Section 22: Rebaptism
The Church was organized on Tuesday, April 6, 1830. Shortly thereafter, some sincere investigators to the Church approached Joseph Smith in his family’s home in Manchester. They believed the Book of Mormon was true, and they wanted to become members of the Church. Some of these converts had belonged previously to churches that believed in baptism by immersion. They themselves believed that immersion was the proper mode of baptism, and they had already been baptized in this manner. After joining the Church of Christ, a group of ex-Baptists wondered why it was necessary for them to be baptized again. Joseph inquired of the Lord on their behalf and section 22 was received.
In section 22 the Lord explains that all old covenants are done away, and that all must be baptized again into the new and everlasting covenant by someone holding proper priesthood authority.
Section 22 appeared combined with section 21 in The Evening and Morning Star in June 1832 under the title “Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ.” In all other publications of sections 20, 21, and 22, only section 20 was labeled the “Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ.”
William E. McLellin’s journal contains a very early copy of section 22 with the following appended: “April 16th 1830 Joseph Smith” (Shipps and Welch, Journals of William E. McLellin, 236). This would put the reception of this revelation only ten days after the organization of the Church.
1 Behold, I say unto you that all old covenants have I caused to be done away in this thing; and this is a new and an everlasting covenant, even that which was from the beginning.
verse 1 “all old covenants have I caused to be done away” “Old covenants” here are apostate covenants entered into without proper priesthood authority. Many Christians have little or no understanding of priesthood authority. Accordingly, because little or no importance is placed on priesthood, in their view almost anyone may baptize, and baptisms performed in one church are quite generally accepted in another. This was the hope of those who came to Joseph in April 1830, desiring to unite with the Church by virtue of their previous baptisms. Many sincere persons would seek and have sought to come to God and even submit to ordinances or make covenants to serve him while they are members of other faiths. These ordinances and covenants, though they may be sincerely entered into, and though God may be pleased with the righteous desires of these individuals and bless them accordingly, are still of human origin. They are merely human attempts to reach God, and all such attempts are superseded by the covenant that has its origin in God and is entered into by authority of his priesthood.
“this is a new and an everlasting covenant” The term “new and everlasting covenant” is used frequently throughout the Doctrine and Covenants. President Joseph Fielding Smith gave the following definition of it:
The new and everlasting covenant is the fulness of the gospel. It is composed of “All covenants, contracts, bonds, obligations, oaths, vows, performances, connections, associations, or expectations” that are sealed upon members of the Church by the Holy Spirit of promise, or the Holy Ghost, by the authority of the president of the Church who holds the keys. The president of the Church holds the keys of the Melchizedek priesthood. He delegates authority to others and authorizes them to perform the sacred ordinances of the priesthood.
Marriage for eternity is a new and everlasting covenant. Baptism is also a new and everlasting covenant, and likewise ordination to the priesthood, and every other covenant is everlasting and a part of the new and everlasting covenant which embraces all things (Answers to Gospel Questions, 1:65).
“that which was from the beginning” Keep in mind that this section was received in answer to Joseph’s question which centered on the ordinance of baptism. How could something which was “from the beginning” be “a new and everlasting covenant?” Baptism by proper authority in this dispensation is a new covenant when compared to the apostate forms of baptism which were extant in 1830, but it is the same covenant given to Adam in the beginning. Baptisms performed by ministers without the priesthood are merely dead works—purely human attempts to reach God, and of no avail. The issue is not sincerity but authority. All who enter his Kingdom must enter through the gate of baptism by one having the proper authority, even Jesus Christ himself required baptism.
2 Wherefore, although a man should be baptized an hundred times it availeth him nothing, for you cannot enter in at the strait gate by the law of Moses, neither by your dead works.
verse 2 “you cannot enter in at the strait gate” See the supplemental article, Strait and Straight in the Book of Mormon in Learning to Love the Book of Mormon.
The law of Moses was given to Israel in hopes of lifting them from a telestial to a terrestrial level. But the law of Moses, by itself, can save no one in the celestial heaven. The “strait” or narrow gate leads to the celestial kingdom. This requires the “new and everlasting covenant”—the gospel of Jesus Christ with its priesthood authority. Just as the law of Moses, with its emphasis on works, cannot save any man, neither can religion, even Christian religion, that originates with man and not with God. Without divine priesthood authorization and power, these religions represent human attempts to find God—human works rather than Christ’s saving work done in our behalf. They are called “dead works” because without God’s priesthood, they cannot bestow eternal life but are merely human efforts to manipulate God.
3 For it is because of your dead works that I have caused this last covenant and this church to be built up unto me, even as in days of old.
verse 3 Because the Christian world had degenerated into a state of apostasy and in 1830 consisted of only human attempts to imitate the covenants and ordinances of Christ’s true gospel, the Lord caused this “last covenant”—the new and everlasting covenant—to be restored and his Church to be established, as it had been in times past.
4 Wherefore, enter ye in at the gate, as I have commanded, and seek not to counsel your God. Amen.
verse 4 “enter ye in at the gate” Be baptized.
“seek not to counsel your God” According to President Marion G. Romney we “counsel” God when we “disregard his counsel, either knowingly or unknowingly, and in place thereof substitute our own counsel or the persuasions of men” (Ensign, August 1985, 2).
In some of the more democratic Christian denominations it is acceptable for the membership to instruct the leaders by vote or otherwise. But in the true Church of Jesus Christ, with continuing revelation and the priesthood line of authority, and where the words of the prophet are to be received as if from God’s own mouth (D&C 1:38), to counsel our leaders uninvited is to seek to “counsel our God.”
