenged on it, he refuses to recant. And so that’s a gigantic political liability for him, and a liability for his legal practice. Especially because of his profession, where it’s interacting with people, on the basis of your good name, that you’re serving as a lawyer.
CBF: And so despite all of that, none of them denied–?
CBF: –receiving that witness?
GD: They all are going to maintain their testimony, and reiterate it multiple times. You have detractors who are trying to put words in their mouth, and you have, very famously, people like David Whitmer, you know, taking out his own newspaper ads to say, ‘For this person who’s claiming that I said that I didn’t see the plates, they are a liar, and I saw them.’ Frankly, David Whitmer could just kind of allow rumors like that to float, right?
One way to kind of extricate yourself from this whole Mormon conundrum is, ‘Well, if people think that Joseph Smith just wrote it, maybe I’ll just let them think that.’
GD: And instead, it’s direct recantation of, ‘No, I saw the plates. I saw an angel. My testimony in that Book is what I saw.’ It’s hard to argue, as a historian, that these men didn’t really believe that they had this experience. Despite their separation from the Church, despite their various financial and physical and life difficulties surrounding it, they really believe that they had this experience.
CBF: Yeah, that definitely carries a lot of weight, hearing that they didn’t have really anything to gain from holding on to that testimony, other than the fact that they —
GD: Yeah, unless what you’re trying to gain is the animosity of your fellow men–
GD: Uh, you know, if your goal is to have people dislike you, then yes, that’s a possibility, but the reality is that there’s no way for them to gain, especially separated from the Church.
At least someone could make the argument that WHILE they’re in the Church they have the benefit of the fact that, ‘Well, I’m in a high position in the Church,’ and people like fame, maybe.
GD: ‘I’m an important person,’ maybe that’s their benefit from it. But OUTSIDE of the Church, there’s now, who are they now impressing? Who inside the Church is giving them accolades? Because they are now an apostatized witness.
The reality is, they have made a life-long personal sacrifice by having their name attached to it. It’s going to hang around them like an albatross. It’s not a benefit to them.
CBF: Well thank you.
I could see that someone in that situation would not want to disturb the faith of other people who are faithful and get benefit from the church. They could also feel that the church was good even if they no longer believe that they had had these miraculous experiences and that they were valid.
To be fair I think it would have been somewhat shameful for them to admit that they had lied or were deceived about their experiences. We could say that they just let it alone and didn’t admit that they were either mistaken or deceived.