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Oliver Cowdery (3 October 1806 – 3 March 1850) was the primary participant with Joseph Smith, Jr. in the early 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. After the organization of the Church of Christ — as the early Latter Day Saint church was known — he became the church's Second Elder. Fellow Witness, David Whitmer, described Cowdery as a "man of piety, of candor, of truth, of integrity, of feeling for the welfare of the human family, and in short, he is a man of God."
Oliver Cowdery was born October 31806 in Wells, Vermont. His family were members of the Congretional Church and attended in Poultney, Vermont. Ethan Smith was the pastor of the congregation and in 1823, he published a book called View of the Hebrews that speculated that Native Americans were of Hebrew origin.
Book of Mormon Scribe and Witness
An acquaintance of Joseph Smith, Jr.'s father, Joseph Smith, Sr., Cowdery met Joseph Smith on April 5, 1829, after the Smith family told him that the younger Smith had received Golden Plates containing ancient Native American writings. (See Joseph Smith--History 1:66). From April 7 to June 1829, Cowdery acted as Smith's 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. (See History of the Church 1:36-38).
During the translation of the Golden Plates, Cowdery and Smith claimed they were present together on May 15, 1829 and a second time that month, when angels gave them priesthood authority. (See History of the Church 1:39-42). In June of 1829, 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, as the Latter Day Saint or Mormon church was originally known.
Second Elder of the Church
When the Church was organized on April 6, 1830, Joseph Smith, Jr. was named "First Elder" and Oliver Cowdery was designated the "Second Elder." Cowdery was technically second in authority to Smith in the church from its organization through 1836. In practice, however, Sidney Rigdon, Smith's "spokesman" and his counselor in the First Presidency, had begun to supplant Cowdery as early as 1831.
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.. Oliver and Elizabeth had only on child live to maturity, Maria Louise Cowdery, who born August 11, 1835. They had four other children who were born and died in infancy or early childhood.
Cowdery helped Smith revise and publish Smith's revelations for the Book of Commandments. This book was later revised and expanded into the Doctrine and Covenants. Cowdery 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 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 bought as a partner to the bank in Kirtland. Both banks had gone bust by March of 1837. Later that year, Oliver moved to the newly founded Latter Day Saint settlement in Far West, Missouri. All through the winter of 1837-38 Cowdery suffered from ill health.
In 1835, Joseph Smith Jr. initiated a relationship with a young woman living in his home as a maid, named Fanny Alger . It was later reported that this was the restoration of the ancient, patriarchal order of marriage and that Fanny was the first of Smith's plural wives. Cowdery was extremely opposed to this relationship and this doctrine. Cowdery later wrote to his brother, Warren:
- "When [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, nastly, 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."
Despite this conflict, Cowdery and Smith had continued to work together in the church. However, by early 1838 further conflicts arose between them. In March 1838, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon moved to Far West, which had been under the presidency of Cowdery's brothers-in-law, David and John Whitmer. Smith and Rigdon took charge of the Missouri church and initiated a number of policies which Cowdery and the Whitmers felt violated the separation of church and state.
On April 12, 1838, a church court composed of Smith's loyalists excommunicated Cowdery. The Whitmers, W.W. Phelps and Book of Mormon witness Hiram Page were also cut off from the church. (Far West Record, pp. 165-66). According to church records, Cowdery was cut off for inactivity, accusing Smith of adultery — due to Smith's secretive practice of plural marriage, to which Cowdery was opposed — and three charges of beginning law practice and seeking to collect debts after the Kirtland bank failure.
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. Fervent members of the Church including Sampson Avard , Lyman Wight and Hyrum Smith organized a confraternity which became known as the "Danites" whose first stated goal was to expel the "dissenters." 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 fled the county. Reports of their treatment was one of the early factors which led to the Mormon War.
Life apart from the Church
From 1838–1848, Cowdery put the Latter Day Saint church behind him. He began to study law, passed the bar and began to practice law in Tiffin, Ohio. While in Tiffin, Oliver gained a reputation as an excellent lawyer, educator and political figure. In 1840, he was selected as editor of the local Democratic newspaper until it was learned that he was one of the Book of Mormon witnesses. Rather than recant his testimony, he was demoted to assistant editor. In 1846, Cowdery was nominated as his district's Democratic party candidate for the state senate. However, 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. In 1847, Oliver moved to Elkhorn, Wisconsin — near Strang's headquarters in Voree — and went into 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.
Cowdery began a project to regain his position as one of the principal Latter Day Saint leaders and appears to have desired to reorganize the Church and purge it from practices he considered corrupt, including plural marriage. In a letter to David Whitmer, Cowdery asserted:
- "The church claiming to be chosen of God was driven from their own possessions, and in the process of time, Joseph Smith was meanly and unlawfully murdered! Then came a trying time for the existence of that boastful church and then followed and is yet following a time or season of strife, to see who is to be the HEAD. Rigdon succeeded in gathering around him a large number of persons. But he has had his day... Strang has raised his standard, and cried "Lo here." The Twelve have perhaps not as a matter of choice at first, but of necessity taken such as would adhere to them and fled to the western slope of our continent... In consequence of transgression, [the Latter Day Saints] have fallen back a series of years. Men's minds have become so confused, that they must have time to see for themselves that these individuals have not the authority, consequently not the POWER."
In 1848, Cowdery traveled to meet with followers of Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve who were encamped at Winter Quarters, Nebraska. He may have accepted rebaptism into the Latter Day Saint movement while there. He then traveled to Richmond, Missouri, where he met with David Whitmer to discuss reorganizing the Church, using the keys, power and authority he believed were vested only in himself and Whitmer.
Before any of these plans could take effect, however, Cowdery developed a respiratory illness and on March 3, 1850 he died in Whitmer's home in Richmond, Missouri.
Phillip R. Legg, Oliver Cowdery: The Elusive Second Elder of the Restoration, Herald House: Independence, Missouri, 1989.
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