excerpt – An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins

Scene from a camp meeting, attributed to Alexander Rider, early 1800s. Notice the bench ("altar") in front of the pulpit.Preface

For thirty-four years I was primarily an Institute director for the Church Educational System (CES) of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There is much to like about the college-level discussions that sometimes occur in the Institute setting. Unfortunately, our adult lessons and discussions at church rarely rise above the seminary level, even though many of our members are well educated. Our discussions are usually an inch deep and a mile wide as they say. We seem to have a lingering desire for simple religion. We like to hear confirmations that everything is as we assumed it was: our pioneer ancestors were heroic and inspired and the Bible and Book of Mormon are in perfect harmony, for instance. We never learn in church that the Book of Abraham papyri were discovered and translated by Egyptologists or that researchers have studied Native American genes and what the implications are for the Book of Mormon. Questions about such topics are discouraged because they create tension; they are considered inappropriate or even heretical. This approach has isolated many of us from the rest of the world or from reality itself in those instances when we insist on things that are simply untrue.

All the while, such remarkable research has been conducted over the past thirty years into Mormon origins. It is exciting to see what has been done collaboratively by church historians–the faculty of the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History at Brigham Young University, BYU history and religion professors and scholars from other disciplines and other church schools, and seminary and institute faculty–and by unaffiliated scholars. Together, they have painstakingly collated and compared accounts of the most important events in church history from the original minutes and diaries; gathered data from the environment to better understand the circumstances under which activities occurred; studied the language of the revelations and scriptures and compared it to the general idiom and to literary expressions; excavated and restored sites; scoured archives; translated documents; gathered genealogical records and pursued traces of people’s lives for additional testaments. They have published, critiqued, and re-evaluated a veritable mountain of evidence. Too much of this escapes the view of the rank-and-file in the church.

There was a day when Latter-day Saint history was considered unworthy of this kind of attention by professional historians. In large part, due to the Mormon History Association and the involvement by LDS scholars in other professional groups, this is no longer the case. Today, publishers, both academic and general interest presses, accept and publish Mormon topics on a regular basis. Yet the relatively modest print runs these books usually receive indicate that they sell mostly to other professionals rather than to the LDS public at large. There is a lingering distrust of anything that hasn’t come directly from, or with an endorsement by, the church leadership.

Some of this research has been conducted by critics of the church. Some of it contains distortions and is unreliable. But much of what even the critics have written is backed by solid investigation and sound reasoning and should not be dismissed. Your friends don’t always tell you what you need to hear. Furthermore, it is untrue that non-Mormons who write about the church are de facto anti-Mormon. Many outside historians are good friends and supporters of the church, and many find the topics interesting for their own sake without any agenda.

About a decade and a half ago, there was some consternation and confusion over Mark Hofmann’s forgeries and murders. In fact, it has taken a while to sort through and correct the damage he caused. Ironically, while the LDS church supported the forgeries, two of the church’s most visible critics never accepted their validity. Despite the setback to history caused by Hofmann, the ranks of honest and earnest historians have continued their research and writing.

Over the years, scholars of all stripes have made contributions and counterbalanced each other by critiquing each other’s works. We now have a body of authentic, reliable documents and a near-consensus on many of the details. From this base, the overall picture of Mormon origins begins to unfold. This picture is much different from what we hear in the modified versions that are taught in Sunday school. But de-mythologized—placed in its original time and place, amid all the twists and turns that exist in the real world—it rings true. There has not been an attempt to eliminate the spiritual from the secular. Far from that, the foundational stories are in many cases more spiritual, less temporal, and more stirring. Whatever else, they are also fascinating. To know the personalities involved in these events and to hear them tell their experiences in their own original words before everything was recast for hierarchical and proselyting purposes is to see it all in an entirely new and exciting perspective.

That said, I have wondered how I should introduce my work. How should I convey what I feel in my soul? First, this book is not intended for children or investigators. So much of our attention is directed toward children and potential converts that long-standing adult members rarely have an opportunity to speak freely to each other. We worry that tender ears may overhear. I am a fourth-generation Mormon, and I want to address this discussion to other second-, third-, and fourth-generation Mormons who will better understand where I am coming from. Lest there be any question, let me say that my intent is to increase faith, not to diminish it. Still, faith needs to be built on truth–what is, in fact, true and believable. After that comes the great leap. We too often confuse faith with knowledge. Faith has to do with the unknown, not about what can be proven or can be shown to be reasonably based on the evidence. I have always thought that an unwillingness to submit one’s beliefs to rigorous scrutiny is a manifestation of weakness of faith. Otherwise, everything becomes a matter of orthodoxy rather than truth.

These are matters that I wrestled with for years. As a young man, I became involved in CES because of my commitment to the gospel and my love of the scriptures and also because of my passion for church history. These remain priorities today. I see a number of things differently now than I did before I embarked on this lifelong study of, and service to, the church. I volunteered toward the end of my career to be the LDS Institute director at the Salt Lake County jail. I looked forward to focusing on basic Bible teachings and doing some counseling. I also hoped that I might resolve some of my own questions in an atmosphere where I could freely contemplate them. Now that I am retired, I find myself compelled to discuss in public what I pondered mostly in private at that time.

I have two purposes in writing. One is to introduce church members who have not followed the developments in church history during the last thirty years to issues that are central to the topic of Mormon origins. I hope my survey will be enlightening and useful to anyone who has wanted to understand what has been termed the New Mormon History.

Second, I would like church members to understand historians and religion teachers like myself. When I or my colleagues talk or write about the LDS past, we tend to avoid superlatives that members expect when hearing a recital of our history. Their ears finely tuned to the nuances of such parlance, they assume that we have secularized the story, that we are intentionally obtuse, or that we split hairs. They have heard that we are revisionists, and by this they understand that we are rewriting history in a way that was never intended. In truth, we are salvaging the earliest, authentic versions of these stories from the ravages of well-meaning censors who have abridged and polished them for institutional purposes.

Wallace B. Smith, president-emeritus of the RLDS church (now the Community of Christ), writing about “the foundation experiences” of Mormonism, observed: “One thing is clear. The genie is out of the bottle and it cannot be put back. Facts uncovered and the questions raised by the new Mormon historians will not go away. They will have to be dealt with if we are to maintain a position of honesty and integrity in our dealings with our own members as well as our friends in the larger religious community.” I find this position to be both refreshing and healthy. I also agree with Thomas Jefferson who taught that however discomfiting a free exchange may be, truth will ultimately emerge the victor. President Hugh B. Brown, a counselor in the LDS presidency during the 1960s, echoed on behalf of the church:

I admire men and women who have developed the questing spirit, who are unafraid of new ideas as stepping stones to progress. We should, of course, respect the opinions of others, but we should also be unafraid to dissent–if we are informed. Thoughts and expressions compete in the marketplace of thought, and in that competition truth emerges triumphant. Only error fears freedom of expression … This free exchange of ideas is not to be deplored as long as men and women remain humble and teachable. Neither fear of consequence or any kind of coercion should ever be used to secure uniformity of thought in the church. People should express their problems and opinions and be unafraid to think without fear of ill consequences. … We must preserve freedom of the mind in the church and resist all efforts to suppress it.

These and similar sentiments motivate me in my current endeavor. I do not believe that what I have written is flawless, but I lay out the evidence and state the implications of what I see as clearly as possible. My years of teaching have taught me that if I am not direct, my point is missed. However, there is also a downside to such straightforwardness. If I seem provocative or insensitive, or if I offend, it is not my intention. These are issues that are deeply important to me. I do not treat them lightly, whatever the shortcomings of my prose. Yet, I feel good that I do not cloak the issues in ambiguities, with an overdose of qualifiers and disclaimers. I find these matters to be so engaging that, for me, they bring church history to life for the first time. If nothing else, the reader may sense my enthusiasm, which can be boundless, I admit.

Perhaps the reader is already puzzled by this lengthy dialogue on historiography and freedom of belief. If so, let me state clearly what can be expected from this book. I, along with colleagues, and drawing from years of research, find the evidence employed to support many traditional claims about the church to be either nonexistent or problematic. In other words, it didn’t all happen the way we’ve been told. For the sake of accuracy and honesty, I think we need to address and ultimately correct this disparity between historical narratives and the inspirational stories that are told in church. Hopefully my book will be received in the spirit in which it is intended. As English philosopher John Stuart Mill said, any attempt to resist another opinion is a “peculiar evil.” If the opinion is right, we are robbed of the “opportunity of exchanging error for truth.” If it is wrong, we are deprived of a deeper understanding of the truth in “its collision with error.”

On 4-5 January 1922, B. H. Roberts, senior president of the church’s seven presidents of the seventy, presented to ranking church leaders what he called “Book of Mormon Difficulties” discussed in chapter two of this book. Elder Roberts said: “In a church which claimed continuous revelation, a crisis had arisen where revelation was necessary.” He hoped his brethren would bring “the inspiration of the Lord” to solve these problems. However, after his presentations, his colleagues reaffirmed their testimonies of the Book of Mormon and offered no solutions.

I would like to renew Elder Roberts’s call for a more candid discussion of the foundations of the church beginning with the Book of Mormon. I discuss these issues in eight chapters, the first of which evaluates Joseph Smith’s efforts at translation. Chapters 2-4 examine Joseph’s intellectual environment, including the King James Bible, evangelical religion, and American antiquities, all of which influenced the content of the Book of Mormon. Chapter 4 also discusses religious feelings and the Holy Ghost. Chapters 5-6 reveal the impact of folk beliefs on two early claims of Mormonism. Chapters 7-8 investigate priesthood restoration and Joseph’s first vision, detailing the developments and what precipitated the changes in the history of these two experiences.

I wish to thank my friends and colleagues who agreed to be readers of my first and subsequent drafts for their many helpful suggestions and encouragement. It is good to have critics, but it is also good to have such reassuring friends.


Chapter 7.

