"The Private Character of the Man Who Bore That Testimony":
Oliver Cowdery and His Critics

Review of LaMar Petersen. The Creation of the Book of Mormon: A Historical Inquiry. Salt Lake City: Freethinker, 1998. xxvi + 257 pp., with appendixes, bibliography, and index. $15.95.

Review of Robert D. Anderson. Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith: Psychobiography and the Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999. xlv + 263 pp., with index. $19.95.

Review of Dan Vogel. “The Validity of the Witnesses’ Testimonies.” In American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, ed. Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalf. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002. xvii + 368 pp. $21.95.

“The Private Character of the Man Who Bore That Testimony”: Oliver Cowdery and His Critics

Reviewed by Larry E. Morris

During the cold, wet spring of 1829, Oliver Cowdery and Samuel Smith made their
way from Palmyra, New York, to Harmony, Pennsylvania, enduring freezing nights,
impassable roads, and frostbite to reach the Prophet Joseph. They arrived on 5
April 1829, and Joseph and Oliver met for the first time. As Lucy Mack Smith summarized:
“They sat down and conversed together till late. During the evening, Joseph
told Oliver his history, as far as was necessary for his present information,
in the things which mostly concerned him. And the next morning they commenced
the work of translation, in which they were soon deeply engaged.”1

Over the next few months, Oliver transcribed most of the Book of Mormon and was
the first “Mormon” to be baptized. He and Joseph also testified of
receiving the priesthood from heavenly messengers, witnessing the appearance of
Moroni, seeing the plates, and hearing the voice of God. Oliver is rightly described
as the cofounder of Mormonism. So it is not surprising that treatments of early
church history pay special attention to Oliver Cowdery’s background and
character. In this article I would like to examine how LaMar Petersen (The Creation
of the Book of Mormon
), Robert D. Anderson (Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith),
and Dan Vogel (“The Validity of the Witnesses’ Testimonies”)
handle primary and secondary sources related to Oliver Cowdery. Although they
approach Oliver from quite different angles, none of the three takes advantage
of the rich wealth of primary documents so relevant in judging Oliver’s
character and his reliability as a witness of the Book of Mormon.

Oliver’s Excommunication and Methodist Affiliation

A couple of years ago, I was on a book-buying spree at Benchmark Books when I
picked up a copy of Petersen’s book. I garnered a good bit of bibliographic
information by checking the footnotes in this book. Petersen implies (without
actually saying as much) that Joseph Smith created the Book of Mormon. He also
implies—again, without explicitly stating it—that Oliver’s testimony
of the Book of Mormon is suspect because of his excommunication, his joining the
Methodist Church, his supposed denial of his testimony, and his rejection of the
Doctrine of Covenants (pp. 84-86).

Petersen correctly notes that in April 1838, the high council in Far West, Missouri,
upheld the following charges against Oliver: “urging on vexatious Lawsuits,”
“seeking to destroy the character of President Joseph Smith jr by falsly
insinuating that he was guilty of adultery,” “treating the Church
with contempt by not attending meetings,” “for the sake of filthy
lucre . . . turning to the practice of the Law,” “being
connected in the ‘Bogus’ business [counterfeiting],” and “dishonestly
Retaining notes after they had been paid and . . . betaking himself
to the beggerly elements of the world and neglecting his high and Holy Calling.”2

Petersen’s point is to show that church officials attacked Oliver’s
character. This is true enough, but the validity of the charges is another question.
Petersen does not mention that Oliver Cowdery did not attend the council and was
thus not present to defend himself. Nor does Petersen note that the council rejected
the only two charges that Oliver discussed in his letter to Bishop Edward Partridge.3
Finally, letters that Oliver Cowdery wrote during his decade out of the church
shed light on his attitude toward his excommunication. In 1843, Oliver wrote to
Brigham Young and the Twelve: “I believed at the time, and still believe,
that ambitious and wicked men, envying the harmony existing between myself and
the first elders of the church, and hoping to get into some other men’s
birth right, by falsehoods the most foul and wicked, caused all this difficulty
from beginning to end

Two years later, Oliver wrote to Brigham’s brother Phineas:

But, from your last [letter], I am fully satisfied, that no unjust imputation
will be suffered to remain upon my character. And that I may not be misunderstood,
let me here say, that I have only sought, and only asked, that my character might
stand exonerated from those charges which imputed to me the crimes of theft, forgery,
&c. Those which all my former associates knew to be false. I do not, I have
never asked, to be excused, or exempted from an acknowledgement of any actual
fault or wrong—for of these there are many; which it always was my pleasure
to confess. I have cherished a hope, and that one of my fondest, that I might
leave such a character, as those who might believe in my testimony, after I should
be called hence, might do so, not only for the sake of the truth, but might not
blush for the private character of the man who bore that testimony.5

Oliver’s sincerity is clearly evident: he was interested in returning to
fellowship but not at the expense of his reputation—something he was determined
to preserve because he took his role as a witness of the Book of Mormon so seriously.
His excommunication and his reaction to it thus make him a more credible witness,
not the reverse.

Similarly, Oliver’s accusing Joseph of adultery can hardly be taken as evidence
that he is not a valid witness. To the contrary, his willingness to make such
an accusation while still in the church (Petersen mistakenly says he was not)
reveals Oliver’s independent spirit. The document in question is a letter
from Oliver to his brother Warren written in January 1838, three months before
Oliver’s excommunication. Speaking of Joseph Smith, Oliver wrote, “A
dirty, nasty, filthy affair of his and Fanny Alger’s was talked over in
which I strictly declared that I had never deviated from the truth in the matter,
and as I supposed was admitted by himself.”6 Oliver was apparently unaware
that Fanny Alger had become the first plural wife of Joseph Smith. Regardless
of the difficulties between Joseph and Oliver, however, this whole incident has
no direct bearing on Oliver’s reliability as a witness. It is not clear
why Petersen even brings it up.

Next, after claiming that Oliver’s joining another church “is not
usually acknowledged by Mormon writers” (p. 85), Petersen curiously
quotes one of them, Stanley Gunn, to show that Oliver indeed became a charter
member of the Tiffin, Ohio, Methodist Protestant Church. Petersen also fails to
mention that Richard Lloyd Anderson, Oliver Cowdery’s chief biographer since
Gunn, freely discusses Oliver’s Methodist affiliation in a 1981 Deseret
Book publication—Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (p. 57).

Several primary documents not mentioned by Petersen bear directly on Oliver’s
joining with the Methodists. In 1885, eighty-two-year-old Gabriel J. Keen, longtime
Tiffin, Ohio, resident and Methodist Church member, signed an affidavit in which
he affirmed:

Mr. Cowdrey expressed a desire to associate himself with a Methodist Protestant
Church of this city. Rev. John Souder and myself were appointed a committee to
wait on Mr. Cowdrey and confer with him respecting his connection with Mormonism,
and the “Book of Mormon.” We accordingly waited on Mr. Cowdrey at
his residence in Tiffin, and there learned his connection, from him, with that
order, and his full and final renunciation thereof. We then inquired of him if
he had any objections to make a public recantation. He replied that he had objections;
that in the first place it could do no good; that he had known several to do so,
and they always regretted it; and in the second place it would have a tendency
to draw public attention, invite criticism and bring him into contempt. But said
he, nevertheless, if the church require it, I will submit to it, but I authorize
and desire you and the church to publish and make known my recantation. We did
not demand it, but submitted his name to the church and he was unanimously admitted
a member thereof. At that meeting he arose and addressed the audience present,
admitted his error and implored forgiveness, and said he was sorry and ashamed
of his connection with Mormonism. He continued his membership while he resided
at Tiffin and became superintendent of the Sabbath-school, and led an exemplary
life while he resided with us.7

Keen, a respected citizen of Tiffin, clearly believed that Oliver Cowdery had
fully renounced Mormonism. Still, certain difficulties remain with Keen’s
statement: he recorded the incident (apparently for the first time) more than
forty years after it happened; his account was never corroborated by other witnesses;
and he gave the statement at the request of Arthur B. Deming, the anti-Mormon
editor of Naked Truths about Mormonism and a man likely to lead his witness. Furthermore,
two equally respected citizens of Tiffin claimed that Oliver never discussed Mormonism.
“I think that it is absolutely certain that Mr. C., after his separation
from the Mormons, never conversed on the subject with his most intimate friends,
and never by word or act, disclosed anything relating to the conception, development
or progress of the ‘Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,'”
wrote William Henry Gibson, judge, general, orator, businessman, lawyer, and Tiffin’s
most famous resident.8

William Lang, who apprenticed in Oliver Cowdery’s law office and later became
mayor of Tiffin and a member of the Ohio senate, used similar language: “Now
as to whether C. ever openly denounced Mormonism let me say this to you: no man
ever knew better than he how to keep one’s own counsel. He would never allow
any man to drag him into a conversation on the subject.”9

There are several points to consider here. First, Gibson and Lang were not present
during Oliver Cowdery’s interview with Keen and Sounder. It is possible
that during the interview Oliver made negative statements about Mormonism or Mormons
that he never made in Gibson’s or Lang’s presence. Indeed, Adeline
Fuller Bernard, apparently adopted by Oliver and Elizabeth Cowdery and in her
twenties when Oliver joined the Methodist Church, later claimed that Oliver made
similar statements.10 However, it is difficult to believe that Oliver could have
publicly begged forgiveness for his association with Mormonism (as reported by
Keen) without Gibson or Lang hearing about such an incident. Both are emphatic
that he never discussed the church.

