My sophomore English class at Brighton High School was a disaster. The school was using a failed but trendy new system where hundreds of kids were in a big open space and split up into rotating groups, moving every few weeks from one teacher to another for different pathetic units that supposedly taught us English while we watched lame movies or engaged in other dull “labs” or whatever. Felt like chaos. Like block scheduling and other ill-informed experiments that sometimes advance administrators more than students, whatever we were doing there couldn’t possibly make us better at reading, writing, or grammar (a dreaded g-word that is almost as despised in American schools as that other G-word).
The demographics of the school were pretty good. Lots of suburban kids from generally healthy families in the southern extremes of Salt Lake City. In theory should have been a pretty tame group of kids, though there were some rough elements (I have a scar as a reminder of that from one of my most traumatic stories in 7th grade). Demographics notwithstanding, big, unwieldy groups without much structure can be a recipe for trouble. One day as the mass of classes in the open “pod” were dismissing, a student got into a loud argument with a teacher. Kids gathered around to watch. There were dozens of observers with quite a few nearby eye-witnesses who watched the shouting escalate into physical violence as the student grabbed the teacher near the neck. The teacher, possibly applying some improperly understood scene from a kung-fu movie, attempted to break the student’s hold by thrusting his hands upward, but with his thumbs sticking out so he caught the student’s arms with his thumbs. This broke the hold and both thumbs. Ouch.
The student was prosecuted for physical assault. Dozens saw it happen. I think it was just grabbing and shaking the teacher, not actual choking, though I don’t remember that clearly now–it’s recorded somewhere in my journals if I want to review the story. But it was definitely a physical attack of some kind and the student was clearly the perpetrator. He was convicted. However, he came close to escaping legal punishment. I was apparently the only witness during the trial that was able to withstand the questioning of the defense attorney.
My father sat in on the trial and told me what happened to the multiple other witnesses who came in. One by one, a skillful lawyer was able to pick at little details in their story and find gaps, uncertainties, and apparent contradictions and use them to create mountains of doubt. Things like, “You said there were 5 people in front of you, and now you are saying you had an unobstructed view? You first said the teacher was wearing plaid, and now you say it was a white shirt. If you are so wrong about all these basics, are you sure you saw anything at all? Earlier you said this lasted five minutes, but now you are saying it happened so quickly and was only a few seconds. Were you even paying attention at all?” In the end, according to my father, the room full of witnesses was essentially reduced to one. Had it been a better lawyer or a more complex event, I’m sure he could have tripped me up as well.
Lawyers can be great at what they do, but in a court setting, their objective is not to discover the truth, but to represent a client, sometimes at all costs. I see the mind and tactics of lawyers in some of the recent anti-Mormon attempts to attack and dismiss the vast body of scholarship and evidence from the many witnesses of the gold plates of the Book of Mormon. Taking mistakes in quotations, uncertainties in documentation, easily resolved apparent contradictions or errors, and turning them into mountain of doubt where there should be none. It is amazing what skilled lawyers can do to a body of witnesses, but that doesn’t remove the reality of what they saw and in many cases handled. Richard L. Anderson’s vast body of scholarship on their lives and integrity is dismissed out of hand as just a big book from a true-believer, without addressing the arguments and evidence. Nitpicking at minor issues is the name of the game, but it’s a lawyer’s game, not that of a seeker for truth. The consistent witnesses of the Book of Mormon deserve a lot more study and respect. They were far better and witnesses than what we had at Brighton High.
Update, June 18, 2014:
In my experience, many lawyers are men and women of integrity and some passionately seek for truth. I just noticed an intriguing example of this wherein one nineteenth century lawyer grilled one of the Three Witnesses to determine if their account might have been fabricated, delusional, imaginary, or otherwise less than real. It was a young lawyer’s first cross-examination, sincere and intense. Daniel Peterson shares he account in his important essay, “Tangible Restoration: The Witnesses and What They Experienced” (presentation at the 2006 FAIR Conference):
The young James Henry Moyle, who had just received his law degree from the University of Michigan and was returning home to Utah, took a detour to Richmond, Missouri, for the sole purpose of interviewing David Whitmer. When he saw the Witness, he implored him to tell the truth. He told Whitmer of the sacrifices that his family had made for the gospel’s sake, driven from state to state and finally pulling a handcart all the way to the arid desert of the Great Basin.
I said to him: “I was born and reared in the Church and I do pray of you to let me know if there is any possibility of your having been deceived. I am just commencing life as you are preparing to lay it down, and I beg of you to tell me if there is anything connected with the testimony which you have borne to the world that could possibly have been deceptive or misunderstood.” I further said, in an earnest youthful appeal, that I didn’t want to go through life believing in a falsehood, that it was in his power to make known the truth to me. His answer was unequivocal. There was no question about its truthfulness. The angel had stood in a little clear place in the woods with nothing between them but a fallen log—the angel on one side and the witnesses on the other. It had all occurred in broad, clear daylight. He saw the plates and heard the angel with unmistakable clearness.
“He was the first witness I ever attempted to cross examine,” Moyle wrote many years later, “and I did so with all the intensity of my impelling desire to know the truth. The interview lasted two and one-half hours.” The young lawyer, who subsequently served as assistant secretary of the treasury in two federal administrations, came away utterly convinced of David Whitmer’s sincerity.
The witnesses to the plates insisted that what they had seen, heard, and in many cases touched and handled were real. Some critics, often relying on highly questionable hostile sources and neglecting the weight of scholarship on the topic, have attempted to suggest that the witnesses sort of imagined things and didn’t actually see with their physical eyes or touch anything tangible. This revision of history utterly fails to explain the impressive historical record and the reality and sincerity of multiple lives standing as witnesses of what was and is real. Peterson’s article helps summarize a few of the key points that have to be neglected by the critics in reaching that unwarranted conclusion.
Related resource: LDSFAQ Page on the Witnesses to the Book of Mormon.