It’s difficult to tell the stories of Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer without telling both of them, hence I already discussed Oliver frequently in part 2. But I saved him for last because, of the three witnesses, he was by far the most influential in the early church.
Meeting the Smiths
In 1827, at the ripe age of 20 years old, Oliver moved from Vermont to upstate New York, living probably a few miles east of Palmyra. A schoolteacher by trade, he landed a job in Manchester, New York after his brother (also a schoolteacher) had to resign the job offer. Oliver was 22 now, and met the Smith family through Hyrum, who was a trustee of the school. He ended up boarding with the Smiths, and before long, began to hear stories about the Golden Plates around town.
Around this time, David Whitmer arrived in Palmyra on a business trip and struck up a friendship with Oliver. As I noted before, the two friends were intrigued by local gossip about the plates and met several times to discuss and investigate the matter. The types of rumors they heard at the time were probably not of the same tone and substance as the correlated version of the Golden Plates that Mormons grow up with. Affidavits from locals show that there were lots of stories about the Golden Plates or the “Gold Bible,” and they were often described in the same manner as local buried treasure stories that were commonly associated with the Smiths. Oliver may have already possessed a divining rod. The original Book of Commandments even states that God had endowed Oliver with “the gift of the rod.” This reference was altered to read “the gift of Aaron” when reprinted in the Doctrine and Covenants.
According to Lucy, Oliver pressed Joseph Smith, Sr. for information about the plates (Joseph Smith, Jr. was living in Harmony, Pennsylvania at the time). Lucy also claims that Oliver saw the plates in a vision, and knew before even meeting Joseph that he would be his scribe. Oliver grew close to the Smiths; when they were evicted from their house and had to move to a much smaller one, Oliver chose to move with them anyway. After the school term ended, Oliver decided to accompany Joseph’s brother Samuel to Harmony so he could meet the man himself.
Joseph was obviously impressed with Oliver, because within two days of meeting him for the first time, Oliver was acting as his scribe (to the few reading this who object to the claim that Oliver met Joseph for the first time in Harmony, please read the footnote at the end of this essay).
Similarly to the case of Harris and Whitmer, the best evidence I can find of Oliver’s sincerity is found in the Doctrine and Covenants. D&C 6 is a revelation addressed to Oliver, given the same month he arrived and met Joseph. Perhaps Oliver had betrayed some skepticism, or was hedging. The revelation attempts to allay Oliver’s fears:
Behold, thou knowest that thou hast inquired of me and I did enlighten thy mind…Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things…Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God? And now, behold, you have received a witness; for if I have told you things which no man knoweth have you not received a witness?
This revelation seems to be trying very hard to convince Oliver, which would be completely unnecessary were he a co-conspirator. The gambit of “you know God already gave you a witness” sounds like simple cold reading. But it doesn’t end there. The revelation also entices Oliver with the promise that he too will be able to translate, and even commends the keys of translation to both him and Joseph (note that this was later rescinded) and promises specific heretofore hidden scriptures.
It worked, but Oliver must have been impatient to have his chance at translating, because later that month, Joseph produces another revelation for his benefit, D&C 8, reiterating the promise. Later that month, Joseph Smith produces yet another revelation, D&C 9, which tells Oliver to hold off for the time being, that he will get the chance to translate later, but not now. The revelation lays the blame at Oliver’s feet and tells him that he missed his window by not asking God in the appropriate fashion:
Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right… Now, if you had known this you could have translated; nevertheless, it is not expedient that you should translate now. Behold, it was expedient when you commenced; but you feared, and the time is past, and it is not expedient now;
It’s interesting to read this familiar scripture (“burning in your bosom”) in its proper context. Joseph is moving the goalposts on Oliver. It harkens back to his money-digging years, in which his employers always missed out on actually discovering the treasure through some oversight or small error in ritual. Joseph is dangling a carrot for Oliver. To me, this is clear evidence that Oliver is not a co-conspirator at this point in time.