Second, any negative statements Oliver made privately in Tiffin must be viewed
in light of his family’s harsh treatment in Missouri. Two months after Oliver’s
excommunication, on 17 June 1838, Sidney Rigdon delivered his famous “Salt
Sermon,” declaring that the “Salt that had lost its Savour”—meaning
dissenters Oliver Cowdery, David and John Whitmer, W. W. Phelps, Lyman E. Johnson,
and others—and was “henceforth good for nothing but to be cast out,
and troden under foot of men.”11 Two days later, eighty-three church members
signed a statement warning the dissenters out of Caldwell County: “There
is but one decree for you, which is depart, depart, or a more fatal calamity shall
befall you. . . . We will put you from the county of Caldwell: so help
us God.”12

The difficulties that began with the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society—where
Oliver and David Whitmer both suffered severe financial losses and became embroiled
in financial controversy—had now culminated in a death threat. “These
gideonites understood that they should drive the dissenters as they termed those
who believed not in their secret bands,” wrote John Whitmer. “They
had threatened us to kill us if we did not make restitutions to them by upholding
them in their wicked purposes.”13

John Whitmer’s mention of a secret band of Gideonites was right on the mark.
As Leland H. Gentry writes, “All evidence indicates that the Danite order
originated about the same time Sidney Rigdon gave vent to his feelings in his
‘Salt Sermon.’ The original purpose of the order appears to have been
to aid the Saints of Caldwell in their determination to be free from dissenter

Not coincidentally, the Danites were originally known as the “Brothers of
Gideon,” and a key participant was Jared Carter (who actually had a brother
named Gideon), a member of the high council that had excommunicated Oliver and
also one of the signatories of the “warning out” document. Sampson
Avard, who soon became head of the Danites, had been the first person to sign
the document. “Avard arrived some time since,” Oliver had written
in a 2 June letter. “He appears very friendly, but I look upon [him] with
so much contempt, that he will probably get but little from me.”15

According to John Whitmer, he, David, Oliver, and Lyman Johnson rushed to neighboring
Clay County to “obtain legal counsel to prepare to over throw these attachments
which they had caused to [be] used against us. . . . But to our great
asstonishment when we were on our way home from Liberty Clay Co[unty] we met the
families of O. Cowdery and L. E. Johnson whom they had driven from their homes
and rob[b]ed them of all their goods save clothing, bedding, &c.”16

Considering these shocking circumstances, why should it be surprising that Oliver
Cowdery, a man who remained devoutly religious his entire life, joined with a
community of Christians when he moved to Ohio? As Anderson and Faulring note,
“after his expulsion from the Mormon Church in 1838, Oliver and his family
had no choice but to fellowship with a non-Mormon Christian group.”17

Moreover, although Oliver Cowdery’s distinction between the “outward
government” of the church and its core doctrine, between his enemies and
the church leaders he continued to admire, was likely lost on his Tiffin associates,
he continued to make such a distinction. In a letter to Phineas Young, Oliver
spoke of the “torents [torrents] of abuse and injury that I have received,
fomented, no doubt, by those miserable beings, who have long since ceased [to]
disgrace the Chu[rch o]f which you are a m[ember].”18 But three months later,
in a letter to Brigham Young and the Twelve, Oliver wrote, “I entertain
no unkindly feelings toward you, or either of you.”19 (Significantly, none
of the men addressed in this letter—Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Parley
P. Pratt, William Smith, Orson Pratt, Willard Richards, Wilford Woodruff, John
Taylor, and George A. Smith—had signed the 1838 “warning out”
document addressed to Oliver and the other dissenters.) Seen in this context,
Oliver’s Methodist affiliation, along with any negative statements he may
have made about his experience in Missouri, does no damage to his role as a witness—quite
the contrary.

Petersen next quotes what he himself calls a “bit of doggerel” that
supposedly proclaimed Cowdery’s denial of the Book of Mormon:

Or prove that Christ was not the Lord

Because that Peter cursed and swore?

Or Book of Mormon not his word

Because denied by Oliver?20

Richard Lloyd Anderson has shown, however, that the author of this poem, Joel
H. Johnson, had no firsthand experience with Oliver and that Johnson’s sentiments
therefore have no bearing on Oliver’s reliability as a witness.21

Finally, Petersen reports (without giving a reference) that David Whitmer claimed
that Oliver rejected the Doctrine and Covenants. But why rely on David Whitmer
to tell us what Oliver thought when the latter spoke for himself? As Richard Lloyd
Anderson points out, Oliver Cowdery edited (and approved of) the Kirtland edition
of the Doctrine and Covenants. In his correspondence, he also showed approval
for the Twelve (even while he was out of the church) and rejected William McLellin’s
attempt to begin a new church movement. Finally, Oliver stated that Joseph Smith
had fulfilled his mission faithfully, and, on his deathbed, Oliver expressed support
for Brigham Young and the other leaders of the church.22 Such evidence hardly
indicates that Oliver rejected the Doctrine and Covenants. Nor does it reflect
negatively on Oliver’s role as a witness.

Petersen thus opts for secondary accounts and even Joel Johnson’s rumor,
rather than drawing on primary sources to show us what kind of a person Oliver
was. And even when Petersen refers to original documents, he offers no historical
context. Given Petersen’s extensive bibliography and obvious research, this
is disappointing.

Beating a Dead Horse, or Two Dead Horses

A few weeks ago, I was on a book-checking-out fit at the BYU Library when I picked
up a copy of Robert D. Anderson’s book. (There sure are a lot of Andersons
writing about Mormon history lately.) Whereas Petersen concentrates on Oliver
Cowdery’s later experiences, Anderson does the opposite—dealing mainly
with Oliver’s early life. But Anderson creates suspicion about his research
by getting basic facts wrong. He says that Oliver was born in Middletown, Vermont,
and that in “1803 the Cowdery family, including seven-year-old Oliver, moved
to Poultney” (p. 97). However, the record is clear that Oliver was
born in Wells, Vermont, on 3 October 1806 and that the family subsequently made
the following moves: to Middletown in 1809, to New York in 1810, back to Middletown
around 1813, and to Poultney in 1817 or 1818.23 I understand that Anderson’s
main topic is Joseph Smith, so I don’t expect him to do original Cowdery
research—such as ferreting out the fine details of the family history, which
have not been widely known. But it is another thing to get Oliver’s birthplace
wrong and to miss his birth date by ten years, especially when the correct information
is easily available in the secondary sources that Anderson himself cites. For
me, red flags start popping up when I see mistakes like this because they reflect
a lack of precision. So we are off to a shaky start.24

Next, Anderson claims that Oliver’s father, William Cowdery, “had
been enmeshed in a scandal involving magic about 1800 near their home and had
used divining rods in seeking treasure” (p. 97). Anderson relies on
secondary sources for this information even though a nineteenth-century source
is readily available—The History of Middletown, Vermont, published by Barnes
Frisbie in 1867.25 A check of Frisbie’s history reveals that the author
himself cannot speak authoritatively because he was not an eyewitness of the scandal,
which became known as the “Wood Scrape”—in which members of
the Wood family united with a treasure seeker named Winchell, employing divining
rods and proclaiming frightening prophecies. In addition, Frisbie’s star
witness, Laban Clark—who was in Middletown at the time—describes the
incident in detail without once mentioning William Cowdery. This source thus fails
to support either of Anderson’s claims about William Cowdery (that he was
involved in the scandal and that he used divining rods to search for treasure).26

I believe the larger question is this: since the Wood Scrape occurred four years
before Oliver’s birth, what is the point of bringing it up in the first
place? Some might reply (and D. Michael Quinn seems to be in this group)
that the point is to illustrate that Oliver brought with him an interest in folk
magic,27 which is certainly relevant to his involvement with Joseph Smith. But
early church history already stipulates that Oliver had such an interest. “Now
this is not all,” asserted Joseph in a revelation to Oliver (within weeks
of Oliver’s arrival in Harmony), “for you have another gift, which
is the gift of working with the rod: behold it has told you things: behold there
is no other power save God, that can cause this rod of nature, to work in your
hands” (Book of Commandments 7:3).28 It seems likely that critics also raise
the Wood Scrape—a scandal in which a visionary man failed to deliver on
his promises—to imply guilt by association, to taint Oliver’s reputation,
and to raise questions about his reliability, with thinking that goes something
like this: “Oliver’s father was duped by a prophet who used magical
means to search for treasure and divine hidden secrets. Like father, like son.”
Any serious historical investigation rejects such “reasoning.”

Another reason for discussing the Wood Scrape is to imply what Frisbie states
explicitly: “It is my honest belief that this Wood movement here in Middletown
was one source, if not the main source, from which came this monster—Mormonism.”29
However, although, Frisbie and Quinn both attempt to link Joseph Smith Sr. (and,
by implication, Joseph Jr.) with the Wood Scrape, no such link exists.30 The Wood
Scrape is thus of little, if any, value in understanding Oliver Cowdery’s
reliability as a witness of the Book of Mormon.

Not surprisingly, Anderson next moves to the second point of controversy in Oliver’s
early history: his alleged association with Ethan Smith, minister of the church
Oliver’s stepmother once attended (under the previous minister) and author
of View of the Hebrews.31 A number of critics have theorized that Ethan Smith’s
book “provided the concept and outline for much of the Book of Mormon”
(p. 98). According to one subtheory, Oliver knew Ethan Smith or read his
book (or both) and used this knowledge to help produce the Book of Mormon. Of
course, backing up such a scenario involves proving two things: Oliver’s
knowledge of Ethan Smith’s theories and Oliver’s contribution to the
Book of Mormon.

On the first point, Anderson acknowledges that “there is no documentation
that Ethan Smith and Oliver Cowdery had any kind of relationship” (p. 97).
Nevertheless, Oliver certainly could have read View of the Hebrews before meeting
Joseph. The real crux of the matter is whether there is evidence that Oliver helped
create the Book of Mormon, and Anderson fails to discuss recent scholarship on
this topic—which I see as a serious flaw and another instance of lack of
precision. Royal Skousen’s study of the original manuscript of the Book
of Mormon offers strong evidence that Oliver acted simply as scribe, not coauthor.32
In addition, witnesses of the translation process, including such friendly individuals
as David Whitmer and such hostile individuals as Isaac Hale, agree that Joseph
dictated the text. (Nor do any of them mention Joseph and Oliver doing any sort
of planning.) Anderson’s view of “Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery
constructing narratives of Joseph’s personal life within Ethan Smith’s
conceptual framework” (p. 98) thus gets no support from the primary
sources. Nor is it difficult to summarize Anderson’s use of primary documents
in his section on Oliver’s background. Anderson simply does not use them.

Hearsay Testimony

Next we move on to Dan Vogel. Several years ago, I was on a book-buying binge
at Sam Weller’s when I came across a copy of Early Mormon Documents, volume
1. When you are reading history, there is no substitute for the original documents.
I was impressed with Vogel’s textual editing and annotation, and I picked
up a copy. I also purchased volumes 2, 3, and 4 when they came out (that is no
small investment). Vogel finds a lot of interesting documents in a lot of different
places. He also locates vital records, census records, and so on, about most of
the people mentioned in the documents. I consider him an expert on primary sources
related to early Mormonism and appreciate his considerable research. I took a
careful look at what he had to say about the Wood Scrape, for example, and found
him to be careful and fair, correctly noting instances where Quinn had overstepped
the sources.

But in his article on the witnesses, Vogel does some things that surprised me.
First, he quotes nineteenth-century sources like John A. Clark and Thomas Ford
in a rather uncritical manner. I don’t understand that. I assume Vogel agrees
that when it comes to testimony, there is no substitute for getting (to use another
equine metaphor) something straight from the horse’s mouth. If I want to
know what William Clark said about the Lewis and Clark expedition, my best source
is William Clark himself. (If I want to know about William Clark’s character,
on the other hand, my best source is reliable people who knew him well.) Of course,
what he said and the accuracy of what he said are two different things. But before
I can judge his testimony against other sources and evaluate it, I first need
the testimony itself. And witnesses always have the final word on what their testimony
is—that is the very nature of testimony.

If such firsthand testimony is not available, we turn to secondhand sources, what
in court is called “hearsay evidence” (and is generally not allowed).
But it is a dangerous thing to trust expedition member John Ordway for what Clark
said about the journey. We now have to ask a whole slew of questions we did not
have to ask about Clark—when Ordway recorded Clark’s statements, whether
his memory was reliable, whether he was a careful transcriber, whether he was
honest, whether he had an ax to grind. We also need to compare Ordway’s
account to other secondhand accounts. History, of course, employs different standards
than the courtroom, and historians naturally handle a good deal of hearsay testimony.
I just believe they ought to always distinguish between first- and secondhand
testimony and openly acknowledge the limitations of the latter.

Well, then, what about Clark and Ford? Both gave reports of what Book of Mormon
witnesses supposedly said. Clark was an editor and minister who knew Martin Harris.
According to Vogel, “Harris told John A. Clark in 1828 that he saw the plates
‘with the eye of faith . . . just as distinctly as I see any thing
around me,—though at the time they were covered over with a cloth'”
(p. 104). What? This account from a secondhand witness raises some interesting
questions about Martin Harris.33

But let us look at the source. Here is the context of the above quotation, taken
from a letter from John A. Clark to The Episcopal Reader: “To know how much
this testimony [of Three Witnesses] is worth I will state one fact. A gentleman
in Palmyra, bred to the law, a professor of religion, and of undoubted veracity
told me that on one occasion, he appealed to Harris and asked him directly,—’Did
you see those plates?'”34

This won’t do. Vogel’s claim that “Harris told John A. Clark”
is not accurate. This is not secondhand testimony but thirdhand—”he
said that he said that he said.” If secondhand evidence is problematic,
thirdhand evidence is hugely more so. As if that weren’t enough, Clark does
not name his source—making it impossible to judge that person’s honesty
or reliability. What we have is a thirdhand, anonymous account of what Martin
Harris supposedly said. (I think that is called a rumor.) Either through neglect
or intent, Vogel has represented an anonymous, thirdhand account as being an identified,
secondhand account—and there is a vast difference. And since we have Harris’s
firsthand account—it is printed in the Book of Mormon—and several
recorded interviews from both friendly and hostile sources (see Early Mormon Documents,
vol. 2), there is no reason to rely on a thirdhand account.35

This is not to say that anonymous accounts can never be taken seriously. Lewis
and Clark scholars, for example, have noted two anonymous accounts that Meriwether
Lewis tried to commit suicide as he traveled down the Mississippi River in September
1809. Major Gilbert C. Russell, commander of a fort near present-day Memphis,
Tennessee, wrote that members of the keelboat crew told him of the attempts. Similarly,
Amos Stoddard, a friend of Lewis’s who was in the area, wrote that he heard
of Lewis’s suicide attempts on the boat. Both reports are treated seriously,
not simply as rumor, even though neither man identifies his sources. (Most scholars
believe Lewis made good on these threats a month later at an inn southwest of
present-day Nashville; others believe Lewis was murdered.)

But some interesting differences distinguish Lewis’s case from that of the
witnesses: first, Russell was a secondhand witness—that is, he talked to
someone who saw Lewis try to kill himself. Clark on the other hand (and I mean
John A., not William) is a thirdhand witness because his account involves a quotation—he
talked to someone who reported what Martin Harris had said. Second, historians
necessarily turn to Russell and Stoddard because no other accounts are available,
but first- and secondhand testimony abounds with Martin Harris. In my own research,
I am inclined not to use thirdhand accounts at all, unless simply to show what
rumors were circulating. There is just too much room for error—such as in
the military exercise or parlor game in which a piece of information changes as
it goes from person to person.

Vogel doesn’t make any bones about Thomas Ford’s account being anonymous
and thirdhand. The governor of Illinois at the time Joseph and Hyrum Smith were
killed, Ford wrote an account of how Joseph basically tricked unnamed witnesses
into seeing the plates—after a prolonged session of fasting and prayer (and
ridicule from Joseph). As Vogel says, “Ford claimed that his account came
from ‘men who were once in the confidence of the prophet’ but did
not identify his sources” (pp. 102-3). (This could actually be
fourthhand testimony—Ford [4] may have talked to men [3] who talked to someone
else [2] who talked to the witnesses [1].) Vogel then points out the weaknesses
in this document but mysteriously insists that “the essence of the account
contains an element of truth” (p. 103).

I am not comfortable with that kind of reasoning. In the first place, historical
methodology ought to eliminate Ford’s claim as valid evidence—it is
anonymous on two levels because neither the sources nor the witnesses are named;
in addition, it involves an unknown number of links. It is pure rumor. Secondly,
Ford’s account contains an element of truth only if one presupposes certain
things about the witnesses. But isn’t the point to begin without presuppositions
and see what the documents tell us, or, in Vogel’s words, to “try
to determine more accurately the nature of [the witnesses’] experiences”
(p. 79)? Again, Vogel expresses a desire to “examine the historical
nature of these events” (p. 79). Again, I agree. But why take a main
thread of the discussion from a thirdhand, anonymous account when there are identified
first- and secondhand accounts available? What sense does it make to conclude
(based partly on Ford’s “hearsay hearsay”) that the Eight Witnesses
“may have seen the plates through the box” (p. 104) in a purely “visionary”
experience when such a conclusion is flatly contradicted by the witnesses’
firsthand testimony: “As many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated
we did handle with our hands; and we also saw the engravings thereon.”36
(The fact that the witnesses’ statement does not include the time and place
of their experience, nor the complete details of that experience, does not disqualify
it as historical evidence, as Vogel seems to imply. It is a firsthand document,
and its language is unequivocal.)

Although strict legal standards do not apply to history, some standards do. Thirdhand
and anonymous is thirdhand and anonymous, and fair is fair. The Clark and Ford
accounts are too far removed from the source to qualify as solid evidence, especially
with more direct evidence available. Therefore, I believe they have historical
value chiefly as an indicator of what kind of rumors were circulating, not as
reliable accounts of witness testimony. (I apply this same standard to thirdhand
accounts of Oliver Cowdery, in a packed courtroom, bearing his testimony of Moroni’s
visit, and I agree with Vogel that “the claim rests on less than satisfactory

“Obsessive and Morbid Thoughts”

In regard to the Second Elder, Vogel takes quite a different tack than Petersen
or Anderson. “At least during this early period of his life,” Vogel
writes, Oliver Cowdery “was known to be unstable and given to obsessive
and morbid thoughts. Also, like Harris and Whitmer, he had a history of visions
prior to late June 1829. . . . Considering his state of mind and visionary predisposition,
his obsessive thoughts may have carried him to the point of delusion; at least,
this possibility should be taken into consideration when assessing his role as
one of the three witnesses” (pp. 95-96).

Vogel offers examples of these “obsessive and morbid thoughts”: (1)
Oliver’s intense preoccupation with the story of the gold plates when he
was boarding with the Joseph Smith Sr. family; (2) a letter to Joseph Smith in
which Oliver expressed his “longing to be freed from sin and to rest in
the Kingdom of my Savior”; (3) a second letter to Joseph telling of his
“anxiety at some times to be at rest . . . in the Paradice of
God”; and (4) a revelation received by Oliver in which he compared the word
of God to a “burning fire shut up in my bones,” declaring that he
was “weary with forebearing” and “could forebear no longer.”

Let us look at these in context.

