Early Mormon Documents: Volume Five
Dan Vogel, editor
Hardback. 576 Pages. / 1-56085-170-8 / $44.95
BEST DOCUMENTARY SERIES AWARD, JOHN WHITMER HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION
|In Volume Five:|
|INTERVIEWS WITH BOOK OF MORMON WITNESS DAVID WHITMER, CONDUCTED BY:|
|Joseph F. Smith & Orson Pratt||William H. Kelley & George A. Blakeslee|
|George Q. Cannon||Edmund C. Briggs & Rudolph Etzenhouser|
|Joseph Smith III||Zenas H. Gurley|
|James Henry Moyle||Thomas W. Smith|
|Nathan Tanner, Jr.||Edward Stevenson|
|and the Chicago Times, Kansas City Journal, Omaha Herald, and St. Louis Republican, among others.|
|STATEMENTS, TESTIMONIES, LETTERS, AND REMINISCENCES BY:|
|Hiram Page||John Whitmer|
|William E. McClellin||Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery|
|Diedrich Willers||Lucius Fenn|
|Ezra Booth||Parley P. Pratt|
|Sidney Rigdon||J. L. Traughber|
|and minutes of meetings, ordination certificates, maps, and a chronology of the Joseph Smith family, 1771-1831.|
“I was plowing in the field one morning, and Joseph [Smith] and Oliver [Cowdery] came along with a revelation stating that I was to be one of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon. I got over the fence and we went out into the woods, near by, and sat down on a log and talked awhile … when all at once a light came down from above us and encircled us for quite a little distance around; and the angel stood before us … dressed in white … A table was set before us and on it the records … from which the Book of Mormon was translated … While we were viewing them the voice of God spoke out of heaven saying that the Book was true and the translation correct.” —David Whitmer, interview, Saints’ Herald, 1882
Unlike Oliver Cowdery’s grandiloquence and Martin Harris’s mercurial temperament, David Whitmer—third of Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon—was plain-spoken, reliable, and straight-forward, as one might expect from his Mennonite upbringing. Readers will notice the care he took to avoid exaggeration. “We did not touch nor handle the plates,” he affirmed repeatedly. If he felt a reporter erred in detail or in conveying the overall spirit of the Three Witnesses’ vision of the gold plates, Whitmer followed up with a letter to the editor to set the record straight.
He often did so due to the number of interviews he granted to reporters from Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, and elsewhere and to LDS and RLDS leaders whose interviews were published in church periodicals. Through all of these discussions, Whitmer’s story remained basically the same, although he occasionally added a detail in response to a specific question or experienced an understandable lapse in memory over a relatively minor point.
What will impress most readers is the effort to be candid. People found him to be friendly despite a no-nonsense approach to LDS history. He was engaging, open, and well grounded in the real world, as his election as mayor of Richmond, Missouri, attests. He believed in spirits and visions, but he was not considered to be a fanatic; people felt that he was someone they could trust.
He “[h]as a good head and honest face,” William Kelley and George Blakeslee wrote of their encounter with Whitmer in 1882. “He talks with ease and seemed at home with every subject suggested; and without an effort, seemingly, went on to amplify upon it, so that we had nothing to do but question, suggest and listen. … [H]e studies to express himself in such a way as not to be misunderstood; and it hurts him to be misrepresented.”
In addition to Whitmer, others from Fayette, New York, where the Book of Mormon was transcribed and the first general church conferences were held, related what transpired there. They include David Whitmer’s brother John; Hiram Page, who married Elizabeth Ann Whitmer and was one of the Eight Witnesses to the Book of Mormon; the Whitmer family’s pastor in the German Reformed Church, Diedrich Willers; and others. The latter explained why Mormonism moved from Palmyra to Fayette and how its members grew beyond the founding Smith family to include the Whitmers. Among other things, the Peter Whitmer family, like the Smiths, had previously enjoyed unusual spiritual experiences. “In the month of July,” the Reverend Willers noted in 1830, “Joseph Smith, Jr., made his appearance in Seneca county in the neighborhood of Waterloo, about six miles from my residence, where a certain David Whitmer had claimed to have seen an angel of the Lord. Joseph Smith made his way to this man’s house in order to bring to pass the translation of the named book with the suggestion that only among such people, who had enjoyed commerce with residents of higher worlds, could he work, and that this was indeed the place where he could do so productively, where people had seen angels.”
Dan Vogel is the editor of Early Mormon Documents, a five-volume series that won Best Documentary awards from both the Mormon History Association and the John Whitmer Historical Association. He is the editor of The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture; author of Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon; Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet and Religious Seekers and the Advent of Mormonism; and co-editor of American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon. He is also a contributor to The Prophet Puzzle: Interpretive Essays on Joseph Smith and Differing Visions: Dissenters in Mormon History, among others. He has presented research papers at the annual Mormon History Association meetings, Sunstone Theological Symposium, and similar conferences. He is currently preparing a definitive edition of Joseph Smith’s multi-volume History of the Church. He and his wife live in Westerville, Ohio.