One of the “Ideas for Family Scripture Study and Family Home Evening” for the November 9-15, 2020 Come, Follow Me lesson suggests, “As you read Ether 5 together, discuss why it is important that the Lord uses witnesses in His work.” In this chapter, Moroni prophesies that Joseph Smith, the future translator of the Book of Mormon, would “be privileged that [he] may show the plates unto those who shall assist to bring forth this work; and unto three shall they be shown by the power of God; wherefore they shall know of a surety that these things are true. … And all this shall stand as a testimony against the world of the last day” (Ether 5:2-4).
Moroni’s Prophecy Is Fulfilled
In early June 1829 near Fayetteville, New York, the translation of the Book of Mormon had just been completed.
This event prompted Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris to ask the Prophet Joseph if they could be the three prophesied witnesses. Joseph inquired of the Lord and received the following revelation:
“Behold, I say unto you, that you must rely upon my word, which if you do with full purpose of heart, you shall have a view of the plates, and also of the breastplate, the sword of Laban, the Urim and Thummim, which were given to the brother of Jared upon the mount, when he talked with the Lord face to face, and the miraculous directors which were given to Lehi while in the wilderness, on the borders of the Red Sea. And it is by your faith that you shall obtain a view of them, even that faith which was had by the prophets of old” (Doctrine and Covenants 17:1-2).
An account of what happened next is described in Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, vol. 1, The Standard of Truth: 1815-1846 (2018), 73-74:
“Later that day, Joseph led the three men into the woods near the Whitmer home. They knelt, and each took a turn praying to be shown the plates, but nothing happened. They tried a second time, but still nothing happened. Finally, Martin rose and walked away, saying he was the reason the heavens remained closed.
“Joseph, Oliver, and David returned to prayer, and soon an angel appeared in a brilliant light above them. He had the plates in his hands and turned them over one by one, showing the men the symbols engraved on each page. A table appeared beside him, and on it were ancient artifacts described in the Book of Mormon: the interpreters, the breastplate, a sword, and the miraculous compass that guided Nephi’s family from Jerusalem to the promised land.
“The men heard the voice of God declare, ‘These plates have been revealed by the power of God, and they have been translated by the power of God. The translation of them, which you have seen, is correct, and I command you to bear record of what you now see and hear.’
“When the angel departed, Joseph walked deeper into the woods and found Martin on his knees. Martin told him he had not yet received a witness from the Lord, but he still wanted to see the plates. He asked Joseph to pray with him. Joseph knelt beside him, and before their words were half-uttered, they saw the same angel displaying the plates and the other objects.
“’Tis enough! ‘Tis enough!’ Martin cried. ‘Mine eyes have beheld! Mine eyes have beheld.’”
Now it became the life-long responsibility of these three special witnesses to testify of what they had seen “by the power of God” (Doctrine and Covenants 17:3). Initially, their testimony was added at the end of the first published copies of the Book of Mormon; now their testimony appears in the introductory pages.
Ways to Learn More about Their Testimonies
Subsequently, all three witnesses were excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but until the end of their lives they always affirmed their testimonies of what they had seen and heard about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. In fact, Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris were both re-baptized as members of the restored Church of Jesus Christ. The film The Three Witnesses (Brigham Young University, 1968) dramatically portrays each of their life stories. It is an educational video that can be viewed as a family home evening activity and an opportunity for family members to record and share their personal testimonies of the Book of Mormon.
Another excellent resource is Appendix C, “The Three Witnesses” in the Book of Mormon 2020 Come, Follow Me—For Individuals and Families, 206-208. Here individuals can learn more about Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris. Families may want to stage oral readings of the documented testimonies that they each shared near the end of their lives. In this Appendix, President Dallin H. Oaks explains why their testimonies are so compelling: “The testimony of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon stands forth in great strength. Each of the three had ample reason and opportunity to renounce his testimony if it had been false, or to equivocate on details if any had been inaccurate. …Yet to the end of their lives—periods ranging from 12 to 50 years after their excommunications—not one of these witnesses deviated from his published testimony or said anything that cast any shadow on its truthfulness.”
We need to study and hold dear the testimonies of the Three Witnesses because their words continue to affirm not only the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon but also of the Holy Bible. As the Apostle Paul declared, “In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established” (2 Corinthians 13:1).
Unitedly these testaments witness to all “nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come” (The Testimony of the Three Witnesses) that “JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL God, manifesting himself unto all nations” (Book of Mormon Title Page).