Operations of the Spirit: Part 7a of 12, The Oliver Cowdery Revelations, D&C 6, 8, and 9
This is the seventh of fifteen parts to an essay entitled "Operations of the Spirit"; this part covers D&C 6. The entire essay is just over one hundred pages if printed out, so it is presented serially in this blog. These parts should be read sequentially, because each builds on the previous parts. Hopefully, readers will have comments, suggestions and criticisms. The fifteen parts are as follows: I. Introduction, Part I II. Confusing Terms, Part II III. Metaphors and Meaning, Parts III through VI A. The still small voice, Part III B. The heart and reins, Part IV C. Light and burning, as in a burning in the bosom, Part V D. Extracting meaning from metaphors,, Part VI IV. The Scriptures and the Spirit, Parts VII through X A. The Oliver Cowdery revelations: D&C 6, 8 and 9, Parts VII(a), (b), and (c) B. Other modern-day scriptures, Part VIII C. Ancient scriptures about the Spirit, Part IX D. Extraordinary events, Part X V. The Spirit and Individual Affectations, Part XI VI. Conclusion, Part XII There are footnotes in this work. You can read the footnotes by hovering your cursor over the note, or you can click on the note to read it as text. There is a symbol at the end of each footnote that allows you to return to the text by clicking on it.
VII. THE SCRIPTURES AND SPIRIT
The common ideas engendered by confusing terms and misunderstood metaphors discussed in Parts I through VI of this blog are inconsistent with what the scriptures actually say about the Spirit.1 This Part VII (a) begins an examination of what the scriptures say about the operations of the Spirit, starting with what I call the Oliver Cowdery relations. D&C 6, 8, and 9. These three revelations were received in April and May 1829 during the translation of the Book of Mormon.
A. The Oliver Cowdery Revelations
The Oliver Cowdery revelations are about spiritual enlightenment. They are among earliest revelations in this dispensation about the influence of the Spirit and open the door to other scriptures that talk about the operations of the Spirit. Understanding these revelations is enlightening, because Cowdery, being religious,2 had a general and, perhaps, typically amorphous notion about the Spirit acquired as a Protestant. He carried these notions with him as a recent friend of the Smith family, notions that are very much like notions common in the Church today. But Cowdery’s notions were incorrect; hence, the Oliver Cowdery revelations educated him on the proper operations of the Spirit. An education required of members today as much as Cowdery then.
The Oliver Cowdery revelations are particularly apt for today’s reader. Cowdery was educated, a school teacher, and this made him suited to be an amanuensis for Joseph Smith.3 His education makes him more like the norm in today’s society where people are literate. Unfortunately, today’s reader still approaches things of the Spirit in much the same way as many did during the early days of the Church: as though there is a numinous, almost mystic quality about the Spirit. Some of the early revelations to Joseph Smith’s dealt with this problem.
1. D&C 6: the first revelation on the Spirit. The first revelation was in April 1829 and was given just after Cowdery met Joseph Smith for the first time on April 5. Cowdery started working as Joseph Smith’s amanuensis two days later,4History of the Church, vol. 1 at 32. which is not surprising. Cowdery had traveled the one-hundred thirty miles from Palmyra, New York, where he had been living with the prophet’s family, to Joseph and Emma’s home in Harmony, Pennsylvania, with the intention of lending his help to the prophet’s translation work. 5Joseph Smith had, besides, been praying for a scribe to assist in the work.6 It is clear that Oliver Cowdery had no question about the verity of the work he undertook in Harmony; after all, his conversion to the work is the reason he went to Harmony. The Lord even told him so,“[T]hou has received instruction of my Spirit. If it had not been so, thou wouldst not have come to the place where thou art at this time.” The purpose of this revelation, in other words, was not to commit Cowdery to the work.7
The reason for the revelation was Cowdery’s desire to translate. He asked if he could.8The revelation both tells him he can, because he has the gift to translate, and, by the way, gives him instruction about the nature of revelation because of what he had done and learned and came to know while living with Joseph Smith’s parents in Palmyra.
Cowdery probably did not think of his investigations and conclusions during his stay in Palmyra as a revelation, receiving “instruction of my Spirit,” because his conclusions were the result of his own investigations. But the Lord clarified the fact that Cowdery’s investigations were part and parcel of the revelatory process.
Behold, thou knowest that [A] thou hast inquired of me and [B] I did enlighten thy mind; and now I tell thee these things that thou mayest know that [C] thou has been enlightened by the Spirit of truth.
. . . .
