I discussed this in 2016, but there are a lot of new readers who probably missed those posts so I'm posting updated versions of them here.
Note on Cumorah, David Whitmer and Zina Young
I realize the topic of Cumorah has been discussed a lot lately, but there are still people who claim the founding prophets and their successors were wrong when they taught that the Hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is in western New York.
If you're new to this topic, it has to do with two of the Three Witnesses. Those who advocate the Mesoamerican/two Cumorahs geography (M2C) reject Oliver Cowdery's description of Cumorah in Letter VII. They also reject David Whitmer's explanation of the first time he heard the word Cumorah (which he said was in June 1829, before he'd ever read the text, and he heard it from a heavenly messenger).
The rationale for rejecting David Whitmer's testimony is that he supposedly never talked about it until 50 years after the fact, in interviews he gave to Edward Stevenson in 1877 and to Joseph F. Smith and Orson Pratt in 1878.
Here's how one scholar articulated the argument:
There are all kinds of logical errors in that statement, but I've addressed those before. Today, I want to point out something in the Stevenson statement, taken from his contemporaneous journal.
I obtained a copy of Stevenson's journal recently and here's what his entry says:
|Page from Stevenson journal|
Edward Stevenson was a general authority (one of the seven presidents of the Seventy). He was a well-known missionary (one of the MTC buildings is named after him). There's no reason to doubt the credibility of his interview with David Whitmer.
What I find fascinating is that Zina Young asked Stevenson to ask David Whitmer about seeing one of the Nephites. That was the focus of the interview, not the Cumorah question.
Why Zina Young?
And when could she have heard it?
And from whom?
It could not have been from the interview with Joseph F. Smith, which occurred a year later.
Instead, the evidence indicates she heard it from David Whitmer directly!
Zina was born in 1821. Her family lived in Watertown, New York. In 1835, when she was 14 years old, two missionaries came to town: Hyrum Smith and David Whitmer. Hyrum baptized her on August 1, 1835. The family moved to Kirtland, and eventually to Far West, and then to Nauvoo along with most of the rest of the Saints. Zina married, had two children, and then also married Joseph Smith. After his death, she married Brigham Young. (That's a topic for another day.)
David Whitmer left the Church in 1837-1838 and lived in Missouri for the rest of his life. Zina would have had no contact with him after about 1837, at the latest. If that's the case, then she could only have heard the story from him between 1835 and 1837--just a few years after 1829, when David said the event happened.
Of course, modern Mesoamerican scholars will dispute this somehow, but the argument that David's testimony is unreliable because it was 50 years late contradicts the Stevenson account.
Interestingly, Zina was also the one who inherited Joseph's seer stone after Brigham Young died.
The simplest, historically justified explanation is that David told Zina and her family the story when he contacted them as a missionary. Zina remembered it and told Stevenson to ask David about it in 1877. Stevenson recorded it and wrote about it.
It's not a 50-year-old story related from a feeble and tainted memory. It's a retelling of an account related by a missionary to his investigators just a few years after the event.
Other than to defend the M2C ideology, there's no reason to cast doubt on the testimony of the Three Witnesses.
The bottom line is this:
By contrast, to accept the North American setting (Moroni's America or the Heartland), you fully embrace what these two men said.
*You can find this account in these references, although apparently not transcribed exactly: "Edward Stevenson Interview (1) 22-23 December 1877, Richmond, Missouri Diary of Edward Stevenson," LDS Church Archives, Lyndon W. Cook, ed., David Whitmer Interviews, 1993, p. 13; also Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents, 2003, vol. v, p. 30.
|David Whitmer, circa 1855|
(photo links to JSP)
I've had some feedback on the previous post that there is no evidence Zina had heard about David Whitmer's Cumorah experience from David himself. It's true we don't have written evidence of when she heard the story or from whom, but Stevenson's journal shows Zina had heard it from somewhere before Stevenson visited Whitmer. That's why she told Stevenson to ask Whitmer about it. I imagine the conversation being something such as this:
Zina: "You're going to visit David Whitmer?"
Stevenson: "I plan to. I hope he'll see me."
Zina: "Ask him about the Nephite he met."
Stevenson: "He met a Nephite?"
Zina (nodding): "And he was carrying the plates to the hill Cumorah because Joseph didn't want the responsibility. David, Joseph and Oliver Cowdery were riding in a wagon from Harmony to the Whitmer farm. He'll tell you all about it."
Stevenson: "Sounds interesting."
Zina: "You should publish it when you get back."
The M2C advocates who reject David's testimony rely on the "late" retelling to Stevenson and Joseph F. Smith. Their objection is based on the premise that David's experience hearing the term "Cumorah" for the first time occurred in 1829, but he did not tell the story before 1877. Certainly, 50 years after the fact could be considered late; each person has to assess that "lateness" in light of the detail of Whitmer's account, the surprising and unusual circumstances (most people probably remember their first encounter with divine messengers), and the presence of Joseph and Oliver when the event occurred.
The Stevenson account undermines the "lateness" objection, however. Whether Zina heard the story directly from Whitmer in 1835, or heard it from someone else, the point is that she did hear it before Stevenson asked Whitmer about it. From his journal, we have to infer that Stevenson had not heard the story before.
There is no record of anyone knowing this story before Stevenson's interview with David, except for Zina. So all the evidence we have suggests that before the interview, the only two people who knew the story were Zina and David (and Oliver and Joseph, if David's testimony is to be believed, but Joseph and Oliver were dead by then).
And the only evidence we have of David and Zina interacting was when David and Hyrum Smith were missionary companions in 1835 in Watertown, NY, where Hyrum baptized her. [This is no minor point. David Whitmer didn't go on a lot of missionary journeys. When you read Zina's account, notice how she emphasizes how hard David worked to persuade her to get baptized. It seems reasonable to infer he tried everything he could, including his viewing of the golden plates as one of the Three Witnesses. In this context, his claim he saw one of the Nephites carrying the plates to Cumorah would naturally be another thing to bring up.
Later, Joseph F. Smith and Orson Pratt visited David Whitmer and elicited the same story from him. This suggests they first heard it when Stevenson published it (or told them about it).
Zina published an article, probably taken from parts of her journal we don't otherwise have now, in the April 1893 issue of The Young Woman's Journal. Titled "How I Gained my Testimony of the Truth," the article gives details on how she joined the Church in 1835. It is available online here. In the next section, I show the relevant aspects of Zina's article.