Joseph Smith's First Vision/Accounts/Oliver Cowdery not aware of First Vision in 1834-35

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Oliver Cowdery's awareness of the story of the First Vision in 1834-35

Summary: When Oliver Cowdery published his version of the history of the Church in December 1834 and February 1835 he did not include a recital of the First Vision story - thus implying that it was not known among the Saints by that point in time. It is claimed that Cowdery's history contradicts Joseph Smith's later official history by saying that the Prophet's first visionary experience was of the angel Moroni in 1823.

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Question: Did Oliver Cowdery state that Joseph did not know if a "supreme being" existed in 1823?

In the first installment of his history published in December 1834, Oliver established Joseph's age as 14 and very accurately described the religious excitement leading up to the First Vision

Oliver Cowdery began publishing a history of the Church in the Messenger and Advocate in December 1834 which is commonly misunderstood:

In 1834, Oliver Cowdery began publishing a history of the Church in installments in the pages of the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate. The first installment talks of the religious excitement and events that ultimately led to Joseph Smith’s First Vision at age 14. However, in the subsequent installment published two months later, Oliver claims that he made a mistake, correcting Joseph’s age from 14 to 17 and failing to make any direct mention of the First Vision. Oliver instead tells the story of Moroni’s visit, thus making it appear that the religious excitement led to Moroni’s visit.

This curious account has been misunderstood by some to be evidence that the “first” vision that Joseph claimed was actually that of the angel Moroni and that Joseph invented the story of the First Vision of the Father and Son at a later time. However, Joseph wrote an account of his First Vision in 1832 in which he stated that he saw the Lord, and there is substantial evidence that Oliver had this document in his possession at the time that he wrote his history of the Church. This essay demonstrates the correlations between Joseph Smith’s 1832 First Vision account, Oliver’s 1834/1835 account, and Joseph’s 1835 journal entry on the same subject. It is clear that not only did Oliver have Joseph’s history in his possession but that he used Joseph’s 1832 account as a basis for his own account. This essay also shows that Oliver knew of the First Vision and attempted to obliquely refer to the event several times in his second installment before continuing with his narrative of Moroni’s visit.[1]

Two months later in the second installment published in February 1835, Oliver abruptly "corrects" Joseph's age from 14 to 17 years old, skips the First Vision and then proceeds instead to describe Moroni's visit

After spending the previous installment leading up to the First Vision, Oliver abruptly skips three years ahead and does not mention the vision directly. However, before describing Moroni's visit, Oliver even takes the time to minimize the importance of the religious excitement that he described in the previous installment, stating,

And it is only necessary for me to say, that while this excitement continued, he continued to call upon the Lord in secret for a full manifestation of divine approbation, and for, to him, the all important information, if a Supreme being did exist, to have an assurance that he was accepted of him.
Oliver Cowdery, Messenger and Advocate (February 1835)

The religious "excitement" that Oliver is describing is now portrayed as an event in the past, during which Joseph desired to know "if a Supreme being did exist"

Note carefully what Oliver is saying. The religious "excitement," and the event that Oliver described in the first installment when he said that Joseph was 14 years of age, was when Joseph was seeking a "full manifestation of divine approbation" with the desire to know "if a Supreme being did exist." Oliver then alludes to the First Vision in the past tense by saying,

This, most assuredly, was correct—it was right. The Lord has said, long since, and his word remains steadfast, that for him who knocks it shall be opened, & whosoever will, may come and partake of the waters of life freely.
Oliver Cowdery, Messenger and Advocate (February 1835)

Oliver is stating that something of significance happened in Joseph’s life prior to the events that Oliver would be describing next, and he assures the reader that “this, most assuredly, was correct.” Oliver then proceeds to describe Moroni's visit to Joseph at age 17.


Question: What criticisms are related to Oliver Cowdery's 1834-1835 history of the Church?

Critics of the Church conflate Oliver's first and second installments of his Church history in order to "prove" that Joseph was not aware that a "Supreme being" existed three years after he claimed to have had his first vision

When Oliver Cowdery published his version of the history of the Church in December 1834 and February 1835 he did not include a recital of the First Vision story - thus implying that it was not known among the Saints by that point in time. One critical website makes the following claim:

In the first history of Mormonism from 1835 written under Joseph Smith's direction, it says that the night of September 1823 Joseph Smith began praying in his bed to learn 'the all important information, if a Supreme being did exist, to have an assurance that he was accepted of him.' (LDS periodical Messenger and Advocate, Kirtland, Ohio, Feb. 1835). It makes no sense for him to ask if God existed, if Smith had already seen God face-to-face some three years earlier, and knew he existed.[2]

and

In Joseph Smith's 1835 published history of the church, he claimed that his first spiritual experience was in 1823 after a religious revival in Palmyra that same year. Smith testified that he prayed while in bed one night, to discover if God existed.

