“Members Commemorate Oliver Cowdery’s 200th Birthday,” Liahona, Feb. 2007, N5–N7
It was 200 years ago on October 3, 1806, that Oliver Cowdery, one of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, was born in the New England town of Wells, Vermont. Local Church members and townspeople marked the occasion on September 23 by gathering in a Methodist church where they heard addresses from a Brigham Young University Church history professor and from the president of the Montpelier Vermont Stake.
The celebration was to have occurred on the town green, but rain made it necessary to meet in the church, where the Reverend David Adams, pastor of the church, and Ron Bremmer, chairman of the town select board (comparable to a mayor), were in attendance.
“In Vermont, Oliver learned the three Rs of reading, ’riting, and ’rithmatic; when he left, he would learn about another three Rs: restoration, revelation, and reconciliation,” said Fred E. Woods, professor of Church history and doctrine.
Oliver Cowdery’s joint statement with David Whitmer and Martin Harris appears in the preface of the Book of Mormon, affirming the divine vision in which an angel showed them the Book of Mormon plates. Oliver was the “second elder” of the restored Church (see D&C 20:3) and one of the six founding members of the Church, Brother Woods noted.
“Oliver served as Joseph Smith’s scribe in [translating] the Book of Mormon, which is now considered to be one of the most influential books in America,” he continued. “Thus, today we commemorate an individual who has not only influenced Mormon history and theology but has also shaped American history and religion.”
Brother Woods traced events of Oliver’s life, including his boarding with the Smith family as a schoolteacher from 1828 to 1829 in Manchester Township, New York, and his subsequent meeting with the Prophet; his presence when the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods were restored by divine messengers; and his instrumentality in the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon.
Citing D&C section 6, Brother Woods noted that Oliver was counseled to “seek not for riches but for wisdom” (v. 7), that he would “be the means of doing much good” (v. 8), and that his inquiring mind led to revelation (see vv. 14–17, 21–24).
“Oliver struggled with the universal sin of pride, as we all do to one degree or another,” Brother Woods said. “He was excommunicated in April 1838 for a variety of issues, which included not supporting the government of the Church.”
Brother Woods quoted Elder G. Homer Durham (1911–85) of the Seventy as having written that “what may have been false accusations, mingled with misunderstandings growing from the sale of land, finally led to his refusal to appear before a Church council.” Brother Woods said, “Those who brought the charges all lost their membership and later became enemies of the Church.”
In the subsequent decade, Oliver practiced law, primarily in Tiffin, Ohio, all the while never denying his written testimony of the Book of Mormon, despite on one occasion being confronted over the matter in a courtroom by an opposing attorney, Brother Woods recounted.
“During a six-year period (1842 to 1848), Phineas Young, brother of Brigham Young and brother-in-law of Cowdery (Phineas being married to Oliver’s half-sister Lucy), continually wrote and paid visits to Oliver,” Brother Woods said. “At the same time, Church leaders were feeling after Oliver. For example, Willard Richards, who kept the Prophet Joseph Smith’s journal, was directed by Joseph in the spring of 1843 to ‘write to Oliver Cowdery and ask him if he has not eaten husks long enough, if he is not most ready to return.’ The [Quorum of the] Twelve sent a letter to Oliver with an invitation to return to the fold, which among other things, stated, ‘Your brethren are ready to receive you. … Your dwelling place you know ought to be Zion.’”
Oliver responded cordially but was not quite ready to reclaim his Church membership, as he felt the circumstances surrounding his excommunication had not been examined in their true light, Brother Woods said.
In October 1848, Phineas Young visited the Cowdery family at their home in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, Brother Woods said. He escorted Oliver, his wife, and their only surviving child of six children to Kanesville, Iowa, to attend the local conference of the Church. There, Oliver addressed the gathering of nearly 2,000 people and requested membership in the Church. In subsequent weeks, he was received back into full fellowship and was rebaptized on November 12, 1848.
Desiring to join with the body of the Church in the Salt Lake Valley and launch a fruit tree business, he first took his wife to visit with her family, the Whitmers, in Richmond, Missouri. Failing health would not permit him to undertake the journey west, and he died on March 3, 1850. Brother Woods quoted Oliver’s brother-in-law, David Whitmer, as saying: “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.”
Adapted from Church News, Sept. 30, 2006; historical information on Oliver Cowdery’s life taken from Fred E. Woods, “What Greater Witness Can You Have Than from God?” an address given on Sept. 23, 2006 in Wells, Vermont, commemorating the bicentennial anniversary of the birth of Oliver Cowdery.