Tuesday, October 13, 2020

David Whitmer's Testimony

David Whitmer (1805-1888) was one of the three witnesses shown the golden plates by the Angel Moroni in Fayette, NY in June, 1829.

David Whitmer, Portrait by Lewis Ramsey

On Tuesday, August 21, 1883, James H. Hart (1825-1906) interviewed Whitmer, then 78, at the elderly gentleman's home in Richmond, Missouri. According to Hart, Whitmer told him, "When we (the three witnesses) were first told to publish our statement, we felt sure the people would not believe it, for the Book told of a people who were refined and dwelt in large cities; but the Lord told us that He would make it known to the people, and the people should discover the ruins of the lost cities and abundant evidence of the truth of what is written in the Book." Edward L. Hart, Mormon in Motion: The Life and Journals of James H. Hart, 1825 - 1906, in England, France, and America (Provo: Windsor Books, 1978).

If this is an accurate report of what the three witnesses came to know from a divine source, it helps locate Book of Mormon lands in ancient America.
  1. In 1829, the three witnesses believed the antiquities discovered so far in the Americas were from ancient civilizations less advanced than the sophisticated cultures the Book of Mormon described. See the blog article "State Level Society" for context.
  2. In 1829, the three witnesses were unaware of any American ruins of ancient cities as large as those described in the Book of Mormon. See the blog article "Mounds" for context.
  3. In 1829, the three witnesses believed archaeological remains directly supporting the Book of Mormon record had not yet been discovered in the Americas, but would be forthcoming.
  4. By late June, 1829, the three witnesses had been mentored by Joseph Smith, the angel Moroni, and the Lord, so theirs were informed opinions.
This rules out the North American mound builders as candidates for the principal Book of Mormon peoples. Mounds were well-known in the young United States of America by 1829. 

Tens of thousands of mounds were discovered by early settlers homesteading land in what are now the states of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New York, and Kentucky. In the 1820 US Census, those 5 states had a combined population of 2,881,121. Ten years later, in the 1830 US Census, those 5 states had grown by 71% and had a combined population of 4,044,914. Many thousands of mounds were explored, surveyed, partially excavated, looted, plowed under, or obliterated by urban sprawl in the decades leading up to 1829. Publications describing, romanticizing, and trying to explain the mounds included:
  • Cadwallader Colden, History of the Five Nations, 1747
  • David Zeisberger, History of the North American Indians, 1770
  • Royal American Magazine, Boston, 1775
  • James Adair, History of the American Indians, 1775
  • Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1785
  • Benjamin Smith Barton, Observations on Some Parts of Natural History, 1787
  • William Bartram, Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, 1791
  • Winthrop Sargent, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 1799
  • James Madison, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 1803
  • Thaddeus M. Harris, Journal of a Tour into the Territory Northwest of the Allegheny Mountains, 1805
  • Robert Southey, "Madoc," 1805
  • De Witt Clinton, "Memoir on the Antiquities of the western parts of New York," (New York: Literary and Philosophical Society, 1817) published (Albany: I.W. Clark, 1818), reprinted (Albany: E&E Hosford, 1820)
  • JH McCulloh, Jr. Researches on America: Being an Attempt to Settle some Points Relative to the Aborigines of America (Baltimore: James Robinson, 1817)
  • William Cullen Bryant, "Thanatopsis," 1817
  • H.H. Brackenridge, "On the population and tumuli of the aborigines of North America" in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 1818
  • Caleb Atwater, Archoeologia Americana: Transactions and Collections of the American Antiquarian Society, 1820
  • Sarah J. Hale, "The Genius of Oblivion," 1823
  • John Van Ness Yates and Joseph White Moulton, History of the State of New York Including its Aboriginal and Colonial Annals, 1824
A debate of sorts worked its way through US popular consciousness in the 17 & 1800's. Were the mounds built by ancestors of the primitive American Indians, or were they built by some lost race of Vikings, Welsh, Egyptians, Canaanites, Phoenicians, tribes of Israel, or whomever? See Robert Silverberg, The Mound Builders (Athens: Ohio University Press: 1986). By the time Major John Wesley Powell established the US Bureau of Ethnology in 1879, the debate was over as far as the scientific community was concerned. Scientists believed the mounds were built by ancestors of the American Indians who crossed the Bering Strait during the last glacial maximum. Powell recognized the enduring popularity and emotional allure of the more exotic mound builder origin myths. In the 1890 - 91 Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology he said, "It is difficult to exaggerate the force with which the hypothetic 'lost races' had taken hold of the imaginations of men. For more than a century the ghosts of a vanished nation have ambuscaded in the vast solitudes of the continent, and the forest-covered mounds have been usually regarded as the mysterious sepulchers of its kings and nobles."  
The three witnesses in 1829 had some knowledge of the North American mound builders. They knew that neither the level of cultural attainment nor the size of the urbanizations created by the mound builders satisfied the advanced civilizations or large cities the Book of Mormon requires. That makes David Whitmer a witness for a primary Book of Mormon location further south than the United States of America.
Whitmer's statement strongly supports a Mesoamerican setting for Book of Mormon lands. This explains why W.W. Phelps in February, 1833 singled out the Maya as "proof" of the Book of Mormon's "cities and civilization." It explains why Parley P. Pratt in the 2nd (1839) edition of A Voice of Warning (the most important missionary tract in the 19th century church) pointed to Palenque as an example of the cities described in the Nephite text. Two years later the abundant splendor of ancient Maya culture burst upon the US scene when John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood published their blockbuster Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (New York: Harper & Brothers, June, 1841). By November, 1841, Joseph Smith in Nauvoo had received a copy, read it with interest, and commented on it favorably in a letter. See the blog article "1829" for context.

David Whitmer's statement also explains a point Orson Pratt made in his pamphlet, "Divine Authority, or the Question, Was Joseph Smith Sent of God?" written September 30, 1848 in Liverpool, England. "In the Book of Mormon are given the names and locations of numerous cities of great magnitude...Splendid edifices, palaces, towers, forts, and cities were reared in all directions...Now since that invaluable book made its appearance in print, it is a remarkable fact that the mouldering ruins of many splendid edifices and towers, and magnificent cities of great extent, have been discovered by Catherwood and Stephens in the interior wilds of Central America, in the very region where the ancient cities described in the Book of Mormon were said to exist...What, but the power of God, could have revealed beforehand this unknown fact, demonstrated years after by actual discovery?"

For a fuller treatment of this theme, see the blog article "Early Book of Mormon Geography."

I thank Warren Aston for bringing this Whitmer reference to my attention.
Kirk Magleby, volunteering as Executive Director, Book of Mormon Central.