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Oliver Cowdery

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Oliver Cowdery
Daguerreotype of Oliver Cowdery found in the Library of Congress, taken in the 1840s by James Presley Ball
Assistant Counselor in the First Presidency
September 3, 1837 (1837-09-03) – April 11, 1838 (1838-04-11)
End reasonResignation / Excommunication
Assistant President of the Church
December 5, 1834 (1834-12-05) – April 11, 1838 (1838-04-11)
End reasonResignation / Excommunication
Second Elder of the Church
April 6, 1830 (1830-04-06) – December 5, 1834 (1834-12-05)
End reasonCalled as Assistant President of the Church
Latter Day Saint Apostle
1829 (aged 22) – April 12, 1838 (1838-04-12)
ReasonRestoration of priesthood
End reasonResignation / Excommunication
at end of term
No apostles immediately ordained[1]
Personal details
BornOliver H. P. Cowdery
(1806-10-03)October 3, 1806
Wells, Vermont, U.S.
DiedMarch 3, 1850(1850-03-03) (aged 43)
Richmond, Missouri, U.S.
Resting placeRichmond Pioneer Cemetery, Missouri, U.S.
39°17′6.76″N 93°58′34.93″W / 39.2852111°N 93.9763694°W / 39.2852111; -93.9763694 (Richmond Pioneer Cemetery, Missouri)
Spouse(s)Elizabeth Ann Whitmer
A sample of Cowdery's signature using his two middle initials

Oliver H. P. Cowdery[2] (October 3, 1806 – March 3, 1850) was an American religious leader who, with Joseph Smith, was an important participant in the formative period of the Latter Day Saint movement between 1829 and 1836. He was the first baptized Latter Day Saint, one of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon's golden plates, one of the first Latter Day Saint apostles and the Assistant President of the Church.

Cowdery's relationship with Joseph Smith and the church's leadership began to deteriorate in the mid-1830s. He was excommunicated in 1838 along with several other prominent Missouri church leaders on allegations of misusing church property amid tense relations between them and Smith.[3]

After his excommunication, Cowdery moved to Wisconsin, where he practiced law and became involved in local politics. Cowdery became a Methodist, but later returned to the Latter Day Saint movement and was rebaptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) in 1848.



Early life


Oliver Cowdery was born October 3, 1806, in Wells, Vermont; his father, William, moved the family to the nearby town of Poultney when Cowdery was three years old.[4] His mother, Rebecca Fuller Cowdery, died on September 3, 1809. In his youth, Cowdery hunted for buried treasure using a divining rod, a common practice at the time.[5]

At age 20, Cowdery left Vermont for upstate New York, where his older brothers had settled. He clerked at a store for just over two years and in 1829 became a school teacher in Manchester.[6] Cowdery lodged with different families in the area, including that of Joseph Smith, Sr., who was said to have provided Cowdery with additional information about the golden plates of which Cowdery said he had heard "from all quarters."[7]

Book of Mormon scribe and witness


Cowdery met Joseph Smith, Jr. on April 5, 1829—a year and a day before the official founding of the Church of Christ—and heard from him how he had received golden plates containing ancient reformed Egyptian writings.[8] Cowdery told Smith that he had seen the golden plates in a vision before the two had met.[9]

Before meeting Cowdery, Smith had virtually stopped translating after the first 116 pages had been lost by Martin Harris. Working with Cowdery, however, Smith completed the manuscript of what would become the Book of Mormon in a remarkably short period (April 7–June 1829), during what Richard Bushman later called a "burst of rapid-fire translation."[10] Cowdery also unsuccessfully attempted to translate part of the Book of Mormon by himself.[11]

Cowdery and Smith claimed that on May 15, 1829, they received the Aaronic priesthood from the resurrected John the Baptist, after which they baptized each other in the Susquehanna River.[12] Cowdery said that he and Smith later went into the forest and prayed "until a glorious light encircled us, and as we arose on account of the light, three persons stood before us dressed in white, their faces beaming with glory." One of the three announced that he was the Apostle Peter and said the others were the apostles James and John.[13]

Later that year, Cowdery reported sharing a vision, along with Smith and David Whitmer, in which an angel showed him the golden plates. Harris said he saw a similar vision later that day. Cowdery, Whitmer and Harris signed a statement to that effect and became known as the Three Witnesses. Their testimony has subsequently been published in nearly every edition of the Book of Mormon.

Second Elder of the church


When the Church of Christ was organized on April 6, 1830, Smith became "First Elder" and Cowdery "Second Elder." Although Cowdery was technically second in authority to Smith from the organization of the church through 1838, in practice Sidney Rigdon, Smith's "spokesman" and counselor in the First Presidency, began to supplant Cowdery as early as 1831. Cowdery held the position of Assistant President of the Church from 1834 until his excommunication in 1838.[14][15] He was also a member of the first presiding high council of the church, organized in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1834.

On December 18, 1832, Cowdery married Elizabeth Ann Whitmer, the daughter of Peter Whitmer, Sr. and sister of David, John, Jacob and Peter Whitmer, Jr. They had six children, of whom only one daughter survived to maturity.[16][17]

Cowdery helped Smith publish a series of revelations first called the Book of Commandments and later, as revised and expanded, the Doctrine and Covenants. He was also the editor, or on the editorial board, of several early church publications, including the Evening and Morning Star, the Messenger and Advocate and the Northern Times.

When the church created a bank known as the Kirtland Safety Society (KSS) in 1837, Cowdery obtained the money-printing plates. Sent by Smith to Monroe, Michigan, he became president of the Bank of Monroe, in which the church had a controlling interest.[18] Both banks failed that same year. Cowdery moved to the newly founded Latter Day Saint settlement in Far West, Missouri, and suffered ill health through the winter of 1837–38.

1838 split with Smith


By early 1838, the relationship between Smith and Cowdery had deteriorated significantly. Cowdery felt that Smith's integration of economic and political plans into religious matters was encroaching on the separation of church and state. Cowdery also expressed his concerns of Smith's relationship with Alger, a teenage maid living with the Smiths in Kirtland in a January 1838 letter to his brother Warren:

"[We] had some conversation in which in every instance I did not fail to affirm that which I had said was strictly true. A dirty, nasty, filthy affair of his and Fanny Alger's was talked over in which I strictly declared that I had never deserted from the truth in the matter, and as I supposed was admitted by himself."[19]: 323–325, 347–349 

On January 1838, Smith and Rigdon left Kirtland and took over the Far West, Missouri church in March 1838, which had previously been under the presidency of W. W. Phelps and David Whitmer—a close friend and brother-in-law to Cowdery. Thomas B. Marsh, David W. Patten, and Brigham Young, were ordained as the new stake presidency in Missouri. The new presidency requested John Whitmer, who had been the Church historian and recorder, and a member of the stake presidency in Missouri, to turn in his historical notes and writings. When he failed to comply, Whitmer was removed from his position, and prompted an investigation into the financial handlings of the Missouri leadership.[20]

Nine excommunication charges were presented against Cowdery, which included selling lands in Jackson County without authorization, trying to destroy the character of Joseph Smith, and disregarding his ecclesiastical duties for the practice of law. On April 12, 1838, a church court excommunicated Cowdery.[21] David Whitmer was also excommunicated at the same time, and apostle Lyman E. Johnson was disfellowshipped;[22] John Whitmer and Phelps had been excommunicated a month earlier.[23] Cowdery refused to appear before the council, but sent a letter of resignation, reiterating his desire to live his religious beliefs independent from his economic and political decisions.

These men were became collectively known as "dissenters", but continued to live in and around Far West, where they owned a great deal of property, much of which was purchased when they were acting as agents for the church.[24] Possession became unclear and the dissenters threatened the church with lawsuits. After Rigdon delivered a sermon that implied dissenters had no place in the Latter-Day Saint community, the Danites forcibly expelled them from the county. The Danite Manifesto, a letter addressed to Cowdery and the other dissenters, was signed by some eighty-four Latter-Day Saints (but not Smith or Rigdon[25]). It warned:

you shall have three days after you receive this communication to you, including twenty-four hours in each day, for you to depart with your families peaceably; which you may do undisturbed by any person; but in that time, if you do not depart, we will use the means in our power to cause you to depart.[26]

Cowdery and the dissenters fled the county. Reports about their treatment circulated in nearby non-Mormon communities and increased the tension that led to the 1838 Mormon War, which ultimately resulted in the Latter-Day Saints' expulsion from Missouri.[19]: 349–353 



Between 1838 and 1848, Cowdery studied and practiced law in Tiffin, Ohio, where he became a civic and political leader. He joined the local Methodist church and served as secretary in 1844.[27] Cowdery, also edited the local Democratic newspaper until it was learned that he was one of the Three Witnesses, at which time he was reassigned as assistant editor. He was nominated as his district's Democratic Party candidate for the Ohio State Senate in 1846, but was defeated when his Mormon background was discovered.[28]

After the Smith's death on June 27, 1844, a succession crisis split the Latter-Day Saint movement. Cowdery's father and brother were followers of James J. Strang, who pressed his claim as the movement's successor by claiming that he had found and translated ancient records engraved upon metal plates, similar to the golden plates Smith had translated in the 1820s.[29] In 1847, Cowdery and his brother moved to Elkhorn, Wisconsin, about twelve miles away from Strang's headquarters in Voree. In Elkhorn he entered law practice with his brother and became co-editor of the Walworth County Democrat. In 1848 he ran for state assemblyman but was again defeated when his Mormon ties were disclosed.[28]

LDS Church rebaptism


In 1848, Cowdery traveled to the frontier settlement of Winter Quarters (in present-day Nebraska) to meet with followers of Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve, asking to be reunited with the church.[30] The Twelve referred the application to the high council in Pottawattamie County, Iowa, which convened a meeting with all high priests in the area to consider the matter. After Cowdery convinced the meeting attendees that he no longer maintained any claim to leadership within the church, his application for rebaptism was unanimously approved.[31] On November 12, 1848, Cowdery was rebaptized by Orson Hyde of the Quorum of the Twelve into—what had become following the succession crisis—the LDS Church in Indian Creek at Kanesville, Iowa.

After his rebaptism, Cowdery desired to relocate to the State of Deseret (present-day Utah) in the coming spring or summer, but due to financial and health problems he decided that he would not be able to make the journey in 1849.[31] Because he was not with the LDS settlement in the State of Deseret, he was not immediately given a position of responsibility in the church. However, in July 1849, Young wrote Cowdery a letter inviting him to travel to Washington, D.C., with Almon W. Babbitt to press the State of Deseret's desire for statehood and to draft a formal application.[31] Cowdery's deteriorating health did not allow him to accept this assignment, and within eight months he had died.

In 1912, the official church magazine Improvement Era published a statement by Jacob F. Gates, son of early Mormon leader Jacob Gates, who had died twenty years prior. According to the recollection by his son, the elder Gates had visited Cowdery in 1849 and inquired about his witness testimony concerning the Book of Mormon. Cowdery reportedly reaffirmed his witness:

"Jacob, I want you to remember what I say to you. I am a dying man, and what would it profit me to tell you a lie? I know," said he, "that this Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God. My eyes saw, my ears heard, and my understanding was touched, and I know that whereof I testified is true. It was no dream, no vain imagination of the mind—it was real".[32][33]

On March 3, 1850, Cowdery died in David Whitmer's home in Richmond, Missouri.[34]

As purported co-author of the Book of Mormon


Critics who doubt the origin theory of the Book of Mormon have speculated that Cowdery may have played a role in the work's composition. LDS scholar Daniel Peterson argues against this theory noting that analysis of the manuscripts indicates that the Book of Mormon was primarily the product of Joseph Smith's dictation, rather than a collaborative effort — it contains aural errors, typical of a transcription process. Additionally, the Printer's Manuscript, which Cowdery assisted in producing, contains significant copyist errors in his handwriting, suggesting he was not fully aware of the book's content beforehand.[35]

Speculation of pre-1829 connection between Cowdery and Smith


Cowdery was a third cousin of Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph Smith's mother.[36] There is also a geographical connection between the Smiths and the Cowderys. During the 1790s, both Joseph Smith, Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith, and two of Cowdery's relatives were living in Tunbridge, Vermont.[citation needed]

New Israelites

Joseph Smith, Sr. and Cowdery's father, William, may have been members of a Congregationalist sect known as the New Israelites, organized in Rutland County, Vermont. The Cowdery family lived in Rutland County in the early 19th century and later attended a Congregationalist church in Poultney, Vermont. Witnesses from Vermont connected William Cowdery to the sect before these witnesses could have known that his son, Oliver, was a dowser.[37]

Vermont residents interviewed by a local historian said that Joseph Smith, Sr. was also a member of the New Israelites and was one of its "leading rods-men".[38] But although residents said that he lived in Poultney, Vermont, "at the time of the Wood movement here",[39] there are no other records placing Smith closer than about 50 miles away. On the other hand, Smith's involvement with the New Israelites would be consistent with his links to Congregationalism and the report from James C. Brewster than in 1837 Smith, Sr. admitted that he entered the money digging business "more than thirty years" ago.[40]

Cowdery and View of the Hebrews


For several years, Cowdery and his family attended the Congregational Church in Poultney, Vermont, when its minister was the Rev. Ethan Smith, author of View of the Hebrews, an 1823 book suggesting that Native Americans were of Hebrew origin, a not uncommon speculation during the colonial and early national periods.[41][42] In 2000, David Persuitte argued that Cowdery's knowledge of View of the Hebrews significantly contributed to the final version of the Book of Mormon,[43] a connection first suggested as early as 1902.[44] Fawn Brodie wrote that it "may never be proved that Joseph saw View of the Hebrews before writing the Book of Mormon, but the striking parallelisms between the two books hardly leave a case for mere coincidence."[45] Richard Bushman and John W. Welch reject the connection and argue that there is little relationship between the contents of the two books.[46]


  1. ^ On January 24, 1841, Hyrum Smith was ordained and replaced Cowdery as Assistant President of the Church.
  2. ^ Prior to the winter of 1830–31, Cowdery generally signed his name "Oliver H P Cowdery", the "H P" possibly standing for "Hervy" and "Pliny," two of his father's relatives. For unknown reasons, Cowdery discontinued using his middle initials about 1831. Cowdery may have wished his name to match the form in which it was printed in the 1830 Book of Mormon. [1]. It is also possible that teasing by the Palmyra Reflector (June 1, 1830) about his "pretentious moniker" may have influenced Cowdery to abandon the initials.
  3. ^ Marquardt 2005, p. 463; Remini 2002, p. 128; Quinn 1994, p. 93; Bushman 2005, pp. 324, 346–348.
  4. ^ Preston Nibley, Oliver Cowdery: His Life, Character and Testimony (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1958).
  5. ^ EMD, 1: 603–05, 619–20; Quinn, 37.
  6. ^ Lucy Cowdery Young to Andrew Jenson, March 7, 1887, Church Archives
  7. ^ Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2004), 154; Junius F. Wells, "Oliver Cowdery", Improvement Era XIV:5 (March 1911); Lucy Mack Smith, "Preliminary Manuscript," 90 in Early Mormon Documents 1: 374–75.
  8. ^ Joseph Smith–History 1:66.
  9. ^ Palmer, Grant (2002). An Insider's View of Mormon Origins. Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books. p. 179. According to Lucy Mack Smith, the "Lord appeared unto a young man by the name of Oliver Cowdery and showed unto him the plates in a vision."
  10. ^ Bushman 2005, p. 70.
  11. ^ History of the Church 1:36-38; D&C 8, 9.
  12. ^ Messenger and Advocate 1:14–16 (October 1834); Bushman, 74–75.
  13. ^ Charles M. Nielsen to Heber Grant, February 10, 1898, in Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1998), 2: 476; History of the Church 1:39–42.
  14. ^ Bushman, p. 124
  15. ^ Vogel, Dan (2004). Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet. Salt Lake City: Signature Books. p. 548. ASIN B07NTCYDQB.
  16. ^ Maria Louise Cowdery, born August 11, 1835.
  17. ^ Anderson, Richard; Ludlow, Daniel (1992). Encyclopedia of Mormonism. New York: Macmillan. pp. 335–340. ISBN 9780029040409. Retrieved January 30, 2023.
  18. ^ See Mark L. Staker, "Raising Money in Righteousness: Oliver Cowdery as Banker," in Days Never to Be Forgotten: Oliver Cowdery, ed. Alexander L. Baugh (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2009), 143–254.
  19. ^ a b Bushman, Richard Lyman (2005). Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
  20. ^ Romig, Ronald E. (November 24, 2014). Eighth Witness: The Biography of John Whitmer. John Whitmer Books. ISBN 978-1-934901-28-1.
  21. ^ Bushman, 347–48. Among other things, Cowdery was accused of "virtually denying the faith by declaring that he would not be governed by any ecclesiastical authority nor Revelations whatever in his temporal affairs."
  22. ^ History of the Church 3:16–20.
  23. ^ History of the Church 3:7.
  24. ^ Hamer 2004, p. xv–xvii
  25. ^ Missouri Documents (Report). p. 106. Document containing the correspondence, orders &c. in relation to the disturbances with the Mormons; and the evidence given before the Hon. Austin A. King, Judge of the Fifth Judicial Circuit of the State of Missouri, at the Courthouse in Richmond, in a criminal court of inquiry, begun November 12, 1838, on the trial of Joseph Smith, Jr. and others for high treason and other crimes against the state (Missouri. Office of the Secretary of State; Missouri. General Assembly (1840–1841))[full citation needed]
  26. ^ "Document Showing The Testimony ... on the Trial of Joseph Smith, Jr". olivercowdery.com. Joseph Smith's History Vault. (Washington D. C.: Blair & Rives, 1841)
