Interview with David Whitmer
by Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith, September 1878
Source: “Report of Elders Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith,”
40 (9 Dec 1878): 771-74
[The following interviews of David Whitmer by Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith, took place at Richmond, Missouri, on the 7th and 8th of September, 1878. Elders Pratt and Smith had traveled east from Salt Lake City to visit historical sites of the Church. On their way they stopped at Richmond, Missouri, to interview David Whitmer, the last surviving witness of the Book of Mormon.]
[page 771] At Richmond we [Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith] put up at the Shaw House (before the cyclone a three-story brick building, but has been restored since the tempest, only two stories), now kept by Mr. Warren Ewing, son-in-law to the original proprietor, Mr. S. Shaw, once a freighter to Utah, now dead. On Saturday morning, September 7th, we met Mr. David Whitmer, the last remaining one of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon. He is a good-sized man, 73 years of age last January, and well-preserved (he was born January 7, 1805). He is close-shaven, his hair perfectly white and rather thin; he has a large head and a very pleasant, manly countenance that one would readily perceive to be an index to a conscientious, honest heart. He seemed wonderfully pleased, as well as surprised, at seeing Elder Orson Pratt. Said he would not have known him—he had grown so fat and stout; he remembered him as a slender, bashful, timid boy. After a few moments conversation he excused himself, saying he would return again to see us. This meeting was in the barroom of the hotel. When he called again he was in company with Colonel Childs, a middle-aged man, and a resident of the place. By invitation we accompanied them to Mr. Whitmer’s office, where we were introduced to Mr. David J. Whitmer (eldest son of David), Mr. Geo. [George] Schweich (grandson of the old gentleman), Mr. John C. Whitmer (son of Jacob Whitmer), Colonel James W. Black, of Richmond, and several others. A couple of hours were very pleasantly passed in conversation, principally on Utah matters, when we parted for dinner, agreeing to meet Mr. Whitmer again at his office at 4:30 p.m.
Agreeable to appointment, we met Mr. Whitmer and his friends at his office, but as the place was too public for private conversation and as it seemed impossible to obtain a private personal interview with David Whitmer, by himself, we invited him and such of his friends as he saw proper to fetch along, to our room in the hotel. Mr. Whitmer apologized for not inviting us to his house, as it was “wash day,” and he and his wife were “worn out” with the extra labor, exposure, etc., consequent on rebuilding since the cyclone. He accepted our invitation to our room and brought with him James R. B. Vancleave, a fine-looking, intelligent, young newspaper man of Chicago, who is paying his addresses to Miss Josephine Schweich (granddaughter of David Whitmer), George Schweich (grandson), John C. Whitmer (son of Jacob), W. W. Warner, and another person whose name we did not learn. In the presence of these, the following, in substance, as noticed in Brother Joseph F. Smith’s journal, is the account of the interview.
Elder O. [Orson] Pratt to D. [David] Whitmer
. Can you tell the date of the bestowal of the apostleship upon Joseph, by Peter, James and John?
I do not know, Joseph never told me. I can only tell you what I know, for I will not testify to anything I do not know.
J. F. S. [Joseph F. Smith] to D. W.
Did Oliver Cowdery die here in Richmond?
Yes, he lived here, I think, about one year before his death. He died in my father’s house, right here, in March, 1850. Phineas Young was here at the time.
Elder O. P. Do you remember what time you saw the plates?
It was in June, 1829—the latter part of the month, and the Eight Witnesses saw them, I think, the next day or the day after (i.e. one or two days after). Joseph showed them the plates himself, but the angel showed us (the Three Witnesses) the plates, as I suppose to fulfill the words of the book itself. Martin Harris was not with us at this time; he obtained a view of them afterwards (the same day). Joseph, Oliver and myself were together when I saw them. We not only saw the plates of the Book of Mormon but also the brass plates, the plates of the Book of Ether, the plates containing the records of the wickedness and secret combinations of the people of the world down to the time of their being [page 772] engraved, and many other plates. The fact is, it was just as though Joseph, Oliver and I were sitting just here on a log, when we were overshadowed by a light. It was not like the light of the sun nor like that of a fire, but more glorious and beautiful. It extended away round us, I cannot tell how far, but in the midst of this light about as far off as he sits (pointing to John C. Whitmer, sitting a few feet from him), there appeared as it were, a table with many records or plates upon it, besides the plates of the Book of Mormon, also the Sword of Laban, the Directors—i.e., the ball which Lehi had—and the Interpreters. I saw them just as plain as I see this bed (striking the bed beside him with his hand), and I heard the voice of the Lord, as distinctly as I ever heard anything in my life, declaring that the records of the plates of the Book of Mormon were translated by the gift and power of God.
Elder O. P.
Did you see the angel at this time?
Yes; he stood before us. Our testimony as recorded in the Book of Mormon is strictly and absolutely true, just as it is there written. Before I knew Joseph, I had heard about him and the plates from persons who declared they knew he had them, and swore they would get them from him. When Oliver Cowdery went to Pennsylvania, he promised to write me what he should learn about these matters, which he did. He wrote me that Joseph had told him his (Oliver’s) secret thoughts, and all he had meditated about going to see him, which no man on earth knew, as he supposed, but himself, and so he stopped to write for Joseph.
Soon after this, Joseph sent for me (D. W.) to come to Harmony to get him and Oliver and bring them to my father’s house. I did not know what to do, I was pressed with my work. I had some 20 acres to plow, so I concluded I would finish plowing and then go. I got up one morning to go to work as usual and, on going to the field, found between five and seven acres of my ground had been plowed during the night.
I don’t know who did it; but it was done just as I would have done it myself, and the plow was left standing in the furrow.
This enabled me to start sooner. When I arrived at Harmony, Joseph and Oliver were coming toward me, and met me some distance from the house. Oliver told me that Joseph had informed him when I started from home, where I had stopped the first night, how I read the sign at the tavern, where I stopped the next night, etc., and that I would be there that day before dinner, and this was why they had come out to meet me; all of which was exactly as Joseph had told Oliver, at which I was greatly astonished. When I was returning to Fayette, with Joseph and Oliver, all of us riding in the wagon, Oliver and I on an old-fashioned, wooden, spring seat and Joseph behind us; while traveling along in a clear open place, a very pleasant, nice-looking old man suddenly appeared by the side of our wagon and saluted us with, “Good morning, it is very warm,” at the same time wiping his face or forehead with his hand. We returned the salutation, and, by a sign from Joseph, I invited him to ride if he was going our way. But he said very pleasantly, “No, I am going to Cumorah.” This name was something new to me, I did not know what Cumorah meant. We all gazed at him and at each other, and as I looked around inquiringly of Joseph, the old man instantly disappeared, so that I did not see him again.
J. F. S.
Did you notice his appearance?
I should think I did. He was, I should think, about 5 feet 8 or 9 inches tall and heavy set, about such a man as James Vancleave there, but heavier; his face was as large, he was dressed in a suit of brown woolen clothes, his hair and beard were white, like Brother Pratt’s, but his beard was not so heavy. I also remember that he had on his back a sort of knapsack with something in, shaped like a book. It was the messenger who had the plates, who had taken them from Joseph just prior to our starting from Harmony. Soon after our arrival home, I saw something which led me to the belief that the plates were placed or concealed in my father’s barn. I frankly asked Joseph if my [page 773] supposition was right, he told me it was. Some time after this, my mother was going to milk the cows, when she was met out near the yard by the same old man (judging by her description of him) who said to her: “You have been very faithful and diligent in your labors, but you are tired because of the increase in 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, his wife 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.
Elder O. P.
Have you any idea when the other record will be brought forth?
When we see things in the spirit and by the power of God they seem to be right here; the present signs of the times indicate the near approach of the coming forth of the other plates, but when it will be I cannot tell. The Three Nephites are at work among the lost tribes and elsewhere. John the Revelator is at work, and I believe the time will come suddenly, before we are prepared for it.
Elder O. P.
Have you in your possession the original MSS. [manuscripts] of the Book of Mormon?
I have; they are in O. [Oliver] Cowdery’s handwriting. He placed them in my care at his death, and charged me to preserve them as long as I lived; they are safe and well preserved.
J. F. S.
What will be done with them at your death?
I will leave them to my nephew, David Whitmer, son of my brother Jacob, and my namesake.
Would you not part with them to a purchaser?
No. Oliver charged me to keep them, and Joseph said my father’s house should keep the records. I consider these things sacred, and would not part with nor barter them for money.
J. F. S.
We would not offer you money in the light of bartering for the MSS., but we would like to see them preserved in some manner where they would be safe from casualties and from the caprices of men, in some institution that will not die as man does.
D. W. That is all right. While camping around here in a tent, all my effects exposed to the weather, everything in the trunk where the MSS. [manuscripts] were kept became mouldy, etc., but they were preserved, not even being discolored (we supposed his camping in a tent, etc., had reference to his circumstances after the cyclone, in June last). As he and others affirm, the room in which the MSS. were kept was the only part of the house which was not demolished, and even the ceiling of that room was but little impaired. “Do you think,” said Philander Page, a son of Hiram Page, one of the Eight Witnesses, “that the Almighty cannot take care of his own?”
Next day (Sunday, September 8) Mr. Whitmer invited us to his house, where, in the presence of David Whitmer, Esq. (son of Jacob), Philander Page, J. R. B. Vancleave, David J. Whitmer (son of David the witness), George Schweich (grandson of David), Colonel Childs and others, David Whitmer brought out the MSS. of the Book of Mormon. We examined them closely and those who knew the handwriting pronounced the whole of them, excepting comparatively few pages, to be in the hand writing of Oliver Cowdery. It was thought that these few pages were in the handwritings of Emma Smith and John and Christian Whitmer.
We found that the names of the eleven witnesses were, however, subscribed in the handwriting of Oliver Cowdery. When the question was asked Mr. Whitmer if he and the other witnesses did or did not sign the testimonies themselves, Mr. W. replied, “each signed his own name.”
“Then where are the original signatures?”
I don’t know; I suppose Oliver copied them, but this I know is an exact copy.
Someone suggested that he, being the last one left of the eleven witnesses, ought to certify to this copy.
Lawyer D. Whitmer (Jacob’s son) [page 774] suggested that he had better reflect about it first and be very cautious.
J. F. S. suggested that perhaps there were two copies of the manuscripts, but Mr. Whitmer replied that, according to the best of his knowledge, there never was but the one copy. Herein, of course, he is evidently uninformed.
Elder O. Pratt again felt closely after the subject of procuring the MSS., but we found that nothing would move him on this point. The whole Whitmer family are deeply impressed with the sacredness of this relic. And so thoroughly imbued are they with the idea and faith that it is under the immediate protection of the Almighty that, in their estimation, not only are the MSS. themselves safe from all possible contingencies, but that they are a source of protection to the place or house in which they may be kept, and, it may be, to those who have possession of them.
Another reason why they cling to this relic is that David Whitmer has reorganized the “Church of Christ” with six elders and two priests, after the pattern of the first organization, the two priests as we suppose representing Joseph and Oliver as holding the aaronic priesthood from the hand of John the Baptist. David and John Whitmer were two of these six elders, four others, viz. John C. Whitmer, W. W. Warner, Philander Page, and John Short, having been ordained by David and John. And as the recent death of John has diminished the number to five elders it would be interesting to know if, according to their strict construction the vacancy can be filled.
Their creed is to preach nothing but the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Mr. Whitmer and others called on us again in the evening, at the hotel, and conversed, reiterating many things before stated. Upon inquiry, Mr. Whitmer informed us that Oliver Cowdery had told him all about his visiting the Church at Council Bluffs and of his having been rebaptized. He said, “Oliver died the happiest man I ever saw, after shaking hands with the family and kissing his wife and daughter, he said, “Now I lay me down for the last time, I am going to my Savior,” and died immediately, with a smile on his face.
In response to some questions, Mr. Whitmer said: “Many things have been revealed which were designed only for the Church, and which the world cannot comprehend, but the Book of Mormon and those testimonies therein given were to go to all the world.”
We replied, “Yes, and we have sent that book to the Danes, the Swedes, the Spanish, the Italians, the French, the German, the Welsh, and to the islands of the sea, the book even having been translated into Hindoostanee [Hindustani]. So you see the Church has not been idle.” To this he made no reply. In parting with him, he said “This may be the last time I shall ever see you in the flesh, so farewell.”
This ended our interview with the last remaining witness who saw the plates of the Book of Mormon, yet not the last witness of its truth, for now such witnesses are multiplied into tens of thousands.