Who authored the three-witness statement?

I have always assumed that the three-witness statement was a part of the text of the Book of Mormon, that its language was the same as the English language found in the Book of Mormon proper. The eight-witness statement, on the other hand, has been a little more problematic since it has three instances of the decidedly legalistic phrase “the said Smith” as well as the dubious reference (in the original version) to Joseph Smith as “the author and proprietor of this work”. In this post, I deal with the three-witness statement. In a related post, I will treat the eight-witness statement and argue that it was constructed in a completely different way.

In the recently published Joseph Smith Histories, 1832-1844, as part of the Joseph Smith Papers, there is a note on page 321 that makes the following statement about the authorship of the three-witness statement:

The earliest copy of the testimony that follows is found in the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon, in the handwriting of Oliver Cowdery. Cowdery likely was the author of the statement, given his writing abilities and similarities between the document and Cowdery’s 1829 correspondence to Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith.

This statement assumes, first of all, that Joseph himself did not have the writing ability to author the three-witness statement – or perhaps more importantly, it excludes the possibility that Joseph could have received the three-witness statement as a revealed text. In addition, there are these purported similarities with Cowdery’s letter writing in 1829 (when he was serving as scribe for Joseph Smith), but unfortunately there are no actual examples given of these similarities, nor is there any reference to some independent research that has been done on this issue.

In looking at the actual language of the three-witness statement, it becomes very clear that nearly every phrasal and clausal expression can be found within the Book of Mormon text itself. In fact, many are virtually identical. Moreover, the closest instances of similarity in usage are found throughout the text, not congregated in one section. Eight of the similarities come from two places in the text where the three witnesses are referred to (in 2 Nephi 27 and Ether 5). Yet the clear majority of similarities are found scattered throughout the text.

There are only three expressions that appear to be unique to the three-witness statement –  namely, two third-person imperative phrases (“be it known” and “the honor be”) plus the noun phrase “the engravings thereon” (the noun honor and the adverbial thereon do occur in the text). The evidence is overwhelming that the language in the three-witness statement is no different in kind from the Book of Mormon language. I would argue that all these specific parallels show that the source for the English-language translation of the Book of Mormon is also the source for the three-witness statement. In other words, it was most likely revealed word for word to Joseph Smith, just like the book itself.

In the Yale edition of the Book of Mormon (The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, Yale University Press, 2009), I refer to the witness statements as extracanonical, which means that the text is canonical but not part of the original text of the Book of Mormon per se. The findings of the analysis here supports the designation of the three-witness statement as extracanonical.

In the following analysis of the phrases and expressions in the three-witness statement, I provide from the Book of Mormon text the closest examples with the language of the three-witness statement (the overlap in the language is bolded). I exclude as possible examples cases where the most similar expression occurs in the eight-witness statement or in biblical quotes in the Book of Mormon.

“the testimony of three witnesses”

er0504 and the testimony of three and this work … and all this shall stand as a testimony against the world at the last day
2n2908 the testimony of two nations is a witness unto you that I am God
er0504 and in the mouth of three witnesses shall these things be established

“be it known unto all nations kindreds tongues and people”

3n2725 for by them shall their works be known unto men
1n0518 that these plates of brass should go forth unto all nations kindreds tongues and people which were of his seed

“unto whom this work shall come” [this work is equivalent to this record ]

mn0708 not only in this record but also in the record which shall come unto the Gentiles which record shall come from the Gentiles unto you
er0504 and the testimony of three and this work … and all this shall stand as a testimony against the world at the last day

“that we through the grace of God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ”

2n1024 it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved
mi0702 and it is by the grace of God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ and his holy will … that I am permitted to speak unto you at this time

“have seen the plates which contain this record” [in the example the verb shew implies see]

er0502 ye may be privileged that ye may shew the plates unto those who shall assist to bring forth this work
mh0103 were it not for these plates which contain these records and these commandments / we must have suffered in ignorance

“which is a record of the people of Nephi and also of the Lamanites his brethren”

title page it is an abridgment of the record of the people of Nephi and also of the Lamanites
aa1914 now Ammon seeing the Spirit of the Lord poured out … upon the Lamanites his brethren

“and also of the people of Jared which came from the tower”

title page from the book of Ether also / which is a record of the people of Jared
hn0628 and it was that same being which led on the people which came from that tower into this land

“of which hath been spoken”

aa2716 he and his brethren met Alma over in the place of which has been spoken

“and we also know that they have been translated”

1n1728 and ye also know that they were fed with manna in the wilderness
mh0812 for I am desirous that these records should be translated into our language

“by the gift and power of God”

oi0120 and he did interpret the engravings by the gift and power of God

“for his voice hath declared it unto us”

aa1322 yea and the voice of the Lord by the mouth of angels doth declare it unto all nations

“wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true”

er0503 wherefore they shall know of a surety that these things are true
er0502 that ye may shew the plates unto those who shall assist to bring forth this work

“and we also testify that we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates”

3n1202 ye shall testify that ye have seen me
1n1323 and it is a record like unto the engravings which are upon the plates of brass

“and they have been shewn unto us by the power of God”

hn1515 had the mighty works been shewn unto them which have been shewn unto you
er0503 and unto three shall they be shewn by the power of God

“and not of man”

aa3308 when they cry unto thee to be heard of thee and not of men

“and we declare with words of soberness”

aa4231 declare the word with truth and soberness
jb0605 I beseech of you in words of soberness that ye would repent

“that an angel of God came down from heaven”

aa1009 wherefore I know he is a holy man because it was said by an angel of God
hn0545 the Holy Spirit of God did come down from heaven

“and he brought and laid before our eyes”

3n2308 and when Nephi had brought forth the records and laid them before him
mn0508 such an awful scene of blood and carnage as was laid before mine eyes

“that we beheld and saw the plates and the engravings thereon”

1n1220 I beheld and saw the people of the seed of my brethren
2n2719 the Lord God will deliver again the book and the words thereof
mh0811 and there is no one in the land that is able to interpret the language or the engravings that are on the plates
aa3704 they shall know of the mysteries contained thereon

“and we know that it is by the grace of God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ”

mi0702 and it is by the grace of God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ and his holy will … that I am permitted to speak unto you at this time

“that we beheld and bare record that these things are true”

1n1010 he should behold and bear record that he had baptized the Lamb of God
er0411 and he shall know and bear record / for because of my Spirit he shall know that these things are true

“and it is marvelous in our eyes”

mn0916 are not the things that God hath wrought marvelous in our eyes

“nevertheless the voice of the Lord commanded us”

1n1609 the voice of the Lord spake unto my father by night and commanded him that on the morrow he should take his journey into the wilderness

“that we should bear record of it”

3n1721 and the multitude bare record of it

“wherefore to be obedient unto the commandments of God”

2n0531 wherefore I Nephi to be obedient to the commandments of the Lord went and made these plates
1n2230 and they testify that a man must be obedient to the commandments of God

“we bear testimony of these things” [the noun testimony implies the verb testify]

2n2713 and there is none other which shall view it save it be a few according to the will of God to bear testimony of his word unto the children of men
hn0822 Nephi also testified of these things

“and we know that if we are faithful in Christ”

2n2713 I know that if ye shall follow the Son with full purpose of heart
mi0925 my son / be faithful in Christ

“we shall rid our garments of the blood of all men”

mn0935 that we may rid our garments of the blood of our brethren

“and be found spotless before the judgment seat of Christ”

title page that ye may be found spotless at the judgment seat of Christ
er1238 until we shall meet before the judgment seat of Christ where all men shall know that my garments are not spotted with your blood

“and shall dwell with him eternally in the heavens” [him refers to God]

3n2840 and to be received into the kingdom of the Father / to go no more out but to dwell with God eternally in the heavens

“and the honor be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost which is one God / Amen”

aa6036 I seek not for honor of the world / but for the glory of my God
mn0707 to sing ceaseless praises with the choirs above unto the Father and unto the Son and unto the Holy Ghost which is one God
2n3121 this is the doctrine of Christ and the only and true doctrine of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost which is one God without end / Amen

Royal Skousen is editor of the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project and professor of linguistics and English language at Brigham Young University.

