In the introductory pages of the Book of Mormon, there is a page that contains the Testimony of Three Witnesses and the Testimony of Eight Witnesses.
These testimonies, collectively penned by 11 men close to Joseph Smith at the time, bear record of the plates which Smith translated into the Book of Mormon.
According to their testimonies, the three witnesses saw the angel, the plates and the engravings on the plates. They also heard the voice of God declaring the accuracy of Smith’s translation. The eight witnesses bore testimony to the physicality of the plates – that they “hefted” them.
Of those 11 men, five died consistently faithful to the church. Six left the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but two of those six returned later in life to full membership. But, according to historical records, regardless of their religious affiliation, all affirmed their witness of seeing and handling the plates throughout their lives.
Oliver Cowdery was the second elder of the newly-formed church. He sat near Smith day by day, working as Smith’s scribe as Smith translated the Book of Mormon. Cowdery then wrote out two manuscripts of the book completely by hand. E.B. Grandin printed the Book of Mormon in 1830 from this second copy.
Cowdery and Smith were baptized and ordained to the priesthood together on the banks of the Susquehanna River near Harmony, Pennsylvania, according to church historical record. He also served multiple missions for the early church, and served with Smith as second apostle and assistant president of the church.
“He was the lead witness, because he testified not only of seeing Moroni but also of having many other visitations, including ‘the administration of angels,’ which included John the Baptist and Peter, James and John. He witnessed much more than the others,” said Richard Bennett, professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University, in a recent interview.
Though using much of his own money to finance church affairs, Cowdery was later accused of mishandling church money due to the sale of his personal property. At the same time, he grew frustrated with some of the early apostles and high council leaders of the church.
“My soul is sick of such scrambling for power,” he wrote in a letter to his brother, as cited in “Saints, Vol. 1: The Standard of Truth, 1815-1846.”
He was excommunicated in 1838.
“He was misunderstood by those who thought he was taking money from the church in Missouri, when in fact he was trying to reclaim some of what he had paid out of his own funds,” Bennett said.
He went on to become a successful lawyer and respected citizen among non-Mormon peers. According to Richard Lloyd Anderson in his book, “Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses,” Cowdery was nominated for and ran for state assemblyman in 1848 in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. Despite a smear campaign deriding him for testifying of the “Mormon Bible,” Cowdery lost the election by only 40 votes out of about 500.
He returned to membership in the church in late 1848, was rebaptized in Iowa, and continued his witness of the Book of Mormon until his death in 1850.
“He is a remarkable man, and an extremely important witness, not just for the Book of Mormon, but for the restoration of the priesthood,” Bennett said.
David Whitmer was a friend of Oliver Cowdery and came to the gospel through him. He, like Oliver Cowdery, was one of the six original members of the Church, and a local leader of the early Missouri church congregations from 1834 to 1838. According to Anderson, Whitmer affirmed his witness of the Book of Mormon many times, including to a mob in 1833 in Independence, Missouri, who threatened his life.
According to Bennett, Whitmer became increasingly disgruntled with Joseph Smith’s leadership, various developments in church government, and possibly upset that he was not given greater leadership responsibility. He was excommunicated in 1838.
He went on to be a successful businessman in Missouri. Though Whitmer never returned to church membership, he declared his witness of the Book of Mormon many, many times. Bennett refers to him as “the abundant witness.”
“[B]eware how you hastily condemn that book which I know to be the word of God; for his own voice and an angel from heaven declared the truth of it unto me,” Whitmer wrote in a pamphlet, “An Address to All Unbelievers in Christ by a Witness to the Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon” in 1887, as quoted in Anderson’s book.
Whitmer’s testimony was recorded in newspapers, personal interviews and other writings of the time, according to Anderson, who dubbed him “the most interviewed witness.”
“One reason he gave more testimonies of the angel and the Book of Mormon is because the angel turned to him and called him by name, and commanded him to witness,” Bennett said.
Whitmer died in 1888.
