1. Overview: Like the First Vision sto­ry, Joseph Smith wait­ed many years before claim­ing to have received the priest­hood from John the Bap­tist and Peter, James, and John. Although the Church teach­es that the priest­hood was restored in 1829, Joseph Smith and Oliv­er Cow­dery made no such claim until 1834. Not even mem­bers of Joseph’s fam­i­ly had ever heard the restora­tion sto­ry until five years after it sup­pos­ed­ly occurred. Why did it take five years for Joseph or Oliv­er to tell mem­bers of the Church about the priest­hood?

2. Back­ground: Pri­or to 1834, Church the­ol­o­gy did not encom­pass the need for a lit­er­al bestow­al or restora­tion of priest­hood pow­er by res­ur­rect­ed beings in order for men to be called and ordained to preach the gospel and car­ry out sacred ordi­nances. How­ev­er, Joseph Smith’s the­ol­o­gy changed sub­stan­tial­ly in 1834. Only when mem­bers began leav­ing the Church en masse did Joseph Smith first begin speak­ing of a spe­cial, mirac­u­lous con­fer­ral of author­i­ty by apos­tles of old, which he claimed occurred pri­or to the church’s orga­ni­za­tion in 1830.

As LDS his­to­ri­an Richard Bush­man admits in his land­mark biog­ra­phy on Joseph Smith (Rough Stone Rolling, 75): “the late appear­ance of these accounts rais­es the pos­si­bil­i­ty of lat­er fab­ri­ca­tion” – even though he does not draw that con­clu­sion him­self.

David Whit­mer, one of the wit­ness­es to the Book of Mor­mon, had this to say about the Priest­hood restora­tion: “I nev­er heard that an Angel had ordained Joseph and Oliv­er to the Aaron­ic Priest­hood until the year 1834[,] [183]5, or [183]6 – in Ohio … I do not believe that John the Bap­tist ever ordained Joseph and Oliv­er .…” (Ear­ly Mor­mon Doc­u­ments, 5:137)

3. Spe­cif­ic Prob­lems with the Priest­hood Restora­tion Account:

  • Joseph Wait­ed Five Years to Dis­cuss Priest­hood Con­fer­ral:

Joseph Smith and Oliv­er Cow­dery failed to men­tion or record any­thing about the appear­ances of John the Bap­tist and Peter, James, and John in any pub­li­ca­tions pri­or to 1834 (five years after the events pur­port­ed­ly took place) — nor did they teach that men ordained to offices in the church were receiv­ing priest­hood author­i­ty. As Grant Palmer not­ed, “Accounts of angel­ic ordi­na­tions from John the Bap­tist and Peter, James, and John are in none of the jour­nals, diaries, let­ters, or print­ed mat­ter until the mid-1830s.” (Grant Palmer, An Insider’s View of Mor­mon Ori­gins, pp. 223–224).

With regard to Joseph Smith’s evolv­ing the­ol­o­gy on the nature of author­i­ty in the church, Grant Palmer notes in An Insider’s View of Mor­mon Ori­gins: “In 1829 Joseph said he was called by the Spir­it; in 1832 he men­tioned that angels attend­ed these events; in 1834–35 the spir­i­tu­al man­i­fes­ta­tions became lit­er­al and phys­i­cal appear­ances of res­ur­rect­ed beings. Details usu­al­ly become blurred over time; in this case, they mul­ti­plied and sharp­ened.”

  • Incon­sis­tent Details of Priest­hood Con­fer­ral:

Nobody in or out of the church knows the exact date of the restora­tion of the Melchizedek Priest­hood, and Oliv­er Cow­dery was incon­sis­tent in describ­ing which heav­en­ly being(s) con­ferred that author­i­ty. B. H. Roberts admit­ted in 1902: “[T]here is no def­i­nite account of the [Melchizedek Priest­hood restora­tion] event in the his­to­ry of the Prophet Joseph, or, for mat­ter of that, in any of our annals .…” (His­to­ry of the Church, Vol. 1, p. 40 foot­note). Joseph Smith and Oliv­er Cow­dery nev­er pin­point­ed the date of the appear­ance of Peter, James, and John, mak­ing instead gen­er­al­ized state­ments about the locale (by the Susque­han­na Riv­er) and the timing/circumstances of the event.

  • Joseph’s Account of Priest­hood Con­fer­ral Evolved and Changed:

Joseph Smith and oth­er ear­ly mem­bers ini­tial­ly stat­ed that the first con­fer­ral of the Melchizedek priest­hood hap­pened in June 1831 in Ohio at a con­fer­ence of Elders, and that Joseph him­self was ordained to the high priest­hood by church elder Lyman Wight at that time. Joseph lat­er told a far more mirac­u­lous sto­ry of the priest­hood con­fer­ral. The fol­low­ing is a time­line of events:

Pri­or to 1831, spe­cif­ic males in the church were called to “church offices—elders, priests, and teachers—given author­i­ty, and licensed with­out ref­er­ence to a bestow­al of priest­hood.” (Richard Bush­man, Rough Stone Rolling, pp. 157–158.) Even at the April 1830 meet­ing in which the Church was for­mal­ly orga­nized, Joseph Smith ordained Oliv­er Cow­dery as “elder” and then Cow­dery ordained Joseph as “elder,” with no men­tion made of these ordi­na­tions being tied to “priest­hood” author­i­ty. Many of the elders present at the con­fer­ence of elders in June 1831 wrote per­son­al accounts of the lengthy meet­ing, a pen­te­costal-like event dur­ing which Joseph Smith and oth­ers laid their hands on one anoth­er to con­fer upon each the “high priest­hood” for the “first time”:

Ezra Booth … was present when the Elders first received the ordi­na­tion of the High Priest­hood. They met togeth­er in June, 1831… While they were there, the man­i­fes­ta­tion of the pow­er of God being on Joseph, he set apart some of the Elders to the High Priest­hood… The Priest­hood was con­ferred on a num­ber of the Elders.” (George A. Smith, Nov. 15, 1864, Jour­nal of Dis­cours­es) “On the 3rd of June [1831], the Elders from the var­i­ous parts of the coun­try where they were labor­ing, came in… [T]he author­i­ty of the Melchizedek Priest­hood was man­i­fest­ed and con­ferred for the first time upon sev­er­al of the Elders.” (His­to­ry of the Church, vol. 1, pp. 175–176)

The fact that elders were being ordained to the “high priest­hood” for the “first time” indi­cates that the office of elder as orig­i­nal­ly conceived/ordained in the Church had noth­ing to do with “priest­hood.” The fact that Joseph received the high priest­hood him­self from Lyman Wight (Richard Bush­man, Rough Stone Rolling, p. 158) indi­cates that he did not believe he had received the high priest­hood before that time (1831). What does that say about the alleged vis­it of Peter, James, and John?

  • Joseph Altered Pre­vi­ous Rev­e­la­tions Regard­ing Priest­hood Con­fer­ral:

Joseph Smith and Oliv­er Cow­dery changed the word­ing of ear­li­er rev­e­la­tions when they com­piled the 1835 edi­tion of the Doc­trine and Covenants, adding vers­es about the appear­ances of John the Bap­tist and Peter, James, and John as if those appear­ances were men­tioned in the ear­li­er rev­e­la­tions, which they were not. The Book of Com­mand­ments, which lat­er became the Doc­trine and Covenants says noth­ing about these appear­ances.

The Book of Com­mand­ments (the fore­run­ner to the Doc­trine and Covenants) was first pub­lished in 1833. Book of Com­mand­ments Chap­ter 28 (which mor­phed into the cur­rent ver­sion of Sec­tion 27 of the Doc­trine and Covenants) was orig­i­nal­ly a 193-word rev­e­la­tion explain­ing what could be con­sumed for the sacra­men­tal wine. The head­ing to D&C Sec­tion 27 states: “In prepa­ra­tion for a reli­gious ser­vice at which the sacra­ment of bread and wine was to be admin­is­tered, Joseph set out to pro­cure wine for the occa­sion. He was met by a heav­en­ly mes­sen­ger and received this rev­e­la­tion, a por­tion of which was writ­ten at the time, and the remain­der in the Sep­tem­ber fol­low­ing.” How­ev­er, two years lat­er, in 1835, Joseph and Oliv­er added 456 addi­tion­al vers­es to that chap­ter. Did a heav­en­ly mes­sen­ger real­ly state all 649 words, which Joseph mirac­u­lous­ly remem­bered sev­er­al years lat­er, or did Joseph take lib­er­ties with the text for his own pur­pos­es?

Most notable among the addi­tions is the only canon­i­cal ref­er­ence up to that point (1835) of the elu­sive vis­it of Peter, James, and John to Joseph and Oliv­er. See A Com­par­i­son of Book of Com­mand­ments 28 and D&C 27. These revi­sions made it appear as Joseph and Oliv­er received the priest­hood from heav­en­ly mes­sen­gers years ear­li­er when, in fact, the 1835 revi­sions were the first record­ed state­ments relat­ing to such a con­fer­ral.

David Whit­mer lat­er expressed his dis­gust with Joseph and Oliver’s alter­ations to the ear­li­er rev­e­la­tions.

The rev­e­la­tions in the Book of Com­mand­ments up to June, 1829, were giv­en through the ‘stone,’ through which the Book of Mor­mon was trans­lat­ed … [The] rev­e­la­tions … were print­ed in the Book of Com­mand­ments cor­rect­ly … just exact­ly as they were arranged by Broth­er Joseph and the oth­ers. And when the Book of Com­mand­ments was print­ed, Joseph and the church received it as being print­ed cor­rect­ly… When it became gen­er­al­ly known that these impor­tant changes had been made in the Book of Doc­trine and Covenants, many of the brethren object­ed seri­ous­ly to it, but they did not want to say much for the sake of peace, as it was Broth­er Joseph and the lead­ers who did it. The major­i­ty of the mem­bers – poor weak souls – thought that any­thing Broth­er Joseph would do must be all right; so in their blind­ness of heart, trust­ing in an arm of flesh, they looked over it and were led into error. (David Whit­mer, An Address to All Believ­ers in Christ, 1887, page 53, 56, 61)

Even church his­to­ri­an and gen­er­al author­i­ty Mar­lin K. Jensen acknowl­edges that Joseph Smith revised ear­li­er rev­e­la­tions:

In some instances, when a new rev­e­la­tion changed or updat­ed what had pre­vi­ous­ly been received, the Prophet edit­ed the ear­li­er writ­ten rev­e­la­tion to reflect the new under­stand­ing… The Prophet did not believe that rev­e­la­tions, once record­ed, could not be changed by fur­ther rev­e­la­tion. (Mar­lin K. Jensen, “The Joseph Smith Papers: The Man­u­script Rev­e­la­tion Books,” Ensign, July 2009).

Joseph want­ed it all — to be able to claim rev­e­la­tion from God in a trance-like moment, and to lat­er alter such rev­e­la­tions accord­ing to “new” the­o­log­i­cal under­stand­ing. As evi­denced by his ear­li­est rev­e­la­tions, he began the Church with no under­stand­ing of the need for a lay­ing-on-of-hands con­fer­ral of author­i­ty from ancient prophets. His ideas on priest­hood con­fer­ral and the two dis­tinct divi­sions of the priest­hood evolved over time, as did his “rev­e­la­tions.” Not until March 1835 did he plain­ly describe the “Melchizedek Priest­hood” and the “Aaron­ic Priest­hood” (D&C 107).

4. Arti­cles dis­cussing the unsup­port­ed sto­ry of the restora­tion of the priest­hood:

Series Nav­i­ga­tion: Leav­ing the Church — Eric Nel­son« Leav­ing the Church, Part 6 — First VisionLeav­ing the Church, Part 8 — Polygamy and Polyandry »

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