Joseph Fielding Smith, “The Divine Law of Witnesses” Excerpt from

Address To The BYU Studentbody 

By President Joseph Fielding Smith
Tuesday, Dec 8, 1953

I pray that the Spirit of the Lord will help me in what I have to say, When I was asked to come down, they wanted to know what I would take for a subject, and I told Presideut Wilkinson the title would be, “The Divine Law of Witnesses. ” This is something I think that is not too generally understood. First of all, I want to call attention to a statement in a prophecy by Isaiah where the Lord says: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts; neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.” (Isa. 55:8) The way men think and the way the Lord thinks do not always harmonize, and perhaps before I get through I can verify this. On one occasion when the Savior was talking to the Jews they accused Him of being a false teacher because, they said, He did not conform to the law which had been given to Israel-nobody spoke for Him; He testified of Himself, I wish to read those verses:

“The Pharisees therefore said unto Him: ‘Thou bearest record of thyself; thy record is not true. ‘Jesus answered and said unto them, ‘Though I bear record of myself, yet my record is true: for I know whence I came, and whither I go; but ye cannot tell whence I came, and whither I go, ‘ ‘Ye judge after the fIesh ; I judge no man ‘ ‘And yet if I judge, my judgment is true: for I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me. ‘ ‘It is also written in your law, that the testimony of two men is true.’ ‘I am one that bear witness of myself, and the Father that sent me bearth witness of me. ‘ ‘Then said they unto him, ‘Where is thy Father?’ Jesus answered, ‘Ye neither know me, nor my Father: if ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also “‘ (John 8:13 -19)

The law given to Israel was that nothing should be received on the testimony of one alone. There should be two witnesses before a man could be condemned. Likewise there must be two witnesses to bear record of the truth whenever a dispensation of the Gospel is introduced.

We don’t know much about the case of Enoch, but there were many witnesses who testified with him without a doubt, because he alone could not have accomplished the great work of uniting an entire people without help. We think, many of us, that Noah stood alone in bearing witness of the coming flood, and in our preaching we speak of Noah and his testimony to the people and how they rejected it; but Noah was not alone. He had some faithful sons who likewise bore witness with him, He had a faithful father who bore witness, and he had a faithful grandfather who likewise bore witness and who did not die until the year of the flood. So, he was not alone.

Moses was not alone. The Lord sent Aaron to be his spokesman, to bear witness with him that he, Moses, had been called to lead Israel out of bondage. And all through the history we find that there will be and has been at least two witnesses and, at times, more than two witnesses to bear testimony of the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, In the 24th Chapter of Luke we read of the Savior appearing after His resurrection to His disciples as they were assembled in an upper room . It states that he opened their ears and their eyes so that they could understand, and he said this:

” Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.’ And when he had thus spoken, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, ‘Have ye here any meat?’ And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of a honey comb, And he took it, and did eat before them. And he said unto them, ‘These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. ‘ Then opened he their understanding that they might understand the Scriptures, And said unto them, ‘Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And ye are witnesses of these things, ” (Luke 24:39-48)

When Peter was called before the leaders of the Jews who commanded that he was no longer to preach Christ, he bore witness to them that he and John and the other members of the Council of the Twelve were witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Lord took three of his Apostles upon the Mount. We call it the Mount of Transfiguration, and he gave unto them commandments and priesthood and set them apart, if you please, by authority to act as a presidency of the Church. Now some people say we didn’t have a presidency of the Church in those days. Well, Peter, James and John were given the keys of the priesthood on the Mount, and yet they and the rest of the Twelve were witnesses for Jesus Christ.

Now, coming to our own day. When Joseph Smith received his first vision, he was alone. That was of necessity The Lord had to reveal himself to one man alone When Moroni came to him in the beginning, the Prophet was alone; but when the way was opened for three men to behold an angel and bear witness of the Book of Mormon, the prophet returned home and said that a great load had been lifted from his shoulders. Now he was not carrying the load alone. Three other men were called to be witnesses with the Prophet Joseph Smith of the restoration of the Gospel.

Moreover, when the priesthood was restored, it was necessary that not only Joseph Smith should hold the keys and receive the ordination but there should be another witness, and Oliver Cowdrey was always present, so far as any history is concerned that we have, whenever the priesthood was restored; whenever the keys of the priesthood were restored Oliver Cowdrey received the authority with the Prophet Joseph Smith. When John the Baptist came, he came to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdrey. He conferred upon each of them the priesthood of Aaron, When Peter, James and John came, Oliver Cowdrey and Joseph Smith were together. They received the keys for the power of the priesthood from Peter, James and John. Not the prophet alone. When other revelations came, the opening of the heavens and the great bestowal of gifts and blessings? they were given to Oliver Cowdrey as well as to Joseph Smith, In the Kirtland Temple when Moses came he conferred not only upon the head of Joseph Smith but upon the head of Oliver Cowdrey the keys of the gathering of Israel. When Elias came he gave to Joseph Smith and to Oliver Cowdrey the keys of the priesthood of Abraham. When Elijah came it was to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdrey, the first and second elders of the Church, And every time keys were given to the Prophet they were also given to Oliver Cowdrey. (Doctrine & Covenants: 110)

Now there is a reason for this, For the Lord says, “In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.” (Doctrine & Covenants 6:28) Joseph Smith could not stand alone in the beginning of this dispensation. There had to be another witness, and Oliver Cowdrey was called to be that other witness. In other words, Oliver Cowdrey was an assistant president of the Church. Had Oliver Cowdrey lived and been faithful, at the time of the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith he would have, been the President of the Church, But Oliver Cowdrey transgressed and lost his calling, and it became necessary to appoint another in his stead; so we read in Section 124 in the Doctrine and Covenants that Hyrum Smith, my grandfather, had bestowed upon him all the keys and the authority that had been given to Oliver Cowdrey, and Hyrum Smith stood in the stead of Oliver Cowdrey as the second elder of the Church and an assistant president of the Church. And President Young said truthfully, ” had Hyrum Smith lived’ he would have been President of the Church.” (Doctrine and Covenants 124:95) He was already a president of the Church. We had two presidents of the Church during all the ministry of the Prophet Joseph Smith, a senior and a junior, or an assistant president, and there would have been no necessity for his ordination because he already had been so ordained.

Now I don’t think this is a matter that is generally understood, and I am going to read to you what the Lord said to the Prophet Joseph Smith in regard to Oliver Cowdrey and the duties of the assistant president. In The History of the Church under the date of December 6, 1834, we read:

Oliver Cowdrey was ordained by Joseph Smith by the command of the Lord as an assistant president of the high priesthood, to hold the keys of presidency with Joseph Smith in his ministry. This was in harmony with the ordinations he received under the hands of John the Baptist, and Peter, James and John. I’m not quoting the exact words, but this is the substance of that statement of December 5th, 1834. But here is an exact statement from the Prophet explaining the office given to Oliver Cowdrey. “The office of assistant president is to assist in presiding over the whole church and to officiate in the absence of the President according to his rank and appointment Namely, President Cowdrey first, President Rigdon second, arid President Williams third as they were severally called, The office of this priesthood is also to act as spokesman, taking Aaron for an example. The virtue of the above priesthood is to hold the keys of the kingdom of heaven and the Church militant. “ (History of the Church, Book A, Chapter I)

Oliver Cowdrey in rank preceded Sidney Rigdon and Fredrick G. Williams. Now, I have said, and I think it is absolutely true, I have never been questioned on it, that had Oliver Cowdrey lived faithful and true to his calling as the second elder, or President of the Church, he would have gone to his martyrdom with the Prophet Joseph Smith at Carthage, Illinois, on the 27th day of June, 1844. For I think it required the sealing of the testimony of the two men; but Oliver Cowdrey lost his place, and Hyrum Smith was appointed to it, and it became necessary for Hyrum Smith to become a martyr just as well as it was for the Prophet Joseph Smith. For the two witnesses for this dispensation holding the keys–and they now hold the keys of this dispensation-both had to seal that testimony, make it binding upon the world through the shedding of their blood,

Now, there is another thing in regard to witnesses that I want to call your attention to. Strangers coming through our section of the country frequently ask the question: “What became of the plates of the Book of Mormon?” And when we say, “The angel took them back again;” in a sneering manner they say, “Oh, of course, but see what you could have accomplished if you only had those plates with all the engravings on them and you could put them in the hands of the savants, men who are skilled in languages; they could have read them and pronounced them true. Then you could have converted the whole world.” And that is the way they look at it! Therefore’ I call attention to that passage of scripture that says the ways of the Lord and the ways of men are not always the same. Let me read this to you. At least I will tell this story and then read the conclusion of it.

