Spencer: 1829. May 15th. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery rejoiced over the events of the day. The priesthood authority they received from an angel enabled them to baptize and ordain one another. But even amid this rejoicing they looked to the near future, a time when they would receive additional authority from Peter, James, and John, three of Jesus’s disciples from biblical times.
And surviving records tell us that they eagerly awaited this conferral of additional priesthood authority, authority that a later revelation would identify as the Melchizedek Priesthood. But records of the actual visitation and conferral of the Melchizedek Priesthood are scant. It’s one of those events about which we wish we knew more details. Yet, historians treasure the details that do survive. These details provide important insights into Joseph Smith’s history and the history of the church he organized in 1830.
In this episode we are talking about what we know—and what we don’t know—about the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood and the organization of the church.
This is The Priesthood Restored: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast, and I’m your host, Spencer McBride.
Spencer: Episode 3: “The Voice of Peter, James, and John”
Spencer: As a professional historian, I spend my days immersed in the written records left behind by the people who previously inhabited this world. And I think it’s only natural for a person spending so much time in old records to think about the documents I will leave behind for future generations. Perhaps more than any other type of record, I think about journals and the benefit of keeping a regular record of my daily activities, thoughts, and reactions to events. I confess that for me, my journal keeping occurs in fits and starts. I’m inconsistent at best. But when I am diving into historical records and come across events that I wish we knew more about, I’m encouraged to do better in recording the events of my life and encouraging others to do the same.
Such is the case with the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood. Scholars have devoted enormous amounts of time debating the precise date, place, and circumstances of that event. And I will tell you upfront that in this podcast, we are not trying to settle such debates. Instead, we will focus on what we do know, how we know it, and why it is ultimately okay that we do not have all the historical details that we wish we had.
I will also mention here that in 1829 and the early 1830s, Joseph Smith and other church leaders did not use the names “Aaronic” and “Melchizedek” to describe the priesthoods that they had received. Those names and their association with the lower and higher priesthoods were clearly revealed to them in an 1835 revelation, a revelation that illuminated the origins of the priesthood. But, once this revelation was received by Joseph Smith, he understood the events of May 1829 and the subsequent months as being associated with these two priesthoods. And in this podcast we use these names to help listeners understand these events as they are commonly referred to in church history, as the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood and the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood.
That being said, let’s dive in.
Spencer: As we mentioned in the previous episode, much of what we know about the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood comes from later histories, attempts by Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith to capture events that they had not adequately recorded at the time. For Oliver, we see much of this effort occurring in 1834. Matthew Godfrey, managing historian of the Joseph Smith Papers, explains:
Matthew: Oliver writes a very detailed description about the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood. And after writing this description of it where he gives the precise date, he talks about John appearing and giving them this authority. He says that after this time they also received the High Priesthood as well, which, he means Melchizedek Priesthood when he’s talking about that. And he says, “but an account of that will be given later” and then he never gives the account. So, he had plans to give an account of the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood, but he never really got around to it. And so, our records of when the Melchizedek Priesthood was restored, where that occurred, a lot of that is kind of spotty.
Spencer: Some of the best details of this event come from mentions of Peter, James, and John in revelations now canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants. For instance, Doctrine and Covenants section 27.
Section 27 as we know it today is actually comprised of two revelations, or an 1830 revelation that was expanded by Joseph Smith between that time and the publication of the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835.
And that revelation lists a number of biblical patriarchs, connecting the work Joseph Smith was doing to the work of these ancient prophets. The revelation also mentions the appearance of John the Baptist to Joseph and Oliver and then, in verses 12–13, as the revelation is published today, the text states:
“And also with Peter, and James, and John, whom I have sent 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;
“Unto whom I have committed the keys of my kingdom, and a dispensation of the gospel for the last times; and for the fulness of times, in which I will gather together in one all things, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth.”
Michael: Originally, D&C 27 is about what can you use for the sacrament.
Spencer: That’s Michael MacKay, an associate professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University. But he explains some of the significance of the way that the revelation soon moves into a list of the different prophets in human history and the various angelic visitations that Joseph Smith has experienced.
Michael: And one of them is Peter, James, and John, and it says, you know, Peter, James, and John, the people who ordained you apostles, gave you the keys of the kingdom, and offered up the final dispensation? And this is your most explicit account that we have of what they gave us, who they were, why they came, and how they fit within the restoration of priesthood all the way back to Adam. So, those are remarkable revelations, and you get that broader priesthood restoration. So, in comparison, if you were just to say, “Peter, James, and John restored the Melchizedek Priesthood,” well, that is so much less than what they restored. They restored a concept of keys that have been passed from every major patriarch across time.
Spencer: What this revelation makes clear is that Peter, James, and John visited Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. In May 1829, John the Baptist had promised them that the higher priesthood authority, the keys of which were held by these three biblical apostles, would be conferred upon them. These verses in section 27 of the Doctrine and Covenants record that it took place. There is no mention of a date, or if the angelic visitors bestowed the Melchizedek Priesthood and ordained Joseph and Oliver apostles in a single visit. Instead, the event is mentioned as one of multiple examples of angelic visitations to Joseph and to contextualize the spiritual work Joseph was undertaking within the work of biblical prophets. So, it is less a detailed history of the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood than it is a reference to the event.
In addition, we notice that the language of priesthood conferral had not been standardized yet. In the church today, members talk about conferring priesthood authority and ordaining to priesthood offices, but surviving historical records demonstrate that Joseph and others sometimes used those words “confer” and “ordain” interchangeably. Their meanings were not yet fixed within the vocabulary of the church.
Still, there are more references to this event in later records. In 1846, Oliver Cowdery recalled in a letter how it felt to be in the presence of Peter to receive the greater priesthood. And decades later, in the 1880s, a church member named Addison Everett recalled Joseph Smith recounting the event. But surviving records of such a visitation from Joseph’s lifetime are largely limited to references in his letters and published revelations.
And then, in an 1842 letter to the Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith provided some more details. That letter is now canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants as section 128. And one verse of that section refers to, “The voice of Peter, James, and John in the wilderness between Harmony, Susquehanna county, and Colesville, Broome county, on the Susquehanna river, declaring themselves as possessing the keys of the kingdom, and the dispensation of the fulness of times.”
I asked Mark Staker, a curator in the church’s Historic Sites Division, how, if at all, these different references to the event can help us narrow down the place in which it occurred.
Mark: Well, we know a few things. We know, because Joseph told us, that Peter, James, and John appeared on the banks of the Susquehanna River somewhere between Colesville, New York, and Harmony, Pennsylvania. That’s about a fifteen-mile length of road. And the banks of the river come to the road at five different locations along that, and so if they hadn’t gone far from the road, one of those five could have been the location, but we don’t know if they went far from the road. There are things to suggest that maybe they were not on the road, that there might have been some persecution going on, and so that’s as close as we can come to a location.
Spencer: And what about the date of the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood? That still remains unknown, but do these scattered references to the event provide clues to a time frame in which it might have occurred?
Mark: Since we know a location, we know that it had to be on the road between Colesville and Harmony. We can look at times when Joseph was there or could have been there, and not up in Fayette or elsewhere, and there are only a few times when that’s the case.
Spencer: Mark mentioned Fayette, New York, because a little more than two weeks after the visitation of John the Baptist, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery left Harmony for Fayette in order to finish the translation of the Book of Mormon. It’s possible that they had this encounter with Peter, James, and John before they left Harmony for Fayette. And Joseph was away from Harmony for some time as he arranged for the publication of the Book of Mormon.
Mark: Well, After the Book of Mormon’s published, he goes back to Harmony and he does a lot more work on his property, so he’s there for a brief period of time.
Spencer: Joseph returned to Fayette for the organization of the church in April 1830 and was back in the area around Harmony and Colesville in June of that year, but that summer, he left the area and never returned.
So, if we are looking at the time period in which Joseph and Oliver could have been on the road between Harmony, Pennsylvania, and Colesville, New York, we are talking between May 1829 and summer 1830, with many months in that interval in which we know Joseph was completely away from the area.
Spencer: Again, historical debates about the dating of the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood have not produced an indisputable answer, but there is one related event that strongly suggests that it occurred shortly after the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood and before the organization of the church in 1830.
After all, when the church was organized in Fayette, New York, Joseph and Oliver were sustained by those present as the first and second elders of the church, and Joseph and Oliver bestowed the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands upon those who had been baptized. So the contextual event that I am talking about occurred in a place known as the Chamber of Father Whitmer.
Who was Father Whitmer, and what does this chamber have to do with the story of the priesthood restoration?
Matthew: Joseph and Oliver move to New York. They go up there to finish the translation of the Book of Mormon at the invitation of the Whitmer family. The Whitmers were familiar with Oliver Cowdery; Oliver had communicated with them about what was happening down in Pennsylvania. And so, they invited Joseph and Oliver to come up and live with them while they finished translating the Book of Mormon. And so, Joseph and Emma and Oliver move up to New York, and they’re staying with the Whitmers.
Spencer: Once in New York, Joseph and Oliver used the priesthood they received from John the Baptist to baptize several other people, including members of the Whitmer family.
Matthew: Now they were wondering about the authority to confer the Holy Ghost upon others.
Spencer: In this setting, a spiritual manifestation occurred. In his history, Joseph Smith described what happened next:
“We had for some time made the 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. . . . [W]e 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:
“[W]e were however commanded to defer this ordination until, such times, as it should be practicable to have our brethren, who had been and 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.”
So, Father Whitmer is Peter Whitmer Sr., and the chamber refers to the bedroom or sleeping quarters in the Whitmer house in which Joseph and Oliver were conducting their work of translating the Book of Mormon.
It was here that Joseph and Oliver heard the voice of the Jesus Christ telling them that at a future date they should ordain one another—and others—but that that action required the approval of the church, which they had not yet organized. And we know that that approval was granted, and those ordinations occurred on April 6, 1830.
So, when Joseph and Oliver heard the voice of Christ in Peter Whitmer’s chamber, had Peter, James, and John already appeared and conferred the priesthood upon them? Possibly. Or did that event occur sometime between the revelation in the Whitmer house and the organization of the church? Maybe. The language of the account is unclear. We simply do not know.
However, Mark Staker offered one possible way of understanding this event in the larger story of the priesthood restoration:
Mark: If we go back to the Aaronic Priesthood and how that unfolded, we read that John the Baptist came, ordained them to the Aaronic Priesthood, commanded them to baptize each other, and commanded them to then ordain each other to the Aaronic Priesthood. So, when was the Aaronic Priesthood restored?
Was that when John the Baptist ordained them or was that when Joseph and Oliver ordained each other to the Aaronic Priesthood? Well, the answer, of course, is both. It was part of a process that took place. So, when was the Melchizedek Priesthood restored?
They are looking forward to conferring the gift of the Holy Ghost on these baptized members, and they’re looking forward to that authority to do so. If we look carefully at this information that they receive in the chamber of Father Whitmer, it’s permission to act on authority that they’ve received that they were not able to act on before. So they had received the ordination from Peter, James, and John already, this is permission to now act on that authority. You can give it to others if you follow this process, and the process that is outlined here is that they need to have baptized brethren assemble and sanction them proceeding to ordain people.
Spencer: So, Mark has provided one possible way of understanding the timeline of the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood. However, we still cannot identify with certainty the specific date and details of the event.
Questions of the timing of the appearance of Peter, James, and John to Joseph and Oliver aside, the voice of Jesus in the chamber of Peter Whitmer was also important because it provided training on the process of ordaining others to the priesthood.
Matthew: I think this is important because it kind of clarifies and reiterates to them the importance of the authority that they obtained from Peter, James, and John, that this was the authority to confer the Holy Ghost upon people, that those who held this authority were to hold the office of elder in the priesthood, and that you needed to be ordained to these offices. Just because you had the authority didn’t mean that you necessarily held an office within that authority, and so that had to happen as well.
Spencer: Organizing the church on April 6, 1830, was a major moment in the priesthood restoration. But when we have the benefit of hindsight, it might be easy to forget that organizing the church was not always on Joseph’s radar. Michael MacKay explains:
Michael: To say that as early as 1820 he thought he was going to create a church, it’s actually the opposite there, right. He’s going to ask which church should I be baptized into. And so, it’s this idea that he isn’t cognizant of him creating a church.
Spencer: Rather, in Joseph’s 1820 vision of deity, God commanded him to join none of the churches he was then considering but instead to wait patiently for the complete truth of the gospel to be made known unto him.
But in the summer of 1829, Joseph began dictating revelations to people such as Oliver and his brother Hyrum. That included commandments for them to help them establish the church.
Michael: But you also don’t have any documentation of Joseph having ambitions to become a preacher, to become someone who founds a church. You don’t get that in the record. You get commandments of God to someone else. And so here, I think this tells you about the nature of Joseph Smith, his personality. He isn’t out there going, “I’m ambitiously going to create an empire, a church that I’ll have power within.” It’s him saying, “God keeps giving me these revelations in which He wants you to establish a church with me.” The construction of that church is not an ambition; it is a kind of a humble fulfillment of a commandment that he believes he’s getting from God.
Spencer: On the Whitmer’s farm in Fayette, New York, on April 6, 1830, several men and women assembled, many of whom had previously been baptized. Joseph and five others officially organized the church and then proceeded with the business he and Oliver were commanded to conduct months earlier. With the sanction of those assembled, they ordained each other elders and were accepted by the congregation as the first and second elders of the church, respectively.
The sacrament was administered for those in attendance, and many who had been baptized were confirmed members of the church and received the gift of the Holy Ghost. Others were baptized at the conclusion of the meeting. So, from the very first meeting of the church in 1830, the exercise of priesthood authority was a central component of worship.
Spencer: At this point in the story, it’s clear to see how the restoration of the priesthood was an important precursor to the organization of the church. But the establishment of the church was also an important moment in the restoration of the priesthood.
It’s also clear from the very beginning that the priesthood was not intended for Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery alone. Very soon after the organization of the church, Joseph and Oliver readily confer the same authority upon others.
What’s more, as Joseph received additional visions and revelations, he made it clear that the priesthood was designed to bless the lives of all humans and not just the men who hold priesthood offices.
We’ll talk about that in the next episode of The Priesthood Restored: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.