Art Credit: Adapted from photo by Leonidas Drosis,
CC BY-SA 4.0

Good Thinking | 

Episode 5

Are Criticisms of the Book of Mormon Witnesses Defensible?

69 min

How can we confidently discern the difference between a reliable historical claim and one that’s not so reliable? This is what Casey and Scott discussed in their last episode, where they introduced five source critical questions we can all ask to carefully assess the reliability of a historical truth claim. In this episode of Church History Matters, they practice putting these five questions to work by actually using them to measure and evaluate various historical truth claims about the witnesses of the Book of Mormon, a very high-stakes topic with conflicting claims in the historical record.

Good Thinking |

  • Show Notes
  • Transcript

Key Takeaways

Related Resources

Witnesses of the Book of Mormon,” Church History Topics Essays

Scott Woodward:
How can we confidently discern the difference between a reliable historical claim and one that’s not so reliable? This is what Casey and I discussed in our last episode, where we introduced five source-critical questions we can all ask to carefully assess the reliability of a historical truth claim. In today’s episode of Church History Matters, we’re going to practice putting these five questions to work by actually using them to measure and evaluate various historical truth claims about the witnesses of the Book of Mormon, a very high-stakes topic with conflicting claims in the historical record. I’m Scott Woodward, and my co-host is Casey Griffiths, and today we dive into our fifth episode of this series dealing with truth seeking and good thinking. Now, let’s get into it.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Howdy, Scott.

Scott Woodward:
Hello, Casey. How are you?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Good. I’m good.

Scott Woodward:
Well, good, man.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. We’re in the middle of it. We’re doing our series on epistemology here, on clear thinking, toolbox of truth—we haven’t settled on the title yet, have we?

Scott Woodward:
No. Seeking Truth. Truth Seeking. Sound Thinking. I like Sound Thinking.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
We’re going to get there.

Scott Woodward:
We’re going to get there. What’d you call it? The toolbox of truth?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
The Toolbox of Truth is my suggestion, because epistemology is an off-putting word, but epistemology is how you know what you know.

Scott Woodward:
How do you know what you know? Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
So.

Scott Woodward:
And here’s our guiding quote for the series that summarizes where we’re trying to get at, and this is that Elder Uchtdorf quote that we shared at the beginning on episode one, where he said, “Latter-day Saints are not asked to blindly accept everything they hear. We are encouraged to think and discover truth for ourselves. We are expected to ponder, to search, to evaluate, and thereby come to a personal knowledge of the truth.” That’s what we’re trying to encourage here. We’ve talked about how to evaluate doctrine, and then last time, Casey, we talked about how to evaluate history. And you walked us through kind of some questions that historians will ask when they come at a source, and it’s questions that any of us can ask. We don’t have to be trained historians. Do you want to walk us through those questions again?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah, let’s walk through those again. So this is kind of a crash course in historical methodology.

Scott Woodward:
Okay.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
So if someone points us towards a source, you don’t just blindly accept it. A couple questions you could ask: Number one, how close is the source? The gold standard is a primary source, someone that actually participated in the event, someone that witnessed it themselves.

Scott Woodward:
Are we okay with secondhand accounts? Are we okay with thirdhand accounts?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah, yeah. I mean, secondhand and thirdhand could both be very accurate, too, but the further you get from the primary source, the less accurate it tends to be. And so we’re going to take a primary source over a secondary source. We talked about playing telephone last time, when just a simple statement, Benedict Cumberbatch, passes through a group of people, it can become . . .

Scott Woodward:
Peppermint Scooby Snacks, I believe it was.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Peppermint Scooby Snacks. Jumbled and garbled along the way. Number two, how much time passed before it was recorded? So, again, something that’s written down a couple of years later isn’t necessarily inaccurate, but human memory is fallible. Exaggerations, flaws tend to creep in, so we’re going to take something that is as close to the source as possible. For instance, the Joseph Smith Papers site, which is a model of responsible historical scholarship, usually takes the earliest version of a revelation they can find. So this is going to sound weird, but section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants, if you go and click on that on the JSP site, you’re going to bring up a newspaper.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Earliest version of Section 20 they could find was a newspaper that was hostile towards the church, but that somehow got a copy, Section 20, and printed it in their newspaper earlier than almost any other source we can find. So we’re going to go with the earliest source as the most accurate.

Scott Woodward:
Okay. The earliest is most credible because it has the least amount of potential for memory creep or memory erosion or whatever.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Okay. Okay, what’s number three?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Number three, what is the motive of the person telling the account? So does it seem like they have an axe to grind? What’s the context in which it’s happening? Was this person mad at the church? Is this person madly in love with the church? Is this person trying to promote an agenda? And we mentioned this: All historians have an agenda. Anybody that’s being honest will tell you that they do. We try and take steps to mitigate our own agenda to show that we’re being as neutral as possible, but it’s there. The question is, does the agenda overwhelm what they’re doing to the point to where they’re trying to do something here, and it’s clear that they might go to great lengths. We talked about how John C. Bennett, for instance, is not a reliable historical source because his life shows that he always had an agenda, and he was constantly engaged in acts of deception.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. 

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Number four: How factual or opinionated is it? So, does it rely on established historical facts that tie in with historical facts? There’s that William McClellan letter we mentioned last time where he talks about Emma finding Joseph and Fanny Alger together.

Scott Woodward:
In the barn.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. In the same letter he says that Emma Smith found out Eliza R. Snow was pregnant and pushed her down the stairs, and she miscarried. Lach Mackay, who’s the head site director of Community of Christ, went and looked at those stairs and found out that it’s physically impossible for that to have happened. It couldn’t have happened with those stairs. So McClellan’s either lying or going off some kind of rumor. It doesn’t fit the facts that we know with it.

Scott Woodward:
And that was in the very same letter as the barn incident?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah, and that letter drives me crazy because people quote it as fact all the time, and it’s just riddled with all kinds of inconsistencies and problems, and it’s clear that McClellan has something going on. I think we mentioned this yesterday, but it’s an 1872 letter supposedly capturing an 1846 conversation about something that happened in 1836, and even saying that Emma Smith would talk about stuff like this doesn’t fit her M. O., what we know about her.

Scott Woodward:
Too incredible to believe, yeah. Yeah, he’s clearly got an axe to grind.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
And how do we tell the difference, again, between fact and opinion? It seems like a super basic question, but, like, I think we’re trying to be really specific with our terms here, and I find the specificity super helpful to clarify my own thinking. Can we review those real quick?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. So a fact is based on verifiable evidence, no matter what your perspective is. You can go and look at the stairs that are in the home Joseph Smith was living in. An inference is a snap conclusion based on our pre-existing assumptions. We kind of arrange things. Assumptions are beliefs we suppose to be true and use to interpret the world.

Scott Woodward:
Mm-hmm.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
An opinion—and this is what you were getting at—is an inferential conclusion that goes beyond the facts of the matter. So you might say something like, “It’s a fact that the Book of Mormon was published in 1830, but it’s my opinion that the Book of Mormon was totally made up by Joseph Smith.” You can’t dispute the fact that the Book of Mormon appeared and was printed and was published in 1830, but where you think the Book of Mormon comes from could be the matter of opinion.

Scott Woodward:
And that opinion is based on underlying assumptions that I have that 23-year-olds don’t have divine help in writing sacred books.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
I might have an assumption like that. If that’s the case, then the opinion is understandable. The inference is understandable, but it’s not the only option because it’s not based on facts.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Correct.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah, I think that’s super important as we slow down and think about our thinking, is what is fact, and what is the inference that I’m bringing to the fact, and what assumptions are those inferences based on, right? And all of that will constitute my opinions about things.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
This is how different people will see the exact same fact and come away with very different conclusions. And you might scratch your head and think, how does that happen? And I think what we’re trying to show under the hood here is this is exactly how it happens. It’s always based on underlying assumptions and the inferences that then grow out of those assumptions as you’re confronted with those facts. If you’re ever troubled by something, it’s a good idea to maybe just get a piece of paper and just start slowing down and just say, alright, what are the facts of the matter here? Okay, slowly, let me think through this.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Mm-hmm.

Scott Woodward:
Okay, what are the inferences people are bringing to the table about these facts, and what assumptions are those based on? And are those assumptions testable? Can we actually get at those assumptions? Can we actually work on those? Is there any evidence that we could uncover or explore that might help educate those assumptions to make better sense of the facts? Like—

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
If you slow down really carefully, I think this is so helpful. And we’re going to practice this in future episodes, but I just think this is so—but we’re just going to keep coming back to that again and again. This is at the heart of slow, critical, sound, thinking.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. 

Scott Woodward:
Okay, keep going. So, next question.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Last one, number five, is just really simply this: How does it compare to other accounts?

Scott Woodward:
Mm.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
So if you have something that was witnessed by multiple people, how do those compare? How do those line up? I think an example we keep going back to, because it’s fairly well documented, is the death of Joseph Smith. John Taylor and Willard Richards are there. Their accounts, when compared to each other, line up real well. They tell the same basic story. They don’t agree on every particular detail, but the same basic story is there, where there’s other accounts and things about Joseph Smith’s death that just seem very wildly—that go either direction: either for Joseph Smith, he was amazing, God struck down anybody that tried to harm his body, or the other direction, that they’re making assumptions. Like, a good example would be Joseph Smith was in the window, when he was killed, of Carthage Jail. Some people look at that and say he was a coward and he was trying to escape. Some people look at it and say he was a hero and he was trying to throw himself to the mob to sacrifice himself. Those are all assumptions that we make based on our background and our belief. A good historical account—like, I think Willard Richards’ account of Carthage Jail is a really good historical account. He’s a primary source participant. He wrote it down within a couple weeks after the death. He definitely has motives, but he’s transparent about them. It seems like he’s not super opinionated—opinionated in the sense that he thought the murder of Joseph and Hyrum was wrong—and when you compare it to other accounts, like John Taylor, like all the things that were brought up in the trial, it holds up.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. 

Casey Paul Griffiths:
It’s very rare that you’ll find something that’s a total slam dunk on all five questions. You have to use your judgment. But if you ask these questions, it does go a long way towards saying, hey this seems like good history or this seems like bad history.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. And that’s why five questions is better than one, right?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
That’s why we need five questions to come at this, because, yeah, there’s not just one question that’s just going to be a slam dunk to be able to really get at the truth here.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
And history is messy, and so it’s not like these five questions are going to automatically be a slam dunk either, like you said. You’re going to have to bring some judgment to the table here. As you use these five questions—and as you read good historians, skilled historians, you’ll start to see how they use these kinds of questions and this kind of thinking, and just watching them do it over and over again kind of helps you get into the rhythm of thinking like a historian.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Again, we would highly recommend, if you’re super interested in history, that you go get a degree. But if you’re not that invested, at least learning these basic skills, I think, is super helpful and can go a long ways to helping us to kind of evaluate things for ourselves, as President Uchtdorf was saying. In fact, his phrase was, we’re “expected” to evaluate, so that we can come to a personal knowledge of the truth. So, we’ve got to have some skill. So, very helpful. Great question.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And I think we mentioned this last time, but these skills aren’t just useful for church history. They’re useful when you read the news, right?

Scott Woodward:
Yeah, that’s right.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
I’ve heard Steve Harper say we are in the middle of an epistemological crisis because not enough people apply this kind of critical thinking when they read and hear stuff, and people, especially online, tend to jump to conclusions without taking into account all the sources, or just having the patience to, you know, wait. Remember when that kid, like, got caught in a balloon in Colorado or something like that?

Scott Woodward:
What?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And everybody was freaking out online, and it just took time, basically, for the story to come out, for us to understand everything that was happening.

Scott Woodward:
I don’t know that story. Now I’ve got to Google it.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Oh, Google “Colorado Balloon Boy,” and you’ll find some interesting stuff.

Scott Woodward:
Speaking of Steve Harper, I love him so much. He’s been on our podcast before for the First Vision.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Friend of the show.

Scott Woodward:
Friend of the podcast, yes, absolutely. If you go to his own personal website, which is stephencraigharper.com, it has his name, Stephen C. Harper, and right underneath his name are these two questions: number one, what do you know? Number two, how do you know it?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Mm-hmm.

Scott Woodward:
Love that guy. He’s such a great example of careful thinking. I think that’s what makes him such a good historian, and he’s such a delight to read because he’s so careful and so thoughtful, but that’s almost synonymous with Stephen C. Harper’s name is, what do you know, and how do you know it? Love it.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
That’s not a bad motto to live by, right?

Scott Woodward:
Seriously. I think the C in his name stands for epistemology, if I understand correctly.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
If only there was a C somewhere in epistemology, that would work.

Scott Woodward:
Silent C.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah, Steven Epistemology Harper. So I think what we’re going to do today is do what we did with our doctrinal model, which let’s take this out for a test drive.

Scott Woodward:
Okay.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Let’s use some real-life examples and apply the five questions and see how some historical sources hold up. And a couple of months ago, we did a series on the Book of Mormon. We got to talk about the witnesses briefly.

Scott Woodward:
The three and eight, yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
The three and the eight witnesses that are in every copy of the Book of Mormon.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
But we didn’t get to talk about it as exhaustively as maybe we’d like to. And this is always me and you at the end of a series. We just kind of say, “Hey, we could have done five more hours,” which we can.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. And maybe one day we’ll do, like, a whole series on all the witnesses. That’d be kind of cool. Like, do an episode for an hour on Martin Harris, and then another one on David Whitmer, and then another one on—you know? That’d be super fun actually.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Oh yeah, oh yeah.

Scott Woodward:
If you’re a nerd like us, then that’s fun.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. If you’re a nerd, you’re going to love this stuff. I’ve had people come up and say, “When are you going to run out of stuff to talk about?” And I’m like, “Never.” We’ll never run out of stuff to talk about because there’s so much stuff.

Scott Woodward:
There’s so much to talk about.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
It’s a wonderful thing.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
But I think we’re taking an assignment you give to your classes, correct, Scott?

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. I want to just kind of take this out for a test drive with an assignment I actually give to my real-life students when I teach this. And let me kind of frame why I do this with the three witnesses. In fact, I’ll read my little introductory statement that’s at the top of this assignment for students. I say this: “When it comes to evaluating the reliability of the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon, the stakes are high. If they are lying, then this church is based upon a deceptive conspiracy in which they played a conspicuous role right along with Joseph Smith. If they are telling the truth, then the basic assumptions of atheism, secularism, and naturalism are demonstrably false, and the Book of Mormon is true, and God and Christ live. So the stakes in this undertaking are high indeed. Therefore,” I ask my students, “please put forth your best thinking in accomplishing this assignment.” So . . .

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Walk us through what this assignment is.

Scott Woodward:
So what I like to do in this is I say, all right, let’s see: What’s the case against the three witnesses? What historical documentation is that case based upon? And then let’s look at the case for the three witnesses and what historical documentation that’s based upon.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Okay.

Scott Woodward:
So that’s what we want to do here today, is just kind of walk through some of that. So let’s start with the case against the three witnesses, the case against the existence of actual plates that were shown to these three men by an angel of God. And let’s start with Peter Ingersoll, alright? So I’m going to read three statements. These are all historical statements. I’ll tell you the name, I’ll tell you when it was written, and then I’ll read the statement, and then we’ll just analyze how reliable this is based on these five questions.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Run it through the five questions, see how it stacks up.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah, the historical heuristic.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Okay.

Scott Woodward:
Here we go. So here’s this guy named Peter Ingersoll, and he wrote this in, let’s see, 1834, pretty early, and this was published in a little book called Mormonism Unveiled. Okay. He’s dropping clues this whole time, right? So how are you going to think about the date? That should say something. Where it was published, that should say something. Now let’s look at the content. He said, “One day Joseph Smith came and greeted me with a joyful countenance. Upon asking the cause of this unusual happiness, he replied in the following language: he said, as I was passing yesterday across the woods after a heavy shower of rain, I found in a hollow some beautiful white sand that had been washed up by the water. I took off my frock, I tied up several quarts of it and then went home. On my entering the house, I found the family at the table eating dinner. They were all anxious to know the contents of my frock. At that moment, I happened to think of what I had heard about a history found in Canada called the Golden Bible. So I very gravely told them it was the Golden Bible. To my surprise, they were credulous enough to believe what I said. Accordingly, I told them that I had received a commandment to let no one see it. For, says I, no man can see it with the naked eye and live. However, I offered to take out the book and show it to them, but they refused to see it. Now, said Joe, I’ve got the damn fools fixed, and we’ll carry out the fun. Notwithstanding, he told me he had no such book and believed there never was any such book. Yet he told me that he actually went to Willard Chase to get him to make a chest in which he might deposit his Golden Bible, but as Chase would not do it, he made a box himself of clapboards, and he put it into a pillowcase and allowed people only to lift it and feel it through the case.” Alright, so there you go. There’s Peter Ingersoll’s testimony that he heard firsthand from Joseph Smith that this was really just a box of white sand that he had gathered after a storm into his frock coat. That’s how it all started. So, Casey, what do you think?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Whew, okay. So first question, how close is this to the source?

Scott Woodward:
It’s pretty close. This is 1834.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Well, yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Like, that’s only a few years after the plates apparently were discovered, right, in, what? 1827 is when Joseph—

Casey Paul Griffiths:
1827 is when Joseph Smith receives the plates, and he talks about seeing the plates for the first time and telling his father about it as early as 1823.

Scott Woodward:
1823.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
So that would put that 11 years before. So do we know anything about how close Peter Ingersoll’s relationship was to Joseph Smith? I mean, I guess he’s from Palmyra.

Scott Woodward:
I don’t know if they were buddies. My inclination is to think they were not.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Okay.

Scott Woodward:
But what do you know about Mormonism Unveiled? What can you tell our audience if anyone’s like, what is that book? What is Mormonism Unveiled?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah, Mormonism Unveiled is the first anti-Mormon book, basically. And it’s a golden oldie, if you will. It gets used over and over and over again by people that are antagonistic towards the church. It’s written by a guy named E. D. Howe, who was the newspaper editor in Painesville, which is near Kirtland. And he paid another guy named Doctor Philastus Hurlbut.

Scott Woodward:
The best last name in church history, Hurlbut.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Well, I like his first name, because he’s not a doctor. His first name is Doctor.

Scott Woodward:
His first name is Doctor. 

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And Doctor Philastus Hurlbut went to Palmyra and supposedly interviewed a bunch of people that knew the Smiths and comes back, and about a year later they publish this anti-Mormon book, so . . . I can’t verify Peter Ingersoll’s relationship with Joseph Smith, but if we take him at his word, it could be a primary source. It could be.

Scott Woodward:
He’s saying he heard it directly from Joseph.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. He’s saying he heard it directly from Joseph.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
How much time passed before it was recorded? You already mentioned this, but 1834. That’s within a decade of when Joseph said he found the plates. It’s four years after the Book of Mormon is published.

Scott Woodward:
That’s not too late.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
So that’s not too late. That’s fairly contemporary, so . . .

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
On one and two, depending on how much you trust the guy, it does fairly well. What do you think about number three? What’s the motive of Peter Ingersoll in telling this account?

Scott Woodward:
According to my reading of this, when he says that Joseph, “told me he had no such book and believed there never was any such book” and that he said that Joseph said that he’s “got the damn fools fixed and he’s going to carry out the fun.” Like, the vibe I’m getting from that is that this is antagonistic and he’s trying to discredit Joseph Smith. That’s the vibe I get. So this, the motive seems to be to discredit Joseph Smith.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah, I agree, too. So, how factual or opinionated do you think this is?

Scott Woodward:
That one’s hard to assess, isn’t it? How do you assess that, in this case?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Well, I mean none of this is in any other historical account that I know of, you know?

Scott Woodward:
Yeah, my brain just did that, too. I went to number five. I went to question number five. How does it compare to other accounts?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Anyone else ever get anywhere close to this?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
I can’t think of anything like that, so . . .

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And it doesn’t seem like there’s any sense of timeline. He’s basically saying that Joseph Smith just kind of made this up on a lark, like it was some kind of . . .

Scott Woodward:
Joke.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Practical joke on his family that went way too far, which goes against everything not only Joseph says, but everything his family says.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And everything the Whitmers and Oliver Cowdery and Emma Smith and Emma’s dad, and everybody involved in the whole process says.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
So, I mean, on number five, it’s a hard fail here.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah, number five’s a hard fail, which then helps us kind of get at number four, right? How factual is this? Well, he is contradicted by every other person who ever talks about this.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
There you go. So . . .

Casey Paul Griffiths:
It doesn’t seem like anything he says lines up with what anybody else said about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. And then you got a 531-page book to account for, that this practical joke turned into a fairly robust scriptural work.

Scott Woodward:
A pretty nice publication came out of that white sand.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah, that sand in the frock.

Scott Woodward:
We’ll call it the sand-in-the-frock model.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
This is the sand-in-the-frock model of Book of Mormon origins. Okay.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
What grade do you give it?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
I give this, like, a D-minus, maybe.

Scott Woodward:
So we’re starting out here with some slow balls.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Mm-hmm.

Scott Woodward:
Let’s do another easy one here. We’re just warming up, just cracking the knuckles, getting ready to get into some harder stuff. But number two, this is by a fellow named Lorenzo Saunders. Here’s what he says. This was published in a book called The True Origin of the Book of Mormon, published in 1914, but he’s quoting a letter that was written back in 1885.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Okay.

Scott Woodward:
Alright? So Lorenzo Saunders says, “Joseph Smith had an old glass box.” Now, that doesn’t mean a box made out of glass, it means a box that was used for holding panes of glass, alright? Before they’re installed. “Joseph Smith had an old glass box with a tile in it about 7 by 8 inches, and that was the gold plates. And Martin Harris didn’t know a gold plate from a brick at this time.” And that’s it. So that’s in The True Origin of the Book of Mormon by Charles Cook.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Okay.

Scott Woodward:
What do you want to do with this one? 

Casey Paul Griffiths:
So, okay, how close is this to the source? What’s Lorenzo Saunders’ relationship to Joseph Smith? Do we know?

Scott Woodward:
I don’t know.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
So we don’t know if this is a primary source, a secondary source, a tertiary source. We don’t have any information like that.

Scott Woodward:
He’s not offering where he’s getting his information. He’s just saying, here’s how it is. Not even making an attempt toward credibility in terms of that first question.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Like, how do you know this, Lorenzo? He’s not giving us any access to how he knows this. Okay?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. Okay. Okay. So that’s a fail on question one. He’s not presenting any kind of relationship here.

Scott Woodward:
We should have the buzzer sound: ERR. Number one: ERR.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Number two: How much time passed before this was recorded? The book was published in 1914. The letter was written in 1885. That’s a long gap. That’s a long gap.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
It’s not insurmountable.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Especially 1885. But that’s a long time.

Scott Woodward:
Yep.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Long time.

Scott Woodward:
Okay.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
What’s the motive of the person telling the account? Again, that’s difficult to assess, but I’ll say to discredit Joseph Smith. I mean, it seems like that’s what they’re going for here.

Scott Woodward:
And Martin Harris, right? He says, “Martin Harris didn’t know a gold plate from a brick at this time.”

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
And making Martin Harris sound like an idiot, right? Like, what a doofus. He couldn’t even tell the difference between a gold plate and a brick. Like, a tile brick.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. Okay. How factual or opinionated is it? He does have some facts in here. 7 by 8 inches. A box used for holding plates or panes of glass. I know of at least one source that talks about plates being held in some kind of box intended for glass—that’s actually Emma’s dad who says that—but it seems fairly opinionated, especially in the derogatory way it kind of talks about Martin Harris here. It feels . . .

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And then, I mean, number five. How does this compare to other accounts?

Scott Woodward:
ERR.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. Oh, boy. I mean, first of all, let’s don’t even address the “there’s a tile” But to say Martin Harris, who’s a fairly wealthy and successful farmer, couldn’t tell the difference between a set of gold plates and a brick seems unfair and also doesn’t match.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
That strains credibility, just a little bit.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And so, gosh, I don’t know if this one does well on any of the five questions, to be honest with you.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. I read that, and in, like, four seconds after reading it, I’m like, ERR. right? I just move on. Like, Lorenzo, whatever, dude.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Okay, let’s do another one.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Okay.

Scott Woodward:
Thomas Ford, alright?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Old Tom Ford.

Scott Woodward:
The old governor of the state of Illinois. He was governor when Joseph Smith died.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yep.

Scott Woodward:
This is hilarious how he starts this account out. Listen to this: “Oliver Cowdney, Martin Harris, and Daniel Whiteman solemnly certify that they have seen plates which contain the records translated by the gift and power of God.” So already I’m, like, chuckling at this guy. His credibility—Oliver Cowdney and Daniel Whiteman, along with Martin Harris. Okay, so he—

Casey Paul Griffiths:
He got one out of three.

Scott Woodward:
He got one out of three right.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Give him some points there. 

Scott Woodward:
He says this: He says, “The most probable account of these certificates,” meaning of their witness that the plates are real, and then the eight witnesses who certify that Joseph showed them the plates, he said, “The most probable account of these certificates is that the witnesses were in the conspiracy, aiding the imposture, but I have been informed by men who were once in the confidence of the prophet that he privately gave a different account of the matter.” And by the way, this is written in 1854.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Okay, 1854.

Scott Woodward:
So he has it from some insiders, he says here—

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
—that here’s what really happened: “Joseph told his followers, who were anxious to see the plates, that they could not be seen by the carnal eye but must be spiritually discerned. The power to see them depended upon faith, which is the gift of God, to be obtained by fasting and prayer and mortification of the flesh and exercise of the spirit. That so soon as he could see the evidence of a strong and lively faith in any of his followers, they should be gratified in their holy curiosity. So he set them to continual prayer and spiritual exercises to acquire this lively faith, by means of which the hidden things of God could be spiritually discerned. And at last, when he could delay them no longer, he assembled them in a room and produced a box, which he said contained the precious treasure. The lid was opened, the witnesses peeped into it, but making no discovery, for the box was empty, they said, ‘Brother Joseph, we do not see the plates.’ The prophet answered them, ‘O ye of little faith. How long will God bear with this wicked and perverse generation? Down on your knees, brethren, every one of you, and pray God for the forgiveness of your sins and for a holy and living faith which cometh down from heaven.’ So the disciples dropped to their knees and began to pray in the fervency of their spirit, supplicating God for more than two hours with fanatical earnestness, at the end of which time, looking again into the box, they were now persuaded that they saw the plates.” And then he says, “I leave it to philosophers to determine whether the fumes of an enthusiastic and fanatical imagination are thus capable of blinding the mind and deceiving the senses by so absurd a delusion.” 

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Okay.

Scott Woodward:
Wow, huh? Tom Ford.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Good old Tom Ford. All right, so let’s run this through the model. Number one, how close is this to the source? How close is Tom Ford?

Scott Woodward:
Well, he says, I’ve been informed by men who were once in the confidence of the prophet.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
So this is the whole, I know a guy—

Scott Woodward:
He knows some guys.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
—kind of thing.

Scott Woodward:
Yep.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
He doesn’t say who the—who this is, what circumstances this took place.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah, no.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And it kind of kills me that he says that Joseph privately gave a different account of the matter. So he’s saying the source is Joseph Smith, that Joseph Smith kind of took aside several men that were in his confidence and was kind of like, “Let me tell you what actually happened. Let me tell you what I did to these rubes,” kind of thing, which, boy. Boy. Okay, how much time passed before this was recorded? 1854, that is 25 years after the witnesses’ experience takes place.

Scott Woodward:
Yep.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And Tom Ford wasn’t there, and I guess he knows a guy that was there who says—I mean, if you totally are trusting Tom Ford, then Joseph Smith is the source.

Scott Woodward:
Mm-hmm.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
But that’s a—eh. Okay.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
What’s the motive of the person telling the account?

Scott Woodward:
Well, I don’t know for sure, but when I was reading this last line, I feel like I started to see why he was telling the account when he said, “I leave it to philosophers to determine whether the fumes of an enthusiastic and fanatical imagination are thus capable of blinding the mind and deceiving the senses of so absurd a delusion.” I feel like I’m starting to get his vibe a little bit, like what he’s driving at there.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah, yeah. Oh, Tom Ford. He’s trying to prove Joseph Smith is such a powerful Svengali that he can, through force of will, just get—this is like The Emperor’s New Clothes in reverse.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh, that’s a great comparison.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah, Joseph Smith is so powerful he can be like, no, there are plates, and all of a sudden they’ll see plates.

Scott Woodward:
Look with the eye of faith. Down on your knees. Look into the box. Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Which, again, goes back to how factual or opinionated it is. I would say this sounds like pure opinion to me. I don’t know if there’s a fact cited in here. He even gets the names wrong of the three witnesses.

Scott Woodward:
No, he got Martin Harris right.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
He got Martin Harris right.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah, so that’s fact.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Credit where credit’s due. Credit where credit’s due.

Scott Woodward:
But who is this Oliver Cowdeny and Daniel Whiteman? 

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah, I wonder if—I wonder if Daniel Whiteman found out about this and was ticked off.

Scott Woodward:
He’s like, “Hey!”

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Because he could be quite cantankerous. Oh, Tom Ford, buddy. Come on. You’re better than this.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah, this doesn’t compare well to any other account that I can think of.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
No.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. 

Casey Paul Griffiths:
No.

Scott Woodward:
Alright. Those were the easy ones, alright? Those—

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah, those were the softballs.

Scott Woodward:
Those are just kind of for fun. Like, are y’all warmed up? Do you see how these tools are used? Okay. Stay tuned for a hard one.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Okay, I’m going to do a hard one.

Scott Woodward:
Okay.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
So this one’s a little bit more challenging, and this is the one that I hear quoted with a little bit more regularity. Now, I want to point out the place we are drawing this from is the Joseph Smith Papers website. This is on the Joseph Smith Papers website.

Scott Woodward:
Okay.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
We will post a link to this so you can go look at it for yourself. It is a letter from Stephen Burnett, who is mentioned in the Doctrine and Covenants several times. Section 75 verse 35.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Section 80 verses 1 and 2 are revelations to Stephen Burnett.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And Lyman Johnson is a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Date is 15th of April, 1838.

Scott Woodward:
So this is a letter he’s writing to Lyman Johnson.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Letter he’s writing to Lyman Johnson, and I’m not going to read the—well, should we read the whole letter? What do you think, here? Or part of it?

Scott Woodward:
Let’s read part of it. Let’s read the relevant parts. Do we need any more background on Stephen Burnett?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
We should give some context here. 1838 is right after the Kirtland banking crisis.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And Stephen Burnett, who was a missionary in the church, Stephen Burnett gets baptized in 1831, but he’s 18.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
So by 1838, he would have been around 25 years old or so. Apparently he gets really upset and becomes disaffected during the Kirtland banking crisis and becomes one of the ringleaders of the opposition in Kirtland. And that’s shortly before, about a year before, he writes this letter.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah, didn’t he become associated pretty strongly with Warren Parrish, who was, like, the ringleader of the Kirtland apostasy?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. Warren Parrish is the guy who charges into the Kirtland Temple with a Bowie knife and causes calamity and panic and everything like that, too.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
I should mention—I’m going to plug here our website, Doctrine and Covenants Central, which has a pretty good little biography of Stephen Burnett.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
That it seems like Joseph Smith wasn’t fond of him either.

Scott Woodward:
Especially after his apostasy.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. From around the time that Stephen wrote this letter, Joseph Smith writes the following about Stephen Burnett: “An ignorant little blockhead by the name of Stephen Burnett, whose heart was so set on money that he would at any time sell his soul for 50 dollars and then think he’d made an excellent bargain, who had got wearied of the restraints of religion and could not bear to have his purse taxed, ran to Kirtland, got into the temple, and tried with all his powers to bring forth something, nobody knows what, nor did he know himself. After some terrible gruntings and finding nothing coming up but an abortion, rose in his anger, proclaimed all revelations lies, and ran home to his daddy with all his might, not leaving even an egg behind, and there sat down and rejoiced in the great victory he obtained over the great God and all holy angels, how he had discovered them liars and imposters.” Whoo!

Scott Woodward:
Joseph! Joseph! Take it easy!

Casey Paul Griffiths:
There’s some sick burns in the letter. 

Scott Woodward:
This was published in the Elder’s Journal, like . . .

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. 

Scott Woodward:
And, ooh, I think we need to do an entire series, maybe, on the Kirtland apostasy.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Oh, yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Because this is so rich, and we just dropped people right in the middle of something that was like, “Whoa, what was that? Why is he being so aggressive?” Well, if you understand the history of that time, like, it was nutso. And so we’re going to have to do a whole series just to do this right, and I think there’s actually some super important lessons to learn from the Kirtland apostasy that are super edifying, actually, so. But anyway, yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
That’s the context.

Scott Woodward:
This is right in the middle of one of the worst periods of Joseph Smith’s life, when people right and left that he used to trust and that were his right-hand people are now not only falling away, but then turning against him, right?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Stephen Burnett is writing to Lyman Johnson, who is a member of the Quorum of the Twelve that’s apostatized and been excommunicated. Ex-apostle.

Scott Woodward:
So in this letter that we’re about to quote, this is Stephen Burnett, who we just got a little background on him.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Who’s pretty ticked at Joseph already. He ran into the Kirtland Temple trying to prove there’s no such thing as revelation by trying to get a revelation through grunting and distortions and finding nothing that came out. No revelation. He proved by that act there was no such thing as revelation. So that’s kind of where this kid is at right now.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
He’s pretty angry, and he’s trying to kind of show that this is not true.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Okay. So here’s a letter.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And we’re not going to read the whole letter, but we’re not trying to pull a fast one on you. Go and read the whole letter. We’re going to read the parts that pertain to the witness of the Book of Mormon. So, okay, here we go. I’ll read it.

Scott Woodward:
Wait, what’s the date?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
The date is the 15th of April, 1838, about a year after probably the severest moment of apostasy.

Scott Woodward:
Okay.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Okay. “Brother Lyman Johnson. Dear Sir, I have with pleasure, just received your favor, postmarked the 26th, and now you see I take a large sheet that I have ample room to write. My heart is sickened within me when I reflect upon the manner in which we, with many of this church, have been led and the losses which we have sustained, all by means of two men in whom we placed implicit confidence, that Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon, are notorious liars, I do not hesitate to affirm and can prove by a cloud of witnesses, and this not all. Joseph has prophesied in a public congregation lies in the name of the Lord. An undue religious influence, he has filched the monies of the church from their pockets and brought them nigh unto destruction, leaving helpless innocents destitute of comfortable support while he has squandered the hard earnings of those to whom it justly belonged.”

Scott Woodward:
Oh, we better pause right there for a second. So this does seem like he’s still smarting from the Kirtland bank failure.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Like, a lot of people lost money when the Kirtland bank went down, as did a lot of people in the U. S. at that time in the panic of 1837. Like, tons of banks failed. Kirtland was one of them, and a lot of people lost a lot of money, super ticked at Joseph, because if the prophet of God invites you to invest in a bank and then you lose your money, like, what does that say about him is kind of where a lot of these people were at, right?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah, yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Okay, continue.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Okay, so this is the part that pertains to what we’re doing: “I have reflected long and deliberately upon the history of this church and weighed the evidence for and against it, loathe to give it up, but when I came to hear Martin Harris state in public that he never saw the plates with his natural eyes, only in vision or imagination, neither Oliver Cowdery nor David Whitmer, and also that the Eight Witnesses never saw them, and hesitated to sign that instrument for that reason, but were persuaded to do it, the last pedestal gave way. And in my view, our foundation was sapped, and the entire superstructure fell in a heap of ruins.”

Scott Woodward:
Oof.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
So he is saying that Martin Harris publicly said he never saw the plates, but only in vision or imagination. That’s the way he’s stating it.

Scott Woodward:
He never saw the plates with his natural eyes.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Only in vision or imagination.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Okay.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And then he’s not saying that he saw them say this publicly, but that Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer said the same thing, and he’s saying the eight witnesses never saw them and hesitated to sign that instrument for that reason, but were persuaded to do so. And this is what breaks this guy. He just can’t handle it once he’s heard that.

Scott Woodward:
That’s when the “foundation was sapped and the entire superstructure fell into a heap of ruins.”

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Man, it actually hurt for him, right here. That’s brutal.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. Later on in the letter: “I am well satisfied for myself that if the witnesses whose names are attached to the Book of Mormon never saw the plates, as Martin admits, that there can be nothing brought to prove that any such thing ever existed, for it is said on 171 page of the Book of Covenants that the three should testify that they had seen the plates, even as Joseph Smith, Jr. If they only saw them spiritually or in vision with their eyes shut, Joseph Smith never saw them in any other way. And if the plates were only visionary, I am well satisfied that 29 and 37 chapters of Isaiah and Ezekiel together with others in which we depended to prove the truth of the Book of Mormon have no bearing, but are entirely irrelevant. If any man differs from me, I can adopt the language of Josephus. He is at liberty to enjoy his opinions without blame from me. We are well in usual health. My respect to your family and friends. I am, with respect to yours, Stephen Burnett.” Okay. Let’s run this through the model, because this is a little bit more serious, right?

