Daniel Peterson: The Power of a Witness
David Whitmer, Martin Harris, and Oliver Cowdery. Those are the well-known names of three men whose witnesses of the Book of Mormon stood the test of time, even if their loyalty to the Church sometimes wavered. But who were they? What about these men enabled God to use them in Restoration? Why did they all, at various points, step away from the Church? And why did two of them come back? On this week’s episode, Daniel Peterson, an executive producer of the new movie “Witnesses,” discusses the significance of these men’s roles in Church history and why we should hold gratitude in our hearts for their lives.
The Lord gave us the witnesses—the three and the eight—and I think He expects us to use them and to tell their story.
3:43- "A Witness to the Witnesses”
8:09- Becoming Converted
9:38- Seer Stones
13:28- Relationships in Church History
17:57- Sidney Rigdon and the Salt Sermon
23:10- Strong Personalities
30:15- All Left, Two Came Back, All Stood By Their Testimonies
40:10- Witnesses of Women
46:58- What Does It Mean To Be All In the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
Morgan Jones 0:00
Before his death, Oliver Cowdery visited with a missionary and said, "I want you to remember what I say to you. I am a dying man, and what would it profit me to tell you a lie? I know that this Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God. My eyes saw, my ears heard, and my understanding was touched. And I know that whereof I testified is true. It was no dream, no vain imagination of the mind–it was real," end quote.
An acquaintance of Martin Harris wrote, "A few hours before his death, I asked Martin if he did not feel that there was an element, at least, a fraudulence and deception in the things that were written and told of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. And he replied, as he had always done and said, 'the Book of Mormon is no fake. I know what I know. I have seen what I have seen, and I have heard what I have heard. I have seen the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon is written, an angel appeared to me and others and testified to the truthfulness of the record and had I been willing to have perjured myself and sworn falsely to the testimony I now bear, I could have been a rich man, but I could not have testified other than I have done and am now doing, for these things are true." End quote.
Before his own death, David Whitmer wrote a letter that was published in the Richmond conservator, "That the world may know the truth, I wish now, standing as it were, in the very sunset of life, and in the fear of God, once for all to make this public statement: that I have never had any time denied that testimony or any part thereof, which is so long since been published with that Book, as one of the three witnesses. Those who know me best, well know that I have always adhered to that testimony. And that no man may be misled or doubt my present views in regard to the same I do again affirm the truth of all of my statements, as then made and published. He that hath an ear to hear, let him hear; it was no delusion. What is written is written, and he that readeth let him understand."
These are the testimonies of the Three Witnesses–three men who were all excommunicated and left the Church at some point in their lives, but never once denied their witness of the Book of Mormon. Daniel C. Peterson received his PhD from UCLA and is a professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University. He is the former chairman of the board of the Foundation of Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, and an officer, editor, and author for its successor organization, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for religious scholarship. He is the producer of the newly released film Witnesses, which is in theaters now.
This is All In, an LDS Living podcast where we ask the question, what does it really mean to be all in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? I'm Morgan Jones, and I am honored to have Dan Peterson on the line with me today. Dan, welcome.
Daniel Peterson 3:08
Thank you. Good to be here.
Morgan Jones 3:11
Well, I'll start by saying I watched the movie Witnesses on Sunday night. I was able to get a little sneak peek, courtesy of Arthur van Wagonen, and I loved it. I thought it was excellent. And I really . . . I found it interesting. There were so many things that I was not familiar with, and so as we go through this conversation, to be honest, it's mostly just going to be the questions that came for me personally as I watched the movie, and hopefully there'll be questions that other people will have as well as they watch. But first of all, before we get started, what initially drew you to the idea of making a movie about the Three Witnesses, and what makes them such a compelling part of our Church's history?
Daniel Peterson 3:56
Yeah. I've been fascinated by the Witnesses for a long, long time. And I have to say probably the thing that got me going on, it was a book that I think Deseret Book still carries by Richard Lloyd Anderson called Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses. It was published way back in 1981 or thereabouts. But he makes such a case for their character, their good character, their sanity, their consistency in telling the story, I thought, wow, this is, this is impressive evidence. These testimonies are hard to get around. And he deals with not just the three but the Eight Witnesses as well.
And that book has always been one of–in my view–one of the great books ever published by any Latter-day Saints scholar anywhere, period. And so by the way, it's not pure coincidence that the movie at the end is dedicated to the memory of Richard Lloyd Anderson. And I wrote the phrase, "A witness to the witnesses." He died in 2018, which saddens me, but he was in his 90s, and, you know, but I think he would have been really pleased to see this film made.
