Newel K. Whitney was a member of the Church in its early days. He is mentioned by name in eight revelations. Born 5 February, 1795, in Vermont, just a few miles from where Joseph Smith himself was born ten years later. Despite both having been born in Vermont, it was in Kirtland, Ohio that the men met in a most unusual way. Joseph Smith arrived at Whitney’s general store and said, “Thou art the man!” Since Newel K. Whitney had never seen Joseph Smith before, he was startled and asked who the man was. Joseph responded that he was Joseph Smith, the prophet, and that Whitney had prayed him there. He wanted to know what he could do for the shop owner.
Newel K. Whitney understood then that this was in response to a prayer he and his wife, Elizabeth Ann Smith, had offered three months ago. They had been searching for a church to join. They studied the Bible, prayed, and tried to live a good life, but they did not belong to a church. In 1830, they joined the Campbellites, which was also the church Sidney Rigdon belonged to. Rigdon would one day become a high-level leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members are often called Mormons. They, Sidney Rigdon, and others, eventually left that church. They knew the early Christians had lived with all things in common, and this group wanted to emulate that example.
The Campbelites believed in the Holy Ghost but did not believe they had the right to confer it on anyone. The Whitneys prayed to know how they could receive it. They received a revelation telling them to prepare to receive the work of the Lord, because it was coming. They understood this meant the gospel was coming to Kirtland and they needed only to recognize it when it arrived.
That fall, Mormon missionaries arrived and Elizabeth Ann, after hearing their message, chose to be baptized in November. Newell was converted and baptized later. The Whitneys recognized the arrival of Joseph Smith, a few months, later, as the answer to their prayer. They invited him and his wife to live with them for several weeks. During this time, a number of revelations were received in the home, including three that were very important. Joseph Smith also worked on a translation of the Bible in an upstairs room. (This translation was never completed.)
The School of the Prophets was held in his store during the winter and many people saw visions there. The Savior Himself was seen in that room briefly.
The Whitneys had eleven children by birth and adopted several additional homeless children. They also hosted in their own home a three-day feast for anyone who was hungry and poor.
Newell K. Whitney was called to be the second bishop of the Church. He was frightened by the call, feeling inadequate, so Joseph Smith instructed him to pray. As he prayed, a voice said to him, “Thy strength is in me.” He immediately turned aside his fear and served capably in his calling.
His wife also served in leadership positions, serving as the first counselor in the Women’s Relief Society, serving under the Prophet Joseph Smith’s wife.
When the Mormons were commanded by revelation to move on, due to intense persecution, Joseph Smith received a revelation that Whitney was to remain and to keep his store operating for a time. However, he traveled to Missouri at the request of the prophet to meet with other church leaders. There, he and the others were instructed to create programs to care for the poor and the needy. At the conclusion of the meetings, Joseph Smith began the journey back to Ohio with Whitney. However, during the journey the horses became spooked and the two were forced to jump from the rapidly traveling wagon. Whitney was seriously injured and they took refuge in an inn while he recovered. However, during the stay, someone tried to poison Joseph Smith. Joseph became extremely ill, although he lived after Newel K. Whitney gave him a healing blessing, and the two left the inn, despite Whitney’s unreadiness for strenuous travel.
Whitney’s work with the poor required him to travel to the various churches to find the poor, assess their needs, and arrange for the proper services. He hired someone else to run his store so he could focus on this work.
During a time of apostasy in the Church, Whitney stood by the prophet. When commanded to do so, he turned his business doings over to his brother, who was not Mormon, and moved his family to Missouri. He left them in a safe place while he went to the prophet, where mob violence was threatening the Church.
Eventually, Whitney would become the presiding bishop of the Church and a trustee of the church.
Every Person in the Doctrine and Covenants by Lynn F. Price, Cedar Fort, 2007
The Newel K. Whitney Family, D. Michael Quinn, Ensign, December 1978