On the day the Savior restored his Church, he commanded the Saints to keep records (D&C 21:1). Oliver Cowdery assumed the responsibility to do so, then the Lord called him on a mission. John Whitmer, meanwhile, returned from a mission and “was appointed by the voice of the Elders to keep the Church record.” Joseph asked him to also write and preserve a history of the Church. John didn’t want to. “I would rather not do it,” he explained, “but observed that the will of the Lord be done, and if he desires it, I desire that he would manifest it through Joseph the Seer.”1
That’s when Joseph asked and received section 47. It assigned John to preserve the Church’s history and also to copy Joseph’s revelations. John accepted his revealed assignments. He was sustained by the Church at a special conference in April 1831, a month after the revelation, and began writing in June.2 “I shall proceed to continue this record,” his first sentence says, “being commanded of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to write the things that transpire in this church.”3 John was not nearly as good a historian as Oliver. His history is an important but sketchy source that became quite cynical when John apostatized in 1838. John was faithful to his calling as a transcriber, however. Many of the earliest revelation manuscripts that exist are copies in his handwriting.4
Joseph had lived in John’s home. John had scribed part of the Book of Mormon as Joseph translated. What does it tell us about Joseph Smith and the restoration that someone who knew him as well as John did would resist obeying Joseph’s personal counsel and then obey a revelation received through Joseph? The people who knew Joseph best “accepted the voice in the revelations as the voice of God, investing in the revelations the highest authority, even above Joseph Smith’s counsel. In the revelations, they believed, god himself spoke, not a man.”5
5. Richard L. Bushman, Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays, edited by Reid L. Neilson and Jed Woodworth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 258–9.
From Doctrine and Covenants Minute
In a revelation given in April 1829, Oliver Cowdery was called to “write for my servant Joseph” (D&C 9:4). However, by the spring of 1831 Oliver was away leading the mission to the Lamanites, to which he had been called by revelation (D&C 28:8). In his absence, the need arose for a new scribe and historian to take Oliver’s place. John Whitmer was already serving as Joseph’s scribe in a number of capacities when the call came to him to fill the post of Church Historian. At first John was reluctant to serve in this calling. He later wrote, “I was appointed by the voice of the Elders to keep the Church record. Joseph Smith Jr. said unto me you must also keep the Church history. I would rather not do it but observed that the will of the Lord be done, and if he desires it, I desire that he would manifest it through Joseph the Seer. And thus came the word of the Lord.”1
Although he accepted the calling reluctantly, John diligently worked to fulfill the Lord’s command. A few months later in June 1831 he began writing a history he titled “The Book of John Whitmer.” His history records many important details about the early Saints and their struggles in Ohio and Missouri. However, it seems that John felt insecure about his work. In 1833 he wrote to Oliver Cowdery, saying, “I want you to remember me to Joseph in a special manner, and enquire of him respecting my clerkship[;] you very well know what I mean and also my great desire of doing all things according to the mind of the Lord.”2
John was excommunicated from the Church in 1838 on a charge of “unchristian like conduct.”3 He left the Church along with several other members of the Whitmer family, including David Whitmer and brother-in-law Oliver Cowdery. At the time John left he refused to turn his history over to the Church. Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon wrote to John, saying, “We are still willing to honor you, if you can be made to know your own interest and give up your notes, so that they can be corrected, and made fit for the press.” After John’s refusal, in 1838 Joseph began working on a new history that contained much more detail about early events in the Church. In January 1844 John offered to sell his history to the Church. Willard Richards, who was then compiling the history of the Church, wrote back informing John that Church historians had “already compiled about 800 pages of church history . . . which covers all the ground you took notes, therefore anything which you wrote in the shape of church history would be of little or no consequence to the church at large.”4
After Joseph Smith’s death, John joined James Strang’s movement and began writing in his history again. He later left Strang’s group and crossed out the portions of his history that were about Strang. John never rejoined the Church, and after his passing in 1878 his history eventually came into the custody of the Community of Christ. The final document is ninety-six pages in length.
In recent years, John’s reputation as a historian has been somewhat rehabilitated. Historians working to compile the Joseph Smith Papers have noted that the number of documents related to the history of the Church increased substantially after John was called as Church Historian. In addition, after he began his service, the minutes of Church conferences and other meetings generally contained more information. Most importantly, John did a superb job recording most of the early revelations given to Joseph Smith in Revelation Book 1. The rich documentary record of the early Church owes a great debt to this reluctant historian. In the last entry of his history, John wrote and then crossed out his own hopes for salvation, writing, “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 blotted out and in the last day be saved in the kingdom of God notwithstanding my present situation, which I hope will soon be bettered and I find favor in the eyes of God and all men, his saints. Farewell.”5
1. Whitmer, History, 24, JSP.
2. Cook, Revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 1985, 64–65.
3. Minute Book 2, 104–105, JSP.
4. Willard Richards to John Whitmer, 23 Feb. 1844, CHL.
5. Whitmer, History, p. 85, JSP.