The Book of Mormon Witnesses and Their Challenge to Secularism

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There has been much comment recently on the growth in numbers of the religious “nones.” Not all of them are actually non-theists, but secularism or naturalism is undoubtedly on the rise — and Latter-day Saints have not escaped damage from the trend. Several recent books and articles have sought to help their readers live with doubt, cope with uncertainty, or find value or joy in the Mormon community even when some, most, or perhaps even all of its founding narrative has come to seem untenable. I believe, however, that naturalism should be directly challenged and that the Book of Mormon is among our best tools for doing so. And the Witnesses to the Book of Mormon are, in turn, some of our best evidences for its truth — and the only “secular” evidence that the Lord himself has provided.

The title of this lecture series, Reason for Hope: Responding to a Secular World, presupposes that the world — or at least our world, the affluent West — is largely and perhaps increasingly secular.1 This seems to me a reasonable assumption. It also invites participating lecturers to respond to the challenge posed by secularism.

Of late, several books and articles published for a Latter-day Saint audience have sought to help their readers live with doubt, cope with uncertainty, or [Page viii]find value or joy in the Mormon community, even when some or most or perhaps even all of its founding narrative has come to seem untenable.

Such approaches can obviously be helpful to different people in different circumstances. But I see no reason to surrender or to despair or to be resigned — I don’t regard palliative care as our only option; I think full and robust spiritual health remains an option for everybody — and so my approach today will be quite different. I intend to challenge secularism directly. Moreover, I propose to do that by means of a resource given to us, in my judgment, very deliberately by God himself.

“Be ready,” says 1 Peter 3:15, “always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you.”

Like the empty tomb on the first Easter morning — for which, by the way, I think the secular evidence is surprisingly solid — the Book of Mormon represents a concrete, tangible challenge to secular or naturalistic understandings of reality. It exists, and its existence requires explanation.

There are many arguments available in support of the historical authenticity (and hence the divine authority) of the Book of Mormon — ancient Middle Eastern parallels, corroborating linguistic features, elements of Mesoamerican archaeology, and so forth — and I myself have written extensively on such topics. I think they’re very much worth pursuing, and they can often be quite powerful.

(Lately, to name just a few recent items, I’m especially intrigued by the research of Royal Skousen and Stan Carmack demonstrating the humanly inexplicable presence of Early Modern English in the Book of Mormon; by the work of Brian Stubbs on apparent Egyptian and Semitic influence on the Uto-Aztecan language family; and by Matthew Bowen’s examination of Semitic wordplays in Book of Mormon names — all of which appear or are discussed in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture.)

But, if I may so term it, only one “secular” or “objective” argument for the Book of Mormon directly involves divine aid. Only one that, from the beginning, was directly ordered by God. I’m referring, of course, to two solemn declarations — “The Testimony of Three Witnesses” and “The Testimony of Eight Witnesses” — that have been published with the Book of Mormon since 1830.

Significantly, both of the declarations — of the Three and of the Eight Witnesses — and both taken together eliminate the possibility that all of this rests merely on Joseph Smith’s imagination, whether that imagination is deemed deranged or deceptive. He isn’t the only person who claimed to perceive these things. Others claimed to have seen, and in some cases to have handled, the related physical artifacts as well.

[Page ix]

Joseph grasped the import of this point very clearly. In her History, Joseph’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, records his relief after the Three Witnesses had their experience:

Joseph threw himself down beside me, and exclaimed, … “you do not know how happy I am: the Lord has now caused the plates to be shown to three more besides myself. They have seen an angel … and they will have to bear witness to the truth of what I have said, for now they know for themselves, that I do not go about to deceive the people, and I feel as if I was relieved of a burden which was almost too heavy for me to bear.2

Very importantly, however, the two statements — of the Three and the Eight — are distinctly different both in their tone and in what they describe.

In the first, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris affirm that they’ve seen the plates from which Joseph translated the Book of Mormon. But they also claim to have seen the angel who brought those plates and to have heard the voice of God himself testifying to the truth of the volume and commanding the witnesses to testify of its truth. Their statement is overtly and strongly religious in tone.

By contrast, the statement of the Eight Witnesses is strikingly sober, legalistic (note, for example, its three rather dry references to “the said Smith”), quite reserved (e.g. “the plates … have the appearance of gold” as well as “the appearance of ancient work”), and almost distinctly nonreligious in tone. No divine voice is mentioned nor is any angelic appearance. God is invoked, but solely as guarantor of the truth of their affirmation, rather in the manner of courtroom testimony or the pronouncing of a solemn oath. They too claim to have seen the plates; unlike the three, however, they also claim to have “hefted” those plates, and to have “handled” them one by one.

What is the point of having these two distinct declarations?

One thing, at least, is clear: They make the task of coming up with a single naturalistic explanation of the witnesses considerably more difficult.

Someone determined to reject the testimony of the Three Witnesses, for example, might argue that their experience was merely “visionary,” and, thus — if visions are decreed to be impossible — the product of hallucination or overactive imaginations. And the same would have to be said of Mary Whitmer, the mother of the witnesses David, Jacob, [Page x]John, Christian, and Peter Whitmer Jr., who also saw the plates and, evidently, an angel.

However, although some have also sought to dismiss the experience of the Eight Witnesses as merely visionary (which, they insist, naturally means merely imaginary), it occurred in broad daylight and remains stubbornly matter-of-fact.3 It seems to have included no explicitly supernatural elements.

In late 1839, Hyrum Smith wrote an account for the Times and Seasons newspaper covering, among other things, his four months of hungry and cold imprisonment in Missouri’s ironically named Liberty Jail, under recurring threats of execution, while his family and fellow members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were being driven from their homes during the wintertime:

“I thank God,” he told the Saints,

that I felt a determination to die, rather than deny the things which my eyes had seen, which my hands had handled, and which I had borne testimony to. … I can assure my beloved brethren that I was enabled to bear as strong a testimony, when nothing but death presented itself, as ever I did in my life.4

One might dismiss this declaration of willingness to die for his testimony as an empty boast, mere retrospective bravado, were it not for the fact that, fewer than five years later in Illinois, fully understanding the risk, he did in fact go voluntarily to Carthage Jail. There, with his prophet-brother, he died a martyr — which, in ancient Greek, means “witness” — in a hail of bullets.

The accounts left behind by the Eight Witnesses are replete not only with claims to have “seen and hefted” the plates, to have turned their individual leaves and examined their engravings, but also with estimates of their weight, descriptions of their physical form and the rings that bound them, and reports of their approximate dimensions as well.

Wilhelm Poulson’s 1878 interview with John Whitmer provides an excellent summary:

I — Did you handle the plates with your hands? He — I did so!
I — Then they were a material substance? He — Yes, as [Page xi]material as anything can be.
I — They were heavy to lift? He — Yes, and you know gold is a heavy metal, they were very heavy.
I — How big were the leaves? He — So far as I can recollect, 8 by 6 or 7 inches.
I — Were the leaves thick? He — Yes, just so thick, that characters could be engraven on both sides.
I — How were the leaves joined together? He — In three rings, each one in the shape of a D with the straight line towards the centre. …
I — Did you see them covered with a cloth? He — No. He handed them uncovered into our hands, and we turned the leaves sufficient to satisfy us.5

William Smith, who knew the Eight Witnesses well — his father and two of his brothers were among them — explained “they not only saw with their eyes but handled with their hands the said record.”6 Daniel Tyler heard Samuel Smith testify that “He knew his brother Joseph had the plates, for the prophet had shown them to him, and he had handled them and seen the engravings thereon.”7

Those who seek to dismiss the testimony of the Eight Witnesses must, on the whole, flatly brush aside what those Witnesses actually and very forcefully said.

If their worldview demands it, though, many skeptics are admittedly up to the task of dismissing the experience of all of the witnesses as merely hallucinatory: “Once you eliminate the impossible,” Sherlock Holmes explains in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1890 story “The Sign of the Four,” “whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” And for certain anti-theists, visions and the supernatural — and ancient Nephite gold plates — are flatly impossible.

In other words, if we respect the primary historical sources, the explanation that skeptics favor for the Three Witnesses — hallucination [Page xii]or imagination — simply can’t work for the Eight Witnesses, nor for several ancillary witnesses.

Lucy Mack Smith “examined” the Urim and Thummim and “found that it consisted of two smooth three-cornered diamonds set in glass, and the glasses were set in silver bows, which were connected with each other in much the same way as old fashioned spectacles.”8

Describing the Nephite breastplate, she recalled that

It was wrapped in a thin muslin handkerchief, so thin that I could see the glistening metal, and ascertain its proportions without any difficulty.

It was concave on one side and convex on the other, and extended from the neck downwards, as far as the centre of the stomach of a man of extraordinary size. It had four straps of the same material, for the purpose of fastening it to the breast, two of which ran back to go over the shoulders, and the other two were designed to fasten to the hips. They were just the width of two of my fingers, (for I measured them,) and they had holes in the ends of them, to be convenient in fastening.9

William Smith, not one of the Eight Witnesses, repeatedly told of his own experience with the plates:

I handled them and hefted them while wrapped in a tow frock and judged them to have weighed about sixty pounds. I could tell they were plates of some kind and that they were fastened together by rings running through the back.10

Joseph’s wife Emma and his sister Katharine both had to move the plates about on more than one occasion. Later, too, Emma testified that

The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen table cloth, which I had given him to fold them in. I once felt of the plates as they thus lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one sometimes thumb the edges of a book.11

[Page xiii]

A conscientious unbeliever is required, accordingly, to assume fake artifacts, for the creation of which absolutely no evidence exists — and no sign, among Joseph Smith’s associates, of the required fabrication skills. Moreover, as later statements from the Three Witnesses indicate, they saw not only the plates but various other objects (e.g., the Liahona, the sword of Laban, the Urim and Thummim and breastplate) that only an expert metalworker could have forged.

But let’s return to the suggestion that the Three Witnesses were merely hallucinating. Dismissing even the testimony of the three is more difficult than some seem to imagine, for their experience didn’t occur all at one time. To the contrary, it occurred on two separate occasions. And something experienced by three distinct persons besides Joseph Smith and — since Martin Harris received his witness separately from Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer — at two distinct times and in two distinct locations is substantially harder to brush off than an experience claimed by only a single individual.

After all, as the evangelical philosopher Gary Habermas has observed regarding Christ’s post-resurrection appearance to the eleven apostles, “Hallucinations are private events observed by one person alone. Two people cannot see the same hallucination, let alone eleven.”

Please note, by the way, that Professor Habermas’s comment applies remarkably well to the official Book of Mormon Witnesses, of whom there were — perhaps not coincidentally — exactly eleven.

