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?