“The Whitmers: A Family That Nourished the Church,” Ensign, Aug. 1979, 35
Of the Book of Mormon’s eleven witnesses, seven were Whitmers by blood or marriage. The Book of Mormon translation was finished at the Whitmer home in Fayette; near it the Three Witnesses saw Moroni and the plates; there the organization of the Church and early New York conferences were held; half of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants from the New York period—twenty—were received there, a record unequaled by any other dwelling in the state. Joseph Smith’s family had carried the first burden in inquiry and persecution in the gospel’s restoration, but the Whitmers were the family that nourished the Church.
Shortly before 1810 the Peter Whitmer family had moved from Pennsylvania to the New York farmlands of Fayette township. A reporter who contacted the David Whitmer family in 1885 learned enough about Peter Whitmer, Sr., to characterize him as “a hard-working, God-fearing man, a strict Presbyterian [who] brought his children up with rigid sectarian discipline” (Chicago Tribune, 17 Dec. 1885). The 1850 census lists David’s mother, Mary Musselman Whitmer, as born in Germany.
We can reconstruct a family portrait in late 1820, thanks to the federal census and birthdates obtained by Church historian Andrew Jenson. The parents, Peter and Mary, are forty-seven and forty-two. Then follow seven children: Christian, twenty-two; Jacob, twenty; John, eighteen; David, fifteen; Catherine, thirteen; Peter, Jr., eleven; and Elizabeth Ann, five. Nancy, who had died in her first year, would have been seven.1 They had already paid $1,050, about half of the purchase price of their 100-acre farm, where the Church would be later organized.2 Farming was an operation that required the industry of the entire family—the men caring for large fields sowed mainly in wheat, with some flax, plus animals, gardens, and an orchard. The women of that day not only sewed their own cloth but often manufactured it from raw flax and wool, in addition to heavy domestic and farm chores.
The decade between 1820 and 1830 saw the growth of the family and their community activities. There were three weddings in 1825: Christian and Jacob married sisters from a prominent family of the area, and Catherine married Hiram Page, later a witness of the Book of Mormon. The father, one of the town’s “pathmasters” in 1819, was elected as highway overseer in his area in 1826 and 1827.3 Years later Diedrich Willers, Jr., prominent public servant, would report that Peter Whitmer, Sr., “is spoken of by old Fayette residents, as a worthy and industrious citizen.”4 The eldest son, Christian, was commissioned ensign in his New York militia regiment in 1825 and was elected one of the six town constables of Fayette in both 1828 and 1829—the same year he became a Book of Mormon witness.
In faith Peter Whitmer, Sr., was German Reformed, and that church’s documents show Whitmer dedication and activity. The confirmations of Christian, Jacob, and John Whitmer are in the German minutes on 5 April 1822.5 Their pastor, Diedrich Willers, Sr., wrote an angry letter shortly after the organization of the Church. Shocked at the one hundred baptized Mormons in his area, he repeated rumors of the number of places where Joseph Smith translated and the number of denominations that the Whitmers had supposedly joined.6 Yet years later, in a calmer mood, he admitted that he was not “even at that time much conversant with the facts” of Mormon origins, but that Peter Whitmer, one of his members, was “a quiet unpretending, and apparently honest, candid, and simple-minded man.” Rev. Willers remembers warning Father Whitmer of Joseph Smith’s “errors and delusions,” but “my conversation … apparently made no impression upon him, his only reply to my arguments being the repeated quotation in the German language of the words: ‘Jesus Christ, yesterday, today, and forever.’” (See Heb. 13:8.)7
The Whitmers first knew Joseph Smith in 1829, a time when David, John, Peter, Jr., and Elizabeth Ann were still living in the parents’ home with the married sons and daughter nearby. David later told how he had met Oliver Cowdery on a visit to the Palmyra area. Both were intensely curious about the reports of new scripture written on gold plates. As Oliver went to Pennsylvania, where the young Prophet was working on the translation, he stopped at the Whitmer house and promised to tell David what he found out. Three letters came to the Whitmer home: the first one reported that Oliver was scribe in the translation and was “convinced that Smith had the records”; the second letter quoted from the translation and reiterated Oliver’s strong faith; the last letter asked if they could finish the translation in the haven of David’s home.8
David alone could not answer that request. Lucy Mack Smith, who knew the elder Whitmers intimately, wrote that David showed the letter “to his father, mother, brothers, and sisters, and their advice was asked in regard to the best course for him to take.” In the family council Father Whitmer was practical: “Why, David [you] know you have sowed as much wheat as you can harrow in tomorrow and next day, and then you have a quantity of plaster to spread.” So they decided that David should not go for Joseph and Oliver unless he got “a witness from God that it is very necessary.” David agreed but secretly asked the Lord that if he should go, he would be able “to do this work sooner than the same work had ever been done on the farm before.” To everyone’s amazement, two days’ work was done in one, and the impressed father counseled David to finish fertilizing and leave to “bring up the man with his scribe”; Father Whitmer was convinced that “there must be some overruling power in this thing.”9
The Prophet and Oliver Cowdery arrived first, then Emma. The severe alteration of household patterns burdened Mary with more work, but David told Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith of a special confirmation that she received. Mary, on her way to milk the cows, met a special messenger, who said: “You have been very faithful and diligent in your labors, but you are tried because of the increase of your toil; it is proper therefore that you should receive a witness that your faith may be strengthened.”10
He showed her the plates and, David related, she never felt to complain at her increased labors after that. John C. Whitmer, Jacob’s son, was twenty-one when his grandmother died, and heard Mary’s story first-hand on “several occasions.” He gave many more details: the “kind, friendly tone” of the messenger’s address; her “unexpressible joy and satisfaction” on hearing his explanations; her view of the engravings as the leaves of the plates were turned one by one before her eyes. He added: “I knew my grandmother to be a good, noble and truthful woman, and I have not the least doubt of her statement in regard to seeing the plates being strictly true. She was a strong believer in the Book of Mormon until the day of her death.”11
During this summer and the following year came the well-known outpouring of revelations, translating, and witnessing of the plates. Not so well known are the inspirational Church conferences held that first year at the Whitmer home. The house was not large or elaborate. Historian Andrew Jenson talked with those who had seen it standing and described it as a “one-and-a-half story log house.” Sidney Rigdon, who attended conference there, spoke of the spiritual power of the first meetings, with “the whole Church of Christ in a little old log house about 20 feet square, near Waterloo, N.Y.”12
The first conference with contemporary minutes was held there on 9 June 1830, with six elders—then the highest office. Joseph Smith and Oliver were listed as senior to the others and three of the remaining four were Whitmers: David, who had brought the translators to Fayette; John, who had been an important scribe, and Peter (undoubtedly the son), who had assisted during the first printing of the Book of Mormon in the winter of 1829–30. These three men were also singled out with special revelations during the translation of the Book of Mormon, and were given special missionary callings by revelation during 1830 (see D&C 14–16, 30). This conference’s minutes list two more family members, Hiram Page and Christian, as teachers.
One month later, in July, the Prophet Joseph had returned to his Pennsylvania home with John Whitmer, who assisted in copying the revelations. There they received an energetic letter from Oliver Cowdery, who wanted to change a certain revelation: “I command you in the name of God to erase those words, that no priestcraft be amongst us!”
Here was the first crisis between the men who had been favored with many forms of revelation. Filled with “sorrow and uneasiness,” the Prophet returned to the Whitmers’, where he “found the family in general” agreeing with Oliver Cowdery’s interpretation. He labored with them, and Christian “at length became convinced” of the truthfulness of the Prophet’s position: “With his assistance, I succeeded in bringing, not only the Whitmer family, but also Oliver Cowdery to acknowledge that they had been in error.” The lesson? “The necessity of humility and meekness before the Lord, that He might teach us of His ways,” said Joseph Smith.13
But that lesson was not easily learned. With Newel Knight’s help, the Prophet moved back to the Whitmer home just before the next Church conference two months later. Then he discovered that Hiram Page had persuaded the Whitmer family and Oliver Cowdery to accept strange revelations through a seer stone (see History of the Church, 1:110). Newel Knight remembered “quite a roll of papers full of these revelations,” which were “in contradiction to the New Testament and the revelations of these last days.” He also remembered that Joseph was deeply concerned: “That night before the conference I occupied the same room that he did and the greater part of the night was spent in prayer and supplication.”14
However, the minutes contain the significant sentence: “Brother Joseph Smith, Jr. was appointed by the voice of the Conference to receive and write Revelations and Commandments for this church.”15 A revelation, now section 28, said Hiram Page had been deceived: personal inspiration is a true principle—yet no one but the president of the Church may write revelations for the Church (see D&C 28:4–5, 2). Since the Spirit bore witness of these truths, all (including Hiram Page) renounced the false messages and were filled with the gifts of “peace, and faith, and hope, and charity” (History of the Church, 1:115). Yet these episodes would reemerge from the past in another confrontation between Joseph Smith and these same men eight years later.
During these first years, however, the Whitmer family’s service was brilliant. The Whitmer women, Emma Smith, and possibly Thankful Pratt made clothing for the men sent on the first major mission of the Church, launched from Fayette soon after that September conference. Lucy Smith recalled that this “was no easy task, as the most of it had to be manufactured out of the raw material” (Lucy Smith, Biographical Sketches, p. 169).
These first missionaries to Missouri included Oliver Cowdery and Peter Whitmer, Jr.; and their phenomenal success at Kirtland, Ohio, soon led the whole Church to migrate there. Their work was written in fire in the hearts of converts, but a precious single-page journal from Peter Whitmer, Jr., shows his spirit as he “declared the Book of Mormon” to Indians and the “fulness of the gospel” during the conversion of 130 in Ohio. The hardships of that winter in Missouri he passes by, though mentioning his sickness on arriving home: “I … was taken sick with the ague and fever for the space of four weeks.”16 Here we see the personal cost of early missionary labors.
Soon the available elders of the Church—including Oliver, Hiram Page, and the Whitmers—were called to Missouri, preaching on their way. William E. McLellin, a school teacher in Paris, Illinois, heard of the discovery and translation of the Book of Mormon from David Whitmer. He later wrote his relatives: “One of these [visitors] was a witness to the book and had seen an angel which declared its truth (his name was David Whitmer). They were in the neighborhood about a week. I talked much with them by way of enquiry and argument.” When David left, William was consumed with a desire to know the truth. He shut down school, rode his horse 450 miles west to Independence, talked to the elders there, including Hyrum Smith, and was baptized and ordained an elder.17
After Jackson County was designated the gathering place, the Whitmers moved there, establishing the “Whitmer Settlement.” By then there were many Whitmer households. David had married in 1830 and the youngest, Elizabeth Ann, would marry Oliver Cowdery in 1832. Peter Whitmer, Jr., and John would marry in 1832 and 1833. Conference minutes at Hiram, Ohio, on 12 November 1831 give special insight into the family’s migration to Missouri. The Prophet and Oliver Cowdery were present, along with John, David, and Peter Whitmer, Jr. Oliver and John Whitmer were assigned to “carry” the revelations to be printed in Independence, a project involving “the foundation of the Church and the salvation of the world.” The assembly voted that “inheritances” in Zion be given to some who had given much to the kingdom—among these were Christian, Jacob, David and Peter, Jr., and Hiram Page.18 The Whitmers lost all a short two years later when mobs drove out the Jackson County Saints.
Christian Whitmer was threatened at gunpoint and Hiram Page was severely beaten during these mobbings,19 but the family faith did not weaken under persecution. David Whitmer, along with other leading Mormons, was herded into Independence Square “at the point of a bayonet.” The mob’s leader threatened his Mormon prisoners with “instant death unless they denied the Book of Mormon and confessed it to be a fraud.” The clicks of guns being cocked backed up his ultimatum, but the special witness to the Book of Mormon met that challenge dramatically: “David Whitmer, hereupon, lifted up his hands and bore witness that the Book of Mormon was the Word of God. The mob then let them go.”20 Years later David recalled the episode: “The testimony I gave to that mob made them fear and tremble, and I escaped from them.”21
The exiled Mormons temporarily moved to Clay County, north across the Missouri River. In this location, both Christian and Peter, Jr., the oldest and youngest Whitmer sons, served as high councilors. But the burden of persecution and exposure was heavy. Peter, Jr., died within days of turning twenty-six, leaving a small family. Christian Whitmer died two months later, at age thirty-seven, leaving a wife but no children. His brother John, then editing the church newspaper in Kirtland, records: “He died of severe affliction upon one of his legs, which he bore for a long time with great patience. He has gone home to his Creator rejoicing in the new and everlasting covenant.”22 When Oliver Cowdery replaced John as editor, he praised his dead brothers-in-law: “Our brothers … were the first to embrace the new covenant, on hearing it. … They were both included in the list of the eight witnesses in the book of Mormon, and … they proclaimed to their last moments, the certainty of their former testimony.”23
They left behind the three Whitmer witnesses of the Book of Mormon and the two witnesses who married their sisters. Like the dead brothers, these five never modified their testimonies, though they and the parents were estranged from the Church in 1838. The problems arose in Missouri where the Whitmers had pioneered the new Mormon county of Caldwell. David presided over the Missouri Church with John as his counselor. But great dissatisfaction arose from what seemed profiteering in the land sales. The Kirtland troubles were also exported to Missouri: dismay at the bank failure and personal criticisms of the Prophet. Oliver Cowdery’s 1838 letters display a spirited independence, but his misuse of this principle became dangerous rebellion. The actual issues discussed in the 1838 excommunication trials of Oliver Cowdery, David, and John Whitmer are not as central as their attitudes. David and John simply refused investigation.24 Oliver’s letters claim oppression, what he calls “the subversion of the liberties of the whole Church.”25 And David Whitmer finally wrote a defiant letter, preferring to withdraw from the Church rather than sit down with his brethren to solve the problems (see History of the Church, 3:19). The attitudes of 1830 had not disappeared, David was told by revelation: “You have not given heed unto my Spirit, and to those who were set over you” (D&C 30:2). Thus personal pride was the real force in estranging prominent members of this valuable family. However, great barriers against reconciliation were added when the intolerance and threats of Church members at Far West forced the Whitmers to leave the city.
Later that year, the Church was forced to migrate to Nauvoo. The Whitmers did not go. John Whitmer stayed at Far West, a city that vanished and left him with an isolated farm. David Whitmer moved to Richmond, where he first worked with team and wagon, then developed a successful livery stable and transportation business. John and David lived in Missouri forty and fifty years after the Mormon exodus, though most of the family did not survive beyond the mid-1850s. Father and Mother Whitmer died in Richmond in 1854 and 1856. Jacob Whitmer, Book of Mormon witness and Missouri high councilor, became a farmer and shoemaker in Richmond and was buried near his parents in 1856. Hiram Page had farmed a few miles away and died in 1852. We know little of his widow, Catherine Whitmer Page. She was still living with a son near Richmond, Missouri, when the 1880 census was taken, though she probably died not too long afterward.
Much more is known of Elizabeth Ann Cowdery, who followed her excommunicated husband to three locations as he practiced law in their decade out of the Church. She returned with Oliver to Council Bluffs and a reconciliation with the General Authorities there in 1848, her husband displaying a cooperative spirit that would have prevented his excommunication in 1838. Real and imagined hurts were set aside. But this great-souled man died of a chronic lung condition within two years of his rebaptism, leaving Elizabeth and his surviving daughter Maria. They lived for a time with their Whitmer relatives; then Maria married Dr. Charles Johnson, who admired both women and respected their religion. Mother and daughter shared the same home until their deaths within days of each other in 1892. William Lang, prominent Ohio attorney who began his career in Oliver’s office, called Mrs. Cowdery “a beautiful woman, whose quiet nature, sweet temper and kind disposition won her friends wherever she was known.”26 A Mormon missionary, James H. Hart, found her “well-preserved” at age sixty-eight and added that “in features she resembles very much her brother David.”27 To the end of her life Elizabeth’s visitors found that she shared her husband’s testimony. A rare letter from her proudly insists that he “always without one doubt or [shadow] of turning affirmed the divinity and truth of the Book of Mormon.”28
