Verse by Verse Commentary: Testimony of the Three Witnesses

Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That we, through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, have seen the plates which contain this record, which is a record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites, their brethren, and also of the people of Jared, who came from the tower of which hath been spoken. And we also know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true. And we also testify that we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates; and they have been shown unto us by the power of God, and not of man. And we declare with words of soberness, that an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon; and we know that it is by the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, that we beheld and bear record that these things are true. And it is marvelous in our eyes. Nevertheless, the voice of the Lord commanded us that we should bear record of it; wherefore, to be obedient unto the commandments of God, we bear testimony of these things. And 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 him 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 How can anyone read that testimony and not be moved by it? How can anyone read it and not at least read the material described?1)Legrand Richards said something very similar: “How could any lover of truth, any man or woman desiring to serve the Lord as he would like to be served, listen to such a testimony as that and not want to know more about it, and whether it is true or not?” LeGrand Richards, Conference Report, April 1967, pp. 18-23

“translated by the gift and power of God”

Though the exact method Joseph used to received the translation is not essential, it is interesting. And I think some aspects of it are rather informative. The Lord schooled Joseph Smith in his gift of seership long before giving him the plates. Likely he wanted Joseph ready for when that time came, since there would be little time once the work commenced. Though it is fairly commonly known that Joseph Smith had both the Urimm and Thummim, and also a seer stone, it’s not very well known how he obtained the seer stone, nor its incredible usefulness in day-to-day activities2)There is an interesting little anecdote recorded by Martin Harris of an event that took place while visiting Joseph: “I was at the house of his father in Manchester, two miles south of Palmyra village, and was picking my teeth with a pin while sitting on the bars. The pin caught in my teeth and dropped from my fingers into shavings and straw. I jumped from the bars and looked for it. Joseph and Northrop Sweet also did the same. We could not find it. I then took Joseph on surprise, and said to him–I said, ‘Take your stone.’ I had never seen it, and did not know that he had it with him. He had it in his pocket. He took it and placed it in his hat–the old white hat–and placed his face in his hat. I watched him closely to see that he did not look to one side; he reached out his hand beyond me on the right, and moved a little stick and there I saw the pin, which he picked up and gave to me. I know he did not look out of the hat until after he had picked up the pin.” Joel Tiffany, Tiffany’s Monthly (June 1859): 164;cited in Van Wagoner and Walker, 55.. Actually, he had at least two seer stones that we know of.3)http://en.fairmormon.org/Book_of_Mormon/Translation/Joseph%27s_use_of_the_seer_stone_as_a_youth

“The stone pictured here has long been associated with Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon translation. The stone Joseph Smith used in the Book of Mormon translation effort was often referred to as a chocolate-colored stone with an oval shape. This stone passed from Joseph Smith to Oliver Cowdery and then to the Church through Brigham Young and others.” -Photograph by Welden C. Andersen and Richard E. Turley Jr.

In this process of using the stones, the Lord sometimes corrected Joseph in his use of the stones. In the end, Joseph found far more use in the stones for the Lord’s purposes, and many revelations and translations came with the help of the seer stones. It also appears that as Joseph became more familiar with the principle of revelation, and better acquainted with the Holy Ghost, the seer stones and Urim and Thummim became less useful to him.4)Orson Pratt records: “While this thought passed through the speaker’s mind, Joseph, as if he read his thoughts, looked up and explained that the Lord gave him the Urim and Thummim when he was inexperienced in the Spirit of inspiration. But now he had advanced so far that he understood the operations of that Spirit and did not need the assistance of that instrument.” Orson Pratt, “Discourse at Brigham City,” 27 June 1874, Ogden (Utah) Junction, cited in Orson Pratt, “Two Days´ Meeting at Brigham City,” Millennial Star 36 (11 August 1874), 498–499, Cited at Fairmormon.org. Another time, Zebedee Coltrin asked the prophet why he didn’t use the Urim and Thummim, and, in Zebedee’s words: “Joseph said that he had no further need of it and he had given it to the angel Moroni. He had the Melchizedek Priesthood and with that Priesthood he had the key to all knowledge and intelligence.” High Priests Record, Spanish Fork, Utah, September 1880, p. 128, LDS Archives, cited in van Wagoner and Walker, op-cit., p. 59 There are more detailed descriptions of the translation process given by Elder Russell M. Nelson in a talk given in general conference in 1993.

“the work is true.”

Bearing testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon is the major purpose the three witnesses. But an even more important testimony of the Book of Mormon is your testimony. The testimony of each individual. In fact, the power of the book is so real that it is difficult for those who honestly read it with a sincere heart to deny its spiritual power.5)Jeffrey R. Holland: I testify that one cannot come to full faith in this latter-day work—and thereby find the fullest measure of peace and comfort in these, our times—until he or she embraces the divinity of the Book of Mormon and the Lord Jesus Christ, of whom it testifies. If anyone is foolish enough or misled enough to reject 531 pages of a heretofore unknown text teeming with literary and Semitic complexity without honestly attempting to account for the origin of those pages—especially without accounting for their powerful witness of Jesus Christ and the profound spiritual impact that witness has had on what is now tens of millions of readers—if that is the case, then such a person, elect or otherwise, has been deceived; and if he or she leaves this Church, it must be done by crawling over or under or around the Book of Mormon to make that exit. In that sense the book is what Christ Himself was said to be: ‘a stone of stumbling, … a rock of offence,’ a barrier in the path of one who wishes not to believe in this work. Witnesses, even witnesses who were for a time hostile to Joseph, testified to their death that they had seen an angel and had handled the plates. ‘They have been shown unto us by the power of God, and not of man,’ they declared. ‘Wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true.'” Jeffrey R. Holland, Safety for the Soul, General Conference, October 2009 Though the three witnesses all wavered, believing at different times that Joseph Smith had lost his position as prophet, they never faultered in their testimonies of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Two of them even eventually came back to the church, but none even once denied the heavenly truth of the Book of Mormon. They dared not do it. They knew it was true. 6)Henry B. Eyring: “Those you love can have more than the physical evidence given those witnesses by what they saw and heard. Those three witnesses had something more, something we all need. The Holy Ghost bore witness to their minds and hearts that what they saw and heard was true. The Spirit told them that the angel was from God and that the voice was that of the Lord Jesus Christ. That witness of the Spirit was given to them and many who were not there. It is a witness that can, if we qualify for the companionship of the Holy Ghost, be ours and stay with us forever. The Three Witnesses never denied their testimony of the Book of Mormon. They could not because they knew it was true. They made sacrifices and faced difficulties beyond what most people ever know. Oliver Cowdery gave the same testimony about the divine origin of the Book of Mormon as he lay dying. But in the times of trial, they wavered in their faith that Joseph was still God’s prophet and that the only way to come unto the Savior was through His restored Church. That they continued to affirm what they saw and heard in that marvelous experience, during long periods of estrangement from the Church and from Joseph, makes their testimony more powerful.” Henry B. Eyring, An Enduring Testmony of the Mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith, General Conference October 2003

Oliver Cowdery

Oliver was the chief scribe for the major part of the translation of the Book of Mormon, and even had the opportunity to do a little bit of translating himself. In 1838, he had a fallout with the prophet, but found great joy in returning much later.7)Elder Clifford E. Young (Assistant to the the Twelve) said: “I have always been impressed, as you have, in reading of Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer. It was through the instrumentality of Phineas Young that Oliver Cowdery came back into the Church. They were brothers-in-law, Phineas having married Oliver’s sister. Oliver Cowdery left the Church in 1838 and was cut off with David Whitmer. He drifted around and finally came back to Richmond, Missouri. Phineas Young wrote to Oliver pleading with him to come back to the Church. Oliver replied feelingly, that he had been wronged, that the brethren had misjudged his motives. Our people in Missouri had suffered persecution. They had lost their lands and in many instances their homes. One marvels as one reads about it that there was not more of a falling away, because that part of the Church was so far removed from the leaders of the Church, and it was easy for men to get off the track. Well, Oliver Cowdery felt that his motives had been questioned, and so he wrote to Phineas Young that he felt that the Saints would not receive him. Phineas replied that Oliver should come back into the Church, that he knew it was true and that this was where he belonged. In 1848, while a conference was being held in Council Bluffs, Oliver came to the conference, and in the course of one of the meetings he asked to speak, and you know the story. He proclaimed again his witness of the Book of Mormon and his faith in the Prophet Joseph. After the conference he appeared before the high council. “I do not ask to be restored to my former position,” he said. He had been the second elder in the Church. “All I ask is that I may come back into the Church, because I know it is true.” A vote was taken by the high council which had excommunicated him, and that was in the proper order, and it voted to receive him into the Church and he was subsequently baptized and ordained an elder. Preparations were made for him to come out to Utah, but before this could be accomplished he was taken seriously ill and passed away. But he passed away, as David Whitmer afterwards said, the happiest man he ever saw, because he was back in the Church where he belonged.” Clifford E. Young, Conference Report, April 1946, pp. 85-89

David Whitmer

Though David Whitmer never returned to the church, he stood staunchly by his testimony throughout his life. “Unto all nations, kindreds, tongues and people unto whom these presence shall come— “It having been represented by one John Murphy of Polo [Caldwell County], Missouri, that I had in a conversation with him last summer, denied my testimony as one of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon— “To the end thereof, that he may understand me now if he did not then, and that the world may know the truth, I wish now, standing as it were, in the very sunset of life, and in the fear of God, once for all to make this public statement: “That I have never at any time, denied that testimony or any part thereof, which has so long since been published with that book, as one of the three witnesses. “Those who know me best, will know that I have always adhered to that testimony—And that no man may be misled or doubt my present views in regard to the same, I do now again affirm the truth of all my statements as then made and published. “He that hath an ear to hear, let him hear: It was no delusion. What is written is written, and he that readeth let him understand . . . “And if any man doubt should he not carefully and honestly read and understand the same before presuming to sit in judgment, and condemning the light which shineth in darkness, and showeth the way to eternal life, as pointed out by the hand of God? “In the Spirit of Christ who hath said follow thou me; for ‘I am the life, the light, and the way.’ I submit this statement to the world. God, in whom I trust being my judge, as to the sincerity of my motives and the faith and hope that is in me of eternal life. “My sincere desire is that the world may be benefited by the plain and simple statement of the truth. “And all the honor be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen. David Whitmer, Sr.” While on a mission to the eastern states in 1878, Elders Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith ran into David Whitmer, who was at that time 73 years old. Delighted to run into one of the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon, the elders talked with him for some time. In that discussion, they asked David about the instance of receiving the witness of the plates and the angel. Elder Pratt asked him, “Do you remember what time you saw the plates?” David Whitmer: It was in June, 1829—the latter part of the month, and the eight witnesses saw them, I think, the next day or the day after. (i.e. one or two days after). Joseph showed them the plates himself, but the angel showed us (the three witnesses) the plates, as I suppose to fulfil the words of the book itself. Martin Harris was not with us at this time, he obtained a view of them afterwards, (the same day). Joseph, Oliver and myself were together when I saw them. We not only saw the plates of the Book of Mormon but also the brass plates, the plates of the Book of Ether, the plates containing the records of the wickedness and secret combinations of the people of the world down to the time of their being engraved, and many other plates. The fact is it was just as though Joseph, Oliver and I were sitting just here on a log, when we were overshadowed by a light, it was not like the light of the sun nor like that of a fire, but more glorious and beautiful. It extended away round us, I cannot tell how far, but in the midst of this light about as far off as he sits (pointing to John C. Whitmer sitting a few feet from him), there appeared as it were, a table with many records or plates upon it, besides the plates of the Book of Mormon, also the Sword of Laban, the directors—i.e., the ball which Lehi had, and the Interpreters. I saw them just as plain as I see this bed (striking the bed beside him with his hand), and I heard the voice of the Lord, as distinctly as I ever heard anything in my life, declaring that the records of the plates of the Book of Mormon were translated by the gift and power of God.” Elder O.P.—Did you see the Angel at this time? D.W.—Yes; he stood before us, our testimony as recorded in the Book of Mormon is strictly and absolutely true, just as it is there written.8)“Report of Elders Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith,” Millennial Star 40, 9 Dec 1878

Martin Harris

Sometimes we give Martin Harris a bad rap, because he did turn against Joseph Smith for a time, and leave the church. And though he came back later, he never returned to the full stature and position from which he began. The best talk I’ve ever heard on Martin Harris was given by Elder Dallin H. Oaks, and I share that video here: I think we owe it to Martin to put more emphasis on the good that he did. And he did much! Martin was an incredible man. If you look at the first editions of the Book of Mormon, you’ll find in the preface an account of the 116 pages of lost manuscript known as the book of Lehi.9)Book of Mormon Preface (1830): “As many false reports have been circulated respecting the following work, and also many unlawful measures taken by evil designing persons to destroy me, and also the work, I would inform you that I translated, by the gift and power of God, and caused to be written, one hundred and sixteen pages, the which I took from the Book of Lehi, which was an account abridged from the plates of Lehi, by the hand of Mormon; which said account, some person or persons have stolen and kept from me, notwithstanding my utmost exertions to recover it again—and being commanded of the Lord that I should not translate the same over again, for Satan had put it into their hearts to tempt the Lord their God, by altering the words, that they did read contrary from that which I translated and caused to be written; and if I should bring forth the same words again, or, in other words, if I should translate the same over again, they would publish that which they had stolen, and Satan would stir up the hearts of this generation, that they might not receive this work: but behold, the Lord said unto me, I will not suffer that Satan shall accomplish his evil design in this thing: therefore thou shalt translate from the plates of Nephi, until ye come to that which ye have translated, which ye have retained; and behold ye shall publish it as the record of Nephi; and thus I will confound those who have altered my words. I will not suffer that they shall destroy my work; yea, I will shew unto them that my wisdom is greater than the cunning of the Devil. Wherefore, to be obedient unto the commandments of God, I have, through his grace and mercy, accomplished that which he hath commanded me respecting this thing. I would also inform you that the plates of which hath been spoken, were found in the township of Manchester, Ontario county, New-York.” . . . . . .

