excerpt – Early Mormon Documents, Vol. 5
If Fayette, New York, is incorrectly believed by many to be the location of the LDS church’s organization on 6 April 1830 (see I.A.15, JOSEPH SMITH HISTORY, 1839, n. 82), it is nevertheless the scene of other important events: the Book of Mormon’s completion, reception of numerous revelations, and three church conferences, to name a few. A largely rural area situated below the Erie Canal about twenty-two miles directly east of Palmyra, with Seneca and Cayuga Lakes on either side, Fayette was home to Peter Whitmer, Sr., whose generosity was invaluable to the growth of Mormonism. Peter first heard about Joseph Smith through his son David, who had met Oliver Cowdery in Palmyra in 1828 and conversed with him about Smith’s discovery of gold plates (VI.A.12, DAVID WHITMER INTERVIEW WITH KANSAS CITY JOURNAL, 1 JUN 1881). In April the next year, Cowdery and Samuel Smith visited the Whitmer family on their way to Harmony, Pennsylvania, where Joseph Smith was struggling with the translation of the Book of Mormon. Before leaving Fayette, Cowdery promised to write Whitmer concerning his investigation of Smith’s activities in Harmony.
About mid-April 1829, Whitmer received a letter from Cowdery that praised Smith’s seeric gifts. In a second letter, Cowdery quoted a few lines from the Book of Mormon translation. In a third letter he told Whitmer that they were experiencing persecution in Harmony and requested sanctuary in Fayette for himself and Smith (VI.A.7, DAVID WHITMER INTERVIEW WITH ORSON PRATT AND JOSEPH F. SMITH, 7-8 SEP 1878; VI.A.12, DAVID WHITMER INTERVIEW WITH KANSAS CITY JOURNAL, 1 JUN 1881; VI.A.17, DAVID WHITMER INTERVIEW WITH JAMES H. HART, 21 AUG 1883 & 10 MAR 1884). Whitmer hitched a wagon and drove to Harmony about 1 June and conveyed Smith and Cowdery to Fayette (I.A. 15, JOSEPH SMITH HISTORY, 1839, 21).
In the upper story of the Peter Whitmer, Sr., home, work on the Book of Mormon continued until about the end of June. That same month, Hyrum Smith, David Whitmer, Peter Whitmer, Jr., and probably John Whitmer were baptized in nearby Seneca Lake. Smith also visited Palmyra to negotiate and arrange for the Book of Mormon’s publication. In the latter part of the month, the three witnesses saw an angel and the gold plates in the woods near the Whitmer residence (I.A.15, JOSEPH SMITH HISTORY, 1839, 22-25, 34; I.B.5, LUCY SMITH HISTORY, 1845, MS:101; VI.A.7, DAVID WHITMER INTERVIEW WITH ORSON PRATT AND JOSEPH F. SMITH, 7-8 SEP 1878; L. Cook 1981, 25).
After overseeing the initial stages of printing the Book of Mormon in Palmyra, Joseph Smith returned to Harmony, Pennsylvania, on 4 October 1829 (I.A.I, JOSEPH SMITH TO OLIVER COWDERY, 22 OCT 1829, 1). Despite the fact that he resided in Harmony, the center of church affairs continued in Fayette, excluding the church’s organization in Manchester on 6 April 1830 (see I.A.I 5, JOSEPH SMITH HISTORY, 1839, n. 82). On 11 April, Cowdery preached the first Mormon sermon in Fayette and baptized Christian, Anne, and Elizabeth Whitmer and Hiram, Katharine, and Mary Page in Seneca Lake (I.A.15, JOSEPH SMITH HISTORY, 1839, 39, DRAFT:11; VI.E.3, DIEDRICH WILLERS, JR., HISTORICAL SKETCH, 1900, 48). On 18 April, Cowdery baptized Mary and Peter Whitmer, Sr., and their daughter Elizabeth Ann, William and Elizabeth Jolly and their son Vincent, and Ziba Peterson, all in Seneca Lake (I.A.15, JOSEPH SMITH HISTORY, 1839, 39; VI.E.3, DIEDRICH WILLERS, JR., HISTORICAL SKETCH, 1900, 48). The first church conference was held on 9 June at Peter Whitmer, Sr.’s, residence, and two other conferences would be held at the Whitmer home on 26 September 1830 and 2 January 1831 (I.A.15, JOSEPH SMITH HISTORY, 1839, 41; VI.G.2, FAR WEST RECORD, 9 JUN 1830 & 2 JAN 1831). Following the first conference, David Whitmer baptized at least eleven people in Seneca Lake (I.A.15, JOSEPH SMITH HISTORY, 1839, 42; VI.A.16, DAVID WHITMER INTERVIEW WITH J. W. CHATBURN, 1882).
