What makes an artifact from the past a treasure? This 19th-century walnut lap desk is unremarkable in itself—functional, simple, and compact, just like many other such desks from its time. The portable desk opens to a red velvet writing surface and holds a small Shaker-style box, which is monogrammed with the owner’s initials and contains pen nibs.1
But even the most unremarkable item becomes a treasure when it is connected to someone we care about. What makes this particular lap desk a treasure is that it was owned and used by Newel K. Whitney, an early member of the Church and a friend and support to the Prophet Joseph Smith.
A Man of Faith
Newel K. Whitney is best known as the proprietor of the N. K. Whitney and Company store, which he opened with partner A. Sidney Gilbert in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1827. At about this time, Newel—or N. K., as he was also known—and his wife, Ann, joined the Disciples of Christ, or the Campbellite faith,2 and were part of a congregation led by Sidney Rigdon.
Newel and Ann desired the things of the Spirit. One night in 1829, as they were praying to be guided, they received a powerful spiritual manifestation. Ann explained:
It was midnight—my husband and I were in our house at Kirtland, praying to the Father to be shown the way when the Spirit rested upon us and a cloud overshadowed the house. . . . A solemn awe pervaded us. We saw the cloud and felt the Spirit of the Lord. Then we heard a voice out of the cloud saying, ‘Prepare to receive the word of the Lord, for it is coming.’ At this we marveled greatly, but from that moment we knew that the word of the Lord was coming to Kirtland.3
Not long afterward, Sidney Rigdon invited Latter-day Saint missionaries to preach to all of his congregations, and many were baptized, including the Whitneys, who joined the Church in November 1830.4
Just a few months later, the Whitneys received unexpected visitors. In February 1831, Joseph and Emma Smith arrived in Kirtland, and the Whitneys invited them to live in their home for several weeks. Ann recalled, “My husband brought them directly to our own house; we were more than glad to welcome them and share with them all the comforts and blessings we enjoyed.”5
In September 1832, the Whitneys offered to let Joseph and Emma move into the “dwelling portion” of their store. The Whitney store became Church headquarters for a time, and the School of the Prophets met there.6 At the School of the Prophets, priesthood holders were taught gospel doctrine and principles to help them prepare for ministry in the Church.7 In this store, Joseph received many revelations now included in the Doctrine and Covenants, including the Word of Wisdom, the oath and covenant of the priesthood, and the command to build a temple in Kirtland.8
In December 1831, Joseph Smith called Newel K. Whitney as a bishop in Kirtland. Newel said, “I cannot see a Bishop in myself, Brother Joseph; but if you say it’s the Lord’s will, I’ll try.”
Joseph replied, “You need not take my word alone. Go and ask Father for yourself.”
As he prayed, Newel heard a voice from heaven saying, “Thy strength is in me.”9 He accepted the calling and served with honor.
Newel K. Whitney served as a bishop for the rest of his life, caring for the poor and needy. One example of this service was a three-day feast for the poor held in the Whitney home in January 1836. The Prophet Joseph recorded in his journal: “Attended a sumptuous feast at Bishop Newel K. Whitney’s. This feast was after the order of the Son of God—the lame, the halt, and the blind were invited, according to the instructions of the Savior. . . . We . . . received a bountiful refreshment, furnished by the liberality of the Bishop. The company was large, and before we partook we had some of the songs of Zion sung; and our hearts were made glad.”10
Sister Whitney added, “All in the vicinity of Kirtland who would come were invited and entertained. . . . The Prophet Joseph and his two Counselors being present each day, talking, blessing, and comforting the poor, by words of encouragement and their most welcome presence. . . . The Prophet Joseph often referred to this particular Feast . . . and testified of the great blessing he felt in associating with the meek and humble . . . whom the Lord . . . ‘delights to own and bless.’ ”11
When the Saints moved to Illinois in 1839, Newel was appointed as bishop of the Middle Ward. And when the Saints left Nauvoo and gathered in Winter Quarters, he was sustained as the Presiding Bishop of the Church in 1847.12 Although his sons left Winter Quarters in 1847 with the first companies of pioneers, Bishop Whitney remained until the following year in Nebraska, “where his services were most needed.”13 In the Salt Lake Valley, he was called as bishop of the Salt Lake 18th Ward in 1849.14
Bishop Whitney died on September 23, 1850, at his home in Salt Lake City. The Deseret Weekly News summed up his life of faith and service as follows: “He has gone down to the grave, leaving a spotless name behind him, and thousands to mourn the loss of such a valuable man.”15