New discovery: earliest letter written by Oliver Cowdery giving his testimony of the Book of Mormon

There is an amazing new find discussed in the Juvenile Instructor: a letter written in 1829 by Oliver Cowdery giving his testimony of seeing the original plates of the Book of Mormon.

The letter is complex, including responses to past letters, but here is the highlight in my opinion:

“You also wished Mr. Harris to inform you respecting his seeing this book, whether there could not possibly have been some juggling at the bottom of it. A few words on that point may suffice.—

“It was a clear, open beautiful day, far from any inhabitants, in a remote field, at the time we saw the record, of which it has been spoken, brought and laid before us, by an angel, arrayed in glorious light, [who] ascend [descended I suppose] out of the midst of heaven.”[11]

“Now if this is human juggling—judge ye.”

Juggling is an early 19th century term that referred to people trying to fool each other.

So, in the clearest terms possible, Oliver Cowdery in this new letter is reaffirming his testimony that he did indeed see the plates, that he saw an angel and that Joseph Smith could not have fooled him in any way. Take that, Fawn Brodie!

Readers may want to keep in mind that Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris and David Whitmer all left the Church at one point or another, but none of them ever recanted his testimony that they were shown the plates by an angel. Oliver Cowdery later rejoined the Church.

Before he died, Oliver Cowdery reaffirmed his witness of the truth of the Book of Mormon. From the Wikipedia account of Cowdery’s life:

Shortly before Cowdery died of a respiratory illness, he was visited by Jacob Gates, an early Mormon leader in the church, who inquired about his witness concerning the Book of Mormon. Cowdery reaffirmed his witness saying,

“Jacob, I want you to remember what I say to you. I am a dying man, and what would it profit me to tell you a lie? I know,’ said he, ‘that this Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God. My eyes saw, my ears heard, and my understanding was touched, and I know that whereof I testified is true. It was no dream, no vain imagination of the mind—it was real”.

This new letter shows that Cowdery’s testimony remained firm from 1829 until his death.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B has had three main careers. Some of them have overlapped. After attending Stanford University (class of 1985), he worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. In 1995, he took up his favorite and third career as father. Soon thereafter, Heavenly Father hit him over the head with a two-by-four (wielded by the Holy Ghost) and he woke up from a long sleep. Since then, he's been learning a lot about the Gospel. He still has a lot to learn. Geoff's held several Church callings: young men's president, high priest group leader, member of the bishopric, stake director of public affairs, media specialist for church public affairs, high councilman. He tries his best in his callings but usually falls short. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

19 thoughts on “New discovery: earliest letter written by Oliver Cowdery giving his testimony of the Book of Mormon

  1. Credit for the discovery of this new letter should go to Erin Jennings, an independent historian and current board member of the John Whitmer Historical Association.

  2. Hate to play devils advocate, but how does this, “tend to scotch the ‘they saw it with their spiritual eyes’ defense?”

    Visions are very real and very separate from dreams. Don’t get me wrong, I think this letter is fascinating and supplants other personal writings from eyewitnesses. I also don’t think it matters, I’m just curious.

  3. Pingback: A Must Read from Early Mormon History | Junior Ganymede

  4. Footnote:
    compare also Smith’s recollection that he and the three witnesses “retire[d] into the woods … convenient, to Fat[her] Mr Whitmer’s ” to Cowdery’s “open beautiful day, far from any inhabitants, in a remote field

  5. Joel,
    While we in the 21st century are accustomed to the adjective “open” to mean that there is no blockage to the view (as in “wide open spaces” and “open countryside”), I suspect there is an older meaning at play here.

    I have noticed in some of the older fiction works over at Keepa’ that the term “open,” when paired with “day” seems to refer to something having to do with the weather. (Unfortunately, the common-ness of “open” and “day” are conspiring against relocating the mentions… but it happened at least twice because it caught my eye and made me think about it.) The context in which the term was used has suggested to me an atmospheric condition of cloudlessness as opposed to lowering, foggy, or cloud-covered.

    I get the impression from your post that you are contrasting “into the woods” with “open beautiful day.” I do not think the two descriptions necessarily mutually exclusive.

  6. This tends to scotch the ‘they saw it with their spiritual eyes” defense by skeptics.

    It is not so easy to dismiss the “spiritual eyes” idea. From an institute manual found here:

    The Prophet Joseph Smith taught an important principle concerning revelation: “All things whatsoever God in his infinite wisdom has seen and proper to reveal to us, while we are dwelling in mortality, in regard to our mortal bodies, are revealed to us in the abstract, and independent of affinity of this mortal tabernacle, but are revealed to our spirits precisely as though we had no bodies at all; and those revelations which will save our spirits will save our bodies. God reveals them to us in view of no eternal dissolution of the body, or tabernacle.” ( Teachings, p. 355.)

    To Joseph, seeing things with one’s spiritual eyes” was a good thing.

    As for Coffinberry’s exposition of “open,” she may be entirely correct in her interpretation, but there is still the “remote field” to contrast with the woods.

  7. Indeed, there is an inconsistency with the description of the location. While this will no doubt create some fun and interesting discussions among historians and others about which is the actual setting, it hardly serves as an invalidation of the experience. Historical documents the world over are riddled with these sorts of inconsistencies in describing events that indisputably happened. Historians work through those to try and reconstruct what really happened. The details that are consistent (in this case, that there was an angel and the angel showed them the record from which the BoM was translated) should survive any reconstruction.

    It is, of course, possible that the two statements are reconcilable. They may have retired into the woods and then come to a clearing big enough for Oliver Cowdrey to consider it a “field”, and there had the vision. This is just one hypothetical. It will be interesting to see how historians choose to handle this account, whether (and how) they will attempt to reconcile them, prefer the more traditional “into the woods” version, or decide to give this new account precedence because of its early date.

    In any event, the differences hardly invalidate the consistent testimony that an angel came with the record from which the BoM was translated.

  8. I fail to see how this is an inconsistency at all.

    Smith says: “retire[d] into the woods … convenient, to Fat[her] Mr Whitmer’s.”

    Cowdery’s says: “open beautiful day, far from any inhabitants, in a remote field.”

    So, they were “convenient to Mr. Whitmer’s? For 19th century, when Joseph Smith walked several miles to get to Palmyra, that could mean three miles away. Plenty of room to be remote.

    Woods have open fields in them. If you have ever been to rural NY or Pennsylvania, you will note that this is, in fact, the dominant feature of the landscape, ie, there are lots of woods, which have to be cleared to make fields for farming. So, you go into the woods and five minutes later you are in a field far from other inhabitants (one feature of the northeastern woods is that they are especially thick and dense, and you can feel isolated very quickly).

    These two statements are completely compatible. Compare other possible differences. Let’s say Joseph said “we went to a room in the house” or “we went down to the river” or “we went to a nearby house.” The two descriptions complement each other (especially given northeastern geography), not contradict each other.

  9. I think Joel meant woods in apposition to a field.

    I can imagine several possibilities to reconcile the two. It neither had to be a tree-less field, nor a densely wooded area. People back then engaged in clearing woods to make fields. Maybe it was an area that was in the process of being cleared, they walked through the wooded part, and came to an opening, where the trees were less dense, or partially cleared.

    I’ve learned not to take any one particular historical account as being exhaustively descriptive. So rather than label one or both parties a liar, it’s likely that there is additional information which can reconcile apparent discrepancies.

  10. So let me get this straight: a major find for Mormon history that relates directly with one of the Three Witnesses and the Book of Mormon, and we’re sitting here debating the TREES?

  11. Michael, yes, these are the concerns of the BoM skeptics/critics/questioners. It always comes down to petty things like that rather than looking at the big picture.

  12. Fantastic find! Good for Erin Jennings! A lovely account of the witnesses and the Book of Mormon.
    I do not see why “woods” and “open field” are a problem. I own two acres of land that my house sits on. Near to the road and on the hill sits the house and the yard. Down a steep hill the land is kept natural, part of a 1/2 acre is wooded and part is a mowed field surrounded by denser woods.

  13. Michael,

    IF you mean “juggling” as “I have a lot on my plate” well, yeah; but if you mean “juggling” as in “lying” well, no. That’s just what Tennessee looks like. :)

  14. I found the newspaper article difficult to read because the author interspersed his own comments with the words written to him by Oliver.

    Plus, it seems that Oliver may have been quoting another letter sent to him by this man.

    And, in addition to that, either the author or the typesetter, messed up the quotation marks, failing to use them when needed, or failed to “nest” them properly with single quotes and double quotes.

    It took a while to figure out who was saying what, because if you go strictly by the double-quotes, it doesn’t all make sense. You also have to go by content.

  15. Other interesting points are Oliver’s explanations of why the Lord didn’t allow Joseph to reveal the plates to the world. One is that the experts would argue and wrangle over what should be the correct translations of various words. Or in other words, “experts” wouldn’t even be able to settle the question of what it all meant.

    It harkens to Hugh Nibley’s assertion that if the plates were to be produced today, it would prove nothing, other than there are plates. The mere existence of gold (or gold alloy) plates would not prove who engraved the plates, or whether the story told on the plates had actually happened, or how the plates were made known to Joseph.

  16. “It was a clear, open beautiful day, far from any inhabitants, in a remote field, at the time we saw the record, of which it has been spoken, brought and laid before us, by an angel, arrayed in glorious light, [who] ascend [descended I suppose] out of the midst of heaven.”

    I don’t think that “woods” and “remote field” counter each other at all. But then, I am intimately familiar with the region.

  17. Thank you for sharing this, Geoff B. I think people often give a lot of credence to the words of a dying man. Also, it was interesting to read the first known written testimony.

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