David Whitmer was one of the Three Witnesses, from a whole family of witnesses of the Gold Plates. Yet after falling out with Joseph Smith, David left the Church and never returned. But he also never denied his testimony of the Book of Mormon—and, in fact, emphatically repeated that witness countless times through the remainder of his life.
This is the third episode in a series providing insights from the many interviews conducted during the course of the Witnesses film project. This series of mini-films is being released each Saturday at 7pm MDT. These additional resources are hosted by Camrey Bagley Fox, who played Emma Smith in Witnesses, as she introduces and visits with a variety of experts. These individuals answer questions or address accusations against the witnesses, also helping viewers understand the context of the times in which the witnesses lived. For more information, go to https://witnessesofthebookofmormon.org/ or watch the documentary movie Undaunted.
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Witnesses of the Book of Mormon — Insights
Episode 3: David Whitmer, Witness
David: Excuse me, I’m looking for Oliver Cowdery.
Joseph: You must be David.
David: You have the advantage of me.
Joseph: I’m Joseph.
David: You’re Joseph Smith?
Joseph: Come inside. Emma has dinner waiting.
I can’t thank you enough.
Hello, hello. That was, uh, that was Joseph. The prophet.
It seems as though you knew I was coming.
I wrote a letter, but I knew that I would arrive before it did.
Oliver, how did you know I was coming?
He sees things. He’s a seer.
He… sees things?
It’s been truly remarkable, all of it.
Joseph: Gentlemen, dinner awaits.
Oliver: We’ll leave first thing in the morning.
David: He’s so… young.
Camrey Bagley Fox: Welcome to our series about the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. My name is Camrey Bagley Fox. And we are back today with Dr. Gerritt Dirkmaat, associate professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.
I recently had the opportunity to play Emma Smith in the movie Witnesses. That experience was incredible and fascinating and informative, but it also brought up a lot of questions for me. And that is why I have invited Dr. Dirkmaat to join me.
Thanks for being here.
Gerritt Dirkmaat: Thanks for having me back.
CBF: Let’s talk about David Whitmer. What was his relationship with Joseph? Tell me about how he got involved.
GD: So, David, like the other 2 witnesses, and Joseph is also a pretty passionate guy. I mean, he feels pretty strongly about things. Now the great part about that is that he acts on them when he feels them, and also the negative part is that he acts on them when he feels them. And so it’s David Whitmer who has the least connection personally to Joseph, right? Joseph doesn’t know David Whitmer at all when Oliver Cowdery is writing the letter to David saying, ‘Hey, bring your horse and carriage down and come move us to your house and let us live there.’That’s a pretty big ask. But David Whitmer is totally on board with it.
The Whitmer family really is one of the most important families in the early Church. I mean, if you were to look at the Smiths as being the first family of the Church, really the Whitmers are kind of the second family. So much of what takes place, even before the Church is organized, takes place at their home, they’re some of the earliest believers. It’s not a surprise that so many of them are going to take part in being the eight witnesses of the Book of Mormon. So when the time comes to move the Church from New York to Ohio, the Whitmers are going to be a big part of that. They are some of the "Old" members of the Church.
I mean, it’s kind of weird to talk about it that way when you’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve been a member for eight months,’ as opposed to eight days. But that’s essentially what we’re looking at. They are also going to be the family that’s called upon to kind of anchor the Church in Missouri.
And this is where Doctrine numbered Section 57 where Joseph declares that’s where the city of Zion is going to be.
So several of the Whitmers participate in this missionary journey down there and very shortly thereafter, after Zion’s been designated, the Whitmer family in general, is going to move down to Jackson County, Missouri. And so by 1832, because they’re some of the earliest ones there, because they’re some of the important members of the Church, they’re also going to be assigned leadership roles of the Church in Missouri.
David Whitmer’s going to eventually be the President of the Missouri Church. So at the time, you have, you know the Church is located in two places, you have Joseph and the Church headquartered in Ohio, where they’re building the Kirtland Temple. We’ve also had revelation that has said the city of Zion, this great, glorious place where there should be no rich and no poor, bond or free, it’s going to be the city of God, it’s going to be built in Missouri, in Jackson County. Well, the Saints have had everything stolen from them in Jackson County. They own enormous swaths of land that they BOUGHT. They don’t have access to those lands because they’ve been stolen from them. You, on paper, own a 200-acre farm, but you can’t access it because some guy with a gun is there saying it’s now his farm.
Things start to kind of get off on the wrong track when the Church moves to Caldwell County. So, Missouri has, they’ve got a problem, a Mormon problem. ‘What do we do with the problem of the Mormons?’ The Mormons want their lands back in Jackson County. They’re kind of living as refugees in these various places. And so Missouri creates Caldwell County, for lack of a better term, kind of as a Mormon reservation—
GD: –they create it out of a place where most other people aren’t living. The Saints move up there, but they really are struggling because, ‘Well we need to buy all this land here. And we still own THOUSANDS of dollars worth of assets down in Jackson County.’
So we’ve got all these people that are coming here. They’re moving here, they’re poor, they need food, they need to be taken care of. And so there’s some real practical problems that David Whitmer has to deal with on the ground in Missouri, but that aren’t being solved by new converts arriving also with nothing.