1. Lucy Mack Smith relates that Oliver boarded with the Smiths after accepting
a position as a school teacher. Joseph Smith had received the plates a year earlier,
and Oliver “had been in the school but a short time, when he began to hear
from all quarters concerning the plates, and as soon began to importune Mr. Smith
upon the subject, but for a considerable length of time did not succeed in eliciting
any information.”38 When Joseph Sr. had gained trust in Oliver, he told
him about the plates. Not long after that, Oliver told Joseph Sr. and Lucy that
he was delighted at what he had heard and believed that he would have the opportunity
of writing for Joseph Jr. The next day, Oliver mentioned his intention of going
to Harmony to see Joseph Jr., saying, “I have made it a subject of prayer,
and I firmly believe that it is the will of the Lord that I should go. If there
is a work for me to do in this thing, I am determined to attend to it.”39

Joseph Sr. advised him to seek for his own testimony, “which [Oliver] did,
and received the witness spoken of in the Book of Doc. and Cov.40 Joseph
Jr. later recalled Oliver’s statement that “one night after [Oliver]
had retired to bed, he called upon the Lord to know if these things were so, and
that the Lord had manifested to him that they were true.”41 In his 1832
autobiographical sketch, Joseph Jr. told more about this manifestation: “[The]
Lord appeared unto a young man by the name of Oliver Cowdery and shewed unto him
the plates in a vision, also the truth of the work, and what the Lord was about
to do through me his unworthy servant.”42

These accounts make it clear that Oliver was a religious individual who had a
powerful experience that convinced him of the truth of Joseph Smith’s claims
(although Oliver left no detailed description of this epiphany). Given Oliver’s
conviction that he was about to participate in the divinely appointed restoration
of ancient scripture, it seems perfectly fitting that he was “so completely
absorbed in the subject of the Record, that it seemed impossible for him to think
or converse about anything else.”43 Who wouldn’t have been? But note
the difference between Lucy’s language—”completely absorbed
in the subject”—and Vogel’s, “obsessive and morbid.”
Although he is using Lucy Mack Smith as his source, Vogel is wresting her text
by introducing negative connotations not present in her history. Furthermore,
there is every indication that Oliver competently completed his term of teaching
before leaving for Harmony. Oliver’s functioning normally in the everyday
world is another sign that his preoccupation with the plates was intensely religious
but not unhealthy or psychotic.

2-3. During November and December of 1829, while he was in Manchester, New
York, Oliver wrote two letters to Joseph, who was in Harmony, Pennsylvania. In
these letters, Oliver expresses some of his deep religious reflections. “My
dear Brother,” he writes in the first, dated 6 November,

when I think of the goodness of christ I feel no desire to live or stay here upon
the shores of this world of iniquity only to to ser[v]e my maker and be if posible
an instriment in his hands of doing some good in his cause with his
to assist me when I consider and try to realize what he has done for me I am astonished
and amaised[.] [W]hy should I not be[?] [F]or while I was rushing on in sin and
crouding my way down to that awful gulf he yet strove with me and praised be his
holy (and) [=] (Eternal) name he has redeemed my soul from endless
torment and wo not for any thing that I have me[r]ited or any worthyness there
was in me for there was none but it was in and through his own mercy wraught out
by his own infinite wisdom by prepareing from all Eternity a means where(by)
man could be saved on conditions of repentance and faith on that infinite attonement
which was to be mad[e] by a great and last sacrif[i]ce which sacr[i]fice was the
death of the only begotten of the Father[,] yea the eternal Father of Heaven and
of Earth that by his reserection all the Family of man might be braught back into
the presance of God if therefore we follow christ in all things whatsoever he
comma[n]deth us and are buried with him by baptism into death that like as christ
was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Eternal Father[,] even so we also
should walk in newness of life and if we walk in newness of life to the end of
this probation at the day of accounts we shall be caught up in clouds to meet
the Lord in the air but I need not undertake to write of the goodness of God for
his goodness is unspeakable neither tell of the misteries of God for what is man
that he can comprehend and search out the wisdom of deity for great is the misteries
of Godliness therefore my only motive in this writing is to inform you of my prospects
and hopes and my desires and my longing to be freed from sin and to rest in the
Kingdom of my Savior and my redeemer when I begin to write of the mercys of god
I know not where to stop but time and paper fails.44

In the second letter, dated 28 December, Oliver expresses similar feelings:

Be asured my c(h)angeing business has not in any degree I trust taken my
mind from meditating upon my mission which I have been called to fulfill nor of
slacking my diligence in prayr and fasting but but some times I feel almost as
though I could quit time and fly away and be at rest in the Bosom of my Redeemer
for the many deep feelings of sorrow and the many long struglings in prayr of
sorrow for the sins of my fellow beings and also for those who pretend to be of
my faith almost as it were seperateth my spirit from my mortal body do no think
by this my Brother that I would give you to understand that I am freed from sin
and temptations no not by any means that is what I would that you should understand
is my anxiety at some times to be at rest in the Paradice of my God is to be freed
from temptation &c.45

Each meditation thus laments the sinfulness of this world, proclaims the glory
of Christ, and expresses the natural Christian desire for what Paul called “a
better country, that is, an heavenly” (Hebrews 11:16). Indeed, Oliver’s
passages are reminiscent of Paul’s epistle to Titus, where he writes:

For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers
lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another.
But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, Not
by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved
us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed
on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; That being justified by his
grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3-7)

Oliver’s letters reflect deeply religious contemplations, but they are not
“obsessive,” which my dictionary defines as “excessive often
to an unreasonable degree,” or “deriving from obsession” (which
is defined as “a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable
idea or feeling”), and they are not “morbid”—defined as
“abnormally susceptible to or characterized by gloomy or unwholesome feelings.”46
Again, Oliver’s ability to function normally in the world of ordinary life
is telling. During the time he wrote these letters, Oliver was helping coordinate
the printing of the Book of Mormon. Lucy indicates that Oliver took a lead role
in this task, working with the printer and ensuring the security of the manuscript.
John H. Gilbert, who set the type for the Book of Mormon (and later declared the
Mormon Bible to be a “very big humbug”), said that either Oliver or
Hyrum delivered pages of the printer’s manuscript each morning, that Oliver
often read or checked proofs, and that Oliver even set some type at one point.
Others who observed Oliver’s work with the printer included Pomeroy Tucker,
Stephen S. Harding, and Albert Chandler, all hostile to Mormonism. None of these
men ever indicated that Oliver acted strangely or irrationally or that he displayed
obsessive or morbid tendencies. The historical record instead gives every indication
that Oliver acted in a coherent, businesslike manner.47

4. The document in question is a revelation recorded by Oliver and known as the
Articles of the Church of Christ (later superseded by D&C 20). In this document,
Oliver draws on several scriptural sources to define various aspects of church
government. As he closes, Oliver writes, “Behold I am Oliver I am an Apostle
of Jesus Christ by the will of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ Behold
I have written the things which he hath commanded me for behold his word was unto
me as a burning fire shut up in my bones and I was weary with forbearing and I
could forbear no longer Amen.”48 This does not strike me as obsessive or
morbid but rather as a devout paraphrasing of Jeremiah 20:9: “But his word
was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with
forbearing, and I could not stay.”

While we are on the subject of the Articles of the Church, it is worth noting
Vogel’s claim that the Three Witnesses were “suggestible, willing
subjects” capable of being deceived or hypnotized (p. 97). Similarly,
Robert Anderson calls Oliver “an awestruck, encouraging, and supportive
individual who responded fully to [Joseph’s] charisma” (p. 97).
But Oliver showed himself to be much more than a willing subject or awestruck
follower. Within weeks of his arrival at Harmony, he was trying to translate the
plates himself. Not long after that, he received his own revelation on the Articles
of the Church. Then, in the summer of 1830, when Joseph made changes to Oliver’s
revelation, Oliver commanded Joseph “in the name of God” to delete
certain changes.49 This does not sound like an individual perfectly willing to
be deluded. If anything, Oliver’s strong will interfered with his relationship
with Joseph and was a prominent factor in his leaving the church.

Oliver’s Reputation

What of Vogel’s claim that Oliver was “known to be unstable”
(p. 95)? Checking Webster’s again, unstable means “not steady
in action or movement,” “wavering in purpose or intent,” “lacking
steadiness,” or, more to the point, “characterized by lack of emotional
control.” So the question is, Known to be unstable by whom? I don’t
know of any such reports coming from Vermont, where Oliver lived until he was
around twenty. In an 1869 history of Wells, Vermont, for instance, the authors
conspicuously decline taking shots at Oliver even though they enjoy poking fun
at Mormonism in general: “Oliver the youngest son, was the scribe for Joe
Smith, the founder of the book of Mormon. Smith being illiterate was incapacitated
to write his wonderful revelations, employed this Oliver Cowdry to perform the
duties of a scribe. We well remember this same Oliver Cowdry when in our boyhood,
the person who has figured so largely in giving to the world the wonderful revelations
that many dupes seek to follow. He attended school in the District where we reside
in 1821 and 1822. He then went to Palmyra, N. Y. There with Joe Smith and others
in translating mormonism.”50 Similarly, Barnes Frisbie, so intent on linking
the origins of Mormonism with the Wood Scrape, has nothing negative to report
on Oliver.

What of the people who knew him in New York before he left for Harmony? The school
board (which included Hyrum) trusted him to take his brother’s place as
a teacher; Joseph and Lucy trusted him with details of Joseph Jr.’s obtaining
the plates; David Whitmer trusted him to give a candid report on his (Oliver’s)
meeting with Joseph Smith. What of the Palmyra neighbors so vocal in their condemnation
of Joseph Smith? One, David Stafford, stated that “Oliver Cowdery proved
himself to be a worthless person and not to be trusted or believed when he taught
school in this neighborhood.” But Stafford’s statement is contradicted
by John Stafford, who called Oliver “a man of good character,” and
by a host of others: “peaceable,” said Lorenzo Saunders; “as
good as the general run of people,” said Hiram Jackway; “His reputation
was good,” recalled Benjamin Saunders; “greatly respected by all,”
concluded William Hyde.51

Known to be unstable? It surely doesn’t sound like it. What about his later
life? Did Oliver reveal signs of instability or obsessive or morbid thoughts?
Note these comments from the respected Tiffin residents mentioned earlier: “[Cowdery]
led an exemplary life while he resided with us.”—G. J. Keen. “Cowdery
was an able lawyer, and agreeable, irreproachable gentleman”; “He
was an able lawyer, a fine orator, a ready debater and led a blameless life, while
residing in this city.”—William Henry Gibson. “[Cowdery’s]
life . . . was as pure and undefiled as that of the best of men. . . .
Mr. Cowdery was an able lawyer and a great advocate. His manners were easy and
gentlemanly; he was polite, dignified, yet courteous. . . . His addresses
to the court and jury were characterized by a high order of oratory, with brilliant
and forensic force. He was modest and reserved, never spoke ill of any one, never
complained.”—William Lang.52

Others concurred. “Mr. C . . . earned himself an enviable distinction
at the bar of this place and of this judicial circuit, as a sound and able lawyer,
and as a citizen none could have been more esteemed,” wrote John Breslin,
an editor who served in the Ohio House. Breslin added, “His honesty, integrity,
and industry were worthy the imitation of all.” Horace A. Tenney, editor
of the Wisconsin Argus, described Oliver as “a man of sterling integrity,
sound and vigorous intellect, and every way worthy, honest and capable.”
When Oliver died in Missouri in 1850, the local circuit court and bar honored
him with a resolution: “In the death of our friend and brother, Oliver Cowdery,
his profession has lost an accomplished member, and the community a reliable and
worthy citizen.”53

All of this from individuals and institutions who had no particular reason to
volunteer positive information on Oliver, at a time when anti-Mormonism was raging
throughout the Midwest. By contrast, Vogel offers not a single contemporary account
indicating that Oliver Cowdery was unstable or likely to be deluded.

Religious Experience and History

“The important question,” argues Vogel, “is not whether the
witnesses were trustworthy or if they continued to maintain their belief in the
Book of Mormon throughout their lives. The central question . . . concerns
the nature of their experiences and if their statements are distinguishable from
those claiming similar religious testimonies” (pp. 79-80).54
Again, “To emphasize Harris’s business ethics or Cowdery’s intelligence
or Whitmer’s good citizenship is irrelevant to their potential to be inclined
to see visions” (p. 97).

It seems that Vogel is acknowledging that Oliver was honest and intelligent—he
simply allowed his “visionary predisposition” and his “obsessive
thoughts” to carry him “to the point of delusion” (p. 96).
In other words, Oliver sincerely thought he saw the plates but he was mistaken,
misled, deluded. Oliver was deceived or tricked or hypnotized into believing something
that was not true. A “delusion” is a “persistent false psychotic
belief regarding the self or persons or objects outside the self”; “psychosis”
is a “fundamental mental derangement (as schizophrenia) characterized by
defective or lost contact with reality.” By Vogel’s view, this is
exactly what happened to Oliver: he had a persistent view (indeed, it lasted the
rest of his life) about something that involved a loss of contact with reality
(seeing plates and an angel when there were none).

Vogel theorizes that—after a preparatory period of prayer, discussion, anticipation,
expectation, and so on—”Smith may have taken three suggestible, willing
subjects into the woods and used prayer as a method of induction” (p. 97).
In this scenario, the Three Witnesses were deluded by Joseph Smith—they
were not co-conspirators with him. So, when Cowdery, Whitmer, and Harris continued
to testify of the Book of Mormon throughout their lives, they were in one sense
telling the truth: they were reporting the facts as they had perceived them.

If I read Vogel correctly, he is suggesting that Oliver and the others really
had some kind of “spiritual” experience—that they really believed
that they saw an angel with plates, even though the angel and plates were not
actually there. Vogel also expresses a desire to “examine the historical
nature of these events” (p. 79). Of course, this is the whole problem,
a problem faced by Vogel or any other historian researching the witnesses: history
deals with human events that can (at least theoretically) be demonstrated to have
occurred or not to have occurred, but visions fall into the realm of the supernatural
and are not verifiable in the same manner as ordinary human events.55

Take certain experiences of the apostle Paul. When he had a vision of Christ on
the road to Damascus, Paul experienced something different from those who accompanied
him: “And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice,
but seeing no man” (Acts 9:7). (To make things even more interesting, Paul
later reported that “they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were
afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me” (Acts 22:9).
Again, Paul claimed, “I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether
in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;)
such an one caught up to the third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2).

Joseph Smith expressed the same kind of impressions, even echoing Paul: “The
heavens were opened upon us, and I beheld the celestial kingdom of God, and the
glory thereof, whether in the body or out I cannot tell” (D&C 137:1).
To take an example particularly relevant to the present discussion, note what
Joseph said about his experience of seeing the plates with Martin Harris: “We
now joined in prayer, and obtained our desires, for before we had yet finished,
the same vision was opened to our view—at least it was, again to me, and
I once more beheld and heard the same things.”56 I have always taken this
as a candid acknowledgment that visions have a different nature than normal human
experience. (It also strikes me as the kind of admission not likely to be made
by a person masterminding an imagined vision.)

As I see it, these kinds of religious experiences are not empirical, meaning they
cannot be verified or disproved through normal observation or testing. (This is
clearly evident in the case of Paul: asking observers what they saw or heard does
not get to the truth or the heart of Paul’s experience.) I also believe
such experiences are not empirical because they involve more than the normal senses—they
involve the grace of God and what Paul calls “the eyes of your understanding”
(Ephesians 1:18). (I would not claim that visions do not involve the physical
senses. I believe they could involve both physical and spiritual means of perception,
which seems to be the point David Whitmer was making when he said he saw the plates
with both his physical and spiritual eyes.) I would subsequently argue that the
visionary experiences of Paul, Muhammad, St. Francis, Joseph Smith, and others
are not generally proper subjects of history because history is limited to empirical
observation, and visions transcend empirical observation.57

Does that leave the historian totally adrift in regard to visions? I do not believe
so. While history cannot verify or disprove a vision’s veracity, it can
tell us a good deal about the lives of the people involved and the times they
lived in. Historians must simply do their best with the tools they have. In the
case of Oliver Cowdery, history cannot tell us whether he really saw the angel
and the plates or not. However, history can help us understand whether Oliver
was unstable, given to obsessive thoughts, and likely to be deluded, as Vogel

We investigate such issues through normal historical channels—by checking
the accounts of reliable people on the scene. Take another example from the Lewis
and Clark era, one particularly applicable because it involves stability—in
this case, the stability of Meriwether Lewis in the weeks before he died. Those
who argue that Lewis committed suicide claim that he acted in an unstable manner
during this period. And how do they make the case for instability? By quoting
William Clark, who was worried about Lewis’s mental state when the two parted
in St. Louis late in August 1809; by referring to a contemporary newspaper that
said Lewis was “indisposed” when he reached New Madrid, Missouri,
several days later; by mentioning Gilbert Russell’s firsthand report of
Lewis’s drinking and secondhand report of Lewis’s suicide attempts;
by offering a letter from John Neelly (Lewis’s companion on the trail called
the Natchez Trace) that said Lewis acted unwell during the trip; by quoting Mrs.
Griner, caretaker of the inn where Lewis spent his last night, when she said that
Lewis acted irrationally and talked to himself in a strange manner.

By contrast, what does Vogel offer in the way of evidence that Oliver Cowdery
was unstable? He offers no accounts at all from reliable witnesses.58 Instead,
he simply shows that Oliver was a religious person—as seen by his intense
preoccupation with the Book of Mormon and by his devout longing to proclaim the
gospel and to be free of the sins of this world. That is the extent of Vogel’s
evidence, the sum total of his claims concerning Oliver’s instability, his
obsessive and morbid thoughts, and his tendency to be deluded. This is circular
reasoning pure and simple. Oliver’s “state of mind and visionary predisposition”
(p. 96) are taken as evidence that he was deluded when he saw the plates
and the angel.59 But this is only true if one first assumes that Oliver’s
earlier spiritual experience was bogus, and on what basis can Vogel possibly make
that assumption? As a historian, Vogel has no access to Oliver Cowdery’s
private religious experiences. Therefore, the best Vogel or any other historian
can do is investigate whether Oliver had a previous history (based on the accounts
of reliable witnesses) of being “unstable.” No such evidence concerning
Oliver has come to light. Vogel’s claim that Oliver was “known to
be unstable” thus collapses because Vogel cannot demonstrate that a single
person ever made such an accusation. Vogel’s sole evidence that Oliver was
unstable is Vogel’s own interpretation of Oliver’s religious experience,
and this does not count as historical evidence.60 (Personally, I would find it
quite refreshing if Vogel would tell us what he thinks about these issues. Does
he acknowledge the existence [or at least the possibility] of angels but insist
that Oliver did not see one, or does he reject the notion altogether?)

Hallucinations and Tin Plates

As Vogel points out, Richard Anderson and other “apologists” have
frequently cited primary documents concerning Oliver Cowdery’s honesty
or intelligence. Rather than arguing this point, Vogel claims that Oliver’s
trustworthiness is not “the important question” (p. 79), that
his intelligence is “irrelevant” to his “potential to be inclined
to see visions” (p. 97). (In doing so, Vogel seems to agree that Oliver
was honest and intelligent.)

Whoa, Nellie. Vogel gives the appearance of making a historical claim (that Oliver
was inclined to see visions or was capable of being deluded), but he immediately
disqualifies the type of historical evidence normally used to substantiate or
refute such a claim—that is, accounts from reliable people who knew the
person in question. Therefore, when a third party like John Breslin or Horace
Tenney (neither of whom had apparent ulterior motives) says that Oliver’s
honesty and integrity were worthy of the imitation of all, or that Oliver
was a man of sound and vigorous intellect, this—according to Vogel—does
not really relate to Oliver’s inclination to see visions or be taken in
by an “induced” vision. But try as he might, Vogel cannot disassociate
Oliver’s honesty and intelligence from his claim of visionary experience,
or what Vogel thinks is a delusion. Instability, obsessive and morbid thoughts,
and a susceptibility to delusion are flaws (either related to character or intelligence),
and how would a historian ever identify such flaws if not through the accounts
of reliable people who knew the individual well?