In support of his position, Habermas cites personal correspondence “from a well-published psychologist,” who writes:

Hallucinations are individual occurrences. By their very nature only one person can see a given hallucination at a time. They certainly are not something which can be seen by a group of people. Neither is it possible that one person could somehow induce an hallucination in somebody else. Since an hallucination exists only in this subjective, personal sense, it is obvious that others cannot witness it.12

[Page xiv]

“Hallucination is a solitary phenomenon,” agrees the Catholic writer Karl Keating. “In medical literature, there are no records of even two people having the same hallucination at the same time.”13

Perhaps I can illustrate my point with a quotation from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and his bride-to-be, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, have just heard the tale told by the lovers Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius, of strange transformations and fairies in the woods. Hippolyta is impressed and puzzled by the story:

Hippolyta: “’Tis strange, my Theseus, that these lovers speak of.”
Theseus: “More strange than true: I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys. . .”
Hippolyta: “But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images
And grows to something of great constancy.”14

Now A Midsummer Night’s Dream is obviously fiction, and fiction of the most fantastic kind. Still, within the framework of the play, we know that the lovers’ story is actually true and that Oberon, Titania, Puck, and the others were in fact active realities. Hippolyta’s point is an entirely sound one. The consistency of the tale told by various witnesses indicates that it rests upon more than mere imagination.

William E. McLellin was chosen as one of the Twelve Apostles in 1835 but was excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1838. However, he never abandoned his faith in the Book of Mormon, and one of the pillars of his faith rested upon his early, searching interviews with the witnesses to that book. He was a highly intelligent man (and, it seems, a rather irascible one), and he was very careful and intent upon getting at the truth.

McLellin left a number of statements on his investigations. This one comes from a previously unpublished manuscript he wrote between January 1871 and January 1872. I find it fascinating and, since I don’t think it’s very well known, I’ll quote it at length:

[Page xv]

In 1833, when mobbing reigned triumphant in Jackson Co. Mo. I and O. Cowdery fled from our homes, for fear of personal violence on Saturday the 20th day of July. The mob dispersed, agreeing to meet again on the next Tuesday. They offered eighty dollars reward for any one who would deliver Cowdery or McLellan in Independence on Tuesday. On Mond[a]y I slipped down into the Whitmer’s settlement, and there in the lonely woods I met with David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery. I said to them, “brethren I have never seen an open vision in my life, but you men say you have, and therefore you positively know. Now you know that our lives are in danger every hour, if the mob can only only catch us. Tell me in the fear of God, is that book of Mormon true? Cowdery looked at me with solemnity depicted in his face, and said, “Brother William, God sent his holy angel to declare the truth of the translation of it to us, and therefore we know. And though the mob kill us, yet we must die declaring its truth.” David said, “Oliver has told you the solemn truth, for we could not be deceived. I most truly declare declare to you its truth!!” Said I, boys I believe you. I can see no object for you to tell me false <hood> now, when our lives are endangered. Eight men testify also to handling that sacred pile of plates, from which Joseph Smith <read off the> translation that heavenly Book.

And he continues:

One circumstance I’ll relate of one of these eight witnesses. While the mob was raging in Jackson Co. Mo. in 1833 some young men ran down Hiram Page <in the woods> one of the eight <witnesses,> and commenced beating and pounding him with whips and clubs. He begged, but there was no mercy. They said he was <a> damned Mormon, and they meant to beat him to death! But finally one then said to him, if you will deny that damned book, we will let you go. Said he, how can I deny what I know to be true? Then they pounded him again. When they thought he was about to breathe his last, they said to him, Now what do you think of your God, when he dont save you? Well said he, I believe in God–Well, said one of the most intelligent among them, I believe the damned fool will stick to it though we kill him. Let us let him go. But his life was nearly run out. He was confined to his bed for a length of [Page xvi]time. So much for a man who knows for himself. Knowledge is beyond faith or doubt. It is positive certainty.

I in company with <a> friend, <I> visited one of the eight witnesses <in 1869>–the only one who is now alive, and he bore a very lucid and rational testimony, and gave us many interesting particulars. He was a young man when he had those testimonies. He is now <was then> sixty eight years old, and still he is firm in his faith. Now I would ask what will I do with such a cloud of faithful witnesses, bearing such a rational and yet solemn testimony? These men while in the prime of life, saw the vision of the angel, and bore their testimony to all people. And eight men saw the plates, and handled them. Hence these men all knew the things they declared to be positively true. And that too while they were young, and now when old they declare the same things.15

William McLellin was closely acquainted with the Smith and Whitmer families from the time of his 1831 conversion. He carefully questioned them about the Book of Mormon. In 1880, long alienated from Mormonism, he still asserted their credibility: “I believed them then and I believe them yet.”16

The Book of Mormon has sometimes been explained as the product not of simple fraud perpetrated by one fiendishly, peerlessly clever individual (Joseph Smith), but of a more complex, collective fraud. We might call this notion “Collective Deceit” (deception, that is, by Joseph Smith, the witnesses of the Book of Mormon, and presumably others).

This hypothesis would explain the “supernatural” events associated with the recovery of the Book of Mormon by declaring, simply, that they never happened. Everybody testifying to them must have been lying to further a grand conspiracy.

[Page xvii]

However, such an explanation collides with abundant evidence regarding the character of Joseph Smith.17 Moreover, it clashes directly with what we know about the character of the witnesses and their subsequent behavior.18

Many of those who interviewed David Whitmer, one of the Three Witnesses, over his last decades noted the reverential awe with which he regarded the manuscript of the Book of Mormon that he had in his possession. He refused to part with it for any price, although he was by no means wealthy, and both he and his family felt not only that it was divinely protected but that they would share in that divine protection so long as they owned it.19 Whether their sense of the manuscript’s near-supernatural potency was misplaced or not is irrelevant to the issue at hand: Such attitudes are impossible to square with cynicism and conscious deception.

David Whitmer was once confronted by a mob of 400‒500 Missourians who demanded, on pain of death, that he deny his published testimony of the Book of Mormon. Instead, he forcefully reasserted it. Neither he nor the other witnesses come across as cynical conspirators.20

There is simply no sign of dishonesty and no evidence for a conspiracy among Joseph Smith’s associates — and, in the case of a group so large (eleven official witnesses, plus Mary Whitmer, Emma Smith, Lucy Mack Smith and William Smith), it would have been inconceivably difficult to keep such a conspiracy secret. Particularly so since the alleged conspirators suffered a great deal (including death, in a few cases) for their supposed plot, gained nothing, were (in many cases) alienated from Joseph Smith and, collectively, lived several decades after the death of the Prophet, and were entirely isolated from any supportive or ego gratifying community.

As the lawyer James H. Moyle, who had interviewed David Whitmer, justly observed, “If there had been fraud in this matter Joseph Smith would have cultivated those men and kept them with him at any cost. The truth is that when they became unworthy they were excommunicated, even though they were witnesses to the Book of Mormon.” 21

[Page xviii]

In a letter dated 22 September 1899, David Whitmer’s grandson, private secretary, and business partner George Schweich recalled of his grandfather, “I have begged him to unfold the fraud in the case and he had all to gain and nothing to lose but to speak the word if he thought so — but he has described the scene to me many times, of his vision about noon in an open pasture — there is only one explanation barring an actual miracle and that is this — If that vision was not real it was HYPNOTISM, it was real to grandfather IN FACT.”22

I’ve argued that hallucination, whether individual or collective, cannot explain the facts surrounding the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. But the facts are heavily against conscious conspiracy, too. As the early 19th-century Mormon convert John Corrill remarked, “As to its being a revelation from God, eleven persons besides Smith bore positive testimony of its truth. After getting acquainted with them, I was unable to impeach their testimony, and consequently thought that it was as consistent to give credit to them as credit the writings of the New Testament, when I had never seen the authors nor the original copy.”23

What are the principal objections to the witness’ testimonies? I routinely encounter the confident declaration that the witnesses to the Book of Mormon didn’t really see or touch anything at all and didn’t actually claim to have seen or touched anything. They only “saw” the plates with their “spiritual eyes,” I’m assured, and “spiritual eyes,” to them, means “in their imaginations.”

I’ll leave aside the question of whether it’s even remotely plausible that the witnesses sacrificed so very much for something they recognized as merely imaginary. Let’s look at their explicit verbal testimonies. Several of the eleven official witnesses were obviously confronted during their lifetimes with accusations that they had merely hallucinated, and they repeatedly rejected such proposed explanations.

In fact, David Whitmer, one of the initial Three Witnesses, could easily have been addressing today’s skeptics when he declared “I was not under any hallucination, nor was I deceived! I saw with these eyes and I heard with these ears! I know whereof I speak!”24

It’s difficult to imagine how he could have been any clearer.

[Page xix]

And listen, once more, to Hyrum Smith’s declaration about the months he spent in Liberty Jail, condemned to death: “I thank God that I felt a determination to die, rather than deny the things which my eyes had seen, which my hands had handled.”25

Some years ago while driving through the countryside just north of Kansas City, Missouri, my wife and I saw a number of banners hanging at various Protestant churches, inviting people to join tours to the Holy Land. I lead tours to biblical sites myself; I recognize that visiting such places has enormous spiritual and educational value. However, western Missouri itself is the burial place of several much more recent eyewitnesses who are, in important ways, comparable to the early disciples of Jesus. They too saw. They too knew for themselves.

And with the plates, as with the incarnation of Christ himself, we have a fully material, entirely tangible incursion of the divine into our mundane world, a very palpable refutation of the secular worldview.

But aren’t such testimonies a dime a dozen? Isn’t there an obvious parallel in the case of James J. Strang, the leader of a short-lived splinter group after the murder of Joseph Smith?

Let’s have a look.26

Though little remembered today, James Jesse Strang campaigned seriously to lead the LDS Church after Joseph Smith’s 1844 assassination.

When the general membership rejected the obscure new convert’s claim that a secret letter had appointed him as Joseph Smith’s successor, Strang started his own sect, ultimately headquartered on Beaver Island, Michigan. Like Joseph, he eventually claimed to have translated ancient metal plates and provided eleven corroborating eyewitnesses.

By 1856, when he himself was murdered, he had several thousand followers, including members of Joseph Smith’s family, former apostles, and Book of Mormon witnesses.

Incidentally, the fact that some Book of Mormon witnesses credited Strang argues for their sincerity: Had they been knowing perpetrators of a fraud with Joseph Smith, they would likely have been far more skeptical of Strang.

[Page xx]But does the fact that Strang had witnesses like Joseph’s mean that, for consistency’s sake, modern believers in Mormonism must either accept Strang’s claims or reject both Joseph and Strang?

No. Because the two sets of witnesses and their experiences were very different.

The two sets of inscribed plates that Strang claimed to have found in Wisconsin and Michigan beginning in 1845 almost certainly existed. Milo Quaife’s early, standard biography of Strang reflects that, while Strang’s angelic visitations “may have had only a subjective existence in the brain of the man who reported them, the metallic plates possessed a very material objective reality.”

And they were almost certainly forgeries.

The first set, the three “Voree” or “Rajah Manchou” plates, were dug up by four “witnesses” whom Strang had taken to the plates’ burial place. Illustrated and inscribed on both sides, the Rajah Manchou plates were roughly 1.5 by 2.75 inches in size — small enough to fit in the palm of a hand or to carry in a pocket.

Among the many who saw them was Stephen Post, who reported that they were brass and, indeed, that they resembled the French brass used in familiar kitchen kettles. “With all the faith & confidence that I could exercise,” he wrote, “all that I could realize was that Strang made the plates himself, or at least that it was possible that he made them.” One source reports that most of the four witnesses to the Rajah Manchou plates ultimately repudiated their testimonies.

The 18 “Plates of Laban,” likewise of brass and each about 7.5 by 9 inches, were first mentioned in 1849 and were seen by seven witnesses in 1851. These witnesses’ testimony was published as a preface to “The Book of the Law of the Lord,” which Strang said he derived from the “Plates of Laban.” (He appears to have begun the “translation” at least as early as April 1849. An 84-page version appeared in 1851; by 1856, it had reached 350 pages.) Strang’s witnesses report seeing the plates but mention nothing miraculous. Nor did Strang supply any additional supporting testimony comparable to that of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon.

One of the witnesses to the “Plates of Laban,” Samuel P. Bacon, eventually denied the inspiration of Strang’s movement and denounced it as mere “human invention.” Another, Samuel Graham, later claimed that he had actually assisted Strang in the creation of the plates.

“We can hardly escape the conclusion,” writes Quaife, “that Strang knowingly fabricated and planted them for the purpose of duping his credulous followers”; and, accordingly, that “Strang’s prophetic career was [Page xxi]a false and impudent imposture.” A more recent biographer, Roger Van Noord, concludes that “based on the evidence, it is probable that Strang — or someone under his direction — manufactured the letter of appointment and the brass plates to support his claim to be a prophet and to sell land at Voree. If this scenario is correct, Strang’s advocacy of himself as a prophet was more than suspect, but no psychological delusion.”

Thus, Strang’s plates were much less numerous than those of the Book of Mormon, his witnesses saw nothing supernatural, and his translation required the better part of a decade rather than a little more than two months. (Quite unlike the semiliterate Joseph Smith, Strang was well read. He had been an editor and lawyer before his involvement with Mormonism.) Perhaps most strikingly, unlike the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, at least some of Strang’s witnesses later denied their testimonies.

The contrasts work very much in Joseph Smith’s favor.

I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the case that can be made for the reliability of the Book of Mormon witnesses. Our time is far too short to do the matter justice.

But I want to indicate very clearly what their testimony entails, if it’s accepted. For one thing, acceptance of their accounts entails that there were tangible, real, material plates — which effectively eliminates the stance that the Book of Mormon represents only Joseph Smith’s imagination. And, since collective hallucination is vanishingly unlikely, it means either that they were dupes of a fraud or themselves partners in one. But what we know about their characters and of their biographies, to say nothing of Joseph’s, makes the idea that they were engaged in a conspiracy to commit fraud extremely difficult to maintain. Nor is there anything to suggest that Joseph or anybody in his circle had the ability to manufacture bogus plates.

Let’s return for a moment to the dictum of Sherlock Holmes: “Once you eliminate the impossible,” he said, “whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

If theism and revelation aren’t deemed altogether impossible, the testimonies of the witnesses must be taken very seriously.

I realize that rejection of Joseph Smith doesn’t require the abandonment of theism. There are many other options on the market. But let’s close by considering what is involved in opting for a completely secular worldview. What is that alternative?

“Apatheism” is the witty term coined for the complete indifference to great issues of faith and religion that’s fashionable in some circles.

[Page xxii]

“If there were a God,” a supremely complacent atheist once told me online, “I think (s)he’d enjoy hanging out with me — perhaps sipping on a fine Merlot under the night sky while devising a grand unified theory.”

“If you live in this very moment,” another atheist wrote to me a year later, “you’ll find happiness. You realize that life isn’t about getting to the shore. It’s about enjoying the feel of the water glide against your skin, feeling the power in your arms as you systematically push water behind you, deeply breathing the fresh salty air, feeling a moment of awe as you turn your head and see the sunset, and feeling the love that you share with your fellow swimmers. This life is a precious thing in and of itself. There may be something beyond it, there may not. But this life is wonderful enough.”

I understand his attitude; things can be very good indeed for those who win life’s lottery. But it hasn’t been so good for many, and there’s nobody for whom it’s always grand.

Speaking very broadly and taking the religious or theistic and the naturalistic or materialistic positions in their most generic sense, it must be said that, if it’s true, the naturalistic position is very bad news for the generality of humankind, whereas the religious position, if true, is deeply good news.

This isn’t to say that atheists can’t point to and enjoy human goodness and love, the satisfactions of family life and community, various physical pleasures, aesthetic appreciation, creative expression, the glories of nature, the quest for scientific understanding, food, sports, and entertainment. They surely can, and all these unquestionably are, or can be, good.

But the simple fact is that a substantial proportion of humanity has been largely denied access to such things. Perhaps even, speaking historically, an overwhelming majority. Those who profit from material prosperity in stable societies, who benefit from adequate nutrition and decent medical care, who enjoy reasonably good health and have received fairly solid educations, who have been born into rich and relatively healthy cultures — those who, in the late British philosopher John Hick’s phrase, “have been lucky in the lottery of life” — have a shot at more or less happy lives.

Even in such cases, though, happiness is scarcely guaranteed.

“I will say nothing against the course of my existence,” the great German poet and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote in 1824. “But at bottom it has been nothing but pain and burden, and I can affirm that during the whole of my 75 years, I have not had four weeks of [Page xxiii]genuine well-being. It is but the perpetual rolling of a rock that must be raised up again forever.”27

Even the most fortunate of humans will have their illnesses, their sorrows and bereavements, their frustrations and missed opportunities, and their ruptured relationships, although these will befall them in a generally positive context. They will inevitably encounter pain, sorrow, grief, disappointment, despair, frustration, sickness, aging, and, finally, death. But there will be some compensating satisfactions.

For those, by contrast, who suffer from congenitally poor health, whose lives are blighted by plague or war or political oppression, who are mired in hopeless poverty, there is no favorable context to which they can return. There will be relatively few compensations — and perhaps essentially none at all.

Any atheist or humanist, to be realistic, must acknowledge this fact. But it isn’t often that such atheists or humanists, at least in the West — belonging, as they do, to the well-educated, comfortable, lucky elite — seem to realize the depths of the pointlessness and the hopelessly inescapable misery to which their sunny nihilism condemns the majority of their fellow human beings.

“If I were to die now,” commented a nineteenth-century atheist cited by the great Harvard philosopher and psychologist William James,

being in a healthy condition for my age, both mentally and physically, I would just as lief, yes, rather, die with a hearty enjoyment of music, sport, or any other rational pastime. As a timepiece stops, we die — there being no immortality in either case.28

But most people don’t die suddenly. Most of us don’t pass painlessly from robust health into oblivion while accompanied by a first-rate string quartet. Rather — whether for a brief period or over the course of a lengthy decline — they suffer physical deterioration and the loss of mental faculties. And, for all too many even today, this concludes lifetimes of frustration, hunger, humiliation, pain, and injustice.

Perhaps 40 percent of the population of classical Athens were slaves. In ancient wars, husbands and fathers were often put to the sword; their women and children were enslaved without rights. But urban slaves were [Page xxiv]the lucky ones. Others went to the Athenian silver mines, where, rarely seeing the sun, they were harshly beaten, starved, and worked to death.

Nearby Sparta depended upon a population of “helots,” fellow Greeks — seven for every citizen — who farmed the city’s lands under continual military occupation. Sparta’s teenagers honed their military skills by roaming in gangs through the helots’ settlements, terrorizing them and destroying their hovels. And every year, somewhat in the spirit of The Hunger Games, Sparta’s rulers declared ritual war on the helots, murdering anybody who showed signs of leadership.

Such was life for many in classical Greece, at the fountainhead of Western civilization. And conditions surely weren’t better under the ancient Assyrians or Babylonians, or the medieval Huns and Mongols.

While comfortable people often observe that money doesn’t bring happiness, poverty and hunger make happiness very elusive. According to the United Nations World Food Programme, one in nine people is chronically undernourished, therefore lacking the energy and mental acuity needed for a full life. One quarter of those in sub-Saharan Africa suffer from malnutrition. More than three million children under the age of five die from malnourishment each year. And I’ve said nothing about the cruelty of oppressive armies and murderous tyrants.

In his 1870 Grammar of Assent, John Henry Newman quotes the words of a dying factory girl from a then-popular story:

I think if this should be the end of all, and if all I have been born for is just to work my heart and life away, and to sicken in this (dreary) place, with those millstones in my ears for ever, until I could scream out for them to stop and let me have a little piece of quiet, and with the fluff filling my lungs, until I thirst to death for one long deep breath of the clear air, and my mother gone, and I never able to tell her again how I loved her, and of all my troubles, — I think, if this life is the end, and there is no God to wipe away all tears from all eyes, I could go mad!29

Even for fate’s most favored children, there will inevitably be regrets and areas of disappointment.

“Take the happiest man,” suggests William James, “the one most envied by the world, and in nine cases out of ten his inmost consciousness is one of failure. Either his ideals in the line of his achievements are pitched far higher than the achievements themselves, or else he has [Page xxv]secret ideals of which the world knows nothing, and in regard to which he inwardly knows himself to be found wanting.”30

None of this, of course, demonstrates that there is a God, nor that we are immortal, nor that a world of compensating rewards awaits us on the other side of the grave. But certainly it illustrates why the question of whether such a world exists is and ought to be of profound concern to normal people. “Apatheism” is an expression, it seems to me, of thoughtless complacency.

Moreover, increased secularization is likely to have negative consequences for the poor and disadvantaged even in this life.

For as long as I can remember, those who disagree with my fairly libertarian economic views have told me how much more they care about the poor than I do. And nonreligious people have assured me that, while I’m supposedly focused on some sort of illusory “pie in the sky when I die” and on “saving” others from mythical sufferings in a fairy tale afterlife, they’re devoted to making life in this world, on this planet, tangibly better for everybody.

In my particular case, the critics may be right. They’re very likely far better people than I am — more charitable, kinder, more concerned for their fellow humans. However, unless they actually supply evidence to demonstrate it, recent research has made it much, much harder for secularists to preen themselves, as a class, on their superior compassion.

Arthur Brooks, formerly a professor of public administration in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University in New York and now president of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, has studied patterns in charitable giving and service for many years and is widely recognized as perhaps the pre-eminent authority on the subject. Still, he reports that even he has been surprised by what he has found.31

Religious people, it turns out, give more to charity than do nonreligious people. They donate more money — and not merely to their churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques. “Religious people are more charitable in every measurable nonreligious way — including secular donations, informal giving, and even acts of kindness and honesty — than secularists.” They’re more likely to give money to family and friends, and, when they do, to give larger amounts. They’re more likely to volunteer and to give blood. Even non-churchgoers, if they were [Page xxvi]raised in religious households, are more likely to donate to charity than those who were not.

Not surprisingly, private charity in ever-more-secular Europe has plummeted — to the point, in some areas, almost of extinction. Brooks, who also argues that charitable giving is essential to a strong economy, points to polling data suggesting that Europeans are, according to their own reports, less happy with their lives than Americans are, and suggests that their unhappiness may be connected with their low rates of charity and volunteerism. Humans feel better when they give.

As befits a premier social scientist, Brooks concentrates heavily on multiple streams of contemporary statistical data to form his judgments. However, the historical record also seems to support the general conclusions of his very important book:

Rodney Stark, in an insightful 1996 study of The Rise of Christianity, has shown that the superior charity of the ancient Christians was a vital factor in the rapid growth of the early Christian movement. And, as an examination of the surviving sources demonstrates, even the pagans recognized that. “The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well,” lamented the fourth-century Roman Emperor Julian (known to subsequent history as “the Apostate” for his efforts to turn back the religious tide even after his uncle Constantine had declared Christianity the official religion of the empire). “Everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”

“Religion is the opiate of the people,” Karl Marx famously complained. Elsewhere, he remarked that, while “philosophers have said that the purpose of philosophy is to understand the world, the purpose is to change it.” Religion, in his view, was a distraction from the real business of making this world a better place. Unfortunately for Marx’s thesis, though (and even more so for those who had to live through the 20th century), the millennium recently closed was heavily influenced at its end by Marxism and by a related ideology that went under the names of fascism and “National Socialism” or Nazism. We now have quite graphic evidence of exactly how such theories tend to “change the world”: Scores of millions of people were murdered, and many national economies were destroyed.

A religious approach to the world and life doesn’t look too bad by contrast. But even when contrasted with the soft secularism — the “apatheism” — that has come to dominate Europe and perhaps Canada and certain portions of the American elite, and even though religious [Page xxvii]people can undoubtedly do much more and much better than they are doing now, believers fare pretty well.

None of these sad realities proves the existence of God, life after death, or ultimate justice. In fact, quite understandably, many see in them a powerful argument against God. Surely, though, they illustrate why the hope for eternal joy and compensation is so deeply important.

“In light of heaven,” said Mother Teresa, who was well aware of poverty and human agony, “the worst suffering on Earth, a life full of the most atrocious tortures on Earth, will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel.”

If she’s right, that’s fabulous news for everybody who has ever lived.

Finally, if a purely naturalistic secularism is true, might that not entail the death of reason and, strikingly, an inability even to judge whether it’s true or false? If our “thinking” is merely the accidental byproduct of neurochemical processes in our brains, which are in turn the accidental byproducts of a random, meaningless, and undirected process of biological evolution, what real significance should we grant to that “thinking”? Is a brain adapted to survival and reproduction on the African Savannah likely to be well-suited to judging issues of cosmic meaning? And, if, as one reductionist puts it, brains secrete “thinking” the way livers secrete bile, how does it make sense to judge such thinking as either “right” or “wrong”? After all, bile is neither “right” nor “wrong.” Nor is bile “about” anything, any more than oxidation or rust is “about” anything. How would it make any more sense to say that the neurochemical processes in Newton’s brain were “about” calculus than to say that his digestive processes were?32

It seems arguable, to me, that acceptance of a thoroughgoing naturalism, a complete secularism, might well require the abandonment of reason altogether — and thus, ironically, the abandonment of any ability to argue that secularism is, in fact, true.

I think I’ll stick with theism. Mormon theism, in fact. And I recommend that you do, too.

1. These remarks were delivered at a 16 November 2017 symposium, sponsored by Brigham Young University’s Wheatley Institution, dedicated to the topic Reason for Hope: Responding to a Secular World. Other participants in the symposium were Julie B. Beck, former general president of the Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Jenet Jacob Erickson, formerly a member of the faculty in BYU’s School of Family Life; and emeritus BYU professor of philosophy C. Terry Warner. The talk is presented here as it was given, which accounts for its somewhat non-academic character and rather loose footnoting.
2. Lavina Fielding Anderson, ed., Lucy’s Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s Family Memoir (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2001), 453.
3. See Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/1 (2005); Steven C. Harper, “Evaluating the Book of Mormon Witnesses,” Religious Educator 11/2 (2010).
4. Hyrum Smith, “To the Saints Scattered Abroad,” Times and Seasons 1 (December 1839): 20.
5. Cited by Lyndon W. Cook, The Revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith: A Historical and Biographical Commentary of the Doctrine and Covenants (Provo, UT: Seventy’s Mission Bookstore, 1981), 25.
6. Anderson, “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/1 (2005), 29.
7. Cited in Richard L. Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 140.
8. Anderson, Lucy’s Book, 379.
9. Ibid., 390.
10. Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 24.
11. Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Advocate (2 October 1879): 52, 289‒90.
12. Gary R. Habermas and Antony G. N. Flew, Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), 50. The “well published psychologist” is Gary R. Collins, cited from personal correspondence with Gary R. Habermas, dated 21 February 1977. See also J. P. Brady, “The Veridicality of Hypnotic, Visual Hallucinations,” in Wolfram Keup, Origin and Mechanisms of Hallucinations (New York: Plenum Press, 1970), 181; Weston La Barre, “Anthropological Perspectives on Hallucination and Hallucinogens,” in Hallucinations: Behavior, Experience and Theory (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1975), 9‒10.
13. Karl Keating, What Catholics Really Believe: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions About the Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 73‒4.
14. William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, V.i.1‒4, 23‒6.
15. These paragraphs come from Mitchell K. Schaefer, ed., William E. McLellin’s Lost Manuscript (Salt Lake City: Eborn Books, 2012), 166‒67. The editorial marks (and McLellin’s curious misspelling of his own name) and the occasional omitted word are all faithfully reproduced and double-checked. The witness whom McLellin visited in 1869 must have been John Whitmer, who died in 1878.
16. Published in Larry C. Porter, “William E. McLellan’s Testimony of the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 10/4 (Summer 1970): 485‒87.
17. See, for example, the materials gathered by Mark McConkie in his 2003 book Remembering Joseph.
18. The relevant information is most conveniently summarized in various works by Richard Lloyd Anderson, including his classic Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses.
19. See Lyndon W. Cook, David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness (Orem, UT: Grandin Book Company, 1991).
20. See generally Anderson’s Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses.
21. As cited in Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 169.
22. Capital letters in the original, in Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 255‒56.
23. Cited by Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 188‒89.
24. Interview with Joseph Smith III, et al. (Richmond, Missouri, July 1884), originally published in The Saints’ Herald (28 January 1936) and reprinted in Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 134‒35 (emphasis in the original). Compare Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 92, 188, 192‒93.
25. Smith, “To the Saints Scattered Abroad,” 20.
26. What follows is drawn from Milo Milton Quaife, The Kingdom of Saint James: A Narrative of the Mormons (New York: Oxford University Press, 1930); Roger Van Noord, The King of Beaver Island (Champaign/Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988).
27. Cited at William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, Being the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion Delivered at Edinburgh in 1901‒1902 (New York and London: Longmans, Green, 1902), 137.
28. Cited at James, Varieties of Religious Experience, 92.
29. John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979 [1870]), 247‒48.
30. James, Varieties of Religious Experience, 137.
31. The data here are taken from Arthur C. Brooks, The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism: Who Really Cares (New York: Basic Books, 2006).
32. I won’t develop these ideas here, but I’ve been influenced in them by readings in Charles Darwin, C. S. Lewis, Victor Reppert, and others.

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About Daniel C. Peterson

Daniel C. Peterson (Ph.D., University of California at Los Angeles) is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University and is the founder of the University's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, for which he served as editor-in-chief until mid-August 2013. He has published and spoken extensively on both Islamic and Mormon subjects. Formerly chairman of the board of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) and an officer, editor, and author for its successor organization, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, his professional work as an Arabist focuses on the Qur’an and on Islamic philosophical theology. He is the author, among other things, of a biography entitled Muhammad: Prophet of God (Eerdmans, 2007).

43 thoughts on “The Book of Mormon Witnesses and Their Challenge to Secularism

  1. This is a fantastic article. After all the efforts to ‘prove’ the scriptures true, we need not forget one of the greatest sources of ‘proof’ – the testimony of the witnesses.

    Their words have accompanied the BOM for many years, and there are only two ways to deal with them.

    1. Accept them as a true testimony.
    2. Assume collusion by many decent (per historical evidence) people that took this to their death.

    I think point 2 is a difficult position to defend.

    Thank you for the article.

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  9. “One source reports that most of the four witnesses to the Rajah Manchou plates ultimately repudiated their testimonies.”

    The article should have noted that the same source claims that the Book of Mormon witnesses denied their testimonies.

  10. This is off topic, but since there’s no other place to put it: I am grateful for President Monson and wish his family the best now that he has passed on to the other side, to be reunited with his lovely wife and family. I’m sure that he’s getting a well deserved “Well done, My faithful servant” from the Lord.

    Best wishes to President Nelson.

  11. If we add Joseph to the three and eight witnesses, we get 12. This is a significant number jurisprudentially: It is by the united voice of 12 jurors that a person can be condemned to death in a court of law.

  12. As always, you give me much food for thought. Thank you!
    However, as someone who lives in the godless European wastelands, I didn’t recognise your assertion that ‘private charity in … Europe has plummeted’ as having anything to do with the reality I live with, and was even more surprised that Brooks links our meanness with the fact that, ‘according to [our] own reports, [we are] less happy with [our] lives than Americans are.’
    I’ve lived in both the States and the UK, and it has felt very much as though private charity was an important part of both cultures. When my American husband came to live in England in 2004, he expressed surprise that we are such a giving nation. It seems there is a narrative which insists America is the most generous, free and enlightened nation in the world, which many Americans, however unconsciously, buy into. Many of us, however, would question that narrative, without necessarily ascribing national traits that might exist in individual countries to any particular political, religious, economic or cultural cause.
    I’m no economist, and know little of Brooks’s work – I understand he is writing for an American readership and has a particular view to promote, but was so surprised by your quote that I did a little research and found little to corroborate his damning opinion of European charity, or its correlation with our secularism.
    Andrew Milner wrote in The State of European Philanthropy in January 2017, ‘Reliable data about giving in Europe is notoriously difficult to obtain. The different philanthropic traditions … mean that there is no single accepted definition of philanthropy, or legal or reporting structure, and in some cases figures represent the best available estimate. This should be borne in mind when interpreting any statistics about European philanthropy…
    In terms of trends, individual giving on the part of the general public in Belgium, Germany and France is rising, while in Spain, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom it is declining …
    In two countries – …the Netherlands and the United Kingdom – religion is the biggest draw for individual philanthropy with 40% of the Netherlands’ individual giving devoted to it …
    When it comes to high-net-worth donors, Europe is the region where most progress has been made in terms of the commitment of individual philanthropists, according to a 2015 survey.’ (In
    The Charities Aid Foundation brings out an annual report which looks at how the world gives based on its World Giving Index, looking at the time people volunteer and the help they offer to strangers as well as the money they donate to charities. Their 2017 Report ranks the US fifth out of 139 countries, with Canada seventh, Ireland eighth and the UK eleventh. Other European countries in the top 40 include The Netherlands (10), Malta (13), Iceland (15), Germany (19), Norway (20), Denmark (21), Austria (26) Sweden (34), and Finland (37).
    Regarding continental comparisons, ‘During 2016 every continent scored lower than the previous year, with the exception of Africa.’ Their scores expressed as a percentage were Europe and Africa 32%, Asia 34%, Americas 35% and Oceania (which only included Australia and New Zealand) 57%.
    Regarding America’s drop to fifth place from second, the report observes,
    ‘A five percentage point decrease in the USA’s overall score is driven by lower levels of donating money (down seven percentage points to 56%) and volunteering time (down five percentage points to 41%.)’ (In
    As far Europeans being less happy than Americans are, the World Happiness Report 2017 lists 156 countries in order of the happiness experienced by their citizens. The top ten are 1 Norway, 2 Denmark, 3 Iceland, 4 Switzerland, 5 Finland, 6 The Netherlands, 7 Canada, 8 New Zealand, 9 Australia, 10 Sweden. The USA is ranked 15 and the UK is 20. So seven of the happiest 10 countries are European! Of the top 20, only seven are not European.
    Of America’s happiness, the Report says, ‘The USA is a story of reduced happiness. In 2007 the USA ranked third among the OECD countries; in 2016 it came 19th. The reasons are declining social support and increased corruption and it is these same factors that explain why the Nordic countries do so much better.’ (In
    Perhaps Brooks is right in his economic theories. I know too little to express an informed opinion, but when he describes my world, it’s a world I don’t recognise, and my reading suggests that there are plenty of statistics to inform and support a very different view from his, certainly in terms of European philanthropy and happiness.
    I do, of course, deplore the rejection of religion so widespread here, although I thought it was also a trend in America. I do understand the disillusionment with Christianity, which historically has had little to do with the values Christ Himself preached.
    I live with members of the atheist, scientific community, and while it breaks my heart that I cannot share with them all that gives me the greatest peace and joy, I recognise in them great integrity and high ethical standards, as well as the sort of kindness and generosity that many of us who are practising Christians could learn from.
    I’ve also stayed with God-fearing folk in Alabama, where racism and homophobia were deeply entrenched, not to mention intolerance of some other faiths, and these views were justified and angrily defended as part of their Christianity.
    I know which community feels closer to the teachings of the Gospel.
    Brigham Young said, ‘The philosophy of the heavens and the earth of the worlds that are, that were, and that have yet to come into existence, is all the Gospel that we have embraced. Every true philosopher, so far as he understands the principles of truth, has so much of the Gospel, and so far he is a Latter-day Saint, whether he knows it or not.’ (In Discourses of Brigham Young, p 2)
    Most atheists, I find, are quiet and unassuming, not the evangelical firebrands we often associate with the movement. I wonder whether they need to reject religion as they have understood it before they can accept it as it truly is.
    Of course we must do all we can to hold our young people close to the truth, including by offering a rigorous intellectual exploration and defence of our faith, which you at Interpreter do so well. But I, for one, would be grateful if Europe were used less often as an example of the dire consequences of losing faith, especially when those consequences may be less well defined and straightforward than Brooks would have us believe.

    • Roslyn Lawrance,
      Thank you for your unique perspective and research. I offer a few comments that may explain some of the disparities you observed.

      Brooks’ work was first published in 2006, so his conclusions were influenced by data and reports from the years preceding his publication. Your examples are from the years leading up to 2018 and thus are more timely, but provide an applies-to-oranges comparison. The US was #3 in happiness of sampled countries and #1 in charitable giving (as far as I can tell – the research for that time frame was not available, but the trend favors this interpretation) in or around Brooks’ publishing.

      Comparing happiness and philanthropy between countries is a difficult task since each nation measures and values various types of charity differently. I believe the thought expressed in the quote you shared from Andrew Milner on the difficulty of assessing European philanthropy actually applies worldwide. Having lived and paid taxes in France for 3 years in the mid-1990s, I can tell you that this is true when comparing the US to France.

      The definition of which countries constitute Europe is evolving. Last I checked there were 28 countries in the EU. In addition to obvious traditional constituents like the UK (with or without Brexit), Germany, and France, a European assessment would also have to account for the impact of countries like Greece, Slovakia and Estonia (and many others) that could have a counterbalancing effect on overall European charity and happiness metrics.

      If indeed the US is declining in happiness and in personal charitable giving over the past 10 years or so, we must wonder why. This trend might actually support Dr. Peterson’s thesis that the rise of the religious “nones” in America (to secular humanism and naturalism in most cases) has an overall deflationist impact that goes well beyond the struggle for religious survival.

      Part of Dr. Peterson’s argument, demonstrated through Brooks, can find support in what Charles Dickens has Ebenezer Scrooge provide as a rationale for not giving to charity – “Are there no poor houses?” as if to say that since the State is taking care of the problem (either well or inadequately), then there is no need to support charity. Does the dominance of State solutions, which typically include an increased need for State revenue from its citizens and economy, decrease the interest and ability among individuals to support private charities?

      John Adams, the 2nd US President and one of the most influential people in the development of the basis of US law, the US Constitution, is quoted as saying “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” If one believes Adams, then the trend toward secularism is of deep concern to Americans.

      Like you, I appreciate articles like those that appear in the Interpreter. In an increasingly secular world, we should realize there is solid, documented evidence that supports many of the key claims of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and many other unique aspects of our faith. I imagine we agree, however, that this is strictly a defensive tactic. True conversion can only come through the sweet and cherished testimony of the Spirit.


  13. The idea that there would be three witnesses appears in the text of the Book of Mormon itself, but I’ve always wondered where the idea of having eight witnesses came from. Anyone know?

    • I think 2 Nephi 29 mentions “a few others” but the specific idea of 8 was not known in advance, as far as I know. Maybe they were just the convenient number available that day? With the Lord controlling the convenience, naturally.

        • 5 And this man shall be the peace, when the Assyrian shall come into our land: and when he shall tread in our palaces, then shall we raise against him seven shepherds, (See D&C 29 & 84) and eight principal men. Micah 5:5

  14. Excellent presentation on some of the irrefutable facts regarding the authenticity of The Book of Mormon. If facts and reason were the main factors leading to belief everyone who studied it carefully would have to be a believer.

    Dan, I appreciated your emphasis on the credibility of the witnesses, particularly Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer. Do you believe their credibility carries over to their testimonies of the hill Cumorah? For example:

    Oliver Cowdery stated the following in 1831:
    “This Book, which contained these things, was hid in the earth by Moroni, in a hill called by him Cumorah, which hill is now in the state of New York, near the village of Palmyra, in Ontario County. “(Autobiography of P.P. Pratt p 56-61)

    David Whitmer confirmed this in an interview in his later years when he stated:
    “[Joseph Smith] told me…he had a vision, an angel appearing to him three times in one night and telling him that there was a record of an ancient people deposited in a hill near his fathers house called by the ancients “Cumorah” situated in the township of Manchester, Ontario county N.Y…” (Milton V. Backman, Jr., “Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration,” p. 233)

    David Whitmer again to Joseph F. smith and Orson Pratt:
    “When I was returning to Fayette, with Joseph and Oliver, all of us riding in the wagon, Oliver and I on an old-fashioned, wooden, spring seat and Joseph behind us; while traveling along in a clear open place, a very pleasant, nice-looking old man suddenly appeared by the side of our wagon and saluted us with, “Good morning, it is very warm,” at the same time wiping his face or forehead with his hand. We returned the salutation, and, by a sign from Joseph, I invited him to ride if he was going our way. But he said very pleasantly, “No, I am going to Cumorah.” This name was something new to me, I did not know what Cumorah meant.” (David Whitmer interview with Joseph F. Smith and Orson Pratt; version recorded in Joseph F. Smith, Diary, 7-8 September 1878, LDS Church Archives)

    • Theodore, I know that you hang your hat on the Hill Cumorah which Joseph found the plates in being the same Hill Cumorah as the final destruction of the Nephites (and Jadeites), but it just isn’t so.

      Mormon explicitly forecloses that possibility. He buried all the records of the Nephites “save for these few plates I gave to my son Moroni”. He buried those records in the Hill Cumorah. Except for the plates Moroni had, who took those plates and wandered for the next 30 odd years.

      Now, Moroni may well have called the hill in New York Cumorah as well, but it’s almost certain that it was not the same hill Cumorah or Ramah referred to by Mormon.

      If Moroni called the New York Hill “Cumorah” as well, there’s nothing wrong with your quotes.

      More fundamentally, have you noticed that the Lord has placed His chosen people in “crossroads” areas? Natural crossing points? Israel is at the intersection of Asia, Africa, and Europe. All the great empires of the day had to go through Israel, a natural missionary spot. The LDS church started on the Erie Canal, basically, moved to Kirtland, then the frontier where Kansas City is now, then to Nauvoo, which dominated the Mississippi river, and finally to Salt Lake and Utah, which is the “Crossroads of the West” and where a gigantic amount of traffic flows through.

      Why would the Nephite’s be any different? Or, for that matter, the ten tribes? Your “New York Nephite” theory doesn’t seem to allow for that, not on the scales the Book of Mormon shows. The Mesoamerican theories do put the Nephites in the center of other civilizations, with lots of trade up and down the Mexican and Central American corridors.

      Just a thought.

      • Vance,

        My question was to the author but if you feel the need to speak for him that is OK as well. I “like to hang my hat,” as you say, on truth. That is what Dan’s article is all about, and my question goes to the heart of it. Dan makes a great case for the credibility of the witnesses, particularly Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, except, “that both of them either lied or were deceived about Moroni identifying the hill in New York as Cumorah.”

        Don’t you see that this belief negates anything said in the article, destroys the credibility of the witnesses, and undermines the Book of Mormon itself?

        Putting the deception back onto Moroni makes it worse. To say that Moroni caused the early brethren to erroneously believe that the hill in Palmyra was the Cumorah of the Book of Mormon is to accuse Moroni of either intentionally or unintentionally deceiving them. Moroni was a resurrected being who could not deceive (D&C 129:7). Besides, Moroni would never have let Joseph Smith and his associates misunderstand the location of the hill Cumorah. It was around the hill of Cumorah where Moroni’s father, Mormon, and the remainder of his family, his friends, and his people, were annihilated. This is where lay the bones of his father, his family and all his people. To Moroni, Cumorah was sacred, hallowed ground. It would be like Admiral Nimitz renaming San Francisco Bay to Pearl Harbor. Unthinkable.

        The argument that you present to prove that “it just isn’t so,” is that Mormon 6:6 precludes the possibility of Moroni burying the plates given to him by his father in the same hill that Mormon buried the rest of the plates thirty years earlier. That argument is totally illogical, and without reason. It was first put forth by John Sorenson, and supporters of his theories have repeated it ever since without thinking about it. Moroni wandered, but there is no evidence that he took the plates with him. That is pure conjecture. In fact, Moroni 1 indicates that he did not. After he had supposed he would write no more, he wandered for the safety of his life. If he was not going to write any more why would he take the records? He had to obtain food etc. but there was nothing in the record that precludes him from returning to Cumorah where all the plates were. In fact he quotes two epistles from his father in further writings. It is not reasonable that he carried all these records with him while he was “wandering for the safety of his life.” Constantly putting the records in jeopardy would have been an absurd idea.

        I do not have a “New York Nephite Theory,” as you put it, and I agree with your crossroads theory that the Nephites were at the very center of North American Civilization. After many years of meticulously matching the text of the Book of Mormon to the terrain, I find compelling evidence that the Lehite Civilization began on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica and moved north and eastward over the centuries. Mesoamerica and Mexico are the land of Nephi. The evidence for the Book of Mormon found in Mesoamerica is Lamanite evidence. The Mississippi is the Sidon and Louisiana is the original Land of Zarahemla. The Atlantic Coastal Plain is the Land of Bountiful and the American Central Plains and the North Eastern US is the land Desolation/Northward. The Hill Cumorah is right where it is supposed to be, according to the text of the Book of Mormon.

        • You said: “The argument that you present to prove that “it just isn’t so,” is that Mormon 6:6 precludes the possibility of Moroni burying the plates given to him by his father in the same hill that Mormon buried the rest of the plates thirty years earlier. That argument is totally illogical, and without reason.” You are correct that it doesn’t preclude Moroni returning to Cumorah to bury the plates. However, that there is no logic to the statement suggests that you have missed what the argument is. It is, and continues to be, that Mormon said that he put other plates in Cumorah, and specifically excepted the plates Joseph received. So, the text does not say that the plates were in Cumorah, and the only textual statement is that they were not.

          Now, could Moroni have returned? Sure. Did he? The only evidence that he did would be if the hill that Joseph took the plates from was the same Cumorah. Of course, that is the issue in question. So you are correct that it might have happened, but the only evidence for it requires circular reasoning.

          What about your suggestion that it diminishes the witness testimony if we don’t accept everything they have said? I suggest you read a lot more of Whitmer if you are going to insist on that definition. There are some very good historical and folklore theory reasons why the statements about Cumorah are derivative of the way the Book of Mormon was being understood and integrated. Most telling is that others were calling the hill Cumorah when Joseph Smith still did not. If Joseph wasn’t the source of the name, who was? If Joseph was, why didn’t he use that name until much later?

          • Hi Brant,

            Yes, the text cannot say where Moroni buried the records, after they were buried.

            Both Oliver and David stated that it was Moroni who first told Joseph Smith that the hill in Plamyra was called Cumorah. From the mouths of two witnesses. But there are more witnesses:

            1. The only first-person source comes from the epistle that Joseph Smith dictated on September 6, 1842, which was later canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants, Section 128.

            “Glad tidings from Cumorah! Moroni, an angel from heaven, declaring the fulfillment of the prophets — the book to be revealed.” (D&C 128:20)

            The inference is that Joseph knew the name “Cumorah” before the book was revealed. That knowledge could only have come from Moroni. This is substantiated in the subsequent documents.

            2. An early documentary source confirming the above are the lines from a sacred hymn, written by W.W. Phelps. William Phelps lived with the Prophet in Kirtland and was in essence his executive secretary during the Nauvoo period.

            “An angel came down from the mansions of glory,
            And told that a record was hid in Cumorah,
            Containing the fulness of Jesus’s gospel;”

            (Collection of Sacred Hymns, 1835, Hymn 16, page 22)

            It was the angel who told Joseph that the record was hid in “Cumorah.” This hymn was selected by Emma Smith, wife of the Prophet, approved by the Prophet, and published in 1835 with a collection of hymns, under instructions and directions from the Lord. “And it shall be given thee, also, to make a selection of sacred hymns, as it shall be given thee, which is pleasing unto me, to be had in my church.” (D&C 25:1)
            This hymn was also included in the 1841 edition as hymn #262.

            3. The Prophet’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, provides two separate items of evidence in the original manuscript of her memoirs. In the first item, Lucy is remembering what Joseph told her after Moroni first appeared to him. The quote begins with what Moroni had told Joseph:

            “Now Joseph beware when you go to get the plates your mind will be filld with darkness and all man[n]er of evil will rush into your mind. To keep you from keeping the comman dments of God and you must tell your father of this for he will believe every word you say the record is on a side hill on the Hill of Cumorah 3 miles from this place remove the Grass and moss and you will find a large flat stone pry that up and you will find the record under it laying on 4 pillars — then the angel left him. [sic]” (Lucy Mack Smith, History 1844–1845, Original Manuscript, page 41)

            Lucy dictated the above about 20 years after the fact, but it is consistent with other evidence. In the following, Lucy recalls directly what her son said in her presence. Following Joseph’s meeting with Moroni at Cumorah, one year before Joseph received the plates, Joseph told his parents that he had “taken the severest chastisement that I have ever had in my life.” Joseph said:

            “it was the an gel of the Lord— as I passed by the hill of Cumo rah, where the plates are, the angel of the Lord met me and said, that I had not been engaged enough in the work of the Lord; that the time had come for the record to brought forth; and, that I must be up and doing, and set myself about the things which God had commanded me to do:” [sic] (Lucy Mack Smith, History 1844–1845, Original Manuscript, page 111)

            In both of these quotes from the Prophet’s mother, she demonstrates that in her mind it was Moroni, who told Joseph, prior to the translation of the plates, that the hill in Palmyra was named Cumorah.

            4. Hymn written by Parley P Pratt which we still sing. #328 in the current LDS hymnbook, “An Angel From On High”:

            “An angel from on high
            The long, long silence broke;
            Descending from the sky,
            These gracious words he spoke:
            Lo! in Cumorah’s lonely hill
            A sacred record lies concealed.
            Lo! in Cumorah’s lonely hill
            A sacred record lies concealed.”

            How often have we sung these words with out recognizing it is a paraphrased quote from Moroni.

            All of the documentary evidence is consistent that it was Moroni who told Joseph Smith, prior to the translation of the Gold Plates, that the ancient name of the hill in Palmyra was “Cumorah.” There is no documentary evidence to the contrary.

            • Your sources say what I have said. We don’t have anything from Joseph until late. Joseph never said that he heard it from Moroni. Most of the statements are late–and by that time Joseph had adopted the language that other people were using. So, we agree on the nature of the sources. Yes, there are people who said the NY hill was Cumorah–but not Joseph until much later. Most of the hymns and reminiscences you cite come after it had become the accepted way to talk about the NY hill (and it certainly was the way it became named in the tradition).

              If I remember correctly, the original wording from DC 128 was actually Parley P. Pratt’s, which Joseph borrowed–so we can’t quite claim revelation there either. It was church historians who attempted to track down when Joseph used Cumorah and found it only late. I am unaware of anything that has come to light since they made that study. Right now, there is no evidence for Moroni telling Joseph. There is no evidence for revelation. It appears that the first person to use the term was Oliver Cowdery. Even after it became a popular designation, when Joseph did dictate something about the hill, he did not call it Cumorah for years after other did. That doesn’t really sound like it started with Joseph, but rather than Joseph adopted it. We know Joseph adopted the terminology that everyone else started using, even if he knew it was not precise. We have better evidence of the substitution of urim and thummim for the Interpreters. Again, the general body of the Saints used urim and thummim for a long time while Joseph consistently used Interpreters–until he also adopted the term that was being used later (around the same time that we see his adoption of Cumorah).

              So what do we have? There is no scriptural reason to see the NY hill being the Book of Mormon Cumorah. From a scriptural standpoint, it shouldn’t be, as the only scriptural evidence is that the plates were not in Cumorah. There is no revelation that says that the NY hill is Cumorah (wording in the DC has been added later, as I remember). Joseph used other terms for the hill until long after the tradition began. Oliver appears to have been the first, but we have the record of him saying it–but no indication of any revelation to base it on. It is unlikely that he got it from Joseph, as Joseph wasn’t using Cumorah as the name for the hill at that time (as far as documents allow us to know).

              There are a number of later reminiscences that use Cumorah, but some of them even post-date Joseph’s death (Whitmer and Lucy Mack Smith). I really have a hard time accepting Pratt as paraphrasing Moroni, but quoting Cumorah. As I remember, Pratt wasn’t there–which means we are again taking what became tradition and using tradition as cause rather than result.

              Of course, the final answer is that we cannot know for sure what Joseph knew at what time. However, something other than the Book of Mormon had to be the source. One of the ways to resolve the question would be to see if we can discern the geographical clues to see what else the text might have said about the hill in which Mormon buried all of the plates save those he gave to Moroni. That obviously has its own set of controversies, but one thing that we should not do is assume that we can anchor a geography in New York because of the name of a hill that is in dispute. If we are required to look for Mormon’s Cumorah without making extra-textual assumptions, the NY hill is even less a candidate for Mormon’s hill (whether or not the plates Joseph received were ever there).

          • Brant,

            Joseph Smith wrote very little with his own hand. Other people mostly wrote what he told them. If we depended upon the actual writings of Joseph Smith we would not even have the Book of Mormon and very little of the Doctrine and Covenants. Everything you are saying above is opinion and conjecture.

            It does not change the fact that by promoting the position that Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer were either fabricators or deceived, when they both specifically and clearly stated that it was Moroni who said that the hill in Palmyra was called Cumorah, undermines their credibility and therefore the credibility of the Book of Mormon.

            • It is very true that we have little in Joseph’s own hand. It is not true that what I am saying depends upon conjecture. For Joseph’s use of the term, I am referencing Rex C. Reeve, Jr, and Richard O. Cowan. “The Hill Called Cumorah.” It is an article found in a volume published by the BYU Department of Church History and Doctrine, 1992. They are discussing the evidence for what Joseph said. The record is not conjecture. It might be thin, but it isn’t conjecture.

              However, saying that Moroni buried the plates in Mormon’s Cumorah is conjecture. The Book of Mormon says they weren’t there. They were taken from a drumlin in NY that didn’t have other plates in it. In this case, it isn’t your conjecture–it appears to have been Oliver’s. Still, there is no revelation, and no statement until quite late that ties the name to Joseph. Reference Reeve and Cowan, not me.

              Now, if Whitmer and Cowdery said Cumorah, and it wasn’t Mormon’s Cumorah, does that mean (as you have charged) that they “were either fabricators or deceived”? Not in the least. Deceived? By whom? Is anyone who makes an association about a scripture that is not correct automatically deceived? If so, either you or I am deceived because we disagree on how to read geographic statements from the text. I would never suggest that deceived is the correct term. How about fabricators? In the sense that you are using fabricator as a synonym for liar, again I would say no. Again, anyone who states an opinion is fabricating their opinion–based on something.

              I am unaware of any time that W.W. Phelps made any attempt to lie about the identification of the Interpreters. Nevertheless, we know that we can trace the use of “urim and thummim” to him and not Joseph. Does that mean that W.W. Phelps was deceived or lying? Not in the least. He made a correlation that seemed sensible (and tossed in tephalim as another option). Nevertheless, urim and thummim stuck, and became so well-used that they became terms for the same thing–even though there is no support in the Book of Mormon for that name to be associated with the Interpreters.

              Whitmer related the story many years later–long after the association with Cumorah was standard. I have no doubt that the outline of the story could be correct, but that his vocabulary choices were determined by the (by then) long-standing tradition.

              As for Cowdery, in one of his earlier letters, he used the urim and thummim designation for the Interpreters. Since we know where that came from, we know that Oliver didn’t mind using a term that Joseph hadn’t given him. I am unaware of any direct revelation to Oliver about the name of the hill where the plates were found–and we know that Oliver was willing to use a term that had no scriptural support and didn’t come from Joseph. So why should we privilege Cumorah over urim and thummim?

              None of this undermines the credibility of the witness any more than the differing suggests about dimensions or weight of the plates discredits them.

          • It seems to me that the argument about the accuracy of the Cumorah statements hinges on the following parts of the references provided:

            “… by Moroni, in a hill called by him [Moroni] Cumorah… “(Autobiography of P.P. Pratt p 56-61)

            “… in a hill near his fathers house called by the ancients “Cumorah…” (Milton V. Backman, Jr., “Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration,” p. 233)

            “…No, I am going to Cumorah.” This name was something new to me, I did not know what Cumorah meant.” (David Whitmer interview with Joseph F. Smith and Orson Pratt; version recorded in Joseph F. Smith, Diary, 7-8 September 1878, LDS Church Archives)

            Those statements seem to indicate that Moroni called the hill Cumorah (as opposed to others applying that name from personal interpretations), that Joseph Smith said ancient people called the hill Cumorah (as opposed to him just adopting a recent naming), and that David Whitmer first heard the name Cumorah from a person apparently knowledgeable about the old name of the place (as opposed to inventing it or picking it up somewhere else). Do those statements not really indicate the conclusions I wrote above?

            I like the idea that the Book of Mormon witnesses were demonstrably good at discerning reality from imagination in many areas of their lives. At the same time, while being wrong about some things is the lot of every mortal, if Book of Mormon witnesses can’t be trusted in their perceptions of what angels say, that complicates our understanding of their reliability. It seems valuable to know if they were wrong about Cumorah or if reports about them and their statements were wrong.

          • As with about anyone else, David Whitmer made statements that were evidently based on assumptions he made that turned out to not be quite correct, as when later in his life he described the Book of Mormon translation process as “one character at a time” appearing to Joseph Smith which would be read and read back until correct before the character would disappear and be replaced by the next.

            He was wrong, but you wouldn’t say he was lying or had been deceived.

            Were assumptions being made in the naming of the NY Cumorah? It is plausible Oliver Cowdery might have the one first to use it, being the first (with Joseph) to hear the name and to have associated it with “buried plates” and “final place.”

            As far as evidence goes, consider that the NY Cumorah is not the sort of prominent hill one would expect to draw two civilizations to it for great and final battles.

          • Central Texan,

            David Whitmer did not copy the words Oliver Cowdery.

            Oliver stated, “This Book, which contained these things, was hid in the earth by Moroni, in a hill called by him Cumorah.”

            David Whitmer stated specifically that “Joseph Smith told me… there was a record of an ancient people deposited in a hill near his fathers house called by the ancients “Cumorah”…” David received the information directly from the Prophet.

            Also, David Whitmer had his own direct first hand experience hearing Moroni say, “I am going to Cumorah.”

            The wording in all cases is too specific to be a simple error. Either it was true or it was fabricated.

            In addition to the words of Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer we also have noted in my posts above, supporting parallel testimony that it was Moroni who identified the Palmyra Hill as Cumorah from the words of William Phelps, Lucy Smith, and Parley P Pratt.

            The Cumorah question is reduced to a very simple choice. Does one choose to believe the words of two of the three witnesses that God chose to witness for the Book of Mormon, which were confirmed by the Prophet himself in D&C 128:20 and by William Phelps, Lucy Smith and Parley P. Pratt, or does one choose to believe a Twentieth Century geography theory that has no evidence for the Hill Cumorah in Mesoamerica except that if the theory is true it must be there? For me it is an obvious choice.

            The apparent prominence of the hill probably has nothing to do with it. It is interesting that Omer, great-great grandson of Jared, traveled to the Hill Shim, where the Nephites had first stored their records, and then traveled to Cumorah where a great many records were stored. Why would the Lord lead Omer to the two places where sacred records were later stored by the Nephites? It appears that these two locations had sacred significance prior to the flood. Cumorah may be a more sacred place than we know. Why did Coriantumr gather all his people to the hill Ramah/Cumorah for their final battle? Why did Mormon think he would have an advantage by gathering his people to the hill Cumorah for their final stand? Do not a people always gather to the temple of the God of their fathers to invoke the assistance of their father’s God in the day of their greatest peril? The ancient Jews have always gathered around the temple of their fathers’ God in their darkest hours, and will again in the last final battle. It may be that Cumorah was the site of a special temple prior to the flood and was considered to be the most sacred place on the continent.

          • Vance,

            In addition to the location of Cumorah, John Sorenson made several erroneous assumptions in order to make his theory plausible. Your question addresses two more of them.

            The major difference between the travel speed of the Pioneers and the party of Alma is that Alma’s party was fleeing for their lives in both legs of their journey, with either King Noah’s army or the Lamanite army in hot pursuit. However, “The Lord did strengthen them that the people of King Noah did not overtake them to destroy them.” (Mosiah 23:2) A better indicator of distance per day would be Zion’s Camp on a rescue mission, which made twenty-five to forty miles a day (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 2:65, 68). Alma’s party also made their journey in two much shorter segments of eight and twelve days, which allowed them to endure more travel hours per day. An average of thirty miles per day would be more realistic for a total of about 600 miles from Lehi-Nephi to Zarahemla and the River Sidon. Across the trackless plains of Central Texas from the Rio Grande to the Mississippi this would be quite reasonable.

            The second erroneous assumption is that Alma and his party traveled from the original city of Nephi. For over 300 years, from the days of Nephi to the days of King Mosiah 1st, there had been continual wars between the Nephites and the Lamanites (2 Nephi 5:34; Omni 1:10). During that time the Nephites had been “scattered upon much of the face of the land” (Jarom 1:6), and by 279 BC “the more wicked part of the Nephites were destroyed” (Omni 1:5). In the early days of King Mosiah 1st the more righteous surviving Nephites were living in a city called Lehi-Nephi (Omni 1:12, 27; Mosiah 7:1, 4), which could have been anywhere. In the beginning of Zeniff’s record he refers to the “city of Lehi-Nephi” (Mosiah 9:6, 9). In his record thirteen years later, with no explanation, Zeniff changes the name of the city Lehi-Nephi to the “city of Nephi” (Mosiah 9:15), and it is thereafter referred to as “the city of Nephi.” (see my Interpreter Blog Article at ) It was certainly not the original city of Nephi, wherever that was.

            As for the scouting party sent out by King Limhi, they would have come to the banks of the Sidon above Zarahemla, built dugout canoes or a sailing raft and continued upstream. After they had gone only another 250 miles upstream they were into the central plains at the fork of the Ohio River. By then they would have been finding the death and destruction of the Jaredites and they assumed that it was the people of Zarahemla (Mosiah 21:25-26). The scouts would have continued to follow the trail of death upstream looking for survivors. The Ohio branch of the Mississippi River would take them within 100 miles of Cumorah. King Limhi referred to the scouts as being “diligent” even though they did not find Zarahemla (Mosiah 8:8). The expedition of the scouts of Limhi would have been similar to our Lewis and Clark expedition, without meeting any live natives.
            Additionally, the scouts were being led by the Lord to pick up the twenty-four gold plates of Ether. Ether set the plates in the place where the Lord would bring the scouts of Limhi (Ether 15:33). The Book of Ether gave the Nephites a record of the people who came before them and was another testament to them of Jesus Christ. The Book of Ether was to the Nephites what The Book of Mormon is to us Mosiah 28:17-19; Alma 37:21, 29-30). The long trip of the scouts of Limhi was a small price for them to pay for the Book of Ether.

