“True to the Book of Mormon—The Whitmers,” Ensign, Feb. 1989, 34
Few families have had greater impact on the Church than the Peter Whitmer, Sr., family. More members of their family saw the gold plates than any other family, including the Joseph Smith, Sr., family. One son, David Whitmer, saw the gold plates, the Urim and Thummim, the Liahona, the breastplate, the sword of Laban, and the angel Moroni. Four other sons—Christian, Jacob, Peter, Jr., and John—later saw and hefted the gold plates. If you add to this number a son-in-law, Hiram Page, and a future son-in-law, Oliver Cowdery, who also saw the gold plates, seven male members of the Whitmer family were special witnesses of the gold plates. In addition, if the history of their family is correct, we must add an eighth member of the family who saw the plates—their mother, Mary Musselman Whitmer, the only woman so blessed.
Joseph and Emma lived with the Whitmers for almost six months. The Church was organized in the Whitmer log cabin, in Fayette, New York, where three conferences of the Church were also held. One-half of the six rounding members of the Church were members of the Whitmer family or soon would be: David Whitmer, Peter Whitmer, Jr., and Oliver Cowdery.1
The Whitmers also played a major role in the turbulent days of Jackson County, Missouri. Several of the brothers nearly lost their lives during those stormy days. David was selected as president of the stake in Missouri, with his brother John as second counselor. Four brothers were granted the great privilege of being among the first to receive their initiatory ordinances—“endowed with power from on high” (D&C 105:11)—in the Kirtland Temple.
Not only did John Whitmer serve in the stake presidency in Missouri, but he played a role in bringing forth some scripture. He was a scribe for the Prophet Joseph Smith during part of the translation of the Book of Mormon and the Bible and recorded some of the revelations later published in the Doctrine and Covenants. In addition, he was called by the Lord to be Church historian.
Peter Whitmer, Jr., served faithfully as one of the first missionaries in the Church, serving with his future brother-in-law, Oliver Cowdery, in the first “foreign” mission of the Church to the Lamanites.
Yet, tragically, during the dark days of the Church in northern Missouri, all of the Whitmers who were still living (Christian and Peter Whitmer, Jr., died in 1835 and 1836 respectively), left the Church and never returned. In fact, David Whitmer spent only nine years as a member of the Church.
The story of this interesting family began in Pennsylvania. Like most families in that area, they were of German extraction. George Q. Cannon stated that David Whitmer, even as an old man, still had a “German twang” in his voice when he spoke.2 In 1809, the family—consisting of the parents, Peter, Sr., and Mary Musselman Whitmer, and their five children, Christian, Jacob, John, David, and Catherine—moved to Fayette, near Seneca Lake, New York. Three more children were born there—Peter, Nancy, and Elizabeth Ann. In Fayette, the Whitmers drew closer to God by working the soil and worshipping at Zion’s Church, a German-speaking Presbyterian church. They may well have lived out their lives in anonymity there except for a young man, Joseph Smith, Jr., and events that transpired twenty-five miles north in Manchester, New York.
The young prophet had communed with God, Jesus Christ, and angels. One of these angels had entrusted him with a set of gold plates, which he began translating with the aid of Martin Harris.
A new scribe was soon sent to the Prophet—Oliver Cowdery—and he began to record for the Prophet in Harmony, Pennsylvania. Because of mob violence, however, they were forced to leave. Oliver wrote to his friend, David Whitmer, testifying of the work and enclosing samples of the translation of the Book of Mormon.3 He asked David for permission to come to his home to finish the translation.
David was anxious to respond to the request, but it was one of the most hectic times of the year for a farm family. There were fields to be plowed, planted, and fertilized, and they could not make the trip until the work was done. The day after they received Oliver’s letter, David went to plow the fields and discovered that, during the night, five to seven acres had been miraculously plowed by some unknown person. The next day, David went to his field to spread plaster of paris (as a fertilizer). He went to his sister, Catherine Page, to obtain the plaster, but she recounted to him that the previous day she and her children had watched three strangers spread the plaster with great skill and speed. With his fields plowed and fertilized, David was told by his father, “There must be an overruling hand in this, and I think you [had] better go down to Pennsylvania.”4
David was to witness even more miracles that would convince him of the divinity of the work of Joseph Smith. Driving to Harmony—a three-day trip—he was astonished to find the Prophet and Oliver Cowdery walking out to meet him as though they knew his travel schedule. David asked how they had known the exact time of his arrival. David recalled, “Oliver told me that Joseph had informed him when I started from home, where I stopped the first night, how I read the sign at the tavern, where I stopped the second night, etc., and that I would be there that day before dinner.”5 This was only one of many such incidents when the Prophet demonstrated to the Saints that he truly was a seer.