That is not all. Vogel concentrates on Oliver’s experience as one of the
Three Witnesses, basically claiming that Joseph primed Oliver, David, and Martin
into a highly excitable state and “induced” a vision. We are to understand
this as hypnosis or hallucination that somehow did not manifest itself in normal
life. (In Vogel’s words, “hallucinators are otherwise indistinguishable
from other people and can function normally in society” [p. 97]. If a claim
ever cried out for an extensive footnote, this one does, but Vogel does not oblige.)
But Vogel would have done well to point out that Oliver Cowdery claimed to have
received quite a variety of visions over a considerable period of time. In 1836,
for example, seven years after Joseph and Oliver reported the vision of John the
Baptist, “The vail was taken from their [Joseph and Oliver’s] minds
and the eyes of their understanding were opened. They saw the Lord standing upon
the breast work of the pulpit before them, and under his feet was a paved work
of pure gold. . . . After this vision closed, the Heavens were again
opened unto them and Moses appeared before them. . . . After this Elias
appeared. . . . After this vision had closed, another great and glorious
vision burst upon them, for Elijah, the Prophet . . . also stood before
them.”61 This seems to be a vision in the biblical tradition, similar to
the Transfiguration, one that Vogel might call “purely visionary.”

Moroni’s visit was different because it involved the voice of God, an angel,
and physical objects. The Three Witnesses said, “We also know that they
[the plates] have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice
hath declared it unto us. . . . an angel of God came down from heaven, and he
brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings
thereon” (The Testimony of the Three Witnesses). The plates themselves take
this out of the realm of the purely visionary, but David Whitmer reported seeing,
“but a few feet from us, . . . a table upon which were many golden
plates, also the sword of Laban and the directors. I saw them as plain as I see
you now, and distinctly heard the voice of the Lord declaiming that the records
of the plates of the Book of Mormon were translated by the gift and the power
of God.”62 (Looking at David Whitmer’s account, I wouldn’t call
this vision internal, subjective, or purely visionary. A table is hardly required
for objects that are imagined or seen in the “mind’s eye.”)

The visits of John the Baptist and of Peter, James, and John fall into yet another
category, one where Joseph and Oliver claimed physical contact with resurrected
beings. Concerning the visit of John the Baptist, Joseph wrote, “While we
were thus employed praying and calling upon the Lord, a Messenger from heaven,
descended in a cloud of light, and having laid his hands upon us, he ordained

What did Oliver say about these experiences? Rather than referring to them in
some mystical, hazy way, he habitually used concrete, definite language to describe
them, leaving little doubt as to his absolute conviction that these experiences
were genuine:

On a sudden, as from the midst of eternity, the voice of the Redeemer spake peace
to us, while the vail was parted and the angel of God came down clothed with glory,
and delivered the anxiously looked for message, and the keys of the gospel of
repentance!—What joy! what wonder! what amazement! While the world were
racked and distracted—while millions were grouping as the blind for the
wall, and while all men were resting upon uncertainty, as a general mass, our
eyes beheld—our ears heard. As in the “blaze of day;” yes, more—above
the glitter of the May Sun beam, which then shed its brilliancy over the face
of nature! Then his voice, though mild, pierced to the center, and his words,
“I am thy fellow servant,” dispelled every fear. We listened—we
gazed—we admired! ‘Twas the voice of the angel from glory—’twas
a message from the Most High! and as we heard we rejoiced, while his love enkindled
upon our souls, and we were rapt in the vision of the Almighty! Where was room
for doubt? No where: uncertainty had fled, doubt had sunk, no more to rise, while
fiction and deception had fled forever!64

I have been sensitive on this subject, I admit; but I ought to be so—you
would be, under the circumstances, had you stood in the presence of John, (with)
our departed brother Joseph, to receive the Lesser Priesthood—and in the
presence Peter, to receive the Greater.65

I was present with Joseph when an holy angle [angel] from god came down from heaven
and confered or restored the Aronic priesthood, And said at the same time that
it should remain upon the earth while the earth stands. I was also present with
Joseph when the Melchisideck priesthood was confered by the holy angles [angels]
of god.66

The Lord opened the heavens and sent forth his word for the salvation of Israel.
In fulfillment of the sacred Scripture the everlasting Gospel was proclaimed by
the mighty angel, (Moroni) who, clothed with the authority of his mission, gave
glory to God in the highest. This Gospel is the “stone taken from the mountain
without hands.” John the Baptist, holding the keys of the Aaronic Priesthood;
Peter, James and John, holding the keys of the Melchisdek Priesthood, have also
administered for those who shall be heirs of salvation, and with these ministrations
ordained men to the same Priesthoods. . . . Accept assurances, dear
Brother, of the unfeigned prayer of him, who, in connection with Joseph the Seer,
was blessed with the above ministrations.67

In suggesting that Oliver Cowdery’s “obsessive thoughts may have carried
him to the point of delusion” (p. 96), Vogel has seriously understated
the case. If Oliver were deluded, this was not a one-time anomaly, momentary lapse
of reason, or single instance of overactive imagination—this was delusion
on a grand scale: a prolonged, sustained fantasy by one who maintained belief
in the false reality even years after being removed from the environment. If deluded,
Oliver Cowdery was seriously out of touch with reality—hearing voices, seeing
one angel after another, examining objects, and even feeling hands on his head—all
this in the absence of external stimuli. Given the scope of these visions, I believe
something has to give—either Oliver’s honesty or his intelligence.
Either he is lying about all these angels or else his intellect is hardly “sound
and vigorous.” And yet Oliver’s business associates go out of their
way to praise both Oliver’s integrity and his mind.

Vogel thickens the plot by suggesting that “it would have been possible
for [Joseph] to make plates out of tin” (p. 108). Of course, Joseph’s
manufacturing plates and passing them off as an ancient artifact falls fully in
the realm of possibility. If Joseph did produce such plates, he did it at a specific
time and place, with specific material obtained from a specific person or location.
All of this would be potentially verifiable through normal historical means—through
the journals, letters, or reminiscences of honest people on the scene (or possibly
through such documents as receipts or promissory notes for the sale of tin or
tools). Certainly it is conceivable that Joseph could have constructed fake plates
(although Vogel offers no support for this notion) and kept it a secret. But I’m
not sure how conceivable this is—the Palmyra neighbors were obviously keeping
a close eye on Joseph (just check Early Mormon Documents, vols. 2 and 3); why
didn’t they notice anything? Where and when did Joseph make his plates?
Did anyone else know about these plates?

As hard as it would have been for Joseph to keep his manufacture of tin plates
a secret while he was alive, is it possible that he could keep the secret after
death—that no evidence would come forth after more than one hundred and
fifty years (in a society where historical inquiry is actively promoted)? Let
us look at another parallel from the same time period in American history. General
James Wilkinson received appointments from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson
and even became governor of Louisiana. Although some accused him of treason, Wilkinson
was never charged with illegal activity. Long after his death, however, a search
of Mexican archives revealed that Wilkinson had indeed spied for the Spanish,
an offense he would have been executed for. This example points out the difficulty
of keeping a plot hidden after one’s death, for Wilkinson was a master deceiver.

Getting back to Oliver, Vogel apparently believes that Oliver was sincere—that
he really believed he saw visions. But what about the tin plates? As Richard Anderson
remarks, “Oliver Cowdery played an extraordinary role in the beginning of
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. . . . no one else stood
in the unique position of being able to expose Joseph Smith at all critical points,
if he could be exposed.”68 This is doubly true for tin plates, a physical
object that has to be transported from place to place. Vogel is apparently suggesting
that Oliver, an intelligent, thinking man who must have had countless opportunities
to recognize the truth, was taken in by this fraud, that he never caught on that
the plates were fake. But such a theory is not compatible with what Oliver himself
said about the plates: “I beheld with my eyes, and handled with my hands,
the gold plates from which [the Book of Mormon] was transcribed.”69 This
is clear language, but look what Vogel does with Oliver’s text: “Oliver
Cowdery also probably intended to refer to separate occasions when he told a group
in Council Bluffs, Iowa, according to Reuben Miller, ‘I beheld with my eyes.
And handled with my hands the gold plates’. . . . Cowdery probably handled
the plates, covered by a cloth, sometime during his residence in Pennsylvania
and then simply amalgamated the two experiences” (p. 89).

Vogel is jumping to conclusions not justified at all by the text itself. How does
Vogel know that Oliver intended to refer to separate occasions? How does Vogel
know that Oliver is talking about touching the plates through a cloth? (Vogel
mentions this possibility more than once; Oliver never mentions it.) Oliver doesn’t
make either of those claims. If anything, Oliver’s mention of seeing and
handling the plates in the same breath would indicate a single experience, not
two. (Could Oliver have seen and handled the plates when he was attempting to
translate?) This is another example of where Oliver’s honesty and intelligence
come very much into play. By Oliver’s own account, he saw and handled the
plates and thus had the perfect chance to see if they looked genuine. If one assumes
the plates were fake, one must ask whether Oliver was lying (sacrificing his honesty)
or whether he was actually tricked into believing that crude (how could they have
been otherwise?) tin plates were really intricate ancient artifacts (sacrificing
his intelligence—how gullible can a person be?). Either of these is a character
flaw, but what evidence does Vogel offer that reliable people on the scene, Mormon,
ex-Mormon, or anti-Mormon, perceived such flaws in the character of the Second
Elder? He offers none.70

As I see it, neither Petersen, Anderson, nor Vogel seriously mines the rich source
material available on Oliver Cowdery (particularly ironic for Vogel, since his
other works show a sound knowledge of those sources). When evaluating eyewitness
testimony, historians ask three main questions: (1) Was the witness known to be
reliable? (2) Did he record his testimony reasonably soon after the event itself?
and (3) Is his account corroborated by other reliable witnesses? For Oliver Cowdery,
a man shown by the historical record to be honest, intelligent, and of sound character,
the answers to all three questions are yes. If he does not qualify as a good witness,
who would?


  1. Lavina Fielding Anderson, ed., Lucy’s Book: A Critical Edition of
    Lucy Mack Smith’s Family Memoir
    (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2001),
    439. All quotations are from this 1853 version of Lucy Mack Smith’s history.
    The detail that one of Oliver’s toes was frozen during the journey is
    included in Lucy Mack Smith’s rough draft but not in the version published
    by Orson Pratt in 1853. In his 7 September 1834 letter to W. W. Phelps,
    printed in Messenger and Advocate 1 (October 1834): 13-16, Oliver Cowdery
    stated that he and Joseph Smith met on the evening of 5 April 1829, took care
    of “business of a temporal nature” the next day, and commenced translating
    on 7 April.
  2. Donald Q. Cannon and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., Far West Record (Salt Lake City:
    Deseret Book, 1983), 163. The high council excommunicated Oliver Cowdery on
    12 April 1838.

  3. Ibid., 164-66.
  4. Oliver Cowdery to Brigham Young and the Twelve, 25 December 1843, Brigham
    Young Collection, Family and Church History Department Archives, The Church
    of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter Church Archives); in Richard
    Lloyd Anderson and Scott Faulring, eds., The Documentary History of Oliver Cowdery,
    preliminary draft (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1999), 4:330. When quoting primary documents,
    I have retained the spelling, underlining, and capitalization of the original
    (but not crossed-out words).

  5. Oliver Cowdery to Phineas H. Young, 23 March 1846, Church Archives, in Anderson
    and Faulring, Documentary History of Oliver Cowdery, 4:394-95.

  6. Oliver Cowdery to Warren A. Cowdery, 21 January 1838, retained copy, Oliver
    Cowdery Letter Book, Huntington Library, in Anderson and Faulring, Documentary
    History of Oliver Cowdery
    , 4:218-19. As Todd Compton points out, several
    nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints, as well as unsympathetic ex-Mormons, considered
    Joseph Smith’s relationship with Fanny Alger to be a marriage. See Compton,
    In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City:
    Signature Books, 1997), 28. See Scott H. Faulring, “The Return of Oliver
    Cowdery,” in vThe Disciple as Witness: Essays on Latter-day Saint History
    and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, ed. Stephen D.Ricks, Donald
    W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 162 n. 43, for a
    discussion of what Oliver Cowdery may have known about the early practice of
    plural marriage and whether he participated in it.

  7. G. J. Keen, statement to Arthur B. Deming, 14 April 1885, Naked Truths about
    1 (April 1888): 4.

  8. William Henry Gibson to Thomas Gregg, 3 August 1882, in Charles A. Shook,
    The True Origin of the Book of Mormon (Cincinnati: Standard, 1914), 57.

  9. William Lang to Thomas Gregg, 5 November 1881, in Shook, True Origin of the
    Book of Mormon,

  10. Adeline Fuller was born between 1810 and 1820 and apparently lived with
    the Cowdery family for several years, beginning in Kirtland and moving with
    them to Far West and Tiffin, Ohio, where she married Lewis Bernard in 1845.
    (Whether she was related to Oliver’s mother, Rebecca Fuller, is not known.)
    In 1881, when she was in her sixties or seventies, she wrote three letters (4
    March, 18 March, and 3 October) to newspaper editor and publisher Thomas Gregg
    (1808-1892), author of the anti-Mormon book The Prophet of Palmyra. In
    her first letter, Adeline Fuller Bernard claimed, “I have often heard
    Mr. Cowdry say that Mormanism was the work of Devil” (Adeline M. Bernard
    to Thomas Gregg, 4 March 1881, typescript, L. Tom Perry Special Collections
    Library, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University). Bernard may have
    been recalling harsh statements Oliver made against those he held responsible
    for his excommunication—”they themselves have gone to perdition,”
    Oliver wrote (Cowdery to Brigham Young and the Twelve, 25 December 1843, in
    Anderson and Faulring, Documentary History of Oliver Cowdery, 4:330). Bernard’s
    letters are problematic for the following reasons: she apparently dictated the
    letters to others, and the accuracy of the handwritten transcriptions is unknown
    (indeed, in the second letter, Bernard herself states that her niece made errors
    in recording the first letter); no originals are extant for the first two letters,
    so the accuracy as well as the provenance of the typescripts is also uncertain;
    and Bernard’s mental stability—as well as the accuracy of her memory
    and her basic reliability—is also unknown. (She gets certain details right,
    such as Oliver’s living in Tiffin from 1840 to 1847, and gets others wrong,
    such as the vision of the Three Witnesses occurring at midnight.) This is thus
    a good topic for further research. Thanks to Richard Lloyd Anderson for sharing
    his files on Bernard.

  11. George W. Robinson, The Scriptory Book of Joseph Smith, 47, Church Archives,
    in Cannon and Cook, Far West Record, 190 n. 1.

  12. Document containing the Correspondence, Orders, &c. in relation to the
    disturbances with the Mormons; and the Evidence given before the Hon. Austin
    A. King, Judge of the Fifth Judicial Circuit of the State of Missouri
    State Department] Boon’s Lick Democrat, 1841), 103-6, in Anderson
    and Faulring, Documentary History of Oliver Cowdery, 4:252, 255. Sidney Rigdon
    was apparently the author of the “warning out” document, although
    he did not sign it. A year and a half earlier, in Kirtland (on 7 November 1836),
    Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and several other prominent Saints, including Oliver
    Cowdery, had signed a statement “warning out” the local justice
    of the peace, although this document specifically noted that “we intend
    no injury to your person proper[t]y or carracter in public or in private.”
    Lake County Historical Society, Mentor, Ohio, in Anderson and Faulring, Documentary
    History of Oliver Cowdery,

  13. Book of John Whitmer, 86-87, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of
    Latter Day Saints, Archives, in Anderson and Faulring, Documentary History of
    Oliver Cowdery,

  14. Leland H. Gentry, “The Danite Band of 1838,” BYU Studies 14/4
    (1974): 426-27. According to the Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint History,
    ed. Arnold K. Garr, Donald Q. Cannon, and Richard O. Cowan (Salt Lake City:
    Deseret Book, 2000), 275, the Danites were a “defensive paramilitary organization
    sanctioned neither by the state nor by the Church,” that their leader
    Sampson Avard “instituted initiation rites and secret oaths of loyalty
    and encouraged subversive activities,” and that the group “attempted
    to coerce reluctant Saints into consecrating their surplus money and property
    to the Church.” David J. Whittaker points out, however, that “some
    groups of Danites were to build houses, others were to gather food, or care
    for the sick, while others were to help gather the scattered Saints into the
    community.” Whittaker, “The Book of Daniel in Early Mormon Thought,”
    in By Study and Also by Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley, ed. John M.
    Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1990), 1:170.
    Since the term Danite had different meanings for different people, attempts
    to compile lists of Danites inevitably arouse controversy. See, for instance,
    D. Michael Quinn’s list in The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Salt
    Lake City: Signature Books, 1994), 479-90.

  15. Oliver Cowdery to Warren A. and Lyman Cowdery, 2 June 1838, Lyman Cowdery
    Collection, Church Archives, in Anderson and Faulring, Documentary History of
    Oliver Cowdery,

  16. Book of John Whitmer, 86-87, in Anderson and Faulring, Documentary
    History of Oliver Cowdery,

  17. Anderson and Faulring, Documentary History of Oliver Cowdery, 4:312.
  18. Oliver Cowdery to Phineas Young, 26 August 1843, Oliver Cowdery Letters,
    Archive of the First Presidency, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,
    in Anderson and Faulring, Documentary History of Oliver Cowdery, 4:326.

  19. Cowdery to Brigham Young and the Twelve, 25 December 1843, in Anderson and
    Faulring, Documentary History of Oliver Cowdery, 4:329.

  20. Times and Seasons 2 (1841): 482, cited in Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating
    the Book of Mormon Witnesses
    (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981), 153.

  21. R. L. Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 153-55.
  22. See Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The Second Witness on Priesthood Succession,”
    part 3, Improvement Era, November 1968, 14-20. There is no doubt that
    David Whitmer had serious objections to the Doctrine and Covenants. He may have
    mistakenly assumed that Oliver agreed with him.

  23. Wells, Vermont Town Record, Record of Births, 158-59; Hiland Paul
    and Robert Parks, History of Wells, Vermont, for the First Century after Its
    (1869; reprint, Wells, Vt.: Wells Historical Society, 1979), 81;
    Carl A. Curtis, “Cowdery Genealogical Material,” 1970, 1, L. Tom
    Perry Special Collections; Mary Bryant Alverson Mehling, Cowdrey-Cowdery-Cowdray
    (n.p.: Allaben Genealogical, 1911), 186-88; “Historical
    and Genealogical Material, Poultney, Vermont, Part 1, Historical,” 1052,
    typescript, Poultney town clerk’s office, Poultney, Vermont.

  24. I don’t fault R. D. Anderson for stating—as many previous historians
    have done—that Oliver once worked as a blacksmith (p. 96). Still, this
    is a rumor worth dispatching. It apparently originated with Eber D. Howe, the
    anti-Mormon author of Mormonism Unvailed, but Cowdery family documents do not
    corroborate that idea nor is it consistent with Oliver’s studious bent
    or slight build.

  25. Key sections of Barnes Frisbie, The History of Middletown, Vermont (Rutland,
    Vt.: Tuttle, 1867), are reprinted in Early Mormon Documents, ed. Dan Vogel (Salt
    Lake City: Signature Books, 1996), 1:599-621.

  26. Frisbie, History of Middletown, Vermont, in Early Mormon Documents, 1:599-621.
    For more information on the Wood Scrape, see Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The
    Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Searching,” BYU Studies 24/3 (1984):
    489-560; D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, rev.
    and enl. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998), 35-36, 121-30;
    and Larry E. Morris, “Oliver Cowdery’s Vermont Years and the Origins
    of Mormonism,” BYU Studies 39/1 (2000): 106-29.

  27. But, of course, even if William Cowdery’s involvement in the Wood
    Scrape were proved—and it hasn’t been—this would still prove
    nothing about Oliver. Documents relating to the family’s religious history
    would be necessary to show a link between the Wood Scrape and Oliver’s
    use of the rod.

