The church published a Gospel Living article on its website with a title referring to a memorable “moment in the barn” as one that “she” would never forget. The title is full of intrigue and leads a reader to wonder who this she is, and what this unforgettable moment was.
Mary Whitmer in the Barn
Joseph and Emma Smith and Oliver Cowdery were staying with Mary and Peter Whitmer while they finished translating the Book of Mormon. This made bustling farm life even more stressful for Mary, who was caring for a large family. But she believed in Joseph’s work and pushed on without complaining.
One day, when she was at the barn—probably finishing another smelly farm chore—a stranger approached her. He had grey hair and carried a pack. She was a little alarmed, because he seemed to have come out of nowhere, but his voice was comforting.
“I am Moroni,” he said. He knew she was tired from all her extra work, he told her, and because of her faith and diligent effort, he would show her the plates. He hoped it would uplift her and strengthen her faith.
He pulled the plates out of his pack and held them out for her to see. He turned each page. Moroni promised that if she would be faithful and carry these extra burdens a little longer, she would be blessed.
Like in this story, God is aware of the sacrifices you make for Him and His work, and He will bless you for them. If you haven’t received your witness or testimony of the Book of Mormon yet, don’t worry. Keep reading. Keep praying. Keep working.
God did not forget Mary at the barn. And He won’t forget you!Gospel Living, That moment in the barn is one she’ll never forget January 18 2024
The church article recounts the story of Mary Whitmer being frustrated with the amount of work she is doing to host Joseph and his entourage while translating Book of Mormon and how the Angel Moroni visits her in the barn and shows her the Gold Plates. The article doesn’t include a few details. They don’t include that Mary Whitmer left the church and was excommunicated along with most of her family due to them speaking out against Joseph Smith when he left or stole their money in the Kirtland “Bank” scandal. They also don’t include that this story is recounted by her family and not herself, or that the original story recounts an Angel Nephi visiting her in the barn. The article does not include any quotes or references, there is however a link in the footer to the new church history The Saints narrative, which does include a few references.
One day, while she was out by the barn where the cows were milked, she saw a gray-haired man with a knapsack slung across his shoulder. His sudden appearance frightened her, but as he approached, he spoke to her in a kind voice that set her at ease.
“My name is Moroni,” he said. “You have become pretty tired with all the extra work you have to do.” He swung the knapsack off his shoulder, and Mary watched as he started to untie it.19
“You have been very faithful and diligent in your labors,” he continued. “It is proper, therefore, that you should receive a witness that your faith may be strengthened.”20
Moroni opened his knapsack and removed the gold plates. He held them in front of her and turned their pages so she could see the writings on them. After he turned the last page, he urged her to be patient and faithful as she carried the extra burden a little longer. He promised she would be blessed for it.21
The old man vanished a moment later, leaving Mary alone. She still had work to do, but that no longer troubled her.22Saints Volume 1, Chapter 7, Fellow Servants
The story originated from her son David and then is repeated later by her grandson John. It’s not a direct quote from her, and there is no other contemporary evidence of the event in the barn.
For a long time we have known that Mary Whitmer was also shown the plates. These accounts are familiar and derive from David Whitmer and John C. Whitmer (the son of John Whitmer).Another Account of Mary Whitmer’s Viewing of the Golden Plates,
The story as summarize in Wikipedia is similar enough, but also includes the fact that the Angel as Whitmer described was Nephi and not Moroni.
