When you hear the name Oliver Cowdery, you probably think of the story that culminates in the revelation that became Section 9 of the Doctrine & Covenants. This section uses Oliver as a (bad) example of how to seek and receive personal revelation. Today’s guest post is from The Teacher. Come visit The Teacher here.
But, the poor guy. I can’t help but thinking that Oliver felt a bit like the rug was pulled out from under him. In sections 6 and 8, the Lord seems very encouraging of Oliver’s desires to help with the work and even to actually translate. “If you ask of me, you will receive; if you knock it shall be opened unto you” the Lord says. (6:5). “Even as you desire of me, so it shall be done unto you” the Lord says (6:8). “If thou wilt enquire, thou shalt know mysteries,” the Lord says. (6:8). Whatsoever you shall ask me . . ., that will I grant unto you,” the Lord says. (8:9). Then, the Lord gets very specific. He tells Oliver that if he asks to translate, by his faith “it shall be done unto [him.]” (8:11).How could Oliver not feel like it was done deal? Oliver Cowdery was no slouch in the personal revelation department. He learned of the Prophet Joseph and the translation of the Book of Mormon while living with the Smith Family. He prayed for his own confirmation of the truth and saw the plates in a
vision, before he ever met Joseph. Clearly, he was a very faithful, believing person. Why else would he essentially abandon his life to go help a self-proclaimed prophet he’d never met translate the Book of Mormon?But we know the rest of the story. Oliver tries to translate, and fails. The Lord famously tells Oliver that he did not get it; it was not just going to be given to him. Oliver had to work for it. He needed to study it out and seek confirmation. (9:7-9). “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it to you when you took no thought save it was to ask me.” (9:7).
Huh? What is going on here? Despite my ironic title, I do not think God fooled Oliver Cowdery. God is by definition just and fair. But, I tell you this: I am not as faithful or diligent a person as Oliver Cowdery. If Sections 6 and 8 had been directed to me, I would have assumed that I was going to get what I wanted if I asked.
So, why did the Lord put Oliver in this situation?
“I am not as faithful or diligent a person as Oliver Cowdery. If Sections 6 and 8 had been directed to me, I would have assumed that I was going to get what I wanted if I asked.”
And thus Oliver gets to be the subject lesson ever after of two very important principles:
1. The way you understand a revelation today may be understood totally differently after you put it into action. And that’s not a bad thing — it’s a very good thing.
2. Revelation is not a passive process. It takes mental energy to think things through and study them out and to obtain the fruits of your best effort. There is too much good to be gained by that process of exertion for the Lord to by-pass it other than in exceptional cases. (Caveat: That mental process goes far better if you invite the Lord into it from the outset. Too many people mistakenly take this to mean you shouldn’t bother approaching the Lord until your homework is all finished, a notion contradicted by just about every other scripture on prayer and revelation.)
If the Lord had simply stuck some translations in Oliver’s passively-engaged head, all we would have learned was some words that we could have just as easily gotten via Joseph. Instead, we got a comprehensible lesson on how revelation is active-minded process which more often than not yields the answer. And once we think we know the answer, we can ask the Lord for confirmation.
That was a much better result for both Oliver and for the church than the result Oliver assumed would be forthcoming! (See my first point.)
An aside: even though it wasn’t mentioned in the original post, the “burning of the bosom” phrase gets far too much attention when this revelation is sometimes discussed. (Thanks for skipping it. But this is a sticking point for me.) I think the burning was something specific either to Oliver or to the process of translation. It’s not something I feel, nor do I think anyone else necessarily does or should feel that. The “feeling that something is right” concept is much more universal and vital in terms of understanding confirmation, as are the concepts in D&C 11:12-14 and Galations 5.
Off my soapbox.
I always feel bad for OC in this section of scripture. By the same token, though, it’s interesting that JS was so open to sharing the translation process and so seemingly confident it would work. OC’s failure to succeed at translation is seen by critics as evidence to support JS’s process as “wishful thinking” written down, while believers see it as bolstering JS’s unique gift and calling as translator.
Lorin: I agree that revelation requires mental exertion, and that the Lord wanted Oliver to stretch to receive it. But, why didn’t he tell him that in the first place? Why did he tell him, “Ask and ye shall receive”? “[If you desire to translate, it will be done unto you]”? Why didn’t he say, “Sure, you can translate, if you want. But, be ready to do the work required.”
On the burning bosom thing, I totally agree. I sort of approached this from the other end, the stupor of thought. See my post here. I think Section 9 has general application and we can learn much from it, but it was directed to Oliver. I certainly don’t believe that the burning bosom or the stupor of thought are the only ways we receive revelation. In fact, I don’t think I have ever experienced a stupor of thought.
Hawkgrrrl: I agree that Joseph’s willingness to let Oliver participate in translation is remarkable. In addition to demonstrating Joseph’s faith in the translation process, I think it shows a generosity of spirit that he was willing to share such an incredible experience with someone else.
Ooops. My link to my stupor of thought post did not work. Try here:
“Why didn’t he say, “Sure, you can translate, if you want. But, be ready to do the work required.”
One can only speculate why God does anything the way he does it. In my experience, he rarely ever explains anything ahead of time, just lights the path one or two steps ahead and invites you to proceed. Living by faith may get you to better destinations and give you a lot of retrospective knowledge and affirmations once you reach certain destination points, but the journey is generally no easier than living with no faith at all. And you often get what learn you wanted more instead of what you asked for. Maybe it was something like that with Oliver.
A couple of possibilities:
— Oliver wanted to translate more than God wanted him to translate, for whatever reason.
— God let Oliver try because he asked, but Oliver was attempting something that was spiritually out of his league at the time, or at least not his gift. Easiest way to teach him that was by showing him, but by being given the chance and by trying (and failing) he nevertheless made some good advances in his spiritual education. That would certainly jibe with a few experiences I’ve had: asking for something, failing, but coming out richer for the experience.
— Joseph, who seemed to think that everyone could do whatever he was doing, needed some experience to help him comprehend that translation really was his job and was not an ordinary gift. He seemed disposed most of his life to want other people to take over as much of the load as possible, and needed some added appreciation of the notion that he really was going to be all alone in at least some experiences.
Just speculation, however; I really don’t know why things transpired that way for Oliver, but I think all of us are richer for the lesson.
I think it’s important for us to realize how different revelation was for Oliver than it is for us. In our case, we ask God about major life decisions. But I think it’s important to consider how Oliver was translating.
He wasn’t allowed to see the plates. He may have been looking into a seer stone, or Urim and Thummim. To the best of my knowledge, none of us have tried to do this.
So, picture yourself, staring at a stone, and God saying, “You must study it out in your mind, and ask me if it is right.” Ok, so after staring at a stone for an hour or so, you don’t see any words. Wouldn’t you feel like you were making up the words?
This form of revelation is drastically different than any of the life decisions. It seems to me that we all look at Oliver and say, “Duh, why didn’t you study it out in your mind?” Wait a minute, he wasn’t allowed to study the plates. I can’t imagine staring at a peep stone or U & T, and feeling the least bit confident in my translation ability.
In section 9 (I believe), the Lord takes the gift away because Oliver “feared.” I couldn’t help but think back to Peter, walking on the water, and starting to sink, because he also feared.
Since historians have said that the translation process at this point did not involve the plates but was Joseph Smith looking at a seer stone in a hat what is it that Oliver Cowdery was supposed to think through and study out in his mind?
Also RE Lorin #6
“He seemed disposed most of his life to want other people to take over as much of the load as possible, and needed some added appreciation of the notion that he really was going to be all alone in at least some experiences.”
What do you mean by this? Any examples?
Lorin, I’m not sure the D&C supports your speculation. Oliver didn’t seek to translate until it was offered to him. See D&C 6:25 “And, behold, I grant unto you a gift, if you desire of me, to translate, even as my servant Joseph. ”
Then in section 7, Oliver seeks to translate. It seems to me that Oliver wouldn’t have sought the gift to translate until after God offered the gift. God also promised that there would be other plates to translate–of course, Oliver never translated anything.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last few weeks as I’ve been thinking about teaching the gospel doctrine lesson this Sunday. Thanks for the comments, which I will think about. Here’s some of my thoughts.
We always focus on the “study it out in your mind” portion, but what does that mean in Oliver’s case? How do you study out the translation of an unknown language? How was Joseph receiving the translation? What was there to do other than ask and do the work? I think the more important, and less talked about point is that he feared. Fear seems to degrade faith. We like to talk about faith as an action word. My experience with fear is that it is paralyzing. It takes greater exertion to act when fear is present. So what was it that he feared? I don’t know, I’ve been trying to dig into some histories of the event to learn more, but haven’t found anything yet (I’ll get my copy of History of the Church out later).
I’ve also been thinking of all three of his sections being discussed in gospel doctrine.
Section 6 he is asking for some additional confirmation of the witness and peace he has already received. I have always read this section as a gentle rebuke that he didn’t need to ask for the same thing again. His answer was to think back to the initial answer. This may not be a rebuke. The answer may be to remember. I’m not certain what tone to put to this revelation. So my question regarding this passage would be: When I finish the Book of Mormon for the how ever manyeth time, do I need to heed Moroni’s promise yet again and pray to know if it is not true? or do I remember how I felt the first time I prayed about it and knew it was true?
Sections 8 and 9 deal with Olivers desire to translate. The answer from the Lord seems to be one of encouragement and promise. God seems to approve of Oliver’s desire. Thinking of it in different terms, Oliver was praying to be a seer. What would people think if I got up in testimony meeting and said I was praying to become a seer. They would think I was awfully presumptuous. What held him back? His fear, not God’s rejection. (Again at this point I appreciate some of the other comments which give me some other ways of thinking of this). I don’t particularly care to be a seer, but there are some awesome promises of revelation and knowledge that God seems to be waiting for us to ask for in faith that I think people feel are out of reach.
In each section, there seems to be a tie in to God’s work, individual roles and revelations. My conclusion of what we can learn from Oliver’s experience are these. God is waiting to give us knowledge when we ask in faith. Fear degrades fatih. Revelation will be given, either for knowledge or to aid in whatever stewardship/assignment we may have. Don’t get stuck in a rut on revelation, if God told you once, then don’t get stuck on that same point.
“We always focus on the “study it out in your mind” portion, but what does that mean in Oliver’s case? How do you study out the translation of an unknown language? How was Joseph receiving the translation?”
As I mentioned above the plates were not used in the translation. There was no studying of an unknown language. Reports from multiple observers said that Joseph Smith looked at a seer stone in a hat so that outside light was blocked out and the words appeared to him. As I asked above what does this have to do with studying something out in one’s mind? It seems the words would either appear or not. Offering the chance for Cowdery to “translate” when he was not able to seems only to demean him and bolster Smith’s position. Is that what “punk’d is supposed to mean?
#11, raises a clear perspective. Why don’t we see contradictions for what they are? OC was clearly punk’d, the football was pulled from him at the last minute and then he gets blamed as a result. Talk about pouring lemon juice in the paper cut…..
Dr. Louis C. Zucker, a Salt Lake City Jewish scholar (and certainly a friend of the Mormons, though not of their faith), suggested that until Joseph Smith began studying Hebrew at Kirtland, he “had been content to translate by transcendental intuition.” —”Joseph Smith as a Student of Hebrew.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3 (Summer 1968), 43.
The idea of working with what one has, and asking for divine confirmation or rejection, may at times be all one has. In 1814, Levi Hathaway (born 1790; religious Primitivist, proponent of the Christian Connection) felt an impression that he should preach in the community of Pine Island, near Rochester, Massachusetts . . .
—The Narrative of Levi Hathaway, Giving an Account of His Life, Experience, Call to the Ministry of the Gospel of the Son of God, and Travels as Such to the Present Time. . . . (Providence: Printed for the Author, by Miller & Hutchens, 1820), 59.
GB Smith: I think the question of how Oliver was to translate is a very interesting one. Jospeh had been commanded not to show the plates to anyone at this point. And, as you point out, Joseph often did not translate by reading from the plates, anyway. Taking Sections 8 and 9 at their word, both Oliver and Joseph understood that the translation would occur through some revelatory process. I think your question about what, precisely, Oliver was to study out in his mind, is a good one. I am not sure, but it seems like a very difficuly task.
I don’t really buy, however, that the Section 9 experience was Joseph Smith’s way of undermining Oliver and bolstering his own position. It seems very risky, to me, for Jospeh to have given up control of the situation and run the risk that Oliver would come up with something, either believing he was translating or making it up. If Joseph was trying to pull a fast one on Oliver, it would have been much easier for him to “receive” a different Section 8 that told Oliver he could not translate. And, what are we to make of the fact that Oliver continued to believe that Jospeh was actually translating through revelation, and was grateful for the chance to act as scribe?
Nathan G: I agree that Oliver’s fear is rarely discussed in connection with his inability to translate. What was he afraid of? Failure? His ability to approach God? I don’t know, but I like your thoughts about what Section 9 means for reveleation in our lives. Like you, I doubt Section 9 describes a “one-size-fits-all” formula for personal revelation.
Excellent comments. I’d like to have something substantive to add, but everyone has said it very well – and it’s too late for my brain to be functioning independently.
I’ve always assumed that God wanted to teach Oliver a lesson about what he needed to do to receive revelation. I also second everyone who said that the burning and stupor are not universal. If there is one thing I wish our missionaries would understand and do differently, it is that people shouldn’t be told they will “receive a witness” as Oliver did.
#8 “He seemed disposed most of his life to want other people to take over as much of the load as possible, and needed some added appreciation of the notion that he really was going to be all alone in at least some experiences.” What do you mean by this? Any examples?
That’s one of Bushman’s recurring themes in Rough Stone Rolling and even related to his choice of the book’s title: the fact that Joseph really did not see himself as anything other than a rough, garden-variety man. He could actually become quite indignant when others expected superhuman behavior or wisdom from him, and always seemed to be on the lookout for people who had talents or experience that he lacked. (Which was one of his major weaknesses: he put too much trust in those with abilities he didn’t have, such as John C. Bennett.)
He often operated under the assumption that if someone like him could get a revelation or translate or a visitation, so could anyone else. So in Joseph’s egalitarian mindset, it would seem obvious that Oliver — more educated that Joseph and receptive to the spirit — should be able to translate as well. I think Oliver’s failure to translate may have helped both he and Joseph better comprehend that maybe certain knowledge and abilities were available for Joseph alone, not because he was better but because he was the prophet.
A broader theme this illustrates is the promise as to answers to prayer. If you pray hard enough and with faith you’ll receive an answer. If you don’t receive or perceive an answer, then you didn’t pray with enough faith or you didn’t have the faith to hear. God offered Oliver Cowdery the chance to translate, he wasn’t able too therefore it’s Cowdery’s fault. If I don’t receive an answer it’s my fault. For those regulars on this site that report spiritual experiences and their sense of God’s hand in their lives this must make perfect sense. But what about the rest of us?
“If you pray hard enough and with faith you’ll receive an answer. If you don’t receive or perceive an answer, then you didn’t pray with enough faith or you didn’t have the faith to hear.”
I don’t agree with either statement, and I say that as someone who’s gotten a lot of answers to a lot of prayers. If anything the lesson is, the answer may come in a way you didn’t expect (if you recognize it at all), and the answer may be to a question you didn’t think to ask. And if you’re not sure your prayer was answered, keep moving, keep praying, do what you think God would have you do rather than what you would want to do, and trust that he’ll you stop from going too far in the wrong direction if you choose wrong.
Prayer is no vending machine. Answers to some of my most wrenching questions and decisions have come after I couldn’t tell what to do, I kept praying, and finally had to act, and I didn’t the confirmation until after I had acted and committed. Some answers have come after long periods of feeling nothing, wondering why I seemed to be receiving no help at all, and then only after events full unfolded did I see in retrospect that I’d been guided to my arrival point.
Point is, some people who don’t think they’ve had prayers answered did get answers but didn’t recognize them as such. Others are doing the best they can while waiting for an answer, feeling nothing even though they’re being guided, and won’t recognize the answer until they reach their destination and turn around to find where their prayers and faith have landed them.
“Prayer is no vending machine.”
I like this line. I think the burning bosom/stupor of thought formulation can be understood, and taught, too rigidly. When that happens, it starts to sound a lot like a vending machine, or (dare I say it) seeking for a sign. I think God honors and preserves our agency, and that is why personal revelation is subtle and complex and personal.
I have always liked this quote by Elder Richard Scott in his talk “Recognizing Answers to Prayers”:
“When He withholds an answer [to prayer], it is to have us grow through faith in Him, obedience to His commandments, and a willingness to act on truth. We are expected to assume accountability by acting on a decision that is consistent with His teachings without prior confirmation. We are not to sit passively waiting or to murmur because the Lord has not spoken. We are to act. Most often what we have chosen to do is right. He will confirm the correctness of our choices His way.”
One thing this points out is that JS didn’t really know how it worked for him, either. He couldn’t really teach OC. He wanted it to work for OC, but it didn’t, and OC didn’t know how it was supposed to work. Does that mean it was OC’s fault? I don’t think so. Maybe it means that each person’s experiences are unique and that spiritual manifestations are not one size fits all.
RE Lorin #19
“Others are doing the best they can while waiting for an answer, feeling nothing even though they’re being guided, and won’t recognize the answer until they reach their destination and turn around to find where their prayers and faith have landed them.”
If you feel nothing how do you know you’ve been guided? If you turn after reaching your destination, how do you know that what you see is the result of faith and prayers and not just chance and life. I agree with the sentiment that prayer is not a vending machine but what is it. For many it’s a one sided conversation that is lifelong and I have to testify to you is not the least bit satisfying.
Re: Elder Scott’s quote,
“He will confirm the correctness of our choices His way.”
Again, if there’s no manifestation of the spirit and all a person is left with is hindsite and an interpretation of events based on what a person should believe, how does that qualify as an answer to prayer? Sorry to be obstreporous and I’ll just leave it at that. I’ve spent my whole life wondering why others can speak about how God has guided their daily walk and answered their prayers and wondered why the only things that may have been answers have been when things went wrong.
I like Hawkgirl’s observation (#21) that Joseph Smith “wanted it to work for O[liver] C[owdery] . . .” Certainly that seems an inescapable conclusion to me, if we take the time to look at original texts. Instead of today’s altered version of D&C 8:6-11, consider what was originally told to Oliver, shortly after he and Joseph Smith met . . .
We know that both Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery came from communities in which folk magic was practiced. In Oliver’s vicinity, shortly before he was born, a divining rod was even used to tell people from which tribe of Israel they descended. So what could have been more natural than for Joseph to discover welcome, congenially shared interests with Oliver as soon as they met? How many other friends did Joseph have there in Harmony with whom he could share his enthusiasm?
Lorin, I really liked your points:
1. The way you understand a revelation today may be understood totally differently after you put it into action. And that’s not a bad thing — it’s a very good thing.
2. Revelation is not a passive process. It takes mental energy to think things through and study them out and to obtain the fruits of your best effort.
I’m also fond of:
“Prayer is no vending machine.” God is not a vending machine. That is our era’s formulation of “God is not a tame lion.”
I have been thinking a lot about GB Smith’s comments. What DO we tell someone who feels like their prayers are NEVER answered? I don’t really like telling them that they have not asked the right way, or with enough faith, or that they have just not understood the answers they have received. I am hesitant to discount their experience, just like I am hesitant to discount the experience of person who knows with “every fiber of their being” that the Church is true. For better or worse, I fall somewhere between these two extremes. I think I know how testimony and revelation work for me, but how do you communicate that to someone else? Especially someone who wants to make it work but cannot seem to?
You guys are making good efforts, but I think there is a more reasonable and clear explanation: Oliver was simply following Joseph’s example. I just wrote a post about it here: http://upwardthought.blogspot.com/2012/05/oliver-cowdery-and-failure-to-translate.html