John and David Whitmer demonstrate the tragedy of leaving the Church. They still believed in its foundations but could not set self aside to rejoin. This position clashed with their convictions. At the time of John’s excommunication, he recorded his real thoughts in the official history that he had kept for the Church: “Therefore I close the history … hoping that I may be forgiven of my faults … not withstanding my present situation, which I hope will soon be bettered and I find favor in the eyes of God and all men his saints.”29 Despite initial bitterness, John lived to appreciate what others had done in building the kingdom and to regret his own inactivity. In 1861 the white-haired witness told Jacob Gates that he could not agree with polygamy, but that he knew that the Book of Mormon was true and that “Joseph Smith was a true prophet, and … that Brigham Young was carrying out the principles that Joseph Smith taught before he was martyred.”30 Just a year before John’s death, a missionary from the Reorganized Church bluntly challenged him to be active by asking him if he would “fall into the ranks.” He was so affected by the question that he “could hardly speak from crying.” Drying his eyes, he finally said “that the day would come when we would all see eye to eye.”31
David lived ten years beyond John, dying in 1888. His feelings seemed to express a stronger ego and marked self-justification. Often he seemed to resent the intrusions of the curious, who interrupted his life, but he personified Paul’s sense of calling: “Necessity is laid upon me” (1 Cor. 9:16). A telling example occurred in 1882 when a twenty-three year old missionary, Matthias Cowley, later an apostle, visited David Whitmer along with his mission president, John Morgan. David bore his testimony, affirming his personal knowledge of the plates and angel, but Elder Cowley later told of David’s feelings about his testimony—never refusing to bear it but feeling that it was a burden.32 From this the missionary-apostle composed a thought that tested true in his life’s experience: “As long as any man or woman studies the Gospel, and lives it, he will never tire of it.”33 In the eyes of this perceptive missionary, David had lost the joy brought by harmony with the Holy Ghost, even as he continued dutifully to bear testimony.
David Whitmer could see the paradox of witnessing to the Book of Mormon but refusing affiliation with the Church. He disagreed with the Reorganized Church because he considered it uninformed about Joseph Smith’s actual teachings. He claimed that Joseph Smith’s inspiration had deserted him about the time that the Whitmers were excommunicated, so he rejected the Prophet’s full program as revealed in Kirtland and Nauvoo. Even though David opposed centralized authority, excommunicated William McLellin enlisted David and his witness-relatives to “reorganize” with David as president in 1847. But soon they confessed “that the organization was not in accordance with the order of the Gospel Church.”34 Much later, in 1875, David’s nephew John C. Whitmer requested baptism. Arguing that a true organization would be limited to those doctrines and officers present at the 1829 beginning, David ordained his nephew “to perpetuate the Church of Christ.”35 At its peak, the organization had a few hundred members. Some others active in the movement were Hiram Page’s son Philander and David Whitmer’s grandson George W. Schweich. But the group was basically limited, a family church, looking back instead of forward by inspired leadership. Probably its last surviving member was Mayme Whitmer Koontz, granddaughter of the witness Jacob Whitmer. With pride she told me before her death in 1961 that David’s “Church of Christ” was alive as long as she lived.
We gain perspective on this family by watching those whose feelings are hurt in the Church in any day. Jesus warned his cousin John: “Blessed” are they who are not “offended in me” (Matt. 11:6). Activity in the Church requires generosity in setting aside personal conflicts and the humility to be open to new understandings. David would not bend, though his brother John softened, and their brother-in-law Oliver Cowdery reentered the Church with repentance. But what of the next generation? The parent, convinced but inactive, communicates more than he realizes. At best, his children inherit confusion, and at worst, skepticism. In the family heritage, it is only a question of time before inactivity turns to indifference and unbelief.
The Whitmer family historian, Mary Cleora Dear, has performed an invaluable service by identifying upwards of 800 descendants of Peter Whitmer, Sr., and Mary Musselman.36 In some cases, descendants have accepted the LDS missionary message. Others belong to the Reorganized Church. Most, in the experience of this author, are not active in any church which accepts the Book of Mormon, though many greatly respect that scripture because of the Whitmers’s powerful testimony. The tragedy is that conviction was not really lost, but set on the shelf. The personal conflicts of the past, however, should be trivial beside the total conviction of the first Whitmers that Joseph Smith was given new revelation.