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Witnesses to the Truth

Aloha Brothers and Sisters

I thank you for your attendance today.  It has truly been an honor and a privilege to teach here at BYU-Hawaii for the past 15 years and it’s especially an honor to speak at this devotional today.

In my talk today I would like to pose a question to all of you. 

What is the value of an honest witness to the truth? 

As stated in the devotional scripture, by the power of God three witnesses would be shown the plates so that it would be known beyond any doubt that the Lord had brought forth the restoration through his prophet Joseph Smith. Brother Joseph would not have to stand alone, three witnesses would now share the burden of testifying to the world of the absolute truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.

As those that have taken my constitutional law class know, the right of a defendant to call witnesses in his defense is a corner stone of Anglo American jurisprudence. The Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution gives us the solemn right to subpoena witnesses and compel the court to allow them to testify.  A powerful witness can make all the difference in a trial and the resulting verdict of a jury.  We even have mechanisms to test the truthfulness of a witness: oaths given before testimony, cross examinations of witnesses during testimony and if a witness lies under oath he can be sent to jail for perjury.

I came of age in the Sixties.  Most commentaries about that decade say it was a turbulent time.  It certainly was for me.  The war in Vietnam and the compulsory draft were tearing apart the nation.  I had been accepted to a small prestigious liberal arts college and after two years I was not happy. I decided to try something quite different so I applied to BYU Provo. As a junior I soon learned that I was required to take a Book of Mormon religion class with the incoming freshman class.       

Having grown up in a part member family not attending seminary, and barely going to church, I had never even read the first chapter of the Book of Mormon.  I remember when the first test was coming up for the class.  I was standing with some other students and said “Well I guess I’ll have to read the Book of Mormon this weekend.”  I can still recall the quizzical look one girl gave me.  Obviously she knew that my stated goal would be a little bit more of an event than I thought it would be.  This was not some ordinary piece of college literature such as a Shakespeare play or a classic novel. 

Well it turned out to be, by no exaggeration, a truly life changing experience.  As I read this sacred work I remember thinking this is no ordinary book, this is different.  Then as many of you can also witness, a very unique feeling of goodness came over me and I knew of a surety that this was the word of God.            

Luckily I was alone in the apartment because I started wandering around talking out loud to myself, and then the real life changing experience happened. I said to myself, “Well if this is true, what do I need to do?”  And the clear answer came: something that I had truly never even thought about.  The answer was that I should go on a mission. And so I did.  I spent two wonderful spirit filled years teaching and learning from the Saints in the Philippines.

This experience truly changed my life.

In my talk today I would first like to examine the veracity and the truthfulness of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon. Then I would like to speak about how their testimonies can affect our testimony, and finally I’d like to talk a little about the workings of the spirit in our own lives.

In Section 5 of the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord tells Joseph Smith:

And in addition to your testimony, the testimony of three of my servants, whom I shall call and ordain, unto whom I will show these things, and they shall go forth with my words that are given through you.

Yea, they shall know of a surety that these things are true, for from heaven will I declare it unto them.

I will give them power that they may behold and view these things as they are;

And to none else will I grant this power, to receive this same testimony among this generation, in this the beginning of the rising up and the coming forth of my church out of the wilderness--clear as the moon, and fair as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners.

As we can see from what the Lord tells Joseph, the three witnesses are extremely important. They will know of a surety that the Book of Mormon is true because the Lord will personally declare it unto them.  The three witnesses will also be the only ones to have an angel show them the golden plates, and have the privilege of seeing the sword of Laban, the breastplate, and the Urim and Thummim.

I really feel that as we inspect the three witnesses lives, the struggles they had, and the awesome responsibility they felt to testify of the vision that it will further strengthen our testimony of the Book of Mormon.

The three witnesses were very different men, but they had some very similar traits also.  David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery were just beginning their careers in their twenties, but Martin Harris was already a successful farmer of some reputation for his woolen and linen products. He also had the respect of the community having been elected to local political offices. 

Oliver was somewhat of an intellectual for the times. Later in his life he was admitted to the bar and became a respected lawyer and held offices in the Democratic Party. 

David became a respected community businessman running a small but successful livery stable and transportation company.

All of them were known for their honesty and integrity. 

And all of them throughout their lives spoke with great reverence about the spirit filled times at the Whitmer farm when the power of God brought forth the Book of Mormon.  They remembered the nights of extended family gatherings when Joseph would read the day’s translations of the golden plates.

The three witnesses had no idea of the responsibility and the trials that lay ahead of them.  But they knew one thing of a surety that the heavens had spoken to them, they had seen the angel and the plates, and they had been told that they should be witnesses for all time and never deny what they had seen and heard. 

