In the summer of 1830, Oliver Cowdery wrote to Joseph Smith from the home of Peter Whitmer, where the Church had been organized earlier that year: “I command you in the name of God to erase those words, that no priestcraft be amongst us.”His passion was clear, but what had so alarmed the Church’s Second Elder that he would be so forceful in his communication with the Prophet?
Under divine commission, Oliver had written a document called the “Articles of the Church of Christ” that was later superseded by a second document written by Joseph, titled “Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ.” Joseph’s document used much of the same language but added significant passages clarifying and expanding on Oliver’s original. Joseph’s later document was accepted by the Church at its June 1830 conference as binding. Notwithstanding the Church’s acceptance, Oliver disapproved of a phrase in the list of requirements for baptism: “And truly manifest by their works that they have received of the Spirit of Christ unto the remission of their sins.”
Perhaps Oliver felt his involvement in the document’s development entitled him to make demands concerning the text. Joseph, however, disagreed, insisting that the requirement had come by revelation. In his response, Joseph asked “by what authority he [Oliver] took upon him to command me to alter, or erase, to add or diminish to or from a revelation or commandment from Almighty God.”
A few days later, Joseph began a journey from his home in Harmony, Pennsylvania, to see Oliver at the Whitmer home in Fayette, New York. Joseph’s history records, “I found the [Whitmer] family in general [favor] of his [Oliver’s] opinion . . . and it was not without both labor and perseverance that I could prevail with any of them to reason calmly on the subject.” In the end, “I succeeded of bringing not only the Whitmer family, but also Oliver Cowdery also to acknowledge that they had been in error.”
With the benefit of several years’ experience, Joseph later reflected on the incident, writing, “And thus was this error rooted out, which having its rise in presumption and rash judgement, was the more particularly calculated (when once fairly understood) to teach each and all of us the necessity of humility, and meekness before the Lord, that he might teach us of his ways; that we might walk in his paths, and live by every word which proceedeth forth from his mouth.”
The lesson, however, does not seem to have been so easily learned. Within months, Joseph again needed to assert his authority as the mouthpiece of revelation. Persecution around his home in Harmony, Pennsylvania, had forced Joseph and his wife, Emma, to take up residence with the Whitmers in August 1830. Upon arriving, Joseph found that Hiram Page, the husband of one of the Whitmers’ daughters, had used a stone to receive two revelations concerning the Church.
Perhaps remembering his success persuading Oliver Cowdery and the Whitmers of their error concerning the “Articles and Covenants,” Joseph intended to reason with them until a conference that was to be convened in September. He soon discovered, however, that belief in Hiram Page’s supposed revelations was more widespread than he had thought, so he sought a revelation on the matter.
The revelation was addressed to Oliver Cowdery. Oliver was assured his voice would be heard but was warned that “no one shall be appointed to Receive commandments & Revelations in this Church excepting my Servent Joseph for he Receiveth them even as Moses & thou shalt be obedient unto the things which I shall give unto him.”
Oliver was to be to Joseph as Aaron was to Moses, serving as a teacher and spokesman. His first assignment in that role was to convince Hiram Page of his error concerning the revelations from his stone. Second, he was to undertake a mission to the American Indians.
When the conference convened in late September, Joseph Smith’s retrospective history records, “The subject of the stone above mentioned, was discussed, and after considerable investigation, Brother Page, as well as the whole church who were present, renounced the said stone, and all things connected therewith, much to our mutual satisfaction and happiness.”Oliver Cowdery’s brief minutes record that Joseph Smith “was appointd by the voice of the Conference to receive and write Revelations & Commandments for this Church.”
Joseph frequently received revelations and commandments, but most of them remained unpublished for several years, limiting their availability among Church members. At the same time, the Church’s missionary efforts produced a large number of new proselytes. Many members either were unaware of, misunderstood, or chose to disregard the revelations that clarified Joseph Smith’s role, and spurious claims to revelation for the Church continued on occasion.
Not long after the Church’s relocation to Kirtland, Ohio, a “woman by the name of Hubble” came forward claiming her own revelations.Once again, a revelation (now known as Doctrine and Covenants 43) confirmed that Joseph was the one “appointed unto you to receive commandments & Revelations from my hand” and added “that none else shall be appointed unto this gift except it be through him.”
The Saints’ doctrine of renewed, New Testament–like manifestations of the Holy Ghost invited members to seek the gift of revelation for themselves. For the Church as a whole, however, the developing structure and practice designated Joseph Smith’s as the lone voice of authority to pronounce revelation that would be binding on all Church members. “For,” as the September 1830 revelation told Oliver Cowdery, “all things must be done in order.”