The 3 Witnesses – Who knew? (Part 2 of 3)

David Whitmer

Unlike Martin Harris, Joseph Smith had no known previous relationship with David Whitmer before the translation of the plates had already commenced. Whitmer lived with his extended family on his father’s farm in Fayette, New York and had his life turned upside down when he made a business trip to Palmyra in 1828. There he met Oliver Cowdery, and they struck up a friendship. They also found a mutual interest in local gossip about some guy named Joseph Smith that found some golden plates buried in the hills nearby. Initially, they regarded it as “idle gossip;” just some harmless local buzz that was fun to talk about. However, conversations with locals started to convince them that there might be something to the story. They decided to jointly investigate the matter. They had some fun unraveling the mystery, and they kept each other updated on their findings around town. For example, Whitmer recalled meeting some upset colleagues of Joseph’s, as in the men who had previously worked with Joseph in his treasure seeking business, who believed Joseph really did possess the plates and was holding out on them in an attempt to cut them out of the profits.

This “investigation” lasted months, with Whitmer making repeated trips to Palmyra. Cowdery was working in Palmyra as a teacher and befriended the Smith family, while Whitmer continued to learn more around town. Joseph did not live in Palmyra at the time as he and Emma were living in Harmony, Pennsylvania with her parents.  Cowdery befriended the Smith family though, and through them he learned that Joseph didn’t just stumble across some plates in the dirt one day – he was led there by an angel! Intrigued, Cowdery decided to make the trek down to Pennsylvania to meet the man himself. Shortly after arriving, he sent a letter to Whitmer affirming that he believed Joseph was telling the truth, and that the plates had a history of the “people that inhabited this continent.” Cowdery, now Joseph’s scribe, included a sample of the translation he and Joseph had furnished so far in the letter. A little later, Cowdery sent another letter to Whitmer asking him to meet them in Harmony, and to escort Joseph and Oliver back to Whitmer’s farm, claiming Joseph had received a revelation that he should do so. David Whitmer was happy to oblige, happy that God had revealed he was to play a part in the work, even if his part so far was just to give Joseph Smith a ride, room and board.

The rest of the translation of the Book of Mormon, which comprises the vast majority of the text today, took place on Whitmer’s farm, as did the famous vision of the Golden Plates by the three Witnesses, the official organization of the church and the first two General Conferences. There was a spirit of revelation that was alive on the farm during this time. There were many claims of spiritual gifts and heavenly manifestations, including visions and tales of mysterious strangers offering glimpses of the plates. The spirit of Pentecost must simultaneously excited and concerned Joseph; when the spiritual manifestations threatened his exclusive access to God too much, he would cull the enthusiasm with forboding warnings from God.

Curiously, Whitmer’s recollection states that Joseph did not actually have the plates in his possession by the time he met him. Whitmer believed that Joseph lost possession of the plates once the angel took them from him after the 116 page fiasco (an event that occurred before Cowdery and Whitmer entered the scene). According to Whitmer, when Joseph needed to see the plates, he would meet the angel to do so, although it’s not clear what reason Joseph would ever have to do so. According to Whitmer, Joseph also lost use of the interpreters after 116 pages-gate and relied wholly on the use of his seer stone for the translation from that point on.

Witness to the Golden Plates

The famous vision of the three witnesses reportedly occurred in June of 1829 on the farm. The most familiar version is the version of the testimony printed in the front of the Book of Mormon. Years later, Whitmer described it in his own words:

It was in the latter part of June, 1829. Joseph, Oliver Cowdery and myself were together, and the angel showed them to us. We not only saw the plates of the Book of Mormon, but he also showed us the brass plates of the book of Ether and many others. They were shown to us in this way. Joseph and Oliver and I were sitting on a log when we were overshadowed by a light more glorious than that of the sun. In the midst of this light but a few feet from us appeared a table upon which were many golden plates, also the sword of Laban and the directors. I saw them as plain as I see you now, and distinctly heard the voice of the Lord declaiming that the records of the plates of the Book of Mormon were translated by the gift and the power of God

This version of events seems slightly different than the version we’re used to hearing, in which Joseph, Oliver and David are kneeling and an angel appears holding the plates, allowing them to thumb through them individually – although it’s not necessarily contradicting the official version in the introduction of the Book of Mormon either. The image of “many” golden plates and also brass plates and other artifacts strewn across a phantom table is certainly different than what is typically represented in church art though. Regardless, you can’t accuse David Whitmer of much inconsistency on the topic. Although the description just shared seems very literal, like Harris, Whitmer sometimes gave puzzling answers about the experience that cast it in a more metaphysical light, as in this interview fragment:

[Murphy]: “First of all, I heard you saw an angel. I never saw one. I want your description of [the] shape, voice, brogue and the construction of his language. I mean as to his style of speaking. You know that we can often determine the class a man belongs to by his language.”
[Whitmer]: “It had no appearance or shape.”
[Murphy]: “Then you saw nothing nor heard nothing?”
[Whitmer]: “Nothing, in the way you understand it.”
[Murphy]: “How, then, could you have borne testimony that you saw and heard an angel?”
[Whitmer]: “Have you never had impressions?”
[Murphy]: “Then you had impressions as the quaker when the spirit moves, or as a good Methodist in giving a happy experience, a feeling?”
[Whitmer]: “Just so.”

Whitmer, however, recognized and took offense at Murphy’s insinuation that his experience was a “delusion” or that it constituted a denial, stating:

It having been represented by one John Murphy of Polo Mo. that I in a conversation with him last Summer, denied my testimony as one of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon… 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 adhered to that testimony… 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.

This back and forth sounds very similar to the example I mentioned in the last post on Martin Harris, in which Stephen Burnett lost confidence in Martin Harris after hearing him describe the experience as visionary rather than natural. Similarly, Harris avoided addressing the issue of the spiritual vs literal nature of the vision, instead insisting he didn’t deny anything. Whitmer does the same here, although in both cases, their accuser never actually claimed they denied their experience, only that their description was frustratingly non-literal.

Regardless, the fact remains that Whitmer, much like Harris, insisted the experience was genuine and didn’t waver on that. In the last post, I concluded Harris was likely a believer from start to finish. What about Whitmer? Whitmer didn’t have quite the reputation Harris had as the neighborhood superstitious kook. Could he have been a willing co-conspirator with Joseph Smith?

The case for Whitmer is not as cut and dry as Harris’s. Whereas I found ample evidence of Smith trying to compel Harris through various forms of deceit, it’s not as clear for Whitmer. However, we do have one revelation that Joseph produced for the benefit of all three witnesses right after their vision of the plates. That revelation exists in Doctrine and Covenants Section 18 today. The goals of this revelation are a little less self-serving than those produced for Harris’s benefit. The language is more spiritual and scriptural, urging the three witnesses to become evangelists for this new gospel. It includes some scriptures you will recognize if you went to LDS Seminary as a youth, such as the verse about “the worth of souls” being great in the sight of God, and how great your joy would be if you brought but one to God. It seems like Joseph capitalized on the spiritual high these men were coming off of. It’s not conclusive, but it does suggest to me that the three witnesses were all sincere believers at this point in time.

President of Zion

Unlike with Harris, Joseph saw leadership potential in Whitmer. The church eventually outgrew the Whitmer farm, and Joseph set up headquarters in Kirtland, Ohio. Not long after, he set up another church in Independence, Jackson County, Missouri. David Whitmer and others moved to the Jackson County settlement at Smith’s behest while Smith continued to run the church from Ohio. Joseph produced wild revelations announcing that Jackson County was the original location of the Garden of Eden, and that it was to be the site of the New Jerusalem, where Christ would reign on this earth during the Millennium (most Mormons are familiar with this doctrine; if you’re not Mormon and you’re confused, don’t worry, the theology is not that important for this blog post). However, the settlement in Independence was frequently troubled by disputes and skirmishes with the locals, culminating in their expulsion in 1833. The violence they endured at the hand of Missouri mobs and their ensuing loss of property troubled Whitmer greatly, even in his later years. Whitmer and most of the rest of the Independence Saints fled to Clay County, Missouri.

