Audio for Episode 1, “The Great Strife and Noise”
Spencer: 1829. It was a momentous year for Joseph Smith. According to his history, in May of that year, an angel visited him and Oliver Cowdery and conferred upon them priesthood authority. Other angelic appearances followed bringing additional authority and instructions. But to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, priesthood restoration started with this event in 1829.
But what if I told you that the history of the restoration of the priesthood was more than a sequence of angelic encounters and revelations? Those are an essential part of the story, of course, but these iconic moments really fit into a much larger context. Surviving historical records demonstrate that it was only with time and experience that Joseph Smith and other church members began to fully grasp the scope and role of priesthood in the church.
So in a way, when we talk about the history of the restoration of the priesthood, we are talking about a prolonged process as much as we are a historical event. That process is what we will be talking about over the next six episodes. This is The Priesthood Restored: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast, and I’m your host, Spencer McBride.
Spencer: Episode 1: “The Great Strife and Noise”
Spencer: As a professional historian, I have spent years immersed in the surviving papers of Joseph Smith and other early Latter-day Saints. As my colleagues and I have worked on the Joseph Smith Papers Project, we have read about and tracked the extraordinary moments these people experienced, as well as their more mundane daily activities. Both the extraordinary and the mundane are important. Together they make the past more complex and historical figures more real, more relatable—more human.
The documents that Joseph Smith left behind remind me of his humanity, that as devoted as he was to the cause of restoring the gospel of Jesus Christ, he undertook the work as an imperfect person who had to search to find answers.
And for us—conveniently perched in the present and with the major events of Joseph’s life already recorded in numerous history books—it’s easy to assume that he knew everything that would transpire in his lifetime from the beginning, almost as if he walked out of the woods near his home in 1820 with a step-by-step guide to establishing the Church of Jesus Christ.
But the documents reveal that for Joseph Smith the restoration occurred—as one of his revelations stated—“line upon line” and “precept upon precept.” It was a process.
And this sense of process is clearly seen in the history of the restoration of the priesthood. According to Smith’s personal history, that process started with angelic visitations. But the deeper understanding of the priesthood came with time, experience, pondering, and additional revelations.
So, let’s jump back into history.
Spencer: To tell the story of the restoration of the priesthood, let’s start by examining the world in which Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery lived. How did other people in the same time and place think about priesthood? What did such religious authority mean to them, and who could exercise it? To help me explore the way that many early-nineteenth-century Americans understood religious authority—understood priesthood—I spoke with Christopher Jones, an assistant professor of history at Brigham Young University, who has extensive experience researching the religious culture of this time period.
Christopher: Religious authority meant a number of different things to different groups in early America, ranging from the authority to organize and preside over a church, to doctrinal authority, to the authority to preach or the authority to ordain and license others to preach, to the authority to administer Christian sacraments (or what Latter-day Saints would call ordinances). And various Christian churches of the time maintained divergent views on each of those aspects of religious authority.
Spencer: And so, to understand the diversity of American views of religious authority in 1829, Christopher explains that we need to go back even further, to the religious history of Europe.
Christopher: So, the Roman Catholic Church, of course, was the established, that is, the state-supported church of the Holy Roman Empire, and then after that empire’s dissolution, it remains the established state-supported church of individual nations like France and Spain and England. And then you have the Protestant Reformation that challenges the authority of the Catholic Church. And while in some instances Protestants served as dissidents or dissenters in Catholic states, in other places, Protestant churches simply replaced Catholicism as the established church.
So, the Church of England was thus the established church there, its followers known as Anglicans. And in Scotland, the Church of Scotland, where the followers were called Presbyterians, right, was the established church. And this method of established churches in which religious authority—a church’s ecclesiastical authority—was intimately linked to the authority of the state, that was exported to England’s North American colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth century and even persisted into the new United States following the American Revolution.
Spencer: And different denominations became the established churches in different American colonies and states.
Christopher: The Church of England was thus the state-sanctioned church of colonies like Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas. While meanwhile further north, in regions like New England, groups that had been deemed dissenters—that is, legal, non-Anglican, non-Church-of-England-members in England—were able to establish their own churches in places like Massachusetts and Connecticut. So, the Puritans established what they called the Congregational Church as the established, state-supported church of the colonies in Massachusetts and Connecticut. And the Congregational Church actually remains the established church for some fifty years after the United States Constitution enshrined disestablishment at the federal level, after the United States Constitution imposes this separation of church and state.
Spencer: This eventual legal separation of church and state in the United States was an important development. This meant that churches in the country would not be supported by tax dollars and that a state could not require membership in a particular church as a requirement to hold public office or to vote. But, as Christopher explains, this process also affected the way Americans understood religious authority.
And, as you will see, this change in American understanding of religious authority would eventually inform the questions that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery would ask in 1829. But first, we need to understand how these changes in American religious culture came about.
Christopher: This process of disestablishment in the early United States, I think, seems fairly unremarkable to many Americans today—common place. We can’t imagine the United States without religious freedom, right? But in the early United States, disestablishment caused something of a crisis in religious authority. Without the backing of the state, a lot of people wondered how different churches would maintain their authority, and for most Americans the answer came down I think ultimately to two things: number one, the Bible, which all Protestants regarded as authoritative, and number two, the consent of church members, and this was kind of a uniquely American twist on religious authority.
Spencer: The Bible and the consent of church members were the primary sources of religious authority, meaning in this case the authority to act in the name of God and to administer the ordinances of the Christian church. So, how did this work in a pragmatic sense? How did it work with the ordination of ministers and other church leaders to exercise such authority? To help explain this, Christopher offered an example from the history of the Methodists in the wake of the American Revolution.
Christopher: So, in 1784, following the American Revolution’s conclusion, the Anglican cleric John Wesley authorized his Methodist followers in the new United States to organize a new independent Methodist Church. And this was no small thing. Up until that time, Wesley and the Methodist people that followed him in both England and her American colonies had remained members of the Church of England.
Methodists were designated… or Methodism designated not another church, but rather a movement within the established Church of England. But with the Church of England being stripped of authority in the new United States, Wesley took the significant step of organizing his American followers into an entirely new church. He says by a peculiar act of providence I am left with no choice but to ultimately organize my followers in the United States into a separate church because no established church exists there.
Spencer: This situation led to questions about who would lead the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States.
Christopher: So after first petitioning the Bishop of London, that’s the Anglican bishop in London, to ordain someone to lead this new Methodist church, a petition that was ultimately rejected and unsurprisingly so, Wesley returned to the Bible and decided upon rereading that the ecclesiastical office of priest or presbyter, what we would call an elder, which he was, was actually equivalent in authority to that of bishop, making Wesley’s own authority as an elder in the Church of England the same as that of the Bishop of London. This allowed him to justify setting apart another Anglican priest, a man named Thomas Cook, as superintendent of what came to be called the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States.
So, upon arrival in America, Thomas Cook lays his hands upon the head of a Methodist preacher already there named Francis Asbury and ordains Asbury to co-superintend this new church, thus forming the first independent Methodist church anywhere in the world. Two things are especially interesting to note here, I think: number one, shortly after their ordination as superintendents, Cook and Asbury began calling themselves bishops, not superintendents—much to Wesley’s consternation, I think we should note.
Cook and Asbury believed that the more explicitly biblical title of bishop would be necessary to establish their authority as leaders of this new church, and this is reflected in the name that they ultimately choose for the church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, that word “Episcopal” refers to rule by bishops. Okay, so that’s number one: they choose to be called bishops because of its kind of biblical authority as opposed to superintendents, which Wesley favored.
And then number two: at their ordination, in December of 1784, the Englishman Thomas Cook believed that their authority was fully operational. But Asbury insisted that the several dozen assembled preachers there who had come to witness the ordination would need to likewise indicate by vote their consent to the validity of the ordination and the organization of this new church, and in this moment, consent came to be enshrined as an important feature of religious authority in this Methodist Episcopal Church.
Spencer: I think this example is telling because it shows how John Wesley and leaders of the new Methodist Episcopal Church looked to the Bible for authority to start a new church organization separate from the Church of England. But they still relied on the consent of the members of the newly organized church to approve of decisions regarding who would hold priesthood authority and how they would lead the church based on their interpretation of the Bible.
Of course, members of congregations would not always agree with each other in these matters. They would not always agree with each other on their reading of the Bible, either. This would eventually lead to splits within denominations and competition between different Protestant Christian churches. And in the early history of the United States, the differences between many of these Christian denominations that had existed for a long time became more pronounced and, especially in the early 1800s, new denominations were regularly sprouting up.
Christopher: So, while all Protestants in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century United States agreed on the authority of the Bible and the importance of consent, as I just outlined in the example of the Methodists, they disagreed, and sometimes sharply so, on what the Bible meant, from its doctrinal teachings on any number of things to the church organization that is supposedly prescribed to any number of other things.
And the names of the churches, as I just suggested, often reflected these disagreements over religious authority. So, if the Methodist Episcopal Church indicated rule by bishops, the Presbyterian Church and its name indicated the authority of elders, presbyter being the Greek word for elder. Meanwhile, the Congregational Church’s name reflected its adherence and insistence that religious authority operated most powerfully and most authoritatively at the local or congregational level. Meanwhile, groups like the Baptists assumed names for their church based on their belief in the correct or authoritative religious practice of baptism.
So, religious authority means a number of different things to a number of different people, right, and it’s reflected in what they call their churches. It’s reflected in the church organization that they choose, and it’s reflected in the scope and shape of their church ministry.
Spencer: But something else was happening on the American religious landscape in the late 1700s and early 1800s that altered the way that Americans conceived of religious authority, of priesthood. It has to do with the elevation of average Americans to positions of religious leadership, people who would not have been viewed as religious leaders in previous eras of history.
There’s a term here that’s important to understanding this trend and that term is democratization. To democratize something is to make it accessible to more people. So for instance, the internet is credited with democratizing information because it made a lot of information readily available to more people than it ever had before.
So, scholars have called what happened in the United States in the late 1700s and early 1800s the democratization of American Christianity. And this occurred in a number of different ways. But we see a particular increase in the ability of the average American to exercise religious authority and participate in religious services.
For centuries, Christian denominations were run exclusively by men who were educated at a college or seminary for a career as a priest or minister. And this requirement typically meant that those who served as religious leaders were born into wealthy families. They were part of society’s elite.
But early in the history of the United States, this changed.
I spoke about this with Rachel Cope, an associate professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.
Rachel: There definitely was a sense that you didn’t need to have formal training or formal ordination to preach, that anyone who was called of God could preach. And that sense that someone could be called of God opened up space for a variety of people to be able to preach and to contribute to religious discussion and understanding and approach to religion.
Spencer: This larger variety of people included those without formal education, those who did not attend college for a divinity degree before entering the ministry. Such a democratized culture meant that people like Joseph Smith, whose family circumstances made attending college virtually impossible, could become religious leaders if they felt called to the work.
And such an approach to Christian leadership was especially prevalent among Methodists and Baptists, but less so among other denominations. Christopher Jones explains:
Christopher: Methodists and Baptists, which were the largest and fastest-growing Protestant denominations in the early nineteenth-century United States, both agreed that the authority to preach came first from a divine call to do so. One felt called by God to the ministry. Though ordination was necessary to preach or to baptize or to bless and pass the sacrament, to administer the Lord’s Supper, one must first feel inspired or called in order to join the ministry of any of these churches. So, both Methodists and Baptists, again like Joseph Smith and his followers that followed, rejected the need for any sort of formal theological training.
So some Presbyterians, some Congregationalists, and certainly Anglicans were insistent that for one to become ordained, they needed to receive some theological training. Typically this would involve, for Anglicans traveling to England, enrolling at Oxford or Cambridge or other divinity or theological schools there, and leaving with a Master’s in theological studies or a Master’s of Divinity degree or, in some instances, a Doctorate of Divinity degree.
Spencer: Still, the rapid growth of the Baptist and Methodist churches indicated that the trend was headed toward a more inclusive view of who could be ordained.
Moving beyond the question of educational qualifications for Christian ministry, the early nineteenth century saw an increase in the number of women and people of color preaching in the United States.
Rachel: It opened up space for slaves or for freed people of color. It also opened up space for women and others who wouldn’t traditionally fit into the preaching mold. It gave them a space to be able to preach and to share and to speak.
Spencer: But the space available for such preaching varied by denomination. Some denominations stood out from the others in this regard. Rachel explains:
Rachel: There was space for Methodist women, and there were Methodist women who would preach and share. They also had prayer meetings and class meetings and different forms of smaller groups that women would specifically lead. Quakers were certainly more open to female preaching than other groups. And there were a number of women who would even travel across the Atlantic to preach in Britain and America that would share the gospel. And then of course, there were just various individuals from Evangelical congregations and Evangelical backgrounds who would feel called.
So, in the eighteenth century there would be someone like a Sarah Osborn who led a lot of different meetings from her home and was a key part of the revivals and in spreading kind of evangelical fervor and belief and faith. And she, too, is one of those people who had a very difficult life and was able to minister specifically to groups of people who maybe would have felt left out otherwise. She saw pain and understood pain in a way that allowed her to meet the needs of a particular segment of society that, honestly, probably a lot of the male preachers would have been more prone to overlook.
Spencer: Still, even in denominations that were open to the vocal participation of women and people of color, there were often limits. The priesthoods of all mainline Protestant Christian churches at this time were exclusively male.
And while many of these denominations welcomed people of color into their congregations, they often prohibited the formal ordination of these individuals. In some instances, this led to schisms within church communities.
Christopher: So, just broadly speaking, people of color, African Americans, whether enslaved or free, we have hundreds and hundreds of examples of very skilled, very charismatic, and very popular Black preachers in early America, in the early United States. And this did not go unnoticed by white Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian church leaders during this time, and they sought to utilize the skill and popularity of these Black preachers in attracting Black converts to their churches.
So, Francis Asbury, who I referenced earlier, one of the first two bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church, was often accompanied in his travels around the United States to preach to different Methodist congregations by a Black man named Harry Hosier. And Harry, according to all accounts that we have, was the most popular Methodist preacher in the 1780s. Everybody came out to hear him preach. But Asbury had him accompany him for this specific reason, because he was such a popular draw. He attracted not just already converted and baptized Methodists, but also a number of prospective Methodists who wanted to come hear him preach—he’s this very dynamic charismatic speaker.
But in spite of his popularity, in spite of his skill, and in spite of his close friendship and relationship with Francis Asbury and other early white Methodist leaders, Harry Hosier was never ordained to the Methodist priesthood. He was never authorized to administer the Lord’s Supper; he was never formally ordained as a deacon or an elder in the Methodist Episcopal church. And while he maybe is the most notable example in that early period in the late eighteenth century, he was far from alone.
In regions like Philadelphia and New York City and Baltimore, free people of color began to join churches like the Baptist church and like the Methodist Church in large numbers in the 1780s, the 1790s, and the early 1800s. What they faced when they joined these churches was perhaps unsurprisingly both passive and sometimes aggressive racism.
Many Methodist churches in the 1780s featured segregated seating, so these newly constructed Methodist churches would include a balcony in the upper reaches of the church and Black members of the church would be relegated to sit there. They were not allowed to sit down on the floor with their white fellow congregants, and over time, many Black Methodists grew frustrated with the segregation, with this racism and with ordination to the Methodist priesthood being closed off to them.
Spencer: Christopher explained that initially the Methodists tried different ways of appeasing this frustration, including forming separate congregations for Black Methodists and, eventually, ordaining Black Methodists to the priesthood to serve as local ministers. But for many it was not enough, and during the first decade of the 1800s, the African Methodist Episcopal Church was formed as a separate denomination.
Now this is just one example of many such developments in American Christianity. But it’s important to the story of Joseph Smith and the restoration of the priesthood because it demonstrates a religious world in flux, with ongoing changes and debates over what priesthood looks like, how it functions, and who could exercise such religious authority.
Although the different churches disagreed on who could exercise priesthood authority, by the 1820s the democratizing forces at play in the United States had made priesthood ordination available to far more individuals than in any other era of the country’s history. It had made ordination in a number of different churches available to men who were not born into wealthy families, men who could not attend college and attain degrees in divinity.
That’s a big part of why these developments in American religious culture matter to the story of priesthood restoration. While Joseph would not join any of these different denominations, they created a religious culture in which he, and many like him, could conceive of themselves as those who God could call to hold and exercise priesthood power. And in 1830, after establishing the Church of Christ, Joseph would confer priesthood authority on scores of other men from similar socioeconomic backgrounds—men who, if born a few generations earlier, could never have imagined such an opportunity in their lives.
Spencer: In this episode, we surveyed the religious landscape in the United States in the early 1800s, in part to better understand the religious culture and contention surrounding Joseph Smith in 1829.
But the story of Joseph Smith and the restoration of the priesthood does not start with Joseph exhaustively surveying the different views of religious authority—the different views of priesthood—among the different Protestant Christian churches around him. While he was certainly aware of several of the different positions of these churches in the 1820s, Joseph’s experience with priesthood authority begins instead with a book and a question. The book was the Book of Mormon. The question, well, that was about baptism.
And that’s where we’ll pick up the story in the next episode of The Priesthood Restored: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.