Richmond is a small town, but it holds a big place in the history of the Latter-day Saints.
Located some 40 miles east of Independence/Kansas City, it was the residence of David Whitmer for the last four decades of his life and his final resting place. His brother-in-law and fellow Book of Mormon witness Oliver Cowdery is also buried in Richmond, having succumbed there to illness that beset him while he was making plans to go to the Salt Lake Valley and be with the Latter-day Saints. Since 1949, the Church has maintained the pioneer cemetery where Oliver is buried, and a monument erected by the Church in 1911 honors him, David Whitmer and Martin Harris (buried in Clarkston, Utah) as the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon.
In front of the Ray County Courthouse in Richmond is an imposing bronze statue of Alexander W. Doniphan, the militia officer who in 1838 refused to obey an illegal order to execute Joseph Smith and other Church leaders. The statue honors him not because he was a friend to the Mormons and was Joseph Smith’s attorney, but for his heroism in the 1846 war with Mexico and his civic-minded deeds.
It was in Richmond where occurred the famous incident reported by Parley P. Pratt in which Joseph Smith, imprisoned with his associates in an old log building, rebuked the guards who were boasting of atrocities committed against the Mormons. The same city cemetery where David Whitmer’s remains are interred also has the grave of Austin A. King, the judge who presided at the court of inquiry in Richmond and committed the Prophet and others to jail at the Clay County seat, Liberty, where they spent five months awaiting trial. King’s is the most prominent monument in the cemetery, as he later became Missouri governor and was subsequently elected to U.S. Congress.
The “Mormon History Room” at the Ray County Historical Society and Museum memorializes the Mormon connection to the city. But it had fallen into neglect.
That changed with a recent refurbishment under the direction of President George J. Van Komen of the Church’s Missouri Independence Mission. A ribbon cutting on Sunday evening, May 30, marked the reopening of the room. Scores of attendees included Church members from the Liberty Missouri Stake as well as friends and descendants in the community. Their attendance was augmented by a busload of Mormon History Association members on a tour of Church history sites following their just-concluded conference in Kansas City and Independence.
Addressing the audience, President Van Komen asked regarding David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery, “How remarkable would it have been if we could have listened in on the conversations held between these two brothers-in-law that final year, while they lived together in Richmond? No doubt they must have discussed, then 20 years later, that incredible, sacred, spiritual experience about how they saw the angel Moroni with golden plates in hand, showing them the engravings thereon.”
President Jeremiah Morgan of the Liberty stake said the occasion had personal significance to him, as his third-great-grandparents were baptized in nearby Lexington, Mo., by Oliver Cowdery. “From that legacy of faith, I sprung,” he said.
In a conversation after the program, President Van Komen said that when he came in 2008, he found the exhibit on Mormonism to be outdated and inadequate in terms of local history.
“We felt we wanted to incorporate the real history of the Church in Richmond, which was David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery,” he said. There were other important events that ought to be included, he said, such as the fact that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performed in the historic Ferris Theater in Richmond at the dedication of the Three Witnesses monument in 1911.
Local historian Frank McMillan, a non-Mormon, was retained to do research and to write the exhibit panels. Alex Baugh, associate professor of Church history at BYU with expertise in the history of the Church in Missouri, helped refine it, and other volunteers assisted over many months.
“Hopefully, people from the community will come,” President Van Komen said, adding that Whitmer descendants living in and near Richmond now believe their ancestors are properly recognized for their part in the history of the Church.