In 1834, Joseph made Whitmer the President of the Church in Missouri, declaring him his immediate successor should something befall Joseph. Whitmer was sustained as the President of the Church in Zion. This was before the organization of the Quorum of the Twelve and the Seventy, making Whitmer’s Missouri Stake Presidency the most powerful governing body of the church next to Smith’s First Presidency. Although the “President of Zion,” a few months later Whitmer moved back to Kirtland in order to be near the temple construction project, leaving administration of the Missouri church to his counselors, W. W. Phelps and John Whitmer. In 1836, they moved the Missouri church from Clay County to Far West in Caldwell County, Missouri.

Disillusionment

Things were pretty quiet for Whitmer until 1837. The crisis surrounding the Kirtland Safety Society led to widespread disillusionment in Ohio. Whitmer, himself a stockholder in the bank, was similarly disturbed and abruptly moved to Far West to be with his brother and the Missouri church. A few months later, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon, hounded by creditors and having lost control of the local church, fled Ohio and sought refuge in Far West, where the effects of the banking failure were not so present and their power would presumably remain intact.

However, things didn’t go as easily for Joseph in Missouri as he must have hoped. Dissent was present in Far West, and David Whitmer, himself dissatisfied with Smith’s leadership, was still recognized as the President in Missouri. Whitmer later recalled:

Elders Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon came out from Ohio and were dissatisfied with the church, and gave new laws, revelations, etc. The leaders of the Far West church refused to conform to the new laws of Smith and Rigdon.

Smith and Rigdon were anxious to solidify power in Far West, and began a campaign to root out any dissenters. Joseph organized a new Stake Presidency, comprised of loyalists, in place of Whitmer’s. He excommunicated known dissenters. Meanwhile, Rigdon gave a fiery sermon in which he likened the dissenters to the “salt” described by Jesus in the book of Matthew, which must be “trodden under foot.” Whitmer and other dissenters understood this as a threat and abruptly left. Loyalists, led by Sampson Avard, interpreted the sermon as a call to action, and organized the famous vigilante group the Danites in order to enforce loyalty to Joseph. Whitmer recalled these troubled times:

[Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon] issued a decree organizing what was termed the ‘Danites, or Destroying Angels,’ who were bound by the most fearful oaths to obey the commandments of the leaders of the church. The Danites consisted only of those selected by Smith and Rigdon. They threatened myself, John Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery and Lyman Johnson with the vengeance of the Danites unless we took the same oath, but we refused, and fled for our lives to Clay county, and since that time I have had nothing to do with the so-called ‘Latter-Day Saints’ church.

As stated, Whitmer retired from church activity from this point on. Notably, David Whitmer later claimed that God commanded him to leave, declaring that the experience was comparable to his vision of the plates:

Mormon stood alone for many years, when the whole church of Nephites and Lamanites had every one gone into error and transgression. He stood alone, holding the authority, and prayed to God continually that he might go to them and preach to them; but the Lord forbid him to preach to them… If you believe my testimony to the Book of Mormon; if you believe that God spake to us three witnesses by his own voice from the heavens, and told me to “separate myself from among the Latter Day Saints, for as they sought to do unto me, should it be done unto them.”

…As I rode on horseback out of Far West, in June, 1838, the voice of God from heaven spake to me as I have stated above.

President of the Church of Christ

Although David Whitmer disappeared from Mormon life in 1838, he wasn’t finished playing his part in Mormon history. The death of Joseph and Hyrum Smith spurred a succession crisis, and the Mormon community was looking for Joseph’s rightful successor. Whitmer was not much involved in the 1844 crisis, although he initially accepted the legitimacy of James Strang based on a pamphlet he read. However, when certain would-be successors such as Strang and Rigdon fell out of favor with some of their followers, there were once again many people who found themselves searching for Joseph’s proper successor. Former apostle William McLellin, who had at one point associated with both Strang and Rigdon and now found himself spiritually orphaned, remembered the aforementioned ordination of David Whitmer by Joseph Smith back in 1834, when he was President of Zion. McLellin, always a man of action, attempted to reorganize the church in Kirkland in 1847 with Whitmer as the heir apparent. He converted Oliver Cowdery to his cause, who then wrote a letter to David Whitmer. His letter endorsed McLellin, although somewhat tepidly, and encouraged David Whitmer to take up the mantle.

