An Examination of the Book of Mormon and its Chief
Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints claimed
that he received the Book of Mormon as a revelation from God. He said that the
heavenly being Moroni appeared to him and directed him to some buried gold plates
which contained ancient writings. His task then, was to translate these ancient
writings with the help of seer stones which were also buried with the gold plates.
Smith received strict directions from the heavenly being that he was to show the
plates to no one except for appointed individuals. The Book of Mormon in its preface
identifies these as eleven persons: the three witnesses and the eight witnesses. A
student of religion would now be interested in knowing something about these
witnesses, for only then can we evaluate their worth as witnesses.
The Book of Mormon names the three witnesses as Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer,
and Martin Harris. The book also names the eight witnesses as follows: Christian
Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer, Jr., John Whitmer, Hiram Page, Joseph
Smith, Sr., Hyrum Smith, and Samuel H. Smith.
Who were these persons? And what can we know about them that would give us
reason to either believe or disbelieve them as witnesses in this most important
matter? A good place to look for information would be the publications of the Mormons
themselves, since they should more than anyone else be interested in preserving
histories of their principal witnesses. This approach could be used at least as a
starting point for gathering information before further scrutiny and investigative work.
In this study I would like to turn to two books published by the Mormons to find
information about the chief witnesses. The first book is the Doctrine and Covenant, a
book of authoritative scriptures for the Mormons.
The second book is Church History Timeline by William W. Slaughter, published by
Desert Book Company, in Salt Lake City, Utah, 1996.
What follows is a brief look at the information these books contain about the
witnesses and other key persons associated with the Book of Mormon. My intention
here is not to provide a summary of the entire body of information but only to show
that what we learn from these books do not give us much confidence in the witnesses
and hence in the Book of Mormon itself.
The first of the three witnesses is Oliver Cowdery, a rural schoolteacher. He was a
scribe to Joseph Smith, and associate president of the Church. In April 12,1838 he
was excommunicated from the Mormon Church. He was rebaptized ten years later in
November 1848 and died March 3, 1850.
Reading this, one must wonder why this chief witness was excommunicated during
the lifetime of Joseph Smith his prophet, and be allowed back in the church after his
prophet died. Smith was martyred on June 27, 1844.
The second of the three witnesses is Martin Harris. He was a prosperous farmer who
was known as industrious, honest, and generous. It was his $3000 that financed the
first 5,000 copies of the Book of Mormon. But, as William Slaughter informs us:
Harris clashed with Church leaders over monetary practices and was
excommunicated in December 1837; he was rebaptized November 27, 1842.
The same Martin Harris was given 116 pages of the book of Mormon after Joseph
Smith had translated them with the help of the seer stones. But then he allowed
wicked men to take these pages for the purpose of corrupting the translation and then
to accuse Joseph Smith of falsehood in his prophetic claim. Why would Martin Harris
do this? The Doctrine and Covenants explains that he was a wicked man who sought
Joseph Smith relates in his history how Martin Harris had previously taken sample
characters from the book of Mormon along with the relevant translation of those
characters and received confirmation of these in New York City from a professor
Charles Anton and Dr. Mitchell. These men attested that the characters were true
characters of the Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac and Arabic, and that the translation so
far done by Joseph Smith was accurate.
Now, one may wonder why did Harris, after he had received this confirmation, should
seek to destroy Joseph Smith. And what value should we attach to the testimony of a
man who sought to destroy one whom he believed was God’s prophet? Since the
Doctrine and Covenants call Harris a wicked man, should we place confidence in his
testimony? Or should we believe the Doctrine and Covenants? But to believe in the
Doctrine and Covenants which was revealed to Joseph Smith we have to first believe
the Book of Mormon which was revealed to him before that. And to believe the Book of
Mormon we have to believe its witnesses. We are still at the early stage of examining
The third of the three witnesses is David Whitmer. The whole Whitmer family had
become interested in the translating of the Book of Mormon, and it was at the
residence of this family that Joseph Smith lived until he completed the work of
translating the Book of Mormon from the gold plates. Others in the Whitmer family are
numbered among the eight witnesses, but David alone had the privilege of being
Nevertheless, Doctrine and Covenants describe David Whitmer as one who fears
men and does not rely on the Lord (D 30: 1). Doctrine and Covenants tells us that
he had his mind on the things of the earth (D 30:2), and was persuaded by those
whom the Lord did not command. This is in spite of the fact that he had been called
Paul, however, was not believed by Christians to have become an apostate. Yet
David Whitmer was excommunicated in April 1838, about the same time as Oliver
Cowdery, the first of the three witnesses.
Oliver Cowdery we recall was later rebaptized after the death of Joseph Smith. But
David Whitmer never came back to the Church. He died fortynine years later as an
One must again ask why the chief witnesses waver like this. Two fell away and came
back. One fell away and never came back. Their wavering from this initial position of
commitment to the revelations is not exactly the thing that will inspire confidence.
Mormons point out that these three witnesses never denied their initial testimony even
when they were excommunicated from the church. The Church History Timeline even
includes a positive testimony from David Whitmer for the record. Whitmer said that
although it is recorded that he had denied his testimony as one of the three
witnesses, neither he nor the other two had at any time denied that testimony or any
Yet actions speak louder than words. The fact that these men relinquished their
commitment to the revelations reduces the weight of their testimony. Two of the
witnesses repented and were baptized, and this makes them obviously better
witnesses than David Whitmer who never came back. Yet their many years of being
out of the church makes us wonder how firmly they believed their own testimony.
Mormons will say that the important thing is not the witness of men but the witness of
God. They will advise the inquirer to pray about the Book of Mormon to find out
whether or not it is true. But, obviously, the publishers of the Book of Mormon
considered the testimony of the men to be worthy of note. Prayer is important.
Investigation is also important. Once the witnesses are presented, they should be
examined. If the Mormon message says that the witness of men is not important why
then do they print the list of witnesses in the book?
When we turn to the list of eight witnesses we notice three significant things. First, the
list is not as diverse as the number would apparently suggest. The eight witnesses
are four from the Whitmer family, three from the Smith family, and one Hiram Page.
As for the Whitmers, we noted already how the best of them, David Whitmer received
the distinction of being one of the elite group of three witnesses. We have also seen
how he fell away permanently and died an apostate. Nevertheless, his brothers kept
up their commitment to the revelations.
The Smiths were Joseph Smith’s father and two of his brothers. One of the brothers,
Hyrum, was martyred together with Joseph, and the other, Samuel, died a month
later. The father had died some years before that.
The second significant thing is that this Hiram Page also claimed revelations for
himself. He also, like Joseph Smith, had a seer stone which enabled him to write
revelations from God. But God declared in theDoctrine and Covenants that those
revelations are not from him but from Satan (D&C 28: 11). What then is the value of
Hiram Page as a witness about revelations from God?
The third significant fact about the eight witnesses is that their testimony is not as
important as the testimony of the three. The three had borne witness not only that
they saw the plates but also that they saw the angel and that they heard the voice of
God who said that the book was authentic and the translation was accurate.
The eight witnesses, on the other hand, only said that they had seen the plates “which
have the appearance of gold” (preface to the Book of Mormon). They also handled the
plates and saw the engravings “which has the appearance of ancient work, and of
curious workmanship.” The eight witnesses did not say anything to assure readers
that they knew the origin of the plates, or the accuracy of the Book of Mormon. What
their testimony bears out is that Joseph Smith showed them some plates which had
the appearance of gold and the engravings which they could not decipher. But they
believed that Smith was translating those engravings to produce the Book of Mormon.
Could we call them expert witnesses?
Not only did many of the chief witnesses of the Book of Mormon fall away. We find in
Mormon literature that many others who were close confidants and associates of
Joseph Smith could not stick with his mission after they once professed belief in it.
William was the only brother of Joseph Smith who lived on for a long time after him.
William was loyal to Joseph and remained a believer until 1845 at which time he was
excommunicated from the church. Thirtythree years later he joined a splinter group
which broke off from the Mormon Church (Church History Timeline, p. 3).
