Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Another Perspective on the Witnesses

Matt Roper's "Comments on the Book of Mormon Witnesses: A Response to Jerald and Sandra Tanner" is one of many valuable works dealing with the integrity of Book of Mormon witnesses and the desperate attempts of critics to discount their impressive, unanimous, and lifelong witnesses of the reality of the gold plates and the Book of Mormon. Is there any more plausible explanation for the history of these people of known integrity than to accept that they saw what they said they saw or at least were personally convinced that they saw it? Does it make any sense to suggest that these were all lying co-conspirators with Joseph, unwilling to expose him even when many of them later had a falling out with Joseph and had nothing to gain but grief for sticking to their testimony? Does it make any sense for Joseph to go out of his way to include so many people in his conspiracy?

22 comments:

Schuyler said...

It makes one wonder what motivates the Tanners in the insatiable quest to challenge the Book of Mormon's authenticity. To attempt to disprove through deception which appears to be their MO is not Christ's way.

will said...

I think an interesting study would be a comparison of the BoM witnesses' testimony with similar testimonies from other belief systems, e.g. witnesses of the Strangite Book of the Law of the Lord, or group sightings of the Virgin Mary.

Daniel Peterson said...

The more intelligent and informed critics of the Book of Mormon have, I think, all or virtually all jettisoned the unsustainable claim that the Witnesses were dishonest conspirators. (Richard Lloyd Anderson's many publications on the topic, including the classic Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, have left that accusation extremely implausible.)

The currently fashionable method of explaining the Witnesses away is to suggest that they were hypercredulous and at least occasionally alienated from the real world, such that they "saw" things that simply weren't there. Critics have carefully extracted, from out of a sea of quotations and testimonies from them, a few remarks about "spiritual eyes," and have (in my opinion) grossly misread these in order to have the Witnesses actually denying a literal experience with physical plates, etc., notwithstanding the frequent insistence of the Witnesses that they "saw" the plates "with these eyes," "held" the plates "with these hands," "hefted" them, turned their pages, were not hallucinating, etc. (Richard Anderson has a very helpful article on this subject in the current issue of the FARMS Journal of Book of Mormon Studies.)

The Witnesses constitute a significant problem for intellectually serious people who wish to reject the Book of Mormon, and they simply must be explained away and dismissed if critics are to be able to feel that their disbelief is legitimate.

Incidentally, the Strangite witnesses do not represent a very good parallel. They never saw or claimed to see anything supernatural, for one thing, and I don't know that anybody really doubts that Strang actually produced a few small plates and arranged to have them dug up. Group sightings of the Virgin Mary are a more interesting potential parallel, and there are numerous such accounts that would need to be examined on a case by case basis. I wonder, off hand, whether any such sightings involve the presence of tangible objects, such as the roughly 60-pound plates of the Book of Mormon. I think that the distinct nature of the two principal Witness experiences (the supernaturalism of the Three and the non-supernaturalism of the Eight) is very important, and that it substantially enhances their collective credibility.

Palmyra said...

Paraphrasing from Palmer's Insider's view:

Martin Harris, known for his beliefs in dreams, ghosts, and hobgoblins, and as a man who pretended to see things such as spooks, and Oliver Cowdery, a treasure hunter and practitioner of the divining rod, BOTH said that they had "seen" the plates BEFORE Joseph prophesied that they would see them.

David Whitmer said that he had seen one of the Nephites carrying the plates in a napsack on his way to Cumorah, and later said he saw this entity hiding under the family shed.

All the Whitmers and Hiram Page were practictioners of seer stones, through which it is written that they would see a gigantic race of people who lived in the north pole, and a liliputian race that lived on the south pole. Page and the Whitmers were noted believers in witches.

The Smith family were notorious treasure-diggers around the area, and Joseph Jr. claimed to see Captain Kidd sailing on the Susquehanna, and that he saw him burying pots of treasure. He claimed to see inside hills where treasure chests and ancient artifacts were buried.

When the witnesses were together in their digging exploits in the woods, they would see charging horsemen, specters nine feet tall, and burning cabins. Harris and Rockwell saw a treasure chest sink into Cumorah. Cowdery helped lay the plates on a table inside the hill.

Whitmer’s story in later years referred to the events occurring in a vision, and that he did not touch the plates physically. Harris said he never saw the plates but only in a “visionary or state of entrancement” and that any man who said he saw them physically was a liar. The supernatural descriptions of caves, rooms, angelic visitations, treasures, and beings appearing and vanishing reinforce the magical worldview of the witnesses, and are very similar to the stories they told before that of the plates.

All the living signatories to the Book of Mormon, except Cowdery, accepted Strang’s similar story of angelic call, metal plates, and plate translation. They seem to have a predisposition towards these types of things.

Daniel Peterson said...

Thanks for citing Grant Palmer. He represents exactly the kind of (in my view) rather disingenuous, selective, and manipulative presentation of the evidence regarding the Witnesses to which I was referring, which now attempts to present them not as dishonest but as sincerely disconnected from everyday reality. Richard Lloyd Anderson's article in the current issue of the FARMS Journal of Book of Mormon Studies is, partially, a response to Palmer.

Incidentally, FARMS has published several excellent general reviews of Mr. Palmer's book, by James Allen, Steven Harper, Mark Ashurst-McGee, Davis Bitton, and Louis Midgley. (My personal favorite chapter in Mr. Palmer's book is the one in which he attempts to connect the Book of Mormon story with E.T.A. Hoffmann's Der goldne Topf.)

It strikes me as amusing, by the way, that a group of farmers who spent their lives plowing fields, pulling up stumps, digging wells, moving rocks, nurturing plants, raising livestock, harvsting, watching the seasons, and walking or riding animals from place to place out under the weather, are portrayed as estranged from reality by people who spend much of their time staring at computer and television screens in artificially air conditioned homes or offices that are lit by electric light, to and from which they travel in motorized, air conditioned vehicles, while listening to radio, chatting on cell phones, and fidgeting with their i-Pods, fed on groceries from the supermarket.

Walker said...

Good call, Dan. I can honestly say that your last paragraph shed new light on an old subject (something not easily done these days for Church history).

Personally, I'm thinking that the sheer number of witnesses ought to give us pause. Sure, folks will draw old chestnut comparisons to mass hysteria movements (like the Salem Witch trials, McCarthyism). Yet, ironically, those who were persecuted for their beliefs in the Witch trials were not the accusers but the accused. If we're going to make any comparisons at all, we should compare the witnesses to the accused rather than the accusers. Rather than comparing Harris to a mindless follower of a charismatic leader, it would be more fitting to compare our critics to blind followers of areligiousity, all scraping the sides of the barrel to come up with an explanation--any explanation--to counter the Mormons claims.

Which makes me wonder, who are the wild-eyed apologists here anyway?

Ryan said...

How different are the three witnesses' superstitions than those of their neighbors? A lot of what's been mentioned sounds pretty normal for 19th century rural America... these guys were locals, after all, not transplanted 20th century Harvard graduates.

Also:

It seems like many of the accusations levelled against people in Church History fit in the category of "sounds crazy, but can't quite be dismissed outright." However, the "proof" usually consists of spins and interpretations and patching together of lots of little pieces, rather than, say, a quoted paragraph from a primary source with an explanation of surrounding context.

Without reliable sources (ie, not from a known truth-stretcher with an axe to grind), it always just sounds like a FUD tactic (fear, uncertainty and doubt) to me.

Like accusing, say, Lincoln of being a secret drinker -- very hard to (dis)prove it, but it conveniently casts a dark shadow if the claim sounds "authoritative" enough for people to believe.

Pop quiz: did you know Alma said there is no resurrection?

A: ... until after the resurrection of Christ, that is...

Context matters!

Bookslinger said...

Martin Harris, known for his beliefs in dreams, ghosts, and hobgoblins, and as a man who pretended to see things such as spooks

So? Ghosts, hobgoblins and spooks are merely other words for spirits. Sounds like the Bible, but with perjorative words, but which were common from his time frame. Modern LDS still teach of visits of dead relatives (George Albert Smith's story comes to mind), and the doctrine about the 1/3 of the spirits of heaven who were cast out as Satan's followers, is still taught. It's taught that those spirits who were cast out of heaven, and are Satan's angels are on this earth right now trying to influence people to sin.

and Oliver Cowdery, a treasure hunter and practitioner of the divining rod,

So? The country was young, there was plenty of evidence of previous inhabitants (Indians and prior, such as the mound-builders), and it's not hard to speculate about whether those ancient civilizations left anything of value.

The use of the divining rod is also a derivative belief about the rods of Moses and Aaron, and was not generally a disrespectful item. "Water witching" continued well into the 20th century.

BOTH said that they had "seen" the plates BEFORE Joseph prophesied that they would see them.

As in visions? So what? Sounds like the Bible where people saw things in advance too.

David Whitmer said that he had seen one of the Nephites carrying the plates in a napsack on his way to Cumorah, and later said he saw this entity hiding under the family shed.

Do you mean one of the "3 Nephites"? So what? We still believe they are out there somewhere doing what they've always wanted to do, bring souls unto Christ, and helping people.

All the Whitmers and Hiram Page were practictioners of seer stones, through which it is written that they would see a gigantic race of people who lived in the north pole, and a liliputian race that lived on the south pole.

"It is written" by whom? Does the fact something is written make it true?

Page and the Whitmers were noted believers in witches.

I do too. The Bible talks about witches. I believe they're "bad" though. Did Page and the Whitmers believe witches were "bad" or "good"?

The Smith family were notorious treasure-diggers around the area,

So? Today we call them archaeologists, or if they were in it for selfish gain, then they'd be like people such as Mel Fisher who dug up the gold from La Atocha somewhere off Key West, and made LOTS OF MONEY doing so. Man, I wish I could fine me some buried treasure. I'd be RICH! I got to actually hold a bar of gold from the wreck of the Atocha in Mel Fisher's musuem in Key West. It was cool!

and Joseph Jr. claimed to see Captain Kidd sailing on the Susquehanna, and that he saw him burying pots of treasure.

How old was he when he allegedly made this claim? I thought I saw lots of "cool" things when I was a little kid. I had an active imagination, and got good marks on my fiction stories in grade school.

And what if he did see all that? He really was a SEER ya know. We still sing a hymn about "Joseph the Seer" in church once in a while.

He claimed to see inside hills where treasure chests and ancient artifacts were buried.

So? Prophets, Seers, and Revelators can do that. Although "treasure chest" sounds a little too "pirate movie" like.

But I think ancient Nephite artifacts, including their gold plates (the "Large plates of Nephi" and all that) would legitimately constitute "treasure".

Mormon said that what he wrote as abridgement was less than 1% of the original records handed down to him. So if the Book of Mormon was 60 pounds of gold plates, that means there was at least 6000 pounds of "Large Plates of Nephi" handed down to him. It's gotta be somewhere. And if Joseph says he saw it, in "vision" or otherwise, I would believe him. Joseph got to see and handle the abridgement plates, so I think it's plausible the Lord let him see the source documents too.

I believe Joseph Smith Jr. was a Prophet, SEER, and Revelator. And I actually spent 2 YEARS of my life, at my own expense, informing people in Ecuador of that, and encouraging them to believe it too.

When the witnesses were together in their digging exploits in the woods, they would see charging horsemen, specters nine feet tall, and burning cabins. Harris and Rockwell saw a treasure chest sink into Cumorah. Cowdery helped lay the plates on a table inside the hill.

Ho hum. So?

Whitmer’s story in later years referred to the events occurring in a vision, and that he did not touch the plates physically.

Yeah, so? That's straight from the introductory pages in the Book of Mormon. The EIGHT witnesses got to touch ("heft") them, but the THREE did not. The EIGHT witnesses saw the plates in a non-supernatural setting without any angels, but the THREE saw them in a supernatural setting in the presence of a resurrected angel. As taught later by Joseph, in order for a mortal human to withstand the full glory of a resurrected celestial being, the Holy Ghost has to fall on them and strengthen them so they don't wither in the presence of that glory.

Harris said he never saw the plates but only in a “visionary or state of entrancement” and that any man who said he saw them physically was a liar.

If the last "he" refers to Harris, and not to "any man who said" then the statement would be correct. The Holy Ghost falling on someone and having a resurrected being appear could legitimately be described in the language of that time as a state of entrancement. Perhaps "entrancement" has an undignified connotation in today's vocabulary, but it could be legitimately applied to instances of "transfiguration" as described in the Bible, such as Moses being visited by the Lord, or Peter James and John witnessing the visitation of Moses and Elias to the Lord.

The supernatural descriptions of caves, rooms, angelic visitations, treasures, and beings appearing and vanishing reinforce the magical worldview of the witnesses, and are very similar to the stories they told before that of the plates.

So? Sounds like stuff from the Bible. It appears to me the Lord chose witnesses who took the teachings of the Bible literally, and therefore had the faith to believe in things holy and glorious, and that the Lord would continue to deal with modern men in much the same way he dealt with ancient men.

Sounds like another Bible teaching: God is the same yesterday, today and forever.

All the living signatories to the Book of Mormon, except Cowdery, accepted Strang’s similar story of angelic call, metal plates, and plate translation.

And they had all apostatized from the true church by that point, too. No wonder they were taken in.

