“The Restoration of the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods,” Ensign, Dec. 1996, 30–47
The growth of the Church in the latter days can be seen as a stone rolling forth “until it has filled the whole earth” (D&C 65:2). Even so, fundamental historical events of the decade before the appointed day for the Church’s organization on 6 April 1830 are to be seen as seminal events that gave life-giving power necessary to form anew the Lord’s Church in the latter days.
Among these events is the restoration of the Aaronic and the Melchizedek Priesthoods, bringing back priesthood power and authority required for the organization of the Church on earth. The Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery received the Aaronic Priesthood, with its authority to baptize, on 15 May 1829. The Melchizedek Priesthood was restored next, bringing to earth all the power and authority necessary to organize and direct the Church of Jesus Christ and to perform additional saving priesthood ordinances. While the Prophet and his associate, Oliver, did not record the date that they received the Melchizedek Priesthood, historical records and the testimony of witnesses indicate that it occurred between the day after the Aaronic Priesthood restoration and 28 May 1829. Both the scriptures and the testimony of contemporaries attest that the brethren on whom the Lord had bestowed the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood—the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery—acted in the authority of those keys as they organized the Church on 6 April 1830.
Nearly six years before Oliver Cowdery began serving as Joseph Smith’s scribe, the young Prophet Joseph received divine instruction from the angel Moroni relative to the restoration of priesthood authority. On 22 September 1823 Moroni taught Joseph that “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.” 1
The first step toward fulfillment of that promise took place on 15 May 1829 while Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were in the process of bringing forth the Book of Mormon. The Prophet recalled:
“We still continued the work of translation, when, in the ensuing month (May, 1829), we on a certain day went into the woods to pray and inquire of the Lord respecting baptism for the remission of sins, that we found mentioned in the translation of the plates. While we were thus employed, praying and calling upon the Lord, a messenger from heaven descended in a cloud of light, and having laid his hands upon us, he ordained us, saying:
“Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah, I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins. …
“He said this Aaronic 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; and he commanded us … that I should baptize Oliver Cowdery, and that afterwards he should baptize me.
“Accordingly we went and were baptized. I baptized him first, and afterwards he baptized me—after which I laid my hands upon his head and ordained him to the Aaronic Priesthood, and afterwards he laid his hands on me and ordained me to the same Priesthood—for so we were commanded.
“The messenger who visited us on this occasion and conferred this Priesthood upon us, said that his name was John, the same that is called John the Baptist in the New Testament, and 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” (JS—H 1:68–72; emphasis in JS—H 1:70, 72 added). 2
John the Baptist’s procedure in ordaining Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery to the Aaronic Priesthood involved, first, his conferring the priesthood upon them, followed by their baptizing each other and then his instructing them to lay hands on each other and confer the priesthood that the angel had recently bestowed. Among the reasons suggested for this unusual pattern, other than “for so we were commanded,” are the following:
“First, to confer the Priesthood before baptism, is contrary to the order of the organized Church, therefore they were commanded to confer the Priesthood upon each other in the regular way; after they were baptized. Second, the angel did for them that which they could not do for themselves. There was no one living in mortality who held the keys of this Priesthood, therefore it was necessary that this messenger, who held the keys of the Aaronic Priesthood in the Dispensation of the Meridian of Time, should be sent to confer this power. It is contrary to the order of heaven for those who have passed beyond the veil to officiate and labor for the living on the earth, only wherein mortal man cannot act, and thereby it becomes necessary for those who have passed through the resurrection to act for them. Otherwise John would have followed the regular order, which is practiced in the Church, and would have first baptized Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and then conferred upon them the Aaronic Priesthood.” 3
