Trusting in Joseph: Why Mormonism Depends on the Testimony of One Man
By Rob Bowman
Apologetics & Interfaith Evangelism, North American Mission Board
Is Mormonism credible? A sound answer to this question depends on understanding what kinds of claims Mormonism makes and what sorts of support Mormonism offers to make such claims credible. Like biblical Christianity, the core claims of Mormonism are historical claims—assertions that specific events occurred in the past. (Biblical Christianity, for example, claims that Jesus Christ performed miracles, died on the cross, and rose from the dead.) Mormonism claims that a family of Jews emigrated to the American hemisphere, became a numerous people, and left behind scriptures on metal plates. Mormonism further claims that an angel temporarily gave these scriptures to Joseph Smith, to whom God the Father and Jesus Christ had already appeared, and that Joseph translated these scriptures (The Book of Mormon) and other lost scriptures he later obtained (notably the Book of Abraham). The type of evidence or support on which Mormonism depends to give these claims credibility is eyewitness testimony—specifically, the testimony of Joseph Smith himself. And therein lies the problem.
In law, an individual’s testimony is generally not evidentially valid unless corroborated by other witnesses. Likewise, in most controversial matters outside the courtroom, we ought to be cautious about accepting a view that depends entirely on the testimony of one individual. The importance and scope of the claim simply makes all the more important that we not accept it without significant corroboration. We all take one person’s word for it without trouble when the matter is inconsequential, but when the stakes are high, wise people look for evidence to support the claims being made.
The Biblical Standard of Multiple Witnesses
Since the truth of this principle of multiple attestation may be challenged, allow me to point out the biblical basis for it. We have in fact several affirmations of this principle across the two testaments (Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6; 19:15; Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19; Heb. 10:28). Even Jesus acknowledged that his witness by itself required such corroboration if it was to be taken as true (John 5:31), and so he cited the witness of the Father (e.g., at Jesus’ baptism), the testimony of John the Baptist, the miraculous works that Jesus did on behalf of the Father, and the anticipatory witness of the Scriptures to confirm his claims (John 5:32-47; cf. 8:13-18). Jesus did not go around saying, "I'm the Son of God; just take my word for it."1
Likewise, the apostle Paul did not go around saying, "Jesus appeared to me and made me an apostle; trust me, I was there!" Instead, while telling his story, he also cited circumstantial evidence supporting the likelihood of his story being true—especially his previous persecution of the church—his subsequent persecutions by Jewish and pagan authorities for his advocacy of the gospel, his sacrificial lifestyle, the sign miracles that God performed through his ministry, and the confirmatory witness of Jesus’ original apostles that indeed Paul had been called by Jesus as well and preached the same gospel as they did (1 Cor. 15:8-11; 2 Cor. 11:7-28; 12:11-13; Gal. 1:11-2:10). In his preaching and teaching, Paul did not assert that his message was to be accepted as true merely because he was an apostle, but rather that it was true because it was centered on facts to which there were numerous witnesses and at the same time it was supported by the (Old Testament) Scriptures (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:3-7).
LDS apostle Dallin H. Oaks argues that the testimony of one person is sufficient: "Indeed, we know that upon the testimony of one witness great miracles have been claimed and accepted by many religious people, and in the secular world the testimony of one witness has been deemed sufficient for weighty penalties and judgments."2 It is indeed true that many people accept miracles and other religious claims on the testimony of one witness, but as we have seen, this is not the biblical standard. No doubt some courts have also deviated from this standard, but that is to the detriment of justice. More typically, courts require the testimony of one individual to be corroborated by other evidence before accepting that testimony. The more serious the judgment, the more the need for such corroboration. Surely, the claim that all Christian churches had become apostate and needed to be replaced by a restored church demands more evidence than the testimony of one man.
Only Joseph Saw
The core claims of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints turn out to be claims by and about Joseph Smith for which he is the only witness. The most spectacular and crucial event of Mormonism is the appearance of the Father and the Son to young Joseph Smith in the woods near his home in the spring of 1820 (the “First Vision”). We have only Smith’s own word for it that this happened. (According to his own testimony, Joseph was alone praying in the woods when he had his vision.) In fact, to the best of my knowledge, we have only Smith’s word for it that anyone had even heard about this experience for over ten years after it happened. Compare the conversion of Saul of Tarsus: his previous persecution of the church was well known, he had traveling companions with him when he encountered the risen Christ, his conversion was shepherded by Christians in Damascus, and within a few days he had finished a complete about-face and become an advocate for the church’s message. Moreover, Paul was one of several witnesses to the risen Jesus.
The disclosure of the existence of the Book of Mormon also is reported to have taken place to Smith alone: the angel Moroni took only Joseph to the site where the plates were hidden, Joseph alone was able to read the plates, and he alone returned the plates to Moroni when he was finished with them. Unless we believe Smith’s word, we have no reason to believe any of these events occurred.
Other Suggested Witnesses
What about the eleven additional witnesses to the Book of Mormon? These eleven men did not and could not testify to the core religious claims of the LDS faith. Yes, they testified that they saw the golden plates. Some of them testified that they held them and saw curious engravings on them. But that’s it. I don’t know anyone who questions that Smith had some metal golden plates with curious markings on them. But how do we know that an angel uncovered the plates and gave them to Smith? Smith said so. How do we know that the markings on the plates corresponded to anything in the Book of Mormon? Smith said so. How do we know that the golden plates are now in the custody of an angel? Smith said so. For anything of religious or theological significance with regard to the Book of Mormon, we are entirely dependent on the testimony of one man.
