by S. W. Richards
by J. F. Wells
by Andrew Jensen
by B. H. Roberts
Oliver Cowdery has never been a popular subject in Mormon biographical writing. He left
no memoirs behind when he died and none of his relatives or friends chose to publish their memories of the
man aptly called "the elusive first elder of the Restoration."
Aside from an occasional mention in a few anti-Mormon works and some fragments of his story printed in some
recent histories, nearly all the life sketches of Oliver Cowdery have been rendered as "faith-promoting" material
by LDS apologists. Typical of these kinds of reports is the 1946 book written by Preston Nibley: The Witnesses
of the Book of Mormon. Needless to say, such sources reveal little in the way of details concerning the life
of this important early Mormon leader.
The selections presented below are representative samples from the various
mini-biographies of Oliver Cowdery
written by Mormon writers prior to the appearance of Nibley's book.
More Oliver Cowdery History: Introduction
by SAMUEL W. RICHARDS (1898)
Improvement Era II:2 (Dec. 1898)
by Elder Samuel W. Richards
(It was announced in the prospectus of the ERA for Volume II, that we
would publish a series of letters on the EARLY SCENES AND INCIDENTS IN THE CHURCH, from the pen of Oliver Cowdery. Before proceeding with the
letters it is thought proper to present to our readers the following article on
OLIVER COWDERY, by his personal friend, Elder Samuel W. Richards, who,
as it will be seen from the article itself, possessed exceptional opportunities
for learning much concerning this remarkable man who was so closely
associated with the Prophet Joseph Smith. -- Editor.)
Among the most interesting and important events ever recorded in history,
are those connected with the coming forth of the dispensation of the fullness
of times from the heavens to the children of men in our day, in which the
heavens were opened and God, Jesus Christ, angels, and departed spirits of
holy men united in one grand effort for the final and complete redemption
of fallen humanity.
One of the first recipients of the Godly authority necessary to the
accomplishment of such a glorious work was he whose name appears at the
head of this article.
Oliver Cowdery was born in the town of Wells, Rutland County, Vermont,
October, 1805. About 1825 he removed to the State of New York, and was
employed as clerk in a store until the winter of 1828-9, when he taught
school in the town of Manchester, Ontario County, New York. There he became acquainted with the family of Joseph Smith, Sr., who sent children to his school, and Oliver went to board with them.
While here he learned of Joseph Smith, the younger, having found plates
containing ancient records of the history of the early settlers of this, the
American continent, and revealed to him by a heavenly messenger. This so
engaged his attention and occupied his mind that he could not be satisfied
until he made a visit to the now reputed Prophet, which he did at Harmony,
Pennsylvania, on the fifth day of April, 1829
The Prophet Joseph immediately recognized him as the person he had been
praying for to be sent by God to assist him as scribe, in the translation of the
records he had found, preparatory to its publication in the English language.
Only two days after this, their first meeting, they commenced translating the
Book of Mormon. Joseph was the translator by aid of the Urim and
Thummim, and Oliver was the scribe who wrote the words as they were
spoken by the translator. He not only wrote the first copy of the translation,
but made another copy before it was sent to the printer. This was deemed
necessary because of determined efforts being made to obtain the
manuscript, by parties opposed to the young Prophet's declaration of its being a divine record, brought forth and translated by the gift and power of God.
During the translation, incidents occurred which proved to Oliver's mind
that it was a divine work; as, for instance, when, on the 15th of May, 1829, he
with the Prophet Joseph went into the woods to pray, John the Baptist
descended in a cloud of light, and ordained them to the Priesthood of Aaron,
and promised that soon the Melchisedek Priesthood would be conferred
upon them; that Joseph should be the first and Oliver the second Elder in
the Church of Christ, to be organized with the full powers of both Priesthoods
which were to be in the Church.
In the following month of June, 1829, a revelation was given through the
Prophet Joseph, declaring that Oliver had received "the same power and the
same faith, and the same gift like unto him," and if he (Oliver) would testify
of the things he had seen and heard, he was promised "the gates of hell shall
not prevail against you; for my grace is sufficient for you, and you shall be
lifted up at the last day."
That he did testify of the plates found, and of their translation by the gift and
power of God, as commanded, to the latest dayof his life, there are many
witnesses; and that, too, under many trying ordeals when it was thought his
faith was not strong in that which he had declared to all the world.
It also fell to the lot of Oliver Cowdery, in company with David Whitmer, to
search out the first Twelve, on whom should be conferred the powers of the
Melchisedek Priesthood, which Joseph and Oliver had received by the
administration of Peter, James, and John, and by ordination under their
hands, that they should be Apostles, and become special witnesses of Jesus
Christ to all the world.
Oliver Cowdery, by virtue of the Priesthood conferred upon him, was the
first to administer the ordinance of baptism, and to preach the first public
Gospel sermon in this dispensation of God to man. His experience and
labors were of that divine character which could never be forgotten, and
after years proved that they were to him as though engraven with an iron
pen upon the rock, never to be obliterated.
Soon after the organization of the Church in 1830, he was called with others
to fill a mission to the Lamanites on the western border of Missouri, after
which he returned to Ohio where the Church was being established.
In December, 1831, the revelations which the Prophet Joseph had received
up to that time, were by Oliver Cowdery, then Church Historian, sent up to
Missouri with money for publication.
In July, 1834, Oliver was sent as a special messenger from Missouri to Ohio
on matters of importance relating to the affairs of the Church there, about the
time of their being driven and persecuted by their enemies. Being then in
harmony with the Prophet Joseph, they both entered into covenant with the
Lord to pay tithing, November 29th, 1834.
On April 3rd, 1836, he was favored, with the Prophet Joseph, to witness the
marvelous manifestations which occurred in the Kirtland Temple, when
they saw the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit, and received
from Him the declaration that their sins were forgiven them, and that they
were clean in His sight. Immediately after this, also appeared in succession
Moses, Elias, and Elijah, each delivering up the keys and powers of their
several missions and dispensations to Joseph and Oliver, and while standing
in their presence declared the time had come for the turning of the hearts of
the fathers to the children and the children to the fathers, lest the whole
earth be smitten with a curse; and the keys of this dispensation were committed to them by the several administrators who had held them in former dispensations.
Oliver, who was now, and had been, General Church Recorder, removed to
Missouri, September 17th, 1837.
Before leaving Kirtland, however, he was, with others, appointed Assistant
Counselor to the First Presidency, and as such went to the Saints in
Missouri. While spending the winter there with the Saints his course of life
proved to be such that on the 12th of April, 1838, he was charged with
misconduct before the High Council and by them excommunicated from the
Church. But few in the history of the Church or of the world have ever been
favored with such intimacy with prophets, angels, and Jesus Christ Himself,
as Oliver had; which makes it more marvelous that his ambition, without
proper restraint, should lead him, or cause him to be led where he must be
severed from the fellowship of the Saints.
Without apparently making any effort to recover his standing or even visit
the Prophet Joseph, he removed to Ohio, where he spent his time mostly in
the study and pursuit of law practice, and other practices of a literary
character, as he could not, with the knowledge he had, think of connecting
himself with any of the religious sects of the day. This position he occupied
until after the Prophet's death and the removal of the Saints from Nauvoo
to the mountains in 1847.
In 1848, a yearning which he had for the society of those with whom he had
once been so familiar, caused him to visit Kanesville, Iowa, where Elder
Orson Hyde, then President of the Twelve Apostles, was residing, and make
application for a reunion with the Church, which was granted by his being
baptized and duly admitted into the Church by Elder Hyde officiating.
Soon after this, with the view of joining the Saints in Salt Lake Valley the
next season, he, with his wife, desired first to visit her brother, David
Whitmer, then living in Richmond, Missouri. For this purpose in the
winter month of January they started onthe journey by team, but were
overtaken by a severe snow storm which compelled them to seek shelter,
which they obtained with the writer of this article, then temporarily residing
in the upper part of that State. Here they found it necessary to remain some
length of time on account of the great amount of snow which had fallen
completely blockading the road, and for a time preventing travel by teams.
This detention of nearly two weeks' time was extremely interesting and
made very enjoyable to both parties participating in the social and
intellectual feast so unexpectedly provided.
I had but the fall before returned from my first mission to the British Isles,
and was in the spirit of inquiry as to all matters of early history and
experiences in the Church, and soon found there was no reserve on the part
of Oliver in answering my many questions. In doing so his mind seemed as
fresh in recollection of events which occurred more than a score of years
before as though they were but of yesterday.
Upon carefully inquiring as to his long absence from the body of the Church,
he stated that he had never met the Prophet Joseph, after his expulsion from
the Church, while he lived, apparently feeling that the Prophet could with
equal propriety enquire after him as for him to visit the Prophet, and as his
pride would seemingly not allow him to become a suppliant without that
inquiry, it was never made; while he felt quite sure that had he ever met the
Prophet there would have been no difficulty in effecting a reconciliation, as a
feeling of jealousy towards him on the part of his accusers had entered
largely into their purpose of having him removed, which he thought Joseph
must have discovered after going up to Missouri.
In what had transpired with him he now felt to acknowledge the hand of
God, in that he had been preserved; for if he had been with the Church he
would have undoubtedly been with Joseph in his days of trial and shared
like fate with him; but being spared, he now desired to go to the nations and
bear a testimony of this work which no other man living could bear; and he
decided to go to the Presidency of the Church and offer his services for that
This indeed seemed to be his only ambition, and he was now going to visit
his wife's brother, David Whitmer, and prepare to go to the mountains and
join the body of the Church the following summer and unite with them. For
some cause this was not permitted, and he died in Missouri among relatives,
before realizing the intent and purpose he had cherished of again testifying
of the great work and dispensation which he had been instrumental with
the Prophet in opening up to the world.
To hear him describe in his pleasant but earnest manner the personality of
those heavenly messengers, with whom he and the Prophet had so freely
held converse, was enchanting to my soul. Their heavenly appearance,
clothed in robes of purity; the influence of their presence so lovely and
serene; their eyes that seemed to penetrate to the very depths of the soul,
together with the color of the eyes that gazed upon them, were all so
beautifully related as to almost make one feel that they were then present;
and as I placed my hands upon his head where these angels had placed
theirs, a divine influence filled the soul to that degree that one could truly
feel to be in the presence of something that was more than earthly; and from
that day to this -- now almost fifty years ago -- the interest of those glorious
truths upon the mind has never been lost, but as a beacon light ever guiding
to the home of their glory for a like inheritance.
Before taking his departure he wrote and left with the writer of this the
following statement, which we believe to be his last living testimony,
though oft repeated, of the wonderful manifestations which brought the
authority of God to men on earth:
"While darkness covered the earth, and gross darkness the people; long after
the authority to administer in holy things had been taken away, the Lord
opened the heavens and sent forth His word for the salvation of Israel. In
fulfillment of the sacred scriptures, the everlasting Gospel was proclaimed by
the mighty angel (Moroni) who, clothed with the authority of his mission,
gave glory to God in the highest.
"This Gospel is the 'stone taken from the mountains without hands.' John
the Baptist, holding the keys of the Aaronic Priesthood; Peter, James, and
John, holding the keys of the Melchisedek Priesthood, have also ministered
for those who shall be heirs of salvation, and with these administrations
ordained men to the same Priesthoods.
"These Priesthoods, with their authority, are now, and must continue to be,
in the body of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Blessed is the
Elder who has received the same, and thrice blessed and holy is he who shall
endure to the end.
"Accept assurances, dear brother, of the unfeigned prayer of him who, in
connection with Joseph the Seer, was blessed with the above ministrations,
and who earnestly and devoutly hopes to meet you in the Celestial Glory.
"To Elder Samuel W. Richards, January 13th, 1849."
Thus, by the foregoing testimony which he bears, as his last written, and
virtually his dying testimony, is secured the promise made to him by the
Lord in the early part of his career, that "the gates of hell should not prevail
against him; and he should be lifted up
at the last day."
He went to his rest March 3rd, 1850, entitled to a glorious resurrection and
crown of eternal life, such as the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give to all
those who keep covenant with Him.
by JUNIUS F. WELLS (1911)
Improvement Era XIV:5 (March 1911)
On the Visit of the Angel.
May 15, 1829.
"I shall not attempt to paint to you the feelings of this heart, nor the majestic
beauty and glory which surrounded us on this occasion; but you will believe
me when I say that earth, nor men, with the eloquence of time, cannot begin
to clothe language in as interesting and sublime a manner as this holy
personage. No; nor has this earth power to give the joy, to bestow the peace,
or comprehend the wisdom which was contained in each sentence as it was
delivered by the power of the Holy Spirit! Man may deceive his fellow-man;
deception may follow deception, and the children of the wicked one may
have power to seduce the foolish and untaught till naught but fiction feeds
the many, and the fruit of falsehood carries in its current the giddy to the
grave, but one touch with the finger of his love, yes, one ray of glory from
the upper world, or one word from the mouth of the Savior from the bosom
of eternity strikes it all into insignificance, and blots it forever from the
mind! The assurance that we were in the presence of an angel; the certainty
that we heard the voice of Jesus, and the truth unsullied as it flowed from a
pure personage, dictated by the will of God, is, to me, past description, and I
shall always look upon this expression of the Savior's goodness with
wonder and thanksgiving while I am permitted to tarry, and in those
mansions where perfection dwells and sin never comes, I hope to adore in
that day which shall never cease." -- OLIVER COWDERY in the Messenger and Advocate, 1834.
JUNIUS F. WELLS.
Upwards of a year ago, I was informed by Miss Clarissa A. Bingham, of South
Royalton, Vermont, whose mother was a Cowdery, that a genealogical
history of the Cowdery family, descendants of William Cowdery, of Lynn,
Massachusetts, 1630, was being prepared by Mrs. Mary Bryant Alverson
Mehling, and I was brought into correspondence with the latter, and
afterwards with Mr. A. E. Cowdrey, the publisher, and the Frank Allaben
Genealogical Company, from whose press the work is now about to be
I found that they had an account of the life of Oliver Cowdery -- mostly
newspaper clippings -- which contained many inaccuracies, and utterly failed
to do his memory justice.
After considerable correspondence and personal interviews with Mr.
Cowdrey and Mr. Allaben, I was authorized to prepare a biographical sketch
for the book, to be used in place of the matter they had in hand. The
following article is the result, after undergoing considerable amendment to
meet the views of the publisher, and to harmonize it with other matter
contained in the history. It establishes upon unquestioned authorities the
main facts of Oliver Cowdery's connection with Joseph Smith the Prophet,
in the translation of the Book of Mormon, in the organization and
establishment of the Church, and the circumstances of his leaving the
Church and of his return to it. And it puts upon record, concisely and
truthfully, so far as it goes, the principal events of his life, by which his name
and fame are secured to all futurity, without disparagement. I have felt a
great desire to have this done, and am grateful for the opportunity now
[similar graphic to the one at top of this page]
The portrait used here is from a fine oil painting made by J. Willard
Clawson, the artist, and is now hung in the Joseph Smith Memorial Cottage,
Vermont. It is from the steel engraving which I had made, in 1884, of the
Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon, published in The Contributor of that year. It took, at that time, a year, and considerable diplomacy and expense, to secure this portrait from the original daguerreotype; and I believe but for it the likeness of this remarkable man would now be lost to the world.
Oliver Cowdery deserves to be remembered and honored by the Latter-day
Saints. There is no doubt he faltered and fell -- depriving himself, whether he
realized it at the time or not, of the authority, gifts and power which the
Lord had conferred upon him. He, however, did not join the enemies of the
people, nor affiliate with the apostate branches, that sought to establish
themselves as the Church; and he never denied "The Testimony of Three
Witnesses." For this he had the promise of the Lord: "The gates of hell shall
not prevail against you; for my grace is sufficient for you, and you shall be
lifted up at the last day." Who can doubt it? He was the first person baptized
in this dispensation, and he died in the faith.
In presenting a brief history of the life of Oliver Cowdery, and his prominent
part in the founding and development of the "Mormon" Church, it seems
best to state at once that the doctrine of polygamy, which characterized the
"Mormons" after they went to Utah, was not promulgated until years after
he had left them, nor openly practiced until after his death. He removed
from Wells, Vermont, at a very early age. He obtained a fair education for
the times, and migrated to Western New York, where the schools were of
the most primitive order, and engaged in the profession of school teaching.
He was so employed in Palmyra, in the winter of 1828-29, and while thus
engaged followed the common practice of "boarding around," which led
him into the home of Joseph Smith, Sr. Here he first heard of the reputed
finding of the gold plates by Joseph Smith, Jr., which the latter claimed had
been shown him by an angel, a topic at that time on everybody's tongue, for
miles around. Oliver Cowdery 1 became interested, and announced his intention of visiting young Joseph Smith and investigating the matter for himself. This was the turning point in his career.
It is certainly historical that Oliver Cowdery wrote the manuscript of the
Book of Mormon at the dictation of Joseph Smith, and made the printer's
copy of the first edition. How his association with Joseph Smith began and
continued during the period of the translation, is told by himself in one of a
series of letters published in the Messenger and Advocate, at Kirtland, Ohio,
in 1834, from which we quote in part as follows:
Near the time of the setting of the sun, Sabbath evening, April 5, 1829, my
natural eyes, for the first time, beheld this brother. He then resided in
Harmony, Susquehanna county, Pennsylvania. On Monday, the sixth, I
assisted him in arranging some business of a temporal nature, and on
Tuesday, the seventh, commenced to write the Book of Mormon. ... These
were days never to be forgotten: to sit under the sound of a voice, dictated by
the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom!
Day after day I continued uninterrupted, to write from his mouth as he
translated with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have
said, "Interpreters," the history or record called the Book of Mormon.
During the progress of this translation, that is from the beginning of April
until some time in June, it was discovered, in the work itself, that there were
to be three witnesses to whom the gold plates should be shown, and who
were to testify concerning their origin and translation by inspiration, or, as it
was expressed, "by the gift and power of God." Joseph Smith stated that he
had been forbidden to show the plates to anyone except as thus provided.
Greatly desiring to be one of these witnesses, Oliver Cowdery, together with
David Whitmer and Martin Harris, who had also become associated with
Joseph Smith, retired to the woods near by the home of Whitmer, in the
town of Manchester, New York, for the purpose of uniting their prayers in
supplication that they might be so favored. The following is told in the
language of David Whitmer:
We suddenly beheld a dazzlingly bright light, which seemed to envelope the
woods for a considerable distance around. Simultaneously with the light
came a strange, entrancing influence, which permeated us so powerfully,
that we felt chained to the spot, while we experienced a sensation of joy
absolutely indescribable. At the same time there appeared in front of us a
personage clothed in white, and near us a table containing a number of gold
plates, some brass plates, the Urim and Thummim, the sword of Laban and
other articles. We were requested to examine these things, and told that we
must be witnesses of them to the world.
Soon after this they gave to the world the following proclamation, which
was added to the last page of the Book of Mormon, and was published in the
first edition. It has appeared on the first page after the title page of all
subsequent editions of the book, which has been published in more than
fifteen languages, with hundreds of thousands of copies distributed
throughout the world:
The Testimony of Three Witnesses:
Be it known unto all nations, kindreds,
tongues and people, unto whom this work shall come, that we, through the
grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, have seen the plates
which contain this record, which is a record of the people of Nephi, and also
of the Lamanites, their brethren, and also of the people of Jared, who came
from the tower of which hath been spoken; and we also know that they have
been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it
unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true. And we also
testify that we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates; and they
have been shown unto us by the power of God and not of man. And we
declare with words of soberness, that an angel of God came down from
heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the
plates, and the engravings thereon; and we know that it is by the grace of
God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, that we beheld and bear record
that these things are true; and it is marvelous in our eyes, nevertheless the
Voice of the Lord commanded us that we should bear record of it; wherefore,
to be obedient unto the commandments of God, we bear testimony of these
things. And we know that if we are faithful in Christ, we shall rid our
garments of the blood of all men, and be found spotless before the Judgment
seat of Christ, and shall dwell with him eternally in the heavens. And the
honor be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, which is one
There were two copies of the manuscript of the Book of Mormon, both
written by Oliver Cowdery, one as dictated to him by Joseph Smith, and the
other a copy made for the printer's use. After the book was published, the
latter copy, showing the printer's marking, remained in the possession of
Oliver Cowdery until shortly before his death, when he gave it into the
custody of David Whitmer.
The original copy remained in charge of Joseph Smith, who deposited it,
together with other valuable papers, coins and relics, in the corner-stone of
the Nauvoo House, October 2, 1841. This building was designed for a house
of entertainment, where strangers might be received. It was never
completed, except the first story, but part of it was roofed over, and it was
occupied for many years. About 1883 it was torn down, and the contents of
the corner-stone disclosed. It was found that the papers were badly damaged
by exposure to the water and air, but portions of the original manuscript
were intact and quite legible. About twenty pages were secured by Mrs. Sarah
M. Kimball, who had been present at the laying of the corner-stone. These
were taken to Salt Lake City, and given to Joseph F. Smith, the president of
the "Mormon" Church, who kindly permitted a photograph to be made
from one of the pages (manuscript page 8) to be used expressly in this work.
Our engraving is of this page, showing the page heading reading as follows:
[graphic: not reproduced in this web-document]
"Lehi Searcheth the Records"
And it came to pass that we took the plates of brass and the servant of Laban,
and departed into the wilderness, and journeyed unto the tent of our father.
And it came to pass that after we had come down into the wilderness unto
our father, behold he was filled with joy, and also my mother Sariah, was
exceeding glad, for she truly had mourned because of us: for she had
supposed that we had perished in the wilderness; and she also had
complained against my father, telling him that he was a visionary man;
saying, Behold thou hast led us forth from the land of our inheritance, and
my sons are no more, and we perish in the wilderness. And after this
manner of language had my mother complained against my father. And it
had come to pass that my father spake unto her, saying, I know that I am a
visionary man; for if I had not seen the things of God in a vision, I should
not have known the goodness of God, but had tarried at Jerusalem, and had
perished with my brethren. But behold, I have obtained a land of promise, in
the which things I do rejoice; yea, and I know that the Lord will deliver my
sons out of the hands of Laban, and bring them down again unto us in the
wilderness. And after this manner of language did my father Lehi comfort
my mother Sariah, concerning us, while we journeyed in the wilderness up
to the land of Jerusalem, to obtain the record of the Jews. And when we had
returned to the tent of my father, behold their joy was full, and my mother
was comforted; and she spake, saying, Now I know of a surety that the Lord
hath commanded my husband to flee into the wilderness; yea, and I also
know of a surety that the Lord hath protected my sons, and delivered them
out of the hands of Laban, and gave them power whereby they could
accomplish the thing which the Lord hath commanded them. And after this
manner of language did she speak. And it came do pass that they did rejoice
exceedingly, and did offer sacrifice and burnt offerings unto the Lord; and
they gave thanks unto the God of Israel. (I Nephi 4:38; 5: 1-9.)
The first edition of the Book of Mormon was published at Palmyra, in 1829,
and on the sixth day of the following April, 1830, the "Mormon" Church was
organized at Fayette, Seneca county, New York. There were but six members
present, though about thirty converts had been baptized previous to this
date. Among those present, and the first person who had been baptized in
the new faith, May 15, 1829, was Oliver Cowdery. He was an energetic
disciple, and very successful in proselyting. "On Sunday, April 11, 1830," the
history of the "Mormon" Church says, "Oliver Cowdery preached the first
public discourse that was preached by any of our number." He, together with
Parley P. Pratt and others, led the first mission to the Lamanites, as the
"Mormons" called the Indians, in the fall of 1830, and spring of 1831. They
went first to the Catteraugus tribe, near Buffalo; thence to the Wyandottes,
near Sandusky, Ohio; and thence to Western Missouri, where they visited
the Shawnees, and spent a considerable time among the Delawares. Oliver
Cowdery delivered a notable discourse, pointing to the origin of the Indians
as told in the Book of Mormon, to the latter tribe, which was appreciatively
replied to by its chief. 2
He was always connected with the printing and publishing department,
more especially, while with the "Mormons," and was entrusted with the
manuscript of the Book of Commandments and with money to be used for
its publication; taking it, in company with John Whitmer, to Jackson county,
Missouri, in November 1831, where the Church printing office was
established. He was appointed to assist in preparing this for the press,
expecting to publish an edition of three thousand copies in the following
May. He was, about this time, appointed at the head of seven to preside over
that part of the Church in Missouri, and spent about two years in Jackson
county, remaining until the uprising that ultimately drove the "Mormons"
from the county. His was the first name among those commanded to leave
the county. In their extremity, his associates sent him as a special messenger
back to Kirtland, Ohio, to confer with Joseph Smith and the other leaders
regarding the conditions in Jackson county. He did not return, as the
printing office had been destroyed, but was appointed to obtain a new outfit,
and was given charge of the publication called The Evening and Morning
Star, but changed in October, 1834, to The Messenger and Advocate, of which
he was the editor.
From this time, until the spring of 1838, Oliver Cowdery was intimately
associated with Joseph Smith in developing the organization of the
"Mormon" Church. He and the other two witnesses, Whitmer and Harris,
selected and ordained the twelve apostles, when they were called, in
February 1835, at Kirtland, Ohio. From this quorum came the governing
authority, which has continued up to the present time -- the first presidency
of three, and the twelve apostles.
After the "Mormons" had been driven out of Jackson county, Missouri,
northward into Caldwell and Daviess counties, and during the period of
continual uprising of the people against the "Mormons," differences arose,
and a number of the leading converts fell away. Among these were the
Whitmers and Oliver Cowdery. The latter had married Elizabeth Ann
Whitmer, a sister of David, the witness, in Kaw township, Jackson county,
Missouri, on December 18, 1832. She was born at Fayette, New York, January
Oliver Cowdery's separation from the "Mormons" came about through
dissensions with the local leaders, over questions of policy relating to their
material or temporal affairs and authority; and also through prevalent
jealousies and strife that had taken opportunity to work their utmost evil
from the confusion incident to the breaking up and driving of the people
from county to county and ultimately from the state. The continued discord
resulted finally in charges preferred by Seymour Brunson, April 11, 1838,
which are here given in full, together with his reply:
To the Bishop and Council of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:
I prefer the following charges against President Oliver Cowdery:
First -- For persecuting the brethren by urging on vexatious lawsuits against
them, and thus distressing the innocent.
Second -- For seeking to destroy the character of President Joseph Smith, Jr.,
by falsely insinuating that he was guilty of adultery.
Third -- For treating the Church with contempt by not attending meetings.
Fourth -- For virtually denying the faith by declaring that he would not be
governed by any ecclesiastical authority or revelation whatever, in his
Fifth -- For selling his lands in Jackson county, contrary to the revelations.
Sixth -- For writing and sending an insulting letter to President Thomas B.
Marsh, while the latter was on the High Council attending to the duties of
his office as president of the council, and by insulting the High Council with
the contents of said letter.
Seventh -- For leaving his calling to which God had appointed him by
revelation, for the sake of filthy lucre, and turning to the practice of law.
Eighth -- For disgracing the Church by being connected in the bogus business,
as common report says.
Ninth -- For dishonestly retaining notes after they had been paid; and finally,
for leaving and forsaking the cause of God, and returning to the beggarly
elements of the world, and neglecting his high and holy calling, according to
OLIVER COWDERY'S REPLY.
FAR WEST, MISSOURI, April 12, 1838.
DEAR SIR: --
I received your note of the 9th inst., on the day of its date,
containing a copy of nine charges preferred before yourself and council
against me, by elder Seymour Brunson.
I could have wished that those charges might have been deferred until after
my interview with President Smith; but as they are not, I must waive the
anticipated pleasure, with which I had flattered myself of an understanding,
on those points, which are grounds of different opinions on some Church
regulations, and others which personally interest myself.
The fifth charge, reads as follows: "For selling his lands in Jackson county,
contrary to the revelations." So much of this charge, "for selling his lands in
Jackson county," I acknowledge to be true, and believe that a large majority
of this Church have already spent their judgment on that act, and
pronounced it sufficient to warrant a disfellowship; and also that you have
concurred in its correctness, consequently, have no good reason for
supposing you would give any decision contrary.
Now, sir, the lands in our country are allodial in the strictest construction of
that term, and have not the least shadow of feudal tenures attached to them,
consequently they may be disposed of by deeds of conveyance, without the
consent or even approbation of a superior.
The fourth charge is in the following words, "For virtually denying the faith
by declaring that he would not be governed by any ecclesiastical authority
nor revelation whatever in his temporal affairs."
With regard to this, I think I am warranted in saying the judgment is also
passed, as on the matter of the fifth charge, consequently I have no
disposition to contend with the Council; this charge covers simply the
doctrine of the fifth, and if I were to be controlled by other than my own
judgment, in a compulsory manner, in my temporal interests, of course
could not buy or sell without the consent of some real or supposed
authority. Whether that clause contains the precise words, I am not certain -- I
think, however, they were these: "I will not be influenced, governed or
controlled in my temporal interests by any ecclesiastical authority or
pretended revelation whatever, contrary to my own judgment." Such being
still my opinion, shall only remark that the three great principles of English
liberty, as laid down in the books, are "the right of personal security, the
right of personal liberty, and the right of private property." My venerable
ancestor was among the little band who landed on the rocks of Plymouth in
1620 -- with him he brought those maxims, and a body of those laws which
were the result and experience of many centuries, on the basis of which now
stands our great and happy government; and they are so interwoven in my
nature, have so long been inculcated into my mind, by a liberal and
intelligent ancestry, that I am wholly unwilling to exchange them for
anything less liberal, less benevolent, or less free.
The very principle of which I conceive to be couched in an attempt to set up
a kind of petty government, controlled and dictated by ecclesiastical
influence, in the midst of this national and state government. You will, no
doubt, say this is not correct; but the bare notice of these charges over which
you assume the right to decide is, in my opinion, a direct attempt to make
the secular power subservient to Church direction -- to the correctness of
which I cannot in conscience subscribe -- I believe that principle never did fail
to produce anarchy and confusion.
This attempt to control me, in my temporal interests, I conceive to be a
disposition to take from me a portion of my Constitutional privileges and
inherent right -- I only respectfully ask leave, therefore, to withdraw from a
society assuming they have such right.
So far as relates to the other seven charges, I shall lay them carefully away,
and take such a course in regard to them as I may feel bound by my honor, to
answer to my rising posterity.
I beg you, sir, to take no view of the foregoing remarks other than my belief
in the outward government of this Church. I do not charge you, or any other
person who differs with me on these points, of not being sincere; but such
difference does exist, which I sincerely regret.
With considerations of the highest respect, I am your obedient servant,
Rev. Edward Partridge, Bishop of the Church of Latter-day Saints:
The Bishop and High Council, assembled at the Bishop's office, April 12,
1838. After the organization of the Council, the above charges of the 11th
instant were read, also the letter from Oliver Cowdery, as will be found
recorded in the Church records of the city of Far West, Book A. The 1st, 2nd,
3rd, 7th, 8th and 9th charges were sustained. The 4th and 5th charges were
rejected, and the 6th was withdrawn. Consequently he (Oliver Cowdery) was
considered no longer a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
At this period Oliver Cowdery's connection with the "Mormon" people
ceased, though he never retracted his testimony concerning their rise and
progress. He remained away from them for eleven years, or until about a
year before his death. He lived a part of this time in Ohio, Michigan and
Wisconsin, practicing law. At one time he was chosen prosecuting attorney,
and, on a certain occasion, while prosecuting a criminal, the opposing
attorney taunted him with his former connection with the "Mormons," and
as being a witness to the Book of Mormon, hoping thus to break down his
influence with the jury. He replied that he was the same man who had
given his testimony to the Book of Mormon; that it had been before the
world for years, and that he stood by it, that he could not deny it. His courage
in upholding this position, contrary to his opponent's expectation, appealed
favorably, rather than otherwise, to the jury, and he won his case.
The death of Joseph Smith, at Carthage, Illinois, June 27, 1844, had been
followed by the expulsion of the "Mormons" from the state of Illinois, in
1846, and their migrating to the Missouri river and the Rocky mountains in
1847 and 1848. On February 27, 1848, Oliver Cowdery addressed a letter to the
leaders of the "Mormon" Church, from Elkhorn, Walworth county,
Wisconsin, indicating his intention of rejoining them. This he postponed
until the fall, however, when he proceeded from his home in Wisconsin to
Kanesville (Council Bluffs), on the Missouri river. The main body of the
"Mormons" had gone on their wonderful pilgrimage to the Rocky
mountains. A large congregation, however, remained there, awaiting an
opportunity to proceed. They were under the presidency of Orson Hyde, one
of the original twelve apostles, who had been ordained by Oliver Cowdery
and his associate witnesses of the Book of Mormon. To this congregation
Oliver Cowdery came in October, 1848. The story of his return has been told
by many persons who were present. It is given in a letter written by George
A. Smith, on October 31, 1848, to Orson Pratt, and published in the
Millennial Star, Vol. 11, in 1849:
We had meetings on Saturday and Sunday, which were designed as a kind of
finish to our conference. Although the weather was very unfavorable, we
had nearly two thousand people on the Sabbath (October 29, 1848). Brother
Hyde gave a great deal of instruction. ... Oliver Cowdery, who had just
arrived from Wisconsin with his family, upon being invited, addressed the
meeting. He bore testimony, in the most positive terms, to the truth of the
Book of Mormon, the restoration of the priesthood to the earth, and the
mission of Joseph Smith as the prophet of the last days, and told the people
if they wanted to follow the right path, to keep to the main channel of the
stream; "where the body of the Church goes, there is the authority, and all
those 'lo heres' and 'lo theres,' have no authority, but these people have the
true and holy priesthood; for the angel said unto Joseph Smith, Jr., in my
hearing, that this priesthood shall remain on earth unto the end." His
testimony produced quite a sensation among the gentlemen present who did
not belong to the Church, and it was gratefully received by all the Saints. Last
evening myself and Brother Hyde spent with Brother Cowdery. He told us
he had come to listen to our counsel, and would do as we told him. He had
been cut off from the Church by a Council; had withdrawn himself from it;
stayed away eleven years; and now came back, not expecting to be a leader,
but wished to be a member and have a part among us. He considered that he
ought to be baptized, and did not expect to return without it. He said that
Joseph Smith had fulfiled his mission faithfully before God until death. He
was determined to rise with the Church, and if it went down, he was willing
to go down with it. I saw him today; told him that I was going to write to
you. He sends his respects to you; he says, "Tell Brother Orson I am advised
by the brethren to remain here this winter, and assist Brother Hyde in the
printing office, and as soon as I get settled I will write him a letter."
Soon after this, the matter of his return to the Church was taken up by the
High Council, and was thoroughly discussed by its members. Some thought
that he could not possibly be sufficiently repentant to entitle him to return;
but Orson Hyde stood up for him -- declared that the past with all its offenses
should be forgotten and forgiven, and that he should be restored to full
fellowship. This view prevailed, and he was so received, by re-baptism.
Orson Hyde wrote of this circumstance to Wilford Woodruff, then at
Cambridge, Massachusetts. Elder Woodruff's letter, sent to Orson Pratt, and
published in the Millennial Star, Vol. 11, in 1849, contained the following:
I received a letter from Elder Hyde saying that Oliver Cowdery had come to
the Bluffs with his family; had made satisfaction to the Church, who had
voted to receive him into the Church by baptism; and Elder Hyde was
expected to baptize him the next day. He was assisting Elder Hyde to put the
press in operation for printing; expected to send forth the Frontier Guardian
soon. I was truly glad to hear this, as Oliver Cowdery was the first person
baptized into the Church, under the hands of Joseph, and is capable of doing
good in the kingdom of God. I was truly glad to hear he had returned to the
In reply, the First Presidency wrote President Orson Hyde, July 20, 1849, the
original letter being in the handwriting of Daniel H. Wells:
Since the above was written, I have had opportunity to examine the general
report of the presiding authorities at Kanesville, covering incidents from
October 14, 1848, to April 5, 1849, sent to President Brigham Young, and
signed by Orson Hyde, George A. Smith and Ezra T. Benson, and Robert
Campbell, Clerk. From it I have quoted the following to complete the
historical account of Oliver Cowdery's return to the Church:
About this time Brother Phineas Young and Oliver Cowdery arrived. At the
request of President Hyde, Brother Oliver Cowdery made an address to the
congregation. Bore his testimony to the coming forth of the Book of
Mormon, and the truth of the work in the last days, in the same manner as
he used to do, previous to his apostasy. He said that he was surprised to see
such a sea of strange faces before him, and all brethren; that the priesthood
was with this people, and the Twelve were the only men that could lead the
Church after the death of Joseph; and that every man that wished to do right
would follow the main channel of the stream. And requested the Saints to
go on in the good way, and seemed to possess an excellent spirit. * * *
Conference adjourned. A few days after Brother Oliver called on us. We had
a lengthy and agreeable interview. He wished to know our feelings towards
him. Said he was willing to take our counsel. Had not come for place or
office, but only wished to be one among us, and live with the Saints. And if
"Mormonism" goes up, I want my name to go up with it, and if it goes
down, my name goes down with it, and I am willing it should. We advised
him to be rebaptized. He said he had been cut off from the Church by a
bishop and twelve councilors. Had been out of it a number of years, and
considered it right he should return by the door. He made some
explanations in relation to the letter which appeared in the Ensign of Liberty.
We invited him to attend the High Priests Quorum on the first Sunday in
November, (November 5th), the High Council and Bishop Knight being
present. Brother Cowdery made some statements, wishing to be received
back into the Church. Councilor William Snow, president of the High
Priests quorum wished some explanations in relation to certain items which
appear in a letter over the signature of Oliver Cowdery, in relation to
himself and David Whitmer; and named the following: "True it is our right
gives us the head." * * "We have the authority and do hold the keys." He
(Oliver) stated that this was a private letter to his brother-in-law David
Whitmer, and never was intended for the public eye, and was printed
without his consent and knowledge; and that since that time has changed
his views on the subject. President Snow enquired what had produced that
change, as he presumed the letter contained his sentiments at the time it was
written, as it was to a confidential friend. Brother Oliver replied: "When I
wrote that letter I did not know of the revelation which says, that the keys
and power conferred upon me, were taken from me and placed upon the
head of Hyrum Smith, and it was that revelation which changed my views
on this subject. 4 I have not come to seek place, nor to interfere with the
business and calling of those men who have borne the burthen, since the
death of Joseph. I throw myself at your feet, and wish to be one of your
number, and be a mere member of the Church, and my mere asking to be
baptized is an end to all pretensions to authority." He was received by the
unanimous vote of the quorum, and all present; and was subsequently
baptized and confirmed by President Orson Hyde.
We understand that Brother Cowdery has come into the Church, and that
his feelings are right. We are glad of this, and trust he will ever more be one
with us. We would like to have him accompany Brother Babbitt to
Washington, and for him to receive assistance from the brethren through
your influence to accomplish this object.
After finishing his work in setting up the press and starting the Frontier
Guardian, Oliver Cowdery visited his wife's relatives, the Whitmers, and
other friends. Upon the way, he stopped in Upper Missouri, and spent some
time with Samuel W. Richards, to whom he repeated his testimony, in a
signed statement, January 13, 1849. He was not well at that time, and his
malady, thought to be incipient pneumonia, developed into consumption,
from which he died at Richmond, Ray county, Missouri, on March 3, 1850.
Phineas H. Young, who married Oliver's sister, was present at his deathbed,
and in a letter addressed to President Brigham Young, in the Great Salt Lake
Valley, from Kanesville, April 25, 1850, he says: "Brother Oliver Cowdery is
dead. His last testimony will never be forgotten by many. He said to his
friends there was no salvation but in the Valley, and through the Priesthood
1. OLIVER COWDERY,*7 (William, Jr.,*6 William,*5 Nathaniel,*4 Samuel,*3 Nathaniel,*2 William*1),
b. Oct. 3, 1806, at Wells, Rutland Co., Vt.; m. Dec. 18, 1832, in Jackson Co., Mo., to Elizabeth Ann Whitmer,
b. Jan. 22, 1815, at Fayette, Seneca Co., N. Y.; dau. of Peter and Mary Whitmer. Residence (1887) South West
City, Mo. He d. Mch. 3, 1850; was a teacher by profession; also practiced law.
* Children of Oliver and Elizabeth:
i Marie Louise, b. Aug. 11, 1835, at Kirtland, Ohio; m. Sept. 7, 1856, at
Richmond, Mo., to Dr. Chas. Johnson, b. June 24, 1826. Residence (1887)
South West City, Mo. We are indebted to Mrs. Johnson for the dates in this
record of Oliver's family.
ii Elizabeth Ann, d. May 9, 1837, at Kirtland, Ohio, aged 5 mos., 25 days.
iii Josephine Rebecca, d. Oct. 21, 1844, at Tiffin, Ohio, aged 6 years, 7 mos.
iv Oliver Peter, d. Aug. 13, 1840, at Tiffin, aged 5 days.
v Adline Fuller, d. Oct. 13, 1844, at Tiffin, Ohio, aged 15 days.
vi Julia Olive, d. July 3, 1846, at Tiffin, Ohio, aged 1 mo., 6 days.
2. History of the Church, Vol. I, page 183.
3. History of the Church, Vol. III, pages 16, 17, 18.
4. That he [Hyrum] may act in concert also with my servant Joseph,
* * * * and be crowned with the same blessing, and glory, and honor, and Priesthood,
and gifts of the Priesthood, that once were put upon him that
was my servant Oliver Cowdery. -- Doc. and Cov. 124: 95.
by ANDREW JENSON (1901)
Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia: A Compilation of Biographical
Sketches of Prominent Men and Women in the Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints. 4 vols.
(Salt Lake City: A. Jenson History Company & Deseret News Press, 1901-36)
[vol. 1 p. 246]
... one of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon and
the first General Church Recorder, was born Oct. 3, 1806, in the town of
Wells, Rutland county, Vermont. He was principally raised in the town of
Poultney, Rutland county, whence his father removed when Oliver was
only three years old. About the year 1825, Oliver removed to the State of
New York, where his elder brothers were married and settled, and about two
years later his father also moved to that State. Oliver was employed as clerk
in a store until the winter of 1828-29, when he taught the district school in
the town of Manchester, Ontario county, N. Y., nine miles from his father's
[transcriber's note: Jenson received the above information from Lucy Pearce
Cowdery Young (1814-1898), Oliver's half-sister. See her letter of Mar. 7, 1887
to Jenson, via Brigham H. Young -- (copy in LDS Church Archives). An excerpt
frpm that letter says:
Now in regard to Oliver he was born in the town of Wells in the state
of Vermont. when he was three years of age Father married my
Mother she resided in the Town of Poultney so Oliver was brought
up in Poultney Rutland County Vermont and when he arrived at
the age of twenty he went to the State of New York where his older
brothers were married and Settled and in about two years my father
moved there. Oliver's occupation was clerking in a store until 1829,
when he taught the district school in the town of Manchester...
Oliver probably migrated from VT to the west c. 1822-23, staying first with his
brother Lyman in Ontario (later Wayne) Co., NY.]
There he first became acquainted with the family of Joseph Smith, sen.
(father of the Prophet), who was one of those who sent children to the
school, and Oliver went to board awhile at his house. During that time the
family related to him the circumstances of young Joseph having received the
plates of the Book of Mormon. Oliver became deeply interested and
determined to find out the particulars about this wonderful event. He also
prayed to the Lord to enlighten his mind, and one night, after he had retired
to rest, the Lord manifested to him, that he had been told the truth in
relation to the finding of the plates. He then concluded to pay Joseph Smith
a visit, in order to learn more about it, which he did, and on April 5, 1829, he
first met the Prophet at his temporary home in Harmony, Penn., whither he
had removed because of the persecutions to which he had been subjected in
the State of New York.
This meeting of Joseph and Oliver was not only providential for the latter,
but also for the Prophet himself, who had already been the custodian of the
plates of the Book of Mormon for some time, but had been unable to proceed
with the translation for the want of a scribe. In Oliver he saw the proper
person to assist him in his work, and two days after his arrival, Joseph Smith
"commenced to translate the Book of Mormon," with Oliver Cowdery as
scribe. A few days later a revelation was given to Oliver Cowdery through
Joseph Smith. (Doc. and Cov., Sec. 6.) While engaged in the work of
translating, Oliver became exceedingly anxious to have the power to
translate bestowed upon him, and in relation to his desire two revelations
were given to him through the Prophet Joseph (Doc. and Cov., Sec. 8 and 9).
On various other occasions he was favored with the words of the Almighty
direct through the Prophet, with whom he for a number of years afterwards
was very closely connected in his administrations in the Priesthood and
official duties generally. (See Doc. and Cov., Sec. 7, 13, 17, 18, 23, 110, etc.) May
15, 1829, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery went into the woods to pray and
inquire of the Lord respecting baptism for the remission of sins, which they
found mentioned in the record. While engaged in prayer, a messenger from
heaven descended in a cloud of light, and laying his hands upon them, he
them, saying: "Upon you, my fellow-servants, in the name of Messiah, I
confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of
angels and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the
remission of sins; and this shall never be taken again from the earth, until
the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness."
This heavenly messenger said that this Aaronic Priesthood had not the
power of laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost. He also told them
that his name was John, the same that is called John the Baptist in the New
Testament, and that he acted under the direction of Peter, James and John,
who held the keys of the Priesthood of Melchizedek, which priesthood he
said would in due time be conferred on them, when Joseph should be the
first and Oliver the second Elder in the Church. The messenger also
commanded them to go and be baptized and ordain each other, and directed
that Joseph should first baptize Oliver, and then Oliver baptize Joseph. This
they did, after which Joseph laid his hands on Oliver's head and ordained
him to the Aaronic Priesthood. Oliver then laid his hands on Joseph and
ordained him to the same Priesthood. Early in June Joseph Smith and wife
and Oliver Cowdery removed to Fayette, Seneca county, N.Y., where the
translation of the Book of Mormon was continued and finished.
John Whitmer, one of the sons of Peter Whitmer, sen., assisted considerably
in the writing. It was some time during the month of June of this year (1829)
that the plates were shown to the three witnesses; and not long afterwards
Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were ordained to the Melchizedek
Priesthood by Peter, James and John. A revelation directed principally to
Oliver Cowdery was also given, making known the calling of Twelve
Apostles in the last days. (Doc. and Cov., Sec. 18.) When the Church was
organized in Fayette, April 6, 1830, Oliver Cowdery was one of the original
six members, and was on that occasion ordained by Joseph Smith to be the
second Elder in the Church. April 11th, Oliver preached the first public
discourse delivered by any Elder in this dispensation. The meeting in which
this took place was held in Mr. Whitmer's house, in Fayette. In the
following June, Oliver accompanied the Prophet to Colesville, Broome
county, where a large branch of the Church subsequently was raised up,
amidst considerable persecution.
In October, 1830, Oliver Cowdery, Parley P. Pratt, Peter Whitmer, jun., and
Ziba Peterson were called to go on a mission to the Lamanites in the
wilderness. These missionaries took leave of their friends late in October of
the same year, and started on foot. After traveling for some days, they
stopped and preached to an Indian nation near Buffalo, N.Y., and
subsequently raised up a large branch of the Church in Kirtland, Ohio.
Among the converts at the latter place was the famous Sidney Rigdon, who
afterwards became so prominent in the Church. In the beginning of 1831,
after a very hard and toilsome journey in the dead of winter, the
missionaries finally arrived in Independence, Jackson county, Missouri,
about fifteen hundred miles from where they started. This was the first
mission performed by the Elders of the Church in any of the States west of
New York. Oliver Cowdery and Parley P. Pratt commenced a prosperous
mission among the Delaware Indians across the frontier but they were
finally ordered out by the Indian agents, accused of being disturbers of the
peace. Being thus compelled to cease their work among
the Lamanites for the time being, the Elders commenced preaching to the
whites in Jackson county, with considerable success. In February, 1831, Elder
Pratt was sent back to the East, while Elder Cowdery and his other
companions remained in Missouri until the arrival of the Prophet Joseph
and many other Elders from the East, in July following, when Jackson
county was designated as a gathering place of the Saints and dedicated for
that purpose. When the Temple site was dedicated, Aug. 3, 1831, Elder
Cowdery was one of the eight men present. He subsequently returned to
Kirtland, Ohio, with the Prophet, where they arrived Aug. 27th. The next
day (Aug. 28, 1831) he was ordained a High Priest by Sidney Rigdon.
In the following November he and John Whitmer were sent back to
Missouri with the revelations, which were to be printed there by Wm. W.
Phelps. Jan. 22, 1832, in Kaw township, Jackson county, Mo., Oliver Cowdery
married Elizabeth Ann Whitmer, a daughter of Peter Whitmer, sen.; she
was born in Fayette, Seneca county, N.Y., Jan. 22, 1815. On the Prophet's
second visit to Missouri, in 1832, Oliver Cowdery was appointed one of a
committee of three to review and prepare such revelations as were deemed
necessary for publication. He was also one of the High Priests appointed to
stand at the head of affairs relating to the Church in Missouri.
After the destruction of the printing press and the troubles in Jackson
county, in July, 1833, Oliver Cowdery was sent as a special messenger from
the Saints to Kirtland, Ohio, to confer with the First Presidency. He arrived
there in the latter part of August. At a council held in Kirtland, Sept. 11,
1833, he was appointed to take charge of the printing office to be established
at that place, and there he subsequently recommenced the publication of the
"Evening and Morning Star." When the press was dedicated, Dec. 18, 1833,
the Prophet records the following concerning Elder Cowdery: "Blessed of the
Lord is Brother Oliver; nevertheless there are two evils in him that he must
needs forsake, or he cannot altogether forake the buffetings of the adversary.
If he forsake these evils, he shall be foregiven, and he shall be made like
unto the bow which the Lord hath set in the heavens; he shall be a sign and
an ensign unto the nations. Behold, he is blessed of the Lord for his
constancy and steadfastness in the work of the Lord; wherefore, he shall be
blessed in his generation, and they shall never be cut off, and he shall be
helped out of many troubles; and if he keeps the commandments, and
hearkens unto the counsel of the Lord, his rest shall be glorious." At the
organization of the first High Council in the Church, at Kirtland, Feb. 17,
1834, Elder Cowdery was elected a member. He acted as clerk of the Council
for a number of years, and subsequently acted as president of the Council.
When the Prophet, with Zion's Camp, started for Missouri in May
following, Oliver, together with Sidney Rigdon, was left in charge of the
Church in Kirtland. In the evening of Nov. 29, 1834, Joseph Smith and
Oliver Cowdery united in solemn prayer and made a covenant with the
Lord, that if he would prosper them in certain things, they would give a
"tenth to be bestowed upon the poor of his Church, or as he shall
command." This was the first introduction of the paying of tithing among
the Latter-day Saints. In February, 1835, the Three Witnesses, Oliver
Cowdery, David Whitmer and Martin Harris, chose twelve men from the
Elders of the Church, to officiate as the Twelve Apostles. In blessing them
and giving them instructions Oliver Cowdery took a prominent part. He was
also one of the trustees of the school in Kirtland, where he studied Hebrew
and other languages, in connection with the Prophet and other Elders. Sept.
14, 1835, he was appointed to act as Church Recorder. He had previously
acted in the same capacity from April, 1830, to June, 1831.
Elder Cowdery was present at the dedication of the Temple in Kirtland, and
took an active part in giving the assembled Elders their washings and
anointings. April 3, 1836, together with the Prophet Joseph, he saw and
heard the Savior, and also Moses, Elias and Elijah the Prophet, who
committed unto them the keys necessary for the furtherance of the work of
the great latter-day dispensation. (Doc. and Cov., Sec. 110.) Sept. 3, 1837, at a
conference held in Kirtland, Elder Cowdery was appointed assistant
counselor to the First Presidency. Some time during that year he removed to
Far West, Caldwell county,
Mo., where he acted as clerk of the High
Council and Church Recorder. He was also a member of a committee
appointed to select locations for the gathering of the Saints. April 11, 1838.
Elder Seymour Brunson preferred the following charges against Oliver
Cowdery before the High Council of Far West:
"1st. For persecuting the brethren by urging on vexatious lawsuits against
them, and thus distressing the innocent.
The following day (April 12th) the Bishop of Far West and High Council
examined his case. "The 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 7th, 8th and 9th charges were
sustained. The 4th and 5th charges were rejected; and the 6th was
withdrawn. Consequently he (Oliver Cowdery) was considered no longer a
member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After his
excommunication, Oliver Cowdery engaged in law business and practiced
for some years as a lawyer in Michigan, but he never denied the truth of the
Book of Mormon. On the contrary he seems to have used every opportunity
to bear testimony of its divine origin.
2nd. For seeking to destroy the character of President Joseph Smith jun., by
falsely insinuating that he was guilty of adultery, etc.
3rd. For treating the Church with contempt by not attending meeting.
4th. For virtually denying the faith by declaring that he would not be
governed by any ecclesiastical authority or revelations whatever, in his
5th. For selling his lands in Jackson county, contrary to the revelations.
6th. For writing and sending an insulting letter to President Thomas B.
Marsh, while on the High Council, attending to the duties of his office as
president of the Council, and by insulting the High Council with the
contents of said letter.
7th. For leaving his calling, in which God had appointed him by revelation,
for the sake of filthy lucre, and turning to the practice of law. 8th. For
disgracing the Church by being connected in the bogus business, as common
9th. For dishonestly retaining notes, after they have been paid; and, finally,
for leaving or forsaking the cause of God, and returning to the beggarly
elements of the world, and neglecting his high and holy calling according to
While practicing law in Michigan, a gentleman, on a certain occasion,
addressed him as follows: "Mr. Cowdery, I see your name attached to this
book (Book of Mormon). If you believe it to be true, why are you in
Michigan?" The gentleman then read the names of the Three Witnesses and
asked. "Mr. Cowdery, do you believe this book?" "No, sir," was the reply.
"Very well," continued the gentleman, "but your name is attached to it, and
you declare here (pointing to the book) that you saw an angel, and also the
plates, from which the book purports to be translated; and now you say you
don't believe it. Which time did you tell the truth?" Oliver Cowdery replied
with emphasis, "My name is attached to that book, and what I there have
said is true. I did see this; I know I saw it, and faith has nothing to do with it,
as a perfect knowledge has swallowed up the faith which I had in the work,
knowing, as I do, that it is true."
At a special conference held at Kanesville, Iowa, Oct. 21, 1848, and presided
over by Apostle Orson Hyde. Oliver Cowdery was present and made the
following remarks: "Friends and Brethren, -- My name is Cowdery, Oliver
Cowdery. In the early history of this Church I stood identified with her, and
one in her councils. True it is that the gifts and callings of God are without
repentance; not because I was better than the rest of mankind was I called;
but, to fulfill the purposes of God. He called me to a high and holy calling. I
wrote, with my own pen, the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it
fell from the lips of the Prophet Joseph Smith, as he translated it by the gift
and power of God, by the means of the Urim and Thummim, or, as it is
called by that book, 'holy interpreters.' I beheld with my eyes, and handled
with my hands, the gold plates from which it was transcribed. I also saw with
my eyes and handled with my hands the 'holy interpreters.' That book is
true. Sidney Rigdon did not write it; Mr. Spaulding did not write it; I wrote it
myself as it fell from the lips of the Prophet. It contains the everlasting
gospel, and came forth to the children of men in fulfilment of the
revelations of John, where he says he saw an angel come with the
everlasting gospel to preach to every nation, kindred, tongue and people. It
contains principles of salvation; and if you, my hearers, will walk by its light
and obey its precepts, you will be
saved with an everlasting salvation in the kingdom of God on high, Brother Hyde has just said that it is very important that we keep and walk in the true channel, in order to avoid the sand-bars. This is true. The channel is here. The holy Priesthood is here. I was present with Joseph when an holy angel from God came down from heaven and conferred on us, or restored, the lesser or Aaronic Priesthood, and said to us, at the same time, that it should remain upon the earth while the earth stands. I was also present with Joseph when the higher or Melchizedek Priesthood was conferred by holy angels from on high. This Priesthood we then conferred on each other, by the will and commandment of God. This Priesthood, as was then declared, is also to remain upon the earth until the last remnant of time. This holy Priesthood, or authority, we then conferred upon many, and is just as good and valid as though God had done it in person. I laid my hands upon that man-yes, I laid my right hand upon his head (pointing to Brother Hyde), and I conferred upon him this Priesthood, and he holds that Priesthood now. He was also called through me, by the prayer of faith, an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ."
In the early part of November following Elder Hyde called a High Council in
the Log Tabernacle, to consider the case of Oliver Cowdery. Having been cut
off by the voice of a High Council, it was thought that, if he was restored, he
should be restored by the voice of a similar body. Before this body Brother
Cowdery said: "Brethren, for a number of years I have been separated from
you. I now desire to come back. I wish to come humbly and to be one in your
midst. I seek no station. I only wish to be identified with you. I am out of the
Church. I am not a member of the Church, but I wish to become a member
of it. I wish to come in at the door. I know the door. I have not come here to
seek precedence. I come humbly and throw myself upon the decisions of this
body, knowing, as I do, that its decisions are right, and should be obeyed."
Brother George W. Harris, president of the Council, moved that Brother
Cowdery be received. Considerable discussion took place in relation to a
certain letter which, it was alleged, Brother Cowdery had written to David
Whitmer. Brother Cowdery again rose and said: "If there be any person that
has aught against me, let him declare it. My coming back and humbly asking
to become a member through the door, covers the whole ground. I
acknowledge this authority."
Brother Hyde moved that Brother Oliver Cowdery be received into the
Church by baptism, and that all old things be dropped and forgotten, which
was seconded and carried unanimously. Soon afterwards he was re-baptized.
Elder Samuel W. Richards relates the following: "The arrival of Oliver
Cowdery and his family at Council Bluffs from the east in the winter of 1848-
49 was an interesting event in the history of the Church. With his family, he
was on his way to the body of the Church located in Utah, but as some time
must elapse before emigrant trains could venture upon the plains, he
determined to visit his wife's friends, the Whitmers, in Missouri. While
making that journey, a severe snow storm made it convenient for his family
to spend several days with Elder Samuel W. Richards and family, who were
temporarily residing in upper Missouri, awaiting the opening of the
emigration season. That favorable opportunity was made the most of to
discuss all matters of interest connected with the early history of the Church,
with which Elder Cowdery was personally acquainted and Elder Richards
was not. His relation of events was of no ordinary character, maintaining
unequivocally all those written testimonies he had furnished to the Church
and world in earlier days. Moroni, Peter, James and John, and other
heavenly messengers, who had ministered to him in connection with the
prophet Joseph Smith, were familiarly but sacredly spoken of, and all
seemed fresh upon the memory as though but events of yesterday. His
language was considerate, precise and forcible-entirely free from lightness or
frivolity-such as might be expected from one who had been schooled with
angels and taught by Prophets; more of the heavenly than the earthly. His
only ambition seemed to be to give himself and the remainder of his life to
the Church; declared he was ready and willing, if desired, to go to the nations
of the earth and bear his testimony of that which God and angels had
revealed a testimony
in his personal experience of many things which no other living person
could bear. His hopes were buoyant that such might be his future lot as cast
with the Church, in the body of which he declared the Priesthood and its
authority were and must continue to be. An overruling Providence saw fit
to order otherwise. Soon after arriving among his relatives in Missouri, he
was taken sick and died, in full faith and fellowship of the latter-day work,
desiring the world might know that his testimony was of God."
(Contributor, Vol. 5, page 446.)
Oliver Cowdery died March 3, 1850, at Richmond, Ray county, Mo. Elder
Phineas H. Young, who was present at his death, says: "His last moments
were spent in bearing testimony of the truth of the gospel revealed through
Joseph Smith, and the power of the holy Priesthood which he had received
through his administrations." Oliver Cowdery's half-sister, Lucy P. Young a
widow of the late Phineas H. Young, relates that Oliver Cowdery just before
breathing his last, asked his attendants to raise him up in bed, that he might
talk to the family and his friends, who were present. He then told them to
live according to the teachings contained in the Book of Mormon, and
promised them, if they would do this, that they would meet him in heaven.
He then said, "Lay me down and let me fall asleep."
A few moments later he died without a struggle. David Whitmer testified to
Apostles Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith in 1878, as follows: "Oliver died
the happiest man I ever saw. After shaking hands with the family and
kissing his wife and daughter, he said, 'Now I lay me down for the last time:
I am going to my Savior;' and he died immediately, with a smile on his
face." (Millennial Star. Vol. 40, p. 774.)
In an article published in the Millennial Star, Vol. 48, page 420, Elder
Edward Stevenson gives the following testimony in relation to Oliver
Cowdery: "I have often heard him bear a faithful testimony to the
restoration of the gospel by the visitation of an angel, in whose presence he
stood in company with the Prophet Joseph Smith and David Whitmer. He
testified that he beheld the plates, the leaves being turned over by the angel,
whose voice he heard, and that they were commanded as witnesses to bear a
faithful testimony to the world of the vision that they were favored to
behold, and that the translation from the plates in the Book of Mormon was
accepted of the Lord, and that it should go forth to the world, and no power
on earth should stop its progress. Although for a time Oliver Cowdery
absented himself from the body of the Church, I never have known a time
when he faltered or was recreant to the trust so sacredly entrusted to him by
an angel from heaven."
by BRIGHAM H. ROBERTS (1930)
Comprehensive History of the Church
(Salt Lake City, Deseret News Press, 1930)
[Short excerpt only - Roberts' remarks on Cowdery are
found in the first two volumes of this 6 volume work.]
[Vol. 1 p. 119]
OLIVER COWDERY -- NEW AMANUENSIS
Joseph had been able to proceed but lamely and intermittently with the
translation after Martin Harris had ceased to be available as an amanuensis.
In the foregoing revelation concerning Harris, Joseph was commanded to
stop translating for a season; "and I will provide means," said the Lord,
"whereby thou mayest accomplish that which I have commanded thee."
The chief factor in the "means" named above came shortly afterwards in
the person of Oliver Cowdery, who presented himself at the humble home
of Joseph Smith in Harmony on the 5th of April, 1829.
This young man Cowdery was born in Vermont at Wells, Rutland county,
October 3rd, 1806; and was therefore about the Prophet's own age. The
Cowdery family removed to western New York where some of Oliver's
brothers had married and settled.
As was quite common in new countries, and especially in those times
when the pursuits of men were not so rigidly specialized as in later years,
Oliver Cowdery had followed in boyhood and early manhood a variety
of callings: farming, blacksmithing, [[3 Howe's Mormonism Unveiled.
Howe admits that until his "intimacy commenced with the money diggers,"
(i. e. the Smiths!) Oliver Cowdery "sustained a fair reputation," (p. 15) end 3]]
clerk in a store, and finally, in the winter of 1828-9, school teaching.
He taught the district school in the vicinity of the Smith home, and
"boarded round" [[4 This will be recognized as an old New England custom of early days end4]] in turn with the patrons of the school. As the Smith family
patronized the school, this circumstance made Oliver Cowdery for a time an
inmate of their home, and the parents of the Prophet related to him the
circumstance of Joseph obtaining the Book of Mormon. Young Cowdery
became intensely interested in the story related to him.
Meantime he met David Whitmer in Palmyra, a young man about his own
age, who lived some twenty-five miles from Palmyra, near the town of
Waterloo, in a neighborhood called Fayette, Seneca county, at the north end
of Seneca Lake. In his conversation with young Whitmer, Oliver told him of
his acquaintance with the Smiths and expressed himself to the effect that
there must be something in the story of finding the plates, and he
announced his intention to investigate the matter. Later, when Oliver started for Harmony, where the Prophet was living, he passed the Whitmer home at Fayette ...
Extract from B. H. Roberts' notes for
History of the Church
Vol 1 Ch. 4
1. Oliver Cowdery was born in the town of Wells, Rutland county, Vermont,
Oct. 3, 1806. He married Elizabeth Ann Whitmer, in Kaw township, Jackson
county, Missouri, Dec. 18, 1832. She was born in Fayette, Seneca county, New
York, January 22, 1815.
2. Previous to joining the Prophet Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery had met
David Whitmer at Palmyra, and conversed with him concerning the rumors
rife in that vicinity about the finding of the Book of Mormon plates. This
chance meeting resulted in a friendship between the young men, and finally
when Cowdery determined to visit the Prophet in Harmony, he went via
the Whitmer residence, at Fayette, which was near the town of Waterloo, at
the head of Seneca lake, Seneca county, New York; and promised his friend
David Whitmer that after visiting the Prophet he would write him his
impressions as to the truth or untruth of Joseph Smith's having an ancient
record. (See statement of David Whitmer in Kansas City Journal,
June 5th, 1886; also statement of the same to Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith,
in 1878, Millennial Star, vol. 11, pp. 769-774.)
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