In looking back six years later on that great and significant event of 15 May 1829, Oliver recorded a very interesting description of the physical setting and events of that day. While copying into a book some blessings given earlier by the Prophet Joseph Smith, Oliver wrote on 28 September 1835 what might be termed a preface to the book of blessings:
“He [Joseph Smith] was ordained by the angel John, unto the lesser or Aaronic priesthood, in company with myself, in the town of Harmony, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, on Fryday, the 15th day of May, 1829, after which we repaired to the water, even to the Susquehanna River, and were baptized, he first ministering unto me and after—I to him. But before baptism, our souls were drawn out in mighty prayer—to know how we might obtain the blessings of baptism and of the Holy Spirit, according to the order of God, and we diligently sought for the right of the fathers and the authority of the holy priesthood, and the power to admin[ister] in the same: … the Lord … answered us out of the heavens, and while we were in the heavenly vision the angel came down and bestowed upon us this priesthood; and then, as I have said, we repaired to the water and were baptized. After this we received the high and holy [Melchizedek] priesthood.” 4
Shortly after recording this 1835 “preface,” Oliver then transcribed a blessing Joseph Smith had given him on 18 December 1833. The text of this 1833 blessing is important as an early account of the restoration of both the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods and the persons involved:
“These blessings shall come upon him [Oliver] according to the blessings of the prophecy of Joseph in ancient days, which he said should come upon the Seer of the last days and the Scribe that should sit with him, and that should be ordained with him by the hand of the angel in the bush, unto the lesser priesthood and after receive the holy priesthood under the hands of they <those> who had been held in reserve for a long season even those who received it under the hand of the Messiah while he should dwell in the flesh upon the earth, and should receive the blessings with him, even the Seer of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saith he, even Joseph of old, by his hand, even God.” 5
The Prophet said that they at first kept private the circumstances of their baptism and conferral of the Aaronic Priesthood on 15 May 1829 because of the spirit of persecution in Harmony, where they had been threatened with being mobbed.
Despite threats, Joseph and Oliver concluded that their message was too urgent for them to be intimidated. They soon began to “reason out of the scriptures” with family members and other acquaintances. Among the first to receive their ministrations was Samuel H. Smith, the Prophet’s younger brother. Joseph and Oliver taught him out of the Bible and showed him what they had accomplished thus far in the work of translating the Book of Mormon. Samuel was baptized for the remission of sins on 25 May 1829 near Joseph Smith’s Harmony homestead and thereafter “returned to his father’s house, greatly glorifying and praising God, being filled with the Holy Spirit.” 6 Before Samuel reached home in Palmyra, Hyrum Smith, Joseph’s elder brother, came to Harmony to make inquiries concerning Joseph and Oliver’s labors and to know what the Lord would have him do. He was the recipient of a revelation admonishing him to “wait a little longer, until you shall have my word, my rock, my church, and my gospel, that you may know of a surety my doctrine” (D&C 11:16). He was baptized the next month for the remission of sins in Seneca Lake, Fayette Township, Seneca County, New York, by Joseph Smith in June. 7
During the appearance of John called the Baptist, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were informed that the Melchizedek Priesthood, with its power to bestow the gift of the Holy Ghost, “would in due time be conferred on us” (JS—H 1:72). 8 Just when was that “due time”?
The day, month, and year designation that so precisely identifies the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood (15 May 1829) is absent in the case of the Melchizedek Priesthood. Similarly, knowledge of the attendant circumstances of that restoration is limited. Even so, sufficient elements of the historical puzzle can be put together to give us a close approximation of the time sequence. Evidence suggests a date within the 13-day period from 16 May to 28 May 1829.
To begin, the scriptures clearly attest that the foretold restoration of the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood and bestowal of apostolic authority were accomplished. In September 1830 the Lord unmistakably confirmed this fact when he spoke to the Prophet Joseph Smith 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). 9 Still earlier in the year, when the Church was organized on 6 April, reference was made to commandments that “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).
