Joseph Smith’s Response to Skepticism
Robert N. Hullinger
A God of Revelation
[p.121]The God that others worship is not the God for me;/ He has no parts nor body, and cannot hear nor see;/ But I’ve a God that lives above—/ A God of power and of Love—/ A God of Revelation—oh, that’s the God for me!
—Old Mormon Hymn (in Arbaugh, Revelation in Mormonism)
Deists had perfected the argument that the God of Christianity was capricious and that a lack of modern revelation proved him so. To convince Gentiles otherwise, Joseph Smith demonstrated that God still dealt with humanity as he had in the past. Smith regarded revelation and charismatic gifts as necessary and urged readers to accept them on the basis that God is unchangeable.1 A typical assertion of this was advanced through a Book of Mormon sermon by Moroni: “And again I say unto you who deny the revelations of God, and say that they are done away, that there are no revelations nor prophecies, nor gifts, nor healing, nor speaking with tongues, and the interpretation of tongues; behold I say unto you, he that denieth these things knoweth not the gospel of Christ; yea, he has not read the scriptures; if so, he does not understand them. For do we not read that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and in him there is no variableness neither shadow of changing? And now, if ye have imagined up unto yourselves a god who doth vary, and in whom there is a shadow of changing, then have ye imagined [p.122] up unto yourselves a god who is not a God of miracles. But behold, I will show unto you a God of miracles, even the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; and it is that same God who created the heavens and the earth, and all the things that in them are” (Morm. 9:7-11).
Christians played into the hands of skeptics, argued Book of Mormon writer Nephi, when they denied present-day revelation and miracles or when they said, “Behold there is no God today, for the Lord and the Redeemer hath done his work, and he hath given his power unto men … for this day he is not a God of miracles; he hath done his work” (2 Ne. 18:5-6). For a thousand years Christians gave such an explanation for the cessation of revelation and charismatic gifts. Smith insisted that they denied God’s power (28:6). In his opinion miracles could not cease, nor could angels cease appearing, nor had God kept from people the power of the Holy Ghost: “Wherefore, if these things have ceased wo be unto the children of men, for it is because of unbelief, and all is vain … if these things have ceased, then has faith ceased also” (Moro. 7:27-38).
Christians who did not accept the validity of charismatic gifts in the life of the church then were responsible for the suspension of revelation and miracles. Moroni in his farewell sermon to the Lamanites elaborated this view and enumerated the gifts of the Spirit: “All of these gifts of which I have spoken, which are spiritual, never will be done away, even as long as the world shall stand, only according to the unbelief of the children of men … if the day cometh that the power and gifts of God shall be done away among you, it shall be because of unbelief” (Moro. 10:19, 24).
The Book of Mormon confirmed that God does not change. God produced the Book of Mormon “that I may prove unto many that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever” (2 Ne. 29:6-9). By ushering the new scripture into the world, God proved “to the world that the holy scriptures are true, and that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age and generation, as well as in generations of old; Thereby showing that he is the same God yesterday, today, and forever.… By these things we know that there is a God in heaven, who is infinite and eternal, from everlasting to everlasting the same unchangeable God, the framer of heaven and earth, and all things which are in them” (D&C 20:11-12, 17).
This emphasis on God’s unchanging nature is behind the consistent pattern in the Book of Mormon of equating the creator of [p.123] the world with the God of the Old Testament with Jesus Christ. The emphasis on consistency is both an appeal and an answer to deists who believed that the God of nature was different from the God revealed in the Bible. The Book of Mormon clearly demonstrated that God was not some remote being unmoved by human experience. For example, in a passage predicting the crucifixion of Jesus, all the forces of nature are pictured in upheaval: “And the rocks of the earth must rend; and … many of the kings of the isles of the sea shall be wrought upon by the Spirit of God, to exclaim: The God of nature suffers” (1 Ne. 19:12).
No deist could accept such response, for such feelings made God a changeable being. Deism had drawn upon arguments used against Christian theology by Neo-Platonic, Stoic, and Neo-Pythagorean philosophers of the second and third centuries A.D. They too were offended by the human characteristics of Jesus, who was identified as God-in-the-flesh. Christian theologians adopted Greek categories to explain their faith and had seemingly met those objections with the doctrines of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ—human and divine.
The Unitarian message denied the Trinity doctrine but still held to special revelation as long as it was reasonable.2 Joseph Smith adopted the Unitarian point of view of Christ3 but emphasized on-going revelation. He chided Christians who denied present revelation for playing the skeptics’ game. According to Smith, denying contemporary revelation meant ascribing a change to God, if only in the manner of his relating to people. If “he hath done his work” then “there is no God today” (2 Ne. 28:5-6) argued Smith in the Book of Mormon. The alternative was atheism and nihilism.