Like the early narratives about how the Book of Mormon came to be, the early accounts of priesthood restoration are more nuanced and fascinating than the simple, unified story that is told today. The earliest reference to priesthood authority appeared in the 1833 Book of Commandments, the earliest version of, and precursor to, the Doctrine and Covenants (fig. 48). [Note: References to figures refer to those in the book; not all figures will be produced in this excerpt.] According to a revelation received in June 1829, Oliver Cowdery was “baptized [one month earlier on 15 May] by the hand of my servant Joseph Smith], according to that which I have commanded him.”1 Lucy Smith, the prophet’s mother, explained the circumstances and medium by which she understood that this command from God had come to her son:

One morning however they sat down to their usual work [Joseph and Oliver were translating in Third Nephi in the Book of Mormon] when the first thing that presented itself to Joseph was a commandment from God that he and Oliver should repair to the water & each of them be baptized[. T]hey immediately went down to the susquehanae river and obeyed the mandate given them through the Urim and Thummin[. As they were on their return to the house they overheard Samuel [Smith] in a secluded spot engaged in secret prayer [.] They had now received authority to baptize … and they [then] spoke to Samuel who went withe them straightway to the water and was baptized (fig. 49).2

At this early date the view was that the commandment received through the urim and thummim is what gave Joseph and Oliver the authority to baptize.

In 1885 David Whitmer, another New York church member and one of the three special witnesses to the Book of Mormon, told the same version of how Joseph and Oliver received their authority:

I moved Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery to my father[‘]s house in Fayette[,] Seneca County New York, from Harmony, Penn. in the year [June] 1829 [so they could finish translating the Book of Mormon. O]n our way I conversed freely with them upon this great work they were bringing about, and Oliver stated to me in Joseph presence that they had baptized each other seeking by that to fulfill the command … 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.3

Shortly after arriving at the Peter Whitmer Sr. home, according to statements, Joseph and Oliver received additional authority in the same manner as before. Now they would be able to bestow the gift of the Holy Ghost. Because Joseph had been promised this higher authority when they were baptized, he was “anxious” and “diligent in prayer” to receive it. He explained how God gave them this greater authority in the Whitmer home in June 1829 (fig. 50):

We had for some time made this matter a subject of humble prayer, and at length we got together in the Chamber [upper story] 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 … [W]e were however commanded to defer this our ordination untill, such times, as it should be practicable to have our brethren, who had been and who should be baptized, assembled together …4

This meeting and the anticipated ordinations took place on 6 April 1830, the day the church was organized.5 Two months later a revelation published in the Book of Commandments referred to their new, higher priesthood authority by affirming that “commandments were given to Joseph, who was called of God and ordained an apostle of Jesus Christ, an elder of this church; And also to Oliver, who was also called of God an apostle of Jesus Christ, an elder of this church, and ordained under his [Joseph’s] hand.” In other words, they received a calling in the Whitmer home and ordained each other at the first church conference, and this authorized the two men to function as elders; angelic ordinations were not mentioned. The Book of Commandments goes on to explain that an elder holds the authority to preside, ordain other elders, and bestow the gift of the Holy Ghost.6

The term elder was also at this time synonymous with the term apostle and should not be confused with the later office or apostolic keys, both of which would not be introduced until early 1835. At first, anyone who was ordained an elder was considered to be an apostle. The Book of Commandments says, “An apostle is an elder.”7 In an 1830 letter of introduction for Orson Pratt to the Colesville branch, Joseph Smith and John Whitmer called Pratt “another Servant and apostle.8 Pratt had just been ordained an elder the day before. Sidney Rigdon wrote on 4 January 1831: “I send you this letter by John Whitmer. Receive him, for he is a brother greatly beloved, and an Apostle of this church.” Whitmer was an elder. Ezra Booth recorded in 1831 that Ziba Peterson, an early missionary who had committed a wrongdoing, “was deprived of his Elder and Apostleship.”9 Jared Carter noted in his 1831 journal about being ordained an elder, “I received the authority of an apostle.”10

The Book of Commandments outlines Joseph’s authority to found the church. Section 24, dated June 1830, states that Joseph: (1) “received a remission of his sins”; (2) received a “call … to his holy work” from an angel who gave him the means to translate the Book of Mormon; (3) that angels showed the book to others and thus “confirmed” it to them; (4) that the Church of Christ was organized on 6 April 1830; and that (5) on that same day, Joseph and Oliver ordained each other elders, having been “called of God” to do so; concluding, (6) “Wherefore having so great witnesses, by them shall the world be judged.”11 Nothing yet suggested that Joseph and Oliver had received authority by angelic ordination.

Significantly, teachings on ministerial authority in the Book of Commandments mirror what is found in the Bible as well as in the Book of Mormon and the Book of Moses. Aside from the New Testament influence on the Book of Moses, notice that Adam receives priesthood by the voice of God which directed him to open a gospel dispensation by baptizing, bestowing the Holy Ghost, and ordaining others (5:4-9; 6:51-7:1). Adam then gave these ordinances to his worthy descendants: “And thou art after the order of him who was without beginning of days or end of years, from all eternity to all eternity. Behold, thou art one in me, a son of God; and thus may all become my sons” (6:67-68).

In the Bible God’s command to his prophets authorizes them to carry out various assignments and to ordain others. Moses was called by God’s voice out of a burning bush, and it was God’s spirit that commanded him to ordain Aaron. The voice of God called Samuel to be a prophet and judge and to anoint Saul and David as kings. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah, as well as Lehi in the Book of Mormon, were called by the voice of the Lord in dreams and visions. Following the biblical pattern, Lehi ordained other Nephites.12

Four hundred and fifty years later the Nephite civilization divided into two separate geographical centers, one at Zarahemla and the other at Lehi-Nephi under the wicked king Noah. Abinadi, a citizen of Lehi-Nephi, said “the Lord … commanded me” to preach. In preaching he converted Alma, a young man in Noah’s court, who taught Abinadi’s words and converted more than two hundred. By God’s command alone. Alma baptized and ordained followers and organized a church: “Alma took Helam, he being one of the first, and went and stood forth in the water, and cried, saying: O Lord, pour out thy Spirit upon thy servant, that he may do this work … and … the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he [Alma] said: Helam, I baptize thee, having authority from the Almighty God …” Alma and Helam both submerged themselves and “arose and came forth from the water rejoicing, being filled with the Spirit.” They baptized each other, in other words. Afterwards, Alma baptized the rest of the multitude, who were “filled with the grace of God. And they were called the church of God, or the church of Christ, from that time forward. And it came to pass that whosoever was baptized by the power and authority of God was added to his church. And it came to pass that Alma, having authority from God, ordained priests.”13 A generation passed and Noah’s son King Limhi “and many of his people were desirous to be baptized; but there was none in the land that had authority from God … Therefore they did not at that time form themselves into a church, waiting upon the Spirit of the Lord. Now they were desirous to become even as Alma and his brethren, who had fled into the wilderness” (Mosiah 21:32-34).The Nephite model is a consistent one in that “the Spirit of the Lord” authorizes men to baptize and ordain each other and to organize a church. This corresponds exactly to the Book of Commandments pattern for receiving authority. There are periods during which ordinations occur in an orderly succession, but when the chain is broken, another prophet is called by God’s voice or by his Spirit to begin the cycle anew.To continue the Nephite example, another prophet named Nephi is introduced, this one a son of Helaman in about 1 A.D. As a successor to a line of prophets from Alma’s time, Nephi has the authority to baptize, to bestow the Holy Ghost, and to ordain. Christ appears in 34 A.D.and declares that the old law is fulfilled, then introduces a new covenant by orally reaffirming Nephi’s authority to baptize. By this oral authority, the Nephite twelve are commissioned to bestow the Holy Ghost and to ordain others. Thereafter, these Nephites ordain other men in an orderly succession. As the twelve die, “there were other disciples ordained in their stead.”14 These recitals in the Bible and in Joseph’s revelations, including those in the Book of Commandments, are consistent. God calls a man by voice or by spirit to open a gospel dispensation or to commence a mission of preaching repentance. This call authorizes the individual to baptize and to ordain others. In none of these scriptural writings do we find other-worldly beings laying hands upon mortals to bestow priesthood authority.Joseph Smith was commanded to search the Book of Mormon itself for instructions on how to receive and dispense priesthood authority. A revelation (BofC 15:3/D&C 18:3-4) given June 1829 instructed him: “I give unto you a commandment, that you rely upon the things which are written [on the gold plates]; For in them are all things written concerning the foundation of my church, my gospel, and my rock.” When Joseph receives a spiritual prompting to begin to baptize and ordain others, he is following the pattern in the Book of Mormon.Further evidence lies in the fact that early missionaries declared that they were called of God but did not say that their authority originated with heavenly messengers.15 Accounts of angelic ordinations from John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John are in none of the journals, diaries, letters, or printed matter until the mid-183 Os.16 Zenas H. Gurley, an RLDS apostle, asked David Whitmer in 1885: Were you present when Joseph Smith received the revelation commanding him and Oliver Cowdery to ordain each other to the Melchizedek Priesthood?… [Whitmer:] “No I was not, neither did I ever hear of such a thing as an angel ordaining them until I got into Ohio about the year 1834, or later … [and regarding the Aaronic Priesthood,] 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.”17

An example would be the diaries of early convert and apostle William E. McLellin from 1831 to 1836, wherein he never mentioned that the church claimed angelic priesthood restoration.18 After leaving the church, McLellin recorded: “I joined the church in 1831. For years I never heard of John the Baptist ordaining Joseph and Oliver. I heard not of James, Peter, and John doing so.”19 He elaborated in 1870: “I heard Joseph tell his experience of his ordination [by Cowdery] and the organization of the church, probably, more than twenty times, to persons who, near the rise of the church, wished to know and hear about it. I never heard of Moroni, John, or Peter, James and John.”20 Two years later he repeated: “But as to the story of John, the Baptist ordaining Joseph and Oliver on the day they were baptized; I never heard of it in the church for years, altho I carefully noticed things that were said.”21

There is other corroborating evidence in an episode that occurred in September 1830 when Hiram Page, who held the office of teacher, claimed to receive revelations for the church through a seer stone. Many, “especially the Whitmer family and Oliver Cowdery,” accepted Page’s revelations as authoritative for “the upbuilding of Zion, the order of the Church [speaking for God] &c &c.”22 If Cowdery’s authority came literally from the hands of John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John in an unequivocal bestowal of apostolic keys of priesthood succession, rather than in a more subtle apprehension of divine will, it should have been obvious to Cowdery that Page’s claim lacked comparable weight. If this restoration of authority and truth which had been lost for centuries occurred dramatically and decisively in a show of glory in 1829, then it seems unlikely that a year later Cowdery would accept Page’s authority over that of Joseph Smith. Why would those claiming to hold the exclusive keys of apostolic succession from Peter, James, and John seek direction and revelation from one holding the office of a teacher in the church? It seems more likely that simple and undramatic commandments were the source of these early authority claims.

The first mention of authority from angels dates to 22 September 1832, a revelation that appears as section 84 of the Doctrine and Covenants. This revelation elaborates on a Bible passage and states that John the Baptist was “ordained by the angel of God at the time he was eight days old … to overthrow the kingdom of the Jews,” while Moses, Jethro, Caleb, Elihu, Jeremy, Gad, and Esaias all received priesthood authority “under the hand” of men, “and Esaias received it under the hand of God.” These examples do not refer to the actual physical laying on of hands by an angel, but one sees the seed of a concept here.23 When Joseph Smith began writing his first history in November 1832, he described “thirdly the reception of the holy Priesthood by the ministering of Aangels to administer the letter of the Gospel– (–the Law and commandments as they were given unto him–) and the ordinencs.”24 Here he begins to apprehend the significance of angels who were said to have attended his ordination. Finally, on 12 February 1834, Joseph mentioned in public for the first time that his priesthood “office” had “been conferred upon me by the ministring of the Angel of God, by his own will and by the voice of this Church.”25 This is still not an unequivocal assertion of authority by angelic ordination. That was yet to come in Oliver Cowdery’s 7 September 1834 letter in the October issue of the Messenger and Advocate. Cowdery tells a highly dramatic, if poetic, version of how he and Joseph received the priesthood from an unnamed angel: [T]he angel of God came down clothed with glory, and delivered the anxiously looked for message, and the keys of the Gospel of repentance!–What joy! what wonder! what amazement! … [W]e were rapt in the vision of the Almighty! Where was room for doubt? No where: uncertainty had fled… [W]e received under his hand the holy priesthood, as he said, “upon you my fellow servants …”26 Notice that this experience occurred while they “were rapt in the vision of the Almighty,” according to Cowdery. A year later, in September 1835, Cowdery repeated: “While we were in the heavenly vision the angel came down and bestowed upon us this priesthood.”27 Future apostle Franklin D. Richards recorded a sermon by Joseph Smith in 1844 that “related the vision of his ordination to the priesthood of Aaron.”28 The phrasing is similar to the accounts of how Cowdery and others visited the chambers within the Hill Cumorah (see chapter 6), occurring in a spiritual rather than physical dimension. Given the tendency to blend the spiritual and physical, we can understand how the angel’s appearance was transmitted through church history as a literal, physical event.

When Joseph and Oliver began mentioning their angelic ordinations in late 1834 and early 1835, they were facing a credibility crisis that threatened the church’s survival. In late 1833 a group in Kirtland, Ohio, denounced Joseph Smith for ministering “under pretense of Divine Authority.” They employed D. P. Hurlbut to investigate Joseph’s past, hoping to bring him down “from the high station which he pretends to occupy.”29 Hurlbut traveled to Palmyra, New York, and collected affidavits from residents about Joseph’s early treasure seeking and other aspects of his youth. Hurlbut began a lecture tour starting in January 1834 to “numerous congregations in Chagrin, Kirtland, Mentor, and Painesville; and … [he] fired the minds of the people with much indignation against Joseph and the Church.”30 Finding disillusionment spreading among the Saints, Joseph and Sidney Rigdon began preaching against Hurlbut.31 It was under these circumstances, exacerbated by problems associated with the failure of Zion’s Camp–the paramilitary trek to assist fellow Saints in Missouri–that Joseph mentioned for the first time in public that his priesthood had “been conferred upon me by the ministering of the Angel of God.”32 Ironically, Hurlbut’s, Rigdon’s, and Joseph Smith’s speeches all became advance publicity for E. D. Howe’s scathing Mormonism Unvailed [sic].

By May 1834, Joseph’s Pennsylvania in-laws had issued similar affidavits about Joseph’s treasure digging and his supposed motivations for starting Mormonism. Howe published all of these in his book in November 1834. Meanwhile, Oliver Cowdery, with Joseph’s assistance and sensitive to the negative impact of the recent disclosures, decided to write “on the subject of those affidavits.”33 Oliver’s first refutation, published in the October 1834 Messenger and Advocate, included the narrative of being ordained by an unnamed angel. Shortly thereafter, this angel was identified as John the Baptist. Simultaneously, a statement about Peter, James, and John appearing to Joseph and Oliver was added to an earlier revelation.34 This information appeared in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. Thus, by degrees, the accounts became more detailed and more miraculous. In 1829 Joseph said he was called by the Spirit; in 1832 he mentioned that angels attended these events; in 1834-35 the spiritual manifestations became literal and physical appearances of resurrected beings. Details usually become blurred over time; in this case, they multiplied and sharpened. These new declarations of literal and physical events facilitated belief and bolstered Joseph’s and Oliver’s authority during a time of crisis.No contemporary narrative exists for a visitation to Joseph and Oliver by Peter, James, and John. In fact, the date, location, ordination prayer, and any other circumstances surrounding this experience are unknown. B. H. Roberts confirmed: “There is no definite account of the event in the history of the Prophet Joseph or, for matter of fact, in any of our annals.”35 Scholars have produced scenarios about when and where this may have occurred. The most popular views are May 1829, July 1830, and June 1831.36 The earliest statement about the higher priesthood being restored in a literal, physical way, including named angels, appears in the September 1835 Doctrine and Covenants: 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 … 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 (27:8, 12-13, current LDS edition).These verses plus two in section 7 pertaining to John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John and literal priesthood restorations do not appear in the 1833 Book of Commandments.37 Section 7 tells us that “the keys” were given anciently to Jesus’ three apostles to “minister for those who shall be heirs of salvation who dwell on the earth” (6-7). Section 27 has Peter, James, and John bestowing apostolic keys upon Joseph and Oliver, as already quoted.38 It is difficult to explain why these important names and the bestowal of their keys of authority would not be included in the Book of Commandments. The most plausible explanation is that they were retrofitted to an 1829-30 time period to give the impression that an impressive and unique authority had existed in the church from the beginning.It may be more than a coincidence that in February 1835 when the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was organized, the detail regarding Peter, James, and John was added to the revelations. It was sometime between January and May 1835 that Peter, James, and John were first mentioned as the restorers of apostolic keys to Joseph and Oliver.39 This new link of succession undoubtedly bolstered President Smith’s and Assistant President Cowdery’s authority in the eyes of the new Quorum of the Twelve and the church.The early claim to be “the only true … church,” with Christ’s exclusive authority, may have caused members to ask how the church’s authority was in fact unique (D&C 1:30). The attacks against the character and early life of Joseph Smith must have raised questions, as well (fig. 51). Howe’s book, published less than twelve miles from Kirtland, posed a threat to the credibility and authority of the Restoration. This provided motivation for Joseph and Oliver to counter with detailed accounts of physical appearances by these impressive biblical figures. For the survival and continued growth of the young church, the changes appear to have been necessary. In a single stroke, the new accounts legitimized the leadership’s religious authority, giving them exclusive rights and setting them apart from anyone who claimed a nonliteral or metaphysical reception of authority.40 Angelic ordinations and apostolic keys of succession provided an incontestable and singular credential for being the only true spokesmen for Christ on earth.As in his accounts of an angel and the gold plates, Joseph was willing to expand on another foundational narrative. The events surrounding priesthood restoration were reinterpreted, one detail emphasized over another. A spiritually charged moment when participants felt that the veil between heaven and earth was thin became, in the retelling, an event with no veil at all. The first stories about how Joseph received his authority show that, like other prophets and religious founders throughout history, he and Oliver first received their callings in a metaphysical way. Within a few years, their accounts became more impressive, unique, and physical.Appendix

A statement that Joseph Smith reportedly made on 18 December 1833 exists only in Oliver Cowdery’s entry in the 1835 Book of Patriarchal Blessings. It reads:

These blessings shall come upon him [Cowdery] according to the blessings of the prophecy of Joseph [of Egypt], in ancient days, … [and Cowdery] should be ordained with him [Smith], by the hand of the angel in the bush, unto the lesser priesthood, and after receive the holy priesthood under the hands of those who had been held in reserve for a long season; even those who received it under the hand of the Messiah …41

There are researchers who consider this to be the earliest statement of literal priesthood bestowal.42 I find it unconvincing. On 18 December 1833 Joseph gave blessings to Oliver Cowdery and four members of the Smith family–Hyrum, Samuel, William, and Joseph Sr.–all of which were recorded on that date in Joseph’s personal diary.43 Twenty-one months later Oliver began copying these blessings into the first volume of the Book of Patriarchal Blessings.44 A comparison indicates that Oliver liberally added to and deleted from the original blessings.45

For example, some sentences from Joseph’s 1833 record are found scattered throughout the rewritten secondary version. In addition, some of the expansions contain motifs that derive from 1834-35 rather than from an earlier setting. The words “the church of the Latter Day Saints” are added; this was the name of the church between May 1834 and April 1838. The 1835 version of Joseph Sr.’s blessing says, “[H]e shall be called a prince over his posterity; holding the keys of the patriarchal priesthood over the kingdom of God on earth, even the church of the Latter Day Saints.” This sentence is not in the diary. Furthermore, this and other references to “patriarchal priesthood” do not appear in the diary. The concept of a patriarchal priesthood comes from Joseph’s attention to the Egyptian papyri scrolls and the resulting stories of Old Testament patriarchs Joseph and Abraham in July 1835.46 These ideas would have occupied Cowdery’s mind in 1835 as well.

The diary version of William’s blessing says: “[N]otwithstanding his rebellious heart …” This phrase was deleted from the 1835 transcript probably because William had been ordained to be one of the twelve apostles in February. In Oliver’s own blessing, the following words appear: “[N]evertheless there are two evils in him that he must needs forsake or he cannot altogether] escape the buffitings of the adver[sar]y …” Again, this is deleted.

