For a century now, a granite monument has stood near the grave site of Oliver Cowdery, preserving his name and those of David Whitmer and Martin Harris on respective panels of the four-sided monument. The three men, in fulfillment of prophecy in 2 Nephi 27:12, were privileged to behold the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated, shown to them by an angel of God.
The Prophet Joseph Smith was with them on that day in 1829. His name is on the remaining side of the monument, for he too is a witness.
In remarks at the Nov. 19 service commemorating the monument, assistant Church historian Richard E. Turley Jr. referred to the Prophet's martyrdom and said that the Greek word for witness is the word from which the English word martyr is derived.
"In this sense, as well as because Joseph Smith was with the other witnesses when they saw the Book of Mormon plates, he was indeed a witness," Brother Turley said. He thus called the 100-year-old monument "a witness to the witnesses."
In tracing the monument's origin, Brother Turley spoke of the occasion in 1878 when Church historian Orson Pratt and fellow apostle Joseph F. Smith went on a mission to identify Church history sites and to interview surviving first-generation Church members. In Richmond on Sept. 7, 1878, they interviewed David Whitmer, last surviving member of the Three Witnesses, a longtime and prominent resident of the city.
"They had a very pleasant visit with him in which he recounted the sacred events to which he was a witness and confirmed that his fellow Book of Mormon witness Oliver Cowdery had died here in Richmond at the home of Peter and Mary Musselman Whitmer, David's parents," he said.
After a period of disaffection from the Church, Oliver had reunited with the Latter-day Saints, then en route to the Salt Lake Valley and had been rebaptized at Kanesville, Iowa, on Nov. 12, 1848. Intending to go west with the Church, he visited his in-laws, the Whitmers, at Richmond. There, he contracted tuberculosis, and he died in 1850.
Martin Harris, who had also been estranged from the Church, went to Utah in 1870, where he was rebaptized. He died in 1875 in Clarkston, Utah.
Their testimony of having been shown the plates by an angel is contained as introductory material with each publication of the Book of Mormon. Each repeatedly affirmed that testimony throughout his life, and none of them ever denied it.
Further recounting the history of the monument, Brother Turley said that many years past after the 1878 interview with David Whitmer, and whatever monument might have been left to mark Oliver Cowdery's grave disappeared.
Then, in the early 20th century, Joseph F. Smith, who had interviewed David Whitmer, became Church president. He directed that a stone monument be erected to honor the witnesses near Oliver's grave at Pioneer Cemetery in Richmond. (David Whitmer's grave is in a nearby city cemetery.) In August 1911, Junius F. Wells visited Richmond and located Oliver's then-unmarked grave, the intended location for the monument, which was fashioned from granite that came from the same Vermont quarry from which the monument to Joseph Smith had been constructed in that state.
The intent was to unveil the monument on Oliver's birthday, Oct. 3, but weather delayed the preparation of the monument for weeks, and on Oct. 13, John Henry Smith, who was to preside, passed away.
These events caused a change of plans, Brother Turley said. "As it turned out, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which had produced its first audio recordings the year before, was scheduled to be in Kansas City in November on its return from a concert trip to New York." It was decided to reschedule the monument dedication to coincide with the choir's visit in the area and to invite the choir to participate in the dedication ceremonies.
Thus it was that the choir performed for the dedication in Richmond's Ferris Opera House on Nov. 27, 1911, singing some of the pieces it had recorded the year before, Brother Turley said. He added that Elder Heber J. Grant, then a member of the Twelve, presided and offered the dedicatory prayer. A grandson and great-grandauther of David Whitmer were present, he said. They were also relatives of Oliver Cowdery, who had no living descendants at the time.
There was to have been a procession from the opera house to the monument site for an additional service, but it was canceled due to rain. Later in the day, the rain let up, and Junius F. Wells with the Whitmer descendants came to the monument site and met with 10 missionaries and photographer George Edward Anderson who was there to document the occasion, Brother Turley said. The monument was unveiled and a prayer was offered.
"Thus ended the dedication ceremonies, but not the end of the story of this monument," Brother Turley said. "Over the ensuing 38 years the cemetery fell into disrepair."
John Henry Smith's son George Albert Smith had been with his father and Junius Wells when they visited the Vermont quarry for the monument in 1911. By 1949, he had become Church president and took an interest in the cemetery. With the cooperation of local officials, the cemetery was improved dramatically, Brother Turley said, leading to a complimentary article in the local newspaper with the headline that trumpeted how the Church "transforms town's eyesore into beauty spot."
Earlier in the service, Susan Easton Black, BYU professor of Church history and doctrine, recounted the history of the Three Witnesses. "You realize we are here on sacred ground," she said.
Mark A. Sherer, Community of Christ historian/archivist, read the testimony of the Three Witnesses, and a musical selection and narration were performed by a brass and percussion ensemble and vocalists from the Liberty Missouri Stake.