Rather than ascribing the change to God, Smith declared humanity responsible for the break in communication. Present unbelief, he held, accounted for the lack of on-going revelation and charismatic gifts within and without the churches. God had always related to humanity on the basis of faith, and any other terms would indeed make God mutable.4
In the Book of Mormon this controversy among evangelicals, rationalists, and skeptics is particularly striking in the allegory of 1 Nephi 8-15. An angel led Nephi out of a dark and dreary wasteland to see a tree laden with fruit. He tasted it and was filled with joy, so he invited his family to eat the fruit. While they ate, Nephi noticed a river near the tree. There was also a straight and narrow path [p.124] leading to the tree but separated from the river by an iron railing or rod. Crowds of people walked the path toward the tree, but many missed their way when a dark mist surrounded them. Others, however, held the iron rod and safely reached the tree. Once there, they ate the fruit but felt only shame because many scoffers were ridiculing them. These fell away. Still others abandoned the path and iron rod and made their way across the river into the company of the scoffers, joining them in a huge building high in the air. The river separated the tree from the building. While the skeptics were celebrating in their sky-high building, it suddenly fell into the river, carrying its occupants to their destruction.
The allegory suggests that life is aimless without communion with God. The tree of life represents this communion, for it stands for the love God showed in reaching out to people through Jesus’ ministry. To eat of the tree’s fruit is to know the joy of fellowship with God. Countless multitudes seek this fellowship, but it can be found only by walking the path of life guided by the quality of virtue. A virtuous life, however, is not enough to bring one to fellowship with God. Many hazards await the seeker: temptation and terrors (the dark mist); a real, existential hell (the river); the approval of the sophisticated, which seems more attractive than the tree (the scoffers in the great building); or an existence lost on the broad roads which lead away from the tree to nowhere. Only by holding on to the word of God (the iron rod) can one make contact with God. Yet even some who reach the tree and eat the fruit feel shame when scorned by scoffers and choose to join forces with those scoffers. Others, however, eat the fruit and ignore the jeers. The scoffers represent the world which rejects Christianity because of pride in scientific knowledge and human reason. In the final showdown between unbelievers and the disciples of a Christianity which accepts on-going revelation and spiritual gifts, the worldly wise will be humiliated (1 Ne. 11:36; see 10:19; 16:38).
The allegory makes several points about life with God. How is it found: by God’s on-going guidance, by some other means, or not at all? Book of Mormon prophet Nephi believed that he could receive the same vision his father had on the basis that God does not change: “For he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded to them, by the power of the Holy ghost, as well in these times as in times of old, and as well in times of old as in times to come; wherefore, the course of the Lord is one eternal [p.125] round” (1 Ne. 10:9). Other points made are (1) present-day revelation is an essential ingredient of fellowship with God. (2) People must let the Bible (the iron rod) guide them or they will lose contact with God or become his enemy. (3) The history of this continent, from the time of the Tower of Babel to the present and into the future Millennium, is one of conflict between those who accept present-day revelation and spiritual gifts and those who deny them or deny Christ and God. Christians who deny these points of the allegory wind up supporting the anti-clerical Laman and Lemuel, who presented the deistic position: “Now, he says that the Lord has talked with him and also that angels have ministered unto him. But behold, we know that he lies unto us … and he worketh many things by his cunning arts, that he may deceive our eyes, thinking perhaps, that he may lead us away into some strange wilderness; and after he had led us away, he has thought to make himself a king and ruler over us, that he may do with us according to his will and pleasure” (16:38).
Smith believed that holy living opens one to revelation through voices, dreams, visions, angelic announcements, theophanies, prophecy, and written records. The voice of the Lord may speak forgiveness to the mind (Enos 5, 10). The Divine Presence may appear as a reward for faith and lead to knowledge (Ether 3:18). In dreams God may speak his commands and warnings (1 Ne. 2:1-2, 3:2; Ether 9:3). In visions one may see the future portrayed (1 Ne. 1:6-14). There is no discernible difference between dreams and visions. Nephi says of the allegory of the tree of life: “Behold, I have dreamed a dream; or, in other words, I have seen a vision” (8:2, 4, 36).
In the Book of Mormon visions are usually previews of history. When Lehi was carried away in vision he saw Jesus and his apostles, Jerusalem’s destruction, and the Babylonian captivity (1 Ne. 1:6-14). Although his wife complained that he was a “visionary man,” Lehi saw a vision which warned of Jerusalem’s impending disaster (5:4) and another which confirmed Jerusalem’s destruction (2 Ne. 1:4; Hel. 8:19-22).
Nephi, Lehi’s son, said that God “hath given me knowledge by visions in the nighttime” (2 Ne. 4:23). Like Paul, Nephi saw things too great for humans to see and was forbidden to write them down (v. 25). A typical prophetic vision is found in 1 Nephi 13. There Nephi sees the Virgin Mary in Nazareth swept away by God’s Spirit [p.126] and returned with an infant: “And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father” (1 Ne. 11:21). Nephi also saw Jesus’ ministry, John the Baptist baptizing Jesus and attendant theophany, Jesus’ trial and crucifixion for the world’s sins, the world drawn up to battle against the twelve apostles, and finally the world’s defeat.
The Book of Mormon provides considerable insight into angelic ministrations. Angels are sent to rebuke disobedience to divine commands (1 Ne. 3:29-31), comfort the sorrowing (Alma 14-15), instruct men and women as to what they should do (8:14-15, 20; 10:7-8), clarify doctrinal matters (40:11-15), interpret dreams or visions (1 Ne. 11:25, 35-36; 12:16; 14:29), reveal the future (Mosiah 3:2-27; 1 Ne. 11; 13; 2 Ne. 6:11; 10:3; 25:19), declare repentance (Alma 13:22), attest to God’s power (Mosiah. 27:14), and warn of impending destruction (Hel. 13:7). Seeing an angel or hearing his message motivates humans to obey. If an angel says something, there is no room for doubt (Mosiah 27:14-15; 1 Ne. 4:3; Alma 10:9; 11:31; 21:5). This is true because “angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ” (2 Ne. 32:2-3). They may speak to men, women, and children (Alma 32:23). Angels fail to visit the earth only because faith is lacking; as Moroni explained, “it is by faith that angels appear and minister unto men” (Moro. 7:37).
Signs are also important in the Book of Mormon. An angel may give a sign to confirm a vision (1 Ne. 11:7). The Lord may give one to warn of the impending Millennium (3 Ne. 21:1-7). More often, a sign is given by a prophet to attest to his authenticity (Hel. 9:24-41), to help people recognize when a prophecy is about to be fulfilled, or to detect when an event has been prophesied.5 Signs may not be demanded by skeptics as proof of God’s message or existence (Alma 32:17-18, 21). They may be granted when asked for but with dire results. Sherem demanded a sign of the power of the Holy Ghost and received first a scolding and then an affliction which led to his death. Korihor asked for a sign to prove God’s existence and was offered the works of creation as proof. Unsatisfied, Korihor was struck dumb and eventually met a terrible death (30:43-59).
The Book of Mormon is especially clear about the importance of written records of God’s interaction with humans. In contrast to the Bible, no book of the Mormon scripture has an unknown author and each writer has a genealogy. A detailed calendar is provided with [p.127] times for the composition of each book.
The most ancient record in the American scripture is found in the book of Ether. This book tells of Jared and his family leaving the Tower of Babel with their language unchanged. Jesus—not yet born into the world—appeared to them and commanded Jared’s brother to record what he heard and saw during this visit. The record and two stones by which it could be translated were to be kept sealed until after Jesus’ crucifixion: “And the Lord said unto him: Write these things and seal them up, and I will show them in mine own due time unto the children of men” (Ether 3:21-22, 27; 4:1). Generations later Ether, Jared’s descendant, edited the record of Jared’s brother and added to it (2:13). When he finished the record, Ether hid it “in a manner that the people of Limhi did find them” (15:33).
Centuries later another record was generated by Lehi’s family which left Jerusalem just before the first Babylonian offensive in about 600 B.C. Lehi sent his sons into the city to secure from Laban the twenty-four brass plates which contained Lehi’s genealogy, the law of Moses, and prophecies of Jeremiah, Jacob, and Joseph (1 Ne. 3:20; 3:3, 12, 24; 4:15, 38). To the twenty-four brass plates Lehi added his vision of Jerusalem’s destruction, the advent of the Messiah, and the world’s redemption, and recorded this along with other visions and prophecies (1:1-3, 16-17).
The most important records in the Book of Mormon for verifying the Bible were these brass plates. Since the Tower of Babel, the plates had been handed down along with the “interpreters.” This enabled any future translator to understand the original language and eventually enabled Joseph Smith to translate. The plates informed God’s people of his mysteries, records, and commandments, without which they would have “suffered in ignorance” (Mosiah 1:3). Through future generations the plates would be “preserved by the hand of the Lord until they should go forth unto every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, that they shall know of the mysteries contained thereon” (Alma 37:4). For that reason Lehi’s family carried the plates to America (1 Ne. 5:21-22), and the Nephites often copied its contents into the records which became the Book of Mormon (2 Ne. 4:15).
Nephi made two sets of plates, the larger containing the secular history of the Nephites and the smaller their religious history.6 Nephite editors and writers preserved and added to Nephi’s records through the following centuries. Enos wanted to preserve a record [p.128] for future Lamanites in the event of a Nephite apostasy from Jesus Christ. Two hundred years later, 121 B.C., King Benjamin passed the record to his son Mosiah, who kept the records from the general populace. Later the records were updated by King Limhi (Mosiah 1:1-6, 16). In 46 B.C. the records were again revised, to be eventually a sign to the gentiles of God’s power (3 Ne. 3:3-18; 21:5). When the Savior visited the Nephites in 34 A.D., he commanded them to fill in past omissions and to update the records (23).
Mormon was one of the last surviving Nephites. He witnessed and recorded the destruction of almost all his people. Mormon abridged the large plates (the secular record) of Nephi and added to them, noting the fulfillment of prophecies recorded long before by Nephi, Lehi’s son. By making his record available to posterity, Mormon hoped to bring the Lamanites back to the knowledge of God: “And now I, Mormon, proceed to finish out my record, which I take from the plates of Nephi.… And I, Mormon, pray to God that they may be preserved from this time henceforth. And I know that they will be preserved; for there are great things written upon them, out of which my people and their brethren shall be judged at the great and last day, according to the word of God which is written” (W of M). Mormon buried the records in the hill Cumorah in 385 A.D. to preserve them from his contemporaries and for future generations. Moroni finished his father’s records (Morm. eight) and then edited the material of Ether, including only a portion of Ether’s report of Jesus’ visit to the Jaredites. Moroni again buried the records.
The next chapter in the record’s transmission occurred in September 1827. Moroni, appearing now as an angel, committed the plates and the “interpreters” to Joseph Smith for translation. By identifying the records as the “Stick of Joseph” of Ezekiel 37:16 and the “sealed book” which cries “out of the dust” of Isaiah 29, the discovery of the plates was a fulfillment of prophecy.
In the contemporary climate of skepticism, Smith’s discovery could be seen to bolster revealed religion in several ways. (1) The detailed genealogy provided by the book responded to Thomas Paine’s criticism of the Bible: that books of testimony could not accurately be placed with their times or authors.7 (2) By tracing the records back to Jared and asserting that prophecies from Adam’s time were also available, the book provided evidence for an argument that people had always kept records as part of their [p.129] relationship with God. (3) Again responding to Paine’s criticisms, the book strengthened the value of hearsay reports of signs, wonders, and other historical events.8 (4) Since the book provided accounts of unfamiliar events, it also met Paine’s demand that revelation should communicate only previously unknown material.9 (5) Christ’s interest in bringing records up to date supported the contention that God reveals himself through human language and writing, which Paine also denied.10 (6) The inclusion of “interpreters” with the plates demonstrated that God provided for accurate translation of the records. (7) The Bible was confirmed as revelation through the parallels and corrections provided by the newly translated Nephite scriptures. (8) The advantages enabled by the book could only be confirmed by admitting on-going revelations and spiritual gifts as a key feature of Christianity.
Joseph Smith thus regained a great deal of territory from deists and rationalists. Further, speculations about Indian origins then in circulation—theories that a lost Hebrew race predated the Indians—were confirmed.
Willard Chase first heard of the discovery of hidden plates in June 182711 and Martin Harris in October.12 Smith said that he “could see the place where the plates were deposited, and that so clearly and distinctly that I knew the place when I visited it.” Moroni commanded Smith “to go to my father and tell him of the vision and commandment which I had received. I obeyed; I returned to my father in the field, and rehearsed the whole matter to him. He replied to me that it was of God, and told me to go and do as commanded by the messenger.”13 According to Smith, the vision was repeated each year until Smith finally got the plates in 1827.
This vision led Smith to new scripture and a new church. A vision was not a unique happening in the Palmyra region,14 but Smith found a way to “prove” his claim which others had not and in the process strengthened the basis of faith in his new movement against objections by skeptics. Smith arranged for corroboration to come from three witnesses as early as March 1829. He received the following revelation: “And the testimony of three witnesses will I send forth of my word” (D&C 5:15). The following month Smith translated from the Book of Mormon: “by the words of three, God hath said, I will establish my word” (2 Ne. 11:3). Nephi was here speaking of his own testimony corroborating that of his brother Jacob and the ancient Isaiah. Within a few weeks, Smith translated [p.130] Nephi’s prediction that the Book of Mormon “shall be hid from the eyes of the world, that the eyes of none shall behold it, by the power of God, besides him to whom the book shall be delivered; and they shall testify to the truth of the book and the things therein” (27:12). Moroni granted the future translator permission to show the plates to assistants: “And unto three shall they be shown by the power of God; wherefore they shall know of a surety that these things are true. And in the mouth of three witnesses shall those things be established; and the testimony of three, and this work, in the which shall be shown forth the power of God and also his work, of which the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost bear record—and all this shall stand as a testimony against the world at the last day” (Ether 5:3-4).
Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer were the three who became the witnesses for the book. For Martin Harris 1828 was an exciting year: his trip to Pennsylvania to get the characters, his return to Palmyra, his journey east to consult the scholars, his return home—all this climaxed by his return to Pennsylvania to take up duties as Smith’s scribe. After three months Harris went back to Palmyra with the 116-page manuscript and lost it. God denounced Harris through a revelation to Smith.
Oliver Cowdery came to Palmyra15 and heard of Smith’s vision. At the beginning of April he went to Pennsylvania to see the young prophet. Smith surmised Cowdery’s sincerity to learn the truth and told him of his “secret thoughts and all he meditated about going to see him, which no man on earth knew, as he supposed, but himself.”16 Two days after his arrival, Cowdery became Smith’s scribe. Soon thereafter Cowdery wanted power to translate and was promised that he should “receive a knowledge of whatsoever things you shall ask in faith, with an honest heart, believing that you shall receive a knowledge concerning the engravings of old records, which are ancient, which contain those parts of my scripture of which has been spoken by the manifestation of my Spirit. Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart. Now, behold, this is the spirit by which Moses brought the children of Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground” (D&C 8:1-3). His attempt to translate failed, but the promise came that he would have another chance. When he tried again he was told that he should study “out in his mind” his proposed translation. If it was satisfactory his bosom would “burn” within him and he would “feel that it is right” (9:8-9).17
[p.131] Cowdery was then told about the contribution he would make. He should consider his duty as scribe as “a witness unto thee—that the words of the work which thou hast been writing are true.” A further witness was the peace and satisfaction he had sought and found about Smith’s mission: “If I have told you things which no man knoweth have you not received a witness?” (D&C 6:14-17, 22-24). A second request for assurance about the plates brought out more explicitly the meaning of the “spirit of revelation.” On condition that Cowdery “ask in faith, with an honest heart, believing that you shall receive a knowledge concerning the engravings of old records,” the “spirit of revelation” would come upon him and speak in his mind and heart the assurance that he wanted concerning the plates (8:1-3).
On 15 May 1829 Smith and Cowdery received baptism and the Aaronic priesthood at the hand of an angel, who identified himself as John the Baptist (D&C 13).18 In spite of the angelic visit, Cowdery’s faith faltered a third time. Once again God reassured him (18:34).
David Whitmer took interest in Smith’s mission when Smith came to the Whitmer home to finish translating the Book of Mormon. Whitmer was told to ask in faith, believing, and he would receive the Holy Ghost and stand “as a witness of the things of which you shall both hear and see” (D&C 14:8). Jesus declared that he was speaking in person and said: “thou are David … called to assist; which thing if ye do, and are faithful, ye shall be blessed both spiritually and temporally, and great shall be your reward” (v. 11).
When the three witnesses had been chosen and were eager to see the plates, they received another communique addressed to them jointly: “And it is by your faith that you shall obtain a view of them, even by that faith which was had by the prophets of old. And after that you have obtained faith, and have seen them with your eyes, you shall testify of them, by the power of God.… And ye shall testify that you have seen them, even as my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., has seen them; for it is by my power that he has seen them, and it is because he had faith.… And I, Jesus Christ, your Lord and your God, have spoken it unto you, that I might bring about my righteous purposes unto the children of men. Amen” (D&C 17:2-3, 5, 9).
On their way to view the plates, the four men prayed for the angel to appear and display them. Sure that his presence was a detriment because of doubt, Martin Harris withdrew. After the [p.132] others had seen the plates and the angel, Smith went to Harris and prayed with him. Then Harris too saw the vision and gained the conviction that he had seen the angel and the plates.19
Joseph Smith had not chosen these three men randomly. All three had already accepted the reality of angelic visits before he chose them as witnesses. Oliver Cowdery had had visions before he came to New York from Vermont. During the winter of 1828-29, he stayed at the Smith home while teaching at the Palmyra Academy. According to the 1832 history of Joseph Smith, “the Lord appeared unto a young man by the name of Oliver Cowdery and showed unto him the plates in a vision and also the truth of the work and what the Lord was about to do through me his unworthy servant therefore he was desirous to come and write for me to translate.”20 Earlier in this account Smith had written of Martin Harris that “he had become convinced of the vision and gave me fifty dollars to bear my expenses and because of this faith and this righteous deed the Lord appeared unto him in a vision and showed unto him his marvelous work which he was about to do and immediately came to Susquehannah and said the Lord had shown him that he must go to New York City with some of the characters.”21 Rev. Diedrich Willers wrote on 18 June 1830 that Smith went to the home of David Whitmer with the purpose of “completing the translation” of the Book of Mormon because Whitmer claimed to have “seen an angel.” He added that this was the eleventh place where Smith had “worked on the translation,” that he could work only where others had had visionary experience.22
Thus all three witnesses believed that on-going revelation was an essential ingredient of true faith. It led them to expect visions, angelic visits, a sign to confirm faith, and the manifestation of spiritual gifts, and the understanding that any failure to experience these would be due to unbelief. All three had also demonstrated their need for acceptance by Smith and by God. Prior to the completion of the translation, Harris knew that he was in need of humility, prayer, recognition, and repentance of his sins.
The witnesses, thus specially chosen and prepared for their task, did not “see” the plates in an unambiguous sense—despite the confident language of their printed testimony. Joseph Smith received a revelation telling them that they were to see the plates “by your faith … as my servant Joseph Smith, Jr. has seen them for it is by my power that he has seen them” (D&C 17:2, 5). Anthony Metcalf, [p.133] John H. Gilbert, Reuben P. Harmon, and Rev. Jesse Townsend all said that the three witnesses viewed the plates with their “spiritual eyes.”23 In 1838 Martin Harris publicly stated that the three witnesses saw the plates in a vision but not with their natural eyes. He added that “he never saw them only as he saw a city through a mountain.”24
Smith also seems to have chosen eight additional witnesses because they were spiritually receptive to new revelation. Rev. Diedrich Willers pictured the Whitmer family as believing in witches, for example. Four of the eight witnesses were Whitmers, and Willers included Hiram Page in the description.25 Joseph Sr., Hyrum, and Samuel Smith had their own family tradition of visions.26
The written testimony of the eight witnesses differed from that of the three witnesses. They claimed no revelation. No “voice” declared to them that the “work is true.” No “power of God” showed them the plates—just Joseph Smith. No “angel of God” laid the plates before them; no “voice of the Lord” told them to testify of what they saw. For that reason Eduard Meyer concluded that the testimony of the eight was written primarily as further evidence that Smith indeed had the plates rather than as a demonstration of modern-day revelation.27 However, the eight did claim revelation in their conversations with others. When David Marks stopped at the Whitmers on 29 March 1830, the eight witnesses “affirmed, that an angel had showed them certain plates of metal, having the appearance of gold that were dug out of the ground by one Joseph Smith.”28 They explained to Marks certain basic points about the Book of Mormon and its contents but claimed to have viewed the plates in vision only.
