Section 17: Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon
Almost immediately after Joseph discovered that three special witnesses to the Book of Mormon would be designated (see Ether 5:2-4; see also 2 Nephi 11:3; 27:12), Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer were each inspired with a desire to become one of the three special witnesses. As we learned in section 5 (verses 11-13; 24-28), Martin Harris had already been told by the Lord that he might be one of those special witnesses if he would humble himself. Similarly, Oliver Cowdery (D&C 6:25-28) and David Whitmer (D&C 14:8) had received the same promise from the Lord. They all urged Joseph Smith to inquire of the Lord to see if they might be granted this honor. Joseph did so, and through the Urim and Thummim in June 1829 he received section 17. For some reason, section 17 was not printed in the Book of Commandments in 1833 but was added to the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants (as were several other sections). It had been recorded in the Kirtland Revelation Book, a collection of revelations recorded in Kirtland during 1831-34—the early years there.
The three are told in this section that if they continue faithful, they will see the plates, the breast plate, the sword of Laban, the Urim and Thummim, and the Liahona. The three are also commanded to testify of the reality and divine purpose of the plates and the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.
D&C 17 The Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon
D&C 17:6 The Lord’s swears an oath that the Book of Mormon is true—As your Lord and your God liveth it is true.
1 Behold, I say unto you, that you must rely upon my word, which if you do with full purpose of heart, you shall have a view of the plates, and also of the breastplate, the sword of Laban, the Urim and Thummim, which were given to the brother of Jared upon the mount, when he talked with the Lord face to face, and the miraculous directors which were given to Lehi while in the wilderness, on the borders of the Red Sea.
verse 1 There are two grammatical problems in this verse. First, “Urim and Thummim” can take either a singular or plural verb. In this verse, a plural verb is used. Anyone reading it might surmise that the plates, breastplate, sword of Laban, and the Urim and Thummim were all given to the Brother of Jared. The verse intends to say, however, that only the Urim and Thummim once belonged to the Brother of Jared (see Ether 3:28).
The other problem is the term “miraculous directors.” This should be “miraculous director . . . was given” since the Liahona was never used in the plural in the Book of Mormon.
This verse makes the point that it is not just the text or the doctrine of the book that is true, but the historical account of events as well. Not only did the witnesses know that the book was of God, they also knew that it was based on real history and real people who really did what the book claims they did, for they saw for themselves the artifacts associated with that history. Thus, the testimony of the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon renders untenable the idea that the Book of Mormon may be inspired without being historical.
2 And it is by your faith that you shall obtain a view of them, even by that faith which was had by the prophets of old.
3 And after that you have obtained faith, and have seen them with your eyes, you shall testify of them, by the power of God;
verse 3 It is, of course, notable that all three men, following their special experience near the Peter Whitmer farm, bore individual witness to the book and its message for the rest of their lives. See the commentary for verse 5.
4 And this you shall do that my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., may not be destroyed, that I may bring about my righteous purposes unto the children of men in this work.
verse 4 One purpose of having the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon was to spread the burden of testifying among a few individuals that thus, the prophet Joseph was kept from being the single focus of the wrath of the world. Also, since God has provided three witnesses to the truth of his work, the hearers are left without excuse should they reject the testimony of multiple witnesses (see D&C 42:80; Deuteronomy 17:6; Matthew 18:16).
5 And ye shall testify that you have seen them, even as my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., has seen them; for it is by my power that he has seen them, and it is because he had faith.
verse 5 “And ye shall testify” Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris never faltered in bearing testimony of the truthfulness of the book of Mormon. As history attests, however, they did falter in other church-related areas. David Whitmer left the Church and never came back. Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris both left the Church but were eventually rebaptized and died in full fellowship. But ever while they were out of the Church, all three continued to bear solemn witness of the reality of their experience on that day. They undoubtedly felt the weight of the Lord’s warning to them to keep his commandments or the gates of hell would prevail against them.
The Richmond Democrat carried the following account of David Whitmer’s last moments on earth:
On Sunday evening, at 5:30 (January 22, 1888), Mr. Whitmer called his family and some friends to his bedside, and addressing himself to the attending physician, said: “Dr Buchanan, I want you to say whether or not I am in my right mind, before I give my dying testimony.” The doctor answered: “Yes, you are in your right mind, for I have just had a conversation with you.” He then addressed himself to all around his bedside in these words: “Now you must all be faithful in Christ. I want to say to you all, the Bible and the record of the Nephites (Book of Mormon) is true, so you can say that you have heard me bear my testimony on my death-bed. All be faithful in Christ, and your reward will be according to your works. God bless you all, my trust is in Christ forever, worlds without end. Amen” (Jenson, Biographical Encyclopedia, 1:270).
The last testimony of Martin Harris was given to William Harrison Homer, who was with him at the time of his death. Brother Homer recorded:
The next day, July 10, 1875, marked the end. It was in the evening. It was milking time, and Martin Harris, Jr., and his wife, Nancy Homer Harris, had gone out to milk and to do the evening’s chores. In the house with the stricken man were left my mother, Eliza Williamson Homer, and myself. . . . I stood by the bedside holding the patient’s right hand and my mother at the foot of the bed. Martin Harris had been unconscious for a number of days. When we first entered the room the old gentleman appeared to be sleeping. He soon woke up and asked for a drink of water. I put my arm under the old gentleman, raised him, and my mother held the glass to his lips. He drank freely, then he looked up at me and recognized me. He said, “I know you. You are my friend.” He said, “Yes, I did see the plates on which the Book of Mormon was written; I did see the angel; I did hear the voice of God; and I do know that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God, holding the keys of the Holy Priesthood.” This was the end. Martin Harris, divinely-chosen witness of the work of God, relaxed, gave up my hand. He lay back on his pillow and just as the sun went down behind the Clarkston mountains, the soul of Martin Harris passed on (New Witness for Christ, 1:253-54).
verses 3-5 The three witnesses fulfilled an important law established by the Lord. Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote:
Whenever the Lord has established a dispensation by revealing his gospel and by conferring priesthood and keys upon men, he has acted in accordance with the law of witnesses which he himself ordained. This law is: “In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established” (2 Corinthians 13:1; Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15; Matthew 18:15-16; John 8:17-18).
Never does one man stand alone in establishing a new dispensation of revealed truth, or in carrying the burden of such a message and warning to the world. In every dispensation, from Adam to the present, two or more witnesses have always joined their testimonies, thus leaving their hearers without excuse in the day of judgment should the testimony be rejected (Mormon Doctrine, 436).
6 And he has translated the book, even that part which I have commanded him, and as your Lord and your God liveth it is true.
verse 6 The Lord bears simple and powerful testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. Bruce R. McConkie wrote:
One of the most solemn oaths ever given to man is found in these words of the Lord relative to Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon [verse 6 is quoted].
This is God’s testimony of the Book of Mormon. In it Deity himself has laid his Godhood on the line. Either the book is true or God ceases to be God. There neither is nor can be any more formal or powerful language known to men or Gods (Ensign, May 1982, 33).
The Lord’s solemn oath does not mean that the text of the Book of Mormon is inerrant. Inerrant means infallible and free from error. There might be printer’s errors, copyists’ errors, or other human errors. The book itself, however, both in its historical claims and in its doctrines, remains true.
7 Wherefore, you have received the same power, and the same faith, and the same gift like unto him;
verse 7 The testimony that the three witnesses would have for themselves would have the same fundamental bases as Joseph Smith’s testimony. They would have a witness beyond faith. They would know with their physical senses.
8 And if you do these last commandments of mine, which I have given you, the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; for my grace is sufficient for you, and you shall be lifted up at the last day.
verse 8 “these last commandments of mine” This phrase refers to the commandments just delivered to them in verses 3-6. These three men are promised that if they would do all that they were instructed in this revelation, the Lord’s grace would be sufficient to ensure their exaltation.
“you shall be lifted up at the last day” To be “lifted up” is to receive one’s celestial resurrection. The term “lifted up” might also refer either to the living who will be caught up to meet the Lord on his return to this earth or to the “dead in Christ” who will be resurrected and raised up to the celestial heaven.
9 And I, Jesus Christ, your Lord and your God, have spoken it unto you, that I might bring about my righteous purposes unto the children of men. Amen.
- Michael J. Preece