Home / Testimonies / David J. Whittaker

When I was a sophomore in high school, my family lived about twenty-five miles from the town in which the school was located. This meant a long bus ride to and from school each day, a ride made even longer because of all the stops along the way. This was not too tiresome for me; the ride was through a scenic canyon, and there was always friendly conversation with fellow students. The only real problem came because of my participation in high school athletics—particularly basketball—which required after school practices and necessitated some creativity in getting home in the evenings.

There was the Greyhound bus, but it cost money, and it would only drop me off on the major highway about one mile away from my hometown. In the winter months this was particularly troublesome, but it did prevent hitchhiking, an alternative my parents forbade.

Fortunately my father was the branch president of our local Latter-day Saint congregation, and our chapel was near the high school. For a variety of reasons, the chapel proved to be a convenient rendezvous during the week. It was while walking to the chapel one evening following basketball practice that I experienced my first and most powerful spiritual confirmation about the Book of Mormon.

Walking from the gym to our chapel covered about a quarter of a mile. Leaving the locker room, I walked across the south end of the football field, across a segment of the track, up a slight incline to a cement walk, then across a street and on to the chapel lawn. It was between the football field and the street that I experienced what I would describe as an overwhelming spiritual presence that conveyed to my heart and mind that the Book of Mormon was a true record of Christ and his prophets and that this volume was exactly what Joseph Smith claimed it was. I saw no lights, no personages, heard no audible sounds, but felt a strong presence external to myself. I date my own testimony of the Book of Mormon from this experience in 1960.

I have reflected on this singular experience many times since. It has both comforted and afflicted me in the years since. For one thing, I had not read the Book of Mormon either seriously or prayerfully prior to this experience. While my parents had no doubt used its stories in family home evening settings, and surely my Sunday School and priesthood teachers had also exposed me to its messages, I had not personally or substantially studied its contents. While I do remember reading selected pages in Hugh Nibley’s An Approach to the Book of Mormon from my father’s library, and while my subsequent scholarly and devotional time with the volume have deepened and enlarged my testimony of its contents and messages, I truly had not begun my spiritual quest in the usual way.

I also discovered that, at least for me, there was a profound difference between knowing something is true and knowing what it means. Thus I have never doubted the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon (or Joseph Smith’s calling), but have spent much of my life since trying to grasp its meaning, trying to understand and apply its messages. While this has proved a great comfort to me spiritually, I am also afflicted by knowing that this is not enough. I must continually search and probe its contents for meaning, in addition to the constant need to put its teachings into practice in my life. For me this has meant surety on the foundational level of faith, but it has demanded a pilgrimage of the mind and the heart as I seek its deeper import and application.

For many of my friends the process was somewhat reversed. Their testimony of the Book of Mormon came only after long and hard searching and prayer. For them the spiritual experience was confirmation; for me it was more origination, beginning my quest, as it was. While I have had additional spiritual experiences with the volume since, it was the initial witness that was foundational for my faith. Its messages of a personal savior, of His love, of His atonement, of His personal visit to the New World, have continued to enlighten my life. With Nephi, I knew in my youth that “God loveth his children,” but “I did not know the meaning of all things.” (1 Nephi 11:17)

I do not know why it came this way to me. I do not think I was especially worthy or spiritual. In fact, I was really neither at that age. And the Lord must have known that I would not always sustain a life worthy of such an experience. Yet it was real, and it continues to sustain and enlighten my religious pilgrimage.

I did not begin a serious study of LDS history until my college years. I received my B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in American history. Having as an anchor the early spiritual witness, it was natural for me to probe and dig into Mormon history. It was in a BYU history course taught by Russel B. Swensen on the history of classical Greece that he told the class that we ought not to be allowed to graduate from BYU if we had not read Leonard Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom. I had not heard of this volume and since I respected Swensen, I searched for a copy to purchase. I read it in just a few days. It was, for me, another pivotal experience. Among other things, it suggested that LDS history could be studied as more than just religious history, that the Mormon experience was the story of putting faith in prophetic leadership into action in the real world; that in Mormonism there could be no real separation between the spiritual and the temporal. I learned that prophets could experiment with sugar beets and still be prophets. This opened new ways of looking at my own faith as well as into the history of my Church. It was another kind of spiritual experience.

Early in my studies two ideas helped to shape my understanding of Mormon history. The first was the Mormon notion of dispensations; the second came with the older notion of horizontal and vertical revelation.

It was my study of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Restoration handbook, and the manuscripts relating to Joseph Smith that led me to seriously consider the first. If, as Mormons believe, God had instituted and directed restorations of authority, knowledge, and lost scripture following the various apostasies through human history, it would seem that truth, while mixed with error, was to be found in the larger information environment in various cultures throughout history if we just looked for it. Hence, the command to “study out of the best books” (which I do not believe referred only to the scriptures) to find truth took on a deeper meaning; God, it seemed, did not generally volunteer information if it was already available to those who could find it on their own. Of course, this did not alleviate the need to confirm its truthfulness by seeking confirmation by the Spirit of what we found (and always supplemented with our access to the restored truths and living priesthood authority), but it did suggest revelation was as much confirmation as origination.

For much of my academic life I have been a teacher, first in the Institute program of the Church Educational System in Southern California and later in the Department of Church History and Doctrine and in the Department of History at BYU. Teachers, I came to understand, were not primarily deliverers of neatly packaged bundles of truth; insight and revelation, it seemed, requires a curious and searching student. In the scriptures, the revelatory verbs were active: disciples were to knock, seek, and ask at heaven’s door. Much of the real burden of learning lies with the student, not the teacher. In Mormonism, even prophets and apostles are students. Hence, pilot programs and the commandment to “study it out in our minds” (D&C 9:7-9) as we in the Church keep refining the process (as well as the questions) of learning the key lessons of mortality before returning to our Heavenly home. When confronted with challenges, not always from his critics, Jesus responded with a question: Where goest thou? (Moses 4:15) How readest thou? (Luke 10:26) How is it ye do not understand? (Matt. 8:21) How think ye? (Matt. 18:12) Have ye not read this scripture? (Mark 12:10) Who was the neighbor? (Luke 10:36) Wilt thou go away also? (John 6:67) What could I have done more? (Jacob 5:47) I certainly agree with Dennis Rasmussen [The Lord’s Question (1985)] that responding to the Lord’s questions is among the most valuable ways to get at the truth and meaning of life.

Given the assumptions of Mormon religious claims regarding visions, angels, and heavenly books, it would be inaccurate to only treat the temporal realm and to ignore the spiritual or divine aspects of that experience. Mormons are somewhat unique (Jews could be a possible exception) in their divine directives commanding true disciples to be students. Nephi worried over those who “will not search knowledge nor understand great knowledge.” (2 Nephi 32:7) In Mormonism, I came to understand that learning could be an act of worship, especially if we approached the task with humility and a child-like willingness to be taught. I would later discover that Brigham Young, as Joseph Smith’s greatest disciple, taught that we will never stop learning unless we apostatize (Journal of Discourses, 3:203). Abraham, the Father of the Faithful, understood the essential and eternal connection between knowledge and righteousness (Abraham 1:2). I do not believe that all knowledge is of the same value; clearly knowledge of eternal things is the most critical.

Thus, an important part of my obedience to the command of seeking knowledge “out of the best books” sent me early in my life into the growing bibliography of published research on Mormon history. I have spent a considerable amount of my professional life in locating and reading the literature on Latter-day Saint history. A number of my own publications deal with Mormon historiographyl, sources which I discovered could be uneven in quality and quite polemic. My dissertation on early Mormon pamphleteering focused on the literature the Latter-day Saints produced in their own defense during the Church’s formative years. My interest in Mormon print culture has thus formed a central core to my own academic research and publishing. But my academic and bibliographical work was never divorced from the manuscript records of the Mormon past, because all serious students must go to the original sources. Students of the Mormon experience are both challenged and rewarded by the large number of manuscripts that document all aspects of that experience; challenged because no one person can possibly read everything, but rewarded because there are mountains of documents that can help better understand just about every episode in that history. I found in my years of reading original sources that there was a deep spiritual core to the events described in the records of Mormon history; to ignore this, I felt, would be to distort the Latter-day Saint experience.

