“Appendix C: The Three Witnesses” Come, Follow Me—For Individuals and Families: Book of Mormon 2020 (2020)
“Appendix C,” Come, Follow Me—For Individuals and Families: 2020
For more than five years—from the time of the angel Moroni’s first visit to Joseph Smith until 1829—Joseph was the only person who was allowed to see the gold plates. This led to intense criticism and persecution from those who believed he was deceiving people. So imagine the joy Joseph felt when, as he translated the Book of Mormon, he learned that the Lord would allow others to see the plates and that they too would “testify to the truth of the book and the things therein” (2 Nephi 27:12–14; see also 2 Nephi 11:3; Ether 5:2–4).
In June 1829, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris asked for permission to be the three witnesses of whom the Book of Mormon prophesied. The Lord granted them their desire (see Doctrine and Covenants 17) and sent an angel, who showed them the plates. These men became known as the Three Witnesses, and their written testimony is included in every copy of the Book of Mormon.1
President Dallin H. Oaks explained why the testimony of the Three Witnesses is so compelling: “The testimony of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon stands forth in great strength. Each of the three had ample reason and opportunity to renounce his testimony if it had been false, or to equivocate on details if any had been inaccurate. As is well known, because of disagreements or jealousies involving other leaders of the Church, each one of these three witnesses was excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by about eight years after the publication of their testimony. All three went their separate ways, with no common interest to support a collusive effort. Yet to the end of their lives—periods ranging from 12 to 50 years after their excommunications—not one of these witnesses deviated from his published testimony or said anything that cast any shadow on its truthfulness.”2
Until the end of their lives, the Three Witnesses were unwavering in their faithfulness to their testimony of the Book of Mormon.
After being rebaptized into the Church and shortly before his death, Oliver visited with a missionary, Elder Jacob Gates, who was passing through Richmond, Missouri, on his way to serve a mission in England. Elder Gates asked Oliver about his testimony of the Book of Mormon. Elder Gates’s son recounted Oliver’s reaction:
“To question him thus seemed to touch Oliver very deeply. He answered not a word, but arose from his easy chair, went to the book case, took down a Book of Mormon of the first edition, turned to the testimony of the Three Witnesses, and read in the most solemn manner the words to which he had subscribed his name, nearly twenty years before. Facing my father, he said: ‘Jacob, I want you to remember what I say to you. I am a dying man, and what would it profit me to tell you a lie? I know,’ said he, ‘that this Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God. My eyes saw, my ears heard, and my understanding was touched, and I know that whereof I testified is true. It was no dream, no vain imagination of the mind—it was real.’”3
In his later years, David Whitmer became aware of rumors that he had denied his testimony of the Book of Mormon. In response to these accusations, David reaffirmed his testimony in a letter that was published in the local newspaper, the Richmond Conservator:
“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, well 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 again affirm the truth of all of 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.”4
Like Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris left the Church for a time but was eventually rebaptized. In his later years, he was known to carry a copy of the Book of Mormon under his arm and testify of its truthfulness to all who would listen: “I know the Book of Mormon to be verily true. And although all men should deny the truth of that book, I dare not do it. My heart is fixed. O God, my heart is fixed! I could not know more truly or certainly than I do.”5
George Godfrey, an acquaintance of Martin’s, wrote: “A few hours before his death … I asked [Martin] if he did not feel that there was an element at least, of fraudulence and deception in the things that were written and told of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and he replied as he had always done … and said: ‘The Book of Mormon is no fake. I know what I know. I have seen what I have seen and I have heard what I have heard. I have seen the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon is written. An angel appeared to me and others and testified to the truthfulness of the record, and had I been willing to have perjured myself and sworn falsely to the testimony I now bear I could have been a rich man, but I could not have testified other than I have done and am now doing for these things are true.’”6
The testimonies of the Three Witnesses are especially impressive considering their experiences both in and out of the Church.7 Through it all, Oliver, David, and Martin never stopped testifying of what they had experienced and bearing witness that the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God. And they were not the only ones.
Anciently, Nephi declared, “The Lord God will proceed to bring forth the words of the book; and in the mouth of as many witnesses as seemeth him good will he establish his word” (2 Nephi 27:14). In addition to the Prophet Joseph Smith and the Three Witnesses, the Lord also chose eight other witnesses to view the plates. Their testimony is also included in every copy of the Book of Mormon. Like Oliver, David, and Martin, the Eight Witnesses remained true to their testimonies of the Book of Mormon and their witness of the gold plates.
William E. McLellin was an early convert to the Church who knew many of the witnesses of the Book of Mormon personally. William eventually left the Church, but he continued to be deeply affected by the compelling testimonies he had heard from the witnesses.
“Now I would ask,” McLellin wrote toward the end of his life, “what will I do with such a cloud of faithful witnesses, bearing such a rational and yet solemn testimony? These men while in the prime of life, saw the vision of the angel, and bore their testimony to all people. And eight men saw the plates, and handled them. Hence these men all knew the things they declared to be positively true. And that too while they were young, and now when old they declare the same things.”8
Even though we have not seen the gold plates as the Three Witnesses did, we can draw strength from their testimonies. Even when their reputations were challenged and their safety and lives were threatened because of their testimonies, these men of integrity courageously stayed true to their witness to the very end.