You are here
The Return of Oliver Cowdery
|Title||The Return of Oliver Cowdery|
|Publication Type||Book Chapter|
|Year of Publication||2000|
|Authors||Faulring, Scott H.|
|Editor||Ricks, Stephen D., Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges|
|Book Title||The Disciple as Witness: Essays on Latter-day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson|
|Publisher||Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies|
|Keywords||Church Discipline; Cowdery, Oliver|
Show Full Text
The Return of Oliver Cowdery
Scott H. Faulring
On Sunday, 12 November 1848, apostle Orson Hyde, president of the Quorum of the Twelve and the church’s presiding official at Kanesville-Council Bluffs, stepped into the cool waters of Mosquito Creek1 near Council Bluffs, Iowa, and took Mormonism’s estranged Second Elder by the hand to rebaptize him. Sometime shortly after that, Elder Hyde laid hands on Oliver’s head, confirming him back into church membership and reordaining him an elder in the Melchizedek Priesthood.2 Cowdery’s rebaptism culminated six years of desire on his part and protracted efforts encouraged by the Mormon leadership to bring about his sought-after, eagerly anticipated reconciliation. Cowdery, renowned as one of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, corecipient of restored priesthood power, and a founding member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had spent ten and a half years outside the church after his April 1838 excommunication.
Oliver Cowdery wanted reaffiliation with the church he helped organize. His penitent yearnings to reassociate with the Saints were evident from his personal letters and actions as early as 1842. Oliver understood the necessity of rebaptism. By subjecting himself to rebaptism by Elder Hyde, Cowdery acknowledged the priesthood keys and authority held by the First Presidency under Brigham Young and the Twelve.
Oliver Cowdery’s tenure as Second Elder and Associate President ended abruptly when he decided not to appear and defend himself against misconduct charges at the 12 April 1838, Far West, Missouri, high council hearing.3 Instead, Oliver sent a terse letter in which he elaborated on his differences of opinion “on some Church regulations.” In this defensive communiqué, Oliver implored Bishop Edward Partridge and the council to “take no view of the foregoing remarks, other than my belief on the outward government of this Church.”4 President Cowdery regretted that differences existed, but he explained that he was not willing to be dictated to in his temporal business affairs or have his civil liberties abused by those who, he believed, were aspiring for position. The Far West High Council, unsympathetic to Oliver Cowdery’s views, sustained six of the nine charges against him, and he was promptly excommunicated.5 That his disparities were mainly bureaucratic versus theocratic is supported by Thomas B. Marsh’s chance meeting of Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer later that summer. Marsh, by then himself a defector from the Mormon fold, asked the two witnesses if they still held to the beliefs as proclaimed in their published Book of Mormon testimony. Marsh recalled that both David and Oliver answered emphatically, “Yes.”6
The first encouraging news about Oliver Cowdery after his disaffection came to Nauvoo in a letter written to Joseph Smith from an unidentified church member in Kirtland. Laura Pitkin, a resident of Nauvoo, shared news gleaned from this Kirtland letter in the postscript of her letter to Heber C. Kimball. Pitkin observed: “Brother Joseph received a letter from Kirtland last week. Martin Harris has come [back] into the church. Oliver Cowd[e]ry is very friendly and they have properous times in that place.”7
No official action was taken to replace Oliver Cowdery as Associate President until 24 January 1841. In Joseph Smith’s first public revelation after being liberated from his Missouri imprisonment, reasons for a reorganization were explained, required in part because of the expulsion of Oliver Cowdery. Hyrum Smith, the Prophet’s older brother, was called to fill the office of church patriarch, replacing Father Smith, who had died four months earlier. In addition, Hyrum was called to fill the vacancy left by Cowdery as Associate President and given the “same blessing, and glory, and honor, and priesthood, and gifts of the priesthood” once held by Cowdery (D&C 124:95). Since Oliver had defected and isolated himself from the church, it is presumed that he was not notified of the change.
After leaving Missouri in the fall of 1838, Oliver Cowdery returned to Kirtland, settling close to his non-Mormon brother, Lyman. In early 1840, Oliver was admitted to the Ohio bar as an attorney. He practiced law in Kirtland with Lyman for a short time. Cowdery moved in the fall of 1840 to Tiffin, a town in northwestern Ohio, where he continued as a lawyer.8 For the next seven years, Tiffin was Cowdery’s home.
By December 1842, four and a half years after he had been excommunicated, Cowdery was visited at least three times by his devoted friend and brother-in-law Phineas H. Young. Phineas, who had been away from Nauvoo for five months, was accompanied by Franklin D. Richards and had been sent to Cincinnati to preside over the church in the southern district of Ohio.9 While laboring in Ohio, Phineas called on Oliver. It is unclear whether Elder Young was specifically directed by church leaders to contact Oliver Cowdery or whether he did so on his own initiative. Nonetheless, these visits were the first steps taken to redeem Cowdery from estrangement. Phineas, married to Oliver’s half-sister Lucy, started the momentum that would, six years later, result in Oliver’s reinstatement. Reporting that Oliver was alive and well, Phineas wrote his brother Brigham and the Twelve informing them that Oliver’s “heart is still with his old friends.”10
Phineas expressed his conviction that the disenfranchised Second Elder would willingly gather with the Saints in Nauvoo if only Brother Joseph understood Oliver’s side of the controversy that led to his (Cowdery’s) dismissal from Far West. Always Oliver’s staunchest supporter and ever the sympathetic observer, Phineas believed that his brother-in-law had been unjustly driven out by jealous, conspiring elders. He expressed his opinion that men such as Sidney Rigdon, Thomas Marsh, George Hinkle, George Robinson, and others, nurturing ulterior motives, testified against President Cowdery and gave Joseph Smith prejudicial information. Oliver, feeling outnumbered, believed that defending himself against these biased witnesses was futile.
Phineas’s December 1842 correspondence with the Twelve clarified several issues raised during Oliver Cowdery’s high council hearing four years earlier. Cowdery contradicted persistent reports of his supposed claim that if he left the church, it would collapse. Phineas reported that Oliver never harbored such a pretentious attitude, that such an arrogant disposition never entered the Second Elder’s heart. In addition, Oliver had concerns that promissory notes he once held against Brigham Young and others, which were paid off or settled, had been turned over to Oliver Granger for delivery to the parties concerned. Somehow these obligations were sold or given to Granger’s son Gilbert for collection. The fraudulent use of these notes caused Cowdery “great anxiety” because he felt personally responsible for their proper and lawful disposition. These and other issues had not been resolved, and Cowdery felt that they tarnished his reputation and wanted them settled.
Near the end of 1842, although involved with his legal practice in Tiffin, Oliver volunteered to leave home to help prepare a legal defense for Elder John Snyder. Leader of a company of British Mormon converts, Snyder was arrested for mutiny in New Orleans.11 Cowdery was ready, with the authorization of the Nauvoo High Council, to go with Phineas to New Orleans. Phineas assured Brigham and Joseph Smith’s secretary, Willard Richards, that “I am satisfied [Oliver] has no sinister motives in the above proposition, as he is crowded with business continually.” It is unlikely that the Twelve responded to Cowdery’s offer since Elder Snyder was released from jail by the second week of January 1843.12
William W. Phelps, one of the Prophet’s personal secretaries and himself a recently reclaimed elder, wrote to Cowdery in March 1843.13 This was the earliest recorded written contact by a church representative with Oliver since his defection. For unexplained reasons, Oliver viewed Phelps’s letter as a “strange . . . epistle.” He told Phineas that Phelps did not request a reply but he planned to write him back anyhow.14 A week later, Cowdery changed his mind, explaining that since Phelps did not specifically ask for an answer, “I have not written him in return.”15
During the summer of 1843, Oliver received word from his brother Lyman that Phineas had returned to Kirtland. He looked forward to a visit from his esteemed brother-in-law. Cowdery thought about going to Kirtland, but referred to the difficulty in leaving a professional business to be “absent a few weeks when one has numerous competitors.” Oliver bragged that his legal practice was increasing steadily and that nothing stood in his way except his previous involvement with Mormonism. He anguished over this intolerance:
Were it not for this, I believe I could rise to the height of my ambition. But, shame on the man, or men, who are so beneath themselves, as to make this a barrier. My God has sustained me, and is able still to sustain me—and through his own mysterious providence to lift me above all my foes. With his dealings I will be content.16
Cowdery was unaware that months earlier, on 19 April, during a routine Wednesday afternoon meeting, Joseph Smith instructed the Twelve to invite their former colleague back into church fellowship and service. According to Willard Richards, keeper of the Prophet’s journal, Joseph directed: “Write to Oliver Cowdery and ask him if he has not eat[en] husks long enough, if he is not most ready to return [be clothed with robes of righteousness], and go up to Jerusalem. Orson Hyde hath need of him.”17 Richards noted that the Twelve immediately drafted a letter that was “signed by the members of the Quorum present.” In their invitational epistle, addressed specifically to Oliver as one of the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon, the Twelve observed:
We thought perhaps our old, long esteemed friend might by this time have felt his lonely, solitary situation; might feel that he was a stranger in a strange land, and had wandered long enough from his Father’s house and that he might have a disposition to return. If this is the case, all that we have got to say is, your brethren are ready to receive you; we are not your enemies, but your brethren. Your dwelling place you know ought to be in Zion—your labor might be needed in Jerusalem, and you ought to be the servant of the living God.18
The Twelve told Oliver that they would be “happy to have an answer from you to let us know your feeling” and asked him to respond to quorum president Brigham Young at Nauvoo.
This invitation to return, although composed, signed, and dated April 1843, for unexplained reasons, was not mailed until December. In August, Phineas Young, aware of the invitation, told Oliver about the Twelve’s dispatch. Oliver replied: “You say ‘the Twelve’ say they have written me. I have received nothing from them.” Cowdery reminded Phineas that the only communication he had received from church leaders was the “strange unmeaning letter from my old friend Phelps last spring.”19 Finally, on 20 December, Oliver received the Twelve’s epistle, which he noted had a 10 December Nauvoo postmark.
Despite the letter’s delay, Oliver took time Christmas day to respond. He admitted his confusion over the detained letter but assumed that “feelings of friendship and kindness therein expressed are the same now, as then.”20 Accepting the Twelve’s epistle as a “friendly letter,” Cowdery reciprocated their cordial sentiments by asserting that he held “no unkindly feelings” toward them. He readily admitted the truth of their observation that he lived a “‘lonely, solitary situation—a stranger in a strange land'” and confessed that it “is true, strictly true.” Oliver wrote:
It has been a long time, nearly six years—the winds and waves, floods and storms, have been arrayed to oppose me; and I need hardly say to you, that the Lord alone has upheld me, till I have fought up, labored up, and struggled up, to a fair reputation and a fair business in my present profession.21
Cowdery longed to put the strife associated with his June 1838 departure from Far West behind him. The situation, he explained, was “painful to reflect on.” In a genuine spirit of reconciliation, Oliver offered his personal interpretation of the circumstances leading to his dismissal. He observed candidly:
I believed at the time, and still believe, that ambitious and wicked men, envying the harmony existing between myself and the first elders of the church, and hoping to get into some other men’s birthright, by falsehoods the most foul and wicked, caused all this difficulty from beginning to end. They succeeded in getting myself out of the church; but since they themselves have gone to perdition, ought not old friends—long tried in the furnace of affliction, to be friends still?22
Oliver also told Brigham and the other members of the Twelve that he did not believe any of them had contributed to his removal and thus could speak freely with them about returning.23 In his reply to the Twelve’s invitation, Oliver mentioned a “certain publication,” signed by some eighty-three church members then living in Missouri, charging him and others with conspiring with outlaws.24 Cowdery emphatically denied such a vile indictment. He conceded that he had not seen the offending declaration but had heard of its existence and the accusations made in it.
