Oliver Cowdery’s Rod & Gift of Aaron

Oliver Cowdery the Rod Worker

See 3:33 - 5:30 in the video above that addresses this

CES Letter Core Question

Oliver Cowdery worked with the rod of nature to find things under ground before joining the church. Does this discredit him?

This is one of the reasons why 21st century Mormons, once including myself, are so confused and bewildered when hearing stuff like Joseph Smith using a peep stone in a hat or Oliver Cowdery using a divining rod or dowsing rod such as illustrated below:

The use of divining rods (such as the one above) is actually mentioned in the scriptures. In Doctrine & Covenants 8, the following heading provides context for the discussion:

Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet to Oliver Cowdery, at Harmony, Pennsylvania, April 1829. In the course of the translation of the Book of Mormon, Oliver, who continued to serve as scribe, writing at the Prophet’s dictation, desired to be endowed with the gift of translation. The Lord responded to his supplication by granting this revelation.

The revelation states, in relevant part:

D&C 8:6-11
(Emphasis Added)
6. Now this is not all thy gift; for you have another gift, which is the gift of Aaron; behold, it has told you many things;

7. Behold, there is no other power, save the power of God, that can cause this gift of Aaron to be with you.

8. Therefore, doubt not, for it is the gift of God; and you shall hold it in your hands, and do marvelous works; and no power shall be able to take it away out of your hands, for it is the work of God.

9. And, therefore, whatsoever you shall ask me to tell you by that means, that I will grant unto you, and you shall have knowledge concerning it.

10. Remember that without faith you can do nothing; therefore ask in faith. Trifle not with these things; do not ask for that which you ought not.

11. Ask that you may know the mysteries of God, and that you may translate and receive knowledge from all those ancient records which have been hid up, that are sacred; and according to your faith shall it be done unto you.

CES Letter, Page 86-87

The CES Letter ignores the context of the revelations to Oliver. When taken together, the discussion of the "rod" or "gift of Aaron" was to help Oliver build up the Church.

Some aspects of religious beliefs in the early 1800s would be considered magical in our day, but these are largely due to their traditional world view rather than anything sinister or deceptive. Oliver believed in his gift prior to joining with Joseph Smith. The revelation takes a previous belief and anchors it firmly to the biblical narrative (rod of Aaron) by placing it under God and revelation, which is the exact opposite of magic.

Oliver's initial revelation closes with the command to seek heavenly "treasures" by assisting "in bringing to light, with your gift, those parts of my scriptures which have been hidden because of iniquity" (D&C 6:27). The revelation on the gift of the rod probably followed within a week. It continued the theme of learning ancient truth through translating: "Remember, this is your gift" (D&C 8:5). And it could be exercised by believing "you shall receive a knowledge concerning the engravings of old records" (D&C 8:1). Then a second promise was made: 

Now this is not all, for you have another gift, which is the gift of working with the rod. Behold, it has told you things. Behold, there is no other power save God that can cause this rod of nature to work in your hands, for it is the work of God. And therefore whatsoever you shall ask me to tell you by that means, will I grant unto you, that you shall know.

But there were strict limits to this promise: "Trifle not with these things. Do not ask for that which you ought not. Ask that you may know the mysteries of God, and that you may translate all those ancient records."

So the "rod of nature" in Cowdery's "hands" would be a means of gaining revelation on doctrine….

D&C 8 approves a rod only for sacred information. It also suggests the rod that displayed God's power in the Egyptian plagues, in striking the rock for life-giving water or in calling down strength on Israel's warriors. That rod was a straight shaft, the shepherd's staff possessed by Moses at his call (Ex. 4:2-4). Used by both Moses and Aaron, it was foremost the "rod of God," also Moses' rod, but formally called the "rod of Aaron." It functioned as a visible sign of authority, just as Judah's "scepter" was a sign of divine kingship in Jacob's blessing or Elijah's staff held by the servant who went in his name. Thus the rod of Aaron was a staff of delegated agency, and the 1835 revision to "The gift of Aaron" suggests Oliver's spiritual power to assist Joseph Smith as Aaron assisted Moses. Click here

Additional Resources:

Oliver Cowdery and the "rod of nature"— 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)

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)

Were the Book of Mormon witnesses not "empirical" or "rational" men because they lived in the 19th-Century?
Brief Summary: Some accuse the Book of Mormon witnesses of not being "empirical" or "rational" because they lived in the 19th-Century. (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.

“The Private Character of the Man Who Bore That Testimony”: Oliver Cowdery and His Critics–  by Larry E. Morris

The Cowdery Controversies (PDF) (2007 FAIR Conference) by Larry Morris

pt 1, The Cowdery Controversies

pt 2, The Cowdery Controversies

pt 3, The Cowdery Controversies

pt 4, The Cowdery Controversies