“Dating the Restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood,” Ensign, June 1979, 5
Authors’ original spelling has been retained, following standard historical practice. See reasons for spelling variations in “Nineteenth-Century Spelling,” Ensign, Aug. 1975—including uncertain spelling conventions and spelling as an expression of personality.
When Oliver Cowdery returned to the Church in 1848 following an absence of over ten years, he bore testimony to a conference audience in Kanesville, Iowa, about the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood. Reuben Miller, a convert of two years, recorded Oliver’s testimony:
“I was present with Joseph when an holy angle from god came down from heaven and confered, or restored the Aronic priesthood. And said at the same time that it should remain upon the earth while the earth stands. I was also present with Joseph when the Melchesideck priesthood was confered by the holy angles of god— … which we then confirmed on each other by the will and commandment of god. This priesthood is also to remain upon the earth untill the Last remnant of time. This holy priesthood we confered upon many. And is just as good and valid as if God had confered it in person.”1
The conferral of the priesthood to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery was a primary requirement for the restoration of the Church. But although we know the exact date the Aaronic Priesthood was restored, time has apparently obscured such specific information about the Melchizedek Priesthood.
By examining scriptures and records of the time, however, we can put some pieces of the historical puzzle together to give us what may be a closer approximation of its elusive time sequence and background.
During the angel Moroni’s first visit with the Prophet Joseph on 21 September 1823, he quoted a Biblical prophecy that priesthood authority would be restored: “Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” (JS—H 1:38; see also Mal. 4:5.) (A succession of messengers, including Elijah, subsequently did participate in bringing specific priesthood keys to the Prophet.2) On the following day, 22 September 1823, Moroni met with Joseph at the Hill Cumorah and reiterated his promise of an investiture of priesthood power:
“When they [the gold plates] are interpreted the Lord will give the holy priesthood to some, and they shall begin to proclaim this gospel and baptize by water, and after that they shall have power to give the Holy Ghost by the laying on of their hands.”3
The preliminary fulfillment of that declaration took place six years later, on 15 May 1829, when the Prophet Joseph and his scribe, Oliver Cowdery, were in the process of translating the Book of Mormon plates. Prompted by a concept encountered in their work, they went into the woods near Joseph’s homestead in Harmony Township, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, to pray. Oliver Cowdery tells the results of that petition:
“On a sudden, as from the midst of eternity, the voice of the Redeemer spake peace to us, while the vail was parted and the angel of God came down clothed with glory, and delivered the anxiously looked for message, and the keys of the gospel of repentance!”4
Joseph Smith states that the messenger conferred the Priesthood of Aaron upon them. The angelic visitor explained that the priesthood “had not the power of laying on hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, but that this should be conferred on us hereafter.” (History of the Church, 1:39). After identifying himself as John the Baptist, the messenger further stipulated “that he acted under the direction of Peter, James and John who held the keys of the Priesthood of Melchizedek, which Priesthood he said would in due time be conferred on us” (History of the Church, 1:40).
The Doctrine and Covenants attests in several places that the higher priesthood was subsequently restored. In Section 27 (August 1830), the Lord refers to the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood as something which had already taken place. He speaks of “Peter, and James, and John, whom I have sent unto you, by whom I have ordained you and confirmed you to be apostles, and especial witnesses of my name, and bear the keys of your ministry and of the same things which I revealed unto them” (D&C 27:12).
In Section 20, given four months earlier (April 1830), the Lord refers to Joseph and Oliver’s prior ordinations to the priesthood, speaking of commandments which “were given to Joseph Smith, Jun., who was called of God, and ordained an apostle of Jesus Christ, to be the first elder of this church; and to Oliver Cowdery, who was also called of God, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to be the second elder of this church, and ordained under his hand” (D&C 20:2–3).
The earliest scriptural account referring to a bestowal of the higher priesthood, however, is contained in Section 18, dated a year prior, June 1829. As preface to this section, the Prophet recorded in his history: “The following commandment will further illustrate the nature of our calling to this Priesthood, as well as that of others who were yet to be sought after” (History of the Church, 1:61–62; italics added). From the verses that follow, it is apparent that by this time, Joseph and Oliver had already received the Melchizedek Priesthood, and that David Whitmer had also received an injunction to serve as an apostle. The Lord stated: “And now, Oliver Cowdery, I speak unto you, and also unto David Whitmer, by the way of commandment; for, behold, I command all men everywhere to repent, and I speak unto you, even as unto Paul mine apostle, for you are called even with that same calling with which he was called” (D&C 18:9; italics added). In explanation of this development, President Brigham Young related to the Saints: “Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer were the first Apostles of this dispensation, though in early days of the Church David Whitmer lost his standing” (Journal of Discourses, 6:320). David maintained that he had received an early priesthood ordination at the hands of the Prophet Joseph during the month of June 1829.5
Although the headnote to section 18 mentions no specific day in June, it is possible to place the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood between the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood (15 May 1829) and the date of this revelation (June 1829). In a letter dated 14 June 1829, Oliver Cowdery wrote from Fayette, New York, to the Prophet’s brother, Hyrum Smith, who was then residing in Manchester Township, Ontario County, New York. The letter is significant because much of the wording is parallel to ideas found in section 18; therefore, the date of the letter helps pinpoint the date of the revelation. A look at the unmistakable similarities between Oliver’s letter and the revelation strongly suggests that Oliver was aware of the content of section 18 as he corresponded with Hyrum on June 14:
D&C 18:10–14, 21–25 (italics added)
Oliver’s letter to Hyrum
10. Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God;
Dear Brother Hyrum
These few lines I write unto you feeling anxious for your steadfastness in the great cause of which you have been called to advocate and also feeling it a duty to write to you at every opportunity. Remember the worth of Souls is great in the Sight of God. Behold the Lord your God Suffered death upon the cross after the maner of the flesh; wherefore he Suffered the pains of all men that all men might repent and come unto him and he hath risen again from the dead that he might bring all men unto him upon the conditions of repentence and how great is his joy in the Soul that repents and behold he commandeth all men to everywhere to repent and [be] baptised and not only men but women [and] children which have arrived to the years of accountibility. Stir up the minds of our friends against the time we come unto you that thus [then?] they may be willing to take upon them the name of Christ for that is the name by which they shall be called at the Last day and if we know not the name by which we are called I fear we shall be found on the [left?] hand. I have many things to write but if the Lord will, I shall shortly come unto you then. Tell Mrs. [Mr.?] Rockwell that those shose fit well and I received them as from the Lord. Tell him that what ever he does in the cause of Zion he will in no wise loose his reward. …6
11. For, behold, the Lord your Redeemer suffered death in the flesh; wherefore he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come unto him.
12. And he hath risen again from the dead, that he might bring all men unto him, on conditions of repentance.
13. And how great is his joy in the soul that repenteth!
14. Wherefore, you are called to cry repentance unto this people. …
21. Take upon you the name of Christ, and speak the truth in soberness.
22. And as many as repent and are baptized in my name, which is Jesus Christ, and endure to the end, the same shall be saved.
23. Behold, Jesus Christ is the name which is given of the Father, and there is none other name given whereby man can be saved;
24. Wherefore, all men must take upon them the name which is given of the Father, for in that name shall they be called at the last day;
25. Wherefore, if they know not the name by which they are called, they cannot have place in the kingdom of my Father.
Oliver is apparently quoting from or referring to the existing revelation. If this is a valid assessment, the date of that letter, 14 June 1829, narrows still further the time period in which the restoration could have taken place—between May 15 and June 14—a period of only one month.
There is evidence to support still another reduction in the time sequence. Because of a decided increase in opposition to their work of translation and other activities in the area of Harmony, Joseph and Oliver began searching for a safe place to complete the translation of the Book of Mormon. Oliver wrote to his friend, David Whitmer, for assistance.
David later stated that in the letter, Oliver told “me to come down into Pennsylvania and bring him and Joseph to my father’s house, giving as a reason therefore that they had received a commandment from God to that effect. I went down to Harmony, and found everything just as they had written me.”7 According to Joseph Smith’s records, they went to the Whitmer farm “in the beginning of the month of June” (History of the Church, 1:48–49). David Whitmer’s account concurs with the prophet Joseph’s: “The translation at my father’s occupied about one month, that is from June 1 to July 1, 1829.”8 If David’s report of June 1 can be taken literally, then Joseph and Oliver had already arrived at Fayette by that date.
This is a significant clue because Peter, James, and John appeared to Joseph somewhere between Joseph’s homestead in Harmony, Pennsylvania, and Colesville, New York—both of which are considerably south of Fayette. Therefore, the visitation would seem to have taken place before Joseph, Oliver, and David travelled north to Fayette, arriving on June 1.
An obvious question at this point is whether or not the priesthood was restored while the group was traveling from Harmony to the Whitmer farm—perhaps by way of their friends at Colesville? David Whitmer, by inference said no to this inquiry. Orson Pratt asked David the direct question: “Can you tell the date of the bestowal of the Apostleship upon Joseph, by Peter, James and John?” David replied: “I do not know, Joseph never told me. I can only tell you what I know, for I will not testify to anything I do not know.”9 It appears from David’s reply that the event did not take place at a time when David was present nor even in the immediate proximity—so that event seems to have transpired before the three began the journey.
David’s journey down to Harmony from Fayette had occupied approximately three days.10 Assuming that a similar amount of time was expended on the return trip, and that the arrival date at the Whitmer home was indeed June 1, then perhaps at least two, and probably three additional days could be pared off the end of the month of May 1829, in a further reduction of the probable restoration period; therefore, the visitation probably occurred between 15 May and about 29 May 1829.
There is yet another question which must be asked: Did Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery travel with David to the Whitmer farm only to return to Harmony during the month of June? If they did, perhaps the event transpired during a return visit.
In light of the demands of continued translation on the Book of Mormon, securing the copyright on June 11, (although this conceivably could have been accomplished through correspondence), Oliver’s previously mentioned letter to Hyrum Smith on June 14 from Fayette, and their many proselyting activities in the area, it is doubtful that Joseph Smith and Oliver had time to return to the Susquehanna during that month. Joseph Smith details just how busy they were kept in Fayette during June:
“We found the people of Seneca County in general friendly, and disposed to enquire into the truth of these strange matters which now began to be noised abroad. Many opened their houses to us, in order that we might have an opportunity of meeting with our friends for the purpose of instruction and explanation. We met with many from time to time who were willing to hear us, and who desired to find out the truth as it is in Christ Jesus, and apparently willing to obey the Gospel, when once fairly convinced and satisfied in their own minds; and in this same month of June, my brother Hyrum Smith, David Whitmer, and Peter Whitmer, Jun., were baptized in Seneca lake, the two former by myself, the latter by Oliver Cowdery. From this time forth many became believers and some were baptized whilst we continued to instruct and persuade as many as applied for information” (History of the Church, 1:51).
I believe that the press of these matters kept the Prophet Joseph and Oliver too busy in Seneca County to return to Harmony during the month of June 1829. Therefore, all the information we now have, taken together, seems to place the date of the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood between 15 and about 29 May 1829.
The question of where the priesthood was restored is easier to answer than when. While reminiscing on the singular events of this period, the Prophet recorded: “The voice of Peter, James, and John [came] in the wilderness between Harmony, Susquehanna County, and Colesville, Broome County, on the Susquehanna river, declaring themselves as possessing the keys of the kingdom, and of the dispensation of the fulness of time!” (D&C 128:20). I suspect that the visitation occurred while Joseph Smith was still living in Harmony (before moving to the Whitmer farm) during one of his trips to Colesville to visit the Joseph Knight family.
While Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were engrossed in the translation of the Book of Mormon at Harmony during April and May 1829, the urgency which they felt for completing their labor (which had already been delayed by the loss of 116 manuscript pages) left little or no time for them to engage in the daily pursuits of the necessities of life. Although the Isaac Hale family was in a position to assist them financially, Joseph Knight, Sr., states: “His wifes father and family ware all against him and would not h[e]lp him.”11 This difficulty was greatly alleviated through the exceptional generosity of the Knight family, who on more than one occasion supplied them with food and even provided paper for the manuscript.
Understandably, Joseph Smith felt a particular affinity for the Knight family, and that feeling was reciprocated. Joseph Knight, Sr., had shown a genuine interest in the work of the Prophet from the outset, having been present at the Smith’s Manchester home on 22 September 1827, when Joseph first obtained the gold plates from the Hill Cumorah. The Prophet made a number of trips along the twenty-eight mile stretch of road from Harmony to the Knight farm, which was situated opposite the village of Nineveh, on the east side of the Susquehanna River, in Colesville Township, Broome County, New York. Probably the occasion for the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood stemmed from one such visit undertaken by Joseph and Oliver.
A recorded experience of Brother Addison Everett12 may give us some additional insights into the immediate circumstances of that special event. In correspondence between himself and Oliver B. Huntington in 1881, Brother Everett asserted:
“I heard the following conversation between Joseph and Hyrum a few days before they were martyred. … Oliver Cowdery was spoken of and Joseph went on to state that ‘at Coalville [Colesville] he and Oliver were under arrest on charge of Deceiving the people and in court he stated that the first miracle done was to create this earth. About that time his attorney told the court that he wanted to see Mr. Smith alone a few moments. When alone Mr. Reid said that there was a mob in front of the house and hosting [hoisting] the window, Joseph and Oliver went to the woods in a few rods, it being night, and they traveled until Oliver was exhausted and Joseph almost carred him through mud and water. They traveled all night and just at the break of day Oliver gave out entirely and exclaimed O Lord, How long Brother Joseph have we got to endure this thing.’
“Brother Joseph said that at that very time Peter, James and John came to them and ORDAINED THEM to the APOSTLESHIP.
“They had 16 or 17 miles to travel to get back to Mr. Hale’s, his father-in-law, and Oliver did not complain any more of fatigue.
“Now, brother Huntington, I have told you what I heard Bro. Joseph tell almost the last time I ever heard him talk.
“It is a source of satisfaction and pleasure to me to have seen and heard the Prophet of God.”13
We can accept elements of this account only with reservation. John Reid, mentioned in the story, was involved in Joseph Smith’s June–July 1830 trial—one year later. How well Addison Everett was able to segregate his facts and not merge events of the two summers is uncertain.
However, in relation to the fleeing from enemies, Elder Erastus Snow gave a similar account as he addressed a Logan, Utah, conference in 1882:
“In the due course of time, as we read in the history which he [Joseph] has left, Peter, James and John appeared to him—it was at a period when they were being pursued by their enemies and they had to travel all night, and in the dawn of the coming day when they were weary and worn, who should appear to them but Peter, James and John, for the purpose of conferring upon them the Apostleship, the keys of which they themselves had held while upon the earth, which had been bestowed upon them by the Savior. This Priesthood conferred upon them by those three messengers embraces within it all offices of the Priesthood from the highest to the lowest.” (Journal of Discourses, 23:183.)
Since Elder Snow and Brother Everett were contemporaries in the St. George area, we can’t be sure whether this is an experience which Brother Everett had shared with the Apostle or whether they knew it independently. In any instance, it is evident that Elder Snow thought the account was true.
Some researchers have felt that an instance reported by Joseph Smith in 1842, bearing certain similarities to the Everett account, might have reference to the restoration period and may help classify the Everett Account. The Prophet wrote:
“When I first commenced this work, and had got two or three individuals to believe, I went about thirty miles with Oliver Cowdery, to see them. We had only one horse between us. When we arrived, a mob of about one hundred men came upon us before we had time to eat, and chased us all night; and we arrived back again [at Harmony] a little after daylight, having traveled about sixty miles in all, and without food. I have often traveled all night to see the brethren; and, when traveling to preach the Gospel among strangers, have frequently been turned away without food.” (History of the Church, 5:219.)
I feel that this account approximates the experience of the Prophet which occurred a year later, in 1830 and that it is not part of the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood. In July 1830, Joseph and Oliver returned to Colesville to attend to some confirmations when they were confronted by a mob. The two men “considered it wisdom” to flee, records Joseph, “without even waiting for any refreshments” (History of the Church, 1:97).
As intriguing as research into the specific details may be, the most important matter, of course, is that the priesthood indeed was restored. In later references to the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood, Oliver Cowdery was more concerned with the ramifications of the event than with a delineation of time and circumstance. Among his statements on the matter is a very positive response to Phineas H. Young. Writing from Tiffin, Ohio, in 1846, Oliver told to his friend: “I have cherished a hope, and that one of my fondest, that I might leave such a character as those who might believe in my testimony, after I should be called hence, might do so, not only for the sake of the truth, but might not blush for the private character of the man who bore that testimony.” He further stated to Phineas, “I have been sensitive on this subject, I admit; but I ought to be so—you would be, under the circumstances, had you stood in the presence of John, with our departed brother Joseph, to receive the Lesser Priesthood—and in the presence of Peter, to receive the Greater, and look down through time, and witnessed the effects these two must produce.”14
Oliver was even more definitive in a statement which he wrote for Samuel W. Richards while a guest in the latter’s home on 13 January 1849. Oliver and his wife, Elizabeth Ann Whitmer, were en route from Council Bluffs to Ray County, Missouri, for a visit with Elizabeth’s brother, David Whitmer, when a snow storm forced them to take shelter with the Richards family. The Cowderys remained there for almost two weeks, during which time Oliver Cowdery penned the following lines at the request of his host:
“While darkness covered the earth and gross darkness the people; long after the authority to administer in holy things had been taken away, the Lord opened the heavens and sent forth his word for the salvation of Israel. In fulfillment of the sacred Scripture the everlasting Gospel was proclaimed by the mighty angel, (Moroni) who, clothed with the authority of his mission, gave glory to God in the highest. This Gospel is the ‘stone taken from the mountain without hands.’ John the Baptist, holding the keys of the Aaronic Priesthood; Peter, James and John, holding the keys of the Melchisedek Priesthood, have also ministered for those who shall be heirs of salvation, and with these ministrations ordained men to the same Priesthoods. These Priesthoods, with their authority, are now, and must continue to be, in the body of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Blessed is the Elder who has received the same, and thrice blessed and holy is he who shall endure to the end. Accept assurances, dear Brother, of the unfeigned prayer of him, who, in connection with Joseph the Seer, was blessed with the above ministrations, and who earnestly and devoutly hopes to meet you in the celestial glory.”15
Imbued with a personal knowledge of the great labor which had been inaugurated by the powers of heaven through vested servants, Oliver sought opportunity to give a fervent testimony of that experience in what Samuel Richards described as the “last living testimony, though oft repeated, of the wonderful manifestations which brought the authority of God to men on earth.”16
The scriptures and the history of the Latter-day Saints attest that the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood took place as prerequisite to the reestablishment of Christ’s church upon the earth. The priesthood thus conferred by holy apostles, Peter, James, and John, embraced all of the offices of the priesthood from higher to lesser. The keys of presidency contained within the apostleship conveyed on that occasion represented the highest authority conferred upon man in the flesh. By virtue of these keys of priesthood, the Prophet Joseph proceeded to ordain and set in order the various quorums as they are known in the Church today. All of this was done in accordance with the design of the Lord in order that he might, according to Elder Erastus Snow in 1882, “raise up a peculiar people to himself, a holy nation, a royal Priesthood—a kingdom of Priests, that shall be saviors upon Mount Zion, not only to preach the Gospel to the scattered remnants of Israel, but to save to the uttermost the nations of the Gentiles, inasmuch as they will listen and can be saved by the plan which God has provided.” (Journal of Discourses, 23:183.)