Richard O. Cowan: Mormon Scholar
Richard Olsen Cowan was a professor of religion and historian. At the time of his retirement from Brigham Young University in 2014, he was the longest-serving member of the Church History Department. He was also one of the longest-serving BYU faculty. He is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Cowan was born in 1934 and raised in Los Angeles, California. He was born with retinitis pigmentosa and lost almost all of his vision by the year 2000. He is considered legally blind. He earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from Occidental College. In 1959, U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower selected him as one of four visually handicapped students to receive an award. He went on to receive both his master’s and doctorate in American history from Stanford University. Immediately upon his graduation, he was offered a position at BYU.
- “Before going on my mission I was debating going into teaching or law,” said Cowan, who has taught at BYU for 52 years. “I’ve been visually impaired my whole life and am totally blind now, and I realized then that anything I did would be a challenge.”
- While serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Texas and New Mexico, Cowan participated in a small district meeting with an LDS general authority and other Church leaders. He wondered how he could make situations similar to this a part of his regular life.
- “During that moment, the impression that came was to teach religion at BYU, and so that became my goal,” Cowan said.
Cowan taught at the BYU Provo, Utah, campus, but also taught at BYU Hawaii and the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. He was honored with the Professor of the Year award after four years of teaching.
In addition to teaching, Cowan has published more than a dozen books and many articles about temples and Church history. His titles include Temples to Dot the Earth, Doctrine and Covenants: Our Modern Scripture, and The Church in the Twentieth Century. He co-wrote Under Every Nation: Gospel Light Reaches Every Land, The A to Z of the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History, Joseph Smith and the Doctrine and Covenants, and The Oakland Temple: Portal to Eternity.
Cowan and his wife are the parents of six children.