Oliver Cowdery was excommunicated in 1838 and was rebaptized ten years later in 1848. I have always felt Oliver got a bum rap. He was faithful. He was more educated than Joseph, but humble enough to let him lead. Joseph in several cases gave unwarranted preference to others: Sidney Rigdon (a fiery speaker with a built in congregation but a loose cannon who took one too many hits to the old noggin), John C. Bennett (the real villain of the restoration), and others after Oliver disagreed with Joseph about polygamy (Oliver considered it adultery).
Let’s take a look at Oliver’s case. Here are the charges he faced in his excommunication hearing, and for each, the council’s findings. Note that a letter from Oliver was read at the trial, although he was not present:
- For persecuting the brethren by urging on vexatious law suits against them, and thus distressing the innocent. This sounds like he was just practicing his trade and being villified for being a lawyer. Charge sustained.
- For seeking to destroy the character of President Joseph Smith, Jun., by falsely insinuating that he was guilty of adultery. A matter of opinion. Oliver’s interpretation of polygamy as adultery is certainly an easily supported view, especially given the secrecy and the fact that Emma’s concurrence was frequently not a factor. Charge sustained.
- For treating the Church with contempt by not attending meetings. Let he among us who has not sinned cast the first stone on this one; it’s certainly not an excommunicable offense today. Charge sustained.
- For virtually (quite a qualifier) denying the faith by declaring that he would not be governed by any ecclesiastical authority or revelations whatever, in his temporal affairs. Given the fallibility of the economic advice being doled out at that time (Kirtland Bank Failure, anyone?) this seems perfectly reasonable. Again, this is not something that would be an excommunicable offense today. Charge rejected.
- For selling his lands in Jackson county, contrary to the revelations. See #4. Of course, this is complicated by the manner in which consecration was practiced at that time. Charge rejected.
- For writing and sending an insulting letter to President Thomas B. Marsh, while the latter was on the High Council, attending to the duties of his office as President of the Council, and by insulting the High Council with the contents of said letter. That must have been some letter! Of course, this is Thomas B. Marsh we’re talking about. It seems that people were highly prone to personal insults in that time (in a “culture of honor” where an insult could quickly turn into a challenge to a duel). This was not a very humble culture. Charge withdrawn.
- For leaving his calling to which God had appointed him by revelation, for the sake of filthy lucre, and turning to the practice of law. This again seems like he’s being indicted for simply being a lawyer. I know this profession is often the butt of jokes and disgust, but excommunicating over it seems a bit strong. We don’t like tax collectors either, but one of the original 12 was a publican. Charge sustained.
- For disgracing the Church by being connected in the bogus business, as common report says. That’s rich. If being connected to bogus business is enough to get one excommunicated, who would have been left of this lot? Charge sustained.
- For dishonestly retaining notes after they had been paid; and finally, for leaving and forsaking the cause of God, and returning to the beggarly elements of the world, and neglecting his high and holy calling, according to his profession. Once again, being a lawyer. There’s a reason Shakespeare said “First, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Charge sustained.
Of the sustained charges, 4 of them (1, 7, 8, and 9) are all related to being a lawyer. Charge 3 was for not attending church meetings, and charge 2 was for accusing JS of adultery. The church later classed this adultery as “celestial marriage,” although it doesn’t meet the requirements stated in D&C 132 (which hadn’t yet been written) in that Emma’s prior concurrence was neither sought nor obtained. Oliver’s label of adultery seems to be a matter of opinion, especially since the polygamous definition of “celestial marriage” was not yet doctrine. So he was ostensibly excommunicated for 1) being a lawyer, 2) skipping church, and 3) refusal to condone what he considered adultery. Despite his belief that JS had committed adultery and needed to repent, Oliver did not oppose JS as the prophet nor had he reneged his testimony or at any time stated disbelief in the church or his own experiences.
To quote one of the signs at the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert rally: “People who use hyperbole should be shot!” Hyperbole makes an emotional appeal when logic has failed to convince. Examples of hyperbolic language in the above charges: “vexatious law suits,” “distressing the innocent,” “contempt,” “filthy lucre,” “bogus business,” “beggarly elements of the world,” and “high and holy calling.” The level of hyperbole makes the charges seem even more drummed up.
Oliver later rejoined the church in 1848. Despite what had happened, he never lost faith in the spiritual experiences he had, and he never recanted his statements about the Book of Mormon or the restoration of the church. He just couldn’t stomach the actions of some of his fellow leaders.
Would you have behaved any differently than Oliver? Was he wrongfully excommunicated? Are you glad that excommunications are not done for such specious reasons today? Or do you disagree that they are better now? Discuss.