Oliver was about a year younger than the Prophet Joseph. He was a small man, being about 5 feet 5 inches tall and of a slight build. He married Elizabeth Whitmer, a daughter of Peter Whitmer, Sr. His role in the early Church was obviously extraordinary. He was a key figure many of the most important founding experiences of the early Church, including the translation and printing of the Book of Mormon, the restoration of the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods, the conversion of Sidney Rigdon, and the vision of the Savior and the Old Testament prophets in the Kirtland Temple. As one of the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon, he had participated in the selection of the first quorum of twelve apostles in 1835.
Probably no one gives such a brutally candid view of an executive or author as does a secretary or scribe. That is the view Oliver had of the prophet Joseph, and Joseph passed this severe test. Five years after the translation of the Book of Mormon, Oliver’s memory of this time was still vivid: “These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated, with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have said, ‘interpreters,’ the history, or record called ‘The Book of Mormon’” (Latter-day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, 1:14). It should be noted, parenthetically, that both the two-lens device Joseph found buried with the plates in September 1827 and Joseph’s seerstone were both referred to at times as the Urim and Thummim. It seems likely that the device Joseph employed most commonly during the translation of the Book of Mormon with Oliver in 1829 was the seerstone, rather than the ancient Urim and Thummim.
The pinnacle of his church career was in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1836, when he was a trusted “assistant president” to Joseph Smith and was involved on many practical fronts in the expanding Church.
He was excommunicated on April 12, 1838. He had been personally hurt in his relationship with Joseph Smith, and he had allied himself with his Whitmer relatives in serious differences with the Church as it was gathering in the area of Far West Missouri. The Whitmers were in local leadership and also had become involved in land promotion which might be considered either self-serving private enterprise or—as it was interpreted by Missouri members—the exploitation of the saints. Six of the nine charges against him involved his economic affairs and his part in filing collection suits against members of the Church. He wrote a spirited letter of resignation from the Church in which he defined his conflicts with the leaders of the Church—“the outward government of this Church” (HC, 3:18). He never repudiated his basic beliefs.
Following his excommunication, he experimented with living in Missouri briefly but then moved back to Kirtland Ohio where he taught school to support himself while he was studying law. From 1840 to 1847 he practiced law in Tiffin, Ohio. While in Tiffin he also served as a newspaper columnist and a member of the county Board of School Examiners. He also became active in the Democratic Party and in civil government affairs.
He was described by his non Mormon associates as gentlemanly, polite, soft spoken, modest in his habits, polite, dignified, courteous, kind and friendly, never spoke ill of anyone, and never complained. One of his colleagues said of him, “There was a certain degree of sadness that seemed to pervade his whole being” (Lang, History of Seneca County, 365).
He was also regarded as a first-class attorney. A Colleague said of him, “His addresses to the court and jury were characterized by a high order of oratory, with brilliant and forensic force” (Ibid.).
The cessation of Oliver’s activity in the Church meant a suspension of his role as Book of Mormon witness. Evidently it did not violate his conscience to be an inactive witness, but he would not accept the role of a denying witness in a direct confrontation where silence would strongly imply a denial. One courtroom incident has prompted much controversy as to the accuracy of the reporting of the incident. Probably the most reliable report of the incident was written by George Q. Cannon:
When I was a boy I heard it stated concerning Oliver Cowdery, that after he left the Church he practiced law, and upon one occasion, in a court in Ohio, the opposing counsel thought he would say something that would overwhelm Oliver Cowdery, and in reply to him in his argument he alluded to him as the man that had testified and had written that he had beheld an angel of God, and that angel had shown unto him the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated. He supposed, of course, that it would cover him with confusion, because Oliver Cowdery then [at that time] made no profession of being a “Mormon,” or a Latter-day Saint; but instead of being affected by it in this manner, he arose in the court, and in his reply stated that, whatever his faults and weaknesses might be, the testimony which he had written, and which he had given to the world, was literally true (JD, 22:254).
In 1847 he moved briefly to Elkhorn, Wisconsin and practiced law with his brother Lyman. By this time he had significant chronic health problems. Then in October 1848 he traveled to Council Bluffs or Kanesville, Iowa, the “eastern” headquarters of the Church and humbly asked for rebaptism. Reuben Miller recorded Oliver’s testimony at the time in his journal: “I wrote with my own pen the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the Prophet, as he translated it by the gift and power of God, by means of the Urim and Thummim, or as it is called by that book, Holy Interpreters. I beheld with my eyes, and handled with my hands, the gold plates from which it was translated. I also beheld the Interpreters. That book is true” (Journal of Reuben Miller, October 21, 1848. For an insight into Miller’s competence as a diarist, see Richard L. Anderson, “Reuben Miller, Recorder of Oliver Cowdery’s Reaffirmations,” BYU Studies 8 : 277-93).
Because of ill health and depleted finances, he was unable to migrate to Utah. Hence, he moved to Richmond, Missouri, to be near his wife’s relatives. He died March 3, 1850, only sixteen months following his reconciliation at Kanesville, probably of tuberculosis.
Of all of the people in his life, the person with the most intimate knowledge of all his actions and attitudes was his wife, Elizabeth Whitmer Cowdery. Thirty-seven years after her husband’s death she wrote in a letter to her brother David Whitmer: “From the hour when the glorious vision of the Holy Messenger revealed to mortal eyes the hidden prophecies which God had promised his faithful followers should come forth in due time, until the moment when he passed away from earth, he always, without one doubt or shadow of turning, affirmed the divinity and truth of the Book of Mormon” (Letter of Elizabeth Cowdery to David Whitmer, March 8, 1887).
- Michael J. Preece