Federick G. Williams was one of the first high priests of the Church, and the second
counsellor in the initial First Presidency (1833). Before joining the Church he was a
prosperous and respected physician. He became a close friend of Joseph Smith, and
played an active role in building the temple at Kirkland in Ohio. He helped to select the
revelations to be included in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. His list of
accomplishments go on. Yet he was rejected as second counsellor in 1837 and
excommunicated in 1838. He was restored to fellowship a year later, and died two
years after that (Church History Timeline, p.9). One wonders why a man who was so
close to Joseph Smith, and so highly placed in the Church, should be
William Wines Phelps was a scribe to Joseph Smith in the translation of the Book of
Abraham, which is included in the authoritative scriptures of the Mormons. He also
wrote much of what is included in the hymnal. Yet he was excommunicated in 1839
and readmitted in 1841 (Church History Timeline, p. 11).
Thomas B. Marsh was the first president of the Quorum of Twelve. He was also
called to fill in as acting president of the Church when David Whitmer (third of the
three witnesses) had fallen away. Marsh and his wife quarrelled with the Saints over a
trivial matter and soon became alienated from the Church. He was excommunicated
in March 1839 and came back eighteen years later (Church History Timeline, p. 11).
Lyman Wight joined the Church in 1830, became an apostle in 1841, and was
excommunicated in 1848 for rejecting the leadership of Joseph Smith’s successor.
He moved to Texas to form his own splinter group (Church Timeline, p. 13).
John C. Bennett was a doctor, mayor of Nauvoo, Illinois, and chancellor of the Nauvoo
University. He was also majorgeneral of the Nauvoo Legion. On April 8, 1841, Joseph
Smith called him as assistant president in the First Presidency. Sexual misconduct
led to his disfellowshipment in 1842 and his excommunication the following year. He
then went on to publish a hateful book against the Church entitled The History of the
Saints; or, An Expose of Joe Smith and Mormonism. (Timeline, p. 14)
Emma Hale Smith was the wife of Joseph Smith. When her parents did not agree for
them to be married, Joseph eloped with her and they got married in 1827. She then
helped Joseph with the Book of Mormon translation. She was also called to select
hymns for the first hymnal, and was the first president of the Relief Society.
God revealed that he had given Emma in marriage to Joseph. God’s sealing of this
marriage would mean for Mormons that it is sealed for all eternity. Emma is therefore
admonished by God that she must cleave unto Joseph “and to none else,” otherwise
God would destroy her (D&C 132:54). One is then surprised to find that three years
after Joseph’s martyrdom, Emma married Lewis Bidamon. Nevertheless, she is
buried next to Joseph (Timeline, p. 15).
William Law was a wealthy businessman. He became a Nauvoo City councilman and
was named second counsellor to Joseph Smith in 1841. He broke with the Church
over polygamy and was excommunicated in April 1844. Law openly opposed Joseph
and helped to publish the Nauvoo Expositor, an antiMormon writing (Timeline, p. 18).
Joseph Smith destroyed the press where the Nauvoo Expositor was published. This
led to his arrest for treason. While Joseph and his brother Hyrum were in jail, on June
27,1844 a mob of 200 men gathered to kill him. Joseph, somehow armed, shot back
at them, but he and his brother both died that day. (Timeline, p. 18)
Sidney Rigdon was one of Joseph’s closest advisors and was first counsellor in the
First Presidency from 1833 to 1844. He helped Joseph to produce a new and
corrected translation of the Bible, and worked with him also on the Book of Moses,
which is included in the Mormon Scriptures. He claimed the right to lead the Church
after Joseph Smith died in the summer of 1844. But when the Church rejected his
claim he refused to be a mere follower, and he was excommunicated in the fall of that
year. He then moved to Pennsylvania and started his own church (Timeline, p. 19).
Samuel Braman was baptized in 1833, and presided over the Eastern Saints. He was
excommunicated in 1851 (Timeline, p. 22).
Orson Pratt was one of the original 12 apostles. He was a writer, mathematician, and
pioneer. He was excommunicated in 1843 and reinstated a year later. (Timeline, p.
From the above information it is clear that many of the most significant persons who
followed Joseph Smith fell away from his mission during his lifetime or shortly
afterwards. Some came back, others stayed away permanently. The lack of
consistency in these persons makes it difficult for an observer to have confidence in
the truth of Joseph’s claim to be a spokesman for God.
