“The Newel K. Whitney Family,” Ensign, Dec. 1978, 42
The Lord, speaking in the Doctrine and Covenants, mentioned one man by name in at least eight revelations. (See D&C 63:45, D&C 72:8, D&C 78:9, D&C 84:112, 114, D&C 93:50, D&C 96:2, D&C 104:39–42, D&C 117:11.) He was a successful businessman, a presiding bishop of the Church, a prominent civic official, and a notable member of his community. Newel Kimball Whitney was also part of a family whose lives, for seven generations, have been closely tied to key events, places, and families in Latter-day Saint history from the beginnings of the Church down to the present.
With the eighth generation now rising, we can see the pattern of triumph as well as tragedy, devotion as well as disaffection, prominence as well as obscurity that characterizes the history of the Church itself. The Whitney family, in some ways, was an institution that mirrored that larger institution.
Newel K. Whitney was born on 5 February 1795 at Marlborough, Vermont, the first son and the second child of Samuel Whitney and Susannah Kimball. Young Newel grew up only a few miles from the birthplace of Joseph Smith, who was ten years his junior, yet the two first met as grown men, far from the Vermont of their childhood. In February 1831 the Prophet Joseph Smith entered Newel K. Whitney’s store in Kirtland, Ohio, and exclaimed to the startled proprietor, “Thou art the man!” Newel protested that he did not know this stranger, then heard life-changing words: “I am Joseph the Prophet. You prayed me here; now what do you want of me?”1
It was true that he had “prayed” the Prophet there. Although few of America’s millions—less than ten percent—belonged to any church after the end of the American Revolution, many sought religious truth. Newel and his wife, Elizabeth Ann Smith, were among them. Members of no church, they earnestly studied the Bible, tried to live Christian teachings, and engaged in private devotions. Shortly before the organization of the Church in 1830 and about two years before that meeting with Joseph Smith, the Whitneys joined the Campbellites, forerunners of the present Disciples of Christ. With Sidney Rigdon, they subsequently left the Campbellite group in an effort to live with all things in common, as the early Christians had done.
In the fall of 1830, missionaries brought the Book of Mormon to the Whitneys and taught them the restored gospel. Elizabeth Ann heard the gospel message first, told her husband about it, and was baptized on November 1830, prior to Newel K. Whitney’s own conversion. Three months later the Prophet Joseph introduced himself to the Whitneys and came to live in their house, where several revelations now in the Doctrine and Covenants were received. “I remarked to my husband,” Elizabeth Ann Whitney later wrote, “that this was the fulfillment of the vision we had seen of a cloud as of glory resting upon our house.”2
When Joseph Smith announced the revelation of 4 December 1831, designating Newel K. Whitney bishop over the Saints in Ohio, Brother Whitney felt unqualified. Joseph Smith advised him to seek confirmation from God. Praying alone in his room, Newel K. Whitney heard a voice that said: “Thy strength is in me.” His self-doubt gone, Brother Whitney accepted the calling he had previously feared.3
Newel K. Whitney’s parents joined the Church nearly five years after Newel’s baptism, but not all the Whitney family shared that conversion. Even close members of a family do not always see religious truth in the same way, and conflict was occurring in the Whitney family—as it does in many families.
Newel’s younger brother, Samuel F. Whitney, was one family member who could not accept—let alone make—the religious decision of the parents he loved and the brother he almost idolized. Samuel believed that his family had been deceived when they accepted the teachings of Joseph Smith. When Newel demonstrated his devotion by consecrating his prosperous business at Kirtland to the service of the Church, Samuel concluded that his brother had been defrauded. Samuel could not comprehend the faith that enabled Newel to forsake his Kirtland properties when the Church left in 1838, nor could he be comforted when Newel lost his property to Missouri mobs that same year. When Samuel visited his elder brother in Nauvoo in the 1840s, he saw only the contrast between the poverty of the Saints and the magnificence of the temple they sacrificed to build. Samuel managed Newel’s financial affairs in Kirtland, but he frequently urged Newel to forsake the Mormons. The brothers continued to love and respect each other, but Samuel never stopped grieving over Newel’s choice, just as Newel mourned Samuel’s rejection of the restored gospel. Newel K. Whitney died in Salt Lake City as presiding bishop of the LDS Church. Samuel F. Whitney died in Kirtland as pastor of the Methodist Church.4
In Elizabeth Ann, Newel’s wife, we see another pattern—that of the devoted, spiritual woman who stengthens her family and associates, performing in her home and ward the same kind of function that her husband was performing for the Church as a whole. When she was nearly twenty-two years old and Newel K. Whitney was twenty-seven, they married at Kirtland on 20 October 1822. “Ours was strictly a marriage of affection. Our tastes, our feelings were congenial, and we were really a happy couple, with bright prospects in store.”5 She bore eleven children during the next twenty-four years and adopted several homeless children.
After her husband’s call as bishop over the Church in the Ohio area, she found that many of Newel’s hours at home with the family were now sacrificed to Church assignments. “During all these absences and separations from my husband, I never felt to murmur, or complain in the least … yet I was more than satisfied to have him give all, time, talents, and ability into the service of the Kingdom of God; and the changes in our circumstances and associations which were consequent upon our embracing the Gospel, never caused me a moment’s sorrow.”6 At Kirtland, Elizabeth Ann and her husband provided a three-day feast in their home for the poor of the Church. Of this event, Joseph Smith’s history states: “Attended a sumptuous feast at Bishop Newel K. Whitney’s. This feast was after the order of the Son of God—the lame, the halt, and the blind were invited, according to the instructions of the Savior.”7
At Nauvoo, Elizabeth Ann joined her husband more fully in service to the Church. With the Relief Society’s organization at Nauvoo in 1842, Elizabeth Ann became the first counselor to its president Emma Smith, thus gaining wider scope for her compassionate desires to serve. Shortly after receiving this calling, Elizabeth Ann recorded that she “was also ordained and set apart under the hand of Joseph Smith the Prophet to administer to the sick and comfort the sorrowful.”8 By the prayer of faith Sister Whitney was a blessing to many of her sisters in the gospel at Nauvoo, on the pioneer trail, and in Utah. Elizabeth Ann Whitney and Newel K. Whitney devoted themselves to the care of the needy Nauvoo saints through their respective services in the Relief Society and in the bishopric. These loving companions received their endowments and were sealed by Joseph Smith. When thousands of Latter-day Saints entered the Nauvoo Temple in 1845–46 to obtain the endowment, Elizabeth Ann Whitney assisted in the ordinance work both day and night, a service she continued in Utah until she was physically unable to continue the demanding work.
Latter-day Saints for half a century witnessed Elizabeth Ann Whitney’s acts of selfless devotion and were blessed by the spiritual gifts of healing by faith and speaking in tongues that she exercised. To all the Saints, she was revered as “Mother Whitney.” When she died in Utah in 1882, after twenty-two years of widowhood, her sister-wife Emmeline B. Wells mourned her: “She possessed a reverential, prophetic and poetic temperament, and the spirit of the Gospel strengthened in her all these exalted attributes.”9
How a family accepts members who join it by marriage is, in some ways, analogous to how a Church accepts members who join it by baptism. The experiences of plural marriage make the analogy even closer. The Whitney family rose nobly to the challenge in a way that was an example to the Church. On 27 July 1842, the Prophet Joseph Smith recorded a revelation to the Whitneys on plural marriage.
“My husband revealed these things to me; we had always been united, and had the utmost faith and confidence in each other. We pondered upon them continually, and our prayers were unceasing that the Lord would grant us some special manifestation concerning this new and strange doctrine. The Lord was very merciful to us; He revealed unto us His power and glory. We were seemingly wrapt in a heavenly vision, a halo of light encircled us, and we were convinced in our own minds that God had heard and answered our prayers and intercedings before Him.”10 In obedience to the command of the living prophet, Newel and Elizabeth Ann gave their daughter Sarah Ann in marriage to Joseph Smith. Nearly a year later, Joseph Smith dictated the general revelation about the eternity of marriage and the nature of plural marriage, and Newel asked to have his own copy, a providential request, since the first copy was destroyed. Thus, Newel’s desire to have the word of the Lord has blessed the entire Church by preserving what is now Section 132 [D&C 132] in the Doctrine and Covenants.11
The Whitneys gave their daughter into the system of plural marriage and received into their family other plural wives. Newel K. Whitney was almost fifty years old when he entered plural marriage. He subsequently married Olive M. Bishop in 1844; Emmeline B. Woodworth Harris, Almira Elizabeth Pond, Abigail A. Pond, Elizabeth M. More, and Henrietta Keyes Whitney in 1845; and Ann Houston in 1846.12
As always, both obedience and compassion motivated the Whitneys. Henrietta Keyes Whitney was the widow of a kinsman, Alonzo Wells Newcomb Whitney; and Emmeline B. Woodworth was also desperately in need. Emmeline’s father had died when she was four years old. When her family joined the Church in 1842, her mother urged fifteen-year-old Emmeline to marry James Harris, an equally young son of a branch president. After their newborn child died at Nauvoo, the young man deserted Emmeline and the Church.
At this point Emmeline was befriended by Newel K. Whitney’s plural wife, Olive Bishop Whitney, who brought her into the Whitney home. Newel extended his protection to the grief-stricken seventeen-year-old girl, not only as a bishop but as a husband, and Emmeline in turn loved the Whitneys without measure. She frequently expressed that love for Elizabeth Ann Whitney in poetry and prose, and she penned the tribute cited at Elizabeth Ann’s death. In a letter to Newel prior to the birth of their first child, Emmeline wrote: “Even as it would tear and rend a vine to disentangle it from the tree, so would it rend my very soul to be separated from thee forever.”13
Newel K. Whitney died in 1850, leaving Emmeline with two small children. She later married Daniel H. Wells, by whom she also raised a family in love. Decades later, poet, essayist, women’s suffragist, and General President of the Relief Society, she was still writing in her diary tributes to Newel’s memory. One calls him “a father to all within his reach and more than father to me. I looked to him almost as if he had been a God; my youth, my inexperience of life and its realities caused me to trust most implicitly in one who had possessed integrity always at his command” and a later entry concluded, “there are few men in the world like him—upright, honest, and chaste.”14
Such was the quality of love in the Whitney family. They not only maintained bonds within their family strong enough to penetrate different religious commitments, as with brother Samuel, but also reached out, in a system as challenging as plural marriage, and developed great devotion.
Whitney family devotion to each other and the Church continued during the next generation in Utah. Poet, politician, and long-time bishop, Orson F. Whitney was sustained a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1906. His life of Church service was heightened by a “vision in a dream” he had as a young missionary in Pennsylvania. In one part of this vision Brother Whitney viewed the resurrected Christ: “I shall never forget the kind and gentle manner in which he stooped, raised me up, and embraced me. It was so vivid, so real. I felt the very warmth of his body, as He held me in his arms and said in tenderest tones: ‘No, my son; these have finished their work; they can go with me; but you must stay and finish yours.’ Still I clung to Him. Gazing up into his face—for he was taller than I—I besought him fervently: ‘Well, promise me that I will come to you at the last.’ Smiling sweetly, He said: ‘That will depend entirely upon yourself.’ I awoke with a sob in my throat, and it was morning.”15 The son of Horace Kimball Whitney and Helen Mar Kimball, Orson F. Whitney was the grandson of Newel K. Whitney and Heber C. Kimball, and the son-in-law of Daniel H. Wells, the third husband of Newel’s widow, Emmeline.
Others closely tied to the family by kinship or by marriage included General Authorities J. Golden Kimball, Reed Smoot, Heber J. Grant, George Albert Smith, and Joseph F. Smith.
Thus, the Whitney family was linked to the Church by heritage and kinship as well as by commitment. That relationship was reciprocal. The Church was one of the most important influences on the Whitney family, and the family had and still has great impact on the Church through the continuing contribution of its faithful members.
The Whitneys are not just a “first” family, however. They are a continuing family that has welcomed in new members from Europe, Latin America, and throughout the world—just like the Church. Whitney descendants have married into families named Scheller, Essig, Ganschow, Martig, Rydbeck, Borg, Grambule, Roza, Nueberger, Wach, Shapiro, and Espinoza. Again, like the Church, the richness of the Whitney roots is reflected in the fruitfulness of the branches. And that heritage is the heritage of all families who find the truthfulness of the gospel in the restored Church.