When it comes to history, early, primary sources are the always the ideal. Of course, they are not always readily available. Sometimes you have to settle for a primary source that is late, or you have an early source, but it’s second hand. Or you have both, have to decide if you’ll give more weight to the document that is early, even though it is secondary, or to the document that is first hand, despite it’s being late. Actually, quite often you will have multiple documents, some primary, others second (or even third or fourth) hand; some earlier, and others later, and whole bunch in-between, and deciding which documents to give priority to is difficult. History is a messy business, and more often than not there is more than enough room for disagreement on the what, how, who, and why of “what happened.” But when you have these ideal documents – the early, primary ones – you can sort through that mess with a little more confidence.
With in mind, I draw your attention to very exciting find. Okay, that is an understatement. This find is monumental, epic, colossal… get the idea? I don’t want to overstate this, but I honestly wonder if “overstatement” is even possible. I just want to stress that this is HUGE. Independent historian Erin Jennings discovered an 1829 letter from Oliver Cowdery (printed in a newspaper) which discusses the experience of the three witnesses. The letter is dated November 9, 1829. John W. Welch dates the revealing of the plates to the three witnesses to around June 20, 1829. That means that this letter was written – by one of the three witnesses – within four months of the experience. This makes the document both early and primary. This thing is like historical gold! The letter reads, in regards to the three witnesses’ experience, as follows (brackets are from the newspaper reporter):
You also wished Mr. Harris to inform you respecting his seeing this book, whether there could not possibly have been some juggling at the bottom of it. A few words on that point may suffice. –
It was a clear, open beautiful day, far from any inhabitants, in a remote field, at that time we saw the record, of which it has been spoken, brought and laid before us, by an angle, arrayed in glorious light, [who] asend [descended I suppose] out of the midst of heaven.
Now if this is human juggling – judge ye.
Note that “juggling” in the nineteenth century could refer to what we might call “trickery” – attempting to deceive or fool others into believing something. Cowdery is responding to the accusation that Joseph Smith “juggled” (that is, tricked or fooled) the witnesses into seeing the plates. He seems to strongly be of the opinion that it is not.
I don’t want it to seem like this is the only valuable contribution this letter makes to Mormon history, because it is not. There is much more to the letter than this, and it is going to be important for Mormon history for a number of reasons. Also, it has been pointed out that the setting Oliver Cowdery describes seems to be different from that described in Joseph Smith’s 1838 account (which indicates that it was in the woods, not in a field, near the Whitmer home, not “far from any inhabitants”). I believe that these details are reconcilable, but at any rate, discrepancies in how an event is reported hardly prove that the event did not take place. It will be interesting to see how historians choose to deal with these differences in the future. For now, it is exciting to just be able to read the direct testimony of one of the three witnesses from so soon after the event.