Oliver Cowdery as a Rodsman & Third Cousin
Like Joseph and most of the Book of Mormon witnesses, Oliver Cowdery and his family were treasure hunters. Oliver’s preferred tool of trade, as mentioned above, was the divining rod. He was known as a “rodsman.” Along with the witnesses, Oliver held a magical worldview.
CES Letter, Page 92
There is no evidence that Oliver Cowdery or his family used a rod to hunt for treasure. The CES Letter is distorting the historical record.
Accusations that Oliver may have been a “rodsman” are derived from D&C 8, which refers to him working with a “rod” or “sprout” (in the original). There is no record of him ever engaging in that behavior so any such allegations are based upon assumption.
In 1801, a religious sect led by a man named Wood and his family enjoyed a brief popularity, and they sought for treasure with divining rods. The Wood group was reportedly taught this skill by a counterfeiter/forger named either Winchell or Wingate. Winchell/Wingate had been a guest at the home of Oliver's father, William.
There is no evidence that William Cowdery (or Oliver) were specifically associated with the Wood group beyond their acquaintance with Winchell/Wingate. Affirming a connection goes beyond the evidence.
As Richard L. Anderson observed:
An 1828 newspaper history of the Wood episode refers to neither the mysterious counterfeiter nor Cowdery. The main group of Middletown survivors of the 1800 period--"more than thirty men and women"--were interviewed up to 1860, and they said nothing of a counterfeiter or of Cowdery. The 1867 recollections of a minister who visited the group in the final weeks of their movement include mention of the counterfeiter but not Cowdery--when a disciple was asked where the criminal stayed, he answered: "He keeps himself secreted in the woods." Frisbie's own claims about the Cowdery connection to the Wood group are both unclear and unsupported. This is the patchwork of folklore, not tightly woven history.
It is unclear exactly how Oliver used his “rod” or “sprout.” Only speculation can assert he used it for treasure seeking or well-digging or some other associated activity.
Also, Oliver Cowdery was not an objective and independent witness. As scribe for the Book of Mormon, co-founder of the Church, and cousin to Joseph Smith, a conflict of interest existed in Oliver being a witness.
CES Letter, Page 92
Are you very close with your second or third cousins?
There is no evidence that Oliver met the Smiths before 1828 or that he then knew they were related (Oliver Cowdery was a third cousin to Lucy Mack Smith). Similarly Lucy says the Joseph Sr. family met Oliver for the first time in 1828 and does not mention any awareness of their distant family connection. In Lucy Mack's biographical sketches there is no indication that they had any familiarity with Oliver. Read her description here.
Criticizing Oliver and Joseph for being distant cousins who did not know each other beforehand seems to demonstrate the extreme willingness of the author of The CES Letter to exploit minutia that, practically speaking, is meaningless.
Fairmormon adds excellent insight here as well:
The fact that they were distantly related has no bearing upon Oliver's reliability as a scribe or as a witness. How does this relationship make him an unreliable witness? What is the conflict of interest?
More to the point, if Oliver was covering up a fraud on the part of Joseph Smith when he acted as a scribe during the translation of the Book of Mormon simply because he was related to Joseph Smith, or if he was covering for Joseph when he acted as one of the Three Witnesses, then why didn't Oliver expose the fraud after he fell into disagreement with Joseph Smith and was excommunicated from the Church? This would have been the perfect opportunity to expose a fraud.
Does being a "treasure hunter" or believing in "second sight" make one an unreliable witness?—
Brief Summary: Some of Joseph's associates were "treasure hunters" and may have believed in "second sight." Does this make them unreliable witnesses? (Click here for full article)
Oliver Cowdery and supposed links to Vermont rodsmen and money diggers—
Brief Summary: Some have attempted to associate Oliver Cowdery with a treasure-seeking group in Vermont. This goes beyond the available evidence. (Click here for full article)
Oliver Cowdery and the "rod of nature"—
Brief Summary: It is claimed that a revelation received by Joseph praised Oliver Cowdery's gift of using divining talents. It is claimed that the revelation was published in the Book of Commandments in its original form, then subsequently modified in the Doctrine and Covenants in order to hide the reference to the "rod of nature." Therefore, Joseph attempted to "cover up" Oliver Cowdery's work with a divining rod by changing a revelation. (Click here for full article)
Jeffrey G. Cannon, "Oliver Cowdery's Gift,"Revelations in Context on history.lds.org
Revelation, April 1829–B [D&C 8], in Robin Scott Jensen, Robert J. Woodford, and Stephen C. Harper, eds., Manuscript Revelation Books, vol. 1 of the Revelations and Translations series of The Joseph Smith Papers, ed. Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2009), 17.
Dallin H. Oaks, "Recent Events Involving Church History and Forged Documents," Ensign(October 1987): 63.
Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Book of Mormon Witnesses," byu.edu
Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/1 (2005): 18–31.
Kenneth W. Godfrey, "David Whitmer and the Shaping of Latter-day Saint History," in The Disciple As Witness: Essays on Latter-Day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, edited by Richard Lloyd Anderson, Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges, (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000),223–256.
Kirk B. Henrichsen, "How Witnesses Described the "Gold Plates"," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10/1 (2001): 16–21.
Jeff Lindsay, "Circumstantial Evidence and the Witnesses of the Book of Mormon: Can They Be Ignored Any Longer?", jefflindsay.com
Matthew Roper, "Comments on the Book of Mormon Witnesses: A Response to Jerald and Sandra Tanner," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/2 (1993): 164–193.
Richard Lloyd Anderson, "The Credibility of the Book of Mormon Witnesses," in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, edited by Noel B. Reynolds and Charles D. Tate (eds.), (Provo, Utah : Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University ; Salt Lake City, Utah : Distributed by Bookcraft, 1996 ),Chapter 9, 213–232.
Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981).
Richard L. Anderson, "Personal Writings of the Book of Mormon Witnesses," in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, edited by Noel B. Reynolds, (Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997), Chapter 3.
Milton V. Backman, Jr., Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book, 1983).
Matthew B. Brown, Plates of Gold: The Book of Mormon Comes Forth (American Fork UT: Covenant, 2007).
John W. Welch and Larry E. Morris, editors, Oliver Cowdery: Scribe, Elder, Witness (Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2006).
Faith and Reason 7: Book of Mormon Witnesses, Michael R. Ash, 0:15:32
Mormon FAIR-Cast 150: The Apostasy of the Witnesses, Martin Tanner, 0:19:20