  28. Oliver’s use of a divining rod does not count as a strike against
    him. As Quinn points out in Magic World View, 34, such use was common among
    respected people at the time. “From north to south, from east to west,
    the divining rod has its advocates,” revealed The American Journal of
    Science and Art
    in 1826. “Men in various callings, . . . men
    of the soundest judgment . . . do not disown the art.” It seems
    that anyone trying to put folk magic in context would mention this, but critics
    sometimes bring up the Wood Scrape without discussing what Richard L. Bushman
    has called “the line that divided the yearning for the supernatural from
    the humanism of rational Christianity.” Bushman, Joseph Smith and the
    Beginnings of Mormonism
    (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1984),

  29. Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:621.
  30. See Morris, “Oliver Cowdery’s Vermont Years,” 116-18.
  31. See ibid., 122 n. 3, for a list of books and articles discussing View of
    the Hebrews.

  32. See Royal Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from
    the Original Manuscript,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited:
    The Evidence for Ancient Origins,
    ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, Utah: FARMS,
    1997), 61-93.

  33. As Vogel himself points out, however, Clark heard this account in 1828,
    meaning that even if it could be verified it would prove nothing about Martin
    Harris’s 1829 experience as one of the Three Witnesses.

  34. Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:270.
  35. At the same time, Clark’s report of his direct conversation with Martin
    Harris is an important historical document that relates particularly to the
    Anthon transcript.

  36. “The Testimony of the Eight Witnesses.”
  37. Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:468. One difference between the Cowdery
    account and the Clark and Ford accounts is this: while Clark’s and Ford’s
    sources are not identified, one of the Cowdery versions identifies Robert Barrington
    as its source. It is therefore potentially verifiable in a way that the others
    are not.

  38. L. F. Anderson, Lucy’s Book, 432.
  39. Ibid., 433.
  40. Ibid., 434. As Lavina Fielding Anderson points out, this is probably a reference
    to Doctrine and Covenants 6:22-24: “Verily, verily, I say unto you,
    if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried
    unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things.
    Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness
    can you have than from God? And now, behold, you have received a witness; for
    if I have told you things which no man knoweth have you not received a witness?”

  41. Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:74.
  42. Scott H. Faulring, An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals
    of Joseph Smith,
    2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 8.

  43. L. F. Anderson, Lucy’s Book, 433.
  44. Oliver Cowdery to Joseph Smith, 6 November 1829, in Anderson and Faulring,
    Documentary History of Oliver Cowdery, 1:78-79.

  45. Oliver Cowdery to Joseph Smith, 28 December 1829, in Anderson and Faulring,
    Documentary History of Oliver Cowdery, 1:80-81.

  46. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed. Definitions quoted
    in this review come from this edition.

  47. For Lucy Mack Smith, see L. F. Anderson, Lucy’s Book, 460-70.
    For Gilbert, Tucker, Harding, and Chandler, see Vogel, Early Mormon Documents,
    2:515-52, 3:62-72, 82-86, and 221-23, respectively.

  48. Articles of the Church of Christ, in Anderson and Faulring, Documentary
    History of Oliver Cowdery,

  49. Joseph Smith History, 1839 draft, Dean C. Jessee, The Papers of Joseph Smith,
    Volume 1: Autobiographical and Historical Writings
    (Salt Lake City: Deseret
    Book, 1989), 260.

  50. Paul and Parks, History of Wells, Vermont, 79.
  51. For David Stafford, John Stafford, Lorenzo Saunders, Hiram Jackway, Benjamin
    Saunders, and William Hyde, see Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:57, 123, 134,
    115, 139, and 3:197, respectively.

  52. For Keen, Gibson, and Lang, see Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:506; Seneca
    12 April 1892; Shook, True Origin of the Book of Mormon, 57; and
    William Lang, History of Seneca County (Springfield, Ohio: Transcript Printing,
    1880), 364-65, respectively.

  53. All references in this paragraph are cited in R. L. Anderson, Investigating
    the Book of Mormon Witnesses,
    44-46, 48.

  54. It is not clear to me why Vogel’s “central question” concerns
    a comparison with similar religious testimonies. As a historian, does he claim
    to have access to those experiences? Does he have any way of knowing whether
    they were genuine or not? And how would the experience of the Book of Mormon
    witnesses being “distinguishable” prove anything? However, if one
    is looking for a key difference between the experience of the Book of Mormon
    witnesses and the religious epiphanies of others, how about this: the plates.
    How many other religious individuals claimed to have received an ancient artifact
    from a divine messenger—an artifact seen and handled by several other
    people? (Similarly, when Scott Dunn—in his American Apocrypha article
    “Automaticity and the Book of Mormon”—asks for “evidence
    of clear differences” (p. 36) between the Book of Mormon and other
    texts produced through “automatic writing,” it seems to me that
    Moroni’s delivering “the original text” to Joseph Smith is
    one clear difference.)

  55. Of course, even the assumption that historians can demonstrate what did
    or did not happen in the past is open to debate. What does it mean when two
    (or more) people perceive the same event differently? Is it even appropriate
    to speak of “the same event”? Is there such a thing as “objective
    reality”? Such events as the death of Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson’s
    relationship with Sally Hemings, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy have
    been the source of endless controversy, even though they involved no supernatural
    element. Nonetheless, while I believe that epistemological distinctions have
    value up to a point, I also believe that historians can get at the truth of
    puzzling events through careful, thorough, open-minded research.

  56. Jessee, The Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:237, emphasis added.
  57. Saying that a vision is different from normal experience is not the same
    as saying it is, in Vogel’s words, “internal and subjective”
    (p. 86). In the case of the Three Witnesses, Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery,
    and David Whitmer reported having the same visionary experience that involved
    physical objects. This experience involved the supernatural to be sure (and
    by my definition it is not empirical), but it was clearly not internal and subjective.

  58. While Vogel does quote Lucy Mack Smith in regard to Oliver Cowdery, Lucy
    hardly supports Vogel’s conclusions. Quite the contrary, Lucy clearly
    believed that Oliver was stable, reliable, and capable of being trusted.

  59. The phrase “visionary predisposition” itself reveals Vogel’s
    bias. If Oliver had a genuine spiritual experience or vision while he was contemplating
    what Joseph Sr. and Lucy had told him about the plates, it would hardly be fair
    to characterize his subsequent attitude as a “predisposition.”

  60. On one level, historians do have a basis for judging “religious experience.”
    If, for example, one found reliable evidence that Joseph Smith and the Three
    Witnesses agreed to concoct a story about Moroni appearing and showing them
    plates, this would certainly give one good historical reason to reject the testimony
    printed in the Book of Mormon. Again, if a third party claimed to have tricked
    Joseph and the others (by pretending to be an angel and producing fake plates,
    for example), this would also count as potential historical evidence. (Stephen
    Harding claims to have tricked Calvin Stoddard in a similar manner; see Vogel,
    Early Mormon Documents, 3:82-86.) Of course, such scenarios involve deceit
    or insincerity, taking them out of the realm of genuine religious experience.

  61. Vision, 3 April 1836, Joseph Smith Diary, in Anderson and Faulring, Documentary
    History of Oliver Cowdery,
    3:366-67. Interestingly, this early version
    of Doctrine and Covenants 110 was recorded by Warren Cowdery, Oliver’s
    oldest brother.

  62. Lyndon W. Cook, ed., David Whitmer Interviews (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book,
    1993), 63.

  63. Jessee, The Papers of Joseph Smith, 290, emphasis added.
  64. Oliver Cowdery to W. W. Phelps, 7 September 1834, in Vogel, Early Mormon

  65. Oliver Cowdery to P. H. Young, 23 March 1846, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents,

  66. Reuben Miller Journal, 21 October 1848, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents,
    2:494.William Frampton was also present when Oliver bore his testimony at Council
    Bluffs, Iowa, in October 1848. In a letter written more than fifty years later,
    Frampton quoted Oliver thus: “I received the Priesthood in connection
    with Joseph Smith from the hands of the Angel, I conversed with the Angel as
    one man converses with another. He laid his hand on my head, and later with
    Joseph received the Melchisedeck Priesthood.” Vogel, Early Mormon Documents,

  67. Oliver Cowdery, statement to Samuel W. Richards, 13 January 1849, in Vogel,
    Early Mormon Documents, 2:499.

  68. R. L. Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 37.
  69. Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:495.
  70. Vogel seems to believe that even though Joseph constructed fake plates,
    no one actually saw those plates—they only felt them through a cloth or
    hefted them in a box. (This would account for the fact that no one pointed out
    the obvious: “Hey, these aren’t gold plates with intricate engravings—these
    are tin plates produced in the local blacksmith shop.”) Vogel further
    suggests that whenever a witness “saw” the plates, he was not seeing
    the tin plates but rather the imaginary plates, which had “the appearance
    of ancient work, and of curious workmanship.” To make this logic work,
    Vogel makes the astonishing assertion that “Smith may have produced a
    box containing the plates or perhaps something of similar weight. The witnesses
    were permitted to lift the box, but their view of the plates was visionary.
    In other words, they may have seen the plates through the box. Thus, each man
    could claim that he had both seen and handled the artifact” (p. 104).
    But does Vogel reach this conclusion based on any statement from the Eight Witnesses
    themselves? Absolutely not. Instead, he relies on speculation and thirdhand
    accounts from the likes of Stephen Burnett, Warren Parrish, and Thomas Ford.
    Vogel thus reaches a conclusion that flies in the face of clear, direct testimony
    offered by the witnesses themselves: “And as many of the leaves as the
    said Smith has translated we did handle with our hands; and we also saw the
    engravings thereon” (The Testimony of the Eight Witnesses). “I thank
    God that I felt a determination to die rather than deny the things which my
    eyes had seen, which my hands had handled” (Hyrum Smith, p. 51).
    “I have most assuredly seen the plates from whence the Book of Mormon
    is translated, and . . . I have handled these plates” (John
    Whitmer, p. 54). See Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Personal Writings of
    the Book of Mormon Witnesses,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited,