Cowdery biographers have generally repeated a few brief facts before darting to Oliver’s initial meeting with Joseph Smith in April 1829. A close look at the record, however, reveals a rich family history—a history that includes the death of Oliver’s mother, the blending of three families, four moves between two states, and a plague that took a dear aunt and uncle. All of these details in turn shed light on two controversial theories bearing on the origins of Mormonism.
The first alleges that Joseph Smith Sr. and William Cowdery participated in a divining-rod incident known as the Wood Scrape, forming associations that impacted their sons’ founding of the Church a quarter of a century later. The second purports that young Oliver knew minister Ethan Smith, read his work View of the Hebrews, and passed on knowledge of the book or a copy of the book itself to Joseph, who borrowed freely from it in producing the Book of Mormon. Both theories have spawned considerable discussion and research. The well-documented history of the William Cowdery family in Vermont, however, shows that both theories are long on speculation and short on fact.