Book Review: The Writings of Oliver Olney April 1842 to Feb 1843, edited by Richard G. Moore
In this fascinating volume, Richard G. Moore gathers and organizes the writings of the apostate Oliver Olney. Olney was an early convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He married the sister of Luke and Lyman Johnson (two of the original 12 apostles). He was very active in Church service and was serving a mission when his wife died in 1841 in Nauvoo.
According to Moore, this seemed to be a tipping point for Olney, for he left the Church over various issues, including polygamy and concluding that Joseph Smith was a fallen prophet. What makes Olney special is that he wrote about his secret meetings with the Ancients of Days, a group of deceased prophets (including Adam) that directed him in restoring the fallen church.
In fact, in the April 1, 1842 Times and Seasons newspaper, Joseph Smith wrote:
“We have also had brethren and sisters that have had written revelations, and have
started forward to lead this church. Such was a young boy in Kirtland—Isaac
Russell of Mo. and Gladden Bishop, and Oliver Olney of Nauvoo. . . . Mr. Olney
has also been tried by the high council, and disfellowshiped because he would not
have his writings tested by the word of God; evidently proving that he loves darkness
rather than light because his deeds are evil.”
Olney would soon be excommunicated, but continued attending meetings, mostly to spy on what Joseph Smith and the other Church leaders were up to. In his writings, Olney discusses being called as the new prophet by the Ancients of Days and his dedicating of the Nauvoo temple, the Nauvoo House (both still under construction), and the little house where he met with the Ancients of Days a block away from the temple.
The saga continues, as Olney planned on preparing to create a reformed Latter-day Saint church. His plans included calling new apostles (which included some of the apostles faithful to Joseph Smith), and using the Nauvoo temple and other buildings to bring the gospel to all the world. How these would fall into his hands, he doesn’t say.
Moore did an excellent job in editing the papers that Olney had in a variety of folders. His introduction prepares us well for the writings of this apostate prophet. Olney’s writings are in their original spelling, so the word “see” is spelled, “se.” It sometimes took me a few moments to figure out his spelling, but I was able to quickly pick up on the flow. There is no punctuation, including no periods, but that also did not affect the readability of the writings. There are times when Olney must have copied some of his thoughts and ideas, perhaps to share with others, and so you’ll occasionally notice you are rereading some of the contents.
The vast majority of history I’ve read about the early Church and Joseph Smith has been positive. This is one of the few writings I’ve engaged with, where there is a clear animosity towards Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Others who started restoration churches normally were very fond of the prophet Joseph (including his own son Joseph Smith 3). In stark contrast is considering Joseph as a fallen prophet, someone who allowed pride and wickedness to cause him to be rejected of God, ready to be replaced via a series of revelation by the Ancients of Days.
It also is a fascinating read to learn about Olney’s visions. Most Latter-day Saints today would consider him either deceived by demons or delusional. After reading Olney’s writings, I tend to lean towards him being a bit delusional. It makes me wonder how his later life turned out, as he realized his visions did not come to pass. He never started a reformed church. He never was given the temple or other buildings to move his calling forward. He never gained followers.
While most history books on Nauvoo focus on the successes of building a city while under the oppression of outside forces and secret polygamy that caused several, including Joseph’s counselor William Law, to break off and seek Joseph’s destruction, this is one of the first personal insights into someone believing he was called as the new prophet. Unlike Brighan Young, James Strang or Sidney Rigdon, who believed they were Joseph’s legitimate successor, Olney believed he was Joseph’s replacement.
The Writings of Oliver Olney help us to see inside the mind of one apostate. While it is a sad story, it presents us with a new angle in understanding the underlying turmoil and struggles Joseph Smith dealt with constantly. Not only was Olney angry with Joseph over issues like polygamy, but he was receiving visions of his own that Joseph denounced. Perhaps it can help us understand those who fall away today, whether it is caused by frustration with church history, doctrine, or some experience that leads them elsewhere.
Available June 9 at: