John Whitmer was a practical, level-headed man. He was also one of the Eight Witnesses. And yet he eventually left the church along with the rest of his family. What did he actually say about his experience with the plates?
This is the thirty-first in a series compiled 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. This week we feature Daniel C. Peterson, President of the Interpreter Foundation and Executive Producer of Witnesses. For more information, go to https://witnessesofthebookofmormon.org/ or watch the documentary movie Undaunted.
Witnesses of the Book of Mormon — Insights
Episode 31: John Whitmer and the Plates
Paul Wuthrich, Narrator: On a cold October night in 1833, Hiram Page, one of the eight witnesses, faced a mob that wanted either a denial of his witness, or his life.
Actress, Hiram’s wife: Hiram? Hiram? Come in, it’s late.
Actor, Hiram: You go on in, I’ll be there shortly.
Hiram’s wife: Hiram!! Hiram!!
Hiram: Leave her alone!
Thug: We’ll be the ones telling you what to do.
Hiram’s wife: No!
Hiram: What do you want?
Thug #2: We’ll tell you what we want.
Thug: Put your backs into it.
Hiram’s wife: Hiram? Hiram?
Thug: You want this to end, Mr. Page? Well, just say it was all a lie.
Hiram: What was a lie?
Thug: The book, the Mormon bible.
Hiram: How can I deny what I know it to be true?
Hiram’s wife [crying]: Let him go.
Thug: What do you think of your God now he don’t save you?
Hiram: I think you can kill me, but it won’t change what I know to be true.
Hiram’s wife: No!
Thug #2: I believe the fool will stick to it, even if we try to kill him.
Thug: I reckon you’re right. Let’s get out of here. Let’s git!
Hiram: As to the Book of Mormon, I’d be doing injustice to myself and to the work of God in the last days, to say that I could know a thing to be true in 1830, and know the same thing to be false in 1847.
Camry Bagley Fox: Welcome to our series on the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. My name is Camry Bagley Fox, and we are back with Daniel Peterson, the president of the Interpreter Foundation and executive producer of the Witnesses project. Thank you for being here.
Daniel Peterson: I’m happy to be here.
CBF: Can you give me some specific examples that prove to you the witnesses’ sincerity of their testimony?
DP: Yeah, I’d be happy to. There are a number of them, but there are some that come readily to mind. I’m thinking, for example, of the mission to the Lamanites that Peter Whitman Junior went on, one of the eight witnesses, that was led by Oliver Cowdery, one of the three [witnesses]. That happened in the winter of 1830 and 31, and there are lots of accounts of that particular winter; it was one of the worst in the history of North America as far as anybody knew. Even there are Indian accounts saying it was terrible. It was horribly cold and so on. They walked 1500 miles through—out to the borders of the Laminates, as they understood it then, to Indian territory, beyond the territory of the United States. And they did most of it on foot.
Now, I’m thinking to myself, OK, if I’m Oliver Cowdery, and I’m part of a con, I’m thinking at about the 800th mile marker, or something like — they described the wind, that it would just about take the skin off your face, and they couldn’t eat the bread because the crust was frozen solid, and they’d walk miles and miles facing into the wind. It was just terrible, terrible conditions. I’d be thinking, you know this was fun for a while, but the charm is wearing off.
CBF: I’d be out by mile three.
DP: Yeah, yeah. So, to me, what this suggests is that you can say of the other participants, Ziba Peterson, and Frederick G. Williams, I think, and Parley Pratt, who are the other three that ultimately are involved in this mission, ‘Well, they were just well-meaning dupes.’
But if there’s a con, Oliver Cowdery is almost certainly in on it. If it’s fake, Oliver Cowdery knows it’s a fake, almost certainly. But he still does this because he really believes, and apparently was one of those seeking to take the gospel to the Lamanites, because of what he read in the Book of Mormon and what he had personally written from the Book of Mormon, he knew that message had to go to the Lamanites. He wanted to be part of it and he’s willing to pay this incredible price.
This is a CRAZY thing for him to do. There’s no gain in it, to take the gospel to the Indians, who might kill him. You know, against the wishes of any of the American officials enroute. At the risk of being imprisoned, the risk of freezing to death, and so on. And they didn’t have anything like our modern gear for dealing with low temperatures, or any warm place to go to in the evenings; they were camping much of the time.
CBF: That’s some serious commitment to a con, if that’s what he’s doing.
DP: Yeah, it seems to me it is. And for what possible gain?
DP: What are you going to get from doing this?
CBF: Any other examples?
DP: Yeah. Another one that occurs to me is Hiram Page, who was beaten to within an inch of his life by members of a mob. He was apparently crippled for some time after this, and they basically said to him, ‘Look, uh, deny the Book of Mormon and we’ll stop beating you,’ And he won’t.
Another example is David Whitmer, who at one point is hauled before a group of people who are ready to shoot him. This is shown in our film. He’s given the choice to save his life by denying his testimony of the Book of Mormon, and he won’t do it. Instead, the sources say, and it’s not just David telling us he did this, you know, you might say, ‘He’s a braggart, he’s boasting of his courage.’ No, there are other people there, at least one other person, who said, ‘This is what he did. When he’s offered the chance to deny his testimony, he BEARS his testimony.’
Actor David Whitmer: The truth is, it is not a lie. God Almighty knows that I have seen the gold plates. And I fear Him a lot more than I fear you. I know what I have seen. I know what I have promised. I will not deny what I have learned about my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
DP: What he doesn’t know but what the mob is going to shoot him right there. In fact, they didn’t, but he didn’t know that. AND he has a chance to say, ‘You know, on second thought, the angel, he was a long way off. I’m not really sure what I saw.’ You know, he could back away gracefully. He would have been celebrated as a hero, he’s brought down the Mormon con. But he doesn’t do that, and he exposes himself to very likely death.
David Whitmer said at one point that the angel told him that if he ever denied his testimony he would be damned. That would be a good reason, too, to stick to your testimony. As David says in our movie, ‘I fear God more than I fear you.’ And so they can kill him, and that’s bad, but it’s better than being damned for all eternity for perjuring yourself on such an important issue. I don’t know what would count for some people as a test of sincerity, but to me, these examples seem to be.
CBF: Right. What is also fascinating to me is how passionately people feel about making these people deny their testimonies. Like, I’m sure it’s partially a cultural thing. I just can’t even wrap my mind around, you know, tarring and feathering people because they believe something different from you. It blows my mind.
DP: It’s hard to imagine. But you know, people sometimes find these sort of testimonies a challenge. So, we sometimes want that just to let ourselves off the hook. Because otherwise the existence of this witness is a challenge to ME. What do I make it this, if even under these terrible circumstances he won’t back down?
I think another illustration of the sincerity of the witnesses is Hyrum Smith himself, who goes to Liberty Jail and spends months under really inhuman conditions and comes out of it still bearing his testimony. He says, ‘In Liberty Jail I wanted to bear testimony to that which I had seen, and hefted, touched with my hands.’ Which is a good test. You sometimes wonder, ‘OK, if I came under these challenges, where would I stand?’ Hyrum learns something important about himself, I think, and can assure the Saints that he’s really serious.
Now, you could take that as braggadocio on his part. That he’s—this is easy to say once you’re safely out of Liberty Jail, that ‘Well, I never wavered,’ you know, that kind of thing. But we know he meant it because later he goes, effectively voluntarily, with his brother Joseph to Carthage jail, where the odds of his dying are very, very high. And in fact, he does die, and they die bearing witness to the Book of Mormon. Remember, at the very end, they read passages from the Book of Mormon.
Now, Elder Holland raised this question some time ago in a General Conference. ‘You know, do you really think that men who KNEW this was a fraud would go to their deaths reading for their own comfort, passages from a book they knew they’d made up?’ That just doesn’t seem likely. So again, I think if you look at the lives of the witnesses and things they went through, the things they put up with as witnesses; they didn’t get rich by it, they didn’t gain power. Some have said, ‘Well they gained status in the Church.’ Well yeah, but that ended soon. And then they’re out of the Church, where it’s certainly not high status to have been associated with Joe Smith and the Mormon Bible, but they stand by it, nonetheless. Their sincerity, to me, really shines through powerfully.
CBF: That is so interesting. Thank you.