Oliver Cowdery wrote a series in the LDS Messenger and Advocate, including Letter VII in July 1836 and Letter VIII in October 1836. In these letters Cowdery recounted early events and provided some of the first details of pre-church events in Joseph Smith’s life.
Orson Pratt prepared a publication while in England in 1840 which drew on Oliver Cowder’s earlier account. Pratt’s Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records likewise retold early events. Pratt’s account actually quotes Cowdery’s account in the relevant part below.
I assume both Cowdery and Pratt believed the material, and trusted it contained important principles for others to likewise learn and believe. It is one detail which they included, but which Joseph Smith omitted from his own account, that stands out to me. I think this omitted detail holds doctrinal significance.
The angel visited Joseph Smith on the day following the all-night visits of 22 September 1823 in his bedroom. He returned when Joseph arrived at the site of the buried book. When Joseph opened the container by removing a top rock, according to both Cowdery and Pratt, in addition to everything you are familiar with already, the following took place:
“[T]he Angel of the Lord, who had previously visited him, again stood in his presence, and his soul was again enlightened as it was the evening before, and he was filled with the Holy Spirit, and the heavens were opened, and the glory of the Lord shone round about and rested upon him. While he thus stood gazing and admiring, the Angel said, “Look!” And as he thus spake, he beheld the Prince of Darkness, surrounded by his innumerable train of associates. All this passed before him, and the heavenly messenger said, “All this is shown, the good and the evil, the holy and impure, the glory of God, and the power of darkness, that you may know hereafter the two powers and never be influenced or overcome by that evil one.” (See JS Papers, Histories Vol. 1, p. 527.)
Both Cowdery and Pratt urge this to persuade others to trust Joseph Smith. It rings of a doctrine heard today. Essentially they claim Joseph could not be led astray, because he was enlightened in 1823 to such a degree that Satan could not thereafter deceive him.
This notion is, of course, false. It was as false when applied to Joseph Smith as it is false when applied to any man at any time, myself included. All men err. All men are tempted and fall victim to their weaknesses and foolishness.
Just five years after the event reported by Cowdery and repeated by Pratt, in July 1828 Joseph Smith allowed Martin Harris to lose the first 116 pages of transcribed material for the Book of Mormon. The Lord stated: “And behold, how oft you have transgressed the commandments and the laws of God, and have gone on in the persuasions of men. For, behold, you should not have feared man more than God. Although men set at naught the counsels of God, and despise his word– Yet you should have been faithful; and he would have extended his arm and supported you against all the fiery darts of the adversary; and he would have been with you in every time of trouble.” (D&C 3: 6-8.) Joseph was persuaded by his weakness and financial vulnerability to disobey God.
That same summer the Lord also said this to Joseph Smith: “Behold, I do not say that you shall not show it unto the righteous; But as you cannot always judge the righteous, or as you cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous, therefore I say unto you, hold your peace until I shall see fit to make all things known unto the world concerning the matter.” (D&C 10: 36-37.) Joseph couldn’t even tell wicked men from righteous men.
There is no guarantee against error. There is no fortification which makes a man, any man, invulnerable to mistakes. Though both Cowdery and Pratt wanted to give Joseph super-human ability to detect the Devil and avoid mistakes, Joseph still made them. When Joseph prepared his own history in 1838 and 1839 he omitted this claim from his own history. He knew he could and did make mistakes. Therefore he wanted no such claim to be made.
Trust God, not man. And for yourself, keep yourself aligned to heaven, so when presented with the opportunity to make a mistake, heaven can help you in your hour of need. Weakness is part of every man’s life. (Ether 12: 27.) To trade weakness for strength we must all “humble themselves before [God], and have faith in [God].” (Id.) That formula given by Christ to Moroni has no room for trusting or coming to a man. Nor does it require you to humble yourself before a man. I fear my weaknesses and try to always guard against them. I know failure is always possible, and indeed more likely than success.
Cowdery and Pratt wanted the same kind of foolishness in their day as people now want in ours. They and we want some man to save us. Some trustworthy collection of leaders who cannot lead us astray or make errors in judgment which will deprive us of salvation. They were wrong, as are all those who similarly today espouse a similarly false doctrine.
Trust God alone. Fear your weaknesses. There is nothing any of us can take pride in. Nor is there anything we can trust other than our own fidelity to God alone.