They seem to have a predisposition towards these types of things.

Speculation. But again, so what? Faith is a belief in things which are unseen, but true. Did my childhood ability to write fiction stories for classroom assignments have anything to do with my ability to have "grown up" faith in biblical/spiritual things which are unseen?

Does writing fiction stories as classroom assignements in grade school preclude me from anything today, particularly freedom of religion, and freedom of speech to express and promulgate my religion?

Walker said...

To add to Book's comments, those accuasations consist of presentism at its finest.

It's simple--just say that a fellow believed that he saw ghosts, and he's discredited for life (a eerie spiritual version of McCarthyism). Also, it's important to note that the witnesses used very different language to describe their BOM experience than their other experiences--tangible, material vs. abstract and surreal.

Compare the eight witnesses testimony with their accounts of other experiences--you'll see what I mean.

Questioning Strange Things said...

What I do not understand about all this is the white salamander thing. Remember that whole affair with Hoffman? Well, it never made sense to me. Who was the white samander? Although it was found out that Hoffman was fabricating these documents, The Church did buy a document that said that Joseph saw and talked to a white salamander. What was that all about?
And what about the seers stone that Joseph had? No one I know knows anything about it. How was Joseph using a seers stone to translate the Book of Mormon amoung other things? The witness attest to that.

Bookslinger said...

Another troll! Welcome!

Who was the white samander? Although it was found out that Hoffman was fabricating these documents,...

You answered your own question, Hoffman fabricated it.

For more info on that hoax, see:
http://www.jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/

How was Joseph using a seers stone to translate the Book of Mormon amoung other things? The witness attest to that.

See here, at farms.byu.edu.

If you know what people said about the seer stone, then you know the standard response. Therefore, your question seems disingenuous.

Questioning Strange Things said...

I don't know who you are, but you have no right calling me a troll. Who are you to judge me and tell me my question seems disingenuous?
You are rather pompous. Assuming what I do and do not know about Joesph's seer stone. What I said I knew is that the witness' said he used it to translate the Book of Mormon. He was not given the seers stone from the angel Moroni so how could he use it to translate the plates?
And I know that Hoffman made up the white salamander letter. What I was asking (NOT YOU) was why the Church thought that Joseph talked to a white salamander. A talking lizard? That sounds strange and I don't understand it.
Legitimate questions that you do not know the answers to Bookslinger. Don't address me again, you are rude and your tone is nasty.

Walker said...

Ah, Questioning Strange Things, I hear you, but go easy on us. True, we get into a siege mentality sometimes. Unfortunately, you are the exception to the rule

Here are my answers to your questions. Hopefully they're of assistance to you, and most importantly, of assistance to your testimony (don't get the wrong idea with that; I believe that the truth sets us free)

The Church treated the document as a
any historian would a groundbreaking discovery. They never really "believed" that Joseph talked to a white salamander. Indeed, most references to it speak of the documents truthfulness in the conditional sense: "If true, then/if authentic, then..." We really had a difficult time coming to terms with it when both the State Crime lab and the Church historians office were duped by this mad genius.

Yet, what was significant about the document was not that it said anything new per se, but that it articulated what had been otherwise found in hints and hues of other documents. Ronald Walker noted this, saying that "with or without" the letter, we would know that the Smith family dabbled in magic. To me, it's not a big deal. How many of us believed in false things as a youth, sometimes even acting these beliefs (two words: Santa Claus). If I can do such a thing in good faith, why can't Joseph? This is a bit of a simplification, I understand, but the core principle, I believe, is still correct.

As to the seer stone, this answer is connected to the first. What was Joseph more familiar with--the Urim and Thummim or homespun magic culture i.e. seer stones? Consequently, Joseph valued the seer stone very much, as that was what he was prepared to use (alongside the U and T, of course). Martin Harris even switched the seer stone on Joseph once, to test Joseph's prophetic ability. Joseph couldn't translate, claiming that "all was as dark as Egypt."

That's what I can give you right now. If you have questions, please feel free to ask away. We'll answer them as best we can.

Rigging done said...

Walker - let's not forget the critical element of the translation: Joseph's hat.

Walker said...

And a fine hat it was. In fact, I should get a translating hat too (French is working me over pretty well right now).

Then again, if it was made of beaver fur, I'm not too keen on it--y'know the whole killing little creatures thing.

Wait, maybe if a wore a beaver on my head while I was translating...I've got it!

Bookslinger said...

This is deja-vu all over again! I get all warm and fuzzy when the RfM-ers show their true colors and make me feel so special.