Both David and Martin were fond of saying in their later lives that they did not believe in the heavenly vision and the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. They didn’t believe, they knew, they knew of a surety that it was true.  Like Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus they could not deny what they had seen. 

In early church history all three men were prominent personalities and important parts of God’s plans for the restoration of his church.  As many of you know Martin provided the funds necessary to print the first edition of the Book of Mormon. 

Oliver was essential in the restoration of the Priesthood and more than 80 percent of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon was in his handwriting. He was one of the very first missionaries of the church fulfilling an arduous and successful mission to the American Indians.

David Whitmer held high leadership positions in the church in both Kirtland and Missouri.  In Missouri he was tarred and feathered during the persecutions for his beliefs.  They all provided very different but essential needs to the infant church in New York, Ohio and Missouri.

And also as many of you know, all three men came into conflict with the leadership of Joseph Smith.  They all stated that this was one of the main reasons they left the church.  This of course gives us great cause to seriously reflect upon the lives of each of these three men. 

I think the talk of President Uchtdorf at last October’s General Conference helps to enlighten us with a further understanding of the early saints.  Speaking of these early members President Uchtdorf stated:

They had many great traits that allowed them to make significant contributions to the Restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ. But they were also human, weak, and fallible just as you and I are. We might have a tendency to judge these brethren and other members like them. We might say, “I would never have abandoned the Prophet Joseph.”  While that may be true, we don’t really know what it was like to live in that time, in those circumstances.

No, they were not perfect, but how encouraging it is to know that God was able to use them anyway. He knew their strengths and weaknesses, and He gave them the extraordinary opportunity to contribute a verse or a melody to the glorious anthem of the Restoration.

Introspection into the lives of the three witnesses, once they left the church, actually confirms and strengthens the validity of their testimonies and their credibility as witnesses.  Once out of the church all of them continued to be persecuted for their testimony and found it difficult to blend into non-church society.  Constantly they were tested and tried and asked to deny their testimony.  None of them did.  They had no financial reason or reason of status to stand by their testimonies. In fact just the opposite was true, they had every reason to deny their witnesses.  It would have been much easier to blend into non-church society if they had just denied their witnesses.  But they couldn’t because it was the truth.

I would just like to tell you a single instance in each one of their lives, after they left the church, that will help us understand their commitment to their testimonies, their witness to the truth.

Martin Harris. When the body of the Saints went west, Martin Harris remained in Ohio and continued his relationship with members of the unstable Kirtland branch.  He was affiliated with several off shoots of the church but he was never satisfied with these counterfeits to the true gospel.  He was rebaptized in 1842 by Nauvoo missionaries.  Martin always contended that the church left him when the body of the saints departed from Ohio, and his second wife left him and immigrated to Utah. Prior to Martin’s own immigration to Utah in the last years of his life, missionaries and other members traveling east would stop in to see the aging Book of Mormon witness in Ohio.  David B. Dille traveling to England stopped by to visit the ailing and aged Martin in the 72nd year of his life. He relates that when Martin bore his testimony it seemed to reinvigorate his weak frame. He then insisted on getting dressed and spending the rest of the day recounting the wonders of the restoration.  Elder Dille stated the missionary spirit was very strong in BrotherHarris.

Martin proclaimed during their meeting, “Just let me go with you to England. You do the preaching, and I will bear testimony of the Book of Mormon, and we will convert all of England.”... 

I will bear testimony of the Book of Mormon, and we will convert all of England.

Oliver Cowdery. After his falling out with the Prophet, Oliver spent a decade away from the church before his rebaptism.  During this time he practiced law in Ohio building a reputation as an honest, sincere, upright citizen, who even ran for and was elected to political office.  But even with all his effort to keep a low profile away from the church Oliver was constantly ridiculed and called upon to defend his role as one of the three witnesses.  I’d like relate to you one of the more famous stories as told by George Q. Canon:

During a trial the opposing attorney tried to obtain an advantage by identifying Oliver as one of the three witnesses to the Mormon’s Golden Bible.  He knew that Oliver did not in anyway profess to be a Mormon and he thought this revelation would “Cover Mr. Cowdery with confusion.”         

But instead of the expected outcome, Oliver arose from his seat and clearly and resolutely replied to the entire court, "Whatever my faults and weaknesses might be, the testimony I have written, and which I have given to the world, is literally true..."

The testimony I have written, and which I have given to the world is literally true.

