“Days Never to Be Forgotten” (The Priesthood Restored Podcast, Episode 2): Transcript

Audio for Episode 2, “Days Never to Be Forgotten”

Spencer: 1829. It was May 15th, a busy day in Harmony, Pennsylvania, and on the nearby Susquehanna River. But, according to Oliver Cowdery, what transpired on Joseph Smith’s farm was of far greater significance than any business their neighbors had undertaken.

Earlier, in 1827, Joseph and Emma Smith had moved to Harmony, a settlement in the northeastern United States. There they ran a small farm near the home of Emma’s parents, and, between chores and other tasks the farm required, Joseph worked for hours with Oliver Cowdery translating the Book of Mormon.

But on that day in 1829, during the translation work, a question settled on Joseph and Oliver. And, like so many of Joseph’s visionary experiences, this question led to Joseph seeking answers through prayer.

In this episode, we’ll talk about that question, that prayer, and what Joseph and Oliver experienced next.

This is The Priesthood Restored: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast, and I’m your host, Spencer McBride.

Spencer: Episode 2: “Days Never to Be Forgotten”

Spencer: In 1827, Joseph and Emma Smith moved from New York to Harmony, Pennsylvania, a small township of about three hundred people located just south of the border of New York and Pennsylvania. The town sits in a narrow and picturesque valley carved in the mountains by the Susquehanna River. Harmony was where Emma had been born, and it was where her parents still resided.

Joseph and Emma moved onto a farm owned by Emma’s parents and, in April 1829, purchased that farm from them. It was here that Joseph worked with his friend and scribe Oliver Cowdery to translate much of the Book of Mormon.

That spring had been particularly cold and late frosts in the area had delayed the planting of most crops. So, while Joseph still had chores to attend to on the farm, the delayed planting season meant that there was far more time for him to work on his translation project.

Matthew: So, in May of 1829, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery are working on their translation of the Book of Mormon.

Spencer: That’s Matthew Godfrey, the managing historian and a general editor of the Joseph Smith Papers.

Matthew: And at the time, they’re translating what we have today as 3 Nephi chapter 11. It’s where the Savior visits the Nephites after his death and resurrection in the Americas. And in the course of the Savior’s visit to the Nephites, he gives Nephi, one of their prophets at the time, the authority to baptize and actually talks to him about what baptism is, tells him what should be said when someone is being baptized.

And so, as Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery are translating this portion of the Book of Mormon, they begin to think about this idea of baptism and the necessity of baptism, and they especially began to think about whether or not the authority exists on the earth to baptize.

Spencer: While this is a really important moment in the history of the restoration of the priesthood, Rachel Cope, an associate professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University, suggests that it also illuminates Joseph Smith’s revelatory process.

Rachel: I think this example is very typical of how Joseph Smith was receiving revelation during this time. As he was translating the Book of Mormon, he wasn’t just receiving that text, he was receiving revelation as a result of that revelation. Revelation begats revelation as you’re studying and reflecting upon and coming across passages of scripture, right? And he’s literally receiving new scripture for him. It’s just brand new. It’s really pricking his mind and creating questions, and he starts wondering about things he’s heard about and thought about for years, and now he has new questions.

Spencer: And, as Rachel suggests, these questions about baptism had long been the focus of debates in the various communities in which Joseph Smith had lived. So had priesthood authority. To better understand the nature of these debates and the potential influence they had on Joseph, I spoke with Mark Staker, a curator in the Historic Sites Division of the Church History Department. 

Mark: In 1829, there are fights about priesthood authority in Susquehanna County. The newspapers are arguing about authority, there is an Episcopalian who has authority through the Pope, although the Church of England has separated, he still sees that he holds that original authority, and he then challenges the Baptists right there in Susquehanna County, saying, “Where do you get your authority from? I’ve got it from a legitimate source.” So they’re arguing that out in the newspapers. Authority is an issue.

Spencer: It seems likely that Joseph Smith was aware of these public debates, just as he had been aware of debates between different Christian denominations since his youth. These public debates are an important context for the restoration of the priesthood. But, ultimately, it was the translation of the Book of Mormon and that passage on baptism that was the impetus for Joseph and Oliver’s decision to seek additional guidance from God. The date was May 15th, 1829.