But I thought about the witnesses ever since, and I've thought they're the only–if you will–secular evidence, as opposed to the personal witness of the Spirit. They're the only public objective secular evidence that the Lord gives for the Book of Mormon. And he cares about them. They're mentioned in the Doctrine and Covenants, they're mentioned in the Book of Mormon itself. They're in every edition of the Book of Mormon for the first time it's printed in every language. That's obviously really important to the Lord, you know, chiasmus parallels ancient Arabia or ancient Mesoamerica, these are interesting things, and I enjoy them as much as anybody does. But the Lord gave us the Witnesses, the three and the eight. And I think he expects us to use them and to tell their story.
My concern is that I've heard people say–and not just nonmembers of the Church, but members too–"Well, you know, the Witnesses never actually claimed to see anything with their actual eyes or to hear anything with their actual ears," or, "they never claimed to actually touch the plates." And oh, yes–they did. And the only way that you can make statements like that is if you're not familiar with what they actually said, because they said explicitly, "We saw with these eyes," in fact in the film, David Whitmer says that "I saw with these eyes, I heard with these ears."
And then the Eight Witnesses held the plates with their hands. The Three Witnesses didn't, but the Eight did. And so I thought the story needs to be told again, and forcefully, so that members of the Church understand it, and so that nonmembers, if they happen to see the film will know what it is. They can still . . . they can still reject the testimony of the Witnesses, but they ought to know what they're rejecting, exactly.
So, so that's important to me and the proximate–I think something I also want to get across is the, the immediate reason for making the film is that the filmmakers and I, we'd already worked on a little item about Robert Cundick, the former tabernacle organist, a little short feature, half an hour. And we were talking about doing another one about the two brothers, Karl Anderson, whom President Hinckley dubbed, "Mr. Kirtland" sort of responsible for the development of the site in Kirtland. And his brother, Richard Anderson who was the great authority on the witnesses to the Book of Mormon. We wanted to do a joint profile of those two brothers.
So I sent them some material that Richard had written about the witnesses. And they called me up at night, and they said, "We've got to talk. Can you come over right now?" And I thought, oh, what is this about? Well, they said, "This–we didn't know this stuff, and we're betting that most members of the Church don't know this stuff. This is a great movie waiting to be made. This is a great story. We'd love to tell it." Well, that was music to my ears, because I've always loved the witnesses and never thought anybody would, would propose something like that to me. So, I hesitated for about, point three seconds and said, "Yes! Yes, let's do it." So that's how the movie came about is this long-standing interest that the Lord has given us only this . . . this kind of evidence that he's really, really wanting us to use. And I haven't thought we were using it enough lately, so.
Morgan Jones 8:09
I love that. Dan, quick diversion for you. Are you–have you always been a member of the Church?
Daniel Peterson 8:17
Well, yes, and in a way, no. I grew up–I was baptized at age eight. But I grew up to a marginally active mother and a nonmember father in Southern California. So I really came to the Church in a way on my own. I mean, I was dragged off to meetings once in a while, and I kind of knew that we were Latter-day Saints, but I have to admit that in my earliest years, I thought of the Church as a round of boring meetings. And there was probably a brief period when I was, you know, late-preteens where I probably even considered myself an atheist.
Morgan Jones 8:52
Daniel Peterson 8:52
Yeah. And then I began to learn about the gospel and parts of it just caught my vision, they really spoke to me. And so I was for a long time, much more active than, than my mother. And my father didn't come to Church at all. So, it was, you know, in a sense that it's a personal conversion story. I was introduced to the Church but not guided to it really. Later on my parents became active and my father joined the Church. I baptized him on the night that I was set apart as a missionary, so it was a good story.
Morgan Jones 9:24
That's amazing! That's awesome. Well, as you were talking and answering that first question, I thought, I have read Dan's stuff for years, and I don't actually know about him. So I'm glad, thank you for answering that. Now we'll get back to The Witnesses. There were several things that stood out to me as I watched the film. One thing–right off the bat–there are a lot of seer stones in this movie. And I think this is something that there are strong opinions on, I think some people feel like the Church has conceded too much, as in they've, you know, given to much credence to seer stones? What is your understanding of the use of seer stones in the Church's history and why was it so important to you to portray that in the film?
Daniel Peterson 9:26
Well, I think simply the historical sources are quite clear that Joseph used seer stones. And they were part of his cultural background, if you will. I don't know that if he were being called in the 21st century, the Lord would speak to him through a seer stone, but coming from the American frontier, that was a method he could use. And you know, you have the patriarch Joseph in Genesis who has a divining cup. He looks into the cup and that helps him to divine and to see things.
I think the Lord speaks to us after the manner of our language and speaks to us on our level. So the evidence that there were seer stones in use in the early Church by Joseph Smith, is really, really clear. And it's from friendly sources, not hostile sources. So, we felt that we had to, in all honesty, show the way it seems that the translation occurred, which was mostly not with the Urim and Thummim, but the question is made a little bit murky, because the early sources, use Urim and Thummim to refer to the, the crystals and a bow that came with the plates, and also to the seer stones.
So sometimes you're not sure, which one are they talking about? It's hard to tell, but the evidence for the system is really strong, and it also played a role in the story of especially the Whitmer departure from the Church. They were really taken with the seer stone–and the movie actually makes an issue of this–at one point, Hiram Page is receiving revelations through what he believes to be a seer stone. And Joseph tells him "No, this is not true." And I think it's David Whitmer, who cries out, "But, but Joseph, he gets these through a seer stone, and you no longer use one." And this is where Joseph says, "Look, that was as milk to an infant."
He explains to Orson Pratt at one point a little bit later, we're don't show it in the movie, but he explains to Orson Pratt that he's now come to understand the principle of revelation, and he realizes he doesn't need a stone. Now, what role did the stone play? I don't know, maybe it was a method of focusing your mind to something–I have no idea. But he eventually realized the stone was irrelevant. He didn't need it. But I think what we're seeing is a point I've tried to make about the film, we're showing an emerging prophet. He's called to be a prophet, but he doesn't necessarily know right away everything he should do. We sort of imagine that Joseph, as soon as he's called, just has a clear vision of how he's supposed to run everything, what he's supposed to do, I can't imagine that's true. I think he was learning all the way until the day he was killed. But he does finally realize–I can get revelation by asking God and He will speak it into my mind or, you know, in more dramatic cases, send an angel or something. I don't need a rock for that.
Morgan Jones 12:53
Right? Well, I think it's interesting. And this has come up on this podcast several times recently, as we've spoken with people who work in Church history, and they've talked about, you know, we think that prophets receive revelation very differently than we do. But I think many times they receive revelation, many of the same ways we do and like you said, maybe an idea of a seer stone is so foreign to us, but it was the way that Joseph was able to–little by little–develop that ability to translate. So I think that's super interesting.
Another thing that's interesting that you just touched on, is the Hiram Page scene, and Hiram Page–he was the brother-in-law of David Whitmer, is that right?
Daniel Peterson 13:38
Morgan Jones 13:39
And, and I guess that's why–I think one thing that I found fascinating, and this is true of several things, "The Chosen," I don't know if you watch the show "The Chosen," but I love seeing the different relationships between the different apostles, and I think that this movie does a similar thing in helping us see the relationship between these different characters in Church history that I think I always have thought of as kind of isolated? But they were, they were friends, they had points of contention, and one of these things that enters in is a contention between Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. We see a couple of these points enter in. One is with concerns Oliver had surrounding polygamy, and the other is–I wonder if you can tell me if this is, you know, historically accurate, but it seems like when Sidney Rigdon enters into the story that rocks the boat between Oliver and Joseph, so can you speak a little bit to those two things?
Daniel Peterson 14:38
Yeah. Yeah, there was definitely an issue between Oliver and Joseph about the origins of plural marriage. I mean, it's awkward, you can understand–we can all understand how this would really look bad to a lot of people, including members of the Church. And so one point Oliver cries out to Joseph, you know, "You've fallen in love with the idea of leading a believing people, like you can get them to do anything." And it doesn't shake Oliver's faith that Joseph was a prophet, had received revelation, but he's worried about Joseph, that he might lose his connection with God. Joseph says, "No. No, I am not wrong on this."
But, I–one of the comments that I liked best at the premiere last night was several people came to me and they said, you know, “For the first time, I think I understood why the Witnesses would leave the Church.” I don't–and we're not trying to justify their departure, but we're trying to make it apparent that it wasn't just wickedness. It wasn't just evil. They actually had disagreements, they had reasons, and they were under a lot of stress. And these are good men, but they saw things differently. So I thought it was important to bring that in some asked, "Well, why did you even raise it?" You can't tell the story of the Witnesses without those early strife’s and stresses.
So yeah, that was an issue, and we know that Oliver at a couple of points got really angry with Joseph. He was angry over the fact that Joseph presumed to tell him how to dispose of his property. You know, "I'm a free American citizen, I can do anything I want." Well, that, of course, is true. But members of the Church do make covenants, freely, that go beyond that. We're not entirely free to do what we want to do, unless we reject our covenants, then of course, we're totally free to do anything we want, and bear the consequences.
But uh, but those were issues. Oliver was a, was a proud citizen of a new American Republic, he was a free citizen, "You can't tell me what to do with my property." And Joseph says, "Well but, but we buy and sell our property to serve God." And, and there was a clash there, that was a serious clash between what you might call Yankee ideals, and the new sort of communal ethos of the Church, which is… we work together. Sometimes that means surrendering your personal interest to do it, we still do it that way. People in the middle of prosperous careers are called to serve as mission presidents or called to serve as General Authorities, there goes your hopes of becoming a multi billionaire.
You know, and we're not forced to do it. But we do it freely. A friend of mine gave up a really strong academic career, much of it spent on the East coast at Harvard and places like that, served as a General Authority, and I asked him, "So how are you doing ?" And he said, "A lot of my friends from Harvard and so on, are calling me and asking, 'So can't you just say, 'Mr. Hinckley, this is a real honor, thank you very much. But no.'" It's just–I can't tell them we just don't do that without it making it sound like we're servile in some sense, which we're not.”
I really choose to do this, but it will look odd to people on the outside. I think that was part of the issue with Oliver. And then let's see, the other question you had was . . .
Morgan Jones 17:45
Daniel Peterson 17:46
Oh, Sidney Rigdon. Yeah, I talk so much that I, I forget what I'm talking about.
Morgan Jones 17:52
No, you're good.
Daniel Peterson 17:53
It's the gift of an academic. I may not know what I'm saying, but I can talk.
Daniel Peterson 17:57
You know, Sidney Rigdon I think really was a sort of disorienting factor in those early years. You know you had the tight fellowship of the Palmyra group, you know, Oliver, David, Martin, and David especially, I think, really treasured that. He later said, "I didn't leave the Church, the Church left me," he didn't like the idea of all these levels of hierarchy. And it was just bigger, it wasn't the small, close knit community it once had been.
Sydney comes in and he's pretty spectacular. He's, he's a great orator. He's as learned as anybody in the Church, probably the most learned person in the Church. He's–he knows the Bible like the back of his hand. He's really an impressive person, a spellbinder, and he has charisma. And I think that that some of the older members, especially the ones who played a leading role, feel just a little bit, you know,
Morgan Jones 18:51
Daniel Peterson 18:51
Dropped on the ash heap of history, slighted, you know? Like, "Well, what about me? I was here before." And, and I think the film hints strongly at that. You know, when Joseph is calling Sydney to write for him, you can see David Whitmer standing in the background looking increasingly dark. He's not happy about this, Oliver's being slighted, and, you know, but I think all three of them felt a bit that way, Martin explicitly. "I always step in to help, and all I get stuck with is the Church's bills, you never give me a great calling." I think bruised egos play a role in this too, which–it's easy to point the finger at them, you know, and say, "Well, what idiots," but I think to myself, yeah, well, I can point to them and say "What idiots," but they were called to be the Three Witnesses and I was not so, a little humility is in order here.
Morgan Jones 19:41
Well, and I also think, you know, would we feel slighted if we were in that situation? Probably.
Daniel Peterson 19:49
Yes. We all know what that feels like to be sort of shunted off to the side–or think we are.
Morgan Jones 19:54
Absolutely. Right. And I think that this is something that we even see in our culture today with Church callings and something that people have felt and experienced or observed. So I think that this is really interesting to see how it enters in from the very beginning of Church history, and I think it's just because we are human. And that is a part of being human. I want to touch on a couple of things that you just addressed. The first is, I want to really quickly before we move from Sidney Rigdon, I found it really interesting in the movie to hear him even after he joins the Church, addressing members of the Church with a bit of like a hellfire and brimstone approach, did he really speak that way?
Daniel Peterson 20:40
He was apparently–as I say–a spellbinding orator. He was a great preacher. And I think one thing we need to understand is in the old days when he had a large crowd, and the crowd was probably larger than we show on the film–we didn't have the budget to hire thousands of extras.
But there would have been a certain element of yelling, I think it was part of every sermon. When Joseph was preaching in the grove in Nauvoo to thousands of people, he can't have been doing reflective whispering or you know, that sort of thing. It had to be pretty much yelling to be heard in the back rows. So there would have been an element of that, that we're not used to now with microphones, you know, in general conference, nobody yells at us.
But I think there probably was a bit of hellfire and damnation. He had only recently been a Campbellite minister, preaching Protestantism to the audience, and we don't have a text for what's called the "Salt Sermon," that's what that is. But we know that he used as his text, Matthew five, I think it's verse thirteen, "If the salt had lost its savor, it is therefore of no use but to be cast out and trodden underfoot of men," that lends itself to a kind of hellfire and damnation speech.
If you're no good, if you're dissenting, then you should be cast out, trodden underfoot of men. We know that the dissenters, including the witnesses, felt . . . well, disquieted by that, if not threatened. I mean, later on, there actually is a threat made against them by Sampson Avard and the Danites, so not signed, notably by Joseph or even by Sidney. So it's not clear that Sidney wanted that, but they felt threatened, they felt endangered. And remember, the Saints are under threat from Armed Forces outside and this is a time–it's easy for us to comfortably look back at it and think, you know, I wouldn't have reacted that way.
Well, if you've got armed militias coming after you and dissenters within your ranks, and etc. etc, you feel threatened. Physically, existentially threatened. And I think that all plays into it. It's not a pleasant scene in our history. But yeah, I think all the evidence is that Sydney kind of got carried away. And it was more hellfire and damnation than we were typically used to. Joseph's sermons aren't like that, but Sydney's may have been, but no texts survives, so we're kind of guessing, except that he talked about salt. And you know, that very verse, "Trodden underfoot of men, cast out," so.
Morgan Jones 23:06
Okay. Well, that makes, that makes a lot of sense. And it's just so interesting to me. One thing that struck me in studying the Doctrine and Covenants this year with "Come, Follow Me" is learning about these different characters and recognizing that I think you have a lot of–well, in the film, we see a lot of high emotion. I think in the Doctrine and Covenants even we can sense that we're dealing with a lot of different strong personalities. I think even Emma Smith was a very strong personality. And it's been fascinating to me to think about how, I think those strong personalities were necessary, because they allowed these people to stand up for what they believe in, to be resilient, to have courage. Do you think it's accurate to say most of them had strong personalities? And can you talk to me a little bit about what you observed as you worked on this film in terms of those differences in nature or personality?
Daniel Peterson 24:06
Yeah, I think strong personalities were an important feature in this and they played a role. You know, I look at another case–Brigham Young. Sometimes people can quote you, sort of blood curdling statements from Brigham Young, they're really tough. But I think okay, if Brigham Young had not been a really commanding presence, could he have led the migration westward? Could he have presided over the chaos of settling the Great Basin if he were not as strong, determined, self-confident individual? I don't think he could have.
And I think a really clear case is David Whitmer. David Whitmer was absolutely rock solid in his convictions, no matter what, to the point almost of cantankerousness, you see that a bit in the film. He apparently could be very, very unwelcoming to people who came to interview him sometimes two or three times a day or more. I mean it just drove him mad, he's trying to get his work done and people are dropping by wanting to chat. And many of them not altogether in good faith, they want to poke fun or something like that.
So, he was absolutely immovable in his integrity to the point of pigheadedness, maybe. It's one of the things maybe that led him out of the Church and kept him out of the Church. But it's also the thing that makes him resist, for 50 years out of the Church–he's out of the Church for 50 years, 60 years after his experience as a witness–with very little support, he has no contact with fellow members of the Church, but he never deviates from his testimony. That's a strong personality and he had every reason to do it. Every incentive, every inducement, he would have been honored and respected if he had told "the sordid truth" about that situation with the angel and the plates. He never backs down no matter what. And he's pretty fierce about it. So I think in his case, you can see that what makes him a great witness, in some ways, would make him maybe not the most tame and docile follower.
Morgan Jones 26:03
Daniel Peterson 26:03
But, you know, but his role was to be as a witness and to me, he stands the stronger for that. Martin Harris is the same way. In a way Martin Harris is a very different personality. David was apparently fairly comfortable where he was. His family were German speakers and it's possibly he even spoke with a slight German accent. They spoke German at home, the Whitmer's did, and they were members of a German Reformed Church. We have, we have a reflection about them by one of their pastors written in German, by the way, about their connection with the Church.
So they were, they were comfortable where they were. He wasn't necessarily seeking something else–Martin was. And this is one of the things that's been alleged against him as a fault, is that he went from church to church a little bit before his affiliation with the LDS Church. And thereafter also, but Richard Anderson points out that every one of those affiliations–except one–is with us, an offshoot of the Restoration.
And, and when he serves as a missionary for the Strangites in England, they're disgusted with him because all he'll do is bear testimony of the Book of Mormon. He has nothing to say about James Jesse Strang as the legitimate successor of Joseph Smith, and they finally send him home as he's useless to them. He just, he just reinforces the truth of the Book of Mormon. That was always his focus. I mean, he never, he never falters afterwards, from that.
He does briefly look into the Shakers, probably because they had a belief in contemporary revelation, but he doesn't stay. He's gone really quickly. But that's a very different personality, but a persistent search for religious truth, and in the Book of Mormon, in Joseph Smith, he believed he found it. And he does come back to the Church late in life and bears strong testimony to–probably literally scores of people in the Cache Valley area into his ripe old age, really valuable statements and, and onto his deathbed. All of them onto their deathbeds.
Oliver Cowdery is very different. He's the learned one among the Three Witnesses. He goes on to become a lawyer, a politician and editor, you know, when you read the language we have from him it's a little bit florid, frankly, to our tastes as 21st century readers and writers, but a very different personality, but again–strong. He believed. And he would stand up for his principles. There's a courtroom scene that will show up–we're doing a documentary that will follow this theatrical film–
Morgan Jones 28:30
Daniel Peterson 28:31
And in that we show a scene of his being confronted in the courtroom when he's a defense attorney. And the prosecutor, I think it is, brings up his affiliation with the Book of Mormon. And you know, that's a chance for him to say, "Oh, I am embarrassed by my early connections with that, sorry." No, he says, "Okay, I've been, I've been confronted with this, and I will answer. I know what I saw, and I don't back away from it." I mean, he is not afraid, even though it costs him considerably.
Morgan Jones 28:59
Daniel Peterson 29:00
So, I think strong personalities are important. I remember even being told by General Authority friend of mine, he says, you know, the fact that the Quorum of the 12 agree and come to consensus is remarkable. Because these are people with strong backgrounds. They have lots of experience, and they have been leaders and so on. So he says, the Lord doesn't call weak people necessarily to be his leaders. He calls people who have strong wills, lots of experience, and so when the Spirit speaks to them, and they all bend the knee, like Brigham Young, totally submissive to Joseph Smith, that's a testimony in itself, Brigham Young was not submissive to anybody, but Joseph Smith? Yes. That to me speaks volumes.
Morgan Jones 29:42
Absolutely. Well, I think, you know, listening to you describe the different personalities of those Three Witnesses is interesting, because I feel like you all did a really good job of capturing that in the film. I think Oliver Cowdery, I–to be honest, have not been super familiar with him as an individual, and that kind of more educated approach comes through in the film and you're like, oh, wow, I never thought of him that way. So kudos to you on that.
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 30:39
I think that the . . . plural marriage 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, you know, your 10 wheels of cheese to buy an ox, and things like that. Banknotes were–carry them in a pocket and you can go do transactions, 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, the growth of the Church, he didn't like new offices, like apostles and high priests. He liked a small, little, 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, you know, approached for his money, his financial contributions.
Morgan Jones 31:59
Daniel Peterson 32:00
Yeah. And he 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, some work to get him back. Actually, in both Oliver and Martin's case 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 he 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 that is part of his background.
David–I've already alluded to the fact that I see David as . . . 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 till 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, you know, people have said, "Well, doesn't that invalidate his testimony?" Not to me, it doesn't. The only point that I care about really, I mean, 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, 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, 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 35:51
Daniel Peterson 35:51
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 want, 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.
Morgan Jones 36:38
You're so right, and I have never heard that. So I loved hearing that. Thank you so much. I want to go back to one thing, and I think it's so interesting what you said about Oliver Cowdery feeling like he couldn't come back until his name was cleared and wanting to maintain that integrity. There's a really interesting scene in the movie where Oliver is shown kind of his return to the Church, how historically accurate is that?
Daniel Peterson 37:06
It is accurate. He did do that. He drove up in a carriage through a meeting of the Saints and, and I understand they're all whispering because a lot of them were relatively recent converts, and some of them weren't, and they were whispering, "Who is that?" "That's Oliver Cowdery!" you know, "Unbelievable. That's Oliver Cowdery, he's come back." And I think that, that some of the Church leaders knew that he'd be coming back soon. They didn't know when, exactly.
And so for him to ride up with his wife in the carriage then, and say, "I asked to be rebaptized," we have his remarks on record. He bears his testimony, "I was there, I was present with Joseph Smith for the Restoration of priesthood, I heard the words of the Book of Mormon as they fell from his lips, I wrote them. Mr. Spalding did not write that book. Sidney Rigdon did not write that book." You know, "I wrote that book as it came from the lips of the Prophet Joseph Smith." It's a strong testimony.
And then he says, "I seek no office. I . . . don't, I don't want to be prominent among you. I don't need that, I just asked to be affiliated with you again. I'm not trying to take away from" and I think we quote it "from the, from the . . . or to criticize those who born the heat of the labors of the day since Joseph died. I just want to be affiliated with you." And it's a moving thing, because in 1850, joining the Latter-day Saints is not exactly a path to upward social mobility. They're being driven out there. They're settling in the West, they've already settled Salt Lake Valley, but it's Adobe brick houses he's not, he's not making a good career move. Now, we know that unfortunately, he had tuberculosis or got it shortly thereafter. And he never made it out west, but he wanted to cast his lot with the Saints and he's really clear about that. Because he believes. He knows.
Morgan Jones 38:56
Powerful. Yeah. Dan, why would you say that these three testimonies of the Three Witnesses are so foundational and fundamental to us as members of the Church today? And what kind of gratitude do you hold in your heart, or should we hold in our hearts for these three men?
Daniel Peterson 39:17
I think we should be enormously grateful to them. And I know Joseph was. There's a scene where Joseph comes back and it's not . . . I think its not in the film, but it may be in the documentary, certainly in the historical record, where Joseph comes back in after the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses have had their experiences, he sees his mother, says to his Mother, "I am so grateful. Now that people will know that I don't go around to deceive the people. I feel like I've had to carry this burden alone for so long. And now there are others who've seen what I've seen, and they know what I know."
And so to me, it's–the witness testimonies are extremely important because they, they take the whole thing out of the realm of subjective. I mean, you could say, and some people have tried to say, "Well, it's just Joseph imagining things." Now the witnesses take it out of that realm. He's not just imagining things unless he's found Three Witnesses and then eight additional Witnesses and further informal witnesses who will also be covered in the, in the documentary who also see these things and hear these things and have these experiences.
It gets to the point where it's either an outlandishly large conspiracy, which is really hard to believe, conspiracies don't last, especially big ones like this. Somebody would have spilled the beans, but nobody ever does. Or he's just found the, you know, 15 or 20, craziest people in the new world who all will see things on his command. We tell the story in the documentary of Mary Whitmer who goes out to the barn to milk cows and do chores. And she's probably a little upset she's seen Joseph and Oliver go down skipping stones on the stream, which you also see Martin and Joseph do at one point in the, in the theatrical movie, because these are farm guys who are used to being out in the in the open air all the time, they've been sitting inside dictating and taking dictation they can't stand it, so they go out and they skip a rock on the river and Joseph throws in a big chunk of rock just has to move his muscles and get some sun.
Well, Mary Whitmer has been doing all the chores on the Whitmer farm, and she's not pleased, she sees them go out to skip stones goes, "Well, they could milk the cows too, couldn't they?" You know, and so she's about to throw them off the farm. When this experience happens, she may be the first witness after Joseph Smith of the plates. It's not entirely clear when this happened, but it could well be that she's the first before the Three Witnesses and the Eight.
And, and to me that's, that's really important, you know that, that we have all these multiple witnesses. And, and they come at it from different backgrounds. They don't see it–they don't see the things all together, even the Three Witnesses is divided into two groups. The Eight Witnesses may have been, we're not sure, one account says they were. But the informal witnesses like Mary Whitmer, they see it on their own without expecting to see the plates or see an angelic messenger.
Taken all together, this means it simply cannot be Joseph Smith's imagination. Now Fawn Brodie, the old critical biography of Joseph Smith in 1940s, dismisses Mary Whitmer’s experience by saying, "Joseph must have been astonished at his ability to induce visions in people when he wasn't even there." Well yeah, I would be astonished at it too, because there's no record of anything like that ever happening. How do you do that? How do I cause somebody who's 1000 yards away to have a vision with no contact with that person? This is–that's a glib line, but it doesn't explain her away.
Morgan Jones 42:48
Daniel Peterson 42:49
And, and she told the story to her son, David, she told it to her grandchildren. And the record shows she never complained after that. It was a hard lot of work doing all the chores around the farm, but she was willing to do it with that witness. She knew it was true. So, so they should for us all be an important element of our testimony. The Lord meant them to be. We can get our own spiritual witness, but we can rely on the words of those who saw, those who knew–and it's not just Joseph. You don't have to take just his word for it.
You've got a number of others very reputable, reliable, sane, respectable people who tell us they saw these things. They saw the angel, they heard the voice of God, they saw the plates, they held the plates. That's powerful. And, you know, I think it's not coincidental that the official witnesses with Joseph Smith number twelve. That may be an allusion, indirectly, to the idea of a jury of twelve peers. And by the way, I might say, in those days, juries were all male, so they're all male. But among the informal witnesses, you have a number of women. Emma Smith, Lucy Mack Smith, Katharine Smith, Mary Whitmer. Even oddly enough, Lucy Harris had a vision of the angel and the plates, and then turned her back on it.
Morgan Jones 44:09
Yeah, well, I think it's . . . Lucy Harris is another really interesting character in the film. I was not as familiar with her either. And she's, she's quite the character. It seemed like.
Daniel Peterson 44:23
Yeah, she is. She's, she's more complex I think than a lot of people see her as. As she . . . one article that I read a number of years ago said that she was profoundly deaf–that's alluded to in the film. But this person had done some study or was an expert on this subject, he said, you know, sometimes–especially before hearing aids–people who are profoundly deaf would also become slightly paranoid. Because they felt since they couldn't hear that people around them are always talking about them or plotting against them. And he says, you see that in her behavior toward the plates.
Lucy Mack Smith says she had a vision. She actually–again, this is weird and it's alluded to in the theatrical film–the first person to donate money to the bringing forth of the plates is not Martin Harris, it's Lucy Harris, on the strength of a vision she had. And then later she turns. She's convinced something's going on and she's being taken. But early on, she seems to have been a believer, or at least she suspected it was true. And then she backs away. But, you know, even with her, I don't feel inclined to condemn her with the challenges she faced, and she's worried they'd lose their farm. Well, guess what? They did. She asks him if in the film, "If the Lord asks you to, or if Joseph Smith asked you to mortgage your farm and give the money, would you do it?" And Martin says, "Yes, I would." Well, he does. And so her concern about their financial future is not unwarranted.
Morgan Jones 45:57
Right. Not misplaced.
Daniel Peterson 45:59
Morgan Jones 46:00
Well, I think that it's just so interesting and also faith affirming that you see these different people and how the Lord took imperfect people and even people that ended up leaving the Church to create a foundation on which we have an International Church. And you mentioned earlier concerns about the Church growing, and that that may have contributed to some of these people leaving, and that would be hard. There are growing pains with everything, and I think sometimes we want to keep something to ourselves.
Daniel Peterson 46:36
Morgan Jones 46:36
And instead, this has grown to fill every continent like was . . . was prophesied. So thank you so much, Dan, for sharing these things and, and for making it more accessible to people like me, who are not going to dig into the history as much, but will definitely watch a movie. My last question for you is, what does it mean to you to be all in the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
Daniel Peterson 47:05
I think that that is a really important issue, and maybe one of the fundamental ones. Many of us have covenanted to give our talents and everything else to the kingdom of God. And those are easy words to say, but sometimes when we're asked to actually do it, it sits a little harder. I had a friend who was called to be a mission president who was in a profession where he was making–as he put it to me personally–"obscene amounts of money" and then he was asked to serve three years as mission president. And he said, "You know, I've preached the doctrine of consecration and, and everything for so many years. I thought, it's time for me to put my money where my mouth is, so, yes, I will do it."
He said, "I didn't have to hesitate, I'd made up my mind a long time before that I would do what I was asked to do." And usually, it hadn't cost him a lot financially, this one did. And he had to step away just at a time when the money was just pouring in, and, you know.
So, to be all in, I think is ultimately to try to see everything through the gospel lens. It doesn't mean there's not time for recreation, or just enjoying ourselves or listening to good music or, just having fun eating a pizza, whatever it is we want to do, you know, there's nothing wrong with that. But on the whole to frame our lives through the gospel lens, and that means everything. That means not just on Sundays, not just when we're doing ministering or going to the temple serving somewhere, it means I think when we're living our business lives when we're doing our professional activities, obviously, we're supposed to be good in what we do, and it may not be a gospel related thing at all, it may be preparing tax returns or something like that.
But even there, when questions come up of fudging or dishonesty or a service to our clients or giving an honest day's work for an honest day's pay, we ought to be thinking about, you know, we're a Latter-day Saints. We represent the Lord, we've made covenants with the Lord, and that ought to be the foremost thing. When we think about our politics, when we and which, in a very divisive time this is important, I think, to be thinking, well, what would Jesus do? What should I do as a citizen of God's kingdom? I may be an American or a Bolivian or a German or wherever I am, but I am first and foremost, in some ways, a citizen of the kingdom.
I've had people say to me, "Well," you know, or the question came up when John F. Kennedy ran for the presidency. I'm really old, but even I'm not quite old enough to remember that one as an adult, but I know that the issue was, where was his primary loyalty? Well, to be honest, the more I've learned about John F. Kennedy, I have no idea where his primary loyalty was. And certainly, I think not necessarily to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, but the question was then asked of Latter-day Saints, it was asked in Mitt Romney's case. So where's this first loyalty? To the United States or to the kingdom of God, as Mormons would say it? Well, I hope there's never a major conflict. But ultimately for me, if my country went totally wrong, if I were living in Nazi Germany under the Third Reich, yeah, my first loyalty is to the kingdom of God, not to this regime. I've got to have some heavenly, unchanging framework against which I judge everything I do and all my loyalties. And so to me, that's part of what it is to be all in. Does that make sense?
Morgan Jones 50:25
It makes complete sense. And I think it's such a good point. And I love that it ties into the conversation that we've had throughout this whole interview, because I think you have three men who, while they may have fallen away from the Church, their integrity was so vital to who they were. And I think integrity plays such a huge role in Latter-day Saints today, and what we should strive to be in terms of that honesty and accountability and responsibility.
I think, you know, you made the point about people giving a lot up to be members of the Church, and that has been true from the very beginning and will continue to be true, because we have a lay ministry, but I think being willing to lay it all on the on the altar is a huge part of being all in and so I appreciate that so much, Dan, thank you so much for this conversation it has been enlightening and educational for me. So I appreciate it. And thank you so much for your work on the film.
Daniel Peterson 51:26
Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Morgan Jones 51:30
We are so grateful to Dan Peterson for joining us on today's episode, you can visit witnessesfilm.com to find out how you can see witnesses for yourself. Thanks to Derek Campbell of Mix at Six studios for his help with this, and every, episode of this podcast. And thank you as always for listening.
As a reminder, the new "All In" book is available for pre-order now and with the code "ALLIN6" you can get 15% off. You can find that at Deserebook.com. We'll be with you again next week. Thank you so much for listening