Oliver Cowdery's departure from the Church in 1838 is partly a matter of "dollars and cents," said Richard Lloyd Anderson, one of the presenters at the Nov. 10 Oliver Cowdery symposium and an emeritus professor of ancient scripture at BYU.
Brother Anderson, who taught at the university for 42 years, is widely regarded as an expert on the Three and the Eight Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, having written the book Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses.
"I taught a class on the Book of Mormon witnesses before retiring," he said. "The most common question we ever got in that class is, 'Why would any of the witnesses leave the Church?' The answer (has to do with) a divine message but a human receptor for that message."
Brother Anderson said he has explored Oliver's humanity by spending weeks looking through financial receipts and records and studying Oliver's letter book, reposited in the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., in an effort to come to a conclusion. "And I think it does add a dimension to Oliver's excommunication," he said.
As reflected in his letters, Oliver "is frustrated and angry; he feels oppressed," Brother Anderson said. While that is often the case with those who leave the Church, "it turns out not to be the Church's fault, in most cases, but the individual's attitude that is in conflict," he observed.
Oliver's attitude, he said, is reflected in a resignation letter to Bishop Edward Partridge, in which he wrote: "I beg you, sir, to take no view of the foregoing remarks other than my belief in the outward government of the Church."
"In other words," Brother Anderson explained, "he had problems not with the doctrine of the Church, but how it was being administered, as he interpreted it."
Feeding into his attitude were the failure of two banking ventures in Kirtland, Ohio, and the debts that were left over from the construction of the Kirtland Temple, Brother Anderson said. "Lack of sophistication (on the part of the Church leadership) made Oliver personally liable for what was really a debt of the Church incurred for the purpose of the Church."
His eventual reconciliation with the Church (he was rebaptized in Kanesville, Iowa, in 1849, just a year before his death in Richmond, Mo.) is reflected in a story in which a Church missionary en route to England stopped in Richmond in 1850 to visit Oliver, Brother Anderson said. Explaining his reason for leaving the Church, Oliver reportedly said, "I was angry then, but I got over it. I don't feel that way now."
Brother Anderson commented: "It's clear that as he left the Church, and when he was out of it, he insisted that angels came to testify of the Book of Mormon and bestow the two priesthood again on men. That's impressive to me. He had every reason in his mind and in his psyche to rebel, to strike back, to expose, and he only testified these things really happened."