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Museum

Treasures

Mary Whitmer and Maria Louise Cowdery Samplers

Museum Treasures

Kimberly Reid

Embroidered samplers like these made by Mary Whitmer and her granddaughter Maria Louise Cowdery were part of a typical 19th-century young woman’s education. Rather than being seen as folk art, as stitched samplers often are today, these types of embroidered textiles were a girl’s domestic equivalent to a schoolroom slate and were used for practice and learning. A young woman would make an embroidered sampler to practice various stitching techniques for both decorative and practical use. She would also sometimes internalize the subjects being sewn into the cloth if the sampler included letters, numbers, poems, sayings, or verses of scripture.1 The patterns displayed in these two samplers reflect the Whitmers’ Pennsylvania German heritage, and the similar motifs and colors used in both show that Mary and her granddaughter Maria created these samplers in the same tradition. These similarities also suggest that Mary may have helped Maria learn how to embroider.

More important than the samplers’ purpose or content are the hands that made them. Mary Whitmer and Maria Louise Cowdery belonged to families who played vital roles in the Restoration of the gospel from its earliest days. Mary Whitmer may be one of the most significant unsung heroes whose unflagging everyday efforts helped make possible the founding of a global Church. Mary gave birth to five of the eleven witnesses of the Book of Mormon, became mother-in-law to two more, and hosted some of the Restoration’s key events under her roof.2

Sometime between 1807 and 1809, Mary’s husband, Peter, purchased a 100-acre farm in Fayette, New York, where the Whitmer family soon became respected members of their community and local German Reformed Church congregation.3 In 1828, Mary Whitmer’s 23-year-old son David heard rumors about ancient golden plates possessed by a Palmyra family.4 He disbelieved the rumors, but the truth behind them would soon change his family’s faith and future. Oliver Cowdery, who had boarded with Joseph Smith’s family as a schoolteacher, told David he intended to investigate the rumors by traveling to Harmony, Pennsylvania, to meet Joseph Smith, the purported prophet and man who possessed the ancient golden plates. Oliver’s journey led to his own conversion and to becoming one of Joseph’s scribes for the Book of Mormon translation.

Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery soon approached David Whitmer, asking David if they could stay at the Whitmers’ farm to escape the harassment hampering their efforts to translate the Book of Mormon in Harmony. The Whitmer family offered Joseph and Oliver the use of their cabin loft as a sanctuary where the translation work could progress unimpeded. In addition to providing a room, the Whitmers shared meals with and provided materials for Joseph and Oliver.5 Some suggest that the string used to bind the first manuscripts of the Book of Mormon was likely made at Mary’s spinning wheel, a symbol of her simple yet significant and sacred contributions to the latter-day work.6

At the time that Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Smith, and Joseph’s wife, Emma Smith, were staying at the Whitmer farm, the small cabin was also home to four Whitmer children, including Oliver’s future wife, Elizabeth.7 Mary began to feel the burden of added household responsibilities due to her long-term guests. According to an interview David Whitmer gave in 1878, Mary experienced a miracle that gave her the strength to continue in her hospitality and confirmed to her the Book of Mormon’s authenticity. David said:

My mother was going to milk the cows, when she was met out near the yard by [an] old man . . . who said to her, “You have been very faithful and diligent in your labors, but you are tried because of the increase of your toil. It is proper therefore that you should receive a witness that your faith may be strengthened.” Thereupon he showed her the plates. My father and mother had a large family of their own. The addition to it therefore of Joseph, Emma, and Oliver, very greatly increased the toil and anxiety of my mother, and although she had never complained, she had sometimes felt that her labor was too much, or at least she was perhaps beginning to feel so. This circumstance, however, completely removed all such feelings and nerved her up for her increased responsibilities.8

Due in part to Mary Whitmer’s tenacity in performing daily tasks to support her household, the translation of the Book of Mormon progressed and the book was published. The fledgling Church was formally organized in a meeting held in the Whitmer home on April 6, 1830, with roughly 50 guests in attendance. The Whitmers continued to offer their home as a Church gathering place, hosting regular conferences and visitors until early 1831.9

The Whitmers then moved with the Church to Ohio and eventually to Missouri, where Oliver Cowdery married Mary Whitmer’s daughter Elizabeth Ann Whitmer in 1832. Maria Louise Cowdery was born to Oliver and Elizabeth in 1835 and was her parents’ only child who reached adulthood.

Both the Cowderys and Mary and Peter Whitmer Sr. settled in Richmond, Missouri. Following Oliver’s death of consumption in 1850, Elizabeth and Maria lived with Mary and Peter Whitmer for several years.10 One can imagine Mary’s weathered hands demonstrating her embroidery skills for her granddaughter, passing on her heritage of artistry and hard work to Elizabeth’s only surviving child.

Although the Whitmer family came to doubt Joseph Smith’s prophetic role after experiencing turmoil and persecution in Ohio and Missouri, they never doubted the divine origins of the Book of Mormon.11 Their contributions to building the early Church left a legacy for many generations afterward.

Footnotes

[1] See Valerie J. Davis, “The A, B, C’s of Schoolgirl Samplers: Girls’ Education and Needlework from a Bygone Era,” Milwaukee Public Museum, mpm.edu.

[2] See Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The Whitmers: A Family That Nourished the Church,” Ensign, Aug. 1979, 34–40.

[3] Anderson, “The Whitmers,” 35–36.

[4] See Curtis Ashton, “Whitmer Farm in Fayette, New York,” history.lds.org.

[5] See Ashton, “Whitmer Farm in Fayette, New York.”

[6] Robin Scott Jensen, “A Bit of Old String: Mary Whitmer’s Unheralded Contributions,” history.lds.org.

[7] See Anderson, “The Whitmers,” 36–37.

[8] Joseph F. Smith letter to John Taylor, Sept. 17, 1878, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

[9] See Ashton, “Whitmer Farm in Fayette, New York.”

[10] See Ronald E. Romig, “Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery: A Historical Reflection of Her Life,” in Days Never to Be Forgotten: Oliver Cowdery, ed. Alexander L. Baugh (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2009), 335.

[11] See Keith W. Perkins, “True to the Book of Mormon—the Whitmers,” Ensign, Feb. 1989, 34–42.