“Restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood,” Church History Topics
“Restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood”
In a series of letters published in 1834, Oliver Cowdery recorded the earliest detailed account of the appearance of John the Baptist to Cowdery and Joseph Smith in 1829 in Harmony, Pennsylvania. According to Cowdery, John the Baptist’s visit was spurred by the translation of a passage in 3 Nephi that described Jesus Christ conferring authority to baptize on his ancient disciples. The two men wondered whether baptisms over the centuries had been performed by proper authority. Seeking answers to these questions, they withdrew to a secluded place near Joseph’s home to ask God. “The voice of the Redeemer spake peace to us,” Cowdery remembered, and an angel “came down clothed with glory, and delivered the anxiously looked for message.”1
The two men testified that they knelt before the angel who then “laid his hands upon us” and said, “Upon you my fellow servants in the name of Messiah I confer the priesthood of Aaron.” Though they now had authority to baptize each other by water, the angel declared that this priesthood did not authorize them to give the gift of the Holy Ghost. The angel assured them the “power of laying on of hands, for the gift of the Holy Ghost” would come “in due time.” He identified himself as John, “the same that is called John the Baptist in the new Testament,” and said he acted “under the direction of Peter, James, and John, who held the keys of the priesthood of Melchisedeck.” Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery stated that this experience occurred on May 15, 1829.2 When the vision closed, they went to the nearby Susquehanna River and baptized each other.
Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery’s detailed firsthand accounts were written several years after the appearance of John the Baptist, but both published and unpublished sources written closer to the event itself corroborate their memory. For example, a non-Mormon newspaper reported Cowdery’s claim of receiving a commission from angelic visitors just months after the publication of the Book of Mormon.3 Joseph Smith later explained that at first, he and Cowdery were reticent to share details of their experience “owing to a spirit of persecution” in the area.4
Cowdery’s 1834 account came about as part of Joseph’s early efforts to record and publish a complete history of the Church. In his first written history, produced in Ohio in 1832, Joseph promised to narrate significant early events including the reception of “the holy Priesthood” by the ministering of angels.5 The publication effort was delayed initially when a mob destroyed the Church press in Independence, Missouri, in 1833, and the history itself underwent several revisions and compilations during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. Under Joseph’s direction, clerks later merged Cowdery’s account with additional information provided by Joseph in what today appears in section 13 of the Doctrine and Covenants and in the Pearl of Great Price (Joseph Smith—History 1:68–72).6
Though the phrase Aaronic Priesthood did not appear in Joseph Smith’s revelations until 1834, the concept of a lesser priesthood relative to a greater, or high, priesthood was referenced in both the Bible and the Book of Mormon.7 Joseph Smith’s revision of Exodus (part of his inspired translation of the Bible) in the summer of 1832 noted a division between greater and lesser priesthoods.8 A revelation received by Joseph the following September clarified that the lesser priesthood, which was given to “Aaron and his seed,” pertained to “the preparatory gospel, which gospel is the gospel of repentance and of Baptism, and the remission of sins, and the Law of carnal commandments.”9
When Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery first organized the Church in early 1830, they divided responsibilities among several offices, patterned after references in the Bible and the Book of Mormon. These offices were similar to those in other churches of the time, which also commonly structured their congregations after New Testament patterns and featured officers such as deacons, teachers, priests, elders, and bishops.10 At first, these offices in the newly organized Church were not associated with the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthoods. Over time, additional revelations instructed Joseph Smith on how to align Church organization with priesthood authority, and by 1835, offices and duties were more thoroughly organized under the purview of the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods.11