David Whitmer was born on January 7, 1805, in Pennsylvania. While he was still a baby, David’s father moved the family to Western New York, where they stayed until 1831. There were five boys and one girl (who later married Oliver Cowdery).
Early Relationship with Joseph Smith
David Whitmer left the following account of his introduction to Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon:
I first heard of what is now termed Mormonism, in the year 1828. I made a business trip to Palmyra, N. Y., and while there stopped with one Oliver Cowdery. A great many people in the neighborhood were talking about the finding of certain golden plates by one Joseph Smith, jun., a young man of the neighborhood. Cowdery and I, as well as many others, talked about the matter, but at that time I paid but little attention to it, supposing it to be only the idle gossip of the neighborhood. Mr. Cowdery said he was acquainted with the Smith family, and he believed there must be some truth in the story of the plates, and that he intended to investigate the matter. I went home, and after several months, Cowdery told me he was going to Harmony, Penn., whither Joseph Smith had gone with the plates, on account of the persecutions of his neighbors, and see him about the matter. He did go, and on his way he stopped at my father’s house and told me that as soon as he found out anything, either truth or untruth, he would let me know. After he got there he became acquainted with Joseph Smith, and shortly after wrote to me, telling me that he was convinced that Smith had the records, and that he (Smith) had told him that it was the will of heaven that he (Cowdery) should be his scribe to assist in the translation of the plates. He went on and Joseph translated from the plates, and he wrote it down. Shortly after this Mr. Cowdery wrote me another letter, in which he gave me a few lines of what they had translated, and he assured me that he knew of a certainty that he had a record of a people that inhabited this continent, and that the plates they were translating from gave a complete history of these people (“Millennial Star”, Vol. 43, page 421).
David Whitmer and his family were influential in helping Joseph Smith during the translating of the Book of Mormon. They also knew Oliver Cowdery, who worked as a scribe for Joseph Smith. In an 1829 letter, Oliver Cowdery asked if he and Joseph could finish the work of translation in the safety of David’s home. It was recorded by Lucy Mack Smith (Joseph’s mother) that David lived in his parent’s home. Her record says 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.” (From Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith Revised and Enhanced, ed. Scot Facer Proctor and Maurine Jensen Proctor)
Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery stayed in the Whitmer home until the translation of the Book of Mormon was complete. In 1829, Joseph baptized David Whitmer as a member of the Church, and just a short time later, David Whitmer was a witness of the Gold Plates from which the Book of Mormon had been translated.
Founding Church MemberDavid was ordained as an elder on April 6, 1830, and was one of the original six members of the Church. He was ordained to the office of high priest by Cowdery on October 5, 1831. Soon after the organization of the church, Smith set apart Jackson County, Missouri, as a “gathering place” for Latter Day Saints. According to Smith, the area would be the “center place” of the City of Zion, the New Jerusalem. On July 7, 1834, Smith ordained Whitmer to be the president of the church in Missouri and his own successor, should Smith “not live to God”.
Separation from the Church
Whitmer continued to live in Kirtland, Ohio, and his counselors, W. W. Phelps and John Whitmer presided over the church in Missouri until the summer of 1837. After the collapse of the Kirtland Safety Society bank, Smith and his counselor Sidney Rigdon, battered by creditors, moved to Far West, Missouri, to evade arrest. The ensuing leadership struggle led to the dissolution of the presidency of the church in Missouri. Whitmer resigned and separated from the church.
Whitmer and the other excommunicated Latter Day Saints became known as the “dissenters.” Some of the dissenters owned land in Caldwell County, Missouri, which they wanted to retain. The church presidency and other members looked unfavorably upon them. Rigdon preached his “Salt Sermon”, which called for their expulsion from the county. Eighty prominent Mormons signed the so-called Danite Manifesto, which warned the dissenters to “depart or a more fatal calamity shall befall you.” Shortly afterward, Whitmer and his family fled to nearby Richmond, Missouri.
In response to “persecutions” from a “secret organization” formed within the church that denounced “dissenters,” Whitmer used his position as one of the Three Witnesses to condemn the church: “If you believe my testimony to the Book of Mormon,” wrote Whitmer, “if you believe that God spake to us three witnesses by his own voice, then I tell you that in June, 1838, God spake to me again 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, so it should be done unto them.'” Whitmer interpreted God’s command to include both The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints: “God commanded me by his voice to stand apart from you.”
Whitmer continued to live in Richmond, where he operated a successful livery stable and became a prominent and respected citizen. In 1867, he was elected to fill an unexpired term as mayor (1867–68).
