Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith

As I mentioned when discussing the introduction, today’s section (“The Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith”) isn’t originally part of the Book of Mormon either, being an edited extract from Joseph Smith-History in the Pearl of Great Price, which was added in later editions (presumably for additional context). I bring this up as when reading through this today, one of the principal things to come to mind actually happens to be one of the things that was edited out:

The first paragraph as given in Testimony is as follows:

“On the evening of the … twenty-first of September [1823] … I betook myself to prayer and supplication to Almighty God. …

While here is Joseph Smith-History 1:29, which these lines were taken from (with the bits edited out in bold):

In consequence of these things, I often felt condemned for my weakness and imperfections; when, on the evening of the above-mentioned twenty-first of September, after I had retired to my bed for the night, I betook myself to prayer and supplication to Almighty God for forgiveness of all my sins and follies, and also for a manifestation to me, that I might know of my state and standing before him; for I had full confidence in obtaining a divine manifestation, as I previously had one.

I don’t think there’s any great significance in the editing decisions themselves. After all, it’s hardly like JS-H was being hidden, especially since readers are being referred to there “for a more complete account”. Whoever edited the passage was clearly trying to abbreviate a significantly longer passage so that it would fit, and so removed things that could either be regarded as not strictly necessary (“above-mentioned”, retiring to bed etc), or which were part of the back drop of the wider JS-H text (the reference to the first vision Joseph Smith had already experienced, and his praying for forgiveness for his sins which he speaks about in JS-H 1:28). However, while reading today I couldn’t help but think of his motivations for praying as he did that night.

Something similar happened with the first vision too. Joseph Smith appears to have had several motivations for praying as he did then: as recorded in JS-H, there was his confusion over the Churches, and then as several other of his accounts record (and which is alluded to in D&C 20:5) there was again a concern for personal forgiveness of sins. Of course, much as with Moroni’s visit, the first vision ended up being about so much more. In both cases, the spiritual experience that Joseph received addressed so much more than what he was asking about.

I wonder about this. I wonder if sometimes we have a tendency to reduce our model of spiritual experiences down to transactional events. That is, even if we are careful to avoid thinking of God as some sort of Santa Claus (that is, we avoid the tendency for our prayers to devolve into simply asking for things we want), we can still approach spiritual experiences in which we produce the question, we meet certain conditions for an answer, and then God provides the answer as if he were a spiritual cash machine and the initiative is entirely on our part. I wonder if we sometimes forget that God himself has agency, more so than we do, and he has his own plan (indeed a crucial part of faith is accepting his own plan over ours). As part of that, we may have questions, but he may well provide answers to questions we haven’t asked. The two experiences Joseph had here are examples of this, and I think there are other scriptural examples too of revelation not being doled out according to certain preconditions, but at divine initiative (Moses and the burning bush, the angelic visitations to Zacharias and Mary, Saul & the road to Damascus and I think many more). I think also of my own experiences, and indeed of the most powerful were those that did not simply address the questions I had, but went far beyond it and addressed questions I didn’t have.

Of course, perhaps the very fact that Joseph was on both occasions seeking divine guidance in faith, even if about personal matters, meant that he was ready to also receive divine guidance about bigger matters too, which takes me onto the other thing that came to mind while reading (and which wasn’t edited out), namely the matter of motivation:

But what was my surprise when again I beheld the same messenger at my bedside, and heard him rehearse or repeat over again to me the same things as before; and added a caution to me, telling me that Satan would try to tempt me (in consequence of the indigent circumstances of my father’s family), to get the plates for the purpose of getting rich. This he forbade me, saying that I must have no other object in view in getting the plates but to glorify God, and must not be influenced by any other motive than that of building his kingdom; otherwise I could not get them.

Our motivations appear to be of crucial concern to both the Lord and to the adversary. But while the adversary would seek to use our motivations to manipulate us into doing evil, the Lord wants us not only to do good, but for good motives too (Moroni 7:6). What we want and how badly we want it appears to have great power and influence on our course through life, the gospel and our eternal destiny (see Alma 29:4). In Joseph’s case, his desires in relation to the plates not only has to be right, but not clouded by any desires, in order for him to receive them at all. And I think that sometimes too that can be the case for us: there may be some kind of blessing, or responsibility, or something that God would have us obtain, but which we can only obtain if our desires and motivations are right before him.

Of course, changing or purifying said motivations may not always be straightforward!

Edit: I’d originally mistakenly attributed the adding of this excerpt of JS-H to the 1981 LDS edition (which added the “Introduction”), however upon checking, the 1920 edition has a very similar extract entitled “Origin of the Book of Mormon”. So while not original to the Book of Mormon, and I’d argue very much added for context, it was added earlier than 1981. The “Brief Explanation About the Book of Mormon” also seems to date from the 1920 edition, where an earlier version appears as “Brief Analysis of the Book of Mormon”.

Reading the Book of Mormon: Introduction

The front matter to the Book of Mormon has a variety of different origins. As discussed, the title page is part of the plates, and as the 2014 LDS edition is careful to note, “is part of the sacred text”. The testimony of the three and eight witnesses is obviously not part of the original plates, but has been included in every single edition of the Book of Mormon ever produced, is called for within the text itself, and as discussed one of the testimonies relates another revelatory experience in and of itself. The testimony of Joseph Smith is a more recent addition, not integral to the Book itself, but its contents are a selection of material taken from Joseph Smith-History in the Pearl of Great Price, and so is still regarded as scriptural. However, the “Introduction” and the “Brief Explanation of the Book of Mormon” are study helps, the first being added as recently as the 1981 LDS edition, and are not part of the sacred text. It’s for that reason that it should be seen as fairly uncontroversial when they are changed to reflect our different understanding of the text. An example of this would be the change in the introduction from the Lamanites being described as the “principal ancestors of the American Indians” in the 1981 texts to “among the ancestors of the American Indians”, reflecting increased readings that saw the Book of Mormon events as occurring within a more limited geographical area than earlier readers believed. The 2014 LDS edition is in general more careful to distinguish between such study aids and parts of the sacred text itself (hence many of the book headings – which are original and part of the inspired text itself – are now in non-italicised text, which chapter headings, which are purely a study aid and added in 1981 are kept italicised).

However, while the introduction may not be part of the sacred text proper it is worth reading and considering. Reading it today several things really came to mind, a couple of which I’ve written about fairly recently.

The first is the description that:

It puts forth the doctrines of the gospel, outlines the plan of salvation, and tells men what they must do to gain peace in this life and eternal salvation in the life to come.

As I recently commented in a brief article about the role of the Book of Mormon, “the Book of Mormon has a relentless focus on the most important and basic matters”. The Book of Mormon constantly returns to what might be thought of as the most basic principles, and experience of living, the gospel: faith in God, repentance of sins, baptism for the remission of sins, sanctification, and the basic challenge of trying to endure in faith and righteousness through the challenges that life throws at us. When it addresses “big” matters, they tend to be the ones that are central to our very experience of the Gospel and our own salvation, such as the fall, the Atonement of Christ, and the resurrection and final judgment. Indeed, the Book of Mormon has a particular aptitude for summarising the core thrust of the entire gospel into rather brief passages, such as in 3 Nephi 27:13-20, or in the likes of 2 Nephi 31. And since our perspective of the relative importance of different appendages of the gospel can easily become skewed (as President Oaks mentions here), I think the Book of Mormon’s sense of doctrinal priorities can serve as a corrective to our own, helping us to refocus on those very things that bring “peace in this life and eternal salvation in the life to come”.

The introduction also shares Joseph Smith’s well known quote, that “the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book”. One could easily speak at length of any of the three major elements in that quotation, and plenty of people have. That last element, however, made me think of another thing I recently wrote about in the article I mention earlier, in which I mention my own experience that there is a power in the Book of Mormon, a powerful devotional effect in which I stated that when I read the Book of Mormon more consistently that “I am closer to the Spirit, repent more readily, am more obedient, and find it easier to resist temptation”. I mention there that this is a power that goes beyond the words on the page, although we have to read those words to gain access to it. Reading Joseph Smith’s quotation, however, helps me to realise another crucial part to accessing that power: “abiding by its precepts“. It is when we seek to not only read, but to obey God’s word as found in scripture, that the power found therein flows most strongly into our life.

The final paragraph of the introduction also stood out to me today:

Those who gain this divine witness from the Holy Spirit will also come to know by the same power that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world, that Joseph Smith is His revelator and prophet in these last days, and that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the Lord’s kingdom once again established on the earth, preparatory to the Second Coming of the Messiah.

The Book of Mormon – and the process by which we gain a knowledge of its truth – points to wider truths, as a sign “[p]roving to the world that the holy scriptures are true, and that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age and generation, as well as in generations of old” (Doctrine & Covenants 20:11). I’ve written about this topic elsewhere (Chapter 5 of The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, for those who are interested), but to summarise, the Book of Mormon is both a sign from God and a means he employs in the broader work he is engaged “in these last days”. It, and the spiritual experience we gain from engaging with and seeking confirmation of the truth of the book, are a key to a wider and (for the moment) invisible world.

The Testimony of Three & Eight Witnesses

Reading through both the testimony of the three and the testimony of the eight witnesses today, I was struck by the contrast between the two. This isn’t the first time I’ve thought this, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice this, but the two sets of witnesses really experienced very different events: the three had a supernatural experience, stating that God “hath declared it unto us” and that “an angel of God” showed them the plates. The eight had a more sensory experience, with no supernatural events: they saw and handled the plates (the three only saw), and examined them physically.

Today when reading, however, it seemed to me that that contrast can be seen not just in the type of experiences the two sets of witnesses are trying to relate, but also in what they are seeking to convey from that, and even how they talk about it. So the three witnesses begin early by speaking about the experience they have had “through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ”. Their witness is not just that the plates exist, but that “they have been translated by the gift and power of God” and that “the work is true”. They assert that they too are acting under divine authority, having been commanded by God to bear witness of their experience, and conclude their witness by speaking of faith in Christ and the final judgment, before finishing with a doxology.

In contrast, the testimony of the eight witnesses only invokes God once, at the end: “And we lie not, God bearing witness of it”, which has more the character of a legal declaration rather than the revelatory one of the eight witnesses. Otherwise their remarks are limited to what they handed and what they infer, in which they are quite restrained: the plates “have the appearance of gold”, and the plates and engravings have “the appearance of an ancient work” (my emphasis). They restrict themselves purely to what they were able to determine with their senses, to the extent that they don’t simply declare that the plates are ancient, but that they appeared to be so. It has the character of a legal testimony, in which they simply (“with words of soberness”) recount what they can observe with their eyes and hands, while the testimony of the three is a religious testimony, in which they bear record of a revelatory experience which they were commanded by God to share with the world, with consequences for their immortal soul.

Upon thinking about this, it really strikes me that both experiences are not just complimentary, but may even be necessary. It’s tempting to see the witness of the three as the more expansive, and in many respects it is, but notice that they don’t recount having actually handled the plates, nor do they give any physical description of it and its contents; only the eight do that. I think this touches on the same duality seen in the commandment that we are to learn “by study and also by faith“: we are expected both to use the capacity of our own minds, reason and other resources to find truth, and supernatural means also, and we really need both when it comes to learning about eternal things. Likewise, in our own efforts to gain a knowledge or witness of the truth of things like the Book of Mormon, I think upon my own experiences and think we may need to exert both: to use what we can learn through reason, experience and our senses, but also be able to seek the spirit and look with an eye of faith. And it is when the two work together, reason and revelation, that we are on the surest ground for seeking truth.