Somewhere in every Book of Mormon that has ever been printed one may read the testimony of eleven men who saw the gold plates1 from which it was printed. The names signed there include the names of almost every man over twenty connected with the giving to the world of that mysterious book. This privilege was limited necessarily to the several families who had part in the work. Joseph had intrusted his secret fully to no one except the members of his own family, the Whitmer family, and his two friends, Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery.
One day in that memorable month of June, 1829, as he was working on the translation in the presence of those usually in the room and also Martin Harris, who frequently made the twentyfive-mile trip from his home in Palmyra to watch the progress of the work, they discovered that three special witnesses were to be chosen, who would eventually see not only the plates, but the angel who had first shown them to Joseph. Immediately Harris, Cowdery, and David Whitmer began to importune him for the honor, and no others had so certainly earned the distinction. Joseph consented to place the matter before the Lord, and the four accordingly withdrew to the woods, which previously had been the sanctuary of the young prophet on more than one occasion. Here kneeling in the solitude of the forest, each man prayed in turn, that they might be blessed by the vision promised to "three others." But as the last voice died out in the stillness of the forest, nothing happened. Joseph Smith prayed again; each of the others followed in turn. Again, the silence of the dim forest was their only answer.
Slowly Martin Harris rose, the man to whom this vision would have meant more than to all others, and told them be must be the cause of their disappointment, and offered to withdraw. When he had gone, and each man prayed again, in turn, Joseph tells us:
We . . . had not been many minutes engaged in prayer when presently we beheld a light above us in the air of exceeding brightness, and behold an angel stood before us; in his hands he held the plates which we had been praying for these to have a view of: he turned over the leaves one by one, so that we could see them, and discover the engravings thereon distinctly. He addressed himself to David Whitmer, and said, "David, blessed is the Lord, and he that keeps his commandments." When immediately afterwards, we heard a voice from out of the bright light above us, saying, "These plates have been revealed by the power of God, and they have been translated by the power of God; the translation of them which you have seen is correct, and I command you to bear record of what you now see and hear."2
More than once in the many interviews David Whitmer gave to the public, he has described this scene even more minutely.
It was June, 1829, the latter part of the month . . . the angel showed us the plates. 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 of the world and the 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 around 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 and plates upon it, besides the plates of the Book of Mormon, also the sword of Laban, the directors, and the interpreters. I saw them as plain as I see this bed [striking the bed beside him with his hand] and I heard the voice of the Lord just as distinctly as I ever heard anything in my life, declaring that the records of the Book of Mormon were translated by the gift and power of God. . . . Our testimony as recorded in the Book of Mormon is strictly and absolutely true, just as it is here written.3
Six years later, in another interview he said:
In June, 1829, I saw the angel by the power of God. Joseph, Oliver, and I were alone, and a light from heaven shone round us, and solemnity pervaded our minds. The angel appeared in the light, as near as that young man (within five or six feet). Between us and the angel there appeared a table, and there lay upon it the Sword of Laban, the Ball of Directors, the Record and the Interpreters. The angel took the record and turned the leaves, and showed it to us by the power of God. . . . My testimony in the Book of Mormon is true; I can't deviate from it.4
Immediately after, Joseph went in search of his friend Martin and found the old man in the woods praying alone. Joseph joined him, and the vision seen by Whitmer and Cowdery was repeated.
Two or three days after this, Joseph showed the plates to eight others, his father, Joseph, Sr.; his two brothers, Hyrum and Samuel Harrison Smith; David Whitmer's four brothers, Christian, Peter, Jacob, and John, and brother-in-law, Hiram Page.
From that day, Harris, Whitmer, and Cowdery looked back upon that scene in the woods as the supreme hour of their lives; they felt that the sharing of that unusual privilege had bound them together with an insoluble tie, as Oliver Cowdery said six years later in his charge to newly ordained Twelve Apostles, "You are bound together as the three witnesses were; you, notwithstanding can part and meet, and meet and part again, until your heads are silvered over with age."
These men were not visionary in the ordinary sense of the term. They were not given to seeing remarkable, supernatural things. One of them, Oliver Cowdery, practiced law practically all his life. As years passed, all three became estranged from Joseph Smith and the church he organized, and yet they all affirmed and reaffirmed their knowledge of the events that occurred at the beginning of his ministry and the principles they all once believed. Their paths separated far, but they held firm to their testimony.
