Report of Chicago Tribune
Special Correspondent, December 1885
Source: Chicago Tribune, 15 Dec 1885,
cited from Ebbie Richardson, “David Whitmer,” pp. 203-8.
[This article appeared in the Chicago Tribune, 15 December 1885, and was reprinted in the Deseret News of 24 December 1885.]
He Describes the Translation of the Golden Tablets at Which He Assisted
David Whitmer, one of the founders of the Mormon Church, and a resident of this quaint and interesting village for almost a half a century, lies at the point of death. At the family homestead are gathered the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the dying patriarch, and beside the deathbed is the devoted woman who linked her life and fortune with his more than forty years ago. When your correspondent called at the house today and was summoned into the bedchamber where Father Whitmer was calmly awaiting the final summons, a smile lighted up the old man’s countenance as he half rose and feebly pressed the visitor’s hand, and then as if overcome by the effort, his head sank back on the pillows. When told of the visitor’s mission and that he had journeyed from Chicago for an historical sketch of one who had played so important a part in translating the Mormon Bible and proselyting for the Mormon Church, the request for information was met with a cheerful response. Fearing, however, that the task would be too great, the family deputed a member of the household to relate the history in the presence of Father Whitmer, the narration being closely followed by him and subjected to frequent corrections and interpolations.
While yet an infant his father, who served his country through the Revolutionary War, removed with his family to western New York and settled on a farm in Ontario County, near Watkins Glen. The father, who was a hard-working, God-fearing man, was a strict Presbyterian and brought his children up with rigid sectarian discipline. Besides a daughter, who married Oliver Cowdery, the village schoolmaster, there were four sons—Jacob, John, David, and Christian who helped their father till his farm until they had arrived at the age of manhood. During the early part of June, 1829, Oliver Cowdery incidently learned that a young man named Joseph Smith, [Jr.], had found a valuable golden treasure in the northern part of the county, and imparted the information to David [Whitmer]. They decided to investigate the rumor, and Cowdery traveled to [page 204] the home of Smith for that purpose. On the road he found the community teeming with excitement over the alleged treasure, and heard several persons threatened to kill the finder unless he divided his wealth with them. When asked how they knew such a treasure had been found, several asserted that they had seen the receptacle from which it was taken by Smith. Cowdery, assured them that there was more to the vague rumors than he had at first believed, pushed on to the home of Smith, who was living on his father’s farm near Manchester. At first he found Smith to be uncommunicative, but was finally permitted to view the treasure, and was greatly impressed by the sight. In fact his wonderment was so great that he at once wrote to David to come without delay. David did so and was equally mystified.
The treasure consisted of a number of golden plates, about eight inches long and seven inches wide, about as thick as ordinary sheeting, and bound together in the form of a volume by three gold rings. A large portion of the volume was securely sealed, but on the loose pages were engraved hieroglyphics [expressive] of some language at that time unknown to any of the persons mentioned. Together with the golden tablets were a pair of spectacles, set in silver bows.
Mr. [David] Whitmer then described [Joseph] Smith’s story of the vision in which the location of the plates was revealed, with the history of the Nephites, Moroni’s labor, and Smith’s finding of the tablets, with which everyone is familiar.
TRANSLATING THE PLATES
[David] Whitmer and [Oliver] Cowdery were greatly impressed by the recital of this strange story, and were conducted to the hill, where they personally viewed the receptacle in which Moroni, at the beginning of the fifth century, had concealed the history of his fathers. [Joseph] Smith [Jr.], also said that he had been commanded to at once begin the translation of the work in the presence of three witnesses. In accordance with this command, Smith, Cowdery, and Whitmer proceeded to the latter’s home, accompanied by Smith’s wife, and bearing with them the precious plates and spectacles. The house of Senior Whitmer was a primitive and poorly designed structure, but it was deemed the most secure for the carrying out the sacred trust on account of the threats that had been made against Smith by his mercenary neighbors. In order to give privacy to the proceeding a blanket, which served as a portiere was stretched across the family living room to shelter the translators from the eyes of any who might call at the house while the work was in progress. This, Mr. Whitmer says, was the only use made of the blanket, and it was not for the purpose of concealing the plates or the translator from the eyes of the amanuensis. In fact, Smith was at no time concealed from his collaborators, and the translation was performed in the presence of not only the persons mentioned, but of the entire Whitmer household and several of Smith’s relatives besides.
The work of translating the tablets consumed about eight months, [Joseph] Smith, [Jr.], acting as the seer and [Oliver] Cowdery, Smith’s wife [Emma Hale], and Christian Whitmer, brother of David, performing the duties of amanuensis in whose handwriting the original manuscript now is. Each time before resuming [page 205] the work all present would kneel down in prayer and invoke the divine blessing on the proceeding. After the prayer, [Joseph] Smith [Jr.], would sit on one side of the table and the amanuensis, in turn as they became tired, on the other. Those present and not actively engaged in the work seated themselves around the room and then the work began. After affixing the magical spectacles to his eyes, Smith would take the plates and translate the characters one at a time. The graven characters would appear in succession to the seer, and directly under the character, when viewed through the glasses, would be the translation in English. Sometimes the character would be a single word, and frequently an entire sentence. In translating the characters, Smith, who was illiterate and but little versed in Biblical lore, was of times compelled to spell the words out, not knowing the correct pronunciation, and Mr. Whitmer recalls the fact that at that time Smith did not even know that Jerusalem was a walled city. Cowdery, however, being a school teacher, rendered invaluable aid in pronouncing hard words and giving them their proper definition.
MORE MIRACULOUS DEVELOPMENTS
A miracle is related by Mr. [David] Whitmer as occurring while the translation was in progress. It seems that [Joseph] Smith, [Jr.], who was puffed up with his great importance as a confidential secretary to the Lord, displeased the Master by entering into some carnal confab in relation to the work. For this offense he was punished by having the celestial visitant, who first commissioned him to inaugurate the work, suddenly appeared and carried off the plates and spectacles. In this connection it might also be mentioned that Martin Harris, one of the witnesses to the translation, a farmer in the same county, and a man of simple mind and taste, was sent by Smith with a copy of the characters to Professor Anthon, a professor of languages in Columbia College, and author of several well known works, who pronounced the language inscribed on the plate Reformed Egyptian.
About this time [Martin] Harris, inspired by curiosity and elation, took sixteen of the golden tablets home to show his wife, who is alleged to have stolen them from a bureau drawer and peddled them among her friends. For this offense Harris was severely reprimanded by the Lord, through [Joseph] Smith, [Jr.], but the angel afterwards recovered the plates and restored them. Smith’s offense of tattling the secrets of the works among his neighbors was less readily condoned, and for a long time the work was suspended, the angel being in possession of the plates and spectacles. Finally when Smith had fully repented of his rash conduct, he was forgiven. The plates, however, were not returned, but instead Smith was given by the angel, a Urim and Thummim of another pattern, it being shaped in oval or kidney form. This seer’s stone [seerstone] he was instructed to place in his hat, and on covering his face with the hat the character and translation would appear on the stone.
This worked just as satisfactory as the old method, but at no time thereafter was the backsliding Joseph [Smith, Jr.] intrusted with the precious plates. However, the entire portion of the golden volume, which the angel said might be translated, was reduced by the nimble amanuensis to readable manuscript. The other installment was withheld until the Lord could [page 206] discover what the first had on the Gentiles. That he was not pleased has not yet been revealed to the world.
THE ANGEL IN THE PASTURE
After the translation was completed [Joseph] Smith, [Jr.], informed [Oliver] Cowdery, [David] Whitmer, and [Martin] Harris that the Lord had instructed him that the time was at hand when they should testify to all nations, tongues, and people concerning this work. These four Apostles of the Lord as they were designated, accordingly assembled in the public pasture, cleared of underbrush, at a point equally distant between two highways. About the noonday hour they were seated on a log waiting for the promised manifestations, having previously knelt in prayer. All at once the heavens appeared to open and there appeared a dazzling shaft of light beside which the light of the sun appeared dim. Through this cleft in the sky, which seemed to lead away up to the pearly gates beyond, appeared an angel, disguised as a man, bearing the semblance of a table. The angel descended to the earth, landing nearly at their feet. On this table were the plates of gold from which they had just translated the Book of Mormon, and the plates of brass on which were inscribed the commandments written by Moses, and which had been taken from Jerusalem by 1 Ne. 600 years before Christ and afterward transported to America. The four Apostles were then commanded to go forth among men and preach religion as set down in the Book of Mormon.
After this wonderful manifestation Martin Harris mortgaged his farm for $l,500 in order to obtain funds for printing the Book of Mormon, and all four set about organizing a church, which was called the Church of Christ, as commanded in the Book of Mormon. The four Apostles began preaching and were so successful in securing converts to the new religion that a church was organized April 6, 1830. The Book of Mormon was also given to the world that year. Concerning the converts Mr. [David] Whitmer says that among the first adherents to embrace the new faith were many of the most intellectual and refined men and women in that locality, and the ranks were not recruited from the ignorant and sensuous classes like the Mormons in Utah. The year following the organization of the Church the disciples moved to Ohio, where they had been most successful in proselyting, and a temple was erected at Kirtland. It was at this place that Sidney Rigdon and Brigham Young joined the Church, and it was here that the first dissensions occurred.
Concerning Sidney Rigdon, who was said to have stolen the manuscript of the Book of Mormon, which, it was alleged, had been written by a Presbyterian preacher named Solomon Spaulding, and originally intended as a romance, Mr. [David] Whitmer asserts that nothing could have been more improbable, as neither [Joseph] Smith, [Jr.], himself, nor the other disciples knew Rigdon until they moved to Ohio.
HE KEPT THE RECORDS
The original manuscript from which the Book of Mormon was printed is still in Mr. [David] Whitmer’s possession, and most of it is in the handwriting of his brother Christian and his brother-in-law, Oliver Cowdery. Mr. Whitmer also has an exhaustive history of the Church, which was [page 207] compiled by his brother, and an accurate copy of several plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated. These records he has preserved against all temptations and in the face of death. Several years ago a delegation of Mormons came to Richmond [Missouri] from Salt Lake [City, Utah] and made every overture to Mr. Whitmer in a vain attempt to gain possession of the records, but he stood aloof and declined every offer. As a prominent businessman of the place, at that time engaged in banking, informed your correspondent that he knows of his own knowledge that the Mormon Church would have willingly paid Mr. Whitmer $100,000 for the documents and that the delegation returned home thoroughly convinced that Mr. Whitmer was proof against all financial temptation so far as concerned his records.
It was while the Church was flourishing at Kirtland, [Ohio], that the name was changed from Church of Christ to Latter-day Saints [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints]. Mr. [David] Whitmer who always adhered to the teachings of Mormon, left Kirtland and journeyed into the wilds of Missouri in company with one other elder, preaching the truth as he believed it to be and exhorting men and women to Christ. Many new converts were secured, and he assisted in establishing the settlement of Jackson County, Missouri. It was here that the Ohio Mormons found refuge when driven away from Kirtland after [Joseph] Smith [Jr.], and [Sidney] Rigdon had been tarred and feathered.
For a time the Church flourished in Jackson County, with headquarters at Independence, [Missouri] but when the trouble occurred between the Mormons and Missourians, the former were driven from the county into Caldwell County where they founded a settlement and named it Far West. David Whitmer, stripped of his earthly possessions, was warned to flee for his life, and, accompanied by his family, his brothers and their families, and Oliver Cowdery, he journeyed to Ray County, where he settled at Richmond, [Missouri], in 1838. At that time he had nothing left but a single horse and wagon and his precious records. It was then that the Danites were organized, and it is said that their formation was for the purpose of killing the Whitmers and Cowdery, they having been commanded and openly refused to obey, the so-called leaders, right or wrong. The Whitmers and Cowdery then renounced the Church, as conducted, but during the years they have lived in Ray County, [Missouri], they have continued to teach the precepts according to the original Church.
THE LORD’S ANOINTED
David Whitmer engaged in teaming at his new home, and in the campaign when the militia was ordered to drive the Mormons from the state at the point of the bayonet, he drove one of the military baggage-wagons to Far West. During the melee that followed he was handed a musket by the soldiery and ordered to shoot Joseph Smith, [Jr.], but threw the musket down, declaring he “would not harm the Lord’s anointed.” After that memorable event, in which Smith was taken prisoner, David returned to Richmond, and has always asserted that Joseph Smith, [Jr.], was called and commanded by God to translate the Book of Mormon, and that Smith, as he knew him, was a righteous, God-fearing man. Mr. Whitmer today clings to the religious belief of his early manhood and has never sanctioned polygamy, which he considers one of the greatest abominations of the earth. The Book of Mormon as originally translated he asserts to be without a moral blemish, [page 208] and says it is eminently fit for the library of the most exacting moral philosopher. It expressly forbids polygamy, and Mr. Whitmer claims that if the population of Salt Lake [City, Utah], would live in accordance with the strict teachings of the book that it would exert a greater influence in crushing out what he calls the “viper polygamy” than any other known agency. Concerning his work in the Church of Christ, he looks upon his commission to apostleship as concurrent with having had a direct message from heaven through an angel of the Lord, and even now, at the threshold of death he “stands by that pure republic established by Christ on earth and given to the world in its original idiom, the Book of Mormon. Through the mediumship of Joseph Smith, [Jr.], he says he received many messages from heaven which convinced him of his divine calling. The text of these divine messages he refused to relate, claiming that the promises of the Lord to his Apostles should be secretly locked in the breast and not blatantly betrayed to carnal minds, but, he says, they were miraculous in their fulfillment and have stood the test of his reasoning through a long life of fact and experience.
A GOOD CITIZEN
As a citizen of Richmond, [Missouri], he stands deservedly high, having filled the office of mayor and councilman. Upright in his dealings with men and just toward all, he has progressed gradually with the country until he and his children have secured good business standing and are regarded among the best citizens of Ray County.
Of those who took part in the original translation, Joseph Smith, [Jr.], was shot by a mob in 1844; Oliver Cowdery died in this county thirty years ago, leaving a wife and daughter, both of whom are yet living and reside in Silver City, Missouri, John Whitmer, prosperous farmer, died at Far West in 1878, leaving children and grandchildren. Jacob Whitmer passed away many years ago, and his son John C., a white-haired elder of the Church of Christ, continued to preach the religion of his father in and about Richmond, [Missouri].
David Whitmer has two children, a son and a daughter. The son David J., is without issue. The daughter, Mrs. Julius Schweich, resides here and is the mother of two children, both [of] whom have children. George, the eldest of Mrs. Schweich’s children is a shrewd businessman and is associated with his uncle, David J. Whitmer, in the livery business. His sister Josie, is the wife of J. R. Van Cleve, private secretary to the Collector of Customs at Chicago.