I received my first reader’s card to the Henry E. Huntington Library in 1968 and I have spent over forty years researching Mormon history in various libraries located in both the United States and England. My main professional assignment since the early 1980s has been as the Curator of Mormon and Western Manuscripts in the L. Tom Perry Special Collections in the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU. While I have not read every Mormon manuscript, I have read a significant number of them. I am continually amazed at both the human (temporal) and divine (spiritual) dimensions of Mormon history. Human in the sense that these records reveal the strengths and weakness of the moral condition we all experience. Anger, jealousy, intolerance, prejudice, ignorance, violence, and greed are in these records; but there is also love and forgiveness, as well as quiet and gentle accounts of pioneering, of loneliness and sorrow at the loss of loved ones, of worship and of missionary service throughout the world. There are answered prayers and a deep confidence in the promises of eternal family covenant relationships; of testimonies of the certainty of the love of God and the promises of the Resurrection; there are also records of patient waiting for “further light and knowledge” in a world where we will not have all the answers because we must live by faith. In the study of these records I have found a kind of personal fulfillment of the great wisdom of Alma’s counsel to his son Helaman regarding record keeping: these records were to be kept to “enlarge the memory of this people.” (Alma 37:8) Remembering is critical for both personal and cultural identity.

From the Greek word “teks” we have derived our words ‘textile’, ‘texture’, ‘text’. The idea of weaving (it was the craft of Zeus), or binding is a very ancient one. Historical stories (written as well as oral) assist individuals to find their place in the universe; the telling of stories is to weave meaning into the lives of people and their communities. From my earliest spiritual experience, I have felt this kind of connection to a broader tapestry. I have come to believe through my study and understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as well as of the life and mission of Joseph Smith and its unfolding story in the narratives of Mormon history, that we have access to the most complete loom which can give organization and meaning to our world. I believe that Latter-day Saints have the only satisfying answer to the issue posed years ago by Edna St. Vincent Millay: “Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour, rains from the sky a meteoric shower of facts . . . They lie unquestioned, uncombined. Wisdom enough to leech us of our ills is daily spun; but there exists no loom to weave it into fabric.”

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Born in Lakeview, Oregon, David J. Whittaker earned a B.A. from Brigham Young University, an M.A from California State University at Northridge, and a Ph.D. from Brigham Young University, where he serves as Senior Librarian and Curator of Mormon and Western Americana and holds an appointment in the Department of History.

Dr. Whittaker has curated several library exhibits and served as historical advisor for films on Mormon history, and is the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of numerous books, book chapters, articles, and book reviews. These include Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass: The Art of Telling Tales about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, volume 11 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley (Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1991); with James B. Allen and Ronald K. Esplin, Men with a Mission: The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the British Isles, 1837-1841 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992 [1997, 2009]); Mormon Americana: A Guide to Sources and Collections in the United States (Provo: BYU Studies, 1995), winner of the 1996 Dwight L. Smith Award for the Best Bibliographic or Research Work on Western History from the Western History Association; with James B. Allen and Ronald W. Walker, Studies in Mormon History, 1830-1997: An Indexed Bibliography (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000), which won a special citation from the Mormon History Association; Mormon History (Urbana and London: University of Illinois Press, 2001); and various guides to the holdings of the British Library on Mormon and Western American history.

Dr. Whittaker served as a member of the board of directors of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP) 1999-2007, and as president of the Mormon History Association 1995-1996. He is a coeditor of a forthcoming volume (Volume One, History Series) in the Joseph Smith Papers to be issued by the LDS Church.

He and his wife, the former Linda Struhs, are the parents of four children and the grandparents of nine.

Posted April 2010