Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Writings of Oliver Cowdery—a Lesson on his Letter VII Controversy – Part IV

Continued from the previous post regarding Oliver Cowdery’s flamboyant and speculative comments about the location and the battle at Cumorah found in his Letter VII that is used by Heartland Theorists as the doctrinal account of the last Nephite-Lamanite wars and the annihilation of the Nephite nation.
So what are the actual problems with Oliver’s Letter VII to W.W. Phelps? First of all, is the claim that Joseph Smith assisted Oliver in composing Letter VII, which has led the Heartland theorists to claim that the letters are authoritative and reflect Joseph Smith’s inspired views on Book of Mormon geography. However, as pointed out earlier, Joseph’s involvement was in assisting Oliver to compose his letters, and include facts about Joseph’s early life, not in determining or discussing the location of Land of Promise events, especially the final battles at Cumorah. In fact, Joseph’s interest is spelled out in his letter to Oliver that was later published in the Messenger and Advocate in December 1834.
   Here it should be pointed out that anti-Mormon publications were alleging that Joseph had a disreputable character, so when Joseph learned Oliver was writing articles about the “origin and rise of the Latter-day Saints,” he informed Oliver that he was going to provide him with a brief history of his early youth. It should also be noted that Joseph’s early history is not discussed in Letter VII, but it is included in Letter III, published in December 1834.
   Again, and it should be emphasized, that the extent of Joseph Smith’s involvement with the authorship of these letters was to provide Oliver with details about his early life. His intent was to refute anti-Mormon accusations of illicit behavior on his part during his youth.
    As such, contrary to the assertions of Heartland theorists, beyond this “there is no evidence that Joseph Smith assigned Cowdery to write the letters,” including Letter VII (Karen Lynn Davidson et al., eds., The Joseph Smith Papers: Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832–1844, The Church Historian’s Press, Salt Lake City, 2012, pxxi).
    In addition, while Meldrum and the Heartland theorists like to make the claim that Joseph Smith had Letter VII copied into his history, as though its contents held particular significance, the fact is that all eight letters written by Oliver Cowdery were copied into Joseph Smith’s history. More importantly, they were copied as a block of text, with no evident effort to make any corrections or changes to the contents, including even factually problematic claims in the letters which contradicted other parts of Joseph’s history, suggesting they were seen as a series, not as a periodic or gradual copying of the individual letters (Davidson et al., eds., The Joseph Smith Papers: Histories, Volume 1, p39).
In addition, to contradict the Heartland theorists’ misleading claim that Joseph selectively gave preference to Letter VII, all eight letters were inserted into Joseph’s history by three different scribes: Frederick G. Williams, Oliver Cowdery, and Warren F. Parrish, the latter copying Letter VII. Obviously, it was a matter of Joseph outsourcing the task of composing his history to scribes who then made use of a large chunks accessible material already then in existence. So the 1834–1836 history “serve[d] as a repository—more permanent than unbound newspapers—for a copied compilation of the entire series” rather than a shrine to the sui generis inspiration of Letter VII” (Davidson, The Joseph Smith Papers: Histories, Volume 1, p39—emphasis added).
    Another claim is that Joseph Smith supervised the publication of Letter VII, made by Meldrum and the Heartland theorists. However, while the letters appeared in several publications, such as the Millennial Star, the Times and Seasons, the Gospel Reflector, in the Prophet, and Oliver Cowdery’s own works, this is not evidence Joseph Smith was involved, as Heartland theorists claim. First of all, of those letters republished in Joseph Smith’s lifetime, at least half were published in the United Kingdom, far from the Prophet’s supervision, nor did any of these republications have Joseph’s editorial oversight.
    In addition, when republished in the Times and Seasons in 1840–1841 Don Carlos Smith was the editor, not Joseph Smith, who would not assume editorship of the paper until February 19, 1842. The non-involvement of Joseph in these republications is seen also in the fact that the Gospel Reflector and The Prophet took place in Philadelphia and New York City, respectively, both outside of the supervision of Joseph Smith, with the letters republished in The Prophet appearing two days after Joseph Smith’s death.