When Joseph Smith met with renewed opposition in Pennsylvania, Newel Knight transported him and his wife Emma to Fayette in September 1830, where they boarded with Peter Whitmer, Sr. In early October, Smith received a commandment that his brother Hyrum should move his family from Manchester to Colesville and that the remainder of the Smith family should locate to Waterloo, a small village near the Whitmer farm (I.B.5, LUCY SMITH HISTORY, 1845, 1853:158-59, 168-69). For a time, the Peter Whitmer, Sr., home was again the center of activities. This would change after the arrival of Sidney Rigdon and Edward Partridge from Ohio in early December 1830. During the conference in Fayette on 2 January 1831. Smith received a revelation instructing New York members to sell their land, consecrate the proceeds to church officials, and remove to Ohio (D&C 38:34-37). There were “some divisions among the congregation, some would not receive the above as the word of the Lord: but [said] that Joseph had invented it himself to deceive the people[,] that in the end he might get gain” (VI.B.l, JOHN WHITMER HISTORY, 1831, 9). Smith’s abandonment of Fayette and the loss of the Whitmer family’s prominence may have contributed to David Whitmer’s resentment of Rigdon, which he freely expressed in later years.
About 24 January 1831, Joseph and Emma Smith, together with Rigdon and Partridge, left for Kirtland, Ohio, where they arrived about 1 February (I.A.15, JOSEPH SMITH HISTORY, 1839, 92; III.E.3, PALMYRA REFLECTOR, 1829-1831, under 1 February 1831, 95). The first week of May, Joseph’s mother, Lucy Smith, and about eighty Saints embarked from Waterloo and traveled up the Cayuga, Seneca, and Erie Canals to Buffalo. Together with the Colesville Saints, they made passage through the ice onto Lake Erie and arrived at Fairport, Ohio, on 14 May (see Porter 1971, 307-8, 316-17).
The present compilation includes numerous statements by and interviews with David Whitmer, followed by statements of his brother John Whitmer, brother-in-law Hiram Page, sister Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery, and nephew John C. Whitmer. Also included are accounts by area residents, including the early letters of farmer Lucius Fenn and the Reverend Diedrich Willers; the later statements of Lee Yost, Diedrich Willers, Sr., Diedrich Willers, Jr., and Harrison Chamberlain; and two published histories. Statements from non-residents or visitors to the Fayette area have also been provided. Finally, the miscellaneous documents section contains the Testimony of Three Witnesses, priesthood licences for Joseph Smith, Sr., John Whitmer, and Christian Whitmer, and excerpts from the Far West Record.
INTRODUCTION TO DAVID WHITMER COLLECTION
In 1828, Whitmer met Oliver Cowdery, who the next year traveled to Harmony, Pennsylvania, to meet the prophet. He reported back to Whitmer by letter that Smith apparently had the ability to discern Cowdery’s private thoughts. This letter was followed by a request for refuge for Smith and Cowdery in Fayette. In early June 1829, Whitmer traveled to Harmony in his wagon and conveyed the two men to his father’s residence where the translation of the Book of Mormon would continue.
