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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Oliver Cowdery and Failure to Translate

If you've ever attended institute, Sunday School, or (I'm guessing) seminary, you've heard this story a million times. Oliver Cowdery was acting as Joseph Smith's scribe. He wanted to translate. Joseph inquired of the Lord, and the Lord told him he could (see D&C 8). He failed to. Then they ask God why and he tells them (see D&C 9). The Lord chastises Oliver for not following the pattern he had laid out in the previous revelation. Then all the people in the class are supposed to learn how revelation requires one to study things out and listen in the heart, etc.

Here are the two sections' corresponding D&C manuals:
http://institute.lds.org/manuals/doctrine-and-covenants-institute-student-manual/dc-in-001-8.asp
http://institute.lds.org/manuals/doctrine-and-covenants-institute-student-manual/dc-in-001-9.asp

Why did Oliver fail?

The second link above states that "The Lord assigned Oliver’s failure to translate to the fact that he did not translate according to that which he desired of the Lord. Oliver had to learn that translating as Joseph Smith was doing was by the gift and power of God. Evidently, Oliver had received sufficient instruction, but instead went his own way, using his own wisdom. He was therefore stopped from translating."

I think the confusion on this topic stems from statements such as these. The problem, which is the consistent problem with most false doctrine today, is that it distracts us from learning the more meaningful lesson here.

Let's dissect this.

What was Oliver's gift?

"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....Therefore this is thy gift; apply unto it, and blessed art thou, for it shall deliver you out of the hands of your enemies, when, if it were not so, they would slay you and bring your soul to destruction." (D&C 8:2,4)

Oliver was given the gift of revelation by the Lord. He was made a revelator. At least, he was instructed that he could be if he "appl[ied] unto it," or followed God's instructions.

How does one reveal things?

The Lord told Oliver that he would reveal things through what God would tell him "in [his] mind and in [his] heart, by the Holy Ghost." That is the spirit of revelation. Did the Lord tell Oliver he would see something? No. He would be TOLD (audible) in his mind and in his heart. The eyes were not mentioned in any way.

What was Joseph's gift?

Joseph was a seer. He was also a prophet and a revelator, but let's stay focused on seership. What is the gift of seership? Ammon described it in Mosiah 8.  "I can assuredly tell thee, O king, of a man that can translate the records; for he has wherewith that he can look, and translate all records that are of ancient date; and it is a gift from God. And the things are called interpreters, and no man can look in them except he be commanded, lest he should look for that he ought not and he should perish. And whosoever is commanded to look in them, the same is called seer."

A seer has something he can look into which provides the translation of the records, or allows God to show him what he is meant to see. That is why they are called SEERS. They SEE with their EYES what God wants to reveal.

I will allow you to google "how did Joseph Smith translate the Book of Mormon"to get all the sources, but here is the gist: He looked into the urim and thummim and/or his seer stone, and saw, in English, the current sentence of where he was in the translation. He read off that line, and then a new one appeared. Joseph had to have faith, he had to be worthy, and he had to have this gift from God in order to accomplish the translation. He did not have to study anything out. All he had to do was read.

Oliver's Situation

Now let's think about poor Oliver. Here he sees Joseph looking into a hat and reading off what the Book of Mormon says like he's reading the family bible, and he wants a try to. The Lord even tells him that he's going to have a turn. He gets all ready and tries, and nothing happens. Note that the Lord doesn't tell him to look into the seer stone. He tells him to study it out, etc. In other words, he tells Oliver to translate by a process other than the one he has seen Joseph using. I strongly wonder whether Oliver sat there and stared at the plates, trying to "study it out," or whether he tried looking into the urim and thummim. It isn't recorded in D&C, and I don't know the answer to it.

So next time we think of Oliver as an example on how NOT to receive revelation, let's think twice. It's really not surprising that he expected to get the translation without effort on his part; that's exactly what Joseph was doing!

A Better Version

The church manual SHOULD read: "The Lord assigned Oliver’s failure to translate to the fact that he tried to translate in the same way that he had observed Joseph translating, instead of following the Lord's instructions to study it out. Oliver had to learn that the gift of being a revelator was not the same as the gift of seership."