“‘Had You Stood in the Presence of Peter’: A Letter from Oliver Cowdery to Phineas Young, 1846,” Ensign, Feb. 1977, 78
One of the most interesting and enigmatic characters in early Church history was Oliver Cowdery, scribe to the Prophet Joseph Smith and at one time second elder of the Church. For over a century scholars and others have asked questions about Oliver Cowdery’s loyalty to his testimony following his excommunication in 1838. In the archives of the Church Historical Department is a letter from Oliver Cowdery to his brother-in-law, Phineas Young, that answers this question in a poignant manner.
Oliver Cowdery played an important role in the early days of the Church. He acted as Joseph Smith’s scribe in the translation of the Book of Mormon. He was present when the resurrected John the Baptist restored the Aaronic Priesthood and when Peter, James, and John restored the Melchizedek Priesthood. When the Church was organized, Oliver Cowdery was one of the original six members.
In February 1835, Oliver Cowdery, as one of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon, helped select the first twelve apostles in this dispensation. He also became the Church Recorder; in 1834 he was called to be Assistant President of the Church; and finally, in 1837, Joseph Smith called him to be an assistant counselor to the First Presidency.
During that same year he moved to Far West, Missouri. There he became involved with a group of Saints who were discontented with the leadership of the Church. The next year several charges, including dishonesty and seeking to defame the character of Joseph Smith, were brought against him. When the high council summoned him to court, he refused to attend, and the high council excommunicated him. Unlike many other disaffected Church members, however, Oliver Cowdery never became bitter toward the Church leaders.
By 1846 he was contemplating returning to the Church, and on March 23, 1846, he wrote a letter to Phineas Young, the brother of Brigham Young, revealing his fear that his character had been seriously maligned and that his testimony of the Church would not be believed. The most touching part of the letter concerns his testimony of the restoration of the priesthood.
“But from your last [letter], I am fully satisfied, that no unjust imputation will be suffered to remain upon my character. And that I may not be misunderstood, let me here say that I have only sought, and only asked, that my character might stand exonerated from those charges which imputed to me the crimes of theft, forgery, &c. Those which all my former associates knew to be false. I do not, I have never asked, to be excused, or exempted from an acknowledgement, of my actual fault or wrong—for of these there are many; which it always was my pleasure to confess. I have cherished a hope, and that one of my fondest, that I might leave such a character as those who might believe in my testimony, after I should be called hence, might do so, not only for the sake of the truth, but might not blush for the private character of the man who bore that testimony. I have been sensitive on this subject, I admit; but I ought to be so—you would be, under the circumstances, had you stood in the presence of John, with our departed brother Joseph, to receive the Lesser Priesthood—and in the presence of Peter, to receive the Greater, and looked down through time, and witnessed the effects these two must produce,—you would feel what you have never felt, were wicked men conspiring to lessen the effects of your testimony on man, after you should have gone to your long sought rest. But, enough, enough, on this.”
Oliver then becomes reflective, remembering the day the Church was organized and the hopes which those six members had of its future:
“You say you are to have a meeting on the 6th of April. Brother Phineas, I could be with you, and tell you about the 6th of April, 1830, when but six members only belonged to the Church, and how we looked forward to a future. I should gladly, but I cannot—only in spirit—but in spirit I shall be with you. …
“May the Lord God of our fathers bless you and yours, and the Church as a body. Such is my prayer—such is my heart.
“I am yours in the New and Everlasting Covenant.
On October 24, 1848, Oliver Cowdery journeyed to Kanesville on the Missouri River and met with a small group of Saints who were ready to journey to the West. There he asked for fellowship again in the Church. Orson Hyde baptized him on November 12, 1848. Oliver Cowdery planned to come to Salt Lake Valley with the Saints, but his poor health prevented him from making the journey. He died at the home of David Whitmer in Richmond, Missouri, on March 3, 1850.