Oliver Cowdery and the Kirtland Temple Experience
Mankind’s knowledge and power from God expanded exponentially in the temple at Kirtland, Ohio, from January through April 1836. This promised outpouring served as a reward for early obedience and a catalyst for further blessings described finally as “an infinity of fulness” (D&C 38:32–33; 105:9–12; 109:77). An abundant historical record affirms and embodies this remarkable endowment of divine power.1
The Religious and Historical Context of the Kirtland Manifestations
The Saints regarded their experiences as a continuation of the pentecostal experience recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. What occurred in the Kirtland Temple was, as Benjamin Brown writes in his account, “even greater than at the day of Pente[cost].”2 We can say, at least, that the historical record of the Kirtland manifestations is greater than the biblical record of the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). A non–Latter-day Saint living in Kirtland reported specifically on the manifestations in a letter to his sister. Writing on April 10, 1836, a week after the Savior appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, Lucius Pomeroy Parsons noted,
They have lately had what they term a solemn assembly. This was at the completion of the lower story of the Temple which is finished in a very singular order having four Pulpits on each end of the House and curtains between each. Also, curtains dividing the house in the center. They have had wonderful manifestations there of late behind the curtains. This was in the night. Their meeting held for several nights in succession. None but the Prophets and Elders were admitted. The number of Prophets now amounts to twelve. Some can see angels and others cannot. They report that the Savior appeared personally with angels and endowed the Elders with powers to work Miracles.3
Even hostile observers seemed to testify of the relationship between the pentecostal manifestations of first-century Jerusalem and nineteenth-century Kirtland. John Corrill wrote of a meeting in the Kirtland Temple, “The sacrament was then administered, in which they partook of the bread and wine freely, and a report went abroad that some of them got drunk: as to that every man must answer for himself. A similar report, the reader will recollect, went out concerning the disciples, at Jerusalem, on the day of pentecost.”4
Historians tend to situate these accounts of the “many Miracilous Experiences” and “Many Visions told” as examples of a visionary subculture in the early American republic.5 The experiences of these eyewitnesses can partly be understood as a believing response to skepticism, confirmed by intense personal experience with God. The renewal of biblical revelation solidified faith in the Bible. As many increasingly doubted the possibility of biblical miracles in modernity and, finally, even in antiquity, the Saints believed in the gifts of the Spirit and pentecostal outpourings because they experienced them. The Kirtland Temple made these witnesses heirs of the Israelite Patriarchs and the Apostolic Church.
Those who recorded events surrounding the Kirtland Temple dedication did not overtly try to explain them. They assumed, instead, an affinity of understanding with the few who shared their experiences. Benjamin Brown wrote in 1853, for example, “Such a chain of testimonies, and an interweaving of evidences, accompanied with that perception and comprehension which the Holy Ghost alone can give, none can realize, but those who have received that Spirit and revelations unto themselves. Such persons know just how it is.”6 In the first months of 1836, Benjamin Brown, Oliver Cowdery, Edward Partridge, William Phelps, Stephen Post, and Joseph Smith were among those who gathered in solemn meetings with other Saints in the Kirtland Temple.7 Thanks to their lengthy, detailed, contemporaneous documents, modern readers have the benefit of several independent eyewitness accounts of these events, the power and significance of which prompted each immediately to commit their experiences to writing.
Revelations had promised the Saints that if they sacrificed to build the temple as commanded, they would be endowed with divine power to transcend the temporal and mortal.8 They anticipated an endowment of power through communion with heaven.9 The documents that follow largely capture the effulgence of that endowment. Though some documents have suffered frustrating damage and are subject to other limitations, each confirms the general and specific testimonies of other participants of the Kirtland Pentecost. Some eyewitnesses captured more of the experience than Joseph Smith recorded in his characteristically understated journal entries. Where Joseph’s entry for the evening of March 29, 1836, says, for instance, “The Holy Spirit rested down upon us and we continued in the Lord’s house all night prophesying and giving glory to God,” Benjamin Brown both confirms and enhances Joseph’s record by noting the ministering of angels, prophesying in tongues, and visions of the Savior and eternity as part of the “many Miraculous Experiences told [and] Many Visions told.”
Priesthood leaders began meeting in the Kirtland Temple January 21, 1836. In a series of meetings leading up to the March 27 dedication, members of the priesthood quorums washed and were anointed with oil consecrated for the sacred purpose of designating them clean from the sinfulness of their world. William Phelps wrote to his wife, Sally, in January 1836, “Our meeting[s] will grow more and more solemn, and will continue till the great solemn assembly when the house is finished! We are preparing to make ourselves clean, by first cleansing our hearts, forsaking our sins, forgiving every body; putting on clean decent clothes, by anointing our heads and by keeping all the commandments. As we come nearer to God we see our imperfections and nothingness plainer and plainer.”10 In the temple meetings in January brethren sang, prayed, testified, prophesied, beheld visions, received ministering angels, spoke in and interpreted tongues, and shouted hosannas.
Then, on March 27, Joseph dedicated the temple. That night he and those who had been anointed tarried all night in the temple, where spiritual gifts were richly bestowed. On March 29 the first presidency met in the temple with the stake presidencies and bishoprics of Kirtland and Missouri and washed their feet, following the pattern of Jesus as recorded in John 13. The next night, March 30, the other elders who had been anointed earlier received the same culminating ordinance, which Joseph had previously described as “calculated to unite our hearts, that we may be one in feeling and sentiment and that our faith may be strong, so that satan cannot over throw us, nor have any power over us.”11 On March 31 the dedicatory services were repeated for those unable to attend on March 27. On Sunday April 3, 1836, the Lord Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and accepted the Temple, as recorded in Joseph Smith’s journal entry for that day. Ministering angels followed. Elias, Moses, and Elijah each committed priesthood keys needed to gather Israel, endow the Saints with power, and seal the human family together in anticipation of the “great and dreadful day of the Lord” (D&C 110:16). Thus was accomplished the endowment of priesthood power Moroni foretold when he appeared to Joseph Smith on September 21, 1823 (D&C 2). As Joseph Smith’s March 30, 1836, journal entry reports, “it was a penticost and enduement [endowment] indeed, long to be remembered for the sound shall go forth from this place into all the world, and the occurrences of this day shall be hande[d] down upon the pages of sacred history to all generations, as the day of Pentecost.”12
Oliver Cowdery’s Accounts of the Kirtland Experiences
Along with Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery (1806–50) received power and authority in each of the landmark events in the restoration of holy priesthood powers and keys. On May 15, 1829, John the Baptist conferred the Aaronic Priesthood on their heads (D&C 13). Soon thereafter, Peter, James, and John ordained Joseph and Oliver to the Melchizedek Priesthood and conferred the keys of the holy apostleship (D&C 7:7; 27:12–13). Then on April 3, 1836, these two witnesses envisioned the Savior and received an endowment of priesthood keys from Elias, Moses, and Elijah. Oliver Cowdery kept a private “Sketch Book”13 in which he included more details of his involvement in the solemn meetings leading up to the March 27, 1836, dedication. (See “Oliver Cowdery’s Kirtland, Ohio, ‘Sketch Book,'” 241–62, in this volume.) He also penned the Church’s official news account of the Kirtland Temple dedication, published in the Messenger & Advocate immediately after the occasion, and that account is as follows:
Messenger & Advocate
Previous notice having been given, the Church of the Latter Day Saints met this day in the House of the Lord to dedicate it to him. The congregation began to assemble before 8 o’clock A.M. and thronged the doors until 9, when the Presidents of the church who assisted in seating the congregation, were reluctantly compelled to order the door keepers to close the doors; every seat and aisle were crowded. — One thousand persons were now silently and solemnly waiting to hear the word of the Lord from the mouth of his servants in the sacred desk. President S. Rigdon began the services of the day, by reading the 96th and 24th Psalms. An excellent choir of singers, led by M.C. Davis sung the following Hymn: [“Ere Long the Vail Will Rend in Twain.”]
President Rigdon then in an able, devout and appropriate manner, addressed the throne of Grace. The following Hymn was then sung: [“O Happy Souls Who Pray.”]
The speaker (S. Rigdon,) selected the 8th chapter of Matthew, the 18, 19 and 20th verses from which, he proposed to address the congregation, continuing himself more closely to the 20th verse — He spoke two hours and a half in his usual, forcible and logical manner. At one time in the course of his remarks he was rather pathetic, than otherwise, which drew tears from many eyes. He was then taking a retrospective view of the toils, privations and anxieties of those who had labored upon the walls of the house to erect them. And added, there were those who had wet them with their tears, in the silent shades of night, while they were praying to the God of heaven, to protect them, and stay the unhallowed hands of ruthless spoilers, who had uttered a prophecy when the foundation was laid, that the walls would never be reared. This was only a short digression from the main thread of his discourse, which he soon resumed.
Here it may be not improper to give a synopsis of the discourse for the satisfaction of our readers who were not privileged as we were with hearing it. The speaker assumed as a postulate, what we presume no one was disposed to deny, (viz:) that in the days of the Savior there were Synagogues, where the Jews worshipped God, and in addition to them, the splendid Temple at jerusalem. Yet, when on a certain occasion, one proposed to follow him whithersoever he went, he though heir of all things cried out like on in the bitterness of his soul in abject poverty, The Foxes have holes, &c. This, said the speaker, was evidence to his mind, that the Most High did not put his name there, and that he did not accept the worship of those who payed their vows and adorations there. This was evident from the fact that they would not receive him, but thrust him from them, saying, away with him, crucify him! crucify him! It was therefore abundantly evident that his spirit did not dwell in them. They were the degenerate sons of noble sires: but they had long since slain the Prophets and Seers through whom the Lord revealed himself to the children of men. They were not led by revelation, This, said the speaker, was the grand difficulty among them. Their unbelieve in present revelation. He further remarked, that, their unbelief in present revelation was the means of dividing that generation into the various sects and parties that existed. They were sincere worshipers, but their worship was not required of them, nor was it acceptable to God. — The Redeemer himself who knew the hearts of all men, called them generation of vipers. It was proof positive to his mind, that there being Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians and Essens, and all differing from each other, that they were led by the precepts and commandments of men. Each had something peculiar to himself. But all agreed in one point, (viz:) to oppose the Redeemer. So that we discover he would with the utmost propriety, exclaim, notwithstanding their synagogue and Temple worship, The foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. He took occasion here to remark that such diversity of sentiment ever had, and ever would obtain when people were not led by present revelation. This brought him to the inevitable conclusion that the various sects of the present day, from their manifesting the same spirit, rested under the same condemnation with those who were coeval with the Savior. He admitted there were many houses; many sufficiently great, built for the worship of God, but not one except his, on the face of the whole earth, that was built by divine revelation, and were it not for this, the dear Redeemer might in this day of science, this day of intelligence, this day of religion, say to those who would follow him, The foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.
Here his whole soul appeared to be fired with his subject. Arguments, strong and conclusive seemed almost to vie with each other for utterance. Indeed, there was no sophistry in his reasoning, no plausible hypothesis on which the whole rested, but on the contrary plain scripture facts. Therefore his deductions and inferences were logical and conclusive.
The comparison drawn between the different religious sects of ancient and modern times, was perfectly natural, and simple yet it was done in that confident, masterly manner, accompanied with those incontrovertable proofs of his position, that was directly calculated to cheer and gladden the hearts of the Saints, but to draw down the indignation of the sectarian world upon him and we have no doubt had our speaker uttered the same sentiments, with the same proof of their correctness, had there been those present that we might name, his voice would doubtless have been drowned as was that of the ancient apostle in the Athenian Temple, when his auditors cried incessantly for about two hours “Great is Diana of the Ephesians.”
But to conclude, we can truly say no one unacquainted with the manner of delivery and style of our speaker can, from reading form any adequate idea of the powerful effect he is capable of producing in the minds of his hearers.: And to say on this occasion he showed himself mater of his subject and did well, would be doing him injustice; to say he acquitted himself with honor or did very well, would be detracting from him real merit; and to say that he did exceeding well; would be only halting praise.
After closing his discourse he presented Joseph Smith jr. to the church as a Prophet and Seer. The Presidents of the church then all in their seats, acknowledged him as such by rising. The vote was unanimous in the affirmative.
The question was then put, and carried without a manifest dissenting sentiment to each of the different grades or quorums of church officers respectively and then to the congregation. The following hymn was then sung: [“Now Let Us Rejoice.”]
Services closed for the forenoon.
Intermission was about 15 minutes during which none left their seats except a few females, who from having left their infants with their friends, were compelled to do so to take care of them. The P.M. services commenced by singing the following hymn: [“Adam-ondi-Ahman.”]
President J. Smith jr. then rose, and after a few preliminary remarks, presented the several Presidents of the church, then present, to the several quorums respectively, and then to the church as being equal with himself, acknowledging them to be Prophets and Seers. The vote was unanimous in the affirmative in every instance. — Each of the different quorums was presented in its turn to all the rest, and then to the church, and received and acknowledged by all the rest, in their several stations without a manifest dissenting sentiment.
President J. Smith jr. then addressed the congregation in a manner calculated to instruct the understanding, rather than please the ear, and at or about the close of his remarks, he prophesied to all that inasmuch as they would uphold these men in their several stations, alluding to the different quorums in the church, the Lord would bless them; yea, in the name of Christ, the blessings of Heaven shall be yours. And when the Lord’s anointed go forth to proclaim the word, bearing testimony to this generation, if they receive it, they shall be blessed, but if not, the judgments of God will follow close upon them, until that city of that house, that rejects them, shall be left desolate. The following hymn was then sung: [“How Pleased and Blest I Was.”]
He then offered the dedication prayer, which was as follows: [See D&C 109.]
The choir then sung a hymn. [“The Spirit of God.”]
President Smith then asked the several quorums separately and then the congregation, if they accepted the prayer. The vote was, in every instance, unanimous in the affirmative.
The Eucharist was administered. D[on]. C[arlos]. Smith blessed the bread and wine and they were distributed by several Elders present, to the church.
President J. Smith jr. then arose and bore record of his mission. D. C. Smith bore record of the truth of the work of the Lord in which we are engaged.
President O. Cowdery spoke and testified of the truth of the book of Mormon, and of the work of the Lord in these last days.
President F. G. Williams bore record that a Holy Angel of God, came and set between him and J. Smith sen. while the house was being dedicated.
President Hyrum Smith, (one of the building committee) made some appropriate remarks concerning the house, congratulating those who had endured so many toils and privations to erect it, that it was the Lord’s house built by his commandment and he would bless them.
President S. Rigdon then made a few appropriate closing remarks; and a short prayer which was ended with loud acclamations of Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna to God and the Lamb, Amen, Amen and Amen! Three times. Elder B. Young, one of the Twelve, gave a short address in tongues; Elder D. W. Patten interpreted and gave a short exhortation in tongues himself; after which, President J. Smith jr. blessed the congregation in the name of the Lord, and at a little past four P.M. the whole exercise closed and the congregation dispersed.
We further add that we should do violence to our own feelings and injustice to the real merit of our brethren and friends who attended the meeting, were we here to withhold a meed of praise, which we think is their just due; not only for their qui[e]t demeanor during the whole exercise, which lasted more than eight hours, but for their great liberality in contributing of their earthly substance for the relief of the building committee, who were yet somewhat involved. As this was to be a day of sacrifice, as well as of fasting, There was a man placed at each door in the morning to receive the voluntary donations of those who entered. On counting the collection it amounted to nine hundred and sixty three dollars. Kirtland, Ohio, March, 1836.14
1. See Milton V. Backman Jr., The Heavens Resound: A History of the Latter-day Saints in Ohio 1830–1838 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), 285–309; Karl Ricks Anderson, Joseph Smith’s Kirtland: Eyewitness Accounts (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 169–91; Gregory Prince, Power from on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 184–85, 160.
2. Benjamin Brown, Testimonies for the Truth: A record of Manifestations of the Power of God, miraculous and providential, witnessed in the travels and experience of Benjamin Brown, high priest in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Pastor of the London, Reading, Kent, and Essex Conferences (Liverpool: S. W. Richards, 1853), 5.
3. Lucius Pomeroy Parsons to Pamelia Parsons, April 10, 1836, Family and Church History Department Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter Church Archives). For Joseph Smith’s explanation of the power the endowment would give to perform miracles, see Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:77–78.
4. John Corrill, A Brief History of the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints (Commonly Called Mormons; Including an Account of Their Doctrine and Discipline; with the Reasons of the Author for Leaving the Church) (St. Louis: By the author, 1839), 23. In Acts 2:13, mockers explained the spiritual manifestations simply: “These men are full of new wine.” See William McLellin to M. H. Forscutt, October 1870, Library-Archives, Community of Christ, Independence, Missouri; William Harris, Mormonism Portrayed (Warsaw, IL: Sharp and Gamble, 1841), 136, for perpetuated rumors of similar drunkenness in the Kirtland Temple.
5. Richard L. Bushman, “The Visionary World of Joseph Smith,” BYU Studies 37/1 (1997–98): 183–204, outlines this culture and lists several primary documents that might comprise a genre with which the eyewitness accounts of the Kirtland experience share similarities. Similarly, see Larry C. Porter, “Solomon Chamberlin’s Missing Pamphlet: Dreams, Visions, and Angelic Ministrants,” BYU Studies 37/2 (1997–98): 113–40; Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999). See also Leigh Eric Schmidt, Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).
6. Brown, Testimonies for the Truth, 5.
7. Brown, Testimonies for the Truth, 10–11. Joseph Smith’s account of the events of March 27, 1836, which is reprinted later in this article, is in Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:191–203.
8. Doctrine and Covenants 38:32; 88:67–76; 95:2–8.
9. Doctrine and Covenants 88:68–69; see also Joseph Smith to William Phelps, Kirtland, Ohio, January 11, 1833, in Dean C. Jessee, ed. and comp., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, rev. ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2002), 292–93.
10. William Phelps to Sally Phelps, January 1836, in Bruce A. Van Orden, ed., “Writing to Zion: The William W. Phelps Kirtland Letters (1835–1836),” BYU Studies 33/3 (1993): 574.
11. Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:77. Members of the School of the Prophets were “received by the ordinance of the washing of the feet” in January and February 1833 (D&C 88:139). That ordinance was next performed March 30, 1836, as the culminating ordinance of the Kirtland endowment. See Prince, Power from on High, 172–73.
12. Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 207.
13. Oliver Cowdery, “Sketch Book,” Church Archives, and published in Arrington, “Oliver Cowdery’s Kirtland, Ohio, ‘Sketch Book,'” 410–26.
14. This account was originally published in Messenger and Advocate, March 1836, 274–81. The words of the revealed prayer (now D&C 109) and the words of the hymns have been omitted here.