These claims, however, are false. Oliver's February 1835 installment did not describe Joseph's First Vision - it described Moroni's visit. It should also be noted that this was not "Joseph Smith's 1835 published history."

Only two years prior to Oliver's history, Joseph's 1832 account of the First Vision clearly establishes the date of both the first vision, and the vision of Moroni

Oliver Cowdery did, in fact, know about the First Vision when he recorded his version of the history of the Restoration—he had physical possession of the Prophet's 1832 history, which contains an account of the First Vision.

In October 1834 Cowdery announced in his newspaper that Joseph Smith would help with the history project but the Prophet himself noted that "no month ever found [him] more busily engaged than November." [3] In December 1834 President Smith was busy lecturing at the School of the Elders and acting as a trustee for the Kirtland High School and so during this month he sent Oliver a short letter to be included as part of the project, but also noted within it that he learned of his prominent role in the project, and its imminent appearance in the press, by reading Cowdery's periodical! [4]


Question: Was Oliver Cowdery aware of the details of the First Vision that were written in Joseph Smith's 1832 history?

Oliver stated that he had "authentic documents" which he was using as a basis for his 1834-1835 history

Oliver Cowdery announced in an article published at the outset of his 1834-35 history writing project that he would not only be assisted by the Prophet in this endeavor, but he also had "authentic documents" from which to extract correct information. His statement reads,

That our narrative may be correct, and particularly the introduction, it is proper to inform our patrons, that our brother J[oseph] Smith jr. has offered to assist us. Indeed, there are many items connected with the fore part of this subject that render his labor indispensable. With his labor and with authentic documents now in our possession, we hope to render this a pleasing and agreeable narrative. [5]

With these two valuable resources at Oliver Cowdery's disposal, it would be only natural for modern readers to expect that his recital of the founding events of the Church would be both accurate and complete.

Oliver had access to Joseph's 1832 history, and was therefore aware of the First Vision

The identification of the "authentic documents" mentioned by Cowdery is crucial to understanding the historical puzzle under discussion. It is claimed that Cowdery was not aware of the First Vision story at this time and therefore did not include it in his narrative. But they are wrong. A careful comparison of Joseph Smith's unpublished 1832 history with Cowdery's 1834–35 history reveals that the "authentic documents" in question were the six pages of the 1832 history. Because of this, it cannot be successfully argued that Oliver Cowdery did not know of the First Vision story when he wrote his history. Critics typically ignore the fact that Cowdery's published 1834 document begins telling the First Vision story—providing the correct year for its occurrence and giving details about the Palmyra-area 'revival' activity that preceded the theophany.

Another important piece of information to keep in mind is that in the same document in which Cowdery began talking about First Vision story themes, he published a letter from Joseph Smith that surveyed some of the events of his boyhood. In this letter the Prophet acknowledged that while he was living in the Palmyra and Manchester areas of New York as a youth he "fell into many vices and follies." He also pointed out that this fact was already mentioned in the "Articles and Covenants" of the Church. This is a reference to what is now known as section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Verse 5 of section 20 reads: "After it was truly manifested unto this first elder [i.e., Joseph Smith] that he had received a remission of his sins, he was entangled again in the vanities of the world." The first part of this verse is considered by some LDS scholars to be the first published reference to the First Vision experience; it was recorded in April 1830.(See DC 20:5.)

It must also be remembered that Oliver Cowdery was publicly teaching around 1 November 1830 (along with several other LDS missionaries) that the Prophet Joseph Smith had seen God "personally" and received a commission from Him to preach true religion [6]—and yet Cowdery did not provide a record of this momentous event in his published 1834-35 historical narrative. Furthermore, it cannot be forgotten that Joseph Smith was telling the First Vision story publicly long before Oliver Cowdery published his narrative.

November 1831
Lorenzo Snow and a large crowd heard the story in Hiram, Ohio.
October 1834
Edward Stevenson, Joseph Curtis and others heard the story in Pontiac, Michigan.
December 1834
Joseph Smith Sr. reminded his son—the Prophet—in a blessing given on the 9th:
The Lord thy God has called thee by name out of the heavens; thou hast heard his voice from on high from time to time, even in thy youth. . . . Thou hast been called, even in thy youth[,] to the great work of the Lord” [7]

This closely corresponds with the official First Vision account where the Prophet indicates:

One of <them> spake unto me calling me by name and said (pointing to the other) 'This is my beloved Son, Hear him.'....[I] displayed the weakness of youth [during this time]. [8]

Why did Oliver skip ahead three years and not mention the vision?

When several key documents are consulted it is possible to see how Oliver Cowdery could have known full well about the First Vision experience (by reading the 1832 account) yet fail to report it in his rendition of Church history.

Cowdery's historical narrative consists of the text of a series of letters that he was writing to William W. Phelps. By going a little backward in time we find that on 7 September 1834, Cowdery wrote to Phelps and discussed a "few incidents connected with the rise of this church." His focus was on things that he had personally experienced. He spoke of hearing the voice of the Redeemer, his reception of the Aaronic priesthood, his angel-directed baptism, and his work as scribe for the Book of Mormon manuscript. [9] The next letter from Cowdery to Phelps (written in December) began telling the details of the First Vision story leading up to the theophany. [10] Then at the end of December, Phelps wrote back. He mentioned Cowdery's history project, the priesthood being committed to Cowdery, the Book of Mormon coming forth, Cowdery’s scribal work for the Book of Mormon, and Phelps himself hearing news of the Book of Mormon sometime in the year 1823. Phelps requested Cowdery to explain what the angel had said to Joseph Smith about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and also to “let church history tell” the particulars of what the angel said when the priesthood was restored. [11] When Cowdery responded to Phelps in February of 1835 he acknowledged receipt of his letter, made his now-baffling dating adjustment to the year 1823, announced that he did not want to talk about the 'revival' activity from his previous letter anymore, and proceeded to give an account of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon on "the evening of the 21st of September, 1823." [12] William had suggested the focus of the narrative in the letters and Oliver had obliged.

Joseph re-instituted the correct dating parameters for the First Vision when he later talked with Oliver

When the Prophet spoke several months after Cowdery made his dating adjustment, however, (and also when he recorded the official Church history in 1838) he re-instituted the correct dating parameters for the First Vision, indicating thereby that Oliver had gotten it right the first time.

Consider the following sequence:

Oliver Cowdery (December 1834)
"the 15th year of his life"
Oliver Cowdery (February 1835)
"an error in the type—it should have been in the 17th"
Joseph Smith (November 1835)
"I was about 14 years old"
Joseph Smith (May 1838)
"I was at this time in my fifteenth year....between fourteen and fifteen years of age"

Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, "The Cowdery Conundrum: Oliver’s Aborted Attempt to Describe Joseph Smith’s First Vision in 1834 and 1835"

Roger Nicholson,  Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, (December 6, 2013)
In 1834, Oliver Cowdery began publishing a history of the Church in installments in the pages of the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate. The first installment talks of the religious excitement and events that ultimately led to Joseph Smith’s First Vision at age 14. However, in the subsequent installment published two months later, Oliver claims that he made a mistake, correcting Joseph’s age from 14 to 17 and failing to make any direct mention of the First Vision. Oliver instead tells the story of Moroni’s visit, thus making it appear that the religious excitement led to Moroni’s visit.

This curious account has been misunderstood by some to be evidence that the “first” vision that Joseph claimed was actually that of the angel Moroni and that Joseph invented the story of the First Vision of the Father and Son at a later time. However, Joseph wrote an account of his First Vision in 1832 in which he stated that he saw the Lord, and there is substantial evidence that Oliver had this document in his possession at the time that he wrote his history of the Church. This essay demonstrates the correlations between Joseph Smith’s 1832 First Vision account, Oliver’s 1834/1835 account, and Joseph’s 1835 journal entry on the same subject. It is clear that not only did Oliver have Joseph’s history in his possession but that he used Joseph’s 1832 account as a basis for his own account. This essay also shows that Oliver knew of the First Vision and attempted to obliquely refer to the event several times in his second installment before continuing with his narrative of Moroni’s visit.

Click here to view the complete article

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. Roger Nicholson, "The Cowdery Conundrum: Oliver’s Aborted Attempt to Describe Joseph Smith’s First Vision in 1834 and 1835," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 8:27-44 (December 6, 2013).
  2. "The First Vision," mormonthink.com.
  3. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 2:170. Volume 2 link
  4. J. Christopher Conkling, A Joseph Smith Chronology (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1979), 68–69.
  5. Oliver Cowdery, "?," (October 1834) Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1:13. (emphasis added)
  6. The Reflector, 2/13 (14 February 1831).
  7. Patriarchal Blessing Book, 1:3–4.
  8. A death notice in the December 1834 issue of the Messenger and Advocate is dated "12th inst." - meaning that the acknowledgment of First Vision story themes by the Prophet's father occurred shortly before Cowdery published his First Vision story themes in the Messenger and Advocate.
  9. See Oliver Cowdery, "?," (October 1834) Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1:13-16.
  10. See Oliver Cowdery, "?," (December 1834) Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1:42-43.
  11. See Oliver Cowdery, "?," (February 1835) Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1:65-67.
  12. See Oliver Cowdery, "?," (February 1835) Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1:78.