Cowdery also added a preface to the blessings for his 1835 transcript, including the following:

[W]e diligently sought for the right of the fathers, and the authority of the holy priesthood, and the power to administer 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. [These phrases became part of Abraham 1:2 in 1835.] Therefore we repaired to the woods, even as our father Joseph [of Egypt] said we should, that is, to the bush … [T]he angel came down and bestowed upon us this priesthood.47

The similarities between this and the alleged 1833 statement are striking. I conclude that the 1833 statement, recorded by Cowdery in 1835 and cited as an early reference to the bestowal of priesthood by angels, has too many anachronisms to support this idea. The view of a literal, physical laying on of hands by angels is just one more of the many anachronisms in this document.



1. BofC 15:6-7 in Milford C. Wood, Joseph Smith Begins His Work: The Book of Commandments, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City: by the Author, 1962), vol.2; cf. D&C18:7.

2. Lucy Smith’s Preliminary Manuscript, dictated to Martha Jane Coray, 1844-45, original in the archives of the Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah (hereafter LDS archives); qtd. in Early Mormon Documents, ed. Dan Vogel, 3+ vols. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996-), 1:381.

3. David Whitmer, interview by Zenas H. Gurley Jr., 14 Jan. 1885, typescript, LDS archives. See Edward Stevenson Journal, 9 Feb. 1886, cited in Joseph Grant Stevenson, Stevenson Family History (Provo, UT: by the Author, 1955), 1:177-78. Some have argued that the reason no one heard of angelic ministrations early on was because, as Joseph Smith said in 183 8: “[W]e were forced to keep secret the circumstances of having received the Priesthood and our having been baptized, owing to a spirit of persecution in the neighborhood … [Harmony, Pennsylvania]. We had been threatened with being mobbed” (JS–History 1:74-75). In light of the David Whitmer and Lucy Smith statements, Joseph intended to keep his and Oliver’s baptisms and receipt of authority to baptize from their enemies, not from devoted believers.

4. Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith: Autobiographical and Historical Writings (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1989), 1:299.

5. Ibid., 302-03.

6. BofC 24:3-4, 32-35; cf. D&C 20:2-3, 38-45.

7. BofC 24:32; cf. D&C 20:38; 21:1, 10-11.

8. Joseph Smith and John Whitmer to Colesville Saints, 2 Dec. 1830; qtd. in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:19.

9. Ezra Booth to Edward Partridge, 20 Sept. 1831; Sidney Rigdon to Ohio Brethren, ca. 4 Jan. 1831, in E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville OH: by the Author, 1834), 110, 208.

10. Jared Carter Journal, Sept. 1831, 35, LDS archives.

11. BofC 24: 1-12; also D&C 20:1-13, which dates this as April 1830.

12. Ex. 3:1-12; 40:13-16; 1 Sam. 3:1-18; 9:15-17; 10:1; 16:1-13; Isa. 6:1-10; Jer. 1:1-10; Ezek. 1:1, 26-2:3; Zech. 1:1-16; 1 Ne. 1:4-8, 18-2:3; 2 Ne. 5:26; Jac. 1:18.

13. Mosiah 11:20-25; 17:1-4; 18:1, 12-18; 21:30. The bestowal of the Holy Ghost follows the Pentecostal pattern of Joseph Smith’s day and our own. In Mosiah 18:14, 16, the Holy Ghost fell upon the newly baptized as they emerged from the water. In Alma 31:36, the Holy Ghost is not associated with baptism but falls upon members when Alma “clapped his hands upon them.” I have seen a Pentecostal congregation exhibit this phenomenon when the minister poured water onto the ground or touched congregants with one or both hands (cf. Alma 19:12-17, 29-30; 3 Nephi 7:21-22). In 3 Nephi 18:36-37, Jesus “touched with his hand the disciples whom he had chosen … [and thereby] gave them power to give the Holy Ghost.” Moroni 2:3 adds, “On as many as they [the disciples] laid their hands, fell the Holy Ghost.”

14. 3 Ne. 7:21-25; 11:18-22, 33-36; 12:1; 13:25; 4 Ne. 14. For other Book of Mormon examples, see G. St. John Stott, “Ordination and Ministry in the Book of Mormon,” in Restoration Studies III (Independence, MO: Herald Publishing House, 1986), 244-53.

15. BofC 5:2; 10:2, 11; 11:2; 12:2; 15:30; cf. D&C 6:4; 11:4, 27; 12:3-4; 14:4; 18:28. Note that whoever has desire is called to the work, and if he does the work, he is “called of God.”

16. LaMar Petersen, Problems in Mormon Text (Salt Lake City: by the Author, 1957), 8. Some scholars view an 18 December 1833 statement as the first evidence that Oliver and Joseph were ordained under the hands by angels (see appendix to this chapter).

17. David Whitmer, interview by Zenas H. Gurley Jr., 14 Jan. 1885. An apostle in the RLDS church, Gurley believed in the ordination by John the Baptist and the verbal command but not in a physical ordination by Peter, James, and John.

18. Jan Shipps and John W Welch, eds., The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831-1836 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 29-225.

19. William E. McLellin to J. L. Traughber, 25 Aug. 1877, J. L. Traughber Collection, 1446/2, Manuscripts Division, Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City. See also “Notebook of William E. McLellin,” 10, J. L. Traughber Collection, Ms. 666, Manuscripts Division, Marriott Library.