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. I’d call this intermediate to hard.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Because this is pretty contemporary, right? He’s saying, you know, he wrote this shortly after this supposed admission of Martin Harris occurred. It’s firsthand. He’s saying, I heard Martin Harris say this, and that’s when the last foundations gave way of my testimony. If that’s not true, then nothing’s true, right?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Wow. Yeah, what do we do with this? He said that he heard Martin Harris state, in public, that he never saw the plates with his natural eyes, only in vision or imagination, neither Oliver Cowdery or David Whitmer, nor did the eight witnesses ever see what they claimed to have seen.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. One other excerpt from the letter that we accidentally skipped over:

Scott Woodward:
Mm-hmm.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
“I was followed by Warren Parrish, Luke Johnson, and John F. Boynton, all of who concurred with me that after they were done speaking with Martin Harris, arose and said he was sorry for any men who rejected the Book of Mormon, for he knew it was true. He has said he had hefted the plates repeatedly in a box with only a tablecloth or handkerchief over them, but he never saw them, only as he saw a city through a mountain. And he said that he never should have told the testimony of the eight was false, if it had not been picked out of the air, but should have let it past as it was. Now, Brother Johnson, if you have anything to say in favor of the Book of Mormon, I should be glad to hear it.” So he’s adding that he heard Martin Harris say that Martin Harris had picked up the plates when they were in a box and with a tablecloth over them, but never saw the plates, only as, here’s the phrase he uses, “as he saw a city through a mountain,” and “said he never should have told that the testimony of the eight was false if it had not been picked out of the air,” which I’m not sure what that one means.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
But let’s run this through the model. Let’s run this through the model here.

Scott Woodward:
Okay. Okay.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
How close is this to the source?

Scott Woodward:
He’s claiming to be firsthand. Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
He’s claiming he saw it, too, and he’s claiming that Warren Parrish, Luke Johnson, and John F. Boynton were there.

Scott Woodward:
Right there with him, yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And spoke with Martin Harris. So on the one point, Stephen Burnett is a primary source, but it’s secondary in some senses because he’s saying, I heard Martin Harris say.

Scott Woodward:
Yes, that’s important.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. How much time passed before it was recorded? He doesn’t really give a date here.

Scott Woodward:
Oh, that’s true. Yeah, we don’t have a date on when Martin Harris supposedly made that statement. That’s a good point. We don’t know.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
I assume, since Stephen Burnett is active in the church until around 1837, sometime 1837-38, but we’d be making an assumption there.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
What’s the motive of the person telling the account?

Scott Woodward:
I think he feels a need. To me it sounds like Stephen Burnett feels a need to explain his own reason for leaving the church.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
And why he’s reaching out to Lyman Johnson and what their relationship is, I’m not sure, but it sounds like they have a level of trust with each other, and so he’s explaining to Lyman Johnson why he’s out. I’m trying to remember, is Lyman Johnson out by this time?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Lyman Johnson is out. I believe he’s been excommunicated by this time. And Lyman Johnson does not come back to the church, though you might remember Lyman Johnson does come back and visit the Quorum of the Twelve in Nauvoo.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Wilford Woodruff says Lyman Johnson told him that, you know, air was sweeter. Life was better. I wish I could believe now as I believed back then, but I can’t, and then he leaves.

Scott Woodward:
Super sad account.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. How factual or opinionated is it?

Scott Woodward:
Yeah, how factual is this? Because what we’re trying to understand is what did Martin actually say versus what did Stephen Burnett say that Martin Harris said, right? That’s the hard thing here.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. We’re filtering everything through Stephen Burnett, and I’m still trying to go through the whole, “he never saw them, only as he saw a city through a mountain,” and what that means. He also says that Martin Harris said the eight witnesses never saw the plates and that he only saw the plates through his spiritual eyes, or in a vision or imagination, and I don’t know if he’s claiming that Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer said that or that Martin Harris claimed that they said that, too. So I don’t know how factual or opinionated this is. It—to be honest, I lean towards saying this is very opinionated.

Scott Woodward:
Well, and if we go to question number five, right, we’ve already shown today that sometimes question number five is a helpful way to get at question number four, which is, how does it compare to other accounts?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Right.

Scott Woodward:
Like, that’s totally contradicted by the eight witnesses themselves, that they didn’t actually see the plates. And so already, I’m very suspicious of this account, because it doesn’t seem like something that Martin Harris would actually say, right? Because even that very year, even 1838, John Whitmer was one of the eight witnesses. He was out of the church when this happened. I think he was pressed on this in Far West by Brother Turley, who was still a church member. They used to be buddies. He pushes John Whitmer in front of his now anti-Mormon friends. He says, you’re inconsistent. John Whitmer says, what do you mean I’m inconsistent? And he says, you said that you saw the plates, and now you’re out of the church. That’s inconsistent. And John Whitmer said, listen, I now say in front of everybody here, I actually saw those plates, okay? I saw them. They were metallic. They had some odd writing on them, but I couldn’t read it. I couldn’t read the writing, okay? I don’t know if they’re true. I saw the plates. I wasn’t lying. And, uh, that’s actually this same year, 1838, if I remember right. That’s remarkable counter evidence, right? That, again, how factual is this? Like, did Martin Harris really say that none of the eight witnesses actually saw the plates? That’s contradicted on so many levels that I’m already, like, suspicious of this.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
I’m not so suspicious of Martin Harris as I am of Stephen Burnett’s telling of Martin Harris’s words.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah, and I’ve got to imagine that in the middle of the Kirtland apostasy, if that’s when this happened, one of the three witnesses saying that he only saw the plates like you see a city through a mountain, and that the eight witnesses didn’t see the plates at all, would have been reported by somebody else. Like, he said that he heard Martin say this in public. He says that there were several other people there, people he lists. Let’s see here: Warren Parrish, Luke Johnson, and John F. Boynton. I don’t know of any time when those guys made this claim, and it seems like Warren Parrish especially would have ran with this.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. It’s a damning claim.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. It seems like it would have been in more places than this letter between Stephen Burnett and Lyman Johnson.

Scott Woodward:
So here’s an interesting take on it from Richard Lloyd Anderson.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Okay.

Scott Woodward:
I think we might have plugged this book earlier. We should plug it now, if we haven’t. Speaking of a great church historian who really models sound critical, historical thinking.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
This book is called Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses. And this is where Richard Lloyd Anderson just goes through all of this kind of stuff. In fact, I just—I looked in the index under Stephen Burnett, and sure enough, he totally, like, handles this whole letter, and he says some really, I think, thoughtful things about it. Let me just read a little bit of what he says, and just watch how a trained historian is thinking through this evidence here, okay? After having quoted from that letter, he says, “We are, of course, seeing Harris through the mind of a frustrated intermediary, one who thinks Mormonism presents a, ‘whole scene of lying and deception,’” something Burnett had said. “He thinks that Martin Harris has not really seen the plates. If ‘only in vision,’ then Burnett, not Harris, says it was really just imagination.” So he’s being really careful with the words here. “If the three witnesses ‘only saw them spiritually,’ then Burnett, not Harris, can explain it as essentially, in a vision with their eyes shut. But notice that Martin Harris felt misrepresented, or he would not have stood up in the Kirtland Temple to challenge the explanations of Burnett and his disaffected associates.” That’s Parrish and Johnson and Boynton. “And note that there are two distinct experiences of Harris that he’s mentioning. Number one, that he said that he had hefted the plates repeatedly in a box with only a tablecloth or a handkerchief over them, but he never saw them, only as he saw a city through a mountain.” That’s experience number one. And then “Number two, he never saw the plates with his natural eyes, only in vision.” And so this would be two very distinct times, right? The first would be back when Martin Harris was scribing for Joseph Smith, and during his scribing, he never saw the plates, he only was able to heft them while they were in a box. Whereas later, when he became one of the Three Witnesses, that’s when he saw the plates in vision. And so Anderson continues here, he says, “Getting at the real Martin Harris requires subtracting Burnett’s sarcasm that seeps into the above wording. Note the two italicized appearances of only used in the sense of “merely” to say that besides lifting the box of plates, Martin had also seen them in vision, the point restated at the end of the quotation, ‘only saw them spiritually or in vision,’ or only visionary. In other words, Burnett heard Martin say that he had seen the plates in vision. And when Burnett uses the word ‘only’ four times to ridicule the experience, that shows his disbelief, not Martin’s. Martin’s candid denial of seeing the plates while translating was sometimes exaggerated into a denial of ever seeing the plates. But even Burnett reports Martin claiming two types of contact with the plates.” And then the most important point, I think, he says this: “So Burnett paraphrased Martin Harris with the evident rationalizations of a skeptic, but Martin knew his own experience and remained a convinced Book of Mormon believer. Study of his subsequent interviews shows how strongly he insisted that the sight of the angel and plates was as real as the sight of the physical objects around him.” So that’s important to consider, right? Like, how does it compare to other accounts? The question number five, it’s like, well, Martin Harris actually had ample opportunity to testify for the rest of his life, decades and decades after this, and he continued to consistently say that he actually saw the plates. Just because it was in vision didn’t mean it wasn’t real. He would say to people, you know, you see that tree over there? Or you see the sun shining in the sky? Or you see my hand? Or do you see me standing here right now? Or, you know, he’d always pick an object and he’d say, well, just as surely as you see that thing, so surely did I see the angel and the plates, right? So how does Burnett’s account here, this kind of garbled, through Burnett’s frustrated—how did Richard Anderson say it? “Through the mind of a frustrated intermediary.” How does that compare to the subsequent repeated testimonies of Martin Harris the rest of his life? Not very well at all, right?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. And I want to point out there’s an excellent article in Gospel Library under Church History Topics on “Witnesses of the Book of Mormon.” I don’t know who wrote it, but they deal with this, too, and they maybe give Stephen Burnett a little bit more credibility than I would, but this is them trying to explain why Stephen Burnett said he heard this.

Scott Woodward:
Okay.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
They wrote, “Many Christians in Harris’ day believed it was dangerous or impossible to witness the divine with physical senses. This belief was rooted in the stories from the Bible. For example, in the Old Testament, Israelites who peered into the Ark of the Covenant without proper authorization were destroyed. God’s presence was typically hidden behind a veil or a cloud of smoke to shield the eyes of those who were not spiritually prepared. One of Joseph Smith’s early revelations affirmed similarly that humans cannot see God with their natural eyes without being consumed. They could, however, witness his glory with spiritual eyes if they were changed or quickened by the Spirit of God.” Then they go on to say, “Martin Harris considered the witnesses’ experience with the angel and the ancient record to be just such an encounter with the divine, similar to Joseph Smith’s visions. Conscious of the stern warnings of scripture, he often spoke of the inadequacy he felt at the time he witnessed the plates. Over the years he employed a variety of phrases to describe his extraordinary encounter. When pressed by various interviewers to clarify whether he actually saw the plates, he spoke of seeing them with a spiritual eye, emphasizing the unusual and sacred quality of the experience, but also with his physical senses.” For instance, this is a quote from Martin Harris: “As sure as you are standing there and see me,” he insists on one occasion, “just as sure did I see the angel with the golden plates in his hand.” “David Whitmer, who similarly described both the spiritual and physical dimensions of the witnesses’ experience, said, ‘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,’ he explained, but then added, ‘but we were in the body also, and everything was as natural to us as it is at any time.’” So question number five, how does this measure against other sources? It’s clear that on several occasions, Martin and the other witnesses, primary sources here, address this question of, well, wait, are you saying you just saw them spiritually, or you saw them spiritually and physically? David Whitmer says both. Martin Harris says both. The big thing I struggle with here is him saying the eight witnesses didn’t see it at all? Because that just runs contrary to everything the eight witnesses say, ever. He’s just saying they’re lying, so. I don’t know, this is a tougher one, but, I mean, if we’re going back to our five questions, gosh, I just, I don’t think it does well.

Scott Woodward:
That’s right.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
When it all comes down to it. And my heart goes out to Stephen Burnett, you know, poor guy.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. This one seems more damning at first.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Like, this one’s hard.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
But when we slow down and just kind of, like, okay, let’s think through this, walk through those five questions, it does actually start to shake out and make sense, and you can see his motive. You can see his anger, his frustration. We are getting Martin Harris’s words secondhand through a frustrated, disaffected member of the church. When you compare that to everything that we have from the witnesses both before and after that in terms of the actual reality of their experience, it doesn’t hold up well at all.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
No.

Scott Woodward:
Right? And so—in fact, let me just share one example.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Okay.

Scott Woodward:
I think this is historical gold. This is Oliver Cowdery who wrote a letter, so this is in his own handwriting. This is December 1829. This is the very year they had their experience. And as far as I know, this is the earliest account of any of the three witnesses that we have. 10th of December, 1829, a letter from Oliver to a guy named Cornelius Blatchley. Looks like he’s responding to Cornelius’ letter. He says, “You wish to know whether there could not possibly have been some juggling or deception at the bottom of [the three witness experience]. A few words on that point may suffice? It was a clear, open, beautiful day, far from any inhabitants, in a remote field, at the time we saw the record of which it has been spoken, brought and laid before us by an angel, arrayed in glorious light, who descended out of the midst of heaven.” And then he says, “Now, if this is human juggling, judge ye.” The word “juggling” is a word for deception back then. If that’s deception, you judge, sir. And that’s the end of the quote. 

Casey Paul Griffiths:
So let’s run this through the model. How close is this to the source?

Scott Woodward:
100%.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
100%. Okay. How much time has passed before it was recorded? The letter’s dated 29th November, 1829. That’s probably less than six months after the witness experience, which was sometime in the summer of 1829, so, boom, boom, those—looking good on the first two. What’s the motive of the person telling the account? It seems like Oliver’s motives are to convince people that the Book of Mormon’s true. How factual or opinionated is this?

Scott Woodward:
He says at the beginning that Cornelius had asked him—he says, “You wish to know whether there could not possibly have been some juggling . . . at the bottom of this.” Well, let me say a few words, and see what you think. And then he just says it really plainly.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of opinion. In fact, he goes out of his way to basically say, here’s what I saw. A glorious light, a clear, open, beautiful day, far from any inhabitants in a remote field at a time we saw the record. So he’s trying to strike a neutral tone, and how does it compare to other accounts? Pretty good.

Scott Woodward:
Booyah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Pretty good, actually. Yeah, it lines up with what the other witnesses say. It lines up with Oliver Cowdery says the rest of his life. It lines up—I mean, when we talk about this, it’s funny, because we always dance around, but there’s the testimony that’s actually in the book.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Oliver’s there when the book’s published. He has corrective power if he wants to change anything, but—

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
—he’s willing to put it in there. So I would say this one does pretty good.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. And there’s a ton of this kind of evidence, like you said, throughout their whole life.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Any others we should read before we wrap this up?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Let’s do one more, and it’s partially because I feel like Martin Harris took a beating today. This is a letter of Martin Harris to a man named Walter Conrad. The date is January 13th, 1873. And here’s the letter: “I now solemnly state that as I was praying unto the Lord that I might behold the ancient record, lo there appeared to view a holy angel, and before him a table, and upon the table the holy spectacles, or Urim and Thummim, and other ancient relics of the Nephites. And lo, the angel did take up the plates and turn them over as we could plainly see the engravings thereon. And lo, there came a voice from heaven, saying, ‘I am the Lord,’ and the plates were translated by God and not men, and also that we should bear record of it to all the world, and thus the vision was taken from us. And now, dear brother, I would that you might look upon my countenance and know that I lie not, neither was I deceived, but it pleases the Lord that I must be content to write these few lines.” So how close is this to the source?

