Hey guys, so at the beginning of every Book of Mormon is the testimony of the 3 Witnesses who claimed that “an angel came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon.”
That’s a big deal because previously Joseph had been commanded not to show the ancient Book of Mormon record to anyone. But suddenly, all these people are saying “Yeah, they’re real. We’ve seen them.” Well, ok so did Joseph somehow trick them? Were they lying, and co-conspirators with Joseph? Or, could it be possible that they were just telling the truth? In this episode, we’re going to take a closer look at one of the 3 Witnesses—Oliver Cowdery.
Oliver Cowdery was born in Vermont in 1806 and was a second cousin to Joseph Smith. In 1828, he took a job as a schoolteacher in Palmyra, New York. He boarded with Joseph Smith’s parents for a while, heard about Joseph’s golden plates, went to meet Joseph for the first time in Harmony, Pennsylvania, in 1829, where he became Joseph’s scribe for The Book of Mormon translation.
In June 1829, he became one of the 3 Witnesses. In the 1830s Oliver’s finances took a hard hit with the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society bank, and he had a falling-out with Joseph. Oliver resigned and was excommunicated from the Church in 1838.
According to researcher Richard Anderson, “During [Oliver’s] non-Mormon decade, he was also a politician, journalist, promoter of education, and civic servant. The opinions of his friends of this period show clearly that he was widely respected as a man of “more than ordinary stature.”
Between about 1840 and 1847, Oliver was a practicing lawyer. A man named William Lang was Oliver’s apprentice for a while, and would later serve as a judge, mayor, and an Ohio state senator. Take a second to pause and read his description of Oliver (in the video).
In 1848, Oliver returned to the Church but was unable to join the Saints in Utah. After being bedridden for much of 1849, he died of a lung condition in March 1850.
But despite leaving the faith for a decade, Oliver never once retracted his powerful witness of seeing the ancient Book of Mormon plates and the angel. In fact, like the other two witnesses, Oliver re-emphasized the truthfulness of his testimony on his deathbed. So to get around Oliver’s witness, skeptics search for reasons to be able to say…[you shouldn’t trust him].
Of course, Oliver knew that had already happened and would continue to happen. In a letter to his brother-in-law, Oliver 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.”
Despite Oliver’s cherished hope, some people think that his use of a divining or dowsing rod is good reason to question his character. Dowsing was a folk practice commonly employed in Oliver’s day to locate groundwater or minerals, among other things. It was associated with the Christian faith-healing practices of the Pennsylvania Dutch. We don’t know what Oliver used his for, or how often. And if you’re interested, you can buy dowsing rods online today for about 20 bucks. Even major water companies surprisingly still use this technique.
D&C 8 says Oliver’s ability to use the rod (or the gift of Aaron) to receive revelation was a gift from God. The scriptures are full of examples of God allowing the use of physical aids when receiving revelation or performing miracles, and sometimes what works for one person doesn’t for the next. For example, in Pharaoh’s court, Aaron’s staff became a serpent by the power of God. By the power of not God, the magicians did the same thing with their rods. But my ability with a staff maxes out at amateur renditions of “Me ‘Ol Bam-boo.”
What some people call magic divination, others call divine revelation. For example, the Apostles replaced Judas by casting lots—which today might look like flipping a coin or rolling dice. But they believed God manifested His will through that medium, and frankly, God can do whatever He wants. Claiming someone believes in “magic” and is therefore out of touch with reality and untrustworthy is an incredibly easy accusation to make against anyone who is religious.
At the end of the day, Oliver was either tricked, lying, or telling the truth about the plates. The witness of Oliver and others is so consistent and so strong that even some of the most popular antagonistic authors from Joseph’s day until now seem convinced that the witnesses were not simply lying, but they at least thought they were telling the truth.
Their theories are that Joseph was a skilled magician or wizard. OR Joseph hypnotized the witnesses or unconsciously induced hallucinations. OR that the witnesses only imagined their experience—that it was a dreamlike vision, and not physical reality.
People advanced similar theories while Oliver was still alive, to which he responded: “It was a clear, open beautiful day, far from any inhabitants, in a remote field, at the time we saw the record, of which it has been spoken, brought and laid before us, by an angel, arrayed in glorious light … Now if this is human juggling—judge ye.”
Check out the links in the description for more info on this, and enjoy this montage of statements from and about Oliver Cowdery. Feel free to pause and read as many as you’d like.
- From the Encyclopedia of Mormonism: https://bit.ly/2LhS0sP
- More on Oliver’s divining rod: https://bit.ly/2RhLLZU
- An interesting article on dowsing from Popular Mechanics: https://bit.ly/2DHFL4z
- Oliver’s bio from the Church’s website: https://bit.ly/34KjONX
- Oliver’s bio on JosephSmithPapers.org: http://bit.ly/38KRDQI
- Information about Oliver’s genealogy: https://bit.ly/2OKRjKr
- Statements from/about Oliver Cowdery: https://bit.ly/33MtsOV
- Meeting minutes from Oliver’s ex-communication: http://bit.ly/2t2XRw6
- Oliver Cowdery’s Vermont Years and the Origins of Mormonism: https://bit.ly/2RrjZu1
- Folk Magic & Myth: Braucherei: https://bit.ly/2Lniau8 .