Oliver Cowdery and the New and Everlasting Covenant

Olivercowdery-smOliver Cowdery was at Joseph Smith’s side for nearly a decade at the beginning of the restoration.

They started their association working together on the Book of Mormon starting in May 1829. Within days they reportedly received the Aaronic Priesthood from John the Baptist so they would have the proper authority to baptize one another.

Oliver Cowdery was also involved in the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood. 1

Oliver Cowdery would marry in 1832, becoming husband to Elizabeth Ann Whitmer. This made Oliver brother-in-law to all the witnesses of the Book of Mormon other than Joseph Smith’s relatives and Martin Harris. 2

Oliver Cowdery was at Joseph’s side on April 3, 1836, when the two reported receiving a glorious vision of Jesus Christ, Moses, Elias, and Elijah.

Elijah’s return had been foretold for millennia. The prophet Malachi had prophesied Elijah would return before the great and dreadful day of the Lord, to turn the hearts of the children to the fathers and the hearts of the fathers to the children. Jewish Passover seders continue to set a place for Elijah, sending a child to the door to see if Elijah is come.

The visit of Malachi is described in D&C 110:

“Behold, the time has fully come, which was spoken of by the mouth of Malachi—testifying that he [Elijah] should be sent, before the great and dreadful day of the Lord come—

“To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse—

“Therefore, the keys of this dispensation are committed into your hands; and by this ye may know that the great and dreadful day of the Lord is near, even at the doors.”

It was apparently in the spring of 1836 that Joseph Smith covenanted with Fanny Alger. 3 If this occurred, the obvious officiant would have been Oliver Cowdery.

Outrage over Joseph’s Covenant with Fanny Alger?

Sometime in the summer of 1836, Emma Smith allegedly became upset when she found Joseph with Fanny in a barn. The source of this report is Oliver Cowdery, who Joseph had supposedly called in to help calm Emma down. But Cowdery’s report of these matters would not be documented until 1838, over a year later.

Or Outrage that Joseph Interfered with Oliver’s Covenant with Annie Lyman?

An alternate version of events was recorded by Charles L. Walker in 1872, based on a sermon given by Brigham Young. 4 Walker wrote:

“…while Joseph and Oliver were translating the Book of Mormon, they had a revelation that the order of Patriarchal Marriag and the Sealing was right. Cowdery, according to Young, proposed to Smith, “Why don’t we go into the Order of Polygamy, and practice it as the ancients did? We know it is true, then why delay?” Smith warned that “the time has not yet come.” Ignoring the prophet’s counsel, “Oliver Cowdery took to wife Miss Annie Lyman, cousin to Geo A. Smith. From that time he went into darknes and lost the spirit. Annie Lyman is still alive, a witnes to these things…”

But Charles L. Walker joined the Church years after Cowdery’s death and wouldn’t have know the context well. Therefore Walker may have inappropriately conjoined the Book of Mormon translation with the Annie Lyman interaction.

If Walker had been viscerally aware that Oliver became estranged from Joseph Smith in 1838, he would know this later date was when Oliver Cowdery “went into darkness and lost the spirit.”

I propose a more knowledgeable person might have recorded Brigham’s sermon as follows:

“…while Joseph and Oliver were translating the Book of Mormon, they had a revelation that [plural marriage] was right. 5

“[After April 1836] Cowdery proposed to Smith, “Why don’t we go into the Order of Polygamy, and practice it as the ancients did? We know it is true, then why delay?” Smith warned that “the time has not yet come.”

“Ignoring the prophet’s counsel, Oliver Cowdery took to wife Miss [Mary] Annie Lyman, cousin to Geo A. Smith. From that time he went into darkness and lost the spirit.

“[George A. Smith tells me] [Mary] Annie Lyman [Rowland] is still alive, [and has confirmed that Oliver Cowdery sealed her to himself as a plural wife before Oliver’s apostasy in 1838.]”

Instead of reasoning from 1838, researchers for decades have been holding fast to the belief that Oliver covenanted with an Annie Lyman around 1829. But then they admitted that this was unlikely until 1831 while Joseph was working on the inspired translation of Genesis. Further research into Annie’s family then persuaded researchers that the date was likely 1833 or 1834. At which point some tried to tie this to obscure mentions of sin involving Oliver at that time.

But no one seems to have considered that the Annie Lyman who was cousin to George A. Smith was not born until February 1818. This would make her only eleven years old in the summer of 1829. On the other hand, Mary Ann Philomelia Lyman was eighteen years old, the same age as Fanny Alger, at the end of 1836.

Another factor is the location where Mary Ann Philomelia 6 Lyman [Rowland] spent the remainder of her adult life. She ends up marrying Jesse Dotson Rowland on March 21, 1839, in Ray County, Missouri. Ray County is where David Whitmer settled following the apostasies of 1838. Ray County is where Oliver Cowdery was in 1850, visiting with David Whitmer, his wife’s brother and fellow-witness to the Book of Mormon. It is possible Oliver hoped to win David back to the LDS faith, into which Oliver had be re-baptized in 1848. Unfortunately, Oliver’s 1850 illness led to his death and David Whitmer was never rebaptized into the LDS faith.

Oliver, not chosen

Oliver was clearly the most prominent of those who turned against Joseph Smith in 1838. Oliver was arguably the primary person of whom Joseph was thinking when he wrote the following:

D&C 121: 36 That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.

37 That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.

38 Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God.

Oliver had had the sealing power conferred upon him. But if we believe Brigham Young, Oliver had sought to do that which Joseph had forbidden for him, claiming that “the time was not yet come.”

It may well be that Joseph had claimed that it was specifically Oliver’s intent to unite with Annie Lyman that was inappropriate.

Joseph’s in-laws had already written him off as a loss. Therefore Joseph’s union with Fanny Alger did not alienate multiple members of the Mormon community, with the supposed impact on Emma largely inferred from Oliver’s angry accusations. Joseph appears to have won the Alger family over to see the covenant with their daughter as a blessing.

But Oliver’s in-laws were the Whitmers and Hiram Page. There is no reason to think Oliver spent time attempting to win them over. The brothers of Oliver’s first wife would find the idea of such a plural marriage repugnant. David Whitmer opposed the possibility of plural marriage to his deathbed. Nor is it clear the Lyman family was ready to see Oliver’s union with Mary Ann as a blessing.

This story of Annie Lyman is relatively new to me, so I welcome feedback if readers find I have significantly misunderstood the situation and sources.

[My thanks to Andrew Ehat for telling me of the Walker account.]

Notes:

  1. Restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood was originally associated with a June 3, 1831, conference of the Church. Later it was asserted that the Melchizedek Priesthood must have been restored in association with a vision of Peter, James, and John near the Susquehanna in 1829. Whether near the Susquehanna in 1829 or in Kirtland in June 1831, Oliver Cowdery was present.
  2. Elizabeth’s brothers were David, one of the three witnesses, and Christian, Jacob, Peter Jr., and John, all of whom were among the eight witnesses. Hiram Page was Elizabeth’s brother-in-law through marriage to her sister, Catherine.
  3. See Bradley, Don, “Weighing the Case of Fanny Alger,” The Persistence of Polygamy, Volume I, pp. 14-58.
  4. Larson, Andrew Karl and Katharine Miles Larson, eds. Diary of Charles Lowell Walker. 2 vols. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1980 (see p. 349 26 July 1872).
  5. This would be agree with the content of Jacob 2, where Jacob decries the practice of men having more than one wife, but admits that “30 For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people…”
  6. Philomelia was the name of Mary’s grandmother.
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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but may have privately defied the commandment for love of his wife, Emma.

7 thoughts on “Oliver Cowdery and the New and Everlasting Covenant

  1. Hi Meg, I’ve truly appreciated your analysis, narrative and theories that you wrote years ago and this. It is very helpful to have a girl’s perspective! I am with you on Oliver really having been a polygamist before the Saint’s left. I theorize he did it around that time Zion’s Camp and everything that lead up to it, but I have nothing concrete. I certainly don’t think that Brigham Young and so many others could have been so misinformed, as so many Apologists claim… Oliver was VERY buddy buddy with Phineas Young from letters that I’ve read, there is no denying that Brigham had an in on information that we aren’t and can’t be privy to in our modern day… I totally believe him and was working on a script recently about all of this, and wrote that Oliver showed up and saw Fanny and began accusing Joseph of… this and that, after… after Oliver’s polygamist wife has been sent elsewhere. I thought that it was my theory only until I read in the JS Papers that Joseph cites an incident where that REALLY did happen, Oliver did show up at his home and begin accusing him of taking fanny as his second… I just am just not going to call it concrete that they were truly united since neither Joseph nor Fanny stated they had an sort of union, especially after reading Oliver’s ACTUAL letters where he sounds even more like he is blatantly assuming things… but who knows other than THEM.

