Book of Mormon/Witnesses/Skepticism

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Skepticism of the Book of Mormon witnesses

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Once Martin found a rock closely resembling the seerstone Joseph sometimes used in place of the interpreters and substituted it without the Prophet’s knowledge. When the translation resumed, Joseph paused for a long time and then exclaimed, “Martin, what is the matter, all is as dark as Egypt.” Martin then confessed that he wished to “stop the mouths of fools” who told him that the Prophet memorized sentences and merely repeated them.

Millennial Star 44:87; quotation from Kenneth W. Godfrey, "A New Prophet and a New Scripture: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon," Ensign (January 1988), 6. off-site
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Question: Was Martin Harris a gullible witness who would simply believe anything he was told?

Martin was clear that he required considerable proof to support Joseph

Martin recalled his first discussions with Joseph about the claims regarding plates:

I said, if it is the devil's work I will have nothing to do with it, but if it is the Lord's, you can have all the money necessary to bring it before the world. He [Joseph] said that the angel told him, that the plates must be translated, printed and sent before the world. I said, Joseph, you know my doctrine, that cursed is every one that putteth his trust in man, and maketh flesh him [sic] arm; and we know that the devil is to have great power in the latter days to deceive if possible the very elect; and I don't know that you are one of the elect. Now you must not blame me for not taking your word. If the Lord will show me that it is his work, you can have all the money you want.[1]

Even in religious matters then, Martin was keenly aware of the risk of mistake and deception.

Martin was actually quite skeptical in the beginning of Joseph's ability to translate

There are two specific things that Martin did in order to test Joseph.

  1. He took a copy of characters that Joseph copied from the plates to several professors in New York in order to try and verify them.
  2. He swapped the seer stone that Joseph was using during the Book of Mormon translation in order to test the prophet's ability.

It is well-known that Martin Harris took copies of the Book of Mormon characters to Charles Anthon and another language expert. While Anthon would later claim (in partially contradictory statements) that he had told Harris that it was all a fraud, Harris came back more convinced than ever that Joseph could actually translate.

During the translation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith often used a small seer stone. On one occasion, Martin Harris switched the stone for another stone of the same appearance. Martin reports what happened:

Once Martin found a rock closely resembling the seerstone Joseph sometimes used in place of the interpreters and substituted it without the Prophet’s knowledge. When the translation resumed, Joseph paused for a long time and then exclaimed, “Martin, what is the matter, all is as dark as Egypt.” Martin then confessed that he wished to “stop the mouths of fools” who told him that the Prophet memorized sentences and merely repeated them. [2]

Here again, Martin conducted a clever "blinded test" of Joseph's ability, and Joseph passed--convincing Martin further.

The story of Martin Harris' desire to take the 116 pages of Book of Mormon manuscript to convince his family and friends that Joseph was a genuine prophet is also well known. Here again, Martin sought to use empirical proof (the manuscript itself) as evidence that Joseph could do what he claimed.


Question: Did David Whitmer or Oliver Cowdery test Joseph's prophetic claims?

David Whitmer reported how he and Oliver first tested Joseph's ability to see things with the seer stone:

I have frequently placed it [the seer stone] to my eyes but could see nothing through it. I have seen Joseph, however, place it to his eyes and instantly read signs 160 miles distant and tell exactly what was transpiring there. When I went to Harmony after him he told me the names of every hotel at which I had stopped on the road, read the signs, and described various scenes without having ever received any information from me.[3]

Another account says:

"He [Whitmer] said that 1st of June [1829] he received a letter from [Oliver Cowdery, asking him to come to Harmony, Pennsylvania]. The prophet looks into the seer stone [and is] told [the] names of each stopping place [David visited along the way]. O[liver] Cowdery, who made notes for every one [found them to be] just as the Prophet related. David said this strengthened his faith in the prophet and he was baptized the middle of June 1829....[4]


Clearly, these two witnesses did not simply accept Joseph's word--they believed they had compelling evidence that Joseph knew things that no one else knew, save God.


Godfrey: "Martin found a rock closely resembling the seerstone Joseph sometimes used in place of the interpreters and substituted it without the Prophet’s knowledge"

Martin was a shrewd farmer and businessman, and a man of some property. He often warred between belief and doubt. For example, Martin put Joseph to the test during the translation of the 116 pages with the seer stone. He repeatedly subjected Joseph's claims to empirical tests to detect deception or fraud. He came away from those experiences convinced that Joseph was truly able to translate the plates. He was so convinced, he was willing to suffer ridicule and committed significant financial resources to publishing the Book of Mormon.

Kenneth W. Godfrey, Ensign (January 1988):

After returning from a trip to Palmyra to settle his affairs, Martin began to transcribe. From April 12 to June 14, Joseph translated while Martin wrote, with only a curtain between them. On occasion they took breaks from the arduous task, sometimes going to the river and throwing stones. Once Martin found a rock closely resembling the seerstone Joseph sometimes used in place of the interpreters and substituted it without the Prophet’s knowledge. When the translation resumed, Joseph paused for a long time and then exclaimed, “Martin, what is the matter, all is as dark as Egypt.” Martin then confessed that he wished to “stop the mouths of fools” who told him that the Prophet memorized sentences and merely repeated them.[5]


Palmyra Courier: Martin Harris was "quite skeptical, as well as superstitious"

One late, hostile reminiscence from Palmyra described Harris as "quite skeptical," but also "superstitious." What qualified Harris as "superstitious"? The author says:

believing in miracles, wonderful dreams, spiritual interposition, special providences, &c.[6]

Thus, Harris' "superstition" comes from his belief in God's ability to reveal things and to act in the present day. This flew in the face of the idea that God had finished speaking or acting. Despite this, however, the hostile source still saw Harris as "quite skeptical." Thus, charges of "superstition" must be seen as a critique of Harris' religion views--that God could and did continue to take an active role in revealing and acting in the present--not an admission that Harris was foolish, or would believe "any old thing."

The same source continued:

Yet only his this [believing Joseph Smith's teachings] was Martin deemed insane; on other subjects he exhibited all of his former clearness of brain; he could drive a good bargain, and manage his farming matters as well as ever....[7]

So, Harris' supposed gullibility applies only to his belief in Mormonism. This is part of what mystified his contemporaries--how could a man so skeptical and worldly-wise in business believe Joseph? But, their confusion demonstrates that Martin was not generally seen as gullible or an easy mark.


Question: Did Charles Anthon validate the characters that Martin Harris brought to him that had been copied from the Book of Mormon plates?

If Anthon did not validate the characters, then why did Martin Harris immediately return home and finance the Book of Mormon?

If Charles Anthon really did tell Martin that the characters and translation were bogus, it would therefore be very strange for Martin Harris to immediately return home, help Joseph translate the Book of Mormon, provide funds, and eventually mortgage his farm to help print it.

On the other hand, Anthon clearly had no desire to have his name associated with "Mormonism," and so he has clear motives to alter the story after the fact.[8]

Martin Harris said that Anton validated the characters

Martin Harris' account of the visit to Charles Anthon was included in Joseph Smith's 1838 history:

64 I went to the city of New York, and presented the characters which had been translated, with the translation thereof, to Professor Charles Anthon, a gentleman celebrated for his literary attainments. Professor Anthon stated that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian. I then showed him those which were not yet translated, and he said that they were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic; and he said they were true characters. He gave me a certificate, certifying to the people of Palmyra that they were true characters, and that the translation of such of them as had been translated was also correct. I took the certificate and put it into my pocket, and was just leaving the house, when Mr. Anthon called me back, and asked me how the young man found out that there were gold plates in the place where he found them. I answered that an angel of God had revealed it unto him. 65 He then said to me, 'Let me see that certificate.' I accordingly took it out of my pocket and gave it to him, when he took it and tore it to pieces, saying that there was no such thing now as ministering of angels, and that if I would bring the plates to him he would translate them. I informed him that part of the plates were sealed, and that I was forbidden to bring them. He replied, 'I cannot read a sealed book.' I left him and went to Dr. Mitchell, who sanctioned what Professor Anthon had said respecting both the characters and the translation.(Joseph Smith History 1:64–65).

Anthon denied that he had ever validated the characters and translation, but his two accounts contradict one another

Anthon denied that he had ever validated either the characters or Joseph's translation, though his two written accounts contradict each other on key points.[9] For example:

  • in his first letter, Anthon refuses to give Harris a written opinion
  • in his second letter, Anthon claims that he wrote his opinion "without any hesitation" because he wished to expose what he was certain was a fraud.

A clue as to what Anthon said may be found in Martin Harris' reaction. Martin committed himself to financing the translation of the Book of Mormon.

Notes

  1. Martin Harris, interview with Joel Tiffany, 1859, in "Mormonism—No. II," Tiffanys Monthly (August 1859): 163-70; in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:309.
  2. Millennial Star 44:87; quotation from Kenneth W. Godfrey, "A New Prophet and a New Scripture: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon," Ensign (January 1988), 6. off-site
  3. David Whitmer, interview with Chicago Times (August 1875); cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:21-22.
  4. David Whitmer, Interview with Edward Stevenson, Journal, 28:123-130, entry of 2 January 1887, LDS Church Archives (spelling, capitalization, and punctuation modernized); original cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 5:187.
  5. Kenneth W. Godfrey, "A New Prophet and a New Scripture: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon," Ensign (January 1988).
  6. [James H. Reeves], "Old Newspapers--No. 24," Palmyra Courier (24 May 1872); in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:341.
  7. [James H. Reeves], "Old Newspapers--No. 24," Palmyra Courier (24 May 1872); in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:341-342.
  8. John W. Welch, "What did Charles Anthon Really Say?," in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, edited by John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1992), 47–49. GL direct link
  9. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 65–66.

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