Friday, September 18, 2015

Western Missouri as a 'holy land'

(by Daniel Peterson 9-16-15)

Some time ago, while visiting greater Kansas City, my wife and I spent several of our free hours visiting the graves of the seven witnesses to the Book of Mormon — all those connected with the Whitmer family — who are buried in the vicinity.

John Whitmer’s body rests at Kingston, near Far West, Missouri, nearly 56 miles to the northeast of Kansas City. (On John Whitmer, see my column "John Whitmer left church, but kept testimony of Book of Mormon.") Hiram Page, a Whitmer brother-in-law, was buried near Excelsior Springs, Missouri, 30 miles northeast from downtown.

Both Christian Whitmer and Peter Whitmer Jr. are buried at Liberty, Missouri, 20 miles northeast of Kansas City and roughly 3 miles from the jail where the Prophet Joseph Smith and others spent five months captive during the winter of 1838-39. In 2011, thanks to the anonymous generosity of two brothers who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an impressive granite monument was erected on the site to honor not just Christian and Peter, but all of the Eight Witnesses.

Jacob Whitmer is buried in the Pioneer Cemetery in Richmond, Missouri, roughly 40 miles due east from Kansas City, along with Peter Whitmer Sr. and Mary Musselman Whitmer, who herself is an important (unofficial) witness to the Book of Mormon. And about 40 feet north of Jacob’s grave is that of Oliver Cowdery, one of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon and another Whitmer son-in-law. (Since 1911, a granite monument to the Three Witnesses has stood nearby; it served as the model for the Eight Witnesses monument erected a century later in Liberty.)

David Whitmer, one of the Three Witnesses and the longest-surviving of all of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, lies not too far away in the separate Richmond (City) Cemetery, where, coincidentally, Bob Ford, “the man who shot Jesse James,” also rests.

As we drove through rural western Missouri, I noticed banners hanging at several churches, announcing tours to the Holy Land — referring, of course, to the places associated with the Bible and the life of Jesus Christ. Now, I yield to nobody in affirming the value that a visit to biblical sites can have for faith and religious understanding; I’ve led several tours to Israel myself.

But it struck me then that the vast majority of the people in those churches likely had no idea that they themselves were already surrounded by the history and the graves of much more recent eyewitnesses who were comparable to the early disciples of Jesus. They, too, saw. They, too, knew for themselves.

And, although they encountered difficulties and eventually fell away from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they, too, remained faithful to what they had seen, bearing witness of it until (and, as we’ll shortly see, even beyond) their dying days.

Oliver Cowdery, for example, dissented away from Joseph Smith and was eventually excommunicated from the LDS Church — a daring move on Joseph’s part, by the way, if Oliver were a co-conspirator with him in fraud — but was rebaptized on Nov. 12, 1848, by Elder Orson Hyde of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Oliver wanted to move westward with the saints, casting his lot with a persecuted and homeless people, but failing health prevented him from doing so, and he died at the home of David Whitmer on March 3, 1850. Those who were with him at the end, though, unanimously affirm that he continued to declare his testimony. To Jacob Gates, for example, he’s reported to have spoken as follows:

“Jacob, I want you to remember what I say to you. I am a dying man, and what would it profit me to tell you a lie? I know that this Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God. My eyes saw, my ears heard, and my understanding was touched, and I know that whereof I testified is true. It was no dream, no vain imagination of the mind — it was real.”

Oliver’s wife, Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery (1815-1892), had known him since the time when, before their marriage, he served as scribe while Joseph Smith dictated from the golden plates. “He always without one doubt,” she said of her husband, “affirmed the divinity and truth of the Book of Mormon.”

David Whitmer’s grave is marked by a stone shaft on which two books are carved — plainly the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Inscribed on the shaft is his final earthly testimony: “The record of the Jews and the record of the Nephites are one. Truth is eternal.”


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