Most Latter-Day Saints are familiar with the story of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery being ordained to the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods, at the hands of John the Baptist, and then Peter, James and John, just prior to the founding of the church. The story of the restoration of the Priesthood is seen as pivotal to the Church’s claim to authority. Joseph Smith said this of the Aaronic ordination:
We . . . went into the woods to pray and inquire of the Lord respecting baptism for the remission of sins, that we found mentioned in the translation of the plates. While we were thus employed, praying and calling upon the Lord, a messenger from heaven descended in a cloud of light, and having laid his hands upon us, he ordained us
This statement comes from Joseph’s 1842 history. He claims that this ordination happened in May of 1829, about a month after Oliver met Joseph. But the history of this claim is problematic.
Firstly, nobody seems to have started talking about a priesthood restoration at all until 1834. The earliest mention of it I can find is in a flowery 1834 letter from Oliver Cowdery to W.W. Phelps. In this letter, the ordainer is not named, except as an “angel of God.” This angel ordains them to the “Holy Priesthood” which he names the “Priesthood of Aaron.” The language here is the same as we find in D&C 13.
The ordination is referred to again by Oliver in September 1835, in a patriarchal blessing book. This version says Joseph was ordained by “the angel John,” unto the “lesser or Aaronic priesthood.” It ends with a cryptic reference to the Melchizedek Priesthood: “After this, we received the high and holy priesthood; but an account of this will be given elsewhere, or in another place.” This version is also a bit more mystical; he claims they received this priesthood “while we were in the heavenly vision.”
Also in 1835, the Doctrine and Covenants is published. The original revelation found in chapter 28 of the 1833 Book of Commandments was extended, so that a revelation labelled August 1830 (D&C 27) was amended with new language referring to priesthood ordinations. This new version includes a reference to “John” who ordains them to the “first priesthood,” and also mentions “Peter, and James, and John, whom I have sent unto you, by whom I have ordained you and confirmed you to be apostles, and especial witnesses of my name, and bear the keys of your ministry,” although it doesn’t directly tie them to an ordination to the Melchizedek Priesthood. The original 1833 Book of Commandments made no reference to Priesthood restoration.
These changes didn’t go unnoticed. David Whitmer in particular accused Joseph and Oliver of duplicity for retroactively changing revelations:
[The] revelations … were printed in the Book of Commandments correctly… just exactly as they were arranged by Brother Joseph and the others. And when the Book of Commandments was printed, Joseph and the church received it as being printed correctly …When it became generally known that these important changes had been made in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, many of the brethren objected seriously to it, but they did not want to say much for the sake of peace, as it was Brother Joseph and the leaders who did it.
-An Address to All Believers in Christ, 1887
He said the same to a journalist:
Is it possible that the minds of men can be so blinded as to believe that God would give these revelations – command them to print them in His Book of Commandments – and then afterwards command them to change and add to them some words which change the meaning entirely? As if God had changed his mind entirely after giving his word? Is it possible that man who pretends to any spirituality would believe that God would work in such a manner?
– Saint’s Herald, February 5th, 1887
Whitmer spoke specifically about the priesthood restoration claims as well:
In August, 1829, we began to preach the gospel of Christ. The following six elders had then been ordained: Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowder, Peter Whitmer, Samuel H. Smith, Hyrum Smith and myself …We preached, baptized and confirmed members into the Church of Christ, from August, 1829, until April 6th, 1830, being eight months in which time we had proceeded rightly; the offices in the church being Elders, Priests and Teachers… In no place in the word of God does it say that an Elder is after the order of Melchisedec, or after the order of the Melchisedec Priesthood. An Elder is after the order of Christ. This matter of “priesthood,” since the days of Sydney Rigdon, has been the great hobby and stumbling-block of the Latter Day Saints… This matter of the two orders of priesthood in the Church of Christ, and lineal priesthood of the old law being in the church, all originated in the mind of Sydney Rigdon. He explained these things to Brother Joseph in his way, out of the old Scriptures, and got Brother Joseph to inquire, etc. He would inquire, and as mouthpiece speak out the revelations just as they had it fixed up in their hearts. As I have said before, according to the desires of the heart, the inspiration comes, but it may be the spirit of man that gives it… This is the way the High Priests and the “priesthood” as you have it, was introduced into the Church of Christ almost two years after its beginning—and after we had baptized and confirmed about two thousand souls into the church.
