(Compiled by Dennis B. Horne)
Matthew Cowley’s First Mission
[Editorial Note: This material begins a sub-series of posts relating highlights from Elder Matthew Cowley’s faith-promoting and interesting life experiences, as shared by Elder Rudd. There is some limited unavoidable repetion:]
The young Elder Cowley started out among the Maori people and spent most all of his mission with them. He learned the Maori language quickly and well. In fact, it was said he spoke the language better than any of the Maoris and had a more excellent vocabulary than anyone. His English vocabulary exceeded anything I had ever known, and I was in a position to know that his Maori must have been equally as good.
Matthew Cowley's first mission took place during the entire period of World War I. He traveled quite a bit during his mission, and I found out years later that he was very close to his mission president and was able to have a lot of unusual assignments traveling from one end of the mission to the other.
Having received the call, Elder Matthew Cowley wanted to serve but didn’t feel especially well prepared. In particular, he dreaded the prospect of speaking in public. Troubled by that fear, Matthew Cowley asked his father for advice as they awaited the train that would carry him away from home. Father Cowley told his son, “You stand up and with all fervor of your soul, you bear witness that Joseph Smith was a Prophet of the living God, and thoughts will flood into your mind and words to your mouth.” Matthew Cowley hadn’t even arrived in New Zealand when his father’s counsel proved to be prophetic. Applying this guidance as his missionary labors unfolded, Elder Cowley became a constant and able spokesman for the gospel cause throughout New Zealand.
Matthew Cowley, who performed many miracles, was also the recipient of miraculous blessings himself. One such he relates as having occurred on his first mission. He had been ill for some months when he received a letter from his mission president telling him they were having the annual mission conference, but for him to stay where he was and recuperate. He had just finished reading the letter when a telegram from the mission president came telling him to come to the conference. Said Matthew Cowley in recalling this experience:
“There were sixty-five of us there; then . . . the grand old mission president put his chair down in the center of the hall and he motioned for me to come and sit in it. I walked over and sat in that chair. I could hardly make it I was so weak. I sat down there and sixty-five of my brethren put their hands on me... and the mission president blessed me.
His name was William Gardner, a man seventy-three years of age. . . . He hadn’t been to school, but he was full of common sense and the Spirit of God. He put his hands on my head. It is the shortest blessing I believe I ever received. He said, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ and by virtue and authority of the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood, we command you to be made well immediately.’ That was all. I stood up out of the chair perfectly well. The old strength came right back through me from head to foot just as if it were being poured into me, and it was, by the gift and power of God.”
Matthias Cowley was a great man. He taught his children to honor the Presidency of the Church and the priesthood of God. He told them time and time again that if they ever had to choose between their own father and the leaders of the Church, that they must follow the leaders of the Church. Matthew Cowley grew up in that kind of a family. They stayed true to the faith.
I got to know Matthew Cowley on my mission as we traveled together, and he told me many interesting things—the fact that he had stayed in the home of the President of the Church [Wilford Woodruff] when he was just a baby, that he grew up on the block known as "Apostles' Row," just northwest of Temple Square. He lived next door to Anthon H. Lund, who was a counselor to President Joseph F. Smith; two blocks away from President Smith; and less than a block away from John Henry Smith, the father of George Albert Smith.
When he was just sixteen years old, Matthew asked his father if he could go on a mission. His father said that if the President of the Church would call hin1, he could do anything. So Brother Cowley let everybody know that he wanted to go. In a few days, a letter came from President Joseph F. Smith calling him to go to Hawaii on a mission. This young boy, about to turn seventeen, jumped with joy because he was going to Hawaii where two of his brothers had been and where he wanted to go. When his next-door neighbor Brother Lund drove up from work, Brother Cowley ran to tell him the great news.
Brother Lund said, "It's about time!" Imagine, Brother Cowley was just turning seventeen, but the neighbors already wanted to get rid of him! Brother Lund said to him, "You know, you have caused a lot of trouble in the neighborhood. You've broken my fence, my hedge, ruined our flowers, and caused all kinds of trouble. Hawaii is not far enough away. You need to get as far away from us as possible." And then, more seriously, he said, "I don't think you've been called to the right place. Would you care if I took this mission call back to the President of the Church and discussed it with him? I'm serious when I say that I think you should go to the 'uttermost bounds of the earth' to preach the Gospel." Then he took from this very disappointed young boy his mission call and discussed it with the President of the Church. [Editorial Note: Another account by written by Brother Rudd from what President Cowley told him adds some detail to this story: “One evening, President Anthon H. Lund, counselor to President Smith, who was our next-door neighbor came in to see me…. He looked at me and smiled and he said to me, ‘You know, that Hawaiian Mission isn’t too far away. The farther we can get you away from this neighborhood the better it is going to be for all of us, and that isn’t far enough. I think we had better get you way down there in New Zealand. . . . Seriously, I was having dinner tonight and the Spirit told me you should go to New Zealand. I don’t know why. That’s the way I feel. If it is all right with you, I will tell President Smith in the morning, and you will be changed to New Zealand.’”]
Within a couple of days, another letter came from Joseph F. Smith asking him to accept a call to go to New Zealand, which was definitely the "uttermost bounds of the earth."
So this young man went to New Zealand. He had just turned seventeen when he arrived in Auckland, spent a little time there, and then boarded a boat for a little town called Tauranga. About four miles south of Tauranga was a little Maori village, all LDS, known as Judea, where he lived among the Latter-day Saints. A little further away was another little village, all Catholic, that was known as Bethlehem.
Brother Cowley began to bless the people immediately. Not because he wanted to—he had never administered to anyone in his whole life. But just the day after he arrived, someone came rushing to him and said, "Come quick and bless!" So he went and blessed. He had so many great experiences from blessing numerous people during his mission that it would take a whole evening to tell just a few of those experiences.
Soon, he himself got sick from sunstroke. For eight months he was unable to do much physical work. During that time he read the Maori language out of the Bible and the Book of Mormon (which had been translated about seventeen years before by his cousin). He read out loud to the older Maori woman that lived there and as she listened to him speak the Maori language she corrected him, helped him, and taught him. He prayed and prayed. He used to get up and visit a little grove of trees, sometimes from 6 a.m. until dark, studying the Maori language. He became a magnificent orator. He also knew the English language very well. His vocabulary seemed limitless.
While living in Judea he had been out in the district and was riding home on his horse. It was a long ride, but the horse knew the way. This young man, still seventeen, fell asleep and had an unusual dream.
He said, "I saw myself as a little boy sitting on my father's lap, and I was scared. My father put his arms around me and held me. A man with a big long beard past his belt came over and put his hands on my head. I could see myself and my father and this old man. Then I woke up, still on the horse, and the thought came to me: I wonder if I have ever had a patriarchal blessing."
So when he got back to Judea, he wrote his mother a letter asking if he had ever had a patriarchal blessing. Two months later (it took one month for the mail to go each way), he received a reply from his mother. She said, "When you were five years old, you went with your father down into Mancos, Colorado and stayed in the home of an old patriarch. While there, your father asked the patriarch to give his little boy a patriarchal blessing. And he did, but you were scared. Your father told me when he came home that he had to hold you on his lap. You crawled up onto his lap, shivering and scared, so he put his arms around you to hold you. The man put his hands on your head and bestowed upon you your patriarchal blessing. Incidentally, he had a long white beard that went down below his belt. Enclosed is your patriarchal blessing."
Among other things, the blessing said: "My beloved son Matthew, I place my hands upon your head and confer upon you a patriarchal blessing. Thou shalt live to be a mighty man in Israel, for thou art a royal seed, the seed of Jacob through Joseph. Thou shalt become a great and mighty man in the eyes of the Lord, and become an ambassador of Christ to the uttermost bounds of the earth. Your understanding shall become great, and your wisdom reach to Heaven . . . the Lord will give you mighty faith as the brother of Jared, for thou shalt know that He lives and that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is true, even in your youth."
I was so grateful that I had the privilege of learning from him as a magnificent mission president who was only forty years old. He had been home from his first mission only eighteen years. To sit with him, to live in the mission home, to pray, and to eat at his dinner table, and to be a close companion, was one of the great blessings of my life.
He received the gift of languages. He could learn any language quickly. When he became an apostle, we ate together often. We would go into a Greek cafe and he would want to see the Greek chef, or the Chinese chef in a Chinese cafe, or the Japanese chef in a Japanese café—he would go and talk to them in their own language. He would say, "How do I say this?" or "How do I ask you about your wife and children?" They would tell him in their own language. And he never forgot. He had an unbelievable memory. It was wonderful to go with him and hear him talk to the Chinese, the Greeks, the Italians, or the Japanese, and always be able to carry on a little conversation.
At the conclusion of his first three-year mission, a big party was held for him in the little village of Tahuaiti. Soon after, the President of the Church assigned him to translate into Maori for the first time The Pearl of Great Price and The Doctrine and Covenants, and to retranslate the Book of Mormon.
Brother and Sister Wi Duncan, with whom Brother Cowley was staying, built two new big rooms onto their home. One was meant for sleeping and the other was for working on the translations. Those rooms were specially dedicated for this young man, who was now twenty years old, to retranslate the Book of Mormon, and no one else could go in them. He made 2,500 changes from the first translation, and it has never been altered since then. Then he translated the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. He was there for five years, all through the first World War.
Years later, when he was a mission president and I traveled with him, he invited me to sleep with him in the room he had used for translating, but the Maori people wouldn't let me stay in there. They said nobody but Brother Cowley could go in there. I have been in that house many times since then and I have always considered it a very sacred place.
Elder Matthew Cowley’s first assignment was to the Hauraki District where he and his companion lived with a Maori family in the village of Judea near the north island city of Tauranga. There he became acquainted with Maori customs and began to fall in love with these humble and loving saints.
Realities of missionary service soon descended on the maturing elder. Companionless for three months, Elder Cowley labored prayerfully to come to grips with homesickness and a growing list of physical ailments. Long days walking and riding a bicycle wore him down. Of these challenges, Elder Cowley would later say, “For eight months I was sick. I had boils, sunstroke, tapeworms, was kicked in the abdomen by a horse, and it was just one thing after another.” But, to the young elder, perhaps the worst plague of all was New Zealand fleas.
The fledgling elder felt strongly the need to learn the Maori language. He wanted to converse with the Maoris in their own language. His first Maori parents, the Halls, and their children schooled him. He later expressed thanks to Lizzie Hall Kohu, a daughter of the couple who had given him so much valued help with the language—“The few months I lived at your home I always regard as the most important period of my mission, as it was here I began to learn the Maori language. … I owe more to the people at Huria for my knowledge of the Maori language than to anyone else. Your mother was always such a wonderful help and inspiration to me in my work.”
Elder Cowley described his mighty struggle to learn the language in these words—“I would go into the grove every morning at six o’clock and study for eleven hours and fast and pray. Finally, after eleven or twelve weeks and all by myself with no missionary to encourage me, I had the audacity to stand up before a group of natives and preach the gospel in their own tongue. I was using words I had never read or heard, and there was a burning in my bosom the like of which I have never felt before nor since in my life. ... The power of God was speaking through me as a youngster, seventeen years of age.”
Said Patriarch Luther C. Burnham, in Mancos, Colorado, on May 4, 1903:
“My beloved son, Matthew, I place my hands upon your head to confer upon you a patriarchal blessing.
“Thou shat live to be a mighty man in Israel, for thou art of royal seed, the seed of Jacob through Joseph.
“Thou shalt become a great and a mighty man in the eyes of the Lord and become an ambassador of Christ to the uttermost bounds of the earth. Your understanding shall become great and your wisdom reach to heaven….
“The Lord will give you mighty faith of the brother of Jared, for thou shalt know that He lives and that the gospel of Jesus Christ is true even in your youth.”
With this mighty effort at the beginning of his missionary service, Elder Matthew Cowley commenced a labor that would carry him to all corners of New Zealand, allow him to discover the healing powers of the priesthood—including his own miraculous healing at the hands of President William Gardner and all sixty-five New Zealand missionaries, enable him to preach to countless congregations, serve as the mission Sunday School president, and prepare him for what was likely his greatest contribution to the Maori people.
President Lambert informed Elder Matthew Cowley that rather than returning home, his mission would be extended so that Elder Cowley could assist in revising the Maori version of the Book of Mormon.
As Elder Cowley explained the assignment in a 1932 letter to his sister Laura—“The Book of Mormon was translated many years ago into the Maori language by our cousin Joseph Foss Richards. In 1917, at the request of President Joseph F. Smith, I assisted the mission president in preparing a new edition . . .. I changed the translation of some 2500 verses.” Elder Cowley worked with the assistance of several Maori members.
President Lambert instructed Elder Cowley by letter regarding the procedure he wanted followed to complete the revision and get the book to the printer. He mailed the June 1917 letter to Elder Cowley at the home of Wiremu and Aperata Duncan in the rural community of Dannevirke about mid-way between Wellington and Hastings/Napier on New Zealand’s north island.
Wiremu and Aperata Duncan were early converts to the Church and progenitors to a posterity of faithful saints. The Duncan’s were devoted and prosperous and were among the first Maoris to travel to Utah in the early 1900s to be sealed in a temple. Aperata served two decades as Relief Society president for the mission. The Duncan’s lived with their two children, Wi and Mini, in a spacious Maori home that still stands and has been known for several generations as “The Grand.”
When the Duncan’s welcomed Elder Matthew Cowley to live with them while revising the Book of Mormon, they added two rooms to their home—a bedroom for the missionary, and a translation room. The rooms were duly dedicated for their sacred purpose. Elder Cowley acted as voice. He pronounced blessings of protection from the elements upon the house and its residents so long as they remained faithful.
During the spring of 1918, three and a half years into Elder Cowley’s mission, if the missionary expected that his mission was nearing an end, there is no indication in his correspondence. Instead, he came away from the April 1918 Hui Tau (mission conference) with new assignments, not the least of which was the appointment to a translation committee chaired by President Lambert. Elder Cowley was to join two prominent Maori brethren (young Wi Duncan and Stuart Meha) in translating the Book of Mormon and the other modern scriptures into Maori—the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price. Neither scripture had previously been translated. The new assignment prompted Elder Matthew Cowley to quip in a letter to his parents, “With all this work before me . . . you can expect me home sometime during the millennium.
We owe thanks for insights into the course of the translation to the letter from Matthew Cowley to his sister Laura, written a decade after the events occurred—“After the Book of Mormon was completed, two native brethren and I were set apart by the president to translate the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price. The three of us would read a verse in English, then each of us would make our own translation into Maori. We would then read the three translations and select the best. We continued this method for two or three weeks and then, because my translation was the one invariably that was chosen, my two friends left me to it, and I spent two years translating these two books.” The early months of Elder Cowley’s mission in Tauranga—dogged by illness and discouragement—his tireless pursuit of the Maori language through more than three years of daily preaching to and conversing with the Maori saints in their own tongue, and his diligent labors in refining Book of Mormon language into Maori had prepared the missionary for this signal contribution to the people he had grown to love.
The 1932 letter to Laura told the rest of the story—“The work was extremely interesting and was comparatively easy when I had the spirit of it. At intervals, however, I would lose the spirit, and this would cause me to spend hours over one short verse. Sometimes I could not work at all. When I found myself in this predicament I would lock myself in my room, and fast and pray, until I felt the urge to continue.”
Looking back on the lessons learned from his all-consuming investment in translating, Elder Cowley continued—“I can say in all sincerity that I experienced, during this work, the feeling of a helping power outside and beyond my own. Now when I read these books, I marvel that I was the one that was supposed to have done the translating. The language surpasses my own individual knowledge of it. This was the great experience of my life and it will always remind me that God can and will accomplish his purposes through the human mind.”
Elder Matthew Cowley’s full-time missionary service to the people of New Zealand had commenced while he was barely more than a boy and ended nearly five years later. These were years of labor, trial, sacrifice, boundless love for the people, and devotion to the gospel cause. When the ship Tainui steamed out of Wellington harbor on 15 May 1919 with the future mission president and apostle aboard, it left a land changed forever by the labors of one youth.
In June 1919, President James N. Lambert notified missionaries and district presidents that the Maori saints could purchase leather-bound copies of the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price for nine shillings apiece. For the first time, Elder Matthew Cowley’s beloved Maori people could read the word of the Lord contained in modern scriptures in their own tongue.
In tribute to Elder Matthew Cowley’s labors, President Lambert wrote to Matthias F. and Abbie Hyde Cowley—“I was down in Hawkes Bay last week—where Elder Cowley spent much of his time while working on the translation . . . when a farewell entertainment was given him. Could you have seen the many expressions of love and appreciation that were bestowed upon him, I know you would have rejoiced and thanked the Lord. Never before have I seen such love to an elder.”
In a letter to Matthew Cowley, returned to his Salt Lake City home and pursuing an education at the University of Utah, President Lambert pronounced a benediction on the young missionary’s legendary mission in these words—“I hope the lessons you learned while in this mission will not be forgotten by you and that you will be given some position that will keep you in the harness. The other day I was down at the Business Printing Works and Mr. McRobie and Mr. Apperly asked concerning you. If you only knew of the influence you have had on these men and on numerous others, you would indeed be happy. …You will never be forgotten by the Saints here and they hold you up as one of their ideals and should you ever do anything that was not in accordance with the gospel plan, their hopes will have been founded in vain.”
One of the best Maori friends I have ever had was a man by the name of Great Price Harris. He served as the bishop of the TeHauke Ward in the Hastings, New Zealand Stake. He was a very prosperous owner of a ranch with many sheep. He also became a member of the stake presidency and later the stake patriarch.
He visited our home in Salt Lake City on a number of occasions. While he was with us he would rather see an American football game than eat. Our whole family fell in love with Price.
When Matthew Cowley was a young missionary and towards the end of his mission, he was re-translating the Book of Mormon, and translating for the first time the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. On one Fast Sunday, during the time he was translating the Pearl of Great Price, he was asked to name and bless two little babies, a girl and a boy. The Maoris had a custom of asking a person to bless their children and giving them the privilege of actually choosing the name. Brother Cowley took the little girl and named her Pearl. Then he took the baby boy and named him Great Price. I've always been grateful that he wasn't translating the Doctrine and Covenants at that time.