President of the Church of Christ (Whitmerite)After the death of Joseph Smith in 1844, several rival leaders claimed to be Smith’s successor, including Brigham Young, Sidney Rigdon, and James J. Strang. Many of Rigdon’s followers became disillusioned by 1847 and some, including apostle William E. McLellin and Benjamin Winchester, remembered Whitmer’s 1834 ordination to be Smith’s successor. At McLellin’s urging, Whitmer exercised his claim to be Smith’s successor and the Church of Christ (Whitmerite) was formed in Kirtland, Ohio. However, Whitmer never joined the body of the new church and it dissolved relatively quickly.
Around this time, fellow Book of Mormon witness Oliver Cowdery began to correspond with Whitmer. After traveling from Ohio to Kanesville (Council Bluffs), Cowdery attended the Kanesville Tabernacle meeting, called to sustain Brigham Young as the new President of the Church. Cowdery bore, with conviction, his testimony of the truthfulness of everything that had happened spiritually regarding Smith and the Book of Mormon. Meeting with Young at Winter Quarters, Nebraska, he requested readmission into the church, and he was re-baptized into the church there. Cowdery then traveled to meet with Whitmer in Richmond to persuade him to move west and rejoin the Saints in Utah Territory. Cowdery, however, succumbed to tuberculosis and died March 3, 1850.
In January 1876, Whitmer resurrected the Church of Christ (Whitmerite) by ordaining his nephew, John C. Whitmer, an elder, and giving him the title “First Elder”.
In 1887, Whitmer published a pamphlet entitled “An Address to All Believers in Christ“, in which he affirmed his testimony of the Book of Mormon, but denounced the other branches of the Latter Day Saint movement. Whitmer died in Richmond. The Whitmerite church survived until the 1960s.
The most interviewed Book of Mormon witness
Because Cowdery died in 1850 at age 43 and Martin Harris died in 1875 at age 92, Whitmer was the only survivor of the Three Witnesses for 13 years. At Richmond, Missouri, he sometimes received several inquirers daily asking about his connection to the Book of Mormon, including missionaries of the LDS Church who were traveling from Utah Territory to the eastern United States and Europe. Despite his hostility toward the LDS Church, Whitmer always stood by his claim that he had actually seen the golden plates.
Some of the 71 recorded interviews he gave between 1838 and 1888 contained different details than others. Recounting the vision to Orson Pratt in 1878, Whitmer claimed to have seen not only the golden plates but the “Brass Plates, the plates containing the record of the wickedness of the people of the world … the sword of Laban, the Directors (i.e. the ball which Lehi had) and the Interpreters. “I saw them just as plain as I see this bed”.
In 1880, John Murphy interviewed Whitmer and later published an account suggesting that perhaps Whitmer’s experience was a “delusion or perhaps a cunning scheme.” Murphy’s account said that Whitmer had not been able to describe the appearance of an angel and had likened Whitmer’s experience to the “impressions as the quaker [receives] when the spirit moves, or as a good Methodist in giving a happy experience.” Whitmer responded by publishing “A Proclamation”, reaffirming his testimony and saying,
“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 of my statements, as then made and published. He that hath an ear to hear, let him hear; it was no delusion!”
To the “Proclamation” Whitmer attached an affidavit attesting to his honesty and standing in the community. Whitmer ordered that his testimony to the Book of Mormon be placed on his tombstone.
In response to a question by Anthony Metcalf, Whitmer attempted to clarify the “spiritual” versus “natural” viewing of the plates:
He again defended it publicly in the Richmond (Missouri) “Conservator” on March 25, 1881:
In regards to my testimony to the visitation of the angel, who declared to us Three Witnesses that the Book of Mormon is true, I have this to say: Of course we were in the spirit when we had the view, for no man can behold the face of an angel, except in a spiritual view, but we were in the body also, and everything was as natural to us, as it is at any time. Martin Harris, you say, called it ‘being in vision.’ We read in the Scriptures, Cornelius saw, in a vision, an angel of God. Daniel saw an angel in a vision, also in other places it states they saw an angel in the spirit. A bright light enveloped us where we were, that filled 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. I am now passed eighty-two years old, and I have a brother, J. J. Snyder, to do my writing for me, at my dictation. [Signed] David Whitmer.
Unto all Nations, Kindreds, Tongues and People, unto whom these presents shall come: … I wish now, standing as it were, in the very sunset of life, and in the fear of God, once [and] for all to make this public statement: That I have never at any time denied that testimony [of the Book of Mormon] 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. “And if any man doubt, should he not carefully and honestly read and understand the same before presuming to sit in judgment and condemning the light, which shineth in darkness, and showeth the way of eternal life as pointed out by the unerring hand of God?” In the Spirit of Christ, who hath said: “Follow thou me, for I am the life, the light and the way,” I submit this statement to the world; God in whom I trust being my judge as to the sincerity of my motives and the faith and hope that is in me of eternal life. My sincere desire is that the world may be benefited by this plain and simple statement of the truth. And all the honor to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen!
(Signed) DAVID WHITMER SEN.