When modern Latter-day Saints think of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, it’s likely that the men whose names most commonly come to mind are Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer — the “Three Witnesses.” And, because seven of the “Eight Witnesses” were surnamed either “Whitmer” or “Smith,” we tend to hear a little bit about them, as well.
But also included on the list of the eight men who bore testimony that they had both “seen” and “handled” the gold plates and who affirmed that they had been shown “the engravings thereon” is the name of Hiram Page, an early member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who has been largely forgotten today. Even his burial place, located near Excelsior Springs, Missouri, is obscure and difficult to find; in fact, it was altogether lost until its relocation in 2000.
To the extent that Hiram Page is still remembered and discussed, he tends to be mentioned in connection with his brief August-September 1830 experience of using a “seer stone” in order to seek guidance on behalf of the newly organized church. This led to the important revelation known today as Doctrine and Covenants 28, which not only condemned the messages received by Page as satanic but, perhaps still more significantly, established the principle (vital to the unity and order of the kingdom) that only one person at any given time is authorized to obtain revelation on behalf of the Church as a whole.
However, there is much more to Hiram Page’s story than that.
Born around 1800 in Vermont, he was roughly five years older than the Prophet Joseph Smith. He earned his living mostly by farming, but he had also studied a bit of medicine and, with that background, occasionally practiced as a frontier physician. In November 1825, he married Catherine Whitmer, the daughter of Peter Whitmer Sr. and Mary Musselman Whitmer, a relationship that would shortly bring him into contact with Joseph Smith and the early Restoration. (Mary Whitmer herself eventually became an unofficial witness to the Book of Mormon: see this previous column "Mary Whitmer, 12th witness to the Book of Mormon" on deseretnews.com.) Thus, by marriage, Hiram Page was also a member of the Whitmer family.
In June 1829, in company with three members of the Smith family and four of his Whitmer in-laws, Hiram had the experience with the gold plates that made him one of the official Book of Mormon witnesses.
Life was far from easy, however, for many early members of the Church. Hiram Page and his family moved from New York to Ohio, and then from Ohio to Missouri. On Oct. 31, 1833, a mob of approximately 40 anti-Mormon vigilantes beat him so badly that his wife and children, forced at gunpoint to watch the violence, feared that he would die before it ended. (At least one historian has suggested that his injuries may, in fact, have contributed to his relatively early death.) One account says that Hiram’s attackers stopped beating him only when some of them refused to continue, realizing that he would plainly give up his life rather than deny his faith. (A severe thrashing was one thing, but, for at least a few of them, murder was another.)
Violent persecution, however, wasn’t the only stress to which Hiram Page and other church members were subjected. And when, amidst the financial and other controversies that engulfed the Saints after 1837, members of the Whitmer family were excommunicated, Hiram Page, too, left the Church with his large family. Although he does not seem to have been excommunicated himself, there is no record of his participation with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after 1838. He and his family relocated to a farm near Excelsior Springs, where he died on Aug. 12, 1852.
Still, although Hiram Page left the Church, he never abandoned his testimony of the Book of Mormon. Clear evidence of this appears in his continued involvement, with William E. McLellin and his Whitmer in-laws, in movements based upon the book.
In 1888, nearly four decades after Hiram Page’s death, his son Philander, unaffiliated with any branch of Mormonism, was interviewed regarding his father: "I knew my father,” he said, “to be true and faithful to his testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon until the very last. Whenever he had an opportunity to bear his testimony to this effect, he would always do so, and seemed to rejoice exceedingly in having been privileged to see the plates and thus become one of the Eight Witnesses" (see "Historical Record, Vol. 7," by Andrew Jenson, published in 1888, p. 614).
Lead image of the eight witnesses to gold plates from the Deseret News archives
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.