Jackson County is 1,000 miles away from Kirtland. It’s very easy for them to feel disconnected from the headquarters of the Church. It is SO far away that your average time to get a letter back and forth between the places is more than two months. It’s a month to get the letter there, and if you got the letter and you hurried and wrote it back and sent it–so imagine, right? You’re in Missouri. ‘I’ve got a real question about this. I don’t know, I guess we’ll ask Joseph.’ It would be two, two and a half, maybe three months before you even got the answer. And by then you’re like, ‘Yeah, we don’t have a question about that anymore.’
One of the things that seems to fuel some of the tension is that David Whitmer and his brother John is in the Missouri presidency with him. They think that what they should do is that they should SELL some of the Church properties that they own in Jackson County. Use that money. So the mob owns them anyway. The mob’s living on their lands. And they could take that money and use it to take care of the new people that are arriving, and to buy more land in Far West and in Caldwell County.
CBF: Which makes sense. Seems logical.
GD: It’s a very practical solution. The problem is, the land that they purchased in Jackson County is the land that God has decreed that the holy city of God is going to be built on. And so this is going to lead to some conflict, because Joseph tells them, ‘You don’t sell ANY of that land.’
GD: This seems like a pretty cut and dried case, right? ‘I own the deed to this property.’ ‘Well why aren’t you living there?’ ‘Because someone with a gun told me that if I went there they’d kill me.’ You’d think at some point, some authority would give that land back.
GD: And so that’s their hope. But if you’re David Whitmer, if you’re John Whitmer, if you’re the Missouri Saints, as the weeks and months stretch into years, it seems pretty unlikely we’re going to be getting that land back.
And so, against the wishes of Joseph, the Missouri presidency is going to start selling some of that land in Zion. And that’s a big deal. And that’s all the same time as the other struggles are going on, not only with the other witnesses, but with the other members of the Church; the collapse of the Kirtland Safety Society, the mass apostasy of people in Kirtland and surrounding that.
If you look at the list of the reasons why David Whitmer was excommunicated, okay, well one of them is that he was not keeping the Word of Wisdom. Well, my goodness, NO ONE’S keeping the Word of Wisdom, not in the way we keep it today. I think they all see their excommunications as kind of almost grasping at straws, to list every POSSIBLE charge against them–
CBF: To get them out.
GD: When really, you should probably just take whatever the biggest problem is and focus on that. I mean, if the person is a real problem, then the fact that they’re saying that Joseph Smith’s a fallen prophet probably matters more than whether or not they sold tobacco in their store last week. You know, they’re not equivalent. But anyway, there are multiple things that are proffered against David Whitmer at his excommunication hearing. Of course, one of the easy claims that’s made is that David Whitmer is speaking out against Joseph Smith. Which, of course, he is, right? If Joseph is saying, ‘You can’t sell the property,’ and David Whitmer does, well that’s clearly that he is speaking out against what the prophet is saying.
At any rate, David Whitmer and the entire Missouri Church presidency are going to be excommunicated.
CBF: So after David Whitmer was excommunicated, where did his life go? What did he do?
GD: So what’s interesting is that David Whitmer just doesn’t really go very far from where they were already at. He moves to the Richmond area of Missouri, which is right there, still in Western Missouri. It’s not in Caldwell County, but he’ll kind of bounce around a little bit.
He’ll bear his testimony of the angel and the plates and the Book of Mormon all throughout his life, multiple times. I can’t imagine that that’s a terribly comfortable thing to do in a place like Missouri. I mean, he is adamant that anyone who’s claiming that he said he didn’t see an angel, that he didn’t see plates, that the Book of Mormon is not true, anyone who’s saying that is a liar. To the point that even his testimony is etched into his tombstone. That the Book of Mormon is true.
CBF: And what does that say?
GD: It is carved essentially, the testimony, "The record of the Jews and the record of the Nephites are one. Truth is eternal." Even in death, if someone sees this tombstone walking through this cemetery, they’re going to see, this idea that his testimony of the gold plates and the Book of Mormon is really who he is.
CBF: I kind of love that from a humorous standpoint, not that I think it’s humorous that it’s etched on his tombstone, but it almost feels like, ‘All you people who interviewed me and tried to get me to say otherwise, it’s here.’
GD: The reality is, when we’re talking about a miracle, all you can do responsibly, is say what that PERSON says. That doesn’t mean you have to believe it.
GD: But there’s a very big difference between trying to denigrate what someone says they believe, and presenting the facts as they are. The facts as they are is the Witnesses maintain their testimonies in public and in private all throughout their life. And if you’re an antagonist who says, ‘Well, I don’t agree with them,’ that’s great. But that’s not the same thing as proving that they didn’t have those experiences.
CBF: Right. Right, you can disagree with what they’re stating, but you can’t disagree that that is what they’re saying that they believe.
GD: Of course it’s hard to believe that angels appeared to these men. It’s a miracle. But the reason why we believe it is because it’s a miracle. So the very fact that miraculous events are in it, that’s actually the expectation, not the other way around.
CBF: I love that. Thank you.
GD: You’re welcome.
David Whitmer: I want to say to you all that the Bible, and the record of the Nephites are true. So you can say that you have heard me bear my testimony on my deathbed. All be faithful in Christ, and your reward will be according to your works. God bless you all. My trust is in Christ forever. Worlds without end. Amen.