Hey guys, so in past episodes, we’ve talked a lot about the official witnesses of the Book of Mormon plates — the 3 witnesses and the 8 witnesses. You can read their testimonies in the introductory pages of the Book of Mormon. A while back, we got the following question on TikTok regarding these testimonies: “I’ve been looking in vain, for days, trying to find the signed affidavits by these witnesses. Surely we have them, but where? Any help?” Unfortunately, this was a sarcastic comment from someone simply seeking to draw attention to the fact that we don’t have the original witness statements signed by the witnesses themselves. But sincere or not, this is a fair question and one worth talking about. Why don’t we have the original signed documents? And, is it a problem? Let’s talk about it.
Alright, the very first original Book of Mormon manuscript was completed probably in June of 1829. The 3 and 8 witnesses saw the plates around this same time. It appears that the original, signed testimonies from these witnesses were naturally kept with the rest of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon.
Immediately after completing the original manuscript, Oliver Cowdery (who was Joseph’s scribe and one of the 3 witnesses) made a handwritten copy of the original that the printer could then use to create the first printed edition of the Book of Mormon. We’ll call this copy the “Printer’s Manuscript.” Because this is a copy, the signatures of the witness statements all appear in Oliver’s handwriting.
In 1841, the original manuscript was placed in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House in order to preserve it. They even poured molten lead around the seams of the stone to create a better seal. An 1881 edition of the Deseret Evening News reported that “the names of the 3 witnesses [and presumably the 8], in their own handwriting,” had been appended to this original manuscript. But when the manuscript was finally removed from the cornerstone in 1882, it was discovered that despite their efforts, over time, water had seeped into the cornerstone, which, along with mold, badly damaged the original manuscript. “Of the nearly 500 pages placed in the Nauvoo House cornerstone, portions of 232 pages survive.” “Experts estimate that only 28 percent of the original manuscript remains.” Unfortunately, it appears that the original signed statements were among those pages that were completely destroyed.
Thus, the earliest available record of the testimonies of the 3 and 8 witnesses are from the Printer’s Manuscript, in Oliver Cowdery’s handwriting. But since we don’t have the originals, some critics have suggested that the witnesses never actually consented to having their names put on the documents at all. The idea is that if that’s true, then that undermines the validity of their testimony. It’s an interesting speculation, but the historic record simply does not support this theory.
After Oliver Cowdery’s death in 1850, he passed the Printer’s Manuscript on to another one of the 3 witnesses named David Whitmer. But David was, at least for a time, unaware that a copy of the original manuscript had been made. He believed he had the original. Unfortunately, the original was busy rotting away in Nauvoo.
In 1878 Joseph F. Smith and Orson Pratt interviewed David in the presence of several other people and were permitted to inspect his manuscript. “We found that the names of the eleven witnesses were, however, subscribed in the handwriting of Oliver Cowdery. When asked if he and the other witnesses did or did not sign the testimonies themselves, Mr. W. replied, ‘Each signed his own name.’” The interviewer then asked, “Then where are the original signatures?” David responded, “I don’t know, I suppose Oliver copied them, but this, I know, is an exact copy.” And since this was the Printer’s Manuscript, that’s exactly what we would expect to find.
It’s also important to remember that David and the other witnesses did not just up and die after these testimonies were published in 1830. If there had been any issue at all with what had been published, they had ample opportunity to call attention to it. Instead, as we’ve explored in other episodes, we have dozens upon dozens of statements from the witnesses reaffirming over and over again their testimony — even after falling out with Joseph Smith and separating from the Church, and even on their deathbeds in many cases. And yes, some statements even specifically refer back to signing their names. For example, John Whitmer, one of the 8 witnesses, said, “…the Book of Mormon is a revelation from God, I have no hesitancy, but with all confidence have signed my name to it as such … I desire to testify to all that will come to the knowledge of this address; that I have most assuredly seen the plates.”
So, no, we don’t have the original signed statements. But we do have …
A perfectly reasonable explanation for what happened to them. A lack of complaint from any of the witnesses regarding their published testimony. A wealth of positive statements from those same men reaffirming the veracity of the Book of Mormon. And testimony from various witnesses that specifically indicate that they did indeed sign their names to original documents.
In short, this is just not a claim that’s keeping me up at night. In my opinion, the witnesses continue to be a source of faith-affirming history for believers and a formidable hurdle for those looking to poke holes in Joseph Smith’s claims. Of course, you’re always free to come to your own conclusions.
If you want to dive deeper into this, check out the resources in the YouTube description. Watch some of our other videos while you’re here, especially the other episodes about the Book of Mormon witnesses, where we address various other claims and criticisms. Don’t forget to subscribe if you haven’t yet! And have a great day.
— Episode on David Whitmer here: https://bit.ly/3h0IirB
— Episode on Martin Harris here: https://bit.ly/3iTPbNh
— Episode on Oliver Cowdery here: https://bit.ly/3lQHUzw
— Episode on the 8 witnesses here: http://bit.ly/43aXg7W
— Episode on the “unofficial” witnesses here: https://bit.ly/3zCkzK0
— Episode on claims that Joseph Smith “hypnotized” the witnesses: https://bit.ly/3GgAZLW
— Episode analyzing common criticisms against the witnesses here (a good general summary): https://bit.ly/3m7NRx2
— “Evaluating the Book of Mormon Witnesses,” by Steven Harper (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/2Qtz9wP
— “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses,” by Richard Lloyd Anderson (Journal of Book of Mormon Studies): https://bit.ly/39uoxc6
— “The Church Historian’s Press Releases Landmark Volume on the Original Book of Mormon Manuscript” via the Church’s newsroom: https://bit.ly/3Gkehmm
— “No Document of Actual Signatures” via The CES Letter: A Closer Look: http://bit.ly/3mio2ua
— “Question: Did the Three Witnesses each add their own signature to the original Book of Mormon manuscript?” via FAIR: http://bit.ly/3KdKWef