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Much is made of the fact that the Three Witnesses, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris and David Whitmer, were excommunicated. Had they been in complicity with Joseph Smith in the spurious production of the Book of Mormon there was nothing to stop them exposing the fraud once they were out of the Church, but they did not.Each maintained his account of seeing the angel Moroni and of handling the gold plates. Two of the three re-joined the Church. The claim that they lied about their experience because Joseph had some kind of hold over them or that after Joseph's death they continued their silence because they feared reprisal from the Church is a nonsense. No evidence has ever been produced in support of this claim. The lives of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon have been thoroughly investigated by Richard Lloyd Anderson who concludes that they maintained their testimonies in firm and honourable fashions to the ends of their lives.
Details of the interest, antagonism and persecution that resulted from Joseph Smith's announcement that he would publish another book of scripture are well preserved in contemporary documents. It commenced before the Book of Mormon was published or the Church founded, springing from two major factors. First, Joseph's claim to have seen the Father and the Son in open vision. A Methodist minister friend in whom he confided told him "it was all of the devil". Joseph wrote,
My telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution, which continued to increase.
The minister did not deny the reality of Joseph's experience. He accepted that he had a vision, but his understanding was coloured by theological necessity which dictated that heavenly visions had ceased. It is interesting to contemplate that while the clergyman could not assign a heavenly origin to the vision, he could charge it to a diabolical one; affirming to the Devil the power he denied to God. This demonstrates the difficulty people experience when faced by a reality that they are unable to believe. That was the difficulty facing the Reverend Lane, and also the principle cause of Joseph gaining his reputation as a "notorious liar, etc." The minister's response was dictated by his place, time and culture. Only those who did not hold the historical Trinitarian position could consider giving credence to Joseph's story.
The second major factor in the persecution of Joseph Smith was the story that he had some gold plates in his possession.
No sooner was it known that I had them, than the most strenuous efforts were used to get them from me...the persecution became more bitter and severe than before.
Joseph tells of attempts to obtain the plates from him. Some deny that he was persecuted because of his possession of the gold plates on the grounds that if the plates did not exist they could not have been the cause of any activity motivated by a belief that they did exist.
This theory requires the gold plate story to be an invention fashioned after the fact of the book. If the plates did exist, or if it had been reported that they did, prior to the book's publication, the weight of the charge that Joseph invented the Gold Plate Story after publication to bolster sales and support his fraud would be much reduced. The weighty evidence in support of the Gold Plate Story is presented in a later chapter. Most critics of the Book of Mormon appear not to have read the book carefully if they have read it at all. Christie-Murray, for example, makes significant errors of fact.
"The Book of Mormon revealed that America was originally inhabited by Jaredites, divided between Lamanites, from which the Red Indians (ten tribes of Israel) are descended, and Nephites to whom Christ revealed himself after his resurrection."
This sloppy approach characterises the prejudice against the Book of Mormon. Had Christie-Murray read the Book of Mormon with scholarly attention he would have discovered that the group which divided into Lamanites and Nephites were not Jaredites but the descendants of Lehi.The Jaredites belonged to a much earlier migration and were almost extinct when Lehi's party arrived on the American continent. The Book of Mormon makes no claim that the Native Americans are the lost tribes of Israel. Those concerned in the 600 B.C migration were descended from Judah, Ephraim, and Manasseh, the Josephite half tribes representing only one of the Ten Lost Tribes.
It was prejudice of a different order which attended the book's introduction to the British Isles. Besides growing scepticism of the supernatural, Circumstances which discouraged British middle-class interest in the Book of Mormon included the recent discovery of literary counterfeits. One such case was a collection of poems written in mediæval style, which one Thomas Chatterton claimed to have discovered. His first "find" was made when he was twelve. It was claimed by the mediævalist, Thomas Tyrwhitt, that among the discoveries were some which were the writings of "the gode prieste Thomas Rowlie."
When the poems were published and scrutinized they were shown to be no more than "a hodgepodge of Chaucerian and Spenserian language and Reformation ideas." Similar claims were to be made in the case of the Book of Mormon. But in this case instead of it being classed as a "hodgepodge" of authors' language and Reformation ideas, the book was said to be a mixture of Biblical and classical styles infused with the current subjects of interest in the American frontier of the early nineteenth century. The so-called Rowlie poems were eventually declared to be "a fraud and an imposition." Terms which have been employed against the Book of Mormon.
A case similar to the Chatterton "find" was that involving James MacPherson, who in 1760 published his Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gælic and Erse, which he later published in The Poems of Ossian.
Ossian was a third century Celtic bard who claimed divine inspiration for his work. MacPherson said greater discoveries were possible provided that he could obtain sufficient financial backing. The funds were provided and MacPherson set off into the Highlands returning with an epic in the form, he claimed, of an original manuscript by Ossian in Gælic.
Samuel Johnson was loudly sceptical of MacPherson's discoveries and after conducting his research he adjudged the work to be a modern original.
Thomas Gray and Robert Burns took the opposite view. In the meantime MacPherson became wealthy on the proceeds, and was interred in Westminster Abbey without ever producing the original.
In time other men of letters concluded that MacPherson's work was forgery and the "Ossianic Controversy," as it came to be called, dropped out of sight. Johnson was vindicated. Of the atmosphere created by Chatterton and MacPherson, an LDS scholar has concluded:
"It is easy to imagine the damaging effects of such a conclusion to such a controversy on the sincere efforts of those first Latter-day Saint missionaries who went to Great Britain in the first half of the nineteenth-century carrying the Book of Mormon and being largely or totally unaware of the literary context into which their book inevitably made them enter. In presenting the book of Mormon in such a poisoned literary atmosphere, they faced irrational and predetermined distrust. The reading public of Great Britain had become very wary and cynical after the events I have described, and understandably so. What had for a time seemed almost like the hand of God active in preserving and revealing ancient writings had become a mixture of truth and blatant falsehood, with the falsehood leaving, of course, the stronger impression. Into the British literary context of disappointed hopes and cynical fraud entered the Book of Mormon in 1837. The missionaries who carried it would have found difficulty in making appeals based on either logic or tradition. Perhaps, in fact, the Lord had allowed the literary events of the preceding decades to unfold in such a way that the only valid appeal was to the Spirit." [Gordon K Thomas]
As to the truth of the Book of Mormon, many books have been written and much evidence furnished in support its divine origin, therefore it is unnecessary to present it here. It is hoped that readers will be prompted to deeper study to the whole question of the Book of Mormon in relating to its origin, content and the abiding value of its message.