“Restoring the Ancient Order,” Revelations in Context (2016)
“Restoring the Ancient Order,” Revelations in Context
In May of 1829, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery knelt near the Susquehanna River. They had just read about baptism in 3 Nephi and wanted to know where they could find the authority that Jesus had given His ancient disciples. In answer to their prayers, John the Baptist appeared and laid hands on their heads to confer the authority they needed to baptize each other. “Think for a moment,” Cowdery later urged his friend W. W. Phelps, “what joy filled our hearts and with what surprise we must have bowed … when we received under his hand the holy priesthood.”1
But the restoration of priesthood authority was not immediately accompanied by a restoration of priesthood organization. Individual priesthood holders could perform ordinances, but how were they to work together to do the work of the Lord?
Many of the churches active in upstate New York in the 1830s handled business through quarterly conferences of elders, and in its first year the restored Church followed that familiar pattern. After organizing in April, Church leaders held conferences in June and September to report on the Church’s progress and to conduct business. This system of quarterly conferences was included in the Church Articles and Covenants (now Doctrine and Covenants 20) when they were recorded in the Church’s handwritten book of revelations.2
But in 1831, it became increasingly clear that Church conferences would be more than routine meetings. During the year’s first conference, a revelation (now Doctrine and Covenants 38) was received that laid out specific projects and goals for the Church to work toward. Soon the number of conferences held to keep up with the Lord’s work drastically increased: from August to December of 1831, minutes were recorded for 26 conferences—an average of more than one conference per week.
In one of these conferences, the Prophet emphasized the need to move beyond familiar patterns and to “understand the ancient manner of conducting meetings as they were led by the Holy Ghost.”3 The diverse planning and disciplinary issues facing the young Church required shared effort and inspiration. But if there was too much business to be handled by conferences of all elders, who should be responsible for any given issue?
A revelation received on November 11, 1831 (now Doctrine and Covenants 107:60–100), helped the Saints understand how to harness the power of shared inspiration while dividing the complex demands of Church administration. Certain types of cases were assigned to the bishop, who in turn could call counselors to assist him in his duties. A president of the high priesthood would consider more difficult issues, assisted by 12 high priests as counselors. Presidents of the elders, priests, teachers, and deacons would also be called to sit in council with their groups.
But supplementing the familiar conference system with an unfamiliar council system proved to be a gradual process. Presidents for each group were not immediately chosen, and clerks were inconsistent in distinguishing between a conference and a council. In July of 1832, Missouri members “resolved that the mode and manner of regulating the Church of Christ,” as shown in the November revelation, “take effect from this time,”4 but they didn’t choose a president of the elders until September.5 And though he had been sustained as president of the high priesthood and chosen two counselors, Joseph Smith had to gather available high priests to serve on a full president’s council each time a need arose.6
There were also problems with the behavior of participants in the meetings. Apparently, some would whisper to each other, grow visibly restless, or even leave during the middle of a council session. Personal prejudices and weaknesses also made it difficult to seek the will of the Lord.7
Joseph Smith took responsibility for these shared shortcomings. “I have never set before any council in all the order in which a council ought to be conducted,” he said during a February 1834 council meeting, “which, perhaps, has deprived the Council of some, or many blessings.” He then attempted to “show the order of councils in ancient days as shown to him by vision.”8 The Prophet’s vision of a Jerusalem council presided over by the Apostle Peter and two counselors became a model for the organization of the first regular high council,9 which in turn was to serve as a model for other councils throughout the Church. Minutes showing some of the important features of the council—such as the right of an accused person to have half the council as advocates—were later canonized in Doctrine and Covenants 102.10
Before the high council tried its first case, Joseph Smith blessed his two counselors. Next, two fathers—Joseph Smith Sr. and John Johnson—blessed their sons.11 Just as conferences coexisted with the developing system of councils, the administrative organization of priesthood in the Church would coexist with family-centered priesthood.
A week after the Kirtland high council was organized, Parley P. Pratt and Lyman Wight arrived from Missouri to ask for guidance on behalf of the Saints who had been driven from their homes.12 In response to their visit, Joseph Smith and the high council planned an expedition to assist them.
Both while gathering men and funds in eastern Church branches for what came to be known as Zion’s Camp and while traveling from Ohio to Missouri, Joseph Smith spent a significant amount of time in the Church’s smaller branches. The council system had helped divide the demands of Church business on priesthood holders’ time in Church centers, but less had been done to organize priesthood across physical space, provide uniformity between the two main Church centers, or address the needs of the more remote branches. Further revelation was needed.
In Missouri, where many Church members were gathered near the planned site of Zion, another high council was organized following the model of the first. Again, Joseph Smith blessed the council’s president and his two counselors, and again two fathers—this time Peter Whitmer Sr. and Joseph Knight Sr.—blessed their sons.13 But what should be done for the Church’s smaller branches? After returning from Missouri at the end of Zion’s Camp, two new priesthood groups were created: the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, whose duty would include serving as a “travelling, presiding high council” for the branches of the Church, and the Seventies, who would assist the Twelve.14 In addition to serving existing Church branches, the Twelve and the Seventies were to preach the gospel throughout the world and organize new branches.
In the spring of 1835, the newly called Twelve Apostles were sent on a mission to “regulate” the eastern branches of the Church.15 Before they left, Joseph Smith provided them with detailed instruction on priesthood organization, now contained in Doctrine and Covenants 107. These instructions to the Twelve clarified relationships within the priesthood. They shed light on the history and roles of the Melchizedek and Aaronic orders of priesthood. They introduced the concept of a “quorum” to explain the unique functions and overlapping authorities of the First Presidency, Twelve Apostles, Seventies, and high councils. They also called for the appointment of patriarchs16 to perpetuate the familial order of priesthood alongside the administrative order.
In the spring and summer of 1835, four sections on priesthood organization were collected at the beginning of the new Doctrine and Covenants, just after the revealed preface. The first was the Church Articles and Covenants (now Doctrine and Covenants 20). Next came the new material from the instruction to the Twelve, which had been combined with an updated version of the November 1831 revelation on priesthood councils into a single section (now Doctrine and Covenants 107). A revelation containing the oath and covenant of the priesthood (now Doctrine and Covenants 84) appeared third. Then came the minutes of the first high council organization, updated with a clarifying reference to the role of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Together, these sections served as a sort of handbook for administering the Church.
On August 17, 1835, Church members formally approved the Doctrine and Covenants, accepting this revealed organization of the priesthood.17 Over the next seven months, Church leaders took steps to fill offices so that priesthood quorums could be fully organized for sustaining at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple.