Hey guys, so after Joseph Smith’s death, a recent convert named James Strang claimed to be Joseph’s successor. We’ve already done a couple of episodes about Strang which you should go watch if you haven’t yet. They will provide you with some important context. But there’s more to Strang’s story that we need to talk about. On September 13th, 1845, Strang gathered 4 witnesses who dug where Strang had instructed and discovered a tiny set of 3 plates called the Voree plates or the Rajah Manchou plates. You can read the testimony of the 4 witnesses here. Years later, Strang revealed another set of plates to 7 witnesses — purportedly the brass plates of Laban mentioned in the Book of Mormon. You can read the testimony of the 7 witnesses here.
Clearly, the testimonies of these 11 witnesses were meant to parallel the testimonies of the 11 witnesses found in the pages preceding the Book of Mormon. As Latter-day Saints know, none of the 11 official Book of Mormon witnesses ever denied their published testimony, even after separating from the Church and falling out with Joseph Smith. However, Latter-day Saint critics are quick to point out that none of Strang’s witnesses ever directly deny their testimonies either.
This causes some people to wonder, why should we believe the Book of Mormon witnesses, when Strang’s witnesses made similar claims which they never denied? Clearly just having witnesses isn’t anything special, right? Well, let’s talk about it.
One of the challenges with this topic is that it’s really easy for people to fall into what is called the false-equivalence fallacy, which is “a logical fallacy that occurs when someone incorrectly asserts that two or more things are equivalent, simply because they share some characteristics, despite the fact that there are also notable differences between them. For example, a false equivalence is saying that cats and dogs are the same animal since they’re both mammals and have a tail.” There are notable differences between Strang’s witnesses and Joseph’s witnesses that, in my mind, render them incomparable.
For example, Much ado is made about Strang’s witnesses never directly denying their testimony, even after leaving Strang’s church. But here’s the deal: When it comes to the Book of Mormon witnesses, not only do they never deny their testimonies, but we have records upon records showing that many of them, especially David Whitmer, reaffirmed and actively defended their testimony throughout their lives and even on their deathbeds. Some records are first-hand, some are not. But the point is — there is a significant paper trail.
When it comes to Strang’s witnesses, frankly, I can’t find a single solitary statement, first-hand or otherwise, from any of them reaffirming or defending their testimony after separating from Strang’s movement. So, sure, they never directly deny their testimony. But this wasn’t something they were defending throughout their lives, it was something that they just apparently never really talked about again. Some of Strang’s witnesses don’t even have entries in the indexes of the books I looked through while researching this topic.
And the phrase “never directly deny” is important here. For example, in 1855 a Strangite counsel stripped one of the 7 witnesses, Samuel Bacon, of his office. “Warren Post, who presented the resolution, later wrote that Bacon had ‘denied the work being done was the inspiration of God,’ and had called it ‘human invention.’” It’s not a direct denial, as it’s not a first-hand statement, but it is from a believing Strangite. So, take it for what it’s worth.
Now, it’s important to note that when the Strang witnesses describe in their testimonies what they experienced — digging up plates, etc. — I believe them. Strang really did have metal plates. For a time he had some of them on display for anyone to see. In that sense, it doesn’t bother me that they never denied their testimonies because I wouldn’t expect them to. They really did experience these things. The question is not about the reality of the plates, the question is about the authenticity of the plates.
Some sources do claim that Strang and some friends created the Voree plates and the plates of Laban. However, the sources are admittedly not first-hand, so feel free to read them and assign value to them as you see fit.
But this leads us to another significant difference between these groups of witnesses: the 3 witnesses of the Book of Mormon plates testified that they’d been shown the plates by an angel. There was absolutely nothing supernatural about the experiences of any of the Strang witnesses. Faking plates would be hard enough, but I imagine that faking the presence of an angel of God would be significantly more difficult. Mixing the miraculous witness of the 3 with the natural witness of the 8 makes their combined witness all the more challenging to shrug off.
But it’s also worth noting that the size and composition of Joseph’s plates and Strang’s plates were very different. And the length, intricacy, and genre of the resulting translations are also vastly different. Despite some superficial similarities, ultimately, we’re dealing with different people, in different situations, who experienced different things. From a Latter-day Saint perspective, they do not stand or fall together, and they do not occur in a vacuum. There are countless factors beyond the witnesses that play into how people make judgment calls on this stuff. Nonetheless, in my opinion, these witnesses really are not comparable. It’s entirely reasonable to believe Joseph’s witnesses and not believe Strang’s witnesses.
Of course, feel free to check out the resources in the YouTube description and come to your own conclusions. Watch some of our other videos while you’re here. We’re not quite done with this subject. In the next episode we’ll be diving into another aspect of the James Strang controversy, so if you have questions I didn’t address in this episode, stay tuned, we might get around to them in the next episode. We’ll see you there! Have a great day.
- Contact the Strangites: https://bit.ly/2ZEVwaP
- See some of our other videos on the Book of Mormon witnesses here: https://bit.ly/3q0gcVN
- “James Strang’s Witnesses” via The CES Letter, a Closer Look: https://bit.ly/3mCMtA0
- Strang biographer William Shepard series: https://bit.ly/2ZSvUHD
- Historian D. Michael Quinn on Strang: https://bit.ly/3BBpMQT
- “LDS Followers of Strang”, via The CES Letter, a Closer Look: https://bit.ly/3pS2Lai
- “The Diary of James J. Strang” deciphered and transcribed by his grandson, Mark Strang: https://bit.ly/3BT32wK
- Scans of original diary of James Strang: https://bit.ly/2XxJI9m
- Facsimile and “translation” of Voree plates: https://bit.ly/3b2rEHH
- Fairmormon’s treatment of this issue: https://bit.ly/2ZqT5bp / https://bit.ly/3CjphfE
- “Chauncy Loomis” article in the Saints Herald (pg. 718-719): https://bit.ly/313xI0S
- “Isaac F. Scott” article in the Saints Herald (pg. 831-833): https://bit.ly/313xI0S
- Some Strangite apologetics (“Prophetic Controversy #4): https://bit.ly/315zeQ3