-An Address to All Believers in Christ, 1887
Another time, he said:
I never heard that an Angel had ordained Joseph and Oliver to the Aaronic Priesthood until the year 1834[,] 5. or 6—in Ohio.… I do not believe that John the Baptist ever ordained Joseph and Oliver.
Early Mormon Documents
Whitmer wasn’t the only person that felt the claims of angelic priesthood ordination were later fabrications. William McLellin also said:
I joined the church in 1831. For years I never heard of John the Baptist ordaining Joseph and Oliver. I heard not of James, Peter, and John doing so …[A]s to the story of John, the Baptist ordaining Joseph and Oliver on the day they were baptized; I never heard of it in the church for years, altho I carefully noticed things that were said.
Other historical sources from that time period seem to corroborate Whitmer and McLellin. You can find no reference to these events prior to 1834, even in the Book of Commandments. The Book of Mormon has one chapter that talks about Priesthood, in Alma 13. Here, it talks about Priesthood in the same kinds of terms that Whitmer describes, pre-1834. It speaks of high priests being “ordained unto the high priesthood of the holy order of God, to teach his commandments unto the children of men… on account of their exceeding faith and repentance, and their righteousness before God.” It does not differentiate a lower vs. higher priesthood, or speak of Priesthood as a lineal authority to be conferred for the exercising of keys, etc, but rather as a “holy calling” for those who qualify themselves. This is a very standard Protestant view of Priesthood.
During an 1831 Pentecostal meeting, the word “Priesthood” enters into Mormon sermonizing and records for the 1st time (excepting Alma 13). Historian Richard Bushman states:
During the turbulent meeting, Joseph ordained five men to the high priesthood, and Lyman Wight ordained eighteen others, including Joseph… So far as can be told now, before 1831 men were called to church offices – elders, priests and teachers – given authority, and licensed without reference to a bestowal of priesthood. At the June conference, the word “priesthood” was used and the minutes of the meeting and John Whitmer’s history noted ordinations to the “High Priesthood,” also known as the Melchizedek Priesthood… Writing about the meeting years later, Joseph said that “the authority of the Melchizedek priesthood was manifested and conferred for the first time upon several of the Elders.”
–Rough Stone Rolling, pp 157-158
Joseph being ordained by Lyman Wight in 1831 clashes unfavorably with the story of angelic ordination. Elsewhere, Richard Bushman refers to the later accounts of angelic ordination, saying: “the late appearance of these accounts raises the possibility of later fabrication.”
This is the first example I can find where Oliver seems to be cooperating with Joseph in some form of deceit. While I believe it’s plausible to explain some joint visions in a way that Joseph could have convinced his witnesses that they were in the midst of a vision in their minds, it’s somewhat more difficult, I would think, to convince someone that they had already had one 5 years ago. Between that and retroactively changing the words of previous revelations, you have to acknowledge possible collusion here. So why and how did Oliver go from believer to cynical conspirator?
We can only speculate, but then again, that’s the whole purpose of this blog post! My speculation begins with a passage from this essay by Richard Bushman, where we learn that Oliver felt threatened by the rise of Sidney Rigdon:
Oliver, for one thing, seems to have been sensitive about his position in the Church, something like David Whitmer. He worried that Sidney Rigdon was replacing him in the hierarchy… In the December 5, 1834, entry in the history, where Oliver was finally ordained an assistant president, he took pains to explain that he was deposed from this role only temporarily because of his absence in Missouri and that his rightful place was at Joseph’s side. Then he listed himself as the first assistant president ahead of Sidney Rigdon. The account of this reinstallation would be more persuasive if someone besides Oliver himself had written it. He was the one to underscore his own importance in the Church hierarchy.
I think Joseph may have used Oliver’s insecurity against him here. Perhaps Oliver was more compliant at that time, hoping to regain his former status in the church.
Joseph must have been confronted with these accusations in life, as he offered a meek rebuttal to them in Joseph Smith – History:
In the meantime we were forced to keep secret the circumstances of having received the Priesthood and our having been baptized, owing to a spirit of persecution which had already manifested itself in the neighborhood.
The reasoning is a little hard to justify. These events supposedly transpired while Joseph and his followers were living on the Whitmer farm. He had “persecutors” in the form of Lucy Harris, but nothing that would justify holding back such a detail from his closest friends and followers. Reading about that time period, there is nowhere to be found a discernible spirit of discretion about spiritual experiences with anyone, much less with David Whitmer. The Painseville Telegraph, an Ohio newspaper, reported in 1830 that Oliver Cowdery “pretends to have a divine mission and to have seen and conversed with Angels.” So clearly, they were not shy about sharing spiritual experiences.
When trying to assess Oliver’s awareness, I’m naturally drawn to any kind of shared visionary experiences. It’s my contention that Joseph had the ability to “provide” visionary experiences to his closest followers (even though I haven’t discussed the “how” yet). All that being said, I find the circumstances surrounding Oliver’s greatest shared revelation very interesting.
I’m referring to the grand vision in D&C 110. It’s an experience that Oliver and Joseph shared in the Kirtland temple, obscured from view by a veil, which describes a vision of Jehovah standing on the pulpit and accepting the temple. It also includes visions of Moses, Elias and Elijah (described as a separate person from Elias, perhaps an oversight on Joseph’s part). Cowdery, when describing the day of the dedication, referred to Sidney Rigdon’s remarks before this vision:
He spoke two hours and a half in his usual, forcible and logical manner. At one time in the course of his remarks he was rather pathetic, than otherwise, which drew tears from many eyes. But to conclude, we can truly say no one unacquainted with the manner of delivery and style of our speaker can, from reading form any adequate idea of the powerful effect he is capable of producing in the minds of his hearers. And to say on this occasion he showed himself master of his subject and did well, would be doing him injustice; to say he acquitted himself with honor or did very well, would be detracting from him real merit; and to say that he did exceeding well; would be only halting praise.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into Oliver’s words here. He had glowing remarks about the dedication generally. But I can’t help but wonder if Oliver must have felt both immense satisfaction when he was chosen over Sidney for this great honor. The vision also hearkens back to the famous vision given to Sidney and Joseph earlier in 1832, ensconced in D&C 72, in which the two witness “the glory of the Son, on the right hand of the Father” in a “heavenly vision.”
The beginning of Oliver’s disillusionment seems to have come from Joseph’s extramarital dalliances, specifically in the case of Fanny Alger (I wrote about that episode here). Oliver was apparently called in the middle of the night to mediate a dispute between Joseph and Emma after she discovered the relationship between Joseph and their hired maid, Fanny Alger. Oliver was evidently troubled by this. He once described it as a “dirty, nasty affair.” His contention that Joseph was guilty of adultery was a major factor leading to his 1838 excommunication.
Cowdery joined the group known as “the dissenters,” which also included witness David Whitmer, and fled Missouri when they understood Sidney Rigdon’s salt sermon as a threat to their lives.
Oliver spent many years seemingly trying to escape Mormonism, but its shadow loomed large. His association with Mormonism ultimately disrupted all his other endeavors.
First, he moved to Tiffin, Ohio. Initially, he intended to edit a Democrat newspaper, but after his Mormon connections surfaced, that offer was rescinded. Instead, he practiced law and joined a Methodist church. By all accounts, he tried to put Mormonism behind him, but to little avail. One of his fellow parishioners at the Methodist church recalled his time there, in a sworn affidavit:
I was well acquainted with Oliver Cowdery who formerly resided in this city, that sometime in the year 1840 Henry Cronise, Samuel Waggoner and myself, with other Democrats of this county, determined to establish a Democratic newspaper in this city to aid in the election of Martin Van Buren to the Presidency, and we authorized Henry Cronise, Esq., to go East and purchase a suitable press for that purpose. Mr. Cronise went East, purchased a press and engaged Oliver Cowdery to edit the paper. Mr. Cowdery arrived in Tiffin (O.) some time before the press arrived. Some time after Mr. Cowdery’s arrival in Tiffin, we became acquainted with his (Cowdery’s) connection with Mormonism.
We immediately called a meeting of our Democratic friends, and having the Book of Mormon with us, it was unanimously agreed that Mr. Cowdery could not be permitted to edit said paper.
Mr. Cowdery opened a law office in Tiffin, and soon effected a partnership with Joel W. Wilson.
In a few years Mr. Cowdery expressed a desire to associate himself with a Methodist Protestant church of this city.
Rev. John Souder and myself were appointed a committee to wait on Mr. Cowdery and confer with him respecting his connection with Mormonism and the Book of Mormon.
We accordingly waited on Mr. Cowdery at his residence in Tiffin, and there learned his connection, from him, with that order, and his full and final renunciation thereof.
We then inquired of him if he had any objection to making a public recantation. He replied that he had objections; that, in the first place, it could do no good; that he had known several to do so and they always regretted it. And, in the second place, it would have a tendency to draw public attention, invite criticism, and bring him into contempt.
“But,” said he, “nevertheless, if the church require it, I will submit to it, but I authorize and desire you and the church to publish and make known my recantation.”
We did not demand it, but submitted his name to the church, and he was unanimously admitted a member thereof.
At that time he arose and addressed the audience present, admitted his error and implored forgiveness, and said he was sorry and ashamed of his connection with Mormonism.
He continued his membership while he resided in Tiffin, and became superintendent of the Sabbath-school, and led an exemplary the while he resided with us.
This wouldn’t be the first or last time that Mormonism followed Oliver like a bad rash. He was nominated to the State Senate, but lost after his background was discovered.
After 7 years in Tiffin, Oliver moved to a new location. Health reasons may have motivated the move, but a fresh start may also have been appealing. Whatever the reason, he found a new home in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. Here he managed to become co-editor of a newspaper, the Walworth County Democrat, finally fulfilling his previous goal. Again, he became active in Democratic politics, and eventually managed to gain supporters to run as Elkhorn district’s Democratic candidate for state assembly. Although initially popular, his Whig opponents managed to hang the Mormon albatross around his neck, and he narrowly lost. Mormonism was proving to be a recurring obstacle for Oliver’s ambitions.
Return of the Witness
Oliver had no illusions about the impact Mormonism had on his ambitions. In 1842, he wrote:
My business is steadily increasing nothing operates against me, except the fact that I have been formerly connected with, what is now an important church. Were it not for this I believe I could rise to the heights of my ambition. But shame on man, or men, who are so beneath themselves as to make this a business. My God has sustained me, and is able to sustain me, and through his own mysterious providence, lift me above all my foes. With his dealings I will be content.
Cowdery wrote this to Phineas Young. Phineas was an older brother of Brigham Young, and was married to Oliver’s half-sister. Phineas had written Oliver many letters urging his return to the church in Salt Lake City. Oliver meanwhile corresponded with W.W. Phelps, who also invited a reunion. In tone, Oliver seems open to the idea, but clearly not penitent. He obviously missed his friends, but he doesn’t really adopt the tone of a prodigal son returning to the fold. As an example, in a letter to Phineas in 1843, he writes:
From the foregoing it will be easy for you to ascertain my position. You are well aware of the torrents of abuse and injury that I have received, fomented, no doubt, by those miserable beings who have long since ceased to disgrace the Church of which you are a member, with their membership. But you know all is not right. Could I see you I would converse freely, but I do not feel willing to write more fully.
You say “the Twelve” say they have written me. I have received nothing from them. I received a strange unmeaning letter from my old friend [William W.] Phelps last spring, but he requested no answer. I have not written him, certain to be sure, friend Phelps did say that I could write to your brother, Brigham, who was President of the Twelve. Of course, I know I could write to your brother without this information. But I did, and do now suppose, that if your brother or anyone also has any business of importance with me, he, or they, will not fail to let me know it.
Oliver is not trying to return to the fold here. Rather, he believes restitution and apology are owed to him. In a subsequent letter, he makes this more clear:
I think, sometimes, that my frequent letters to you on the subject of what I have so often expressed anxiety upon, has led you to believe me efficious and overanxious, and though I have often been disappointed, there is notwithstanding, an act of injustice being done me. There is an act of justice due me, not only for my own, but for the sake and character of my friends and relatives; particularly those who are yet in the Church. So far as the others are concerned they care nothing about it. Indeed, I sometimes think, they wish it never to be given, as that may effectually prevent my return. You know my feelings fully on this subject–you will present them to Brother Brigham–tell him I am more and more anxious that matters be settled–the sooner the better, of course. As you will immediately, have him, by all means, drop me a card.
Although clearly injured by what he sees as false accusations, Oliver maintains his testimony in another letter:
But from your last I am fully satisfied that no unjust imputation will be suffered to remain upon my character. And that I may not be misunderstood, let me here say, that I have only sought, and only asked, that my character might be exonerated from those charges imputed to me the crimes of theft, forgery, etc. Those which all my former associates know to be false. I do not, I have never asked, to be excused, or exempted from an acknowledgment of any actual fault or wrong–for of these there are many, which it always was my pleasure to confess–I have cherished a hope, and that one of my fondest, that I might leave such a character as those who might believe in my testimony, after I should be called hence, might do so, not only for the sake of the truth, but might not blush for the private character of the man who bore that testimony. I have been sensitive on this subject, I admit, but I ought to so be, you would be under the circumstances, had you stood in the presence of John with our departed Brother Joseph, to receive the lesser priesthood, and in the presence of Peter, to receive the greater, and looked down through time, and witness the effects these two must produce–you would feel what you have never felt, were wicked men conspiring to lessen the effects of your testimony on man, after you should have gone to your long sought rest.
This is particularly interesting because Oliver specifically refers to the one piece of his testimony where I believe he may have been complicit in Joseph’s deceit: the retconning of the Priesthood restoration. Here he refers to it matter-of-factly. Granted his audience is Phineas, and by extension the church in Salt Lake City, where he might be tempted to flex his status as a close associate and co-revelator with Joseph Smith. This is where trying to get into the minds of the witnesses is so difficult. Perhaps, having been rejected by the non-Mormon world, he’s simply trying to negotiate a return to a community that would welcome him. Perhaps, Joseph Smith was so convincing that Oliver truly believed he was present during the restoration of the Priesthood. Perhaps that initial bit of “exaggeration” had gotten lost over the years and melded in his mind with his other experiences he believed to be genuine. But the evidence is too overwhelming that the Priesthood restoration was an afterthought that was backdated to ignore. I admit I am unsure how sincere Oliver is at this point. I am inclined to lean towards sincerity more often than deceit, especially since he continues to decry the church in Salt Lake City for straying from the original doctrines. Around the same time, he says in a letter to his brother-in-law and sister (Daniel and Phebe Jackson) on the subject of polygamy:
I can hardly think it possible that you have written us the truth – that though there may be individuals who are guilty of the iniquities spoken of, – yet no such practice can be preached or adheared to as a public doctrine. Such may do for the followers of Mohamet; it may have done some thousands of years ago; but no people professing to be governed by the pure and holy principles of the Lord Jesus, can hold up their heads before the world at this distance of time, and be guilty of such folly – such wrong – such abomination. It will blast, like a mill-dew their fairest prospects, and lay the axe at the root of their future happiness.
