DC 47 Historical Background
From the beginning of the church, the Lord commanded that a record be kept (D&C 21:1). Early on, this responsibility had fallen to Oliver Cowdery. However, there is some debate as to how complete a record Oliver kept.
"John Whitmer... noted: 'Oliver Cowdery has written the commencement of the Church history, commencing at the time of the finding of the plates, up to June 12, 1831.'
"For many, this statement means that Oliver had compiled the events up to that time in some detail. This, of course, is what John Whitmer had done, telling the story of the Church from 1831 to 1838 in about one hundred manuscript pages. A similar Cowdery account would be priceless. But searches in several generations have failed to locate any history earlier than John Whitmer's. A century ago, Church historians Franklin D. Richards and Andrew Jenson spent much time trying to locate an Oliver Cowdery history, and did not find one, as shown by the careful Historical Department study detailed in the news release published in the December 1986 Ensign.
"Was there a Cowdery history? Probably not-at least not the narrative history that has traditionally been assumed to exist. Previous to 1832, many Church records were kept by Oliver Cowdery. However, these were not chronological history, but mostly drafts of Joseph's early revelations and the minutes of the first two conferences of the Church held June 9 and September 26, 1830, to which Oliver Cowdery signed his name." (Richard Lloyd Anderson, "The Alvin Smith Story: Fact and Fiction," Ensign, Aug. 1987, 66)
Whether Oliver ever wrote a narrative account or not, he could not continue to act as church historian in 1831. In the fall of 1830 he had departed west on a mission among the Lamanites with Parley P. Pratt, Peter Whitmer Jr., and Ziba Peterson. By the time section 47 was received, Oliver had not been among the general body of the saints for the 6 months.
I returned from Nelson, Ohio, where I and Lyman Wight had built a branch of the Church of Christ. I was appointed by the voice of the elders to keep the Church Record. Joseph Smith, Jr., said unto me you must also keep the Church history. I would rather not do it but observed that the will of the Lord be done, and if he desires it, I desire that he would manifest it through Joseph the Seer. And thus came the word of the Lord: (See D&C 47.)
...From this date (June 12, 1831) I have written the things that I have written, and they are a mere sketch of the things that have transpired, they are however all that seemed to me wisdom to write. (The Book of John Whitmer, typescript, [Provo: BYU Archives and Manuscripts], chap. 6)
DC 47 Biographical Sketch: John Whitmer
"The third son of Peter Whitmer, Sr., and Mary Musselman, John was born August 27, 1802. He was baptized by Oliver Cowdery in Seneca Lake in June, 1829, soon after Joseph Smith's arrival at his father's home from Harmony, Pennsylvania.
"John Whitmer, along with his brothers, David and Peter, became the Prophet Joseph Smith's zealous friend and assistant during the time that Joseph was translating the Book of Mormon. Like his brother, Peter, he became anxious to know from the Lord what would be of the most worth to him. The Prophet inquired of the Lord through the Urim and Thummim and received a revelation (D&C 15) in which it was made known to John that the thing which would be of most worth to him was to 'declare repentance unto this people, that you may bring souls unto me.' John assisted the Prophet in his early work of building up the Church and accompanied him on his first missionary trips to Colesville, Broome County, New York. Here a good-sized branch of the Church was built up in the midst of considerable persecution. He was also at the little sacrament meeting in Harmony, Pennsylvania (August, 1830), when the Prophet received the revelation concerning the Sacrament (D&C 27).
"A number of revelations were given the Prophet in which the name of John Whitmer figured. In a revelation given at Fayette, New York, he was called to labor in a region near the home of brother named Philippians Burroughs (D&C 30:9-11) in the interest of Zion; and on March 8, 1831, he was chosen to labor as a historian for the Church (D&C 47). Again in November, 1831, he was called (D&C 69) to accompany Oliver Cowdery to Jackson County, Missouri, with the revelations which he had previously assisted the Prophet Joseph Smith in copying and preparing for printing. He was also one of seven High Priests sent from Kirtland, Ohio, to stand at the head of the Church in Jackson County, Missouri; and at the time of the Missouri persecutions he was one of the members of the committee who negotiated with the mob and agreed that the Saints should leave Jackson County." (Sidney B. Sperry, Book of Mormon Compendium [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1968], 68-69.)