In 1838 John Whitmer left the church and was confronted by Theodore Turley, who reminded Whitmer that he had “published to the world that an angel did present those plates to Joseph Smith.” Although that is not what the testimony of the eight claims, Whitmer nevertheless affirmed that the plates “were shown to me by a supernatural power.” But he could not vouch for the translation because he could not read the engravings on the plates.29 Martin Harris publicly denied that the eight witnesses ever saw the plates. The eight paused before in their testimony, he said, and signed only after much persuasion.30
In response to the testimony of these witnesses, and other signs of modern-day revelation associated with his movement, Smith challenged each person to receive his or her own testimony and [p.134] affirm the reality of present-day revelation. Alexander Campbell expressed the frustration many felt with such a challenge. Campbell imagined a conversation with the three witnesses: “I would ask them how they knew that it was God’s voice which they heard—but they would tell me to ask God in faith. That is, I must believe it first, and then ask God if it is true.” In other words those who did not affirm the testimony only proved their own unbelief blocking the witness.31
In 1834 Oliver Cowdery talked about the place of faith in the new church in a letter to his brother, a letter which makes clearer the context in which those involved interpreted events. People believed that “Jesus is the Christ” because they believed apostolic testimony about him. But people needed additional “assurance” in order to face the arguments of God’s enemies. According to Cowdery, “revelation” was the rock upon which Christ would build his church, against which “the gates of hell should not prevail” (his interpretation of Matthew 16:15-18). No apostle’s testimony could reveal this: “flesh and blood cannot reveal it—it must be the Father”; and if “men Know that Jesus is the Christ, it must be by revelation.”32
This view of the possibility of personal revelation counters Thomas Paine’s critique of traditional Christianity. Paine had written that the accurate prediction of an eclipse or transit of Venus proves that humans know the distance between heavenly bodies and their mass when they most closely approach each other. That is, the fact of accurate prediction proves the existence of true knowledge.33 According to Mormons, the testimony of the witnesses provided such a verification of present-day revelation and validated the records contained in the Book of Mormon. Mormon and Book of Mormon prophet Moroni provided a guideline for receiving a personal revelation: “I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things.… that ye would ask God … if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost, ye may know the truth of all things” (Moro. 10:3-5). Deists could run their own experiments and seek their own testimonies. If one must use scientific presuppositions to check the findings of science, then one must use spiritual guidelines to check matters of religion. If deists could not muster the interest to examine printed records with a believing mind, at least they could no longer rail against the adherents of revealed religion.34 Mormons, like skeptics, could now deprecate faith based on hearsay evidence. [p.135] Instead they promoted a faith established by personal revelation, an experience which could be reproduced if certain principles were applied.
After his conversion Sidney Rigdon visited members of his congregation in Kirtland, Ohio, to win them over to his new faith. He argued that their faith was based on the Bible, which came to them only upon “human testimony.” They denied this “and gave him reasons which he himself formerly urged against deists. He then said the old revelation was confirmed by miracles, but the Book of Mormon would never be; it was not designed to be thus confirmed.”35 Rigdon’s reply is borne out in how the Book of Mormon deals with miracles. Although it speaks about miracles as a potential manifestation of the Spirit, actual mention of miracles performed is rare.36 Joseph Smith would claim some miracles37 for his new church, but miracles never became the final basis for faith. That was reserved for personally experienced revelation.
Choosing three witnesses proved to be a successful strategy. They frequently testified before large audiences.38 And even when later developments clouded their testimony, the restored church rode out the storm. Eventually few in the church questioned the literal words of the testimony.
Deists rejected the deity of Jesus and the reliability of the New Testament gospels because they were based on human testimony. By prompting each convert to pursue his or her own personal revelation that Jesus is the Son of God, Smith removed the issue of secondary testimony. Now it was a matter of knowledge—knowledge communicated directly to the believer and meeting the criteria for revelation stated by Paine. The development of the Christian church in the Grecian east and the Roman west led to an interpretation of Peter as the “rock” of Matthew 16:18. Peter’s successors were a visible guarantee that the church still had the faith delivered by Jesus Christ. The Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century interpreted Peter’s confession that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God” as the “rock” on which Christ would build his church. The Roman Catholic claim to apostolic succession and ultimate papal infallibility and the Protestant claim to a succession of faith based on an infallible, inspired Bible were both undermined by the deistic polemic, many felt, because both claims were based on apostolic testimony or hearsay evidence. By interpreting revelation as the “rock,” Smith defended God, the deity of Jesus Christ, and biblical [p.136] revelation against deism in a way which Protestants and Catholics did not—in a way which seemed to give believers a sounder foundation for their faith.
1. The argument is used for other matters as well. Redemption and salvation have been available since the Fall, “for the Spirit is the same, yesterday, today and forever” (2 Ne. 2:4). Little children need no baptism or repentance, and “if not so, God is a partial God, and also a changeable God, and a respecter to persons; for how many little children have died without baptism.… For I know that God is not a partial God, neither a changeable being; but he is unchangeable from all eternity to all eternity” (Moro. 8:11-12, 18).
This refers only to the manner of God’s dealing with people, not to his essence. See The Evening and the Morning Star, Feb. 1833, 97, for a similar argument for the Book of Mormon. It contained the full gospel and proved to Jews and Gentiles that the Bible is true and that God still inspires people and calls them to do his work.
2. William Ellery Channing summed up this point in 1819 in his “Baltimore Sermon.” He held to the inspiration of the Bible and set forth the “leading principle in interpreting scripture”: “the Bible is a book written for men, in the language of men, and that its meaning is to be sought in the same manner, as that of other books … that God, when he condescends to speak and write submits, if we may so say, to the established rules of speaking and writing. How else would the Scriptures avail us more than if communicated in an unknown tongue.” Vergilius Ferm, ed., Classics of Protestantism (New York: Philosophical Library, 1959), 245. Paine would have disowned this position as unworthy of God.
3. See George B. Arbaugh, “Evolution of Mormon Doctrine,” Church History 9 (1940), in which he traces monistic tendencies in the Book of Mormon through tritheism and then polytheism late in Smith’s life. See also the earlier chapter in this book on Unitarianism, Universalism, and the Christian Connection.
4. Smith’s concern to keep God unchangeable was to find an ironic development years later when he advanced the position that God progresses in his own development. The unchangeable aspect of God, as Smith and later Utah Mormonism saw it, was to be found only in his manner of relating to humanity.
5. Specific signs given include: Christ’s birth from a virgin (2 Ne. 17:11, 14; cf. Isa. 7:11, 14); the appearance of a new star and a prolonged day at his birth (Hel. 14:2-6; 3 Ne. 1:15); Christ’s crucifixion to be signaled by a three-day darkness (1 Ne. 19:10; Hel. 14:14).
[p.137]6. 1 Ne. 9:1-5; 19:1-6. The small plates comprise the books of 1 Nephi, 2 Nephi, Jacob, Enos, Jarom, and Omni. See Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1967), 143-52. His account of “The Transmission of the Record” lays out the parallels between the efforts of the Nephite editors and those of biblical Isaiah.
13. Joseph Smith et el., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1927), 1:13, 15; hereafter HC. Joseph Smith dated this vision to 1823. It often is confused with what is called the first vision, which he dated to 1820. No one knew about the first vision at this time and it was not a factor in winning the first converts of early Mormonism.
14. Western Farmer, 16 May 1821, contains a story of a Methodist preacher who asserted that he was one of the “prophets that was to come in the latter days—that the dawn of the millennium has commenced.” The story of Asa Wild, Wayne Sentinel, 22 Oct. 1823, is also pertinent. He had a vision in which Jehovah “told me that the Millenium state of the world is about to take place; that in seven years literally, there would scarcely a sinner be found on earth.… above all, various and dreadful judgments executed immediately by God, through the instrumentality of the Ministers of the Millenial dispensation.” All denominations had become corrupt, guided only by reason not by revelation as was the original church. But God would raise up that “class of persons” mentioned in Revelation 14:6-7, “of an inferior class, and small learning,” who would be superior Christians in every way. All denominations constitute the New Testament Babylon. Wild had tried the Calvinist and Methodist churches but found them wanting. See Brodie, 22-23; also the visions of Solomon Chamberlain, early convert to Mormonism, in Lawrence C. Porter, “A Study of the Origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints in the States of New York and Pennsylvania, 1816-1831,” Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, 1971, 360-62.
15. Before coming to New York from Middleton, Vermont, Cowdery associated with a sect “apparently involving millennial expectations and direct revelation as well as some mysterious treasure hunting” (R. Whitney [p.138]Cross, The Burned-over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850 [Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1950], 38-39).
17. Cowdery had asked to translate and had been assured that he could do it (D&C 8:9-12, 9:1). But he failed for four reasons. First, Cowdery had “feared” and did not continue the translation (9:5, 11). Second, he had expected Christ to give him the translation (v. 7). Third, he was supposed to think through the translation until an inner burning would let him know that “it is right” (v. 8). Finally, he could have translated if he had known all this (v. 10), but no one had prepared him for the translation process; only after his failure was it revealed to him. Cowdery was then told why he should not soon try again: “I have taken away this privilege from you.” This is similar to previous explanations for failure to find hidden treasure. When William Stafford let Smith and his father look for treasure, they went through an elaborate ceremony, “but as there was some mistake in the process, it did not have the desired effect.” Brodie reprints this experience from Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH, 1834), 434. Smith’s father-in-law, Isaac Hale, told of the time when Smith directed some money-diggers, “but when they had arrived in digging to near the place where he [Smith] had stated an immense treasure would be found—he said the enchantment was so powerful that he could not see” (Brodie, 439).
Mormon apologists have tended to discredit Hale’s statement because it appeared in Howe’s Mormonism Unvailed, but Wesley P. Walters’s “Joseph Smith’s Bainbridge, N.Y., Court Trials,” Westminster Theological Journal 36 (Winter 1974): 151-52, shows that the statement was first published independently of Howe or Philastus Hurlbut (ex-Mormon collaborator with Howe). It appeared first in Hale’s local newspaper, The Susquehannah Register.
23. Anthony Metcalf, Ten Years Before the Mast (Malad, ID, 1888), 73-74, printed a letter from David Whitmer dated 2 April 1887: “of course we were in the spirit when we had the view, for no man can behold the face of an angel, except in a spiritual view, but we were in the body also, and everything was as natural to us, as it is at any time.… A bright light enveloped us where we were, that filled at noon day, and there in a vision or in the spirit, we saw and heard just as it is stated in my testimony in the Book of Mormon.”
Whitmer was not thoroughly consistent in the many statements he made about the event. See Hill, 92. Also in “Murphy and Mormonism,” The Kingston Times (Caldwell County, Mo), 16 Dec. 1887, John Murphy describes an interview with Whitmer, who reportedly said that seeing an angel was like having an impression, similar to the experience of a Quaker or Methodist in meditation; it was “being impressed with the truth and reality of it.”
