“I Have a Question,” Ensign, July 1999, 64–65
Keith W. Perkins, professor of Church history and doctrine, Brigham Young University.
The term Elias, in addition to being the actual name of an Old Testament prophet, is used several different ways in the scriptures. Familiarity with the “doctrine of Elias” and with how the word Elias is used in the scriptures is essential to understanding references to Elias.
First, Elias is simply the New Testament Greek form of the Hebrew name Elijah. The Elias referred to on the Mount of Transfiguration in Matthew 17:3 [Matt. 17:3], as the footnote states, is the Old Testament prophet Elijah the Tishbite. In the Joseph Smith Translation, however, Mark 9:3 says that John the Baptist was also present: “And there appeared unto them Elias with Moses, or in other words, John the Baptist and Moses; and they were talking with Jesus” (JST, Mark 9:3, footnote a).
The Bible Dictionary makes clear that John the Baptist appeared with the prophets Elijah and Moses at the Mount of Transfiguration (see Bible Dictionary, “Elias,” 663).
Second, Elias is a title for “forerunner.” The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “when God sends a man into the world to prepare for a greater work, holding the keys of the power of Elias, it was called the doctrine of Elias, even from the early ages of the world” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith , 335–36). Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–85) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke of the various messengers who brought their keys of authority to the Prophet Joseph Smith, then added that those messengers, “all taken together, are the Elias of the Restoration. It took all of them to bring to pass the restoration of all the keys and powers and authorities needed to save and exalt man” (The Millennial Messiah , 120).
John the Baptist is one good example of a forerunner. When the Prophet Joseph Smith received the Aaronic Priesthood from John the Baptist, he was told that “this office did not extend to the laying on of hands for the giving of the Holy Ghost; that that office was a greater work, and was to be given afterward; but that my ordination was a preparatory work, or a going before, which was the spirit of Elias; for the spirit of Elias was a going before to prepare the way for the greater, which was the case with John the Baptist” (Teachings, 335). In this context, the spirit of Elias represents the Aaronic Priesthood, which prepares the way for the Melchizedek Priesthood.
Third, a prophet by the name of Elias, along with Moses and Elijah, appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland Temple on 3 April 1836. We know very little about this prophet except that he apparently lived in the days of Abraham and committed the “dispensation of the gospel of Abraham” to the Prophet and Oliver Cowdery (D&C 110:12). The power and commission Elias restored was that of celestial marriage and pertains to the doctrine of eternal increase (see Bruce R. McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith , 508; and The Mortal Messiah , 1:56–57).
Fourth, many prophets acting in the restorative function of the office of Elias have been sent from beyond the veil to restore that which was once upon the earth—“all declaring their dispensation, their rights, their keys, their honors, their majesty and glory, and the power of their priesthood” (D&C 128:21).
When the priests and Levites asked John the Baptist whether he was the Elias who was prophesied to come and restore all things, he replied:
“I am not that Elias who was to restore all things. And they asked him, saying, Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No” (JST, John 1:22, Bible appendix).
The priests and Levites obviously knew about a prophecy—not found in the King James Version of the Old Testament—concerning the coming of an Elias who would restore all things. John the Baptist clarified that this Elias was Jesus Christ, who would come in the meridian of time and restore the gospel and the Melchizedek Priesthood (see Bible Dictionary, “Elias,” 663; JST, John 1:28, Bible appendix). The mission of restoration of “all things” and the title Elias have been given to various prophets, including Noah and John the Revelator (see Teachings, 157; D&C 27:6–7; D&C 77:14).
Without latter-day knowledge of the doctrine of Elias, we would be in darkness regarding the meaning of the word Elias and the missions of individuals referred to as Elias. Through revelation, the “spirit of Elias” was revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith and, in his words, “I know it is true” (Teachings, 337).