Evidence #276 | November 29, 2021

John Whitmer

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On several occasions, across the span of decades, John Whitmer insisted that he both saw and handled the plates of the Book of Mormon, even after leaving the Church.

John Whitmer was the longest living of the Eight Witnesses, and so naturally left behind the most statements about their shared experience, including some of the earliest first-hand accounts from any of the Eight Witnesses. For example, writing sometime in the early 1830s, as part of the official history he was writing as the first Church Historian (see D&C 47), John Whitmer briefly noted that “Joseph Smith Jr showed the Plates” to the Eight Witnesses, identifying himself as one of them.1

Later, when stepping down as editor of the Latter-day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate in 1836, he wrote plainly about the experience:

[T]o say that the book of Mormon is a revelation from God, I have no hesitancy; but with all confidence have signed my name to it as such and I hope, that my patrons will indulge me in speaking freely on this subject, as I am about leaving the editorial department––Therefore I desire to testify to all that will come to the knowledge of this address; that I have most assuredly seen the plates from whence the book of Mormon is translated, and that I have handled these plates, and know of a surety that Joseph Smith, jr., has translated the book of Mormon by the gift and power of God.2

A couple years later, John left the Church, but he continued to affirm the reality of the plates throughout his life.3 Later in life, when most of the other witnesses were deceased, John answered correspondences about himself and the others, wherein he affirmed his testimony as recorded in the Book of Mormon and indicated that neither himself nor, to his knowledge, any of the other witnesses ever denied their testimony.

  • “I have never heard that any one of the three, or eight witnesses ever denied the testimony that they have borne to the Book as published in the first of the Book of Mormon[.] There are only two witnesses to that Book now living to wit. David Whitmer one of the three and [myself,] John Whitmer[,] one of the eight[.] Our names have gone forth to all Nations tongues and People as a Divine Revelation from God. And it will bring to pass the designs of God according to the declaration there in contained, &c.”4
  • “I conclude you have read the Book of Mormon, together with the testimonies that are thereto attached; in which testimonies you read my name subscribed as one of the Eight witnesses to said Book. That testimony was, is, and will be true henceforth and forever.”5

In addition to these brief first-hand affirmations, several others recorded occasions—both before and after he left the Church—in which they heard John Whitmer talk about seeing and handling the plates.6 As is always the case with such secondhand reports, isolated details should be considered with caution, but the collective testimony of these sources consistently demonstrates that John regularly and frequently affirmed both seeing and handling the plates throughout his life.

Oliver Cowdery, for instance, reported on a conference held in June 1835 in which John “gave a short relation of the facts connected with the translation of the book of Mormon,” and testified “openly, candidly, and seriously of what he has seen, hefted and handled with his own hands.”7 John would still testify “that he had often handled the identical golden plates” in public speeches given over forty years later, according to a non-Latter-day Saint newspaper.8

Even at the height of his apostasy, reports indicate that John Whitmer maintained that he had seen and handled the plates. According to an account copied in 1845, John was asked about his testimony as printed in the Book of Mormon in front of a group of anti-Mormons in 1839. He responded, “I now say, I handled those plates; there were fine engravings on both sides. I handled them,” but, he added, “I could not read it [in the original] and I do not know whether it [i.e., the translation] is true or not.”9

Photograph by Laci Gibbs . Image via ladylacecreative.com.

Some have claimed that John’s experience was “visionary” since this same 1845 account indicates that John Whitmer saw the plates “by a supernatural power.”10 However, there is some ambiguity in the original document as to whether this was something John Whitmer really said, or someone else’s paraphrase.11 In any case, a “visionary” interpretation is unnecessary and inconsistent with the overall evidence from the Eight Witnesses in general, and John Whitmer in particular.12 It is more likely that John intended to communicate that it was only by the Lord’s will and power that they were permitted to see the plates at all—even in an ordinary, non-miraculous context—since this is what early revelations indicated (D&C 5:3; 17:2–3).13

Sometimes, interviewers asked questions which allowed John Whitmer to clarify the nature of his experience and address criticisms and rumors meant to discount his testimony. For example, one interviewer reported asking, “Did you see them covered with a cloth?” (a claim made by some skeptics, then and now), to which John’s reported reply was, “No. He handed them uncovered into our hands, and we turned the leaves sufficient to satisfy us.”14

The Eight Witnesses, by Olinda Reynolds. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Like others in the Whitmer family, over time John Whitmer progressively rejected more and more of Joseph Smith’s teachings and revelations, but he always adhered to his testimony of the Book of Mormon.15 Those who were there in John Whitmer’s final days indicated that he reaffirmed his testimony on his deathbed.16

Larry E. Morris, ed., A Documentary History of the Book of Mormon (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 415–422.

Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14, no. 1 (2005): 18–51, 125–127.

Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1981), 123–134.

  • 1 John Whitmer, History, 1831–ca. 1847, p. 25, online at josephsmithpapers.org. Whitmer started this history in June 1831, after being called by revelation to keep a record for the Church (see D&C 47). The present copy was most likely made in 1838, and reflects updates and revisions made to the original sometime after 1835. Whitmer continued to edit and update the history until the late 1840s. The narrative of pre-1835 events, however, still retains the use of the present tense while describing many events from between 1831–1834, suggesting that much of this history was originally written contemporaneously. See the “Historical Introduction” online at josephsmithpapers.org.
  • 2 John Whitmer, “Address to the Patrons of the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate,” Latter-day Saints Messenger and Advocate 2, no. 6, March 1836, in Larry E. Morris, ed., A Documentary History of the Book of Mormon (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 426.
  • 3 On the life-long affirmation of the Book of Mormon by the Whitmer family, including John, after they had left the Church, see Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1981), 123–134. On the life of John Whitmer, see Ronald E. Romig, Eighth Witness: The Biography of John Whitmer (Independence, MO: John Whitmer Books, 2014).
  • 4 John Whitmer to Mark H. Forscutt, March 5, 1876, in Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5:243.
  • 5 John Whitmer to Heman C. Smith, December 11, 1876, in Vogel, EMD, 5:244.
  • 6 For collections of most of these accounts, see Morris, Documentary History, 449–455; Vogel, EMD, 5:233–251.
  • 7 Oliver Cowdery, “New Portage Conference,” Latter-day Saints Messenger and Advocate 1, June 1835, 143, in Morris, Documentary History, 450.
  • 8 See I. C. Funn, Kingston Sentinel, January 1878, in Vogel, EMD, 5:245–246.
  • 9 Thomas Bullock’s Account, ca. 1845, in Morris, Documentary History, 451.
  • 10 Thomas Bullock’s Account, ca. 1845, in Morris, Documentary History, 451.
  • 11 On the ambiguity surrounding this statement in the document, see Morris, Documentary History, 420–421.
  • 12 See Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14, no. 1 (2005): 18–51, 125–127; Larry E. Morris, “Empirical Witnesses of the Gold Plates,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 52, no. 3 (2019): 59–84.
  • 13 See Morris, Documentary History, 421. It is also plausible that John Whitmer and others among the Eight Witnesses felt the presence of the Holy Spirit strongly during their encounter with the plates, and this could have been the “supernatural power” he was referring to. People across many religious traditions experience the feeling of a divine power or presence during a variety of different kinds of sacred encounters, including encounters with sacred objects. During these encounters, everything experienced by the natural senses—everything seen, heard, and touched—could just as easily be witnessed by a non-believer observing the event. As such, the perception of a “supernatural power” during the Eight Witnesses experience would not be evidence that they did not really see and handle the plates with their natural senses.
  • 14 P. Wilhelm Poulson Interview, July 31, 1878, in Morris, Documentary History, 453. This is obviously not consistent with a supposedly “visionary” experience.
  • 15 On the evolution of the Whitmers’ beliefs, and their increasing loss of faith in everything but the Book of Mormon, 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.
  • 16 See the recollections of John C. Whitmer and Philander Page in Vogel, EMD, 5:251.
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