As Joseph, Oliver, and David departed Harmony for Fayette the next day, David once again witnessed an event that strengthened his testimony of the truthfulness of the work of the Restoration. On the trip, they met “a very pleasant, nice-looking old man” who greeted them with “Good morning, it is very warm.” Returning the salutation, they invited him to ride with them. He pleasantly responded, “No, I am going to Cumorah.” This name was new to David since he had never heard it before. The old gentleman “instantly disappeared,” and they did not see him again.6
In the peace of the Whitmer farm, the work of translation moved rapidly. Joseph and Oliver were free to devote all their time and energy to the translating process because of the Whitmers’ kindness in providing for their temporal needs. However, this placed a great burden on Mother Whitmer. Although she never complained, she must have wondered why she was required to make such a sacrifice of her time and work. One evening after finishing her many duties in the home, she walked out to milk the cows. A stranger approached her and said, “You have been very faithful and diligent in your labors, but you are tired because of the increase of your toil; it is proper therefore that you should receive a witness that your faith may be strengthened.”7
He untied the knapsack on his back and removed the gold plates, then turned over the plates, leaf by leaf. Pointing out the engravings upon them, he told her to be patient in bearing her burden a little longer and promised her that if she endured in faith to the end, her reward would be sure.
With her faith fortified, she found that she now could perform her many duties with relative ease and that any inclination she had “to murmur because her lot was hard” was gone forever. Her grandson, John C. Whitmer, concluded the account by stating that she was a strong believer in the Book of Mormon to the day of her death.8
The time had finally come for others to be witnesses of what the Prophet Joseph Smith had experienced. It had been prophesied for thousands of years, as well as in modern times, that three would bear witness of the truth of the Book of Mormon. (See Ether 5:2–4; 2 Ne. 27:12; D&C 17:1–7.) The Whitmers were honored to have a member of their family be one of the three.
Following the usual Whitmer family devotions, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris, accompanied by Joseph Smith, walked into a grove of trees near the Whitmer home and knelt in fervent prayer. After the trial of their faith, an angel appeared first to David, Oliver, and Joseph, then later to Martin and Joseph, and showed them the items promised by the Lord in Doctrine and Covenants 17:1. [D&C 17:1] This was an event that David and the others never forgot.
Shortly after the experience of the three witnesses, four more of the Whitmers, Christian, Jacob, Peter, Jr., and John, besides a son-in-law, Hiram Page, also had the great privilege of seeing the gold plates, displayed to them in Manchester by the Prophet Joseph Smith. They, too, recorded their testimony for the world to read. That evening a meeting was held in which the eight witnesses again bore testimony to all present of what they had seen.
David, John, and Peter Whitmer, Jr., were some of the earliest recipients of revelations from the Lord. Each of these revelations stressed the importance of their involvement in missionary work. To David, the Lord said, “Seek to bring forth and establish my Zion.” (D&C 14:6.) To John and Peter, Jr., the Lord said, “The thing which will be of the most worth unto you will be to declare repentance unto this people, that you may bring souls unto me, that you may rest with them in the kingdom of my Father.” (D&C 15:6; D&C 16:6.) Another revelation was given the following year to the Whitmers, emphasizing the importance of their involvement in missionary work. (See D&C 30:5–11.) Committed to this charge by the Lord, David and John Whitmer accompanied the Prophet to the Colesville area, where several families accepted the gospel.
But there were also dark days for the Whitmer family during this early period, which later led to their apostasy. Oliver Cowdery became convinced that one of the revelations (D&C 20:37) contained an error. He placed his own will and opinion above that of the Lord’s anointed.