David Whitmer. After leaving the church David Whitmer settled in Missouri and became a well-respected citizen of the town of Richmond. David is the witness whose testimony has been recorded the most because he lived so long. He died in 1888 at the age of 83.  He was interviewed hundreds of times by many important editors and newspaper reporters of his time.  And by members of the church who wanted to hear the words of the last surviving witness to the heavenly manifestation. He never in all these interviews deviated in the least from his written testimony. Towards the end of his life he alluded to the fact that thousands of people had sought his comments, as many as 15 to 20 a day.  This posed no small problem to David who had the practical responsibilities of the farm and his livery business.  One incident is telling of the responsibility that he felt.

An LDS missionary, Elder Moon wanted to have David talk to one of his contacts who had read the Book of Mormon.

They arrived at the Whitmer farm unannounced at dinnertime, after dark, and after an especially trying day in which David was caring for sick family members.  David after a while tried to avoid the Elder by going to the livery stable to perform a necessary errand.  The Elder persisted by following him and explaining that he had with him what we would call today a golden contact that wanted to hear David’s testimony.  David Whitmer’s sense of duty about his testimony overcame his personal irritability.  He turned to Elder Moon’s contact and stated.

“Well God Almighty requires at my hand to bear testimony of the Book of Mormon.  It is the pure gospel of Jesus Christ, translated from the plates by the gift and power of God by Joseph Smith.  I know I tell the truth.”...

 I know I tell the truth.

Our Testimony

The honesty and strength of conviction in all three witnesses is clear and overwhelming. 

But these witnesses can only be the beginning of our testimony of the Book of Mormon. 

The truth of their testimonies is undeniable, but at the end of the day it is their testimony not ours.  The apostles saw and felt the wounds in the palms, feet, and side of the Savior.  They had a testimony of the truth, but we need to have our own testimony of the Savior’s divinity.

In the Book of Mormon we read in Alma 32 that a testimony is compared to a seed.  This is a wonderful analogy because of the nature of the growth and progression of a seed.  The Savior uses a similar analogy in the Parable of the Sower which many of you are familiar with from the New Testament.  Let’s apply the test as set forth in Alma 32.  Let’s give place in our hearts for the word.  In this case the testimony of the three witnesses.  We research their lives, their contributions to the church and most importantly the book that they said was translated by the power of God from golden plates.

It states in Alma chapter 32 verse 28:

Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.

Because of this experience you know that the word is true.  You are beyond mere belief because the Spirit has testified to you.

You know it’s true, not because of some logic of your intellect but because of something outside of yourself, which is not your mind’s creation. Deity has revealed truth to you.  This is something so amazing yet it is little understood, and even less treasured by the world.  A good friend of mine Jack Ruston, with whom I served in a bishopric, once told me an interesting experience he had relating to this. 

He was getting an advanced degree in philosophy at U.S.C.  In one class they were discussing the different methods of deriving at the truth.  The professor discussed inductive reasoning, deductive reasoning, the scientific method, and other logic constructs.  Then as the class finished he stated rather flippantly “Oh yes and some people believe you can obtain the truth by revelation.”  This caused the class to laugh as they exited the room.  And Jack just remained in his seat musing how the professor had just made a joke out of what was the very foundation of his belief system.

In Alma 32:38 it states, "But if ye neglect the tree, and take no thought for its nourishment, behold it will not get any root; and when the heat of the sun cometh and scorcheth it, because it hath no root it withers away, and ye pluck it up and cast it out."

This is where the analogy of the seed becomes very powerful.  Though you now know the word is true, if you neglect the spirit of truth that is now within you, like a small fragile plant the importance of this truth will wither and die.  Or as is stated in the New Testament Parable of the Sower, the growing plant could be choked out by weeds that represent the materialistic cares of the world.

Free Will

One of the things that I have come to realize more than almost anything else in my life is that we, as God’s creatures here upon the earth, have free will.  This will never be taken away from us, as is so beautifully stated in the hymn  Know This that Every Soul is Free:  “God will force no man to heaven.”

Angels may appear and you can have experiences that are undeniably the whisperings of the Holy Ghost, but if you do not exercise free will and conform your life to be guided by the Spirit, your testimony will not grow beyond your initial experiences.  Our testimony like a seed cannot stay dormant forever, it needs to grow or it will perish. 

So going back to our test.  You have a spiritual experience, you know the truth, now what do you do?  I’ve thought about this a lot.  And in my ponderings I’ve come to the following impressions.  I think the Lord gives us these initial spiritual experiences as our own unique very personal witness. 

