Question: Did Oliver Cowdery privately admit to his law partner that the Book of Mormon was actually a hoax?

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Question: Did Oliver Cowdery privately admit to his law partner that the Book of Mormon was actually a hoax?

William Lang's letter repeats the standard Spalding theory and disingenuously assigns this claim to Oliver Cowdery

It is claimed that Oliver Cowdery admitted to his law partner that the Book of Mormon was a hoax, and that it was derived from the Spalding manuscript.

If not among the forgeries promulgated by Robert Neal, William Lang's letter repeats the standard Spalding theory and disingenuously assigns this claim to Oliver Cowdery, who had been dead for over thirty years and was not available to rebut the claim.

Letter from Judge W. Lang

The following letter was published in an anti-Mormon flyer in November 1881. The letter is said to have been written by Judge W. Lang, a law partner of Oliver Cowdery during the period between his excommunication and re-baptism. The entire letter is reproduced below:

TIFFIN, O., Nov. 5, 1881,

DEAR SIR: -- Your note of the 1st inst. I found upon my desk when I returned home this evening and I hasten to answer. Once for all, I desire to be strictly understood when I say to you that I cannot violate any confidence of a friend, though he be dead.

This I will say, that Mr. Cowdery never spoke of his connection with the Mormons to anybody except to me. We were intimate friends.

The plates were never translated and could not be, were never intended to be. What is claimed to be a translation is the "Manuscript Found" worked over by Cowdery. He was the best scholar amongst them. Rigdon got the original at the job printing office in Pittsburg, as I have stated. I often expressed my objection to the frequent repetition of "And it came to pass" to Mr. Cowdery, and said that a true scholar ought to have avoided that, which only provoked a smile from Cowdery. Without going into detail or disclosing a confided word, I say to you that I do know, as well as can now be known, that Cowdery revised the "manuscript," and Smith and Rigdon approved of it before it became the "Book of Mormon."

I have no knowledge of what became of the original. Never heard Cowdery say as to that.

Smith was killed while Cowdery lived here. I well remember the effect upon his countenance when he read the news in my presence. He immediately took the paper over home to read to his wife. On his return to the office we had a long conversation on the subject, and I was surprised to hear him speak with so much kindness of a man that had so wronged him as Smith did. It elevated him greatly in my already high esteem, and proved to me more than ever the nobility of his nature. Cowdery never gave me a full history of the troubles of the Mormons in Missouri and Illinois, but I am sure that the doctrine of polygamy was advocated by Smith and opposed by Cowdery.

Then when they became rivals for the leadership, Smith made use of this opposition by Cowdery, to destroy his popularity and influence, which finally culminated in the mob that demolished Cowdery's house the night when he fled.

This Whitmer you speak of must be the brother-in-law of Cowdery, whose wife was a Whitmer. It may be true that Whitmer has the original MS.

Now as to whether Cowdery ever "openly denounced Mormonism," let me say this to you: No man ever knew better than he how to keep one's own counsel. He would never allow any man to drag him into a conversation on the subject. Cowdery was a Democrat and a most powerful advocate of the principles of the party on the stump. For this he became the target of the Whig stumpers and press, who denounced him as a Mormon and made free use of Cowdery's certificate * at the end of the Mormon Bible to crush his influence. He suffered great abuse for this, while he lived here on that account.

In the second year of his residence here, he and his family attached themselves to the Methodist Protestant Church, where they held fellowship to the time they left for Elkhorn.

I have now said about all that I feet at liberty to say on these points, and hope it may aid you some in your researches. If Mrs. Cowdery is still living, I would be glad to learn her post-office address, so as to enable me to write to her.

You have now the substance of all I remember on the subject and if it proves of any benefit to your enterprise (to which I wish you success), you are certainly welcome. I could only answer your questions in the manner I did, because some of them were not susceptible of a direct answer by me. Respectfully yours, W. LANG.

There are a number of items mentioned in the letter which make this claim suspect

There are a number of items mentioned in the letter which make this claim suspect.

  1. The letter was written over thirty years after Oliver Cowdery's death.
  2. The idea that Oliver would claim that the Book of Mormon was derived from the Spalding's "Manuscript found." This claim was made by Lang in 1881, while the Spalding theory still had some traction. The theory collapsed three years later in 1884 with the discovery of Spalding's manuscript. The primary support for the Spalding theory were the affidavits collected by Doctor Phiastus Hurlbut from Solomon Spalding's family and neighbors published in E.D. Howe's 1834 anti-Mormon book Mormonism Unvailed. With the discovery that the Spalding manuscript did not support their theory, critics postulated the existence of a second Spalding manuscript in order to explain the affidavits of Spalding's neighbors. Critic Fawn Brodie actually discounted these affidavits, suggesting that some "judicious prompting" by Hurlbut may have been involved in the affidavits that were gathered to support the Spalding theory. [1]
  3. The idea that Sidney Rigdon obtained the Spalding manuscript while in Pittsburgh. Sidney Rigdon did not meet Joseph Smith until after he saw the Book of Mormon for the first time. There is absolutely no source which indicates a connection between Sidney and Joseph prior to the publication of the Book of Mormon.
  4. The author's insistence that he cannot "violate any confidence of a friend, though he be dead," yet share a detail which would be as devastating as this, then conclude by saying that he "really can't say much more "[w]ithout going into detail or disclosing a confided word" of his friend. Lang even covers the fact that Oliver never said this to anyone else by claiming that "Mr. Cowdery never spoke of his connection with the Mormons to anybody except to me."

The 1881 letter is no longer extant and there is reason to believe that all or part of the letter is a forgery

The 1881 letter is no longer extant and there is reason to believe that all or part of the letter is a forgery. After reviewing claims made about the letter's provenance, Spalding theory researcher Dale Broadhurst concludes, "Judge Lang's purported 1881 reference to Solomon Spalding's Manuscript Found should be viewed with a modicum of scholarly distrust." Broadhurst proposes a scenario where William Lang's surviving son could have been duped into authenticating the handwriting and reproduction of the letter.

It seems unlikely that two Spalding theorists (William Lang and Thomas Gregg) suppressed Oliver's devastating admission in their own publications. A third Spalding theorist, Rev. Robert B. Neal, printed the 1881 letter between the first two only after their deaths. In the same 1906 tract, Neal also published the known forgery Defense in a Rehearsal of My Grounds for Separating Myself from the Latter-day Saints. That he pointed out his sensational Oliver Cowdery material to his readers specifically to raise money may indicate an additional motive for fabricating evidence.

As noted, William Lang's own writings published in his lifetime do not use Oliver Cowdery to support the Spalding theory. Lang's 1880 History of Seneca County mentions Cowdery multiple times. For example, Lang became a legal apprentice to Cowdery soon after his 1840 move to Tiffin, Ohio (p. 387). In a lengthy appendix on Mormonism (p 646- ), Lang makes a reference to Cowdery being "a respected citizen" who had lived there, and a few paragraphs later introduces the Spalding theory without using Cowdery as a source. He also has a two-page biography (p. 364-5) about Oliver Cowdery where he hints that "Cowdery had more to do with the production of the Mormon Bible than its history ever gave him credit for," but nothing connects Oliver to the Spalding manuscript.

The supposed recipient of the letter, Thomas Gregg, was a long time newspaper publisher in the Hancock, Illinois, area. His intermittent associate in the newspaper business, Thomas Sharp, had played a large role in stirring up anti-Mormons to kill Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Frank Worrell, Gregg's brother-in-law, had failed to protect the Smiths as a guard at Carthage jail and was later shot by the deputized Porter Rockwell at the behest of the non-Mormon sheriff, Jacob Backenstos. Many of his publications over a 50-year span set forth his less-than-impartial version of Mormon history. For example, his 1880 History of Hancock county contained a lengthy Mormon section. More to the point, in 1890 he published the 550 page The Prophet of Palmyra. Gregg's biographer describes it thusly:

It is not so much a biography of Smith as a history of the Latter Day Saints' Church from the appearance of The Book of Mormon through the exodus from Illinois. Here, too, Gregg's attitude toward the Prophet and other Mormon leaders is consistently negative. He views The Book of Mormon as a carefully planned deception, based partly on Solomon Spaulding's Manuscript Found (c. 1813), and he relies on a number of Mormon exposes - such as E. D. Howe's Mormonism Unveiled (1834) and William Harris's Mormonism Portrayed -for information about Smith.

Despite a desire to defend and document the Spalding theory, Thomas Gregg did not print William Lang's supposed 1881 letter. This may point to the letter being a forgery. An alternative is that Gregg found it unethical to print the letter because it betrayed confidential information or was deemed not credible enough. Robert Neal was clearly less burdened by ethical considerations or less discerning about what he published. None of these proposed scenarios inspires any confidence that Oliver, did in fact, retract his testimony of the Book of Mormon to William Lang in private and to no one else.

Oliver Cowdery made many statements during his life, even during the period during which he had been excommunicated from the church, in which he confirmed his testimony of the Book of Mormon

Oliver Cowdery made many statements during his life, even during the period during which he had been excommunicated from the church, in which he confirmed his testimony of the Book of Mormon. Oliver even testified of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon as he was dying.

Oliver Cowdery just before breathing his last, 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.’ A few moments later he died without a struggle. [2]

This is not consistent with Lang's story of a man who readily admitted to a hoax of the magnitude that he suggests.

Notes

  1. Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945), 446–447.
  2. Andrew Jenson, LDS Biographical Encyclopedia (Salt Lake City: Andrew Jenson History Company, 1901), 1:246.