11 comments for “Who authored the three-witness statement?

  1. Kevin Barney
    June 1, 2012 at 8:31 pm

    I’m glad you’re addressing these authorship questions here, Royal. Very interesting!

    (I take it that your argument the text was revealed to Joseph does *not* entail that the text was anciently composed [by Moroni or whoever]. If I am wrong and that really is what you mean to say, could you comment further about that? How would such a thing have worked?)

  2. Aaron Tady
    June 1, 2012 at 8:58 pm

    Is it also possible that Oliver Cowdery wrote the Three Witness statement, and we see many of the parallels you note above because Oliver was so steeped in the language of the Book of Mormon. At that point, Oliver had written large portions of the Book of Mormon text twice (once as it was dictated to him by Joseph and again as he created the printer’s manuscript), and he many have also been intensely studying church organization in the Book of Mormon, as described in Scott Faulring’s article “The Book of Mormon: A Blueprint for Organizing the Church” in BYU Studies (http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/jbms/?vol=7&num=1&id=171) Could it be that Oliver’s extreme familiarity with the language of the Book of Mormon simply seeped into the three witnesses statement as he wrote it?

  3. June 1, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    My initial thought was to question what the threshold for deciding something was revealed instead of synthesized. The next would be to suggest Cowdery. Wouldn’t his 1829 Articles document bear a similar lexical similarity?

  4. June 1, 2012 at 9:41 pm

    Ditto the observations about OC being familiar with the BoM, and drawing heavily on it in the composition of the Articles doc. I like this careful laying out of parallel language, Royal, thank you.

  5. James Olsen
    June 1, 2012 at 10:13 pm

    Fascinating parallels, Royal. I think J Stapley’s allusion is the right one – we need not say it was revealed word for word to JS through a seer stone in order to claim it as direct revelation. Ditto on how we account for the tight connection between the statement and the verses in the BofM dealing with the three witnesses.

  6. Jack
    June 2, 2012 at 5:59 am

    I’m curious about the assumption you note that Joseph did not have the writing ability to author this statement. We know that his preferred method of working was to dictate his thoughts and/or revelations to scribes, such as Oliver, but I’m wondering if that assumption about his writing ability is correct. Joseph was not illiterate; he knew how to read and write. How well he could write is another question. I’ve always felt that his mind was always racing along at 60 miles an hour and he needed to dictate to someone else in order not to slow things down. Anyway, I appreciate your post and find it very interesting.

  7. Bob
    June 2, 2012 at 6:12 am

    I think you have a good point. In my ‘hayday’, I could dictate much faster than I could write, but they were still my words.

  8. Mason
    June 2, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    Perhaps the book of mormon is not the word of god and is not what it claims to be and Oliver simply had a clear hand in writing both of these document from his own mind…

    Just a thought.

  9. June 2, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    Mason: There seems little if any evidence for Oliver Cowdery’s having participated in the writing of the Book of Mormon, but considerable evidence to the contrary (including, for example, the signs pointing to the Original Manuscript’s having been orally dictated).

  10. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    June 3, 2012 at 10:07 am

    Joseph had already received several revelations which he dictated to Cowdery during the translation of the Book of Mormon, so the witness statement could be just.one more of them. Since Joseph led them in prayer, and was in effect a witness corroborating the separate experiences of Cowdery and Whitmer, on the one hand, and Harris on the other, it would have been appropriate for him to offer an account that matched the two events into a single testimony. If Cowdery had authoted the statement based on his experience, Harris would.have needed to examine it to confirm it also represented his own vision. We are familiar with Cowdery’s rhapsodic account of the visit of John the Baptist, which is full of the emotional response cues that writers of the time often indulged in, but is distinct from the more objective language that Joseph uses in accounts like his 1838 history.

    So dictation by Joseph and composition by Oliver both seem to be legitimate alternatives to me.

  11. Adam
    June 7, 2012 at 5:25 pm

    In what sense is a witness testimony a “revelation”? That seems to stretch the word past the breaking point.

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