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Undaunted Witnesses Episode 1: Oliver Cowdery, Witness – powered by Happy Scribe
Hi. You brought someone with you.
This is Oliver Cowdery.
Mr. Smith, I come for the purpose of writing for you.
Well, let’s talk it over after we get you cleaned up, little brother. You smell like you’ve been on the road for a week.
Welcome to our series about the Witnesses of the Book of Mormon. My name is Camrey Bagley Fox, and we are joined today by Dr. Gerritt Dirkmaat, associate professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University.
Gerritt has worked as a historian and writer on the Joseph Smith Papers Project over the last decade. I recently had the opportunity to play Emma Smith in the movie Witnesses.
That experience was both fascinating and informative, but it also raised a lot of questions for me, and that’s why I have invited Dr. Dirkmaat to join me.
Thank you for being here.
Thank you for having me.
So I want to talk about the witnesses and their relationship with Joseph Smith. Let’s start with Oliver Cowdery. What can you tell us about him?
I think that Oliver Cowdery is one of those essential people in the restoration. If you read some of Joseph’s early writings, he is really struggling at the moment that Oliver Calgary shows up. Suddenly out of nowhere from God. Oliver Cowdery shows up at the door and says, I’m here to write for you. I think that beginning of the relationship was this miraculous aspect of it, and they very quickly became very close. And you really see Oliver as part of all these early foundational events of the Church. John Baptist coming, Peter, James and John coming. So early on, Oliver Cowdery is essentially indispensable, kind of goes throughout their relationship. Oliver is essential. Joseph loves him, Oliver loves Joseph. But then there’s going to be tensions that creep up and those tensions are going to be exacerbated over the course of time by various events that happen in the Church.
So I know eventually Oliver leaves the Church. What brings that about?
The real tensions really come to a head in 1837 and early 1838. A lot of them surround the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society.
There’s a gigantic financial crisis and hundreds of banks all over the country fail. And especially these banks on the frontier like theirs is, they are not well funded and it’s going to collapse and that causes an enormous amount of tension. Things start to kind of derail. Some people point to the ascendancy of people like Sidney Rigdon in the Church. Joseph loves and accepts people. I want to say ridiculously quickly, I don’t know if there’s a wrong way to love people, but Joseph is that way. I mean, he meets people and within days he takes them immediately into his confidence. He’s giving them all kinds of authority and power in the Church. And you can see how that might really affect these early people who had actually sacrificed to even get the Church going. Hey, it’s great that Sydney Rigdon can give a good Mormon. Remember me? Right. I’m the one who wrote most of the Book of Mormon while you translate it. So there’s feelings of being maybe pushed a little bit to the side.
There’s some jealousy, maybe.
Yeah. And that’s pretty natural. I feel like we talk about it like, oh, yes. How could they possibly have been jealous? How could they possibly not have been if you sacrificed your entire life to this? If everyone you know has calling you names and has thrown you aside and you’ve given up everything, it’s a pretty natural thing to expect something back.
I think when he left the Church, he was excommunicated, correct?
Yeah. Well, he actually is going to say he’s leaving either way, but he’s going to be cut off.
He makes a choice.
It wasn’t just like.
Yes, look, excommunication is very different in 1838 than it is today. There are people who are excommunicated from the Church for falling asleep in a Church meeting, which, if that were the case.
We’D all, yeah, I’m in trouble.
Yeah. The reality is we see excommunication as this incredibly stark. That’s it. I mean, it’s going to be at least a year before you can get back in. They don’t for them. People will be cut off from the Church one day. And as soon as they say, okay, I’m sorry, they’re back in.
They’re back in.
They leave in a time of just incredible turmoil. Kerlin’s falling apart at the time that Martin Harris has cut off from the Church. And Missouri is just heading into the Moroni, Warren, Missouri, when David Whitmer and Oliver Cadrex communicated. And so in the months that follow, Joseph’s imprisoned in Liberty Jail, and the Church is being driven from Missouri. And frankly, I’m not even sure how they would know where to go back to at the moment. In the months that followed, Oliver Caldery doesn’t say, oh, yeah, Joseph Smith was never a Prophet. He doesn’t say that he simply feels like the Church is going the wrong direction and that it was unfair the way that he was treated. Well, after Joseph Smith’s death, he will ask if he can be readmitted to the Church.
I never thought I’d have the opportunity to address the body of the Saints again. I will not waste it. I’m not currently affiliated with this honored company, something I hope to quickly rectify. I’m not here to seek power, nor to interfere with the business or callings of those men who’ve borne the burden since the death of Joseph. My request is to be a mere member of Christ’s Church. I throw myself at your feet and I ask to be one of your number. I wish only to be aligned again with Brother Joseph and with God.
And they will accept him, and he’ll be rebaptised by worse than I and with the intention that he’s going to go to Salt Lake. In fact, Brigad me hugging is so willing to welcome him back into the Church that he’s actually appointed to go to Washington, DC to help defend the latterday Saints in their rights that are being challenged by the federal government. Unfortunately, he gets ill and he goes back to Missouri and he just never fully recovers. And shortly thereafter, the pass away.
Joseph was dead. The young Church balanced on a razor’s edge for grieving Saints. There was no tested path, no definitive word on who should lead. But mere hours following Joseph’s death, some began to campaign while others looked for revelation from God.
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