When McLellin arrived to visit with David Whitmer in person, Whitmer had already been prepared by Oliver’s letter to accept the call, although he was careful to point out that he was “neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet.”

At a conference in Far West, Missouri, David Whitmer and William McLellin met with John and Jacob Whitmer and Hiram Page to discuss their new church. David Whitmer, using McLellin as a scribe, pronounced revelations in the same style as Joseph Smith, complete with phrases such as “thus saith the Lord.” The revelations legitimized their movement and contained blessings for the men assembled there that day. McLellin in particular was instructed to “write concerning the downfall of those who once composed
my church, and set forth to the world by the light and power of my spirit, why I the Lord
did not prosper them.” The men re-ordained each other to priesthood offices, including an ordination of David to “all the gifts and callings to which he had been appointed through Joseph Smith.”
However, as Whitmer and Page began deconstructing the history of the church, they arrived at the conclusion that Joseph had erred in many more ways than they originally anticipated, and they started abandoning several doctrines he had introduced, including the Law of Consecration and the whole idea of High Priests and a higher priesthood. Jesus Christ was the last High Priest, they claimed. Whitmer favored a “back to roots” style of Mormonism, based on adherence to the Book of Mormon and the Bible only, rejecting the Doctrine and Covenants which contained many revelations that they knew Joseph had retroactively altered. He and Page agreed that they had erred in trying to reorganize the church just yet, and believed the scriptures supported a more decentralized effort, and that anyone who had been previously ordained was within their rights to ordain more Elders and to organize and meet. McLellin’s efforts to organize a church behind Whitmer were thus curtailed for the time being, and Whitmer remained dormant for many years. During this upheaval, Cowdery lodged in the home of his old friend David, eventually dying there.
In 1876, Whitmer’s interest in organizing a church was renewed, and he ordained his nephew an Elder, naming him the “First Elder” of the new church. Whitmer took his “back to roots” style of Mormonism even further than before, regarding practically anything that happened after 1829 as a mistake. He produced a fascinating document (and a gift to Mormon History) outlining his views of the restoration and the church in a lengthy document titled “An Address to All Believers in Christ.” The document is long – very long – and I’ve read it so that you don’t have to. The tract is a labor of love, and Whitmer quotes extensively from scripture, both the Bible and the Book of Mormon, and sermonizes incessantly. It is, in my opinion, the work of a believer. That’s my impression, and therefore difficult to support objectively, but it seems very clear from reading it that Whitmer is attempting to reconcile his belief in the origins of Mormonism with his disdain for just about everything that happened once the church was organized. In fact, the very act of organizing the church he now saw as a mistake:
It is all a mistake about the church being organized on April 6, 1830, as I will show. We were as fully organized — spiritually — before April 6th as we were on that day… I do not consider that the church was any more organized or established in the eyes of God on that day than it was previous to that day. I consider that on that day the first error was introduced into the Church of Christ, and that error was Brother Joseph being ordained as “Prophet Seer and Revelator” to the church.
Whitmer rejected the role of a Prophet in the church, even eschewing his own ordination as Joseph’s successor:
Now, bear in mind, brethren, that I am not claiming this office; as I have
told you, I do not believe in any such office in the church. I was then in
error in believing that there was such an office in the Church of Christ.
Whitmer blamed Sidney Rigdon for introducing the idea of “High Priests” and the Melchizedek Priesthood. He pointed out that Joseph Smith had retroactively updated some of his original revelations to include this doctrine. Separately, he accused Joseph and Oliver of fabricating the story of their angelic priesthood ordination, pointing out (correctly) that mentions to this ordination didn’t exist before the mid 1830’s and that previous revelations were even altered to include this detail (more on that in part 3). He rejected the whole theology around priesthood restoration that became a pillar of Mormonism.
The next grievous error which crept into the church was in ordaining high priests in June, 1831. This error was introduced at the instigation of Sydney Rigdon. The office of high priests was never spoken of, and never thought of being established in the church until Rigdon came in. Remember that we had been preaching from August, 1829, until June, 1831 — almost two years — and had baptized about 2,000 members into the Church of Christ, and had not one high priest. During 1829, several times we were told by Brother Joseph that an elder was the highest office in the church…
When the first high priests were ordained at Kirtland, Ohio, in June 1831, the devil caught and bound two of the high priests as soon as they were ordained. Harvey Whitlock, who the devil caught, bound and twisted his face into demon-like shape, also John Murdock, who the devil bound so he could not speak. Thus showing that God’s displeasure was upon their works when they ordained the first high priests in the church. None of the brethren understood this fact then.
Whitmer also argued that the only authentic revelations Joseph Smith ever received were those he received through his seer stone; any revelations he received afterwards as a “mouthpiece of God” were in error. And even some of Josephs revelations through the stone were in error as well, he argued.
So why do I think Whitmer is sincere? As I mentioned, a large part of it is simply my reading of the document. Have you ever read a facebook screed by a particularly devout Mormon about some gospel topic they’ve been mulling over? I read that same tone and sense of discovery in Whitmer’s document. It’s true that Whitmer was trying to persuade people to join the newly formed Whitmerite “church” and we should let that motivation color our reading of the document. But on the other hand, if Whitmer were a cynical co-conspirator, I can’t imagine he would have rejected his single most compelling claim to authority: his ordination as Joseph’s successor. Instead, he preached a more egalitarian, leaderless, Christian style of Mormonism that denied him the power he could have wielded over such an organization:
Many of you think that I have desire to lead — to lead a church that believe as I do. I have no such desire. A one-man leader to the church is not the teachings of Christ. After Brother Joseph was killed, many came to me and importuned me to come out and be their leader; but I refused. With these statements, so you will understand me, I will proceed to show you how the heads of the church went into one error after another. I followed them into many errors in doctrine, which the Lord has since shown me, and which errors I have confessed and repented of, and will speak of in this pamphlet.