The above information is all taken from the writings which are friendly to the Mormon
Church. One of those is a writing actually recognised as authoritative scripture for
them. So the information cannot be biased against the Mormon Church. If anything,
the information should be favourable to the Church. We expect that an outsider book
may not present the Mormon faith in good a light as these insider book does. Yet the
light from these books is not bright enough to inspire the kind of confidence a person
The individuals spoken of above are not a few isolated individuals selected for
sensationalism. They are most of those who had important positions with Joseph and
his Church. What we have seen is sufficient to make us wonder about the
authenticity of the Book of Mormon, The three witnesses all fell away; two returned.
One of the eight witnesses claimed to receive revelations in a similar manner to
The scribes who worked with Joseph to write down what he dictated of the revelations
of God did not remain faithful. Oliver Cowdery left and did not return during Joseph’s
One hundred and sixteen pages of the translated book once placed in the hands of
Martin Harris ended up into the hands of enemies who sought to destroy Joseph
Smith by perverting his book. The book Church History Timeline, p. 4, says the pages
were stolen from Harris. But Doctrine and Covenants reveal that Harris himself was
one of the enemies who sought to destroy the prophet (D&C 10:67). He no longer
acted as scribe for Joseph after this incident (Timeline, p. 4).
No, these were not isolated individuals. The book Church History Timeline highlights
all of the most important persons in the Church’s history. On page 4, one person is
On page 5, two persons are shown. Both fell away.
On page 9, one person is shown. He fell away.
On page 11, two persons are shown. Both fell away.
On page 13, two are shown; one fell.
On page 14, two are shown; one fell.
On page 18, two are shown: William Law and Joseph Smith. William disagreed with
On page 19, one person is shown. He went away to start his own church.
On page 22, two persons are featured. Both fell away.
Many of these men, as we have seen, did come back into the Church. But their loss
of faith at one time must be taken seriously. And what do we make of those who
Speak to Mormons with love and deep concern for their salvation in the life hereafter.
Help them to see that the early Muslims remained devoted to the prophet Muhammad
(pbuh) in all circumstances, because they were thoroughly convinced that he was
God’s messenger. They believed his words, rushed to carry out his orders, and risked
Some of the worst enemies of the prophet eventually became convinced about the
truth of his message, and once they announced their new faith nothing could later
Muslims should also help Mormons to understand how much emphasis Muslims
place on the reliability of witnesses. In order to even verify a single statement of the
prophet Muhammad, pbuh, we need witnesses whose character and faith are without
doubt. Those who relate sayings from the prophet must be known for their absolute
honesty, impeccable piety, remarkable memory, and strict adherence to the prophet’s
teachings. If Mormons can appreciate this principle of historical verification, they may
look at Mormon and Islamic histories in a new way and decide for themselves which
should inspire more confidence and faith.
Help Mormons to become acquainted with the Qur’an, which is by itself alone a
witness to its own truth by remaining in its original language and form for all to see. A
Muslim would have a copy of the Qur’an in its original Arabic text, perhaps also with a
translation into another language. Show your visitors that the angel who brought the
message to the prophet did not take away the message but left it for all to see.
Yes, we do not have to rely on human witnesses alone. Although many persons did
testify that they were present when the angel delivered the Qur’an to the prophet over
time, and many others attested to the impeccable character and truthfulness of the
prophet, pbuh, we do not have to rely on them alone.
Today the Qur’an can still be examined. Millions of human beings have been
examining this book throughout the centuries. Some study it in its original language,
others through a translation. Millions now attest to the fact that the Qur’an is the best
witness that it is indeed a revelation from God.
Perhaps you can help your Mormon visitors to know the Qur’an and be saved.
Mormons are sincerely persons working hard to spread their message. You can help
them redirect their energies to working for God’s message which he revealed to his
prophet Muhammad, pbuh, through the angel Gabriel. God says in the Qur’an: If
anyone desires a religion other than Islam, never will it be accepted of him; and in the
Hereafter he will be one of the losers. (Qur’an 3:85)
Slaughter, William W Church History Timeline. Salt Lake City, Utah: Desert Book Co., 1996.
Doctrine & Covenants. Salt Lake City, Utah The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.,
The Glorious Qur’an