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

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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. [1]

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 A careful comparison of Joseph Smith's unpublished 1832 history with Cowdery's 1834–35 history reveals that the "authentic documents" in question were the six pages of the 1832 history.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 [2]—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” [3]

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]. [4]

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. [5] The next letter from Cowdery to Phelps (written in December) began telling the details of the First Vision story leading up to the theophany. [6] 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. [7] 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." [8] 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"

Notes

  1. Oliver Cowdery, "?," (October 1834) Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1:13. (emphasis added)
  2. The Reflector, 2/13 (14 February 1831).
  3. Patriarchal Blessing Book, 1:3–4.
  4. 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.
  5. See Oliver Cowdery, "?," (October 1834) Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1:13-16.
  6. See Oliver Cowdery, "?," (December 1834) Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1:42-43.
  7. See Oliver Cowdery, "?," (February 1835) Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1:65-67.
  8. See Oliver Cowdery, "?," (February 1835) Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1:78.