To the Prophet’s dismay, Oliver convinced the Whitmer family that his position was correct. The Prophet labored diligently to convince them of the error of their ways. Christian Whitmer was finally persuaded that the instructions in the revelation were appropriate and in accordance with other scripture. With his assistance, the Prophet finally convinced the entire family, along with Oliver, that the verse was correct.9
However, within a couple of months, another problem arose between the Whitmer family and the Prophet Joseph Smith. Hiram Page had acquired a stone by which he received false revelations. Once again the Whitmer family, along with Oliver Cowdery, were deceived by Satan. To settle this next challenge to his authority, Joseph sought and received a revelation. The Lord was gentle but firm with Hiram Page:
“Thou [Oliver Cowdery] shalt take thy brother, Hiram Page, between him and thee alone, and tell him that those things which he hath written from that stone are not of me and that Satan deceiveth him;
“For, behold, these things have not been appointed unto him, neither shall anything be appointed unto any of this church contrary to the church covenants.” (D&C 28:11–12.)
These two events had a negative impact upon David Whitmer, so the Lord sent him this warning: “Behold, I say unto you, David, that you have feared man and have not relied on me for strength as you ought.
“But your mind has been on the things of the earth more than on the things of me, your Maker, and the ministry whereunto you have been called; and you have not given heed unto my Spirit, and to those who were set over you, but have been persuaded by those whom I have not commanded.” (D&C 30:1–2.)
As a part of this revelation, a call came for Peter Whitmer, Jr., to be a part of the first mission of the Church outside the United States. (See D&C 30:5.) Of this mission to the Lamanites, Peter briefly wrote:
“We came to Independence on the twelfth month on the 13 day of the month. On the 14 day of the month I began to labor with mine own hands.10 Brother Oliver and Parley and Frederick started to see the Delaware tribe. In a few days they came to see me and Brother Ziba11 and they declared that the Lamanites received them with great joy. My brethren started again to the Delawares and also to the Cheyennes, but to our sorrow there came a man whose name was Gumoran and told us that he was a man under authority. He told us that he would apprehend us to the garrison. We then resorted among the gentiles and declared the word and baptized 7. We started for the state of Ohio.”12
Back in Fayette, the Whitmers were busy as well. David married his childhood sweetheart, Julia Ann Jolly, whom he had baptized in June 1830. In the January conference of 1831, held in the Whitmer home, the revelation was read that commanded the Saints to move to Ohio. (See D&C 37:1.) In the month of May, the Whitmer family made that move.
During the brief year the Whitmers lived in Kirtland, they played a major role in the activities of the Church there. The faith of the Saints was strengthened when the eleven witnesses of the Book of Mormon stood and “with uplifted hands, bore their solemn testimony to the truth of [the Book of Mormon], as did also the Prophet Joseph.”13
But the call to gather to Zion, Jackson County, Missouri, was too strong for the Whitmers to stay long in Kirtland. By July 1832, they had settled on the Big Blue River in Kaw Township, now Kansas City, Missouri. The next few months saw three of the Whitmer children marry. Peter, Jr., married Vashti Higley on 15 September 1832. Elizabeth Ann Whitmer married Oliver Cowdery on 18 December 1832, and John Whitmer married Sarah Jackson on 10 February 1833. The Whitmers were soon called to important leadership positions in Zion. John was chosen as one of the seven high priests placed in charge of the Church in Missouri. In September 1832, Christian was called as elders quorum president in Jackson County, and then in June 1833, he was recommended as a counselor to the proposed second bishop in Zion, Isaac Morley.14
Nevertheless, the Zion they hoped would be their everlasting inheritance was short-lived. Jackson County, where they lived, was part of the frontier. The differences between the Latter-day Saints and the lawless element there soon erupted into open conflict. At first the mob element made demands that the Latter-day Saints leave the area, but then they took stronger action. A mob of four hundred or five hundred destroyed the Church printing office. They captured some of the Church leaders and threatened to whip them. At this point, John Whitmer and five others stepped forward to offer themselves as a ransom for the Church, willing to be whipped or die if they would let the rest of the Saints leave in peace. Even this was not acceptable to the furious mob, and they stated, “Either they or the ‘Mormons’ must leave the county, or they, or the ‘Mormons’ must die.”15
David Whitmer and other Church leaders were taken by the mob and told to bid farewell to their families since they would never see them alive again. At the point of the bayonet, the mob drove the prisoners to the public square in Independence, where they humiliated them by stripping them of their clothing and tarring and feathering them. John P. Greene recounted what happened:
“The commanding officer then called twelve of his men, and ordering them to cock their guns and present them at the prisoners’ breasts, and to be ready to fire when he gave the word,—he addressed the prisoners, threatening them with instant death, unless they denied the book of Mormon and confessed it to be a fraud; at the same time adding, that if they did so, they might enjoy the privileges of citizens. 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.”16
Because of their sacrifice and commitment to the Church, even in the face of the tribulation and death that drove the Saints from Jackson County, the Lord revealed that many of these faithful brethren would receive an endowment from on high in the Kirtland Temple. (See D&C 105:33.) Four of the Whitmer brothers were chosen: David, John, Christian, and Peter, Jr.
While in Missouri following the trek of Zion’s Camp, the Prophet Joseph Smith organized the Clay County Stake. David Whitmer was selected as president. His counselors were William W. Phelps and John Whitmer. Christian Whitmer was selected as a member of the high council. In a touching scene, Peter Whitmer, Sr., came forward and blessed his three sons “in the name of the Lord.”17
Christian had served as a high councilor only about one and one-half years when he died. Peter Whitmer, Jr., was selected to fill the position of his brother. He, too, had served only a short time, about eight months, when he died. Both had remained faithful to their testimonies of the Book of Mormon and had endured in faith to the end. Their brother-in-law, Oliver Cowdery, wrote this appropriate tribute to their faithfulness:
“By many in this church, our brothers were personally known: they were the first to embrace the new covenant, on hearing it, and during a constant scene of persecution and perplexity, to their last moments, maintained its truth—they were both included in the list of the eight witnesses in the book of Mormon, and though they have departed, it is with great satisfaction that we reflect, that they proclaimed to their last moments, the certainty of their former testimony. … May all who read remember the fact, that the Lord has given men a witness of himself in the last days, and that they, have faithfully declared it till called away.”18
Following their expulsion from Jackson County into Clay County, the Whitmers settled in Kirtland to prepare to receive certain ordinances in the Kirtland Temple. It was during this stay in Kirtland that David Whitmer received a remarkable blessing from the Prophet Joseph Smith:
“Blessed of the Lord is brother David, for he truly is a faithful friend to mankind, and he should be beloved by all, because of the integrity of his heart. All his words are as steadfast as the pillars of heaven, because truth is his only meditation and he delighteth in it, and shall rejoice in it forever. … His name shall be a blessing among all nations, and his testimony shall shine as fair as the sun, and as a diamond, shall it remain untarnished.”19
It was in Kirtland that two promises of the Lord to David Whitmer were fulfilled. He had been promised by the Lord in Doctrine and Covenants 18:37, almost six years before, that he and his brother-in-law Oliver Cowdery would have the great privilege of choosing, for the first time in almost 1800 years, the twelve men who would become the Apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ. We get a little insight into how David must have felt about this heavy responsibility as we read Oliver Cowdery’s words about their feelings [D&C 18:37]:
“The Lord gave us a revelation that, in process of time, there should be twelve men chosen to preach His Gospel to Jew and Gentile. Our minds have been on a constant stretch, to find who these twelve were; when the time should come we could not tell; but we sought the Lord by fasting and prayer to have our lives prolonged to see this day, to see you [the Twelve], and to take a retrospect of the difficulties through which we have passed.”20
We can feel the solemnity of the occasion on 14 February 1835, when Joseph Smith called upon the three witnesses to select the members of the Quorum of the Twelve. Joseph Smith stated that “the meeting had been called, because God had commanded it; and it was made known to him by vision and by the Holy Spirit.” After some lengthy discussions, the Prophet asked the three witnesses to pray in turn and then select the twelve special witnesses of the Lord to all the world. After prayer, the three were blessed by the laying on of hands of the First Presidency. They then selected the first twelve men in this dispensation to stand in this important office, ordaining the first three immediately thereafter and the rest during the next two months.21
It is significant that most men, if not all, holding the Melchizedek Priesthood today trace their right to that priesthood back to this original ordination by the three witnesses.