Rachel: They were in Harmony, Pennsylvania, and they found a secluded area to pray in, which I think is also not just significant to Joseph, but again, culturally significant. It’s something that he has learned to do. When you pray, you find a secluded, sacred spot, often in nature—because that’s the only place where you could find secluded spots—and you pray to God. And you ask for an answer to your question. And Joseph had enough experiences now that he expects an answer to his questions; he expects God to respond. And as they pray, they first hear the voice of Jesus Christ. And after they hear the voice of the Savior, they receive a visitation from an angel who introduces himself as John the Baptist, and he confers that authority upon them.

Spencer: According to one of the records of this event, which is now canonized as section 13 of the Doctrine and Covenants, as John the Baptist conferred priesthood authority upon Joseph and Oliver, he stated the following:

“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.”

So, the priesthood they received from John the Baptist included the authority to baptize. And one of the first things they were directed to do by the angelic visitor was to baptize one another. Accordingly, Joseph and Oliver entered the nearby Susquehanna River. Joseph baptized Oliver, and then Oliver baptized Joseph.

Joseph Smith’s history records that immediately after each man’s baptism, Joseph and Oliver each “prophesied many things that should shortly come to pass.”

Then, according to the directions of the angelic visitor, Joseph laid his hands on Oliver’s head and ordained him to the priesthood, and then Oliver ordained Joseph to the same priesthood. A revelation five years later would identify the name of this priesthood as the Aaronic Priesthood.

Spencer: So, the restoration of the priesthood commenced with an angelic visit. And it’s a story that Latter-day Saints know well. But if we are going to dive deeper into the story, it’s important to talk about how we know what we know about the event. We need to talk about record keeping.

And while record-keeping practices may not be something you have spent a lot of time thinking about, it’s essential to gaining a deeper understanding of the restoration of the priesthood—and really, all of church history. While some records demonstrate that Joseph and Oliver spoke publicly of the priesthood restoration in the months that followed, many of the details that church members are familiar with today were only recorded a few years later. This is a big part of why the story of Joseph Smith’s record keeping matters.

To this end I spoke with Robin Jensen, an associate managing historian of the Joseph Smith Papers and an expert on early attempts of church leaders to record their history.

Robin: You often hear the term “record-keeping people.” We are a record-keeping people, and that’s absolutely true. The very first revelation given to the church on the day of its organization commanded the Saints: “there shall be a record kept among you.” And so, records have always been an important part of Joseph Smith’s prophetic mission.

You think about the Book of Mormon and what that represented. That was a record of an ancient people that must have made an impact on Joseph and his followers with regard to record keeping. But I think that’s lulled us into a false sense of security. Yes, we are a record-keeping people, but we have had varying degrees of success in that record keeping, and the types of records that we kept have been different depending at what point we are looking at.

Spencer: Despite these early inconsistencies in record keeping, some really important records from 1829 and 1830 exist. Sharalyn Howcroft, the project archivist of the Joseph Smith Papers, explains:

Sharalyn: If we take a survey of Joseph’s early records, what we find is something that’s very revelation- and scripture-centric. This is a time where he’s working on the translation of The Book of Mormon. He’s also getting a lot of revelations that end up being canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants. And so, what we see in terms of other records that are occurring during this time is they’re very few and far between.

A majority of Joseph Smith’s correspondence from 1829—and I do mean a handful, this is a really small cluster of correspondence—it exists because it was copied into a letterbook. And then we may have one or two incidental that are loose that by sheer luck of the draw we have them. But a majority of the material that we’re looking at is revelations and the translation of the Book of Mormon, and so there’s this whole swath of things that we come to rely on later even a few years later, such as minute books that we just don’t have that early.

Spencer: Robin Jensen sees the same trends in the surviving records.

Robin: And so, Joseph Smith, as far as record keeping, is not doing a lot of that for much of his youth, and in fact, when we looked to some of the earliest events of the Restoration, and if we want to find contemporary records, we’re just not going to find them. Joseph Smith did not go home from his first vision and write it in his diary, because that was not something that he did. He may have told it to some people, but that very likely was not committed to writing.

Now, this changed when he found this ancient set of plates. Maybe something in that process taught him the importance of record keeping, but when he began dictating the text of the Book of Mormon to various scribes, they got into the habit of creating records. But they were very limited in the types of records that they were. And so, the earliest records that we find are sacred texts.

So, we have the Book of Mormon, we have revelations at a certain point, and that’s about it. Occasionally, we would have legal or other types of financial records, but for the most part, we do not have Joseph Smith’s voice in the earliest records of the restoration.

Why is that? Well, the sacred texts are the voices of others, whether that is of Mormon or Moroni, or Nephi, or it is the voice of God through the revelations. These earliest records don’t have Joseph giving his innermost thoughts and feelings. He is not that type of record keeper at this time. And so, when we talk about records that are being kept, we need to be aware of what kind of story we can get from these types of records.

