THE THREE WITNESSES.
While Joseph Smith, the Prophet, with Oliver Cowdery as scribe, were engaged in translating the Book of Mormon in Fayette, Seneca Co., N. Y. in the year 1829, they ascertained that the plates, from which they were translating, should be shown by the power of God to three special witnesses, who should bear record of the divinity of the book, etc. (See Book of Mormon, Ether, 5th Chap.)
Almost immediately after making this discovery, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and Martin Harris asked the Prophet Joseph to "inquire of the Lord to know if they might not obtain of him to be these three special witnesses." At length Joseph complied with their wishes, and through the Urim and Thummim received for them a revelation, granting them the privilege conditional upon their faith. (Doc. & Cov., Sec. 17.)
"Not many days after the above commandment was given," writes Joseph Smith, "we four, viz., Martin Harris, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery and myself, agreed to retire into the woods, and try to obtain, by fervent and humble prayer, the fulfilment of the promises given in the above revelation, that they should have a view of the plates, etc.
We accordingly made choice of a piece of woods convenient to Mr. Whitmer’s house, to which we retired, and having knelt down, we began to pray in much faith to Almighty God to bestow upon us a realization of these promises. According to previous arrangement, I commenced prayer to our heavenly father, and was followed by each of the others in succession. We did not at the first trial, however, obtain any answer or manifestation of divine favor in our behalf. We again observed the same order of prayer, each calling on and praying fervently to God in rotation, but with the same result as before. Upon this, our second failure, Martin Harris proposed that he should withdraw himself from us, believing, as he expressed himself, that his presence was the cause of our not obtaining what we wished for. He accordingly withdrew from us, and we knelt down again, and had not been many minutes engaged in prayer, when presently we beheld a light above us in the air, of exceeding brightness; and behold, an angel stood before us; in his hands he held the plates which we had been praying for these to have a view of; he turned over the leaves one by one, so that we could see them, and discover the engravings thereon distinctly. He then addressed himself to David Whitmer, and said, 'David, blessed is the Lord, and he that keeps His commandments.'
196 THE THREE WITNESSES.
When, immediately afterwards, we heard a voice from out of the bright light above us, saying, 'These plates have been revealed by the power of God, and they have been translated by the power of God. The translation of them which you have seen is correct, and I command you to bear record of what you now see and hear.'
"I now left David and Oliver, and went in pursuit of Martin Harris, whom I found at a considerable distance, fervently engaged in prayer. He soon told me, however, that he had not yet prevailed with the Lord, and earnestly requested me to join him in prayer, that he also might realize the same blessings which we had just received. We accordingly joined in prayer, and ultimately obtained our desires, for before we had yet finished, the same vision was opened to our view, at least it was again opened to me, and I once more beheld and heard the same things; whilst at the same moment, Martin Harris cried out, apparently in an ecstasy of joy, ''Tis enough; ’tis enough; mine eyes have beheld; mine eyes have beheld,' and jumping up, he shouted 'Hosanna,' blessing God, and otherwise rejoiced exceedingly.
"Having thus, through the mercy of God, obtained these glorious manifestations, it now remained for these three individuals to fulfil the commandment which they had received, viz., to bear record of these things; in order to accomplish which, they drew up and subscribed the following document: --
"'The Testimony of Three Witnesses.
"'Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That we, through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, have seen the plates which contain this record, which is a record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites, their brethren, and also of the people of Jared, who came from the tower of which hath been spoken. And we also know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true. And we also testify that we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates; and they have been shown unto us by the power of God, and not of man. And we declare with words of soberness, that an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon; and we know that it is by the grace of God the the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, that we beheld and bear record that these things are true. And it is marvelous in our eyes. Nevertheless, the voice of the Lord commanded us that we should bear record of it; wherefore, to be obedient unto the commandments of God, we bear testimony of these things. And we know that if we are faithful in Christ, we shall rid our garments of the blood of all men, and be found spotless before the judgment seat of Christ, and shall dwell with him eternally in the heavens. And the honor be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen.
Was born in the town of Wells, Rutland Co., Vermont, in October, 1805. He was principally raised in the town of Poultney, Rutland cO., whence his father removed when Oliver was only three years old. About the year 1825, Oliver removed to the State of New York, where his elder brothers were married and settled, and some two years later his father also moved to that State. Oliver was employed as clerk in a store until the winter of 1828-29, when he taught the district school in the town of Manchester, Ontario Co., N. Y., nine miles from his father's house. There he first became acquainted with the family of Joseph Smith, sen. (father of the Prophet), who was one of those who sent children to the
school, and Oliver went to board awhile at his house. During that time the
family related to him the circumstances of young Joseph having received the
plates of the Book of Mormon. Oliver became deeply interested and
THE THREE WITNESSES. 197
to find out the particulars about this wonderful event. He also prayed to the Lord to enlighten his mind, and one night, after he had retired to rest, the Lord manifested to him, that he had been told the truth in relation to the finding of the plates. He then concluded to pay Joseph Smith a visit, in order to learn more about it, which he did, and on April 5, 1829, he first met the Prophet at his temporary home in Harmony, Penn., whither he had removed because of the persecutions to which he had been subjected in the State of New York. This meeting of Joseph and Oliver was not only providential for the latter,
but also for the Prophet himself, who had already been the custodian of the
plates of the Book of Mormon for some time, but had been unable to proceed
with the translation for the want of a scribe. In Oliver he saw the proper
person to assist him in his work, and two days after his arrival, Joseph Smith
"commenced to translate the Book of Mormon," with Oliver Cowdery as
scribe. A few days later a revelation was given to Oliver Cowdery through
Joseph Smith. (Doc. & Cov., Sec. 6.)
While engaged in the work of translating, Oliver became exceedingly anxious to have the power to translate bestowed upon him, and in relation to his desire two revelations were given to him through the Prophet Joseph (Doc. & Cov., Sec. 8 and 9). On various other occasions he was favored with the words of the Almighty direct through the Prophet, with whom he for a number of years afterwards was very closely connected in his administrations in the Priesthood and official duties generally. (See Doc. & Cov., Sec. 7, 13, 17, 18, 23, 110, etc.)
On May 15, 1829, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery went into the woods to pray and inquire of the Lord respecting baptism for the remission of sins, which they
found mentioned in the record. While engaged in prayer, a messenger from
heaven descended in a cloud of light, and laying his hands upon them, he
ordained them, saying:
"Upon you, my fellow-servants, in the name of Messiah, I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels and of the Gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; and this shall never be taken again from the earth, until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness."
This heavenly messenger said that this Aaronic Priesthood had not the
power of laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost. He also told them
that his name was John, the same that is called John the Baptist in the New
Testament, and that he acted under the direction of Peter, James and John,
who held the keys of the Priesthood of Melchizedek, which priesthood he
said would in due time be conferred on them, when Joseph should be the
first and Oliver the second Elder in the Church.
The messenger also commanded them to go and be baptized and ordain each other, and directed that Joseph should first baptize Oliver, and then Oliver baptize Joseph. This they did, after which Joseph laid his hands on Oliver's head and ordained him to the Aaronic Priesthood. Oliver then laid his hands on Joseph and ordained him to the same Priesthood.
The Prophet writes:
"Immediately on our coming up out of the water after we had been baptized, we experienced great and
198 THE THREE WITNESSES.
glorious blessings from our heavenly father. No sooner had I baptized Oliver Cowdery, than the Holy Ghost fell upon him, and he stood up and prophesied many things which should shortly come to pass. And again, so soon as I had been baptized by him, I also had the spirit of prophecy, when, standing up, I prophesied concerning the rise of this Church, and many other things connected with the Church, and this generation of the children of men. We were filled with the Holy Ghost, and rejoiced in the God of our salvation."
Early in June Joseph Smith and wife and Oliver Cowdery removed to Fayette, Seneca Co., N.Y., where the translation of the Book of Mormon was continued and finished. John Whitmer, one of the sons of Peter Whitmer, sen., assisted considerably in the writing. It was some time during the month of June of this year (1829) that the plates were shown to the three witnesses; and not long afterwards Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were ordained to the Melchizedek
Priesthood by Peter, James and John. A revelation directed principally to
Oliver Cowdery was also given, making known the calling of Twelve
Apostles in the last days. (Doc. & Cov., Sec. 18.)
When the Church was organized in Fayette, April 6, 1830, Oliver Cowdery was one of the original six members, and was on that occasion ordained by Joseph Smith to be the second Elder in the Church. April 11th, Oliver preached the first public discourse delivered by any Elder in this dispensation. The meeting in which this took place was held in Mr. Whitmer's house, in Fayette.
In the following June, Oliver accompanied the Prophet to Colesville, Broome
Co., where a large branch of the Church subsequently was raised up, amidst considerable persecution.
In October, 1830, Oliver Cowdery, Parley P. Pratt, Peter Whitmer, jun., and
Ziba Peterson were called to go on a mission to the Lamanites in the
wilderness. These missionaries took leave of their friends late in October of
the same year, and started on foot. After traveling for some days, they
stopped and preached to an Indian nation near Buffalo, N.Y., and
subsequently raised up a large branch of the Church in Kirtland, Ohio.
Among the converts at the latter place was the famous Sidney Rigdon, who
afterwards became so prominent in the Church. In the beginning of 1831,
after a very hard and toilsome journey in the dead of winter, the
missionaries finally arrived in Independence, Jackson County, Missouri,
about fifteen hundred miles from where they started. This was the first
mission performed by the Elders of the Church in any of the States west of
New York. Oliver Cowdery and P. P. Pratt commenced a prosperous
mission among the Delaware Indians across the frontier line, but they were
finally ordered out by the Indian Agents, accused of being disturbers of the
peace. Being thus compelled to cease their work among the Lamanites for the time being, the Elders commenced preaching to the whites in Jackson county, with considerable success. In February, Elder Pratt was sent back to the East, while Elder Cowdery and his other companions remained in Missouri until the arrival of the Prophet Joseph and many other Elders from the East, July following, when Jackson County was designated as a gathering place of the Saints and dedicated for that purpose.
THE THREE WITNESSES. 199
When the Temple site was dedicated, Aug. 3, 1831, Elder Cowdery was one of the eight men present. He subsequently returned to Kirtland, Ohio, with the Prophet, where they arrived Aug. 27th. In the following November he and John Whitmer was sent back to Missouri with the revelations, which were to be printed there by W. W. Phelps.
On the Prophet's second visit to Missouri, in 1832, Oliver Cowdery was appointed one of a committee of three to review and prepare such revelations as were deemed necessary for publication. He was also one of the High Priests appointed to stand at the head of affairs relating to the Church in Missouri.
After the destruction of the printing press and the troubles in Jackson
County, in July, 1833, Oliver Cowdery was sent as a special messenger from
the Saints to Kirtland, Ohio, to confer with the First Presidency there. He arrived
there in the latter part of August.
At a council held in Kirtland, Sept. 11, 1833, he was appointed to take charge of the printing office to be established at that place, and there he subsequently recommenced the publication of the Evening and Morning Star. When the press was dedicated, Dec. 18, 1833, the Prophet records the following concerning Elder Cowdery:
"Blessed of the
Lord is Brother Oliver; nevertheless there are two evils in him that he must
needs forsake, or he cannot altogether forake the buffetings of the adversary.
If he forsake these evils, he shall be foregiven, and he shall be made like
unto the bow which the Lord hath set in the heavens; he shall be a sign and
an ensign unto the nations. Behold, he is blessed of the Lord for his
constancy and steadfastness in the work of the Lord; wherefore, he shall be
blessed in his generation, and they shall never be cut off, and he shall be
helped out of many troubles; and if he keeps the commandments, and
hearkens unto the counsel of the Lord, his rest shall be glorious."
At the organization of the first High Council in the Church, at Kirtland, Feb. 17,
1834, Elder Cowdery was elected a member. He acted as clerk of the Council
for a number of years, and subsequently acted as president of the Council. When the Prophet, with Zion's Camp, started for Missouri in May following, Oliver, together with Sidney Rigdon, was left in charge of the Church in Kirtland.
On the evening of Nov. 29, 1834, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery united in solemn prayer and made a covenant with the Lord, that if he would prosper them in certain things, they would give a "tenth to be bestowed upon the poor of his Church, or as he shall command." This was the first introduction of the paying of tithing among the Latter-day Saints.
In February, 1835, the Three Witnesses, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and Martin Harris, chose twelve men from the Elders of the Church, to officiate as the Twelve Apostles. In blessing them and giving them instructions Oliver Cowdery took a prominent part. He was also one of the trustees of the school in Kirtland, where he studied Hebrew and other languages, in connection with the Prophet and other Elders. Sept. 14, 1835, he was appointed to act as Church Recorder.
He was present at the dedication of the Temple in Kirtland, and
200 THE THREE WITNESSES.
a very active part in giving the assembled Elders their washings and
anointings; and on April 3, 1836, he, in connection with the Prophet Joseph, saw and heard the Savior, as also Moses, Elias and Elijah the Prophet, who
committed unto them the keys necessary for the furtherance of the work of the great latter-day dispensation. (Doc. & Cov., Sec. 110.)
Sept. 3, 1837, at a conference held in Kirtland, Elder Cowdery was appointed assistant counselor to the First Presidency. Some time during that year he removed to Far West, Caldwell Co.,Mo., where he acted as clerk of the High
Council and Church Recorder. He was also a member of a committee
appointed to select locations for the gathering of the Saints.
On Wednesday April 11, 1838. Elder Seymour Brunson preferred the following charges against Oliver Cowdery before the High Council of Far West:
"1st. For persecuting the brethren by urging on vexatious lawsuits against
them, and thus distressing the innocent. 2nd. For seeking to destroy the character of President Joseph Smith jun., by falsely insinuating that he was guilty of adultery, etc. 3rd. For treating the Church with contempt by not attending meeting. 4th. For virtually denying the faith by declaring that he would not be
governed by any ecclesiastical authority or revelations whatever, in his
temporal affairs. 5th. For selling his lands in Jackson county, contrary to the revelations. 6th. For writing and sending an insulting letter to President Thomas B. Marsh, while on the High Council, attending to the duties of his office as
president of the Council, and by insulting the High Council with the contents of said letter. 7th. For leaving his calling, in which God had appointed him by revelation, for the sake of filthy lucre, and turning to the practice of law. 8th. For
disgracing the Church by being connected in the bogus business, as common
report says. 9th. For dishonestly retaining notes, after they have been paid; and, finally, for leaving or forsaking the cause of God, and returning to the beggarly
elements of the world, and neglecting his high and holy calling according to
The following day (April 12th) the Bishop of Far West and High Council
examined his case. "The 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 7th, 8th and 9th charges were
sustained. The 4th and 5th charges were rejected; and the 6th was withdrawn. Consequently he (Oliver Cowdery) was considered no longer a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
After his excommunication, Oliver Cowdery engaged in law business and practiced for some years as a lawyer in Michigan, but he never denied the truth of the Book of Mormon. On the contrary he seems to have used every opportunity to bear testimony of its divine origin. While practicing law in Michigan, a gentleman, on a certain occasion, addressed him as follows: "Mr. Cowdery, I see your name attached to this book. If you believe it to be true, why are you in Michigan?" The gentleman then read the names of the Three Witnesses and asked. "Mr. Cowdery, do you believe this book!" "No, sir," was the reply. "Very well," continued the gentleman, "but your name is attached to it, and
you declare here (pointing to the book) that you saw an angel, and also the
plates, from which the book purports to be translated; and now you say you
don't believe it. Which time did you tell the truth?"
THE THREE WITNESSES. 201
Oliver Cowdery replied with emphasis, "My name is attached to that book, and what I there have said is true. I did see this; I know I saw it, and faith has nothing to do with it, as a perfect knowledge has swallowed up the faith which I had in the work, knowing, as I do, that it is true."
At a special conference held at Kanesville, Iowa, Oct. 21, 1848, and presided
over by Apostle Orson Hyde, Oliver Cowdery was present and made the
"Friends and Brethren, -- My name is Cowdery, Oliver
Cowdery. In the early history of this Church I stood identified with her, and
one in her councils. True it is that the gifts and callings of God are without
repentance; not because I was better than the rest of mankind was I called;
but, to fulfill the purposes of God. He called me to a high and holy calling.
"I wrote, with my own pen, the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it
fell from the lips of the Prophet Joseph Smith, as he translated it by the gift
and power of God, by the means of the Urim and Thummim, or, as it is
called by that book, 'holy interpreters.' I beheld with my eyes, and handled
with my hands, the gold plates from which it was transcribed. I also saw with
my eyes and handled with my hands the 'holy interpreters.' That book is
true. Sidney Rigdon did not write it; Mr. Spaulding did not write it; I wrote it
myself as it fell from the lips of the Prophet. It contains the everlasting
gospel, and came forth to the children of men in fulfilment of the
revelations of John, where he says he saw an angel come with the
everlasting gospel to preach to every nation, kindred, tongue and people. It
contains principles of salvation; and if you, my hearers, will walk by its light
and obey its precepts, you will be saved with an everlasting salvation in the kingdom of God on high, Brother Hyde has just said that it is very important that we keep and walk in the true channel, in order to avoid the sand-bars. This is true. The channel is here. The holy Priesthood is here.
I was present with Joseph when an holy angel from God came down from heaven and conferred on us, or restored, the lesser or Aaronic Priesthood, and said to us, at the same time, that it should remain upon the earth while the earth stands.
I was also present with Joseph when the higher or Melchizedek Priesthood was conferred by holy angels from on high. This Priesthood we then conferred on each other, by the will and commandment of God. This Priesthood, as was then declared, is also to remain upon the earth until the last remnant of time. This holy Priesthood, or authority, we then conferred upon many, and is just as good and valid as though God had done it in person.
I laid my hands upon that man -- yes, I laid my right hand upon his head (pointing to Brother Hyde), and I conferred upon him this Priesthood, and he holds that Priesthood now. He was also called through me, by the prayer of faith, an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ."
In the early part of November following Elder Hyde called a High Council in
the Log Tabernacle, to consider the case of Oliver Cowdery; having been cut
off by the voice of a High Council, it was thought that, if he was restored, he
should be restored by the voice of a similar body. Before this body Brother
"Brethren, for a number of years I have been separated from
you. I now desire to come back. I wish to come humbly and to be one in your
midst. I seek no station. I only wish to be identified with you. I am out of the
Church. I am not a member of the Church, but I wish to become a member
of it. I wish to come in at the door. I know the door. I have not come here to
seek precedence. I come humbly and throw myself upon the decisions of this
body, knowing, as I do, that its decisions are right, and should be obeyed."
Brother George W. Harris, President of the Council, moved that Brother
Cowdery be received. Considerable discussion took place in relation to a
certain letter which, it was alleged, Brother Cowdery had written to David
Whitmer. Brother Cowdery again rose and said:
"If there be any person that has aught against me, let him declare it. My coming back and humbly asking to become a member
202 THE THREE WITNESSES.
through the door, covers the whole ground. I acknowledge this authority."
Brother Hyde moved that Brother Oliver Cowdery be received into the
Church by baptism, and that all old things be dropped and forgotten, which
was seconded and carried unanimously. Soon afterwards he was re-baptized.
Elder Phineas H. Young, who was present at the death of Oliver Cowdery, at Richmond, Missouri, March 3, 1850, says, "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."
Elder S. W. Richards relates the following:
"The arrival of Oliver
Cowdery and his family at Council Bluffs from the east in the winter of 1848-
49 was an interesting event in the history of the Church. With his family, he
was on his way to the body of the Church located in Utah, but as some time
must elapse before emigrant trains could venture upon the plains, he
determined to visit his wife's friends, the Whitmers, in Missouri.
making that journey, a severe snow storm made it convenient for his family
to spend several days with Elder Samuel W. Richards and family, who were
temporarily residing in upper Missouri, awaiting the opening of the
emigration season. That favorable opportunity was made the most of to
discuss all matters of interest connected with the early history of the Church,
with which Elder Cowdery was personally acquainted and Elder Richards
"His relation of events was of no ordinary character, maintaining
unequivocally all those written testimonies he had furnished to the Church
and world in earlier days. Moroni, Peter, James and John, and other
heavenly messengers, who had ministered to him in connection with the
prophet Joseph Smith, were familiarly but sacredly spoken of, and all
seemed fresh upon the memory as though but events of yesterday. His
language was considerate, precise and forcible -- entirely free from lightness or
frivolity -- such as might be expected from one who had been schooled with
angels and taught by Prophets; more of the heavenly than the earthly.
"His only ambition seemed to be to give himself and the remainder of his life to
the Church; declared he was ready and willing, if desired, to go to the nations
of the earth and bear his testimony of that which God and angels had
revealed -- a testimony in his personal experience of many things which no other living person could bear. His hopes were buoyant that such might be his future lot as cast with the Church, in the body of which he declared the Priesthood and its authority were and must continue to be. An overruling Providence saw fit
to order otherwise. Soon after arriving among his relatives in Missouri, he
was taken sick and died, in full faith and fellowship of the latter-day work,
desiring the world might know that his testimony was of God."
(Contributor, Vol. 5, page 446.)
His half-sister, Lucy P. Young, a widow of the late Phineas H. Young, relates that Oliver Cowdery married a Miss Whitmer (a sister of the Whitmer brothers) in Missouri in 1833; and thst just before breathing his last, he asked his attendants to raise him up in bed, that he might talk to the family and his friends, who were present. He then told them to live according to the teachings contained in the Book of Mormon, and promised them, if they would do this, that they would meet him in heaven. He then said, "Lay me down and let me fall asleep."
THE THREE WITNESSES. 203
A few moments later he died without a struggle.
David Whitmer testified to Apostles Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith in 1878, as follows:
"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 me down for the last time:
I am going to my Savior;' and he died immediately, with a smile on his face." (Mill. Star. Vol. 40, page. 774.)
In an article published in the Mill. Star, Vol. 48, page 420, Elder
Edward Stevenson gives the following testimony in relation to Oliver
"I have often heard him bear a faithful testimony to the
restoration of the gospel by the visitation of an angel, in whose presence he
stood in company with the Prophet Joseph Smith and David Whitmer. He
testified that he beheld the plates, the leaves being turned over by the angel,
whose voice he heard, and that they were commanded as witnesses to bear a
faithful testimony to the world of the vision that they were favored to
behold, and that the translation from the plates in the Book of Mormon was
accepted of the Lord, and that it should go forth to the world, and no power
on earth should stop its progress. Although for a time Oliver Cowdery
absented himself from the body of the Church, I never have known a time
when he faltered or was recreant to the trust so sacredly entrusted to him by
an angel from heaven."