Whitmer was born near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the fourth of nine children of Peter Whitmer, Sr. and Mary Musselman. Whitmer's ancestry on both sides of his family were German, and the family spoke with a German accent. His grandfather was George Witmer, who was born in Prussia, and his great-grandfather was born in Switzerland. By the 1820s, the Whitmer family had moved to a farm in Fayette, in New York'sFinger Lakes area. On March 12, 1825 David was elected sergeant in a newly organized militia called the Seneca Grenadiers.
Role in the early Latter Day Saint movement
Whitmer and his family were among the earliest adherents to the Latter Day Saint movement. Whitmer first heard of Joseph Smith and the golden plates in 1828 when he made a business trip to Palmyra, New York, and there talked with his friend Oliver Cowdery, who believed that there "must be some truth to the matter."
Book of Mormon witness
Photo of Whitmer By R. B. Rice, c. 1864
Whitmer eventually accepted the story and brought his father's family to join the Smiths in Palmyra. Whitmer was baptized in June 1829, nearly a year prior to the formal organization of the Church of Christ. During that same month, Whitmer said that he, along with Smith and Cowdery saw an angel present the golden plates in a vision. Martin Harris reported that he experienced a similar vision with Smith later in the day. Evidence places this event near his father's home in Fayette, New York, on June 28, 1829. Whitmer, Cowdery, and Harris then signed a joint statement declaring their testimony to the reality of the vision. The statement was published in the first edition of the Book of Mormon and has been included in nearly every subsequent edition.
Whitmer later said that Smith had received a revelation that Hiram Page and Cowdery would sell the copyright of the Book of Mormon in Toronto. After Page and Cowdery returned from Canada empty handed, Whitmer asked Smith why they had been unsuccessful, and Smith received another revelation "through the stone" that "some revelations are of God: some revelations are of men: and some revelations are of the devil."
Founding church member
When Smith organized the Church of Christ on April 6, 1830, Whitmer was one of six original members. (In his 1838 history, Smith said the church was organized at the home of Whitmer's father, Peter Whitmer, Sr., in Fayette, New York, but in an 1842 letter, Smith said that the church was organized at Manchester, New York.)
Whitmer had been ordained an elder of the church by June 9, 1830, and 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 had both once been the site of the biblical Garden of Eden, and 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".
By virtue of his position as President of the High Council in Zion, David Whitmer was sustained as "the president of the church in Zion," not merely as a Stake President. Since the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Quorum of the Seventy had not yet been organized, this meant that there was a short period of time—from July 3, 1834, until February 14, 1835—when the High Council in Zion stood in an administrative position next to the First Presidency. It also meant that from July 3, 1834, until December 5, 1834, at which time Oliver Cowdery was made the Associate President of the Church, David Whitmer, as President of the High Council in Zion, was the Prophet's rightful successor."
Although a revelation dated June 1829 referred to Whitmer and Cowdery as receiving the same calling as the apostle Paul, Smith had not yet started a church or created the office known today as apostle. Cowdery and Whitmer did have a visionary experience and like Paul, were called to preach. They were also called to "search out" twelve "disciples", who later were called "apostles." None of the Three Witnesses were ordained to that apostleship.
Advertisement for Whitmer's livery stable
Whitmer continued to live in Kirtland, Ohio, and his counselors, W. W. Phelps and John Whitmer (Whitmer's brother) 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 Phelps, John Whitmer, and Cowdery were excommunicated.
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. A number of Latter Day Saints formed a secret society known as the Danites, whose stated goal was removal of the dissenters. 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.
Whitmer and the other dissenters complained to the non-Mormons in northwestern Missouri about their forcible expulsion and the loss of their property, and they began to file lawsuits to recover it. Residents were alarmed by this and a revelation by Smith which said:
Wherefore, the land of Zion shall not be obtained but by purchase or by blood, otherwise there is none inheritance for you. (D&C 63:29)
Things escalated bringing about the 1838 Mormon War. As a result of the conflict most of the Latter Day Saints were expelled from Missouri by early 1839.
Whitmer used his position as one of the Three Witnesses to condemn Smith's 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 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 (1867–1868).
President of the Church of Christ (Whitmerite)
Around this time, fellow Book of Mormon witness Cowdery, began to correspond with Whitmer. After traveling from Ohio to Kanesville (Council Bluffs), Cowdery met in the Kanesville Tabernacle meeting, called to sustain Brigham Young as the new President of the Church; Cowdery bore his testimony with a conviction to the truthfulness of everything that had happened spiritually with Smith and the Book of Mormon. Meeting with Young at Winter Quarters, Nebraska, he requested readmission into the church, where he was re-baptized into the church. 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 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.
I do not endorse polygamy or spiritual wifeism. It is a great evil, shocking to the moral sense, and the more so, because practiced in the name of religion. It is of man and not God, and is especially forbidden in the Book of Mormon itself.
I do not endorse the change of the name of the church, for as the wife takes the name of her husband so should the Church of the Lamb of God, take the name of its head, even Christ himself. It is the Church of Christ.
As to the High Priesthood, Jesus Christ himself is the last Great High Priest, this too after the order of Melchisedec, as I understand the Holy Scriptures.
The most interviewed Book of Mormon witness
Photo of David Whitmer, Ca 1880s
Because Cowdery died in 1850 at age 43 and Martin Harris died in 1875 at age 91, 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 Mormon missionaries 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.
Nevertheless, his testimonies were recorded differently from one retelling to another. 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” vs. “natural” viewing of the plates:
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.
A table listing the interviews of David Whitmer
The following table shows which interviews were cited in the following publications:
Kenneth W. Godfrey, "David Whitmer and the Shaping of Latter-day Saint History," in The Disciple As Witness: Essays on Latter-Day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, edited by Richard Lloyd Anderson, Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges, Provo: FARMS, 2000, pp. 223–256.
Lyndon W. Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, Grandin Book, 1991.
Dan Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, Vol. V, Signature Books, 2003.
John W. Welch and Erick B. Carlson eds., Opening the Heavens, Accounts of Divine Manifestations 1820-1844, Deseret Book, 2005. Twenty-one interviews were cited, the "x-#" refers to the document number in this volume only.
Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, Deseret Book, 1981.
Richmond Democrat (Borrowed from Omaha Herald. Article written by Joe Johnson)
26 January 1888
Richmond Democrat report
Richmond Democrat (Re-run)
2 February 1888
John C. Whitmer
13 & 17 September 1888
John C. Whitmer
Saints' Herald (Reprint of Deseret News)
13 October 1888
George W. Schweich
Woodbridge I. Riley. The Founder of Mormonism. NY: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1903, 219-20. (Letter from George W. Schweich to I. Woodbridge)
22 September 1899
January 25, 1888
George Edward Anderson Diary, Daughters of Utah Pioneers Museum, 27-28.
John J. Snyder
W. H. Cadman. A History of the Church of Jesus Christ, Organized at Green Oak, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., in the Year 1862. Monongola, PA: The Church of Jesus Christ, 1945, 24-25.
10 October 1928
^There was no formal beginning. John C. Whitmer was baptized at the age of 44 on September 15, 1875, then ordained an Elder January 28, 1876 and commissioned to "go forth and preach the Gospel...organize a new church...was to be the first Elder." (Andrew Jenson, Edward Stevenson, and Joseph S. Black, "Historical Landmarks," | Deseret News, 37, September 26, 1888, p. 579.)
^On this day David was "re-ordained" (according to his previous ordination by Joseph Smith in July 8, 1834) by William McLellin, Hiram Page, Jacob Whitmer, & John Whitmer. This entailed "holy priesthood," "high priests," and a "presidency" framework. See William E. McLellin, ed., Ensign of Liberty, vol. 1, August 1849.
^Whitmer did not seek the position but acknowledged that he was in fact ordained by Joseph Smith to succeed him. Whitmer was ordained a "prophet, seer, and revelator." (Newell G. Bringhurst and John C. Hamer eds., Scattering of the Saints, Schism within Mormonism, John Whitmer Books, 2007, p. 59.)
^McLellin was based in Kirtland. Whitmer however never traveled to Kirtland or assisted McLellin to grow his branch. McClellin did have a publication called Ensign of Liberty which the Whitmer branch refused after June 1848.
^"Joseph looked into the hat in which he placed the stone, and received a revelation that some of the brethren should go to Toronto, Canada, and that they would sell the copyright of the Book of Mormon. Hiram Page and Oliver Cowdery went to Toronto on this mission, but they failed entirely to sell the copyright, returning without any money. Joseph was at my father's house when they returned. I was there also, and am an eye witness to these facts. Jacob Whitmer and John Whitmer were also present when Hiram Page and Oliver Cowdery returned from Canada. Well, we were all in great trouble; and we asked Joseph how it was that he had received a revelation from the Lord for some brethren to go to Toronto and sell the copyright, and the brethren had utterly failed in their undertaking. Joseph did not know how it was, so he enquired of the Lord about it, and behold the following revelation came through the stone: 'Some revelations are of God: some revelations are of men: and some revelations are of the devil.' So we see that the revelation to go to Toronto and sell the copyright was not of God, but was of the devil or of the heart of man." David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, in EMD5: 198.
^The Three Witnesses did not ordain the apostles: "The First Presidency anointed only one apostle, the Twelve's president Thomas B. Marsh. Marsh then anointed the other apostles, and Smith spoke prophetic words to each one but did not anoint them." (D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power, p.60; see also Joseph Smith diary, 21 Jan. 1836, in History of the Church, 2:379-83; Faulring, An American Prophet's Record, 118-21, in Jessee, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 145-46, and in Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:156-58.)
^David Whitmer separated from the church and was never excommunicated. See Far West Record, pp. 123-125; Ebenezer Robinson, "Items of Personal History of the Editor," The Return, (Davis City, Iowa: Church of Christ), Vol. 1, No. 9, September 1889, pp. 134-135.
^David Whitmer did not own land. See Saints' Herald, vol. 34, No. 7, February 5, 1887.
^Joseph Smith, History of the Church, vol. 1, Chapter 27, pp. 374-376; Richard L. Bushman, "Mormon Persecutions in Missouri, 1833," BYU Studies, vol. 3, 1960-1961, no. 1, Autumn 1960; David Whitmer, An Address to all Believers in Christ, 1887, p. 55.
^The earliest known signed testimony of Whitmer was recorded in a letter to Mark H. Forscutt of March 2, 1875: "Dear Sir: My testimony to the world is written concerning the Book of Mormon. And it is the same that I gave at first, and it is the same as shall stand to my latest hour in life, linger with me in death and shine as gospel truth beyond the limits of life, among the tribunals of heaven. And the nations of the earth will have known to[o] late the divine truth written on the pages of that book is the only sorrow of this servant of the Almighty Father." (Davis, 1981, p. 75)
^Lyndon W. Cook ed,, David Whitmer Interviews, Grandin Book, 1991, p. xxvi.
^David Whitmer interview with Orson Pratt, September 1878, in EMD, 5: 43.
^Hamilton Newspaper, January 21, 1881; Kingston (Missouri) Times, December 16, 1887; "David Whitmer Interview with John Murphy, June 1880," Dan Vogel, ed., Early Morning Documents Signature Books, 2003, vol. 5, p. 63.
^Richmond (Missouri) Conservator, March 24, 1881; Hamiltonian (Missouri) Newspaper, April 8, 1881; Saints' Herald, June 1, 1881, vol. 28, p. 168; David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, 1887, pp. 8-10; LDS Church Archives; Ebbie Richardson, "David Whitmer," M.A. Thesis, BYU, 1952, pp. 178-180; "David Whitmer: The Independent Missouri Businessman," Improvement Era, vol. 72, April 1969, p. 79; Lyndon W. Cook, pp. 79-80; Dan Vogel, ed., Early Morning Documents Signature Books, 2003, 5:68-71.