Oliver Cowdery Lived in a Culture Steeped in Biblical Practices

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.

From the D&C 8 account, we don’t really know much about what exactly the “gift of Aaron” is that Oliver Cowdery received. What is “the gift of Aaron”? The text provides several clues:

    • Oliver has a history of using it, since “it has told [him] many things.” (verse 7)
    • It is “the gift of God.” (verse 8 - added to 1835 D&C)
    • It is to be held in Oliver’s hands (and kept there, impervious to any power). (verse 8 - added to 1835 D&C)
    • It allows Oliver to “do marvelous works.” (verse 8 - added to 1835 D&C)
    • It is “the work of God.” (verse 8 - added to 1835 D&C)
    • The Lord will speak through it to Oliver and tell him anything he asks while using it. (verse 9 - isn't clear what "by that means" is referring to. It could be the "power of God" in v. 7 or "working with the rod" v.6)
    • It works through faith. (verse 10 - no reference to the rod. It says "without faith you can do nothing")
    • It enables Oliver to translate ancient sacred documents. (verse 11 - Says nothing of a rod for translation. "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")

With only these clues, the “gift of Aaron” is difficult to identify. The task becomes much easier, however, when we look at the original revelation contained in the Book of Commandments, a predecessor volume to the Doctrine & Covenants, used by the LDS Church before 1835. Specifically, Section 7 of the Book of Commandments contains wording that was changed in the Doctrine & Covenants 8 . The term “gift of Aaron” was originally “rod” and “rod of nature” in the Book of Commandments:

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.

So, what is the “gift of Aaron” mentioned in D&C 8? It is a “rod of nature.” (Correct. This whole section could be summarized by this last sentence)


CES Letter, Page 87-88

Oliver Cowdery lived in a culture steeped in biblical ideas, language and practices. 

The Old Testament account of Moses and his brother Aaron recounted several instances of using rods to manifest God’s will (see Ex. 7:9-12; Num. 17:8).

Many Christians in Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery's day similarly believed in divining rods as instruments for revelation.

Cowdery was among those who believed in and used a divining rod.” (See Robert Fuller, Spiritual But Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 15, 17; Mark Ashurst-McGee, “Pathway to Prophethood" (PhD. Diss., Utah State University, Dept. of History, 2000), 126–148.) Click here

A few verses earlier the Lord refers to Moses: "Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart. Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation; behold, this is the spirit by which Moses brought the children of Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground." (D&C 8:3.) This likely resonated with Oliver and has no relation to magic.

The use of physical objects to augment faith and to facilitate miraculous events is well documented in the Bible. 

Through the the following observations The CES Letter apparently detects falsity or deception in the following statements given by revelation: 

Oliver has a history of using it, since “it has told [him] many things.”

It is “the gift of God.”

It is to be held in Oliver’s hands (and kept there, impervious to any power).

It allows Oliver to “do marvelous works.”

It is “the work of God.”

The Lord will speak through it to Oliver and tell him anything he asks while using it.

It works through faith.

It enables Oliver to translate ancient sacred documents. 

In the Bible, God invests physical objects with power:

The Ark of the Covenant (1 Sam. 4-7).

The breastplate and the Urim and the Thummim (Exodus 28:30).

Jesus' garment (Matt. 9:20).

Paul's handkerchiefs and aprons (Acts 19:11-12) .

Aaron stretched his rod over the Nile to turn it to blood (Ex 7:19-20).

Moses stretched his rod over the Red Sea to open a path (Ex 14:16, 21) .

Moses struck the rock at. Horeb with it to bring forth water (Ex 17:6).

Elijah took his cloak, struck the Jordan river with it, and the river parted (2 Kings 2:8).

Elisha used Elijah's cloak to do the same (2 Kings. 2:14).

Elisha cut a stick and threw it in the water to cause the axe head to float (2 Kgs 6:6),

Jesus mixed saliva and mud to heal blind eyes (John 9:6-7). 

The use of these objects in accomplishing various fetes might seem odd or magical to us today because of our lack of familiarity or lack of faith in the Bible as valid scripture. However, early Latter-day Saints were very believing and devout, studying Biblical texts as a primary focus of all their reading endeavors. That God, in Joseph Smith's day would have used natural means (like a "rod")  to supplement spiritual accomplishments, would have raised no eyebrows.


Additional Resources:

Jeffrey G. Cannon, “Oliver Cowdery’s Gift,” Revelations in Context on history.lds.org

 Oliver Cowdery and the “rod of nature”

Does being a “treasure hunter” or believing in “second sight” make one an unreliable witness?

Were the Book of Mormon witnesses not “empirical” or “rational” men because they lived in the 19th-Century?

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–  byLarry 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