From the Archives: David Whitmer on Joseph Smith and his Followers

By August 13, 2008

David Whitmer was a powerful figure in the early Mormon Church. Besides being one of the Book of Mormon Witnesses, he was in the Missouri Presidency and (some believed) ordained to be Joseph Smith’s successor in 1834. He was released from his Missouri position in 1837 and was excommunicated from the Church in 1838.

In his Address to All Believers in Christ, a pamphlet he published in 1887 when he officially formed the Church of Christ, he made clear his reservations about Joseph Smith and the other Mormon groups. The following is just a part of his critiques of the Mormon Prophet and those who claimed to follow him.

We do not indorse [sic] the teachings of any of the so-called Mormons or Latter Day Saints, which are in conflict with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, as taught in the New Testament and the Book of Mormon. They have departed a great measure from the faith of the CHURCH of CHRIST as it was first established, by heeding revelations given through Joseph Smith, who, after being called of God to translate his sacred word–the Book of Mormon–drifted into many errors and gave many revelations to introduce doctrines, ordinances and offices in the church, which are in conflict with Christ’s teachings. They also changed the name of the Church…On account of God giving to Joseph Smith the gift to translate the plates on which was engraven the Nephite scriptures, the people of the Church put too much trust in him–in the man–and believed his words as if they were from God’s own mouth. They have trusted in the arm of flesh…They looked to Joseph Smith as lawgiver, we look to Christ alone, and believe only in the religion of Jesus Christ and not in the religion of any man.

The doctrine of polygamy was not introduced until fourteen years after the church was established; but other doctrines of error were introduced earlier than this. I left the body in June, 1838, being five years before polygamy was introduced.

Joseph Smith drifting into errors after translating the Book of Mormon, is a stumbling-block to many, but only those of very weak faith would stumble on this account. Greater abominations are recorded of David in the Bible, than is recorded to-day of Joseph Smith; but do you reject the Psalms on this account? Do you reject the Proverbs because Solomon was a polygamist? Stop and think, you who are hasty to condemn. If you desire to know whether or not the Book of Mormon is true, read the book and investigate it, for Christ has promised that he who seeks in the right way shall find the truth of all things…

The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, believe that Joseph Smith was a true prophet up to his death, and accept his revelations in their Book of Doctrine and Covenants. The revelation to practice polygamy is not printed in their Doctrine and Covenants. They do not believe in the doctrine of polygamy.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the church at Salt Lake City) believe that Joseph Smith was a true prophet up to the time of his death, and accept his revelations which they have published in their Book of Doctrine and Covenants. In this book is the revelation on polygamy.

It is also a stumbling-block to those who desire to investigate as to the truth of the Book of Mormon, to see the believers in that book divided; but the divisions have been brought about by the revelations of Joseph Smith. We, the Church of Christ, who accept on the Bible and the Book of Mormon as the rule and guide to our faith, agree on the doctrine and gospel of Christ.[1]

From this excerpt, Whitmer’s critiques are made clear: he believed Joseph Smith was a fallen prophet and that the two main groups claiming him as their founder (the LDS and the RLDS) were in error for putting too much trust in him. Whitmer obviously believed that Smith had begun practicing polygamy, though not until 1844, and that the Utah Mormons were continuing in that sin while the Reorganized Church flatly ignored it. His Church of Christ, however, was superior because they focused on the teachings of Christ alone rather than the arm of flesh.

I find Whitmer’s take on Joseph Smith quite interesting, particularly his comparison between him and David and Solomon. While Whitmer felt Smith had gone astray, he could not consider him a complete fraud because of Whitmer’s strong experience with the Book of Mormon. Therefore, in order to remove this “stumbling block,” Whitmer likens Smith to the Old Testament Patriarchs who were called of God yet still fell to carnal desires. This gives his “fallen prophet” claims precedence: Prophets had fallen in the past after fulfilling part of God’s commands, and Joseph Smith was just a modern expression of that story. Another great example of early Mormons placing themselves within the Biblical text.

Does anything else stick out to you, dear JI readers?


[1] David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ (Richmond: Published by Author, 1887), 4-5.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins From the Archives


  1. Ben,

    When I got serious about investigating Mormonism in high school, one of the books I read was David Whitmer’s Address to All Believers in Christ. What he wrote made a helluva lot of sense to me. I knew I could never buy the whole polygamy thing or the Book of Abraham. And my reading of the Bible was sufficiently egalitarian and anti-hierarchical that the idea of a high priesthood seemed like an obvious corruption. Yet I found the testimony of the Book of Mormon witnesses strongly persuasive, saw little in the Book of Mormon itself that appeared theologically offensive, and was strongly drawn to the pentecostal experiences of early Mormon converts (who obviously predated the modern Protestant Pentecostal movement by more than half a century). As such, I found that Whitmer’s paradigm embraced all that seemed good about the Church, while rejecting all that seemed wrong with it. I actually went online to try to determine whether his sect still existed; I was seriously contemplating joining it. Of course, as I studied more, it seemed less and less plausible to separate the Book of Mormon from the later revelations. They certainly all follow a similar programme. All the same, I still have a good deal more respect for David Whitmer than for any other early Mormon. He stuck to his guns without sacrificing his conscience, and for that reason he came closer than any apologist to winning me to his cause.



    Comment by Christopher Smith — August 13, 2008 @ 2:49 am

  2. I think I remember reading that David Whitmer thought JSJ went wrong when he stopped using the seerstones. Is that accurate, or am I getting my Whitmers confused?

    Comment by Norbert — August 13, 2008 @ 7:31 am

  3. One thing that sticks out is Whitmer’s description of Joseph’s personal failings as a stumbling block for those who might otherwise clearly see the value and divinity of the Book of Mormon.

    I have very much seen this in my interactions with other Christians. They continually heckle us with “how could you follow such an obvious fraud?” The anti-Mormon focus is almost always on the man Joseph and his failings. If they look at the Book of Mormon at all, they look at it with a critical eye – for spelling and grammar mistakes, or for historical data that couldn’t possibly be true (according to them). They almost never address the actual doctrines and teachings of the Book of Mormon in any sort of systematic fashion (except when trying to make a limited point about how Joseph changed his mind doctrinally over the years).

    The book is almost never read without a preconceived need to discredit or find fault. The assumption is that the book is something deceptive and evil, and no possible benefit could ever accrue from reading it with an aim of actually learning something. So why bother?

    Reading in this manner, they will almost always miss the real power behind the words in the book. It will not seem convincing to them. When reading 3 Nephi, they will not notice the power and majesty of Christ’s words, they will instead question how “Timothy” – a name with Greek roots – could be in a book about Meso-America.

    Talk about missing the point. It’s rather sad actually.

    Comment by Seth R. — August 13, 2008 @ 9:22 am

  4. Chris: Thanks for sharing your personal experience. I’ll just refer to you as the Whitmerite from now on :).

    Norbert: You are exactly right: David specifically labeled JS’s abandonment of his seer stone as the point he started going down hill. So, the Whitmerite Church in the 1880s used seer stones.

    Seth: I think you hit on exactly what Whitmer was trying to get at. While many LDS folk would obviously reject many of Whitmer’s musings, I think some of his insights are quite legit like not viewing JS as a stumbling block for the BoM, not putting so much trust in a man rather than Deity, etc.

    Comment by Ben — August 13, 2008 @ 9:57 am

  5. I really need to bone up on my Restoration schismatic history. I seem to remember a few Whitmerites enduring until the mid 20th century. Do you happen to know where the Whitmerites and the Hendrickites ultimately differed theologically? Was it that Whitmerites accepted the revelations to ~1830 and the Hendrickites accepted the revaltions to ~1833?

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 13, 2008 @ 10:08 am

  6. J: If I remember correctly–and that is a VERY dangerous proposition–the Whitmerites only accepted things up to about 1839, when JS gave up his seer stone and started receiving revelations on his own. I think they only survived until the mid-twentieth century–much to Chris Smith’s chagrin.

    I think a major difference that sticks out to me is the emphasis on Missouri: the Hedrickites were heavily invested in the revelations concerning Independence, while Whitmer was highly skeptical.

    The articles I have found most helpful are Marquardt’s and Jenning’s in Scattering the Saints, as well as Romig’s article found in Differing Visions.

    Comment by Ben — August 13, 2008 @ 10:23 am

  7. FYI: The all-knowing Wikipedia says, so take that what its worth, that most of the Whitmerites left by 1925. I wish I had my Scattering the Saints handy so I could get some more definitive information.

    Comment by Ben — August 13, 2008 @ 10:26 am

  8. According to Erin Jennings’s essay on the Whitmerites in Scattering the Saints, the last adherents of the Whitmerite branch of Mormonism (Izora Beulah Whitmer Dear and her sister Mamie Koontz)died in 1955 and 1961, respectively. Jennings suggests that both remained faithful believers in the Whitmerite version of Mormonism until their deaths. The church began to die off, though, around the turn of the 20th century, with many adherents “joining livelier congregations.” (Erin B. Jennings, “Whitmer Family Beliefs and Their Church of Christ,” Scattering the Saints, 45).

    Comment by Christopher — August 13, 2008 @ 12:12 pm

  9. Most people don’t want to believe less. They want to believe more. People who do make the decision to believe less tend to be skeptical types, and not infrequently end up at the bottom of the slippery slope. This is why Whitmerites and RLDS end up as Protestants, and liberal Protestants end up as atheists, whereas fundamentalists and messianic sects continue to thrive and multiply.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — August 13, 2008 @ 12:49 pm

  10. Christopher to the rescue!

    Comment by Ben — August 13, 2008 @ 12:49 pm

  11. “The Whitmerite”, hmm? I like that. *<:o) By the way, thanks for coming to hear my Sunstone presentation, Ben. The support was much appreciated. Happy to return the favor sometime.

    Comment by Christopher the Whitmerite — August 13, 2008 @ 12:52 pm

  12. People were called “ites” in those days–Emma Smith called the Utah Saints, the “Brighamites” and said she would never join them. Many people today think that to call someone an “ite” is derogatory….but it didn’t used to be so….unless you were Emma and discussing Brigham.

    Comment by Cynthia — August 13, 2008 @ 1:47 pm

  13. Cynthia, we’re all familiar with the history of the use of “ite” in connection with various Latter Day Saint groups.

    Comment by Christopher — August 13, 2008 @ 2:20 pm

  14. BTW – for posts from your archives could you post a link to the original so we could see the comments there as well? Maybe I’m alone but I often find the comments as interesting as the original posts.

    Comment by Clark — August 13, 2008 @ 5:08 pm

  15. Clark: sorry to be confusing, but our “from the archives” is different from other blogs where they just pull out a previous post. Rather, this is how Christopher described ours in the original “from the archives” post:

    This post marks the first post in what aims to be a regular feature of The Juvenile Instructor, ?From the Archives.? Each post will feature an interesting quote or entry from an early LDS journal, periodical, sermon, or letter.

    So, rather than digging into our own blog’s archives, we are digging into actual historical documents.

    Sorry for the confusion.

    Comment by Ben — August 13, 2008 @ 5:19 pm

  16. By the way, thanks for coming to hear my Sunstone presentation, Ben. The support was much appreciated. Happy to return the favor sometime.

    Christopher: then come on out to Voree for JWHA 🙂

    Comment by Ben — August 13, 2008 @ 6:36 pm

  17. My bad.

    Comment by Clark — August 13, 2008 @ 9:41 pm

  18. I have read Whitmer’s explanation that he rejected the principle that there should be the Office of High Priest in the higher Priesthood, but have never seen where he explained his participation the setting apart and ordaining the first quorum of the 12 Apostles. Have I missed something did he ever explain that?

    Comment by Jim B — August 13, 2008 @ 11:58 pm

  19. Jim,

    Perhaps the following from pp. 50-1 of Address will be of help:

    The twelve at Jerusalem are called in the written word “Apostles.” They are apostles because they were special witnesses to the sufferings of Christ, His death, burial and resurrection: but the twelve which Christ chose on this land are called disciples or elders, and are not once called apostles in the Book of Mormon. In the revelation which came through the stone in June, 1829, to Oliver Cowdery and myself to search out the twelve, they are also called disciples, and not apostles; and the revelation says “disciples” in the Book of Commandments to-day. But it has been changed in the Doctrine and Covenants to read “apostles.” The heading to this revelation in the Book of Commandments says: “Making known the calling of twelve ‘Disciples’ in these last days.” In the Doctrines and Covenants to reads: “Making known the calling of twelve ‘Apostles’ in these last days.” In 1 Nephi iii:26, where reference is made to the twelve at Jerusalem and the twelve upon this land, each twelve are called by their respective names: “Behold the twelve ‘Disciples’ of the Lamb, who are chosen to minister unto thy seed. And he (the angel) said unto me, thou remembereth the twelve ‘Apostles’ of the Lamb? Behold they are they who shall judge the twelve tribes of Israel: wherefore, the twelve ministers of thy seed shall be judged of them.” The twelve on this land are called disciples, and not in any place are they called apostles. When Christ was teaching the twelve on this land, in giving them instructions He refers to the way His twelve apostles did at Jerusalem in the laying on of hands, saying to them: “For thus do mine apostles.”

