“Rumor Concerning Early Oliver Cowdery History Refuted by Church Researchers,” Ensign, Dec. 1986, 71–72
After months of research, officials of the Church Historical Department have concluded there is no substance to widely circulated rumors that the Church owns a very early history of the Church written by Oliver Cowdery, who was the Church’s first historian.
However, the Church does own a little-known draft of President Joseph Smith’s published history that some persons apparently have mistakenly assumed to be the Oliver Cowdery history, according to Richard E. Turley, Jr., assistant managing director of the Historical Department. Although the first part of the draft is missing, the extant written pages cover the period from the baptism of the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery up through the first several months of the Church’s organization.
Because the period covered by this draft overlaps the period thought to be covered by the Cowdery history, some persons have assumed the draft must be Oliver Cowdery’s early history.
The document’s internal evidence, however, such as reference to the second edition of the Book of Mormon, shows it was written much later than the Cowdery history, Brother Turley said. Although he would not speculate about who may have penned the draft, he said the contents closely follow corresponding pages of volume 1 of Joseph Smith’s History of the Church. The draft makes no reference to salamanders, nor does it attribute a greater role in Church history to Alvin Smith, brother of the Prophet Joseph Smith, than does the published history.
The Church’s second official historian, John Whitmer, wrote that his predecessor, Oliver Cowdery, had “written the commencement of the church history, commencing at the time of the finding of the (gold) plates, up to June 12th, 1831.” Over the years, many scholars have interpreted the historical evidence to mean that the Church never obtained the Cowdery history from the writer himself or his successor. A careful search of the historical collections of the Church now corroborates this conclusion.
In the late nineteenth century, Church Historian Franklin D. Richards and his staff tried unsuccessfully to locate the Oliver Cowdery history. For several years in the 1890s, they corresponded and visited with Missouri resident George Schweich, who they thought might own such a history.
A grandson of David Whitmer, who in turn was a brother-in-law of Oliver Cowdery, Schweich owned some important historical materials, including the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon and the John Whitmer history. For a time, Elder Richards and his staff believed Schweich also owned the Cowdery history. Ultimately, however, they were disappointed.
When Assistant Church Historian Andrew Jenson visited Missouri in 1893, Schweich gave him access to historical materials and allowed him to copy the John Whitmer history. In reporting his success to Elder Richards, Jenson also noted in disappointment that Schweich did not own an Oliver Cowdery history.
In an 1893 report to Elder Richards, Jenson wrote, “Mr. Schweich rather conveyed the idea that the Oliver Cowdery heirs in Southwest City, Mo., had Oliver Cowdery’s old papers; but he did not know.”
When Oliver Cowdery died in 1850, he was survived by his wife, Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery, and a daughter, Maria Louise Cowdery, who eventually married but had no children. Oliver’s widow and daughter both died in Southwest City in 1892, leaving Oliver without descendants.
Extant correspondence of Maria Louise indicated that the family burned Oliver’s old papers, finding them too cumbersome to carry on their many moves.
Despite this historical evidence, some have speculated that two statements of former Church Historian Joseph Fielding Smith demonstrate the Church owns the history. In 1925, Elder Smith wrote:
“Oliver Cowdery was the first one appointed to assist Joseph in transcribing and keeping a history of the Church. John Whitmer took his place, when Oliver Cowdery was given something else to do. We have on file in the Historian’s Office the records written in the hand writing of Oliver Cowdery, the first historian, or recorder, of the Church.”
In 1947, Elder Smith described the early Oliver Cowdery records in more detail:
“The earliest records of the Church are in the handwriting of Oliver Cowdery. He acted as scribe and reporter, generally in the early conferences of the Church. These minutes and items of doctrine are recorded in manuscript books now filed in the Historian’s Office. They are invaluable.”
At first glance, these statements seem to imply Church ownership of the early Oliver Cowdery history. However, employees of the Church Historial Department have carefully searched the Church’s historical collections, including the First Presidency’s vault, and have found no evidence that the Church ever obtained the early Oliver Cowdery history. No such record appears on any past or present inventories, catalogs, or other lists of the Church’s collections. None of the persons most familiar with these collections remembers ever having seen such an item in Church possession. Several interviews with outside scholars have also failed to turn up any evidence of Church ownership.
Elder Joseph Fielding Smith’s statements likely refer to records that are already well known to scholars. In the more detailed of his two statements, Elder Smith described the Church-owned Oliver Cowdery records as “minutes and items of doctrine.” Scholars of Church history are familiar with a number of manuscript volumes that contain entries made by Oliver Cowdery himself or copied from notes taken originally by him.
One such volume is the Far West Record, which was published in 1983 by permission of the First Presidency of the Church. The scribes who compiled this volume copied into it loose sheets of minutes that had accumulated during the first few years of the Church’s organization, including the minutes of the earliest Church conferences, which were kept by Oliver Cowdery.
As faithful copyists, the scribes also copied into the volume the names of clerks who had signed the now-lost original minutes. It appears likely that Elder Smith assumed the copied minutes were originals in Oliver’s hand because the minutes for which Oliver served as clerk bear his name.
Other historical evidence also shows Elder Smith’s statements did not refer to the early Oliver Cowdery history. Between the years that he made his two statements, Elder Smith received a letter from James H. Moyle, who was serving as president of the Church’s Eastern States Mission. President Moyle wrote that he was studying “in detail the history of the Prophet Joseph Smith” and asked “when Joseph Smith’s own story of his first vision was first redu ced to writing and when it was first published.”
In describing the various accounts of the Church’s earliest days, Elder Smith replied, “Oliver Cowdery wrote the first account of these early scenes in a number of letters which were published in the Messenger and Advocate, and as he received the information from the lips of the Prophet Joseph Smith.”
Later in the letter, Elder Smith wrote, “The Prophet was not giv[en] to writing in those early days, and it was by verbal communication that his story was told to members of his family and others until after the organization of the Church. Then it was that Oliver Cowdery undertook to tell the story.”
In this letter to Moyle, a trusted Church official, Elder Smith shows his belief that the first narrative history of the Church’s earliest days was the history published by Oliver Cowdery in the Messenger and Advocate. Thus, the letter underscores the conclusion that Elder Smith’s statements about early Oliver Cowdery records referred to volumes such as the Far West Record, not the early Oliver Cowdery history mentioned by John Whitmer.