Six months later, near noon on that tragic 27 June, the Prophet Joseph Smith, while incarcerated in Carthage Jail, was visited by Almon W. Babbitt. During his stay with the Prophet, Babbitt read a communication received recently from Oliver Cowdery.25 Although the letter has been lost and its specific contents remain unknown, it can be presumed from Oliver’s recent optimistic overtures that his was a congenial letter.26
Cowdery’s reaction to news of Joseph’s murder was captured in a statement by William Lang, a Tiffin, Ohio, attorney who studied law under Oliver’s supervision. Lang reported:
[Joseph] Smith was killed while [Oliver] C[owdery] lived here. I well remember the effect upon his countenance when he read the news in my presence. He immediately took the paper over to his house to read to his wife. On his return to the office we had a long conversation on the subject, and I was surprised to hear him speak with so much kindness of a man that had so wronged him as Smith had. It elevated him greatly in my already high esteem, and proved to me more than ever the nobility of his nature.27
Phineas Young, traveling east on another mission, spent four days in November 1844 with Cowdery at his home in Tiffin. Soon afterwards, Phineas wrote to Brigham. He conveyed that “[Oliver] sends love to you and all old friends,” adding parenthetically that Oliver “sees the folly of Sidney [Rigdon]’s course.”28 In a further attempt to reclaim Oliver Cowdery, Phineas told his brother, “There are many things I want to say . . . therefore I will write somewhat to you on a certain subject that I wish you to disclose to no one, but ponder the same in your heart.” With this in mind, Phineas asked Brigham to reflect
back on the days of sorrow witnessed by our beloved Prophet and his old friend O[liver] Cowdery. Watch their prayers and tears, consider their feelings and friendship for each other, see them in Colesville in their weakness, remember them in Jackson [County], Missouri, in Kirtland, Ohio, all was peace, all was love. Did they ever quarrel? No. Did they ever forsake each other? No. What was the difficulty?29
Phineas blamed Thomas B. Marsh and others at Far West in 1838 with conspiracy in driving Oliver Cowdery out of the church by charging him with apostasy, forgery, and theft. George W. Robinson, Rigdon’s son-in-law, was singled out as having driven Oliver from his home in June 1838.30 Phineas insisted that if the charges “were placed on the heads of those apostates” (that is, Marsh, Robinson, and others), then Oliver Cowdery would admit his shortcomings, make amends for his weaknesses, and rejoin the Saints. Phineas encouraged Brigham to publish a statement in the church’s Nauvoo periodical, the Times and Seasons, explaining “to the Saints and to the world that these charges were false and instigated by false brethren.”31 Cowdery anticipated returning as a useful, productive member of the church. He believed that he would not be considered a credible witness of the early events of the restoration without a statement clearing him of the Missouri charges. Brigham, preoccupied with the mounting pressure from apostates and antagonistic non-Mormons that would eventually force the Saints to flee Nauvoo, did not respond to his brother’s appeal.
Nearly a year later, in October 1845, during another visit from Phineas, Oliver wrote again to Brigham Young. Once more, he offered his legal and personal services to the church. This time the matter was the Saints’ anticipated departure from Nauvoo and surrounding areas and their journey west into Mexican territory. While together in Tiffin, Oliver and Phineas discussed the probability of the church needing to send out an “exploring company” to find a less-hostile, uninhabited gathering location. Cowdery sensed the strong national desire to push America’s borders farther west to the Pacific and recognized how it could be combined with the Latter-day Saints’ need to find refuge in either the uninhabited Rocky Mountains or upper California. He proposed traveling to Washington, D.C., to visit President Polk and other national leaders about dispatching a Mormon colonizing party and, as he said, “if favorably received, ask aid.” Oliver, fearing he would be perceived as ambitious or scheming for a leadership position, explained: “I only wish to say, that should you determine on a removal to the west, and wish me to see President Polk, and others as I have stated, you will signify such a wish, and any aid I can render you, will be cheerfully done, as I have said to Brother Phineas.”32
Brigham Young directed his clerk, W. W. Phelps, to respond to Cowdery’s generous but unsolicited offer. In early December, Phelps, in a succinct letter, expressed President Young’s current attitude toward federal assistance in their westward trek: “We have concluded to let this rotten government alone, and shall not petition at Washington.”33 It appears that after many frustrating years during which the Saints unsuccessfully sought redress from the national government for their privations in Missouri, the governing Quorum of Twelve had all but lost confidence in the integrity of the federal government and did not want to enter into any entangling agreements with it. This antigovernment assistance stance mellowed by January 1846 when Brigham Young sent his representative, Jesse Little, to Washington seeking President Polk’s support for the Saints’ offer to construct blockhouses and bridges and enlist Mormon military recruits in exchange for government support in their exodus west.34
Also in Phelps’s reply was a renewed invitation for Oliver to rejoin with the Saints and go west. Phelps, addressing himself as “your old associate,” entreated his former coeditor of the Evening and the Morning Star, “As to our Exodus, if you believe that we are Israel, come on and go with us and we will do you good, for the Spirit says come, and your friends say come, and let him that is athirst say come, with all things ready.”35
Oliver Cowdery accepted Phelps’s epistle as friendly and thanked him for writing, but commented to Phineas that the letter from Phelps was “very short” and “very different from what I had anticipated.” Confiding with Phineas, Oliver shared his prolonged concern that the old Missouri difficulties had not been resolved, and until they were, he felt unable to return to full fellowship. In a tone reflecting both frustration and conciliation, he wrote to Phineas:
I think some times, that my frequent letters to you on the subject of, what I have so often expressed anxiety upon, has led you to believe me officious and overanxious; and though I have often been disappointed, there is notwithstanding, an act of justice due to me, not only for my own, but for the sake and character of my friends and relatives; and particularly those who are yet in the Church. So far as 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 Bro. Brigham—tell him I am more and more anxious that matters be settled—the sooner the better, of course.36
In spite of Cowdery’s distress, his name was not immediately cleared nor was his reputation cleansed of the offending charges.
During the spring of 1846, Oliver’s frustration peaked over a letter he received from Orson Hyde. Cowdery wrote that he did not fully understand the purpose of Hyde’s epistle, admitting that he either misunderstood or was “[in] spirit misconceived by me.”37 Although Orson Hyde’s letter is not extant, we do know from a letter he sent to Brigham Young in early March 1846 that he believed the ongoing efforts to reclaim Cowdery would eventually pay off. Elder Hyde informed President Young that he had put down those who were advocating Strangism and Pagism; he then mentioned the return of the prodigal Luke Johnson and boldly predicted “Oliver will come next.”38
Again the former Associate President, in a letter to his brother-in-law, emphasized his anxiety for his reputation. Cowdery mentioned: “I have only sought, and only asked, that my character might stand exonerated from those charges which imputed to me the crimes of theft, forgery, &c. Those which all my former associates knew to be false.” In making this statement, Oliver was not expecting to be excused from admitting any real shortcomings or wrongs. He readily admitted he had many faults. In what has become Cowdery’s most impassioned plea, one focused on his desire to be considered a credible witness of the early restoration to future generations, he wrote:
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 be so—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 witnessed 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.39
Oliver expressed his confidence that “no unjust imputation will be suffered to remain upon my character” and “I am fully, doubly, satisfied, that all will be right—that my character will be fully vindicated.”40 Having eloquently expressed his concerns, Oliver did not mention the “character” issue again in any of his letters.
Phineas, in a letter written between 5 and 9 March, discussed with Oliver the subject of “2nd Eldership, Counsellorship” and noticed the upcoming church conference on 6 April. This caused Oliver to reminisce about the organization of the church of Christ on 6 April 1830. He wrote: “Brother Phineas, [if] I could be with you, and tell you about the 6th of April, 1830, when but six members only belonged [to] the Church, and how we looked forward to a future, I should gladly, but I cannot—only in spirit—but in spirit I shall be with you.”41 From this and other comments one senses a yearning on Cowdery’s part to once again be personally involved in and associated with the church. In this March 1846 letter, Oliver expressed his intention to get out of debt so that he could move west with the Saints. He told his friend Phineas that “The situation of my family is such, that it is not possible for me to come with them, this Spring; but I want to be prepared at the earliest moment.” Cowdery concluded this touching letter with his blessing: “M[ay] the Lord God of our Father’s bless you, and yours—and the Church, as a body. Such is my prayer—such is my heart. I am yours in the new and everlasting covenant.” As with previous letters written during this period, Oliver asked that the contents of his letter remain confidential with the Twelve.
Sometime in July, Oliver Cowdery received a letter from Phebe Jackson, his other half-sister. In her communiqué, she confided to her brother the emotional distress she felt concerning the trials and tribulations anticipated in the trek west. She also expressed personal anxiety with the emerging practice of plural marriage among the Saints. Oliver, evidently uninformed by Phineas about the continuance of polygamy at Nauvoo, wrote an emotional reply to Phebe and her husband, Daniel. A brief excerpt reads,
Now, brother Daniel and Sister Phebe, what will you do? Has Sister Phebe written us the truth? . . . 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 adhered to, as a public doctrine.42
Cowdery’s response to this news is intriguing. He spoke from personal experience when he pointed out the imprudence of plural marriage as a “public doctrine.” Recorded in historical records are credible witnesses to the fact that Oliver himself was involved in and censured for an unauthorized polygamous relationship during the church’s stay in Kirtland, Ohio, during the 1830s.43 In this period, Joseph Smith married his first plural wife—Fanny Alger.44 It is unclear why Cowdery, on his own authority, felt the need to take an additional wife. By 1835, the Mormon Church was being publicly “reproached” for the “crime” of polygamy. In Oliver’s carefully worded “Article on Marriage,” which first appeared in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, a public statement was made defending the church against immoral conduct. In this article, polygamy was renounced and monogamy declared to be the belief of the church. Later in Missouri, one charge preferred against Cowdery was that he accused Joseph Smith of adultery.45 Two years after this emotionally charged social issue was brought to his attention in 1846, during his lengthy private conversations with Elders Orson Hyde and George A. Smith at Kanesville in October—November 1848, Oliver was evidently brought up-to-date on the Nauvoo-era application of the plural-marriage doctrine.
