The credibility of a witness depends on their consistency over time. If they testify that something is true one day, you would expect them to stand behind what they said at a later time.
When Alma invited a group of people to be baptized in the waters of Mormon, he told them that they were committing to “stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places…even until death” (Mosiah 18:9). This was not an abstract concept to these people. Not long before, the prophet Abinadi had chosen to be executed rather than deny his testimony. “I will suffer even until death,” he said, “and I will not recall my words” (Mosiah 17:10).
Moroni wrote that three people would see the gold plates containing the original text of the Book of Mormon, “wherefore they shall know of a surety that these things are true” (Ether 5:3). Nephi said that those three “shall testify to the truth of the book and the things therein” (2 Nephi 27:12). In June of 1829, just before Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris saw the plates, the Lord explained to them what would be expected:
And after that you have obtained faith, and have seen them with your eyes, you shall testify of them, by the power of God…
And ye shall testify that you have seen them.Doctrine and Covenants 17:3, 5
Immediately after seeing the plates, they fulfilled this responsibility by writing “The Testimony of Three Witnesses,” which appears in every copy of the Book of Mormon. “We…have seen the plates which contain this record,” they wrote. “And we testify that we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates; and they have been shown unto us by the power of God, and not of man.”
In subsequent years, all three of these men left the church, but none of them ever denied their testimony of what they had seen. As Dallin H. Oaks has pointed out, the consistency of their testimony over time is a powerful witness:
Each of the three had ample reason and opportunity to renounce his testimony if it had been false, or to equivocate on details if any had been inaccurate. As is well known, because of disagreements or jealousies involving other leaders of the Church, each one of these three witnesses was excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by about eight years after the publication of their testimony. All three went their separate ways, with no common interest to support a collusive effort. Yet to the end of their lives—periods ranging from 12 to 50 years after their excommunications—not one of these witnesses deviated from his published testimony or said anything that cast any shadow on its truthfulness.“The Witness: Martin Harris,” General Conference, April 1999
Consider the following statements each of them made near the end of their lives:
- Oliver Cowdery: “I am a dying man, and what would it profit one to tell you a lie? I know … that this Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God. My eyes saw, my ears heard, and my understanding was touched, and I know that whereof I testified is true” (“Testimony of Jacob Gates,” Improvement Era, March 1912, 418–19, quoted in “The Testimony of Oliver Cowdery,” Ensign, December 1996).
- David Whitmer: “I will say once more to all mankind, that I have never at any time denied that testimony or any part thereof. I also testify to the world, that neither Oliver Cowdery or Martin Harris ever at any time denied their testimony. They both died affirming the truth of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon” (An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Missouri, 1887, p. 8).
- Martin Harris: “I know the Book of Mormon to be verily true. And although all men should deny the truth of that book, I dare not do it. My heart is fixed. O God, my heart is fixed! I could not know more truly or certainly than I do.” (Quoted by William E. McLellin in W. E. McLellan’s Book, 4 January 1871, p. 166. Original manuscript reproduced in Mitchell K. Schaefer, “The Testimony of Men: William E. McLellin and the Book of Mormon Witnesses,” BYU Studies, vol. 50, no. 1 (2011), 108
Today, I will stand as a witness of God. I will remember that my ongoing and continuous commitment to the truths I have learned is more important than any single declaration I might make.