Those days in Kirtland were some of David’s most spiritual. As a company was departing for Missouri, they came to the Church leaders and requested a blessing for the journey. David Whitmer was selected to give a special prayer on their behalf. The Prophet gave this evaluation of David’s offering: “He prayed in the spirit, and a glorious time succeeded his prayer; joy filled our hearts.”22
David appeared to have had the gift of healing to a great extent. Earlier, when the Prophet was tarred and feathered in Hiram, Ohio, John Johnson had gone to the Prophet’s defense, and during the attack his collarbone was broken. David was asked to administer to him, and he was instantly healed.23 In Kirtland, Joseph Smith, Sr., became very ill. Day after day, Joseph prayed for his father. Finally it was revealed to him that his father would live. That evening the Prophet and David Whitmer blessed him. Joseph Smith wrote, “We called on the Lord in mighty prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, and laid our hands on him, and rebuked the disease. And God heard and answered our prayers—to the great joy and satisfaction of our souls.”24
A few months later, David and the Prophet were called to administer to a sick sister, Angeline Works. They found her very ill and so “deranged that she did not recognize her friends and intimate acquaintances.” They administered to her, commanding her in the name of Christ “to receive her senses, which were immediately restored.”25
These great spiritual experiences were only a prelude to the outpouring of the Spirit that surrounded the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. David was appointed a member of the committee that drafted the rules for the regulation of the temple. On the day of dedication, he and his brother John occupied seats in the Melchizedek Priesthood pulpits, along with other Church leaders. When the great pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit descended upon the Saints, David Whitmer testified that he saw angels in the house of the Lord. Two days later in a very sacred service, the leaders attended to the ordinance of washing of feet, in which David and John Whitmer participated. This meeting culminated with a rich outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and they “continued in the Lord’s House all night, prophesying and giving glory to God.”26
As had been predicted, the great pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit was followed by the opposite, a great outpouring of evil. Daniel Tyler recorded a sermon by Joseph Smith after the brethren had received their endowment in the Kirtland Temple: “Brethren, for some time Satan has not had power to tempt you. Some have thought that there would be no more temptations. But the opposite will come; and unless you draw near to the Lord you will be overcome and apostatize.”27 The Whitmers would be greatly affected by the upcoming tests.
Two years later, in 1838, all of the Whitmers, including the in-laws, left the Church. What was it that led to their fall in such a short time? Years later, David gave several reasons for leaving the Church, but they can be summarized into one primary reason. First and foremost, he was not able to accept continued revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith.28 He felt that Joseph Smith had gone astray, and he rejected the revelations received by the Prophet after 1836.29
Money problems were also a major source of difficulty. John Whitmer and William W. Phelps were involved in the buying and selling of lands in inappropriate ways. Because of this, the Lord sent a revelation to express His concern: “Verily thus saith the Lord unto you my servant Joseph—my servants John Whitmer and William W. Phelps have done those things which are not pleasing in my sight, therefore if they repent not they shall be removed out of their places. Amen.”30
The biggest problem that seemed to afflict the Whitmers was the ancient Nephite disease, pride. David refused to attend any high council meetings to answer charges brought against him, claiming that the council meetings were not legal according to revelation (even though Joseph Smith was present at the meeting that excommunicated him).31 David Whitmer had failed to heed his own earlier warning, as Wilford Woodruff recorded:
“[David Whitmer] warned us to humble ourselves before God lest his hand rest upon us in anger for our pride and many sins that we were running into in our days of prosperity, as the ancient Nephites did, and it does now appear evident that a scourge awaits this stake of Zion, even Kirtland, if there is not great repentance immediately; and almost every countenance indicates the above expectation, especially the heads of the Church.”32
John Whitmer was excommunicated 10 March 1838, for taking personal title to Church property. David was excommunicated one month later for apostasy. Oliver Cowdery was excommunicated about the same time for dishonesty, especially lying about Joseph Smith.33 Although Jacob Whitmer and Hiram Page were never formally tried for their membership, they too left the Church at this time.
