A mild mannered, unassuming businessman named Newel K. Whitney opened a rough-hewn log store in 1820s Kirtland, Ohio. From this humble beginning he built a thriving business and used his resources to strengthen and build The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Kirtland. He provided a place where Joseph Smith and his family could live and work. Newel Whitney also used his means to help build the temple, and he supported efforts to establish the Church in Missouri. As Kirtland’s bishop he was given special responsibilities to help the poor. Because of his talent in operating successful business enterprises and his devotion to the Restoration and its prophet, Newel K. Whitney played a central role in the early development of the Church.
Born in Marlborough, Vermont, in 1795, Newel was the second child and oldest son in a family of nine children. His parents, Samuel Whitney and Susanna Kimball, christened him Newel Kimball Whitney. Always pleased to bear his mother’s maiden name, he insisted his family honor the Kimball name throughout his life. Perhaps it was because of his emphasis on both given names that at some point Newel Kimball Whitney became known to his family and friends simply as N. K.
When Newel Whitney turned 19, it was 1814, and the United States was still at war with Britain. He became an army sutler, selling American soldiers food, military supplies, and a variety of everyday articles as he traveled with the camp along Lake Champlain in New York. In the final showdown of the war, the British sought to keep their American foes from getting supplies by specifically targeting sutlers with artillery fire. Many wagons and their drivers were destroyed. Because Newel bravely “took part in the engagement” by helping to get supplies to the troops, he lost his wagon with its property “by the war” but survived the onslaught himself.1
After the war N. K. made a new start by following American troops across Lake Erie, where the army officially mustered out of service a large detachment in what would become Monroe, Michigan. His time in Monroe proved to be a turning point in his life due to his association with a Monroe merchant, Algernon Sidney Gilbert. Sidney Gilbert became Newel Whitney’s business partner and friend.
Both men traveled to New York on business trips. These trips also brought N. K. Whitney into contact with Elizabeth Ann Smith, an 18-year-old who had settled in remote Kirtland, Ohio, only a few months before N. K. met her.
Ann (as she was known to family and friends) described their meeting and courtship: “In his travels to and from New York he passed through the country where we resided, and ‘we met by chance,’ became attached to each other, and my aunt granting her full approval, we were married after a courtship of reasonable length.”2
Their courtship lasted three years, enough time for the couple to get to know each other quite well. As he continued to court Ann, Newel moved to Ohio in the fall of 1819, and his friend Sidney Gilbert joined him.
On October 28, 1820, Sidney Gilbert purchased property in Mentor on the edge of Painesville, just a few miles north of Ann Smith’s Kirtland home. The property was in a good location, and Sidney immediately contracted to build a $500 store, worth three to four times the typical operation in the state. Newel Whitney worked in the store with him. Sidney, however, ran into a succession of bad luck and lost his store to creditors. In 1821 Newel moved into Kirtland where he could better court Ann.
In 1821 or 1822 Newel Whitney set up his first Kirtland store in a log cabin on the property of Ann’s uncle Elijah Smith. The operation continued to grow. Ann recalled of these earlier years: “He accumulated property faster than most of his companions and associates. Indeed, he became proverbial as being lucky in all his undertakings.”3
Newel’s keen business mind saw the potential of an intersection in the north part of the township with some of the heaviest traffic in all of northeastern Ohio. He purchased Peter French’s apple orchard on the northwest corner of the intersection on June 1, 1822, where he built what his family called their “Red Store.” This small 20-by-40-foot store sharply contrasted with Sidney Gilbert’s large operation. The two men would consistently differ in their business approach through the years: N. K. Whitney built small, while his friend Sidney Gilbert built large.
The following year Newel bought more land from Peter French a few hundred yards southeast of his first piece of property, and there he built an ashery. Frontier settlers brought wood to the Whitney ashery for money or credit. He used the wood to heat huge cauldrons of water that had been alkalinized by running it through wood ashes gathered from farmers’ fields and his own operations. The remains after the water boiled away made potash or the more refined pearl ash, used in making glass, in cleaning wool, and in other industrial processes. Newel Whitney shipped most of these chemicals in large barrels to factories in the East or Great Britain.
Within two months of buying the ashery lot, Newel K. Whitney married Elizabeth Ann Smith. Just west of and behind the Red Store the Whitneys built a modest home with a summer kitchen attached on the back. They painted their small frame house and placed a well-made fence around each of their properties.
