Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery, witness to the translation of the Book of Mormon

Jonathan Neville rejects David Whitmer’s eyewitness testimony of Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon by means of a seer stone Joseph placed into a hat. Neville believes that Whitmer’s belief that Joseph was a fallen prophet somehow discredits Whitmer’s firsthand witness of the translation process. He claims—without any evidence whatsoever—that “David Whitmer was relating his experience with a demonstration that Joseph conducted.”

But David Whitmer wasn’t the only witness to the Book of Mormon translation by means of a seer stone. I’ve previously mentioned the testimonies of Martin Harris and Emma Smith that affirm Whitmer’s. And there are others as well.

Another witness who left her testimony was Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery, David’s sister and wife of Oliver Cowdery. (She married Oliver in December 1832 and was widowed at his death in March 1850.) Elizabeth lived in the Whitmer home at Fayette, New York, when Joseph and Oliver were completing the translation of the Book of Mormon in June 1829. She witnessed the translation process.

In early 1870, William McLellin visited Sister Cowdery at her home in Richmond, Missouri. She gave him a certificate with her testimony of what she witnessed at the Whitmer home as a teenager:
Richmond, Ray Co., Mo. Feb 15, 1870⸻I cheerfully certify that I was familiar with the manner of Joseph Smith’s translating the book of Mormon. He translated the most of it at my Father’s house. And I often sat by and saw and heard them translate and write for hours together. Joseph never had a curtain drawn between him and his scribe while he was translating. He would place the director in his hat, and then place his face in his hat, so as to exclude the light, and then [read the words?] as they appeared before him.
(Lyndon W. Cook, ed., David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness [Orem, UT: Grandin Book, 1991], 233–34; cited in John W. Welch, ed., Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844 [Provo, UT: BYU Press / Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), 165.)
Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery
Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery
Notice that Elizabeth clearly stated that she “saw and heard [Joseph and Oliver] translate and write for hours together.” There is no rational way to claim that she only saw Joseph “demonstrating” the method of translation with a seer stone. Neville’s assertion that Joseph only used the stone in a hat as a public display but never actually translated that way is absurd.

Elizabeth’s eyewitness testimony is also significant in another way: Neville asserts that Oliver’s testimony of Joseph using the Nephite interpreters (or “Urim and Thummim”) cannot be reconciled with claims that he translated using a seer stone, that Joseph only used the interpreters, and that those who believe the seer stone accounts think Joseph and Oliver weren’t “telling the truth.” But Elizabeth Ann Whitmer was married to Oliver Cowdery for over seventeen years and affirmed, twenty years after her husband’s death, that the Book of Mormon was translated by the power of God. Clearly she saw no conflict between her late husband’s testimony and what she saw in her family’s home in 1829.

To believe Jonathan Neville’s version of events, one must dismiss every witness of the translation of the Book of Mormon and read Joseph and Oliver’s testimonies only in the most narrow way possible. Such a reading is not only unnecessary, it also shows contemptuous disrespect for those who saw, firsthand, the work of God unfolding at the mouth of Joseph Smith and the pen of Oliver Cowdery.

—Peter Pan


  1. Why in the workd does Neville object to Joseph's use of seer stones, such as the Urim and Thummim, in the translation process? Does he not accept Joseph's statements describing them? Does he reject the Book of Mormon description of the use of the stones by King Mosiah to translate the Book of Ether? Does he reject the experience of Ether receiving the stones from the Lord?

    1. Neville insists that Joseph ONLY used the Nephite interpreters to translate the Book of Mormon and never used a seer stone in a hat. He defends this by only quoting statements from Joseph and from Oliver Cowdery, who used the term “Urim and Thummim” to describe the instrument used in the translation. Neville asserts that term only referred to the interpreters and that all the other witnesses to the translation were unreliable.

      I don’t know for certain why he insists that his interpretation is the only correct one. My belief is that he’s following Joseph Fielding Smith on this. Elder Smith rejected David Whitmer’s eyewitness account and asserted that Joseph never used a seer stone.

      Heartlanders love Joseph Fielding Smith’s writings. They form the basis for their rigidly orthodox views of the gospel.


Thoughtful comments are welcome and invited. All comments are moderated.

Popular Posts

Search This Blog