In 1829, she was caring for three boarders (Smith, Emma Hale Smith, and Oliver Cowdery) in addition to her large household while the Book of Mormon was being translated. She said that she was often overloaded with work to the extent she felt it quite a burden. During this time, the male boarders and members of her household were speaking of being shown the golden plates. One evening, when she went to milk the cows, she said that a stranger with a knapsack spoke to her, explained what was going on in her house, comforted her, then produced a bundle of plates from his knapsack, turned the leaves for her, showed her the engravings, exhorted her to faith in bearing her burden a little longer, then suddenly vanished with the plates. Whitmer always called the stranger “Brother Nephi”.Mary Whitmer, Wikipedia
Mary Whitmer met Moroni (or was it Nephi) who showed her the gold plates. This is not the only time a story in early church history references both Moroni and Nephi. These plates are probably the same plates Joseph was using to create the book of Mormon, though how does the Angel have them and not Joseph? Maybe because he didn’t use the plates for translation anyway. He used a pep done in his hat to know the words. The plates weren’t often in the same room when he was busy “translating” their contents.
This is Mary Whitmer’s “barn moment” that strengthened her testimony, supposedly replacing faith with knowledge. She saw the Angel
Nephi Moroni and he showed her the gold plates that Joseph Smith received and translated (with the help of his peepstones) into the Book of Mormon.
So what ever became of Mary and the whole Whitmer family? Mary didn’t stay faithful even though she repeatedly had this miraculous experience in the barn she would never forget. So even with this faith-promoting story about seeing the plates, it wasn’t enough to keep her in the church for more than 8 years.
She was excommunicated from the church with the entire Whitmer family in 1838, largely due to their dismay at the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society, as well as personal criticism from Joseph Smith.Mary Whitmer, Wikipedia
Other Barn Stories
There is also another story from church history that the church leaders and historians would love to be forgotten. Maybe this is why they are surfacing this faith-promoting barn story. They may be hoping to bury the other barn story. What is this other barn story you say? It’s another unforgettable moment that another woman (or actually other women would never forget).
Fanny Alger in the Barn
Early in the Kirkland days, Joseph and Emma took in a teenage girl, named Fanny Alger, and she helped with chores as a housemaid. One night, Emma stumbled on a scene in the barn that she would likely never forget. She saw Joseph, her husband and prophet, intimately involved with their teenage maid in the barn.
Joseph was according to his closest advisor and the scribe for much of the Book of Mormon, the one who received the priesthood alongside Joseph, called this incident a “dirty nasty filthy affair” and the division between Oliver and Joseph about it would lead to his excommunication. Oliver would not deny that Joseph was having an adulterous affair with Fanny. Joseph never denied the affair or his actions with her, but claimed that it was not adulterous. This affair being non-adulterous is simply a technicality. If we follow this line of thinking, we must assume Joseph had begun practicing polygamy as he saw was practiced by the prophets of the Old Testament. Only in this case, Emma seemed surprised and horrified by the practice. This is not how this would be done had it been done by order of God.
 Testimony from George W. Harris, David W. Patten, and Thomas B. Marsh confirmed that Cowdery had made such insinuations about JS’s relationship in Kirtland with a young woman named Fanny Alger. At the trial, JS stated that as Cowdery “had been his bosom friend, therefore he intrusted him with many things”—apparently confirming the reality of a confidential relationship with Alger. JS then “gave a history respecting the girl business.”a This history may have regarded the origins of the Mormon practice of polygamy. Revelation claimed by JS sanctioning the polygyny practiced by Old Testament patriarchs was evidently related to JS’s 1831 work on revision of the Bible.b Kirtland Mormons, including Alger’s family, viewed the relationship as an early plural marriage. Nevertheless, an estranged Cowdery insisted on characterizing the relationship as “a dirty, nasty, filthy affair of his and Fanny Alger’s.”c (aMinute Book 2, 12 Apr. 1838. bBachman, “Ohio Origins of the Revelation on Eternal Marriage”; Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 27. cOliver Cowdery, Far West, MO, to Warren Cowdery, [Kirtland, OH], 21 Jan. 1838, in Cowdery, Letterbook, 80–83; see also Parkin, “Conflict at Kirtland,” 128–135.)Joseph Smith Papers – Journal, March–September 1838, Footnote 54
One night she [Emma] missed Joseph and Fanny Alger. She went to the barn and saw him and Fanny in the barn together alone. She looked through a crack and saw the transaction!!! She told me this story too was verily true.William E. McLellin, M.D.
Letter to President Joseph Smith [III] Independence, Mo., July 1872
Fanny Alger, Joseph Smith’s “dirty, nasty, filthy affair” Teen Bride
Mrs. Smith had an adopted daughter, a very pretty, pleasing young girl, about seventeen years old. She was extremely fond of her; no own mother could be more devoted, and their affection for each other was a constant object of remark, so absorbing and genuine did it seem. Consequently it was with a shocked surprise that the people heard that sister Emma had turned Fanny out of the house in the night…By degrees it became whispered about that Joseph’s love for his adopted daughter was by no means a paternal affection, and his wife discovering the fact, at once took measures to place the girl beyond his reach…the storm became so furious, that Joseph was obliged to send, at midnight, for Oliver Cowdery, his scribe, to come and endeavor to settle matters between them…The scribe was a worthy servant of his master. He was at the time residing with a certain young woman, and at the same time he had a wife living…The worthy couple—the Prophet and his scribe—were sorely perplexed what to do with the girl, since Emma refused decidedly to allow her to remain in her house; but after some consultation, my mother offered to take her until she could be sent to her relatives. Although her parents were living, they considered it the highest honor to have their daughter adopted into the Prophet’s family, and her mother [Clarissa Hancock Alger] has always claimed that she was sealed to Joseph at that time.Anne Eliza Young, Escaped Wife of Brigham Young
Wife No. 19, or, the Story of a Life in Bondage. Anne Eliza Young. 1876
dirty, nasty, filthy scrape of his and Fanny Alger’s … in which I strictly declared that I had never deserted from the truth in the matterCowdery to Warren A. Cowdery, January 21, 1838, quoted in Bushman, 323-24.
This barn story, just like the Mary Whitmer story involves Joseph and Emma and Oliver Cowdery as well.
Which barn story sounds more likely to be true? Could they both be true? Why would the church choose to promote one over the other? Which has more merit? Does one have more sources? References? Do either of these have more consequences or fallout?
It’s obvious that one story is faith promoting and supports the narrative that Joseph was a prophet and truly received the gold plates and translated them. This story sustains the narrative and the binary logic that “the church is true.” Meaning all the stories combined into an undeniable claim that the church is organized by God. This narrative full of truth claims states that the church was and is (and always will be) led by God. That God’s ways are mysterious and we will not and cannot understand them, but we must believe if we wish to take part. This story leads members to stay in the pew and gives more evidence to fuel confirmation biases. Mary Whitmer’s story supports the church and builds faith in the institution.
The other story paints doubt. It brings up many uncomfortable questions and challenges faith. It brings cognitive dissonance to any who may believe that Joseph was pure and righteous. Joseph Smith, the boy prophet wouldn’t cheat on his wife. He wouldn’t take his teenage maid into the barn like this. He couldn’t have! Someone doing this today would be arrested and charged with child molestation and registered as a sex offender. This would be child abuse and adultery.
A prophet of God can’t behave like this. Apologists may dismiss the story as hearsay or propose it as an early experimentation with plural marriage (even though it predates any other mention of the practice). It doesn’t make sense. How could Joseph be caught in the act, with his wife as witness, and Oliver Cowdery as second? What would it mean if Joseph showed a tendency of womanizing and an attraction to other and younger women? Did he feel invincible because he had convinced so many that he was called of God?
Update: The church has updated the title of this article to be more clear and not bring up memorable moments in the barn. New title is, “She was another witness of the gold plates.”
- https://web.archive.org/web/20240122031858/https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/inspiration/that-moment-in-the-barn-is-one-shell-never-forget?lang=eng (in case the article is changed)
- Fanny Alger, Joseph Smith’s “dirty, nasty, filthy affair” Teen Bride