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Chas Hathaway is the author of the books Scripture Study Made Awesome, Marriage is Ordained of God, but WHO Came Up with Dating? and Giraffe Tracks. Learn more at chashathaway.com. Please participate in the conversation by adding comments and sharing with friends on the web!

Gospel Living Made Awesome is not an official work of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If Chas says something stupid, it's his own fault.

References   [ + ]

1. Legrand Richards said something very similar: “How could any lover of truth, any man or woman desiring to serve the Lord as he would like to be served, listen to such a testimony as that and not want to know more about it, and whether it is true or not?” LeGrand Richards, Conference Report, April 1967, pp. 18-23
2. There is an interesting little anecdote recorded by Martin Harris of an event that took place while visiting Joseph: “I was at the house of his father in Manchester, two miles south of Palmyra village, and was picking my teeth with a pin while sitting on the bars. The pin caught in my teeth and dropped from my fingers into shavings and straw. I jumped from the bars and looked for it. Joseph and Northrop Sweet also did the same. We could not find it. I then took Joseph on surprise, and said to him–I said, ‘Take your stone.’ I had never seen it, and did not know that he had it with him. He had it in his pocket. He took it and placed it in his hat–the old white hat–and placed his face in his hat. I watched him closely to see that he did not look to one side; he reached out his hand beyond me on the right, and moved a little stick and there I saw the pin, which he picked up and gave to me. I know he did not look out of the hat until after he had picked up the pin.” Joel Tiffany, Tiffany’s Monthly (June 1859): 164;cited in Van Wagoner and Walker, 55.
3. http://en.fairmormon.org/Book_of_Mormon/Translation/Joseph%27s_use_of_the_seer_stone_as_a_youth
4. Orson Pratt records: “While this thought passed through the speaker’s mind, Joseph, as if he read his thoughts, looked up and explained that the Lord gave him the Urim and Thummim when he was inexperienced in the Spirit of inspiration. But now he had advanced so far that he understood the operations of that Spirit and did not need the assistance of that instrument.” Orson Pratt, “Discourse at Brigham City,” 27 June 1874, Ogden (Utah) Junction, cited in Orson Pratt, “Two Days´ Meeting at Brigham City,” Millennial Star 36 (11 August 1874), 498–499, Cited at Fairmormon.org. Another time, Zebedee Coltrin asked the prophet why he didn’t use the Urim and Thummim, and, in Zebedee’s words: “Joseph said that he had no further need of it and he had given it to the angel Moroni. He had the Melchizedek Priesthood and with that Priesthood he had the key to all knowledge and intelligence.” High Priests Record, Spanish Fork, Utah, September 1880, p. 128, LDS Archives, cited in van Wagoner and Walker, op-cit., p. 59
5. Jeffrey R. Holland: I testify that one cannot come to full faith in this latter-day work—and thereby find the fullest measure of peace and comfort in these, our times—until he or she embraces the divinity of the Book of Mormon and the Lord Jesus Christ, of whom it testifies. If anyone is foolish enough or misled enough to reject 531 pages of a heretofore unknown text teeming with literary and Semitic complexity without honestly attempting to account for the origin of those pages—especially without accounting for their powerful witness of Jesus Christ and the profound spiritual impact that witness has had on what is now tens of millions of readers—if that is the case, then such a person, elect or otherwise, has been deceived; and if he or she leaves this Church, it must be done by crawling over or under or around the Book of Mormon to make that exit. In that sense the book is what Christ Himself was said to be: ‘a stone of stumbling, … a rock of offence,’ a barrier in the path of one who wishes not to believe in this work. Witnesses, even witnesses who were for a time hostile to Joseph, testified to their death that they had seen an angel and had handled the plates. ‘They have been shown unto us by the power of God, and not of man,’ they declared. ‘Wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true.'” Jeffrey R. Holland, Safety for the Soul, General Conference, October 2009
