Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Oliver Cowdery was Punked!

When you hear the name Oliver Cowdery, you probably think of the story that culminates in the revelation that became Section 9 of the Doctrine & Covenants. This section uses Oliver as a (bad) example of how to seek and receive personal revelation.

But, the poor guy. I can't help but thinking that Oliver felt a bit like the rug was pulled out from under him. In sections 6 and 8, the Lord seems very encouraging of Oliver's desires to help with the work and even to actually translate. "If you ask of me, you will receive; if you knock it shall be opened unto you" the Lord says. (6:5). "Even as you desire of me, so it shall be done unto you" the Lord says (6:8). "If thou wilt enquire, thou shalt know mysteries," Oliver is promised. (6:8). Whatsoever you shall ask me . . ., that will I grant unto you," the Lord tells him. (8:9). Then, the Lord gets very specific. He tells Oliver that if he asks to translate, by his faith "it shall be done unto [him.]" (8:11).

How could Oliver not feel like it was done deal? Oliver Cowdery was no slouch in the personal revelation department. He learned of the Prophet Joseph and the translation of the Book of Mormon while living with the Smith Family. He prayed for his own confirmation of the truth and saw the plates in a vision, before he ever met Joseph. Clearly, he was a very faithful, believing person. Why else would he essentially abandon his life to go help translate the Book of Mormon?

But we know the rest of the story. Oliver tries to translate, and fails. The Lord famously tells Oliver that he did not get it; it was not just going to be given to him. Oliver had to work for it. He needed to study it out and seek confirmation. (9:7-9). "Behold, you have not understood; you have have supposed that I would give it to you when you took no thought save it was to ask me." (9:7).

Huh? What is going on here? Despite my ironic title, I do not think God fooled Oliver Cowdery. God is by definition just and fair. But, I can tell you this: I am not as faithful a person as Oliver Cowdery. And, I have already mentioned that I am pretty lazy. If Sections 6 and 8 had been directed to me, I would have assumed that I was going to get what I wanted if I asked. Why did the Lord put Oliver in this situation?


  1. The more I learn about Oliver, the more impressed with him I am. I think you ask some great questions, and I wish I had answers to them.

    Have you read Rough Stone Rolling? I think it gives some great insights into the translation process. Joseph is unique in the translation process. No prophet since him (unless you look at James Strang, a Strangite--breakaway prophet from LDS church) has attempted had a gift of translation of ancient records.

    While it is apparent that Joseph desired others to be able to translate, it seems that only Joseph could do it. I agree with you--it does seem like Oliver had the rug pulled out from under him.

  2. I am reading passages of RSR as I prepare my lessons, but I really want to read it cover to cover. It is very interesting. I just have to find the time.

    I think one of the fascinating aspects of the Section 9 story is that Joseph appears to have been totally open to Oliver attempting translation. That says stuff about Joseph's character and his belief that there really was something going on. It seems unlikely to me that he would have turned it over to Oliver if he knew he was engaged in a fraud.

    Here is a question: Do you know, logistically, how Oliver attempted to translate? Did he use a stone or the Urim & Thummim? He cannot have used the plates, given the instructions to Joseph and the subsequent Three Witness experience. I need to do a little research!

  3. By the way, thanks for linking, Heretic.

  4. You pose an interesting question about how Oliver might have translated. I don't recall reading that in RSR, but I would be curious to know the answer.

    In my study, it seems to me that Joseph didn't use the Urim and Thummin for translation, but rather a seer stone, or peepstone. It would be interesting to find out how Oliver tried to translate. (This is the sort of thing that you won't want to teach your class, but I'm glad you set up this website, as these are the sorts of questions that I have.)

    I'll have to check out my copy of RSR and see if I can find the answer. I'm not sure that he would have been prevented from seeing the plates, but I guess that is a possibility. He was a witness of the plates, so I don't know that Joseph would have prevented him from seeing them.

  5. It amazes me that more people don’t stop cold in section 9 and say, wait a minute – Oliver tried to translate and failed? How exactly did that work? It raises 101 questions about the translation process.

    I think it is unlikely that Joseph just slid the plates across the table and said "Here, have a go at it." We have only one known instance of Oliver seeing the plates, and that was in the woods with the other two witnesses. I think the answer of how Oliver might have translated lies in the fact that the plates were simply not a regular part of the translation process. Most members associate translation with transcription, as expressed so often in LDS art work, with Joseph running his finger along the plates behind a sheet dividing him and Oliver. That just isn't how it worked. Regarding how Oliver might have made an attempt to translate... I think it is unlikely that Joseph just slid the plates across the table and said "Here, have a go at it." We have only one known instance of Oliver seeing the plates, and that was in the woods with the other two witnesses.

    I think the answer of how Oliver might have translated lies in the fact that the plates were simply not a regular part of the translation process. I sense that most members associate translation with transcription, as expressed so often in LDS art work, with Joseph running his finger along the plates behind a sheet dividing him and Oliver. That just isn't how it worked. If anything, translation was a revelatory process – not a transcription – with Joseph being given the words in his mind. See D&C 9:8.

    Clues as to how Oliver might have tried to translate are tucked away in Sections 8 and 9. In D&C 8:6, the Lord tells Oliver that he has another gift, the gift of Aaron. In first version of this revelation, from the 1833 edition of the Book of Commandments, this is presented differently, the gift is called the "gift of the rod."

    Oliver, according to Quinn's well researched book about magic practices in early Mormonism, came from a family that subscribed to supernatural beliefs and were well practiced users of divining rods.

    This gift of the rod had already told Oliver "many things" (D&C 8:6) - all by God's power (v.7) - and that if Oliver would "hold it in his hands" he would be able to do "marvelous works" (v.8).

    Bottom line, I think the plates were not on the scene as usual... I picture Oliver getting out his diving rod out, closing his eyes, and waiting for the words to flow into his mind. When it didn't happen, he got frustrated at this "stupor of thought" (D&C 9:9).

    Here's a kicker: what do you make of D&C 9:12, where after failing to translate, the Lord says to Oliver "For, do you not behold that I have given unto my servant Joseph sufficient strength, whereby it is made up?" What are we supposed to make of that "it is made up" phrase? What is "it"? The Book of Mormon? Does "made up" mean the same thing it means to us today - a fabrication of the mind's eye?

  6. Sorry, a few repeats phrases appear in my post above - remnants of poor editing as I crafted my post.

  7. sberret: Thanks for stopping by and for your interesting comments. I had heard of Oliver's experiences with a divining rod or some other kind of device. Your take on his use of this "gift" in the translation process is interesting and as plausible as any.

    I agree that Oliver almost certainly did not see the plates until the Three Wintesses experience. See, e.g., D&C 5:3. So, how was he to translate? Interesting to consider.

    And, I too think that 9;12 is a very interesting scripture, though I read it a different way. I interpreted it to mean that God's plans had allowed for Oliver to translate. Because of his lack of faith, or diligence, or whatever, he was unable to do so. Joseph was given "sufficient strength" to make up for this deficiencey in Oliver. Maybe like making up for lost time (or lost effort or faith. or something).

  8. So I'm teaching this lesson on Sunday and having a little internal debate about whether I should teach "the gift of Aaron." I've got copies of the 1830 (1829 actually) and 1833 editions of the Book of Commandments. They are essentially the same. In those versions, the gift of Aaron reads "rod of nature." I'm planning to artfully introduce this idea and little else. I plan to emphasize that the Lord expects us to use our gifts (of the Spirit) to receive revelation.

    My wife (my best critic), being more orthodox than I, is somewhat resistant to me bringing up these points. But hey, it's in the scriptures - I didn't bring it up!

    What think ye?

  9. Easton: I understand your question. There is a lot of information about the Church that I think is really interesting. I like to think about and discuss these things with friends. That is a lot of the reason I started this blog. I am not always sure, however, that everything I think should be the subject of my lessons. On the one hand, I do not believe in controversy for controversy’s sake. I don’t think that is why people come to Church and I don’t think it is the purpose of Sunday School. On the other hand, I believe in what is called the “inoculation theory.” The idea: It is better for students to hear controversial things in a “safe” setting, where they can be discussed from a faithful perspective, than completely to ignore the controversies and have them sprung on your students later by someone whose motives might not be so pure.

    So, I try to be pretty thoughtful and prayerful about how I address those topics. And I try to examine my own motives. Am I trying to appear smart or entertaining? Or am I trying to help my class really understand the scriptures? What does God want the lesson to be? Depending upon my class, I might try to “artfully” discuss the “gift of Aaron,” rather than have some wonder later why I hid that from them. (Not that you are doing that).

  10. If I was doing my job as teacher, I would now ask, "What do the rest of you think about Easton's question?"

  11. Easton, not to be picky, but I am curious as to what you mean by an 1829 or 1830 edition of the Book of Commandments. My understanding is that the first time the reveleations were ever compiled for publication was the 1833 edition. The new Saints in Kirtland/Hiram wanted the revelations available in one place instead of passing around individual copies.

    At a Church conference (see D&C 1 preface) the decision was made to publish them ... and the Lord then gave the Preface (section 1) for that book. The order to print them wasn't realized until 1833 in Missouri and even that effort was interrupted by a mob and left unfinished... only a few copies survived.

    Not challenging you, just interested to know what you have that predates 1833 - as I would like to be better informed. Thought I had this era nailed down pretty good.

    As for whether or not to bring it up... I struggle with this too - but in the end there is just no way I would do it. In fact, I am kind of nervous that someone will ask me, as the instructor, what it means by "gift of Aaron." Then what do I do? Lie? Play dumb? Or open my mouth and endure the awkward silence that follows? Frankl,y I can't wait for this lesson to be over!

  12. Yes, Easton, I too am curious about the 1829 edition you are talking about. I just posted part of the preface from the 1833 where it talks about some of the original revelations were published in Times and Seasons prior to publication in the Book of Commandments. Check it out at http://www.ldssundayschool.org/DC-Lesson_1

    I'm going to agree with Teacher and What. Does the Gift of Aaron relate to the general lesson, or is it a tangent? If it's a tangent, I think it is probably more appropriate for a blog posting than Sunday School class. You may want to read my experience over at Mormon Matters when trying to teach "uncorrelated" material. Maybe your ward is more liberal than mine, but it can be an unpleasant experience.

  13. Awesome feedback. I especially appreciate your elucidation of the "inoculation theory" Teacher and I've used that as my guidance when these touchy subjects arise.

    What - regarding your question on the Book of Commandments: I simply misread/misunderstood the dates on a recently acquired copy. I have one that was reprinted by the Church of Jesus Christ - Temple Block (what I thought was the 1829/30 edition), and the other reprinted by Herald Publishing. You are correct.

    Sorry about that. In case you were wondering, I've got no access to Mark Hoffman.

    If someone were to ask me in class about the gift of Aaron, if explained carefully, and in the right spirit, I think most Saints are eager to understand these things. In fact, as I've taught gospel doctrine over the years, as the teacher points this kind of thing out, the class will pick up on additional stuff, and bring it to the teacher's attention. It's a very edifying experience. Though I must say, I've not taught the gift of Aaron before.

    I'll be sure to let you know how it goes.

  14. I think the gift of Aaron does apply to the class, in that the Lord encouraged Oliver to use all the gifts he had to receive revelation - not simply to just ask.

    He was told that in order to know the mysteries, he had to seek wisdom, say nothing but repentance, keep the commandments, assist Joseph, use his gift (which makes up the majority of Section 8 - verses 4-9), be diligent, sustain the prophet, and more.

    I think that establishes a pattern for all of us in order to obtain revelation, especially to "lay hold upon every good gift" as was one of the final admonitions of Moroni.

    Anyhow - I'm just sayin'.

  15. Easton, what specifically is the Gift of Aaron?

    Teacher, I did some pretty blatant plagiarizing of your post, and posted it over at http://ldssundayschool.org, because I really liked your presentation. I did some slight edits toward the end, but it is 95% yours. I can remove it if you like. Check Lesson 5.

  16. sberrett explained it pretty well. It's the use of divining rods. There's some question as to how it was specifically used in Oliver's case, but most scholars agree that he had some talent with it.

    And again, it's up to us to use our gifts to commune with deity.

  17. Thanks Easton. I read sberrett's post several times and still managed to miss the "Gift of Aaron" and "gift of the rod" as being the same thing.

    I have to tell you that if I were teaching, I wouldn't touch the gift of the rod with a 10 foot pole. If someone asked a question about it, I'd probably ask them to talk to me about it after class.

    I haven't read Quinn yet, but he is on my list...

  18. Heretic: No problem. Glad you liked it. Is there a way to link it back to this blog? I would love to get more commenters?

  19. I posted a link to your site at the bottom of the lesson. The site has been up for a few years but hasn't been maintained well. I am hoping to build some visibility for it, and hope the traffic will increase here as well as there. Hopefully traffic will increase on both sites.

  20. "What" posting here... formerly sberrett and now WhutzNeskt (took me a while to figure out how my name would appear in posts - new to this blog posting thing - gonna stick with WhutzNekst)...

    Anyhoo, Jos. Fielding McKonkie has a book called Revelations of the Restoration, basically, a commentary on the D&C. He has some thoughts on the gift of Aaron. I post it because it is useful to this discussion even though it tries to contest my opinion in my original post (as sberrett). I'll break into two posts cause it's long, but worth a read.

    Regarding the gift of Aaron:

    "In the Book of Comm. this was called the "rod of nature" which has caused considerable speculation that Oliver had some kind of a diving rod by which he could receive revelation. Then comes the supposition that in changing this text to read "the gift of Aaron," Jos. Smith decided he was telling more than he intended. Such conclusions do not represent good doctrine, good history or a correct appraisal of the Prophet's purpose in making this change. Consider the following:

    "First, there is no record or statement tracing to either Jos. or Oliver that so much as hints that Oliver had or used any sort of a rod to receive revelation.

    "Second, the divinely ordained system by which the BOM was to be translated was the Urim and Thummim. There is no justification for the supposition that Oliver, when granted the privilege of translating would do so by some other means. Here the Lord said he had been given the "gift of Aaron." True it is that Aaron had a rod which became a serpent when he cast it down before Pharoh (Ex 7:10), but he did not use it to receive revelation. Aaron had another gift, the Urim and Thummim, for that purpose (Ex. 28:30, Lev 8:6-9).

    "Third, in D&C 6, Oliver was told that he had a gift by which he could ask and receive revelation and even obtain a knowledge of the mysteries of heaven. He was also told that he would be given the gift by which he could translate "even as my servant Jos." If he was to translate even as Jos., he would have to translate by the same means used by the Prophet, the Urim and Thummim."

    (cont'd in PART TWO)

  21. PART TWO:

    "Fourth, in section 8 Oliver is again told that he would be granted the spirit of revelation, and in addition to that he would be given another gift, "the gift of Aaron," by which he had already learned many things. Certainly the things he had learned included that which is contained in D&C 6 and 7, both of which were recv'd by the use of the Urim and Thummim.

    "Fifth, it would be difficult to suppose that Joseph was attempting to obscure anything in making the change from "rod of nature" (Book of C.) to "gift of Aaron" (1835 D&C), given that he left intact the promise that Oliver would hold this gift in his hands. We know of no seeric device that Oliver could have held in his hands except for the Urim and Thummim.

    "We conclude, therefore, that the gift promised to Oliver Cowdery could be nothing other than the Urim & Thummim and that Jos.'s purpose in making this change was to clarify rather than conceal. This change assumes that the reader will know that the gift given the high priest in ancient times was the Urim & Thummim, but then the whole story of the Restoration assumes knowledge of the ancient order of things."


  22. Oops.. there's more:

    "It may be that the U&T were referred to as a rod because they were connected by a rod to the breastplate Jos. recv'd with the plates. The Prophet's bro William described the means by which the U&T were attached to the breastplate saying 'A pocket was prepared in the breastplate on the left side, immediately over the heart. When not is use the U&T was placed in the pocket, the rod being of just the right length to allow it to be deposited. This instrument, however, could be detached from the breastplate when translating, as it permitted him to have both hands free to touch the plates.'

    "As to 'nature' in the 'rod of nature', the dictionary of Jos.'s day defined nature as comprehending 'the works of God.' "


  23. In reading this, Bro. McKonkie seems to be arguing that the "gift of Aaron" is an object (the U&T) **and** the ability to use it.

    Interesting perspective. Mulling it over. Not quite convinced.

  24. Whutznekst: That is very interesting. Like you I am not quite convinced. I have been reading "Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants" by Steven Harper. It is pretty helpful at explainiing the context of each of the revelations in the D&C. Interestingly, it contains a very matter of fact, straightforward discussion Oliver's "gift" being the use of a divining rod, almost as if it is common knowledge. I say, "interestingly," because "Making Sense" is published by Deseret Book and Harper is an associate professor at BYU. It is a pretty mainstream source. If you have the book or want to find what I am talking about, look at the chapter on Section 8.

  25. Interesting sources, both of you. I'd love for this info to be in the LDS Sunday School site. If either of you don't mind....

  26. Heretic: That sounds fine. Thanks.

  27. As promised, here's my follow up to my lesson on Sunday. I went ahead and taught this concept in my gospel doctrine class. As I've done in my university class, I framed it as an ongoing and civil debate.

    Part 1:

    It should be said that I only spent 5 minutes or so on this. It wasn't at all a focal point. The real point being, the Lord commands us to use all at our disposal to rend the veil.

    My wife, who was adverse to me bringing this up said that the tone of the class changed during this discussion and asked if I could feel it. I couldn't of course, but she felt a difference. She's far more spiritually in tune than I'll ever be, I've resigned myself to that.

  28. Part 2:

    That said, numerous folks approached afterwards and said they've wondered about that and appreciated the discussion. Others just loved the scriptural discussion which they found rare. One sister loved the fact I brought in my copies of the Book of Commandments, which reminded her of a very spiritual experience she had on a church history tour (this was actually said over the pulpit in fast and testimony meeting - which was somewhat embarrasing to me, but I appreciated her enthusiasm).

    A few anticipated my approach and did the work for me - commenting on the culture of magic in the early 1800s, and how it really doesn't matter how the word of the Lord is given, so long as it's received. That's always the best result.

  29. Part 3:
    My point is: the Saints, in large measure are LIKE US. They are eager to learn all they can, and want to be scriptural scholars. They just don't have to the tools; are intimidated; are uninspired to pursue this on their own free time; have never been shown how; and have been unfairly conditioned to think that only anti-Mormons bring this stuff up.

    I've never really feared bringing this stuff up. If done right, good things will happen. Some might not be attuned to it yet, but they'll come around.

    By the way, the Stake President sat in too.

  30. I hope you don't get called into the Stake President's office.... I got called into the bishop's office for using an NIV bible to explain parts of Isaiah when I taught the Old Testament, and told to only use KJV from then on, and to follow the manual more closely. I was released soon after, so good luck.

    I wish I had been there. It sounds like an interesting discussion.


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