Question: What did Oliver Cowdery's associates say about his character?

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Question: What did Oliver Cowdery's associates say about his character?

William Lang, who apprenticed in Cowdery's law office long after he left the Church, knew him for many years

William Lang, who apprenticed in Cowdery's law office, knew him for many years. Lang was a member of the Ohio bar, and served as "prosecuting attorney, probate judge, mayor of Tiffin, county treasurer, and two terms in the Ohio senate. He was nominated by his party for major state offices twice." [1]

Lang wrote of Cowdery:

Mr. Cowdery was an able lawyer and a great advocate. His manners were easy and gentlemanly; he was polite, dignified, yet courteous...With all his kind and friendly disposition, there was a certain degree of sadness that seemed to pervade his whole being. His association with others was marked by the great amount of information his conversation conveyed and the beauty of his musical voice. His addresses to the court and jury were characterized by a high order of oratory, with brilliant and forensic force. He was modest and reserved, never spoke ill of any one, never complained. [2]


1843 announcement in the Seneca Advertiser, Tiffin, Ohio, with Oliver Cowdery and his partner's law practice.

Harvey Gibson, a political opponent of Oliver's, and another lawyer, said that Cowdery was an "irreproachable gentleman"

Harvey Gibson, a political opponent of Oliver's, and another lawyer (whose statue now stands in front of the Seneca County courthouse) wrote:

Cowdery was an able lawyer and [an] agreeable, irreproachable gentleman. [3]

Incidents that some have claimed bring Cowdery's character into question

Document Containing the Correspondence, Orders, &C. in Relation to the Disturbances with the Mormons; And the Evidence Given Before the Hon. Austin A. King, Judge of the Fifth Judicial Circuit of the State of Missouri, at the Court-House in Richmond, in a Criminal Court of Inquiry, Begun November 12, 1838, on the Trial of Joseph Smith, Jr., and Others, for High Treason and Other Crimes Against the State

Some have used other ways to try and impugn Cowdery's character and bring it into question. One such way is bringing up an 1838 petition signed by 83 Latter-day Saint men accusing Oliver of various crimes[4]. Such incidents have been thoroughly addressed. Balanced context can be found in Latter-day Saint historian Alexander Baugh's PhD dissertation "A Call to Arms: The 1838 Mormon Defense of Northern Missouri. Neither Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, nor Hyrum Smith of the First Presidency signed the petition.[5] The document was written by then-apostate Sampson Avard. Furthermore, the allegations in the document are baseless. For example, it was feared that Oliver's desire to become a lawyer would lead to him to defending unsavory criminals or participating in vexatious lawsuits against the Church. When David and Oliver were earlier excommunicated they didn't defend themselves as they thought that church courts didn't have jurisdiction. Some of the Danites inferred guilt from their silence or by association. Historian Jeffrey Walker writes:

In April 1838, Oliver Cowdery was tried before a high council court and excommunicated. He did not attend the hearing, claiming that in his role as Assistant President of the Church the high council lacked jurisdiction over him.[6] Nine charges were brought against him. Counts one and seven dealt directly with Cowdery’s interest in or participation as a lawyer: “1st, For stirring up the enemy to persecute the brethren by urging on vexatious lawsuits[7]and thus distressing the innocent,” and “7th, For leaving the calling, in which God had appointed him, by Revelation, for the sake of filthy lucre, and turning to the practice of Law.”[8] While Cowdery did not substantively defend all the charges, he did submit a letter addressed to Bishop Partridge requesting that the council “take no view of the foregoing remarks, other than my belief in the outward governments of the Church.”[9][10]

Scott Faulring describes Oliver's exit from the Church and eventual return including these episodes.

Cowdery longed to put the strife associated with his June 1838 departure from Far West behind him. The situation, he explained, was "painful to reflect on." In a genuine spirit of reconciliation, Oliver offered his personal interpretation of the circumstances leading to his dismissal. He observed candidly: I believed at the time, and still believe, that ambitious and wicked men, envying the harmony existing between myself and the first elders of the church, and hoping to get into some other men’s birth right, by falsehoods the most foul and wicked, caused all this difficulty from beginning to end. They succeeded in getting myself out of the church; but since they them selves have gone to perdition, ought not old friends—long tried in the furnace of affliction, to be friends still. [11]

Oliver also told Brigham and the other members of the Twelve that he did not believe any of them had contributed to his removal and thus he could speak freely with them about returning.[12] In his reply to the Twelve’s invitation, Oliver mentioned a "certain publication," signed by some eighty-three church members then living in Missouri, charging him and others with conspiring with outlaws. [13] Cowdery emphatically denied such an vile indictment. He conceded that he had not seen the offending declaration, but had heard of its existence and the accusations made in it.[14]

"Such characters as McLellin, John Whitmer, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris, are too mean to mention; and we had liked to have forgotten them."

Some critics have used a December 1838 quote from the Prophet Joseph Smith to impugn Oliver's character. The above is the standard representation of this quote. Joseph Smith wrote to the Saints on 16 December 1838 to provide comfort to the Saints and update them on his current condition in Liberty Jail:

To the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Caldwell county, and all the Saints who are scattered abroad, who are persecuted, and made desolate, and who are afflicted in divers manners for Christ's sake and the Gospel's, by the hands of a cruel mob and the tyrannical disposition of the authorities of this state; and whose perils are greatly augmented by the wickedness and corruption of false brethren, greeting: May grace, mercy, and the peace of God be and abide with you; and notwithstanding all your sufferings, we assure you that you have our prayers and fervent desires for your welfare, day and night. We believe that that God who seeth us in this solitary place, will hear our prayers, and reward you openly.

Know assuredly, dear brethren, that it is for the testimony of Jesus that we are in bonds and in prison. But we say unto you, that we consider that our condition is better (notwithstanding our sufferings) than that of those who have persecuted us, and smitten us, and borne false witness against us; and we most assuredly believe that those who do bear false witness against us, do seem to have a great triumph over us for the present. [15]

By this time, all of the three witnesses had fallen away from the Church after severe disagreements with Joseph Smith. This is why Joseph Smith published the comment in the letter—Joseph was angry with them:

Was it for committing adultery that we were assailed? We are aware that that false slander has gone abroad, for it has been reiterated in our ears. These are falsehoods also. Renegade "Mormon" dissenters are running through the world and spreading various foul and libelous reports against us, thinking thereby to gain the friendship of the world, because they know that we are not of the world, and that the world hates us; therefore they [the world] make a tool of these fellows [the dissenters]; and by them try to do all the injury they can, and after that they hate them worse than they do us, because they find them to be base traitors and sycophants.

Such characters God hates; we cannot love them. The world hates them, and we sometimes think that the devil ought to be ashamed of them.

We have heard that it is reported by some, that some of us should have said, that we not only dedicated our property, but our families also to the Lord; and Satan, taking advantage of this, has perverted it into licentiousness, such as a community of wives, which is an abomination in the sight of God.

When we consecrate our property to the Lord it is to administer to the wants of the poor and needy, for this is the law of God; it is not for the benefit of the rich, those who have no need; and when a man consecrates or dedicates his wife and children, he does not give them to his brother, or to his neighbor, for there is no such law: for the law of God is, Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife. He that looketh upon a woman to lust after her, has committed adultery already in his heart. Now for a man to consecrate his property, wife and children, to the Lord, is nothing more nor less than to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the widow and fatherless, the sick and afflicted, and do all he can to administer to their relief in their afflictions, and for him and his house to serve the Lord. In order to do this, he and all his house must be virtuous, and must shun the very appearance of evil.

[Page 231]

Now if any person has represented anything otherwise than what we now write, he or she is a liar, and has represented us falsely—and this is another manner of evil which is spoken against us falsely.[16]

It is on this page that we get the quote from Joseph referencing the men specifically. Notice how he states only that they are "mean" and nothing more:

And now, brethren, we say unto you—what more can we enumerate? Is not all manner of evil of every description spoken of us falsely, yea, we say unto you falsely. We have been misrepresented and misunderstood, and belied, and the purity and integrity and uprightness of our hearts have not been known—and it is through ignorance—yea, the very depths of ignorance is the cause of it; and not only ignorance, but on the part of some, gross wickedness and hypocrisy also; for some, by a long face and sanctimonious prayers, and very pious sermons, had power to lead the minds of the ignorant and unwary, and thereby obtain such influence that when we approached their iniquities the devil gained great advantage—would bring great trouble and sorrow upon our heads; and, in fine, we have waded through an ocean of tribulation and mean abuse, practiced upon us by the ill bred and the ignorant, such as Hinkle, Corrill, Phelps, Avard, Reed Peck, Cleminson, and various others, who are so very ignorant that they cannot appear respectable in any decent and civilized society, and whose eyes are full of adultery, and cannot cease from sin. Such characters as McLellin, John Whitmer, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris, are too mean to mention; and we had liked to have forgotten them. Marsh and "another," whose hearts are full of corruption, whose cloak of hypocrisy was not sufficient to shield them or to hold them up in the hour of trouble, who after having escaped the pollution of the world through the knowledge of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, became again entangled and overcome—their latter end is worse than the first. But it has happened unto them according to the word of the Scripture: "The dog has returned to his vomit, and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire."[17]

Conclusion

All of these incidences beg questions:

  1. Why would Joseph risk angering these men further if he knew that they could expose him?
  2. Why didn't they expose him and instead go to their deathbeds (and in the case of Harris and Whitmer never returning to the Church) testifying that the work was true?
  3. Why did they always hold firm to their testimony to the Book of Mormon even when harassed by members of the Church and Joseph Smith himself after leaving it?

These are all, in the end, testaments to the strength and integrity of the witnesses in general and their integrity as witnesses to truth. They held true to their testimony even in the face of great temptation. That—in and of itself—is testimony to their reliability.