Also, in his response to Phebe and Daniel, Oliver said that his emigration with the church depended on circumstances. He did not elaborate on what those situations might be, but his struggles with plural marriage, exhausted finances, and ever-fragile health were relevant concerns. Yet in spite of these concerns, Cowdery was convinced that going west offered a most hopeful prospect. To Phebe and her husband, Oliver wrote optimistically, “So far as going west is concerned, I have thought it a wise move—indeed, I could see no other; and though the journey is long, and attended with toil, yet a bright future has been seen in the distance.”46
Later, in November 1846, Oliver answered a letter received “a long time since” from Phineas. Cowdery was uncertain his brother-in-law would get the letter given the “confusion and difficulty then existing at Nauvoo.” He had been anxiously waiting for answers to specific questions asked in his last letters. It is possible that Oliver was referring to inquiries he had made about the Saints’ living the doctrine of plural marriage. Preoccupied with his frail health and desiring to better himself professionally, Oliver announced to Phineas that he was selling his Tiffin law practice and moving in the spring.47
Sometime between late November and mid-December 1846, Oliver Cowdery traveled to Washington, D.C., where he visited his political contacts. Before departing for Washington, he wrote to Phineas and asked him to find out if the church leaders wanted information that might be of help to them in their westward migration. Noting that the then-raging war with Mexico would afford an opportune diversion for the church, Oliver offered his unsolicited advice for handling the politically sensitive situation of wintering on federal lands set aside specifically for the Indians. He explained, “[I] have made the foregoing suggestions out of the deep feelings of my soul, and because the welfare of that church, the foundations of which my own hands helped to lay, is constantly near my thoughts.”48 Cowdery’s mid-November letter received notice during a council meeting on 22 December 1846. Brigham Young’s history reports, “A favorable letter from O. Cowdery to Phinehas H. Young was read.”49
At this point, efforts by the church leaders to facilitate Oliver Cowdery’s anticipated reconciliation with the church went into limbo for nearly a year. Several reasons exist for the delay. First, the church leaders’ attention and the church’s resources were focused on supplying and organizing for the forced westward movement of thousands of Saints. Second, Oliver had not received the expected exoneration from the false charges made against him at Far West, Missouri, in 1838 along with the associated restoration of his reputation. Third, Cowdery did not have sufficient means to outfit a wagon and team for a pioneer trek. Fourth, the Saints’ immediate future was uncertain and Oliver, already suffering physically and financially, hoped to rejoin and live with the Saints under less life-threatening conditions.50 During this interlude, Oliver kept busy as a lawyer. For several months, he was temporary editor of the Seneca Advertiser while his editor friend, John Breslin, attended to state political responsibilities at Columbus, Ohio.51 The Mormon leaders, scattered across the Midwestern plains, turned their focus toward the impending exodus of the scattered Saints from the state of Iowa and Nebraska territory.
By mid-February 1847, Cowdery wrote again to Phineas. He was deeply concerned because he had not heard from his revered brother-in-law or other relatives in some time. Oliver confided, “For no day passes without our thoughts being turned towards our relatives and once loved friends, who are toiling and struggling in the far-off wilderness, during a cold pitiless winter.”52 Reporting on his recent trip to Washington, Oliver informed Phineas that from his personal conversations with his political contacts and the information he gathered, no one in authority at the federal district planned to give the displaced Latter-day Saints any difficulty with their settling temporarily upon Indians’ territorial land. As expected, the executive and legislative leaders in Washington were preoccupied by the ongoing war with Mexico. Oliver pointed out that he perceived a feeling of sympathy in the nation’s capital toward the uprooted Saints.53 Although Cowdery asked to be remembered to his former associates, including Brigham Young, Luke Johnson, and William W. Phelps, he did not discuss rejoining the Saints that spring.
Oliver left Tiffin, Ohio, in April 1847 and went to Wisconsin to explore immediate career options there and to be close to his brother Lyman, who had moved there the previous fall. Oliver saw the Wisconsin Territory, on the threshold of statehood, as a land of interim opportunity. He hoped that southern Wisconsin’s climate would be better suited to his fragile health and that a developing economy would possibly improve his struggling law practice. He settled in southern Wisconsin, at Elkhorn, less than twenty miles from the Illinois state line. Oliver’s later actions suggest that he was purposefully positioning himself closer to the Iowa exodus camps of the Saints. Within two months of his arrival, brothers Oliver and Lyman were again working together as attorneys.
During the last week of July, William E. McLellin arrived in southern Wisconsin to talk with Oliver Cowdery. McLellin, one of the original latter-day apostles called in 1835, became disillusioned and left the church in 1836. In the summer of 1847, he was traveling west from his home in Kirtland attempting to “prepare the way for the old ship to unhitch her cables and again sail forth” by gathering the Three Witnesses into his faction.54 McLellin came to Wisconsin specifically to meet with and possibly persuade the unaffiliated former Second Elder to join his movement.55 Cowdery received him as a “mutual friend and former co-laborer.” During a “lengthy conversation,”56 they discussed their personal views of priesthood authority and the future of the church restored through the efforts of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in 1830. Oliver made no commitments to McLellin. He simply discussed his religious opinions with McLellin and then they parted after a two-day visit.
Prompted by McLellin’s visit, Oliver penned a confidential dispatch to his brother-in-law David Whitmer. Cowdery candidly expressed to his fellow Book of Mormon witness his opinion that the church was “lying to” or inactive “either for want of pilots or hands to work her.” He tersely dismissed Sidney Rigdon and James Strang as uninspired men who were not called by God to lead the church after Joseph Smith was “meanly and unlawfully murdered.” As for the Twelve’s claim to succession, Cowdery was more open-minded. He considered, “[They] 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 this private letter, Oliver expressed his conviction that he still held the priesthood keys and authority conferred on Joseph Smith and him beginning in 1829. He readily admitted that he did not know whether the Lord would again call David and him to “work in his great cause.” As before, Oliver’s concern for reputation and character resurfaced. He explained that,
If ever the church rises again in true holiness, it must arise in a measure upon our testimony, and upon our characters as good men. Such being the case, . . . some one should step forward—capable and worthy, who knew us well, and whose heart the Lord should or has touched, whose duty and office should be to vindicate our characters, and disabuse the minds of the honest of those prejudices which they do and would otherwise labor under. All this must be done without solicitation on our part. And it is expedient it should be done by [some]one who has known us from the beginning.57
To his trusted relative, Oliver declared his willingness, when circumstances were appropriate, to be involved again in the building up of the Lord’s kingdom. In the letter’s conclusion, Cowdery summarized his heartfelt feelings about his involvement in the latter-day work, “I will only say that when the time comes, I am ready! But I am not persuaded that it has yet fully come. Let the Lord vindicate our characters, and cause our testimony to shine, and then will men be saved in his kingdom.”58
Five weeks after parting with Oliver in Wisconsin, McLellin, while visiting John and David Whitmer in Missouri, obtained a copy of Cowdery’s personal letter to David Whitmer along with Whitmer’s private response.59 Eight months later, back in Kirtland, McLellin, without permission from either Cowdery or Whitmer, published the letters in the May 1848 issue of his Ensign of Liberty.
In October 1847, Hiram Page, Oliver’s wife’s brother-in-law and one of the Eight Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, contacted Oliver Cowdery. Page was also estranged from the church. He advised Oliver not to commit to any Mormon reaffiliation until they (i.e., Page, the Whitmers, and Cowdery) could counsel together. Probably because Cowdery could afford neither the time nor the expense in traveling to Missouri for a meeting, he did not respond to Page’s invitation. Whatever his reasons for not replying, within six months Oliver wrote to David Whitmer encouraging him to meet at Council Bluffs so they could settle their differences with the Latter-day Saint Church led by Brigham Young.60
By late November 1847, just before the reorganization of the First Presidency, Brigham Young, writing collectively for the Twelve, renewed contact with Oliver Cowdery through his brother Phineas. This epistle from the Twelve was actually written in late November but not dispatched until Christmas 1847, shortly after the reorganization of the presidency, and was hand-carried to Oliver by Phineas. In it Oliver was questioned about his declared interest in the “salvation of Israel in these last days,” asked about the testimony that he previously bore with “unshaken confidence,” and again invited to be rebaptized. The Twelve’s invitation was typically straightforward, yet filled with compassion. They wrote:
[We] say to you in the Spirit of Jesus, . . . come for all things are now ready and the Spirit and the Bride say come, and return to our Father’s house, from whence thou hast wandered, and partake of the fatted calf and sup and be filled, and again be adorned with the Jewels of Salvation, and be shod with the preparation of the Gospel of Peace, by putting your hand in Elder [Phineas] Young’s and walking straightway into the Waters of Baptism, and receiving the laying on of his hands and the office of an Elder, and go forth with him and proclaim repentance unto this generation and renew thy testimony to the Truth of the Book of Mormon with a loud voice and faithful heart.61
Oliver was offered the assurance that the Saints “will with open arms hail thee as their long lost . . . brother found in the new and everlasting covenant.”62
On 27 February 1848, in a “private and confidential” letter from Elkhorn, Cowdery replied. With increased enthusiasm, he acknowledged:
By the hand of Brother Phinehas H. Young I received your epistle of Dec[ember] last, and after reading it carefully and conversing freely with Brother Phinehas, have thought that if circumstances would permit, I would visit you in the early part of the Spring, say as soon as the 6th of April, if possible.63
To avoid raising false hopes, Oliver warned that his visit in early April could be delayed due to “certain business” he might be obliged to fulfill. At that time, Lyman Cowdery had drafted a legislative bill that, with assistance, would be introduced in the Wisconsin Territorial council and house of representatives authorizing Oliver to prepare “a complete Index arranged in Alphabetical order of all the session Laws from the year[s] 1839 to 1848 inclusive.” Oliver, through this proposed index bill, had the potential to earn up to $650. This was Cowdery’s opportunity to raise the money needed to purchase an adequate team and wagon for the trip west. With support, the bill passed the council on the third, but was negated by the House on 7 March 1848.64
In his February letter, Oliver told Brigham that he had just written to David Whitmer “advising him, . . . by all means to be at Winter Quarters on the 6th of April.” Oliver felt that he and David needed to meet with “many valuable old friends, and time too, of conversing upon interesting subjects.” He promised to explain his objective more completely later.
A month later, after the failure of Lyman’s proposed index bill, Oliver informed Phineas that he anticipated leaving Elkhorn for Winter Quarters, but was caught, the previous Saturday, in a thundershower that brought on, as he described, “one of the severest attacks of chills and fever—a regular Sandusky attack.” He expressed his disappointment in not being physically able to leave as planned but was optimistic that with a few days’ rest, he would regain his health and be on his way. Oliver expected, with the cooperation of his “little nag” and good dry roads, to travel fifty miles a day and make the over four-hundred-mile journey in little more than a week.65 Unfortunately, this was not to be. Oliver Cowdery’s sickness continued for two weeks more, and thus he missed the opportunity to be at April conference.
On 7 April 1848, during the afternoon session of the second day of general conference, Elder Phineas Young was invited to report on his recent mission. The conference was held in the log tabernacle at Council Bluffs. Obviously disappointed by Oliver’s failure to arrive as expected, Phineas described his journey east, which included a First Presidency-assigned stop in Wisconsin to visit Oliver Cowdery. Elder Young reported that,
This is the first opportunity of seeing so many since last Xmas—I journeyed to the East—and but recently ret[urne]d . . . I went to see the 2nd El[der] in the C[hurch] of J[esus] C[hrist of] L[atter] D[ay] S[aints] O[liver] Cowd[e]ry and once more invite him to return to his Fat[he]rs house—found him in good health and prep[are]d to rece[ive] the word which I [h]ad from the 1st Pres[idenc]y and the 12—it might be impossible for him to get to this conf[erence], but he wo[ul]d be here bef[ore] the 1st Pres[idenc]y go over the mountains—he is willing to do his 1st works over ag[ai]n[.] he wrote to David Whitmer &c[.] I [h]av[e] not learned that they [a]r[e] on the wa[y]—I bel[ieve] they will all be here as soon as cir[cumstanc]es will permit—he [Oliver Cowdery] conversed freely ab[ou]t the coming forth of this work and was conscious that I [h]ad fulfilled my mission.66
Wilford Woodruff, present at the afternoon conference session, noted in his journal his observations about what Phineas said regarding his stay with the Book of Mormon witness. Elder Woodruff emphasized that Phineas mentioned Oliver’s feelings for the Saints.67
Nine days later, on 16 April, Cowdery addressed a long letter to his friend Phineas. He explained his delay, described his prolonged recovery, and observed that making the journey to Council Bluffs—stopping in Richmond, Missouri, to visit the Whitmers and returning to Elkhorn in time for court—would not be possible in so short a time. Oliver wrote optimistically about their future. He said that he had, for quite some time, determined to move to what he called the “new purchase.”68 During Phineas’s visit the previous February, they talked about establishing a fruit tree nursery enterprise in the Salt Lake Valley. In mid-April, Cowdery shared with his brother-in-law his feelings about the proposal. He wrote: “The more I have reflected on it, the more anxious have I been to engage in the business.” Oliver recommended they gather a large inventory of seeds, even offering to obtain them in Ohio and bring them with him in the fall.
Cowdery, the forty-two-year-old lawyer, in his personal letter to Phineas declared that he was now planning to make the western migration to the Great Basin in the fall with Bishop Reuben Miller. Sometime that previous winter, Bishop Miller, a reclaimed church leader from Strang’s movement and Cowdery’s Wisconsin neighbor, generously offered to outfit a team for the Second Elder and his family to use to go west. Oliver noted that Miller stood ready to grant him any assistance needed for the move.69
In this letter, Cowdery anxiously asked for information about the recent church conference. His most pressing question dealt with whether David Whitmer had responded to his request to be at the conference. He asked,
Was David there? Were any steps taken towards effecting the reconciliation and union of which we talked, and which is so much to be desired? Tell me plainly on all these. Had I been permitted to have been there, these matters would have engaged my earnest labors. . . . From henceforward, I shall double my efforts in effecting an harmonious, righteous reconciliation—I know what is right, and hope I may soon see that right take place.
Over and over again in his correspondence with church leaders, Oliver asked whether he should first visit the church’s temporary headquarters at Kanesville in preparation for the move west. As Oliver sought counsel on these decisions and other topics related to his reuniting with the church, he willingly deferred to either Phineas or Brigham for advice.
During the spring of 1848, Oliver Cowdery had another distraction, unrelated to his declining health, to deal with. He was nominated as the Elkhorn district’s Democratic candidate for state assembly of the newly admitted state of Wisconsin. Whether Cowdery sought this position or was simply nominated by supporters, or whether he believed he could win the election is not known. However, the Democrats in Walworth County had gotten to know Cowdery pretty well in the year he lived there. They had unshaken confidence in his political abilities. Several articles supporting his candidacy appeared in Wisconsin newspapers.70 The Whig opposition, fearing Oliver’s growing support, took advantage of Cowdery’s most obvious political vulnerability by drawing attention to Oliver’s earlier Mormon connection. Especially damning in the opposition’s mind was the fact that he was one of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon.71 Oliver quietly withstood the criticism, campaigned confidently, and lost the election by only forty votes—less than one-tenth of the vote. Immediately after Cowdery’s narrow loss, his friend and Democratic ally Horace A. Tenney, editor of the state’s major political newspaper, observed:
We regret to learn from the Walworth County Democrat that Oliver Cowdery Esq. was defeated for the Assembly in the Elkhorn district, by a small majority. He is a man of sterling integrity, sound and vigorous intellect, and every way worthy, honest and capable. He was defeated in consequence of his religion!72
We can only speculate what Cowdery’s future might have been had he been elected to the state assembly. The responsibility and influence of public office may have distracted Oliver from the anticipated move west. Once again, this time in a narrow political defeat, Oliver may have sensed that any future professional success or personal happiness was invariably connected to his association with the Mormon Church.
Near the end of May, Reuben Miller wrote from the upper crossing of the Missouri River, twelve miles northwest of Kanesville, believing that Oliver, whom he had not seen since last winter, was visiting friends and family in Richmond, Missouri, and expected to arrive within days. Miller also assumed that Phineas Young had gone to Missouri to accompany Cowdery to Pottawattamie County.73 Miller’s expectation of Cowdery’s departure from Wisconsin and anticipated arrival in western Iowa was premature. Sometime that summer, Miller himself traveled back to Wisconsin. Oliver, on the other hand, remained in Elkhorn throughout the summer of 1848, where he renewed his law practice and became associate editor of the Walworth Democrat.
In mid-September 1848, Reuben Miller, journeying south toward the gathered Saints at the Bluffs, visited several of his bygone acquaintances in LaSalle County, Illinois. While there he met Phineas Young, who was traveling north to Elkhorn to retrieve Oliver Cowdery. They spent 18 September together, during which Miller gave Young more than eighty dollars. Fulfilling his promise made the previous winter, Reuben Miller freely gave to help his friend Oliver move with the Saints and migrate west. Miller noted in his journal that thirty-one dollars was appropriated for Oliver Cowdery.74
Phineas Young arrived in Elkhorn by late September or early October. On Monday, 2 October, he witnessed the sale by Oliver and his wife, Elizabeth, of eight lots and an additional acre of land to Jonathan Delap for three hundred dollars.75 In early October, Strang’s nearby Gospel Herald commented on Cowdery’s recent political and religious activities and, in the process, noticed Phineas Young’s presence and his mission. The editorial recognized, “On the whole, Oliver seems to be in good demand and first rate standing. Even Phineas Young is here, telling that brother Cowdery is going with him to Council Bluffs.”76 Within days of the real estate sale, Oliver, Elizabeth, and Maria, their only surviving child, accompanied by Phineas, departed Walworth County for the last time.
They made a hurried trip from southern Wisconsin to the Saints’ camp in Pottawattamie County, Iowa. Phineas and the Cowderys arrived Saturday afternoon, 21 October, during a special local conference. They entered the open-air meeting, convened in a grove close to Mosquito Creek in the vicinity of Council Bluffs, while Elder Orson Hyde, the presiding official at Kanesville, was speaking. In addition to Hyde, apostles George A. Smith and Ezra Taft Benson were in attendance. Elder Hyde immediately recognized the presence of the former Associate President. Reportedly, Hyde stopped speaking, came down off the stand and embraced Cowdery. Taking him by the arm, Orson brought Oliver up on the platform. After a brief introduction by Elder Hyde, Oliver was invited to speak to the conference. Cowdery stood for a few moments looking out into the numerous faces in the audience. Oliver recognized some, but most were strangers to him. Finally, after more than a decade’s lonely separation from the people he loved, the Second Elder was reunited with the Saints of God.
With overwhelming emotion swelling in his heart, yet in a clear and striking voice, Oliver Cowdery addressed this gathering of nearly two thousand people—the largest Mormon audience he ever spoke to. He bore a spontaneous yet lucid testimony of his personal involvement in the early years of the Mormon Church. Cowdery detailed the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and the restoration of the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods. He reaffirmed his staunch belief in the Prophet Joseph Smith’s divine appointment and mission. Oliver recalled that years earlier he had laid hands on Elder Hyde’s head and ordained him to the priesthood and extended to him his call as an apostle. Cowdery unequivocally acknowledged the Twelve’s authority to lead the church. He also commented on the nautical imagery used earlier by Elder Hyde in his conference discourse. Oliver said: “Bro. Hyde has just said that it was all important that we keep in the true channel in order to avoid the sandbars. This is true. The channel is here. The priesthood is here.”77 Another report adds that Cowdery expressed his conviction “that the Priesthood was with this people, and the ‘Twelve’ were the only men that could lead the Church after the death of Joseph.”78 Given his years both in and out of the church, Oliver knew firsthand about spiritual “sandbars” and priesthood authority.
The audience’s reaction to Cowdery’s spontaneous discourse was unanimously positive. George A. Smith noted in a letter to Orson Pratt, “His testimony produced quite a sensation among the gentlemen present, who did not belong to the church, and it was gratefully received by all the Saints.”79 Nevertheless, no immediate action was taken nor motion made during the conference to readmit Oliver Cowdery.
Nine days later, on Monday, 30 October, Oliver spent the evening talking with Elders Orson Hyde and George A. Smith. He wanted to know their feelings toward him. It is supposed that Oliver was willing to respond to any questions or concerns they had about him. Cowdery expressed his willingness to receive counsel from them. They advised him to remain in Kanesville that winter, help Elder Hyde set up the Frontier Guardian press, and then migrate west the next spring. During the meeting, Cowdery confided with his two old friends that he had not come to Kanesville for a leadership position. His only desire in returning was to have his membership reinstated and to be one among and live with the Saints. Oliver said, “If Mormonism goes up, I want my name to go up with it, and if it goes down, my name goes down with it.”80 Oliver Cowdery recognized the necessity of being rebaptized and affirmed that he “did not expect to return without it.”81 He knew that baptism was the door back into the church.
Since Oliver had been gone during a decade of spirited doctrinal development, Elders Hyde and Smith evidently took the time during this evening discussion to bring Cowdery up-to-date. We know little about that aspect of their conversation, but it might have included discussion of such temple-related principles as baptism for the dead and the Nauvoo-era endowment. Given Oliver’s previously expressed concern with the Saints’ active participation in plural marriage, that topic was discussed and resolved in Cowdery’s mind.82 Before concluding, Elders Hyde and Smith requested that Oliver attend a combined meeting of high priests and the high council the first Sunday in November to review his situation formally and accept him back into the church.
The Pottawattamie High Council met Saturday, 4 November, at Hiram Clark’s home in a preliminary session. Oliver was not invited to this meeting. Orson Hyde raised the issue of Cowdery’s readmittance. Several council members commented on the proposal. Elder Hyde mentioned a rumor that Phineas Young had “secretly” rebaptized the Second Elder while visiting in Wisconsin. This discussion was inappropriate since President Brigham Young, in the Twelve’s December 1847 epistle, invited Cowdery to be rebaptized by Phineas. Regardless, no evidence exists that Phineas “secretly” or otherwise performed the baptism ordinance before Cowdery’s formal return in October— November 1848. George A. Smith offered his personal views on Oliver’s readmission and gave an account of his and Elder Hyde’s private interview with Oliver Cowdery the previous Monday. Elder Smith also reviewed Oliver’s deep involvement in the first decade of the church and his subsequent apostasy. The high council adjourned, agreeing to meet with the high priests quorum the next day in an unusual joint session.
On Sunday, 5 November 1848, Oliver Cowdery joined with the high priests and Pottawattamie High Council83 in the Kanesville Log Tabernacle.84 After some unrelated initial discussion, Orson Hyde addressed the group, noting that Cowdery was present and “wished to come back into the church” and “be identified with us.” Hyde requested that Oliver speak to the assembled council. Cowdery responded that he “did not come to speak, but to be a looker on, and to hear. . . . He wishe[d] to come into the Church in an humble manner, an humble follower of Jesus Christ, not seeking any presidency.”85 Although reluctant at first to speak, Cowdery did take the opportunity to express his personal feelings about his prolonged absence from the church, gave his reasons for leaving, and concluded by acknowledging that those who were the cause of his estrangement had died or left the church. He said:
I feel that I can honorably return. I have sustained an honorable character before the world during my absence from you, this tho[ugh] a small matter with you, it is of vast importance. I have ever had the honor of the Kingdom in view, and men are to be judged by the testimony given. I feel to sanction what has been said here today. I am out of the church.
I know the door into the church, and I wish to become a member thro[ugh] the door. I wish to be a humble private member. I did not come here to seek honor.86
After Cowdery spoke, George W. Harris motioned that Oliver Cowdery be allowed to be rebaptized. Evan M. Greene seconded the proposal. At this point, an intense discussion erupted. William Snow, president of the high priests, questioned Oliver about his (Cowdery’s) July 1847 letter to David Whitmer, published the previous May in McLellin’s renegade Ensign of Liberty. Harris objected, saying that since Cowdery was asking to come back as a “humble member, no action should be now taken upon that letter.” George A. Smith agreed, adding, “I am not afraid of [Oliver] overturning the Church.” Phineas Young, along with several others, spoke in support of Cowdery’s readmission without further discussion of the offending letter.87
President Snow’s concerns centered on Cowdery’s bold statements to Whitmer regarding priesthood authority, keys, and succession leadership, such as, “True it is that our right gives us the head” and “We have the authority and do hold the keys.” Cowdery explained that the letter was a “private” letter, not for public exhibition and published by McLellin without either his or David’s knowledge or consent.88 Cowdery elaborated that he had, since writing the letter, changed his views on the subject. To this, President Snow asked what had changed his opinion. Oliver responded, “When I wrote that letter I did not know of the Revelation [D&C 124:95] which says, that the keys and power conferred upon me, were taken from me and placed upon the head of Hyrum Smith. And it was that revelation which changed my views on this subject.”89 Evidently during their private discussions with Oliver in late October 1848, Orson Hyde and George A. Smith made him aware of the January 1841 revelation.90 In closing, Cowdery elaborated:
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.91
Oliver then assured the council: “My coming back and humbly asking to become a member through the door covers the whole ground. I acknowledge this authority.”92 Elder Orson Hyde expressed his satisfaction with Cowdery’s explanation and called for a vote to the effect that “all past transactions be forgotten and that O. Cowdery be received into this Church by Baptism.”93 A full vote was given and the proposal carried unanimously. Finally, six years after first showing a desire to return, Cowdery was only days away from being rebaptized.
Although trustworthy sources verify 12 November 1848 as Oliver Cowdery’s rebaptism date, at least one official church record implies that he was rebaptized on 5 November. The high council minutes, written within days or weeks of the event, read:
After some more remarks from different ones of the Brethren, the question was called up and Bro. O. Cowdery was received back again into the church, on his being baptized, by a full vote, and many expressed their gratified feelings on the occasion. About 2 o’clock p.m., he was Baptized by the hand of Bro. Orson Hyde.94
Other contemporary sources support Sunday, 12 November 1848, as the actual readmittance date. For unknown reasons, Cowdery was rebaptized a week after his meeting with the combined high council and high priests in the Kanesville Log Tabernacle. Orson Hyde wrote to his fellow apostle Wilford Woodruff on 11 November 1848, explaining that “Bro. Oliver Cowdery has . . . made Satisfaction to the church and has been voted to be rec[eive]d by baptism. I expect to baptize him tomorrow.”95 Cowdery’s temporal benefactor, Reuben Miller, writing to a friend, confirmed the later date. Four days after the rebaptism, Miller acknowledged, “Brother Oliver Cowdery is here and has been baptized by Elder Hyde on last Sunday.”96
His personal restoration to full membership marked a beginning for Oliver. He remained in the Kanesville area for the next two and a half months, during which time Cowdery and his family stayed principally with Phineas Young. Oliver immediately went to work helping Orson Hyde set up the printing press that would eventually publish the Frontier Guardian.97
By early January 1849, Oliver had decided to take his small family and visit his in-laws, the Whitmers, in Missouri before setting out with the western migration in the spring. Heading southeast to Richmond, they encountered a ruthless snowstorm in northwestern Missouri. Desperately seeking a haven from the blizzard, the Cowderys called at the cabin of Samuel W. Richards, a Latter-day Saint. The Cowdery and Richards families spent two weeks riding out the storm. As Samuel Richards later described his time with Cowdery, “This was not lost time to either of us.” Being limited by the inclement weather, they had little to do, so they talked about the church. Elder Richards asked Oliver about his initial experiences with the Prophet Joseph Smith. Cowdery obliged, describing in vivid detail the working method of the Book of Mormon translation. Richards was definitely impressed; he summarized his feelings about meeting the Second Elder:
This interview with Brother and Sister Cowdery was one of entire freedom and familiarity, although we had never met before; and his experience in connection with the prophet Joseph, when the ministrations of Angels were frequent in restoring Priesthood, and the Keys of Knowledge . . . made it all a most divinely and sacred interview to me.98
Before leaving in mid-January, Oliver agreed to return to Council Bluffs in the spring prepared for the early migration to the Great Basin.99 By late April 1849, while comfortably situated with the Whitmers in Richmond, Cowdery’s plans were becoming more tentative. He wrote Phineas Young and explained that he felt it a “bad policy” to compete with the California gold rush teams who were thronging the trail. Cowdery confided, “The idea of being crowded in and mixed up with companies—thousands of gold hunters, would impel me to wait another year, as a preference, if I could not safely go this fall.”100 In June, Cowdery contacted Phineas again, updating him on his intentions: “I have obliged to abandon the idea of going to the Mountains this season.” Oliver’s concerns were not a wavering of his renewed Mormon affiliation; he wholeheartedly wanted to be with the church. His anxieties were fueled by persisting financial concerns and worry for his and his family’s survival out on the western trail and in the Great Basin.101 Later, in the early fall of 1849, in his last known letter to his beloved friend Phineas Young, Cowdery reflected:
I am poor, very poor, and I did hope to have health and means sufficient last spring to go west and get some gold, that I might so situate my family, that I could be engaged in the cause of God; but I did not succeed. I was then in hope you could go . . . if I could not. Now, as neither of us went, let us not be discouraged, but press on, trusting in the Lord.102
In July 1849, the First Presidency wrote directly to Oliver Cowdery, acknowledging his return103 and exhorting him to magnify his office by “learning [his] duty towards God and man, and practicing according to that knowledge,” also requesting his cooperation with Almon W. Babbitt, Orson Hyde, and John Bernhisel to petition for Deseret to be admitted as a state.104 They called on Cowdery to accompany Babbitt, their congressional delegate, to Washington and help publicize their statehood aspirations and draft a memorial seeking the admission of Deseret as a free state. It is not known for sure if Cowdery received the First Presidency’s request.105 If he did, Oliver would not have had the physical strength to travel since he was seriously weakened by recurring health problems. Around the first of August, Cowdery suffered an attack of bilious fever and the chills. The fever, which Cowdery described as the “most severe of any in my life,” stirred his persistent lung problem.106 From this time, in late summer 1849, until his death a little more than six months later, his health deteriorated steadily.107 He would not live to go west, get some gold, start a fruit tree business, or serve the church as he so nobly wanted.
In spite of a diseased body, Cowdery’s mind and spirit were vigorous and alert to the end. A few months before his death, Oliver received a visit from Jacob Gates, an old Mormon acquaintance from before his excommunication in 1838. Gates, heading east on a mission to England, heard that his former priesthood leader was in poor health and stopped in Richmond to renew their friendship.108 After conversing about troubled times in early church history, Gates asked Cowdery about his testimony printed in the Book of Mormon. He wanted to know if the testimony was based on a dream, the imagination of his mind, an illusion, or a myth. Jacob wanted the truth. As the account goes, Oliver Cowdery got up from his resting place, retrieved a first edition Book of Mormon, and read solemnly the testimony. Turning to face Gates, he said,
Jacob, I want you to remember what I say to you. I am a dying man, and what would it profit me to tell you a lie? I know . . . that this Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God. My eyes saw, my ears heard, and my understanding was touched, and I know that whereof I testified is true. It was no dream, no vain imagination of the mind—it was real.109
On 3 March 1850, the day Oliver Cowdery died at the Peter Whitmer Sr. home, he was surrounded by his wife; their only daughter, Maria; his brother-in-law, David Whitmer; Hiram Page, his nurse; others of the Whitmer family; his half-sister, Lucy; and her husband, Phineas Young. Oliver asked to be raised so he could speak. As he had done hundreds of times before, he bore a resolute testimony of the Book of Mormon. Phineas reported that Oliver, on his deathbed, confided in him, “The[re] was no Salvation but in the valley and through the priesthood there.”110 Thus ended the mortal life of the Second Elder of Mormonism.
To modern generations, Oliver’s legacy lives on because of his strong character and integrity as a latter-day witness of that ancient American scripture he assisted in bringing forth. Fellow Book of Mormon witness David Whitmer related that after Cowdery said his good-byes and bore his closing testimony, he “died the happiest man I ever saw. . . . [Oliver] said, ‘Now I lay me down for the last time, I am going to my Savior,’ and died immediately with a smile on his face.”111
This article would not have been possible without the support and encouragement of my mentor, Richard Lloyd Anderson. I appreciate his dedicated friendship and generous assistance but assume full responsibility for the interpretations offered herein. In order to keep the length of this essay within reason, I have focused primarily on Oliver Cowdery’s feelings and views during his final decade. My thanks to Larry Porter, Richard Cowan, Shane Heath, Stephanie Terry, and Gary Webb for reading and commenting on earlier versions of this paper.
- I have taken the position that Cowdery was rebaptized in Mosquito Creek (instead of Indian Creek or the Missouri River) based on the following data: (1) Cowdery’s brother-in-law Phineas Young lived in Cartersville, a settlement on the east side of Mosquito Creek; (2) Oliver Cowdery stayed with Phineas Young during all or most of his two-and-a-half month sojourn in western Iowa; (3) Cowdery’s rebaptism took place a week after the combined Pottawattamie High Council—high priests meeting on 5 November 1848 that was held in the Kanesville Log Tabernacle; and (4) eleven-year-old Seymour B. Young, Phineas Young’s nephew, was also baptized near Cartersville in late 1848. He related, “Just near by the bank of the creek where the baptism occurred lived my uncle, Phineas H. Young. I returned to his home after baptism, and there I met with a man somewhat famous in the history of the Church, namely Oliver Cowdery.” Conference Reports, April 1921, 114—15.
- Although no contemporary documentation exists for Cowdery’s reordination, the action would be logical since Cowdery had been excommunicated. Several early sources mention Oliver’s reordination. See Brigham Young’s remarks in the Sunday morning session of the October 1870 semi-annual general conference where he remarked, “Oliver Cowdery . . . returned, was baptised and ordained again went to visit his friends in Missouri, and died” (Ogden Junction, 12 October 1870, emphasis added). See also statement by W. W. Blair in “‘Mormonism’ Reviewed,” Saints’ Herald 23/3 (1 February 1876): 74—75. Blair, a member of the RLDS first presidency, wrote, “We have been informed by credible witnesses that in , he [Oliver Cowdery] attended a conference at Carterville, a hamlet near Council Bluffs, Iowa, and was there re-baptized, and re-ordained to the office of an elder” (emphasis added).
