Over the past 100 years, almost every session of general conference has been held in Salt Lake City, Utah. The only exception came in 1980, when a session of conference was broadcast instead from a small, commemorative log home on a 100-acre farm in Fayette, New York. That spring, the Church looked back to remember the place where it had been organized a century and a half before, on April 6, 1830. Before there were temples, tabernacles, or meetinghouses, believers had gathered in a home where God’s work was welcome.
Today, Church members can still visit the farm where Mary and Peter Whitmer Sr. supported the Book of Mormon translation, hosted the newborn Church, and witnessed some of Joseph Smith’s earliest revelations. On this land, some of the foundational events of the Restoration unfolded and some of the first Saints gained testimonies of God’s latter-day work.
The Whitmers in New York
In the first decades of the 19th century, almost everyone in western New York was a recent arrival. Many families in the area—and by extension in the early Church—came to the area from parts of New England that were mostly settled by English immigrants.1 The Whitmers, in contrast, were part of the German immigrant community in Pennsylvania before they moved to New York in the first decade of the 1800s. Mary Musselman Whitmer, the matriarch of the family, had been born in Germany.2
In Fayette, the Whitmers worked a 100-acre farm and built improvements on the land to meet the needs of their growing family. By the time they made the final payment on the farm in 1819, Peter Sr. and Mary had five sons and two daughters living at home.3
The Whitmers were a tight-knit family brought up with a strong sense of Christian discipline. They were involved in the civic and religious affairs of their community. Mary Whitmer participated with other Pennsylvania Germans in the local congregation of the German Reformed Church. At the “old Zion’s church” in town, Reverend Diedrich Willers baptized the three adult Whitmer sons on April 5, 1822. Years later, Reverend Willers remembered Peter Whitmer Sr. as a “plain, unassuming farmer” and a “quiet, unpretending, and apparently honest, candid, and simple-minded man.”4
Beneath their unremarkable outward appearance, however, was an unusual openness to the word of God and a great capacity for conviction. Like good ground ready to nourish a seed, the Whitmers were prepared for what the Lord saw fit to bring them.
Translating the Book of Mormon in Fayette
In 1828, Peter Whitmer’s 23-year-old son, David, had some business to conduct in Palmyra, about 25 miles (40 km) away. While there, he heard talk of a young man who had allegedly found gold plates containing ancient writings. David paid little attention to what he supposed was “idle gossip” until he met a schoolteacher named Oliver Cowdery. Oliver Cowdery told David that he believed there was some truth to the matter and that he planned to travel to Harmony, Pennsylvania, to meet Joseph Smith himself.
David received a visit at his father’s home in Fayette some months later. Oliver Cowdery and Samuel Smith, Joseph Smith’s brother, were on their way to Harmony. David later remembered Oliver promising that “as soon as he found out anything either truth or untruth he would let me know.”5 True to his promise, Oliver sent David letters during the spring of 1829. In them he shared firsthand details about translating the golden plates and gave his testimony of a revelation given to him through Joseph Smith.6
Later that spring, David received a third letter. In it he learned that frequent interruptions were slowing the translation work in Pennsylvania. Joseph and Oliver asked David if his father’s family would open their home and allow the work to continue there, 100 miles (160 km) away from the challenges facing the Prophet at home. The Whitmer family agreed, and David helped Joseph and Oliver move the work to Fayette in early June 1829.7
David Whitmer remembered “the translation . . . was a laborious work, for the weather was very warm; and the days were long.” But, he concluded, “Joseph and Oliver were young and strong and soon able to complete the work.”8 In a little more than one month, Joseph Smith was able to complete the translation of the Book of Mormon in Fayette. The Whitmers provided space to work, food, and materials. The handwriting from two of the original Book of Mormon scribes has not been completely verified, but it is likely that they were members of the Whitmer household.9
The Book of Mormon translation project also meant more work for Mary Whitmer, who had a large family to care for even without several guests. While doing the hard work that hospitality required in an era before washing machines and other technologies, Mary Whitmer was visited by an angel who showed her the plates and strengthened her faith.10 Sarah Conrad, a neighbor hired to help Mary Whitmer in her kitchen, also gained a testimony during the translation process. Sarah had noticed light shining from the faces of Joseph and Oliver as they came downstairs. When she learned from her employer that the change in the men’s countenances was “connected with a holy sacred work,” she believed and later joined the new church.11
As the translation process drew to a close, several of the Whitmers were called as special witnesses of the golden plates. David Whitmer was one of the Three Witnesses, who saw Moroni and beheld the plates somewhere in the woods on the Whitmer farm. When eight other witnesses handled the golden plates in Palmyra, five of them belonged to the Whitmer family.12
The family’s growing testimonies raised some concerns in the community. It was one thing, Reverend Willers felt, for the Whitmers to take Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery into their home, but quite another for them to believe what he saw as the “errors and delusions and the false doctrines promulgated by these men.” But once convinced of the truth of the work, Peter Whitmer Sr. was steadfast. His response to the warnings of his former spiritual leader was to repeat, in German, a motto adapted from the scriptures: “Jesus Christ, yesterday, today, and forever.”13
Organizing the Church of Christ
Once translation was complete and the Book of Mormon was published, the Lord revealed to Joseph Smith that the time was right to organize His Church. Mary Whitmer, having welcomed a few guests into her home, soon prepared for many visitors from towns up to a few days’ walk or ride away. About 50 people gathered at the Whitmers’ double log home for the official organization of the Church on April 6, 1830. During the meeting, the Lord revealed the duties of Joseph Smith, the prophet and leader of the Church, and the commitment required of Church members. Joseph Smith recorded in his history, “The Holy Ghost was poured out upon us to a very great degree. Some prophesied, whilst we all praised the Lord and rejoiced exceedingly.”14
Some early converts were baptized in Seneca Lake near the Whitmer farm.
The Whitmer farm continued to be a gathering place for Church members until early 1831. Joseph Smith still owned a farm in Harmony, Pennsylvania, but he moved to Fayette at the end of August 1830 to be with the Saints and to avoid persecution. By January 1831, the Church had grown to include about 60 members meeting in three areas across New York: Palmyra, Fayette, and Colesville. Other members, some as far away as Ohio, gathered to the Whitmer farm for the earliest Church conferences.
As the Church grew, questions about Church operations arose, prompting Joseph Smith to seek revelation. All told, 20 revelations that are now part of the Doctrine and Covenants came to the Church in Fayette.15 While many were given to guide specific people at that time, all of these revelations give spiritual guidance that is still relevant to members of the Church today.
The Whitmer Farm Today
The Whitmers had welcomed revelation into their home, and they soon followed it as the Church gathered farther west. After the Whitmers left the area, other owners continued to farm and develop the 100-acre property. By the late 1800s, many of the structures tied to the Whitmer family had been removed from the landscape or lay in ruins, yet missionaries and members began to visit the property to commemorate the sacred events that occurred there. The Church purchased the farm in 1926.16
Unlike the Smith farm in Palmyra, little work has been done to restore the historic farm landscape. For the 150th anniversary of the organization of the Church, however, both a log home and a modern meetinghouse were built on the property. On April 6, 1980, President Spencer W. Kimball welcomed a worldwide congregation to the Sunday morning session of general conference from the newly built log home at the Whitmer farm. Although the building is not a true reconstruction of Peter Whitmer Sr.’s home, it still serves as a reminder of the circumstances in which the Church began.
Today, those who make their way to the place where the Church was organized will find fields of corn growing behind the log home. At a visitors’ center housed in the Fayette Ward building, they can explore displays on the early growth and continuing legacy of the Church. As President Kimball expressed in 1980, the Whitmer farm remains a place for visitors to increase their knowledge and faith in Jesus Christ, to see not only the humble beginnings of His restored Church, but also to “behold through the eye of faith a vision of its sure and glorious future.”17