Evidence #114 | November 19, 2020

Oliver Cowdery

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Throughout his life, Oliver Cowdery consistently testified that he saw an angel which showed him the golden plates of the Book of Mormon

Oliver Cowdery was Joseph Smith’s primary scribe during the translation of the Book of Mormon, and had already received angelic ministrations with Joseph Smith by the time he went out into the woods with Joseph, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris to seek the promised view of the plates (see D&C 17).1 According to the official statement printed in every edition of the Book of Mormon, Oliver, David, and Martin testified “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.”2 The earliest extant copy of this statement is in Oliver Cowdery’s handwriting.3

Oliver also provided the earliest independent affirmation of the experience on record. In November 1829, a few months after the vision took place, Oliver wrote to a skeptical enquirer describing the experience:

It was a clear, open beautiful day, far from any inhabitants, in a remote field, at the time we saw the record, of which it has been spoken, brought and laid before us, by an angel, arrayed in glorious light, ascend out of the midst of heaven.4

An Angel Showing the Gold Plates. Artwork by William L. Maughan.

This was the most complete personal statement Oliver left behind. In a handful of additional documents written throughout his life, he made reference to and reaffirmed this experience. In 1837 he said, “I feel equally as firm in the great and glorious cause when first I received my mission from the holy messenger.”5 In the years just prior to his rebaptism in 1848, Oliver alluded to and affirmed his testimony in letters written to Phineas Young and David Whitmer.6 And a few months after rejoining the Church, Oliver wrote a statement detailing his experiences involving three angelic ministrations, including that of Moroni, who showed the witnesses the plates. Oliver then stated that he, “in connection with Joseph the Seer, was blessed with the above ministrations.”7 

In addition to these brief statements referring specifically to his angelic witness, Oliver related, defended, and testified of the origins of the Book of Mormon throughout an extensive corpus of personal writings and publications.8 In one well-known example, found in a letter to W. W. Phelps, Oliver wrote of his experience as Joseph Smith’s scribe: “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 … the history, or record, called ‘The book of Mormon.’”9

Beyond the large corpus of such first-hand statements, many who heard Oliver testify left behind their recollections of his testimony. Edward Stevenson remembered frequently hearing Oliver testify “that he beheld the plates, the leaves being turned over by the angel.”10 Numerous accounts from skeptics and believers alike consistently report that Oliver often testified of seeing an angel and the plates during his missionary travels to Ohio in the fall of 1830.11 William E. McLellin and Thomas B. Marsh each remembered occasions when Oliver and David Whitmer testified together of their shared vision of the angel and plates.12 

There is less documentation of his testimony during the time Oliver was out of the Church.13 Still, his personal correspondence with Church members and leaders reveals a continued faith in the events of the Restoration and a desire to be reunited with the Saints.14 In these letters, Oliver expressed a desire to live his life in a way that his credibility as a witness would not be called into question.15 

Photograph, unknown photographer, circa 1845. (Church History Library, Salt Lake City. Copy by Coe studio, 1883.) Image via josephsmithpapers.org. 

“I have cherished a hope,” he wrote to Phineas Young in 1846, “that I might leave such a character, as those who might believe in my testimony … might not blush for the private character of the man who bore that testimony.”16 Similarly, in a letter to David Whitmer, his fellow Book of Mormon witness, Oliver wrote that the Church “must arise in a measure upon our testimony, and upon our characters as good men. … Let the Lord vindicate our characters, and cause our testimony to shine, and then will men be saved in his kingdom.”17

When Oliver returned to the Church, several witnesses remembered him testifying of the Book of Mormon.18 According to a “verbatim report,” taken down as Oliver Cowdery spoke at Council Bluffs, Iowa in October 1848, he declared, “I beheld with my eyes, and handled with my hands, the gold plates from which [the Book of Mormon] was transcribed.”19 When he died less than two years later, several witnesses said that he bore testimony of the Book of Mormon shortly before passing.20 Among these was his wife, who recalled in a letter:

My husband, Oliver Cowdery, bore his testimony to the truth and divine origin of the Book of Mormon, as one of the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon …. From the hour when the glorious vision of the Holy Messenger revealed to mortal eyes the hidden prophecies which God had promised his faithful followers should come forth in due time, until the moment when he passed away from earth. He always without one doubt or shudder of turning affirmed the divinity and truth of the Book of Mormon.21

Book of Mormon Central, “How Important was Oliver Cowdery in Bringing Forth the Book of Mormon? (2 Nephi 27:9),” KnoWhy 270 (February 3, 2017).

Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Cowdery, Oliver,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols., ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1993), 1:335–340.

Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1981), 37–65.

John W. Welch and Larry E. Morris, eds., Oliver Cowdery: Scribe, Elder, Witness (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2006).

