long ago ideas

“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago." - Friedrich Nietzsche. Long ago, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery conquered false claims that the Book of Mormon was fiction or that it came through a stone in a hat. But these old claims have resurfaced in recent years. To conquer them again, we have to return to what Joseph and Oliver taught.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Oliver Cowdery vs Anonymous

People keep asking me about the Zarahemla vs Cumorah post I made a while back, so I'll explain it again here.

I think everyone agrees that the Book of Mormon Zarahemla and the Book of Mormon Cumorah have to be somewhat close; i.e., Cumorah can't be in New York if Zarahemla was in Mesoamerica. The distance is just too far to fit the narrative. So it has to be one or the other, with the sites separated by a few hundred miles, almost certainly no more than 1,000 miles.

This is why the Mesoamericanists have a "two-Cumorah" theory. They insist that the Cumorah in New York is merely the place where Joseph found the plates, but was not the place of the final battles described in the text. They claim the final battles took place somewhere in Mesoamerica, and Moroni hauled the plates and other artifacts (breastplate, spectacles, sword) up to New York for Joseph to find them.

In my view, apart from any appeal to authority, that is implausible at best. Aside from some kind of teleportation, it's an impractical journey for a person to make. In terms of geography, the New York Cumorah is in exactly the right place for the rest of the narrative. I'll address that and the archaeology in a later post.

But here let's look at the appeals to authority. You decide which is more credible.

1. Mesoamerican authority. To support their view, the Mesoamericanist cite the 1 October 1842 Times and Seasons (T&S) article that claims Zarahemla is in Guatemala (Quirigua, or somewhere in Central America). This article was unsigned. It was never republished. It was never cited or referred to again. The Mesoamericanists say there were other T&S articles that also point to Central America. (They admit there are also articles that point to North America, but these, supposedly, were referring to the "hinterlands," meaning people and places outside the narrative of the text.) Lately, several have told me these articles aren't relevant, but anyone can read their books and articles and see that these articles have always been at the core of the Mesoamerican theory.

2. North American authority. To support my view, I'm going to refer to just one source for now: letter number 7 that Oliver Cowdery wrote to W.W. Phelps. In it, Cowdery writes in detail about Cumorah. I'll quote from the letter itself at the end of this entry because the description is so long, but he unmistakably identifies the Hill Cumorah near Palmyra: "By turning to the 529th and 530th pages of the book of Mormon you will read Mormon's account of the last great struggle of his people, as they were encamped round this hill Cumorah... This hill, by the Jaredites, was called Ramah: by it, or around it, pitched the famous army of Coriantumr their tents."

Cowdery is unequivocal: The Hill Cumorah in New York was the scene of the last battles.

Okay, so we have a letter vs. an article in the T&S, published in 1842 when Joseph was the Editor. Sounds like the anonymous T&S article must be more authoritative, right? More persuasive?


Oliver Cowdery was the scribe for most of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon. He was one of the Three Witnesses. He was called by revelation to do the work of printing (D&C 55:4) and "to copy, and to correct, and select, that all things may be right before me, as it shall be proved by the Spirit through him" (D&C 57:13). Cowdery's letter was published in the Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate (M&A), July 1835, pp. 158-9. M&A was a paper published by the Church in Kirtland in 1834-5 when Joseph was living there. [You can find the M&A here. Go to Library/Church History/Messenger and Advocate.] Note that this was letter #7. It was part of a series.

In the first issue of M&A, Oliver wrote this: “The following communication was designed to have been published in the last No. of the Star [The Evening and Morning Star]; but owing to a press of other matter it was laid over for this No. of the Messenger and Advocate. Since it was written, upon further reflection, we have thought that a full history of the rise of the church of the Latter Day Saints, and the most interesting parts of its progress, to the present time, would be worthy the perusal of the Saints.-If circumstances admit, an article on this subject will appear in each subsequent No. of the Messenger and Advocate, until the time when the church was driven from Jackson Co. Mo. by a lawless banditti; & such other remarks as may be thought appropriate and interesting.

"That our narrative may be correct, and particularly the introduction, it is proper to inform our patrons, that our Brother J. Smith Jr., has offered to assist us. Indeed, there are many items connected with the fore part of this subject that render his labor indispensable. With his labor and with authentic documents now in our possession, we hope to render this a pleasing and agreeable narrative, well worth the examination and perusal of the saints.” [M&A, Oct 1834, p. 13]

The same letter was re-published in the T&S on 15 Apr. 1841 (T&S 2:12 p. 379) as part of a series titled "Rise of the Church." Don Carlos Smith, the Prophet's brother, was the editor at the time.

So we have Joseph helping Cowdery with the writing of the letter and his brother Don Carlos republishing it seven years later, when Joseph was living in Nauvoo. 

But there is a third publication of these letters as well.

Actually, the third publication was supposed to happen in the spring of 1840. It was Benjamin Winchester who planned to publish them, but for various reasons he waited until he started his own newspaper, the Gospel Reflector, to publish them. And he published them with the explicit permission of Joseph Smith and Sidney Ridgon.

Here's how he explains it in the first issue of Gospel Reflector (1 Jan. 1841):

"I would here observe to the members of the church in this section of country, that I had it (as is well known) in contemplation last spring to publish O. Cowdery's, letters giving a history of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and, connected, with them, other original matter, such as I had written myself, which I asked permission or advice of J. Smith who said I was at liberty to publish any thing of the kind that would further the cause of righteousness. I also asked advice of S. Rigdon, who said he had no objection. I intend to publish, in this work, the above mentioned letters and also a few extracts from the Book of Doctrine and Covenants."

There are interesting details about this. First, Joseph gave express permission to publish Cowdery's letters.

Second, Winchester edits the letters somewhat, mainly by deleting the references to Cowdery's dialog with W.W. Phelps.

Third, the Gospel Reflector was a 24-page paper, published every two weeks, with one exception: the March 15 issue was 56 pages. The first 16 pages conclude Winchester's long article titled "The Claims of the Book of Mormon Established--it also defended." (He apparently printed the sheets 8 to a page, so this would have been 2/3 of a normal edition of his paper.) Then Winchester introduces the "Letters of Oliver Cowdery," pointing out they had been published in M&A in 1834-5. At the end, he also publishes a one-page letter from Joseph Smith to Oliver Cowdery that was originally published in M&A in November 1834, apparently to round up the number of pages of the Cowdery letters to an even 40, or 5 broadsheets.

Fourth, as this is the only edition of the Gospel Reflector with additional pages, Winchester must have considered these letters very important.

Orson Pratt quoted some sentences from Letter #7 when he wrote his pamphlet titled "An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records (Edinburgh: 1840), beginning on page 8. But then he replaced Cowdery's material with his own speculations about the Isthmus of Darien, hundreds of thousands being slain at Cumorah, etc.

This is a very key point. When Joseph Smith wrote the Wentworth letter in March 1842, he used Pratt's pamphlet as a starting point. But while he retained portions of the Cowdery letter, Joseph corrected Pratt's wording in such a way that he both rejected Pratt's speculation about a hemispheric model and reaffirmed Cowdery's geography! I explained this in another entry so I won't repeat it now, but it's pretty amazing that the Mesoamericanists pass right over this.

Another pamphlet containing the letters was published in Liverpool in 1844 (Letters by Oliver Cowdery to W. W. Phelps on the Origin of the Book of Mormon and the Rise of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints), available here. Letter #7 starts on page 31.

At any rate, let's review where the authorities stand.

1. Mesoamerica: a single brief, unsigned editorial in the 1842 Times and Seasons claims Zarahemla was at the site Quirigua in Guatemala, but maybe it wasn't, but it was somewhere in Central America. Joseph Smith is the nominal editor of the paper at the time but is not otherwise associated with it in any way. The editorial is never reprinted, cited, mentioned, or repeated.

2. North America: a detailed letter written by Oliver Cowdery, one of the Three Witnesses and the main scribe for the translation of the Book of Mormon, unequivocally declares New York Cumorah to be the Book of Mormon Cumorah for both Nephites and Jaredites. Joseph Smith helped write the letter, which was published in the Church newspaper Messenger and Advocate in Kirtland when Joseph Smith was living there in 1835. Later, Joseph Smith gives express permission to Benjamin Winchester to publish the Cowdery letters, which Winchester does in a special edition of his 15 March 1841 issue--which focused on the Book of Mormon. The next month, in April 1841, Don Carlos Smith, the Prophet's younger brother, publishes Letter #7 in the Times and Seasons.

Which do you think is more authoritative?

[In October 1835, Joseph had his scribes put Cowdery's letter in his, Joseph's, own history. Then on April 3, 1836, Joseph and Oliver were in the Kirtland temple when the Lord, Moses, Elijah and Elisha appeared to them. One might think that Joseph and Oliver had a good idea of what was going on, given these and all the other miraculous experiences they shared. But to accept the Mesoamerican setting, you have to conclude that Joseph and Oliver were mistaken about such a fundamental question as where the Book of Mormon Cumorah was located.]


The text below is from Cowdery's Letter # 7 to W.W. Phelps:

I must now give you some description of the place where, and the manner in which these records were deposited.

You are acquainted with the mail road from Palmyra, Wayne Co. to Canandaigua, Ontario Co. N. Y. and also, as you pass from the former to the latter place, before arriving at the little village of Manchester, say from three to four, or about four miles from Palmyra, you pass a large hill on the east side of the road. Why I say large, is, because it is as large perhaps, as any in that country. To a person acquainted with this road, a description would be unnecessary, as it is the largest and rises the highest of any on that route. The north end rises quite sudden until it assumes a level with the more southerly extremity, and I think I may say an elevation higher than at the south a short distance, say half or three fourths of a mile. As you pass toward Canandaigua it lessens gradually until the surface assumes its common level, or is broken by other smaller hills or ridges, water courses and ravines. I think I am justified in saying that this is the highest hill for some distance round, and I am certain that its appearance, as it rises so suddenly from a plain on the north, must attract the notice of the traveller [traveler] as he passes by.

At about one mile west rises another ridge of less height, running parallel with the former, leaving a beautiful vale between. The soil is of the first quality for the country, and under a state of cultivation, which gives a prospect at once imposing, when one reflects on the fact, that here, between these hills, the entire power and national strength of both the Jaredites and Nephites were destroyed.

By turning to the 529th and 530th pages of the book of Mormon you will read Mormon's account of the last great struggle of his people, as they were encamped round this hill Cumorah. (It is printed Camorah, which is an error.) In this valley fell the remaining strength and pride of a once powerful people, the Nephites-once so highly favored of the Lord, but at that time in darkness, doomed to suffer extermination by the hand of their barbarous and uncivilized brethren. From the top of this hill, Mormon, with a few others, after the battle, gazed with horror upon the mangled remains of those who, the day before, were filled with anxiety, hope, or doubt. A few had fled to the South, who were hunted down by the victorious party, and all who would not deny the Savior and his religion, were put to death. Mormon himself, according to the record of his son Moroni, was also slain.

But a long time previous to this national disaster it appears from his own account, he foresaw approaching destruction. In fact, if he perused the records of his fathers, which were in his possession, he could have learned that such would be the case. Alma, who lived before the coming of the Messiah, prophesies this. He however, by divine appointment, abridged from those records, in his own style and language, a short account of the more important and prominent items, from the days of Lehi to his own time, after which he deposited, as he says, on the 529th page, all the records in this same hill, Cumorah, and after gave his small record to his son Moroni, who, as appears from the same, finished, after witnessing the extinction of his people as a nation....
This hill, by the Jaredites, was called

(page 158)

Ramah: by it, or around it, pitched the famous army of Coriantumr their tents. Coriantumr was the last king of the Jaredites. The opposing army were to the west, and in this same valley, and near by, from day to day, did that mighty race spill their blood, in wrath, contending, as it were, brother against brother, and father, against son. In this same spot, in full view from the top of this same hill, one may gaze with astonishment upon the ground which was twice covered with the dead and dying of our fellowmen. Here may be seen where once sunk to nought the pride and strength of two mighty nations; and here may be contemplated, in solitude, while nothing but the faithful record of Mormon and Moroni is now extant to inform us of the fact, scenes of misery and distress-the aged, whose silver locks in other places and at other times would command reverence; the mother, who in other circumstances would be spared from violence; the infant, whose tender cries would be regarded and listened to with a feeling of compassion and tenderness; and the virgin, whose grace, beauty and modesty, would be esteemed and held inviolate by all good men and enlightened and civilized nations, alike disregarded and treated with scorn!-In vain did the hoary head and man of gray hairs ask for mercy; in vain did the mother plead for compassion; in vain did the helpless and harmless infant weep for very anguish, and in vain did the virgin seek to escape the ruthless hand of revengeful foes and demons in human form-all alike were trampled down by the feet of the strong, and crushed beneath the rage of battle and war! Alas, who can reflect upon the last struggles of great and populous nations, sinking to dust beneath the hand of justice and retribution, without weeping over the corruption of the human heart, and sighing for the hour when the clangor of arms shall no more be heard, nor the calamities of contending armies no more experienced for a thousand years? Alas, the calamity of war, the extinction of nations, the ruin of kingdoms, the fall of empires and the dissolution of governments! O the misery, distress and evil attendant on these! Who can contemplate like scenes without sorrowing, and who so destitute of commiseration as not to be pained that man has fallen so low, so far beneath the station in which he was created?

In this vale lie commingled, in one mass of ruin, the ashes of thousands, and in this vale was destined to consume the fair forms and vigerous [vigorous] systems of tens of thousands of the human race-blood mixed with blood, flesh with flesh, bones with bones, and dust with dust! When the vital spark which animated their clay had fled, each lifeless lump lay on one common level-cold and inanimate. Those bosoms which had burned with rage against each other for real or supposed injury, had now ceased to heave with malice; those arms which were, a few moments before nerved with strength, had alike become paralyzed, and those hearts which had been fired with revenge, had now ceased to heave with malice; those arms which were, a few moments before nerved with strength, had alike become paralyzed, and those hearts which had been fired with revenge, had now ceased to beat, and the head to think-in silence, in solitude, and in disgrace alike, they have long since turned to earth, to their mother dust, to await the august, and to millions, awful hour, when the trump of the Son of God shall echo and re-echo from the skies, and they come forth, quickened and immortalized, to not only stand in each other's presence, but before the bar of him who is Eternal!

1 comment:

  1. I thought this quote from the Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual (Section 8) might be relevant to your argument:

    “There was another gift bestowed upon Oliver Cowdery, and that was the gift of Aaron. Like Aaron with his rod in his hand going before Moses as a spokesman, so Oliver Cowdery was to go before Joseph Smith. Whatever he should ask the Lord by power of this gift should be granted if asked in faith and in wisdom. Oliver was blessed with the great honor of holding the keys of this dispensation with Joseph Smith, and, like Aaron, did become a spokesman on numerous occasions. It was Oliver who delivered the first public discourse in this dispensation.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation, 1:52.)