Oliver Cowdery went back to Ohio in 1838 and entered the practice of law. He is said never to have spoken to his business associates of his connection with Joseph Smith, hiding his disappointments in his own heart, but ten years later at a conference at Council Bluffs, Iowa, touched by a spark of the old-time fire we hear him saying:
Friends and Brethren, my name is Cowdery--Oliver Cowdery. In the early history of this church I stood identified with her, and one in her councils. True it is that the gifts and callings of God are without repentance. Not because I was better than the rest of mankind was I called; but, to fulfill the purposes of God, he called me to a high and holy calling. I wrote with my own pen, the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages), as it fell from the lips of the Prophet Joseph Smith, as he translated it by the gift and power of God, by the means of the Urim and Thummim, or, as it is called by that book, "holy interpreters." I beheld with my eyes and handled with my hands the gold plates from which it was translated. I also saw with my eyes and handled with my hands the "holy interpreters." That book is true. Sidney Rigdon did not write it. Mr. Spaulding did not write it. I wrote it myself as it fell from the lips of the Prophet.5
On the 31st of March, 1850, at the home of his old friend David Whitmer, now for many years his brother-in-law (for Oliver had married the youngest of the Whitmers, Elizabeth Ann), Oliver Cowdery died. His last words were, "Brother David, be true to your testimony to the Book of Mormon."6
Martin Harris, still a prosperous farmer, resided on a farm near Kirtland for many years. Finally in 1870 he joined members of his own family in Utah and died there July 10, 1875, a very old
man.7 His son says his last words concerned the Book of Mormon. He had previously testified many times, "The angel did show to me the plates containing the Book of Mormon."8
David Whitmer, the young man to whom the angel addressed himself in 1829 in the Fayette woods lived on for many years, the last remaining witness to the Book of Mormon. He resided in the same town, Richmond, Missouri, for about half a century, one of the most remarkable men ever connected with the history of Ray County. "No man ever lived here who had more friends and fewer enemies. Honest, conscientious, and upright in all his dealings, just in his estimate of men, and open, manly, and frank in his treatment of all, he made lasting friends who loved him to the end."9 He gave many interviews and wrote many letters. It would take a book to hold them all. When E. C. Brand visited him on the 8th of February, 1875, David Whitmer, then a white-haired old man told him he would rather suffer death than deny his testimony. "I did see the angel of God," he said "and was commanded to testify concerning these things, and they are true."10 A month later he wrote to Mark H. Forscutt.11 (See reproduction, page 75.)
An editorial in the Chicago Times, December 15, 1885, asks:
Do people in general want to know the truth about Joseph Smith? . . . Apparently they do not. . . . At last accounts, David Whitmer, the last of the original testifiers of the existence of the golden plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated, was approaching death at his home in Richmond, Missouri. He went to that state over forty years ago. . . . His neighbors of every sort of political and religious predelictions unite in giving him an exceedingly high character for honesty, truthfulness, and courage. No man, it is said, ever doubted his word in regard to any ordinary matter. Why should not the testimony of a man so truthful, so honest, so courageous, be accepted in relation to the golden plates and the character of the man who professed to find them?12
Whitmer did not die at that time, but as his few remaining years passed, and he knew he had not long to live, he wrote the inscription, "The record of the Jews, and the record of the Nephites are one. Truth is eternal," to be placed on his tombstone, which he designed to be an everlasting memorial, of what he had loved to declare upon earth. He died at Richmond, January 25, 1888, reaffirming his life-long testimony with almost his dying breath.
Over half a century before, he had heard an angel speak. He had never forgotten those words: "David, blessed is the Lord and he that keeps his commandments." No other words on earth had ever sounded so sweet to him. He asked that his funeral sermon be preached from Revelation 22, "Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city."
Richmond, Missouri, March 2d, 1875.
Mr. Mark H. Forscutt
My testimony to the world is written concerning the Book of Mormon, and it is the same that I gave at first and it is the same as shall stand to my latest hour in life, linger with me in death and shine as gospel truth beyond the limits of life, among the tribunals of heaven, ana [that] the nations of the earth will have known too late the divine truth written on the pages of that book is the only sorrow of this servant of the Almighty Father.
1 THE TESTIMONY OF 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 shewn 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.
AND ALSO THE TESTIMONY OF EIGHT WITNESSES:
Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come, that Joseph Smith, Jr., the translator of this work, hath shewn unto us the plates of which hath been spoken, which have the appearance of gold; and as many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated, we did handle with out hands: and we also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship. And this we bear record with words of soberness, that the said Smith has shewn unto us, for we have seen and hefted, and know of a surety, that the said Smith has got the plates of which we have spoken. And we give our names unto the world, to witness unto the world that which we have seen; and we lie not, God bearing witness of it.
Peter Whitmer, Jr.
Joseph Smith, Sen.
Samuel H. Smith
2 Times and Seasons, Volume 3, page 898.
3 Interview given by David Whjtmer in a hotel in Richmond, Missouri, in the presence of a number of witnesses on September 7, 1878. L. D. S. Biographical Encyclopedia, page 266. Saints' Herald, Volume 28, page 198.
4 Interview with E. C. Briggs and R. Etzenhouser at Richmond, Missouri, April 25, 1884. Saints' Herald, Volume 31, page 396.
5 Myth of Manuscript Found, by George Reynolds, pages 79, 80.
6 David Whitmer's Address to All Believers in Christ, page 8.
7 "The Ogden Junction," quoted in Saints' Herald, Volume 22, page 542.
8 Church History, Volume 1, page 51.
9 Richmond Democrat, January 26, 1888, quoted in Saints' Herald, Volume 35, page 94.
10 Mark H. Forscutt's scrapbook, page 18. Heman C. Smith collection. Original pasted in book.
11 Mark H. Forscutt's scrapbook, pages 16, 17. Heman C. Smith collection. Original Pasted in book. 12 Chicago Sunday Times for December 15, 1885, republished in Saints' Herald, Volume 33, page 1.