Note: This biographical sketch of Oliver Cowdery was written by
Richard L. Anderson, PhD -- and has been published in various
sources, including John W. Welch and Larry E. Morris' recent book,
Oliver Cowdery: Scribe, Elder, Witness, copyright © 2006,
Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious scholarship. The same copyright
applies to the cover image from that volume (above).
Oliver Cowdery (1806-1850) was the next in authority to Joseph Smith in 1830 (D&C 21:10-12), and was a second
witness of many critical events in the restoration of the gospel. As one of the three Book of Mormon Witnesses,
Oliver Cowdery testified that an angel displayed the gold plates and that the voice of God proclaimed them
correctly translated. He was with Joseph Smith when John the Baptist restored to them the Aaronic Priesthood
and when Peter, James, and John ordained them to the Melchizedek Priesthood and the apostleship, and again during
the momentous Kirtland Temple visions (D&C 110).
Oliver came from a New England family with strong traditions of patriotism, individuality, learning, and religion.
He was born at Wells, Vermont, on October 3, 1806. His younger sister gave the only reliable information about his
youth: "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…. Oliver's occupation was clerking
in a store until 1829, when he taught the district school in the town of Manchester" (Lucy Cowdery Young to Andrew
Jenson, March 7, 1887, Church Archives).
While boarding with Joseph Smith's parents, he learned of their convictions about the ancient record that their son
was again translating after Martin Harris had lost the manuscript in 1828. The young teacher prayed and received
answers that Joseph Smith mentioned in a revelation (D&C 6:14-24). The Prophet's first history states the "Lord
appeared unto... Oliver Cowdery and shewed unto him the plates in a vision and…what the Lord was about to do through
me, his unworthy servant. Therefore he was desirous to come and write for me to translate" (PJS 1:10).
From April 7 through the end of June 1829, when they finished the translation, Joseph dictated while Oliver wrote,
with "utmost gratitude" for the privilege (Messenger and Advocate 1:14). Oliver penned a letter then, expressing
deep love for Christ, a lifetime theme. He later told how he and Joseph interrupted their work as they were
translating the record of the Savior's post-resurrection American ministry, and how, as they prayed about baptism,
they heard the "voice of the Redeemer" and were ministered to by John the Baptist, who gave them authority to
baptize (JS—H 1:71, note).
In 1835 Oliver helped Joseph Smith correct and publish the revelations for the Doctrine and Covenants. Section 27
lists the major priesthood messengers of the restoration: John the Baptist, whom "I have sent unto you, my servants,
Joseph Smith, Jr., and Oliver Cowdery, to ordain you unto this first priesthood" (D&C 27:8); and "Peter, James,
and John, whom I have sent unto you, by whom I have ordained you and confirmed you to be apostles and especial
witnesses of my name, and bear the keys of your ministry" (D&C 27:12).
The lesser priesthood was restored on May 15, 1829, two weeks before the Prophet and Cowdery moved to the Whitmers'
in New York to complete the translation of the Book of Mormon (HC 1:39-41, 48-49). The higher priesthood also
came before this move; David Whitmer remembered he was ordained as an elder only weeks after their first arrival at
his upstate farm (Whitmer, p. 32). The ancient apostles appeared with priesthood keys as Joseph and Oliver traveled
between their Pennsylvania home and Colesville, New York (D&C 128:20), where Joseph Knight, Sr., lived. Knight
remembered their seeking help to sustain them while translating in April or May (Jessee, p. 36).
After the move to the Whitmer farm, the angel showed the plates to Joseph Smith and the Three Witnesses in June
1829. Oliver supervised the printing of the Book of Mormon that fall and winter. After the publication of the book
on March 26, the Church was organized on April 6, 1830. Oliver spoke in meeting the next Sunday, which was "the
first public discourse that was delivered by any of our number" (HC 1:81).
Few exceeded Cowdery in logical argument and elevated style. Moreover, his speeches and writings carry the tone of
personal knowledge. Generally serving as editor or associate editor in the first publications of the Church, Oliver
wrote with unusual consistency through two decades of published writings and personal letters. He insisted that a
relationship with God required constant contact: "Whenever [God] has had a people on earth, he always has revealed
himself to them by the Holy Ghost, the ministering of angels, or his own voice" (Messenger and Advocate 1:2).
Oliver Cowdery led the Lamanite mission, the first major mission of the Church (D&C 28:8; 30:5), which doubled
Church membership and took the Book of Mormon to Native Americans. After the temple site was designated in Jackson
County in 1831, he traveled there with copies of the revelations for their first printing. Because publishing was
vital for spreading the gospel and instructing members, Oliver was called to work with William W. Phelps, an
experienced editor (D&C 55:4; 57:11-13). After Missouri ruffians destroyed the press, Cowdery returned to Ohio to
counsel with Church leaders, who assigned him to relocate Church publications there. Because of the importance of
accurate information, he and Sidney Rigdon remained in Ohio in 1834 when many faithful men marched to Missouri with
Zion's Camp to assist the Saints in returning to their homes and land in Jackson County.
In 1830-1831, Oliver Cowdery served as the first Church Recorder, a calling he again resumed between 1835 and 1837
(see Historians, Church). Even in other years, he often kept the official minutes of meetings, and was often editor
and contributor for the first Church newspapers. He wrote articles for the Messenger and Advocate that helped
document early LDS history. From June to October 1830, Oliver served as scribe while the Prophet completed important
portions of the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible.
An 1830 revelation named Oliver Cowdery next only to Joseph Smith in priesthood leadership (D&C 20:2-3), a status
formalized in December 1834, when he was ranked above Sidney Rigdon, who had long served as Joseph's first counselor.
Each would "officiate in the absence of the President, according to his rank and appointment, viz.: President Cowdery
first; President Rigdon second, and President Williams third" (PJS 1:21). Cowdery wrote that this calling was
foretold in the first heavenly ordination, though Missouri printing duties had intervened: "This promise was made by
the angel while in company with President Smith, at the time they received the office of the lesser priesthood"
(PJS 1:21; cf. HC 1:40-41). His office next to the Prophet -- sometimes called "associate president" --
was given to Hyrum Smith in 1841 (D&C 124: 194-196), after Cowdery's excommunication.
Oliver's Church career peaked from 1834 to 1836. Minutes and letters picture him as a highly effective preacher,
writer, and administrator. His 1836 journal survives, showing his devotion to religion and family, his political
activities, his study of Hebrew, and the spiritual power he shared at the completion of the Kirtland Temple.
Cowdery's last entry in this journal, penned the day of the temple dedication, says of the evening meeting: "I saw
the glory of God, like a great cloud, come down and rest upon the house....I also saw cloven tongues like as of fire
rest upon many…while they spake with other tongues and prophesied" (Arrington, p. 426).
Oliver also alluded to more. A year later he penned an editorial "Valedictory." After mentioning "my mission from
the holy messenger" prior to the organization of the Church, he wrote that such manifestations were to be expected,
since the Old Testament promised that God would "reveal his glorious arm" in the latter days "and talk with his
people face to face" (Messenger and Advocate 3:548). The words he italicized match his recent temple
vision of Christ on April 3, 1836, which he experienced in company with the Prophet (D&C 110:1-10). This was also the
time that these first priesthood leaders received special priesthood keys from Moses, Elias, and Elijah, completing
restoration of the "keys of the kingdom" (D&C 27:6-13) and completing Cowdery's mission as "second witness" to such
restoration. Oliver had deep confidence in divine appearances. In 1835 he charged the newly appointed Twelve: "Never
cease striving until you have seen God face to face" (HC 2:195).
Despite these profound spiritual experiences, Oliver's letters reveal a crisis of personal and family estrangement
from Joseph Smith by early 1838. The Three Witnesses had seen an angel with Joseph Smith, but later they tended to
compete rather than cooperate with his leadership. Cowdery disagreed with the Prophet's economic and political program
and sought a personal financial independence that ran counter to the cooperative economics essential to the Zion
society that Joseph Smith envisioned. Nonetheless, when Oliver was tried for his membership, he sent a resignation
letter in which he insisted that the truth of modern revelation was not at issue: "Take no view of the foregoing
remarks, other than my belief on the outward government of this Church" (Far West Record, pp. 165-66).
This trial was related to the excommunications of Oliver's brothers-in-law John Whitmer and David Whitmer, also at
this time; this paralleled Oliver's earlier support of the Whitmer family in the matter of Hiram Page's competing
revelations (D&C 28:11-13). The Church court considered five charges against Cowdery: inactivity, accusing the Prophet
of adultery, and three charges of beginning law practice and seeking to collect debts after the Kirtland bank failure
(see Kirtland Economy).
Oliver's charge of adultery against the Prophet was simplistic, for Oliver already knew about the principle of plural
marriage. Rather than deny the charge, the Prophet testified that because Oliver had been his "bosom friend," he had
"intrusted him with many things" (Far West Record, 168). Brigham Young later said that the doctrine was
revealed to Joseph and Oliver during the Book of Mormon Translation (cf. Jacob 2:30); clearly a fuller understanding
of the principle of plural marriage came by 1832, in connection with Joseph Smith's translation of Genesis
(cf. D&C 130:1-2). Brigham Young added that Oliver impetuously proceeded without Joseph's permission, not knowing
"the order and pattern and the results" (Charles Walker Journal, July 26, 1872, Church Archives). Oliver married
Elizabeth Ann Whitmer in 1832, and problems with polygamy apparently influenced him and the Whitmer family to oppose
the principle later.
In 1838, following his excommunication, Oliver returned to Ohio, though he did not, as a fictitious deed states,
then pay Bishop Edward Partridge $1,000 for the temple lot in Independence on behalf of his children, John, Jane,
and Joseph Cowdery. Such children never existed; Oliver had no such money and showed no interest in Jackson County
then or later. In fact, he continued law study and practiced in Kirtland, but in 1840 he moved to Tiffin, Ohio, where
he became a prominent civic leader as an ardent Democrat. His law notices and public service regularly appeared in
local newspapers, and he was personally sketched in the warm recollections of the prominent Ohio lawyer William Lang,
who apprenticed under Cowdery and described him as being of slight build, about five and a half feet tall, clean,
and courteous. Professionally, Cowdery was characterized as "an able lawyer," well informed, with "brilliant" speaking
ability; yet "he was modest and reserved, never spoke ill of anyone, never complained" (Anderson, 1981, p. 41).
In 1847 Oliver moved to Wisconsin, where he continued his law practice and was almost elected to the first state
legislature, in spite of newspaper accounts ridiculing his published declaration of seeing the angel and the plates.
In his ten years outside the Church, Cowdery never succumbed to the considerable pressure to deny his Book of Mormon
testimony. Indeed, letters to his LDS relatives show that he was hurt at the Church's rejection but remained a deep
believer. Feeling that his character had been slandered, he asked for public exoneration, explaining that anyone
would be sensitive about reputation "had you stood in the presence of John with our departed Brother Joseph, to
receive the Lesser Priesthood, and in the presence of Peter, to receive the Greater" (Gunn, pp. 250-51).
These statements contradict a pamphlet that Oliver was alleged to have published in 1839 as a "Defense" for leaving
the Church (see Forgeries). Surfacing in 1906, it portrays Oliver as confused about seeing John the Baptist. But no
original exists, nor does any reference to it in Cowdery's century. Its style borrows published Cowdery phrases but
rearranges his conclusions. A clumsier forgery is the "Confession of Oliver Overstreet," which claims that the author
was bribed to impersonate Cowdery and return to the Church. Abundant documents show that Oliver returned to Council
Bluffs, Iowa, in 1848 with his wife and young daughter.
Diaries and official minutes record Oliver Cowdery's words in rejoining the Church. He sought only rebaptism and
fellowship, not office. He publicly declared that he had seen and handled the Book of Mormon plates, and that he was
present with Joseph Smith on the occasions when "holy angels" restored the two priesthoods (Anderson, BYU Studies,
1968, p. 278). The High Council questioned him closely about his published letter (to David Whitmer) in which Oliver
claimed that he retained the keys of priesthood leadership after Joseph Smith's death. That was his opinion, Oliver
said, before seeing the Nauvoo revelation giving all powers to Hyrum Smith "that once were put upon him that was my
servant Oliver Cowdery" (D&C 124:95). "It was that revelation which changed my views on this subject" (Anderson,
IE, Nov. 1968, p. 19).
Because they had started for Council Bluffs late in the season, the Cowdery family were forced to winter in Richmond,
Missouri, where most of the Whitmer family lived. Letters throughout 1849 repeat Oliver's hope to move west and also
disclose his lack of means. They speak of his coughing up blood, a long-term respiratory condition that finally took
his life March 3, 1850. The circuit court recorded a resolution of fellow lawyers that in the death of "Oliver
Cowdery, his profession has lost an accomplished member, and the community a valuable and worthy citizen" (Anderson,
1981, p. 46).
David Whitmer and other relatives living near Oliver Cowdery in his final year later claimed that he disagreed with
many Kirtland and Nauvoo doctrines, but Oliver's documented criticisms at this time concern only intolerance and a
continuing concern about polygamy. Although David Whitmer considered Joseph a fallen prophet, in 1848 Cowdery said
publicly and privately "that Joseph Smith had fulfilled his mission faithfully before God until death" (Geo. A. Smith
to Orson Pratt, MS 11 [Oct. 20, 1848]:14), and "that the priesthood was with this people, and the "Twelve' were
the only men that could lead the Church after the death of Joseph" (Anderson, IE, Nov. 1968, p. 18). In his
last known letter, Oliver accepted an assignment from the Twelve to lobby in Washington, and acknowledged the
leadership of the "good brethren of the [Salt Lake] valley" (Gunn, p. 261).
Oliver's wife, Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery (1815-1892), had known him when he was taking dictation during the
translation of the Book of Mormon, before their marriage. Said she of his lifelong commitment: "He always without
one doubt…affirmed the divinity and truth of the Book of Mormon" (Anderson, 1981, p. 63). This confidence stood the
test of persecution, poverty, loss of status, failing health, and the tragic deaths of five of his six children.
Dying at forty-three, Oliver was surrounded by family members who told how he reaffirmed the divinity of the Book
of Mormon and the restored priesthood—and voiced total trust in Christ. Just before rejoining the Church, he penned
his inner hopes to fellow witness David Whitmer: "Let the Lord vindicate our characters, and cause our testimony to
shine, and then will men be saved in his kingdom" (Oliver Cowdery to David Whitmer, July 28, 1847, Ensign of