While in Missouri for a pair of speaking engagements this past weekend, my wife and I took the opportunity to visit important Latter-day Saint historical sites.
For example, we paid our respects at the grave of John Whitmer, one of the Eight Witnesses, in Kingston. We likewise visited the monument to all eight recently erected where Christian Whitmer and Peter Whitmer Jr. are buried just south of Liberty. We drove by the isolated grave of Hiram Page, another of the witnesses, outside of Excelsior Springs.
In Richmond, we visited the graves of Jacob Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery in the Pioneer Cemetery, where Peter Whitmer, in whose house the church was organized in 1830, is also buried alongside his wife, Mary Musselman Whitmer. Because of her own remarkable experience with Moroni and the plates, Mary Whitmer can justly be called the 12th Book of Mormon witness.
The separate Richmond city cemetery contains the graves of Bob Ford, who shot Jesse James, and Austin A. King, the 10th governor of Missouri who, while serving earlier as a circuit court judge, had Joseph and Hyrum Smith thrown into Liberty Jail. Perhaps ironically—and, without question, much more significantly—it’s also the final resting place of David Whitmer, who was the last surviving Book of Mormon witness at his death in 1888. His grave is marked by a pillar, atop which two books appear to be carved and upon which is this inscription: “The record of the Jews and the record of the Nephites are one. Truth is eternal.”
Robert Browning’s story-poem “A Death in the Desert” describes what he imagined to be the death of John, the last of Christ’s New Testament apostles, who “Saw with his eyes and handled with his hands/That which was from the first, the Word of Life.” But, Browning’s poetic voice asks, “How will it be when none more saith ‘I saw’?”
And how, indeed, was it? For roughly 18 centuries, until the commencement of the Restoration in the spring of 1820, there were no prophets and no apostles. But then, suddenly, through the grace of God, there were eyewitnesses again, men and women who had seen with their eyes and handled with their hands. People who knew.
Christian churches of various denominations dot the rolling landscape north and east of Kansas City. Many believers there surely dream of visiting the Holy Land. Others wonder whether stories of ancient revelations and long-ago miracles in distant lands can be trusted. Surrounding them, though, are the largely unnoticed graves of 19th-century witnesses every bit as significant as those ancient witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus.
Cowdery’s account of the resurrected John the Baptist’s appearance to him and Joseph Smith will serve to represent the many other testimonies that emerged from the remarkable early days of the Restoration:
“While the world was racked and distracted—while millions were groping as the blind for the wall, and while all men were resting upon uncertainty, as a general mass, our eyes beheld, our ears heard, as in the ‘blaze of day’; yes, more—above the glitter of the May sunbeam, which then shed its brilliancy over the face of nature! Then his voice, though mild, pierced to the center, and his words, ‘I am thy fellow-servant,’ dispelled every fear. We listened, we gazed, we admired! ’Twas the voice of an angel from glory, ’twas a message from the Most High! And as we heard we rejoiced, while His love enkindled upon our souls, and we were wrapped in the vision of the Almighty! Where was room for doubt? Nowhere; uncertainty had fled, doubt had sunk no more to rise, while fiction and deception had fled forever!”
Cardinal de Polignac once informed the famous 18th-century French wit Madame du Deffand that the martyr St. Denis, the first bishop of Paris, had walked a hundred miles after his execution while carrying his head in his hand: “In such a promenade,” she replied, “it’s the first step that is difficult.”
She meant, of course, that whether St. Denis walked a hundred miles or only a single one is immaterial. The fundamental question is whether, after his beheading, he walked at all. All else is mere detail.
The legend of St. Denis scarcely matters. But if the testimonies of these sane, honest, reputable, consistent 19th-century American witnesses are true, the rest truly is just detail—and the news they brought is transcendently wonderful, surpassingly important.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs http://www.mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.