President Joseph Fielding Smith explained why Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery ordained each other elders nearly a year after they had received the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood: “The priesthood is greater than the office, and all offices in the priesthood, we are taught, are appendages to the priesthood [see D&C 107:5]. … The priesthood with its keys existed before the Church organization, but not the offices in the Church, which belong to the Church and are held by the consent of the same.” 10
That Joseph and Oliver had previously received the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood under the hands of Peter, James, and John is further affirmed by the proceedings of the organizational meeting held on 6 April 1830. Without those keys, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery would not have been authorized or would not have had the priesthood power to take the actions they took on that day. Although each already had received the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood and apostolic authority, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery ordained each other to be an elder to “signify that they were elders in the newly organized Church.” 11 They then used the higher priesthood to confirm those who had previously been baptized members of the Church and conferred upon them the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. Of that occasion the Prophet stated, “The Holy Ghost was poured out upon us to a very great degree—some prophesied, whilst we all praised the Lord, and rejoiced exceedingly.” 12
Ordinations of other brethren to various offices in the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods were also performed by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery both on that day and on the occasion of the first conference of the Church, which followed on 9 June 1830. 13
In addition to the testimony of the events themselves on that appointed day of 6 April 1830, there are the statements of men who were closely associated with the Prophet, who sat in council with him. These statements provide invaluable affirmation that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery had indeed received the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood well before the organization of the Church.
Orson Pratt, who joined the Church on 1 September 1830, understood the restoration process very well. Later a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, he affirmed: “It would be impossible for a Church to be re-organized upon the earth, unless God had bestowed the authority upon men to act in his name, that is, had spoken from on high and called them by revelation.”
Elder Pratt explained that John, the restorer of the Aaronic Priesthood, had taught while he was upon the earth that there was a greater priesthood—the priesthood after the order of Melchizedek—through which the obedient could receive the higher baptism, of fire and the Holy Ghost. “Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery sought after this higher authority, and the Lord gave it to them, before the rise of this Church, sending to them Peter, James and John. What for? To bestow upon them the Apostleship. …
“Now, who would be better qualified to administer the sacred office of the Apostleship than the three men who held it while they were here on the earth? … It has to be a man who holds authority in heaven that can bestow it here on the earth; and such men were Peter, James and John, who restored that authority to earth in our day, by bestowing it upon Joseph Smith. When this authority was restored, the Church was organized on the 6th day of April 1830, … and then there was power in existence, not only to baptize, but to confirm by the laying on of hands for the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost; and from the authority then sent down afresh from heaven has this Church been enabled to pass along, and receive the great blessings which the Lord has bestowed upon it.” 14
Hiram Page, a son-in-law of Peter Whitmer Sr., and one who was present on the day of the Church’s 6 April 1830 organization, later confirmed that “Peter, James and John” had come and bestowed the Holy Priesthood “before the 6th of April 1830.” 15
Brigham Young, confidant of the Prophet, began his examination of the gospel in 1830 and joined the Church in 1832. He declared, “I know that Joseph received his Apostleship from Peter, James, and John, before a revelation on the subject was printed, and he never had a right to organize a Church before he was an Apostle.” 16
Perhaps the earliest document referring to the bestowal of the higher priesthood before the organization of the Church is a manuscript in Oliver Cowdery’s handwriting with the designation, “Written in the year of our Lord & Saviour 1829—A true copy of the articles of the Church of Christ.” In the “articles,” the Lord specifies, “I command all men every where to repent & I speak unto you even as unto Paul mine apostle for ye are called even with that same calling with which he was called.” 17 We may note that the essentials of this quotation are contained in D&C 18:9, revealed in June 1829. As a preface to section 18, 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.” 18 In verse 9 of that revelation, 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.”
Thus, by this point—sometime in June 1829—not only had Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery received the divine apostolic call, but David Whitmer also had received a calling to serve as a third special witness of the Lord (see accompanying sidebar article titled “David Whitmer’s Calling,” p. 37).