In the fall of 1825 N. K. traveled to New York on a buying trip in time to bring his goods back on the day the last segment of the new Erie Canal opened. The opening of the canal marked the start of a major expansion of Newel Whitney’s economic activities in Kirtland. He bought a quarter-acre lot across the road from his home and built a store a little more than 1,500 square feet that the family called the “White Store.” When Newel invited Sidney Gilbert to help him capitalize on this new opportunity, N. K. Whitney and Company was born.
While they busied themselves establishing a family and business, Newel K. and Ann Whitney were drawn to a Christian reformation movement in the region. Sidney Rigdon, a Reformed Baptist minister in neighboring Mentor, began baptizing a number of Kirtland residents into a movement that sought to restore primitive Christianity. Followers of this movement became popularly known as Campbellites. N. K. and Ann Whitney were drawn to the movement because its “principles seemed most in accordance with the Scriptures.”4
On September 22, 1829, exactly two years after Joseph Smith received the gold plates, the Painesville Telegraph, read in Kirtland, published an article under the heading “Golden Bible,” announcing that someone in New York claimed to have seen the “spirit of the Almighty.”5 During this same period Ann and N. K. had a singular experience while searching out the things of the Spirit with Sidney Rigdon’s group.
Ann recalled: “It was midnight—as my husband and I, in our house at Kirtland, were praying to the Father to be shown the way, the Spirit rested upon us and a cloud overshadowed the house. … The house passed away from our vision. We were not conscious of anything but the presence of the Spirit and the cloud that was over us. … 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.”6
In late October 1830 Kirtland’s citizens were again confronted with news of the “golden bible” when four Latter-day Saint missionaries stopped in neighboring Mentor to visit Sidney Rigdon, who had been the spiritual leader of one of the missionaries, Parley P. Pratt. After reading the Book of Mormon, Sidney Rigdon took the missionaries to his various congregations, which was probably how they were first introduced in Kirtland. Their teaching had a dramatic impact on the entire village. Pratt wrote that “multitudes came together soliciting our attendance; while thousands flocked about us daily.”7
Of the missionaries’ visit Ann later wrote: “When I heard that these Elders were preaching without money, or remuneration of any kind, … and that they were opposed to all priestcraft, I felt an earnest desire to hear their principles proclaimed, and to judge for myself.”8
Ann believed the elders’ message was true. She shared it with her husband, telling him she planned on being baptized into the new faith. Newel asked her to wait until he had a chance to feel the same conviction, but Ann could not wait and was baptized a few days before her husband in November 1830. Some of the Gilbert family also joined the Church at this time.
The new members continued meeting in Kirtland and soon received word that the Prophet Joseph had been commanded to gather the Church in Ohio. Joseph and Emma arrived in Kirtland early in February 1831. The Whitneys had been members for only a few months when they met the Prophet.
Ann Whitney later recorded this event: “Joseph Smith, with his wife, Emma, … drove up in front of my husband’s store; Joseph jumped out and went in; he reached his hand across the counter to my husband, and called him by name. My husband, not thinking it was any one in whom he was interested, spoke, saying: ‘I could not call you by name as you have me.’ He answered, ‘I am Joseph the Prophet; you have prayed me here, now what do you want of me?’ 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.”9
Although the Whitneys were expecting the Prophet’s arrival in Kirtland, they perhaps were not expecting his manner of presentation. Their grandson later recalled that not only did the Prophet call Newel by name, but he also followed it with the unusual phrase “thou art the man.”10
The Smiths stayed at the Whitney home for some weeks, and Joseph reminisced that, while under the care of the Whitneys, his family “received every kindness and attention which could be expected, and especially from Sister Whitney.”11
On February 4, 1831, Edward Partridge was called as the first bishop in the restored Church. Although called in Ohio, Partridge served the Saints in Missouri with N. K. Whitney serving as his “agent” in Kirtland. On December 4, 1831, Newel was called to be bishop in Kirtland. Ann Whitney recalled that her husband “felt that it would require a vast amount of patience, of perseverance and of wisdom to magnify his calling.”12
The brief business relationship between Newel Whitney and Sidney Gilbert in Kirtland changed dramatically with the arrival of Joseph Smith and many Saints from New York. Sidney Gilbert left for Missouri in June 1831, after being commanded by the Lord to travel there with Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon (see D&C 53:5). Shortly after arriving in Jackson County, he was instructed to “establish a store” primarily to “sell goods without fraud, that he may obtain money to buy lands for the good of the saints, and that he may obtain whatsoever things the disciples may need to plant them in their inheritance” (D&C 57:8).
