Gadianton Robbers and Spiritual Wives: John Whitmer on the Kirtland Church

johnwhitmer_editedThe Joseph Smith Papers website recently posted an exciting addition to their collection: the John Whitmer history of the Church, which he kept from roughly 1831-1847.[1]
Whitmer’s understanding of the events in Kirtland and Missouri may shed light on two oft-misunderstood aspects of the Mormon experience—namely, the Danite vigilante group, and the principle of polygamy.

John Whitmer worked as one of Joseph Smith’s scribes while the prophet translated the Book of Mormon; later, he became one of the eight witnesses of that sacred record. On March 8, 1831, John was called by revelation to keep a history of the Church.[2] He probably copied the history into his “Book of John Whitmer” early in 1838, but occasional entries in the present tense indicate that he used contemporaneously drafted notes. In a repentant spirit, John recorded his excommunication of 10 March 1838, stating that he was closing the record, and hoping that he would be forgiven of his faults. But upon reflection, he went back and struck out these concluding sentiments. He then appended three additional chapters, containing his reflections on thorny historical matters, communications from Nauvoo, and his own responses to the issues of succession following the death of Joseph Smith in 1844.

Whitmer was troubled by the Kirtland bank failure, rumors of polygamy, and a secret, oath-bound organization which came to be known as the Danites.

My previous post, “I am Spartacus!”: The Brother of Gideon and the Corporate Nature of Danite Identity, mentioned Whitmer’s use of the term “brother of Gideon” to refer to the Danite organization in Missouri. As Chris Smith noted, Whitmer also employed the term “Gideonites,” a name for the band that was unique to him. Additionally, Whitmer referred to Danites as a “band of gadeantons [Gadiantons],” connecting the organization with secret, oath-bound “combinations” in the Book of Mormon.[3]
After Whitmer’s excommunication, he made an interesting claim; that the Danite organization, along with the principle of plurality of wives, originated as early as 1836 in Kirtland.

In the fall of 1836, Joseph Smith Jr. S[idney] Rigdon & others of the Leaders of the church at Kirtland Ohio, Established a bank for the purpose of Speculation and the whole church partook of the same Spirit, they were lifted up in pride, and lusted after the forbid[d]en things of God such as covetousness, & in secret combination, spiritual wife doctrine, that is pleurality of wives, and gadianton bands, in which they were bound with oaths &c. that brought divisi[o]ns and mistrust among those who were pure in heart, and desired the upb[u]ilding of the Kingdom of God.

This startling revelation runs counter to the currently accepted historical view that the Danites originated in Missouri in 1838 and plural marriage was not generally practiced until the 1840s in Nauvoo. How much credence can we give to the assertions of John Whitmer, an excommunicated member, who later associated with not one, but two splinter movements?[4] An explanatory note inserted into the record at this point by the editors of the Joseph Smith Papers declares that his narrative exhibits “significant historical shortcomings.”

He [John Whitmer] stands alone among his contemporaries in claiming that an organization resembling the Danites originated in Ohio, and his generalization about “spiritual wife doctrine, that is pleurality [sic] of wives” in Kirtland suggests his narrative was colored by a later perspective, one based on charges leveled at the Mormons in Nauvoo in the 1840s.[5]

But are Whitmer’s claims supported by other evidence? Let us consider each of these points in turn. First, he mentioned a problem with plurality of wives in Kirtland. This observation appears to be supported by the 1835 edition of the D&C, which establishes that by that date the Church had, in fact, been accused of polygamy:

Inasmuch as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy: we declare that we believe, that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband.[6]

Even if it cannot be demonstrated that plural marriage was being performed with the sanction of Church leadership in 1835, Whitmer scores a bullseye here. Not only were there “charges leveled at the Mormons in Nauvoo,” but there was an earlier concern about polygamy in Kirtland, or there would have been no need for a statement disavowing it. Moreover, the term “spiritual wife doctrine” was not unique to the Nauvoo period. In fact, it has been vigorously argued that the phrase “spiritual wifery” may have entered the Church through the conversion of Cochranite polygamists as early as 1832.[7]

Now, let’s look at the Danites. Could these “Brothers of Gideon” have originated in Kirtland, as John Whitmer suggested?[8] The following paragraph from the Whitmer history contains many similarities with testimonies given before the Fifth Judicial Circuit Court of the State of Missouri in November 1838, preserving the Masonic language of the Danite oaths.[9] This suggests he may have been familiar with the statements of Sampson Avard, Reed Peck, and others. But unlike the other witnesses of Danite activity, Whitmer insisted that the Society had a presence in Kirtland by 1836. His language closely connects the establishment of the Society with the Kirtland endowment:
John Whitmer