It is also apparent that their apostolic calling came before mid-June. In a letter dated 14 June 1829, Oliver Cowdery wrote from Fayette, New York, to the Prophet’s brother Hyrum Smith, then residing in Manchester Township, Ontario County, New York. The letter contains wording very parallel to section 18 of the Doctrine and Covenants. A comparison strongly suggests that Oliver was quoting and referring to the revelation, 19 indicating that it had already been received by that date. (See accompanying sidebar article titled “An Early Quoting of Section 18,” p. 38). By focusing on the point that the apostleship spoken of in D&C 18:9 is the same held by Jesus’ ancient Twelve, we see that the Melchizedek Priesthood had been restored before 14 June 1829.
In fact, further evidence suggests that this restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood took place at least several days before the end of May 1829! Joseph and Oliver experienced a decided increase in opposition to their work of translation and to their other activities in the area of Harmony, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, in the first part of 1829. Lucy Mack Smith mentioned that the situation had become so bad that “evil-designing people were seeking to take away his (Joseph’s) life, in order to prevent the work of God from going forth to the world.” 20 As a consequence, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were searching for a safer location to complete the translation of the Book of Mormon. Oliver sent out a call for assistance to his friend, David Whitmer.
David later stated that a letter from Oliver told “me to come down into Pennsylvania and bring him and Joseph to my father’s house, giving as a reason therefor 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.” 21 The Prophet said that they accordingly went to the home of Peter Whitmer Sr. “in the beginning of the month of June.” 22 In addition, David Whitmer said that “the translation at my father’s farm, Fayette Township, Seneca County, New York occupied about one month, that is from June 1, to July 1, 1829.” 23
Consequently, we must ask when the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood could have taken place between 16 May and 14 June 1829.
Could the event have transpired as Joseph, Oliver, and David (Emma remained in Harmony with her parents for a time) were on their way from Harmony to Fayette? According to David Whitmer, the answer is no. Orson Pratt asked him 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.” 24 So the visitation did not occur while the three men were traveling together for the estimated standard three-day travel time that it took to travel from Harmony to Fayette.
Could the Melchizedek Priesthood restoration have occurred shortly after Joseph and Oliver removed to Fayette, New York? Did they travel to the Whitmer farm, in the Finger Lakes area of west central New York, only to take a three-day return trip to Harmony, Pennsylvania, and the area where the visitation of Peter, James, and John evidently occurred, 25 sometime during the month of June for a hurried visit and then to take three more days for going back to Fayette? Extremely unlikely—because the demands of continued translation of the Book of Mormon and securing the copyright on 11 June, along with Oliver’s previously mentioned letter to Hyrum Smith on 14 June, place them in Fayette during the first two weeks of that month. And as we have seen, the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood had occurred by the middle of June. In addition, efforts to explain their work to some of the residents of the Fayette area fairly well preclude a return to Harmony during the remainder of June. In fact, Joseph detailed just how busy they were with the many people seeking information. 26 It is quite apparent that all these pressures kept Joseph and Oliver engaged at Fayette during all of June 1829 and that there was no intermediate six-day travel period in the first half of June to go back and forth from Harmony.
Thus, by looking at the time period when the visitation of Peter, James, and John could have occurred, we are left with the days between 16 May 1829 (the day after the Aaronic Priesthood was restored) and near the end of that month, before Joseph and Oliver’s departure with David Whitmer for Fayette, where they arrived on 1 June.
Further, since David Whitmer’s journey from Fayette to Harmony, where he picked up Joseph and Oliver, occupied its anticipated three days, 27 and since a similar amount of time likely was expended on the trip to arrive at the Whitmer home on 1 June, it is clear that Joseph and Oliver left the Harmony area certainly two, and likely three, days before 1 June 1829. Consequently, these factors point to the visitation of Peter, James, and John to restore the Melchizedek Priesthood as occurring within the 13-day period of 16 to 28 May 1829.
Although Peter, James, and John had conferred the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and bestowed on them apostolic authority, the two men had not yet been authorized to follow the pattern applied by John the Baptist during the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood. Receipt of the Aaronic Priesthood had involved their first having the priesthood conferred upon them by the messenger who held the keys, and then they were authorized to perform their own baptisms and conferrals in the same order that we are familiar with today.
However, in the case of the conferral of the Melchizedek Priesthood on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, the ancient Apostles had instructed Joseph and Oliver to not yet ordain each other to an office within the Melchizedek Priesthood. Thus, while Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were at the Whitmer farm in June 1829, they continued to inquire of the Lord concerning when they might ordain each other to an office within the Melchizedek Priesthood. In answer to their prayers, they learned by “the word of the Lord” that the period of deferment of their ordaining each other was to continue until events preliminary to the actual organization of the Church could be completed and until these two men could meet with their brethren and receive their sanction by vote of common consent as to whether or not their brethren accepted them as their spiritual leaders. This revelation came when they went into the chamber (bedroom) of the Whitmer home to pray for direction concerning the exercise of the Melchizedek Priesthood authority they had earlier received by the Susquehanna. Joseph Smith related the results of their petition:
“We now became anxious to have that promise realized to us, which the angel that conferred upon us the Aaronic Priesthood had given us, viz., that provided we continued faithful, we should also have the Melchizedek Priesthood, which holds the authority of the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost. We had for some time made this matter a subject of humble prayer, and at length we got together in the chamber of Mr. Whitmer’s house, in order more particularly to seek of the Lord what we now so earnestly desired; and here, to our unspeakable satisfaction, did we realize the truth of the Savior’s promise—‘Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you’—for we had not long been engaged in solemn and fervent prayer, when the word of the Lord came unto us in the chamber, commanding us that I should ordain Oliver Cowdery to be an Elder in the Church of Jesus Christ; and that he also should ordain me to the same office; and then to ordain others, as it should be made known unto us from time to time. We were, however, commanded to defer this our ordination until such times as it should be practicable to have our brethren, who had been and who should be baptized, assembled together, when we must have their sanction to our proceeding to ordain each other, and have them decide by vote whether they were willing to accept us as spiritual teachers or not; … [and] then call out such men as the Spirit should dictate, and ordain them; and then attend to the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, upon all those whom we had previously baptized, doing all things in the name of the Lord.” 28
Peter, James, and John had previously conferred the Melchizedek Priesthood upon them. Now “the word of the Lord” taught them that their ordination within that priesthood would be tied to the organization of the Church, and that this organizational event would be at a future time yet to be specified. Obviously, it was instruction of great joy to them and alerted them to a great future event for which they would need to be prepared. Later, by revelation the Lord set the date of 6 April 1830 for the organization of the Church, for the attendant actions of common consent, and for ordinations of the Melchizedek Priesthood within the newly-organized Church. 29 As a consequence, the Lord’s June 1829 “blueprint” for Church organization was formally carried out on the appointed day, 6 April 1830, by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery at the Peter Whitmer Sr. home in Fayette, New York, in the very home wherein they had received the revelation instructing them concerning the unfolding of all these matters.
Of the organizational events on 6 April, the Prophet declared: “We proceeded, according to previous commandment, to call on our brethren to know whether they accepted us as their teachers in the things of the Kingdom of God, and whether they were satisfied that we should proceed and be organized as a Church according to said commandment which we had received. To these several propositions they consented by a unanimous vote. I then laid my hands upon Oliver Cowdery, and ordained him an Elder of the ‘Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints;’ after which, he ordained me also to the office of an Elder of said Church. …
“We now proceeded to call out and ordain some others of the brethren to different offices of the Priesthood.” 30
The above sequence of events is precisely that which Oliver Cowdery bore witness of when he addressed the Saints in Kanesville, Iowa, in October 1848, saying: “I was with Joseph when an holy angle [sic] from god came down from heaven and confer[r]ed or restored the A[a]ronic priesthood. … I was also present with Joseph when the melchesideck priesthood was confer[r]ed by the holy angles of god—which we then confirmed on each other by the will and commandment of god.” 31 With this same consistency Oliver Cowdery testified to Samuel W. Richards of the restoration process in which “John the Baptist holding the keys of the Aaronic Priesthood; Peter, James and John, holding the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood, have also ministered for those who shall be heirs of salvation, and with these ministrations ordained men to the same Priesthoods.” 32 This is also the same series of events prophesied by Joseph of Egypt and described by the Prophet Joseph Smith as he gave an 1833 blessing on the head of Oliver Cowdery, declaring: “These blessings [pronounced in the blessing proper] shall come [to] him [Oliver], according to the blessings of the prophecy of Joseph in ancient days, which he said should come upon the Seer of the last days and the Scribe that should sit with him, and that should be ordained with him by the hand of the angel in the bush, unto the lesser priesthood and after receive the holy priesthood under the hands of they <those> who had been held in reserve for a long season, even those who received it under the hands of the Messiah.” 33
The Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery set forth the order and manner of priesthood conferral and ordination, affirming that Peter, James, and John had been given the authority and responsibility for conferring the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood on them, Joseph and Oliver. “The word of the Lord” that had come in the chamber of the Whitmer log house to Joseph and Oliver was not a bestowal of Melchizedek Priesthood authority by “voice command.” Rather, it was instruction that with the future acceptance of their leadership from the consent of assembled brethren, Joseph and Oliver could organize the Church, using the authority that had already been bestowed upon them by the three ancient Apostles, Peter, James, and John, by the Susquehanna River (see D&C 128:20). Then they could proceed to ordain each other as first and second elder within that Church (see D&C 20:2–3). 34
Little firsthand information is available on the physical circumstances of the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood. Though both Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery wrote of the consequences of Peter, James, and John’s visitation, both gave very little information about the setting. There are, however, a number of observations that help us focus on the site.
In April and May 1829 Joseph and Oliver were engrossed in the translation of the Book of Mormon at Harmony, Pennsylvania. The urgency they felt for completing the work, which had already been delayed by the earlier loss of 116 manuscript pages, left little or no time for them to engage even in the daily pursuit of the necessities of life. Although the Isaac Hale family was in a position to assist them in their plight, Joseph Knight Sr. stated, “His [Joseph Smith’s] wifes father and familey ware all against him and would not h[e]lp him.” 35 This difficulty was greatly alleviated through the exceptional generosity of the Knight family, who on more than one occasion supplied Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery with food and even paper for the Book of Mormon manuscript. 36
Understandably, Joseph Smith felt a particular affinity for the Knight family—a feeling that was reciprocated. Joseph Knight Sr. had shown interest in the work of the Prophet from the outset, having been present at the Smiths’ Manchester home on 22 September 1827, when Joseph first retrieved the plates from the Hill Cumorah. Later, while living in Harmony, the Prophet made a number of 28-mile trips from his Harmony home to the Joseph Knight farm, which was situated on the east side of the Susquehanna River in Colesville Township, Broome County, New York. Information indicates that the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood took place somewhere along the 28-mile stretch of road bordering the river between those places. In fact, the Prophet wrote of “the voice of Peter, James, and John 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 times!” (D&C 128:20).
In addition, the reminiscences of a Church member named Addison Everett may be helpful regarding the site and circumstances of the restoration of the higher priesthood. In 1881 he wrote a letter to a Church member named Oliver B. Huntington and then, in 1882, another letter to President Joseph F. Smith (Second Counselor to President John Taylor at the time), sharing at their request what he knew of that event. 37 In his letter to President Smith, he recalled hearing the Prophet, in Nauvoo a few days before the Martyrdom, relate the circumstances surrounding the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood. Joseph Smith, Brother Everett wrote, “Said as they Ware Tran[s]lating the Book of Mormon at His Father In Laws in Susquhanah County Penny. T[h]ey ware thretned By a Mob and in the same time Father Kn<i>ghts came Down from Cole[s]vill[e] Broom[e] County New York and Desired them to go home with him and preach to them in his Neighbourhood And on Account of the Mob Spirit prevailing they concluded to goe.”
But even after they arrived at the Knights’ residence in Colesville, opposition soon plagued them. Once again circumstances forced them to flee in haste from the mob and to return to Harmony. Brother Everett’s letter continues: “And they wandered in a dense Forest all Night and often times in Mud and water up to thare Knees. And Brother Oliver got quite exausted in the After Part of the Night and Brother Joseph had to put his arm arround him and allmost carry him. And Just as the day Broke in the East Brother Oliver gave out Entirely and he[,] Br Joseph[,] leaned him against an Oake tree Just out side a field fenc[e] Br Oliver Crying out how long O Lord O how Long Br Joseph hav[e] we got to suffer these things[?] Just this moment Peter James & John came to us and Ordained to <us to> the Holy Apostelship and gave <unto> us the Keys of the Disp<e>nsation of the fullness of times. And we had some 16 or 17 miles to goe to reach our place of residence and Brother Oliver could travel as well as I could <after the Endowment>. [See D&C 84:33.] Now as to time and Place. I heard the Name of the Banks of the Susquehanah river spoken <of> But whare it was pla[c]ed I cannot till. No doubt the Oake tree and the field fence was ajacent to the river. As to time I cannot Be Very Explsit. But as the Mob spirit had not abated when they returned they had to remove to Father Whitmores <at Fayet[te] Seneca Co> to finish the Translation. I should <jud[g]e> it to <Be> the Latter part of August .”
As dramatic as Brother Everett’s account is, our enthusiasm for aspects of it must be tempered by the fact that he wrote it some 38 years after hearing the Prophet tell of those events. Undoubtedly Addison Everett, who served as a bishop in Winter Quarters and again in Salt Lake City, was a man of great faith and integrity. 38 But good men not intimate to the details of an event may make mistakes of understanding—especially in their 76th year as they try to recall details they heard nearly four decades earlier.
It is necessary to note this because Brother Everett’s account, though probably true in other respects, is inconsistent in its chronology. He incorrectly recalls that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery “had to remove” to the Whitmer farm in August (it was about 1 June 1829, as we have already noted), but he is correct in saying the visitation came before their move to Fayette to complete the translation of the Book of Mormon. Thus this remembrance, in company with all the other information we have examined, would correctly place the restoration of the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood, the apostleship, and the keys of the dispensation of the fulness of times about 11 months before the organization of the Church on 6 April 1830.
Yet also in his account, Brother Everett wrote that Joseph and Oliver made their escape from the mob by fleeing from a court where the case against them had just been dismissed. They received help, he said, from “a Lawyer By the Name of Reede I think.” This is undoubtedly a reference to John Reid, a lawyer hired by Joseph Knight Sr. to defend the Prophet in a trial sequence that commenced at South Bainbridge, New York, on 1 July 1830 and concluded in Colesville, New York, approximately three days later. 39 As a result of this reference to John Reid, some have concluded that the appearance of Peter, James, and John was in July 1830, after the organization of the Church—a conclusion that contradicts a great body of evidence and actions associated with the Melchizedek Priesthood and is not supported even by Addison Everett’s recollection, as we have noted.
The lasting contribution of Brother Everett is in his relaying the dramatic circumstance in which the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood apparently occurred. Further, he apologized in his letter to President Joseph F. Smith for his lack of technical skills, saying he was “Not Writing as wone [one] of the Lords Historians.” 40 Whatever his lapses may have been in recalling details, he obviously intended to relay what the Prophet Joseph Smith had said about the circumstances surrounding the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood.
In later references to the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood, both Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were more concerned with the ramifications of the event than with a delineation of its time and circumstance. One of the most telling statements in this regard came from the Prophet when he affirmed:
“The Priesthood is everlasting. The Savior, Moses, & Elias—gave the keys to Peter, James & John on the Mount when they were transfigured before him. The Priesthood is everlasting, without beginning of days or end of years, without Father, Mother &c.—
“If there is no change of ordinances there is no change of Priesthood. Wherever the ordinances of the Gospel are administered there is the Priesthood. How have we come at the Priesthood in the last days? They <It> came down, down in regular succession. Peter James & John had it given to them & they gave it up [to us].” 41
In addition, when Oliver Cowdery and his family returned to the Church at Kanesville, Iowa, in the fall of 1848, he addressed the conference of the Saints on 21 October, bearing a strong personal witness of the priesthood to the congregation:
“The channel is here, the priesthood is here, 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.” 42
Oliver also expressed the following testimony in a statement he wrote for Samuel W. Richards while a guest in the latter’s home in the “upper part of Missouri” on 13 January 1849: “These Priesthoods [Aaronic and Melchizedek], 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 … ministrations [of John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John], and who earnestly and devoutly hopes to meet you in the celestial glory.” 43
Both scripture and history attest that the restoration of the keys and powers of the Melchizedek Priesthood took place as a necessary prerequisite to the reestablishment of Christ’s Church upon the earth and that those keys and powers continue today in His Church. The authority conferred by Peter, James, and John embraced all of the offices of the priesthood, including the keys of the apostleship, the highest authority conferred upon men in the flesh. By virtue of these keys, Joseph Smith proceeded in the coming years to ordain and set in order the various priesthood quorums as they are known in the Church today.
All of this was done in accordance with the design of the Lord so that he might “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.” 44
The Aaronic Priesthood was conferred on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery by John the Baptist because there was no mortal being who could act in behalf of that priesthood.
Thus empowered, Joseph and Oliver, as commanded, baptized each other.
Joseph and Oliver then conferred the priesthood on each other, establishing the pattern for the Church.
Peter, James, and John conferred the Melchizedek Priesthood on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. They were instructed to defer ordination of each other as elders within the Church until they could meet with their brethren and receive sanction by common consent as to whether their brethren accepted them as their spiritual leaders.
On 6 April 1830, after consent from the assembled brethren, Joseph and Oliver organized the Church and ordained each other to the office of elder.
Joseph and Oliver then conferred the Melchizedek Priesthood on other brethren who had been previously baptized and ordained them to different offices in the priesthood.
15 May 1829
On this date the Aaronic Priesthood was restored by John the Baptist, acting under the direction of Peter, James, and John, who John the Baptist said would confer the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery “in due time” (see JS—H 1:72).
16–28 May 1829
All evidence demonstrates that the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood occurred nearly 11 months before the organization of the Church. Historical records and testimonies show it is not probable that the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood occurred while Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, in company with David Whitmer, were on the trip from Harmony, Pennsylvania, to Fayette, New York, in late May and early June 1829, nor is it probable that the restoration occurred after the June 1829 move to Fayette. Therefore, it is highly likely that the Melchizedek Priesthood restoration occurred within the period of 16–28 May 1829.
A revelation received in June 1829 indicates that by this time Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer were called with the same calling as the Apostle Paul (see D&C 18:9).
The “word of the Lord” in the Whitmer home instructed Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery that their ordination within the Melchizedek Priesthood was to be tied to the occasion when the Church would be organized (History of the Church, 1:60–61).
6 April 1830
A revelation dated 6 April 1830 identifies “Joseph Smith, Jun., who was called of God, and ordained an apostle of Jesus Christ, to be the first elder of this church; and … Oliver Cowdery, who was also called of God, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to be the second elder of this church” (D&C 20:2–3). That the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood had already been conferred on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery by 6 April 1830 is affirmed by the following events on the day the Church was organized:
Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery ordained each other elders of the Church.
They confirmed those who were baptized, bestowing the gift of the Holy Ghost.
They conferred the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthood on others.
Those closely associated with the Prophet knew that the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood by Peter, James, and John occurred before the “rise of the Church” (D&C 20:1).
30 September 1830
The earlier bestowal of apostolic authority on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery by Peter, James, and John is subsequently referenced by revelation (see D&C 27:12).