Scott Woodward:
Primary.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Primary source. Comes directly from Martin Harris.

Scott Woodward:
Hmm.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
How much time passed before it was recorded? We’re a little weak there. 1873.

Scott Woodward:
But, again, I would say this isn’t the first time he’s said it, right? This is the hundredth time he’s said it. This is the—I don’t know. This is a consistent story he’s been telling ever since 1829.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Right? And so I don’t know that 1873 is weak on that. If the first time they’d ever said this was 1873, I would say that’s a problem, but I don’t count this as a problem being a consistent telling from 1829 to 1873. In fact, that, in my mind, strengthens it.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. You can investigate this, but we pulled this one account out of a huge stack of similar accounts.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
What’s the motive of the person telling the account? He signs it, “yours in the gospel of Christ.” He’s trying to convince people that the Book of Mormon is real.

Scott Woodward:
“I lie not, neither was I deceived.”

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yep.

Scott Woodward:
That’s his goal here, right?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
He’s trying to convince people he’s telling the truth, and he feels like he wasn’t tricked on this.

Scott Woodward:
When he says, “I would that ye might look upon my countenance”—you know, I’m writing this letter now, but I wish you could see my face and know that I’m not lying.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. How factual or opinionated? I’m just contrasting his language here with the whole Stephen Burnett, “I saw the plates like you see a city through a mountain,” which I’m still trying to figure out what that means.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
In contrast, Martin says, “The angel did take up the plates and turn them over so we could plainly see the engravings thereon, and there came a voice from heaven saying, ‘I am the Lord,’ and the plates were translated by God and not men.” So that seems much more factual, here’s what I saw. I’m describing what I saw. And how does it compare to other accounts? Pretty well.

Scott Woodward:
Bullseye.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Seems to line up with what Martin said, with what David said—and I’m sorry we’re not probably going to have time to cover David, but I’m going to recommend there is a book called David Whitmer Interviews put together by Lyndon Cook that just has all the interviews David Whitmer did. We were going to bring this up, but David Whitmer actually published an article refuting an encyclopedia that had said he had denied his testimony.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. He was pretty feisty about this. He wanted everyone to know that he had never denied his testimony, and even when he was, like, an old man, like, the one thing that could get him going was if you insinuated that maybe it had been a hallucination or maybe some sort of a trick. That’s when he would get all huffy and stand up even and point to his eyes and say, these eyes saw the angel and the plates, and he’d point to his ears and say, these ears heard the voice of God bearing testimony. He was pretty passionate.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
He was. Again, we’re doing all this for a purpose. If we go back to those tools of historiography that we’ve been discussing, the reliability of a historical account. Like you said, some of these attacks on the witnesses are just ludicrous. They don’t line up with anything. Some of them are a five-point failure on the scale. Some of them, like Stephen Burnett’s, score a couple points for being contemporary and supposedly being a primary source, but they fail badly when they’re compared to other sources.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
The witnesses, on the other hand, all paint a fairly consistent picture, and if you’re following the rule of, is it a primary source? When did they write it down? What did they state as their motives? How factual or opinionated was it? And how does it compare to what the other witnesses say? It’s pretty solid.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
If you’re being honest and open as a historian, you’ve got to say that these counter accounts to the witnesses are pretty weak.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
The accounts from the witnesses are pretty strong just by using the objective tools of reliable historicity that we’ve kind of laid out here.

Scott Woodward:
And we pointed out in a previous episode when we talked about them a little bit, that, back to question number three, like, what’s their motive in telling their accounts? Like, David Whitmer had been out of the church for decades—

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
–when he bore most of his witness of the Book of Mormon. Martin Harris was out of the church for decades. Same with Oliver Cowdery for, what, about a decade, and they didn’t have skin in the game. They didn’t have a reputation to uphold within the church. We feel like that actually strengthens their case. Like, they didn’t have ulterior motive, if we could say that. What their testimony does do is show us that they actually were consistent with what they said the voice of God told them to do, which was to stay true to their testimony of the Book of Mormon, and if they would do that then they would be okay. And how do they say it? That their garments would be unspotted at the last day. That’s an important point to bring up always with the three witnesses, is to say, what motive would they have for continuing to testify of the reality of their experience when they were out of the church, sometimes angry at Joseph Smith, and they were in the best position of anyone in the church to hurt Joseph Smith and to compromise his mission and his testimony, and yet they did not?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
For me that weighs pretty heavily in the balance.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. Here’s their statement you hinted at: “We know that if we are faithful in Christ we shall rid our garments of the blood of all men and be found spotless before the judgment seat of Christ, and shall dwell with them eternally in the heavens. And the honor be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen. Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, Martin Harris.” Read responsibly, I guess you’d say. And you outlined another good skill that I think we’re going to spend a little time on, which is approach this slowly. Don’t jump to conclusions. If you read a letter like Stephen Burnett’s, you could basically jump to the conclusion that, oh my gosh, it’s all false. But if you back up and you use this process carefully and methodically, you’ll see that something like Stephen Burnett’s account has some serious problems with it while the accounts of the witnesses, there’s a lot there that you don’t have to account for, and so something like that actually can be faith strengthening if it’s approached responsibly, thoughtfully, and carefully using observation, reason, and faith.

Scott Woodward:
I love it. This has been fun to do a little practice, Casey, to try to illustrate this skill in action using some hard questions.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Right. Take this out and use it. After a while, it becomes second nature where you start to hear a source and immediately, before you jump to conclusions, say, let’s back up a little bit.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Who’s that coming from? When did they say it? Why did they say it? And what does everybody else say, basically? So if you do this, you know, I think you’ll find the truth claims of the church hold up pretty well. The Lord wanted us to be able to use observation and reason to understand these things, too, to strengthen and bolster faith.

Scott Woodward:
This is what Elder Uchtdorf was saying, right? We are expected to evaluate so that we too can come to a personal knowledge of the truth. And this is part of that process.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Wonderful. Well done. I hope your students don’t find out about this and just listen to the podcast because this will give them all the answers to their assignment.

Scott Woodward:
Oh, shoot. I didn’t think about that. Man. Now this is out there. Dang it.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
I’m not going to tell anybody if you don’t. 

Scott Woodward:
Now I’m going to have to change the assignment. Thank you for listening to this episode of Church History Matters. Join us next time as we introduce the next skill we believe to be vital in seeking truth and preserving faith: a skill we’re calling mental flexibility, which is the skill of humbly revising our assumptions in light of better information. Sounds simple, but it turns out that productively unlearning and rethinking our assumptions about God, prophets, and the church isn’t always easy. We’ll take a look at a crucial moment in our church’s history that illustrates why this skill is absolutely worth developing. If you’re enjoying Church History Matters, we’d appreciate it if you could take a moment to subscribe, rate, review, and comment on the podcast. That makes us easier to find. Today’s episode was produced by Scott Woodward and edited by Nick Galieti and Scott Woodward, with show notes and transcript by Gabe Davis. Church History Matters is a podcast of Scripture Central, a nonprofit which exists to help build enduring faith in Jesus Christ by making Latter-day Saint scripture and church history accessible, comprehensible, and defensible to people everywhere. For more resources to enhance your gospel study, go to scripturecentral.org, where everything is available for free because of the generous donations of people like you. And while we try very hard to be historically and doctrinally accurate in what we say on this podcast, please remember that all views expressed in this and every episode are our views alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Scripture Central or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Thank you so much for being a part of this with us. 

Show produced by Scott Woodward and edited by Nick Galieti and Scott Woodward, with show notes and transcript by Gabe Davis.

Church History Matters is a podcast of Scripture Central. For more resources to enhance your gospel study go to scripturecentral.org where everything is available for free because of the generous donations of people like you.