One of the questions that must inescapably be answered with regard to the Witnesses to the Book of Mormon involves their character, their personalities, their sanity — which inevitably comes down, at this distance in time, to the question of their public reputations. Now, of course, their public reputations suffered considerably from their association with Joseph Smith and the Restoration. So indicators of what people thought about them prior to their involvement with Joseph and the recovery of the Book of Mormon are of particular interest. Were they considered odd, eccentric, crazy? Did their neighbors regard them as dishonest or unstable? Were they marginal persons, on the fringes of acceptable society or even altogether beyond its bounds?
The late, great Richard Lloyd Anderson gathered a surprising amount of useful material on precisely such matters. Here are a couple of small, brief items from Professor Anderson’s research that are highlighted in Ronald E. Romig, Eighth Witness: The Biography of John Whitmer (Independence, MO: John Whitmer Books, 2014). They are both about members of the Whitmer family. Christian Whitmer was one of the Eight Witnesses to the Book of Mormon. David Whitmer was one of the Three Witnesses:
As a young man, Christian, being recognized as a natural leader, was commissioned as an officer in the 102nd New York Militia in 1825, and served as Fayette Township constable in 1828-29 when he would have been thirty or thirty-one. (14)
Like Christian, David also served in the military, becoming a sergeant in 1826 in Fayette’s newly organized militia, the “Seneca Grenadiers.” (15)
And here, while I have Ron Romig’s book open, is a little sketch of the Whitmers at the period most relevant to the translation of the Book of Mormon:
In the spring of 1829, at the time of Joseph and Oliver’s arrival, the Whitmer family formed a close grouping. In the home were parents Peter Sr. and his wife, Mary; their eighteen-year-old unmarried hired girl, Sarah Conrad; and four of the Whitmer children; twenty-six-year-old John; twenty-four-year-old David; nineteen-year-old Peter Jr.; and fourteen-year-old Elizabeth. Jacob and Elizabeth were living just a few steps away in the old Whitmer cabin. Christian and Anne may have been living with Frederick and Anna Schott one farm to the north. Hiram [Page] and Catharine, also, probably lived in the immediate neighborhood. (16-17)
David Whitmer would be one of the Three Witnesses.
John Whitmer, Peter Whitmer Jr., Jacob Whitmer, Christian Whitmer, and Hiram Page would see the plates in the experience of the Eight Witnesses.
Elizabeth Whitmer would eventually marry Oliver Cowdery, one of the Three Witnesses.
And Mary Whitmer, wife of Peter Whitmer Sr. and mother to David, John, Peter Jr., Jacob, Christian, and Elizabeth would be one of what I call the “informal” or “unofficial” witnesses, and perhaps the earliest of all the witnesses to the golden plates as such.