- President Cowdery had been at odds with Joseph Smith and other church leaders for months preceding his high council trial. Cowdery’s difficulties, although not enumerated at the time, centered principally on personal problems between Joseph and himself and on “administrative” or “procedural” differences. These difficulties received notice as far back as September 1837 when Joseph Smith wrote a letter to the church leaders in Missouri, which he dispatched by the hand of Thomas B. Marsh. Part of the Prophet’s epistle reads, “Oliver Cowdery has been in transgression, but as he is now chosen as one of the Presidents or Councilors I trust that he will yet humble himself and magnify his calling, but if he should not, the Church will soon be under the necessity of raising their hands against him. Therefore pray for him.” See Joseph Smith to John Corrill and the church in Zion, 4 September 1837, retained copy in “Scriptory Book of Joseph Smith Jr.” (kept by George W. Robinson), 22, Archives Division, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter LDS Church Archives); published in An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, ed. Scott H. Faulring (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 165 (hereafter Faulring, American Prophet’s Record) or The Papers of Joseph Smith, ed. Dean C. Jessee (hereafter Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith), 2 vols. to date (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989—92), 2:219—20. Spelling and punctuation have been modernized in all primary source quotations used.
- Oliver Cowdery to Bishop Edward Partridge, 12 April 1838, included in the Far West Record, 119—22, Archives of the First Presidency, LDS Church (hereafter AFP), emphasis added. The official source of Cowdery’s trial minutes is Far West Record, 118—26; published in Donald Q. Cannon and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., Far West Record: Minutes of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830—1844 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), 162—71. A contemporary abstract is found in “Scriptory Book of Joseph Smith Jr.,” 29—31, LDS Church Archives; published in Faulring, An American Prophet’s Record, 172—74, and Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:228—30.
- The six charges sustained against Oliver Cowdery (quoted here with minor modernization) were (1) For stirring up the enemy to persecute the brethren by urging on vexatious lawsuits and thus distressing the innocent; (2) For seeking to destroy the character of President Joseph Smith Jr. by falsely insinuating that he was guilty of adultery; (3) For treating the church with contempt by not attending meetings; (4) For leaving the calling, in which God had appointed him, by Revelation, for the sake of filthy lucre, and turning to the practice of the Law; (5) For disgracing the church by being connected in the ‘Bogus’ business as common report says; and (6) For dishonestly retaining notes after they had been paid. It should be pointed out that the Far West Record reports that the fifth charge listed here was only sustained on circumstantial grounds. Seymour Brunson preferred the nine charges against Oliver on 7 April 1838. For the entire list of nine charges, see Far West Record, 118—19.
- “History of Tho[ma]s Baldwin Marsh,” Deseret News, 24 March 1858, 18.
- Laura Pitkin to Heber C. Kimball, 18 July 1840, postscript, original in uncataloged letters collection, Daughters of Utah Pioneers Society Archives, Salt Lake City. The entire letter was published in Kate B. Carter, comp., Heart Throbs of the West (Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1944), 5:380—82. At the time this letter was written, Elder Kimball was serving with his fellow apostles on a mission in Great Britain. Laura Pitkin later became a plural wife to Heber C. Kimball.
- According to William Lang, Oliver first visited Tiffin in the spring of 1840 where, on 12 May, he spoke to a large gathering of local Democratic supporters. Cowdery was, during that time, scouting out a location to practice law. Lang mentions that Oliver moved to Tiffin in the (late) fall of 1840. See William Lang, History of Seneca County (Springfield, Ohio: Transcript Printing, 1880), 364—65, 387.
- Phineas served in this position until June 1843, when he was recalled to Nauvoo. Shortly after returning to Illinois, he was sent back east on another mission. See untitled Phineas H. Young manuscript autobiography in the Mormon Biographical Sketches Collection (Ms 2050, box 20, folder 3, item 9), LDS Church Archives. A typescript entitled “Life of Phineas Howe Young. Written by Phineas Howe Young,” is in the Phineas H. Young Collection (Ms 14458, folder 6), LDS Church Archives. The typescript version is cited herein because it is more intelligible than the manuscript.
- Phineas Young, with postscript by Oliver, to Willard Richards and Brigham Young, 14 December 1842, Tiffin, Ohio, Brigham Young Collection (BYC), LDS Church Archives.
- Snyder (also spelled Snider) was sent by revelation to England to raise money for the building of the Nauvoo House and Nauvoo Temple (see D&C 124:22, 62, 70, and uncanonized 22 December 1841 revelation, published in History of the Church, 4:483). He departed Nauvoo for England on 26 March 1842 (Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:343—45, 356, 362, 373). On the return voyage from Liverpool, Elder Snyder had charge of a company of 157 emigrating Saints on board the ship Henry. The voyage lasted six weeks, and during the last four weeks, the ship was frequently stalled by lack of winds. Elder Snyder and the ship’s commanding officer, Captain Benjamin Pierce, had several disagreements during the voyage. The Henry arrived in New Orleans by mid-November 1842, where Snyder was arrested. See Conway B. Sonne, Ships, Saints, and Mariners: A Maritime Encyclopedia of Mormon Migration 1830—1890 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987), 95—96, and Andrew Jenson, Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia: A Compilation of Biographical Sketches of Prominent Men and Women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Andrew Jenson History Company and Deseret News, 1901—36), 3:221.
- An entry in Joseph Smith’s journal for 23 January 1843 noted the arrival of Snyder in Nauvoo: “Bro. John Snider come home from England, where he had been sent by the Twelve according to Revelation to procure help for the Temple.” See “President Joseph Smith’s Journal [1842—]1843 as kept by Willard Richards,” Joseph Smith Collection, LDS Church Archives; published in Faulring, American Prophet’s Record, 295, and edited slightly in History of the Church, 5:260.
- Phelps, along with Cowdery, David and John Whitmer, Luke E. Johnson, and others, became disaffected during the internal Mormon difficulties at Far West in 1838. In June 1840, W. W. Phelps humbly asked for and subsequently received forgiveness from Joseph Smith for betraying the Mormon leader by testifying against him at Judge Austin A. King’s hearing at Richmond, Missouri, in November 1838. See Phelps’s testimony in Document Containing the Correspondence, Orders, &c. in Relation to the Disturbances with the Mormons (Fayette, Mo.: Boon’s Lick Democrat, 1841), 120—25. See copy of Phelps’s appeal in Joseph Smith Letter Book, 2:155—56, Joseph Smith Collection, LDS Church Archives; published in History of the Church, 4:141—42. Joseph Smith’s compassionate reply, dated 22 July 1840, is in Joseph Smith Letter Book, 2:157—58; and is published in The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, ed. Dean C. Jessee (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1984), 472—73.
- Oliver Cowdery to Phineas Young, 19 August 1843, AFP. Phelps’s letter to Cowdery has not been located. Near the time he wrote to Oliver, Phelps sent a letter to another disenfranchised elder, Warren Parrish. After encouraging Parrish to come and fellowship with the Saints in Nauvoo, Phelps noted the number of non-Mormon lawyers in the city and hinted that Parrish could come to Nauvoo as a “Mormon” attorney. Perhaps Phelps, in his letter to Cowdery, made the same proposal to Oliver but obscured the meaning or was misunderstood. Phelps mentioned to Parrish that “I want this letter to be an epistle general: as well to Zerrubbabel Snow, Esq. as you and Oliver Cowdery, Esq., if you will give him a hint of it by writing.” See transcription of Phelps to Parrish in Walter D. Bowen, “The Versatile W. W. Phelps—Mormon Writer, Educator, and Pioneer” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1958), 111.
- Oliver Cowdery to Phineas Young, 26 August 1843, AFP.
- Cowdery to Young, 19 August 1843, AFP.
- Joseph Smith’s 1843 journal, 19 April 1843; published in Faulring, American Prophet’s Record, 372. An expanded form of this statement, based on Willard Richards’s Quorum of Twelve minutes, was published in History of the Church, 5:368, and includes the phrase “be clothed with robes of righteousness” inserted between “If he is not almost ready to return” and “and go up to Jerusalem.”
- Brigham Young and Twelve to Oliver Cowdery, 19 April 1843, Nauvoo, Illinois; retained copy, Luna Young Thatcher Collection (Ms 6140, folder 4), LDS Church Archives, emphasis in original.
- Oliver Cowdery to Phineas Young, 26 August 1843, AFP.
- Oliver Cowdery to “Dear Brethren” (i.e., Brigham Young and the Twelve), 25 December 1843, BYC, LDS Church Archives, emphasis in original.
- Ibid., emphasis in original.
- “Them” referred to the addressees of his response, namely Elders Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Parley P. Pratt, William Smith, Orson Pratt, Willard Richards, Wilford Woodruff, John Taylor, and George A. Smith. During his troubles in Far West, 1837—38, Oliver Cowdery was not oppressed or persecuted by any of these men.
- Actually a public or warning-out letter (ca. 18 June 1838) addressed to the leading dissenters (i.e., Oliver Cowdery, John and David Whitmer, W. W. Phelps, and Lyman E. Johnson). This document warned Cowdery and others to depart Far West with their families within seventy-two hours or “a more fatal calamity shall befall you.” A copy of the letter was published as evidence in Document Containing the Correspondence, Orders, &c., 103—6. Sidney Rigdon is suspected as the letter’s author. For balanced context to this incident, see Alexander L. Baugh, “Dissenters, Danites, and the Resurgence of Militant Mormonism,” chapter 4 of “A Call to Arms: The 1838 Mormon Defense of Northern Missouri” (Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, 1996), 68—101.
- Willard Richards, “Journal and Memorandum,” 27 June 1844, LDS Church Archives; source of comment published in History of the Church, 6:613.
- Church historian Joseph Fielding Smith surmised that the Cowdery letter read at Carthage Jail was written in response to the Twelve’s earlier invitation to return. This opinion is entirely speculative since, as President Smith admits, “The contents of that letter I have always regretted I did not know; in the perilous times it was lost and no record was made of it.” Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954), 1:227.
- William Lang to Thomas Gregg, 5 November 1881, published in Charles A. Shook, The True Origin of the Book of Mormon (Cincinnati: Standard, 1914), 56.
- Phineas Young to Brigham Young, 26 November 1844, postscript, BYC, LDS Church Archives.
- Ibid. Rigdon’s infamous “Salt Sermon,” delivered 17 June 1838, contained veiled threats against Cowdery and the other dissenters, and the subsequent ca. 18 June 1838 letter, addressed to Cowdery, David and John Whitmer, W. W. Phelps, and Lyman E. Johnson, was an explicit warning to them as protagonists to leave Far West or face dire consequences. This letter was signed by George W. Robinson and eighty-two other Mormons. George Robinson is credited with delivering the public warning-out in late 19 June 1838. Robinson’s entry in the 1838 Scriptory Book (page 47) reveals his true feelings toward the dissenters:
I would mention or notice something about O. Cowdery, David Whitmer, Lyman E. Johnson, and John Whitmer who being guilty of base iniquities and that too, manifest in the ages of all men, and being often entreated would continue in their course seeking the lives of the First Presidency and to overthrow the Kingdom of God which they once testified of. Pres[iden]t Rigdon preached one Sabbath upon the salt that had lost its savour that it is henceforth good for nothing but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men, and the wicked flee when no man pursueth. These men took warning and soon they were seen bounding over the prairie like the scapegoat to carry off their own sins. We have not seen them since. Their influence is gone and they are in a miserable condition. (Faulring, American Prophet’s Record, 187, and Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:249)
- Phineas H. Young to Brigham Young, 26 November 1844.
- Oliver Cowdery to Brigham Young, 7 October 1845, BYC, LDS Church Archives.
- W. W. Phelps to Oliver Cowdery, 1 December 1845, quoted in Cowdery to Phineas Young, 18 December 1845, AFP.
- On this dramatic change of position toward government help, see Richard E. Bennett, Mormons at the Missouri, 1846—1852: “And Should We Die . . .” (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987), 21—22.
- W. W. Phelps to Oliver Cowdery, 1 December 1845, quoted in Cowdery to Phineas Young, 18 December 1845, AFP, emphasis in original. Phelps and Cowdery coedited the Evening and Morning Star at Independence, Missouri, from 1832—1833.
- Cowdery to Phineas Young, 18 December 1845.
- Oliver Cowdery to Phineas Young, 23 March 1846, Oliver Cowdery Collection, LDS Church Archives.
- Orson Hyde to Brigham Young, 10 March 1846, BYC, LDS Church Archives.
- Cowdery to Phineas Young, 23 March 1846, emphasis in original.
- Ibid.; bracketed words represent material missing from holes in the manuscript.
- Oliver Cowdery to Daniel and Phebe Jackson, 24 July 1846, original letter unlocated; photographs of original letter, RLDS Archives and Richard Lloyd Anderson research files.
- In spite of some minor differences in details, the essence of these reports is that Oliver Cowdery learned about plural marriage while serving as the Prophet Joseph Smith’s assistant and that he (Cowdery) practiced it without the Prophet’s consent during the 1830s. A sample of statements by early church leaders regarding Oliver Cowdery and plural marriage include: Brigham Young, 26 August 1857, LDS Church Archives, quoted in Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 1833—1898, ed. Scott G. Kenney (Midvale, Utah: Signature Books, 1983—85), 5:84; Brigham Young in Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1857, 439 (based on Woodruff’s journal entry with added detail), LDS Church Archives; Heber C. Kimball (comment made 24 May 1868) in “Record of the Provo Stake of Zion,” LDS Church Archives; Brigham Young in Joseph F. Smith diary, 9 October 1869, LDS Church Archives; Brigham Young in Charles Walker Diary, 26 July 1872, LDS Church Archives; Joseph F. Smith, 7 July 1878, in Journal of Discourses, 20:29; George Q. Cannon in Juvenile Instructor 16 (15 September 1881): 206; and Joseph F. Smith (comment made 4 March 1883) in “Provo Utah Central Stake, Historical Records and Minutes, 1877—1888,” LDS Church Archives. This episode of Cowdery’s life has been examined recently by several scholars. Not all agree whether Oliver practiced an early form of plural marriage. For instance, Richard S. Van Wagoner, in Mormon Polygamy: A History, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 11, reported that Oliver Cowdery “never became reconciled to Mormon polygamy.” I disagree with Van Wagoner’s interpretation. I believe that evidence suggests Cowdery believed in and practiced this Kirtland-form of plural marriage (1833—34), got in trouble for it (1834), and for many years (1835—48) was opposed to the practice. This opposition mellowed when he returned to the church in 1848. Nine days after arriving at Kanesville in October 1848, Oliver had a “lengthy and agreeable interview” with the presiding officials at Council Bluffs—Elders Orson Hyde and George A. Smith. During their evening discussion, Cowdery affirmed that he had come to “listen to [their] counsel and would do as [they] told him.” He recognized the need to be rebaptized and bore sincere testimony that Joseph Smith had “fulfilled his mission faithfully before God until death.” Oliver assured Elders Hyde and Smith that he sought no position or office in the church; he only wanted to be “one among us, and live with the Saints.” At this point in 1848, it is reasonable to assume that Oliver Cowdery was, if he had not already been, made aware that plural marriage was commonly practiced within Mormon society. Unfortunately we do not know Oliver’s reaction, but until his death in 1850, Cowdery was making serious plans to move to Utah. If his deteriorating health had not prevented him, he would have come to Utah and served the church in whatever capacity they wanted him to serve. It is logical that if Cowdery was as morally offended by the Saints’ plural marriage relationship as Van Wagoner and others have suggested, he would not have wanted to immigrate to Utah and live as “one” among them. During his “interview” with Elders Hyde and Smith, Oliver said that he “was determined to rise with the Church, and if it went down he was willing to go down with it.” See George A. Smith to Orson Pratt, 31 October postscript to 20 October 1848 letter, in Millennial Star 11 (1 January 1849): 14; and Orson Hyde, George A. Smith, and Ezra Taft Benson, “A Report to Presidents Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Willard Richards and the Authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,” 5 April 1849, 4—5, Robert Campbell, clerk, Kanesville, Iowa, BYC (Ms 1234), LDS Church Archives.
- See Todd Compton, “Fanny Alger Smith Custer: Mormonism’s First Plural Wife?” Journal of Mormon History 22/1 (1996): 174—207, republished in Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City:â€ˆSignature Books, 1999), chap. 2; and Danel W. Bachman, “A Study of the Mormon Practice of Plural Marriage before the Death of Joseph Smith” (M.A. thesis, Purdue University, 1975), 81—83.
- During late 1837 to early 1838, Joseph and Oliver were involved in a prolonged emotional discussion about the alleged “adulterous affair” between Joseph and Miss Fanny Alger. Contemporary references to the Smith-Alger relationship are in Oliver Cowdery to Joseph Smith, 21 January 1838 (retained copy in Oliver Cowdery to Warren Cowdery, 21 January 1838), Oliver Cowdery to Warren Cowdery, 21 January 1838, Oliver Cowdery Letter Book, 80—83, Huntington Library, San Marino, California; Thomas B. Marsh to Joseph Smith, 15 February 1838, in Elders Journal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints 1/3 (July 1838): 45; and Far West Record, Ms 118, 123—24; also in Cannon and Cook, Far West Record, 167—68.
- Cowdery to Daniel and Phebe Jackson, 24 July 1846.
- Oliver Cowdery to Phineas Young, 12 November 1846, BYC, LDS Church Archives. Cowdery’s law partnership with Joel Wilson was dissolved on 18 December 1846. See notice in Seneca Advertiser, 18 December 1846.
- Cowdery to Phineas Young, 12 November 1846.
- “Manuscript History of Brigham Young,” 16:526; published in Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1846—1847, ed. Elden J. Watson (Salt Lake City: Elden J. Watson, 1971), 482.
- By 1846, Oliver and Elizabeth Cowdery had had six children born to them—only one, Maria Louise, survived adolescence. Being frequently ill and impoverished, Cowdery was keenly aware of his limited ability to provide for his wife and child. Oliver made frequent mention in his correspondences of his concern for his “small family” and their temporal survival. He sensed from the reports he received about the Saints’ destitute condition that if he joined with them he would be subjecting his family to unknown dangers.
- Cowdery’s involvement was noticed in the Seneca Advertiser for 11 December 1846: “The editorial management of the Advertiser will be entrusted to the hands of a capable friend, during the absence of the editor.” Two months later, when Breslin returned, he announced:
The Editor has returned to his post.
In looking over the columns of the Advertiser, published during our absence, we felt impelled to congratulate our readers upon the interest and ability parted them by our friend, Mr. Cowdery, to whom we entrusted the management of our paper. Mr. C[owdery] has conducted it in a manner wholly satisfactory to ourselves, and we doubt not to our readers, and our thanks are due him for his attention and kindness. (Seneca Advertiser, 19 February 1847)
- Oliver Cowdery to Phineas Young, 14 February 1847, AFP.
- See ibid.
- Oliver Cowdery to David Whitmer, 28 July 1847; published in William E. McLellin’s Ensign of Liberty 1/6 (May 1848): 92, emphasis in original.
- For the broader context of McLellin’s efforts to “get back on the old foundation,” see Larry C. Porter, “The Odyssey of William Earl McLellin: Man of Diversity, 1806—83,” in The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831—1836, ed. Jan Shipps and John W. Welch (Urbana: BYU Studies and University of Illinois Press, 1994), 341—46.
- Cowdery to Whitmer, 28 July 1847.
- Ibid., emphasis added.
- Ibid., emphasis in original.
- McLellin left Wisconsin by late July 1847 and traveled to Nauvoo where he met with Emma Smith, widow of the Prophet. From there, he journeyed to Richmond, Missouri, in an attempt to enlist David Whitmer in his cause. On 6 September, McLellin accompanied Hiram Page and David and Jacob Whitmer to Far West, where they counseled together at John Whitmer’s. Two days later, on 8 September while at Far West, David Whitmer replied to Oliver’s letter, which he had received at Richmond in late August. McLellin published a detailed report of his western trip in “Our Tour West in 1847,” Ensign of Liberty 1/7 (August 1849): 99—105. See also Porter, “Man of Diversity,” 343.
- See Oliver Cowdery to Phineas Young, 16 April 1848, AFP.
- Brigham Young to Oliver Cowdery, 22 November 1847, retained copy, BYC, LDS Church Archives. The only extant source, a retained copy, is dated 22 November, but evidence supports the late December dispatch date. In his reply, Oliver referred to the letter as bearing a December date. The First Presidency’s clerk, Thomas Bullock, noted on the copy that the invitation was personally delivered by Phineas Young. On 7 April 1848, while reporting on his eastern mission before the conference gathered at Council Bluffs, Phineas said, “This is the first opportunity of seeing so many since last Christmas.” See Conference Minutes, 7 April 1848, LDS Church Archives. In his autobiography, Phineas indicated that “in Dec[ember] [I] took a mission to Wisconsin.” See “Life of Phineas Howe Young. Written by Phineas Howe Young,” Ms 14458, LDS Church Archives.
- Brigham Young to Cowdery, 22 November 1847.
- Oliver Cowdery to Brigham Young, 27 February 1848, BYC, LDS Church Archives. On the outside of the letter, Cowdery indicated that the letter was being delivered by Phineas. Phineas returned to Council Bluffs on 26 March 1848. See Young, “History of Phineas Howe Young.”
- “A bill to provide for the publication of a general Index,” 3 March 1848, Madison, Wisconsin, Council Bill 45, The State Historical Society of Wisconsin. According to the territorial legislative record, Council Bill 45 passed the Wisconsin Territorial Council on 3 March 1848, but the House of Representatives on 7 March 1848 decided to “strike out all after the enacting clause.” See Journal of the Council, Second Annual Session, of the Fifth Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Wisconsin, held at Madison, February 7th, a.d. 1848 (Madison: Tenney, 1848), 116, 138, 139, 146, and Journal of the House of Representatives, Second Annual Session, of the Fifth Legislative Assembly, of the Territory of Wisconsin, held at Madison, on the Seventh day of February  (Madison: Tenney, 1848), 235—36. Days earlier, on 1 March, Oliver wrote Phineas advising him that he had just received a letter from Lyman expressing great confidence in passage of the index bill. He told Phineas that he would not write to David Whitmer again until he knew the outcome of the bill and whether he would be able to see Whitmer in person. Oliver Cowdery to Phineas Young, 1 March 1848, AFP.
- Oliver Cowdery to Phineas H. Young, 27 March 1848, Phineas Young Collection, Ms 14458, folder 2, LDS Church Archives.
- Conference minutes, 7 April 1848, manuscript notes by Thomas Bullock, LDS Church Archives. These minutes were taken down in Bullock’s personal form of shorthand which allowed him to record near-verbatim notes of the speakers’ comments.
