Book of Mormon/Witnesses/Eight witnesses/Related

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Relationship of the Eight Witnesses of the Book of Mormon to one another

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Question: Are the Book of Mormon witnesses unreliable because many of them were related?

To imply that someone is unreliable simply because of who they are related to is a ad hominem attack

It is claimed that because many of the witnesses are related, this means they are not to be trusted.

Mark Twain made fun of this very issue:

And when I am far on the road to conviction, and eight men, be they grammatical or otherwise, come forward and tell me that they have seen the plates too; and not only seen those plates but "hefted" them, I am convinced. I could not feel more satisfied and at rest if the entire Whitmer family had testified. [1]

This is what is known as a "ad hominem" attack on the witnesses' character. The term "ad hominem" is defined, according to Merriam-Webster, as:

  1. appealing to feelings or prejudices rather than intellect.
  2. marked by or being an attack on an opponent's character rather than by an answer to the contentions made.

How, exactly, does being related to someone else who is viewing the same thing that you are make one less honest or reliable? This is simply an irrelevant distraction. When you are going to show something sacred to someone, you certainly don't show it to strangers but to those with whom you are familiar and who you can trust. As such, one would not expect anyone but close acquaintances and family to be so trusted. The witnesses, incidentally, had reputations for honesty.

The witnesses would, of necessity, be those who were close to Joseph. Recall the fact that the witnesses eventually had disaffected members among them because of disagreements with Joseph Smith, yet they never denied their witness. This gives credence to their testimony over time.

Relationships among the Three and Eight Witnesses

Three of the witnesses were related to Joseph Smith:

  • Joseph Smith, Sr. [father]
  • Hyrum Smith [brother]
  • Samuel H. Smith [brother]

Five of the eleven witnesses were sons of Peter Whitmer, Sr., who had provided Joseph and Oliver a place to translate:

  • David Whitmer
  • Christian Whitmer
  • Jacob Whitmer
  • Peter Whitmer, Jr.
  • John Whitmer

Two of the witnesses married into the Whitmer family:

  • Oliver Cowdery would marry Elizabeth Ann Whitmer in 1832.[2]
  • Hiram Page married the oldest Whitmer daughter, Catherine, on 10 November 1825.[3]


Question: Does the fact that Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith distant cousins make Oliver an unreliable witness to the Book of Mormon?

Oliver was indeed a distant cousin of Joseph Smith, but they had never met before the Book of Mormon was translated

The accusation that Oliver being a distant cousin of Joseph Smith makes him an unreliable witness to the Book of Mormon is what is known as a "ad hominem" attack on the witnesses' character. The term "ad hominem" is defined, according to Merriam-Webster, as:

  1. appealing to feelings or prejudices rather than intellect.
  2. marked by or being an attack on an opponent's character rather than by an answer to the contentions made.

One can see that accusations that Oliver is an unreliable witness because he is related to Joseph Smith applies both of these definitions:

  • Oliver was indeed a distant cousin of Joseph Smith, but they had never met before the Book of Mormon was translated. Those who put forth this criticism attempt to prejudice the reader by implying that this relationship made Oliver unreliable.
  • The fact that they were distantly related has no bearing upon Oliver's reliability as a scribe or as a witness. How does this relationship make him an unreliable witness? What is the conflict of interest?

More to the point, if Oliver was covering up a fraud on the part of Joseph Smith when he acted as a scribe during the translation of the Book of Mormon simply because he was related to Joseph Smith, or if he was covering for Joseph when he acted as one of the Three Witnesses, then why didn't Oliver expose the fraud after he fell into disagreement with Joseph Smith and was excommunicated from the Church? This would have been the perfect opportunity to expose a fraud.

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. Mark Twain, Roughing It, pages 107-115
  2. Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Oliver Cowdery," in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols., edited by Daniel H. Ludlow, (New York, Macmillan Publishing, 1992), 3:338.
  3. Susan Easton Black, Who’s Who in the Doctrine and Covenants (Salt Lake: Deseret Book, 1997), 208.