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Image for Oliver Cowdery’s Gift

Oliver Cowdery’s Gift

December 2, 2007

This image relates to a mysterious item, discussed at length in Section 8 of the Doctrine and Covenants, called “the gift of Aaron”. The heading to Section 8 provides the 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:

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 will I 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.

(D&C 8:6-11, emphasis added)

What is “the gift of Aaron”? The text provides several clues. First, Oliver has a history of using it, since “it has told [him] many things”. Second, it is “the gift of God”. Third, it is to be held in Oliver’s hands (and kept there, impervious to any power). Fourth, it allows Oliver to “do marvelous works”. Fifth, it is “the work of God”. Sixth, the Lord will speak through it to Oliver and tell him anything he asks while using it. Seventh, it works through faith. Finally, it enables Oliver to translate ancient sacred documents.

With only these clues, the gift of Aaron remains very hard to identify. The task becomes much easier, however, when we look at the original version of the revelation as contained in The Book of Commandments, a predecessor volume to The Doctrine and Covenants, used by the LDS Church from 1831 to 1835. Section 7 of the book contains the same wording as the current version, except that the term “gift of Aaron” is replaced with the following language (in bold):

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…

What is the gift of Aaron? It is a “rod of nature”.

What is a “rod of nature”? The historical record indicates that it is a divining rod (or dousing rod), commonly used to receive divine revelation, which Oliver Cowdery used as a youth to hunt for buried treasure. See e.g., Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998), 1: 603-05, 619-20.  Cowdery’s use of a divining rod to search for buried treasure evokes similar images of Joseph Smith hunting for treasure with a stone in a top hat. Oliver also wished to use his divining rod, in the same way Joseph Smith used his stone and hat, to translate ancient scriptures. Section 8 of the Doctrine and Covenants indicates that the Lord, through Joseph Smith, granted Oliver’s request.

Additional information about Oliver Cowdery’s rod is found here.

10 Responses to “Oliver Cowdery’s Gift”

  1. Latterday Skeptic Says:

    Ahhhh…very nice! This was a recent issue for me that got stuck in my craw. The change Joseph made was very good as it made everything “fit” the mysterious ancient priesthood power, something that obviously we weren’t made privy to (such the apologia), but the original revelation is quite plain and hard to be misunderstood for anything different than your representation. Too bad Oliver couldn’t get his rod to work, then perhaps he could have been exposed to earlier polygamy revelations and made it easier for him to accept “that nasty Fanny Alger affair” that drove him out later. Now, how about a contrasting one of Hirum Page’s stone, [female]Chase’s stone, and Joseph’s stone (though apparently Oliver mentioned 2 stones like glasses used long after the Urim and Thummim was reportedly sent back to the angel), with a title like “The revelations from that stone are not from me..”

    Good job as always. I’m glad to see more content! Why can’t the church just drop it’s propogandistic renderings?

    Latterday Skeptic

  2. Margie Says:

    Not all restoration churches deny their history. Many of us have studied enough of the church’s history to know the truth from the fiction our churches propagated for many years. Wise leadership would admit these discrepancies.

  3. George Mather Says:

    Why the big secret? It seems to me that everything Jesus did was in the open. How is this different from intellectual dishonesty? Divining, is nothing less than a form of fortune telling and associated with the occult which is condemned by the Bible.
    George Mather, Co-author The Encyclopedic Dictionary of cults, Sects, and World Religions (Zondervan).

  4. admin Says:

    George:

    Using seer stones and divining rods has certainly fallen out of favor in the United States as a vehicle for spiritual endeavor, but it is no more superstitious to me than lighting candles, taking communion, baptism, or even praying.

    I am curious to know why Joseph Smith felt a need to edit Oliver Cowdery’s divining rod out of the revelation, though. Perhaps people around him were starting to agree more with you.

  5. Roy Says:

    Hymn # 274: The Iron Rod

    The gift of Aaron was in part the power and authority to teach and expound on the word of God given to the prophet Moses. The word of God is “the rod”.

    Each and every person that has access to the holy word “rod”, including any portion of the rod (ie. stick of Judah, stick of Joseph, etc.) or the rod in its entirety can seek for this gift and receive it. Prayerful study of the “rod”, or earnest prayer while holding and pondering the “rod” is a true source of knowledge and power. The key is holding tight the rod, with faith and patience until the direction comes.

    It doesn’t have to just be a mystery, it can be a reality with a bit of faith and practice; personal revelation directly from God or by the “rod” are meant to be used in conjunction.

    Regarding actual rods and sticks, now that’s another story.

  6. Larry Says:

    I just read a great article about the rod [BYU Studies vol. 24, no.4 (1984) “The Gift of Aaron”]. It was, perhaps, not a divining rod at all but a straight rod, more like the rod that Aaron and Moses used. Of course we cannot really know for sure. It makes sense though; especially considering the reference to Aaron. Some suppose that it may have been among the artifacts found with the plates. One even thinks it may have been the bow or rod that held the Urim and Thumim and worked for Oliver when he attempted to translate. Other prophets of the latter days used rods to receive revelation: Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball.

  7. Dave Says:

    I don’t like the connection with the divining rod, it seems weird to me. However the rod as in the rod of iron, the word of God makes more sense to me. Think of Ezekiel where the stick of Judah and the stick of Joseph become one. Stick, rod they both seem to me to be pointing to the scriptures. Furthermore from the Doctrine and Covenants student manual we get this quote.

    D&C 8:6–9. What Was the Gift of Aaron?

    “There was another gift bestowed upon Oliver
    Cowdery, and that was the gift of Aaron. Like Aaron
    with his rod in his hand going before Moses as a
    spokesman, so Oliver Cowdery was to go before
    Joseph Smith. Whatever he should ask the Lord by
    power of this gift should be granted if asked in faith
    and in wisdom. Oliver was blessed with the great
    honor of holding the keys of this dispensation with
    Joseph Smith, and, like Aaron, did become a
    spokesman on numerous occasions. It was Oliver
    who delivered the first public discourse in this
    dispensation.” (Smith, Church History and Modern
    Revelation, 1:52.)

  8. Teri Says:

    The look of sincerity on Oliver’s face is so very telling of the fact that he really did believe, at least in the beginning, that he possessed the special “gift” of divining, which he learned from his father, William. At least that is what I am led to believe from all I have read. This work of art and the one of Joseph as a boy, his poverty portrayed in the ragged edges of his pants, peering deeply into his hat to find hidden treasure are my 2 favorite works of art. They tell us so much about the beginnings of mormonism that most mormons would rather deny.

    It was a time of magic, not just for 2 boys, 2 cousins, with unparalleled imaginations, but for many, many people of the day in which they lived. The mormon church was born because these 2 young men, and others, believed they possessed magical powers and had a vision ( not speaking here in the sense of any supernatural happening), but a vision for their lives that they would do something different, something spectacular.

    I think in the beginning, at least, they sincerely believed they possessed powers that others could not access. I like to think it all began in innocence, and for Joseph, at least, as a way to help his family out of the devastating and unrelenting poverty in which they existed. I doubt even he could have guessed the kind of man he would eventually become.

  9. Chuck Says:

    I would not necessarily identify 1833 The Book of Commandments version of this revelation as the original, and would point to an older version of it as recorded by John Whitmer in Revelation Book 1 and transcribed on the Joseph Smith Papers web site as evidence, where the word “sprout” is used instead of “rod”, or “gift of Aaron.”

    “now this is not all for thou hast another gift which is the gift of working with the sprout Behold it hath told you things Behold there is no other power save God that can cause this thing of Nature to work in your hands for it is the work of God & therefore whatsoever ye shall ask to tell you by that means that will he grant unto you that ye shall know remember that without faith ye can do nothing trifle not with these things do not ask for that which ye had not ought ask that ye may know the mysteries of God & that ye may Translate all those ancient Records which have been hid up which are Sacred & according to your faith shall it be done unto you”

    Taken as written, there is no doubt in my mind that this describes Oliver as having had a talent for working with what we know as the divining (or dowsing) rod, and that this type of folk magic was endorsed by the Lord, who claims to be the source of that power, and who instructs and encourages Oliver in its appropriate use. I can square the changing of “sprout” to “rod” at the time this revelation was published in 1833, but find it more difficult to do so with the later change of “rod” to “gift of Aaron,” unless one resorts to the kinds of symbolic interpretations commonly invoked to square much of what Joseph Smith taught with the notions of modern correlated Mormonism; a no less magical trick, though one of more dubious worth.

  10. William Harris Says:

    In Leviticus, the blossoming rod (a stick) of Aaron becomes a symbol for being recognized as an inspired spokesman for Moses. Oliver delivered discourses and defended Joseph Smith as did Aaron for Moses. Revelation often comes at night, in quiet times when our minds are open. In the day time, perhaps Oliver and Joseph needed something physical, a rod, a stone, a hat, to concentrate on to remove them from the world around them. Inantimate objests have, in themselves, no revelatory properties. Revelation can only come from God. The Holy Ghost works through angels to inspire us whlen our minds are ready to receive it. Inantimate objects may be a modum used by the angels. Oliver’s gift was that he was given the keys to reveal hidden knowledge. Although he failed in translating, he did reveal hidden knowledge of the nature of God and his gospel in one of the first such discourses as well as the knowledge that Joseph Smith was a prophet. His gift would have bedn more eviden if he remained faithful and was able to translate other ancient writings.

    Lev 17:3 And thou shalt write Aaron’s name upon the rod of Levi: for one rod shall be for the head of the house of their fathers.

    5 And it shall come to pass, that the man’s rod, whom I shall choose, shall blossom: and I will make to cease from me the murmurings of the children of Israel, whereby they murmur against you.

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