Sunday, January 14, 2024

Oliver Cowdery's eight essays on the history of the Church

In this article, we'll discuss the Introduction to Oliver's letters in the Joseph Smith Papers, how Don Carlos republished them in the Times and Seasons, and the way Oliver emphasized the factual basis of his essays.


The Joseph Smith Papers introduced the essays with this note. Original in blue, my comments in red.

Editorial Note
The following section includes transcripts of eight letters  wrote in 1834 and 1835 regarding JS’s visions of an angel and his discovery of the gold plates of the Book of Mormon.
That summary sentence omits the topic of Cumorah, featured in two of the eight letters.
 Cowdery addressed the letters to  and published them as a series in the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate between October 1834 and October 1835. The titles and formatting employed in this history are similar to those in the published series of articles, indicating that the Cowdery letters were copied into the history from the Messenger and Advocate, not from a manuscript version of the letters.  could have begun the transcription in JS’s history as early as 6 December 1834, the date of Cowdery’s last historical entry in the preceding section of the history. However, Cowdery probably gave the history to Williams around 2 October 1835, when he gave Williams JS’s journal. On 29 October 1835, JS retrieved the history from Williams and delivered it to , who continued copying the Cowdery letters. It is likely that Parrish finished copying the letters by early April 1836, when he gave JS’s journal (and presumably the 1834–1836 history along with it) to .
JS' journal, on 29 October 1835, Thursday, records that: "my scribe commenced writing in <​my​> journal a history of my life, concluding President [Oliver] Cowdery 2d letter to W. W. Phelps, which president Williams had begun."
This observation is significant because it recognizes that Cowdery was Assistant President of the Church and because it shows that JS considered these letters to be "a history of my life."
In the first letter,  recounted his experiences with JS beginning when the two first met in April 1829. The letter includes an account of the vision he and JS had of John the Baptist, who gave them the authority to baptize. 
Characterizing this as a "vision" instead of a "visitation" implies a spiritual instead of a physical experience, which contradicts Cowdery's narrative. Cowdery wrote, "the angel of God came down clothed with glory, and delivered the anxiously looked for message, and the keys of the gospel of repentance!"
After composing this letter, but before its publication, Cowdery developed a new history-writing plan: he decided that in subsequent letters he would relate the “full history of the rise of the church,” beginning with JS’s early life and visions. As editor of the Messenger and Advocate, Cowdery prefaced the published version of the first letter with an explanation (also transcribed into the history) of the new plan. Although he had no firsthand knowledge of church history prior to April 1829, Cowdery assured his readers that “our brother J. Smith Jr. has offered to assist us. Indeed, there are many items connected with the fore part of this subject that render his labor indispensible.” Some passages in the ensuing narrative seem to have been related to Cowdery by JS, since Cowdery recounts events in which only JS participated.
Cowdery also explained that "To do <​Justice to​> this subject will require time and space: we therefore ask the forbearance of our readears [sic], assuring them that it shall be founded upon facts." Throughout the narrative, Cowdery fulfills this assurance by distinguishing between facts and speculation.
 composed the letters to inform the Latter-day Saints of the history of their church, but he also wrote for the non-Mormon public. Employing florid romantic language, frequent scriptural allusions, and much dramatic detail, he clearly intended to present a rhetorically impressive account of early Mormon history. He placed the rise of the church in a dispensational framework, characterizing the time between the end of the New Testament and JS’s early visions as a period of universal apostasy. He included the revivalism of various denominations during the Second Great Awakening, which JS experienced in his youth, as an example of the doctrinal confusion and social disharmony present in Christendom. Throughout the series of letters, he defended JS’s character and that of the Smith family, and his explicitly apologetic statements include apparent allusions to both Alexander Campbell's Delusions (1832) and ’s Mormonism Unvailed (1834).
Beginning in the third letter,  provided the most extensive account of the origins of the Book of Mormon published up to that time. He related JS’s initial visions of the angel Moroni and, using biblical prophecies, elaborated on the angel’s message concerning the gathering of Israel in the last days in preparation for the Millennium. Cowdery continued his narrative up to, but did not include, JS’s receiving the gold plates in September 1827.
The transcription of the  letters into JS’s history was evidently conceived in terms of the entire series, not as a piecemeal copying of the individual letters. 
The importance of Cowdery's letters to JS is evidenced by JS giving express permission to Benjamin Winchester to republish them in Winchester's Gospel Reflector in 1841. JS's brother Don Carlos reported that JS gave him "essays on the Priesthood" to publish, after which Don Carlos published the letters serially in the Times and Seasons in 1841. Parley P. Pratt republished the letters in the Millennial Star, also in 1841, and a special pamphlet consisting of all eight essays was published in England that sold several thousand copies. JS's brother William Smith republished all eight essays in The Prophet in 1844. 
As noted above, Cowdery probably gave the “large journal” containing the history begun in 1834 to  in October 1835, the month of the Messenger and Advocate issue in which his final installment was published. By the time Williams received the history, Cowdery may have already written the final letter; he had at least conceived of it as the final installment in his series. With the serialized Cowdery letters complete or nearing completion, the new history kept in the “large journal” could serve as a repository—more permanent than unbound newspapers—for a copied compilation of the entire series.
It seems likely that when Joseph gave his brother Don Carlos the "essays on the Priesthood" to publish in the Times and Seasons, he gave him this large journal. Don Carlos published the essays serially under the heading RISE OF THE CHURCH, almost word-for-word from the original articles, but with some omissions.
For example, when Don Carlos published Letter VII in the Times and Seasons on April 15, 1841 (p. 377), he began by continuing from page 364 of the previous issue. 
In that issue, on page 360, Don Carlos included the heading "Letter VI." 
He concluded that excerpt with this sentence from Letter VII on page 364: "Such was the instruction and this the caution."
In the April 15 edition, he correctly begins with the next sentence from Letter VII: "Alternately, as we could naturally expect, the thought of the previous vision was ruminating in his mind, with a reflection of the brightness and glory of the heavenly messenger..."
However, in the April 1 edition, Don Carlos omitted the last two paragraphs of Letter VI and the first two paragraphs of Letter VII, replacing them with ellipses. Consequently, he omitted the heading "Letter VII" which may explain why some people did not realize Letter VII was republished in the Times and Seasons.
We can see the omitted paragraphs here:

Cowdery's assurance that his narrative "shall be founded upon facts" is evident throughout his eight essays. He used the term "fact(s)" 23 times in the 8 essays.

- That our narrative may be correct, and particularly the introduction, it is proper to inform our patrons, that our brother J. Smith Jr. has offered to assist us. Indeed, there are many items connected with the fore part of this subject that render his labor indispensible. With his labor and with authentic documents now in our possession, we hope to render this a pleasing and agreeable narrative, well worth the examination and perusal of the Saints.—28

To do <​Justice to​> this subject will require time and space: we therefore ask the forbearance of our readears, assuring them that it shall be founded upon facts.

- In the Last Messenger and Advocate I promised to commence a more particular or minute history of the rise and progress of the church of the Latter Day Saints; and publish for the benefit of enquirers and all who are disposed to learn. There are certain facts relative to the works of God worthy the consideration and observance of every individual, and every society:— They are that he never works in the dark—his works are always performed in a clear, intelligible manner: and another point is, that he never works in vain.

- Perhaps an apology for brevity may not be improper, here, as many important incidents consequently transpiring in the organization and establishment <​establishing​> of a society like the one whose history I am about to give to the world, are overlooked or lost, and soon buried with those who were the actors, will prevent my giving those minute and particular reflections which I have so often wished migh[t] have characterized the “Acts of the apostles,” and the ancient Saints.

But such facts as are within my knowledge, will be given without any reference to inconsistencies, in the minds of others [p. 57] or impossibilities, in the feelings of such as do not give credence to the system of salvation and redemption so clearly set forth and so plainly written over the face of the sacred scriptures:

Upon the propriety, then, of a narative of this kind, I have briefly to remark: It is known to you, that this church has suffered reproach and persecution, from a majority of mankind who have heard but a rumor, since its first organization. and further, you are also conversant with the fact, that no sooner had the messengers of the fulness of the gospel began to proclaim its heavenly precepts, and call upon men to embrace the same, than they were vilified and slandered by thousands who never saw their faces, and much less knew aught derogatory of their characters, moral or religious—upon this unfair and unsaint like manner of procedure they have been giving in large sheets their own opinions of the incorrectness of our system, and attested volum[e]s of our lives and characters. Since, then, our opposers have been thus kind to introduce our cause before the public, it is no more than just that a correct account should be given; and since they have invariably sought to cast a shade over the truth, and hinder its influence from gaining ascindency, it is also, proper that it should be vindicated, by laying before the world a correct statement of of events as they have transpired from time to time.

Whether I shall succeed so far in my purpose as to convince the publick of the incorrectness of those scurulous reports which have inundated our land, or even but a small portion of them, will be better ascertained when I close than when I commence; and I am content to submit it before the candid for perusal, & before the Judge of all for inspection, as I most assuredly believe that before Him I must stand and answer for the deeds transacted in this life.

- I gave, in my last, a few words, on the subject of a few items, as spoken by the angel at the time the knowledge of the record of the Nephites was communicated to our [p. 71] brother, and in consequence of the subject of the gospel and that of the gathering of Israel’s being so connected, I found it difficult to speak of the one without mentioning the other; and this may not be improper, as it is evident, that the Lord has decreed to bring forth the fulness of the gospel in the last days, previous to gathering Jacob, but a preparatory work, and the other is to follow in quick succession.

This being of so much importance, and of so deep interest to the sainst [saints], I have thought best to give a farther detail of the heavenly message, and if I do not give it in the precise words, shall strictly confine myself to the facts in substance.

- You are aware of the fact, that to give a minute rehearsal of a lengthy interview with a heavenly messenger, is verry difficult unless one is assisted immediately with the gift of inspiration. There is another item I wish to notice on the subject of visions. The Spirit you know, searches all things, even the deep things of God. When God manifests to his servants those things that are to come, or those which have been, he does it by unfolding them by the power of that Spirit which comprehends all things, always; and so much may be shown and made perfectly plain to the understanding in a short time, that to the world, who are ocupied all their life to learn a little, look at the relation of it, and are disposed to call it false. You will understand then, by this, that while those glorious things were being rehearsed, the vision was also opened, so that our brother was permitted to see and understand much more full<​y​> and perfect<​ly​> than I am able to communicate in writing. I know much may <​be​> conveyed to the understanding in writing, and many marvellous truths set forth with the pen, but after all it is but a shadow, compared to an open vision of seeing, hearing and realizing eternal things. And if the fact was known, it would be found, that of all the heavenly communications to the ancients, we have no more in comparison than the alphabet to a quarto vocabulary.

- It will not be expected that I shall digress so far from my object, as to go into particular explanations on different items contained in yours; but as all men are deeply interested on the great matter of revelation, I indulge a hope that you will present such facts as are plain and uncontrovertible, both from our former scriptures and the book of Mormon, [p. 79] to show that such is not only consistent with the character of the Lord, but absolutely necessary to the fulfilment of that sacred volume, so tenaciously admired by professors of religion—I mean that called the bible.

- You will remember that in my last I brought my subject down to the evening, or night of the 21st of September, 1823, and gave an outline of the conversation of the angel upon the important fact of the blessings, promises and covenants to Israel, and the great manyifestations of favor to the world, in the ushering in of the fulness of the gospel, to prepare the way for the second advent of the Messiah, when he comes in the glory of the Fathers with the holy angels.

A remarkable fact is to be noticed with <​regard​> to this vision.

- He could not have been decieved in the fact that a being of some kind appeared to him; and that it was an heavenly one, the fulfillment of his words, so minutely, up to this time, in addition to the truth and word of salvation which has been developed to this generation, in the book of Mormon, ought to be conclusive evidence to the mind of every man who is priveleged to hear of the same.

- At about one mile west rises another ridge of less height, running parallel with the former, leaving a beautiful vale between. The soil is of the first quality for the country, and under a state of cultivation, which gives a prospect at once imposing, when one reflects on the fact, that here, between these hills, the entire power and national strength of both the Jaredites and Nephites were destroyed.

- Here may be seen where once sunk to nought the pride and strength of two mighty nations; and here [p. 87] may be contemplated, in solitude, while nothing but the faithful record of Mormon and Moroni is now extant to inform us of the fact, scenes of misery and distress—

- How far below the surface these records were placed by Moroni, I am unable to say; but from the fact they had been some fourteen hundred years buried, and that too on the side of a hill so steep, one is ready to conclude that they were some feet below, as the earth would naturally wear more or less in that length of time. But they being placed toward the top of the hill, the ground would not remove as much as at two-thirds, perhaps. Another circumstance would prevent a wearing away of the earth: in all probibility, as soon as timber had time to grow, the hill was covered, after the Nephites were destroyed, and the roots of the same would hold the surface. However, on this point I shall leave every man to draw his own conclusion, and form his own speculation, as I only promised to give a description of the place at the time the records were found [p. 90] in 1823.—126 It is sufficient for my present purpose, to know, that such is the fact: that in 1823, yes, 1823, a man with whom I have had the most intimate and personal acquaintance, for almost seven years, actually discovered by the vision of God, the plates from which the book of Mormon, as much as much as it is disbelieved, was translated! Such is the case, though men rack their verry brains to invent falshood, and then waft them upon every breeze, to the contrary notwithstanding.

- Connected with this, is the character of the family: and on this I say as I said concerning the character of our brother—I feel myself bound to defend the innocent always when oportunity offers. Had not those who are notorious for lies and dishonesty, also assailed the character of the family I should pass over them here in silence; but now I shall not forbear. It has been industriously circulated that they were dishonest, deceitful and vile.137 On this I have the testimony of responsible persons, who have said and will say, that this [is]138 basely false; and besides, a personal acquaintance for seven years, has demonstrated that all the difficulty is, they were once poor, (yet industrious,) and have now, by the help of God, arisen to note, and their names are like to, (indeed they will,) be handed down to posterity, and had among the righteous.— They are industrious, honest, virtuous and liberal to all. This is their character; and though many take advantage of their liberality, God will reward them; but this is the [p. 100] fact, and this testimony shall shine upon the records of the saints, and be <​recorded on the archives of heaven to be​> read in the day of eternity, when the wicked and perverse, who have vilely slandered them without cause or provocation, reap their reward with the unjust, where there is weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth!— if they do not repent.

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