Literary DCGD #4: Interview with David Whitmer

January 20, 2013 | 4 comments
By

James H. HartI think that we often think of witnesses as something outside of the event, added to fill a particular need or satisfy the desires of the world. But I wonder if this perception might not be incorrect, if witnesses are not, in fact, an important part of the process of communicating truth. A testimony is, after all, what a witness provides, and, at least in the church, it is hard to imagine communicating truth without testimony. In the fourth D&C Gospel Doctrine lesson witnesses to the Book of Mormon are an important part of the story of the scripture’s preparation. And the following poem provides, I think, an idea of the role of the witness, along with a lot about one of the three witnesses, David Whitmer. In August 1883 Whitmer spoke with prominent LDS Church member James H. Hart (1825-1906), who was then searching for portraits of the Three Witnesses for the YMMIA’s publication, The Contributor. Hart, then the Church’s immigration agent in New York City, traveled to Missouri to secure and later to return a photograph of Oliver Cowdery in the possession of Cowdery’s daughter. While there, Hart took the opportunity to interview Whitmer. A former journalist, Hart knew Pitman short hand and took down the interview verbatim. From his Pitman notes Hart produced two articles (one published in the Deseret News) and the following poem. On a subsequent visit, Hart read the poem to Whitmer, who, he said, approved it1. .

Interview with David Whitmer

By James H. Hart

I met an aged man the other day,
In Richmond, Missouri, in County Ray.
His step was feeble, but his eye was bright,
And in it beamed intelligence and light.
He once was chosen witness, with eleven,
Of ministrations from the courts of Heaven.
His fellow witnesses have passed away,
And he has now but little time to stay.
Three score and ten have bleached his aged head;
His Prophet friends lie numbered with the dead.
He, on Missouri’s battle field, alone
Was left to grapple with the dread cyclone.
It took away his home, but left intact
The room and box with scripture records packed,
And finished up its sacrilegious raid,
Within the old churchyard, among the dead.
It ruthlessly destroyed the tombs, which care
Of sympathetic friends erected there;
And recklessly tore up the very ground
Where Oliver’s remains might once be found.
Give me the quiet valleys of the west,
Of all our broad domain, in which to rest;
For there the righteous may escape the rod
Of the Eternal and Almighty God.
“Pray is it true,” I asked, “that you have been
With heavenly messengers, and have seen
The records, called the plates of brass and gold,
Of which Moroni, in his book, has told?
“Tis said you saw an angel from on high,
While other witnesses were standing by,
And that the messenger commanded you
To testify that this great work is true.
“Not questioning your statement that I’ve read,
Or what the other witnesses have said,
Yet I would like to know from you direct,
If we have read or heard these things correct.”
He lifted up his voice, and thus replied:
“My written statement I have ne’er denied;
I saw the messenger, and heard his voice,
And other things that made my heart rejoice.
“Joseph Smith and Oliver were there,
And what I saw and heard I do declare,
With words of soberness and sacred truth;
I’ve borne this testimony from my youth.
“I do not know the angel’s rank or name,
Who on the great and glorious mission came;
I know that he was clothed with power and might,
And was surrounded with effulgent light.
“No tongue can tell the glory and the power
That was revealed to us in that blest hour.
The plates of brass and gold, with angel’s care,
Were placed before us as we waited there.
“We saw the fine engravings on them, too,
And heard the voice declare the book was true.
And what we saw and heard was by the grace
Of Him who died to save the human race.
“We’ve done as they commanded us to do,
And testify the Book of Mormon’s true,
And was translated by the power given
The Prophet Joseph by the God of Heaven.
“Thousands of people have been here to see
The copy Oliver has left with me;
The characters, moreover, Martin took
Professor Anthon—words of sacred book.
“Some visit me who ‘Mormonism’ hate;
Some ranking low, and some of high estate.
I tell them all, as now I tell to you,
The Book of Mormon is of God, and true.
“In yonder little room I have, with care,
Preserved the copy and the words so rare-
The very words from Nephi’s sacred book,
That Martin to Professor Anthon took.
“If this be not truth, there is no truth,
And I have been mistaken from my youth.
If I’m mistaken, you may know from hence
That there’s no God, no law, no life, no sense.
“I know there is a God-I’ve heard his voice,
And in his power and truth do still rejoice;
Though fools may ridicule and laugh to-day,
They yet shall know the truth of what I say.
“I’ve suffered persecution at the hands,
Of hireling preachers and their Christian bands;
I’ve braved their hatred, and have them withstood
While thirsting for the youthful Prophet’s blood.
“They came, four hundred strong, with visage bold,
And said, ‘Deny this story you have told,
And by our sacred honor we’ll engage
To save you from the mob’s infuriate rage.’
“A mighty power came on me, and I spake
In manner that did make the mobbers quake,
And trembling seized the surging crowd, and fear,
And evidenced to me that God was near.”
Thus spake the aged witness of the way
The Lord commenced his work in this our day.
If men will not believe what God hath said
They’ll not believe should one rise from the dead.
Here was a man who, in his youth, amazed
Had on a messenger from Heaven gazed,
Presenting plates of rich and varied size,
And filled his soul with wonder and surprise.
Not only he, but there were other ten,
All truthful, brave and honorable men,
With same integrity, have ever told
That they had seen the sacred plates of gold.
I asked a Gentile lawyer if he knew
The witnesses, and if he thought them true.
“Well, yes,” he said, “I’ve known them from my youth,
And know them to be men of sterling truth.
“What David Whitmer says the people know,
May be regarded as precisely so.
He’s not a man to shade the truth, or lie,
But one on whom you safely may rely.
“And Mr. Cowdery, I have known him too;
More truthful man than he I never knew.
And as lawyer he was shrewd and bright,
And always made an honorable fight.”
“Think you that Joseph Smith could them deceive,
By forging plates, could make them all believe
That they had seen an angel of the Lord,
Or perjure them, and all, with one accord?”
“These men,” said he, “were not that kind of stuff
Of clever swindlers the world has not enough,
To blind their eyes or swerve them from the truth,
And such has been their character from youth.”
I asked a Gentile doctor, and was told
That David Whitmer’s word was good as gold.
“His honesty is fairly crystallized-
His name will ever be immortalized.
“Although its all a mystery to me,
I know he’s honest as a man can be;
I’d stake upon his word my very life,
And so would this my good and noble wife.
“I never go to hear these parsons preach,
They nothing know, can therefore nothing teach.
My wife can tell me more of truth and God,
Than all the doctors in their grand synod.”
I interviewed an aged lady there-
The doctor’s guest, moreover, his belle-mere.
In youthful days, Miss Whitmer was her name,
And changed for Cowdery, of historic fame.
Nobility was stamped upon her face,
Like royal signet of her father’s race;
And David’s lineaments were plainly there,
But moulded, it would seem, with greater care.
She spoke of thrilling scenes of early life,
When she and Oliver were man and wife.
But he has passed the dark and mystic river,
By order of the Author and the Giver.
“I know,” she said, “this work will never fail,
Though all the nations may its friends assail.
‘Tis come, as I have heard the Prophets say,
To stand forever, though heavens pass away.”
Such is the substance of an interview
That tends to show this mighty work is true;
And being true, ’tis folly to oppose
The unseen power by which the system grows.
Some States have spent upon it rage and fury,
Despoiled its people without judge or jury;
And forced them in the mountain vales to hide,
And trust in Him who doth His people guide.
‘Twas not the province of poor, erring man,
To formulate this great and glorious plan,
Nor is it in the power of man to stay
Its onward progress, or block up its way.

The Contributor v5 (1883-1884)

. Unfortunately, this poem is probably too long to be read in its entirety in a Sunday School lesson, so a teacher will need to select a portion that can be read in the time available. But some portion of this should be an interesting addition to the lesson because of the detail that it adds to the story and to the image of David Whitmer. While Hart’s poetry isn’t on par with the best of his day, even among Mormons, (it is better than most) still he has moments when his reworking of Whitmer’s words adds some power, of not beauty:

“If this be not truth, there is no truth,
And I have been mistaken from my youth.
If I’m mistaken, you may know from hence
That there’s no God, no law, no life, no sense.
“I know there is a God-I’ve heard his voice,
And in his power and truth do still rejoice;
Though fools may ridicule and laugh to-day,
They yet shall know the truth of what I say.

I particularly like these two stanzas, which seem to me like the heart of the poem:

“No tongue can tell the glory and the power
That was revealed to us in that blest hour.
The plates of brass and gold, with angel’s care,
Were placed before us as we waited there.
“We saw the fine engravings on them, too,
And heard the voice declare the book was true.
And what we saw and heard was by the grace
Of Him who died to save the human race.

And surely Hart’s description of the gentile doctor (apparently Oliver Cowdery’s son-in-law and Whitmer’s Nephew-in-law, Dr. Charles Johnson) should be better known:

I asked a Gentile doctor, and was told
That David Whitmer’s word was good as gold.
“His honesty is fairly crystallized-
His name will ever be immortalized.
“Although its all a mystery to me,
I know he’s honest as a man can be;
I’d stake upon his word my very life,
And so would this my good and noble wife.”

Perhaps in Hart’s stanzas we will find something of the role that witnesses have in communicating the truth, something of how the witness role is more than just telling what happened.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Hart, Edward L. “James H. Hart’s Contribution to Our Knowledge of Oliver Cowdery.” BYU Studies v36 n4 (1996-1997), pp.118-124.

4 Responses to Literary DCGD #4: Interview with David Whitmer

  1. Amy T on January 20, 2013 at 7:58 pm

    What a curiosity. It’s not bad; it’s very interesting in its history; but I did start to skim partway through, so thanks for highlighting the best of the poem.

  2. Sarah Dunster on January 21, 2013 at 3:15 pm

    I also skimmed :( I am ashamed to admit. I loved the first stanzas best. About the cyclone, and oliver’s remains, and in particular these lines:

    Give me the quiet valleys of the west,
    Of all our broad domain, in which to rest;

    I quite agree :)

  3. Liz on January 31, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    I want to cry right now. James H. Hart is my great-great grandfather. This is literally my first visit to Times and Seasons and what a humbling coincidence! I was skimming through posts on the main page and did a double take because of the picture. I initially didn’t think much of the photo because it was so familiar to me. I have seen it a million times, and a large framed version hangs in my parents’ house. I’m truly ashamed that I have now been introduced to a poem written by my own ancestor by visiting a website. I bet that if I move two feet from where I’m sitting this very moment, it’s contained in his biography that I’ve never read and which has been on my shelf for years.

    Thank you for posting this. This poem is a special witness to me. I’ve got some reading to do.

  4. Kent Larsen on January 31, 2013 at 11:06 pm

    Liz, Hart was great. I’m planning on purchasing his published diary one of these days. I’m very interested in his experiences here in New York City.