In a talk given in the May 1999 general conference, President Dallin H. Oaks said of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon:
The testimony of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon stands forth in great strength. Each of the three had ample reason and opportunity to renounce his testimony if it had been false, or to equivocate on details if any had been inaccurate. As is well known, because of disagreements or jealousies involving other leaders of the Church, each one of these three witnesses was excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by about eight years after the publication of their testimony. All three went their separate ways, with no common interest to support a collusive effort. Yet to the end of their lives—periods ranging from 12 to 50 years after their excommunications—not one of these witnesses deviated from his published testimony or said anything that cast any shadow on its truthfulness.
Why were these Three Witnesses, Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer excommunicated? And when, if ever, did they come back to the Church? A new movie in theaters now, Witnesses, tells the story of these three men in detail. On this week’s episode of All In, host Morgan Jones spoke with the film’s executive producer, Daniel Peterson, a scholar and professor at Brigham Young University, about the witnesses—what led them out of the Church and, in some cases, what caused them to ultimately come back to the Church.
The following excerpt has been edited for clarity.
Morgan Jones: One thing that I also didn't know is that they were excommunicated and all three left the Church at some point. David Whitmer never returned but never denied his testimony. Martin and Oliver did come back to the Church, so can you talk to me about what led to those excommunications and then what led them back?
Daniel Peterson: I think that. . . with Oliver Cowdery in particular, it was plural marriage—that was one of the things—and the Church's involvement in temporal affairs. The Kirtland bank (which then failed as part of the great Panic of 1837—it wasn't just Kirtland, it was nationwide), it was a very bad time to start a frontier bank. But we also need to understand they needed banks on the frontier, because there was, in many cases, no currency. People were involved in a barter economy. Banknotes made life so much more convenient than having to carry your 10 wheels of cheese to buy an ox, and things like that. Banknotes were [carried] in a pocket and you can go do transactions. [It] made life a lot easier.
But there was almost no currency in the American frontier for a long time. But those sorts of issues bothered Oliver. David, I think it probably was the failure to use a seer stone [and] the growth of the Church, he didn’t like new offices, like Apostles and high priests. He liked a small little close-knit group. Thing is, that was impossible as the Church grew, it could not possibly have grown into the Church it is today. Martin Harris, I think, wounded vanity to an extent. And he just was kind of worn out. He’d always been approached for his money [and] his financial contributions.
Morgan Jones: Resources.
Daniel Peterson: Yeah. And he’d just had it. But he and Oliver do come back. They can't deny what they saw. And there’s a hole in Oliver's heart I think for a long time. Martin is kind of embittered for a while and so it took some work to get him back. Actually, in both Oliver and Martin’s cases the Church undertook to try to reclaim them. Phineas Young, for example, did a lot of correspondence with—and that's Brigham’s brother, at Brigham’s request I think—with Oliver Cowdery. And Oliver Cowdery says, “Look,” there's a wonderful letter from him I really, really like [where Oliver] says, “Look, I want you to acknowledge that I was not guilty of some of the charges that were made against me in the heat of things in Missouri.”
They’d accused him of counterfeiting and things like that and he says, “This is not true.” And he says, “It may seem a small thing to you,” and this is what I really like, but he says “For me, if you had stood in the presence of Peter, James, and John and John the Baptist, and in the presence of the angel, you would want to make sure that your reputation was kept as spotlessly clean as you could have it. I need those charges cleared up. They have to be cleared up before I can return to the Church.” And basically, they were. And he comes back, he’d wanted to for quite some time, but he insisted that was kind of his bargaining chip—“I will not come back under a cloud, not for myself.” He says, “It doesn't matter to me. But it matters because I'm a witness. I want . . . I want my witness to be taken seriously that I was a man of character.” So that is part of his background.
David—I've already alluded to the fact that I see David as a little bit on the pigheaded side. Very stubborn. He would take a position, he would stand by it, which makes his testimony all the more impressive. But we kind of alluded before to the fact that the Whitmer family were really close-knit. And Oliver joined the Whitmer family, eventually married after he was a witness, married one of the Whitmer girls. And Hiram Page was already a Whitmer son-in-law.
When the Whitmer family left the Church, they left as a pack. And they kind of lived as a pack in Richmond, Missouri, in the greater Richmond, Missouri area, holding their own kind of house church. For them that kind of satisfied the need for community, they supported one another. And David is the last of that group to survive. He lived until 1888. I think it may be the stubbornness. He didn't agree with some of the things Joseph did, he never could, he didn’t agree with Brigham Young on some things because Brigham carries on Joseph’s policies and practices.
But he won't say anything negative about the gospel. And that people have said, “Well, doesn't that invalidate his testimony?” Not to me, it doesn't. . . . I care about David Whitmer a lot and I hope that David Whitmer is saved and exalted. I actually believe that he will be. He went through a lot more than I can imagine. But the only thing about David Whitmer that really matters is what he heard and saw as a witness. His opinions about later theology are no more authoritative than anybody else's. But a question of what he saw and what he heard. He has unique authority, and that's what counts. That's what counts in the cases of all the witnesses.
And I might say, he was so fiercely dedicated to his testimony. I don't know how many people in the audience will have been to Richmond, Missouri and seen the cemetery where David Whitmer is buried, but there's an impressive thing there. There's a pillar about, I don't know, three or four feet high, and it stands on his grave. And on top of it in stone are carved two books, obviously, the Book of Mormon and the Bible. And on the side of the pillar, by his orders, or by order of his family hearing his wishes, it says “The record of the Jews and the record of the Nephites are one. Truth is eternal.”
Morgan Jones: Oh wow.
Daniel Peterson: He’s bearing his testimony after his death, as well as he can. And it reminds me of my favorite argument I ever heard against his credibility. Someone wrote to me and said, “Well, he was just terrified of Brigham Young. He knew that Brigham Young would have him done in if he ever told the sordid truth about the Book of Mormon.” Well, Brigham Young dies in 1877, David has 11 years in which Brigham Young is gone. He can say anything he wants, what does he do? He bears his testimony. And then when he himself is dead, and he’s as safe as anybody ever will be from Brigham Young or the Danites or the evil Mormons out in Utah, he’s still bearing his testimony in stone on his tombstone. To me, boy, if that doesn’t say sincerity, I don’t know what would.