Church History
Restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood

“Restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood,” Church History Topics

“Restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood”

Restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood

Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery testified that on May 15, 1829, John the Baptist appeared to them and gave them authority to baptize. According to Joseph Smith’s 1838 history, John told them that they did not as yet have “the power of laying on of hands, for the gift of the Holy Ghost, but that this should be conferred on us hereafter.”1 This explanation echoed the Baptist’s statement in the New Testament, that though he baptized his followers “with water unto repentance,” one “mightier than I” would “baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.”2 After ordaining Joseph and Oliver, John the Baptist explained that “he acted under the direction of Peter, James, and John,” who were stewards of this greater authority and that the power to give the gift of the Holy Ghost “should in due time be conferred on us.”3

The appearance of Peter, James, and John to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery is attested to in numerous sources. A revelation to Joseph Smith spoke of the visitation of Peter, 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.”4 In a blessing Joseph Smith gave to Oliver Cowdery that was recorded in October 1835, he spoke of Oliver’s receiving “the holy priesthood under the hands of they who had been held in reserve for a long season, even those who received it under the hand of the Messiah.”5 In several letters late in his life, Oliver Cowdery spoke of this sacred occasion. In one he related the sense of awe with which he stood “in the presence of Peter, to receive the Greater” priesthood.6

The Voice of Peter James and John

Apostles Peter, James, and John appear to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.

It is impossible to precisely date this heavenly manifestation from existing sources. The only firsthand account from Joseph that gives details about the circumstances of the vision is an 1842 letter (now canonized as Doctrine and Covenants 128) in which he testified he heard “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.”7 Modern readers have reached different conclusions from these various accounts as to the timing of the appearance of Peter, James, and John. Their estimates range from as early as a few weeks after the appearance of John the Baptist on May 15, 1829, to many months later.8 Although many of the accounts of this divine manifestation were produced years later, they are corroborated by earlier, though less detailed, references to angelic ministers who gave Joseph and Oliver a divine commission.9

Joseph Smith’s published history does not narrate the restoration of the greater authority in detail, but it recounts that sometime after his move to Fayette, New York, in the summer of 1829, Joseph and others “became anxious to have that promise realized to us”—that they would receive “the authority of the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.”10 The history explains that at the home of Peter Whitmer Sr. in Fayette, New York, after praying and asking God for direction, the voice of the Lord commanded them to ordain each other. They were instructed, however, to defer this ordination until those who had been baptized could meet and accept them as spiritual teachers.

When the Church was organized on April 6, 1830, Joseph and Oliver acted with divine authority both to baptize and to bestow the gift of the Holy Ghost. Those present at the organizational meeting accepted Joseph and Oliver’s leadership, and Joseph and Oliver ordained each other as elders as the Lord had instructed them to do. Around the same time as this meeting, Joseph Smith finalized the “Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ” (now Doctrine and Covenants 20), which declared that among their responsibilities as elders was “to confirm the church by the laying on of hands and the giving of the Holy Ghost.”11

Unfolding Understanding

During the first few years after the Church was organized, Joseph Smith and other early members of the Church did not use the terms Aaronic Priesthood or Melchizedek Priesthood to describe the authority they received. Their understanding of priesthood developed over time and with the aid of continued revelation.

The New Testament contains passages that speak of priests and high priests and associates the priesthood with Aaron and Melchizedek.12 The Book of Mormon similarly teaches that the Old Testament figure Melchizedek “received the office of the High Priesthood, according to the holy order of God.”13 Building on these scriptures, revelations to Joseph Smith between 1831 and 1835 established various priesthood offices and clarified terminology. In June 1831, Joseph Smith and Lyman Wight ordained several men (including each other) “to the High Priesthood,” likely meaning to the office of high priest.14 Reflecting their understanding of the Bible, some early Church members referred to this high priesthood as “the order of Melchizedek.”15 In September 1832, a revelation indicated that the lesser priesthood centered in the office of priest, with teachers and deacons as appendages. The greater or “high priesthood” centered on the office of high priest, with the offices of bishop and elder as appendages. While the lesser priesthood administered “the preparatory gospel,” including the ordinance of baptism, the greater priesthood “holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God.”16

An instruction on the priesthood published in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants provided the terminology still in use today to describe the Melchizedek Priesthood. Reflecting revealed insight, the instruction called the greater and lesser priesthoods “the Melchizedek, and the Aaronic.” Before Melchizedek’s day, the greater priesthood was “called the holy priesthood, after the order of the Son of God,” and was later referred to as “the Melchizedek priesthood.” The instruction explained that “all other authorities, or offices in the church are appendages to this priesthood,” that it “has power and authority over all the offices in the church,” and that “the presidency of the high priesthood, after the order of Melchizedek,” later called the First Presidency, had authority to lead the Church.17

Restoring the Fulness

In 1836 in the Kirtland Temple, Elijah appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and gave them keys, or authority, that would enable them “to turn the hearts of the Fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse.”18 In Nauvoo Joseph Smith explained that the “power and calling of Elijah is that ye have power to hold the keys of the revelations, ordinances, oracles, powers, and endowments of the fulness of the Melchizedek Priesthood.” This authority enabled Church leaders to place “the seals of the Melchizedek priesthood upon the house of Israel” in preparation for the coming of the Messiah to His temple.19 Acting under this restored authority, Joseph Smith introduced the temple endowment and sealing ordinances in Nauvoo, Illinois, in the 1840s in preparation for the completion of the temple there.20

Near the end of his life, Joseph Smith spoke with exultation of the Lord’s blessings in restoring the fulness of the priesthood. He described this restoration not as a single event, but rather a series of episodes spanning his prophetic ministry. The Prophet noted that the priesthood had been restored “line upon line; precept upon precept; here a little and there a little.” He recounted the miraculous appearance of “divers Angels,” each restoring “their dispensation, their rights, their keys, their honors, their majesty and glory, and the power of their priesthood.”21

Related Topics: Restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood