Witnesses

I’ve been told many times that I must accept the testimony of the Book of Mormon witnesses at face value. In their written statement, they say that they saw and “hefted” the plates from which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. Three of them said that an angel showed them the plates. If they said it, it must be so.

And yet I, a skeptic, am not convinced. As Mark Twain put it sarcastically, “When I am far on the road to conviction, and eight men, be they grammatical or otherwise, come forward and tell me that they have seen the plates too; and not only seen those plates but ‘hefted’ them, I am convinced. I could not feel more satisfied and at rest if the entire Whitmer family had testified.”

But I am reminded of the unreliable nature of eyewitness testimony. You never really do know what people see, as individual perspective is so different. And, as ought to be obvious, the written testimony of the eleven witnesses is not actually their testimony. It was written by Joseph Smith.

However, if we take the witnesses at face value, we still can’t be sure that their testimony is reliable. Compare their testimony to the witnesses who saw the Urim and Thummim, which Joseph Smith described as “two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim” (JS-H 1:35). But what did these stone look like? We have three eyewitness descriptions.

In her history of her son’s life, Lucy Mack Smith describes them as “two smooth three-cornered diamonds set in glass and the glasses set in silver bows.” Yet Martin Harris says they were “white, like polished marble, with a few grey streaks” (Tiffany’s Monthly, 1859, p. 166). And further David Whitmer has them being “two small stones of a chocolate color, nearly egg shape, and perfectly smooth, but not transparent” (Kansas City Journal, June 5, 1881).

If Joseph had the Urim and Thummim, and these witnesses saw them, why the discrepancy? Which one is right? And how would I know?

This is the problem with the Book of Mormon witnesses. At least some of them tell us that they didn’t see the plates with their eyes but in a sort of second-sight vision with their “spiritual” eyes. One wonders, then, if those who saw the Urim and Thummim also saw them with their spiritual eyes, and thus saw what they wanted to see.

That would explain the discrepancy.

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16 Responses to Witnesses

  1. Tim says:

    And how many of those witnesses were so certain of the evidence that they saw that they were willing to stick around even if they lost everything they owned (much less they might die)?

  2. Interesting post, John. I’ve wondered about the witnesses many times. Their testimony and commitment is presented as very clear-cut, but scratching the surface of those statements reveals depths of ambiguity. Several witnesses left the church, several accused Smith of fraud, others vacillated.

    Certainty in evidence doesn’t necessarily mean the evidence is reliable. 39 Heaven’s Gate cultists killed themselves due to their certainty in evidence. Devout Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Rastafarians and others have all lost everything they owned and died for their beliefs, but their devotion to a religion doesn’t say anything about the accuracy of the religion’s empirical claims. See Leon Festinger’s “When Prophecy Fails” (1959?) for a study of cognitive dissonance in a UFO doomsday cult.

  3. History is full of people who have made great sacrifices, even their lives, for lies. Also, I suspect that the witnesses believed that they had seen the plates, but with their spiritual eyes. Eye-witnesses are notoriously unreliable. There are quite a few things that I can remember with incredible vividness, but that I realize never occurred to me. The mind is very susceptible to suggestion.

  4. runtu says:

    Kam,

    Cognitive dissonance? What does that have to do with Mormonism? 😉

    You’re right that the willingness of believers to sacrifice is not evidence of their reliability as witnesses.

  5. Steve Smoot says:

    “And, as ought to be obvious, the written testimony of the eleven witnesses is not actually their testimony. It was written by Joseph Smith.”

    What you must remember, John, is that the witnesses did not just sign a single piece of paper and then say nothing more about the subject. They talked a lot about their experiences throughout their lifetimes and consistently affirmed their testimony; even when they had everything to lose and nothing to gain by remaining true to their word. I am sure that you are familiar with Richard Anderson’s book on the witnesses, but I would also recommend Dan Peterson’s “Not so Easily Dismissed” essay in a previous FARMS Review as well as Dr. Anderson’s other works on the witnesses.

    “Several witnesses left the church, several accused Smith of fraud, others vacillated.”

    Which makes the fact that none of them denied their testimony in the Book of Mormon all the more impressive.

    I am also glad that other historians (as well as lawyers, judges, etc.) are not as dismissive of historical and eyewitness testimony as Michael Baily is, otherwise we would know precious little of anything related to history. Because we can’t observe history, we must rely on eyewitness testimony more than in any other pursuit of historiography.

  6. runtu says:

    Hi, Steve,

    I am indeed familiar with Anderson’s book and Dan Peterson’s essay. I am quite sure that they believed in what they saw, but I have consistently argued that the witness testimony is not particularly germane to the veracity of the Book of Mormon. Obviously, you and Dan and others disagree.

    I think the text of the Book of Mormon is its own best evidence. That’s where I prefer to discuss its validity, not in the possible supernatural experiences of the Whitmer and Smith families.

  7. Ray Agostini says:

    Because we can’t observe history, we must rely on eyewitness testimony more than in any other pursuit of historiography.

    We can observe history. And the BoM reads like anything but history. Once you realise that, then you have to look for other interpretations about the BoM.