6. Henry B. Eyring: “Those you love can have more than the physical evidence given those witnesses by what they saw and heard. Those three witnesses had something more, something we all need. The Holy Ghost bore witness to their minds and hearts that what they saw and heard was true. The Spirit told them that the angel was from God and that the voice was that of the Lord Jesus Christ. That witness of the Spirit was given to them and many who were not there. It is a witness that can, if we qualify for the companionship of the Holy Ghost, be ours and stay with us forever. The Three Witnesses never denied their testimony of the Book of Mormon. They could not because they knew it was true. They made sacrifices and faced difficulties beyond what most people ever know. Oliver Cowdery gave the same testimony about the divine origin of the Book of Mormon as he lay dying. But in the times of trial, they wavered in their faith that Joseph was still God’s prophet and that the only way to come unto the Savior was through His restored Church. That they continued to affirm what they saw and heard in that marvelous experience, during long periods of estrangement from the Church and from Joseph, makes their testimony more powerful.” Henry B. Eyring, An Enduring Testmony of the Mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith, General Conference October 2003
7. Elder Clifford E. Young (Assistant to the the Twelve) said: “I have always been impressed, as you have, in reading of Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer. It was through the instrumentality of Phineas Young that Oliver Cowdery came back into the Church. They were brothers-in-law, Phineas having married Oliver’s sister. Oliver Cowdery left the Church in 1838 and was cut off with David Whitmer. He drifted around and finally came back to Richmond, Missouri. Phineas Young wrote to Oliver pleading with him to come back to the Church. Oliver replied feelingly, that he had been wronged, that the brethren had misjudged his motives. Our people in Missouri had suffered persecution. They had lost their lands and in many instances their homes. One marvels as one reads about it that there was not more of a falling away, because that part of the Church was so far removed from the leaders of the Church, and it was easy for men to get off the track. Well, Oliver Cowdery felt that his motives had been questioned, and so he wrote to Phineas Young that he felt that the Saints would not receive him. Phineas replied that Oliver should come back into the Church, that he knew it was true and that this was where he belonged. In 1848, while a conference was being held in Council Bluffs, Oliver came to the conference, and in the course of one of the meetings he asked to speak, and you know the story. He proclaimed again his witness of the Book of Mormon and his faith in the Prophet Joseph. After the conference he appeared before the high council. “I do not ask to be restored to my former position,” he said. He had been the second elder in the Church. “All I ask is that I may come back into the Church, because I know it is true.” A vote was taken by the high council which had excommunicated him, and that was in the proper order, and it voted to receive him into the Church and he was subsequently baptized and ordained an elder. Preparations were made for him to come out to Utah, but before this could be accomplished he was taken seriously ill and passed away. But he passed away, as David Whitmer afterwards said, the happiest man he ever saw, because he was back in the Church where he belonged.” Clifford E. Young, Conference Report, April 1946, pp. 85-89
8. “Report of Elders Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith,” Millennial Star 40, 9 Dec 1878
9. Book of Mormon Preface (1830): “As many false reports have been circulated respecting the following work, and also many unlawful measures taken by evil designing persons to destroy me, and also the work, I would inform you that I translated, by the gift and power of God, and caused to be written, one hundred and sixteen pages, the which I took from the Book of Lehi, which was an account abridged from the plates of Lehi, by the hand of Mormon; which said account, some person or persons have stolen and kept from me, notwithstanding my utmost exertions to recover it again—and being commanded of the Lord that I should not translate the same over again, for Satan had put it into their hearts to tempt the Lord their God, by altering the words, that they did read contrary from that which I translated and caused to be written; and if I should bring forth the same words again, or, in other words, if I should translate the same over again, they would publish that which they had stolen, and Satan would stir up the hearts of this generation, that they might not receive this work: but behold, the Lord said unto me, I will not suffer that Satan shall accomplish his evil design in this thing: therefore thou shalt translate from the plates of Nephi, until ye come to that which ye have translated, which ye have retained; and behold ye shall publish it as the record of Nephi; and thus I will confound those who have altered my words. I will not suffer that they shall destroy my work; yea, I will shew unto them that my wisdom is greater than the cunning of the Devil. Wherefore, to be obedient unto the commandments of God, I have, through his grace and mercy, accomplished that which he hath commanded me respecting this thing. I would also inform you that the plates of which hath been spoken, were found in the township of Manchester, Ontario county, New-York.”

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