A Bit of Old String

Robin Scott Jensen

Mary Whitmer’s Unheralded Contributions

The original Book of Mormon manuscript and the string that bound it

This tattered piece of string may appear better suited for a garbage can than an archive, but it is no ordinary piece of string. In fact, its ordinary nature is part of what makes it so extraordinary. This is the string that bound the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon.

The scribes who penned the Book of Mormon manuscript wrote on loose sheets of paper that were later sewn together to form bundles of pages. These bundles survived for decades until a need to conserve the pages necessitated separating the string from the paper. The string is an important artifact that connects us not only with the manuscript itself, but also with a largely unheralded figure of the early restoration.

A portion of the translation of the Book of Mormon was completed at the Fayette, New York, farmhouse of Peter and Mary Whitmer. Considering the time and circumstances, it is likely that the women of the Whitmer family, perhaps Mary herself, made the string used to bind the manuscript.

Mother Whitmer (as Mary was often called), like so many women throughout history, did not leave a written record of her life. It is thus only through sources created by others that we can cast light on the oft-overlooked but essential ways in which she and other women contributed to the history of the Church.

Born Mary Musselman in Germany on August 27, 1778,1 Mary immigrated to the United States and married Peter Whitmer, a Pennsylvania farmer who was also of German descent. They moved to New York early in the nineteenth century, purchasing the farm in Fayette that played host to many important scenes, including the Book of Mormon translation.

The details of the translation process are lost to history, obscured by time and Joseph Smith’s guarded reverence for what he considered a sacred endeavor. Even less is known about the particulars of how Oliver Cowdery and others cared for the manuscript. Reconstructing such a story, including Mary Whitmer’s role in it and the origin of the string, can be done only by assumptions. It’s doubtful that Mary made the string specifically for the sacred scripture that was being translated in her home. It is more likely that Cowdery gave its origin scarcely a thought as he carefully stitched the document together.

The string represents Mary’s unsung effort, one that Cowdery and others probably took for granted in their attempt to complete their monumental task. If, however, as the Book of Mormon explains, “by small and simple things are great things brought to pass,” it is fitting that any effort, no matter how small, should be remembered and memorialized (Alma 37:6).

“If ‘by small and simple things are great things brought to pass,’ it is fitting that any effort, no matter how small, should be remembered and memorialized.”

Speaking of the Whitmers’ home life, historian Richard Lloyd Anderson explained that “farming was an operation that required the industry of the entire family. … The women of that day not only sewed their own cloth but often manufactured it from raw flax and wool, in addition to heavy domestic and farm chores.”2 The string that bound the Book of Mormon manuscript, then, tangibly represents the countless mundane tasks over which Mary had responsibility. It is also a symbol of the way those small sacrifices became a part of her spiritual quest. Her grandson John C. Whitmer recalled:

“The translation was going on at the house of the Elder Peter Whitmer, her husband. Joseph Smith with his wife and Oliver Cowdery, whom David Whitmer a short time previous had brought up from Harmony, Pennsylvania, were all boarding with the Whitmers, and my grandmother in having so many extra persons to care for, besides her own large household was often overloaded with work to such an extent that she felt it to be quite a burden. One evening, when (after having done her usual day’s work in the house) she went to the barn to milk the cows, she met a stranger carrying something on his back that looked like a knapsack. At first she was a little afraid of him, but when he spoke to her in a kind, friendly tone and began to explain to her the nature of the work which was going on in her house, she was filled with inexpressible joy and satisfaction. He then untied his knapsack and showed her a bundle of plates, which in size and appearance corresponded with the description subsequently given by the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. This strange person turned the leaves of the book of plates over, leaf after leaf, and also showed her the engravings upon them; after which he told her to be patient and faithful in bearing her burden a little longer, promising that if she would do so, she should be blessed; and her reward would be sure, if she proved faithful to the end. The personage then suddenly vanished with the plates, and where he went, she could not tell. From that moment my grandmother was enabled to perform her household duties with comparative ease, and she felt no more inclination to murmur because her lot was hard.”3

The Book of Mormon string also connects Mary with her son David, one of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon. When the translation was complete, Joseph Smith had Oliver Cowdery make a second copy of the manuscript to take to the printer. This “printer’s manuscript” was later given to David Whitmer, who kept it for the rest of his life. Similar to the original manuscript, this second copy was also hand-sewn with homespun string. In 1884, while showing the sacred artifact to visiting LDS leader George Q. Cannon, David Whitmer reminisced about the translation and specifically pointed out the string. He recalled that the “woolen yarn” was “his mother’s.”4 David Whitmer saw in that string Mary Whitmer’s contribution to the work of the restoration. For him, it served as a connection to his beloved mother and provided him an opportunity to share his faith and testimony of the Book of Mormon.

While significant in its own right, this string takes on added meaning when viewed as evidence of Mary Whitmer’s inconspicuous and quiet work. While the contributions of great leaders such as Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and Brigham Young are often celebrated, the string is a reminder of the myriad ways in which those men relied upon others, like Mary Whitmer, whose contributions are often overlooked.

[1] The 1850 Census lists Germany as her place of birth. See Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The Whitmers: A Family That Nourished the Church,” Ensign, August 1979, 35.

[2] Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The Whitmers: A Family That Nourished the Church,” Ensign, August 1979, 35.

[3] Statement of John C. Whitmer quoted in Andrew Jenson, The Historical Record 7, Nos. 8-10 (October 1888), 621.

[4] George Q. Cannon, “Topics of the Times,” The Juvenile Instructor 19, No. 7 (1 April 1884): 107.