While Newel K. Whitney operated the Kirtland store, Sidney Gilbert purchased a brick store at the prime intersection in Independence, Missouri. Sidney Gilbert’s store apparently relied heavily on the Kirtland enterprise. Despite the contributions of Newel and others, however, the Missouri store continued to struggle.
In July 1833 unrest developed in Jackson County. Sidney Gilbert was among the leading elders in Independence, Missouri, when the mob came into town and started destroying things, including merchandise from his store. He joined Bishop Partridge, Isaac Morley, and others in offering themselves to the mob to spare the Church, but their offer was rejected. Brother Gilbert was allowed to sell his remaining goods before he left, although financial records suggest many items were damaged and not marketable.
The Whitneys shared their home with the Smiths in February 1831, when the Prophet Joseph first arrived in Kirtland. In September of 1832, when the Smiths again needed a home, they moved into the “dwelling portion” of the White Store. The Church conducted business in other upstairs rooms. The School of the Prophets met there.
During early meetings at this store, many of the plans for Kirtland were developed and refined, and it was in the store that many of the discussions were held about building the temple. Even after Joseph and his family moved out of the store into their own home near the temple, the store continued to serve as a meeting place from time to time.
In the spring of 1832 Newel K. Whitney was in Jackson County, Missouri, with the Prophet when Joseph Smith received a revelation that brought N. K. further into Church financial operations (see D&C 82:11–12, 15, 17). This revelation instructed nine of the brethren “to manage the affairs of the poor.” It also permitted them “to have equal claims on the properties.”
The Kirtland enterprise of N. K. Whitney and Company along with the Missouri enterprise of Gilbert, Whitney and Company were part of the United Firm, with Brother Whitney serving as a manager of financial operations for the Church. Church members built a sawmill on the Whitney ashery property to cut lumber for the temple, and Whitney resources were used to help promote Church efforts.
The United Firm was not a common stock enterprise; each member of the organization was responsible for reimbursing the firm for resources used, and by early 1834 several members of the United Firm were heavily in its debt. In April the Lord directed the dissolution of the United Firm and that each of its members was to “have his stewardship set off to him.”13
After the United Firm was disbanded, Newel demonstrated his love for the leaders of the Church by helping them establish their own store to help pay the debts of temple construction. He also helped Joseph establish a store in Kirtland that operated in direct competition to his own establishment.
In 1834 Sidney Gilbert was living in Clay County, Missouri, near the town of Liberty. An outbreak of cholera occurred in June, and Sidney was one of more than 70 who contracted the disease. He died from the painful disease on June 29, 1834.
Although N. K. Whitney kept his store profitable during the Church’s early financial struggles, he could not keep it entirely free of the problems others faced. Because the Church relied so heavily on his financial strength, when Brother Whitney encountered problems, the entire Church felt it.
Problems in Kirtland increased as dissension within the Church rose and combined with antagonism toward members by outsiders. Despite these difficulties, the Whitneys remained in Kirtland long after others left and moved west only when they were commanded to do so.
In fall 1838 the Whitney family left Kirtland for Far West, Missouri, where N. K. had been called to serve as bishop of the newly formed stake at Adam-ondi-Ahman. While there the Whitneys and other Saints encountered heavy persecution and were driven into Illinois and forced to live in difficult circumstances.
Newel K. Whitney gathered his family to Utah in 1848 and served faithfully as Presiding Bishop over the Church. In September 1850 he complained of a severe pain in his side and became bedridden. Diagnosed with “bilious pleurisy,” he grew rapidly worse. On September 24, 1850, after 36 hours in bed, he died.14
After Newel’s death his brother Samuel was awarded control of the Kirtland property by the courts after describing himself as “a creditor … and also the nearest of kin within this State.”15 Thus, the title to all of N. K. Whitney’s remaining Kirtland property was transferred to Samuel, who sold it off piece by piece. Soon there was nothing left of the original holdings of Newel K. Whitney in Kirtland, Ohio. Over time the importance of N. K. Whitney and Company to the financial survival of the early Latter-day Saints has been largely forgotten. But Church members today are still reaping blessings from the generosity and consecration of Newel Kimball Whitney.