3—Becoming a Mormon
2—‘Mormon History—Revisited’: The first Mormon baptisms; the first copies of the Book of Mormon; the first days of the Church. And a re-evaluation of the Mormon Priesthood.
Pennsylvania, May 1829—Joseph liked to think and to pray here, by the large river running through the hills covered with pine trees. He was now 23 and had been married to Emma for just over two years now.
Oliver Cowdery was a 22 year-old man who, like Joseph, had searched for buried treasures (using a diving rod). Originally from Vermont, he was a school teacher who boarded with Joseph’s parents in New York State. There he heard of their son’s claims and when he met Joseph in April 1829, he told him he himself had seen the golden plates in a vision. ¹
Joseph made Oliver his scribe and as time went by the two young men grew close. Oliver knew about the incident that made Joseph stop translating the plates before they met: The first 116 pages of the translation had been lost by Martin Harris. Joseph never attempted to translate those pages again, and never again did he lend his work to anyone.
The translation was a full-time job. Joseph and Oliver traveled from their Pennsylvania home to Colesville, New York, where Joseph Knight lived, to get financial support. Now the work progressed fast. Another few weeks and they would be done.
Meanwhile, some theological questions rose from the text. On May 15, 1829, Joseph and Oliver retired to the river to pray “respecting baptism for the remission of sins as we found mentioned in the translation.” ²
Oliver proceeded to perform the first Mormon baptism. Then Joseph immersed Oliver in the river.
Years later Joseph described an angelic visitation in response to their prayer. In Mormonism, angels are not the ‘winged cherubs’ of popular folklore but resurrected human beings who inherited a celestial glory. Both men claimed that they received (all the keys of) the Aaronic priesthood from the resurrected John the Baptist.
While some reports mention Joseph laying his hands on Oliver’s head to ordain him to the Priesthood he had received, ³ the canonised version relates that John the Baptist laid his hands on their heads and said: “Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; and this shall never be taken again from the earth, until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness.” ³
What is sure is that Oliver proceeded to baptise Joseph—performing the first Mormon baptism. Then Joseph immersed Oliver in the river. “No sooner had I baptized Oliver Cowdery, than the Holy Ghost fell upon him, and he stood up and prophesied many things which should shortly come to pass.” ²
A couple of weeks later, the two friends moved to the Whitmers’ in New York to complete the translation of the Book of Mormon. Joseph’s brother Samuel visited them, heard about the Gospel, received a testimony and was baptised by Oliver. In June, Joseph baptised his elder brother, Hyrum. God gave his Only Begotten Son so “as many as would believe and be baptized in his holy name, and endure in faith to the end, should be saved.” ³
New revelations stated that baptism was essential for those capable of repentance (of their own sins—not for the ‘original sin’) and had reached the “years of accountability” (later defined as eight years old). ³ Even though the Church had yet to be organised, those revelations made baptism a requirement for membership (and all converts previously baptised into other Christian denominations had to be baptised again). Those who had been baptised would need to be confirmed members of the Church (by the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost by those who had authority). Then, all who had faith and worked righteousness would gain eternal life.
Over the next six months, Joseph continued to receive revelations pertaining to the organisation of the Church: its governance through ‘common consent’; the duties of elders, priests, teachers, deacons, and members of the Church; the importance of the sacrament (in remembrance of the Lord Jesus, as in Protestantism) and the manner of its administration.
Meanwhile, Oliver supervised the printing of the Book of Mormon. He had tried to translate the golden plates but to no avail. However, he shared a vision with Joseph and David Whitmer—an early convert, and friend of his—in which an angel showed him the golden plates. Martin Harris said he saw a similar vision later that day. They became ‘the Three Witnesses’.
In March 1830, the Book of Mormon was on sale at a bookstore in Palmyra, New York, and early April 1830, Joseph wrote: “We obtained of him [Jesus Christ] … the precise day upon which, … we should proceed to organize his Church once more here upon the earth.”
And so it was that on April 6, 1830, one year and a day after Joseph and Oliver met, the Church was organised in the presence of 30 to 50 people. Joseph, Oliver and four other men who had previously been baptised—Hyrum and Samuel (brothers of Joseph), and David and Peter Whitmer (whose father had opened his home for the translation and the day’s meeting)—were the incorporators of the Church, “agreeable to the laws of our country.” ³ The Prophet’s father and mother were there. Both had believed his accounts of the First Vision and had encouraged him from the start.
On that April day, no one needed to know…
No minutes of the meeting exist. Under the principle of common consent, they must have voted to have the church organised and the vote be unanimous. They must have sustained Joseph and Oliver as the presiding officers of the Church. The sacrament would have been administered to those who had been baptised (probably the first time this ordinance was performed in this dispensation). Oliver—the first baptised Latter Day Saint and presiding officer—spoke in meeting “the first public discourse that was delivered by any of our number” ²
Joseph baptised his own father and gave free course to tears of gratitude and emotion. That day, many of those who had been baptised received the gift of the Holy Ghost—the baptism of fire was as necessary as the baptism of water. Following the confirmations, “the Holy Ghost was poured out upon us to a very great degree—some prophesied, whilst we all praised the Lord, and rejoiced exceedingly.” ² In a revelation, the Lord manifested his acceptance of the Church—His Church—and his recognition of those called to be its presiding officers. ³
Joseph was ‘First Elder’ and Oliver ‘Second Elder.’ Joseph recorded that on May 15, 1829: “The messenger… acted under the direction of Peter, James, and John, who held the keys of the priesthood of Melchisedeck, whi[c]h priesthood he said should in due time be conferred on us.” ²
Oliver corroborated this: After their baptism they went into the woods where they 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.” ² One of them said he was the Apostle Peter and that the others were the James and John. This has become the official source of their authority (and that of all those ordained to the Priesthood of Melchisedeck ever since).
Oliver would later become one of the first Apostles of the Church and over the next few years would keep writing and editing for the Church and be involved in publications and other important responsibilities. He would also take the Whitmers’ sister to be his wife.
Joseph had just organised a Church that would soon gather thousands of members despite the dangers and severe persecution that would force them to move from state to state. He would receive many revelations, see visions, and give more translations of ancient Scriptures. He would also found a bank, a city and run for President of the United States.
Joseph and his close friend Oliver were rejoicing together, not knowing that eight years from now Oliver and David Whitmer would get excommunicated from the Church. The situation would get tense. Oliver would fear for his life because of zealous ‘Mormons’ not even in the picture yet. He would leave the county and his properties and never see Joseph again.
On that April day no one needed to know that… And no one needed to know that in 1844 Joseph would be shot dead by a mob with his brother, Hyrum, in Illinois (where the Mormons would have relocated). Oliver would still be in Missouri, now a Methodist trying to get elected state senator and assemblyman—and be defeated both times because of his ‘Mormon past’.
And in another twist of fate, Oliver—who despite it all had never denied his testimony of the Book of Mormon—would be re-baptised ten years after his own excommunication (and four years after Joseph’s murder).
The Mormons were forced to leave Missouri and at the end of a long journey settled in what is now Utah. Oliver was too frail to travel. Two years after his re-baptism, aged 43, “Oliver Cowdery just before breathing his last, asked his attendants to raise him up in bed that he might talk to the family and his friends, who were present. He then told them to live according to the teachings contained in the Book of Mormon…” ¹
¹ Grant Palmer, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 2002), 179. According to Lucy Mack Smith, the “Lord appeared unto a young man by the name of Oliver Cowdery and showed unto him the plates in a vision.”
Oliver’s last words are published in: Andrew Jensen, Latter-Day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia, 1901, p. 251
² Those accounts can be found in: History of the Church 1:36-38; Doctrine & Covenants Sections 8 & 9; Joseph Smith—History 1:72; History of the Church 1:81; Documentary History of the Church 1:78.
³ Those quotations can be found in the Doctrine & Covenants—the collection of revelations that were since canonised and are accepted as Scriptures by all Mormons. Sections and verses, in order of appearance: 128:20; 13:1; 20:25; 18:42; 22:1; 20:1; Section 21.