Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe Joseph Smith
received divine power and authority from God to administer ordinances and govern the
church. This power and authority is called priesthood. As with other aspects of
doctrine and practice in the early years of the church, priesthood authority and
knowledge concerning it developed incrementally.
While translating the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery
read several passages concerning authority and baptism, prompting them to pray about
those subjects. According to later accounts, John the Baptist appeared to Smith and
Cowdery on 15 May 1829 and bestowed on them the “priesthood of Aaron,” which gave
them the authority to baptize; he then promised that they would later receive a
higher authority to bestow the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Historical records describing the reception of this higher authority are generally
less specific and more complex. Some accounts describe Peter, James, and John,
three of the apostles called by Jesus Christ in the New Testament, appearing to
Smith and Cowdery and bestowing on them a higher priesthood, later called the
Melchizedek Priesthood. Other accounts describe an earlier event at the home of
Peter Whitmer Sr. when the voice of God commanded Smith and Cowdery to ordain one
another to the office of elder in a public meeting of baptized believers.
The following finding aid provides links or citations to the earliest records
describing or alluding to the restoration of authority and priesthood.
Oliver Cowdery, Norton, OH, to William W. Phelps, 7 Sept. 1834, in
Messenger and Advocate, 1:15–16; copied in Joseph Smith History, 1834–1836, 48–49 (description of the angel conferring
priesthood authority after Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery read passages from the
Book of Mormon and prayed)
Revelation, ca. Aug.
1835 [D&C 27:8–14] (Doctrine and Covenants, 50:2–3, published 1835)
(includes a revised and expanded version of a revelation originally dating to circa
August 1830; text published in 1835 mentions John the Baptist bestowing the first
priesthood and Peter, James, and John ordaining Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery to
Patriarchal Blessings, 1:8–9 (probably recorded summer/fall 1835)
(Oliver Cowdery recounts how Joseph Smith was “ordained by the angel John, unto the
lesser or Aaronic priesthood, in company with myself, in the town of Harmony,
Susquehannah County, Pennsylvania, on Fryday, the 15th day of May, 1829, after which
we repaired to the water, even to the Susquehannah River, and were baptized, he
first ministering unto me and after I to him. But before baptism, 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 saught for the
right of the fathers, and the authority of the holy priesthood, and the power to
admin in 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. Therefore, we repaired to the woods, even as our father Joseph said we
should, that is to the bush, and called upon the name of the Lord, and he answered
us out of the heavens, and while we were in the heavenly vision the angel came down
and bestowed upon us this priesthood; and then, as I have said, we repaired to the
water and were baptized. After this we received the high and holy priesthood: but an
account of this will be given elsewhere.”)
Oliver Cowdery, 2 Oct. 1835 (Patriarchal Blessings, 1:12, recorded 2 Oct.
1835) (mentions ordination to the lesser and holy priesthoods under the hands of
those who received the priesthood from Jesus Christ)