This is much like the wonderful feeling of God’s love that Lehi experienced when he gained the Tree of Life.  But after tasting of the fruit what did Lehi do?  He immediately looked around to see where his family was.  He wanted to have others gain the truth also, he wanted to do God’s work and have others experience his great joy.

As I said in the beginning of my talk, many years ago in college I had a conversation with the Spirit: I said, “If this is true, now what?”  The answer to that question came as I felt the distinct impression to go on a mission. 

And this is where we find, once again, the beauty of the gospel.  As we continue in the work of the Spirit, we are blessed with many more spiritual experiences. Many of you in this devotional have gone on missions and can testify that some of your most precious experiences with the Spirit are the ones where God directed you in teaching, healing, or comforting the body of the church on your mission. 

And following Alma’s analogy these spiritual experiences turn the seed into a young sapling and then into a tree.  And as you continue to follow the Spirit your testimony can become a mighty tree to bless your life and the lives of others.

Challenges to Our Testimony

 As you can see by the analogy of the seed, we are always subject to free will. Our spiritual growth is continually dependent upon our present choices.

This becomes very difficult at times.  Things happen in our lives that strike a blow to our faith as we have seen so clearly in the lives of the three witnesses.  Maybe you feel that you have been treated unfairly by some leadership figure in the church or you are confused and worried by some crazy doctrine touted as a Mormon belief on the internet. Physical afflictions destroy your dreams of an active life.

You find it difficult almost impossible to provide a place for the Spirit in your life. You discontinue real fellowship with the saints and you stop seeking guidance in the scriptures.

Yes, it’s hard, but everyone, yes I believe everyone, will experience at some time in their lives these attacks on their testimony.

Though this is a daunting thought, we can find comfort in the understanding that even in  these circumstances we are truly free agents, we always have free will to choose our course.

I would like to tell you a story that I heard many years back that explains, I think in a very relatable way, this idea of free will.

There was a man in a small village.  Not a particularly good man but also not in any way a bad person, rather a person happy to travel through life with moderate ambitions enjoying the benefits and constraints of an average life.  One day while he was in the market place the old fellow, being a thrifty individual, noticed a string on the ground and bent over to pick it up.  Well unbeknownst to him that day a shopkeeper claimed that he had dropped his wallet in the market place and it had been taken.  A passerby saw the old fellow bend down and pick up something on the ground.  The innocent man was accused of stealing the wallet and arrested and put in jail overnight.  The next day the shopkeeper discovered when he got home that he had not even taken his wallet to the market.  The old gentleman was promptly released from jail and received apologies from all involved. 

A good end to the story right?  No it wasn’t. 

The old fellow could not let this jarring experience to his relatively uneventful life pass.  He told almost every one he had contact with after the incident of his unfair treatment.  He became obsessed with the thought that every one should know about how he was shamefully treated.  It was even said that on his deathbed he died muttering something about a string. 

We can let these troubles, this bad luck, this unfair treatment define us.

Or we can use our free will to put all this, no matter how difficult, behind us and become proactive in our search for the truth. 

We can diligently seek guidance by the Spirit now, or we can be like Oliver Cowdery wandering in the wilderness for a decade, trying to find an alternative to the Spirit of the true Church.  We can let the inevitable unfairness of the world and the lies of the adversary minimize and negate our testimony of the spiritual, or we can choose to do what’s necessary to drop these things from our thoughts and be directed by the Spirit.

This of course is individual to everyone.  Only you through your own prayers and ponderings will know what is necessary to regain free will and put your life on a spiritual path.

Today we examined the truthfulness of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon and how an understanding of their powerful testimonies can increase our testimony.  Also we spoke of the necessity of obtaining our own spiritual confirmation of the truth. And lastly the importance of using our free will to put behind us the difficulties that keep us alienated from the Spirit of Jesus Christ. 

I would like to end today by reading just a portion of the testimony of the three witnesses that can be found in every single copy of the Book of Mormon that our missionaries distribute throughout the world.

Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That we, through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, have seen the plates which contain this record...And we also know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true.

As we review their lives there is one thing that we can say with certainty.  Once the three witnesses knew that the Book of Mormon was true, once they were called to testify to the world of its truthfulness, their lives were changed forever.  They could not, they would not ever be the same.

As I reflected upon the truths mentioned today in this talk, I too realized that once I knew that the Book of Mormon was the word of God, my life also was never the same.  Brothers and Sisters I testify to you because of the Book of Mormon I’ve heard that still small voice, I know that God lives. I was introduced to a spiritual life that I never even knew existed. I’ve seen this change take place in others and I know it has happened to many of you.  I thank the Lord for His many miracles in my life.

And I say this in the name of Jesus Christ Amen.