You are all familiar with the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Lazarus asked for help from this man, and he got nothing. The rich man died. Lazarus died; but they didn’t go to the same place. But the rich man could see Lazarus with Abraham, and he called to Abraham and said, “Send Lazarus that he may cool my tongue with his finger, for I am in torment.” Then Abraham said, “There is a gulf that he cannot pass to come to you.” Then the man said, ” Then send him to my brethren that he might warn them that they won’t come where I am. ” Abraham said unto him, ” They have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them.” And he said, “Nay, Father Abraham, but if one went unto them from the dead they would repent.” And he said unto him, “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead,” (Luke 16:30-31)

And so these great men say to us, “We can’t accept your story because you can’t show the plates, If you had them, some of these great scholars could take them and read them. Then they would find that Joseph Smith told a true story, and you could convert the whole world.” No you could not! That isn’t the Lord’s way, If the Lord had left those plates here, and if they had been placed in some museum where learned men could have discovered them , they would have quarreled over them; they would have said they were fraudulent. Instead of converting the world, they would not have believed them, not have accepted them, and the Lord knew it. But the Lord has a different way of doing. He says He will convert people through witnesses. And so Nephi records in regard to the Book of Mormon and its coming forth:

 “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, by the power of God’ besides him to whom the book shall be delivered; and they shall testify to the truth of the book and the things therein. And there is none other which shall view it, save it be a few according to the will of God, to bear testimony of his word unto the children of men; for the Lord God hath said that the words of the faithful should speak as if it were from the dead, 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; and wo be unto him that rejecteth the word of God ” ( 2 Nephi 2 7: 12 -14)

Then we read in the Book of Ether some counsel that was given to the Prophet Joseph Smith,

And now I, Moroni, have written the words which were commanded me according to my memory; and I have told you the things which I have sealed up; therefore touch them not in order that ye may translate; for that thing is forbidden you, except by and by it shall be wisdom in God. And behold, ye may be privileged that ye 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.” (Ether 5:1-3)

And the Prophet Joseph Smith was commanded that he was not to break the seals of the part that was sealed.

Now, just a few more words; the Savior was taken a prisoner before the Sanhedrin, a great group of learned men. They accused Him of making statements about dying and being raised again. They accused Him of blasphemy, They took Him to, Pilate and condemned Him. Pilate condemned Him and turned Him over to them that they might crucify Him. Now according to ideas of men, as they express them in relation to the Book of Mormon, when the Savior came forth from the dead on the third day, the first place He ought to have gone was to the Sanhedrin. He should have said to those great men, “I told you that I would come forth from the dead again. Here I am, and here are my hands and here is my side and my feet. Examine the wounds.” He didn’t go to them. According to their idea He should have gone to Pilate and said, “You asked me if I were the Son of God. I told you for that purpose I came into the world, You condemned me to death; now here I am. Now are you going to be convinced?” He didn’t go there, did He? It wasn’t to Pilate He went. It wasn’t to the leaders of the Jews who cried out against Him, that He went. He did not go to His enemies. He went to some humble fisherman, and the few men He had gathered to be His companions when He was here, and showed them the wounds in His hands and in His feet and told them to thrust their hands into His side and be not faithless-at least that is what He said to one of them–and not unbelieving.

He appeared to certain women who were faithful and true. He appeared to those who had made a covenant to serve Him, but there is no evidence anywhere that He ever appeared to any single soul except Paul in the case of a non-believer. And He had a good reason for going to Paul, because He needed Paul in His ministry and He knew that Paul’s heart was right, but his head was wrong, And so He did manifest Himself to Paul, but He did not go to His enemies. That isn’t the Lord’s way of doing. He has appointed His servants; He’ sends them forth into the world to preach the Gospel, cry repentance and bear witness of the mission of Jesus Christ, and they who reject that testimony will have to answer for it!

Oh yea, wouldn’t it be easy for the Lord to have an angel come in the midst of heaven and cry to all people everywhere upon the face of the earth and tell them that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God? That is not His way of doing. We came here to this world to be tried and proved to see what kind of stuff we are made of, and to walk by faith. The Lord has not left us without understanding nor without evidence. There is an abundance of evidence, and the Lord is not going to reveal Himself to the scholar who is filled with prejudice and hate. Oh yes, He will have angels fly through the midst of heaven, not with the idea of converting but to bring judgements upon the ungodly. Now it is for us to seek the knowledge concerning Jesus Christ and the mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith through our faith and through the power that has been given to us in the gift of the Holy Ghost that we may know the truth that will make us free.

May the Lord bless us all, I pray in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen