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In the Book Episode 12: "They Never Denied It: Early Converts to the Church and the Witnesses of the Book of Mormon" with Susan Easton Black

Episode Transcript

“They Never Denied It: Early Converts to the Church and Witnesses of the Book of Mormon” with Susan Easton Black

Rebecca: [00:00:00] Susan Easton Black published her book Stories from the Early Saints Converted by The Book of Mormon in 1992; a compilation of accounts of early converts in the 1800’s who had been brought to the restored Church of Jesus Christ because of that book.

Early converts like Parley P. Pratt, the three witnesses and the Smith family.

Susan: And it's hard to find a person that just reads it and says, I know it's true, and then closes it…

Rebecca: But first, before the Book of Mormon could get to these people, a few things had to fall into place.

Susan: You get this family where they're all over the map in Vermont and then in New Hampshire they are coming now to Palmyra, which will place them right in the cradle of the restoration and they purchase a farm where on that farm you've got what we call the sacred grove.

And they put up the log cabin. I mean, the circumstances where they live sets them up to be [00:01:00] prepared.

And then the mere fact that there's this religious revivalism going on at the same time period where there are many seekers searching after truth and suddenly the Smiths know something and they know something about the people who live there, anciently. They know about their highways, their mode of transportation, their clothing, their weapons…

Rebecca: And not just the Smiths, but others are prepared for this news as well.

Susan: I mean, You can talk about Wilford Woodruff, you could talk about Heber C. Kimball, the Young family. I mean, it's like, there seems to be a feeling as they are searching that there are so many churches saying “Lo here!” “Lo there!” and trying to make a choice that many, as they are searching for the truth, become just amazing immediate believers [00:02:00] once they see, once they hear, once they touch the Book of Mormon.

Rebecca: I'm Rebecca Devonas, and this is In The Book.

This is a podcast where we flood the earth with testimonies of the Book of Mormon.

Historian and Professor Susan Easton Black was reared in Long Beach, California and taught religion at Brigham Young University. She received the Carl G. Maser Distinguished Faculty Lecturer Award for her research and writing. Susan taught at BYU for 38 years and has written over 150 books. She has served multiple missions, including two to the historic sites department and one to the Nauvoo, Illinois temple. She is the mother of three and enjoys writing, speaking, and being with her husband, George.

So let's look at some people who, when they first came across the Book of Mormon, [00:03:00] have an immediate recognition that it's a true record.

Susan: One that isn't talked about much: William Huntington. He's a new convert. And he said as he read the Book of Mormon, “I believed it with all my heart and I preached it almost every day to my neighbors and everyone I could see or had the privilege to chat with.” So try and imagine some of us read the Book of Mormon, close it and the day's over.

Rebecca: Another is one of the great early missionaries, Jared Carter.

Susan: He said, “It was at this time I heard of the Book of Mormon as I was going on business to be gone for several weeks. I had got about 12 miles from home,” and then he learns about the Book of Mormon.

He said, “After reading a while in the Book of Mormon and praying earnestly to the Lord that he should show me the truth of the book, I became immediately convinced.”

Notice, there's not a [00:04:00] time delay.

“I became immediately convinced that it was a revelation from God and that it had such influence on my mind that I had no mind to pursue my business.” In other words, he’d headed out on a business trip.

He said, “Notwithstanding, I had just before a mind to go a considerable journey to be gone for some weeks, but I found I was completely unqualified for any business until I should go and assist the Church of Christ. I therefore returned home.

So you get this consistent people hearing about it. They're involved in it. They wanna be a part of it, like Noah Packer. He describes that a neighbor - a Mrs. Jolly - presented him with a Book of Mormon. And he said, “I told her I would and took it.” And then in other words, he's gonna read it. And he carried it home and he secretly now asks the [00:05:00] Lord “...if the Lord would make manifest to me that the book was true. I then opened the book and commenced reading aloud that my wife might also hear it. We read it through and I commenced reading it the second time. In other words, once was good twice and the Lord poured out a spirit upon me, and the scriptures were open to our understanding, and we were convinced that the Book of Mormon was a true record.”

