‘That will depend entirely on yourself’: The beautiful dream-vision a young Orson F. Whitney had of the Savior

Editor’s note: The following excerpt comes from a book about special witnesses of Jesus Christ. You can read this chapter in its entirety at truthwillprevail.xyz as well as other chapters as they are posted. This excerpt is republished here with permission. 

One of the most talented and able men to become an Apostle in the early decades of the 20th century was Orson F. Whitney, a remarkable man seldom remembered today.1 The life-path he walked before becoming a member of the Council of the Twelve may also be one of the most unique of this dispensation: filled with private unorthodox loyalties, ideas, and actions to the point of obstinate heresy, while also simultaneously serving commendably as the most prominent and visible ward bishop in the Church, and then reforming and developing into a mighty Apostle and special witness of Jesus Christ.

As a youth, Orson found enjoyment in music, recitation, debate, and especially drama, finding some minor success in Salt Lake theaters as an actor. Yet for a time he struggled to understand his place in life and in his religion. When young Orson (called “Ort” by friends and family) decided to follow acting as a profession and travel east to seek his fortune, he found his way hedged up so that he could not obtain the needed financial resources to go. Though reluctant, his mother tried to help him: “She finally said that, if she could sell a piece of land she had, she would give me enough money to take me away. But this she was unable to do. Everything seemed to be in the way of her disposing of that land. I began to feel discouraged. It was now the fall of 1876, and at the October conference, I was called on a mission to the [Eastern] States. I had no sooner signified my intention of going and fulfilling it than plunk! came $150 into my hands, from the sale of my mother’s property. This was to me another evidence of God’s overruling providence. I had faith enough, even then, to recognize in it His all but visible hand.”2 

Orson left that November and spent most of his time in Pennsylvania and Ohio, enjoying many faith-promoting experiences that strengthened his conviction that God was helping him in his work. Having recognized such, however, his mission had a slow start as he initially found himself distracted from his main duty of preaching the gospel. The consequence of the unenthusiastic beginning to his mission became the experience that qualified him to be a special witness of Jesus Christ for the rest of his life. He explained:

I now wrote my first newspaper letter, descriptive of sights and scenes in and about Washington, and sent it to the Salt Lake Herald, over the nom de plume of “Iago,” my old soubriquet in the Wasatch Literary Association. I previously dispatched a note to Byron Groo, editor of that paper, asking if he would publish my correspondence, so little confidence had I that it was worth printing. I was proud to receive an affirmative reply, thanking me for the proposition, which to me was not only complimentary but encouraging. My first “Iago” letter was written March 14, 1877, and I kept up my Herald correspondence at intervals until I returned home. The letters were popular, and my success surprised no one more than myself. I began to cherish dreams of literary life. In fact I was becoming more interested in this than in my missionary labors. One night, or rather early in the morning I dreamed as follows.

I thought I was in the garden of Gethsemane. I saw the Savior and his Apostles, Peter, James, and John, enter from the direction to my right, and, leaving them there in a group, praying, He passed to the other side and also knelt down. He seemed to be in great mental distress and His face, which was turned towards me, was streaming with tears. He prayed to the Father: “Let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, Thy will, and not mine, be done.” Finishing He arose and crossing to where His Apostles were, shook them—for they had fallen asleep—and rousing them up, reproved them for neglecting to watch and pray. He then returned to his former place and kneeling down prayed again. Unseen of them I watched their movements from behind a tree. My heart was so full of sympathy for Jesus and His sorrow that I wept in unison with Him and my whole soul as if melted, went out to Him. Pretty soon He arose and beckoning His companions to Him, seemed about to take His departure. The whole circumstance of the dream then changed, though the scene remained the same. The only difference was in time; instead of before the crucifixion, it was after, and the Son of God, having made the sacrifice required, was about to go to the Father, taking the three disciples with Him. I could stand it no longer, and rushing out from my concealment fell down at His feet, clasped Him about the knees, and begged Him to take me with Him also. He gazed upon me with inexpressible tenderness, then stooped and lifted me up into His arms and embraced me with all the affection of a father or an elder brother. I could feel the beating of His heart and the warmth of His bosom against mine. With a voice full of sweetness and compassion and slowly swaying His head in denial, he said: “No, my son; your work is not finished yet. These have done their work and they can go with me, but you must stay and finish yours.” These words uttered in all kindness only made me more anxious to go, though I did not repeat my request, but clinging to Him besought him further: “Well, promise me that I will come to you hereafter.” Again He shook His head and sadly and sweetly said: “That will depend entirely on yourself.” I awoke with a sob, and it was morning.

I was profoundly impressed and related the dream to Brother Musser. He told me it was from the Lord. Of this I had no doubt, for the lesson it taught was full of wisdom and warning, and it was stamped upon my mind eternally. I could not forget it and hope I shall always profit by its instruction.

Young Elder Whitney described this sublime “dream-vision” experience in his diary; then again (as quoted above) in an unpublished autobiography, and yet again in his published autobiography near the end of his life. He also related the account in an occasional church meeting and one or two of those found their way into print. Pondering on the message of the dream he wrote: “I saw the moral clearly. I had never thought of being an Apostle, nor of holding any other office in the Church, and it did not occur to me even then. Yet I knew that those sleeping Apostles meant me. I was asleep at my post—as any man is who, having been divinely appointed to do one thing, does another.”4  Orson had grasped the meaning of the dream-vision as it related to the distractions of his first mission, but not as it related to major events that would influence him powerfully at other times in his life. 

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1. Quotations and most all other information contained in this chapter are taken from Dennis B. Horne, The Life of Orson F. Whitney: Poet, Historian, Apostle (Springville, Utah: Cedar Fort Inc., 2014). Those interested in further information about Elder Whitney may consult that volume.
2. Dennis B. Horne, The Life of Orson F. Whitney: Poet, Historian, Apostle (Springville, Utah: Cedar Fort Inc., 2014), 25-26; account taken from a previously unpublished handwritten autobiographical narrative by Whitney that he titled, “Autobiography of Orson Ferguson Whitney, written in 1885–6.”
3. Ibid, 31-32; for other accounts Elder Whitney shared of his dream-vision, see pages 405-09. See also Orson F. Whitney, Through Memory’s Halls, 81-83.
4. Orson F. Whitney, Through Memory’s Halls, 83; or  Horne, The Life of Orson F. Whitney, 409.