Q: John Whitmer is mentioned in D&C 15; 26; 30; 47; 69:1-8; 70:1. He became one of the eight witnesses to the Book of Mormon, along with three of his brothers, Christian, Jacob, and Peter Jr. (D&C 16, 30) What happened to John and his three brothers, and why did Jacob and John stay in Missouri instead of going West with the Saints?
A: John Whitmer was born in 1802 in Fayette, New York. John readily received the prophetic calling of Joseph and his message of the Restoration. He even assisted the young Prophet as a scribe for the translation of the Book of Mormon. John served as a missionary from Fayette to Kirtland, Ohio. When not proselytizing, he continued to share his scribal talents with the Prophet. He was called to write the history of the Church, and wrote ninety-six pages, considered to be the most authoritative history of the Church before 1838.
Many of the Whitmer family were among the Saints who moved to Missouri. Some of the severest Missouri persecutions came to the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. Death took two of John’s brothers, two of the eight witnesses to the Book of Mormon---John’s oldest brother, Christian in 1835, and the youngest brother, Peter, an accomplished tailor, in 1836, both weakened by chronic infections. Both had remained true to their testimony of the Book of Mormon. John had joined other Mormon leaders in offering themselves as hostages to stop the abuse of their people.
John had been a trusted missionary and in 1838 he was Church historian and counselor to his brother David in the Missouri presidency. Because he and W.W. Phelps, the other counselor, had taken personal title to the gathering site of Far West, the resentment of the Missouri members resulted in criticism and then formal suspension of that presidency from office.
Declining to be called to account economically or to personally appear at high council trials, John Whitmer was excommunicated May 10, 1838, followed by his brother David one month later. Hiram Page and Jacob Whitmer were not formally dealt with, but they took sides with their relatives and from that time were alienated from the Church. Because the Whitmer group had sacrificed so much, it is understandable in retrospect that each of these men was angered and permanently hurt at often inconsiderate treatment from former friends. (Richard L. Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, p. 127-128)
John’s brother, Jacob, free from persecution because of his disassociation with the Saints, settled in Richmond, Missouri. He farmed in the summer and worked in his shoemaker shop in the winter. He died in 1856 in Richmond, having accumulated 115 acres of land. His son told Andrew Jenson, “My father, Jacob Whitmer, was always faithful and true to his testimony to the Book of Mormon, and confirmed it to his death bed.” (Anderson, p. 129)
John remained in Missouri and bought up some of the land in Far West that was vacated by the Saints. He resided in Far West the remainder of his life. After 1856, John was the sole survivor of the Eight Witnesses. His testimony of the Book of Mormon was told again and again with strong emotions. John died in 1878 in Far West.
“Joseph Smith’s family had carried the first burden in inquiry and persecution in the gospel’s restoration, but the Whitmers were the family that nourished the Church.” (Richard L. Anderson, “The Whitmers: A Family That Nourished the Church,” Ensign, 1979, p. 36)
Source: Who's Who in the Doctrine & Covenants by Susan Easton Black; Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, Richard L. Anderson; "The Whitmers: A Family That Nourished the Church." Ensign, August 1979
The Testimony of Eight Witnesses
Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That Joseph Smith, Jun., the translator of this work, has shown unto us the plates of which hath been spoken, which have the appearance of gold; and as many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated we did handle with our hands; and we also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship. And this we bear record with words of soberness, that the said Smith has shown unto us, for we have seen and hefted, and know of a surety that the said Smith has got the plates of which we have spoken. And we give our names unto the world, to witness unto the world that which we have seen. And we lie not, God bearing witness of it.
Peter Whitmer, Jun.
Joseph Smith, Sen.
Samuel H. Smith