Tuesday, July 9, 2024

What if Oliver Cowdery told the truth?

Let's spend a moment wondering, What if Oliver Cowdery told the truth about the origin and setting of the Book of Mormon?

In a sense, Oliver's testimony is more significant than Joseph Smith's because he was a "second witness." Even under the law of Moses, one witness was not enough. You had to have at least two. Christ pointed out that "If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true [i.e., valid]." (John 5:31) 

A single person who makes a claim may or may not be telling the truth. When two or more people claim to have seen or experienced the same thing, their testimony is far more credible and reliable. 

But obviously, two or more people can collude to lie, deceive, mislead, etc. 

That's why Oliver's credibility is so important.


Oliver was a witness for key aspects of the Restoration: the translation of the Book of Mormon, the physical reality of the plates and the Urim and Thummim (the Nephite interpreters), the repository of records in the Hill Cumorah, the restoration of the Priesthood, and the restoration of keys in the Kirtland temple. It was Oliver, not Joseph, who ordained the first members of the Quorum of the Twelve, through whom most priesthood lineage flows; i.e., priesthood authority goes directly from Peter, James and John to Oliver to the Quorum of the Twelve.

So we ask ourselves, what if Oliver told the truth?


We could write a long essay answering that question. Nonbelievers and believers both recognize the stakes in terms of translation of the Book of Mormon, restoration of the Priesthood and keys of gathering and temple covenants, etc. 

Because this blog is named "LetterVII" we will focus on what Oliver wrote in Letter VII. 


Throughout his eight essays on Church history that he wrote in 1834-5, Oliver repeatedly distinguished between fact and speculation. In Letter VII, he declared it is a fact that the final battles of the Jaredites and Nephites took place in the mile-wide valley west of the hill in New York where Joseph obtained the plates; i.e., the Hill Cumorah/Ramah described in Mormon 6:6.

If Oliver told the truth, then there is no room for debate on the topic of Cumorah. We can know for certain that any model or theory of the setting of the Book of Mormon that puts Cumorah elsewhere cannot possibly be correct.

That leaves the field wide open for the innumerable theories of "Book of Mormon geography." 

Everyone can have a different opinion about that topic, as the article in the Gospel Topics section of the Church's website explains.

Key point: different theories about "Book of Mormon geography" are a separate issue from Cumorah.


If Oliver told the truth, then everyone interested in the subject should adjust their thinking about the Book of Mormon accordingly.

Jaredites: For example, critics observe that there is no possibility that 2 million people died at that hill in New York. And we agree, because the text never says or implies anything of the sort.

Yet look at this chart from BYU Studies:

John W. Welch's chart at BYU Studies


I've been curious about the origin of the 2 million claim. The current heading to Chapter 15 may be misleading people because it is written in the present tense, but the actual text is past tense.

Heading to Ether 15: "Millions of the Jaredites are slain in battle"

Text (Ether 15:2): "there had been slain by the sword already nearly two millions of his people" 

We can all see that the "two millions" had been killed prior to the time when Coriantumr "began to remember the words" of Ether. Coriantumr's recollection took place years before the final battle at Ramah. Verse 6 relates a battle, followed by a retreat, followed by another battle in which Coriantumr was wounded. Then they spent four years gathering the people before the final conflict at Ramah. And if we extrapolate backward from the enumeration of survivors, it appears there were only a few thousand, less than 10,000, who died at Ramah. 

Which is consistent with the archaeology in the area.

And which prompts us to revisit Coriantumr's recollection. The text never says "two millions" were killed in one battle. It merely says they were killed "by the sword." Back in chapter 13:18, we see that "there were many people who were slain by the sword of those secret combinations." In 14:4, "many thousands fell by the sword." This history of Jaredite warfare stretched back many generations. Jared's own great-grandson, Corihor, rebelled and raised an army. If, as seems likely from the text, Coriantumr was reflecting back on the history of his people over 33+ generations, the number of people killed "by the sword" annually would number in a few thousand, which again is not inconsistent with known archaeology.

Nephites. We can pursue similar analysis of the text and relevant extrinsic evidence (archaeology, anthropology, geology, geography, etc.) to corroborate what Oliver taught. See, e.g., 





Why do certain LDS scholars reject what Oliver taught?

Despite their acceptance of most of what Oliver testified about, certain scholars at BYU, the Church History Department, Book of Mormon Central (aka Scripture Central), the Interpreter, Meridian Magazine, BYU Studies, etc., have been adamant that Oliver Cowdery was wrong about Cumorah. (Most of the same scholars teach that he was wrong about the translation, too, but that's a separate topic.)

These scholars teach their students, readers and followers that Oliver was merely speculating when he wrote that it is a fact that the hill in New York is actually Cumorah/Ramah. 

They also teach that corroborating historical sources from Lucy Mack Smith, David Whitmer, Parley P. Pratt. Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and Joseph himself were all wrong, having been misled by Oliver (or whomever misled Oliver in the first place).

They cite two main reasons. 

