September 19, 2007

Angels and Oliver Cowdery's Testimony

Brigham Young April 6, 1855 Alma the Younger went about preaching against the Church, much to the sorrow of his father, Alma, who was, in effect, the President of the Church at the time. Through the prayers of his father, an angel appeared to Alma Jr. who passed out, beheld his true state before God, repented, and became one of the greatest missionaries and theologians of the Book of Mormon. If only angels would appear to every loud critic of the Church! Not so. God usually doesn't send angels to rebuke the wicked, many of them wouldn't repent even if He did. President Heber J. Grant:

Many men say: ‘If I could only see an angel, if I could only hear an angel proclaim something, that would cause me to be faithful all the days of my life!’ It had no effect upon these men that were not serving the Lord, and it would have no effect today (Conference Reports, Apr. 1924, p. 159).
Hugh Nibley held the same opinion:
Brigham Young said, ‘Pray that you never see an angel.’ He was talking historically. Almost everybody who saw an angel left the Church. They came back, but they had these terrible problems. It gave them inflated egos, etc. They thought they were somebody special. They were, but they couldn't take it. It would be very dangerous if we were exposed to the other world to any degree. Only people that are very humble can do that. Not us, we can't do that. We are not that humble (The Teachings of the Book of Mormon, Lecture 41, p.193).[1]
People who saw angels and subsequently left the Church- some temporarily, some permanently- include:
  • Lyman E. Johnson[2]
  • Sidney Rigdon
  • Martin Harris
  • David Whitmer
This list is by no means comprehensive, but it includes a member of the original Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, a member of the First Presidency of the Church, and two of the three witnesses of Moroni and the gold plates. What about the third witness? He too fell away. As found in a previous post, Brigham Young sometimes talked about apostasy. Perhaps some people believe if they were to see an angel, or some great miracle, they would remain faithful to the end. Seeing an angel wasn't enough for Laman and Lemuel, they appear to have never repented during their lives (see 1 Nephi 3:29-31). Brigham Young taught that, even in the Millennium when Christ returns, seeing the events unfurl will not convert everyone:
When Jesus comes to rule and reign King of Nations as he now does King of Saints, the veil of the covering will be taken from all nations, that all flesh may see his glory together, but that will not make them all Saints. Seeing the Lord does not make a man a Saint, seeing an Angel does not make a man a Saint by any means. A man may see the finger of the Lord, and not thereby become a Saint; the vail of the covering may be taken from before the nations, and all flesh see His glory together, and at the same time declare they will not serve Him. They may, perhaps, feel something as a women in Missouri did, who had been driven four times, and when she was about to be driven again she said, "I will be damned if I will stand it any longer; if God wants me to go through such a routine of things, He may take me where He pleases, and do with me as He pleases; I won't stand it any longer" (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 2:309)

Oliver Cowdery's disaffection with the Church was a little different. While he cut ties with the Church, he never cut ties with his testimony that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, and that he saw Moroni and the plates in person. Brigham said Joseph Smith "had to pray all the time, exercise faith, live his religion, and magnify his calling, to obtain the manifestations of the Lord, and to keep him steadfast in the faith." Brigham felt this steadfastness made Joseph somewhat unique, and related the following about the witnesses of the Book of Mormon, all of whom left the Church, only two to return[3] :

Do you not know others who had manifestations almost equal to those Joseph had, but who have gone by the board? Martin Harris declared, before God and angels, that he had seen angels. Did he apostatize? Yes, though he says that the Book of Mormon is true. Oliver Cowdery also left the Church, though he never denied the Book of Mormon, not even in the wickedest days he ever saw, and came back into the Church before he died. A gentleman in Michigan[4] said to him, when he was pleading law, 'Mr. Cowdery, I see your name attached to this book; if you believe it to be true, why are you in Michigan?'

The gentleman read over the names of the witnesses, and said, 'Mr. Cowdery, do you believe this book?'

'No sir,' replied Oliver Cowdery.

'That is very well, but your name is attached to it, and you say here that you saw an angel, and the plates from which this book is said to be translated, and now you say that you do not believe it. Which time was you right?'

Mr. Cowdery replied, 'There is my name attached to that book, and what I have there said that I saw, I know that I saw, and belief has nothing to do with it, for knowledge has swallowed up the belief that I had in the work, since I know it is true.'

He gave this testimony when he was pleading law in Michigan. After he had left the Church he still believed 'Mormonism;' and so it is with hundreds and thousands of others, and yet they do not live it… (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 2:248-259).

At great expense to his reputation, Oliver Cowdery never denied his testimony of the Book of Mormon. After his excommunication[5] in 1838 he studied and practiced law at Tiffin, Ohio, where the above mentioned declaration of testimony took place.

He became the editor of a local Democratic newspaper until it was discovered he was one of the three witness, and on account of his being associated with the 'Mormons,' he was demoted to assistant editor.

In 1846 he was nominated as his district's Democratic party candidate for the state senate, but was defeated when he wouldn't recant his Mormon roots. He was defeated in a similar manner when he ran for state assemblyman in Wisconsin in 1848, losing by only 50 out of 500 votes, despite an avid smear campaign against him.