And so it goes person, after person, after person.

Rebecca: And one of the greatest conversions of all time, in my personal opinion, is that of Parley P. Pratt.

Susan: There is no question that of all the people who have read it, Parley. P Pratt's testimony just stands out.

He said as he began to read the Book of Mormon, the Spirit was wrought upon him during his first reading. It was so powerful that eating and [00:06:00] sleeping became a burden. Could you imagine?

And so how he gets this book: he said he was visiting a very elderly Baptist deacon named Hamlin. And he told him, “Hey, I've, I've got this strange book,” but this book for Parley P. Pratt brings everlasting joy.

As Parley tells the story, “I called at his house,” - meaning the house of Deacon Hamlin - “and for the first time, my eyes beheld the Book of Mormon.”And he describes the Book of Mormon as, “That book of books, that record, which reveals the antiquities of the New World back to the remotest ages and which unfolds the destiny of its people and the world for all time to come. That book, which contains the fullness of the gospel of a crucified and risen redeemer, that book which reveals [00:07:00] a lost remnant of Joseph and which was the principle means in the hands of God, of directing the entire course of my future life.”

So notice he said, “I opened it with eagerness and I read its title page. I then read the testimony of several witnesses. In relation to the manner of its being found and translated After this, I commenced its contents by course. I read all day.” Try and imagine. “I read all day. Eating was a burden. I had no desire for food. Sleep was a burden when the night came for I preferred reading to sleep.”

What were Parley’s feelings about this book? He said of the Book of Mormon, “I esteemed the book or the information contained in it more than all the riches of the world. Yes, I variably believe that I would not at that time have exchanged the knowledge I then possessed [00:08:00] for a legal title to all the beautiful farms, houses, villages, and properties, which passed and review before me on my journey through one of the most flourishing settlements of Western New York.”

Rebecca: The Book of Mormon itself prophecies that three people would be witnesses to its contents.

Nephi foresaw the work of translation that the prophet Joseph Smith would do with the plates and writes in second Nephi 27, “Wherefore, at that day, when the book shall be delivered unto the man of whom I have spoken, the book shall be hid from the eyes of the world. That the eyes of none shall behold it, save it, be that three witnesses shall behold it, and they shall testify to the truth of the book and the things therein.”

From Harmony, Pennsylvania, Joseph sends word to his parents who were in Palmyra saying that he has completed translating the plates.

Susan: And although Martin had caused so many problems with the last 116 pages, the Smiths share with [00:09:00] Martin that, hey, it's done. And so the three of them now head to the Whitmer home where Joseph had done the last part of the translation.

You've got David Whitmer there, Oliver, Martin's there, the Smith’s there, the other Whitmer family members. And they started talking about witnesses. Witnesses are being promised, and so they kept saying it. And finally Joseph prays to the Lord and announces the next morning that, hey, the three witnesses are gonna be Martin, Oliver, and David.

And so the three men, after they get Oliver coming in from the field, after doing morning chores, they head out to a secluded area. And as they kneel down to plead with the Lord that they could be the witnesses, nothing happens. Different people act as voice, and nothing happens. And finally Martin says, “It's me. I'm the [00:10:00] one that's messing this up.” And so he leaves and goes a short distance, prays, and then Joseph, and Oliver and David see an angel. David describes seeing a table. He describes seeing more than the plates, like the Sword of Laban. I mean, he sees all of this, and that vision ends. And then Joseph goes to find Martin. He finds Martin, and the two of them plead with the Lord. Can Martin then be this third witness?

And they then have the same vision open to them, at which point Martin says is enough, “My eyes have beheld.” In other words, it is all true.

And Joseph, as he comes back to the Whitmer home and sees his mother, [00:11:00] his comment was, “I am not any longer alone.” In other words, I don't just have to testify alone. I now have three others that all the days of their life they will be testifying too.

Rebecca: Nephi continued, “Wherefore the Lord God will proceed to bring forth the words of the book and in the mouth of as many witnesses as seemeth Him good will he establish his word.”

