Oliver Cowdery was born 3 October 1806 in Wells, Rutland County, Vermont to William Cowdery (1765-1847) and Rebekah Fuller (1768-1809) and died 3 March 1850 Richmond, Ray County, Missouri of unspecified causes. He married Elizabeth Ann Whitmer (1815-1892) 18 December 1832 in Kaw Township, Jackson County, Missouri.


Oliver H. P. Cowdery was, with Joseph Smith, an important participant in the formative period of the Latter Day Saint movement between 1829 and 1836 where he played a very instrumental role in the coming forth of The Book of Mormon. He became one of the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon's golden plates, one of the first Latter Day Saint apostles, and the Second Elder of the church.

In 1838, he left Smith's church (as had fellow witnesses David Whitmer and Martin Harris) and later became a Methodist. In 1848, he was rebaptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Image: Daguerreotype of Oliver Cowdery found in the Library of Congress, taken in the 1840s by James Presley Ball.

Early Life

Cowdery was born October 3, 1806, in Wells, Vermont. His father, William, a farmer, moved the family to Poultney in Rutland County, Vermont when Cowdery was three. (Cowdery's mother Rebekah Fuller Cowdery died on September 3, 1809.)

Book of Mormon Scribe & Witness

At age 20 (c. 1826), Cowdery left Vermont for upstate New York, where his older brothers had settled. He clerked at a store for several years and in 1829 became a school teacher in Manchester, New York. Cowdery lodged with different families in the area, including that of Joseph Smith, Sr., who was said to have provided Cowdery with additional information about the golden plates of which Cowdery said he had heard "from all quarters."

Cowdery met Joseph Smith on April 5, 1829—a year and a day before the official founding of the church—and heard from him how he had received golden plates containing ancient Native American writings. Cowdery told Smith that he had seen the golden plates in a vision before the two ever met. That was the subject of key revelation to the young prophet recorded as [Doctrine & Covenants secion #9.

From April 7 to June 1829, Cowdery acted as Smith's primary scribe for the translation of the plates into what would later become the Book of Mormon. Cowdery also unsuccessfully attempted to translate part of the Book of Mormon by himself.

On May 15, 1829, Cowdery and Smith said that they received the Aaronic priesthood from the resurrected John the Baptist, after which they baptized each other in the Susquehanna River. Cowdery said that he and Smith later went into the forest and prayed "until a glorious light encircled us, and as we arose on account of the light, three persons stood before us dressed in white, their faces beaming with glory." One of the three announced that he was the Apostle Peter and said the others were the apostles James and John.

Later that year, Cowdery reported sharing a vision, along with Smith and David Whitmer, in which an angel showed him the golden plates. Martin Harris said he saw a similar vision later that day. Cowdery, Whitmer and Harris signed a statement to that effect and became known as the Three Witnesses. Their testimony has been published in nearly every edition of the Book of Mormon.

Early Church Leadership

When the church was organized on April 6, 1830, Joseph Smith became "First Elder" and Cowdery "Second Elder." Although Cowdery was technically second in authority to Smith from the organization of the church through 1838, in practice Sidney Rigdon, Smith's "spokesman" and counselor in the First Presidency, began to supplant Cowdery as early as 1831. Cowdery held the position of Assistant President of the Church from 1834 until his resignation/excommunication in 1838. Cowdery was also a member of the first presiding high council of the church, organized in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1834.

First Lamanite Mission

One of the earliest missionary expeditions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the First Lamanite Mission commenced in October 1830 in New York with the call of Oliver Cowdery (1806-1850), "second elder" in the Church; Peter Whitmer (1809-1836); Parley P. Pratt (1807-1857); and Ziba Peterson (1810-1849) (D&C 28:8;32:1-3). It initiated the long continuing Church practice of taking the gospel to Native Americans. The Book of Mormon, in part a record of American Indian origins, prophesies that the Lamanites will assist in building the millennial New Jerusalem (3 Ne. 20-21), to be located in the Western Hemisphere (Ether 13:3-6; cf. D&C 28:9). They traveled over a thousand miles in mid-winter weather to indian territory located west of Independence, Missouri.

While not having any notable success with these indeginous people, the missionaries did have some remarkable success with several white settlements along the way, particularly around northeastern Ohio resulting in over 130 converts that included some future leaders of the church and the relocation of the church from New York to Kirtland, Ohio in early 1831. The mission also had success among the settlers in Jackson County, Missouri leading both communities to become important religious centers for the new church. [1][2]

1838 Excommunication

When the church created a bank known as the Kirtland Safety Society in 1837, Cowdery obtained the money-printing plates. Sent by Smith to Monroe, Michigan, he became president of the Bank of Monroe, in which the church had a controlling interest. Both banks failed that same year. Cowdery moved to the newly founded Latter Day Saints settlement in Far West, Missouri, and suffered ill health through the winter of 1837–38. All of these events contributed to Oliver resigning and being excommunicated from the church in 1838.

By early 1838, Smith and Cowdery disagreed on three significant issues. First, Cowdery competed with Smith for leadership of the new church and "disagreed with the Prophet's economic and political program and sought a personal financial independence [from the] Zion society that Joseph Smith envisioned." Then too, in March 1838, Smith and Rigdon moved to Far West, which had been under the presidency of W. W. Phelps and Cowdery's brothers-in-law, David and John Whitmer.

There Smith and Rigdon took charge of the Missouri church and initiated policies that Cowdery, Phelps, and the Whitmers believed violated the separation of church and state. Finally, in January 1838, Cowdery wrote his brother Warren that he and Smith had "had some conversation in which in every instance I did not fail to affirm that which I had said was strictly true. A dirty, nasty, filthy affair of his and Fanny Alger's was talked over in which I strictly declared that I had never deserted from the truth in the matter, and as I supposed was admitted by himself." Alger, a teenage maid living with the Smiths, may have been Smith's first plural wife, a practice that Cowdery opposed

The charges filed by the High Council against Oliver Cowdery in 1838 were:

  1. Persecuting the brethren by urging on vexatious law suits against them and thus distressing the innocent.
  2. Seeking to destroy the character of Joseph Smith, Jr, by falsely insinuating that he was guilty of adultery.
  3. Treating the Church with contempt by not attending meetings.
  4. Leaving his calling, to which God had appointed him by revelation, for the sake of filthy lucre, and turning to the practice of law.
  5. Disgracing The Church by being connected in the "bogus" business, as common report says. (Counterfeiters of US Currency that were prevalent in remote parts of Northern Missouri.)
  6. Dishonestly retaining notes after they had been paid.
  7. Forsaking the cause of God and returning to the beggerly elements of the world, and neglecting his high and holy calling.

Cowdery was excommunicated at the same time as his brother-in-law, David Whitmer. They together were two of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon. This was an extraordinary event in church history. Per B.H. Roberts:

As before state, these two men...were two of the three special witnesses to the Book of Mormon. it was, therefore, a bold move to excommunicate them...If the Book of Mormon had been a fraudulent production, Joseph and Sidney would never have dared to break with these two witnesses, whatever their wickedness might be. But the bold independent course pursued in excommunicating them, when their conduct warranted the action, supplies good evidence that Joseph Smith knew that the existence of The Church did not depend on the testimony of Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer. The Book of Mormon being true, it would stand independent of these witnesses...

Later Years

Cowdery afterward joined practiced law in Missouri. By 1847 me moved briefly to Wisconsin to visit with the Strangite sect.

In 1848, Cowdery traveled to meet with followers of Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve encamped at Winter Quarters, Nebraska, and he asked to be reunited with the church. The Quorum of the Twelve referred the application to the high council in Pottawattamie County, Iowa. The Pottawattamie high council convened a meeting with all high priests in the area to consider the matter. After Cowdery convinced the meeting attendees that he no longer maintained any claim to leadership within the church, the Pottawattamie high council and high priests in attendance unanimously approved his application for rebaptism. On November 12, 1848, Cowdery was rebaptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by Orson Hyde of the Quorum of the Twelve in Indian Creek at Kanesville, Iowa.

Final Testimony

In 1912, the official church magazine Improvement Era published a statement by Jacob F. Gates, son of early Mormon leader Jacob Gates, who had died twenty years prior. According to the recollection by his son, the elder Gates had visited Cowdery in 1849 and inquired about his witness testimony concerning the Book of Mormon. Cowdery reportedly reaffirmed his witness:

"Jacob, I want you to remember what I say to you. I am a dying man, and what would it profit me to tell you a lie? I know," said he, "that this Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God. My eyes saw, my ears heard, and my understanding was touched, and I know that whereof I testified is true. It was no dream, no vain imagination of the mind—it was real".

On March 3, 1850, Cowdery died in David Whitmer's home in Richmond, Missouri.

Marriage and Children

On December 18, 1832, Cowdery married Elizabeth Ann Whitmer, the daughter of Peter Whitmer, Sr. and sister of David, John, Jacob and Peter Whitmer, Jr. who were also key witnesses to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.

They had six children, of whom only one daughter (Maria Louise Cowdery (1835-1892)) survived to maturity.

  1. Maria Louise Cowdery (1835-1892) - MD Charles Johnson in 1856 in Richmond MO
  2. Elizabeth Ann Cowdery (1836-1837)
  3. Josephine Rebecca Cowdery (1838-1844)
  4. Oliver Peter Cowdery (1840-1840)
  5. Adeline Fuller Cowdery (1844-1844)
  6. Julia Olive Cowdery (1846-1846)


Offspring of Oliver Cowdery and Elizabeth Ann Whitmer (1815-1892)
Name Birth Death Joined with
Maria Louise Cowdery (1835-1892)
Elizabeth Ann Cowdery (1836-1837)
Josephine Rebecca Cowdery (1838-1844)
Oliver Peter Cowdery (1840-1840)
Adeline Fuller Cowdery (1844-1844)
Julia Olive Cowdery (1846-1846)



  1. Joseph Smith (1805-1844) and Oliver Cowdery (1806-1850) share a common Great, Great Grandfather - John Fuller (1656-1726).

See Also


Footnotes (including sources)