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Photograph of Oliver Cowdery found in the Library of Congress, taken in the 1840s by James Presley Ball
Oliver Cowdery
Full name Oliver Hervy Pliny Cowdery
Born October 3, 1806(1806-10-03)
Place of birth Wells, Vermont
Died March 3, 1850 (aged 43)
Place of death Richmond, Missouri
LDS Church Apostle
Called by Joseph Smith, Jr.
Ordained 1829 (aged 22)
Ordination reason Restoration of priesthood
End of term April 12, 1838 (aged 31)
End reason Excommunication for apostasy
Reorganization at end of term No apostles immediately ordained[1]
LDS Church General Authority
Second Elder of the Church
Called by Joseph Smith, Jr.
Start of term April 6, 1830 (aged 23)
End of term December 5, 1834 (aged 28)
End reason Called as Assistant President of the Church
Assistant President of the Church
Called by Joseph Smith, Jr.
Start of term December 5, 1834 (aged 28)
End of term April 11, 1838 (aged 31)
End reason Excommunication
Assistant Counselor in the First Presidency
Called by Joseph Smith, Jr.
Start of term September 3, 1837 (aged 30)
End of term April 11, 1838 (aged 31)
End reason Excommunication

Oliver Hervy Pliny Cowdery[2] (3 October 1806 – 3 March 1850) was the primary participant with Joseph Smith, Jr. in the formative period of the Latter Day Saint movement from 1829 through 1836. He was one of the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon's golden plates and with Smith was one of the first Latter Day Saint apostles. After the organization of the Church of Christ—as the early Latter Day Saint church was known—he became the Second Elder of the church.



Cowdery was born October 3, 1806 in Wells, Vermont. His father, William, may have been a follower of sectarian leader Nathaniel Wood of Middletown, Vermont, whose small religious sect, the "New Israelites," practiced divining for buried treasure and for revelatory purposes.[3] The Cowdery family also attended the Congregational Church of Poultney, Vermont, where Ethan Smith was pastor.[4] At the time, Ethan Smith was writing View of the Hebrews (1823), a book speculating that Native Americans were of Hebrew origin.[5] David Persuitte argues that Cowdery had a knowledge of View of the Hebrews and that this significantly contributed to the final version of the Book of Mormon.[6] Even noted LDS scholar Richard Bushman has written in Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling that though "Joseph Smith is not known to have seen View of the Hebrews until later in life, the parallels seem strong enough for critics to argue that Ethan Smith provided the seeds for Joseph Smith's later compositions."[7] Nevertheless, Mormon apologists such as John W. Welch reject the connection and argue that there is little relationship between the contents of the two books.[8]

Cowdery was reared in Poultney, but beginning at age twenty, he clerked at a store in New York for several years until 1829, when he taught school in the town of Manchester.[9] While teaching, Cowdery lodged at different houses in the Manchester area, including that of Joseph Smith, Sr., who apparently provided Cowdery with additional information about the golden plates of which he had heard "from all quarters". [10]


Book of Mormon scribe and witness

Cowdery met Joseph Smith, Jr. on April 5, 1829, (one year and a day before the official founding of the church) and heard from him how he had received the golden plates containing ancient Native American writings.[11] Like Smith, who was a distant relative,[12] during his youth, Cowdery engaged in hunting for buried treasure and used a divining rod.[13] Cowdery told Smith that he had seen the golden plates in a vision before the two ever met.[14]

From April 7 to June 1829, Cowdery acted as Smith's primary scribe for the translation of the plates into what would later become the Book of Mormon. Cowdery also attempted to translate part of the Book of Mormon, but was unsuccessful.[15] Before meeting Cowdery, Joseph Smith's translation had come to a standstill after the first 116 pages were lost by Martin Harris. Once Smith and Cowdery met, the translation continued and transcribed in a remarkably short period (April-June 1829) in what Richard Bushman called a "burst of rapid-fire translation." [16]

During the translation of the golden plates, Cowdery and Smith stated they were present together on May 15, 1829 when he and Smith had received the Aaronic Priesthood from John the Baptist, after which they had baptized each other in the Susquehanna River.[17] Cowdery also said that he and Smith had later gone 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 named the others as the Apostles James and John.[18]

Later that year, Cowdery reported experiencing a vision along with Smith and David Whitmer in which an angel showed him the golden plates. Martin Harris said he saw a similar vision later that day, and Cowdery, Whitmer and Harris signed a statement to that effect. They became known as the Three Witnesses, and their testimony has been published with nearly every edition of the Book of Mormon. Also in 1829, Cowdery received a revelation entitled "Articles of the Church of Christ", which directed the formation of the Church of Christ.

Second Elder of the church

When the Church was organized on April 6, 1830, Joseph Smith, Jr. was named "First Elder" and Cowdery "Second Elder." Cowdery was technically second in authority to Smith in the church from its organization through 1838, though 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.

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 five children, only one of whom lived to maturity.[19]

Cowdery helped Smith publish a series of Smith's revelations first called the Book of Commandments and later, when revised and expanded, the Doctrine and Covenants, to which Cowdery had significant objections. Cowdery was also the editor 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 in 1837, Cowdery obtained the money-printing plates. He later was sent to Monroe, Michigan where he became president of the Bank of Monroe, which the church had purchased. By 1837, both banks failed. Later that year, Oliver moved to the newly founded Latter Day Saint settlement in Far West, Missouri and suffered ill health through the winter of 1837-38.

Early written history of the church

In 1834 and 1835, with the help of Smith, Cowdery published a history of the church as a series of articles in the church's Messenger and Advocate. This history is not always congruent with the later official history of the church. For instance, Cowdery does not mention the First Vision. Instead, he associates Smith's first spiritual manifestation with a visitation of the angel Moroni, who Cowdery said had appeared to Smith in September 1823. Cowdery places the religious revival that encouraged Smith to question which church to join in 1823, not 1820, and corrected himself after first claiming that it had occurred in 1821, when Smith was 15. In the correction, Cowdery stated that the revival had occurred after Smith's brother Alvin had died in 1823.[20]


By early 1838 Smith and Cowdery disagreed on three significant issues. First, Cowdery competed with Smith for leadership of the new church and "disagreed with the Prophet's economic and political program and sought a personal financial independence [from the] Zion society that Joseph Smith envisioned."[21] Then too, in March 1838, Smith and Rigdon moved to Far West, which had been under the presidency of Cowdery's brothers-in-law, David and John Whitmer. There Smith and Rigdon took charge of the Missouri church and initiated policies that Cowdery and the Whitmers believed violated separation of church and state. Finally, in January 1838, Cowdery wrote his brother Warren that he and Joseph Smith had "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." Alger, a teenage maid living with the Smiths, may have been Joseph Smith's first plural wife, a practice that Cowdery opposed.[22]

On April 12, 1838, a church court excommunicated Cowdery after he failed to appear at a hearing on his membership and sent a letter resigning from the Church instead.[23] The Whitmers, William Wines Phelps and Book of Mormon witness Hiram Page were also excommunicated from the church at the same time.[24].

Cowdery and the Whitmers became known as "the dissenters," but they continued to live in and around Far West, where they owned a great deal of property. On June 17, 1838, President Sidney Rigdon announced to a large Mormon congregation that the dissenters were "as salt that had lost its savor" and that it was the duty of the faithful to cast the dissenters out "to be trodden beneath the feet of men." Cowdery and the Whitmers took this Salt Sermon as a threat against their lives and as an implicit instruction to the Danites, a secret vigilante group, and fled the county. Stories about their treatment circulated in nearby non-Mormon communities and increased the tension that led to the 1838 Mormon War.[25]

Life apart from the church

From 1838 to 1848, Cowdery put the Latter Day Saint church behind him. He may even have briefly denied his testimony regarding the Golden Plates because in 1841, the Mormon periodical Times and Seasons published the following verse: "Or does it prove there is no time,/Because some watches will not go?/...Or prove that Christ was not the Lord/Because that Peter cursed and swore?/Or Book of Mormon not His word/Because denied, by Oliver?"[26] Nevertheless, there is no direct evidence that Cowdery ever denied his testimony, and he repeated it even while estranged from the church. [27]

Cowdery studied law and practiced at Tiffin, Ohio, where he became a civic and political leader. He edited the local Democratic newspaper until it was learned that he was one of the Book of Mormon witnesses. He did not recant his testimony, but he was still able to become assistant editor. In 1846, Cowdery was nominated as his district's Democratic party candidate for the state senate, but when his Mormon background was discovered, he was defeated.

Later Latter Day Saint contacts

After Joseph Smith was assassinated, Cowdery's brother Lyman recognized James J. Strang as Smith's successor to the church presidency, and in 1847, Oliver moved to Elkhorn, Wisconsin near Strang's headquarters in Voree and entered law practice with his brother. He became co-editor of the Walworth County Democrat and in 1848 he ran for state assemblyman. However, his Mormon ties were once again discovered and he was defeated.

In 1848, Cowdery traveled to meet with followers of Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve who were encamped at Winter Quarters, Nebraska and asked to be reunited with the Church.[28] On November 12, 1848, Cowdery was rebaptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by Orson Hyde of the Quorum of the Twelve in Indian Creek at Kanesville, Iowa. Cowdery never again held high office in the church. Cowdery developed a respiratory illness, and on March 3, 1850 he died in David Whitmer's home in Richmond, Missouri.[29]

A sample of Cowdery's signature using his two middle initials


  1. ^ On 1841-01-24, 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" 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 Cowdery's pretentious moniker may have influenced Cowdery to abandon the initials.
  3. ^ D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, Revised and enlarged (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998), 34-36; Alan Taylor, "The New Jerusalem of the American Frontier"; Barnes Frisbie, The History of Middletown, Vermont in Three Discourses.... (Rutland, VT: Tuttle and Company, 1867), 43, 62.
  4. ^ Grant H. Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 58-60.
  5. ^ During the colonial and early national periods many Americans speculated about a possible connection between the Hebrews and the Americans Indians.
  6. ^ 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."
  7. ^ Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 96.
  8. ^ John W. Welch, Reexploring the Book of Mormon, 83-7, 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.
  9. ^ Lucy Cowdery Young to Andrew Jenson, March 7, 1887, Church Archives
  10. ^ Junius F. Wells, "Oliver Cowdery", Improvement Era XIV:5 (March 1911); Lucy Mack Smith, "Preliminary Manuscript," 90 in EMD 1: 374-75.
  11. ^ Joseph Smith—History 1:66.
  12. ^ Cowdery genealogy
  13. ^ EMD, 1: 603-05, 619-20; Quinn, 37.
  14. ^ Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 73; Grant Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 2002), 179.
  15. ^ History of the Church 1:36-38; D&C 8, 9.
  16. ^ Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 70."
  17. ^ Messenger and Advocate (October 1834), 14-16; Bushman, 74-75.
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ Maria Louise Cowdery, born August 11, 1835.
  20. ^ Cowdery also said that the final battle between the Nephites and the Lamanites had occurred in the vicinity of the Hill Cumorah, where Smith claimed he found the golden plates. There is little evidence for mass graves for tens of thousands of soldiers at the site and most modern Mormon apologists now argue that the events likely took place in Central America.
  21. ^ "Cowdery, Oliver". Encyclopedia of Mormonism. 1. Macmillan Publishing Company. 1992. Retrieved 2006-08-02.  
  22. ^ Johnson, Benjamin (1903). Letter to George S. Gibbs. Retrieved on 2006-08-02
  23. ^ He summed up his objections in the following words:"...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." Cowdery concluded the letter with, "Take no view of the foregoing remarks, other than my belief on the outward government of this Church." Mehling, 181
  24. ^ Far West Record, 165-66
  25. ^ Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 349-53.
  26. ^ Times and Seasons 2: 482
  27. ^ Stanley R. Gunn, Oliver Cowdery, Second Elder and Scribe (Salt Lake City, 1962).
  28. ^ "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 The Improvement Era, 24, p.620.)
  29. ^ Of Cowdery's death, David 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 Mill, Star, XII, p. 207.)


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Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Oliver Cowdery

Oliver Hervy Pliny Cowdery (3 October 18063 March 1850) was a scribe to Joseph Smith, Jr. during the production of the Book of Mormon. He was one of the Three Witnesses of the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon is said to have been translated. Cowdery became the Second Elder and an apostle of the Church of Christ.


  • 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 God. Amen. OLIVER COWDERY DAVID WHITMER MARTIN HARRIS
    • Book of Mormon, 1830 Edition, p. 585 (1830)
  • 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."
    • Letter from Oliver Cowder to W.W. Phelps (Letter I), (September 7, 1834). Published in Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate, Vol. I. No. 1. Kirtland, Ohio, October, 1834. Published in Letters by Oliver Cowdery to W.W. Phelps on the Rise of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Liverpool, 1844.
  • It is only requisite for me to add that the doctrines which I commenced to preach some seven years since are as firmly believed by me as ever; and through persecutions have attended, and the rage and malice of men been heaped upon me, I feel equally as firm in the great and glorious cause as when first I received my mission from the holy messenger.
    • Valedictory, dated February 1837, Messenger and advocate 3, p. 548. (August 1837)
    • Cowdery’s 1837 editorial farewell in the Kirtland Church newspaper.
  • When he [Joseph Smith] was there 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.
    • Letter from Cowdery to his brother Warren A. Cowdery concerning a discussion that he had with Joseph Smith, Jr. regarding Fanny Alger, who is considered to be Smith’s first plural wife. Quoted in Brodie, No Man Knows My History, p. 459. (January 21, 1838)
  • I beheld with my eyes. And handled with my hands the gold plates from which it was translated. I also beheld the Interpreters.
    • Miller, Diary, quoted in Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, p. 78 (October 21, 1848)
  • I have not come to seek place, nor to interfere with the business and calling of those men who have borne the burden 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.
    • Cowdery's statement upon requesting rebaptism in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Report to Presidents Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Willard Richards and the Authorities of the Church, (April 5, 1849).
  • 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 scripture, 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 mountain without hands.’ John the Baptist, holding the keys of the Aaronic Priesthood; Peter, James and John, holding the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood, have also ministered for those who shall be heirs of salvation, and with these ministrations 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.
    • Statement from Cowdery to Elder Samuel W. Richards, Oliver Cowdery’s Last Letter, Deseret News, (March 22, 1884)

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