Oliver Cowdery can plausibly be considered the co-founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Commonly called the Church’s “second elder” and, at one time, its “assistant president,” he wrote most of the Book of Mormon out by hand from dictation as Joseph Smith’s principal scribe, recopied the entire manuscript for the printer, and, as one of the Three Witnesses, beheld the angel Moroni, saw the plates, and heard the voice of God testify that the translation was correct.
With Joseph Smith, he was ordained to the Aaronic priesthood by John the Baptist and to the Melchizedek priesthood by Peter, James, and John. He was at Joseph Smith’s side in the Kirtland Temple on 3 April 1836, when Moses, Elias, Elijah, and the Savior himself appeared there, to accept the newly dedicated building and to confer priesthood keys.
Yet Oliver Cowdery was excommunicated from the Church in April 1838, and lived as a non-Mormon for the next decade. In 1848, he was rebaptized, and, two years later, he died.
For obvious reasons, Latter-day Saint historians have found Cowdery extraordinarily interesting, and they have written numerous articles about his life and career. Now, several of the very best of these have been gathered in John W. Welch and Larry E. Morris, eds., Oliver Cowdery: Scribe, Elder, Witness (Provo: The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, Brigham Young University, 2006) – a book well worth the attention of anyone interested in the truth-claims of Mormonism and in its early history.
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The cover of the book itself is important, as it features a recently discovered daguerrotype image of Oliver Cowdery that is discussed in an essay by Patrick Bishop. Other treasures include a brief biography of Cowdery by the premiere expert on the Witnesses, Richard Lloyd Anderson (who also contributed pieces on “The Impact of the First Preaching in Ohio” and on the reliability of the scribe who recorded Cowdery’s testimony upon his return to the Church); John W. Welch’s valuable essay on “The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon”; Steven Harper’s “Oliver Cowdery and the Kirtland Temple Experience”; and Royal Skousen’s “Translating and Printing the Book of Mormon.”
Altogether, there are seventeen articles in the volume, written by thirteen different named authors.
“Oliver Cowdery and the Restoration of the Priesthood,” compiled by Brian Q. Cannon and the BYU Studies staff, gathers and analyses several statements from Cowdery on that important subject. Matthew Roper’s “Oliver Cowdery and the Mythical ‘Manuscript Found'” scrutinizes the hoary “Spalding Theory” of Book of Mormon authorship and finds it wanting (yet again).
Scott H. Faulring’s “The Return of Oliver Cowdery,” which won the T. Edgar Lyon Award of Excellence from the Mormon History Association when it was first published in 2000, provides fascinating and even moving background to that 1848 event, which demonstrated Oliver Cowdery’s continuing testimony of Mormonism at a time when the Saints were headed westward and when casting one’s lot with them was anything but an easy road to prosperity or social status.
Larry Morris’s article on “Oliver Cowdery’s Vermont Years and the Origins of Mormonism” dismantles persistent attempts to link Joseph Smith Sr. with Oliver Cowdery’s father in a divining-rod incident that, so the theory goes, helps to explain (away) the founding of the Church twenty-five years later. It also demolishes equally persistent efforts to tie Oliver Cowdery to Rev. Ethan Smith and, thereby, to portray the Book of Mormon as plagiarized from Rev. Smith’s View of the Hebrews.
As if that weren’t contribution enough, Morris’s “‘The Private Character of the Man Who Bore that Testimony’: Oliver Cowdery and His Critics” defends Cowdery’s reputation, intelligence, and honesty against writers who, in their ardent desire to negate his testimony, have attempted to besmirch his name. Morris, who is emerging as a treasure in his own right, demonstrates that the critics rely upon weak evidence, questionable sources, and circular reasoning in order to make their fatally flawed case.
The founding events of the Restoration took place in the literal material world. They were not metaphorical. They were not merely symbolic. Accordingly, they are of immense significance to all of humanity. Oliver Cowdery’s unwavering eyewitness testimony of them, through persecution, suffering, illness, disappointment, anger, and even excommunication, is powerful evidence of their reality. This book, Oliver Cowdery: Scribe, Elder, Witness, provides powerful scholarly evidence that his testimony can be trusted.