Despite their apostasy and excommunication from the Church, the Whitmers always remained true to their testimony of the Book of Mormon. They had seen with their eyes and knew without doubt that the book was the word of God. The three witnesses had recorded that “the voice of the Lord commanded us that we should bear record of [the Book of Mormon]; wherefore, to be obedient unto the commandments of God, we bear testimony of these things.”34 The eight bore witness, too, that they had “seen and hefted” the plates.35 They could not deny their firsthand witness, and never did, even in the face of severe persecution. When the lives of the Saints in northern Missouri were being threatened because of the infamous extermination order, John Whitmer had a confrontation with Theodore Turley. Before some of the mob driving out the Saints, Brother Turley asked John Whitmer point-blank concerning his testimony of the Book of Mormon. John, even though out of the Church, replied, “‘I now say, I handled those plates; there were fine engravings on both sides. I handled them;’ and he described how they were hung, and ‘they were shown to me by a supernatural power;’ he acknowledged all.”36
After the Church was driven from Missouri, most of the Whitmer family settled in Richmond, Missouri. There they lived out their days as respected citizens of the community, though spiritually adrift on a sea of doubt.
Oliver Cowdery was the only one to rejoin the Church. In October 1848, he was rebaptized in Council Bluffs, then returned to Richmond, Missouri, to prepare for the journey west. Unfortunately, he died while preparing to leave.
David Whitmer began a successful livery stable business, which he ran until his death in 1888. His powerful testimony of the Book of Mormon was heard and read by thousands, with over fifty interviews being recorded. David stated that sometimes he gave between fifteen and twenty interviews a day. One of the strongest of these testimonies was given just shortly before his death in a letter he penned to his local newspaper, the Richmond Conservator:
“It having been represented by one John Murphy, of Polo, Caldwell County, Mo., that I, in a conversation with him last summer, denied my testimony as one of the three witnesses to the ‘Book of Mormon.’
“To the end, therefore, that he may understand me now, if he did not then; and that the world may know the truth, I wish now, standing as it were, in the very sunset of life, and in the fear of God, once for all to make this public statement:
“That I have never at any time denied that testimony or any part thereof, which has so long since been published with that Book, as one of the three witnesses. Those who know me best, well know that I have always adhered to that testimony. And that no man may be misled or doubt my present views in regard to the same, I do again affirm the truth of all my statements, as then made and published.
“‘He that hath an ear to hear, let him hear’; it was no delusion! What is written is written, and he that readeth let him understand.”37
Jacob Whitmer was a shoemaker by trade, and with his shoemaking in the winter and farming in the summer, he was able to sustain himself financially until his death in 1856. When Andrew Jenson visited the son of Jacob Whitmer, John C. Whitmer, in 1888, John said, “My father … was always faithful to his testimony in regard to the Book of Mormon, and confirmed it on his death-bed.”38
Hiram Page became a farmer and died in 1852, faithful to his witness of the Book of Mormon. His son, Philander Page, told Andrew Jenson: “I knew my father to be true and faithful to his testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon until the very last. Whenever he had an opportunity to bear his testimony to this effect, he would always do so, and seemed to rejoice exceedingly in having been privileged to see the plates and thus become one of the Eight Witnesses.”39
John Whitmer’s great desire for property in Far West continued, and after the Saints were driven out, he purchased 625 acres at Far West, including the temple lot. He resided there the rest of his life, a highly respected and law-abiding citizen. He lived longer than any of the other eight witnesses, and was visited by many people and asked about his testimony. Jacob Gates visited him in 1861 and recorded: “[He] still testified that the Book of Mormon is true and that Joseph Smith was a Prophet of the Lord. He also said that he believed that … Brigham Young was carrying out the doctrine and system which Joseph Smith taught but he (Whitmer) did not believe in a man’s having more than one wife.”40
It is uncertain how much the disaffection with the Church bothered the Whitmers. They always recalled the early days of Church activity with great fondness. One telling incident occurred in an interview between William Lewis and an elderly John Whitmer. Lewis wrote that the Book of Mormon witness wept openly about his inactivity: “At last he did say, wiping the tears off, that the day would come when we would all see eye to eye.”41
Despite the Whitmers’ apostasy, we can see what a great debt of gratitude we owe to this family. May we stay as true to our testimony of the Book of Mormon as they did to their testimony of the sacred scripture. But may we do better than they, by staying true to our testimony of living prophets and of the divinity of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.