- See Wilford Woodruff journal, 7 April 1848; published in Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 3:339.
- Cowdery to Phineas Young, 16 April 1848, AFP. Cowdery’s use of the term “new purchase” referred to the land purchased from Mexico as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (signed 2 February 1848; ratified 10 March 1848) ending the Mexican War. With this annexation, the United States acquired what is now Arizona, California, western Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah.
- See Cowdery to Phineas Young, 16 April 1848. An informative essay detailing Reuben Miller’s contact with Cowdery is in Richard L. Anderson, “Reuben Miller, Recorder of Oliver Cowdery’s Reaffirmations,” BYU Studies 8/3 (1968): 277—93.
- An example of the endorsements Cowdery received from his local supporters follows. This editorial appeared in the Wisconsin Argus shortly before the elections:
Who is Oliver Cowdry?—Western Star. For the information of the editor of the Star, we will tell him. Oliver Cowdery is an honest man and sterling democrat, who has battled “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” hard cider whiggery ever since he was old enough to have a voice in political matters. He is a democrat who possessed the entire confidence of the people of that staunch old democratic strong hold—Seneca county, Ohio . . . We have known Mr. C[owdery] long and favorably by reputation in, that state, as a leading democrat, an eminent lawyer, and a worthy citizen, who is entitled to the fullest confidence of his party. (Wisconsin Argus, 11 April 1848)
Cowdery’s Tiffin, Ohio, associate, John Breslin offered his belated support:
We are gratified to learn . . . that our esteemed friend and former fellow citizen, O[liver] Cowdery, Esq., has been nominated as the democratic candidate for the House of Representatives in that State. This intelligence has been hailed with the highest satisfaction by his numerous friends here, . . . .
Mr. C[owdery] was a resident among us for a period of seven years, during which time he earned himself an enviable distinction at the Bar of this place and of this Judicial circuit, as a sound and able lawyer, and as a citizen none could have been more esteemed. His honesty, integrity, and industry were worthy the imitation of all. . . . Politically, Mr. C[owdery] was a prominent, active and radical democrat, never tiring in furthering the good cause. (Seneca Advertiser, 5 May 1848)
- Examples of secular criticism of Cowdery’s connection with the Book of Mormon and what they considered his “youthful indiscretions” with Mormonism are found in the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel and Gazette, 13 and 29 April 1848.
- Wisconsin Argus, 16 May 1848, emphasis in original.
- See Reuben Miller to James M. Adams, 30 May 1848, RLDS Archives. Miller returned to Walworth County by early June 1848 where he sold his farm for one thousand dollars. See Anderson, “Reuben Miller,” 291.
- See Reuben Miller journal, 18 September 1848, LDS Church Archives; transcribed in Anderson, “Reuben Miller,” 291.
- See Deeds, 9:295—96, Oliver Cowdery and Elizabeth Cowdery to Jonathan Delap, 2 October 1848, Walworth County Court House, Elkhorn, Wisconsin. The deed was executed in the “presence of Phineas H. Young and Levi Lee.” Lee, a justice of the peace, also notarized the deed.
- Gospel Herald, 5 October 1848.
- Reuben Miller journal, 21 October 1848, LDS Church Archives. Miller, present at the conference session, took what was later described as a “verbatim report” of Cowdery’s address. These notes, no longer extant, were copied into the journal soon afterwards and provided the source for Cowdery’s testimony.
- Hyde, Smith, and Benson, “Report to Presidents,” 5 April 1849; see also George A. Smith’s remarks in Journal of Discourses, 13:347—48.
- George A. Smith to Orson Pratt, 31 October postscript to 20 October 1848 letter, in Millennial Star 11 (1 January 1849): 14.
- “Report to Presidents Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Willard Richards and the Authorities of the Church,” 5 April 1849, Kanesville, Iowa, BYC, LDS Church Archives.
- George A. Smith to Orson Pratt, 31 October postscript to 20 October 1848 letter.
- See previous discussion about Oliver Cowdery and plural marriage, above in n. 43.
- Fortunately, three sets of minutes—two official, one unofficial—cover this assembly. Official minutes in Pottawattamie High Council Minutes, 5 November 1848, LDS Church Archives and Pottawattamie High Priests Quorum Minutes, 5 November 1848, LDS Church Archives. The unofficial account appears in two forms in the Reuben Miller journal, the rough draft pencil notes (pp. 40—42) taken during the meeting and Miller’s slightly expanded copy (pp. 16—18).
- A physical description of the Kanesville Log Tabernacle is in Bennett, Mormons at the Missouri, 212—13. This book has been invaluable in understanding the various church settlements at Council Bluffs and surrounding environs.
- Pottawattamie High Priests Quorum Minutes, 5 November 1848.
- Pottawattamie High Council Minutes, 1848—1851, 5 November 1848; Pottawattamie High Priests Quorum Minutes, 1846— 1852, 5 November 1848.
- Pottawattamie High Priests Quorum Minutes, 1846—1852, 5 November 1848.
- Evidence of Cowdery’s displeasure is found in a letter from Hiram Page to Oliver Cowdery, which reads in part:
It appears there is some things that your mind is anxious about. One is whether Brother David [Whitmer] gave Bro. Wm. [McLellin] liberty to publish private letters; I hear say that there were no such liberties given but he was not to publish anything to the world that did not belong to the world. His publications are so conducted that we have sent to have him discontinue his papers to Richmond. (23 July 1848, Hiram Page Letters, RLDS Archives)
- “Report to Presidents Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Willard Richards and the Authorities of the Church,” 5 April 1849.
- Excerpts of this revelation, including the material relating to Oliver Cowdery, were first published in Times and Seasons 2/15 (1 June 1841): 424—29. The complete revelation was included in the 1844 Doctrine and Covenants as section 103. In spite of being published in Nauvoo, Oliver was unaware of the revelation until he came to Kanesville in the fall of 1848.
- “Report to Presidents Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Willard Richards and the Authorities of the Church,” 5 April 1849.
- See Miller journal, 5 November 1848, 17, emphasis added.
- Pottawattamie High Priests Quorum Minutes, 5 November 1848.
- Pottawattamie High Council Minutes, 5 November 1848.
- Orson Hyde to Wilford Woodruff, 11 November 1848, Wilford Woodruff Papers, LDS Church Archives. The date of Hyde’s letter has been misinterpreted by several researchers as “10 November 1848” because the second “1” has an end flourish which gives the number the appearance of a “0.” Elder Woodruff received the letter on 19 December and wrote in his diary:
Among the letters which I obtained yesterday was one from O. Hyde who informed me that Oliver Cowdery had come back to the Church, had made satisfaction, And was voted to come in by the door of Baptism. He was the first man baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in this last dispensation, under the Hands of Joseph Smith the Prophet but after being out of the church eleven years, he had now returned again. And may the Lord bless him and keep him steadfast unto the end. (Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 3:392—93 [20 December 1848])
On 26 December, Wilford passed the news about Cowdery’s return on to Elder Orson Pratt who was in Great Britain. See Woodruff to Pratt, in Millennial Star 11/3 (1 February 1849): 43.
- Reuben Miller to Henry Sabey [aka Henry Eriksen], 16 November 1848, LDS Church Archives.
- See Hyde to Woodruff, 11 November 1848, LDS Church Archives. The first issue of the Frontier Guardian was published 7 February 1849. The Guardian was a Whig-sympathetic newspaper, which may explain why Cowdery, a staunch democrat, did not stay to help edit the paper.
- Samuel W. Richards, handwritten statement, 21 May 1907, Ms 3703, LDS Church Archives.
- Cowdery to Phineas Young, 27 April 1849, AFP, emphasis in original.
- Cowdery to Phineas Young, 24 June 1849, AFP.
- Oliver Cowdery to Phineas Young, date missing (written between 14 and 22 September 1849 based on evidence in the letter and its postmark), AFP.
- Apparently, in the winter of 1848—49, the westward mail to Deseret slowed down considerably or came to a stop. The presiding officials at Kanesville (i.e., Orson Hyde, George A. Smith, and Ezra Taft Benson) waited until early April 1849 to inform the First Presidency of Cowdery’s return. This report was probably hand carried west with one of the first emigration companies. See “A Report to Presidents,” 4—5, BYC, LDS Church Archives.
- Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and Willard Richards to Oliver Cowdery, 20 July 1849, retained copy, BYC, LDS Church Archives. See also Brigham Young to Orson Hyde, 19 July 1849; Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and Willard Richards to Orson Hyde, 21 July 1849; and Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and Willard Richards to N. H. Felt, 24 July 1849, all retained copies in BYC, LDS Church Archives.
- In mid-September 1849, Oliver wrote to Phineas acknowledging a previous letter from Phineas informing him that the “brethren in the Valley wish me to go to Washington” with Almon W. Babbit. Cowdery to Phineas Young, ca. 14—22 September 1849, AFP.
- From the description of his long-term symptoms, Oliver was probably suffering from chronic pulmonary tuberculosis. Symptoms include fatigue, night sweats and fever, and persistent cough. Hemorrhages of blood occur as the lung tissue is destroyed by the disease. Kathryn L. McCance and Sue E. Huether, Pathophysiology: The Biologic Basis for Disease in Adults and Children, 2nd ed. (St. Louis: Mosby-Year Book, 1994), 1174—75. During the last years of his life, Cowdery displayed all these symptoms.
- See Hiram Page to Warren A. Cowdery, 20 March 1850, published in Saints’ Herald 33/6 (6 February 1886): 83. Also, Cowdery to Phineas Young, ca. 14—22 September 1849, AFP.
- Jacob Gates (1811—1892) was appointed to a three-year mission during the fall conference of 1849. He departed Salt Lake City on 19 October 1849 and arrived in Liverpool by 6 April 1850. See Jacob Gates, “Items of History of the Life and Labors of Jacob Gates,” Jacob Gates Collection, LDS Church Archives. Paraphrased in Andrew Jenson, LDS Biographical Encyclopedia, 1:198. Although not specifically mentioned in his biography, it is conjectured that Gates, who was traveling to St. Louis with Erastus Snow, Franklin D. Richards, and other missionaries, stopped in Richmond, Missouri, during January 1850 and visited Oliver Cowdery. See Franklin D. Richards to Orson Pratt, 8 January 1850, published in Millennial Star 12 (1 March 1850): 75—76, and Erastus Snow to his wives, 17 February 1850, LDS Church Archives.
- Jacob Forsberry Gates (son of Jacob Gates), signed and notarized affidavit, 30 January 1912, LDS Church Archives; published in Improvement Era (March 1912): 418—19. These are actually two typewritten affidavits by Gates, separated by a month’s interval. The first draft, dated 30 December 1911, Gates signed but left unnotarized. The second statement, dated 30 January 1912, was signed and notarized.
- Phineas Young to Brigham Young, 25 April 1850, BYC, LDS Church Archives.
- Reported in Joseph F. Smith and Orson Pratt interview with David Whitmer, 7—8 September 1878, draft report, dated 17 September 1878, Joseph F. Smith to “President John Taylor and Council of 12,” Joseph F. Smith Papers (Ms 1325, box 12, folder 10), LDS Church Archives.
Items in the BMC Archive are made publicly available for non-commercial, private use. Inclusion within the BMC Archive does not imply endorsement. Items do not represent the official views of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or of Book of Mormon Central.
Get the latest updates on Book of Mormon topics and research for free