Part 54: CES Letter Witnesses Questions [Section J]
by Sarah Allen
With the exception of Hyrum Smith, the stories of the three witnesses are much more recognizable to us as a whole than those of the eight witnesses. Today, I wanted to focus on the seven we aren’t as familiar with. Their contributions to early Latter-day Saint history deserve to be celebrated.
JOSEPH SMITH, SR.
I’d like to begin with Joseph Smith, Sr., the father of the Prophet of the Restoration and one of the only two latter-day figures referenced by name inside the Book of Mormon. He was born in mid-1771 and married Lucy Mack Smith at the age of 24. They had Joseph when he was 34, while living in Sharon, Vermont. Eleven years later, they moved to Palmyra, New York, where the events of the Restoration would begin to come forth. He became a witness in June, 1829, just a few weeks shy of the age of 58. After the formal organization of the Church in April, 1830, he served his first mission with his son Don Carlos. He moved to Kirtland, Ohio, in 1831, and was called as the Church’s first Patriarch in 1834.
At various points during those early years of the Restoration, he and the other ten Book of Mormon witnesses all publicly raised their arms during several conferences and gave their testimonies of the scripture, reaffirming the testimonies inside.
A story was recounted by both Lucy and their son Samuel, another witness, in which a man came to the Smith home in the fall of 1830 to collect a $14 debt. Joseph Sr. had been sick and hadn’t eaten all day, and when the man showed up, he offered him $6 immediately with the promise to get the rest as soon as possible. The man said no, he wouldn’t even wait a single hour, and told him that if he wasn’t paid immediately, he’d have him arrested…unless he threw the copies of the Book of Mormon they had into the fire and burned them all up. If Smith did so, the man would forgive the entire debt and leave the family alone. Lucy offered him her gold necklace to pay the difference or to buy a little time to borrow the money from someone else, and he refused. It was burn the Book of Mormon, pay the entire debt immediately, or go to jail.
Joseph Sr. said, “[Sir], we shall not burn the Book of Mormon, nor deny the inspiration of the Almighty.” Since he couldn’t pay the debt in full at such short notice, he was taken to jail, still without having had the chance to eat anything. He wasn’t given anything to eat for another four days, aside from a pint of broth.
During a visit from Samuel, he reported:
Immediately after I left your mother, the men by whom I was taken commenced using every possible argument to induce me to renounce the Book of Mormon, saying ‘how much better it would be for you to deny that silly thing, than to be disgraced and imprisoned, when you might not only escape this, but also have the note back, as well as the money which you have paid on it.’ To this I made no reply. They still went on in the same manner till we arrived at the jail, when they hurried me into this dismal dungeon. I shuddered when I first heard these heavy doors creaking upon their hinges; but then I thought to myself, I was not the first man who had been imprisoned for the truth’s sake; and when I should meet Paul in the Paradise of God, I could tell him that I, too, had been in bonds for the Gospel which he had preached. And this has been my only consolation.
Joseph Sr. continued his imprisonment for another month, preaching to the other indebted men every Sunday as he worked off his debt, and when he was released, he baptized two men he’d converted while he was there.
At the age of 64, he served another mission throughout the Eastern United States with his brother, John, in which they traveled almost 2,400 miles on foot. During one of these missions, he brought Lorenzo Snow into the Church, among others. He moved from Ohio to Missouri in the spring of 1838, and by February of 1839, was being forced out of the state after the siege at Far West.
When Joseph Jr. and the other leaders were arrested and taken from Far West, Joseph Sr. and Lucy heard their son suddenly start screaming and they couldn’t see him to know why or what was happening. Then, there was a series of about six gunshots. At that, Joseph Sr. grabbed his chest and collapsed, saying he couldn’t survive if his son was murdered.
According to his family, he never fully recovered from this incident, and during his own flight from Missouri to Illinois, he caught a respiratory illness that never truly went away. Exacerbated by the swampiness of Nauvoo, this illness worsened until Joseph Sr. eventually died two years later in 1840 at the age of 69. On his deathbed, he gave blessings to his children before predicting his own death down to the minute. He also saw his deceased son, Alvin, before he passed on.
SAMUEL H. SMITH
Though you may not realize it, Samuel Smith, younger brother to Joseph and Hyrum, played a significant role in the early days of the Restoration. Not only was he one of the eight witnesses, but he also served as a Book of Mormon scribe, was the third person baptized in this dispensation after Joseph and Oliver, was one of the original six members of the Church, was one of its first high councilors, and was the first missionary called in this dispensation. He was a prodigious missionary who walked more than 4,000 miles across six separate missions while spreading the Gospel, handing out copies of the Book of Mormon wherever he went.
He was discouraged by what he felt was a lack of success on an early mission, as if he hadn’t made much impact. He hadn’t yet baptized a single person, and few people were interested in his message. However, one night at an inn he approached a preacher who was sitting in the dining room and told him there was a book he wanted him to read, “The Book of Mormon, or, as it is called by some, the Golden Bible.” The preacher said, “So, it claims to be revelation,” and Samuel pointed to the testimony of the witnesses, introduced himself, and bore his testimony of the divine origins of the book. The preacher accepted the book dubiously and set about reading it twice in two weeks, looking for ways to discredit it and to share the fraud with the world so they wouldn’t be fooled by its message. He didn’t find any, and instead, was so intrigued by what he read that he shared the book with his brother, who in turn shared it with his good friend.
That preacher was Phineas Young, and because of Samuel’s missionary efforts, Phineas, his brother Brigham, Brigham’s good friend Heber C. Kimball, and many other members of their families all joined the Church.
Samuel received his patriarchal blessing from his father in late 1834, in which he was told, “Thou shalt do good in thy day: the testimony which thou hast borne and shall bear, shall be received by thousands, and thou shalt magnify thy calling and do honor to the holy priesthood. The nations of the earth shall hear thy voice, and the great ones of the Gentles shall tremble in thy presence, because of the mighty power of God which shall attend thee.”
While in Missouri in 1838, a mob dragged his family outside in the sleet and rain and burned their house to the ground. His wife was so traumatized by the event that she supposedly never spoke above a whisper again.
In 1844, upon hearing that a mob was gathering at Carthage, Samuel rode on horseback to try to help his brothers. He was intercepted by a mob who wouldn’t let him pass. When he finally neared Carthage, he heard his brothers had been killed and was so dismayed he nearly fell off his horse. Another mob was there hiding in a thicket and chased after him, but he managed to elude them that time and made it to Carthage. There, he retrieved his brothers’ bodies and escorted them back to Nauvoo.
Upon arriving home, he told his mother, “Mother, I have had a dreadful distress in my side ever since I was chased by the mob, and I think I have received some injury which is going to make me sick.” He went down to his sickbed, and never got back out again. He died on July 30, 1844, at the age of 36, just over a month after Joseph and Hyrum were killed.
A somewhat common attack by critics of the Church is to claim that Samuel was poisoned by Hosea Stout on the orders of either Brigham Young or Willard Richards. There is no evidence of this. William Smith made some allegations decades later when he was bitter against the Twelve. According to Samuel’s wife, Stout did give him a white powder, trying to help cure his illness. William made the claim it was poison. However, even D. Michael Quinn, the contemporary source who first brought this charge to public light before it was shoved into the mainstream by Jon Krakauer, admits in the endnotes of his book that there’s no evidence to back William up.
Hiram Page was born in Vermont in 1800 and married Catherine Whitmer, sister to David and the other witnesses, in 1825. He was living on the Whitmer farm property when the events of the Restoration began to unfold, which is how he came to join the Church and the other witnesses. He is perhaps best known for an incident involving a black seer stone that he found that was giving him pages and pages of counterfeit revelations regarding the location of Zion, among other things. In Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Bushman said:
When Joseph arrived in Fayette in September, the Whitmers and Cowdery were studying the revelations of Hiram Page, the husband of David Whitmer’s sister Catherine. He had a “roll of papers,” as Newel Knight reported it, full of revelations through a stone. Joseph had put aside his seerstone after completing the Book of Mormon, and David Whitmer thought this a big mistake. Only the seerstone revelations received through June 1829 were trustworthy in Whitmer’s view. He may have believed Page because he used a stone when Joseph had stopped.
…Joseph recognized the danger of the competing revelations. Acknowledging every visionary outburst could splinter the church. Newel Knight, who came up for the conference, found Joseph “in great distress of mind.” The two of them occupied the same room before the conference, and Newel said that “the greater part of the night was spent in prayer and supplication.” Rather than face the brethren individually and risk another outburst later, Joseph turned to the Church to settle the matter for good. Joseph brought a new revelation dealing with Hiram Page to the conference, but it was not by revelatory power that Joseph prevailed. He insisted rather that Page’s revelations “were entirely at variance with the order of Gods house, as laid down in the New Testament, as well as in our late revelations.” He turned the question into a constitutional issue: did Hiram Page have the authority to promulgate revelation? The new revelation emphasized that the reception of revelation for the Church had “not been appointed unto him, neither shall anything be appointed unto any of this church contrary to the church covenants.”
This is how we got D&C 28, laying out the order of revelation in the Church. After the conference, Page accepted that it wasn’t his place to receive revelation on behalf of the Church, and that his stone was giving him counterfeit revelations. He then allowed the revelations to be burned and the stone to be destroyed.
This isn’t the only thing that Hiram Page is known for, however. William McLellin once recounted a story about Hiram Page that, I think, is incredibly telling of his integrity and his testimony:
One circumstance I’ll relate of one of these eight witnesses. While the mob was raging in Jackson Co. Mo. in 1833 some young men ran down Hiram Page <in the woods> one of the eight <witnesses,> and commenced beating and pounding him with whips and clubs. He begged, but there was no mercy. They said he was <a> damned Mormon, and they meant to beat him to death! But finally one then said to him, if you will deny that damned book, we will let you go. Said he, how can I deny what I know to be true? Then they pounded him again. When they thought he was about to breathe his last, they said to him, Now what do you think of your God, when he don’t save you? Well said he, I believe in God—Well, said one of the most intelligent among them, I believe the damned fool will stick to it though we kill him. Let us let him go. But his life was nearly run out. He was confined to his bed for a length of time. So much for a man who knows for himself. Knowledge is beyond faith or doubt. It is positive certainty.
Some of the smaller details conflict with the charming retelling of this event by General Moses Wilson, though the gist of the stories is the same:
I went in company with forty others, to the house of Hiram Page, <a Mormon,> in Jackson county. We got logs and broke in every door and window at the same instant, and pointing our rifles at the family, we told them, we would be d—d if we didn’t shoot every one of them, if Page didn’t come out. At that, a tall woman made her appearance, with a child in her arms. I told the boys she was too d—d tall. In a moment the boys stripped her, and found it was Page. I told them to give him a d—d good one. We gave him sixty or seventy blows with hickory withes which we had prepared. Then, after pulling the roof off the house, we went to the next d—d Mormon’s house, and whipped him in like manner. We continued until we whipped ten or fifteen of the God d—d Mormons, and demolished their houses that night.
This incident took place on Halloween, 1833, in Jackson County, Missouri. His wife and children were forced to watch the beating at gunpoint, and they thought he’d be killed right in front of them. The same article goes on to add that, “One account says that Hiram’s attackers stopped beating him only when some of them refused to continue, realizing that he would plainly give up his life rather than deny his faith. (A severe thrashing was one thing, but, for at least a few of them, murder was another.)” Hiram sought legal redress for the attack, and the judge refused to issue a warrant. After that, Hiram left Jackson County and moved to Clay County, before eventually ending up in Far West with the rest of the Saints.
Hiram was willing to die for his testimony, and nearly did. As with the humility he showed in accepting prophetic guidance and repenting over the black seer stone, this story highlights a personal character that I think is truly admirable. Though he later left the Church over seemingly minor quibbles he had with Joseph Smith, you can’t say that his character was lacking.
Sources conflict on whether he was excommunicated in 1838 or just simply left with the Whitmers when David and John were excommunicated. I can’t find any record of an excommunication on the JSPP or anywhere else, so personally, I tend to err on the side of Richard Lloyd Anderson:
Declining to be called to account economically or to personally appear at high council trials, John Whitmer was excommunicated March 10, 1838, followed by his brother David one month later. Hiram Page and Jacob Whitmer were not formally dealt with, but they took sides with their relatives and from that time were alienated from the Church. Because the Whitmer group had sacrificed so much, it is understandable in retrospect that each of these men was angered and permanently hurt at often inconsiderate treatment from former friends. This is not to justify their very real rebellion against priesthood authority, but to observe that their steadfastness in testimony is remarkable in the face of their resentment against former associates.
Regardless, whatever happened, Hiram stood firm in his testimony of the Book of Mormon. In a letter to William McLellin on May 30, 1847 he said:
The name of Christ is as good a name as I want to wear. … As to the Book of Mormon, it would be doing injustice to myself, and to the work of God of 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. To say my mind was so treacherous that I had forgotten what I saw. To say that a man of Joseph’s ability, who at that time did not know how to pronounce the word Nephi, could write a book of six hundred pages, as correct as the Book of Mormon, without supernatural power. And to say that those holy Angels who came and showed themselves to me as I was walking through the field, to confirm me in the work of the Lord of the last days—three of whom came to me afterwards and sang an hymn in their own pure language; yea, it would be treating the God of heaven with contempt to deny these testimonies, with too many others to mention here.
Five years later, he died in a farming accident when his wagon overturned, crushing him in the process.
His son later said of him, “I knew my father to be true and faithful to his testimony of the Book of Mormon until the very last. Whenever he had an opportunity to bear his testimony to this effect, he would always do so, and seemed to rejoice exceedingly in having been privileged to see the plates and thus become one of the Eight Witnesses. I can also testify that Jacob, John, and David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery died in full faith in the divinity of the Book of Mormon. I was with all of these witnesses on their death-beds and heard them all bear their last testimony.”
Jacob Whitmer was the second son of the Whitmer family, born in 1800. He married Elizabeth Schott, the sister of Christian’s wife Ann, in 1825, and was baptized into the Church on April 11, 1830. While in Jackson County, Missouri, he was driven from his home along with the rest of the Saints and settled temporarily in Clay County. By 1835, he was a high councilor in Far West and a member of the Church’s building committee. When his brothers were excommunicated in 1838, Jacob left the Church with them and never rejoined it before his death in 1856. Like his brother-in-law Hiram Page, there is conflicting information whether he was excommunicated himself, but it seems as though he left of his own volition in solidarity with them.
There isn’t much more information out there about him, other than that he stayed true to his testimony of the Book of Mormon until his death.
PETER WHITMER, JR.
Peter Whitmer, Jr. was one of the original six members of the Church at its formation, and one of the first seven elders ordained. He was born in 1809, the sixth Whitmer child, and was only 19 years old when he became a witness of the Book of Mormon.
In June, 1829, shortly before they were called as witnesses, Peter and his brother John asked Joseph for a personal revelation from God on their behalf. They asked to know what would be of the most worth to them as they tried to serve the Lord, and in response, we got D&C 15 and D&C 16, which are identical. Verse 6 of each section answers the question:
And now, behold, I say unto you, that the thing which will be of the most worth unto you will be to declare repentance unto this people, that you may bring souls unto me, that you may rest with them in the kingdom of my Father. Amen.
These blessings should tell you exactly what kind of men they both were. Their hearts’ desire was to serve the Lord the best way they could.
Peter was called on a special mission with Oliver, Parley P. Pratt, and Ziba Peterson to preach to the Native Americans (or “Lamanites,” as they’re referred to). Along the way, they stopped to preach to the Campbellites and converted Sidney Rigdon and more than 120 members of his congregation over the span of three weeks.
According to Doctrine and Covenants Central, he worked as a tailor while living in Missouri, hired Mary Elizabeth Rollins as an assistant, and made a suit for Lilburn W. Boggs before the Extermination Order was crafted. He was also on the high council at Far West.
He died of tuberculosis in September, 1836 in Liberty, Missouri.
Information on Christian Whitmer is limited, too. The oldest of the Whitmer children, he was born in 1798 and married in 1825. A shoemaker by trade, he was one of the Book of Mormon scribes, and was baptized just five days after the formal organization of the Church.
Shortly before the uproar over Hiram Page and his black seer stone, there was another controversy with Oliver occasionally feeling the need to correct Joseph and his revelations. According to Richard Bushman, again from Rough Stone Rolling:
Through the summer [of 1830], Oliver Cowdery and the Whitmer family began to conceive of themselves as independent authorities with the right to correct Joseph and receive revelation. Cowdery had witnessed at least three major revelations with Joseph and been granted the title of Second Elder in the Articles and Covenants. Perhaps he thought his duty was to detect errors. While Joseph worked on a compilation of the revelations, Cowdery wrote him about a mistake in the Articles and Covenants. The objectionable passage, relating to the qualifications for baptism, stated that candidates shall “truly manifest by their works that they have received of the Spirit of Christ unto a remission of their sins.” Though apparently innocuous, Cowdery may have felt that the requirement of the Spirit verged dangerously close to the traditional Puritan practice of insisting on evidence of grace. Evaluating a candidate’s experiences before admission to the Church gave ministers great power. Cowdery saw in those words the seeds of priestcraft.
Joseph wrote Cowdery at once, asking “by what authority he took upon him to command me to alter or erase, to add to or diminish from, a revelation or commandment from Almighty God.” To straighten out the matter, Joseph made a special trip to Fayette, perhaps realizing the Church was in peril. Acknowledging every rival claim to revelation would quickly lead to anarchy. Cowdery had the whole Whitmer family on his side, and Joseph was hard-pressed to convince them they were wrong. It was, he said, “with great difficulty, and much labour that I prevailed with any of them to reason calmly on the subject.” Christian Whitmer came over to Joseph’s side first and gradually the others followed. Joseph believed the error had “its rise in presumption and rash judgement,” and from the experience they were all to learn “the necessity of humility, and meekness before the Lord, that he might teach us of his ways.”
So, during that incident, Christian was the one who first came around to Joseph’s way of thinking and helped bring the others around with him. Eventually, he moved to Kirtland, Ohio and then Jackson County, Missouri with the rest of the Saints. By 1835, he was settled in Far West where he was on the High Council. He died due to health problems—some kind of issue with his leg—in 1835, before his brothers apostatized. He died just 10 months before his brother, Peter, Jr.
After their deaths, Oliver wrote in the Messenger and Advocate the following:
Among those who have gone home to rest, we mention the names of our two brothers-in-law, Christian and Peter Whitmer, jr. the former died on the 27th of November 1835, and the other the 22nd of September last, in Clay county, Missouri. By many in this church, our brothers were personally known: they were the first to embrace the new covenant, on hearing it, and during a constant scene of persecution and perplexity, to their last moments, maintained its truth — they were both included in the list of the eight witnesses in the book of Mormon, and though they have departed, it is with great satisfaction that we reflect, that they proclaimed to their last moments, the certainty of their former testimony: The testament is in force after the death of the testator. May all who read remember the fact, that the Lord has given men a witness of himself in the last days, and that they, have faithfully declared it till called away.
In addition to being one of the witnesses, John Whitmer was also a scribe and the first Church historian. He was baptized very early on, in June of 1829 shortly before being called as a witness. Along with his brother Peter, he petitioned the Lord for the most valuable thing he could do, and was directed to preach repentance to the people.
Together with Oliver, he hand-delivered the revelations from Kirtland to Independence, Missouri, so they could be printed in the Book of Commandments before the printing press was destroyed by the mob.
According to the prior link, while living in Jackson County during the persecutions he offered himself up as a hostage to an angry mob in the hopes they’d leave the rest of the settlement alone. His offer was rejected, and he and the other townspeople fled to Clay County for safety.
He went back to Kirtland for a short time, where he briefly served as the editor of the Messenger and Advocate. In his farewell address, he said the following:
… [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; … 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, and in this thing the wisdom of the wise most assuredly has perished… The revelations and commandments given to us are, in my estimation, equally true with the Book of Mormon, and equally necessary for salvation, it is necessary to live by every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God: and I know that the Bible, Book of Mormon and book of Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints, contain the revealed will of heaven. I further know that God will continue to reveal himself to his church and people, until He has gathered his elect into his fold, and prepared them to dwell in his presence.
After returning to Missouri, he petitioned the Missouri state government for redress, helped the Church buy up land in the newly formed Caldwell County for the Saints to live on, and helped found the city of Far West.
He was excommunicated in March, 1838 for “persisting in unchristian-like conduct” and for refusing to give Joseph Smith the Church history he was writing. After Sidney Rigdon’s infamous Salt Sermon, he and his family moved temporarily to Richmond, Missouri. However, he moved back to Far West in 1839 where he bought up much of the abandoned property and remained there until his death in 1878. He was the longest living of the eight witnesses.
Book of Mormon Central recounts an interesting story from after his excommunication:
In 1839, as John Whitmer and a group of other dissidents tried to pressure Theodore Turley into denying that Joseph Smith was a prophet, Turley turned the pressure back on them and confronted John directly about his testimony of the Book of Mormon.
“You have published to the world that an angel did present those plates to Joseph Smith,” Turley said to John Whitmer. John replied, “I now say, I handled those plates; there were fine engravings on both sides. I handled them.” But, he admitted that he could not read the engravings, and so did “not know whether [the translation] is true or not.” John Whitmer’s confidence in Joseph Smith’s prophetic ability was shaken, but he still knew what he had seen and handled with his own hands and eyes, and could not deny it.
Although he never returned to the Church, John Whitmer’s confidence in the divine origins of the Book of Mormon was restored, and over the years he left many more statements affirming both his experience as one of the Eight Witnesses and the truth of the Book of Mormon.
Only a few short years before his death, he wrote a letter in which he said the following:
I have never heard [Oliver] deny the truth of his testimony of the Book of Mormon under any circumstances whatever. I have no knowledge that there was any effort made to force him to deny the Book of Mormon. Neither do I believe that he would have denied at the peril of his life, so firm was he that he could not be moved to deny what he has affirmed to be a divine revelation from God.
I desire to do good when it is in my power. 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 edition of the Book of Mormon. … 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 therein contained, &c.
Anyway, that wraps up the witnesses. I was hoping to fit in some stuff about Mary Whitmer, but there isn’t room, so I’ll just leave you with this excellent article from Book of Mormon Central. I hope you all can see that the witnesses, despite their very human flaws, are nothing to lose your testimony over. None of them ever did, so there’s no reason you should, either.
Sources in this entry:
Sarah Allen is brand new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. A voracious reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises and began sharing what she learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.