Testimony of the Three Witnesses 2 Nephi 27:12 Ether 5:2–4

Testimony of the Three Witnesses

 2 Nephi 27:12

 Ether 5:2–4

  • 1 See John W. Welch, “The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon,” in Oliver Cowdery: Scribe, Elder, Witness, ed. John W. Welch and Larry E. Morris (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute of Religious Scholarship, 2006), 39–51. See also Book of Mormon Central, “How Important was Oliver Cowdery in Bringing Forth the Book of Mormon? (2 Nephi 27:9),” KnoWhy 270 (February 3, 2017).
  • 2 The Testimony of Three Witnesses.
  • 3 See Royal Skousen and Robin Scott Jensen, eds., Joseph Smith Papers—Revelations and Translations, vol. 3, part 2: Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, Alma 36–Moroni 10 (Salt Lake City, UT: Church Historian’s Press, 2015), 407–408.
  • 4 Oliver H. P. Cowdery to Cornelius C. Blatchly, November 9, 1829, in Larry E. Morris, ed., Documentary History of the Book of Mormon (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 375.
  • 5 Oliver Cowdery, “Valedictory,” Feb. 1837, Latter-day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 3, no. 11 (August 1837): 548. The official statement of the three witnesses says that at the time they saw the plates, “the voice of the Lord commanded us that we should bear record of it.” This may thus be what he is referring to as “the mission from the holy messenger.” Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Personal Writings of the Book of Mormon Witnesses,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997), 43, noted that this source “may refer to one of the priesthood restorations or to the angel that commissioned Oliver as a Book of Mormon witness.”
  • 6 See Oliver Cowdery to Phineas Young, March 23, 1846, in Morris, Documentary History, 378; Oliver Cowdery to David Whitmer, July 28, 1847, in The Ensign of Liberty of the Church of Christ 1, no. 6 (May 1848): 91–92.
  • 7 Oliver Cowdery to Elder Samuel W. Richards, January 13, 1849, in Morris, Documentary History, 379. The choice to only mention Joseph the Seer, and not David Whitmer and Martin Harris, is most probably due to the fact that only Joseph was with Oliver for all three angelic manifestations.
  • 8 For a sampling of some of Oliver’s writings relating to the origins of the Book of Mormon, see Welch, “The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon,” in Oliver Cowdery, 51–65; Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1996–2003), 2:397–511. For analysis of a particular occasion in which Oliver defended the Book of Mormon, see John W. Welch, “Oliver Cowdery’s 1835 Response to Alexander Campbell’s 1831 ‘Delusions’,” in The Disciple as Witness: Essays on Latter-day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, ed. Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 435–458; reprinted in Oliver Cowdery, 221–239.
  • 9 Oliver Cowdery to W. W. Phelps, 7 September 1834, [Letter I], Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 1 (October 1834): 13. Another example can be seen in the report on the dedication of the Kirtland Temple published in the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 2 (March 1836): 251, which states, “President O. Cowdery spoke and testified of the truth of the book of Mormon, and of the work of the Lord in these last days.” Even though this is reported in the third-person, Oliver Cowdery was the editor of the Messenger and Advocate at the time and was the author of the report, so this is a first-hand statement from Oliver himself. See Steven C. Harper, “Oliver Cowdery and the Kirtland Temple Experience,” in Oliver Cowdery, 267.
  • 10 Edward Stevenson, “The Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, No. IV,” Millennial Star 48, no. 27, July 5, 1886, 420.
  • 11 See Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The Impact of the First Preaching in Ohio,” BYU Studies 11, no. 4 (1971): 474–496; reprinted in Oliver Cowdery, 195–220. Anderson quotes several primary sources which mention Oliver’s testimony of seeing an angel and the plates.
  • 12 History of Thos. Baldwin Marsh, November 1857; William E. McLellin’s Book, January 4, 1871, both in Morris, Documentary History 406–407.
  • 13 A possible exception to this is the story of when he was an attorney, prosecuting a case, and the opposing council tried to use his testimony of the Book of Mormon against him. There are several different accounts of this event, but none can firmly be traced back to Oliver himself. For the accounts, see Vogel, EMD 2:467–490. For favorable analysis, see Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1981), 57–60.
  • 14 Several of the letters exchanged between Oliver and various Church leaders, primarily Phineas Young, are reprinted in Stanley R. Gunn, Oliver Cowdery: Second Elder and Scribe (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1962), 245–261.
  • 15 For an examination of Oliver’s character and the reliability of his testimony in light of it, see Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 37–65.
  • 16 Cowdery to Young, March 23, 1846, in Morris, Documentary History, 378.
  • 17 Cowdery to Whitmer, July 28, 1847, in Ensign to the Nations 1:92.
  • 18 See, for example, George A. Smith to Orson Pratt, October 31, 1848, in Journal History of the Church, October 20, 1848, LDS Archives; William M. Frampton to John E. Booth, September 15, 1901, in Vogel, EMD 2:496–497.
  • 19 Journal of Reuban Miller, October 21, 1848, as printed in “Last Days of Oliver Cowdery,” Deseret News, April 13, 1859, in Morris, Documentary History, 351. Miller had considerable experience in accurate minute-taking when he recorded Oliver’s speech, and thus his report is generally taken as a reliable report of Oliver’s words. See Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Reuben Miller, Recorder of Oliver Cowdery’s Reaffirmations,” BYU Studies 8, no. 3 (1968): 377–392; reprinted in Oliver Cowdery, 401–419.
  • 20 See Phineas Young to Brigham Young, April 25, 1850; see also Phineas Young and Lucy C. Young as cited in Andrew Jenson, Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia, 4 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Andrew Jenson History Company, 1901), 1:251; Hiram Page to Warren Cowdery, March 20, 1850, in Saints’ Herald 33, no. 6 (February 6, 1886): 83; Philander Page Statement, 1907 (in Vogel, EMD 2:511); Jacob C. Whitmer as cited in Andrew Jenson, Edward Stevenson, and Joseph S. Black to Editor, September 13, 1888, Deseret News, September 17, 1888.
  • 21 Elizabeth Ann Cowdery to David Whitmer, March 8, 1887, in Morris, Documentary History, 396.
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