A Witness of the Book of Mormon
Out of the Three Witnesses, Oliver Cowdery played the most significant in various events in church history. Not only was he one of the three witnesses, but he was also present during the different phases of the Restoration of the Priesthood. Oliver was born October 3, 1806, to William Cowdery and Rebecca Fuller Cowdery in Wells, Vermont. When he turned 25 he moved to New York State to live closer to his elder brothers. There he worked as a store clerk for a couple of years, until he started his job as a school teacher in 1829. Oliver Cowdery was a respected member of the community as was known for his articulate oratories. He first met the family of Joseph Smith Sr. while he was boarding in their home. During his stay they shared with him the story of Joseph Jr., his visions, and the gold plates. The story piqued his interest. He investigated the story and then prayed to God to know whether the story was true or not. In answer to his prayer, the Lord appeared to Oliver in a vision and showed the plates to him, also revealing that they were to be translated by Joseph Smith. This was the first experience Oliver had with the plates, and of course it wouldn’t be the last. Needless to say, this jump-started Oliver’s desire to be a scribe for Joseph in the translation of the record. Oliver relocated himself to Harmony, Pennsylvania, where Joseph was currently living with his wife Emma at her parents house. This was his first face to face meeting the Joseph.
Oliver’s next significant moment occurred during the translation of the Book of Mormon, this of course was the Restoration of the Priesthood. Joseph and Oliver had transcribed some passages about baptism. They were curious about it so they went to the woods and prayed to learn more about this principle. They received a visitation from John the Baptist. John conferred the Aaronic Priesthood on them, granting them the authority to baptize, but not to give the gift of the Holy Ghost. A week or two after that, while they traveled from Pennsylvania to the home of Peter Whitmer Sr, in Fayette New York, they received another angelic visitation from Peter, James, and John, who bestowed upon them the Melchizedek Priesthood. They were now able to give the gift of the Holy Ghost, and were prepared to conduct all other ordinances in the Church. Oliver Cowdery gave this account of these events 20 years later in 1848, almost 20 years later:
"I was present with Joseph when an holy angel from God came down from heaven and conferred, or restored the Aaronic priesthood. And said at the same time that it should remain upon the Earth while the Earth stands. I was also present with Joseph when the Melchizedek priesthood was conferred by the holy angels of god.—which we then confirmed on each other by the will and commandment of God. This priesthood is also to remain upon the earth until the Last remnant of time."
Joseph and Oliver completed the translation and Oliver was chosen to be of the three witnesses that would see both the plates and the Angel Moroni. Oliver was one of the first elders to give a public sermon, he helped to establish the church in Kirtland, Ohio, he was also one of the first missionaries to go out to Missouri. In Missouri, he arranged for the publication of the Doctrine and Covenants (then called the Book of Commandments). He was also tarred and feathered because of his testimony by the "good" people of Hiram, Missouri. In 1832, he married Elizabeth Ann Whitmer. They would have six children, but no grandchildren. He was made Assistant President of the Church, second only to Joseph, and helped call the first twelve apostles in this dispensation.
Oliver received another heavenly visitation with Joseph Smith after the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. In 1836, a week after the temple's dedication, Joseph and Oliver were praying behind a veil that separated the pulpit from the congregation, preparing for their services. During this prayer, the Savior appeared to them acknowledging and accepting the temple. During this same event, Moses appeared and bestowed on them the keys of the gathering of Israel from the for corners of the Earth; Elias came and committed unto them the gospel of Abraham; and Elijah came and committed unto them the keys of a dispensation to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers. One of the last events necessary for the Restoration to be complete.
Unfortunately, after all these experiences Oliver went downhill. In April of 1838, Oliver was excommunicated from the church for various charges brought against him, mostly dealing with dishonesty in financial matters, and spreading false rumors about Joseph Smith. After leaving the church, Oliver became an attorney and practiced law in Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. He was elected Chief Prosecuting Attorney in Michigan, and was nearly elected to the state legislature in Wisconsin. During this time he never rescinded his testimony about the Book of Mormon, even though he was given every opportunity to do so. There was one occasion, during a trial in Michigan when his testimony was called into question. Here is the account of what happened as told by Judge C.M. Nelson, who witnessed the trial.
"When I was 21 years of age I was working my father's farm in Michigan. I had worked hard on the farm that summer and decided to take a day off, so went to the city. Near the courthouse I saw a great many people assembling and others walking that way, so I went over to see what was up. There was a jam in the courtroom, but being young and strong, I pushed my way close up to the center, where I found the prosecuting attorney addressing the court and jury in a murder trial. The prosecuting attorney was Oliver Cowdery, and he was giving his opening address in behalf of the state. After Cowdery sat down the attorney representing the prisoner arose and with taunting sarcasm said: "May it please the court and gentlemen of the jury, I see one Oliver Cowdery is going to reply to my argument. I wish he would tell us something about the Mormon Bible; something about that golden Bible that Joe Smith dug out of the hill; something about the great fraud he perpetrated upon the American people whereby he gained thousands of dollars. Now he seems to know so much about this poor prisoner, I wonder if he has forgotten all about Joe Smith and his connection with him.
"The speaker all the while sneering and pointing his finger in scorn at Cowdery in the hope of making him ridiculous before the court and jury. Everybody present began to wonder if they had been guilty of making such a mistake as choosing a Mormon for prosecuting attorney. Even the judge on the bench began looking with suspicion and distrust at the prosecuting attorney. The prisoner and his attorney became elated at the effect of the speech. People began asking, "Is he a Mormon?" Everybody wondered what Cowdery would say against such foul charges.
"Finally Oliver Cowdery arose, calm as a summer morning. I was within three feet of him. There was no hesitation, no fear, no anger in his voice, as he said: "May it please the court, and gentlemen of the jury, my brother attorney on the other side has charged me with connection with Joseph Smith and the golden Bible. The responsibility has been placed upon me, and I cannot escape reply. Before God and man I dare not deny what I have said, and what my testimony contains and as written and printed on the front page of the Book of Mormon. May it please your honor and gentlemen of the jury, this I say, I saw the angel and heard his voice—how can I deny it? It happened in the daytime when the sun was shining bright in the firmament; not in the night when I was asleep. That glorious messenger from heaven, dressed in white, standing above the ground, in a glory I have never seen anything to compare, with the sun insignificant in comparison, and these personages told us if we denied that testimony there is no forgiveness in this life nor in the world to come. Now how can I deny it—I dare not; I will not!"
Oliver had been handed the perfect opportunity to recant his testimony that day in the courtroom. It would have been the perfect revenge to get back at Joseph and the Church that kicked him out. But what did he do? He bore his testimony in court nearly 15 years after the fact. In 1848, Oliver returned to the Church in Kanesville, Iowa. Accompanied by Orson Hyde, he spoke at a special conference being held. He once again gave a detailed testimony and asked to be let back into the church. He didn’t want a leadership position, he just wanted to be in full fellowship in the church again. He was rebaptized and lived the rest of this days in full membership of the church. Oliver died 2 years later in Richmond, Missouri while visiting his Brother in Law, and fellow Witness, David Whitmer. Elder Phineas H. Young was with Oliver at his death and said, "His last moments were spent in bearing testimony of the truth of the gospel revealed through Joseph Smith, and the power of the holy Priesthood which he had received through his administrations."
The story of Oliver Cowdery is both inspiring and tragic. Inspiring by all the things he experienced and testified to both in and out of the church, yet tragic because who knows what position he may have held if he had just stayed faithful in the church and not let pride overtake him.
LDS Biographical Encyclopedia, Andrew Jenson, Vol. 1, p.246
"Oliver Cowdery and His Testimony": An Address Delivered by Judge C. M. Nielsen in the Twenty-fourth Ward Meeting House, Salt Lake City, Utah, February 20, 1910
Lyndon W. Cook, The Revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.14
Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol.1
Joseph Fielding Smith Jr., Doctrines of Salvation, Vol.3, p.126