    However, it cannot be said that Oliver’s letters were not important to the early Saints, or even that Joseph Smith may have been influenced by them—they certainly were persuasive among early Mormons; however, contrary to Jonathan Neville’s assertion, there is no evidence that Joseph Smith quoted Letter VII in his September 6, 1842, letter to the Saints. In fact, the locations of the publication contradict the Heartland theorists claim that Joseph gave them his approval or sanction.
    It should also be noted that if Letter VII was so foundational, so fundamentally important, so essential in definitively settling the supposedly revealed geography of the Book of Mormon as Heartland theorist insist it is, then it would have been sanctified and venerated, as some other of Cowdery’s writings, one of which as previously stated, appeared in the Doctrine and Covenants. After all, there was certainly opportunity to do so—two editions of that work were prepared during Joseph Smith’s lifetime: one in Kirtland in 1835, and the other in Nauvoo in 1844, with the latter finally appearing in print only shortly after the Prophet’s death. In neither of these editions of the Doctrine and Covenants, nor in any edition up to the present, even though multiple editions of the Doctrine and Covenants have added and removed material (Richard E. Turley Jr. and William W. Slaughter, How We Got the Doctrine and Covenants, Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, 2012).
It is also of note that Oliver’s letters published in his Messenger and Advocate contain factual and glaring errors and embellishments, which of course, the Heartland theorists ignore. One of which is that Oliver was completely silent about the First Vision—in fact, as Oliver recounts the story in his 1823 Letters III and IV, Joseph Smith was confused by the religious sects and denominations fighting for converts around him and so retired to his bedroom, prayed, and was visited by the angel Moroni, which event started the Restoration. Of course, this contradicts Joseph Smith’s own official history, his 1832 entry written in his own hand (see Journal 9-11 November 1835 entry), which Warren Parrish later copied into Joseph Smith’s journal (Primary Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision of Deity, Joseph Smith Papers, Joseph Smith History, circa Summer 1832, pp1-3). In fact, in this history, there are two accounts of the first vision that were written during Joseph’s lifetime. In addition, there were private retellings to Orson Pratt, Orson Hyde, Levi Richards, David Nye White, Alexander Neibaur, etc., all of which wrote what Joseph told them in their journals.
    In addition, as an example of Oliver’s embellished aspects of Joseph Smith’s early history, is the 1,038-word dissertation in Letter VII of Mormon’s brief 140-word comment mentioned earlier. This is also seen in Letter VIII, especially clear in Letter VIII, in which Oliver attributed to Moroni a verbatim 1,078-word quote supposedly delivered to Joseph Smith after he was unable to obtain the plates upon first seeing them, a quote that is found nowhere else, or even suggested anywhere else in Joseph’s history.
    This is especially troubling when taken in connection to the fact that Oliver didn’t so much as even know Joseph Smith in 1827—the two men first met in April 1829—when these words he attributed to Moroni were spoken, let alone witness firsthand the recovery of the plates and the interview between the Prophet and the angel, which Oliver claims.  Obviously, as a secondhand source publishing eight years after the event, Oliver was certainly embellishing details about the interview supplied to him by Joseph Smith, which as we have seen, would not be out of character for Oliver.
Unveiling painting of Oliver Cowdery for display at the Church History Department in 2006. In addition to being the Church’s 2nd Elder, Cowdery was the first church attorney, and therefore the painting was later hung in the J. Reuben Clark Law School

It has been extensively documented by historians and this blog as well, that for all of Oliver Cowdery’s fine points and important contributions to the Church, serving as the Second Elder, assisting and avidly supporting Joseph Smith, his misrepresentation of factual information is overwhelming. The problem lies, not in the character or performance of Oliver in his personal life or church service, but in his writings, even of factual events, where he considerably embellished those events with his own undocumented and speculative prose on the subject. This is not to discredit Oliver in any way, only the pedant nature of some of his writings and remarks that, unfortunately, unknowning or unscrupulous people use to further or promote their own ends, as does Jonathan Neville and Rod L. Meldrum.
(See the final post, “The Writings of Oliver Cowdery—a Lesson on his Letter VII Controversy – Part V,” for more explanation regarding Oliver Cowdery’s flamboyant and speculative comments about the location and the battle at Cumorah)

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