John Whitmer was born in Pennsylvania in 1802. His family later moved to New York, eventually settling “with other Gherman families near Fayette,” a sparsely populated township about 30 miles southeast of Palmyra.Through his family’s friendship with Oliver Cowdery, John Whitmer learned about Joseph Smith and his in-progress translation of an ancient scriptural record, the Book of Mormon.
The Whitmers became very interested in Joseph’s work, and in June 1829 arrangements were made for the young prophet and his scribe Oliver Cowdery to stay at the Whitmer home as they finished the translation. John’s brother David traveled to Harmony, Pennsylvania, to help move Joseph and Oliver to the Whitmer home in Fayette, New York. David also proffered “the assistence of one of his brothers,” John, as a scribe. Joseph accepted and resided with the Whitmers “until the translation was finished.” As promised, John assisted “very much in writing during the remainder of the work.”
Soon after Joseph arrived in Fayette, 26-year-old John Whitmer was baptized in Seneca Lake. He became one of the Eight Witnesses, who saw the Book of Mormon plates, and he later declared, “I handled those plates; there were fine engravings on both sides.”
When the Church was organized at the Whitmer home on April 6, 1830, the Lord instructed Joseph Smith, “There Shall a Record be kept among you.”To comply with this commandment, Oliver Cowdery was appointed the first Church historian.
Joseph’s revelations formed a significant part of the historical record. John Whitmer wrote that during the early days of the Church, “the Lord blessed his disciples greatly, and he gave Revelation after Revelation, which contained doctrine, instructions, and prophecies.”In July 1830, the Prophet “began to arrange and copy the revelations that he had received thus far,” with Whitmer acting as scribe.
John Whitmer as Historian and Recorder
In the fall of 1830, Oliver Cowdery embarked on a mission to the Lamanites. In his stead, John Whitmer was appointed “by the voice of the Elders to keep the Church record,” Whitmer wrote. “Joseph Smith Jr. said unto me you must also keep the Church history.”
Whitmer was comfortable transcribing Joseph Smith’s revelations but hesitant to embrace the unfamiliar role of historian. He told Joseph, “I would rather not do it,” but he agreed to accept the assignment if the Lord willed it—in which case, Whitmer continued, “I desire that he would manifest it through Joseph the Seer.”
In the resulting revelation (now Doctrine and Covenants 47), dated March 8, 1831, the Lord affirmed Whitmer’s twofold assignment to “write & keep a regula[r] history & assist my servent Joseph in Transcribing all things which shall be given him.” Responding to Whitmer’s insecurity about his writing skills, the Lord promised, “It shall be given thee by th[e] comforter to write these things.” Three months later, Whitmer began his history, “The Book of John Whitmer.”
A few months after that, Church leaders took steps to publish Joseph Smith’s revelations, a hymnal, a Church newspaper, and other works.Doctrine and Covenants 69) directed Oliver Cowdery and John Whitmer to carry the manuscript revelations to Independence, Missouri, to have them published where W. W. Phelps had set up a printing press. The revelation further instructed that missionaries who were “abroad in the Earth should send forth their accounts to the Land of Zion” and enlarged Whitmer’s duties as Church historian, telling him to “travel many times from place to place & from Church to Church that he may the more easily obtain knowledge Preaching & expounding writing cop[y]ing & selecting & obtain[in]g all things which shall be for the good of the Church & for the rising generations which shall grow up on the Land of Zion.”A November 1831 revelation (now
In July 1832, Joseph Smith encouraged Whitmer to “remember the commandment to him to keep a history of the church & the gathering.”Later that year, the Prophet received another revelation that expanded John Whitmer’s historical charge: “It is the duty of the lord[’s] clerk whom he has appointed to keep a hystory and a general church reccord of all things that transpire in Zion . . . and also [the] manner of life and the faith and works and also of all the apostates.”
Whitmer thus kept his record of the young Church for the duration of his membership, which ended in 1838. According to one group of historians, the history John Whitmer created “illuminates many important concerns of the early church, including property issues, church discipline,” the New Jerusalem, “the treatment of dissidents, and the establishment of a priesthood leadership hierarchy. . . . Whitmer’s work is particularly significant for the revelations, petitions, and letters that form a large part of his history.”
What Became of John Whitmer and His History?
In 1834, Joseph Smith appointed a presidency for the Church in Missouri, with John Whitmer and W. W. Phelps serving as counselors to David Whitmer. John Whitmer and Phelps were later accused of financial wrongdoing in connection with their positions there and were subsequently excommunicated from the Church in March 1838.
Whitmer wrote in his history: “Some temperal movements, have not proved satisfactory to all parties has also terminated in the expulsion of [many] members, among whom is W. W. Phelps and myself.
“Therefore I close the history of the church of Latter Day Saints, Hoping that I may be forgiven of my faults, and my sins be bloted out and in the last day be savd in the kingdom of God notwithstanding my presnt situation.”
Joseph Smith arrived in Far West just days after the excommunications. A newly appointed clerk called on Whitmer to obtain his history, but Whitmer refused to surrender the document.He temporarily left Far West during the Mormon difficulties of 1838–39, but he returned a short time later and resided there for the rest of his life.
After John Whitmer’s death in 1878, his history passed to his brother David,and in 1903 the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints obtained the history from a David Whitmer descendant. Eventually, in 1974, the LDS Church obtained a microfilmed copy of the manuscript in an exchange of historical materials with the RLDS Church. In 2012, John Whitmer’s history was published as part of the LDS Church’s Joseph Smith Papers project.