Richard L. Anderson addresses questions about Oliver Cowdery and whether he denied his testimony.

Apr 1987
Richard L. Anderson

Richard L. Anderson, "Did Oliver Cowdery, one of the three special witnesses, express doubt about his testimony?" Ensign, April 1987, 23–25

Richard L. Anderson
Reading Public

Richard Lloyd Anderson, professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University. Oliver Cowdery’s strong testimony of the Book of Mormon is well documented throughout his life, and his decisive return to the Church before he died backs up his words.

In 1838 Oliver challenged the Prophet Joseph Smith’s leadership and spent the next ten years out of the Church. But in 1848 he returned to Kanesville, Iowa, the base camp of Mormon migration, and wintered in Richmond, Missouri, where his health failed. He was unable to fulfill his desire to go west with the Saints, and he died in Richmond in early 1850.

Two people who knew Oliver Cowdery best were his wife, Elizabeth Ann Whitmer, and her brother David Whitmer, also a Book of Mormon witness. David took pride in his role as the last survivor of the three witnesses, and in 1887, a year before his death, he reiterated his testimony:

“I also testify to the world, that neither Oliver Cowdery or Martin Harris ever at any time denied their testimony. … I was present at the death bed of Oliver Cowdery, and his last words were, ‘Brother David, be true to your testimony to the Book of Mormon.’ ”

Elizabeth first met Oliver at her house in 1829, while the Book of Mormon was being translated there. After their 1832 marriage, she was with him constantly, except for temporary separations because of Church assignments. She later reviewed his testimony:

“He always without one doubt or shadow of turning affirmed the divinity and truth of the Book of Mormon.”

“These plain summaries of Oliver Cowdery’s views really settle the matter, since they come from those with firsthand, intimate knowledge.

However, the importance of “the second elder” (D&C 20:3) has stimulated vicious attempts to neutralize his powerful support of the Restoration. Besides seeing an angel and the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated, Oliver was also with Joseph Smith when John the Baptist and later Peter, James, and John restored the two priesthoods. Evidently some have wanted a Cowdery denial enough to invent two documents that contradict history.

A dozen major archives in the U.S. have a strange typescript headed “A Confession of Oliver Overstreet,” in which the above-named character claims that he was bribed to impersonate Oliver Cowdery in a return to the Church. That claim is fairly easy to dismiss, for if that were so, the whereabouts of the real Oliver Cowdery could be traced somewhere else. But some two dozen Latter-day Saints, half of them Oliver’s former close friends, detail his return in their journals and in the Church’s official minute books. Moreover, sale of Oliver’s Wisconsin property before he returned appears in recorded deeds.

There is also a problem with the Oliver Overstreet manuscript itself. An important clue in identifying spurious documents is the vagueness of a document’s origin—the impossibility of going past a late typescript to an original from a known person. Such is the case with the Oliver Overstreet typescript.

Similar faults appear in a better-known historical forgery claiming to come from Oliver Cowdery the year after he left the Church. In 1906 the “mountain evangelist” R. B. Neal, a leader in the American Anti-Mormon Association, published a document with much fanfare but without evidence of the document’s authenticity. Reverend Neal claimed that the publication was a reprint of an 1839 document explaining Oliver Cowdery’s apostasy: Defence in a Rehearsal of My Grounds for Separating Myself from the Latter Day Saints.

“No more important document has been unearthed since I have been engaged in this warfare,” R. B. Neal asserted.

With such convictions, one can be sure that Reverend Neal would have produced evidence to prove that the original actually existed. But all we have is his 1906 first printing, which is silent about why no one had ever heard of the document until a half century after Oliver Cowdery’s death.

The introduction simply puffs, “This real and original ‘Defence’ is a ‘rare find,’ and should be speedily sent on its mission to the thousands already deluded.”

Informed historians, however, are more skeptical. The standard bibliography of Mormon-related works first notes that Reverend Neal’s 1906 tract is “the version from which all copies have been taken,” and then conservatively adds, “whether the pamphlet ever existed is doubtful.”

The second half of the Defence is built on a supposed vision of Christ to Oliver, in which Oliver is told, “Thou shalt withdraw thyself from among them.” If such an event took place, why did the Second Elder violate divine instruction and return to the Church afterward?

Nothing is said about the angel and the gold plates, but the Defence challenges the restored priesthood, “about which,” the pamphlet’s author writes, “I am beginning to doubt.” One reason is that John the Baptist’s voice “did most mysteriously resemble the voice of Elder Sidney Rigdon.”

Predictably, none of the twenty Cowdery letters from the period of his apostasy express such doubts. For instance, Oliver’s spirited resignation letter to his high council court closed by saying that he questioned Church government only, not its spiritual foundations. Indeed, a private letter during his estrangement speaks feelingly of the responsibility he felt after standing “in the presence of John, with our departed brother Joseph … and in the presence of Peter.”

Moreover, the 1906 tract falls into a major historical trap by paralleling, too closely, mistakes David Whitmer made in his 1887 An Address to All Believers in Christ, written after Oliver’s death. In doing so, the Defence identifies Whitmer’s Address as one of its probable sources of information.

David, the witness who never returned to the Church, justified his view of Joseph Smith as a fallen prophet by remembering a revelation in the winter of 1829–1830 that authorized Oliver Cowdery and Hyrum Page to “go to Toronto, Canada, and … sell the copy-right of the Book of Mormon” for that country.

The revelation and trip did occur, but David, in remembering them fifty-seven years later, missed several important details. We know this because Hyrum Page outlined what happened only eighteen years afterward, a firsthand source because he went on the journey with Oliver, whereas David did not. Hyrum Page clarifies that the revelation instructed the brethren to sell Canadian rights to purchasers “if they would not harden their hearts,” making clear the conditional command.

The most glaring mistake perpetrated in the Defence is the true destination, for Hyrum Page says that “we were to go to Kingston,” and he relates that they did. Thus, in real life, Oliver Cowdery went to a location 150 miles away from Toronto, the place that David Whitmer erroneously mentioned in his address. Yet the Defence mistakenly has Oliver Cowdery say that the “revelation … sent Bro. Page and me so unwisely to … Toronto.”

Before the microfilm-photocopy era, which has made in-depth local history possible, the 1906 pamphlet was often accepted as legitimate, even by LDS historians. Now, however, with modern methods of verification, the pseudo-Cowdery Defence fails every specific test that a genealogist or historian can set up.

Following are four examples, presented in a question-answer format to highlight issues:

Q. Doesn’t the Defence sound like Oliver Cowdery’s prose?

A. It sounds too much like Oliver Cowdery. Over fifty striking phrases and sentences match passages from eight letters of his that appeared in the Messenger and Advocate during 1834–1835. A full 35 percent of the Defence is word for word what was first recorded in these published letters. Yet the hundred or so letters and editorials that exist from the Second Elder show a clear creative style that never mechanically repeats elements from earlier writing.

Q. Could not the original manuscript and all 1839 copies of the Defence have accidentally perished?

A. That would be odd, since the 1906 pamphlet, if it were authentic, would have to have been published from an earlier manuscript, which R. B. Neal never produced. Furthermore, the Defence states that its purpose is to explain Cowdery’s position to Latter-day Saints. Even if all copies had perished by 1906, the Saints living during the mid- to late-1800s would have been aware of the work, but none record that they were.

In Oliver’s lifetime, LDS journalists noticed major publications against the faith and refuted them, as in the cases of E. D. Howe in 1834 or John C. Bennett in 1842. But the early Nauvoo press did not mention any printed attack from Oliver Cowdery. Instead, the year after the supposed 1839 pamphlet, Church editors who had worked with Cowdery at the Kirtland press reprinted several of Oliver’s letters in the Messenger and Advocate. The editors announced that the letters answered the questions of “the coming forth of the Book of Mormon … and the restoration of the Priesthood … from the pen of a living witness.”

Q. Would not Church officials, when Oliver returned to the Church, suppress mention of his early opposition?

A. Actually, the opposite is the case. Three sets of minutes at Kanesville in 1848 show that Oliver was examined carefully to see whether he really supported the mission of Joseph Smith. William E. McLellin had published a letter of Oliver Cowdery to David Whitmer, implying that Oliver held keys higher than those of the Twelve, and Oliver was questioned on his motives in that matter. If Oliver had really written the Defence, Church leaders would have at least asked him about it to clarify his worthiness to be rebaptized.

Q. The Defence claims that it was printed at Pressley’s Job Office, Norton, Ohio. Does this detail check out?

A. Ohio experts know of no such press, and gazetteers of the time indicate that the village of Norton in Delaware County was too small to have a press. There was a Norton township some thirty-five miles from Kirtland, but townships are merely geographical jurisdictions, like small counties, and are rarely given as places of publication.

My book Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses gives some other statements that opponents of the Church have used to throw doubt on Oliver’s testimony. One is an 1841 poem by Joel H. Johnson, making the point that God’s revelations are true no matter who opposes them: “Or prove the gospel was not true / Because old Paul the Saints could kill? / Because the Jews its author slew, / and now reject their Saviour still? … / Or Book of Mormon not his word / because denied by Oliver?”

The poem is a secondary comment, not a primary source. It is rhetoric, not history. To qualify for the latter, it would have to be based on demonstrable knowledge Joel Johnson had of Oliver outside the Church, which it is not. Johnson may simply have meant that Oliver had withdrawn from the Church and did not then stand openly for the ancient record.

Attacks on Oliver Cowdery typically add a Brigham Young statement, although it clearly was not intended to refer to Oliver. President Young said that “some of the witnesses of the Book of Mormon” had received visitations but were yet “left to doubt and to disbelieve that they had ever seen an angel.” President Young then followed with an example of “one of the Quorum of the Twelve” of his day. His description fits none of the Three Witnesses, particularly Oliver Cowdery. Indeed, on another occasion Brigham Young expressly declared, “Oliver Cowdery … never denied the Book of Mormon, not even in the wickedest days he ever saw, and came back into the Church before he died.”

When Oliver returned to the Saints, and as he approached the last year of his life, he reiterated his witness of the plates and the priesthood—the same testimony that he had held since the beginning of the Restoration:

“I beheld with my eyes, and handled with my hands, the gold plates. … I was present with Joseph when an holy angel … conferred, or restored, the Aaronic Priesthood. … I was also present with Joseph when the Melchizedek Priesthood was conferred by the holy angels of God.”

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