Witnesses to the Book of Mormon as Anglo-Saxon Oath-Helpers

I’ve been re-reading Richard Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling , and I just finished the chapter on the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon. When reading about the witnesses of the Book of Mormon, I recognized an interesting parallel to the early Norse and Anglo-Saxon origins of English Common Law that I had not noticed previously and thought I’d write a little about it.

The Classicist bent of our modern American education system often focuses on the real, but overemphasized contribution of the Greek and Roman civilizations to our modern legal system and government while unduly minimizing or ignoring the contribution from the medieval legal traditions of the Norse and Germanic cultures from which English Common law, and subsequently American law, developed. As a result, a number people have at least a cursory familiarity with the Athenian forum while far fewer are familiar with the Norse Thing or the Anglo-Saxon Folkmoot, or the later British Witenagemot.

The Anglo-Saxon folkmoot, like the Norse Thing, was a governing assembly consisting of the free members of the community or district. The folkmoot protected the people against anarchy and tribal feuding by mediating disputes and grievances according to the Common Law (Old English folcriht, literally “right of the people”) and in theory provided each free man a single vote, though like modern democracies it was often dominated by the more powerful, influential members of the community. Some assemblies had the power to elect chieftains and kings based on who they considered best for the community, regardless of blood relation to any current monarch.

The Folkmoot and Thing are the early precursors to our modern legislative assemblies and trials by jury. Later, the folkmoots developed into hundred courts, borough courts, and shire courts.

Lawsuits were heard before the folkmoot. The procedure was for a number of “oath-helpers” to testify of the innocence of the defendant, who himself made an oath of innocence. The word “Juror” comes from the Latin iurature, which means “swearer” or “oath maker.” The defendant had to secure a certain number of oath-helpers to establish his innocence . The number of oath-helpers was traditionally twelve, a number that has carried through to our modern juries. If he failed to secure enough oath-helpers, the defendant was judged guilty.

So, returning to my original thought, Richard Bushman’s biography shows that, understandably, there was enormous pressure on Joseph Smith to show the Gold Plates, which contained the ancient text that was being translated as The Book of Mormon, to others and prove their existence. Joseph was under strict heavenly command to show them to no one. As the translation of the Book of Mormon neared completion, however, he was permitted to show the plates to a few individuals who are known as the three witnesses and the eight witnesses. It occurred to me that the testimony of Joseph Smith plus those of the three witnesses and then the eight witnesses made a total of twelve testimonies to the real existence of the plates. In a sense Joseph plus the other eleven witnesses filled the ancient role of the twelve Anglo-Saxon oath-helpers needed to establish the fact of their existence. In this way the witnesses of the Book of Mormon fit into a deep rooted cultural tradition that still wields power in our society.

(Unrelated trivia for The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter fans: The Entmoot attended by Merry and Pippin with Treebeard in “The Two Towers” is based on the Anglo-Saxon Folkmoot; the Wizengamot, or high court of wizards of which Albus Dumbledore is the head in the Harry Potter books, is based upon the Anglo-Saxon Witenagemot—Old English witan means “wise man”)

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2 Responses to Witnesses to the Book of Mormon as Anglo-Saxon Oath-Helpers

  1. Excellent thought, Jon. Good old wager of law and compurgation. Wager of law as an alternative to a jury trial fascinated me as a law student. I never looked into it on a deeper level but now I realize that wager of law was a last remaining vestige of compurgation in the common law courts of medieval England when the justices would ride circuit.

    Fantastic application to Joseph Smith. I have always been deeply touched by the testimony of the three and the eight witnesses. I believe these men were honest in what they said and thus their testimony of the plates and the angel solidifies belief in the calling and authority of the Prophet Joseph Smith. In a culture of honor—long dead to most of our modern world—staking your word and your reputation on a sworn statement meant everything. That is exactly what these witnesses did.

    Compurgation indeed. Thank you.

  2. Here’s an informative link for “wager of law”:

    http://law.jrank.org/pages/11177/Wager-Law.html

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