Kenneth Godfrey – 2000

The following is from: “David Whitmer and the Shaping of Latter-day Saint History” by Kenneth Godfrey in The Disciple as Witness: Essays on Latter-day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, FARMS, 2000.

It may be that Whitmer, who by the 1880s had perhaps known Joseph longer than any living person, tended to enlarge his memory when in the presence of believers…Thus with each interview he reestablished his importance as one of the preeminent figures in the early Latter-day Saint movement.


The fact that he was out of the church for almost half a century tends to give an anti-Mormon flavor to some of his views on doctrine and history. Scholars therefore attempting to flesh out the true story of those initial years of Mormonism would be well-advised to weigh carefully what Whitmer remembered against accounts authored by his contemporaries such as Joseph Knight, Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Smith, and Lucy Mack Smith. It is important, too, to note that Whitmer himself was not always consistent in the way he remembered Latter-day Saint beginnings.


While I do occasionally evaluate Whitmer’s claims in light of what others remembered and reported, my main purpose is to delineate inconsistencies in Whitmer’s own record.

David’s “own record” consisted of three items:

  1. A Proclamation
  2. An Address to All Believers in the Book of Mormon
  3. An Address to All Believers in Christ

Godfrey failed to evaluate David’s “own record.” The “inconsistencies” that he found were from secondary sources, not his own. Godfrey admits this, but not until after disparaging David: 

What he (David) said, or did not say, comes to us through the pen of reporters, most of whom did not believe in Mormonism, or through believers, who, like the reporters, may have had an agenda of their own as they talked with him.

Godfrey even cites examples of their “inaccurate reporting,” nonetheless, he bases David’s alleged “inconsistencies” entirely upon them. Godfrey repeats the view of Sperry when he quotes Stephen Ricks:

As Stephen Ricks has pointed out, neither David Whitmer, Martin Harris, nor anyone else, for that matter, save perhaps Oliver Cowdery, had “knowledge of the method of translation of the Book of Mormon from personal experience.” (Stephen Ricks, Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Book of Mormon, p. 4)

As established on the Sperry page, the process was hardly complicated, it only required Joseph to be humble enough to engage the Holy Spirit, and to look into another dimension and read the already translated English. The fact that he “could not pronounce certain words” is proof that he “saw” the words.

While sitting only inches from Joseph during the process, Martin Harris, Joseph Knight, Isaac Hale, and Michael Morse (Emma’s sister’s husband) all confirmed how it was done. Godfrey said:

Martin Harris told Edward Stevenson essentially the same story as Whitmer regarding the translation. Joseph Knight, Isaac Hale, and Michael Morse (Emma’s sister’s husband) related similar stories.

Despite those confirmations, Godfrey resists David’s witness, unable to pass by the accepted interpretation of D&C 8:

Whitmer’s account of the translation appearing in English at the bottom of a hat, seems, moreover, to minimize the spiritual and mental effort on the part of the translator. Oliver Cowdery, as is well known, learned that more than asking and reading were required of the would-be translator. Study, thought, and then prayer were necessary before the meaning of the markings on the plates became clear (see D&C 6, 8, and 9).

The passage is D&C 8, which obviously was referring to the method of prayer, not translation. (See Sperry page for further light on the subject.) Godfrery contradicts himself when cites Royal Skousen:

Royal Skousen, a scholar who has spent years studying the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon, i.e., the one written as Joseph Smith dictated, has shown that textual errors do exist in that document. (See Royal Skousen, “Towards a Critical Edition of the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 30/1 (1990): 44.) Thus Whitmer’s assertion that the English only disappeared after the scribe had written it down correctly was not entirely true. (See Royal Skousen, “Critical Methodology and the Text of the Book of Mormon,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6/1 (1994): 124—25; and Royal Skousen, “The Original Language of the Book of Mormon: Upstate New York Dialect, King James English, or Hebrew?” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 3/1 (1994): 29.) I am not arguing here for a lack of “tight control” (Skousen’s phrase) over the text, but rather that Oliver and Joseph’s human nature did not allow them to produce an error-free text as Whitmer’s account of the translation process would have us believe.

The presumption that God did the translation, or any part of it is false. Whoever controlled the flow of the English is responsible for missed errors. 

Whitmer also told Tanner that he believed the plates were not present while Joseph dictated his scribes. If this information is correct, then why were the plates preserved in the first place?

Simple – different degrees of faith. When Joseph began, he first used the interpreters found with the plates. As Joseph’s faith grew, his technique changed. Regardless of the method, his assignment was to interface with the English, which he did later with his face in a hat, and the plates in the barn. While under the power of heaven, he could see remotely the plates from where he was, just as he did for other things, at other times.  

Historians and teachers of Mormon history should be cautious in accepting Whitmer’s version of the translation process. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery make no reference to placing a seer stone in a hat as the prime method of translating the Book of Mormon.

Joseph was reluctant to tell the world he was engaged as a “glass looker” again, having previously charged as one. (See his Bainbridge Court Hearing of 1828) 

Why did David and the other witnesses see the Urim and Thummim and the bow in which they were placed if the Book of Mormon as we now have it was translated exclusively by means of a chocolate-colored seer stone, as Whitmer sometimes asserted?