Admittedly, three of the Book of Mormon witnesses also reported that an angel appeared to them in 1829 (no one seems to know where) and showed them the Book of Mormon plates. However, this was an after-the-fact arranged meeting to satisfy Joseph Smith’s most important supporters. According to the LDS Church’s own historical account of the event, Joseph had taken the three men outdoors for them to pray to see the plates. (Angels in the Bible do not show up for such prearranged meetings.) Moreover, their experience seems to have been a spiritual vision; their testimony is that they saw an angel holding the plates in a bright light over their heads. Two of the men later testified explicitly that their vision was a spiritual experience—not something they saw with their physical eyes. Even if we grant that the event occurred exactly as LDS sources report it, it does not prove that the Book of Mormon was written on those metal plates, let alone that the Book of Mormon is true, inspired scripture. For the reliability of the contents of the LDS “keystone scripture” we are entirely dependent on Joseph Smith’s testimony.
The situation is even worse for the Book of Abraham, which Joseph Smith claimed to have translated from some papyrus scrolls. In order to believe in the Book of Abraham, you must again take Joseph’s word for it. When portions of the scrolls that Joseph claimed had included the Book of Abraham resurfaced in the 1960s and were translated by Egyptologists, they turned out to have nothing to do with Abraham. Since not all of the scrolls were recovered—some of them apparently burned up in a museum fire—some LDS scholars claim that the Book of Abraham may have been written on a portion that is still lost. Even if that is possible (and possible is not the same thing as plausible), once again we find ourselves entirely dependent on Joseph Smith for our information. We can only believe that the scrolls originally contained the Book of Abraham if we take Joseph Smith’s word for it.
I pointed out above that Jesus appealed to the testimony of Scripture to support his claims. Can Mormons do the same? I don’t think so. Of course, if we knew that the LDS scriptures were genuinely inspired Scriptures and that they represented an independent witness to Joseph Smith, we’d have to concede the case. But Smith is for all practical purposes the sole witness to all of the extrabiblical scriptures in the LDS Church (all but a few chapters of Doctrine & Covenants added after Smith’s death).
This leaves the Bible as a potential independent witness to Smith and his restored gospel and church. Truth be told, it is difficult to make useful generalizations about the LDS use of the Bible, but this one holds up: LDS theologians and apologists do not treat the Bible as an independent witness. At most they view the Bible as supporting indirectly here and there certain aspects of the restoration that are less than clearly or unambiguously articulated in the Bible. Even if one thinks a biblical case can be made for an apostasy and a restoration, for example, there is no biblical case for viewing Joseph Smith himself as the prophet of the restoration. Furthermore, most LDS apologists fudge in one way or another on the reliability of the Bible’s testimony. Thus, we find Mormons arguing that the Bible doesn’t fit more neatly with LDS doctrine because some books were omitted from the canon, or because the text was corrupted or has been mistranslated (with only spiritual authority for correcting such textual corruptions and mistranslations), or even because the monotheistic Deuteronomists (the supposed authors of the book of Deuteronomy) won out politically over the Yahweh-and-his-consort Israelites. (This last theory is especially obnoxious, as it turns the entire Old Testament on its head.) Those who don’t use such explanatory strategies typically argue that the Bible doesn’t comport well with LDS belief because in God’s plan of progressive revelation the time had not yet come back then for God to reveal what he has now revealed in the LDS scriptures. The point is that regardless of which of these strategies are used (and some LDS apologists employ a mix of them), all of them treat the Bible as a less than adequate independent witness to the core claims of the LDS faith.
Finally, Mormons may argue that they have received an independent witness (especially to the truth of the Book of Mormon) in the form of an experience of the Holy Ghost—what Mormons often simply call “my testimony.” I don’t doubt that many Mormons have had some experience that they sincerely believe was God’s confirmation of the Book of Mormon. However, as a defense of the credibility of Mormonism, such “testimonies” do not fit the biblical standard. Again, Jesus never suggested that people pray to know if he was speaking the truth; Paul never suggested that anyone pray to know if he was an apostle. Instead, Paul and the other apostles pointed to objective evidence, including the testimonies of people who actually saw and touched the risen Jesus, to corroborate their core claims (see also 1 John 1:1-3).
The pattern established in Scripture is that God does not ask the world or his people to believe something on the mere say-so of one man. Israel was supposed to believe Moses on the strength of the wonders that God did through him and because what Moses said and did fulfilled God’s promises to the patriarchs. (Neither of these facts by itself would do it; the two facts together constituted the case for Moses as God’s prophet.) Israel was supposed to believe the prophets who came later in its history because they reaffirmed the Mosaic covenant and called Israel to be faithful to it, and because God fulfilled his warnings and promises through those prophets. The Jews were supposed to believe Jesus because he cast out demons and performed other sign miracles associated in the Old Testament with the coming of the Messianic kingdom that he himself proclaimed. The apostles argued that people should believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior because he had been vindicated as such by God who raised him from the dead and because Jesus’ death, resurrection, and exaltation fulfilled Messianic prophecy (see, for example, the very first Christian proclamation in Acts 2). The Joseph Smith revelations simply don’t have these sorts of credentials.
1See Norman Geisler, “The Apologetics of Jesus: Survey and Significance,” Journal of the International Society of Christian Apologetics 1, 1 (2008): 2 (1-24).
2Dallin H. Oaks, “The Witness: Martin Harris,” April 1999 General Conference.