Jesse Townsend’s letter to Phineas Stiles, dated 24 Dec. 1833, Palmyra, Wayne County, New York, spoke of the Book of Mormon translation being done in secret, and that Harris “claimed to have seen the plates with ‘spiritual eyes'” (Pomeroy Tucker, The Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism [New York: Appleton & Co., 1867], 290).
John H. Gilbert said “nobody but Joe himself ever saw the golden tablets or the far-seeing spectacles.” In “Joe Smith,” Post & Tribune (Detroit, MI), 3 Dec. 1877, 3. See also the citation in Hill, 92.
25. Page said of his experience in becoming a Mormon that holy angels “came and showed themselves to me as I was walking through the field, to confirm me in the work of the Lord of the last days—three of whom came to me afterwards and sang a hymn in their own pure language.” The Ensign of Liberty of The Church of Christ, 1 (Dec. 1847): 63; Hiram Page to William McLellin, 30 May 1847.
31. Alexander Campbell, Delusions. An Analysis of the Book of Mormon … and a Refutation of Its Pretensions to Divine Authority (Boston, 1832), 15. A debate between Tyler Parsons and Elder Freeman Nickerson demonstrates a similar argument. Nickerson “knew” that the Book of Mormon was a true revelation from God “by the power of God, for his voice had made it known to him, by his obedience to his commands.” Parsons. “Do you know of his [Smith’s] digging certain plates out of the earth, in the town of Manchester in the State of New York?” Nickerson. “I did not see [p.140]him dig them up.” Parsons. “Then how dare you say in your statement to the audience, that you knew it was all true, for the voice of the Lord had declared it? What do you mean by the voice of the Lord?” Nickerson. “From hearsay; from those that knew it by the power of God.” Parsons. “Mr. Nickerson, do you suppose Cowdery, Whitmer and Harris, the three witnesses that have testified to seeing these plates, have sworn by the same rules you have stated, viz: hearsay?” Nickerson. “I do not know” (Mormon Fanaticism Exposed, 5, 44).
32. Oliver Cowdery to W. A. Cowdery, Latter-day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Nov. 1834, 26. At Joseph Smith’s 1826 examination in South Bainbridge (now Afton), New York, his employer testified in his behalf: “He [Josiah Stowell] swore that the prisoner [Joseph Smith] possessed all the power he claimed, and declared he could see things fifty feet below the surface of the earth, as plain as the witness could see what was on the Justice’s table, and described very many circumstances to confirm his words. Justice Neeley soberly looked at the witness and in a solemn, dignified voice, said, ‘Deacon Stowell, do I understand you as swearing before God, under the solemn oath you have taken, that you believe the prisoner can see by the aid of the stone fifty feet below the surface of the earth, as plainly as you can see what is on my table?’ ‘Do I believe it?’ says Deacon Stowell, ‘do I believe it? No, it is not a matter of belief. I positively know it to be true.'” Account of W. D. Purple in the Chanango Union (Norwich, NY), 2 May 1877. Text in William Mulder and A. Russell Mortensen, eds., Among the Mormons: Historic Accounts by Contemporary Observers (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1958), 34-37. Smith was tried again in 1830 for money digging. The trial was reported in 1831 by A. W. Benton. Once more Josiah Stowell testified for Smith, and the questioning was reported by Benton: “Did Smith tell you there was money hid in a certain place which he mentioned? Yes. Did he tell you, you could find it by digging? Yes. Did you dig? Yes. Did you find any money? No. Did he not lie to you then and deceive you? No! the money was there, but we did not get quite to it! How do you know it was there? Smith said it was!” Reprinted in Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Joseph Smith and Money Digging (Salt Lake City: Modern Microfilm Company, 1970), 33.
34. Orson Pratt carried this strategy to its conclusion when he spoke of those who had gotten a witness: “This great cloud of witnesses know with the greatest certainty that the Book of Mormon is true.… The nature of their testimony is such that it precludes all possibility of their being deceived themselves. Before mankind can be justified in calling these thousands of witnesses impostors, they must prove that none of them have seen and heard as they boldly testify.” “Divine Authority of the Book of Mormon,” Doctrines of the Gospel (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1884), 43.
[p.141]35. Painesville Telegraph, 15 Feb. 1831. The report to the paper came from a person identified only as M. S. C., who said that Rigdon asked for a sign a few days after talking with Cowdery. This seems to have been the asking of someone who had read and believed the Book of Mormon and now was asking for confirmation of what he already believed. M. S. C. identified himself as a member of the Church of Christ in Kirtland, perhaps a member of Rigdon’s congregation.
36. Hel. 16:4, 13, reports a later leader performing signs, wonders, and miracles, “that they might know that the Christ must shortly come.” 3 Ne. 17:7-10; 26:15 has Jesus performing some healing miracles because peoples’ faith was “sufficient.” 4 Ne. 5 sees Jesus’ disciples do “great and marvelous works,” and “healing, and all manner of miracles.” There are a few additional references, but no appeal to any of them as the basis for believing.
38. Reported by an early apostate, Ezra Booth, to the Ohio Star. His account later appeared in Howe’s book and is quoted in Francis W. Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ in America: The Book of Mormon, 2 vols., 3rd ed. (Independence, MO: Zion’s Printing and Publishing Co., 1951), 1:458.