1. M2C (the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory). Certain modern LDS scholars reject what Oliver said about Cumorah and teach their students that Oliver was wrong because their theory of the setting of the Book of Mormon requires them to put Cumorah in southern Mexico. They consider Oliver's statement in Letter VII to be "manifestly absurd."

In the memorable words of John Sorenson (co-founder of FARMS), 

"There remain Latter-day Saints who insist that the final destruction of the Nephites took place in New York, but any such idea is manifestly absurd. Hundreds of thousands of Nephites traipsing across the Mississippi Valley to New York, pursued (why?) by hundred of thousands of Lamanites, is a scenario worthy only of a witless sci-fi movie, not of history." 

Mormon's Codex, p. 688.

This remains the position of the founders, officers, employees, affiliates, volunteers, donors, and followers of Scripture Central. 

They advocate it so strongly that they won't tolerate, let alone acknowledge, any discussion of evidence or argument that supports and corroborates what Oliver taught about Cumorah.

Those of us who still believe what the prophets have taught about Cumorah find it "manifestly absurd" to elevate a mere theory--M2C--above the teachings of the prophets. But we're fine with people believing whatever they want.

We're all aware of the evidence cited in favor of M2C. M2C scholars have accumulated plenty of "correspondences" between Mesoamerica and their interpretation of the Book of Mormon. That's why Mormon's Codex is a thick book. Other M2C scholars have added to the list. Some now call these "convergences" instead of "correspondences." We've fine with people promoting M2C if they want, but we're also fine with people pointing out how these "correspondences" and "convergences" are illusory in the sense that they are fairly ubiquitous in human societies everywhere, and if the reason these scholars are focusing on Mesoamerica is because the prophets have said the events took place somewhere in the Americas, then what rational basis is there for rejecting the teachings of the same prophets about Cumorah?

We just encourage people to make informed decisions. After all, Latter-day Saints cannot knowingly reject the teachings of the prophets (including Oliver Cowdery) when they don't even know what those teachings are.

We can all see that M2C is supported largely by keeping Latter-day Saints ignorant of (i) the teachings of the prophets about Cumorah and (ii) the evidence that corroborates those teachings.

Which brings us back to the question, what if Oliver told the truth after all?

Everyone should have an answer to that question when asked.

2. The First Vision problem.

Lately, certain LDS scholars have sought to discredit Oliver's testimony because he didn't mention the First Vision in his eight essays about early Church history. I realize that looks like a stretch (because it is), but some people take it as a serious objection to Oliver's credibility and reliability, so let's discuss it.

Key point: Oliver's failure to mention the First Vision is not any kind of statement or implication that the First Vision did not occur. How would Oliver know anyway? 

In our day, lots of people focus on the First Vision, pro and con. But Joseph didn't even tell his own mother about it. He apparently told one minister, was rebuked for that, and didn't mention it again for years. It didn't become a point of emphasis until his history was published in the Times and Seasons in 1842. And it wasn't even mentioned in General Conference until 1872. It was rarely mentioned in General Conference until the 1920s. Lately, we hear often about the First Vision, but that's irrelevant to the situation during the period when Oliver was writing. 

As far as I know, Oliver Cowdery never commented in writing about the First Vision, which makes sense because he obviously wasn't there for it. He wasn't a witness. Oliver didn't even mention it when he published eight essays on Church history in 1834-5. Because we know Joseph assisted with those essays, we infer that Joseph didn't think the First Vision was important enough to mention. And that makes sense because lots of people have claimed to see God. Not only Christians, and not only Joseph's contemporaries, but people around the world in all ages. 

Those scholars who question Oliver's reliability and credibility because he didn't include the First Vision in the eight essays need to explain why they are applying an anachronistic test. Because Joseph wasn't speaking publicly about the First Vision, why should anyone expect Oliver to be the first to publish it? What if Joseph never told Oliver about it? Or, if he did, what if he asked him not to write about it? 

Then there's the reality that Joseph had the eight essays copied into his own journal as part of his life history, without editing for omissions or errors. And that Joseph approved the republication of the eight essays, without additions or subtractions, in the Times and Seasons and Gospel Reflector (and, by implication, in the Millennial Star and The Prophet).  

We can all read Oliver's essays to see how closely Joseph was involved. For example, when describing the night when Moroni first appeared, Oliver wrote:

In this situation hours passed unnumbered—how many or how few I know not, neither is he able to inform me; but supposes it must have been eleven or twelve, and perhaps later, as the noise and bustle of the family, in retiring, had long since ceased.


We can all see that at several places in the essays, Oliver quoted what Moroni told Joseph Smith, which could have come only from Joseph directly. Even when the essays were copied into Joseph's journal, Joseph made no changes or corrections to these quotations. That implies Oliver accurately reported what Joseph told him about Moroni's visits.

It's no reflection on Oliver's reliability or credibility that he did not write about the First Vision, either because Joseph (i) didn't tell him about it or (ii) asked him not to.

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