[Godfrey was cautious here in his disparaging; he threw in the word “sometimes.”] The same could be asked about the Sword of Laban – “Why was it shown to them when they never used it?” 

Why, if the Prophet read the English translation as it appeared in the crown of a hat, does the original manuscript “show signs of rapid writing with many words spelled as they sounded, and with no punctuation other than periods at the end of chapters, and only indiscriminate capitalization?” (Charles D. Tate Jr., “John H. Gilbert’s Work on the Book of Mormon,” in Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint Church History, New York (Provo, Utah: BYU Department of Church History and Doctrine, 1992), 113)

Obvious signs Joseph was not praying, pondering, and “studying it out in his heart.” 

We should remember that Whitmer, after all, was not an eyewitness to the translation process, i.e., he did not look into the seer stone or the Urim and Thummim and see what Joseph saw.  

Nonsense. He wrote for Joseph sitting only inches from him, he knew precisely how it was done, which was confirmed by Martin Harris, Joseph Knight, Isaac Hale, Michael Morse, and Joseph’s wife Emma.

Significantly, given his tendency to contradict himself when reporting on other topics, Whitmer’s accounts of his experience as a witness are quite consistent.

David never contradicted himself, second hand sources did, which Godfrey admitts:

 Historians should be aware that in all the Whitmer interviews the risk is high that some of what we read reflects the words and biases of the individual reporter.


David Whitmer’s testimony remained impressively consistent over the years.

Godfrey displays his bias:

Whitmer probably made other historical errors as well…Moreover, we have seen that his assertions that Joseph Smith did not have the Urim and Thummim after the loss of the 116 pages of manuscript, that he did not have the plates as he translated, or that he translated only by means of a stone placed in the bottom of a hat can be seriously questioned. 

David was privy to much of early church history and to him we owe a lot of gratitude, but he wasn’t with Joseph 24/7. Joseph’s method of “translation” at least at the Whitmer home is as he said it was. And that view is supported by others as Godfrey already acknowledged. 

 Still, Whitmer does provide valuable information for historians with respect to the organization of the church. 

Though Godfrey acknowledged and even cited “corroborating evidence” in support of David’s statements, his bias just wont allow him to trust.

David Whitmer in many ways was a remarkable man. Historians of Mormon beginnings are grateful that he spoke so often and in such detail about the seminal events in early Latter-day Saint history. However, care and corroborating documentation must be applied before we can accept his recollections as reality.

To say that David had “no personal knowledge” of the translation process is resistance to the fifth degree:

Finally, Whitmer sometimes spoke of things on which he had no personal knowledge. For example, he did not look into the Urim and Thummim nor a seer stone and see for himself what appeared thereon. Therefore, his testimony as to precisely “how” the Book of Mormon was translated is hearsay.  

Godfrey is resisting David’s (and others) witness at all costs. This is the THIRD time that he states David’s witness can’t be relied upon. He dares to put David’s writings in the same genre as Joseph’s:

Scholars would be well-advised to study what David Whitmer said with the same care and attention to detail that has characterized the examination of the historical documents authored by Joseph Smith.

The difference being, David did not go back and change revelations as Joseph did. The level of scrutiny Joseph’s changes have garnered are justified. David on the other hand had one motive when he wrote his addresses at the end of his life – to please God whom he would shortly meet.

Whitmer did not understand the essential core of the restoration.

Anyone making this statement has NOT read the few writings of David Whitmer. David’s position was the church functioned just fine for 18 months – a year and one-half according to the gospel found in the Book of Mormon. He cites several verses that says the Book of Mormon contained the “fullness of the gospel” and was to be relied upon solely with the Bible – period.

Joseph Smith was a prophet through whom God spoke and would continue to speak, and David did not seem to grasp the importance of continuing revelation if the little stone from the book of Daniel was to increase in size as it rolled forth.

To the contrary, Joseph handed over his seer stone and said he was done with it. If God wanted him to function as a “prophet and seer” he would have retained the use of the urim and thummim, as prophets before him did:

After the translation of the Book of Mormon was finished, early in the spring of 1830, before April 6th, JOSEPH GAVE THE STONE TO OLIVER COWDERY AND TOLD ME AS WELL AS THE REST THAT HE WAS THROUGH WITH IT, AND HE DID NOT USE THE STONE ANY MORE. HE SAID HE WAS THROUGH THE WORK THAT GOD HAD GIVEN HIM THE GIFT TO PERFORM, EXCEPT TO PREACH THE GOSPEL. (David Whitmer, Address to All Believers in Christ, p. 32)

Final remarks:


  1. “Clinging to his Book of Mormon” sounds lonely and desperate. David also clung to the Bible. “Two witnesses are better than one.” 
  2. “Priesthood hierarchy” did not exist in the New Covenant part of the Book of Mormon.
  3. “Changing revelations,” anyone condoning the practice does not know God.



It is odd that the author who wrote about David Whitmer the most, is being honored by a chapter that disparages him the worst.