Oliver Cowdery, born 3 October 1806, in Wells, Rutland County, Vermont, played important roles in the early days of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (frequently misnamed the “Mormon Church”). He moved to western New York along with several of his brothers in hopes of finding better employment opportunities. He became a general store clerk, but also did blacksmithing and farming.
Oliver met Joseph Smith when his brother was unable to take on the school teacher job he had been hired to do. He recommended Oliver for the position, and Oliver was hired by the trustees. The position was near the Smith home and Joseph’s brother Hyrum was a trustee, so he arranged for Oliver to board in his parents’ home.
Joseph was in the process of translating (with the help of his wife, Emma, and her brother, who acted as scribe) the plates that would become the Book of Mormon. However, Joseph also had to work to support his family, and his time to translate was limited. Joseph was not well-educated enough to scribe for himself. Emma’s brother lost interest in helping because he lost faith in the records. Joseph, frustrated, prayed and was promised a new scribe would be sent and was told to stop work on them until that time.
Oliver quickly heard about these plates, but found the Smiths unwilling to discuss them. They had grown tired of the ridicule of neighbors and others who knew of them. Eventually, however, he gained their trust and Joseph’s father, Joseph Smith, Sr., told Oliver about the plates. Oliver was intrigued and began to pray privately about them. He felt impressed that he might have a role to play in the book’s preparation. He also felt impressed to meet Joseph Smith after the school session ended and made plans to travel with Joseph’s brother Samuel. He was determined to do whatever God wanted him to do in this matter.
During the journey, they stopped to visit Oliver Cowdery’s friend David Whitmer. David was curious and asked Oliver to write to him with his impressions of Joseph Smith and this reported ancient record. This relationship had a profound impact on the future of the Church.
Immediately upon meeting Oliver Cowdery, Joseph felt impressed that he was the scribe the Lord had promised him. They talked together the remainder of the day and then, after completing some business on Tuesday, began working on the translation the following day.
The work went amazingly quickly, with 500 pages translated in just three months. During this time, Oliver was given several personal revelations through Joseph Smith, reminding him that he was there because he had prayed to know what to do and had acted on those promptings. After receiving that revelation, Oliver told Joseph about the night he had prayed concerning the plates and about whether or not Joseph was truly a prophet.
Oliver longed to be allowed to translate himself. God gave him permission, and Oliver was permitted to see the plates. He worked to translate, but was unsuccessful, and God revoked the permission to translate. However, God also explained to him what he had done wrong. He had presumed he could merely sit there and have the words come to him, but he was actually expected to study them himself and then ask God if his decisions were correct. If they were, he would feel a burning in his bosom; he would not feel that burning if he had translated incorrectly. Despite losing the power to translate, Oliver continued as a scribe to Joseph.
On May 15, 1829, Oliver was a witness of and participant in a powerful vision. He and Joseph had encountered the Savior’s teachings on baptism in the Book of Mormon. Recognizing from the text that baptism is essential to salvation, they wondered how God wanted baptism to work. They decided to pray about it in the woods along the Susquehanna River near their home in Pennsylvania. Of this event, Oliver wrote:
“On a sudden, as from the midst of eternity, the voice of the Redeemer spake peace to us, while the veil was parted and the angel of God came down clothed with glory, and delivered the anxiously looked for message, and the keys of the gospel of repentance!—What joy! what wonder! what amazement! While the world were racked and distracted … our eyes beheld—our ears heard.”
The angel was John the Baptist. John told them he was acting under the authority of Peter, James, and John. In order to baptize, they would need the Aaronic Priesthood—the priesthood described in the Old Testament. There was an additional level of priesthood, but they were not to receive it at that time.
Baptism must be done by the living, so John instructed them to baptize each other. Joseph, as the prophet, was to first baptize Oliver, and then Oliver could baptize Joseph. Both Oliver and Joseph were filled with the spirit of prophecy as they came out of the water, although they did not report their prophecies due to the persecution that had become increasingly difficult to control.