Shortly after his return to Fayette, David Whitmer was baptized by Joseph Smith in Seneca Lake, along with other members of the Whitmer family. Near the end of June, David experienced what he would be remembered for when he, Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris gathered in the woods near Peter Whitmer’s residence and there saw an angel displaying the gold plates on a table. Later known as “the most interviewed witness,” Whitmer, like Harris (see “Introduction to Martin Harris Collection”), interpreted this experience as visionary rather than literal or materialistic. During his June 1880 interview with Whitmer, John Murphy asked: “Then you had impressions as the quaker [receives] when the spirit moves, or as a good Methodist in giving a happy experience, a feeling?” Whitmer answered, “Just so.” (VI.A.9, DAVID WHITMER INTERVIEW WITH JOHN MURPHY, JUN 1880). Following publication of Murphy’s account, Whitmer responded with a written “Proclamation” in which he reaffirmed his testimony and attached an affidavit attesting to his honesty and standing in the community. Significantly, he stopped short of refuting any specific statement in Murphy’s version of the interview (see VI .A. 11, DAVID WHITMER PROCLAMATION, 19 MAR 1881).
The subjective aspect of Whitmer’s experience was detailed in an 1885 interview conducted by James Henry Moyle: “Mr D. Whitmer Sen did not handle the plates. Only seen <saw> them …. Says he did see them and the angel and heard him speak. But that it was indiscribable[,] that it was through the power of God (and was possibly or at least [visionary]) [.] he then spoke of Paul hearing and seeing Christ but his associates did not. Because it is only seen in the Spirit.” Moyle attempted to ascertain whether “the atmosphere about them was normal.” In other words, did the angel appear in normal surroundings or was the natural world obscured? According to Whitmer, “it was indescribable, but the light was bright and clear, yet apparently,” in Moyle’s words, “a different kind of light, something of a soft haze. …” A recent law school graduate at the time, Moyle noted his disappointment: “I was not fully satisfied with the ex=planation. It was more spiritual than I anticipated” (VI.A.25, DAVID WHITMER INTERVIEW WITH JAMES HENRY MOYLE, 28 JUN 1885).
Whitmer told Nathan Tanner that those who beheld the plates were first “overshadowed by the power of God and a halo of brightness indescribable” (VI.A.28, DAVID WHITMER INTERVIEW WITH NATHAN TANNER, 13 APR 1886,1). In an interview in 1886, Whitmer further described “a strange entrancing influence, which permeated him so powerfully that he felt chained to the spot” (VI.A.29, DAVID WHITMER INTERVIEW WITH OMAHA [NE] HERALD, 10 OCT 1886). Explaining his experience to Anthony Metcalf in 1887, Whitmer said: “Of course we were in the spirit when we had the view, but were in the body also, and everything was as natural to us, as it is at any time. … A bright light enveloped us where we were, that filled [the woods as brightly as] at noon day, and there in a vision or in the spirit, we saw and heard just as it is stated in my testimony in the Book of Mormon” (VI.A.32, DAVID WHITMER TO ANTHONY METCALF,2APR1887).
An examination of Whitmer’s activities prior to seeing the angel and the plates suggests that he was already sensitive to such experiences. For example, he reported that while he, Smith, and Cowdery first traveled from Harmony to Fayette in 1829, they saw a Nephite on the road who suddenly disappeared. Upon arriving at his father’s house, “they were impressed” that the same Nephite was under the “Shed.” While plowing in his fields on the morning prior to his vision with the other two witnesses, Whitmer saw an apparition of a man who told him: “Blessed is the Lord & he that keepeth his Commandments” (see, e.g., VI.A.5, DAVID WHITMER INTERVIEW WITH EDWARD STEVENSON, 22-23 DEC 1877). One should therefore view his experience in the context of a highly charged period in his life. As Lyndon W. Cook has noted, these accounts of “other supernatural experiences … must be seen in connection with the more frequently printed evidence to fully appreciate this eyewitness’s testimony” (Cook 1991, x). Indeed, given Whitmer’s overall state of mind and the subjectivity of his experience, the possibility of hallucination cannot be ruled out.