  27. ^ Vogel, ed. EMD, 2: 504. Gabriel J. Keen, a leading member of the Tiffin Methodist Church, swore in 1885 that Cowdery had publicly renounced Mormonism before being admitted as a member, but there is no corroborative evidence for Keen's claim. The document is at 2: 504-07.
  28. ^ a b Stanley R. Gunn, Oliver Cowdery, Second Elder and Scribe (Salt Lake City, 1962)
  29. ^ Grant Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 208–13.
  30. ^ "Brethren, for a number of years, I have been separated from you. I now desire to come back. I wish to come humble and be one in your midst. I seek no station. I only wish to be identified with you. I am out of the Church, but I wish to become a member. 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 decision of the body, knowing as I do, that its decisions are right." (Stanley R. Gunn, "Oliver Cowdery Second Elder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: A Thesis Presented to the Faculty of the Division of Religion, Brigham Young University," (1942), 166, as cited in Improvement Era, 24, p. 620.)
  31. ^ a b c Scott H. Fauling, "The Return of Oliver Cowdery" Archived October 21, 2011, at the Wayback Machine, Maxwell Institute, byu.edu.
  32. ^ "Jacob Gates". Grampa Bill. Archived from the original on August 14, 2018. Retrieved April 6, 2008.
  33. ^ Scott H. Faulring, The Return of Oliver Cowdery, Maxwell Institute, archived from the original on October 21, 2011, retrieved April 10, 2012; Gates, Jacob F. (March 1912). "Testimony of Jacob Gates". Improvement Era 15. p. 92.
  34. ^ Of Cowdery's death, Whitmer said: "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 down for the last time; I am going to my Saviour'; and he died immediately with a smile on his face." (Stanley R. Gunn, Oliver Cowdery Second Elder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: A Thesis Presented to the Faculty of the Division of Religion, Brigham Young University. (Stanley R. Gunn: 1942), 170–71, as cited in Millennial Star, XII, p. 207.)
  35. ^ "The Logic Tree of Life, or, Why I Can't Manage to Disbelieve - FairMormon conference 2016". FairMormon. Retrieved May 3, 2019.
  36. ^ Cowdery genealogy; Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 222; Bushman, RSR, 578, n.51. There is also a distant geographical connection between the Smiths and the Cowderys. During the 1790s, both Joseph Smith, Sr. and two of Oliver Cowdery's relatives were living in Tunbridge, Vermont.
  37. ^ Quinn 1998, pp. 25–26; Brooke 1994, p. 133
  38. ^ Quinn 1998, pp. 35–36; Brooke 1994, pp. 133.
  39. ^ Quinn 1998, pp. 25–26; Brooke 1994, p. 133.
  40. ^ Brooke 1994, pp. 133, 39. Brewster reported that in 1837, Smith, Sr. boasted that "I know more about money-digging than any man in this generation for I have been in the business for more than thirty years!"
  41. ^ Grant H. Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 58–60.
  42. ^ Richard Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 94–97.
  43. ^ David Persuitte, Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon (McFarland & Company, 2000), 125: "Oliver Cowdery surely had a copy of View of the Hebrews—a book that was published in his home town of Poultney, Vermont by the minister of the church his family was associated with. Considering his joint venture with Joseph Smith in 'translating' The Book of Mormon and the common subject matter, Cowdery could have shared his copy of Ethan Smith's book with Joseph, perhaps even sometime before Joseph began the 'translation' process."
  44. ^ I. Woodbridge Riley, The Founder of Mormonism (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1902), 124–26.
  45. ^ Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971), 47.
  46. ^ John W. Welch, Reexploring the Book of Mormon, 83–87, and A Sure Foundation: Answers to Difficult Gospel Questions (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988); John W. Welch, "An Unparallel" (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1985); Spencer J. Palmer and William L. Knecht, "View of the Hebrews: Substitute for Inspiration?" BYU Studies 5/2 (1964): 105–13.



Further reading

Church of the Latter Day Saints titles
Later renamed: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (1838)
First Assistant Counselor in the First Presidency
September 3, 1837 (1837-09-03)–April 11, 1838 (1838-04-11)
With: Hyrum Smith
John Smith
Joseph Smith, Sr.
Succeeded by
Assistant President of the Church
December 5, 1834 (1834-12-05)–April 11, 1838 (1838-04-11)
Succeeded by
Church of Christ titles
Later renamed: Church of the Latter Day Saints (1834)
First Second Elder of the Church
April 6, 1830 (1830-04-06)–December 5, 1834 (1834-12-05)
Title Discontinued