The Melchizedek Priesthood and apostleship was given to them near the end of the month and was conferred by Peter, James, and John. This gave them the authority to organize the church and to do God’s work on earth.
Eventually, they moved into the home of David Whitmer in Fayette, in order to work on the translation of the Book of Mormon in greater safety. Emma remained behind to care for their home. During this time, they translated a portion of the Book of Mormon that spoke of the need for witnesses. Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris asked Joseph to pray for them to be the witnesses, and God approved. They were permitted to see not only the plates, but a number of preserved Book of Mormon artifacts. However, after some time spent reading from the manuscript and praying, Joseph received a revelation that Martin Harris needed to repent in order to be worthy to participate.
The men went into the woods and prayed for the promised event. After two attempts were unanswered, Harris received personal revelation that he was the reason they were not receiving their answer. He went away from the group and began to pray privately.
The other three men began to pray again and Moroni appeared to them. Moroni was an angel, but during his lifetime he was the last prophet to write on the records Joseph was translating and was the one who hid them for safekeeping until modern times. He was also the being who prepared Joseph Smith to become the prophet and who led him to the plates. Moroni showed the men the plates and testified of them, instructing them to share their own testimonies. Joseph then went for Martin Harris and prayed with him so he could also see the plates.
Oliver was responsible for helping to oversee the printing of the Book of Mormon while Joseph returned home to care for his family for a time. He learned the printing business while doing so and set much of the book by hand himself.
Oliver Cowdery was among the six invited to officially organize The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 6, 1830—the number requirement of the state for organizing a religious society. Soon after, on April 11, Oliver Cowdery gave the first public sermon of the new church, an event which led to several baptisms.
In 1829, Joseph and Oliver had received the authority of apostleship and later that year, Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer were commanded in a revelation to find the twelve apostles. Martin Harris would later receive a revelation to assist them, so that the three witnesses would select the apostles. A conference was held, and the apostles were named. Normally, seniority in the apostleship is set by how long a person has served in the position, but all twelve were called at the same time, so it was set by age in this case.
In 1834, Oliver Cowdery was called to be the Assistant President of the Church. As second in authority, he was required to be a witness each time the prophet received new keys of authority from God. He served as the second witness of the restoration of the gospel and of the truthfulness of the church.
Unfortunately, by 1838, he had lost this position due to apostasy, and he was excommunicated. Despite leaving the church, he refused to deny his testimony of having seen the plates and Moroni, even when he was pressured to do so.
“He was charged by the high council for persecuting Church leaders with vexatious lawsuits, seeking to destroy the character of Joseph Smith, not abiding ecclesiastical authority in temporal affairs, selling lands in Jackson County, and leaving his calling as Assistant President of the Church and turning to the practice of law. Oliver refused to appear before the council, but he answered by letter. He denied the Church’s right to dictate how he should conduct his life and asked that his fellowship with the Church be ended. The high council excommunicated him 12 April 1838. He spent a decade outside the Church, but later humbly submitted himself for rebaptism in October 1848 in Kanesville, Iowa” (Church History in the Fullness of Times, Chapter 15).
Oliver Cowdery was rebaptized and was a member in good standing at his death in 1850. His is a story of faith, repentance, humility, and forgiveness. He sacrificed a great deal to help build up the kingdom of God, and even though he became distracted for a while, he came back to the full fellowship of the Church.
Keith L. Brown
Keith L. Brown is a convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, having been born and raised Baptist. He was studying to be a Baptist minister at the time of his conversion to the LDS faith. He was baptized on 10 March 1998 in Reykjavik, Iceland while serving on active duty in the United States Navy in Keflavic, Iceland. He currently serves as the First Assistant to the High Priest Group for the Annapolis, Maryland Ward. He is a 30-year honorably retired United States Navy Veteran.