In the summer of 1830, while The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was yet in its infancy, Oliver Cowdery, “the second elder of [the] church” (D&C 20:3), wrote Joseph Smith, saying, “I command you in the name of God to erase those words, that no priestcraft be amongst us.” Oliver Cowdery was referring to words Joseph Smith added to Doctrine and Covenants 20:37. Oliver disapproved of a phrase included in the list of requirements for baptism: “And truly manifest by their works that they have received of the Spirit of Christ unto the remission of their sins.”
Joseph, the Prophet, was astonished and saddened. He knew that this baptismal requirement had come by revelation from the Lord. Joseph “immediately wrote to [Oliver] in reply, in which [Joseph] asked him by what authority [Oliver,] took upon him to command [him] to alter or erase…a revelation…from Almighty God.”
Shortly after, Joseph traveled to see Oliver at the Peter Whitmer home where he was living. Unfortunately, Oliver not only had become angry with Joseph, but he had negatively influenced the Whitmers so that the entire household had become agitated in their feelings. Joseph’s history records, “I found the [Whitmer] family in [favor] of [Oliver’s] opinion … and it was not without both labor and [persistence] that I could prevail with any of them to reason calmly on the subject.” In the end, Joseph “succeeded in bringing not only the Whitmer family, but also Oliver Cowdery to acknowledge that they had been in error” (The proceeding account and quotations are from History of the Church 1:104-105).
Although it is easy to condemn Oliver Cowdery’s actions from our vantage point today, that isn’t my intent; we are all prone to sin and mistakes. Regardless, there is a lot we can learn from this relatively unknown event in church history.
First, Oliver Cowdery should have humbled himself and withheld judgement until he could better understand the will of the Lord. Instead of accusing the prophet of priestcraft, he would have been better served to resist the urge to jump to judgement. Rather than presume that the Lord’s prophet was wrong, he should have done some prayerful, humble introspection. Pride allowed Oliver to not only jump to judgement, but to feel a false sense of righteous indignation. He was utterly convinced he was right!
Ego and the Holy Ghost cannot reside in the same heart at the same time. We can’t be full of the Holy Ghost while we’re full of ourselves. We must remember the Lord’s command and promise: “Be thou humble, and the Lord thy God shall lead thee by the hand…” (D&C 112:10). Oliver’s pride problem was not unique then, and it certainly isn’t unique now. As famously taught by President Ezra Taft Benson, “Pride is the universal sin.” There continue to be many today who see themselves as always being right while believing their divinely appointed leaders are always liable to be wrong.
Oliver’s mistake was greatly magnified by persuading the Whitmers to join him in his rebellion. The proud always seek validation and converts. Oliver should have avoided saying or doing anything that weakened others’ trust in the Lord’s servant. President Dallin H. Oaks taught:
Criticism is particularly objectionable when it is directed toward Church authorities, general or local…. Evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed is in a class by itself. It is one thing to depreciate a person who exercises corporate power or even government power. It is quite another thing to criticize or depreciate a person for the performance of an office to which he or she has been called of God. It does not matter that the criticism is true…. “When we say anything bad about the leaders of the Church, whether true or false, we tend to impair their influence and their usefulness and are thus working against the Lord and his cause.”
(Dallin H. Oaks, “Criticism,” Ensign, February 1987)
If Oliver had withheld judgement and held his tongue, he would have not damaged the faith of those around him. It is sobering to consider that the Lord may hold us accountable for the sins of others when those sins are caused by our influence or even only our negligence (See Jacob 1:19).
Perhaps Oliver would have next benefited from searching the scriptures for understanding. Had he done so, he may have discovered that the baptismal requirement the prophet added to Doctrine and Covenants 20:37 was already found almost word for word in 3 Nephi 7:25. And, Oliver, of all people, knew the Book of Mormon was true; he had seen the plates and heard the voice of God declare the translation was correct! So, finding this same requirement in the Book of Mormon undoubtedly would have satisfied any concerns he had about the correctness of the doctrine.
Finally, Oliver had forgotten what the Lord said in the first revelation to the church after it was formally organized only a few months earlier, on April 6, 1830:
Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me; For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.
(Doctrine and Covenants 21:4-6)
Oliver Cowdery, though a powerful and gifted servant of God, struggled at times with following this commandment of the Lord. Perhaps because of their long and close relationship, it was especially easy for him to see the flaws and human foibles of Joseph Smith. He struggled with submitting to the prophet’s authority. Consequently, the Lord rebuked Oliver, saying, “thou shalt not command him who is at thy head, and at the head of the church” (D&C 28:6).
In 1970, President Harold B. Lee taught:
Now the only safety we have as members of this church is to do exactly what the Lord said to the Church on that day when the Church was organized. We must learn to give heed to the words and commandments that the Lord shall give through his prophet, ‘As he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me… as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.’
There will be some things that take patience and faith. You may not like what comes from the authority of the Church. It may contradict your political views. It may contradict your social views. It may interfere with some of your social life. But if you listen to these things, as if from the mouth of the Lord himself, with patience and faith, the promise is that ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; yea, and the Lord God will disperse the powers of darkness from before you, and cause the heavens to shake for your good, and his name’s glory’ (D&C 21:6).
(Harold B. Lee, Improvement Era, December 1970, p. 126)
Giving heed to the word of God given through his prophet can be especially difficult when what he asks us to do is contrary to our strongly held personal views. But, remember that God doesn’t give commandments because we are already inclined to keep them. God gives us commandments to help us do, or not do, things contrary to our nature. “For the natural man is an enemy to God… unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit…” (Mosiah 3:19). God tells us what we need to hear, not necessarily what we want to hear.
Because God’s commandments can be contrary to our own thinking, we may be inclined to resist them. However, as taught by the prophet Joseph Smith, “the moment we revolt at anything which comes from God, the devil takes power” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 181). If what we think, believe, or do is contrary to what the living prophets are teaching, we can be certain that our thoughts, beliefs, or actions are being influenced by our inner “natural man.”
Of special concern is following the living prophets who are led by the living Lord for the benefit of his living Church (See D&C 1:30, 38). President Dallin H. Oaks once received a “seven-page single-spaced letter that essentially disagree[d] with a talk” he had given. The writer quoted many previous church leaders “to justify his [contrary] position.” President Oaks responded, inviting the writer “to be more sensitive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit about the meaning of the words of living prophets” (Turley, R. In the Hands of the Lord. pp. 333-334). As taught by President Ezra Taft Benson, “Beware of those who would set up the dead prophets against the living prophets, for the living prophets always take precedence” (Ezra Taft Benson, “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet“)
In these turbulent times with so many conflicting voices and information, each of us is liable to be misled or confused (See D&C 50:2-9). Perhaps we have fallen into some of the same errors Oliver Cowdery grappled with and have found ourselves at times criticizing or rejecting the inspired direction given through the Lord’s living prophet and other leaders. Thankfully, “if any [person] sin and repent, we have an advocate with the Father” (JST 1 John 2:1)
Oliver’s struggles with pride and obstinance eventually led him into apostasy and bitterness. In 1838, he and most of the Whitmers lost their membership in the church. To their credit, none of them ever denied their witness of the Book of Mormon in spite of being estranged from Joseph Smith and the Church. Many years later, Oliver repented of his sins, was rebaptized, and died in full fellowship of the Church. We honor and revere him for his essential role as scribe for the Book of Mormon, as a witness of the Book of Mormon plates, for standing with Joseph Smith when priesthood and priesthood keys were restored by angelic messengers, and assisting in the establishment of the Church. Because of his amazing contributions and his sincere repentance, very few people today remember the controversy over Doctrine and Covenants 20:37.
Importantly, the Lord has said, “He who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more” (D&C 58:42). I rejoice in the assurance that we can become free from the guilt of our mistakes and sins. I am also grateful that although the Lord may “remember them no more,” we are able to retain the important lessons learned from our mistakes and sins.