Notes

  1. Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981), 40. ISBN 0877478465.; the following quotes on Oliver are also taken from Anderson.
  2. William Lang, History of Seneca County (Springfield, Ohio, 1880), 365.
  3. "Letter from General W. H. Gibson," Seneca Advertiser (Tiffin, Ohio) 12 April 1892.
  4. Jeremy Runnells "Debunking FAIR's Debunking (Debunking FairMormon) July 2014 Revision; The omnibus title of the document in question is "Document Containing the Correspondence, Orders, &C. in Relation to the Disturbances with the Mormons; And the Evidence Given Before the Hon. Austin A. King, Judge of the Fifth Judicial Circuit of the State of Missouri, at the Court-House in Richmond, in a Criminal Court of Inquiry, Begun November 12, 1838, on the Trial of Joseph Smith, Jr., and Others, for High Treason and Other Crimes Against the State" (Fayette, MO: Boon’s Lick Democrat, 1841), 103–7
  5. For a discussion of these documents, see Stanley B. Kimball, “Missouri Mormon Manuscripts: Sources in Selected Societies,” BYU Studies 14, no. 4 (Summer 1974): 458–87.
  6. Cowdery articulated this general concern to Warren and Lyman by letter wherein he cited a March 10, 1838, letter to Thomas Marsh from David Whitmer, W. W. Phelps, and John Whitmer noting, “It is contrary to the principles of the revelations of Jesus Christ & his Gospel and the laws of the land, to try a person by an offence by an illegal tribunal, or by men prejudiced against him, or by authority that has given an opinion or decision beforehand or in his absence” (Oliver Cowdery to Warren and Lyman Cowdery, March 10, 1838, Huntington Library).
  7. Both contemporary and historical commentators suggest that the term “vexatious lawsuits” as used here and other places meant mean-spirited or malicious lawsuits brought without probable cause. However, cases where less than five dollars was at issue were also referred to as vexatious suits and several states had even limited the ability to bring forward such cases or otherwise limit the action. For example, in Ohio cases that were brought to recover five dollars or less, the plaintiff could not recover costs (Revised Statutes of the State of Ohio, ch. 86, sec. 78 [1841]). It appears that it is within this context that the reference to vexatious lawsuits is being made. This is further supported from the testimony proffered during the hearing in which the complaints are against Cowdery wanting to do “collection” work. This kind of legal work, while certainly not vexatious in terms of it being malicious and without probable cause (the debt would actually be claimed to be owed), but rather for a small amount—something less than five dollars.
  8. Cowdery’s excommunication hearing was held on April 12, 1838, presided over by Bishop Edward Partridge. As indicated, Cowdery did not attend the hearing but provided a letter of explanation. The letter was read at the hearing wherein he denied many of the allegations, noting that he “wished that those charges might have been deferred until after my interview with President Joseph Smith” (Oliver Cowdery to Edward Partridge, April 12, 1838, as cited in Donald Q. Cannon and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., Far West Record: Minutes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830–1844 [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983], 164). Testimony was heard from several persons including John Corrill, John Anderson, Dimick B. Huntington, George Hinckle, George Harris, and David W. Patten. Much of the testimony centered on Cowdery’s practice of law. Testimony included charges that he “had been influential in causing lawsuits in this place, as a number more lawsuits have taken place since he came here than before,” that he “went on to urge lawsuits as even to issue a writ on the Sabbath day also, that he heard him say that he intended to form a partnership with Donaphon who is a man of the world,” and that he “wanted to become a secret partner in the store” so he could act as an attorney and collect debts (Cannon and Cook, Far West Record, 166–67). At the conclusion of the hearing, three of the nine charges were rejected or withdrawn. All the others were sustained, including the charges related to his legal activities, justifying his excommunication (Cannon and Cook, Far West Record, 169).
  9. Cannon and Cook, Far West Record, 165–66. Cowdery started the letter noting that “his understanding on those points [the charges] which are grounds of difference opinions on some Church regulations” (Cannon and Cook, Far West Record, 164). His feelings at the time were more openly expressed to his brother, Warren and Lyman in a letter dated February 4, 1838, where he commented about the upcoming council: “My soul is sick of such scrambling for power and self aggrandizement by a pack of fellows more ignorant than Balaam’s ass. I came to this country to enjoy peace, if I cannot, I shall go where I can” (Oliver Cowdery to Warren and Lyman Cowdery, February 4, 1838, Huntington Library).
  10. Jeffrey N. Walker, “Oliver Cowdery’s Legal Practice in Tiffin, Ohio,” in Days Never to Be Forgotten: Oliver Cowdery, ed. Alexander L. Baugh (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2009), 295–326. off-site
  11. Cowdery to Brigham and the Twelve, 25 December 1843; emphasis in original.
  12. "Them" referred to the addressees of his response, namely Elders Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Parley P. Pratt, William Smith, Orson Pratt, Willard Richards, Wilford Woodruff, John Taylor, and George A. Smith. During his troubles in Far West, 1837–38, Oliver Cowdery was not oppressed by any of these men.
  13. Actually a letter (ca. 18 June 1838) addressed to the leading dissenters (i.e., Oliver Cowdery, John and David Whitmer, W. W. Phelps, and Lyman E. Johnson). This document warned Cowdery and others to depart Far West with their families within 72 hours or "a more fatal calamity shall befall you." A copy of the letter was published as evidence in Document Containing the Correspondence, Orders, &c., 103–06. Sidney Rigdon is suspected as the letter’s author. For balanced context to this incident, see Alexander L. Baugh, "Dissenters, Danites, and the Resurgence of Militant Mormonism," chapter four of "A Call to Arms: The 1838 Mormon Defense of Northern Missouri" (Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, 1996), 68–101.
  14. Scott Faulring, "The Return of Oliver Cowdery" Religious Studies Center off-site (accessed 6 December 2018)
  15. Joseph Smith "The Prophet's Letter to the Church" 16 December 1838 in History of the Church Vol 3: Ch 15: P 226 (ed.) Brigham H. Roberts off-site
  16. Ibid, 230-31
  17. Ibid, 231