Bookslinger said...

Walker, this "sincere question" routine is a tactic advocated on the anti web sites. The Mormanity blog is specifically targeted, as Jeff is one of the "arch enemies" of the online ex-mo crowd.

But as Bro Peterson pointed out, they offer a "disingenuous, selective, and manipulative presentation of the evidence" as the basis for their "sincere questions."

Therefore, it's not really fair to the truth to use such slanted presentations as launching points for discussion. He who controls the framework of the discussion controls the outcome.

(Yet I keep falling for the bait and end up being snarky. [sigh])

Notice how they always casually mention anti-type "facts", yet they are "confused" or "don't understand." They never mention having gone to FARMS.byu.edu or FAIRLDS.org or JeffLindsay.com.

The "sincere questioners" are real smart about doing research on the "anti" slant, but they never mention finding any "pro" apologetic stuff even though it is out there in abundance.

They _have_ to ignore the FARMS and FAIR stuff, because those organizations generally do a slam dunk job of defending against the anti-claims. Those two places have done all the grunt work and research.

It's as if Google only works for anti stuff, but to get the "real skinny" you have to go to a blog? Yeah, right.

Walker said...

I've got this nasty penchant for being overly diplomatic. You never know at whom you're talking to (though I have to admit that the tone smacked of RfM). We'll see if Q.S.T. decides to grace us his/her presence again.

I did find it highly amusing that s/he was so deeply offended at being called a troll, as though you were accusing him/her of mass murder. I mean really...this is just a blog a little schmack talk from someone who doesn't even know you, well, you've got larger issues than I can deal with.

ltbugaf said...

Assuming someone out there IS sincerely interested in information regarding the "salamander" forgeries, a highly informative article can be found in the October 1987 Ensign, entitled "Recent Events Involving Church History and Forged Documents" by Elder Dallin H. Oaks.

Questioning Strange Things said...

Never mind.
Silly was I to think that anyone would have the maturity to talk about things that many members don't know about.
I have read many articles at FARMS and FAIR and never read anything stating why it would be possible that Joseph would talk to a salamander. I read something about how the spirit changed forms and transformed itself into some kind of newt or something. That theory just didn't hold water though.
As to the seers stone. I have read nothing about why it would be possible to translate the plates with a 'magic' stone' Joseph found. As far as I know, no Prophet in the modern day has used one to receive revelation.
Walker you say "What was Joseph more familiar with--the Urim and Thummim or homespun magic culture i.e. seer stones? Consequently, Joseph valued the seer stone very much, as that was what he was prepared to use (alongside the U and T, of course).
Yes, I understand that. But that doesn't begin to explain how he could find a stone and use it translate the plates.

"I have to admit that the tone smacked of RfM)."

Stop, you sound like all those people in GD class that can't handle anything too deep or their heads explode.

"I did find it highly amusing that s/he was so deeply offended at being called a troll, as though you were accusing him/her of mass murder.

As if? Really how did I convey that?

"I mean really...this is just a blog a little schmack talk from someone who doesn't even know you, well, you've got larger issues than I can deal with."

Nice backhanded dig at me. I don't appreciate being called names by anybody, especially when someone knows nothing and just likes to respond to every thread so they can see their name in print.
It appears you have larger issues to deal with, you and that troll.

Walker said...

Q.S.T.,

In the previous post, I thought I addressed your question. I'm sorry if that didn't satisfy you. Frankly, I don't know precisely why the seer stone worked, other than that that's what Joseph was used to so that what's the Lord taught him with. I'm not sure where the head exploding part comes in. I could have just said, "you're asking too many questions, it's a mystery of godliness, etc. etc." But I didn't. I would be hung by toes with some people for even suggesting that Joseph dabbled in the magic culture. So you got farther with me than with many folks I know.

And I'm also sorry if you felt I was taking unwarranted digs at you. I'm just saying that we all chill out--it's just a bunch of folks getting together to talk about religion for crying out loud!

The white salamander story is a total fabrication from Hoffman's brain. And I have never seen anything from FARMS that claimed Joseph saw a spirit/newt.

Just chill, dude. At some point, all of us could accuse each other of stating incorrect/disingenuous things. It happens in conversation; it happens on blogs. We're all just trying to learn together. No need to be offended. Really.

Daniel Peterson said...

FARMS has never published anything explaining how Joseph Smith could have received divine guidance via an amphibious quadruped because nobody at FARMS believes that he did.

-- a former chairman of the board of FARMS