Spencer: You might be wondering, when does this all change for Joseph Smith? When does he start keeping more reflective records, records that not only record what happened, but how events made him feel—what events meant to him and their significance to the church? The answer is 1832, a significant year for Joseph Smith’s record keeping.

Sharalyn: So, one thing that we see with Joseph Smith though, in particular, is in November of 1832, he begins this record-keeping initiative himself, where he begins writing his first journal. The first letterbook is created, and Joseph begins his first history. Well, the problem with that first history is it only goes on for five to six pages, and then it abruptly terminates. So, we see these starts and pauses and false starts and just kind of this attempt to move forward with writing the history and keeping records.

Spencer: When I think of Joseph Smith and record keeping, especially his early attempts, I often think of the difficulty Joseph experienced in keeping his journal and writing his history and the history of the church. It’s something to which many of us in the present can relate.

In fact, there’s a joke I frequently tell when speaking to groups of Latter-day Saints about Joseph Smith and the history of the church. And it goes something like this: How do we know Joseph Smith was a Latter-day Saint? Well, in 1832 he wrote in his journal for nine days in a row and then he took ten months off.

Okay, so maybe it’s not a good joke, but I think it gets to a relatable point. For many of us, writing and personal record keeping can be difficult. Often the business of life and the obstacles we face just trying to get by make it even more difficult. This was often the case for Joseph Smith, but he eventually improved record keeping for both himself and for the church.

Sharalyn: And there comes a point in 1835 where Joseph is meeting with the Quorum of the Twelve, and in that meeting, he laments to the members of the Quorum of the Twelve the neglect of record keeping, of doctrinal matters, and the duties since the organization of the church. And one thing he says that I want to quote here: He says, “We cannot bear record to the church nor unto the world of the great and glorious manifestations that had been made to us with that degree of power and authority, which we otherwise could if we had those decisions to publish abroad.”

So, he’s reflecting on this neglect that occurred and what should have happened, but he holds this anxiety about writing the history for quite some time. He’s very frustrated at the thwarted efforts to write his history, and he specifically identifies some of the factors that contributed to not writing the history: his imprisonment; vexatious lawsuits; he talks about the death of his clerks and treachery of his clerks; and he also talks about his experience with poverty and being driven from state to state.

One thing that most people don’t understand is we’re quite fortunate to have the records that we do have, considering how frequently the Saints were uprooted, that one of the first things to go when there’s that type of tumult going on in a community are the records. So, we’re just very fortunate that we have what we have.

Spencer: As it happened, 1835 was another turning point in church record keeping. Joseph Smith started to rely more than ever on clerks and scribes, and as a result, more records were created and more of those records survive to the present. Around this time, we see a determined effort by Joseph and his scribes to record the history of the previous years so that it could be preserved for future generations.

In my conversation with Matthew Godfrey, he recounted a statement Joseph Smith made to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles about record keeping in 1835. This is the same meeting that Sharalyn referenced a moment ago.

Matthew: When the Twelve Apostles are called in 1835, the first meeting that Joseph has with them he bemoans the lack of record keeping that has occurred in the church at that time. He says this to the Twelve Apostles: “I have for myself learned a fact by experience which on reflection gives me deep sorrow. It is a truth that if I now had in my possession every decision which has been given upon important items of doctrine and duties since the rise of this church, they would be of incalculable worth to the Saints, but we have neglected to keep record of such things.”

And so, he’s telling the Twelve Apostles, you need to keep better records than we’ve kept up to this point. So, I think Joseph recognized that the church hadn’t really kept records of important events as much as they should have up to that point.

Spencer: Accordingly, Oliver, Joseph, and others worked hard to record their spiritual experiences of years past the best that they could.

Still, the inconsistent record keeping means that when it comes to the history of Joseph Smith’s life—and the history of the church he led—there are some things that we simply don’t know. Some details are lost because they were never recorded or because the records that were kept simply didn’t survive.

As Robin Jensen explains, while we often wish that we had more details about past events, lost details do not need to hinder our individual searches for greater understanding.

Robin: So, for instance, we don’t know the exact date that they finished the translation for the Book of Mormon. We don’t know when that happened. We don’t know exactly when some of the earliest revelations were dictated by Joseph Smith. We have an about, a circa, a circa date; we have a month. And that circa I think is important. The circa of course represents that we’re uncertain. We know it happened around this time, and that circa should tell us that there are questions in early church history. And for some that’s scary.

