The Law of Witnesses
There is a law definitely stated in the scriptures governing testimony and the appointment of witnesses. This law the Lord has always followed in granting new revelation to the people.
-Joseph Fielding Smith
If we had perfect records of all ages, we would find that whenever the Lord has established a dispensation, there has been more than one witness to testify for him.
-Joseph Fielding Smith
2 Corinthians 13:1
In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “we believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” (Articles of Faith 1:9). This is to say that while there is much we do not yet know, the truths and doctrine we have received have come and will continue to come by divine revelation…It is a process involving both reason and faith for obtaining the mind and will of the Lord.4 At the same time it should be remembered that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the Church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “a prophet [is] a prophet only when he [is] acting as such.”
-D. Todd Christofferson Reference A
Why is the law of witnesses important to the process of revelation? How can we differentiate between well-considered opinions and doctrines?
When Joseph Smith first received the gold plates that contained the Book of Mormon, he was not authorized to share them with others. However, the Book of Mormon itself foretold that others would have the opportunity to view the book.
2 Nephi 27:12-14
12 Wherefore, at that day when the book shall be delivered unto the man of whom I have spoken, the book shall be hid from the eyes of the world, that the eyes of none shall behold it save it be that athree bwitnesses shall behold it, by the power of God, besides him to whom the book shall be delivered; and they shall testify to the truth of the book and the things therein.
13 And there is anone other which shall view it, save it be a few according to the will of God, to bear testimony of his word unto the children of men; for the Lord God hath said that the words of the faithful should speak as if it were bfrom the dead.
14 Wherefore, the Lord God will proceed to bring forth the words of the book; and in the mouth of as many witnesses as seemeth him good will he establish his word; and wo be unto him that arejecteth the word of God!
The first person who had the privilege of witnessing the gold plates was Mary Whitmer. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were staying at the Whitmer home while translating the gold plates. Joseph translated and Oliver served as his scribe full-time while the Whitmer family provided for all of their temporal needs.
In the peace of the Whitmer farm, the work of translation moved rapidly. Joseph and Oliver were free to devote all their time and energy to the translating process because of the Whitmers’ kindness in providing for their temporal needs. However, this placed a great burden on Mother Whitmer. Although she never complained, she must have wondered why she was required to make such a sacrifice of her time and work. One evening after finishing her many duties in the home, she walked out to milk the cows. A stranger approached her and said, “You have been very faithful and diligent in your labors, but you are tired because of the increase of your toil; it is proper therefore that you should receive a witness that your faith may be strengthened.” 7He untied the knapsack on his back and removed the gold plates, then turned over the plates, leaf by leaf. Pointing out the engravings upon them, he told her to be patient in bearing her burden a little longer and promised her that if she endured in faith to the end, her reward would be sure. With her faith fortified, she found that she now could perform her many duties with relative ease and that any inclination she had “to murmur because her lot was hard” was gone forever. Her grandson, John C. Whitmer, concluded the account by stating that she was a strong believer in the Book of Mormon to the day of her death. Reference B
Can you think of any other scriptural or church history examples when women were early witnesses?
The Testimonies of Witnesses
Before the first edition of the Book of Mormon was published, Joseph Smith was authorized to allow others to view the gold plates who would write written testimonies of their authenticity to be included in the opening pages of the book. These 11 witnesses included five sons of Mary Whitmer, one son-in-law, and one future son-in-law. Reference C
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 shown 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.
Martin Harris Reference D
Testimony of Eight Witnesses
Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That Joseph Smith, Jun., the translator of this work, has shown 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 our 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 shown 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, Jun.
Joseph Smith, Sen.
Samuel H. Smith Reference E
Joseph Smith … was alone in the first vision, alone when Moroni brought the message to him, alone when he received the plates; but after that he was not alone. The Lord called other witnesses. Grandmother Smith [Joseph Smith’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith] in her history says that the Prophet came home weeping for joy after the witnesses had beheld the plates under the direction of an angel of God, because, he said, “The load has been lifted and I am no longer alone.”
-Joseph Fielding Smith
Like Mary Whitmer, Emma Smith also made many sacrifices to facilitate the translation of the Book of Mormon. Unlike Mary, Emma was not privileged to witness the gold plates. A revelation given to Emma and recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants hints that not being allowed to view the plates may have been hard for Emma:
However, she did have access to the gold plates, and obediently withstood any temptation to look at them:
The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen tablecloth, which I had given him [Joseph Smith, Jr.] to fold them in. I once felt of the plates, as they thus lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book. … I did not attempt to handle the plates, other than I have told you, nor uncover them to look at them. I was satisfied that it was the work of God, and therefore did not feel it to be necessary to do so. … I moved them from place to place on the table, as it was necessary in doing my work.
–Emma Smith Reference F
Not seeing the gold plates did not prevent Emma Smith from having a firm testimony of their authenticity, as she explained to her son:
My belief is that the Book of Mormon is of divine authenticity—I have not the slightest doubt of it. I am satisfied that no man could have dictated the writing of the manuscripts unless he was inspired; for, when acting as his scribe, your father would dictate to me hour after hour; and when returning after meals, or after interruptions, he would at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him. This was a usual thing for him to do. It would have been improbable that a learned man could do this; and, for one so ignorant and unlearned as he was, it was simply impossible.
-Emma Smith Reference G
The scriptures teach that some people will not have the opportunity to gain a perfect knowledge, but rather to believe on others’ words:
14 To others it is given to abelieve on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.
What can we learn from the example of Emma Smith?
The Book of Mormon as a Witness
This new volume of scripture was to be a witness, not only for Christ and to contain the everlasting Gospel, but was also to be a witness for the Jewish scriptures—the Bible; and these two records—according to the prophesying of Nephi, his father, and also Joseph, son of Israel—were to grow together bearing testimony of the everlasting gospel [see 2 Nephi 3:11–13; 29:10–14]. As such a witness these records stand today testifying of the truth to the condemnation of all who reject their teachings.6
-Joseph Fielding Smith
3 And because my words shall hiss forth—many of the Gentiles shall say: A aBible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible.
8 Wherefore murmur ye, because that ye shall receive more of my word? Know ye not that the atestimony of btwo nations is acwitness unto you that I am God, that I remember one dnationlike unto another? Wherefore, I speak the same words unto one nation like unto another. And when the two enations shall run together the testimony of the two nations shall run together also.
Why do we need the Book of Mormon as a witness to the Bible?
Each member of the Church can be a witness of the Book of Mormon.
I know that the testimony of these [three] witnesses recorded in each copy of the Book of Mormon is true, that they stood in the presence of an angel of God who declared unto them that the record as it was translated was correct, that their testimony that God spoke to them from the heavens calling upon them to bear witness of that fact is true, and there is not a soul who cannot receive that testimony if he desires to receive it, by reading this book prayerfully and faithfully, with a desire to know the truth as Moroni has declared by revelation. He shall know the truth regarding the restoration of this scripture given to the ancient inhabitants of this continent.
-Joseph Fielding Smith
How have you gained a testimony of the Book of Mormon? What can you do to share this witness?