Oliver Cowdery lay awake wondering if the stories he was hearing were 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 golden 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. Oliver needed to know if such wonderful things were true. He prayed. A peace came to him, convincing him that God had spoken and confirming the stories he had heard.
He told no one of this experience, though he often spoke of the golden plates and gradually came to believe God was calling him to be a scribe for Joseph Smith as he translated.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 that an angel told him the Lord would send him a scribe, “And I trust his promise will be verified,” Joseph said.Indeed, the Lord did send a scribe, and to Joseph’s mother and father’s surprise it was Oliver Cowdery, the very man they had helped prepare. Oliver arrived at Joseph and Emma Smith’s home on April 5, 1829.
Joseph and Oliver wasted little time. After attending to some business on April 6, they began the work of translation together the following day.
A Revelation for Oliver
Translation continued for several days, and then Joseph received a revelation for his new 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. “Cast 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. “Did I not speak peace to your mind concer[n]ing the matter?—What greater witness can you have than from God? . . . Doubt not, fear not.”
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 Lord stated in revelation, “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.” The Lord also offered Oliver another gift: "If you desire of me, to translate even as my servant Joseph.”
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.”Doctrine and Covenants 7.The answer came in a vision of a parchment that Joseph translated, which is now
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. In it, the Lord assured Oliver he could have the gift he desired. The requirements: faith and an honest heart.
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.”
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 Exodus 7:9–12; Numbers 17:8). Many Christians in Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery’s day similarly believed in divining rods as instruments for revelation. Oliver was among those who believed in and used a divining rod.
The Lord recognized Oliver’s ability to use a rod: “Thou hast another gift which is the gift of working with the sprout [or rod].” 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.
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 also 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.”
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,” Oliver later wrote. “To [sit] under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom!”
When Joseph and Oliver came to the account of Jesus’s 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.
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 [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.’”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.”