Oliver Cowdery's sense of responsibility and Letter VII
|The portrait of Oliver Cowdery
that now hangs in the J. Reuben Clark
Law School Library is painted from
a daguerreotype found in the
Library of Congress in 2006.
Photo courtesy of Ken Corbett.
[If you're new to the blog, you can read a short book that puts Letter VII in context online here, on Kindle here, or in print here. You can read Letter VII in Joseph Smith's own journal here, in the 1844 Liverpool pamphlet here, in the 1841 Gospel Reflector here, in the 1841 Times and Seasons here, in Orson Patt's 1840 missionary pamphlet here, and in the 1835 Messenger and Advocate here,]
As you can see from these citations, Letter VII and the New York Cumorah it describes were universally accepted and understood during Joseph Smith's lifetime.
People can believe whatever they want, of course. But in my view, the historical evidence supports Oliver.
Consider what Oliver himself wrote about his sense of responsibility. The following is an excerpt from the Preface to my next book, The Editors: Joseph, William, and Don Carlos Smith:
This is a strong statement of responsibility that lends additional credence to Letter VII, which Oliver published in the Messenger and Advocate.
Consider what is going on here. The Mesoamerican two-Cumorah theory directly contradicts Oliver Cowdery's unambiguous declaration that the final wars of the Nephites and Jaredites took place in western New York. Therefore, according to the citation cartel, Letter VII cannot be true. The effort to undermine the credibility and reliability of Oliver Cowdery has only one purpose: to defend an ideological fixation on the Mesoamerican theory of Book of Mormon geography.
They go on to insist that Joseph Smith passively adopted Cowdery's speculation when he had his scribes copy Letter VII into his journal, saw Letter VII republished multiple times, and referred to Cumorah (and Moroni) in D&C 128.
Here are more facts to consider. Oliver Cowdery was the principal scribe of the Restoration. He wrote in his own handwriting all of the Book of Mormon (twice) and much of the D&C and PoGP. He is responsible for most of the early Church history we have, including the 8 letters to W.W. Phelps and other journal entries. He was the only witness besides Joseph Smith of the restoration of the Priesthood, the restoration of the keys, and much more. He was called by revelation to print Church materials, select and write books for Church schools, and to "copy, correct, and select" materials for Church publications. [D&C 55, 57, 68, 104]
When assessing Oliver's credibility and reliability, readers of Letter VII should also consider the life Oliver led and his reputation as a well-respected lawyer.
In November 2013, the BYU Law School unveiled the painting of Oliver Cowdery that appears at the beginning of this blog. An article on LDS.org discusses the event and some of Oliver's life events and reputation. The following are edited extracts from the article.
Elder Steven E. Snow of the Seventy, Church Historian and Recorder, noted that Oliver died of tuberculosis in Richmond, Missouri, before he could join the Saints in Utah. He had gone there to persuade David Whitmer to join him.
“We can only wonder what great accomplishments he might have given … had he survived to an older age,” Elder Snow said.
“Certainly in the early days of the Church there was no closer confidant to the Prophet Joseph Smith than Oliver,” he said. “He was next in authority only to Joseph and was present at many of the critical events in the Restoration of the gospel.”
In addition to being one of the Three Witnesses, he was present during the restoration of the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods and “during those marvelous manifestations at the Kirtland Temple,” Elder Snow noted.
“There are many great LDS attorneys, and Oliver Cowdery was the first LDS attorney, so it just makes sense that his portrait will hang here in this school.”
Church historians have studied Oliver's life and law practice. Oliver was excommunicated on charges he disputed, yet he never became antagonistic toward the Church.
Attorney Jeffrey N. Walker, adjunct faculty member at the school and a senior adviser and volume editor for the Joseph Smith Papers Project of the Church History Department, noted that “He had beautiful handwriting. We ended up scanning almost 2,500 pages of his law practice. Since then we’ve been back three other times, and we now have over 15,000 pages of the law practice in Tiffin as we try to put together exactly how he practiced law.
“What we found was that he was a very clever, smart, and capable lawyer, one very prominently recognized in the community and that was well-respected among his own colleagues of lawyers.”
In the end, when he went to Winter Quarters to seek readmission to the Church, Oliver said, “I feel that I can honorably return. I sustained an honorable character before the world during my absence from you,” Brother Walker recounted.
John W. Welch, BYU J. Reuben Clark Law School professor, said, “We will all be better lawyers if we seek to emulate Oliver’s sensitivities and legal skills.”
He mentioned 10 of those skills, including accuracy, an understanding of authority, an acute and analytical mind, forensic (debate) skills, tolerance for the views of others, legal resourcefulness, his character as justice of the peace, his putting of family first in making difficult decisions, his sense of timing, and his knowledge of the importance of witnesses, affidavits, and testimony under oath.
In his letters, Oliver was careful to distinguish between fact and speculation. For example, he speculated about how deep Moroni originally buried the plates. But he said it was a factthat the Nephites and Jaredites fought their final battles in the valley west of the Hill Cumorah in New York.
On one hand, we have Oliver Cowdery as one of the Three Witnesses, whose entire life demonstrated his knowledge of the importance of witnesses, who wrote Letter VII under a sense of deep responsibility to be accurate and truthful.
On the other hand, we have LDS scholars who, purely for ideological purposes, question Oliver's reliability and veracity on the important question of Cumorah.
For me, it's an easy choice.