John Whitmer may be my favorite official witness to the Book of Mormon.
With the rest of the Eight Witnesses, he claimed to have "seen," "handled" and "hefted" the golden plates in June 1829. Seven years later, he again wrote forcefully of that experience:
"I desire to testify to all that will come to the knowledge of this address, that I have most assuredly seen the plates from whence the Book of Mormon is translated, and that I have handled these plates, and know of a surety that Joseph Smith, Jr., has translated the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God. And in this thing the wisdom of the wise most assuredly has perished. Therefore, know ye, O ye inhabitants of the earth, wherever this address may come, that I have in this thing freed my garments of your blood, whether you believe or disbelieve."
Plainly, he was a committed believer. In fact, he was willing to die for his faith: With several others in 1833, he had offered himself as a hostage to the Missouri mobs on behalf of his fellow Latter-day Saints.
But that's not why he's a favorite of mine. I like him because he's the witness who came closest to denying his testimony. Yet he still couldn't do it.
John was excommunicated on March 10, 1838, a month before his brother David, one of the Three Witnesses. Sorrowful and dejected, bitter over monetary issues, angry at the church in general and Joseph Smith in particular, his faith faltered.
During an 1839 exchange with Theodore Turley, the Latter-day Saint business agent who had bravely stayed behind in Missouri to settle financial affairs there after the Mormon expulsion, John confessed to doubts about the Book of Mormon. Speaking of the original text on the plates, he said, "I cannot read it, and I do not know whether it is true or not."
Nonetheless, he insisted, "I handled those plates; there were fine engravings on both sides. I handled them."
This is remarkable. Unlike the Three Witnesses, who heard a divine voice testify to the truth of the translation of the plates, the Eight Witnesses simply saw and held the plates under quite matter-of-fact conditions. Yet, even in the depths of alienation and bitterness, even when most inclined to doubt, even living, as he did, in the area of the worst anti-Mormon persecutions, John Whitmer could not deny what he personally and directly knew, that he had "lifted and handled a metal object of substantial weight."
This is powerful evidence that the plates literally existed, independently of Joseph Smith's imagination — a small but vitally important point.
John's bitterness, or at least his skepticism, was short-lived. And, after 1856, he was the last survivor of the Eight Witnesses. In 1861, Jacob Gates spoke with him for more than four hours, recording in his journal: "He still testified that the Book of Mormon is true and that Joseph Smith was a Prophet of the Lord."
Myron Bond reported in 1878 that "old Father John Whitmer told me last winter, with tears in his eyes, that he knew as well as he knew he had an existence that Joseph translated the ancient writing which was upon the plates, which he 'saw and handled,' and which, as one of the scribes, he helped to copy, as the words fell from Joseph's lips."
Finally, six months before his death, John spoke at a public Sunday service. His remarks were reported in the "Kingston Sentinel" as follows: "Mr. Whitmer is considered a truthful, honest and law abiding citizen by this community, and consequently, his appointment drew out a large audience. Mr. Whitmer stated that he had often handled the identical golden plates which Mr. Smith received from the hand of the angel. He said it was of pure gold; part of the book was sealed up solid, the other part was open, and it was this part which was translated."
John Whitmer never returned to the church. He lived the last 40 years of his life in Missouri, remaining faithful — despite persecution, disaffection and decades of isolation from the Saints — to his claim that he had seen and handled the plates of the Book of Mormon.
When he died, the "Kingston Sentinel" eulogized him as "a highly respected and law abiding citizen."
"Truthful," "honest," and "highly respected." And, as such, a witness whose testimony cannot lightly be dismissed.
Nea A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org.