We want to know everything there is to know about the early restoration, because I think that in some people’s minds, if we don’t know all the details about the First Vision or the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood or the translation of the Book of Mormon, then therefore we have to jettison it. Or we have to say, “Oh, well, since we can’t explain everything about it then I guess there’s questions about it, and if there’s questions about it, then I guess there’s questions about the underlying truth claims of it or the underlying testimony of it,” and that doesn’t have to be the case.

There is a difference between historical ambiguity and eternal truth. I can have a strong testimony of something and still not know everything there is to know about it. And so, when we look to the early restoration of the priesthood, there are going to be a lot of questions, because we don’t have the records that we wish that we would have had.

If the restoration of the priesthood would have happened in the mid-1830s, we would have many more answers because they kept different kinds of records. We had Joseph Smith keeping a journal by 1832. I wonder what would have happened if the restoration of the priesthood happened just a couple years later. We would have answers that we don’t have now, but those questions should not scare us.

Those questions should, of course, pique our curiosity, pique our interest. But we need to understand why it is that we have questions, and the reason we have those questions is because the record keeping fluctuated, it changed. Joseph Smith did not write down in either a journal or letter or certainly not in published form in 1829 what happened to him in his life.

Spencer: So, if Joseph Smith was not consistently keeping personal records in 1829, how do we know what we know about the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood? What are the primary sources for the details of that event?

One of the earliest surviving references to this event did not come from a Latter-day Saint, but from the editor of an Ohio newspaper. Michael MacKay, an associate professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University, explains:

Michael: The first story that begins to tell what Joseph Smith is introducing with baptism, is Oliver Cowdery goes and he starts doing missionary work, and he starts telling them that even if you’re a Christian, you have to be re-baptized as a Latter-day Saint. And this sparks the debate.

And so, it’s one of the very first sources, you get this out of a newspaper in Ohio, where they’re baffled that Oliver Cowdery believes he has authority because an angel gave him and Joseph Smith authority.

Spencer: Even before he had written a formal history of the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood, Oliver Cowdery was describing some aspects of that event to the general public as part of his missionary endeavors. Oliver eventually produced a written history of that event in 1834, when—as mentioned earlier—church leaders were determined to record the history of the church, including the events of 1829.

Sharalyn: Between 1834 and 35, Oliver Cowdery wrote a series of historical articles meant to kind of fill in the holes, fill in the gaps of things in early church history. But several of these articles, including some letters, were published in the periodical the Latter-day Saint Messenger and Advocate. And in those issues, there is a letter of Oliver Cowdery to William W. Phelps that’s from September of 1834. And in that letter, he describes to Phelps receiving the Aaronic Priesthood including the words of John the Baptist.

Now, I find this letter—it’s just choice, because you get the excitement and fervor over this experience. Cowdery is euphoric over having experienced this, but again, he’s writing about this five years after the fact. But what happens is, we have distilled in that letter this basic text, the genesis of that text for Doctrine and Covenants section 13.

Now, the content is not all there. So, it starts out with the words that many of us are familiar with: “Upon my fellow servants in the name of Messiah, I confer upon you Priesthood.” But then it doesn’t go on to describe the keys. So, what ends up happening is when Joseph Smith’s clerks are writing his history, they take Cowdery’s account. They pull out this segment, these words of John the Baptist, and they merge with it information that’s coming from Joseph Smith.

So, what ends up happening is it includes an expansion of text that identifies the keys to the priesthood, that is the ministering of angels, the gospel of repentance, baptism by immersion for the remission of sins.

Spencer: The 1834 account is the earliest surviving history that identifies the angel as John the Baptist.

But eventually, in 1876, the church would canonize this extracted record in the Doctrine and Covenants, where you can find it today as section 13. In addition, more of Oliver’s record is included at the end of Joseph Smith History in the Pearl of Great Price. There you can read Oliver’s euphoric language that Sharalyn described earlier. Oliver exclaimed, “These were days never to be forgotten.” And he describes the setting of this event in glowing terms, writing, “I shall not attempt to paint to you the feelings of this heart, nor the majestic beauty and glory which surrounded us on this occasion.”

Spencer: As a professional historian, I am continually fascinated by the connection of place to historic events. So when I visit historic sites, I try to envision the events in the place, to take in the sights, the sounds—the atmosphere of the place. In doing so, I frequently wonder if the sights, sounds, and smells I am experiencing were the same that the men and women of the past experienced, almost as if there is a connection between the past and the present through such sensory experiences.

To better understand the location of the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood, I spoke with Mark Staker. Among his many responsibilities as a curator of church historic sites, he has given careful study and attention to the Priesthood Restoration Site.

He told me that we have a pretty good idea of where on Joseph and Emma’s farm the events associated with the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood occurred.

Mark: So, Joseph and Emma’s property was considered all developed land in the tax records. That doesn’t mean that there were no trees on the property. Even in with developed land you needed a wood lot to heat your home and cook. They had a large maple grove because that was considered productive property.

And so, to the north end of their property there were several acres of sugar maple trees where they could get sugar from the sap of the trees and it was productive for them. They had about two to three acres of plowed land by that sugar maple area, and then around their home they would have had about an acre of kitchen garden that would be Emma’s stewardship where she would maintain that garden for the family, and that Joseph’s farming the land up north and he’s taking care of the sugar grove.

Spencer: And even though the planting season had not yet started, mid-May was a busy time in Harmony, especially on the river. For most of the year, the river is only about two feet deep. But every spring, the melting snow causes the Susquehanna River to flood. So, those who had cut down trees and were looking to float them down river, or to use the river to transport other goods to market, eagerly awaited the inevitable springtime floods so that they could navigate the waterway.

Mark: The floods have started and boatmen have loaded up their wares, and they’re shipping them down river to the major markets to the south. So you can imagine boats full of lumber, some boards, meat, furs that are collected from hills, food stuffs, other things are all shipped down river.

Records don’t survive for May, but they do survive for April, and during that time, more than a thousand boats and arks go down the river during a two-week period, which would make about one raft or craft every seven minutes. So, you can imagine busy, busy traffic coming down the river at that time.

Spencer: In his history of the event, Oliver Cowdery recalled that they went away “from the abodes of men.” The heavy boat traffic at that time suggests that the river was not the place one would go to get away from “the abodes of men.” It was not an ideal place in that moment to commune with heaven.

Instead, Mark suggests that Joseph and Oliver retreated to the remaining trees on the property, most likely the grove of maple trees—the “sugar bush,” as it was called.

Mark: It’s a wooded area. Would be several acres of trees, a secluded spot. If Joseph stayed on his own property, that’s where he went, was to the sugar bush up at the north end of his property, where he and Oliver then went to pray about the restoration of the priesthood.

Spencer: According to surviving garden diaries kept in the area, on May 15th, 1829, it rained in the morning and cleared up in the afternoon. In his later history, Oliver described sunbeams breaking through the clouds in the sky that day. So, likely in the afternoon, Joseph and Oliver are in the maple grove and pray to seek an answer to their question about priesthood authority and baptism.

Mark: He and Oliver don’t kneel. The angel has to instruct them to kneel to receive the priesthood. And I find that striking. And to me, it’s a confirmation that it must have been raining that morning as the garden diaries of local farmers were suggesting. Because if you’ve ever gotten mud on your clothing from Joseph’s farm, you know how hard it is to get it out. I imagine Joseph was being sensitive to Emma’s work, not wanting to kneel, but doing so as the angel asked them to. So, John the Baptist lays his hands upon their heads.

Spencer: But Joseph and Oliver could not baptize each other in the maple grove. They needed to go elsewhere.

Mark: As the day concludes, boatmen on the river will tie up their boats. They didn’t go down the river at night. It was dangerous to do. You couldn’t watch for obstacles in the river. And so, by sunset, the river becomes a very quiet, peaceful place.

John the Baptist instructed them to go and be baptized, and so they went from the woods where they prayed to the river and were baptized. I like to think in the evening as the sun set, but it was a time whenever it happened that it was secluded and they felt that they could do so without people watching them or mocking them.

Spencer: As many times as I read Oliver Cowdery’s history of the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood, one line stands out every time: “These were days never to be forgotten.” These unforgettable days include his experience as a scribe for Joseph Smith during the translation of the Book of Mormon. They include the reception of the Aaronic Priesthood from an angel. They include his baptism in the Susquehanna River. Oliver clearly cherished these spiritual experiences. But I suspect that the “days never to be forgotten” include the additional angelic encounters concerning priesthood authority, experiences Joseph and Oliver would eventually record in their respective histories.

In fact, according to Joseph Smith’s history, when John the Baptist appeared, he declared that “he acted under the direction of Peter, James, and John,” the biblical apostles of Jesus Christ, who he said held the keys of a higher priesthood authority. John the Baptist then promised that, in due time, that higher priesthood authority would be conferred upon Joseph and Oliver.

And that’s where we'll pick up the story in the next episode of The Priesthood Restored: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.