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in Context

Oliver Cowdery’s Gift

D&C 6, 7, 8, 9, 13

Jeffrey G. Cannon

Oliver Cowdery

Oliver Cowdery lay awake wondering. Could the stories he was hearing be true? The 22-year-old schoolteacher was boarding at the Palmyra, New York, home of Joseph Smith Sr. in the fall of 1828. Soon after he arrived in the area, he started hearing stories of the Smiths’ son Joseph Jr., his encounters with angels, and his discovery of gold plates.

His curiosity piqued, he had plied his landlord with questions, eager to learn more. At first Joseph Sr. was reluctant to share, but he eventually gave way to his boarder's pleading and told him about Joseph Jr.’s experiences. If such wonderful things were true, Oliver needed to know. He prayed. A peace came to him, convincing him God had spoken and confirmed the stories he had heard.1

He told no one of this experience, though he often spoke of the gold plates and gradually came to believe God was calling him to be a scribe for Joseph Smith as he translated.2 When the school term ended in the spring of 1829, Oliver traveled to Harmony, Pennsylvania, where Joseph was living with his wife, Emma, farming land owned by Emma’s father, Isaac Hale.

Translation of the plates had stopped for a time after Joseph’s scribe Martin Harris lost the manuscript the previous summer. Despite this setback, Joseph had reassured his mother, telling her an angel told him “the Lord would send me a scribe, and I trust his promise will be verified.”3 Indeed, the Lord would send a scribe and, to his mother and father’s surprise, it was Cowdery, the very man they had helped prepare. Oliver Cowdery arrived at Joseph and Emma Smith’s home on April 5, 1829.

Joseph and Oliver wasted little time. After spending April 6 attending to some business, they began their work of translation together the following day.

A Revelation for Oliver

D&C 6 on
D&C 6 on

Translation continued for several days, then Joseph received a revelation for his scribe. Oliver's lingering doubts about Joseph Smith’s prophetic gift were addressed as the words of the revelation related experiences Oliver had not shared with anyone. “[C]ast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things,” the Lord reminded him, “[D]id I not speak peace to your mind concer[n]ing the matter?— What greater witness can you have than from God?... [D]oubt not, fear not”4 (see D&C 6:22-23).

Oliver came to Harmony believing he had been called to write for Joseph; now he was there and wanted to know what else the Lord had in store for him. “Behold thou hast a gift,” the revelation stated, “and blessed art thou because of thy gift. Remember it is sacred and cometh from above.” His gift was the gift of revelation, and by it he could “find out mysteries, that thou mayest bring many to the knowledge of the truth; yea, convince them of the error of their ways”5 (see D&C 6:10-11). The Lord also offered Oliver another gift, "if you desire of me, to translate even as my servant Joseph" (see D&C 6:25).

D&C 7 on
D&C 7 on

In the meantime, Oliver continued to witness Joseph Smith employ his gift to translate. Sometime that same month, the two men were discussing the fate of the apostle John—a topic of interest at the time. Joseph’s history records they differed in their opinions and “mutually agreed to settle [it] by the Urim and Thummim.”6 The answer came in a vision of a parchment that Joseph translated, which is now Doctrine and Covenants 7.

Oliver Desires to Translate

As Joseph and Oliver continued their work, Oliver grew anxious to play a greater part in the translation. The Lord had promised him the opportunity to translate and he wanted to claim it. Joseph dictated another revelation. The word of the Lord assured Oliver he could have the gift he desired. The requirements: faith and an honest heart (see D&C 8:1).

D&C 8 on
D&C 8 on

The revelation continued, informing the would-be translator how the process was to work. The Lord would “tell you in your mind & in your heart by the Holy Ghost which Shall come upon you & which shall dwell in your heart.” Revelation had always come in this manner. The revelation declared this was the means, or “spirit by which Moses brought the children of Israel through the red Sea on dry ground”7 (see D&C 8:2-3).

Oliver Cowdery lived in a culture steeped in biblical ideas, language and practices. The revelation’s reference to Moses likely resonated with him. The Old Testament account of Moses and his brother Aaron recounted several instances of using rods to manifest God’s will (see Ex. 7:9-12; Num. 17:8). Many Christians in Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery's day similarly believed in divining rods as instruments for revelation. Cowdery was among those who believed in and used a divining rod.8

D&C 9 on
D&C 9 on

The Lord recognized Oliver’s ability to use a rod: “thou hast another gift which is the gift of working with the rod.”9 Confirming the divinity of this gift, the revelation stated: “Behold there is no other power save God that can cause this thing of Nature to work in your hands for it is the work of God.” If Oliver desired, the revelation went on to say, the Lord would add the gift of translation to the revelatory gifts Oliver already possessed (D&C 8:8-11).

Though we know very few details about Oliver Cowdery’s attempt to translate, it apparently did not go well. His efforts quickly came to naught. In the wake of Oliver’s failure, Joseph Smith received another revelation, counseling Oliver, “Be patient my son, for it is wisdom in me, and it is not expedient that you should translate at this present time.” Oliver was further told he had not understood the process. He was first to “study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right, I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you”10 (see D&C 9:7-8).

Authority Restored

While discouraged by his failed attempt to translate, Oliver dutifully resumed his role as scribe as Joseph dictated the translation from the plates. “These were days never to be forgotten,” Cowdery later wrote. “To sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom!” When they came to the account of Jesus’ personal ministry to the Nephites, they began to wonder if anyone in their day had authority to administer the true church of Christ. They were especially concerned about baptism. On May 15, 1829, they left the Smith home where they were working to find a secluded spot to pray in a wooded area nearby.

D&C 13 on
D&C 13 on

Whatever doubts Oliver Cowdery may still have entertained certainly vanished when the resurrected John the Baptist "descended in a cloud of light, and having laid his hands upon us"11 said, "Upon you my fellow servants in the name of Messiah I confer the priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministring of angels and  of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins" (see D&C 13). The experience cemented Oliver's faith. “Where was room for doubt?” Oliver later wrote of the incident. “No where; uncertainty had fled, doubt had sunk.”12


For more on the sections mentioned in this article, see the forthcoming volume, Michael Hubbard MacKay, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, Grant Underwood, Robert J. Woodford, William G. Hartley, eds. Documents: July 1828-June 1831. First volume of the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman. Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2013.


[1] Joseph Smith, History, 1838-1856, volume A-1, 15, Joseph Smith Papers.

[2] Lucy Mack Smith history, fair copy, ca. 1845, 140, Church History Library.

[3] Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool, England: S. W. Richards, 1853), 126.

[4] Revelation, April 1829-A, JSP.

[5] Revelation, April 1829-A, JSP.

[6] Joseph Smith, History, 1838–1856, volume A-1, 15–16, JSP.

[7] Revelation, April 1829-B, JSP.

[8] Robert Fuller, Spiritual But Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 15, 17; Mark Ashurst-McGee, “Pathway to Prophethood" (PhD. Diss., Utah State University, Dept. of History, 2000), 126–148.

[9] The earliest manuscript of this revelation refers to Oliver Cowdery’s “gift of working with the sprout.” Sidney Rigdon changed “sprout” to “rod” in preparation for the revelation's publication in the Book of Commandments in 1833. The 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants is the first source to call it “the gift of Aaron." See Revelation Book 1, p. 13; Book of Commandments 7:3; Doctrine and Covenants (1835), 34:3. The word sprout meant “the end of a branch or shoot” (Noah Webster, American Dictionary of the English Language [New York: S. Converse, 1828]).

[10] Revelation, April 1829-D, JSP.

[11] Joseph Smith, History, 1838-1856, volume A-1, 17, JSP.

[12] Oliver Cowdery, letter, to William W. Phelps, 7 September 1834, in Karen Lynn Davidson, David J. Whittaker, Mark R. Ashurst-McGee, Richard L. Jensen, eds., Histories: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832-1834, Vol. 1 of the Histories series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 46.