The official story of The Testimony of Three Witnesses is one of the most recited in all of Mormonism. It certainly appears to be an extraordinary story (it used to be an important part of the foundation of my faith) but, it’s far from unique.
Martin Harris was one of the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon, but he didn’t stay in the Mormon Church for long. Of the many religions to which Martin belonged1, one of them was the Shakers. Similar to Mormonism, the Shakers had a sacred book2 that was revealed to eight women by an angel. Each witness recorded her own version of what she saw and then signed this statement:
We, the undersigned, hereby testify, that we saw the Angel, standing upon the house-top, as mentioned in the foregoing declaration, holding the Roll and Book.
Martin believed this deeply. In fact, Phineas Young, Brigham’s older brother, once wrote of Martin’s faith in Shakerism:
Martin Harris is a firm believer in Shakerism, says his testimony is greater than it was of the Book of Mormon
Surely the Three Witnesses’ and the eight Shakers’ experiences are mutually exclusive3, so the obvious question is: What reason do we have to trust one over the other?
Daniel C. Peterson argued that the eight Shakers’ experience isn’t a good comparison with the Three Witnesses because…
“…the quantity of witnesses has little meaning if those witnesses afterwards admit that they were wrong. Unlike the Book of Mormon, the Shaker Roll and Book afterwards fell into discredit and dishonor among the Shakers themselves and was abandoned by its leaders and most believers, while the Book of Mormon continued to be a vitally important part of Mormon scripture to which each of the witnesses, including Martin Harris, continued to testify, even while outside of the Church.”
— Peterson, Daniel C.
“Kurt Van Gorden, Mormonism,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 1989–2011: Vol. 8 : No. 1 , Article 10.
Mr. Peterson is essentially arguing that the fact that there are lots of believers in the Book of Mormon makes its origin story more believable. And his claim that Shakerism abandoned the Roll and Book makes the origin story less believable. I see two problems with this argument:
- As far as I can tell, the 8 Shakers didn’t admit that they were wrong. They never denied their experience — never said that they were lying. That fact actually makes the Eight Shakers’ Experience a very good comparison with the Three Witnesses’ testimony. (Harris, Cowdery, and Whitmer each eventually abandoned and harshly criticized Mormonism, yet never denied that their experience took place.)
- There are lots of other books held as sacred by their religions that also have fantastical origin stories (e.g. Quran was supposedly revealed to Muhammed by an angel). That doesn’t mean that they’re “true”.
Quite simply, the number of believers in something has no bearing upon whether or not that thing is true.
Such experiences with the supernatural and the divine were common in Martin Harris’s time. Here are a few other examples:
At length, as I lay apparently upon the brink of eternal woe, seeing nothing but death before me, suddenly there came a sweet flow of the love of God to my soul, which gradually increased. At the same time, there appeared a small gleam of light in the room, above the brightness of the sun, then at his meridian, which grew brighter and brighter… At length, being in an ecstasy of joy, I turned to the other side of the bed, (whether in the body or out I cannot tell, God knoweth) there I saw two spirits, which I knew at the first sight. But if I had the tongue of an Angel I could not describe their glory, for they brought the joys of heaven with them. One was God, my Maker, almost in bodily shape like a man. His face was, as it were a flame of Fire, and his body, as it had been a Pillar and a Cloud. In looking steadfastly to discern features, could see none, but a small glimpse would appear in some other place. Below him stood Jesus Christ my Redeemer, in perfect shape like a man—His face was not ablaze, but had the countenance of fire, being bright and shining. His Father’s will appeared to be his! All was condescension, peace, and love!
I went into the woods … a light appeared from heaven … My mind seemed to rise in that light to the throne of God and the Lamb … The Lamb once slain appeared to my understanding, and while viewing him, I felt such love to him as I never felt to any thing earthly … It is not possible for me to tell how long I remained in that situation
…when I came to the place of prayer, had kneeled down and closed my eyes, with my hands uplifted toward the heavens, I saw Jesus Christ at the right hand of God looking down upon me, and God the Father looking upon him. The look of Jesus on me removed the burden of my sins, while he spoke these words, “Be faithful unto death and this shall be thy place of rest.
These sound a lot like Joseph Smith’s First Vision to me. Interestingly, the first two predate the Mormon founder’s experience. Hibbard’s was recorded after the time that Joseph claimed to have his vision, but before any record was made of it4.
There are many other experiences like these from the day.
The existence of these experiences, creates a dilemma for believers because they only have three options:
- Believe the Mormons but not the Others: Of course, this position isn’t logically consistent unless you can somehow identify meaningful differences between the two groups’ accounts. Apologists like Daniel C. Peterson (see above) attempt to take this strategy.
- Believe All of Them: This is the most common position for the believer to take. (It’s also the position of this apologetic article.) The problem is that it is a double standard to believe their experiences and yet reject the books of scripture, the creeds, and the religions that resulted from them5. (The eight Shaker women claimed that the angel presented to them a book a scripture, which is the foundation of the Shaker religion. Similarly, Norris Stearns claimed that by his vision, God called him to be a prophet and then revealed a book of scripture to him6.)
- Believe None of Them: The most likely conclusion is that all of the accounts are made up — that there’s nothing supernatural about them but that they are a curious, yet common part of the human experience.
There’s no easy way around it. Because miraculous accounts were common in the early 1800s, there are no logically consistent, faithful explanations for the Three Witnesses’ experience.
But then what happened? Well, here’s my opinion:
- Before joining the Mormon Church, Martin Harris was a Quaker, a Universalist, a Restorationist, a Baptist, a Presbyterian, and perhaps a Methodist. After leaving Mormonism, he became a Strangite, Whitmerite, Gladdenite, Williamite, Shaker, and finally Mormon again just before his death (Walker 1986).
- Their sacred text was called A Holy Sacred and Divine Roll and Book. Here’s a copy.
- If both experiences are factual then we have two sacred texts and two true religions that conflict with one another.
- The similarities between these stories and even the language are stark (e.g. “gradually increased”, “above the brightness of the sun”, “I could not describe their glory”, “I saw Jesus Christ at the right hand of God”). Surprisingly, there are some apologists who use this fact in an attempt to bolster their claims in Joseph’s vision saying, that the many other similar visions are evidence that God was about to bring about His true church (LDS Living). (Of course, they are selective in this regard since I’m sure they don’t accept Stearns’s scripture or his claims to be a prophet.)
Another interesting thing to note about these visions is the fact that they claim to have seen God and Jesus as separate beings. Mormons frequently claim that Joseph’s vision was the first time that the concept was introduced. Of course, that is not true.
- One of the most common lines of logic in Mormonism is: pray to God and ask Him if the Book of Mormon is true; if it’s true, then you know that this is His church.
- Stearns’s book of scripture can be found here. In the preface, he wrote: “Care has been taken, that nothing should be written, but by the immediate command of the Lord; whose Servant and Prophet I am. I give account before God, and know that my Testimony is true: My Father and his Holy Angels bear witness of it…”.