It seems that I’ll be doing a fireside on Monday evening, 14 September 2020, on the Witnesses to the Book of Mormon. It will be primarily for a Young Single Adults stake in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, but it also may involve other stakes in Lethbridge and even, perhaps, in Calgary. As I’m currently thinking about them, my remarks will be quite distinct from the Witnesses-focused fireside (“The Witnesses: Variety and Complexity”) that I gave a while back to the Latter-day Saint Institute of Religion at Stanford University.
Here is a passage from a speech given by Elder Orson Pratt of the Council of the Twelve. It was delivered in the “new tabernacle” in Salt Lake City on the afternoon of Sunday, 18 July 1875, just a few days after the death of Martin Harris in Clarkston, Utah, to the north, on 10 July 1875. Elder Pratt had known the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, including Martin Harris, for decades:
Now let me say a few words concerning the nature of this testimony. This testimony was given prior to the publication of the book, and also previous to the organization of the Latter-day Saint Church. The book was printed early in 1830, with their testimony. Thus you perceive that this work, this marvelous work, was not presented to the inhabitants of the earth for their belief, until God had favored them with four persons who could bear witness to what their eyes had seen, what their ears had heard, and what their hands had handled, consequently there was no possibility, so far as these four men were concerned, that they themselves could be deceived. It would be impossible for four men to be together, and all of them to be deceived in seeing an angel descend from heaven, and in regard to the brightness of his countenance and the glory of his person, hearing his voice, and seeing him lay his hands upon one of them, namely David Whitmer, and speaking these words—”Blessed be the Lord and they who keep his commandments.” After seeing the plates, the engravings upon them, and the angel, and hearing the voice of the Lord out of heaven, every person will say that there was no possibility of either of these men being deceived in relation to this matter; in other words, if it were to be maintained that in their case it was a hallucination of the brain, and that they were deceived, then, with the same propriety might it be asserted that all other men, in every age, who profess to have seen angels, were also deceived; and this might be applied to the Prophets, Patriarchs, Apostles, and others who lived in ancient times, who declared they saw angels, as well as to Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer. But says the objector—”No, those who testify that they saw angels anciently were not deceived, but they who come testifying about such ministrations in the latter days may be deceived.” Now let me ask, is there anything logical in such reasoning as this? If these, in the latter days, who testify to having seen angels, were deceived, all who testify to the same things in former days might have been deceived on the same grounds. And then, if these men, whose testimonies are attached to the Book of Mormon, were not deceived, it must be admitted that they were impostors of the most barefaced character, or else that the Book of Mormon is a divine record sent from heaven; one or the other must be admitted, there is no halfway in the matter. If they were not deceived—which they could not possibly have been according to the very nature of their testimony—then there are only two alternatives—they were impostors, or else the Book of Mormon is a divine revelation from heaven.
Now let us inquire what grounds there are to suppose that they were impostors? Forty-six years have passed away since this angel appeared and showed the plates to these individuals. Has anything transpired during this time that would give us any grounds to suppose that they were impostors? For instance, has either of these witnesses, or the translator of the engravings on the plates, ever, under any circumstances, denied his testimony? No. We have some accounts in the Bible of men of God, some of the greatest men that lived in ancient times, denying the things of God. We read of Peter cursing, and swearing that he never knew Jesus, and yet he was one of the foremost of the Apostles. His testimony was true so far as seeing and being acquainted with Jesus was concerned, and in regard to the divinity of Jesus. Why? Because God had revealed it to him and yet he denied it. “Blessed art thou, Simon Barjonah,” said Jesus, speaking to Peter, “for flesh and blood have not revealed this unto thee, but my Father who is in heaven.” Peter knew, just as well as he knew that he had a being, that Jesus was the son of God, it had been revealed to him from the heavens and though he afterwards, through fear, in the presence of the high priest, cursed and swore and denied it, yet the former testimony that he had given was true.
Now did either of these three men or did the translator of the Book of Mormon, ever deny the truth, as Peter did? Did they ever in any way deny the divinity of the Book of Mormon? Never, no never. Whatever the circumstances they were placed in, however much they were mobbed and ridiculed, however much they suffered by the persecution of their enemies, their testimony all the time was—”We saw the angel of God, we beheld him in his glory, we saw the plates in his hands, and the engravings thereon, and we know that the Book of Mormon is true.” Joseph Smith continued to bear this testimony until the day of his death; be sealed his testimony as a martyr in this Church, being shot down by his enemies, who were blackened up and disguised, in order that they might not be known. Oliver Cowdery did not live his faith as he should have done, and he was excommunicated from this Church during Joseph’s lifetime. Did he still continue to hold fast to his testimony? He did. Never was he known to swerve from it in the least degree; and after being out of the Church several years, he returned to Council Bluffs, where there was a Branch of the Church, and at a conference he acknowledged his sins, and humbly asked the Church to forgive him, bearing his testimony to the sacred things recorded in the Book of Mormon—that he saw the angel and the plates, just according to the testimony to which he had appended his name. He was rebaptized a member of the Church, and soon after departed this life.
Martin Harris did not follow up this people in the State of Missouri, neither did he follow us up to the State of Illinois; but we often heard of him, and whenever we did so we heard of him telling, in public and in private of the great vision that God had shown to him concerning the divinity of the Book of Mormon. A few years ago he came to this Territory, an old man, between eighty and ninety years of age, and spoke from this stand, in the hearing of the people. He then located himself in Cache County, in the northern part of the Territory, where he continued to live until last Saturday, when he departed this life in his ninety-third year—a good old age. Did he continue to bear testimony all that length of time—over forty-six years of his life? Did he, at any time during that long period, waver in the least degree from his testimony? Not at all. He had a great many follies and imperfections, like all other people, like the ancient Apostles, like Elijah the Prophet, but after all, he continued to testify to the very last concerning the truth of this work. Nothing seemed to delight him so much as to tell about the angel and the plates that he had seen. It was only a short time prior to his death that one of our Bishops went in to see the old man; his pulse was apparently sluggish in its movements, and nearly gone, but the sight of the Bishop seemed to revive him, and he said to him—”I am going.” The Bishop related to him some things which he thought would be interesting, among them that the Book of Mormon was translated into the Spanish language, for the benefit of a great many of the descendants of Israel in this country, who understand the Spanish language, in Mexico and Central America. This intelligence seemed to revive the old man, and he began to talk about the Book of Mormon; new strength, apparently, was imparted to him, and he continued his conversation for some two hours, and in his last testimony he bore record concerning the divinity of the work, and was rejoiced to think that it was going forth in another language, that those who understood that language might be made acquainted with the wonderful works of God. (Journal of Discourses 18:158-160)