20. William E. McLellin to D. H. Bays, 24 May 1870, True Latter Day Saints’ Herald, 15 Sept. 1870, 556.

21. William E. McLellin to Joseph Smith III, July 1872, 3, Library-Archives, Community of Christ (RLDS).

22. Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:322-23; D&C 28; Donald Q. Cannon and Lyndon W Cook, eds., Far West Record: Minutes of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1844 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1983), 1. The minutes for 9 June 1830 list Hiram Page as a teacher in the church.

23. D&C 84:28, 6-12. See Moses 8:19: “And the Lord ordained Noah after his own order.” This probably refers to ordination by a mortal being already possessing authority since D&C 36:2 said concerning the gift of the Holy Ghost: “And I [God] will lay my hand upon you [Edward Partridge] by the hand of my servant Sidney Rigdon.”

24. Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:3.

25. Kirtland Council Minutes, (12 Feb. 1834), 27, LDS archives; qtd. in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:32.

26. Oliver Cowdery, “History of the Rise of the Church of the Latter Day Saints,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 1 (Oct. 1834): 15-16; qtd. in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:420-21. The statement is also in JS–History after verse 75.

27. The Book of Patriarchal Blessings 1:8-9, LDS archives; qtd. in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:453.

28. Joseph Smith, sermon of 10 Mar. 1844, in Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 1980), 334.

29. “To the Public,” Painesville [OH] Telegraph, 31 Jan. 1834, [3].

30. Joseph Smith Jr. et al., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1978 printing), 1:475.

31. Donna Hill, Joseph Smith: The First Mormon (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1977), 157.

32. Kirtland Council Minutes, (12 Feb. 1834), 27, LDS archives; qtd. in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:32. Cowdery wrote in December 1834 about “… the angel while in company with President Joseph] Smith, at the time they received the office of the lesser priesthood” (Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:21).

33. Oliver Cowdery, “Answer,” The Evening and the Morning Star (Kirtland, OH) 2 (Sept. 1834): 190.

34. See D&C 27:8,12-13. “In 1835 the original edition of the Doctrine and Covenants gave the first precise published account of the appearance of Peter, James, and John to Joseph and Oliver,” writes Brian Q. Cannon et al., “Priesthood Restoration Documents,” EW Studies 35 (1995-96): 167.

35. History of the Church, l:40n.

36. For May 1829, see Larry C. Porter, “The Restoration of the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods,” Ensign 26 (Dec. 1996): 30-47; for July 1830, see Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 162-3, 240n55; for June 1831, see Marvin S. Hill, Quest for Refuge: The Mormon Flight from American Pluralism (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 25-26.

37. Cf. D&C 27 and D&C 7 with Book of Commandments chaps. 28 and 6 in Wood, Joseph Smith Begins His Work, vol. 2.

38. Joseph Smith, in speaking to the newly formed high council, said: “The apostle, Peter, was the president of the Council in ancient days and held the keys of the Kingdom of God on the earth” (Kirtland Council Minutes, 17 Feb. 1834, 30, LDS archives). This may be the beginning of the development for D&C 7:7. In later recollections by Philo Dibble and Benjamin Winchester, published in the 1880s, their statements about Peter, James, and John were probably influenced by D&C 27:12-13. See “Philo Dibble’s Narrative,” Early Scenes in Church History: Eighth Book of the Faith-Promoting Series (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1882), 80; Benjamin Winchester, “Primitive Mormonism,” The Daily Tribune (Salt Lake City), 22 Sept. 1889, 2.

39. Joseph revised his earlier revelations between January and May 1835. Section 20 represents the first textual evidence of his revisions in the January 1835 Kirtland reprint of the Evening and Morning Star, 1:2-4. By June, the Doctrine and Covenants was being printed (ibid., 80).

40. After Joseph’s death, recent convert James J. Strong claimed that an angel appointed him to be the successor. Strang first said that this angel metaphysically granted him authority, then later said it ordained him by the laying on of hands. This embellishment led Reuben Miller, a stake president in Strang’s church, to disillusionment. Miller converted to Mormonism in 1843 and was apparently unaware of Joseph’s similar priesthood development. Richard L. Anderson, “Reuben Miller: Recorder of Oliver Cowdery’s Reaffirmations,” BYU Studies 8 (Spring 1968): 280-85.

41. The Book of Patriarchal Blessings 1:8-9,LDS archives; qtd. in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:454.

42. Gregory A. Prince, Power from on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 8-9n24. Prince believes that this document has “integrity,” meaning that it is a valid copy of the original blessing. See also Bruce R. McConkie, comp., Doctrines of Salvation: Sermons and Writings of Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Book-craft, 1956), 3:101.

43. Jessee, The Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:15-17.

44. The Book of Patriarchal Blessings 1, LDS archives.

45. Scott H. Faulring, ed., An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1987), 19n8. Faulring writes: “In September 1835, Oliver Cowdery recorded Joseph Smith’s blessings to members of his immediate family into what would become the first volume, 8-20, of the Patriarchal Blessing Books, located in the archives of the Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In so doing, however, Cowdery greatly expanded the blessings beyond their contents as initially recorded.”

46. History of the Church, 2:235-36.

47. The Book of Patriarchal Blessings, 1:9-10, LDS archives; qtd. in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:452-53.

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