Oliver was born on October 3, 1806, in Wells, Vermont. There is little information about his youth; the earliest records available state that at twenty years old he moved to New York. He worked as a clerk in a store until 1829, and then taught at the school in Manchester. Oliver Cowdery boarded in the home of Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph Smith's parents, and while there learned of Joseph's visions and the manuscript he was translating. Oliver became convinced of the truth of this work and desired to become a scribe for Joseph Smith.
Scribe for Joseph Smith
Oliver became Joseph’s scribe on April 7, 1829, and worked with him until the translation of the Book of Mormon was completed. Oliver was grateful for the opportunity to hear the words of the book. In his own words he said:
- These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have said, ‘Interpreters,’ the history or record called ‘The Book of Mormon’ (Messenger and Advocate, October 1834, p. 14).
While they were translating, Joseph and Oliver learned about baptism and decided to ask the Lord whether they ought to be baptized. As they prayed, John the Baptist appeared to them as a heavenly messenger. Calling them his "fellow servants," he ordained them to the Aaronic Priesthood with the authority to baptize. Joseph and Oliver went to the nearby Susquehanna River where Joseph first baptized Oliver, then Oliver baptized Joseph. Not long after, Oliver Cowdery witnessed the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood under the hands of the ancient apostles Peter, James, and John.
While translating the record, Joseph and Oliver learned that three witnesses would be allowed to see the record and bear testimony of its existence in addition to Joseph. In June of 1829, Oliver became one of these Three Witnesses to the existence of the gold plates, along with Martin Harris and David Whitmer. The three men and Joseph retired to the woods where they prayed. An angel appeared to them, showing them the gold plates. The voice of God was also heard, commanding them to bear record of the event. Though these men suffered and struggled much, not one of them ever denied this testimony. Oliver was then given the job of overseeing the publication of the Book of Mormon.
Oliver Cowdery was the first member of the Church to speak in a public meeting after the Church had been officially organized on April 6, 1830. Oliver’s speeches and writings were known for their logic, grounded in personal knowledge. Shortly after the organization of the Church, Oliver was asked to lead the first major missionary expedition of the Church. The group was asked to teach the Native Americans, but they had more success among others they met along the way. Through theses efforts Church membership doubled. From 1830-1831 Oliver served as the first Church recorder, and acted as scribe for Joseph Smith while he was translating the Bible. This position was given to him again from 1835-1837. He kept the official minutes of meetings and was a contributor to many of the Church newspapers. In 1830, Oliver Cowdery was also called as the "second elder of the Church" and a counselor to Joseph Smith.
In 1831, Oliver was asked to transport the manuscript of Joseph Smith’s revelations to Missouri for printing. He was asked to stay and help William W. Phelps print the book. Bad relations in Missouri with neighbors made it necessary for these two men to return to Ohio, where they continued printing the book. In 1835, Oliver helped Joseph Smith make final corrections to what is now the Doctrine and Covenants. In 1836, Oliver Cowdery was with Joseph Smith when they witnessed a vision in the Kirtland Temple. In this vision, he saw Jesus Christ and other messengers sent from God, including Moses and Elijah (see Doctrine and Covenants 110). Two years later in 1838, a rift developed between Joseph Smith and Oliver over Joseph's leadership. Oliver felt that he should have more power and independence in the Church. He was excommunicated for attempting to collect on debts after the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society, inactivity, and having falsely accused Joseph of adultery.
After his excommunication, Oliver moved back to Ohio and practiced law. He became a prominent leader in the area and was known as an able lawyer— brilliant, yet modest and reserved. In 1847, he moved to Wisconsin and continued practicing law. Letters to his family show that he remained a believer in the Church and was hurt by being rejected (as he saw it). In 1848, Oliver returned to the Church and joined the Saints in Council Bluffs, Iowa, with his wife and young daughter. During the ten years he had been out of the Church, he did not once deny the Book of Mormon or the visions he witnessed.
When Cowdery returned to the Church, he humbly expressed only the desire to be rebaptized and fellowshipped, and refused any position in the Church. Lack of funds and winter forced the family to stay in Missouri in 1849. Unfortunately, Oliver was suffering from a respiratory condition and died on March 3, 1850, before he was able to move to Utah with the rest of the Church. His last letter states that he accepted a call to lobby for the Church in Washington, though he was never able to fulfill this call. His wife recorded concerning him,
- From the hour when the glorious vision of the Holy Messenger revealed to mortal eyes the hidden prophecies which God had promised ... until the moment when he passed away from earth, he always without one doubt or shadow of turning affirmed the divinity and truth of the Book of Mormon (Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, p.63).
In one of the revelations given to Oliver Cowdery the Lord admonished him to be faithful, saying:
- Behold, thou art Oliver, and I have spoken unto thee because of thy desires; therefore treasure up these words in thy heart. Be faithful and diligent in keeping the commandments of God, and I will encircle thee in the arms of my love.... perform with soberness the work which I have commanded you. Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not (6:20, 35-36).