Some two or three days after the three witnesses see the plates, Joseph shows them to eight others. Peter Whitmer, Jr. Christian, Jacob and John Whitmer, Hiram Page, Joseph Smith, Sr. And Hiram and Samuel Smith. And they write, “Joseph Smith, Jr. The translator of this work has shown unto us the plates of which Heth been spoken, which have the appearance of gold, and many of the leaves we did handle with our hands. And we also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the [00:12:00] appearance of ancient work and of curious workmanship.”

Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris witnessed these plates along with these eight others, and their collective testimonies are edged in every copy of the Book of Mormon.

Susan: You've got these 11 witnesses.

But then you look and say, well, wait a minute. You mean some of them dropped off along the way? And I go, well, some died like Christian Whitmer and others. But many left the Church.

But the most amazing thing about these men when they left the Church, they never left their testimony about the Book of Mormon. In fact, Martin Harris, every chance he gets, he's telling people about the Book of Mormon, whether he is the rich man in town or the really poor man in town.

David Whitmer, that even becomes a part of a church that he [00:13:00] organizes. He's talking about the Book of Mormon.

Oliver Cowdery is an attorney down in Tiffin, Ohio or moving up into Wisconsin. He's still talking about the Book of Mormon.

Rebecca: So why is it that these three men would all have a fallout with the early Church, despite their undeniable witnesses of the Book of Mormon?

Susan: The fallout for each of the three witnesses kind of circles around the year 1837. And in 1837, there was a Kirtland Safety Society, and it was a type of banking company that was organized by Joseph Smith and others in Kirtland, Ohio.

In the case of Martin Harris, there like 205 subscribers to this banking company, and Joseph and Sidney approached Martin and really wanted him to invest. It was believed that he had $10,000 at the time, [00:14:00] and his investing would've helped save this bank when there was a run on the bank. As you get 26 states, banks are folding all over and there's a run on the bank, and Martin Harris had the money to be able to pay back investors. But in the case of Martin, he strongly believed that the banking system should be based on hard metal like gold and silver. Through all this in the face of Joseph, Martin takes over $5,000 and starts buying real estate in the greater Kirtland area instead of putting it in the bank. And when the bank collapses, he has a feeling that he's smarter than Joseph. And so, with that, he was serving on high council at the time. And was not voted in to keep being a member of that high council. He's [00:15:00] out for 30 plus years.

During the same time about 1837 or so, David Whitmer is very impacted by what's going on in Kirtland, but at the time he's living in Missouri. He was actually like a stake president at one point, and when he's heading up to help select property in Far West, Missouri. Joseph had sent money for the poor and bleeding of Zion, and he'd send it to the stake presidency that David is the president. And you get W. W. Phelps, you get John Whitmer as part of it. And when they get up there, the money that comes in rather than dispersing it to the port, it appears that the stake presidency was a sticky, fingered word clerk. They’re holding onto some of that money. And so money kind of gets him too. And he's out.

And then you look at Oliver Cowdery. And Oliver Cowdery has several things build up, including he finally has charges against him, he does not appear before the Far West High Council, but one of the charges was he sold his land in Jackson County, which you can't sell your lands of inheritance. He's like, “Give me my liberty,” you know - he is quoting Patrick Henry.

Rebecca: Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris would both come back to the Church however.

Of the 11 witnesses, Martin is the only one who makes it out West.

Susan: What I really like about when he comes back. It’s one of my favorite quotes. He's coming into the Salt Lake Valley and at one point he says, as he can see the temple’s under construction and the whole temple square - this 10 acres. And he sees all [00:17:00] these houses and businesses going. And his comment was, “Who would've guessed the Book of Mormon would've done all this?”

And ten for Oliver Cowdery, he had a brother-in-law named Phineas Young, who is Brigham Young's brother, and he kept writing to him. He visited him. And he kept telling him about the Church almost as if Oliver was coming every Sunday. And finally Oliver agrees that he'll close up his dealings in Wisconsin and head out towards Council Bluffs. And then you get the famous part where he is out in the Kanesville area. As Orson Hyde is conducting a meeting and there are all these people out there in a congregation, Orson Hyde sees him. and it had been years. Almost like 10 years. And Orson Hyde leaves the stand and comes down and throws his arms around him.

And you know what a message that is to us. [00:18:00] For those of us that know and have loved people who, for whatever reason have stopped coming, but he just, he leaves, literally the congregation comes down and then invites Oliver to stand up and testify. And that's where he says, “My name is Oliver Cowdery. During the early years of the Church I was associated with the Church.” And then he says, “I wrote with my own pen almost the entire Book of Mormon as it comes from the lips of the prophet Joseph.”

Rebecca: As I listened to Susan talk about each witness, I thought about how all three men were normal, relatable people.

They had to make hard decisions all the time.

They had their own careers and daily stresses of needing to put food on the table, like all of us.

They had their own opinions and opinions of how things should be.

They had their strengths and their weaknesses, like any of us.

They had their own ideas and desires, preferences, and personalities.

They also chose to have great faith [00:19:00] and they were chosen to be the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon, a responsibility from which they would never shirk no matter what happened with them and their standing with the early church.

Along with the three witnesses, there are others who defended the Book of Mormon, including Lucy Mack Smith and Joseph Smith, Sr.

Susan: Lucy Mack Smith, we get her as the first where you could say, Hey, I'm out there defending it, besides the prophet Joseph. But she has a time when a Deacon George Beckwith comes to her home, along with the delegation of others. And he says to her, “I wish that if you do believe these things about the Book of Mormon, you would not say anything more upon the subject.” In other words, you can believe it. Just stop talking about it. I liked her response. She said, “Deacon Beckwith, said I, if you should stick my flesh full of faggots and even [00:20:00] burn me at the stake, I would declare, as long as God should give me breath, that Joseph has got that record and that I know it to be true.”

And you'd look and you'd say, Lucy Mack Smith: not much personal money on her own. I mean, she's putting together birch brooms, you know, tapping trees to get molasses. She's painting oil tablecloths. And suddenly, here's George Beckwith that has a mansion that's still standing right there on the main street in Palmyra. He's one of the head trustees of the Western Presbyterian Church in Palmyra. And he's come with a delegation to see her and she doesn't back down. And so she becomes a strong defender.

And I could say the same of her husband, Joseph Smith, Sr. Men [00:21:00] came to take him for a debt that he owed. He said, “They tried to use every possible argument to induce me to renounce the Book of Mormon saying how much better it would be for you to deny that silly thing than to be disgraced and imprisoned when you might not only escape this, but also have the note back than note of indebtedness, as well as the money which you have paid on it.” To this Joseph Smith, Sr. says, “I made no reply,” but he thinks to himself, “I was not the first man who had been in prison for the true sake. And when I should meet Paul, the Apostle Paul, in the Paradise of God, I could tell him that I too had been in bonds for the gospel, which he had preached.”

In other words, you look and you'd say, what are you willing to go through because you do know the Book of Mormon is true?

Rebecca: And finally we end with the testimony of the prophet [00:22:00] Joseph Smith himself.

Susan: I like the time that he was in Richmond Jail and the guards were saying insulting things about what they had done to men, women, and children in Far West and other Latter-day Saint communities in Missouri. Joseph was imprisoned chained together with several of his friends, including Parley P. Pratt.

And as they're listening to these men say horrible things, Parley writes, “Brother Joseph arose like a lion about to roar and being full of the Holy Ghost spoke in great power bearing testimony of the visions he had seen, the ministering of angels, which he had enjoyed, and how he found the plates of the Book of Mormon and translated them by the gift and power of God.”

So try and imagine in his extremities where [00:23:00] it would've been so easy to say, okay, I'm done. I gave so much in Palmyra Kirtland, and now I'm here in Missouri and you got me imprisoned with my friends here in Richmond. We’re awaiting a hearing before Judge Austin King. Instead, he's standing speaking like a lion, about to roar. He's telling these guards who have been so obnoxious, “I want to tell you about the finding the plates and that I translated them by the gift and power of God.”