Conclusions

At times, writing decades after the fact, David Whitmer garbles some of the history he is reciting. Other times, he rejects or accepts certain revelations depending on how they line up with his new understanding of Mormon origins – but they seem like a sincere effort to reconcile his beliefs with his later disillusionment, an effort that can be appreciated by anyone that’s been through a faith crisis. Though it’s possible I’m simply projecting there, I think we can draw the conclusion that David Whitmer genuinely believed in his witness of the plates. He was a person that was always drawn to and credulous towards personal revelation. He believed in his witness of the plates with the same zeal that he believed he heard God’s voice speak to him in Missouri, first to separate from the Saints, and then to call the fallen church to repentance. He believed that he had orated authentic revelations from God in His voice, and that any Elder in Zion could do the same. He believed it with the same sureness that your local Stake Patriarch believes he is channeling God’s thoughts and that your Bishop believes he has received revelation on how to advise his ward members. He was, after all, drawn to Joseph Smith to begin with – Joseph Smith did not find him. He was the kind of person whose religious philosophy matched the burgeoning faith. Whitmer went to the grave a believer in the Book of Mormon, but also a believer that the most “true” church is the one that existed before April 6, 1830.

References:

Mormonism (interview with David Whitmer). Kansas City Journal, June 5, 1881

The Three Witnesses, retrieved April 11, 2017, http://en.fairmormon.org/Mormonism_and_Wikipedia/Three_Witnesses/The_Three_Witnesses

David Whitmer: His Evolving Beliefs and Recollections. Published in Scattering of the Saints: Schism within Mormonism, edited by Newell G. Bringhurst and John C. Hamer (Independence, Missouri: John Whitmer Books, 2007), 46-77.

An Address to All Believers in Christ. By a Witness to the Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon. David Whitmer. Richmond, Missouri. 1887

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