  8. runtu says:

    Ray,

    I was thinking about that tonight: I stopped believing in the Book of Mormon as history at least 15 years ago (I think I was still working for the church).

  9. Ray Agostini says:

    I started questioning it as history in the mid-80s, John, and as I’ve said before, I felt I couldn’t in all honesty teach it to my children as “history”. I felt like I was brainwashing them. But it wasn’t until the mid-90s that I felt I could no longer sustain it as history (confirming my doubts), after studying the pros and cons in more detail. Of course, like you, I’ve had many subsequent debates about this, and have been “open” to other viewpoints, mainly on FAIR. To put it bluntly, you’ve got to kid yourself bigtime to believe the BoM is history. Roberts caught on to this in the 1920s, but all the apologists have done is try to make him look like a “true believer”, while ignoring his most critical statements, or watering them down. SPIN.

    And that’s the Sham. If they did like the Community of Christ, and left it open, I could respect that. But BoM historicity became a litmus test of “orthodoxy” in the case of scholars like David Wright, who was excommunicated because they would never, for one moment, even consider that people like Wright might have actually nailed it down. Oh no, “faith” comes first.

    This is not truth-seeking. This is ecclesiastical bullying. Authoritarianism. You agree with us, or we “burn you at the stake”. The more thnigs change, the more they stay the same.

  10. runtu says:

    Yep. That’s how I see it. I think the church has painted itself into a corner on the issue of BofM historicity, such that people like David Wright are no longer welcome in the church. That’s a shame because he, along with other people I know of, really seemed to believe in the ideals of Mormonism, if not the mythology. I still believe in some of the ideals, but these days orthodoxy and orthopraxy take precedence over ideals. Too bad.

  11. runtu says:

    I note that Steve Smoot is taking the first two sentences of my last response and suggesting that I believe that there is brainwashing going on, etc. My post speaks for itself, Steve, and you don’t need to go over to MAD to once again misrepresent what I say over here, especially since you know I cannot respond on that forum.

    Bad form, Steve.

  12. beastie says:

    I just started reading “On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not” by Robert A. Burton. It contains extremely pertinent information about this very topic. As one example, he talks about how unreliable our memories are, even of notable events. He used a couple of specific examples: A professor had 106 of his students write down what they were doing when the Challenger exploded within one day of the event. Two and a half years later he interviewed them again, and their memories were strikingly different from what they had recorded at the time. Even more interesting, they couldn’t bring themselves to admit that their memories were false, even when confronted with their own handwriting.

    http://atheism.about.com/od/parapsychology/a/memory.htm

  13. Bull says:

    I’ve searched on the web site and commented in the past about what I consider an anomaly about the witnesses. They repeatedly affirm their testimony, but it amounts to, “I affirm what I said” without any articulation of the experience. We rarely have them describing in their own words what happened and when they do it tends to contradict the written testimony in the BoM. I would have expected them to talk in great detail, repeatedly, over and over again during their lifetime about the circumestances of the coming forth of the BoM and their witness. But all we have is, “I stand by my testimony” with very little else. That is more than a little suspicious and make me believe that they didn’t give the details because they knew that the details would not be very supportive of the written claims.

    The other damning thing is David Whitmer’s pamphlet. If we are to take him as a credible witness then what do you do with the statement that he knew with just as much certainty that Joseph Smith was a fallen propeht as he knew the BoM was false? Either he is not a credible witness or the LDS church is false. There’s not really an alternative. I think that speaks volumes about their credibility.

  14. Steve Smoot says:

    John:

    1. I did not know that you were banned. I thought your non-responsiveness was due to your schedule. I like to post things on the board so that others can participate, not so that you don’t have a chance to answer questions.

    2. Did you miss my last sentence?

    “Perhaps John could better explain his views, since I would hate to think that he actually holds to the spurious and disingenuous view that the Church’s unwavering position on Book of Mormon historicity, indeed, the very foundation of the Church itself, is “ecclesiastical bullying”.”

    How did I misrepresent your views? I gave you the chance to explain yourself.

  15. runtu says:

    I’m sorry for being a little irritated with you, Steve. I figured it was common knowledge that I can’t post over there.

    Your thread over there suggested that two brief sentences constituted a complete endorsement of everything Ray said, ignoring the rest of my response to Ray which clearly said what I was agreeing with. Yes, your last sentence gave me a chance to explain myself after you insinuated that I thought the church was bullying. I dunno, that just seems more than a simple invitation to clarify my views, don’t you think?

    Anyway, I suppose dealing with me over here will have to be our only interaction, as I don’t foresee being able to respond over there anytime soon, though I could be wrong. But I appreciate your coming here to discuss things civilly.

  16. qzxv says:

    The witnesses are solid, and there were various informal witnesses. It would be difficult for me to dismiss their evidentiary testimony and think I was being honest with myself.

    Because you think the text is most important in determining whether it was fraud or real, which I agree with, I would like your take on the obsolete lexis found in the text, as well as the extensive use of obsolete, nonbiblical syntax and morphology.

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