        • You’ve got a major problem with that theory, and that’s scale.

          Recall that the Hill Cumorah where the Nephite’s ended was the same as the Hill Ramah that the Jaredites were destroyed at. And it was in the land northward–it was past Zarahemla, Bountiful, etc.

          Thus, the entire land of the Nephites –Ammonihah, Zarahemla, Gershon, etc. were between the Land of Nephi and the hill Cumorah.

          The People of Alma fled from the Land of Nephi 8 days (Mosiah 23) and then an additional 12 days to Zarahemla. A total of 20 days journey, with women, children, flocks and herds, and supplies. They realistically traveled as fast as the early Pioneers, certainly no faster than the first camp, the one that trailblazed the way and was specially outfitted to travel fast and well. That company left Iowa in April and reached Utah in late July. That’s certainly less distance than from Oaxaca to Baton Rouge, but certainly more than 20 days. I struggle how Alma’s group could have traveled that distance in 20 days. Six months maybe– trekking a large family group with flocks through northern Mexico and South Texas would have been brutally slow. It took Nephi, Lehi and the boys 8 years to go a comparable distance through comparable terrain–that you claim took 20 days for a much larger, less experienced group than the Lehites. Not buying it, sorry.

          Further, Limhi’s men looking for Zarahemla knew the approximate distance to Zarahemla. Yet under your theory, they marched from Oaxaca Mexico to the New York State area (the site of the final battles for the Jaredite nation ), which is far, far beyond Louisiana. Surely someone would have figured it out by the time they hit Kentucky that they had gone too far?

          Another problem for the New York Hill Cumorah theory is that as I recall, that hill really isn’t all that dominant. Why would two civilizations decide on that hill as the final battle spot? Militarily, it does nothing but provide a high point to look around. What tactical or strategic value would dictate the New York Hill Cumorah as a spot to wage a battle in if you were hopelessly outnumbered? We know that Mormon picked Cumorah because it was in a land of many waters, where he hoped to gain an advantage over the Lamanites. The way “Many Waters” would help an outnumbered foe is if said many waters allowed a smaller group to face off on nearly equal numbers, like at a ford where the superior numbers of the Lamanites couldn’t be brought to bear. The terrain around New York does not lend itself to that kind of fighting.

          Does anyone know what the word “Cumorah” means? If it means something like “Ending” or “Burial” then it would only be natural for Mormon to name his hill Cumorah and for Moroni to also name the hill he ended or buried the plates in “Cumorah.”

          • Matthew Bowen writes in his June 2013 Interpreter article, “In the Mount of the Lord It Shall Be Seen” and “Provided”: Theophany and Sacrifice as the Etiological Foundation of the Temple in Israelite and Latter-day Saint Tradition”


            “When Jesus told his opponents, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad” (John 8:56), he alluded to his own atoning sacrifice and to the Genesis 22 account of Abraham’s “binding” and arrested sacrifice of Isaac. In this narrative, the Hebrew verb rā‫ʾ‬â (to “see”) serves as a verbal link that offers both a basis for the site of the temple as a place where the Lord was “seen” and a location where sacrificial substitute was “provided” (“seen-to”). In other words, the Genesis 22 narrative makes the verb see a sacrificial and temple-related term. Ancient Israelite writers and editors make this convergence of theophany (seeing a manifestation of God) and sacrifice the etiological basis (i.e., cause or origin) of the location of the Jerusalem temple and its name, “Mount Moriah.” Using the verb rā‫ʾ‬â, several Old Testament texts create etiological links between the place-names “Jehovah-jireh,” “Moriah,” and the threshing-floor of Araunah/Ornan, these pointing to the future location of the Jerusalem temple as the place of theophany and sacrifice par excellence and serving as the basis for subsequent temple worship, including Latter-day Saint temples.”

            When I read this I was struck by the similarity of the words “Moriah” and “Cumorah.” Perhaps there is a similar Temple link in the Hebrew-derived word Cumorah? Perhaps Cumorah was also an ancient Temple site which preceded the Jaredites and the Nephites? The Jaredites called it Ramah, presumably in the Adamic Tongue, which still sounds similar. We know that Cumorah was a repository for sacred records as Mormon hid all the sacred Nephite records there (Mormon 6:6). Ether hid out in a “cavity of a rock” in the area of Cumorah as he observed the final gathering and final battle of the Jaredites, and it was where he completed his record (Ether 13:13-14; 15:11-13). It was probably the same cavity where Mormon hid the Nephite records. Oliver Cowdery reported to Brigham Young that there were many wagon loads of plates in the room in Cumorah (JD 19:38). This would seem like more plates than Mormon and Ether together would have moved there, so it suggests that Cumorah may have been a repository of sacred records prior to the flood.

          • This conversation would benefit by considering Letter VII. President Cowdery’s 1835 Letter VII unequivocally establishes the New York Cumorah as the scene of the last battles of the Nephites and Jaredites, as well as the depository of Nephite records (Mormon 6:6) and the location of Moroni’s stone box. All members of the First Presidency endorsed this teaching, which was first printed in the Messenger and Advocate, and then republished in the Gospel Reflector, the Millennial Star, the Times and Seasons, the Prophet (Letter VII was published in The Prophet 2 by William Smith just two days after Joseph was murdered in Carthage), and the Improvement Era. The New York Cumorah has been consistently taught by prophets and apostles, including members of the First Presidency speaking in General Conference. The only ones who reject President Cowdery’s teaching about Cumorah are Mormon intellectuals, for reasons that we all know by now.

            Those who object to Letter VII claim President Cowdery never claimed revelation about Cumorah. But he did actually visit the depository of Nephite records in that hill, so he wrote from experience. Joseph helped him write these letters and endorsed them on multiple occasions, which makes sense because he, too, visited the depository.

      • Vance you said “Theodore, I know that you hang your hat on the Hill Cumorah which Joseph found the plates in being the same Hill Cumorah as the final destruction of the Nephites (and Jadeites), but it just isn’t so.” I would echo what Johnathan says in his comment from a few days ago….clearly in Letter VII written by Oliver Cowdery (who had intimate knowledge of the Book of Mormon, probably more so than an anyone else in this dispensation other than Joseph Smith) that the Hill Cumorah in New York is the same hill where the Nephite and Jaredite were destroyed. He describes the hill and what took place there in detail so there would be zero confusion. One can find and read this for themselves in the Joseph Smith papers at You also say that “Mormon explicitly forecloses that possibility. He buried all the records of the Nephites “save for these few plates I gave to my son Moroni”. He buried those records in the Hill Cumorah. Except for the plates Moroni had, who took those plates and wandered for the next 30 odd years.” but in Letter VII Oliver wrote “He [Mormon], however, by divine appointment, abridged from those records, in his own style and language, a short account of the more important and prominent items, from the days of Lehi to his own time, after which he deposited, as he says, on the 529th page, all the records in this same hill, Cumorah and after gave his small record to his son Moroni, who, as appears from the same, finished, after witnessing the extinction of his people as a nation.” For me, I trust what Oliver wrote. He was second only to Joseph in his calling and clearly worked closely with Joseph in the publishing of his Letters as described in Johnathan’s comment several times for all Church members to read and understand. We should not ignore these precious letters but read and study them and avoid man’s attempts to dismiss their importance.

  15. From a persuasive point of view, both sets of witnesses are very important. The 8 prove that the plates were real and Joseph had them, thus foreclosing the “it’s all a vision and made up” theory. The 3 prove that Joseph’s possession and translation were approved by God, foreclosing the “Fraud or Huckster” theory.

    Together, it’s very hard to wave away the witnesses. And of course they fulfill the ancient law of witnesses as well.

  16. I’ve always thought that the two different Book of Mormon witness experiences were designed to reinforce each other by appealing to both the mantic (the experience and testimony of the three witnesses) and sophic (that of the eight witnesses) viewpoints, as described by Nibley in The Ancient State. Although, the modern trend toward secularization as noted in the article, might shift the balance of appeal towards testimony of the eight witnesses.

  17. Though I often disagree with some of your doctrinal views, Dan, I agree with every word but one of this landmark speech/essay. I feel your words were inspired of God, and that’s the highest compliment I could ever give.

    I would alter one word only: the name “Mormon” in your second-to-last sentence. The Book of Mormon was meant to teach a theism and theology for more than just Mormons. It was meant for, and written to, the entire Christian world, and even to those outside that world, for God “remembereth the heathen, and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” Thus, I would broaden that second-to-last sentence to state, “The Book of Mormon’s theism, in fact.”

  18. Beyond the witness Oliver Cowdery gave of the Book of Mormon, he also claimed to have participated with Joseph Smith in an appearance of John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John restoring priesthood authority. The chances he was duped or hallucinated are zero.

    Could he have been a co-conspirator? Consider that the Book of Mormon plates were a known commodity and translation had already begun before Oliver Cowdery ever met Joseph Smith.

  19. I appreciate this. A lot of our material on the Three Witnesses is a bit dated. I’ve especially appreciated the recent articles in the JBMS (Martin Harris–can’t remember author) and the festschrift in honor of Richard Anderson (Oliver Cowdery–Scott Faulring). Are we aware of any projects involving the Witnesses currently in the works?

    • Actually, I’m involved in a major effort — just beginning — to produce two films on the Witnesses.

      Does anybody out there have any money?

      (Sigh. I’m beginning to feel like some sort of TV preacher, always asking for “love gifts.”)

      • Excellent article!

        One gap I see that could scholastically be filled:

        An online publication of every known source attributed to the Book of Mormon witnesses. I recognize the importance of the Joseph Smith Papers project and also that of the Critical Text Project. As a 3rd party without the resources available to Anderson and others it makes the research always through a secondary publication.

        For example, I own Prof Anderson’s book and have a folder with all FARM / Maxwell / Interpreter / BOM Central articles on the witnesses. Still, what I don’t have is direct access to their testimonies and text. Of course, I have access to some that are republished.

        Like many articles, I’ll end up quoting a quote from Prof Anderson’s book. I just see a gap in availability of these data and wish it could be filled. Where is the young student seeking a BYU PhD to build the bridge?

        • Many years ago, a then-colleague and I were planning an effort to gather and publish all of the Witness-related documents. But then he took a new job elsewhere (with the Joseph Smith Papers project) and we never got to it.

          I agree, though, that this would be a marvelous contribution, whether printed or online. Thanks for getting me thinking about it again. It would be a magnificent companion to the films that I mentioned above.

          Bringing it to completion would require some willing hands and, probably, some funding. Is anybody out there game?

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