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Monument to Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon has stood 100 years

A second monument unveiled to honor eight witnesses

Published: Sunday, Nov. 20 2011 10:48 p.m. MST

RICHMOND, Mo. — A granite monument in a pioneer cemetery here memorializing the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon was celebrated Saturday for its 100 years of existence. Hours later, a new monument was dedicated in Liberty, 30 miles to the west, honoring the eight additional witnesses who attested that they saw and handled the metal plates from which Joseph Smith Jr. said he translated the book of scripture "by the gift and power of God."

The testimony of the Three Witnesses and the separate testimony of the Eight Witnesses are published today as introductory content in each edition of the Book of Mormon.

Some 150 spectators assembled in Richmond to listen to Mormon scholars from BYU and officers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Community of Christ discuss the emergence of the Book of Mormon in 1829 and events surrounding the placement of the monument in 1911.

Located near the grave site of Oliver Cowdery, the monument bears his name as well as those of his two fellow witnesses, David Whitmer and Martin Harris. Whitmer's grave is in a city cemetery not far from the monument location, and Harris' grave is in Clarkston, Cache County, Utah.

"You realize we are here on sacred ground," said Susan Easton Black, a Brigham Young University professor of church history and doctrine, as she sketched the history of the Three Witnesses in remarks to the audience.

She spoke of the three men being chosen through revelation to Joseph Smith to fulfill the function of three special witnesses mentioned in the Book of Mormon manuscript. She described their experience of being visited by an angel who showed them the plates.

"It is an honor this day to remember the Book of Mormon and their testimony of the sacred work," Black said. She then read their published testimony.

Richard E. Turley Jr., assistant LDS Church historian, told of the origin of the monument in Richmond and the subsequent beautification by the church of the pioneer cemetery where it is located.

In 1878, church historian Orson Pratt and fellow apostle Joseph F. Smith traveled to Richmond and interviewed David Whitmer, Turley said. "They had a very pleasant visit with him in which he recounted the sacred events to which he was witness and confirmed that his fellow Book of Mormon witness (and brother-in-law) Oliver Cowdery had died here in Richmond at the home of Peter and Mary Musselman Whitmer, David's parents."

Many years passed, and during that time, whatever monument might have marked Cowdery's grave disappeared.

Elder Joseph F. Smith became church president in the early 20th century and directed that a monument to the Three Witnesses be placed. This was done in 1911 using granite from the same Vermont quarry from which a monument had been erected to founding prophet Joseph Smith near his birthplace in that state, Turley said.

"As it turned out, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which had produced its first audio recordings the year before, was scheduled to be in Kansas City in November on its return from a concert trip to New York," Turley said.

The choir was thus involved in the dedication on Nov. 27 of that year, performing in the city's Ferris Opera House. The choir performed some of the pieces it had recorded just the year before, Turley said.

Future church President Heber J. Grant, then an apostle in the church, presided at the service.

Rain on that occasion effectively canceled an additional service at the monument site. Later in the day, however, the rain let up, and a now-historic photograph was taken of officials unveiling the monument.

"Thus ended the dedication ceremonies, but not the story of this monument, "Turley said.

The cemetery fell into disrepair over the ensuing 38 years, though the monument weathered well. In 1949, the church refurbished the cemetery with the cooperation of local officials. A headline in the local newspaper trumpeted how the church "transforms town's eyesore into beauty spot."

Summing up, Turley said, "My observation is that this monument is a witness to the witnesses. On three sides of the base appear the names of the witnesses. … Their testimony appears on the shaft inscribed in stone, where it will continue to bear witness for years to come. The fourth name on the base is that of Joseph Smith."

He said the Greek word for witness is the word from which the English word "martyr" is derived. "In this sense, as well as because Joseph Smith was with the Book of Mormon witnesses when they saw the Book of Mormon plates, he was indeed a witness."

On the outskirts of Liberty, the new monument to the Eight Witnesses was dedicated by Elder Donald D. Deshler, an Area Seventy of the church.

Similar in appearance to the older monument, it is built of granite obtained from the same quarry, said Alex Baugh, a BYU professor of church history and doctrine.

The monument was built on a farm that had belonged to Michael Arthur, who was called a "jack-Mormon" by 1830s anti-Mormon mobbers because he sympathized with the Mormon people, Baugh said. One of the panels on the monument memorializes Arthur because of his kindness to the Mormons.

But the location was mainly chosen because of its proximity to the burial sites of two of the Eight Witnesses, Christian and Peter Whitmer.

Baugh identified the burial locations of the other six witnesses as: Jacob Whitmer in the city cemetery at Richmond; John Whitmer in Kingston, Mo.; Hiram Page just east of Excelsior Springs, Mo.; and Joseph Smith's father and brothers — Joseph Sr., Hyrum and Samuel — in Nauvoo, Ill.

Email: rscott@desnews.com

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