Born in 1783, Martin Harris was much older than Smith, Cowdery and Whitmer, and a successful farmer during his time in and out of the church. He sought out Smith during the translation of the Book of Mormon and served as a scribe for a time.
“Without Martin Harris, I don’t know that we’d have the Book of Mormon. Through mortgaging his farm, he provided the $3,000 to pay for the printing of the book. In essence, he bankrolled the restoration,” Bennett said. “He saw the plates, but he also saw a way through to publication of the book.”
Though Harris testified of the Book of Mormon, he too disagreed with some of the leadership of the growing church, and by 1837 he was part of a group of dissenters who formed their own church. He was excommunicated in December 1837.
He stayed in Kirtland, Ohio, when the church moved further west, and became well-respected there. He joined various religions of the time, but continued to bear witness of the Book of Mormon.
He returned to church membership in 1870 at the age of 87, and moved to Utah. During those last few years before his death in 1875, according to Anderson, hundreds of people came to see him and hear his recounting of seeing the plates.
“I know what I know. I have seen what I have seen, and I have heard what I heard. I have seen the gold plates,” he said, as quoted in Anderson’s book.
The Eight Witnesses
Eight other witnesses saw and handled the golden plates, and “also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work,” according to their testimony in the preface of the Book of Mormon.
David Whitmer’s brothers, Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer Jr. and John Whitmer, as well as Joseph Smith, Sr., Hyrum Smith, Samuel Smith, and Hyrum Page, were these witnesses.
Christian Whitmer was a shoemaker, and possibly served as a scribe to Smith at times, according to the Joseph Smith Papers. He served in various leadership positions in the church until his death in 1835.
Jacob Whitmer was also a shoemaker and farmer. He served the church until becoming disaffected with the church in 1838, according to the Joseph Smith Papers. Despite this, he affirmed his witness of the Book of Mormon until his death in 1856, as cited in Anderson’s book.
Peter Whitmer Jr. was a tailor and also one of the six original members of the church when it was organized in 1830, according to the Joseph Smith Papers. He served a mission for the church and was part of the church’s leadership. He died in 1836.
John Whitmer was a farmer and newspaperman, who also was a scribe for Smith when Smith lived in the Whitmer home. He served in various positions in the church, including church historian, and helped establish the church members at Far West, Missouri, according to the Joseph Smith Papers.
Though John Whitmer was excommunicated in 1838 and never returned to the church, even in his old age he told of handling the plates, according to Anderson. He died in 1878.
Hiram Page was a farmer and brother-in-law to the Whitmer brothers. According to the Joseph Smith Papers, he helped to found Far West. He left the church in 1838, but continued to affirm his witness of the Book of Mormon. He died in 1852.
Joseph Smith Sr. was the first patriarch of the church, and continued in the faith until his death in 1840.
Joseph Smith’s brothers, Hyrum and Samuel, also remained faithful. Hyrum Smith died in Carthage Jail with Joseph Smith in 1844. Samuel Smith was the third person baptized into the church, served as a scribe to his older brother when needed, and served multiple missions to share the faith. He died just 34 days after his brothers.
A Quorum of Witnesses
Bennett explained that, with these 11 witnesses, and Joseph Smith’s own testimony, these men constitute what might be considered a quorum of witnesses. Within the church, quorums are used to gather groups of members or make decisions.
Bennett explained their individual and collective testimonies — given not only once in published format, but over their lifetimes — are highly significant. As the three witnesses declared, they “heard the voice of God declaring the translation was correct, and commanding them to bear testimony to that.”
“They all were very faithful men. They had to be living in such a way to deserve that,” Bennett said. “And seeing such other things as the Liahona, the breast plate of Laban, the Urim and Thummim, as section 17 of the Doctrine and Covenants testifies – their witness also confirms the historicity, or historical factuality of the Book of Mormon, and by extension, the truth claims of the Holy Bible. There is a ripple effect in these witnesses that is far beyond just the plates.”