. . . cast your mind upon the night that [a] you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things. [b] Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What [c] greater witness can you have than from God?9
The parallels in these verses is important. The A-a parallel repeats the Lord’s awareness of the secret prayer Oliver Cowdery offered, a prayer offered in his heart, meaning his mind. The B-b parallel confirms the enlightenment that occurred to Cowdery during his prayer: peace of mind. the C-c parallel confirms that this peace of mind is the Spirit. First, God equates His Spirit with the Spirit of truth, which He says enlightened Cowdery’s mind. Cowdery had become acquainted with the story of the gold bible while in Palmyra, and his acquaintance with the Smith family led him to believe there might be some substance to the stories circulating about Joseph Smith, so Cowdery, taken by the religious implications of what he had heard, investigated.10 The Spirit of truth he received was his realization that he had correctly concluded that the stories were so. Second, Cowdery’s enlightenment gave him peace of mind. One might say that Cowdery’s enlightenment was the fact that he felt good about what he concluded from his investigations after he thought about it, or, put another way, one might conclude that he realized that what he was thinking was right. His enlightenment, in other words, involved two parts: his investigation and his realization. Oliver Cowdery was so settled in his thoughts—felt so good about what he had concluded after he had investigated—that he made the journey to Harmony, Pennsylvania, to work with the prophet.
The importance of this first-of-three revelations to Oliver Cowdery was the answer allowing him to translate if he wanted, because he had the same or similar endowment or gift enjoyed by Joseph Smith—the Lord promised Cowdery that he could use his gift to translate using the same process, whatever it was, as that used by Joseph Smith.11 Indeed, Oliver Cowdery was told the same thing, apparently, as Joseph Smith had been told about telling people about this process, “Make not the gift known unto any save it be those who are of thy faith.”12 The importance to today’s reader is much different. This revelation illuminates for today’s reader how the Spirit worked with Oliver Cowdery. Study. Reflection. Realization.
- The capitalization of spirit in this series of posts does not denote a particular personage; rather, it is used to connote a divine influence.
- Oliver Cowdery’s family was religious, but, perhaps, not converted to a traditional sect. Cowdery’s father, William Cowdery, Jr., may have left the Congregational Church in Rutland, Vermont, to join a sect begun by Nathaniel Wood, who had been excommunicated from the Congregational Church, establishing a himself and his followers as modern Israelites, a chosen people for whom America was an inheritance. http://olivercowdery.com/history/Cdychrn1.htm (accessed August 29, 2013). It is not clear, however, that the father continued this association because he may have rejoined the Congregational Church as a result of his marriage to Cowdery’s step mother. Id.
Oliver Cowdery became acquainted with the parents of Joseph Smith, Jr., during the latter part of 1828 when he was employed as a school teacher. Morris, Larry E., “The Conversion of Oliver Cowdery,” in Baugh, Alexander L., ed., Days Never to be Forgotten, Oliver Cowdery (Provo, UT, and Salt Lake City, UT, Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University and Deseret Book Company, 2009) at 18–19. He probably met David Whitmer during this same period of time, November 1828, and the two of them struck up an immediate friendship that ultimately led them to jointly investigate the rumors about the gold plates. Id. at 20. Theirs was “a sincere interest in Joseph Smith while so many in the area viewed hm cynically.” Id at 21. The interest was, no doubt, based on personalities that impelled them to seek out the facts and learn as much as possible. They were studious and intellectual, which appears from Whitmer’s inquisitive investigations about Joseph Smith, id. at 22–23, and Cowdery’s desire to find out for himself, not relying upon others, whether there was truth to the stories he had heard about Joseph Smith. Id/ at 27. In addition, Oliver Cowdery’s correspondence with Joseph Smith, his involvement with the translation, his discussions with Joseph Smith about questions that arose during the translation process, his work on the printer’s manuscript and with the printer, and, inter alia, his work as editor of the Messenger and Advocate all militate in favor of the conclusion that his was predominately a curious/intellectual personality followed by a need for organization and conformity. Baugh, op cit. passim. Oliver Cowdery “was a gifted writer [who was] careful and measured, yet passionate . . . . [and could exhibit] a tone of wisdom and restraint.” Welch, John W., “Oliver Cowdery as Editor, Defender, and Justice of the Peace in Kirtland,” in Baugh, op cit. at 259. Cowdery’s view of questions about the church and its doctrine align with his personality; he thought it essential to understand the basis of one’s faith before entering into discussions with others about the principles of salvation, so the first issue of the Messenger and Advocate, October 1834, present’s his “articles of faith,” as it were, which appear to be the paradigm for Joseph Smith’s articles of faith, using we believe at the first of and throughout. Messenger and Advocate., vol. 1, no. 1. at 2. http://archive.org/ details/latterdaysaintsm01unse. In 1836 he wrote,
A man, who knows his religion is the religion of heaven has nothing to fear from all the arts or crafts of men or even devils themselves. Truth certainly can lose nothing by investigation, and, we have always thought that that scheme of things devised by the great God for the salvation of men, shone brighter and brighter the more it was developed, and reflected greater honor and the most glory upon its divine Authority, when it is the best understood.
Messenger and Advocate, vol 3, no. 1 (Kirtland, OH, October 1836) at 394. https://archive.org/stream/latterdaysaintsm01unse#page/n399/mode/2up
Thomas Jefferson, a strong advocate of religious freedom, believed an individual was answerable to God, and that “God reqres. evy. act acdg. to Belief/yt. Belf. foundd. on Evdce, offd. to his mind.” III. Jefferson’s Outline of Argument in Support of His Resolutions, 11 October–9 December 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-01-02-0222-0004. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 1, 1760–1776, ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950, pp. 535–539.]. This same outline addresses the crime of heresy under Virginia’s laws noting that the state had adopted the Athanasian Creed—the Trinity—so that those who believed as Bishop Arias, the “Arians burnt in El. & Jac. Socinians.” Socinianism from the 16th Century and is famous for its nontrinitarian Christology.
- The need for an educated teacher to help with the translation is underscored by the status of the English language in the early 19th Century. There was no real consistency in orthography or grammar until Dr. Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language was published in England in 1755. It became the first standard, so to speak, for how to write, so much so that “[d]uring the 19th century, a copy of Johnson’s Dictionary could be found in every educated person’s library.” Crystal, David, Spell it Out, The Curious, Enthralling, and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2012) at 188. The touchstone in America was Noah Webster. “In 1783 he published a textbook that would become the standard introduction for generations of young American reader: The American Spelling Book, often called (from is cover) ‘the blue-backed speller.’” Id. at 197. Noah Webster’s major work, An American Dictionary of the English Language, was published in 1828 and set in stone or almost-cured concrete how to write. Id. at 195–200. What was left undone by Johnson and Webster was then standardized by printers and publishers, id. at 201 et seq. so much so that David Crystal characterizes the development of the English language in the early 19th Century as the age of dictionaries abetted by printers. Id. Indeed, it was not until the 1820s that dictionaries began to show today’s twenty-six letter format. Id. at 191. Oliver Cowdery’s education and familiarity with grammar and Webster, along with E.B. Grandin’s printing, were essential to the publication of the Book of Mormon.
- Morris, Larry E., “The Conversion of Oliver Cowdery,” Baugh, Alexander L., ed., Days Never to be Forgotten, Oliver Cowdery (Provo, UT, Salt Lake City, UT, Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book, 2009) at 37–38.
- Morris, Larry E., “Oliver Cowdery’s Vermont Years and the Origins of Mormonism,” BYU Studies vol. 39, no. 1 (2000) at 111–112.
- Joseph Smith’s history about this and the contemporaneous revelations are brief. Of this revelation, the prophet records, “I commenced to translate . . . and he began to write for me, which having continued for some time, I inquired of the Lord . . . and obtained the following.” History of the Church 1:32–33. The prophet then records that Oliver Cowdery related the story of his secret prayer “concerning my having the plates . . . to know if these things [which the Smith family had communicated to him] were so, and the Lord manifested to him that they were true, but he had kept the circumstance entirely secret . . . so that after this revelation was given, he knew that the work was true . . . .” Id. at 35. There can be no doubt that Oliver Cowdery had done more than just hear from the prophet’s family about the plates, see footnote 93, supra, and there can be no doubt that Cowdery well enough knew the truth of the prophet’s work before he traveled from Palmyra to Harmony to help the prophet; the Lord even said so. D&C 6:14. In other words, Cowdery seems to have progressed from well-enough-knew to doubtless-knew by this revelation; in any event, this was his second witness of truth, “in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.” D&C 6:28
[I]f you will ask of me you shall receive . . . . Now, as you have asked, behold I say unto you [be faithful]. Verily, verily, I say unto you, even as you desire of me so it shall be unto you . . . . And, behold, I grant unto you a gift, if you desire of me, to translate, even as my servant Joseph. . . . And now, behold, I give unto you, and also unto my servant Joseph, the keys of this gift . . . .
- D&C 6:15, 22–23 (emphasis added). God as used here refers to Jesus Christ according to the preceding verse twenty-one, which means the Savior was acting rather than the Holy Ghost,
- Baugh, op cit. at 21.
- D&C 6:10–12, 25. Verse twenty-five says the Lord will allow Oliver Cowdery to translate if he wants to, and this promise seems to be a cognate of verses ten through twelve. Section eight, discussed infra, expands on both the gift of revelation Cowdery had and “another gift.”
- D&C 6:12. Faith in this revelation must mean here those who did what those with such a gift do, divining that qualified them to translate, not a faith in the sense of a belief; after all, there was not yet a Mormon faith, as the word is often used today. Faith is often if not generally used as a synonym for belief in general discussions, particularly when referring to the Spirit as the you-will-know-it feeling. Faith, however, is used in the scriptures to refer to what someone does to try or test some information-based belief he hopes is true. Hebrews 11 is, perhaps, the best exposition of faith in the scriptures even though some of the translation was bollixed on account of the Protestant prejudice of the translators, a topic requiring analysis beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say, there are two groupings of examples of faith in this chapter, one of seven instances and another of twelve, anagogic groupings. The examples of faith are about what the exemplars did because of their belief.