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John Whitmer (1802–1878) was an early leader in the Latter Day Saint movement. He was one of the Eight Witnesses of the Book of Mormon's Golden Plates. He was also the first official church historian and a member of the presidency of the church in Missouri.
Foundation of the Latter Day Saint Movement
John Whitmer was born on August 27, 1802 in York, Pennsylvania to Peter Whitmer, Sr. and Mary Musselman. By the 1820s, the Whitmer family had moved to a farm in Fayette, in New York's Finger Lakes area. John Whitmer's brother, David and his entire family became early believers in Joseph Smith Jr. — the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement. Whitmer was baptised into the movement by Oliver Cowdery in June of 1829, nearly a year prior to the formal organizaion of the Latter Day Saint church. In that same month, Whitmer became one of eight men who signed a testimony that they had handled and been shown the Golden Plates. Known as the "Testimony of the Eight Witnesses" the statement was printed in the first edition of the Book of Mormon and has been included in almost every subsequent edition.
The original church was formally organized on April 6, 1830, traditionally in the Whitmer home in Fayette. Whitmer was one of the earliest members and he was ordained an elder of the church on June 9. The next year, on March 8, 1831, Joseph Smith said that he received a revelation from God, calling Whitmer to "write and keep a regular history" of the church. This revelation was printed by Latter Day Saints as Book of Commandments 50, and in the Doctrine and Covenants (originally section 63, the revelation is now section 47 of the current LDS edition).
Leader of the Church in Missouri
Later in 1831, Whitmer joined the growing number of Latter Day Saints in Jackson County, Missouri. Local opposition to Mormon settlement in the county resulted in the expulsion of most of the Latter Day Saints by the summer of 1833. Whitmer, along with many of the others, took refugee in neighboring Clay County. At a July 3, 1834 conference of the church, Whitmer's brother David was called to be president of the church in Missouri. John Whitmer and W.W. Phelps were called as David's counselors. Because David returned to Kirtland, Whitmer and Phelps were left to preside in his absence. Whitmer wrote several petitions to Missouri's governor, Daniel Dunklin , asking that the Latter Day Saints be allowed to return to their lands in Jackson County.
Working with sympathetic non-Mormon residents in Clay County, including Alexander Doniphan, Whitmer and Phelps began to purchase land northeast of Clay in what became a new county, set aside for Mormon settlement. Together with Phelps, Whitmer purchased land for the church in his name in what became Caldwell County and founded the town of Far West.
Problems at church headquarters in Kirtland relating to the Kirtland Safety Society bank, caused Joseph Smith, Jr., and Sidney Rigdon to relocate to Far West in early 1838. A brief leadership struggle ensued, which led to the excommunication of the John Whitmer and the entire Whitmer family as well as Oliver Cowdery, W.W. Phelps and others. These men continued to live in Far West for a time and became known as the "dissenters". Sidney Rigdon, in his Salt Sermon, warned the dissenters to leave the county and his words were soon followed up by perceived threats from the newly formed Mormon confraternity known as the Danites.
The Whitmer family fled to Richmond in neighboring Ray County, Missouri. Their complaints and those of the other dissenters are sometimes cited as one of the causes of the 1838 Mormon War. This conflict between Latter Day Saints and their neighbors in northwestern Missouri ended with the expulsion of the former, who eventually relocated to a new headquarters at Nauvoo, Illinois.
Whitmer returns to Far West
John Whitmer's parents and his brother David remained in Richmond for the rest of their lives, but John and his own family returned to Far West. Emptied of the Latter Day Saints, Far West became something of a ghost town. Many of its houses were moved off to other settlements, and Far West lost the county seat to nearby Kingston. Whitmer continued to live in Far West, buying up land (including the temple site) and eventually amassing a large farm. He occasionally gave visitors tours of the former settlement.
After Joseph Smith's assassination in 1844, several leaders asserted their claims to be his rightful successor. Among these was Whitmer's brother David. In 1847, Whitmer was briefly part of a renewed Church of Christ (Whitmerite).
Whitmer died on July 11, 1878 in Far West. He is buried in Kingston Cemetary in nearby Kingston.
Scholars honor John Whitmer
An independent body of historians of the Latter Day Saint movement, the John Whitmer Historical Association, takes their name from John Whitmer.
After his call as church historian, Whitmer began to write a record entitled, The Book of John Whitmer, Kept by Commandment. His book begins with an account of events leading up to the relocation of the church's headquarters from New York to Kirtland, Ohio. He discusses many of the troubles experienced by the Latter Day Saints in Missouri and ends the work with an account of his own excommunication in March of 1838. Afterwards, a continuation tells of the mistreatment he felt he and the other "dissenters" had received at the hands of Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon. Whitmer's manuscript is now in the archives of the Community of Christ, the second largest denomination of the Latter Day Saint movement.
- Bruce N. Westergren, From Historian to Dissident: The Book of John Whitmer, Salt Lake City, 1995.
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