In the autumn of 1826, a prominent landowner by the name of Joseph Knight Sr. hired 20-year-old Joseph Smith as a laborer. Knight owned four farms, a grain mill, and two carding machines (which prepared wool, cotton, and other materials for spinning). “My father said Joseph [Smith] was the best hand he ever hired,” wrote Joseph Knight Jr., adding that Joseph told him and his father “that he had seen a vision, that a personage had appeared to him and told him where there was a gold book of ancient date buried, and if he would follow the directions of the Angel he could get it. ... my Father and I believed what he told us, I think we were the first after his father’s family.”
A Needed Friend
The Knights proved to be loyal friends. Joseph Knight Sr. was present at the Smith home in Manchester, New York, (along with another friend of the Smiths, Josiah Stowell) on September 22, 1827—the day Joseph obtained the plates and the Urim and Thummim. Knight became one of the first to hear of these artifacts when Joseph pulled him aside and told him the Urim and Thummim was “marvelous” and enabled him to “see any thing.” He also said the plates, which appeared “to be Gold,” were “written in Caracters” and he wanted them translated.
The translation took place in Harmony, Pennsylvania, where Joseph and his wife, Emma, had purchased a house and property from Emma’s parents. The Knights lived about thirty miles to the north, in Colesville, New York, and played a crucial role in the translation. Speaking of Joseph Knight Sr., Joseph wrote: “[He] very kindly and considerately brought us, a quantity of provisions, in order that we might not be interrupted in the work of translation.”Knight recalled providing “a Barral of Mackrel and some Lined paper for writing ... some nine or ten Bushels of grain and some five or six Bushels taters [potatoes] and a pound of tea.”
Joseph Knight Jr. remembered that at one point during the translation Joseph needed $50 (apparently to make a payment on the property he and Emma had purchased). “My Father could not raise it [the money],” Knight wrote. “He [Joseph Knight Sr.] then came to me, the same day I sold my house lot and sent him [Joseph Smith] a one horse wagon.”
About this same time, the elder Knight became “anxious to know his duty” as to the Lord’s work. Joseph inquired of the Lord and received a revelation now known as Doctrine and Covenants 12. Similar to revelations dictated for Oliver (section 6) and Hyrum Smith (section 11), this revelation instructed Knight to keep the commandments, to “seek to bring forth and establish the cause of Zion” and to “give heed with your might” (see D&C 12:6, 9).
From Harmony to Fayette
The Knights’ invaluable assistance continued to the end of May 1829, when another family befriended Joseph and Oliver—the Whitmers. The Peter Whitmer Sr. family of Fayette Township, New York, (about a hundred miles north of Harmony) had first heard of the “gold Bible” late in 1828, after son David struck up a friendship with Oliver Cowdery during a visit to Palmyra. They decided to investigate the story of the plates and keep each other informed.
Oliver had stopped to see the Whitmers in the spring of 1829 when he was on his way to meet Joseph and ultimately serve as his scribe. Since then, Oliver had written letters to David telling of the miraculous translation. Like the Knights, the Whitmers became convinced they should assist in the translation, and around the end of May, David traveled to Harmony to move Joseph and Oliver to the Whitmer home. “He proposed that we should have our board free of charge,” wrote Joseph. “Upon our arrival, we found Mr. Whitmer’s family very anxious concerning the work, and very friendly towards ourselves. They continued so, boarded and lodged us according to proposal, and John Whitmer, in particular, assisted us very much in writing during the remainder of the work.”(Emma arrived at the Whitmer home shortly after Joseph and Oliver and also acted as a scribe.)
The month of June 1829 was one of the most remarkable in the history of the Church. Not only did Joseph and his scribes complete the translation, Joseph dictated at least five revelations, Oliver dictated a revelation called “Articles of the Church of Christ,” and the two of them had a powerful experience “in the Chamber of Mr. Whitmer’s house” in which “the word of the Lord” came unto them and instructed them regarding a series of key ordinances and meetings.In addition, Joseph applied for a copyright to the Book of Mormon, and he and Martin Harris apparently began talking to printers about publishing the book. Finally, Moroni appeared and showed the plates to the Three Witnesses (near the Whitmer farm in Fayette Township), and the Eight Witnesses saw and handled the plates (near the Smith farm in Palmyra Township).
This flurry of crucial activity simply would not have been possible if not for the support of the Whitmers. Such service brought both trials and rewards. A grandson of Mary Musselman Whitmer (wife of Peter Whitmer Sr.) reported that she had “so many extra persons to care for” that “she was often overloaded with work.” One evening, after a long day’s work, she went to the barn to milk the cows and met a stranger who “showed her a bundle of plates” and “turned the leaves of the book of plates over, leaf after leaf,” promising Mary that “she should be blessed” if she were “patient and faithful in bearing her burden a little longer."She thus became another witness of the Book of Mormon.
Special blessings also came to Mary’s sons. “David, John, and Peter Whitmer Jr became our zealous friends and assistants in the work,” wrote Joseph.14, 15, and 16 of the Doctrine and Covenants. David, one of the Three Witnesses (joining Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris), was promised that if he asked in faith he would receive the Holy Ghost, “which giveth utterance, that you may stand as a witness of the things of which you shall both hear and see; and also, that you may declare repentance unto this generation” (see D&C 14:8).The same could have been said for Christian and Jacob Whitmer, who joined John and Peter Jr. as four of the Eight Witnesses. When David, John, and Peter Jr. asked Joseph to inquire of the Lord concerning their duties, Joseph dictated three revelations now known as sections
A declaration to both John and Peter Jr. has become one of the more memorable verses in modern scripture: “[A]nd 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”D&C 15:6, 16:6).(see
Prelude to the Organization of the Church
Even though the Book of Mormon would not be published until March 1830, these early Saints found great comfort and inspiration in reading the text. Lucy Mack Smith recalled that during the summer of 1829, one evening at the Whitmer home “was spent in reading the manuscript [of the Book of Mormon], and it would be superfluous for me to say ... that we rejoiced exceedingly.”
These believers also used the yet-to-be published Book of Mormon to proclaim the gospel. Such future missionaries as Thomas B. Marsh and Solomon Chamberlain were given proof sheets of the Book of Mormon while it was being printed and became converted several months before the Church was organized. Not surprisingly, members of the Whitmer family were among those who introduced Chamberlain to the new book of scripture.
Between them, the Whitmer and Knight families constituted what might be called two of the first three “branches” of the Church—in Fayette and Colesville, respectively. Along with the Smith family in Palmyra (the other branch of the Church), the Whitmers and the Knights offered both spiritual and temporal support that figured prominently in the restoration of the gospel.
For more on the sections mentioned in this article, see the forthcoming volume, Michael Hubbard MacKay, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, Grant Underwood, Robert J. Woodford, William G. Hartley, eds. Documents: July 1828-June 1831. First volume of the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman. Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2013.