Before moving to Kirtland, Ohio, Whitmer married Julia Ann Jolly, daughter of a neighbor, William Jolly, on 9 January 1831. David had been ordained an elder in New York, but on 25 October 1831 in Ohio, he was further ordained to the high priesthood. In 1832, he moved to Jackson County, Missouri. Two years later, on 7 July 1834, he was ordained Joseph Smith’s successor and president of the church in Missouri even though he had criticized Smith’s leadership and institutional innovations. In the wake of the Kirtland banking crisis of 1837, Whitmer became increasingly outspoken and, in April 1838, was excommunicated. Soon after, he moved to Richmond, Ray County, Missouri, where he ran a livery stable and briefly served as mayor. For a short time, he was the leader of a splinter group which included former church apostle William E. McLellin and Book of Mormon witness Hiram Page. Thereafter, he remained separate from any denomination. He died in Richmond on 25 January 1888 (Cook 1981, 24-25; Cook 1991, ix-xxvi).
In this collection, Whitmer’s numerous statements and interviews are presented in chronological order.2 I have included all of the substantial statements he is known to have made regarding the Book of Mormon and early church history. Less significant statements are included in an addendum.
1. David’s ancestry on both sides of the family was German or German speaking, and the family spoke with a German accent. His grandfather, George Witmer, was born in Prussia, and George’s father was born in Switzerland. David’s mother’s name, Mary Musselman, indicates German heritage, although she was apparently born in Pennsylvania. See VI.A.18, DAVID WHITMER INTERVIEW WITH GEORGE Q. CANNON, 27 FEE 1884.
2. Many of Whitmer’s interviews were reprinted in the RLDS (now Community of Christ) Saints’ Herald and from there in Lyndon W. Cook, ed., David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness (Orem, UT: Grandin Book Co., 1991). The reprints vary slightly from the originals, with only insignificant deviations, but I have nevertheless consulted and presented the originals wherever possible. I have included only those portions of lengthy documents that are relevant to the pre-Ohio period, whereas Cook’s compilation includes the documents in whole. Deletions are, of course, indicated by ellipses. The following items were not included in Cook’s compilation: EBER D. HOWE ON DAVID WHITMER, 1834; DAVID WHITMER INTERVIEW WITH JOHN MURPHY, JUN 1880; E. S. GILBERT TO ELLEN E. DICKINSON, 1 AUG 1880; DAVID WHITMER PROCLAMATION, 19 MAR 1881; DAVID WHITMER INTERVIEW WITH UNKNOWN REPORTER, CIRCA JUL 1884; and DAVID WHITMER, ADDRESS, 1887; as well as several items in the addendum and portions of Whitmer’s interviews with George Q. Cannon, James Henry Moyle, and Edward Stevenson.
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EBER D. HOWE ON DAVID WHITMER, 1834
On Eber D. Howe (1798-?), see introduction to III.F.6, EBER D. HOWE ON MARTIN HARRIS, 1834.
DAVID WHITMAR is the third special witness who signed [p. 15] the certificate with [Martin] Harris and [Oliver] Cowdery, testifying to having seen [the] plates. He is one of five of the same name and family who have been used as witnesses to establish the imposition, and who are now head men and leaders in the Mormonite camp. They were noted in their neighborhood for credulity and a general belief in witches,1 and perhaps were fit subjects for the juggling arts of Smith. David relates that he was led by Smith into an open field, on his father’s farm, where they found the Book of plates lying upon the ground.2 Smith took it up and requested him to examine it, which he did for the space of half an hour or more, when he returned it to Smith, who placed it in its former position, alledging that it was in the custody of an Angel. He describes the plates as being about eight inches square, the leaves being metal of a whitish yellow color, and of the thickness of tin plates. The back was secured with three small rings of the same metal, passing through each leaf in succession; that the leaves were divided equidistant between the back and the edge, by cutting the plates in two parts, and again united with solder, so that the front might be opened, while the back part remained stationary and immovable, and was consequently a sealed book, which would not be revealed for ages to come, and which Smith himself was not permitted to understand. On opening that part of the book which was not secured by seals, he discovered inscribed on the aforesaid plates, divers and wonderful characters, some large and some small, but beyond the wisdom of man to understand without supernatural aid; this account is sometimes partly contradicted by Harris.3
1. See VI.D.2, DIEDRICH WILLERS TO REVEREND BRETHREN, 18 JUN 1830.
2. Cf. III.E.3, PALMYRA REFLECTOR, 1828-1831, under 19 March 1831, 126.
3. Cf. III.F.6, EBER D. HOWE ON MARTIN HARRIS, 1834.