When his younger brother Oliver, then in his early twenties, became the “second elder” of the restored Church in 1830, Warren Cowdery (who was sometimes known as Dr. Cowdery) owned an apothecary, served as postmaster, and had constructed the first brick house in Freedom, New York.At the time, he and his wife, Patience, were the parents of eight children. Though he apparently learned about the Book of Mormon around the time it was published in 1830, Warren did not join the Church until four years later. He followed the unfolding drama of his brother’s faith from a distance. In a January 1834 letter to Oliver, Warren expressed sympathy for the plight of the Saints in Missouri after their recent expulsion from Jackson County, but he still wrote of the members of the Church as “your people” and “your friends.”
The likely turning point for Warren Cowdery was a visit from Joseph Smith and Parley P. Pratt in March 1834. Obeying a command to recruit participants and collect donations from Church members in the “eastern countries” for Zion’s Camp, Joseph and Parley passed through Freedom and stayed overnight in the home of Warren and Patience Cowdery, where they were treated hospitably “in the full Enjoyment of all the Blessings Both temporal and spiritual of which we stand in need or are found worthy to receive.” During the visit, they preached more than once “to a hous crowded full to overflowing,” and several people were baptized, including the Cowderys’ neighbor Heman Hyde.Pratt later recalled that “thirty or forty” people were baptized and organized into a branch, which became the nucleus for the growth of the Church in that region.
Although there are no surviving records of these first members in the Freedom Branch, it is likely that Warren Cowdery was among them. In the fall of 1834, six months after the visit from Joseph Smith, Warren wrote another letter to Oliver, in which he spoke of the religion “we have both embraced” and referred to the Saints as “our brethren and sisters.” Warren’s letter suggests his conversion was hard won. He seems to have been keenly aware of the criticism and disapproval of “thousands of respectable people [who] say . . . we are deluded and deceived,” feeling the sting of that opposition all the more because of his respectable position in local society. And though he had felt “some manifestations of divine approbation” in his worship in the Freedom Branch, Warren still longed for experiences like his brother’s. “I have a thousand times wished I could have that evidence that you have had,” he wrote.Warren also expressed a desire for “a preacher of our order” to come into the Freedom area, someone who would “do us good, by strengthening and building us up in the most holy faith.”
It must have been unexpected when, two months later, Joseph Smith received a revelation appointing Warren to be a “presiding high priest over my church, in the land of Freedom and the regions round about.”As is so often the case, Warren was to be the answer to his own request. And like many of those called to serve since, the words of blessing and the counsel he was given showed that the Lord knew him and would help him succeed in his calling.
In affirming Warren’s choice to join the Church, the revelation also implicitly acknowledged the struggle he had experienced. “There was joy in heaven when my servant Warren bowed to my scepter, and separated himself from the crafts of men,”” As he did so, the Lord would “give him grace and assurance wherewith he may stand.” Ultimately, the revelation said, Warren’s success would depend less on his ability than on his humility: “Blessed is my servant Warren, for I will have mercy on him; and, notwithstanding the vanity of his heart, I will lift him up inasmuch as he will humble himself before me.”it said. That separation was to become all the more acute, since the revelation instructed that Cowdery was to “preach my everlasting gospel, and lift up his voice and warn the people, not only in his own place, but in the adjoining counties,” and he was to “devote his whole time to this high and holy calling.
While records are scanty, we do know that Warren Cowdery filled the position of presiding elder in the Freedom region for the next year—an eventful year in that area. In early April, a conference was held at which Sidney Rigdon of the First Presidency presided. Commenting on this conference in the newspaper report, Oliver Cowdery observed that the “vast” Freedom region was “anxious to receive instruction concerning the faith and belief of this church, being excited to enquiry by the few elders who have providentially preached in that country.”Several weeks later, the Twelve—on their first mission as a quorum—came through the area. They held a conference on May 22–23, at which they defined the geographical limits of the Freedom Conference, which included 12 branches and covered a large portion of western New York. The Freedom Branch was the largest, with 65 reported members.
Topics of discussion at the conference included “the ‘Word of Wisdom,’ the gift of tongues, prophesying, etc.,” and “the redemption of Zion.” Five members of the Twelve spoke, after which “the church expressed their determination to put into practice the teachings” given. Later in the year, Orson Pratt visited the area on a mission. He reported baptizing a few people, selling copies of the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, and securing several subscriptions to the Church’s newspaper, the Messenger and Advocate. “There is a prospect of many embracing the gospel in these parts,” he wrote.
These and other reports show that Warren Cowdery was part of a dynamic, two-way relationship between the center places and outlying branches of the early Church. As a local Church leader, he would have helped minister to many new converts as they came into the Church, while also helping host and arrange meetings for missionaries and leaders from Kirtland.
“Warren Cowdery was part of a dynamic, two-way relationship between the center places and outlying branches of the early Church.”
Missionary successes could mean quick growth of new branches; some, such as the Freedom Branch, became quite large. But the call to gather with the Saints meant that local leaders often helped oversee rapid decreases in their region’s membership. Warren Cowdery’s experience again was typical. His report published in February 1835 in the Messenger and Advocate gives a vivid glimpse of how fluid the early branches were. The church at Westfield reported 72 members, a substantial number, while the branches in Mendon and Lima reported a total of eight. “From this last mentioned church, the greater part have moved away; some to Kirtland, and some to Missouri, and the eight here mentioned, is the remnant which is left,” Cowdery explained. “The church was once large.”
Likewise, the 18 members in Java and Weathersfield represented “the remainder of a church,” of which “many have moved to the places of gathering.” Cowdery himself ultimately joined that gathering. Having served faithfully in Freedom, he and his family sold their property in the fall of 1835 and prepared to move to Kirtland. They arrived early in 1836, just in time to participate in the events surrounding the dedication of the house of the Lord.
Like so many other early Saints who are little known today, Warren Cowdery made important contributions to the Lord’s work. He worked in the publishing office in Kirtland and edited the Church’s newspaper. As a clerk for Joseph Smith, he helped write down the dedicatory prayer for the Kirtland Temple and kept records of daily events. His most lasting contribution can now be found just a few pages from the revelation directed to him—in 1836, he recorded the entry in Joseph Smith’s journal describing the visit of the Savior and other heavenly messengers to Joseph and Oliver in the Kirtland Temple on April 3, 1836.