DC 47:1 John should write and keep a regular history
John Whitmer began his narrative on June 12, 1831. Written as a firsthand account, the history has great value in elucidating certain events. "His ninety-six written pages are considered by some historians to be the most authoritative history of the Church before 1838." (Susan Easton Black, Who's Who in the Doctrine and Covenants [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1997], 332.) Whitmer's history, entitled The Book of John Whitmer, includes certain events which are not recorded anywhere else.
However, the account is brief and key events are only lightly treated. For instance, his account of the dedication of the Kirtland temple is quite brief and incomplete. The early saints seemed to underestimate the historical value of what was happening in the Church. Events which must have seemed mundane and of little consequence at the time are of exquisite interest to those of our generation. As early as February 1835, Joseph Smith lamented:
It is a fact, if I now had in my possession, every decision which had been had upon important items of doctrine and duties since the commencement of this work, I would not part with them for any sum of money; but we have neglected to take minutes of such things, thinking, perhaps, that they would never benefit us afterwards; which, if we had them now, would decide almost every point of doctrine which might be agitated. But this has been neglected, and now we cannot bear record to the Church and to the world, of the great and glorious manifestations which have been made to us with that degree of power and authority we otherwise could, if we now had these things to publish abroad. (History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols., introduction and notes by B. H. Roberts [Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1932-1951], 2: 198 - 199.)
John Whitmer commenced keeping this history until March of 1838, at which time he was excommunicated for misuse of church funds. His finished his record with the following:
I close the history of the Church of Latter-day Saints, hoping that I may be forgiven of my faults, and my sins be blotted out and in the last day be saved in the Kingdom of God, notwithstanding my private situation, which I hope will soon be bettered and I find favor in the eyes of God, all men and his Saints. Farewell. March 1838. (John Whitmer, The Book of John Whitmer, typescript, [Provo: BYU Archives and Manuscripts], chap. 1)
At some later date, presumably after the mid 1840's, John began again to record the history of the Church. However this time, he wrote not as a faithful elder but as a bitter apostate. His last three chapters accuse Joseph Smith and other church leaders of corruption and malice. They accurately represent the spirit of enmity common to apostates.
When John Whitmer left the Church, he took his history with him. He ignored requests from church officials to provide them a copy of the history. Finally, "in 1893, many years after his death, a copy of his history was obtained by the Church." (Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual, [Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981], 102)
DC 47:3 it shall be appointed unto him to keep the church record and history continually
"Oliver was Church recorder, but John was recorder and historian." (Richard Lloyd Anderson, "The Alvin Smith Story: Fact and Fiction," Ensign, Aug. 1987, 66-67)
DC 47:4 inasmuch as he is faithful
One of the greatest tragedies of reviewing the early history of the Church is to study the lives of so many people who received great blessings and privileges only to later fall away from the Church. John Whitmer had written some of 1 Nephi with his own hand. (Kenneth W. Godfrey, "A New Prophet and a New Scripture: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon," Ensign, Jan. 1988, 12) He had held the gold plates in his very hands and examined the characters. He had acted as scribe for sections of the Doctrine and Covenants as well as the book of Moses-arguably some of the most sublime revelations ever given to mankind. He had been in the inner circle of those who received portions of the endowment in the Kirtland Temple. He walked and talked with the choice seer, Joseph Smith.
Yet, when opportunity availed itself, he benefited personally from his church position. "Upon returning to Missouri he aided the Saints by purchasing tracts of land in Caldwell County that later became known as Far West. However, financial irregularities in the purchase led to allegations and an investigation of his actions. Angered by directives to account for his use of Church funds, he declined to disclose the records. John was excommunicated on 10 March 1838 'for persisting in unchristian-like conduct' and for refusal to return to the Prophet the historical writings of the Church." (Susan Easton Black, Who's Who in the Doctrine and Covenants [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1997], 333)
And so, we see little caveats in the revelations. To John Whitmer, the Lord says, "inasmuch as he is faithful." To Oliver Cowdery, he says, "beware of pride" (D&C 23:1). To Thomas B. Marsh, he warns, "Pray always, lest you enter into temptation and lose your reward" (D&C 31:12). The tragedy of these once faithful brethren is heartrending. Yet, all these remind us of our tenuous position as members in good standing. Regardless of personal revelations, angelic visitations, or even open visions, we are all capable of falling from grace-especially if we are not vigilant. Indeed, the Lord promises us all great blessings "inasmuch as [we] are faithful."