He also acknowledges to them the difficulty of starting a new life, saying “We know, in part, how you are situated – out of the Church, you have few or no friends, and very little, or no society – in it you have both.” So he understood keenly the value of a community that knows you.
In 1848, Oliver accepted a reunion, and tried to move his family to Council Bluffs, Iowa, a Mormon settlement that served as the beginning of the Mormon trail. He was delayed because of sickness. His letters indicate he is still seeking an equitable reconciliation rather than an act of penance. Because of illness and his late start, he and his family ended up staying in Richmond, Missouri instead, where he was reunited with his longtime friend, David Whitmer.
Eventually, Oliver and his family make it to Council Bluffs and he is re-baptized, but not before some negotiating. Church leadership seemed especially concerned about his past statements that he retained the keys of priesthood leadership after Joseph’s death. Oliver was baptized only after renouncing this belief. In fact, the church thereafter published a statement on behalf of Oliver, the same statement that the church to this day proudly quotes. Unlike his private correspondence, the letter is confessional in tone (and is even so titled). It is very emphatic on points that interested the church the most: that Oliver reaffirms Joseph’s prophetic vision, and that he lays no claim to leadership or office. It doesn’t touch anything regarding his disagreements with the current church in regards to polygamy and other Nauvoo doctrines. The fact that it’s so one-sided suggests to me that it was perhaps a requirement from the church for re-fellowship, and that its contents were prescribed by the brethren.
At any rate, Oliver never made it west. His health continued to deteriorate. He died in 1850 in his old friend David Whitmer’s house. Whitmer said of his death:
I was present at the death bed of Oliver Cowdery, and his last words were,”Brother David, be true to your testimony to the Book of Mormon.”
Even if Whitmer exaggerated Oliver’s last moments, others confirmed that he reaffirmed his testimony of the Book of Mormon on his deathbed. His own words in his private correspondence suggest a man that still retained a belief in the original mission of the Book of Mormon and the original church, but who, like Whitmer, had grown disillusioned with Joseph in his later years and felt the church had been deviating farther and farther from the truth ever since. But unlike Whitmer, we have evidence of Cowdery cooperating in deceit, from changing past revelations and retroactively changing the original narrative along with Joseph. We also have evidence that he tried to “move on” from Mormonism and live a secular life.
What simply can’t be known is just how deep his belief went. I think the evidence shows a man who probably believed at least in the origin of the church, if not the direction it took, but who was unable to outrun the shadow that Mormonism cast over him. Full believer or not, he clearly felt like he only had one place to turn at the end of his life, and he acted accordingly.
a. Oliver meets Joseph for the first time: An occasional allegation I encounter in ex-Mormon forums is that Oliver was a “cousin” to Joseph Smith, and that they grew up going to the same church together. Neither is true. Oliver was a 3rd cousin to Lucy Maack, meaning they were distantly related. Given they both lived in the same general area in the 19th century, that’s not that surprising, and doesn’t suggest they had any kind of relationship before his 1829 meeting. Anyone who has done an online DNA test knows you are likely to have many 3rd/4th cousins nearby that you’ve never heard of.
The charge that they grew up “going to the same church together” is based on the supposition that Oliver’s father and Joseph Smith, Sr. may have both been members of the New Israelites, a dowsing sect. While Oliver’s father’s connection to the New Israelites is plausible, the evidence connecting Joseph Smith, Sr. to it is extremely thin, and no records ever place him closer than 50 miles away from the sect. On the off chance that they did both belong to the New Israelites sect, it would have happened 20 years before Joseph or Oliver was born, so they clearly didn’t share cheerios in the same pew together.
It’s worth noting that the historical consensus strongly comes down on the side of Oliver and Joseph meeting for the first time in 1829. Most of the impetus for an earlier connection is driven by proponents of the “2nd Spaulding Manuscript.” I consider the theory pretty fringe, but it’s beyond the scope of this article to explain why. Interested parties can find information on that theory with a little googling.