Section 13: Restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood
For some of this introductory material for section 13 I am indebted to Charles R. Harrell (“The Restoration of the Priesthood” in Studies in Scripture, Volume One, The Doctrine and Covenants, 86-99).
During the angel Moroni’s appearances to Joseph Smith in September 1823, Moroni foretold of the restoration of the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods in connection with the translation of the gold plates. “When they are interpreted,” said the angel, “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” (Oliver Cowdery in Messenger and Advocate, volume 2 [October 1835]:199). As the translation of the Nephite record commenced, the Lord began preparing the minds of the early saints to receive the priesthood, outlining the qualifications for labor in the ministry (D&C 4, 6, 11, 12). In section 5, dated March 1829, the Lord declared: “For hereafter you shall be ordained and go forth and deliver my words unto the children of men” (D&C 5:6, italics added).
It was mid-May of 1829 in Harmony, Pennsylvania. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery had been engaged without stopping since April 7th on the translation of the Book of Mormon. As they came to the instructions of the Savior to the Nephites (probably 3 Nephi 11 or 3 Nephi 12:1) on the necessity of authority and baptism, Oliver relates that it became apparent to them that “none had authority from God to administer the ordinances of the Gospel” (Messenger and Advocate, volume 1 [October 1834]:15).
On Friday, May 15, 1829, Joseph and Oliver retired to a nearby wooded area near the banks of the Susquehanna River in fulfillment of the prophecy of Joseph of old, the son of Jacob, that the lesser priesthood would be restored in the latter days by the administration of an “angel in the bush.” According to Joseph Smith, this ancient patriarch prophesied of blessings that “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 hands of the angel in the bush, unto the lesser priesthood” (Cited in Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. [Salt Lake City, Bookcraft, 1954-56], 3:101). In this natural surrounding they knelt in humble prayer to “inquire of the Lord respecting baptism for the remission of sins, that [they] found mentioned in the translation of the plates” (JS-H 1:68). It was not a casual interest to know “the Lord’s position on this issue” that drove them into the woods that day, but a heartfelt personal desire to know “His will concerning [them]” (TPJS, 335). As Oliver Cowdery recollected, “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 . . . to administer the same; for we desired to be followers of righteousness, and the possessors of greater knowledge, even the knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of God” (Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3:100). In answer to their petition, John the Baptist, now a resurrected being, was sent to restore the Aaronic Priesthood on the earth. Oliver Cowdery eloquently captured the grandeur of this heavenly manifestation that followed their humble supplication:
After we had called on Him in a fervent manner, aside from the abodes of men, [He] condescended to manifest to us His will. On a sudden, as from the midst of eternity, the voice of the Redeemer spake peace to us, while the veil was parted and the angel of God came down clothed with glory, and delivered the anxiously looked for message, and the keys of the Gospel of repentance. What joy! what wonder! what amazement! While the world was racked and distracted while millions were groping as the blind for the wall, and while all men were resting upon uncertainty, as a general mass, our eyes beheld, our ears heard, as in the “blaze of day;” yes, more—above the glitter of the May sunbeam, which then shed its brilliancy over the face of nature! Then his voice, though mild, pierced to the center, and his words, “I am thy fellow-servant,” dispelled every fear. We listened, we gazed, we admired! ‘Twas the voice of an angel from glory, ‘twas a message from the Most High! And as we heard we rejoiced, while His love enkindled upon our souls, and we were wrapped in the vision of the Almighty! Where was room for doubt? Nowhere; uncertainty had fled, doubt had sunk no more to rise, while fiction and deception had fled forever! (Messenger and Advocate, volume1 [October 1834]: 15.)
Joseph Smith’s less flowery but more informative account (although omitting the “voice of the Redeemer” that Oliver said spoke peace to them at the outset of the angel’s visit—Ibid., 16) related:
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; and this shall never be taken again from the earth until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness.
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 to go and be baptized, and gave us directions that I should baptize Oliver Cowdery, and that afterwards he should baptize me. Accordingly we went and were baptized.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, and that I should be called the first Elder of the Church, and he (Oliver Cowdery) the second (JS-H 68-72).
Although John is here mentioned as having conferred “the Aaronic Priesthood,” Joseph was later specific in outlining the twofold nature of this confirmation saying, “he laid his hands upon my head, and  ordained me to a Priest after the order of Aaron, and  to hold the keys of this Priesthood” (TPJS, 335). Differentiating between the authority and the keys conferred on this occasion, Elder Bruce R. McConkie noted, “When John came, he did two things: He conferred upon Joseph and Oliver the Aaronic Priesthood—he gave them authority. The second thing that he did was to give them the keys of the priesthood, the keys of presidency, the right to preside in the Aaronic Priesthood, and the right to authorize either themselves or someone else to use the priesthood, within the field and scope that people are entitled to use that particular priesthood” (Bruce R. McConkie, “The Keys of the Kingdom” [address to Wilford Stake Priesthood Meeting, February 21, 1955], 3, typescript, Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University). As keys are not always conveyed when priesthood is conferred, President Joseph F. Smith emphasized that, “a distinction must be carefully made between the general authority and the directing of the labors performed by that authority [i.e., keys]” (Gospel Doctrine, 5th edition [Salt Lake City, Deseret Book Company, 1939], 136).
For John to have conferred the authority and keys of the Aaronic Priesthood on Joseph and Oliver, he had to have possessed them himself. These powers he received in mortality, being the firstborn son in the lineage of Aaron (see D&C 84:27-28). While the tribe of Levi had a hereditary right to the Aaronic Priesthood, only the firstborn of the sons of Aaron had a legal right to the presidency or the keys of this priesthood. In speaking of the presidency of this priesthood a revelation in our day states: “No man has a legal right to this office, to hold the keys of this priesthood, except he be a literal descendant and the firstborn of Aaron” (D&C 68:18; cf. 107:16). In reference to John’s authority, President Joseph Fielding Smith observed that “by divine right of descent, he was the rightful presiding priest of the Aaronic order in Israel. This authority had come to him by lineage. . . . Had the Church of God been in existence with the Jews in that day, instead of the Jews being in a dreadful state of apostasy, then John the Baptist would have taken his proper place as the presiding priest of the Aaronic order” (Doctrines of Salvation, 3:89). It would seem that John’s authority and keys were not simply determined by his being the first born in his family, but that he was senior and presided in some other way.
With the coming of John the Baptist, Joseph and Oliver received all of the rights of the Aaronic Priesthood that were vested in Aaron and were thus literally “called and ordained even as Aaron” (D&C 27:8). Joseph and Oliver had both the right to function as priests themselves and the keys or power of presidency in the Aaronic Priesthood. These keys gave Joseph and Oliver the right of administration or control, the right to ordain others, and also the right to direct how and when those others would be allowed to use their priesthood.
Actually, the last man to hold the keys of the Aaronic Priesthood anciently was John the Baptist. Because the major function of the Aaronic Priesthood is to prepare Israel for receiving the Melchizedek Priesthood, it is entirely fitting that John should prepare the way for Christ, who holds the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood. Thus, John goes before the Savior and prepares the way for him—the preparatory priesthood preceding the higher priesthood. John prepared the way for the Savior in his mortal ministry and in the restoration of the gospel in the latter days before Jesus’s second coming (see Matthew 17:11-13).
In his book the History of the Church, in 1838, Joseph Smith recorded his recollection of the statement of John the Baptist made during the ordination. In 1876 Orson Pratt extracted this statement and placed it in the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 13:1).
At the time John the Baptist restored the Aaronic Priesthood on May 15, the Prophet’s brother Samuel was in Harmony. He had traveled to Harmony with Oliver, having arrived there on April 5. He then returned home to Manchester, but about a month later turned around and came back to Harmony. The History of the Church says that Joseph and Oliver baptized him on May 25, but his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, claimed that Samuel was baptized the day of John the Baptist’s visit, on the 15th. Regardless of the date, after his baptism, Samuel left and returned to Manchester and reported to his family what had taken place. At that point, Hyrum came to Harmony to investigate, and section 11 was given to him. Thus we see that section 13 is out of chronological sequence. The proper sequence should be 9,10, 13, then 11 and 12.
D&C 13 Restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood by John the Baptist
1 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; and this shall never be taken again from the earth, until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness.
verse 1 “in the name of Messiah”“ Note that John refers to Jesus by using the anglicized form of the Hebrew title meshiach, which is equivalent to the more familiar Greek form christos, both of which mean “Anointed One” or “Christ.” Note that John uses the title Messiah more as a name than a title—he says, “in the name of Messiah” rather than “in the name of the Messiah.”
“Priesthood of Aaron” This is the same priesthood given anciently to Aaron and his descendants (see D&C 84:25-27; 107:13-15). Aaron was of the tribe of Levi, the son of Jacob or Israel. Thus, his priesthood is also called the levitical priesthood.
“which holds the keys of the ministering of angels . . . of the gospel of repentance . . . of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins” As already mentioned above, it is important to differentiate between the rights and privileges afforded by receiving the priesthood and receiving the keys of that priesthood—the right of presidency. In this phrase, the word “keys” has an additional meaning. It does not only refer to the keys of presidency or the right to preside. In stating here that the Aaronic Priesthood “holds the keys” of the gospel of repentance, etc., reference is made to the special enabling powers associated with the authority of the Aaronic Priesthood and not to the directing keys of the priesthood. This is a second and more general usage of the word “key” as used in the scriptures. See Keys of the Priesthood in volume 2, chapter 22 of Ye Shall Know of the Doctrine. It is with this broader sense of the word “key” in mind that, in response to the question “What is a key?” Joseph F. Smith explained, “It is the right or privilege which belongs to and comes with the Priesthood. . . . It is the right to enjoy the blessing of communication with the heavens (to receive the assistance of heavenly messengers, and to minister as an angel ministers), and the privilege and authority to administer in the ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ, to preach the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins. That is a key. . . . We ordain boys . . . to that Priesthood which holds the keys of the ministering of angels and of the gospel of repentance and baptism by immersion for the remission of sin” (Gospel Doctrine, 142). Thus every holder of the Aaronic Priesthood has certain rights and privileges (i.e., “keys”) according to his calling in that priesthood.
It is also true that John the Baptist delivered to Joseph and Oliver on this occasion the directing keys of the Aaronic Priesthood, but that is not mentioned in D&C 13:1.
The Aaronic priesthood is referred to elsewhere as the “preparatory gospel” because it prepares an individual to receive the fulness of the gospel (see D&C 84:2627; 107:20), membership in the Church, and the blessings of the higher Melchizedek Priesthood.
“and this shall never be taken again from the earth, until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness” The word “this” refers to the Aaronic Priesthood.
The statement here of Joseph Smith that the Aaronic Priesthood is to remain on the earth “until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness” may suggest to some that the Aaronic Priesthood is only temporary— that it will be taken from the earth following some specific event involving the sons of Levi. The problem arises from the use of the word until in this phrase. Oliver Cowdery’s earlier account (Messenger and Advocate, volume 1 [October 1834]: 16) is perhaps a bit more precise, using the word “that” instead of “until.” He said, “Upon you, my fellow servants, in the name of the Messiah, I confer this Priesthood and this authority, which shall remain upon earth, that the sons of Levi may yet offer an offering unto the Lord in righteousness!” (Quoting from a letter to W. W. Phelps, September 7, 1834, italics added.) In a special conference held October 21, 1848 in Kanesville, Iowa (now Council Bluffs), Oliver Cowdery, who had been excommunicated April 11, 1838, arose to seek forgiveness of the Church and bore this testimony: “I was present with Joseph when an holy angel from God came down from heaven and conferred on us, or restored the lesser or Aaronic Priesthood, and said to us at the same time, that it should remain upon the earth while the earth stands” (Journal of Reuben Miller, 21 October 1848 [Church Historian’s Library]). This statement is consistent with the Lord’s declaration that the Aaronic Priesthood “continueth and abideth forever with the priesthood which is after the holiest order of God [the Melchizedek Priesthood]” (D&C 84:18).
There are several ways in which the Aaronic Priesthood may be considered eternal in duration. In one respect everyone who holds the Melchizedek Priesthood also holds the Aaronic Priesthood for the following reasons: (1) The greater comprehends the lesser—that is, is completely contained within the Melchizedek Priesthood—so that all who hold the Melchizedek Priesthood ipso facto hold the Aaronic Priesthood. (2) When a person receives the Aaronic Priesthood and subsequently receives the Melchizedek Priesthood, none of the former authority is taken away. (3) In another respect it has been taught that the Church on earth, down to the office of Deacon, has been organized after the pattern of the Church which exists in Heaven. This would imply that somewhere in our Father’s house, there is a place for the ministration of this lesser order of the priesthood. At least one realm in which this priesthood will minister is in the earths that will always be passing through a temporal existence. With respect to the functioning of the Aaronic Priesthood on this earth after it has “passed away” and become celestialized, Joseph Fielding Smith has explained, “As long as we have temporal things on the earth this priesthood is necessary. Eventually, when the earth is celestialized, I suppose all priesthood will be of the higher order” (Doctrines of Salvation, 3:92). President Joseph Fielding Smith also wrote: “We may be sure that the Aaronic Priesthood will never be taken from the earth while mortality endures, for there will always be need for temporal direction and the performance of ordinances pertaining to the ‘preparatory Gospel’” (Church History and Modern Revelation, 1:62).
But just who are the Levites, and what kind of offering will they make? When Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt, it was with the intention that they should become a Zion people, enjoying the blessings of the fulness of the gospel and of the ordinances of the Melchizedek Priesthood. When Israel sinned in the wilderness, God took the fulness of the gospel, and the Melchizedek Priesthood away from them but left the lesser priesthood, the Levitical priesthood, in their midst. The law of carnal commandments and performances functioned under this priesthood, and, with the law of Moses, constituted a training program to prepare immature and rebellious Israel for the fulness of the gospel. The Aaronic priesthood cannot, however, administer the fulness. As a lesser or preparatory priesthood, it is limited in its authority and prerogatives (see D&C 84:23-28; JST Exodus 34:1-2).
After the return of Israel from the Babylonian captivity, the priestly Levites became lax in their religious obligations, and because of their bad example, the rest of the nation became remiss in their duties. Malachi pointed out that the sacrifices they offered to the Lord were the worst of the flocks or even stolen animals, rather than the best. Thus, because the priests were unrighteous, their sacrifices were unacceptable, and the Lord promised that when he comes again, he will purge the Levites that they may yet offer an offering in righteousness (Malachi 3:1-3).
The promise that the sons of Levi would offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness is an allusion to the prophecy found in Malachi which the angel Moroni quoted to Joseph Smith saying, “Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to his temple. . . . And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness” (Malachi 3:1, 3). It was in partial fulfillment of this promise that, according to Joseph Fielding Smith, “John the Baptist came to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and gave them his priesthood, thus preparing the way for the coming of the Lord” (Doctrines of Salvation, 3:12.) The messenger spoken of by Malachi has also been interpreted as having reference to the mission of John the Baptist in mortality, (Ibid., 1:193). When the Lord suddenly comes to his yet future temple in Jackson County, Missouri, he will purify the sons of Levi so that all of their offerings will be done in righteousness. Section 84 of the Doctrine and Covenants reveals that all who receive and honor the Melchizedek and Aaronic Priesthoods “become the sons of Moses and Aaron” (verse 34), thereby becoming in effect the sons of Levi (Moses and Aaron were of the tribe of Levi). Thus, one view holds that the Levites are all of the present-day priesthood holders in the Church. These present-day priesthood holders, the “sons of Levi,” whether they be literal sons who receive the priesthood by right of descent or sons “according to the Holy Priesthood” (verse 6), “shall be filled with the glory of the Lord, upon Mount Zion in the Lord’s house” (verse 32) where they “shall offer an acceptable offering and sacrifice in the house of the Lord” (verse 31).