    I also saw a post where you wondered what our dear Brother Joseph looked like, thought I’d help with that 😉 He’s pretty hot actually…https://www.plausiblephotographofjosephsmithjunior.com/

  2. When I’ve speculated about images of Joseph, I’ve been shut down quicker than you might believe, so I’ve stopped trying.

    But if an image were to be recognized widely as being a legitimate image of Joseph, I would be thrilled.

  3. But seriously I have found your writing more faith promoting than people like Bushman, and groups like FAIR, who can be very faith tilting and too speculative. What I like about you is you are CLEAR when you speculate, whereas men who are doctors of this or that will speculate on things they CAN NOT know but just interpret, assume and push it as near facts if not facts… which is scary. You aren’t a doctor, but your perspective makes clearer sense to me and is much more supportive of a very good man that we DO NOT need to “apologize” for… You can get into nitty gritty and I don’t feel all spiritually punched in the face, you have theories but it just is very helpful in pointing out that we just do NOT know what really happened, but I actually trust your sources more than some other people “analyzing” Church History… So huge thanks for doing what you do despite criticism…
    Yes, I am working on authenticating my old photograph of an 1840s Illinois Man, but so far everything points to a resounding “really, really could be”. I analyzed it for months before finding and buying it, so my story is a little odd, but when I got it I could see more detail, I found it he IS wearing a matching vest that JS Jr wore and that where the photograph was taken was in a city that JS Jr was last month or two of his life. I own it now, but before I did I just was convinced this was him by superimposing not the death mask but the ouline of every single detail, wrinkle of this man’s face and dropping it onto Joseph’s death mask (though I eventually caved and overlayed the death mask and did a popular video of upping and lowering the opacity of it and it’s no joke perfect, perfect, his lips are pursed and that’s it). Not exactly an FBI computer program, but I KNOW more than ten dots line up perfectly between his face and the mask, he even has a scar coming down his left eye that is drawn and painted in MANY renditions, his mouth is lopsided perfecly in the way that Joseph is shown to have on the mask… oh man, I could talk for days about how much that they match! One guy comp because of his hair color (actually matches paintings of JS Jrk shading and hairstyle), and his big ears, but I actually found a legit old newspaper article written BEFORE his death with a caricature of him with very large ears and another drawing done back in the day… I address criticism on my website, such as the hairline, lips, things actually do line up to being him, itso cool… The Church History dept are just librarians and historians, not forensic analysist, but one COULD be proven and I believe with real professionals I could do some tests to prove what I already know and being that people wrote in pencil, a name very potentially could be forensically plucked from the CDV, other than matching the death mask insanely….. well…. I believe that there is a daguerreotype of him that is younger and a photograph, I believe taken in 1844… but the other one a group in England has.

  4. Larry,
    I have found that particular website interesting and read it before, however I am an artist who specializes in faces, it doesn’t have accurate dimensions of a human face, just from the naked eye, let alone from superimposing of the death mask… and that Carter photograph, though apparently done in 1879, in 1910 the bubble has already bursts, the mystery of whether that really was a photograph or not, when JS III mails a photograph of the “RLDS” painting, stating in his letter that it IS a photograph of a painting… to the Salt Lake tribune and his letter also details there being more than one painting based on the daguerreotype (which were photos taken on positives that simply could not be copied or reprinted).

    Daguerreotypes and paper photography were actually invented at the SAME time, he gets that wrong as well. Paper photography was less popular in the US until the 1850s, but both forms of photography were invented in the 1830s, patented in 1839/1940.

    Paper photography was biggest in England, which thousands of members in 1844 had just arrived from. Daguerreotypes couldn’t be copied, that is why JS III even in 1910 sent a photograph of the painting. (This website and most others don’t really know this fact). Paper photography, calotypes used negatives and could be reprinted and existed, like I said as long as daguerreotypes, which is why Emma Smith’s 1845 photograph was reprinted many times, they just could not reprint that if it was a daguerreotype. This also allowed for some special effects, even back then. JS III’s letter ALSO mentions superimposing of faces… so who knows what happened with that Carter photograph. As an artist I just KNOW that is not a photograph of a man, the eyes are too close together and it simply doesn’t match the death mask well enough at all… it’s an okay painting… I DO however think that the Jacket in the Carter Photograph looks quite real, so it is possible they were playing around with special effects back then, maybe superimposing… clearly someone did some cutting on the top of the head so likely they could have put the head on a photograph of an actual man’s body… evidenced by Emma’s many versions of her 1845 photograph holding Baby David… She looks to have a thinner face in some copies, others she looks like a normal mama with a full face with puffy eyes from having just lost her husband…
    What I agree with, in that website is that Emma Smith did hide things. I have heard direct descendants state that they this scarf, or other possessions of hers that she VERY strictly stated she did NOT want to end up in a museum… Alexander’s own testimony about a conflict with Brigham, while preaching in utah one year, Brigham accused Emma Smith of stealing “pictures” of his father JS Jr and Hyrum…

    There are just so many things that I didn’t agree with or find credible, like which skull they were sure was Hyrum’s and Josephs (Hyrum’s has to be the one missing all of the facial bones, since his exist wound was directly over his maxilla bone it would have shattered all of those bones and when superimposed on top of each other, Hyrum’s bullet hole is over a fully intact maxilla bone…). Again, I love their research, they cite their sources well and have done massives amounts of research, they just don’t know that everyone’s eyes are a full eye length apart in reality and JS Jr’s death mask perfectly matches every single line and wrinkle of the man in my photograph. Also the mouth is too small for any human’s, beside’s Joseph’s mouth was stretched out with major scarring to upper right corner causing him to have a permanent smile, his mouth was CERTAINLY NOT that small per the death mask, at all… it just isn’t a true photograph of a man, but of a painting, just as was stated in JS III’s 1910 letter, otherwise JS III would have sent a photograph of a photograph and said it as such, but he said he enclosed a photograph of the painting, that was based on the daguerreotype in his possession, which I STRONGLY believe is the England “spiritus” research group’s photograph and I THINK it was taken on one of Joseph Smith’s travels. My photograph of a man matching in incredibly unique physical characteristics to their daguereotype, I believe was always a paper photograph (again invented in the 1830s, but patented four years before Joseph Smith died) and I believe was taken in 1844 during Joseph’s campaign, because it was photographed in Newark Illinois, where JS Jr was in May 1844 and probably often visited because there was a branch over there (near today’s Chicago), besides my photograph was found in a Smith Family photo album…. and he’s wearing a vest shown in an 1984 ENSIGN artcle that JS Jr was said to have worn… even the odd stitching matches… it’s just too cool. I’ve owned over three months, but soon hope to get all scientific as soon as I get someone to do a EDA test to see what the light pencil markings below the face say and do the whole FBI dot map dealio too!

  5. Hi Debra,

    I’ll see if I can put you in touch with someone who can do special imaging to tease out subtle markings.

    As to the LoC image, that is clearly a picture of a copy of the 1842 painting. As I wrote in the explanation of my book:

    “The front cover features an altered copy of the 1842 portrait of Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of Mormonism.

    “The 1842 portrait, now owned by the Community of Christ, is apparently the only full face image created of Joseph Smith during his lifetime.

    “Decades after Joseph’s death, copies of the portrait were produced by Herald Publishing House. Daguerreotypes were made from these copies. A daguerreotype of one painted copy is now in the possession of the Library of Congress. The daguerreotype is often mischaracterized as a photo of Joseph.
    Joseph reportedly did not feel the painting was an accurate likeness. Modern comparison of the painting with Joseph’s death mask and skull shows that the portrait departed significantly from the bone structure of Joseph’s face.”

  6. Wrote Debra to Meg:

    But seriously I have found your writing more faith promoting than people like Bushman, and groups like FAIR, who can be very faith tilting and too speculative. What I like about you is you are CLEAR when you speculate, whereas men who are doctors of this or that will speculate on things they CAN NOT know but just interpret, assume and push it as near facts if not facts… which is scary. You aren’t a doctor, but your perspective makes clearer sense to me and is much more supportive of a very good man that we DO NOT need to “apologize” for… You can get into nitty gritty and I don’t feel all spiritually punched in the face, you have theories but it just is very helpful in pointing out that we just do NOT know what really happened, but I actually trust your sources more than some other people “analyzing” Church History… So huge thanks for doing what you do despite criticism…

    Thank-you for putting that into words. My thoughts exactly.

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