    In 1 Cor. xii:28, it says: “And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets,” etc. He did so, placing the twelve apostles first, which he chose at Jerusalem: they are to judge the twelve tribes of Israel, and they are to judge the twelve disciples whom Christ chose on this land among the Nephites. Therefore, we see from the written word that there is only one twelve who are called apostles, and that they are placed first.

    When it is God’s own due time to gather up the scattered fragments of his kingdom which has been laid waste by men, then we suppose that God will place at the head of his church twelve disciples; but we of the Church of Christ will not place them there, unless God so commands us. This is God’s work and not man’s work. We do not believe in twelve man-made disciples.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — August 14, 2008 @ 3:52 am

  20. Going back to David Whitmer, I find it intersting that his dissertion from the church was mainly due to the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society Bank and its fallout. It appears that upon organizing his own church, he instilled the worldly viewed, negative aspects of Josephs persona, to justify his own unfaithfullness. As stated above, polygamy was introduced 6 years after Whitmers excommunication.

    Comment by PJD — August 15, 2008 @ 7:42 pm

  21. […] reposts a nice discussion of David Whitmer and his followers from the archives. The original post is more about Whitmer’s take on Joseph Smith as a fallen […]

    Pingback by Best of the Week 6: Academic LDS : Mormon Metaphysics — August 18, 2008 @ 6:58 pm

  22. “As stated above, polygamy was introduced 6 years after Whitmers excommunication.”

    Whitmer was excommunicated in 1838, he say’s in the first part of the address that a voice commanded him to seperate himself from the saints. Polygamy was not formally introduced into the Church until the 1850’s (1854 I believe) under Brigham Young. Joseph Smith was secretly practicing under the knowledge of select men within his circle during the late 1830’s, and at least practicing possibly as early as 1833, and likely 1835 if we assume that Fanny Alger was the first.

    Comment by Cowboy — August 20, 2008 @ 12:30 pm

  23. does any one know how I can get more info on all this? Like how we know if this is really written by David whitmer or not? Or where it can be found in church archives,etc that Joseph smith did ordain him(david whitmer) to be the next prophet of the church? I just want to know the truth from relible sources and not from a source that could fabricted or forged and from someone who does’nt have an axe to gring know what I mean? I must say I agree with most of what he says the only thing I’m unsure of is the whole stone thing! Does any one know if there’s anything found in the bible to support the use of a stone for this purpose?

    Comment by Patrick — November 24, 2009 @ 5:19 am

  24. Patrick: This text was definitely written by David Whitmer because it was a pamphlet published by him. The pamphlet is available in various forms, and could probably be found on the internet. The context and agenda behind Whitmer’s writing is probably best examined in Michael Marquardt’s article in Scattering of the Saints.

    Joseph Smith’s use of a seer stone while translating is pretty well documented. A good article on it is Richard Van Wagoner and Steven Walker’s dialogue article, “The Gift of Seeing.”

    Comment by Ben — November 24, 2009 @ 8:24 am


Recent Comments

Armand Mauss on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “I am pleasantly surprised and deeply grateful for the three assessments offered in this space this week by Gary Shepherd, Jana Riess, and Matt Bowman.…”

Roger T on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Since I work in Mormon studies, I tend to read a lot. It's impossible to keep up with everything being published, but over the past…”

Jeff T on Q&A with Taylor Petrey,: “Thanks, Taylor!”

Jeff T on The Mechanics of Applying: “Thanks, J!”

Jeff T on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Thanks, Matt!”

Jeff T on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Thanks, Jana! My experience with Armand, too, has been that of generosity and genuine care for Mormon Studies as a broad and inclusive field. And…”