Evidence #136 | January 18, 2021

David Whitmer

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Throughout his life, David Whimer consistently testified that he saw an angel who showed him the golden plates and other artifacts associated with the Book of Mormon.

David Whitmer first met Joseph Smith in late May 1829. On this occasion, he traveled with his team and wagon to Harmony, Pennsylvania to get Joseph and Oliver Cowdery and bring them to his father’s home in Fayette, New York, so they could finish the translation of the Book of Mormon. Prior to that time, David had received reports from Oliver about the wonderous record they were translating and was interested in learning more.1

David Whitmer. Photograph, unknown photographer, circa 1855. (Community of Christ Library-Archives, Independence, MO.) Image and caption via Joseph Smith Papers. 

About a month later, when they learned that there would be three witnesses of the Book of Mormon plates, David desired to become one of them. His wish was granted by a revelation, which conditionally promised him and the other witnesses “a view of the plates” and other Nephite artifacts (D&C 17:1). Thus, toward the end of June 1829, Joseph, David, Oliver, and Martin Harris, another of Joseph’s supporters, went out into the woods near the Whitmer farm to experience the promised vision. They each subsequently testified that an angel came down from heaven and laid before them the ancient golden record, after which a voice from heaven confirmed the record’s truthfulness and commanded them to bear record of their witness.2

For David Whitmer, this was a defining experience, one that became the core and foundation of all his religious beliefs in the decades that followed.3 Even after 1838, when he came to view Joseph Smith as a fallen prophet and separated himself from the main body of Joseph’s followers, David continued to adhere to his testimony of the angel and the plates.4 As the years went on, he progressively lost faith in most of Joseph’s later revelations, but he never abandoned the Book of Mormon.5

Later in life, after outliving Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris, David was frequently questioned about his experience both in person and by letter. Thanks to these enquiries, about a dozen letters containing firsthand statements about his experience survive, in addition to over 70 reports from those who interviewed him.6 Most of the firsthand statements either express a simple reaffirmation of his testimony as published in the Book of Mormon, or matter-of-factly state that he saw an angel with the plates. Coming from his own pen (or that of his scribes, as he dictated to them), these surviving letters allow David to speak for himself about his experience:

  • “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.”7
  • “As you read my testimony given many years ago, so it stands as my own existence; the same as when I gave it, and so shall stand throughout the cycles of eternity.”8
  • “As concerning the Book of Mormon and its contents, and my views for which you inquire, I can say the Book and its contents are true. And my testimony in connection with the Book is also true.”9
  • “My testimony to the Book of Mormon is true and I am admonished neither to add to nor take from my testimony already appended to the Book.”10
  • “Those who know me best, well know that I have adhered to that testimony.—And that no man may be misled or doubt my present views in regard to the same, I do now again affirm the truth of all my statement[s], as then made and published.”11
  • “My testimony as published in connection with the Book of Mormon is true—And why Should men ask to know more in regard to all the particulars connected with that all Overshadowing truth—If they will not believe the three and 8 witnesses would they believe though one Should arise from the dead, and testify to its truth again.”12
  • “I have … emphatically testified as written in the Book of Mormon.”13
  • “I did see the angel of God, and was commanded to testify of these things, and they are true.”14
  • “You ask me if I saw the Angel when he brought the plates. I saw the Angel when he brought the plates, and the Angel told us that we must bear testimony to the world, as contained in my testimony written in the Book of Mormon. Doubt not—sister—the Book of Mormon is the word of God.”15
  • “I did see the Angel as it is recorded in my testimony in the Book of Mormon. The Book is true.”16
  • “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: … 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.”17
  • “In June, 1829, the Lord called Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and myself as the three witnesses, to behold the vision of the Angel, as recorded in the fore part of the Book of Mormon, and to bear testimony to the world that the Book of Mormon is true.”18

Other direct correspondences from David clearly express belief in the Book of Mormon without specifically mentioning his testimony of the angel and the plates. For example, in a letter to Oliver Cowdery in 1847, David speaks of building up the church of Christ anew, “according to the laws contained in the bible [and] book of Mormon.”19

In addition to these simple but clear reaffirmations of his testimony, various interviews reported by both believers and non-believers in the Book of Mormon elaborate more on David’s experience with the angel and the plates. However, he often felt misrepresented by these reports, and occasionally made an effort to correct them.20 As such, these interviews, despite often reporting what David said in the first-person, are best treated as second-hand accounts and should be given due caution. Nonetheless, taken collectively these accounts are broadly consistent and testify to David’s lifetime commitment to bear witness of the Book of Mormon.

In addition to these numerous sources from David’s twilight years, various accounts show that he actively bore his testimony in the years immediately following the experience. For example, in 1831 William E. McLellin recorded hearing David bear “testimony to having seen an Holy Angel who had made known the truth of this record to him.”21 John Green remembered hearing David affirm his testimony at gunpoint in 1833.22 Luman Shurtliff and Thomas Marsh also remember hearing David testify in the 1830s.23

David Whitmer confirming his testimony when confronted by an armed mob. Image from a trailer for the film Witnesses (see https://witnessesfilm.com/). 

One thing that is clear throughout all of these accounts is that David was emphatic that what he saw was real. On one occasion, he struck the side of a bed to emphasize that he saw the angel and the plates as clearly and surely as his interviewers could see the bed he was sitting on while speaking with them.24 On other occasions, people questioned whether his experience was possibly a hallucination, or some kind of delusion, to which he would emphatically reply it was no delusion.25

When one person claimed that David had admitted that he saw and heard “nothing,” but merely felt “impressions” of an angel’s presence and heavenly voice,26 David personally wrote to correct the record.27 He candidly acknowledged that there were spiritual elements to the experience, but also insisted that he really did see an angel with his “natural eyes.”28 For instance, in reply to one skeptic, he wrote:

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.29

Photo of David Whitmer. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Despite having so frequently been questioned about his testimony, sometimes by hostile and skeptical enquirers, toward the end of his life—“standing as it were, in the very sunset of life”—David could honestly proclaim: “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.”30 Frustrated by the many rumors and misrepresentations circulated about his testimony, in the final years of his life he determined to speak for himself once and for all. “I will say once more to all mankind, that I have never at any time denied that testimony or any part thereof.”31 According to several witnesses, he again bore one last testimony of the Book of Mormon just before dying less than a year later.32

Book of Mormon Central, “Why is David Whitmer’s Witness of the Book of Mormon So Compelling? (Alma 27:27),” KnoWhy 395 (January 2, 2018).

Keith W. Perkins, “Whitmer, David,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols., ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1993), 4:1565–1566.

Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witness (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1981), 67–92.

  • 1 See Book of Mormon Central, “Why is David Whitmer’s Witness of the Book of Mormon So Compelling? (Alma 27:27),” KnoWhy 395 (January 2, 2018).
  • 2 Joseph Smith, History Drafts, 1838–ca. 1841, draft 1, in Joseph Smith Papers—Histories, vol. 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832–1844, ed. Karen Lynn Davidson, et al. (Salt Lake City, UT: Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 314–322.
  • 3 Ronald E. Romig, “David Whitmer: Faithful Dissenter, Witness Apart,” in Differing Visions: Dissenters in Mormon History, ed. Roger D. Launius and Linda Thatcher (Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois, 1994), 25–26: “This encounter became the core religious experience of David Whitmer’s life. It served as benchmark for what had preceded and all that followed. The fact that he affirmed this experience throughout his life illustrates how deeply he had internalized it.”
  • 4 For a review of David Whitmer’s lifetime of faithful testimony, see Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witness (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1981), 67–92. See also Richard L. Anderson, “David Whitmer: Unique Missouri Mormon,” in Missouri Folk Heroes of the Nineteenth Century, ed. F. Mark McKiernan and Roger D. Launius (Independence, MO: Independence Press, 1989), 45–59.
  • 5 On David’s gradual rejection of most of what Joseph Smith taught after June 1829, see H. Michael Marquardt, “David Whitmer: His Evolving Beliefs and Recollections,” in Scattering of the Saints: Schism within Mormonism, ed. Newell G. Bringhurst and John C. Hamer (Independence, MO: John Whitmer Books, 2007), 46–77. See also 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, ed. Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 223–256, which illustrates how inconsistent David’s memory often was with regard to most events in early Church history, yet is highly consistent when talking about his experience with the angel and the plates.
  • 6 For collections of most of these documents, see Lyndon W. Cook, ed., David Whitmer Interviews (Orem, UT: Grandin Press, 1991); Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5:9–227 (cited as EMD). See also Larry E. Morris, ed., A Documentary History of the Book of Mormon (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 380–382, 403–412; Preston Nibley, ed., Witnesses of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1968), 61–104.
  • 7 David Whitmer to Mark H. Forscutt, March 2, 1875, in EMD 5:219.
  • 8 David Whitmer to James N. Seymour, December 8, 1875, in EMD 5:219.
  • 9 David Whitmer to Heman C. Smith, December 5, 1876, in EMD 5:219.
  • 10 David Whitmer to Joseph Smith III, February 2, 1878, in EMD 5:219.
  • 11 David Whitmer, Proclamation, March 19, 1881, in EMD 5:69.
  • 12 David Whitmer to S. T. Mouch, November 18, 1882, in EMD 5:222.
  • 13 David Whitmer to E. L. Kelley, March 3, 1884, in EMD 5:118. The full statement is primarily about Oliver Cowdery, as follows: “Oliver Cowdry never to my knowledge denied any part of his testimony, on the contrary as I have done, protested against every fabrication made by designing persons & parties & emphatically testified as written in the Book of Mormon until Death which occured in this place.” David nonetheless affirms that he has done as Oliver did (“as I have done”). Since this essay is on David Whitmer’s testimony, for the sake of space it has been edited in the body to emphasize his own affirmation embedded in this defense of his friend, brother-in-law, and fellow witness.
  • 14 David Whitmer to E. C. Brand, February 8, 1885, in EMD 5:224.
  • 15 David Whitmer to Sister Gates, February 11, 1887, in EMD 5:224–225.
  • 16 David Whitmer to Robert Nelson, 1887, in EMD 5:225, emphasis in the original.
  • 17 David Whitmer to Anthony Metcalfe, April 2, 1887, in EMD 5:193, emphasis in the original.
  • 18 David Whitmer, An Address to all Believers in Christ (April 1887), in Morris, Documentary History, 382.
  • 19 David Whitmer to Oliver Cowdery, October 2, 1847, in Marquardt, “David Whitmer,” 55.
  • 20 See Whitmer, Proclamation, in EMD 5:68–71; David Whitmer to the Editor, Kansas City Journal, June 13, 1881, in EMD 5:81–82; David Whitmer to S. T. Mouch, November 18, 1882, as cited in EMD 5:36, 72; David Whitmer to Dear Brethren, November 20, 1886 in Saints’ Herald 33, no. 48 (December 4, 1886): 764. In another letter written a few weeks later, he mentions frequently having his supports send out corrections to various errors in the newspaper reports. See David Whitmer to Joseph Smith III, December 9, 1886, in Saints’ Herald 34, no. 6 (February 5, 1886): 89. He told Joseph Smith III that he “must be extremely guarded” when speaking of details beyond those mentioned in the official statement, lest he be “under the risk of being misunderstood” (EMD 5:219), a sentiment likely due to the frequent misrepresentation.
  • 21 Jan Shipps and John W. Welch, eds., The Journals of William E. McLellin (Provo, UT and Urbana and Chicago, IL: BYU Studies and University of Illinois Press, 1994), 29.
  • 22 John P. Greene, Facts Relative the Expulsion of Mormons (1839), in EMD 5:216. See also McLellin’s story about asking David and Oliver about their testimonies during the Missouri persecution, in Morris, Documentary History, 407.
  • 23 See Lumon Andros Shurtliff, Autobigoraphy, ca. 1852–1876, in EMD 5:216–217; “History of Thomas B. Marsh,” Deseret News, March 24, 1858, in EMD 5:216.
  • 24 Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith Interview, September 7–8, 1878, in Morris, Documentary History, 408.
  • 25 See, for example, Whitmer, Proclamation, in EMD 5:69; Joseph Smith III, Notes for Memoirs, in EMD 5:124.
  • 26 John Murphy to Editor, in Hamiltonian, January 21, 1881, in EMD 5:62–64.
  • 27 Whitmer, Proclamation, in EMD 5:69–71.
  • 28 Nathan Tanner Jr., Journal, May 13, 1886, reported David Whitmer saying “that he saw the plates and with his natural eyes, but he had to be prepared for it—that he and the other witnesses were overshadowed by the power of God and a halo of brightness indescribable” (in EMD 5:166). See also Nathan Tanner Jr. to Nathan A. Tanner, February 17, 1909, in EMD 5:170: “I have been asked if we saw those things with our natural eyes. Of course they were our natural eyes. There is no doubt that our eyes were prepared for the sight, but they were our natural eyes nevertheless.”
  • 29 Whitmer to Metcalfe, in EMD 5:193.
  • 30 Whitmer, Proclamation, in EMD 5:69.
  • 31 Whitmer, An Address, in DHBM 382.
  • 32 Richmond Conservator, January 1888, in EMD 5:225–226; John C. Whitmer and John J. Snyder to “Dear Brethren,” February 3, 1888, in The Return 1, no. 1 (January 1889): 6–7; John C. Whitmer Statement to Andrew Jenson, Edward Stevenson, and Joseph S. Black, September 1888 (in EMD 5:226); Philander Page Reminiscence, 1907 (in EMD 5:227).
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