Thoughtful Sunday School

Lesson 8: The Restoration of the Priesthood

This addendum accompanies lesson 8 in the LDS D&C/Church History Gospel Doctrine manual.

Overview

This lesson is about the restoration of the priesthood. It’s a topic that I thought I had a firm grasp on at one point in my life, but later learned that things were far more complicated than I thought. It’s a challenging topic for several reasons: the history is complicated, our modern perspective sometimes skews our perception of it, and it challenges some aspects of the dominant narrative. This lesson focuses on providing and briefly interpreting a timeline of the major events and revelations surrounding the development of priesthood doctrine in the early LDS church.

Principles

The Story of the Priesthood Restoration is Far More Complicated Than We Usually Teach

The LDS church today teaches that there are two priesthoods: Aaronic and Melchizedek. We also use the word “priesthood” for an array of overlapping but subtly distinct concepts, such as priesthood power, priesthood authority, priesthood keys, priesthood offices, priesthood blessings, priesthood leaders, priesthood quorums, and priesthood ordinances. In the modern LDS church, priesthood is everywhere.

This immersion in the modern church’s understanding of “priesthood” can make it difficult for us to put ourselves in the shoes of church members who were present at the time of its restoration. To share their understanding of the events as they unfolded, we have to try to set aside what we know and imagine how the events and revelations would have been seen by the church’s first converts, who came from Methodist, Baptist, and other backgrounds. The editors of the Joseph Smith Papers have noted that this difficulty was present even as far back as the 1838-1839 Joseph Smith: History, when later terminology was already being retroactively applied to early church events:

Additionally, the narrative itself, composed beginning in 1838, necessarily reflects the perspective of JS and his collaborators at the time of its production, thus inadvertently introducing terminology and concepts that were not operative a decade earlier in the period the narrative describes. Examples include using later priesthood nomenclature such as “Aaronic” and “Melchizedek” and calling the church JS established “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,” a name not designated until 1838. Such usage makes it difficult to trace the details of the unfolding of church governance and doctrine in the faith’s dynamic early years.1

The timeline below outlines relevant events and revelations surrounding the restoration of the priesthood. In hopes of avoiding anachronisms, it lists documents and events in the order that they appear in the historical record, rather than in the order of the modern restoration narrative.2

Date Event
1827-1829

Alexander Crawford, a Scottish minister in Canada, teaches the existence of three priesthoods: a patriarchal priesthood after the “order of Melchisedec”, an “Aaronical” priesthood, and a priesthood held by Jesus Christ. The Disciples of Christ, a group committed to restoring primitive Christianity, is influenced by Crawford’s teachings in creating its own priesthood doctrine.3 The Disciples of Christ are also known as “Campbellites”.4

Sidney Rigdon, a Campbellite minister, has great success building up his congregation in Mentor, Ohio and nearby towns, including Kirtland.5
1829

The Book of Mormon is published. It sometimes uses the term “high priest” to describe the top religious official in a region, but other times refers to groups of “high priests” together.6 It uses the word “priesthood” in two chapters (Alma 4 and Alma 13), always referring to it as the “high priesthood”, and sometimes expanding it with variations of “high priesthood according to the holy order of God”.7 Alma 13 describes Melchizedek as a high priest but does not identify an order of the priesthood as bearing his name.8

The book describes a number of people baptizing, leading churches, serving missions, or speaking for God with no record of them receiving power or authority to do so from a priesthood holder. These include Lehi, Nephi, Alma, Samuel the Lamanite, and others.

In 3 Nephi, Jesus gives power to Nephite disciples that he visits after his resurrection, but he does not use the word “priesthood”. He gives one prophet “power that ye shall baptize this people” by verbal decree, without laying on of hands.9 A later group of Nephite disciples is given “power to give the Holy Ghost” by Jesus after they are “touched with his hand.”10

Near the end of the book, Moroni speaks of elders ordaining teachers and priests by the laying on of hands.11

The Book of Mormon makes no mention of a lower priesthood associated with Aaron.
April 1830

The Church of Christ is founded by Joseph Smith. Joseph dictates a revelation titled The Articles and Covenants of the church of Christ, which lays out the offices of elder, priest, teacher, and deacon.12 The revelation does not use the words “priesthood”, “Melchizedek”, or “Aaronic”, or distinguish between a higher and lower order. This revelation would become chapter 24 of the Book of Commandments (BoC) and eventually section 20 of today’s Doctrine and Covenants (D&C).

At the founding meeting, Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith ordain each other as elders “unto this church of Christ”, with no reference to an order of priesthood.13
October 1830 Parley P. Pratt shares the Book of Mormon with Sidney Rigdon, who then joins the church along with his formerly-Campbellite congregation. Over the next several months, Sidney’s preaching leads to the conversion of over a thousand people in the Kirtland area.14
February 1831 Joseph and Emma move to Kirtland, Ohio.15
June 1831 At a conference of church leaders in Kirtland, Joseph is ordained to the “high priesthood” by Lyman Wight. Over twenty other men are also ordained, most by Lyman but a few by Joseph. This is the earliest occurrence of the word “priesthood” in modern Mormon teachings or revelations.16
November 1831

Joseph receives a revelation stating that those holding each office (elder, priest, teacher, deacon) should be organized in groups with those of the same office, and presided over by someone of that same office. It also lays out a progression between offices from deacon to teacher to priest to elder and finally to “the high Priesthood”. The word “priesthood” is used only in reference to this top office, and not in reference to the lower ones.17 The progression of offices in this revelation reiterates the progression instituted at a meeting a month earlier.18

This revelation would later become a portion of section 107 of today’s Doctrine and Covenants.
February 1832 Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon together receive a vision (now D&C 76) in which those who “come forth in the resurection of the just” are described as “priests of the most high after the order of Melchesadeck which was after the order of Enoch which was after the order of of the only begotten son”.19
Summer 1832 In the preface to an unfinished history, Joseph refers to “reception of the holy priesthood by the ministring of Aangels to adminster the letter of the Gospel the Law and commandments as they were given unto him and the ordinencs, forthly a confirmation and reception of the high Priesthood after the holy order of the son of the living God power and ordinence from on high to preach the gospel in the administration and demonstration of the spirit the Kees of the Kingdom of God conferred upon him…” (This is the same document that contains the 1832 First Vision account.)20
September 1832

Over the course of two days, Joseph dictates a revelation (D&C 84) that teaches in detail about two orders of priesthood: a “Holy Priesthood” that the revelation repeatedly associates with Moses, and a “lesser priesthood” that the revelation associates with Aaron. The line of Moses’s ordination is traced back to a previously-unknown “Esaius”, who received it directly from God, and is said to have lived at the same time as Abraham. Abraham’s priesthood line is also traced back through Melchizedek, Noah, Enoch, Abel, and Adam.21

This revelation also introduces specific links between church offices and the two priesthoods. “[T]he offices of elder and bishop are necessary appendages belonging unto the high priesthood”, says the revelation, and “the offices of teacher and deacon are necessary appendages belonging to the lesser priesthood”.
February 1834 At a council in Kirtland, Joseph says “I remarked, that I should endeavor to set before the council the dignity of the office which had been conferred on me by the ministering of the angel of God, by his own voice, and by the voice of this church”.22
April 1834

The minutes of another Kirtland council meeting include this:

“Bro Joseph Smith Jun. … then gave a relation of obtaining and translating the Book of Mormon, the revelation of the priesthood of Aaron, the organization of the Church in the year 1830, the revelation of the high priesthood and the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out upon the church…”23
October 1834 Oliver Cowdery publishes an account of angelic ordination in the Messenger and Advocate. The angel’s language is very similar to that which would appear later in Joseph’s 1839 history, but the angel is not identified as John the Baptist, and the angel refers to “this priesthood” rather than the “priesthood of Aaron”. There is no mention of a second ordination by Peter, James, and John.24
1835

Doctrine and Covenants published, replacing the Book of Commandments. Several existing sections are changed.

To the existing revelation on church offices (BoC 24, today’s D&C 20) is added a reference to the “high priesthood” and the offices of traveling bishop, high councilor, and high priest.

The revelation on sacramental wine (BoC 28, today’s D&C 27) is more than doubled in size, adding the names of several scriptural prophets who will participate in a special sacrament ceremony at Jesus’s second coming. After mentioning John the Baptist the additional verses say “Which John I have sent unto you, my servants, Joseph Smith, Jun., and Oliver Cowdery, to ordain you unto the first priesthood which you have received, that you might be called and ordained even as Aaron;” and later in the same section “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”.25 This 1835 change to an 1830 revelation is the earliest mention of being ordained by resurrected biblical figures.

A previously-unpublished revelation from November 1831 (now D&C 68) is changed to add references to the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods.26
1839

Joseph records a new history of the founding events of the church, which we have today as Joseph Smith: History. This includes the account of John the Baptist ordaining Joseph and Oliver to the “priesthood of Aaron”, and relates John saying that he “acted under the direction of Peter, James and John, who held the keys of the Priesthood of Melchizedek, which Priesthood, he said, would in due time be conferred on us.”

This is the first account giving a date for the Aaronic priesthood restoration (May 15, 1829).27

Joseph explained the absence of earlier accounts of this event by saying “we were forced to keep secret the circumstances of having received the Priesthood and our having been baptized, owing to a spirit of persecution which had already manifested itself in the neighborhood.”

The history goes on to describe Joseph and Oliver ordaining each other to be elders, but does not provide an account or a date for ordination by Peter, James, and John.28
1842 In an epistle to the church, Joseph recounts hearing “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 of the dispensation of the fulness of times!” This letter comprises section 128 of today’s Doctrine and Covenants.29 It limits the possible locations of the Melchizedek priesthood ordination to an approximately 50 mile stretch of river between Colesville and Harmony. (The entire distance is more like 350 miles, but most of it does not run along the Susquehanna river).
1876 The words of John the Baptist from the 1839 priesthood restoration account are added to the Doctrine and Covenants as section 13.
1885

In an interview, David Whitmer says the following:

“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, my information from Joseph and Oliver upon this matter being as I have stated, and that they were commanded so to do by revealment through Joseph. I do not believe that John the Baptist ever ordained Joseph and Oliver as stated and believed by some. I regard that as an error, a misconception…”30
1887

David Whitmer publishes An Address to All Believers in Christ. It reaffirms his testimony of seeing the gold plates, but also says this about the priesthood:

“This matter of ‘priesthood,’ since the days of Sydney Rigdon, has been the great hobby and stumbling-block of the Latter Day Saints. Priesthood means authority; and authority is the word we should use. I do not think the word priesthood is mentioned in the New Covenant of the Book of Mormon. Authority is the word we used for the first two years in the church — until Sydney Rigdon’s days in Ohio. This matter of the two orders of priesthood in the Church of Christ, and lineal priesthood of the old law being in the church, all originated in the mind of Sydney Rigdon. He explained these things to Brother Joseph in his way, out of the old Scriptures, and got Brother Joseph to inquire, etc. He would inquire, and as mouth-piece speak out the revelations Just as they had it fixed up in their hearts.”31

Whitmer also describes some church members being troubled and leaving the church over changes made to the revelations when the Doctrine and Covenants was published:

“When it became generally known that these important changes had been made in the 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.”32 (Emphasis in original.)

The Priesthood Restoration Was Incremental, and its History Contains Significant Challenges

This timeline shows the evolution of a number of ideas surrounding authority and priesthood:

The history above is consistent with the teaching that revelation comes “line upon line, precept upon precept”.33 It has a number of inconsistencies, however, with today’s dominant narrative of ordinations to the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthood by resurrected biblical figures in 1829. The words and actions of Joseph and Oliver in the church’s early days do not seem like the words and actions of people who are aware of the existence of Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods, or even two separate ordinations. If David Whitmer could be trusted to be one of the Three Witnesses of the gold plates, it’s hard to imagine why he couldn’t be trusted with being told about the angelic ordinations. If direct lines of ordination are essential, then it’s hard to see how Joseph’s and Oliver’s or Joseph’s and Lyman’s reciprocal ordinations could be valid.

These inconsistencies frustrated Whitmer, who believed that the church had “authority”, but contended that its focus on “priesthood”, lineal descent, and division into Aaronic and Melchizedek orders were Sidney Rigdon’s pet doctrines. He has some support in the timeline of Campbellite influence on the church. The inconsistencies also puzzle historians. Those who believe in the Peter, James, and John vision place its date anywhere from late May 1829 to July 1830.34 Addressing the absence of priesthood restoration accounts in the first years of the church, Richard Bushman speculates that Joseph’s “reticence may have shown a fear of disbelief” or “he may have felt the visions were too sacred to be discussed openly”. He also acknowledges, however, that the “late appearance of these accounts raises the possibility of later fabrication.”35

As in other cases of historical ambiguity, people looking at the history of the LDS priesthood will reach varying conclusions. Most members are unaware of the inconsistencies. Others attempt to explain them in a way that preserves belief in the 1839 narrative that is dominant today. Others may believe that the ordinations probably didn’t happen as described in 1839, but still believe that there was some divine conferral of authority before the church’s founding. And finally, some see the contradictions and the modern avoidance of them as evidence of dishonesty.

New questions emerge for those who are still committed to the church but no longer believe the dominant narrative to be entirely accurate. If Joseph wasn’t ordained by resurrected biblical figures before the church’s founding, is it possible that he still received authority to organize the church from an angel? Could he have been given authority just by virtue of experiencing the First Vision? Are Mormon baptisms and other ordinances still performed by valid authority? Are we sure that other churches’ baptisms are not performed by valid authority? Are there really two separate priesthoods? Does it matter if there isn’t?

Richard Bushman has expressed optimism that “In time … this problem will go away. All the controversial questions will be absorbed into the standard narrative and we won’t have a sense of two tracks.”36 In the meantime, church attendance will be challenging for some. We are accustomed to Sunday School questions that have one correct answer. We can improve at working and worshipping together by recognizing that belief and faith are fundamentally different things, and not just different points on a spectrum of certainty. Seeing inconsistency or dishonesty in historical evidence does not mean that one lacks faith, and overlooking or denying those problems is not the same thing as exercising faith. We exercise faith in God by praying for His guidance and following His promptings where they lead. Given the private, personal nature of these promptings, and the inevitable divergence of opinion as people evaluate conflicting evidence, our challenge is to continue seeking love and understanding with people whose beliefs and paths differ from our own.


  1. History, circa June 1839–circa 1841 [Draft 2], Historical Introduction. The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed Feb. 20, 2017.

  2. A similar timeline may be gleaned from Cannon, Brian Q. and BYU Studies Staff. Priesthood Restoration Documents, BYU Studies 35:4.

  3. Godfrey, Matthew C. A Culmination of Learning: D&C and the Doctrine of the Priesthood, in You Shall Have My Word: Exploring the Text of the Doctrine and Covenants, ed. Scott C. Esplin, Richard O. Cowan, and Rachel Cope (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2012), pp. 167–81.

  4. Campbellite. Wikipedia, accessed Feb 20, 2017.

  5. McKiernan, F. Mark. The Conversion of Sidney Rigdon to Mormonism. Dialogue Vol. 5 No. 2 p. 75.

  6. Compare, for example, Mosiah 26:7 with Helaman 3:25.

  7. Alma 4:20.

  8. Alma 13:14-18

  9. 3 Nephi 11: 20-21.

  10. 3 Nephi 18: 36-37.

  11. Moroni 3.

  12. Articles and Covenants, circa April 1830 [D&C 20]. The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed Feb. 19 2017.

  13. Bushman, Richard L. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. p. 109. See also D&C 21:10-11.

  14. McKiernan, p. 77.

  15. Bushman, p. 144.

  16. Bushman pp. 157-158.

  17. Revelation, 11 November 1831–B [D&C 107 (partial)]. The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed Feb. 21, 2017.

  18. Godfrey.

  19. Vision, 16 February 1832 [D&C 76]. The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed Feb. 23, 2017.

  20. History, circa Summer 1832. The Joseph Smith Papers. Accessed Feb. 20, 2017.

  21. Revelation, 22–23 September 1832 [D&C 84]. The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed Feb 23, 2017.

  22. History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 23 December 1805–30 August 1834 p. 424. The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed Feb. 19 2017.

  23. Minute Book 1. The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed Feb. 20, 2017.

  24. Cowdery, Oliver. Messenger and Advocate 1 (Oct. 1834) p. 16.

  25. A Book of Commandments - Chapter 28 (comparison with Doctrine and Covenants section 27).

  26. Compare the 1835 D&C Section 22 with the original Revelation, 1 November 1831–A.

  27. Joseph Smith—History 1:68-73.

  28. History, circa June 1839–circa 1841 [Draft 2]. The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed Feb 20, 2017.

  29. Doctrine and Covenants 128:20.

  30. “David Whitmer Interview with Zenas H. Gurley, 14 January 1885,” Early Mormon Documents, 5:137.

  31. Whitmer, David. An Address to All Believers in Christ. Richmond, Missouri, 1883. p. 63. Whitmer was incorrect about the absence of the word “priesthood” in the Book of Mormon. It does appear in Alma 4 and Alma 13, as noted earlier.

  32. Whitmer p. 61.

  33. Doctrine and Covenants 98:12.

  34. Cannon, pp. 171-172.

  35. Bushman p. 75.

  36. Richard Bushman AMA /r/latterdaysaints/ Reddit, July 17, 2015.