After his defeat he traveled to Winter Quarters, Nebraska, met with the First Presidency:

Brethren, for a number of years, I have been separated from you. I now desire to come back. I wish to come humble and be one in your midst. I seek no station. I only wish to be identified with you. I am out of the Church, but I wish to become a member. I wish to come in at the door; I know the door, I have not come here to seek precedence. I come humbly and throw myself upon the decision of the body, knowing as I do, that its decisions are right.[6]

He was rebaptised on November 12, 1848. He then travelled to Richmond, Missouri where David Whitmer was staying. Oliver was married to Whitmer's sister, and on acount of his poor health he decided to winter with that family before going west with the Saints in the spring. His lungs continued to bother him to the point he was bed-ridden, and did not make it out west. After unsuccessfully trying to get Whitmer to join the Church again, Oliver's chronic illness took control and he died in the faith on March 3, 1850, relating his testimony just before passing away.

News of his passing reached Salt Lake 4 months later and was published in the first edition of the Deseret News. Oliver spent his time away from the Church in law and politics, surrounded by men who emphasized his humility, honesty, and integrity. A court record in Missouri noted at his passing: "his profession has lost an accomplished member, and the community a reliable and worthy citizen."[7] Of his death, Whitmer said:

"Oliver died the happiest man I ever saw. After shaking hands with the family and kissing his wife and daughter, he said ‘Now I lay down for the last time; I am going to my Saviour’; and he died immediately with a smile on his face," (ibid., also Millenial Star, XII, p. 207).

Despite the business and political pressures he faced, Oliver never denied his testimony.

Footnotes: [1] During the dedication of the Kirtland Temple many reported to seeing or feeling the presence of angels. Shortly thereafter, Brigham said many of the Twelve "set up stakes" to pray and see an angel, determining to pray until they did. The prayer wasn't answered, though, according to Brigham: "we prayed ourselves into darkness." Realizing the implications of sign-seeking, Brigham wrote he "praid to God with all my heart that I might never again meet with that Quorum with the spirit they possessed and I never did." (See Brigham Young: American Moses, Leonard Arrington, pg. 53; also Wilford Woodruff Diary, 23 February, 1859.) [2] Lyman E. Johnson joined the Church and found himself in Zion's Camp, later becoming an original member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles along with his brother Luke. In 1837 he became disaffected with the Church over the Kirtland Bank debacle, but was reinstated to his apostleship some months later. This reconciliation didn't last; Johnson was associated with the apostates who took over the Kirtland Temple, formed their own church hierarchy and "excommunicated" Joseph Smith, who left Kirtland at that time. In 1838 he completely withdrew from the Church. In 1856 he drown in the Mississippi River in a boating accident. I don't know the exact circumstances of his seeing an angel, but Matthias Cowley related the following:

“Lyman Johnson…reportedly apostatized after having seen an angel…‘I remember hearing President Snow say on more than one occasion,’ recalled Mathias Cowley, ‘how determined Lyman E. Johnson was to see an angel from the Lord. He plead [sic] with and teased the Lord to send an angel to him until he saw an angel; but President Snow said the trouble with him was that he saw an angel one day and saw the devil the next day, and finally the devil got away with him.’” (FARMS, vol. 2, no. 2-Fall 1993, p. 171)

Oliver Cowdery was excommunicated on April 12,1838 for failing to appear at a Church court where he was to be tried on statements he made about Joseph Smith and plural marriage. In 1848 Cowdery travelled to Winter Quarters, Nebraska and requested rebaptism, which was administered on November 12 of that year. Martin Harris was one of the original members of the Church, joining on the day of organization, April 6, 1830. Just as Oliver Cowdery, he united with the dissenters during the Kirtland period and in 1838 was named a trustee for Warren Parrish's break-off sect The Church of Christ. Soon, Parrish and his church rejected the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, and because Harris continued to testify of its truth, they broke all ties with him. Harris joined several other factions, but in 1870, finding himself alone and destitute he made his way to Utah alone in 1870. He died June 10, 1875. He never denied his testimony as found in the Book of Mormon. David Whitmer was one of the original 6 members of the Church, joining on April 6, 1830. As with the other witnesses, Whitmer left the Church in 1837 in Kirtland over the banking issue. When Cowdery rejoined the Church before the saints moved west he traveled to Whitmer's house in Richmond to ask him to come back to the Church. While there, Cowdery died of "consumption." Whitmer never rejoined the Church, but started two of his own, neither of which experienced any lasting success. He died January 25, 1888 in Richmond.
[4] Brigham Young is incorrect in assigning the location to Michigan, as Cowdery was practicing law in Ohio at the time this court testimony took place. This discourse is the first publicly recorded instance of the court testimony. Brigham most likely learned of the testimony from Oliver himself, or from his own brother, Phineas Young, who was married to Cowdery's half-sister, and worked for several years to convince Cowdery to reunite with the Church. The story was related years later by George Q. Cannon, who was employed by his uncle John Taylor in Nauvoo. Cannon's testimony of the incident took place in 1881, placing the trial in Ohio, not Michigan (see Journal of Discourses 22:254). [5] Cowdery was estranged from the Church partly over some land deals and financial issues with the Saints in Kirtland and Missouri. When he submitted a letter of resignation he made a unique statement casting light on his feelings of the doctrine of the Church: "I beg you, sir, to take no view of the foregoing remarks, other than my belief on the outward government of the Church" (History of the Church vol. 3:18). He had come to see Joseph as a "fallen prophet." [6] Stanley R. Gunn, "Oliver Cowdery Second Elder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: A Thesis Presented to the Faculty of the Division of Religion, Brigham Young University," (1942), 166, as cited in The Improvement Era, 24, p.620.) [7] Circuit Court Record, Ray County, Missouri, Book C, p. 190 (entry Mar. 5, 1850). For more on Cowdery as a reliable witness I refer the reader to Investigating The Book of Mormon Witnesses by Richard Lloyd Anderson; a remarkable work on the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. An interesting side note to this discussion is the question of evidence both spiritual and physical. When asked which was more important, some are eager to cast off the physical, noting Laman and Lemuel seeing angels, and the children of Israel's disobedience in the wilderness. I believe more than a "spiritual witness or physical witness" dichotomy the issue can be viewed more broadly. What of a physical witness devoid of spiritual confirmation, or a personal spiritual revelation that flies in the face of current doctrine, or reason (overzealous folks worrying about second coming and talking themselves into a frenzy). And how do Mormons ultimately separate the spiritual witness from the physical, when the two are blended in our thought? A continuing witness is the key. Like the plant described in Alma 32, a witness must continue as water and sunlight keeps nourishing the plant. The question, then, is a false dichotomy in my opinion.


Anonymous said...

"Knowledge has swallowed up the belief"....what an interesting and poetic quote. I think it would have been extremely difficult for Oliver and Martin to come back after having experienced so much, having their knowledge swallowed up in belief, and having apostatized. They had to rid themselves of pride and fear of being rejected by the saints. Anyone coming back to the church has to do that, but for them it was much more so.

This was a great post!! I thoroughly enjoyed it.


LifeOnaPlate said...

I agree, it was likely a humbling trip back for the brethren. That, and if you see an angel, what's to stop you from doubting that experience down the road? Something happened to these witnesses that left them knowing it was real.

Psalms30-5 said...

This is a great post. Thank you for your words, thoughts, and research!

LifeOnaPlate said...

Thanks for reading and responding.

Lynda said...

I don't know if you get notified of comments made to old posts but I just read this (it's 6/11/08) and wanted to compliment you on it. I love Oliver Cowdery. He was exactly the right man for the job of helping Joseph get the Book of Mormon translated. He was an educated schoolteacher. He was eloquent and a writer , able to literally write for hours, copying off dictation and then copying again the pages of the printer's manuscript. He helped Joseph acquire greater facility with the language and his influence on Joseph helped the prophet increase his own abilities and fluency in preaching and writing. God used Oliver in many ways. And his heart was good. His influence on the early church was positive and good in every way.
But think about this gentle rather bookish man---was he the man to lead the saints to a new home in the Rocky Mountains? Was he a colonizer? No. Simply put, he was not. God needed to move him out of the way so that Brother Brigham could be that man. But I have no doubt that Oliver is standing in good stead with his other faithful brethren of the restoration whose testimony that this was a work of God never faltered. I love Oliver Cowdery for what he did for the church. I can't love him less because he wasn't meant to be what Brigham Young was to the church. Each of us have distinct missions to perform. He filled his.
Thanks for your great tribute to him.

LifeOnaPlate said...

Thank you for the kind words, Lynda.

Anonymous said...

My research would indicate that the spin of the original thread, obviously pro-Mormon, is pretty much the party line, but untrue. Cowdery, Smith's cousin, was possibly the principle author of the Book of Mormon - getting off to a rough start, with Cowdery's arrival it was finished in 6 months. Cowdery's story about baptisms and ordinations differ from Smith's (Cowdery saw angels, not resurrected beings), and Cowdery, as second in charge had a vested interest in preserving the Church. He was the one who wanted to go to Toronto to sell the copyright of the book for $5,000 (always on the lookout for money), and the Mormons even excommunicated him on trumped up charges, although it is highly likely that Cowdery's dislike to Smith's entrance into polygamy was the real reason. Oliver also had called Smith's relationship with Fanny Alger a nasty and filthy afair. Cowdery's attempted return to the LDS was really pathetic - a pitch for power after Smith's demise, for after all he was the "Second Elder," and after Smith the one who should have been in charge.

Cowdery probably also manufactured plates for use with the "witnesses." His father was, after all, a blacksmith and he was fairly familiar with working with metal.

Sorry folks, Oliver is certainly not the nice guy you people wish to project - he wanted money more than God, and went along with the Smith-Rigdon scheme to start a new religion!

BHodges said...

Anonymous, please read the comment guidelines before posting again.

Your research might support your claims, but you certainly haven't demonstrated that to be the case. Here's some research that also shows the moon landing never happened. Sorry folks!

Ardis said...


Chembyrd said...

Thank you for this information. I had never thought of how difficult it might be for someone who had seen angels to remain faithful.

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