Rebecca: I asked Susan how she received a testimony of the Book of Mormon.

She told me how she first read it as a girl growing up in Long Beach, California, at the encouragement of a preacher who said that if she were to declare anything about that book, she ought to read it, and well, she opened it and just kept reading.

Susan: It wasn't immediate but at least I [00:24:00] started and then I kept reading and reading and finally I'm, you know, I got my doctorate. I'm a professor, right? And I'm asked by Robert J. Matthews to teach a class on the Book of Mormon. And wanted to do a really good job, but you realize Angel Moroni did not provide a teacher supplement.

I probably taught Book of Mormon, I don't know, maybe 30 plus years at BYU. But I could never teach the Book of Mormon without first kneeling down in my office and pleading with the Lord, which part of the chapters that, you know, are assigned reading, should I emphasize?

Rebecca: Of all the scriptures to choose from in the book, Susan focused on one, familiar to probably all of us who have opened it.

Susan: So if you were to say what scripture has read the most in the Book of Mormon, and I'd say it's always [00:25:00] 1 Nephi 1:1. Is the most read, you know, in Moroni, you know, and I'd be like, you know, you know, no, I really don't think so. I think it's always a first. So here's why I like the first. Maybe you'll follow along with me.

So it's a pretty long sentence with a lot of commas, semicolons. I would never write that way, but Nephi did. So, “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father.” Now we know as we go on that Lehi, it's obvious he knows something about Egyptian, perhaps Arabic, Hebrew. So he's a pretty great teacher, especially languages. And he obviously has been some kind of a traveler.

“And having seen many afflictions in the course of my days,” we’re going to see those afflictions, whether it's Laman, whether it's Lemuel, but then notice, did I find Christ in that?

And then it comes. “Nevertheless, having been highly [00:26:00] favored of the Lord in all my days.” And then it goes on to tell me how I will know who is a favorite of the Lord. “Yeah, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and mysteries of God.”

And then he says, because I have been all that, “therefore, I make a record of my proceedings in my day.”

So I put forward the thought. If you want to know and have a great knowledge of the goodness of God, of his mysteries, read the Book of Mormon. Don't get lost in broken bows, travels. Look for the Lord.

How I kept myself focused in doing that through the years I underlined every time the name of Deity appeared, so that I could truly say the Book of Mormon is another testament of Christ. I testify that is true. I testify that Joseph knew what he [00:27:00] was saying, that we can get closer to the Lord by reading the Book of Mormon, internalizing the Book of Mormon, having it a part of our daily life than most anything we can do.

Rebecca: I want to briefly revisit the moment when Martin Harris first saw the Salt Lake Valley and uttered, “Who would've guessed the Book of Mormon would have done all this?” I asked Susan what might have been going through Martin's mind when he said that.

Susan: You know, who knows? We just have a few letters from Martin. Writing his biography with Larry Porter, you’re like, okay, we're pulling from everybody else to try and see what Martin is thinking.

But it seems to me that he realized, as so many, the impact of the Book of Mormon. I mean, without the Book of Mormon and knowing that it is true, [00:28:00] would we all be going to church? I mean, that at book has literally gone around the world translated in so many languages, and it's a means for bringing the three witnesses, the eight witnesses, and so many others of the saints that knew and loved the prophet Joseph to literally Christ. Truly, it was for the people, Joseph knew and for us.

Rebecca: This is the last episode of our first season of the podcast, and so I'm collecting more stories for the next one.

If you like these early converts mentioned today have been converted because of the Book of Mormon, please write to in the book@scripturecentral.org.

If you have any feedback on the podcast, please send it to that same email address, and of course, if you like it, send it to a friend and leave a review on Apple Podcasts.

This is a Scripture Central podcast directed by James Dalrimple and I produced this [00:29:00] episode. I'm Rebecca Devonas, and this is In The Book.