In a joint statement published with the Book of Mormon in 1830, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and Martin Harris declared that an angel of the Lord showed them the golden plates used by Joseph Smith to translate ancient scripture — and that it was done by the “gift and power of God.”
While the trio didn’t always remain affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they never retracted their statement about the origin of the Book of Mormon.
Now a feature film telling their story is coming to the big screen. Earlier this month filmmakers released the trailer for “Witnesses,” which is scheduled to premiere in theaters this summer.
“Witnesses” was produced by Redbrick Filmworks (“American Prophet,” “Fires of Faith”) in partnership with The Interpreter Foundation and Purdie Distribution. It is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Mark Goodman, the film’s director, said the story of the three witnesses is one of faith and time-honored values for all audiences.
“In every age there are people of integrity, people who are willing to stand up for what they believe, regardless of personal consequences,” Goodman said. “The witnesses were known to be men of integrity.”
The movie stars Paul Wuthrich (Joseph Smith), Lincoln Hoppe (Martin Harris), Michael Zuccola (David Whitmer) and Caleb Spivak (Oliver Cowdery). It was filmed at locations in Canada, near Boston, Massachusetts, and in Utah.
While filmmakers took artistic liberties with some scenes, the story is based on real events, Goodman said.
“The 10-year timeline of the film is compressed to help tell the story, but the events portrayed in the film happened. They are not made up or imagined,” he said. “Dissidents trying to take over the Kirtland temple at gunpoint. Martin Harris switching Joseph’s seer stone for a look-alike. These are some of the lesser-known events that actually occurred. The drama is real, the emotions are real — you can’t make this stuff up.”
For 29-year-old Wuthrich, playing Joseph Smith was a dream role. As a returned missionary and lifelong Latter-day Saint, he had spent years learning about the Prophet. Wuthrich came away from the iconic role with a new level of appreciation and empathy for the historic figure.
“It was a little overwhelming but also a thrill,” said the actor from Kaysville, Utah. “I wanted to portray him as somebody who struggled with trials and struggled to fulfill a prophetic calling while at the same time still honoring somebody that I really admire.”
Hoppe, 49, has known the story of Martin Harris and his role as one of the three witnesses all his life. Harris is predominately known by church members as the man who lost the 116 pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript.
After taking a deep dive into church history and acting in “Witnesses,” Hoppe has a new perception of the Martin Harris, who is buried in Clarkston, Utah. While this man of faith made mistakes and left the church for many years before returning, Hoppe came to appreciate the value of Harris mortgaging his prosperous New York farm to finance the publication of the Book of Mormon, among other things.
“We look on Martin Harris, and, for a lot of members of the church, there’s a negative taste in the mouth,” Hoppe said. “But we literally would not have had that first printing of the Book of Mormon without his faith and sacrifice. It tells you how much he believed — not only in the book they were translating but in Joseph as well.”
Some may think they know the whole story of the three witnesses, but audiences may be surprised to learn a thing or two. The film also conveys a timely message that Wuthrich hopes will resonate with viewers.
“It is OK to believe in something,” he said. “It might not be trendy to have faith nowadays, you know, I don’t think it’s popular to have faith. But it’s a noble thing to believe in something and to commit to something higher than yourself. I think that’s OK.”