Section 47: John Whitmer Named Church Historian
Since the time of Adam and Eve, the saints of the Lord have been instructed to keep records of both their spiritual and temporal affairs, their divine revelations, and their history. In our own time this commandment is found in D&C 21:1 and elsewhere. Some great prophets have obeyed this commandment, to the benefit of millions who came after them. These prophets include Adam, Enoch, Abraham, Moses, Nephi, Mormon, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, among many others.
Prior to March 1831, Oliver Cowdery had acted as historian and recorder though he had never been formally called and set apart to the job. On March 8, 1831, the same day Joseph received section 46, he also received section 47. In section 47, John Whitmer is named official church historian. Actually he was called to the position previously by a council of elders. (It has been suggested, with tongue in cheek, that perhaps he was the only one out of town when the council met.) His acceptance of the call was half-hearted. He told Joseph he would rather not be the church historian, but that if it was the Lord’s will, then he would accept. Joseph inquired, and this revelation was the Lord’s answer. On April 9, 1831, John Whitmer was sustained in his twin callings as both church historian and church recorder by a special meeting of elders in Kirtland. D&C 69:2-8 also gives John additional instructions on his duties as church historian.
He served as custodian of the records until his excommunication on March 10, 1838, at Far West.
Not only was his acceptance of the call half-hearted, but his execution of the office was mediocre. His historical record turned out to be a “mere sketch of the things that transpired.” His total work consisted of 85 pages, 75 per cent of which was simply a copy of the revelations received by Joseph during those years.
After his excommunication, he refused to deliver up to the Church his documents. Because of his refusal, Joseph wrote him a letter asking him again to give up his records, and that if he did not, then Joseph and some of the other brethren would proceed to write a history of their own. At that point in church history, Joseph did proceed to dictate an account of the history of the Church from its beginning. This project continued to the death of the Prophet and beyond. From these records, the Church published in 1951 the History of the Church which covers the period of time from the Church’s inception to a short period following Joseph’s death.
At John Whitmer’s death, his history was given to his nephew John C. Whitmer of Richmond, Missouri. The Whitmers eventually willed the history to the Reorganized LDS Church, which has since published it.
1 Behold, it is expedient in me that my servant John should write and keep a regular history, and assist you, my servant Joseph, in transcribing all things which shall be given you, until he is called to further duties.
verse 1 “keep a regular history” The historical records kept up to this time in the Church had been rather irregularly attended to. The Church needed a permanent historian. The prophet Joseph Smith wrote of the value of keeping accurate and complete records:
If you assemble from time to time, and proceed to discuss important questions, and pass decisions upon the same, and fail to note them down, by and by you will be driven to straits from which you will not be able to extricate yourselves, because you may be in a situation not to bring your faith to bear with sufficient perfection or power to obtain the desired information; or, perhaps, for neglecting to write these things when God has revealed them, not esteeming them of sufficient worth, the Spirit may withdraw and God may be angry; and there is, or was a vast knowledge, of infinite importance, which is now lost (HC, 2:198-99).
“assist you . . . in transcribing all things which shall be given you” John Whitmer’s duties were not confined to keeping the records or writing a history. He is here called to transcribe anything that may come to Joseph. At the time Joseph and Sidney were working on the JST. While Sidney Rigdon functioned as scribe for most all of that project, it was John Whitmer who transcribed much of the manuscript of the JST. To transcribe here means to produce another clearer, cleaner copy of what Sidney had written as he took dictation from the prophet. John Whitmer also functioned as scribe for the project on occasion.
2 Again, verily I say unto you that he can also lift up his voice in meetings, whenever it shall be expedient.
3 And again, I say unto you that it shall be appointed unto him to keep the church record and history continually; for Oliver Cowdery I have appointed to another office.
verse 3 “it shall be appointed unto him to keep the church record and history continually” In addition to being the church historian, John Whitmer was also to serve as the church recorder and keep the records that we would refer to today as membership and statistical records.
“Oliver Cowdery I have appointed to another office” This likely refers to Oliver’s calling as “second elder of this church” (D&C 20:3) and as the leader of the Lamanite mission (see D&C 28:8; 30:5-6), where Oliver was still serving at the time this revelation was received.
4 Wherefore, it shall be given him, inasmuch as he is faithful, by the Comforter, to write these things. Even so. Amen.
- Michael J. Preece