Choice Seer, Spokesman, and Scribe

guestbook of mormon, Mormon, scripture, smith 25 Comments

Guest Post by Christopher C. Smith

Chris has a BA from Fresno Pacific University in Biblical Studies, an MA from Wheaton College in History of Christianity, and is pursuing a PhD from Claremont Graduate University in Religions in North America. In the tradition of Jan Shipps, he is a non-Mormon with a particular focus on Mormon Studies and Joseph Smith.

The Book of Mormon records in 2 Nephi 3 a very interesting prophecy attributed to the biblical patriarch Joseph of Egypt, according to which a “choice seer” would be raised up from the fruit of Joseph’s loins in the latter days.  “And his name shall be called after me; and it shall be after the name of his father,” the patriarch announces.  Clearly Joseph Smith is in view.

An addendum to this prophecy adds an interesting additional promise. “I will raise up unto the fruit of thy loins; and I will make for him a spokesman. And I, behold, I will give unto him that he shall write the writing of the fruit of thy loins, unto the fruit of thy loins; and the spokesman of thy loins shall declare it.”  The traditional Mormon view is that the “spokesman” of the prophecy is Sidney Rigdon (see for example George Q. Cannon’s remarks in JD 25:126).  This view is based on D&C 100:9–11, which proclaims that “it is expedient in me that you, my servant Sidney, should be a spokesman unto this people… I will give unto thee power to be mighty in expounding all scriptures, that thou mayest be a spokesman unto him.”  I would like to suggest, however, that a better candidate for the spokesman of the “choice seer” prophecy is Oliver Cowdery.

Note that whereas the D&C emphasizes Sidney’s preaching role, the prophecy itself emphasizes writing.  In fact, the roles of Smith and his spokesman are precisely the reverse of Moses and Aaron.  The prophecy says of Moses, “I will give power unto him in a rod; and I will give judgment unto him in writing. Yet I will not loose his tongue, that he shall speak much, for I will not make him mighty in speaking. But I will write unto him my law, by the finger of mine own hand; and I will make a spokesman for him.”  Whereas Moses needed a spokesman for speaking but not for writing, Joseph Smith evidently needed a spokesman for writing but not for speaking.  The reference to a rod is also suggestive.  Unlike Moses, Joseph Smith did not have “power in a rod.”  But if the roles of seer and spokesman are reversed, then we might surmise that his spokesman did.  And in fact, that is precisely what the D&C says of Oliver Cowdery.

Oliver Cowdery served as Joseph Smith’s principal scribe for the Book of Mormon and some early sections of the D&C.  Of all Smith’s associates, Cowdery was the most prominent in the early period.  D&C 28 specifically likens him to Aaron, and tasks him not only to write but also to “speak”, “preach”, and “declare faithfully the commandments and revelations” (D&C 28:3–8). Cowdery apparently sometimes made use of a divining rod, which the 1835 D&C describes as a “rod of Aaron”.  He even received revelations of his own (EMD 2:409; 1835 Pat. Blessing Book), and did much of the early preaching and baptizing.  But here’s the unambiguous kicker.  In Cowdery’s patriarchal blessing—given in 1835 by Joseph Smith, Jr. himself—there is a reference to “the prophecy of Joseph, in ancient days,” which pronounced blessings upon “the Seer of the last days and the Scribe that should sit with him.” Clearly the choice seer’s “Scribe” is here supposed to be Cowdery.

So what are we to do with the D&C’s application of the spokesman label to Sidney Rigdon?  Like Oliver, Sidney served as a spokesman for the prophet in both written and oral capacities.  Sidney had started as the prophet’s scribe.  In fact, when Joseph met Sidney in 1831, Sidney was specifically instructed to preach only “inasmuch as ye do not write [for the prophet]” (35:20–23). But by 1833 he had taken on a much larger role in the movement, and his role as “spokesman” was primarily a preaching and teaching role.  Clearly Sidney did serve as a spokesman for Joseph Smith.  But was he the spokesman of prophecy?

One possible reading of these sources is that by 1835 Joseph Smith had bifurcated the “spokesman” role of Joseph of Egypt’s prophecy into oral and written components, such that Rigdon was the “spokesman”, and an additional role of “Scribe” was created to accommodate the displaced Oliver Cowdery.  But there is another possible reading as well.  Perhaps the spokesman was never intended to be a single, unchangeable individual, but rather referred to a role or office that might be filled by multiple individuals simultaneously or in succession.  A capital “S” is used in the prophet’s journal when calling Warren Parrish his “Scribe”, as well, suggesting perhaps that he saw Parrish as filling the same eschatological role that just a few months prior had been assigned to Oliver Cowdery.  Smith in fact enlisted many talented scribes over the course of his life, selecting for the role some of the Church’s most talented and educated men.  He never felt constrained to limit himself to a single individual.  He had a whole cadre of spokesmen, some of whom moved in and out of the role as their fortunes and the Church’s changed.

I’m interested to hear how the commenters here at MM read this evidence.  How are we to reconcile D&C 100 with Cowdery’s patriarchal blessing?  Was the spokesman a person, or an office?  If it was a person, then who?  Cowdery?  Rigdon?  Or someone else entirely?

Comments 25

  1. Interesting article.

    Unlike Moses, Joseph Smith did not have “power in a rod.”

    Here is where we differ. Joseph’s rod was the “iron rod” or the word of god or the Book of Mormon. (1 Ne. 11:25) Just as God gave Moses a rod to convince Pharoah he was a true prophet, God gave Joseph a rod, the Book of Mormon, to convince the world he was a prophet.

    So I read “I will give power unto him in a rod; and I will give judgment unto him in writing. Yet I will not loose his tongue, that he shall speak much, for I will not make him mighty in speaking. But I will write unto him my law, by the finger of mine own hand; and I will make a spokesman for him.” meaning:

    Joseph will be the one who brings forth the written word but someone else needs to the the spokesman. This is Sydney. (Ie the traditional interpretation.)

    That said, at the end of the day Joseph’s spoken words went a lot farther than Sydney’s.

  2. I’m impressed with your undergraduate/graduate choice of studies, I think if I had it to do over again, I would have majored in religion. I find it interesting that with your background you chose to study the Mormon Religion

  3. As a faithful and believing Latter-day Saint, I approach the issue from a different angle. I think your analysis is convincing. Personally, I have never given a great deal of thought as to who “the spokesman” referred to, since it never seemed very important to me. I suppose I assumed it was Oliver Cowdery; I had never heard that the role was traditionally supposed by most Mormons to refer to Sidney Rigdon.

    Given your choices, I suppose I sort of opt toward “spokesman” as an office. I admit this is probably because the issue never seemed to me to be of much importance. In the same vein, I know people who have spent a great deal of time pondering who might be the “marred servant” in 3 Nephi 21:10. This is also supposed to have been Joseph Smith (Jr.), which makes sense to me; but again, I’ve never seen the matter as very important, so I haven’t spent much time pondering it.

    I do notice through the years as I’ve read the Book of Mormon that things that did not seem important, or meaningful, or relevant, suddenly spring to life. Maybe that will happen regarding the identities of the “marred servant” and of the “spokesman”, too.

  4. I think where Oliver *really* got the short end of the stick was his excommunication. But that is a can of worms I don’t want to get into.

    Chris, just wanted to say echoing dblock that is interesting you have wound up doing LDS history. But I am glad since from what I have read of yours you will be a good LDS historian.

  5. Chris:

    I’d have to answer the question about the spokesman — the one mighty in words — as none of the above, because 2nd Nephi 3 is not simply about getting the BofM written to the Gentiles who scatter the seed of the Nephites (the surviving Lamanites). The spokesman is more clearly associated with CONVINCING and converting that seed to the acceptance of the BofM’s message and reconnecting them to the gathering of the Jews.

    That arguably hasn’t happened yet, and there is nothing that explicitly links the spokesman as being contemporaneous with the seer. If the Gentiles quickly and decisively accept the restored gospel, then presumably the work goes forward among the Lamanites quickly and decisively as well.

    But there is also Plan B. See 3rd Nephi 16:10-16. In that scenario, the Gentiles do not accept the gospel quickly and decisively. That historical pathway is still prophecsied (by Jesus Himself) to lead to the conversion of the seed of the Lamanites, but with severely unpleasant consequences for the Gentiles in the process. Indeed, it is easy to imagine why a resurgent civilization with MesoAmerican cultural roots and exposure to European Christianity might find the prophecies of the Book of Mormon a uniquely appealing religious explanation for their decline, languishing, and resurgence. That might be a particularly opportune moment for the spokesman to arise.

  6. Christopher:

    You have made a convincing case for Oliver Cowdery as spokesman. Interestingly, I don’t think we LDS are too concerned about who is or who isn’t. I have attended church for 50+ years and I don’t recall the issue ever receiving much attention. Of course, the issue of spokesman may have been important to Joseph Smith.

    Best wishes in your studies at Claremont. I have high regards for that institution.

  7. Call me an ignorant student, but I’d never even thought of Sydney Rigdon as being the one to fill that role. Every time I read that prophesy, it was always Oliver Cowdery who came to mind, especially when Joseph very likely came to a great realization how that prophesy applied to him as he translated it.

  8. Good stuff Chris. Just recieved your article from last fall in the John Whitmer association journal. In everything that I have read that you have written I have never had much disagreement.

  9. Hi all,

    I apologize for not writing back earlier. Some friends sprung a last-second camping trip on me, so I haven’t had computer access for the last few days. I realize that the identity of the spokesman isn’t exactly a pressing doctrinal issue, but it’s very interesting to me as a historian who is interested in what was going through these people’s minds, and how they read the text of the Book of Mormon and applied it to their own lives.

    FireTag wrote, “The spokesman is more clearly associated with CONVINCING and converting that seed to the acceptance of the BofM’s message and reconnecting them to the gathering of the Jews.” Actually it is the seer, not the spokesman, who is assigned the task of “convincing” the remnant of Israel. The spokesman only writes words that go unto them. But even if convincing Israel were part of the spokesman’s role, it could still be Oliver Cowdery. He was the one who headed up the very first Mormon mission to the Lamanites in 1831.



  10. >>I find it interesting that with your background you chose to study the Mormon Religion.

    I started out as an evangelical trying to convert Mormons to my brand of Christianity. Once I grew out of that, though, I remained very interested in Mormon history as an academic pursuit. Joseph Smith was a remarkable person whether you believe in him or not, and Mormon history is just full of fascinating little nuggets that have yet to be uncovered and polished and explored. What with all the new sources being made available, it’s a great time to be doing Mormon history.

    I think the most decisive factor for me, though, has been the community of Mormon academics. I first met some of these great folks on the blogs and message boards, and then encountered many more in person at conferences. If it weren’t for this network of friends, my interest in Mormonism and Mormon history would probably have waned a long time ago. But I just love you guys too much to give it up. 🙂


  11. I’m glad you have had a good experience. Even if people don’t accept our religion, I hope that we can make good impressions. We first and foremost should make positive impacts on our communities.

    Keep up the great work Chris. Mormon history can be deep and complex and we need go-getters to sift through it all.

  12. Chris:

    I certainly agree that Joseph Smith THOUGHT the conversion of the Lamanites would be quick and decisive, which motivated the early missionary assignments.

    Nevertheless, I just reread the chapter again carefully, and there is nothing I can see that says that the seer publishing the Book of Mormon and the one mighty in spoken words are contemporaneous. See, for example. verses 23 and 24 that ties the work to the restoration of the seed of the Nephites to a knowledge of their connection to Israel.

    Earlier, verses 5-7, the connection is to Christ being made manifest to them in the LATTER DAYs, and associated with bringing them out of captivity. This, IMO, is more easily referenced to future events from JS’s time than to 30 AD.

    So I again suggest that it is more defensible in Mormon theology to look to the spokesman who convinces the seed of the Lamanites to believe the work of the choice seer as coming in the time when that actually happens than to require the spokesman to be a contemporary of the seer — whatever JS may have believed at the time.

    Starting the work of restoring the Jews is like starting the withdrawal from Korea. There can be a really long time between starting and finishing.

  13. FireTag,

    I think you’re mistaken in assuming that the “spokesman” was to be “one mighty in spoken words”. That’s certainly what the term and the comparison to Aaron imply on a surface-level reading, but I think a closer reading of the text will reveal that in contrast to Aaron, the choice seer’s spokesman’s task is primarily to write rather than to speak. I agree that from an LDS perspective the restoration of Israel cannot but be conceived as an unfinished work. But if you had to pick a single written text that will play the greatest role in that restoration, what book would you choose? I can’t imagine that a good Saint could give any other answer than the Book of Mormon. And it just so happens that the primary scribe for the Book of Mormon was none other than Oliver Cowdery.

    As for the choice seer and the spokesman being contemporaneous, I think that is definitely implied by the comparison to Aaron. Joseph Smith most certainly was not mighty in writing, so for him to have a spokesman to write for him is a sort of inverse analogue to Moses and Aaron.

    And then there’s Oliver Cowdery’s patriarchal blessing (given by JS Jr.) to reckon with. I think this blessing makes it quite clear that Cowdery is the spokesman-scribe that Joseph of Egypt prophesied. Here is a fuller quote than what I gave in the post above: “These blessings shall come [to] him [Oliver], according to the blessings of the prophecy of Joseph in ancient days, which he said should come upon the Seer of the last days and the Scribe that should sit with him, and that should be ordained with him by the hand of the angel in the bush, unto the lesser priesthood and after receive the holy priesthood under the hands of they who had been held in reserve for a long season, even those who received it under the hands of the Messiah.”



  14. Chris:

    I totally agree with you on what JS thought. That is not the point of my disagreement. I’m CofChrist, if in some ways (though certainly not all) more conservative than my leadership, so I’m certainly comfortable with JS being capable of being messed up in interpreting what he was being given at later points in his life. (You should see how I think Joseph messed up in interpreting the “worlds without number” he saw in the Book of Moses.):D

    I do personally believe the Book of Mormon will yet play far more of a role than it has in helping the branches of the Jews in the New and Old World flow back together into a belief in Christ. So the emphasis I see is not on writing vs speaking, which you explore in your OP and is well discussed in the comments of others above. I see the emphasis of the prophecy as being on two leaders who, like Moses and Aaron, require complementary skills to get the job done.

    I think that non-contemporaneous leaders, in which the second makes up the weaknesses of the first, is the LEAST damaging interpretation of the prophecy to Mormon historicity theology. Indeed, I consider it more likely that ANY contemporary candidate for the spokesman’s role would justify regarding the prophecy as falsified, and we can modify our relationships with our denominations as individually appropriate.

  15. Personally, I always view Oliver Cowdery as the real deal, and then Sidney Rigdon comes on the scene late in the game like a leggy blond heiress with her own built-in congregation and suddenly Oliver’s looking like a frumpy but faithful housewife. I think JS had stars in his eyes with Sidney Rigdon, but that Rigdon kind of lost it (mentally) when they were tarred & feathered outside the John Johnson home and he was dragged by the heels. From that point on he seems off to me. IMO, Oliver Cowdery’s reputation is more solid than JS’s. I find him the most credible, perhaps because he was treated so unjustly.

  16. Firetag,

    I think we have to go a little further than you are willing to go. It seems to me that the OC interpretation is not only what JS thought, but also the most natural reading of the passage and the interpretation he endorsed by revelation (in OC’s patriarichal blessing). This however could mean either that OC is the exclusive referent of the revelation, or that the “spokesman” is an office that he merely filled for a time.

    I don’t see why this has to falsify the revelation. As you yourself said, “Starting the work of restoring the Jews is like starting the withdrawal from Korea. There can be a really long time between starting and finishing.” Joseph and Oliver brought forth the crucial writings that will do the work, but it is for others to carry that writing to the Lamanites and bring the work to completion. There are some prophecies of JS that are problematic, for sure, but this isn’t one of them. (IMHO.)



  17. Chris:

    “Joseph and Oliver brought forth the crucial writings that will do the work, but it is for others to carry that writing to the Lamanites and bring the work to completion.”

    I recognize that it is still practical in view of LDS size and growth rates to view the Book of Mormon as playing its prophecied role through simple steady accumulation of the missionary work the LDS is doing. Simple extrapolation of LDS membership trends says the LDS doesn’t reach peak size for another 20 years or so. (What happens as that peak is reached should be interesting, to say the least!)

    That is not a practical mechanism from the Community of Christ perspective. Our membership peaked 30 years ago, and our demographics are disasterous. For us, restricting ourselves to the 19th Century actors for both roles is an exercise in pretense. It is simply easier for many to take a metaphorical-only interpretation of the BofM than a historicity-based interpretation. That’s perfectly valid, but is not open to me because of my personal testimony of both the truth of the book and my roots in the physical sciences.

    On the otherhand, a non-contemporaneous interpretation, initiated by further major actions of God in history, would certainly be acknowledged as adequately fulfilling the prophecy by both our denominations at the time it happened.

  18. FireTag,

    Interpreting Joseph of Egypt’s prophecy to refer to 19th century actors certainly does not exclude the possibility of an additional work of God in history. Nor does it require that the future religious power of the Book of Mormon be determined by current demographic trends. I can appreciate the anxieties that might lead one to look for a future “spokesman”, but I also feel as a historian and text-critic that texts should be read as straightforwardly as possible. The expectation of a future work of God ought, IMO, to be predicated on those prophecies that straightforwardly cultivate such an expectation rather than on a dubious reading of one that seems to refer to 19th century persons. If you believe the Book of Mormon’s promise that Israel will be restored, then a future work of God is in store regardless of whether or not the spokesman was Oliver Cowdery.



  19. Chris:

    Permit me to also add that I appreciate the thoughtfulness of the OP and your discussion comments, and certainly hope to see you back on this site frequently with future posts.

  20. I’m with hawkgrrrl on the issue. I think Chris’s analysis is pretty good and I feel comfortable assigning Cowdery as the spokesman. I do think that Scribe and Spokesman may have been more like offices. I think it fits with the idea that Joseph sort of learned and grew as he went along. He had quite the affinity for the Old Testament so it seems no coincidence that a Moses archetype would be desirable for him.

    Thanks a lot Chris for the article. Hope to see you around here more often. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  21. I am an independent B of M student and believer and not a LDS member.  I use the Book of Commandments rather than the D & C, and I reject most of the D & C as did David Whitmer, (See David Whitmer’s Address to All Believers in Christ).  I have thoroughly and very thoughtfully studied this subject with the following conclusions:  Joseph Smith was indeed the Choice Seer of this prophecy notwithstanding David Whitmer’s opinion to the contrary.  Joseph Smith’s Spokesman was neither Sidney or Oliver.  The Spokesman is either of the two following possibilities: (1) Some Lamanite believer who took the message of the Book of Mormon to his people probably sometime in the 1800s without advertising that fact to us Gentiles; or (2) Some future person who will literally be a spokesman for the resurrected Joseph Smith.  A serious study of the Marred Servant of 3 Nephi 21:10 shows that Joseph Smith will be resurrected (healed from his marring) and that failure to believe that (whenever it occurs) will be the cause of unbelievers being cut off (verse 11) at about the time the Gentiles are about to be tread down (verse 12).  Please feel free to request my written studies on this subject. Lloyd Brumbaugh,     

  22. Perhaps the most parsimonious explanation is that in 2 Nephi Joseph was writing Oliver into his evolving story in a divinely flattering manner and was not “seeing” into the future with regard to future scribes and spokesmen.  

    When Sidney presented himself, Joseph saw an opportunity and had a ready revelation to get him on board.  Interestingly D&C 100  is described as a joint revelation between Joseph and Sidney.  Perhaps Rigdon had a hand in writing himself into their story. Also, perhaps the relationship between Joseph and Oliver wasn’t going so well at this point and 2 Nephi was old news.  Back in 1831 Joseph had the D&C 69 revelation questioning Oliver’s dependability.

     69: 1 Hearken unto me, saith the Lord your God, for my servant Oliver Cowdery’s sake. It is not wisdom in me that he should be entrusted with the commandments and the moneys which he shall acarry unto the land of Zion, except one go with him who will be btrue and faithful. 69:2 Wherefore, I, the Lord, will that my servant, John Whitmer, should go with my servant Oliver Cowdery;I am not sure what Oliver was up to when Joseph and Sidney were editing the Bible and the Book of Moses.  Perhaps Sidney’s creative talents earned him the privileged position.Perhaps.

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