Joseph Smith taught that the sacrifice to be offered by the sons of Levi will be, at least initially, an offering of the firstlings of the flock such as was practiced prior to the law of Moses. “These sacrifices,” he observed, “as well as every ordinance belonging to the priesthood, will, when the Temple of the Lord shall be built, and the sons of Levi be purified, be fully restored and attended to in all their powers, ramifications, and blessings” (TPJS, 173). Joseph envisioned that the temple to be built in the city of Zion would be a complex consisting of twelve temples, some of which would be dedicated to the lesser priesthood where ordinances such as blood sacrifice might be performed (HC, 1:357-59). As to whether blood sacrifices will be permanently reinstated, President Joseph Fielding Smith explained:
We are living in the dispensation of the fulness of times into which all things are to be gathered, and all things are to be restored since the beginning. Even this earth is to be restored to the condition which prevailed before Adam’s transgression. Now in the nature of things, the law of sacrifice will have to be restored, or all things which were decreed by the Lord would not be restored. It will be necessary, therefore, for the sons of Levi, who offered the blood sacrifices anciently in Israel, to offer such a sacrifice again to round out and complete this ordinance in this dispensation. Sacrifice by the shedding of blood was instituted in the days of Adam and of necessity will have to be restored.
The sacrifice of animals will be done to complete the restoration when the temple spoken of is built; at the beginning of the millennium, or in the restoration, blood sacrifices will be performed long enough to complete the fulness of the restoration in this dispensation. Afterwards sacrifice will be of some other character (Doctrines of Salvation, 3:94).
An alternate view as to the proper interpretation of the identity of the sons of Levi is that the descendants of Levi, who still exist among the Jews throughout the world, are still rightful heirs to the priesthood of Aaron. They are now outside of the covenants of the gospel, which are found only in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Thus, these Levites are unable to fill the role to which their family had been chosen by revelation and set apart in ancient times. As part of the restoration of all things, the tribe of Levi once again will fill a priesthood function in the Lord’s kingdom—after they become converted, are purified at the Lord’s coming, join the Church, and are born again of the Spirit.
Brief Historical Setting
The exact date of the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood is unknown. The Prophet records that he and Oliver “were forced to keep secret the circumstances of having received the priesthood . . . owing to a spirit of persecution which had already manifested itself in the neighborhood” (JS-H 1:74). In 1878, Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith visited David Whitmer, one of the three witnesses who was closely associated with the Prophet during this period. The first question Pratt asked Whitmer was, “Can you tell the date of the bestowal of the apostleship upon Joseph, by Peter, James, and John?” David’s answer was, “I do not know, Joseph never told me” (“Report of Elders Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith,” Deseret Evening News, 11.302 [16 November 1878]).
The earliest explicit reference to the priesthood’s having been restored is found in D&C 18, given in June 1829. Joseph mentioned that this revelation was intended to “illustrate the nature of our calling to this priesthood, as well as that of others who were yet to be sought after” (HC, 1:61-62). In this revelation directed to Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer the Lord said: “I speak unto you, even as unto Paul mine apostle, for you are called even with that same calling with which he was called” (D&C 18:9).
Because this revelation (section 18) is dated simply June 1829, it has been difficult to establish the date of the restoration with any more precision than sometime between 15 May and the end of June, 1829. Recent research (Larry C. Porter, “Dating the Restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood,” Ensign, June 1979, 5-10) shows evidence, however, that this event very likely occurred sometime between the 15th and 29th of May, 1829. The evidence in support of this conclusion is as follows:
- Oliver Cowdery wrote a letter to Hyrum Smith dated 14 June 1829 which contained a considerable amount of wording identical to that found in section 18, strongly suggesting that the revelation contained in section 18 had been given by that time.
- David Whitmer affirmed that Joseph and Oliver spent the month from 1 June to 1 July 1829 at the Whitmer farm, which is about three days journey from where the Melchizedek Priesthood was restored. We know the Melchizedek Priesthood was restored to Joseph and Oliver “in the wilderness [woods] between Harmony, Susquehanna county, and Colesville, Broome County, on the Susquehanna River” (D&C 128:20). Being busily occupied in the translation of the Book of Mormon, it is unlikely that they would have taken nearly a week sometime between the 1st and 14th of June to make a round-trip journey to Harmony.
- With the likelihood that the priesthood was restored before Joseph and Oliver moved to Fayette where they arrived approximately 1 June, coupled with the fact that the distance was about three days, the probable time of the restoration is narrowed to between 15 May and 29 May.
Regrettably, there exists no detailed first-hand account of the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood other than to mention that it was restored by the two resurrected beings Peter and James, together with John the Beloved who had been translated.
An interesting secondhand description of what transpired comes from Addison Everett in a letter he wrote in 1881. Brother Everett relates that he overheard a conversation between Joseph and his brother Hyrum a few days before their martyrdom in which Joseph told how he and Oliver had been arrested at Colesville for preaching and were being held at the home of the Justice of the Peace. Their attorney, Mr. Reid, helped them escape through a window as a mob had begun to gather in front of the house. Everett goes on to say, “it was night and they traveled through brush and water and mud, fell over logs, etc., until Oliver was exhausted; then Joseph helped him along through brush and water, almost carrying him. They traveled all night, and just at the break of day Oliver gave out entirely and exclaimed, “O Lord! Brother Joseph, how long have we got to endure this thing?” They sat down on a log to rest and Joseph said that at that very time Peter, James, and John came to them and ordained them to the Apostleship. They had 16 or 17 miles to go to get back to Mr. Hales, his father-in-law’s, but Oliver did not complain any more of fatigue” (Letter of Addison Everett to Oliver B. Huntington, reproduced in Young Woman’s Journal, 11 [November 1890]: 75-76).
Elder Erastus Snow gave a similar account of Joseph and Oliver’s experience in a conference address delivered in 1882: “It was at a period when they were being pursued by their enemies and had to travel all night, and in the dawn of the coming day when they were weary and worn who should appear to them but Peter, James, and John, for the purpose of conferring upon them the Apostleship, the keys of which they themselves had held while upon the earth, which had been bestowed upon them by the Savior (JD, 23:183).
Enlarging on the events attending the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood, Joseph Fielding Smith explained (alluding to D&C 128:20) that Satan “appeared on the banks of the Susquehanna River to oppose the restoration of keys, and was detected by Michael, and his plans were thwarted” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 5 volumes [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1957-66], 1:177). That Michael, or Adam, should have played a major role in the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood is supported by the fact that he holds “the keys of salvation” (D&C 78:16) for this earth. According to the Prophet’s teachings (HC, 3:386; 4:207-08), whenever messengers are sent from heaven to establish a gospel dispensation and restore the priesthood it is by Adam’s authority.
Similar to the procedure followed in the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood, in which Joseph and Oliver were commanded to ordain each other to the Aaronic Priesthood after having received it from John the Baptist, Oliver Cowdery testified, “I was also present with Joseph when the Melchizedek Priesthood was conferred by the angels of God . . . which we then confirmed on each other by the will and commandment of God” (Journal of Reuben Miller, October 21, 1848). This ordination was in fulfillment of John the Baptist’s instruction that, after receiving the higher priesthood, Joseph was to be called the first Elder in the Church and Oliver the second Elder.
This ordination was also possibly related to that rather enigmatic passage in D&C 128:21: “And again, the voice of God in the chamber of old Father Whitmer, in Fayette.” This relationship is suggested by the following quote from the Prophet Joseph who was writing on events occurring the latter part of June, 1829 (presumably after the visit from Peter, James, and John):
We now become 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 continue 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 thus proceeding to ordain each other, and have them decide by vote whether they were willing to accept us as spiritual teachers or not; when also we were commanded to bless bread and break it with them, and to take wine, bless it, and drink it with them; afterward proceed to ordain each other according to commandment; 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 (HC, 1:6061).
It seems obvious that the above paragraph was not written by Joseph until after the visit of Peter, James, and John. And that had likely occurred near the last of May 1829. Obviously also the principle of common consent in the Church was also beginning to take shape. Accepting the premise that Peter, James, and John had already conferred the Melchizedek Priesthood on Joseph and Oliver, but that their ordination was not complete until they ordained each other, may help explain why the Lord gave these instructions.
The revelations and accounts frequently speak of Joseph and Oliver as having been ordained to the apostleship under the hands of Peter, James, and John. The Lord told Joseph, “I have sent [Peter, James, and John] 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). Regarding Joseph and Oliver’s ordination to the apostleship, Joseph Fielding Smith made this clarification: “These men were not ordained to the specific office in the priesthood, but received the priesthood itself out of which the offices come” (Doctrines of Salvation, 3:147, Brigham Young held the view that Joseph’s ordination to the apostleship signified that he was given the keys of the kingdom which are inherent in the apostleship—JD, 1:134-35). Since the offices are appendages to and grow out of the priesthood (D&C 107:5, 8), there would be no need for these messengers to ordain them to the office of apostle.
With the Melchizedek Priesthood restored, Joseph and Oliver could administer the higher ordinances of the gospel which communicate the spiritual blessings of the Church by which members can ultimately become sanctified and inherit eternal life (see D&C 84:20 and 107:18-19). In addition to the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood which was restored, there were special keys and powers which the Lord gave Peter, James, and John and which were subsequently conferred by them on Joseph and Oliver. The Lord revealed, “I have committed [unto Peter, James, and John] the keys of my kingdom, and a dispensation of the gospel for the last times; and for the fulness of times” (D&C 27:13). Thus, when these ancient apostles appeared to Joseph and Oliver, they declared themselves “as possessing the keys of the kingdom, and of the dispensation of the fulness of times” (D&C 128:20). Having received the keys of the kingdom, Joseph and Oliver could preside in the Melchizedek Priesthood and build up the Church or Kingdom upon the earth. The conferral of the keys of the dispensation of the fulness of times was an appointment for Joseph and Oliver to preside jointly over this last and most glorious dispensation. Aside from these keys’ being taken from Oliver when he lost his standing in the Church and given to Joseph’s older brother Hyrum, these keys were not passed on to others, but continue to reside with Joseph and Hyrum. Presiding under Adam, who holds the keys of all dispensations under the direction of Jesus Christ, they will stand throughout eternity at the head of this dispensation.
With the coming of John the Baptist to restore the Aaronic Priesthood, and Peter, James, and John to restore the Melchizedek Priesthood, the Lord declared: “The keys of the kingdom of God are committed unto man on the earth, and from thence shall the gospel roll forth unto the ends of the earth” (D&C 65:2). The impact that these priesthoods are destined to have on the earth has only begun to be realized. In a letter to his brother-in-law while yet out of the Church, Oliver Cowdery wrote this sober confession:
I have cherished a hope, and that one of my fondest, that I might leave such a character as those who might believe in my testimony, after I should be called hence, might do so, not only for the sake of the truth, but might not blush for the private character of the man who bore that testimony. I have been sensitive on this subject, I admit, but I ought to be so; you would be, under the circumstances, had you stood in the presence of John with our departed brother Joseph, to receive the lesser priesthood, and in the presence of Peter, to receive the greater and looked down through time, and witnessed the effects these two must produce—you would feel, what you have never felt, were wicked men conspiring to lessen the effects of your testimony to man, after you have gone to your long sought rest (Letter of Oliver Cowdery to Phineas H. Young, Tiffin, Ohio, 23 March 1846, Church Archives).
The restoration of the priesthood was more than simply one small part of the overall restoration “of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all the holy prophets since the world began” (Acts 3:21). It established the channel through which the Lord will continue to bring to pass all of his holy purposes until the earth and all therein that are righteous are ultimately restored to the glory from which they fell (see Priesthood in Ye Shall Know of the Doctrine, volume 2, chapter 12).
As the translation process continued, some neighbors in Harmony were taking notice and beginning to murmur and threaten Joseph and Oliver. By this time Isaac Hale had been won over to the point of feeling that the two should at least have the right to translate without being bothered or molested by the neighbors. Thus, for a time, he used his influence to protect them. In the latter part of May, however, his protection crumbled, and in fact he actually turned against the two translators. Joseph and Oliver were thus brought under increasing pressure. They had to find a safer place where they might finish the translation. Oliver wrote to his friend David Whitmer in Fayette, New York, asking if he and Joseph might come to Fayette and live and work in the house of David Whitmer’s father, Peter Whitmer, Sr. The Whitmer farm lay between Seneca Lake and Lake Cayuga. Oliver had met David Whitmer in Palmyra in 1828 when the two were just beginning to learn about the gold plates. Oliver had stopped off at the Whitmer farm on the way from Manchester to Harmony earlier in the spring. He later had written to David Whitmer from Harmony, telling him that he was sure that Joseph had the plates. The Whitmers extended an invitation for Joseph and Oliver to come to their home and finish the translating. The Whitmers were obviously intrigued by the gold plates and by the process of translating them.
Oliver wrote again to ask David to come to Harmony with his wagon to carry Joseph and him back to Fayette. This request came at a difficult time, as the Whitmers were in the middle of spring plowing, and David Whitmer couldn’t really spare the five or six days required for that round trip. He was able to take the time, however, because of what seemed to be miraculous intervention. Plowing that should have taken two days was accomplished in one. Three unknown strangers prepared and plowed the Whitmer land without the Whitmers’ requesting any help. Joseph and Oliver were brought from Harmony to Fayette in early June by David Whitmer in a two-horse wagon, while the plates were transported by the Lord. Joseph received them when he arrived in Fayette.
The Whitmer’s proved to be a great help to the young prophet as he translated the Book of Mormon. Joseph wrote:
Upon our arrival, we found Mr. Whitmer’s family very anxious concerning the work, and very friendly toward ourselves. They continued so, boarded and lodged us according to arrangements; and John Whitmer, in particular, assisted us very much in writing during the remainder of the work. In the meantime, David, John, and Peter Whitmer, Jun. became our zealous friends and assistants in the work; and being anxious to know their respective duties, and having desired with much earnestness that I should inquire of the Lord concerning them, I did so through the means of the Urim and Thummim, and obtained for them in succession the following revelations [Doctrine and Covenants 14, 15, and 16] (HC, 1:49).
The Whitmers had seven children in all. Three were married and lived close by (Christian, Jacob, and Catherine). Four still lived at home (Peter Jr.—age 19, David— age 24, John—age 26, and 14-year-old Elizabeth Ann). Oliver still did most of the transcribing, but he was relieved on occasion by Emma or one of the Whitmers— Christian or John. Actually, the entire Whitmer family was helpful in the process of translation.
It took about a month to finish translating the Book of Mormon after Joseph and Oliver moved from Harmony to the Whitmer farm in Fayette, New York.
- Michael J. Preece