After Smiths return to Kirtland Ohio and after his ordering the first Elders of the church to go to Ohio there to receive their endowment from on high he hasted the finishing of the house at Kirtland which was commenced before he had gone to Zion to redeem her. He from this time began to be lifted up in the pride of his eyes, and began to seek riches and to form themselves into a secret Society which they termed the Brother of Gideon, in the which Society they took oaths that they would Support a brother wright or wrong even to the shed[d]ing of blood. also to thus [those] who belonged tho [to] this society were bound to keep it a profound Secret never to reveal but ever to conceal these abominations from all and every person axcept those who were of the same Craft. But these things could not be kept a secret in consequence of betreyers who fel[l] from their faith, and revealed their Secrets thus things were carried on by secret plots and midnight machinations, which Society was begin[n]ing to be established in Kirtland Ohio in the fall of 1836.

The formation of the “Gideonites” was a response to the collapse of Joseph Smith’s prophetic authority in Kirtland. Leland Gentry believes, along with many others, that the Society originated with the stirring “Salt Sermon” given by Sidney Rigdon in Far West on June 17, 1838. Rigdon’s oration compared dissenters with salt which had lost its savor, and was thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Clearly, his language echoed a well-known scripture in Matthew 5:13. However, more importantly, in a December 1833 revelation now known as D&C 101, this concept was directly applied to transgressors who needed to be chastened. A subsequent revelation in February 1834, now D&C 103, likewise used the salt metaphor, “inasmuch as they are not the saviors of men, they are as salt that has lost its savor.” Included in these two sections was strong language that foreshadowed the Danite purposes in Missouri:

  • “they were found transgressors, therefore they must needs be chastened” (D&C 101:41)
  • “And inasmuch as they gather together against you, avenge me of mine enemies, that by and by I may come with the residue of mine house and possess the land” (D&C 101:58)
  • “the redemption of Zion must needs come by power” (103:15)
  • “And my presence shall be with you even in avenging me of mine enemies” (103:26)

Theoretically, the “Gideonites” could have originated in Kirtland along with these types of teachings regarding dissenters and occupation of the land of Zion.

A distinguishing feature of the Danite organization in Missouri was the oaths that were taken by participants that they would obey the Presidency of the Church “right or wrong,” protect each other under all circumstances unto death, and consecrate their “person and effects” to the building of the Kingdom of God.[10] There is some evidence that such oaths were being taken in Kirtland in connection with the Law of Consecration, using the same vocabulary about obeying the Presidency. Finally, Joseph himself was using Danite rhetoric in Kirtland:

[the dissenters] openly and publicly renounced the Church of Christ of Latter-day Saints and claimed themselves to be the old standard … and set me at naught, and the whole Church, denouncing us as heretics, not considering that the Saints shall possess the Kingdom according to the Prophet Daniel.[11]

The Joseph Smith Papers’ observations on the historical shortcomings of Whitmer’s account may have merit. However, several things we know about Kirtland give us pause to reconsider the value of his claims. The telling of history, even by those who were there, is a selective enterprise. Like Moroni, Whitmer went back later to add to his record significant details which he had omitted in his first telling. I’m inclined to give credence to Whitmer’s later additions. As he began to put together the record, early in 1838, he felt obliged to write faithful history, as an official representative of the Church. Later, after his excommunication, he likely felt more at liberty to express his concerns. Mormon historians need not so readily dismiss evidence which comes from a “dissenter.” A lesson suggested by the Church’s first historian is that history is not tidy, is not one-dimensional, nor is it without challenges. Human beings struggle to make sense of events in their lives. John Whitmer’s last three chapters contain his perception of early Church history when he began to write without Joseph-colored glasses.

[1] Book of John Whitmer
[2] D&C 47:1
[3] See Helaman 2-13, 3 Nephi 1-3, 4 Nephi 1, Mormon 2.
[4] John Whitmer followed James Strang until he became convinced that his brother, David Whitmer held a legitimate succession claim.
[5] “Editorial Note” placed before Chapter 20 in the Book of John Whitmer, at the Joseph Smith Papers Project.
[6] 1835 D&C Sec C1 p. 251
[7] In their 2000 book, Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy, authors Richard and Pamela Price attempt to show that “plural marriage” and “spiritual wifery” came into Mormonism by way of ex-Cochranite converts to the Latter Day Saint faith. The Prices demonstrate that early Mormon leaders were exposed to “Cochranite polygamy” following the 1832 missionary tour of elders Samuel H. Smith and Orson Hyde through Maine’s Saco Valley. However, the close correspondence between the structure of the Rev. Jacob Cochran’s “Ark” commune, at Hollis, and the Rev. Sidney Rigdon’s “Morley Farm” commune, at Kirtland, suggests that Cochranite influences may have touched Ohio’s Rigdonites even before they converted to Mormonism at the end of 1830.
[8] Whitmer’s writings may add credence to an unsubstantiated statement in an early biography of Porter Rockwell which asserts that a Danite group was organized in Kirtland about 1835. Rockwell, Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery, and David W. Patten (as “Simon”) are named as the original five Danites. See Achilles [Samuel D. Sirrine] The Destroying Angels of Mormonism (San Francisco: Alta California Printing House, 1878), 8.
[9] “never reveal but ever conceal,” and “support a brother right or wrong” are phrases found in David Bernard’s 1829 exposure “Light on Masonry.”
[10] John Corrill, A Brief History of the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints (Commonly Called Mormons) (St. Louis, MO: Author, 1839), 29, 30; John D. Lee, Mormonism Unveiled (Albuquerque, NM: Fierra Blanca Publications, 2001) 59; Achilles, 8-9. Language comes from the Royal Arch Degree, see David Bernard, Light on Masonry (Utica, New York: William Williams Printer, 1829), p. 130.
[11] HC 2:509-511


Gadianton Robbers and Spiritual Wives: John Whitmer on the Kirtland Church — 6 Comments

  1. Good stuff, Cheryl. I won’t say too much about it, but a Kirtland origin for the Danites (or at least Danite-like precepts) is one of my major research interests, though at the moment it’s on the back burner. The JSPP people definitely dismissed Whitmer’s statement too quickly.

  2. When I read the Whitmer statement, I don’t hear him say all those things originated in the fall of 1836 – just the establishment of the bank (a sign of pride, materialism, Mammon, the carnal over the spiritual, etc.) and as a result, these other things occurred (sometime thereafter) in the church.

  3. I think Cheryl’s is a more straightforward reading, Connell, but I’ll agree that the first Whitmer statement she quoted could be read the way you read it. If you read on in her post, however, you’ll find a quote from Whitmer’s history that’s more explicit.

    By the way, Cheryl, I just did a quick word-search on “Gideonites” and came up with the following from the Life of Heber C. Kimball:

    “When Brother Brigham and myself and others left Kirtland to go to Missouri with Joseph Smith, was there any fear in us? No. It never entered into our hearts from the day we started to the time we returned. I had a spirit on me as much superior to this earth, as the earth is superior to the degraded spirits of the wicked that dwell on its face. It was the Spirit of the Lord that stood by me, and diffused strength into my body, and into my limbs, until the very hair of my head felt all alive. Did they fear us in that upper country? Yes, they ran as though they were never going to stop in the world. We felt perfectly able to clear out that country to Nova Scotia, and we could have done it, with two hundred and five men, if the Lord had commanded us, as the Gideonites in days of old. Yes; two hundred and five men, with the Spirit and power of God upon them and their faces shining like the sun, it cannot be told what they could accomplish, neither can we form any conception of it.”

    Brigham Young also once said,

    “How many times have I said that I would, rather have one hundred true Saints in the mountains than five millions that are not Saints, if I had to contend against the whole world? What, with the sword? Yes. Let me have the Gideonites that can kneel down and lap the water, and one will chase a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight.”

    These statements of course allude to Judges 7, where God allows Gideon to take only three hundred men into battle so that no one can doubt the miraculous nature of their victory. Kimball’s statement suggests that the men of Zion’s Camp were already thinking of themselves as Gideonites.

  4. Chris, that Kimball quote is a great find!

    Also connected with the Danites is that rhetoric from Judges about putting two thousand to flight. I’m not home right now, but I’ll post up a quote or two later. There are many things which connect the Danites with the Biblical Gideon.

  5. Great stuff thanks. I have been trying to find material concerning the origin of the spiritual wifery/polygamy and this is the first I have heard of the Cochranite polygamists. Do you know of any good histories on the development of the Temple Endowment? Thanks again,