excerpt – Origins of Power

Joseph Smith's "Red Brick" store in Nauvoo (courtesy Utah State Historical Society).Chapter 1
The Evolution of Authority

Before it was an organization, Mormonism was a private religious awakening in a single family. Born in December 1805, Joseph Smith, Jr., became the most prominent seer in his family. His parents Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack nurtured all their children in a home where the wondrous, mundane, and spiritual commingled.1 In the beginning, their religious activities did not differ dramatically from the experiences of their contemporaries. The impulse which led to founding a church developed gradually as did the structure of that church once it began. Eventually Mormonism became a hierarchical institution with a complex “priesthood” system. Understanding the growing sense of “church” and the increasingly structured view of authority as priesthood is necessary to comprehend the currently elaborate organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

From Private Religion to Public Ministry

According to Vermont neighbors, five years before the birth of Joseph Smith, Jr., his father participated with William Cowdery in a religious group using divining rods “mostly as a medium of revelation.”2 Almost thirty years later Jesse Smith wrote in a family letter that his brother Joseph Sr. had “a wand or rod” for obtaining obscure knowledge. That same year William’s son Oliver Cowdery introduced himself to the Smith family as a divining “rodsman.” Joseph Jr. later announced a revelation commending Cowdery’s “gift of working with the rod.”3

Joseph Smith family's magic parchment (or "Lamen"); its inscriptions were to summon a good spirit (courtesy private possession).In such practices the Cowderys and Smiths were typical examples of popular religion in early America. Many Americans believed in divining rods, seer stones, amulets, talismans, parchments with mystical inscriptions, and buried treasure guarded by enchantments.4 Such objects and practices were also part of Smith’s adolescence and early adulthood. Evidence for this comes from the family’s artifacts and reminiscences and also later statements by both Mormons and non-Mormons.5 Many then and now refuse to accept the religious dimension of “superstitious” beliefs and practices of folk magic.

However, until the mid-nineteenth century in America, scientists, college-educated clergymen, lay preachers, civic leaders, wealthy landowners, as well as the ill-educated and socially disadvantaged practiced forms of folk magic. This represented an alternative to academic magic which required knowledge of ancient languages and careful attention to written magical texts. Folk magic was often preserved by oral tradition, though its adherents included Oxford and Harvard graduates as well as the poorly educated, devout Christians, and non-believers.6 Likewise, until the mid-nineteenth century, institutional religion was a minority experience in the United States, while folk religion was the experience of 80-90 percent of Americans.7 Literacy and social class did not determine who participated in folk religion or folk magic in early America: “there was no literacy issue which divided popular religion from formal religion,” even though the classically-educated elite abandoned the occult sooner than the non-elite.8

Like most early Americans, the Smith family’s interest in magic was only part of their religious quest. When Joseph Smith, Jr., was six his father had the first of several visions or dreams with religious meaning. The father rejected organized religion, but Smith’s mother Lucy Mack sought out institutional religion and joined the Presbyterians without her husband.9

The frequent religious revivals and camp meetings of western New York’s “burnt-over district” had direct influence on the resident Smith family. Smith said he first became intensely interested in religion about the age of twelve. That is when a revival occurred in his home town of Palmyra, New York, from the fall of 1816 to the winter of 1817. The next year his father had a vision in which angels showed him a building that was closed to him. In 1819 the elder Smith dreamed of a spirit guide who promised him salvation after the completion of one more event. Sometime after 1819 religious revivals again convulsed the area surrounding the Smith farm, now located at Manchester on the outskirts of Palmyra.10

According to a later narrative, Joseph Jr., following in the path of his father, eventually experienced his own dramatic theophany. He wrote that he was “filld with the spirit of God and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph my son thy Sins are forgiven thee.”11 In later accounts, Smith indicated that God the Father had introduced Jesus to him.12

Smith’s accounts of this first vision were consistent with other contemporary ecstatic experiences; nothing about his account was unusual for his time and place.13 Smith’s story was even more believable because his first theophany neither transformed his life nor sent him on a quest to form a church. He had sought forgiveness for youthful sins and received absolution. His theophany was solitary, supranatural, and overwhelming. That it contained no command to preach repentance or tell anyone of the experience is extraordinary within the context of his later career. His vision implied no religious mission, no church, no community, and certainly no ecclesiastical hierarchy.14

Neighbors testified that during the spring of 1820 Smith became a seer in quest of buried treasure. Occult texts and custom dictated that treasure-seers should seek divine forgiveness in purification rituals. Perhaps this, as much as religious revivals, motivated the youth’s repentance.15 By all accounts Smith continued as both farm boy and treasure seer for years until he announced that he had obtained gold plates.16 But by 1831 a Palmyra newspaper was reporting that Smith claimed he “had seen God frequently and personally.”17

Scholars have long recognized that the first vision account was not published or used in any proselytizing tract until the 1840s and that it was not used regularly as a Mormon proselytizing tool until fifty years after Smith’s theophany.18 Critics tend to overlook the fact that non-Mormon newspapers reported in 1829-31 that Smith had seen God and that he had even recorded a version of his experience as early as 1832. His delay until 1842 in publishing his account of the first vision echoes the actions of Protestant ministers of his time who waited decades to describe their personal visions of deity. Joseph Smith’s first vision became a missionary tool for his followers only after Americans grew to regard converse with God as unusual.

Though Smith’s vision of deity was not remarkable in the 1820s, his visions surrounding the Book of Mormon created a sensation. According to Smith, in 1823 an angel named Moroni told him of gold plates buried nearby which related the story, of pre-Columbian Americans, a history compiled by an ancient prophet named Mormon. Four years later, in 1827, Smith retrieved the plates. After setbacks and delays Smith two years later used a brown seer stone from his treasure-seeking days to produce an English translation of the book, spending three months dictating his translation. The book eventually appeared in late March 1830 as 500 pages of print. His scribe was Oliver Cowdery, the rodsman.19

These events alienated former allies in his hometown. A Presbyterian woman who grew up near the Smith family later spoke of “the excitement stirred up among some of the people over the boy’s first vision, and of hearing her father contend that it was only the sweet dream of a pure-minded boy.” However, when Smith announced that he was producing new scripture, “her parents cut off their friendship for all the Smiths.” Decades later the woman lamented: “There was never a truer, purer, nobler boy than Joseph Smith before he was led away by superstition.”20

The publication of the Book of Mormon signaled to the world that Joseph Smith was not simply a village mystic. It was the beginning of what Mormons soon called “the restoration of all things.” That phrase eventually encompassed a remarkable theology, a radical world view, and an ethnic sense of “peopleness”21 among those who have always preferred to be known as Latter-day Saints. Two recent interpreters of nineteenth-century American religion have noted:

Fundamental to this antipluralist posture was the peculiarly Mormon understanding of restoration. If Puritans, Baptists, and “Christians,” for example, sought simply to emulate the faith and practices of the ancients, Mormons embraced a scheme of restoration that was cosmic in its scope, that penetrated space to the ends of the earth and the outer bounds of the universe itself, and that encompassed time from its very beginning to its end.22

In addition, religious historian Jan Shipps has argued that by invoking Old Testament archetypes within a Christian-American context, Mormonism became “a new religious movement,” a new world religion.23

The Concept of “Church”

The evolution of authority, priesthood, ordained offices, and presiding quorums traced in this study is not obvious to those acquainted with official LDS doctrine and history.24 Significant changes have been made in the published texts of LDS scriptures and in church documents published by official histories.25 These changes retroactively introduced concepts, people, names, and structures which did not exist in the original revelations and historical documents. In some instances these unannounced changes altered or reversed the original meaning of the various statements. Orson Pratt was the first Mormon historian to acknowledge such retroactive changes in the revelations of Doctrine and Covenants which became a canonized book in 1835.26 Church president John Taylor also referred to Smith’s right “to give a portion of a revelation and add to it afterwards.”27 Beginning with Smith and Cowdery, church leaders regarded these retroactive changes as necessary because the original documents did not adequately anticipate Mormonism’s later developments. Book of Mormon witness David Whitmer later wrote: “In a few years they had gone away ahead of the written word, so that they had to change these revelations.”28

The passage of time and changes in the historical record have obscured the early Mormon concept of “church.” Although inconceivable to modern Mormons, the concept of a latter-day “church” existed at first without being linked to the need for a religious organization or for religious ordinances. In a revelation to Smith in the summer of 1828, God spoke of “the people,” “this people,” and “my people” before referring to “my church.” This 1828 revelation equated “my people” with a non-institutional “my church.” At the same time this revelation rejected all organized religion as “they who do not fear me, neither keep my commandments but build up churches unto themselves to get gain” (D&C 10:40, 46, 52, 56).

This 1828 revelation offered no alternative church, no latter-day institution with God’s approval, no religious ordinances required of converts to “my church.” The document read: “Behold this is my doctrine—whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church.” And to erase all doubt that God’s latter-day “church” required no baptism, the 1828 revelation immediately stated: “Whosoever declareth more or less than this, the same is not of me, but is against me; therefore he is not of my church” (D&C 10:67-68). In 1828 Smith’s followers were part of a gathering which lacked organized form and which required only professions of faith and repentance from its converts.

This is why a February 1829 revelation (D&C 4) said nothing about ecclesiastical or priestly authority as a qualification for the ministry. Instead it specified requirements of “faith, hope, charity, and love, with an eye single to the glory of God” to be a minister (BofC, 9; D&C 4:5). A revelation received the next month and printed in the Book of Commandments spoke of church in the same general terms: “I will establish my church like unto the church which was taught by my disciples in the days of old.” However, this language did not survive the editing process for the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. In its place was inserted the requirement of priestly “power” and about the need to be “ordained” (BofC, 10-13; compare D&C 5:6, 13-14, 17).29

Not until Smith began dictating the Book of Mormon translation to Cowdery in April 1829 did the word “authority” or the requirement for baptism appear in a Mormon document (Mosiah 18:12-13). The conferral of priestly authority was later specified in Smith’s 1839 account of the angel Moroni visit to him sixteen years earlier: “Behold I will reveal unto you the Priesthood.” These words had not appeared in Smith’s 1832 account or in Cowdery’s 1834 detailed description of Moroni’s words.30

While engaged in translating the Book of Mormon, Smith and Cowdery baptized each other by immersion in May 1829. As one biographer has written, “To the converts, Joseph’s Church was not only based upon the Book of Mormon, but the book was its reason for having come into existence.”31

The basic nature of the new “church” changed three times between 1828 and April 1830. First, from 1828 to May 1829 “my church” was an unorganized body of “my people” who had no priestly “authority” and which required no religious ordinances. Second, from mid-1829, dozens of new converts were baptized into a community of believers, “the Church of Christ.”32 Although this church had no formal organization, Cowdery wrote an 1829 document titled, “A commandment from God unto Oliver [—] how he should build up his church & the manner thereof,” which referred to “authority,” various ordinances, and church offices.33 Its members were concentrated in three New York locations: Manchester/Palmyra in Ontario County, Fayette in Seneca County, and Colesville in Broome County. Then Smith published the Book of Mormon at Palmyra in March 1830. As the third major change, Smith formally organized “the Church of Christ” on 6 April 1830. In the remaining months of that year, “branches” of Mormon converts were organized at Manchester, Fayette, and Colesville.34

Book of Mormon witness David Whitmer voiced the sentiments of many who initially associated themselves with Smith and his new book of scripture. Already baptized and ordained, Whitmer wanted the “Church of Christ” to remain a spiritual community of believers. He felt uncomfortable with the impulse to transform the “Church of Christ” into an earthly, formally organized church institution: “We were as fully organized—spiritually—before April 6th as we were on that day….There were six elders and about seventy members before April 6th, and the same number of elders and members after that day.”35 Although compliant with Smith’s directions, Whitmer grew uncomfortable with changes after 1829.36 He failed to realize that Mormonism had already evolved for a decade within the Smith family before he met Smith and that the institution would continue to change and evolve. Originally called the Church of Christ in 1829, it became The Church of the Latter Day Saints in 1834. In 1838 a revelation gave its final name as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.37

Developments in the Concept of “Authority”

By the time of Smith’s death in late June 1844, the initial community of believers was organized in five intricately structured quorums of leaders which would continue in Mormonism for a hundred years: the First Presidency, the Presiding Patriarch, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the First Council of Seventy, and the Presiding Bishopric. This elaborate structure was not anticipated by converts joining the Mormon movement before 1835. Before then the structure was fluid, and public claims for authority in the church were made largely on the basis of religious experience and charisma rather than priestly power through lineage and angelic ministration. When the church was organized in April 1830, there was still little sense of hierarchy. Smith was seen as one prophet among potentially many. Neither was there a structured sense of authority or priesthood. A crucial task in understanding the pre-1835 period of the church involves tracing the changes which enabled the evolution of priestly status. It was priesthood-and eventually a highly structured priesthood—which required the hierarchical, structured institution that Mormonism became.

What the official account of Mormon origins obscures is the egalitarian nature of the church before 1835. This can be demonstrated by considering two positions—prophet and apostle—in the earliest years of the church. Both offices have survived into the twentieth century, both were part of the community’s vernacular at the church’s founding, yet the value and function of each have substantively changed.

Whitmer noted that the only new ordinance on 6 April 1830 occurred when Cowdery ordained Smith as “Prophet, Seer and Revelator”—which the enabling revelation had phrased as “a prophet” rather than “the prophet.”38 The term “prophet” had been applied prior to the founding of the institutional church in the same way as the term “elder.” At first nearly everyone regarded Smith as a prophet among prophets, not as the prophet. David Whitmer described how Mormons viewed Smith up to September 1830. “Brother Joseph gave many true prophesies [sic] when he was humble before God: but this is no more than many of the other brethren did,” he wrote. “Brothers Ziba Peterson, Hiram Page, Oliver Cowdery, Parley P. Pratt, Orson Pratt, Peter Whitmer, Christian Whitmer, John Whitmer, myself and many others had the gift of prophesy.”39

A well-known incident demonstrates the power in such an egalitarian concept of prophet, seer, and revelator. During the late summer of 1830, Hiram Page, one of the Eight Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, used a seer stone to dictate revelations for members of the church. Up to that time none of Smith’s revelations prohibited other Saints from declaring God’s will for the church.

Prominent church members accepted Page’s revelations. This shows that early Mormons regarded Smith’s “prophet, seer, and revelator” ordination as non-exclusive. Even Cowdery was “believing much” in Page’s revelations, although Cowdery had ordained Smith a prophet, seer, and revelator five months earlier.40

This concept of prophet posed no difficulty for a spiritual community of believers, but non-hierarchical charisma could fragment an institution. A hierarchy of spiritual authority is impossible if there is unrestricted access to receive and announce God’s will. Before the church’s next conference in September 1830, Smith dictated a revelation that “no one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this Church excepting my servant Joseph, Jun., for he receiveth them even as Moses” (D&C 28:2).41 This revelation subordinated charisma-the gifts and revelations of God-to the authority of a single church leader. Sociologists of religion call this “binding charisma within organizational forms.”42 Smith emphasized this shift from charisma to organization by destroying Hiram Page’s seer stone which had produced the rival revelations.43

Five months later a woman’s revelations resulted in an emphatic restatement of this same position with one crucial addition. Smith dictated God’s command that “there is none other appointed unto you to receive commandments and revelations until he be taken, if he abide in me…none else shall be appointed unto this gift except it be through him: for if it be taken from him he shall not have power except to appoint another in his stead” (D&C 43:34; emphasis added). As of February 1831 then, there could be no Mormon Elijah or Hosea rising from outside the priestly structure. Smith was now a prophet like Moses with exclusive right to appoint his prophetic successor. This applied even if Smith became a “fallen prophet.”

In defining the church president’s exclusive “gift,” this revelation of February 1831 contradicted an earlier one. Two years earlier the original text of a revelation had said: “And he [Joseph] has a gift to translate the book [of Mormon], and I have commanded him that he shall pretend to no other gift, for I will grant him no other gift” (BofC, 10; emphasis added). This limitation fit the unstructured community of believers in 1829. However, it was an obvious difficulty for his ascendancy as sole revelator to an organized church and was eventually revised.

This original text appeared without change in the 1833 Book of Commandments but became the earliest of many altered revelations in the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835: “And you have a gift to translate the plates; and this is the first gift that I bestowed upon you; and I have commanded that you should pretend to no other gift until my purpose is fulfilled in this; for I will grant unto you no other gift until it is finished” (D&C 5:4).44 The retroactive additions italicized in the above passage changed the meaning and context of the 1829 revelation. This was necessary to make the earlier revelation consistent with Joseph Smith’s post-1830 role as church president with exclusive right to announce revelations.45

The earliest Mormon use (1829-33) of the title “apostle” poses similar problems for present understanding. Its original debut as a Mormon term occurs in the same non-hierarchical context as the term “prophet.” But according to official accounts, “apostle” as an ordained office and presiding quorum did not exist until 1835. In fact the first reference to this office dates from a June 1829 revelation, which provides a key to understanding the nature of this pre-1835 apostleship: “And now, Oliver, I speak unto you, and also unto David Whitmer…and I speak unto you, even as unto Paul mine apostle, for you are called even with that same calling with which he was called” (D&C 18:9; also BofC, 35).

The Gospels recorded the literal ordination by Jesus of apostles Peter, James, John, and nine others (Mark 3:14). The eleven apostles laid hands on Matthias to ordain him an apostle to replace the deceased Judas (Acts 1:25-26). However, the New Testament mentions no such literal ordination for Paul. Instead because of his vision on the road to Damascus, Paul was “an apostle, not of men, neither by men, but by Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:1). The LDS church’s dictionary of the Bible currently acknowledges that Paul and Barnabas may have been “apostles strictly in the sense of being special witnesses for the Lord Jesus Christ.”46 The New Testament portrayed Paul as a charismatic apostle and special witness, not an apostle through ordination by the laying on of hands.

To the mid-nineteenth century, Mormon leaders continued to use the word “apostle” to designate unordained charisma. Although the book of Acts recorded that the martyr Stephen was one of the seven ordained deacons, LDS apostle John Taylor called him “Apostle Stephen” because Stephen saw a vision of God and Jesus Christ.47

The 1829 revelation called Cowdery and Whitmer apostles because they, with Smith and later with Martin Harris, were special witnesses for the Book of Mormon. These four men heard God’s voice and “viewed the plates in a vision.” According to one account, the angel in the vision placed his hands on Whitmer’s head.48 Like Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 26:13-14), Smith and the Book of Mormon’s Three Witnesses saw a light and heard a voice in 1829. As a result latter-day revelations designated Smith and the Three Witnesses as apostles, without literal ordination by the laying on of hands. One of these apostles, David Whitmer, later said: “During 1829, several times we were told by Brother Joseph that an elder [not apostle] was the highest office in the church.” Reflecting that 1829 view, William E. McLellin, who later received actual ordination as an apostle, wrote: “an Apostle is not an administrative officer. When they ministered they did it as elders.” A recent interpreter observed, “these apostles had received their callings charismatically [through vision] rather than institutionally [through ordination to office].”49

This 1829 revelation commanded Cowdery and Whitmer to “search out the Twelve” who “shall be my disciples” (D&C 18:27, 37; also BofC, 37). Official LDS histories cite this revelation as the basis for the Three Witnesses ordaining a Quorum of Twelve Apostles in 1835. These histories do not explain why the Three Witnesses would delay fulfilling God’s command for six years.50 Similarly LDS histories do not explain why there were newspaper references from 1829 to 1831 to twelve apostles in Mormonism. In September 1829 a Palmyra newspaper noted: “The number of the Gold Bible apostles is said to be complete.”51 In November 1830 the Cleveland Herald said that the Mormon church had “sent out twelve Apostles to promulgate its doctrines.”52 A Mormon source confirmed this a year later. Ezra Booth, one of the first high priests, wrote that Ziba Peterson, “one of the twelve Apostles,” was “deprived of his Elder and Apostleship.”53 Eight days before the church’s organization, evangelical preacher David Marks met the Whitmer witnesses to the Book of Mormon who “further stated, that twelve apostles were to be appointed, who would soon confirm their mission by miracles.”54

At the church’s first conference of 9 June 1830 the organization had only twelve officers. Smith and Cowdery were the first and second elders. David Whitmer, John Whitmer, Peter Whit-mer, Ziba Peterson, and Samuel H. Smith were also elders. Martin Harris, Hyrum Smith, and Joseph Sr. were priests. Hiram Page and Christian Whitmer were teachers. The seven elders of June 1830 may have seen themselves as a restoration of “the seven” prominent deacons in the early apostolic church. In any event deacons were not actually ordained in the new church until 1831, and the office of deacon was retroactively added to the revelation of April 1830.55

The June 1830 conference gave each of these twelve officers a written license. John Whitmer’s license reads: “Given to John Whitmer signifying & proveing [sic] that he is an Apostle of Jesus Christ an Elder of this Church.” This document was signed by Cowdery and Smith, each as “an Apostle of Jesus Christ.” In 1831 Sidney Rigdon wrote that John Whitmer is “an apostle of this church.”56

Thus of the seven elders at the church’s first conference, at least five were specifically called apostles during the 1829-to-1831 period: Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, John Whitmer, and Ziba Peterson. In view of a revelatory statement that “an apostle is an elder” (BofC, 51; D&C 20:38), it seems clear that the remaining elders of this first conference, Peter Whitmer and Samuel H. Smith, were also designated as apostles in their elder’s licenses.

This explanation leaves unanswered the question of whether the five non-elders at the conference were also apostles. The licenses of Joseph Sr., a priest, and Christian Whitmer, a teacher, did not give them the title “Apostle.”57 However, Smith’s statement to the “School of the Prophets” three years later explained that the title “apostle” applied to those who had received a vision.58 Charismatic or visionary experience is what distinguished the church’s twelve officers at the June 1830 conference, and that is why early Mormons regarded these twelve as apostles. In addition to three special witnesses, Smith showed eight other men the gold plates, but they did not see an angel or hear the voice of God.59 John Whitmer, called an apostle in 1830, was one of the Eight Witnesses.

Although existing records do not specify who selected the Eight Witnesses in June 1829, their selection came within days of the revelation to Cowdery and Whitmer to seek out “twelve disciples.” Cowdery, Whitmer, and Harris were already called by revelation to be three special witnesses, and, with Smith, they announced that “twelve chosen witnesses, had been allowed to see the gold plates.”60

For unknown reasons the first church conference substituted Ziba Peterson for the twelfth witness, Jacob Whitmer. Peterson’s charismatic qualification is unknown but can be inferred by his designation with the other eleven. Early church members such as Ezra Booth understood that the twelve officers at the first conference were apostles, even Peterson. This conclusion is consistent with John Whitmer’s license and Rigdon’s statement.

By the end of 1830 the designation of apostle (without ordination) also included an evangelical call to missionary service. This expanding application only emphasizes the lack of concrete designations in church thinking about authority. In December 1830 two of these original twelve apostles of Mormonism referred to Orson Pratt as “another servant and apostle.” Pratt explained in 1847 that “17 yrs ago [1830] in Fa[the]r. Whitmer’s Chamber bro Jos[ep]h. got a rev[elatio]n. through the Urim & Thummim [seer stone] that I sho[ul]d. be one of the 12.” The revelation to Pratt in November 1830 simply said, “you are called of me to preach my gospel.”61 Pratt’s 1830 apostleship had nothing to do with visionary witness, because throughout his life Orson grieved that he had never had a vision.62

Mormon missionaries were called “apostles” as late as the end of 1832. In September 1831 Jared Carter’s diary recorded that he “received the authority of an apostle” to go on a proselytizing mission.63 At the end of a three-day conference in October 1831, Cowdery said that “the directions which himself & his br. David Whitmer had received this morning respecting the choice of the twelve was that they would be ordained & sent forth from the land of Zion.” Historians have not recognized this as the calling of regular missionaries and viewed this 1831 instruction as a curious reference to a quorum which was not organized until more than three years later.64

The index to the Kirtland Revelation Book stated that a two-day revelation to Smith and six elders and to “Eleven high Priests save one” on 22-23 September 1832 was for “commissioning the Apostles to preach th[e] gospel.” The text of the revelation told these missionaries “you are mine apostles, even God’s high priests” and instructed them to “go ye into all the world” and preach.65 These evangelical apostles, like the charismatic ones, were not ordained by the laying on of hands.

In 1831 Mormonism had already begun its westward movement along two fronts. Smith and others from New York and New England relocated to Kirtland (near Cleveland), Ohio, where he established church headquarters. In five years a two-storied temple would crown Kirtland’s heights. At the same time he directed the resettlement of other Mormons to Missouri, first at Jackson County and then to the counties of Clay, Clinton, Ray, Carroll, Caldwell, and Daviess. Independence, Missouri, was to become the millennial City of Zion with a magnificent temple complex. However, plans for establishing the Mormon “inheritance of Zion” went into indefinite suspension in 1833 when vigilantes and civil authorities expelled Mormons from Jackson County.66

Charismatic apostleship (without ordination) reemerged prominently in 1833. Smith’s description of twenty-four temples to comprise the temple complex of Zion in Independence, Missouri, included three temples designated for “the Sacred Apostolic repository.”67 A clue to what Smith meant is in a revelation that same June 1833 concerning the temple at Kirtland: “And let the higher part of the inner court be dedicated unto me for the school of mine apostles, saith Son Ahman” (D&C 95:17).68

The previous March members of the Kirtland School of the Prophets had experienced a vision which qualified them as apostles. Zebedee Coltrin later testified that during a meeting of this adult-education school, he and others saw two separate personages “surrounded as with a flame of fire.” Smith then told Kirtland’s School of the Prophets, “Brethren[,] now you are prepared to be the apostles of Jesus Christ, for you have seen both the Father and the Son.”69 The revelation of June 1833 confirmed their designation, though not by ordination.

Not until 1835 did the calling of apostle become an ordained office in Mormonism. Then the Three Witnesses once again fulfilled the 1829 revelation to select “twelve disciples”—but within a transformed context. In 1835 Mormon apostleship became an office attained by ordination as with Matthias of the New Testament. This “quorum” of twelve did not include any of the Book of Mormon witnesses. Nor did it include Coltrin and other charismatic apostles from the 1833 School of the Prophets.

The Restoration of Priesthood

The lack of structure in priesthood offices—which later would become signs of privileged authority—existed because early Mormons regarded priesthood itself in a much different way. Participants at the church’s organization had a unitary sense of authority rather than a belief in dual priesthoods of different ranks. According to current tradition, both the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods functioned in the church after the spring of 1829 when Smith and Cowdery were visited first by John the Baptist, who restored the lesser or Aaronic priesthood, and then by Peter, James, and John, who restored the higher or Melchizedek priesthood. A closer look at contemporary records indicates that men were first ordained to the higher priesthood over a year after the church’s founding. No mention of angelic ordinations can be found in original documents until 1834-35. Thereafter accounts of the visit of Peter, James, and John by Cowdery and Smith remained vague and contradictory.

The distance between traditional accounts of LDS priesthood beginnings and the differing story of early documents points to retrospective changes made in the public record to create a story of logical and progressive development. For example, as now published in D&C 68:15 a revelation of November 1831 referred to “the Melchizedek Priesthood.” However, the original text of the 1831 revelation did not contain that priesthood phrase which was a retroactive addition in 1835.70

The first evidence of angelic restoration in public discussion comes from Cowdery in 1834.71 Cowdery confirms the idea of one priesthood at the church’s organization and indirectly suggests that Smith and he had not yet encountered Peter, James, and John or the “higher” priesthood in April 1830. Cowdery’s October 1834 history first describes a visitation of John the Baptist to Smith and himself in 1829: “and we received under his hands the Holy Priesthood.” Then he quotes the angel’s words: “Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah, I confer this Priesthood and this authority, which remain upon earth, that the sons of Levi may yet offer an offering unto the Lord in righteousness.”72 This was the first time Mormons learned that a heavenly conferral of authority occurred before the church’s organization.

Cowdery’s words indicate a restoration of only one priesthood.73 The version of this priesthood restoration prayer familiar to Mormons today was first published in 1842 (now D&C 13). An examination of the published prayer shows that Cowdery’s 1834 prayer-text was its source and that an entire central portion was retroactively added.74 This addition delimited the role of authority restored by John the Baptist and made the 1829 event appear to be a prelude to the later division of church authority into the lesser and the greater priesthoods. By later definitions only the Melchizedek priesthood was “the Holy Priesthood” (D&C 84:25-27).75

Accounts of a second priesthood restoration began appearing the year after Cowdery’s 1834 history. In August 1835 the church published the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, which added passages to some previously published revelations. One dated August 1830 (now sec. 27) added a reference concerning the 1829 visit of John the Baptist as ordaining “you unto the first Priesthood which you have received…even as Aaron.” The revelation continues: “And also with Peter, 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 to them” (D&C 27:8, 12). These phrases about John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John had not appeared when the revelation was first published in 1832 in The Evening and the Morning Star or in the 1833 Book of Commandments (BofC, 60). A recent study has demonstrated that the center portion on priesthood (now D&C 27:6-13) is also missing from the revelation’s only manuscript. The added text cannot be found in any document before 1835, nor can any similar wording or concept be found prior to 1834.76

The reference to “keys” is an important addition to this revelation since the concept of “keys” is now central to the Mormon theology of authority. As defined in the LDS church’s Encyclopedia of Mormonism, “The keys of the priesthood refer to the right to exercise power in the name of Jesus Christ or to preside over a priesthood function, quorum, or organizational division of the Church.”77 The doctrine of “the keys of the priesthood” (and the related “keys of the kingdom”) became central to the question of presidential succession.

Cowdery was also writing about two angelic ministrations by late 1835. When introducing the church’s first book of recorded patriarchal blessings on 28 September 1835, he referred to both angelic ministrations. He referred to the appearance of the first angel who “bestowed upon us this priesthood, 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, or in an other place.” Four days later in the same book, Cowdery recorded Smith’s blessing to him which said that the two had been ordained “by the hand of the angel in the bush, unto the lesser priesthood and after received the holy priesthood under the hands of they who had been held in reserve for a long season, even those who received it under the hand of the Messiah.”78

Cowdery’s 1835 document claimed this was a blessing Smith gave him on 18 December 1833, but the blessing was received almost two years later on 22 September 1835, which John Whitmer’s history verifies.79 In December 1833 the prophet had recorded on Cowdery’s behalf a prayer-blessing which warned him of “two evils in him that he must needs forsake.”80 No contemporary details are available, but Brigham Young and others later described Cowdery’s “evils”: In 1833 newly married Cowdery had either committed adultery or entered into an unauthorized plural marriage which Smith defined as adulterous.81 Cowdery’s substitution of the 1835 blessing for the 1833 document had two benefits. It omitted the earlier document’s allusion to his misconduct and retroactively provided a pre-1835 reference to Peter, James, and John. This was consistent with the reference to three angels Smith and Cowdery had already added to an 1830 revelation in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants.82

One significant problem created by such changes has been the difficulty in dating the visit of Peter, James, and John. Official histories have varied from caution to assertion about the date. Assistant church historian B. H. Roberts concluded that the ordination “doubtless occurred some time between May 15, 1829, and the expiration of the month of June of that same year.” Church historian Joseph Fielding Smith announced that “it was only a few days after the first ordination.”83 The LDS church’s encyclopedia reflects Roberts’s less dogmatic conclusion: “The documents available and the date of the formal organization of the Church give support to a time of restoration before April 6, 1830. Many students have concluded that late May or early June 1829 is the most probable time frame.”84 Despite acknowledging the evidence for a much later date, one historian also asserts: “A positive[,] circumstantial case can be made that Peter, James, and John must have appeared in late May or early June 1829…”85 Aware of the historical problems in giving an 1829 dating to the visit of Peter, James, and John, a semi-official LDS history by two professional historians states: “The date of their appearance is uncertain, but, as indicated in a subsequent revelation to Joseph Smith, sometime later they ordained and confirmed Joseph and Oliver…”86

Unsatisfied with such imprecision, one Mormon writer evidently invented a day and duration for the second angelic restoration of authority. Without offering any evidence, he asserted, “[I]t was early on Tuesday morning, the 2nd of June 1829, that three ancient Apostles, now resurrected, came to Smith and Cowdery and restored the Melchizedek Priesthood back to the earth.” He added that the experience involved “many hours of instructions.”87 In fact when retroactive changes are eliminated from original documents, evidence shows that the second angelic restoration of apostolic authority could not have occurred before the church’s organization on 6 April 1830.

Cowdery and Smith said nothing about these two angelic restorations for years. When Cowdery referred to baptism in his 1829 “A commandment from God” (or “Articles of the Church”), he wrote that this authority was “given me of Jesus Christ” but mentioned no ministration by John the Baptist.88 Smith’s official history of these early years, written beginning in 1838, offers an explanation for this secrecy: “In the meantime 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 been manifested in the neighborhood.”89

As early as the fall of 1830 some non-Mormons said that Smith and Cowdery claimed to have seen God and angels and to have received divine authority. The Painesville Telegraph reported in November 1830 that Cowdery “pretends to have a divine mission, and to have seen and conversed with Angels,” perhaps referring to the published testimony of Cowdery and the other Three Witnesses in the Book of Mormon. The following month this Ohio newspaper linked “authority” with Cowdery’s visions, although no angels are mentioned:

Mr. Oliver Cowd[e]ry has his commission directly from the God of heaven, and that he has his credentials, written and signed by the hand of Jesus Christ, with whom he has personally conversed, and as such, said Cowd[e]ry claims that he and his associates are the only persons on earth who are qualified to administer in his name. By this authority, they proclaim to the world, that all who do not believe their testimony, and be baptised by them for the remission of their sins …must be forever miserable.90

In New York the Palmyra Reflector stated in February 1831 that Mormon missionaries were preaching that “Joseph Smith had now received a commission from God” and that “Smith (they affirmed) had seen God frequently and personaly—Cowdery and his friends had frequent interviews with angels.”91 Newspaper accounts seem consistent in quoting Mormon sources that Smith and Cowdery had seen angels but had obtained “authority” directly from God, not through angelic ministration.

Smith’s own mother made no reference to angelic restoration of authority in an 1831 letter she wrote to her brother about the new church.92 If she knew about it, Lucy Mack Smith chose not to mention it in her defense of the new church. Although appointed apostle in 1829, David Whitmer was later told of ordinations, which he had not heard of before. He insisted that “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.” Whitmer continued: “Oliver stated to me in Josephs presence that they had baptized each other[—]seeking by that to fulfill the command. And after our arrival at fathers sometime in June 1829, Joseph ordained Oliver to be an Elder, and Oliver ordained Joseph to be an Elder in the Church of Christ.” Whitmer repeated that he did not learn of angel ordination until 1834 or later and concluded: “I do not believe that John the Baptist ever ordained Joseph and Oliver as stated and believed by some.”93 It is irrelevant that Whitmer disbelieved someone else’s metaphysical experience, but his lack of knowledge until 1834 of the angelic restoration is significant.

William E. McLellin made a similar statement. “In 1831 I heard Joseph tell his experience about angel visits many times, and about finding the plates, and their contents coming to light,” he wrote. “But I never heard one word of John the baptist, or of Peter, James, and John’s visit and ordination till I was told some year or two afterward in Ohio.”94 In August 1832 McLellin had written a long letter explaining and defending Mormonism to his family. McLellin’s 1832 letter referred to the angel Moroni but showed no knowledge of other angelic ministrations.95

It is especially puzzling that as late as 1833 Joseph Knight had no knowledge of priesthood restoration. Knight had been a confidant and ally of Smith since the early 1820s. About 1833 Knight wrote a history of important events of Mormonism up to that year. Knight’s history made no reference to either John the Baptist or to Peter, James, and John. This omission is significant because Knight was eager to discuss angelic ministrations. His history is the only Mormon source for details of the angel Moroni’s annual visits with Smith from 1823 to 1827.96 Smith himself delivered a public sermon in February 1833 in which he claimed to have seen Jesus Christ’s ancient apostles without mentioning a commission of authority from them, even though he also said he could perform miracles, like the ancient apostles.97 Nor was there any reference to visitations from John the Baptist and three apostles in the church’s first official compilation of revelations, the 1833 Book of Commandments.

Mass ignorance does not prove that an event never occurred, but the silence about angelic restorations does show something significant about early Mormons. A Catholic historian noted that Mormonism’s claims to authority had tremendous appeal to early converts.98 That is certainly reflected in the newspaper report of December 1830 that Oliver Cowdery claimed “he and his associates are the only persons on earth who are qualified to administer in his [God’s] name.”99 Since the 1840s every explanation of the church’s claim to authority has included some mention of the angelic restorations by John the Baptist and by Peter, James, and John.100 Early converts heard no such claims, and therefore emphasized authority based on “charismatic or spiritual power, not on priesthood ordination.”101

This public silence by Smith and Cowdery about angelic visits is only part of the problem. Cowdery rarely identified the angelic ministers for the second priesthood restoration and never gave a time or place for the event. His 1834 published history made no reference to an angelic visitation after John the Baptist’s ministration.102 His manuscript history of 1835 dated John the Baptist’s visit precisely as “Friday the 15th day of May, 1829,” then referred to the second priesthood restoration only as: “After this we received the high and holy priesthood” from “others…those who received it under the hand of the Messiah.”103

In 1846 Cowdery for the first time named an angel involved in the second priesthood restoration. He wrote that he “stood in the presence of John, with our departed Joseph, to receive the Lesser Priesthood—and in the presence of Peter, to receive the Greater.” In a public talk two years later he said that “the higher or Melchizedek Priesthood was conferred by the holy angel[s] from on high.” Cowdery’s only other description was a signed statement in 1849 finally identifying all the ministers of the second restoration: “Peter, James and John, holding the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood have also ministered.” Even this said nothing else about the restoration.104

Smith’s 1832 history mentioned only “the reception of the holy Priesthood by the ministring of Angels [sic],”105 which was much more general than Cowdery’s 1834 reference to a specific visit from John the Baptist. Smith may have intended this 1832 reference to mean deity rather than John the Baptist or Peter, James, and John. For example, Smith once described his first vision of God the Father and Jesus as “the first visitation of Angels which was when I was about 14. years old.”106

In any case Smith never published or circulated his 1832 history and first spoke to others in February 1834 about having previously received an angelic conferral of authority. At the organization of the Kirtland high council, he said: “I shall now endeavour to set forth before this council, the dignity of the office which has been conferred upon me by the ministring [sic] of the Angel of God, by his own will and by the voice of this Church.”107 Significantly, Smith still mentioned only one angel as the agent of restoration. At that time he gave early Mormons no reason to look beyond the angel Moroni for that unnamed angel’s identity. Eight months later Cowdery announced that it was actually John the Baptist.

There is no record of Smith giving further details about angelic restorations until he began his expanded historical narrative in 1838. Then he announced that he prepared this official history to “put all inquirers after truth in possession of the facts, as they have transpired, in relation both to myself and the Church, so far as I have such facts in my possession.”108 In this document Smith identified John the Baptist as appearing on 15 May 1829 but only vaguely added that this angel “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.”109 It seems extraordinary that in his official history Smith would say that a crucial event was to occur “in due time” and then drop the subject completely.

Subsequent church histories have lamented this lack of dating for the “High Priesthood” restoration, but they ignore the inevitable question. Why did Smith and Cowdery repeatedly avoid saying that Peter, James, and John restored this priesthood in 1829? Such vagueness is more than accidental in Smith’s history which gave at least season, month, and year for the first vision, Moroni, John the Baptist, and Three Witnesses experiences with angels and deity. For those who regard these claims of Smith and Cowdery as fraudulent or delusional, this vagueness is equally puzzling. Why would the two men refrain from simply inventing a date for an experience only they could confirm? Perhaps they were vague to avoid being dishonest. There is no evidence that a restoration of what was later called the Melchizedek priesthood happened in June 1829. But historical evidence indicates that the second priesthood restoration occurred more than a year later than assumed in traditional Mormon histories.

Smith’s official history, which he began publishing in 1842, describes a series of angelic ministrations. First, he mentions the angel Moroni and then the voice of God speaking to the Three Witnesses as they saw Moroni and the gold plates. Next, he describes the “voice of Michael on the banks of the Susquehanna, detecting the devil when he appeared as an angel of light.” And finally he mentions, “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.”110

Smith seems to be listing these angelic ministrations chronologically. According to accounts, the visit of Moroni occurred in September 1823, the experience of the Three Witnesses in June 1829. The references to “the devil,” Harmony, and especially to Colesville provide crucial pieces of evidence about a chronological sequence: the appearance of the angel Michael in June 1830 and the visit of Peter, James, and John in July 1830.

Newel Knight is indirectly linked to both 1830 visitations. Knight and his father Joseph lived in Colesville, Broome County, one of the three branches in New York state in mid-1830. During a meeting at Joseph Knight’s home, Newel Knight experienced a seizure while attempting to pray. He asked Smith to “cast the Devil out of him,” which the prophet did as “the first miracle wrought in this Church.” Smith’s manuscript history originally dated this first miracle as occurring after the 9 June 1830 conference. At the end of June, New York authorities arrested Smith for performing this exorcism.111

Smith dictated a revelation dated June 1830. Not surprisingly given the dramatic occurrence in Colesville, the subject of this revelation is Satan, but the revelation never speaks of the Knight exorcism or the Colesville area. Rather the revelation describes Satan appearing to Moses and pretending to be Jesus Christ.112 The “vision of Moses” parallels the one Smith describes in his 1842 history of “the voice of Michael on the banks of the Susquehanna, detecting the devil when he appeared as an angel of light.” And the geography of the 1842 history matches that of the area in which the Knight exorcism occurred—the Susquehanna River runs through Colesville. These parallels suggest that Smith’s experience with the angel Michael and the devil occurred in June while he was in the Colesville area. The prophet’s two recent experiences with Satanic visitations provide the general context for the June 1830 revelation of the “vision of Moses.”

Smith returned to Colesville in late June. Church documents vaguely date this after the 9 June 1830 conference, but judicial records show that this second visit occurred the last week of June 1830. The official history, court documents, and a later account by John Reid, a lawyer from Colesville, describe the events and duration of Smith’s stay. He held a conference in Colesville on Sunday, 27 June 1830, and baptized converts the next morning. He was arrested the following Monday evening before he could confirm converts as members of the new church. That night the constable took him to South Bainbridge, Chenango County.

Joseph Chamberlain, justice of the peace, began Smith’s trial about 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 29 June, in South Bainbridge. Smith’s narrative does not indicate how long his trial lasted but says “the court was detained for a time” in order to obtain two young women as witnesses. His lawyer indicated that the case took “two days, and nearly the whole of two nights” before Chamberlain acquitted Smith of disorderly conduct “about 12 o’clock at night.” This would be midnight on 30 June. Chamberlain made out his bill for the case shortly thereafter, the morning of Thursday, 1 July.113

However, by the early morning hours of 1 July Smith had already been rearrested on a separate charge of disorderly conduct. This time his trial occurred back in Broome County. Reid did not want to defend this second court case “as I was nearly worn down through fatigue and want of sleep, as I had been engaged in lawsuits for two days and nearly the whole of two nights.” Despite his fatigue, Reid began his third continuous day in Smith’s defense in Colesville at 10 a.m. on Thursday.114

The second trial continued throughout the day and all night until the court of three justices acquitted him about 5:00 in the morning on Friday, 2 July. With the assistance of the constable, Smith’s lawyer helped him escape local citizens who were angry with this second acquittal. Then the prophet met his wife at her sister’s house later that morning. He returned with his wife Emma to their house in Harmony, Pennsylvania, “the next day,” Saturday, 3 July. Cowdery went on this trip to Colesville but did not accompany Joseph and Emma Smith during their return to Harmony on 3 July.115

“After a few days” Smith and Cowdery traveled together to Colesville to confirm new converts. This was in obedience to two revelations dated only “July 1830.” The first told Smith “thou hast been delivered from all thine enemies,” which referred to the two recent acquittals and his escape from Colesville mobs. Then he was to “go speedily unto the church which is in Colesville, Fayette, and Manchester.” The second revelation narrowed that command “to confirming the church at Colesville.”116 Smith and Cowdery probably timed their arrival in Colesville near nightfall of Monday, 5 July. This was exactly one week after Smith’s first arrest.

Despite their precautions, “We had scarcely arrived at Mr. Knight’s, when the mob was seen collecting together to oppose us, and we considered it wisdom to leave for home, which we did, without even waiting for any refreshments.” With the mob in pursuit, “we managed to get home, after having traveled all night, except a short time, during which we were forced to rest ourselves under a large tree by a wayside, sleeping and watching alternately.”117

Thus Smith’s history shows that in early July 1830, probably the night of 5-6 July, he and Cowdery made an arduous nighttime escape. After traveling all night they arrived in Harmony after daybreak. The Colesville-to-Harmony trajectory for this flight corresponds with Smith’s statement about the Melchizedek priesthood restoration being on the banks of the Susquehanna River between Colesville and Harmony. The circumstances also match those Erastus Snow, an 1833 convert and apostle after 1849, described as surrounding the visit of Peter, James, and John. According to Snow, Smith and Cowdery “were being pursued by their enemies and they had to travel all night.” Peter, James, and John appeared to them “in the dawn of the coming day when they were weary and worn.”118 This would have been the morning of 6 July 1830, exactly three months after the church’s organization.

In addition to the above circumstantial evidence for the visitation, added testimony seems to confirm the July 1830 date. In 1844 Addison Everett overheard a discussion between Joseph and Hyrum Smith about the ministration of Peter, James, and John following a trial at Colesville. Thirty-eight years old at the time of the conversation, Everett later described it in letters of 1881 and 1882. The first appears in a diary known to Mormon scholars through various publications of the letter:

Joseph & Oliver went to the woods in a few rods, it being night, and they traveled until Oliver was exhausted & Joseph almost Carried him through mud and water. They traveled all night and just at the break of day Olive[r] gave out entirely and exclaimed “O! Lord! How long Brother Joseph have we got to endure this thing.”

Brother Joseph said that at that very time Peter[,] James & John came to them and ordained them to the Apostleship.119

The 1882 letter added that Smith made these statements to five or six men at the Mansion House in June 1844 and that he said this angelic appearance occurred on the banks of the Susquehanna River. Everett assumed this appearance occurred at the time of the 1829 translation of the Book of Mormon. But both letters gave a detail which contradicted his assumption, by noting that “Mr. Reid” was Smith’s attorney at the time of this angelic restoration. John S. Reid was Smith’s attorney at the trials which judicial records show ended on Thursday, 1 July 1830.120 Church historian Franklin D. Richards also affirmed this account in 1897 when he told the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles that Smith received the Melchizedek priesthood from Peter, James, and John about the time of his June-July 1830 trials.121

Richard L. Bushman was the first Mormon historian to acknowledge these accounts suggesting a July 1830 date for the visitation of Peter, James, and John. Bushman’s 1984 biography of Smith concludes that the second priesthood restoration occurred in the summer of 1830. He observes that a July 1830 appearance of Peter, James, and John is further supported by the first reference to their visit in the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 27:12-13). In 1835 Smith chose to make this retroactive addition to the text of the revelation immediately following the revelation instructing him to travel to Colesville in July 1830.122 Bushman did not discuss the significance of the date.

Due to the availability of the above evidence, why have previous Mormon historians tended to avoid the evidence and evade the implications for LDS definitions of priesthood? The reasons for this lapse are not difficult to surmise: They have been unwilling to challenge official history or to admit that Smith organized the LDS church in April 1830 without the Melchizedek priesthood.123 Yet Smith implied as much when he described to a conference in April 1834 a chronology of significant events in church history: “The President 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 1830, the revelation of the High Priesthood, and the gift of the Holy Ghost poured out upon the Church.”124 LDS church president Brigham Young later affirmed this directly. He stated publicly that Smith “organized the Church, for the Lord had revealed to him, the Aaronic priesthood upon which the Church was organized.” Young added that Smith “received the Melchisedic [sic] priesthood” after the church’s organization.125

As an 1832 convert Young believed that the Melchizedek priesthood was restored as long as two years after the organization of the church. He told the Salt Lake high council that Smith “was taken in the spirit to the 3d heavens & all this with the aronic [sic] priesthood, until God ordained him an Apostle.” Smith’s vision of the “three degrees of glory” occurred in February 1832 (D&C 76). Young later told a congregation that “Peter, James, and John came to him [Joseph Smith] in Kirtland.” Smith did not move to Kirtland, Ohio, until February 1831.126 Young’s variant dates underscore how little was known about the event when he joined the church in April 1832.

Two Priesthoods

Focusing on changes connected with the office of “elder” provides a useful way to reconsider priesthood development. The Mormon development of this office actually straddles the distinction between “higher” and “lesser” priesthoods and as a result provides a key for tracing concepts of authority and priesthood between 1829 and 1835.

The traditional account of church origins, which assumes that Smith encountered Peter, James, and John sometime in 1829, also claims that at the church’s organization in April 1830 those ordained “elders” were ordained on that date and received the Melchizedek priesthood.127 A closer look at the evidence demonstrates that they were in fact re-ordained and that no concept of higher priesthood existed. The office of elder was at first associated with what would come to be known as the lesser (or Aaronic) priesthood.128

Lesser or Aaronic Priesthood

Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery ordained the first elders in mid-1829, shortly after the date they later claimed for the visit of John the Baptist. David Whitmer wrote, “In this month [June 1829] I was [also] baptized, confirmed, and ordained an Elder in the Church of Christ by Bro. Joseph. Previous to this, Joseph and Oliver had baptized, confirmed and ordained each other to the office of an Elder in the Church of Christ.” According to Whitmer, Smith then began ordaining additional elders, priests, and teachers: “We preached, baptized and confirmed members into the Church of Christ, from August, 1829, until April 6th, 1830, being eight months in which time we had proceeded rightly: the offices in the church being Elders, Priests and Teachers.”

Cowdery’s “A commandment from God” (or “Articles of the Church”) verifies that elders existed in 1829.129 There were seven elders among the twelve officers at the church’s founding in April 1830. As David Whitmer noted, the only new ordinance on 6 April 1830 occurred when Cowdery ordained Smith “Prophet, Seer and Revelator.”130 The rest were re-ordinations. In 1829-30 this new “Church of Christ” reflected the Old Testament model of teachers, priests, elders, seers, and prophets, rather than the offices and callings of the New Testament.131

In contemporary LDS practice, elder is an office of the higher (or Melchizedek) priesthood and teacher and priest of the lesser (or Aaronic) priesthood. However, with the exception of Smith as “first elder” and Cowdery as “second elder,” these three priesthood offices in early Mormonism had different functions but no discernible difference in status.132 For example, at the June 1830 conference the Book of Mormon witnesses divided up among the three offices without any reference to age or status. The two oldest men, Joseph Sr. and Martin Harris, were priests. The two teachers, Hiram Page and Christian Whitmer, were older than all the elders with the possible exception of Ziba Peterson, whose birth date is unknown. Smith’s devoted older brother Hyrum was a priest, and his equally devoted younger brother Samuel was an elder. Thus in June 1830 the church’s seven elders included two of the Three Witnesses, three of the Eight Witnesses, and one regular church member.

As late as February 1831, a revelation specified that there were only three ordained church offices: “elders, priests, and teachers” (BofC, 91; D&C 42:12).133 That month Joseph Smith ordained a man to the new office of “bishop,” and provided for the office of “deacon” in April 1831.134

This aversion to ranking in priesthood office continued through the conference a full year later. Martin Harris was still a priest, and two of the Eight Witnesses to the Book of Mormon were teachers even though thirty-eight Mormons of far lesser distinction held the office of elder. Even the 1831 list of offices (elder, priest, and teacher) seems simply to indicate their alphabetical order, not ranking of importance.135 It is within this non-hierarchical context that the statement in the April 1830 revelation on church organization that “an apostle is an elder” may best be understood (BofC, 51; D&C 20:38).136

The concept of higher or lower office did not exist until 1831. Thereafter Elder, priest, and teacher became offices of descending authority. At a June 1831 conference Smith announced there was a “high priesthood,” which for the first time implicitly gave all previous church authority and ordination lesser stature.137 Smith gave no administrative definitions of “high priesthood” but said “that the order of the High priesthood [sic] is that they have power given them to seal up the Saints unto eternal life.”138

Of the twelve original officers (“apostles”) at the church’s first conference in 1830, nine (six elders, one priest, and two teachers) attended this June 1831 conference. Also present were thirty-eight others who had previously been ordained elders. Smith first conferred the “high priesthood” on Lyman Wight. The twenty-five-year-old church founder was then “ordained to the High Priesthood under the hand of br. Lyman Wight.”139 The 1835 revelation on Melchizedek priesthood hints that Smith may have been mirroring his antediluvian namesake Enoch, who “was twenty-five years old when he was ordained under the hand of Adam” (D&C 107:48).140

A recent interpreter has noted that previously ordained elders received the “high priesthood” at the June 1831 conference but not the office of high priest. He suggests that the official history retroactively assigned the later office to 1831.141 In that respect, it is true that until April 1832 the original minutes continued to list men as “elders” despite their ordination to the “high priesthood.”142

However, since 1829 Mormon theology has affirmed that the office of high priest was not restricted to one man (as in ancient Judaism) or to Jesus Christ alone (as in traditional Christianity). The Book of Mormon tells that many men were high priests at the same time, and its only references to “High Priesthood” are descriptions of the office (Mosiah 11:11; Alma 13:9-10, 46:6, 38; Hel. 3:25; 3 Ne. 6:21, 27).143 Book of Mormon scribe Oliver Cowdery, who recorded the minutes about the “high priesthood” in 1831, did not use the terms “high priest” or “office of high priest” because he was following the Book of Mormon’s equation of “high priesthood” with the office of high priest. In fact, everyone in 1831 would have understood that. Sidney Rigdon even spoke “to those who were ordained to the High priesthood [sic] last evening… [about] their indifference to be ordained to that office…setting forth the power of that office.144 The June 1831 conferral of “high priesthood” clearly included ordination to the office of high priest.

Until the revelation dated September 1832 (but not published until 1835 [D&C 84]), Joseph Smith and others saw the higher priesthood as encompassing one office exclusively. The lesser priesthood applied to the offices of deacon, teacher, priest, elder, and bishop. The 1832 revelation for the first time specified that “elder and bishop are necessary appendages belonging unto the high priesthood.” Further it associated higher priesthood in a general way with Melchizedek and lesser priesthood with Aaron, but the actual terms “Melchizedek Priesthood” and “Aaronic Priesthood” first appeared in an 1835 revelation (now sec. 107). This revelation also stated explicitly for the first time that “the office of Elder comes under the Priesthood of Melchizedek” (v. 7). Finally until 1835 the apostleship was an unordained calling. More than forty years later Brigham Young said: “The Twelve Apostles had been ordained, and every one of them happened to be high priests excepting Brother Heber C. Kimball and myself; we were elders.” Then Young returned to the old usage by saying that he and Kimball “had never been ordained to the high priesthood.”145

Other evidence confirms that in 1831 Mormons regarded the office of elder separately from “high priesthood.” Lyman Wight, who had been an elder, later recalled that in June 1831 “I was ordained by the hand of Joseph to the Melchisedic [sic] Priesthood.” Others there that day said the same.146 In 1857 LDS apostle Franklin D. Richards published a church chronology which included the following entry for 1831: “June 6; The Melchisedek [sic] Priesthood was first given.”147 The founding prophet’s brother wrote of this 1831 conference: “Elders, Priests, Teachers and Deacons received some general instructions from the Church concerning the Priesthood of Melchizedek, to which they had not as yet been ordained for they had not attained to all the power of their ministry.”148 Old Testament elders had only Aaronic priesthood by later Mormon definitions. The early Mormon office of elder was a pre-Melchizedek priesthood office.

High or Melchizedek Priesthood

By 1835 Smith and Cowdery had good reason to be vague about the introduction of Melchizedek priesthood. Doctrinal statements published from 1835 on could not comfortably be retrofitted to the unaltered documents of the 1830 church. The 1835 Doctrine and Covenants not only added the passage referring to John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John, it also published the 1832 revelation which asserted that the higher priesthood “continueth in the church of God in all generations” (D&C 84:17, compare to BofC).149 This revelation, which was extraordinarily important as the first detailed explanation of priesthood, did not appear in the 1833 Book of Commandments.150 Although it clarified issues, it also made it awkward to explain that Smith organized the church in April 1830 without Melchizedek priesthood.

Smith’s 1838-39 history, published in 1842, retroactively introduced the Melchizedek priesthood concept and obscured the date when he and Cowdery were first ordained. However, this history at the same time confirmed that Smith ordained elders without higher priesthood. “We now became anxious to have that promise realized to us, which the angel that conferred upon us the Aaronic Priesthood had given us, viz., that provided we continued faithful, we should also have the Melchizedek Priesthood,” his official history began for June 1829.

“To our unspeakable satisfaction,” Smith’s history continued, “did we realize the truth of the Savior’s promise.” The official history did not refer next to an appearance of Peter, James, and John to confer that authority as modern Mormons would expect. Rather his history said that God simply commanded Smith to begin ordaining men to the office of elder. “We 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 to be an Elder in the Church of Jesus Christ: and that he should also ordain me to the same office: and then to ordain others, as it should be made known to us from time to time.”

The prophet’s account explained that they were told to “defer this our ordination until such times it should be practicable to have our brethren, who had been and who should be baptized, assembled together, when we must have their sanction to our thus proceeding to ordain each other…when also we were commanded to bless bread and break it with them, and to take wine, bless it, and drink it with them.” The history then continued that on 6 April 1830, “according to previous commandment,” he and Cowdery ordained each other elders. This leaves the impression that the ordinations occurred at the same time as the organization of the church. As we have seen, these were actually reordinations.151

Years later Smith’s history for the June 1831 conference lapsed into the earlier view of the elder’s office as part of the lesser priesthood. According to Smith, “the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood was manifested and conferred for the first time upon several of the elders.”152 This required Assistant Church Historian B. H. Roberts later to write a footnote denying the text: “The Prophet does not mean that the Melchizedek Priesthood was given for the first time in the Church” in June 1831.153 Of course this is precisely what Smith and others in attendance said happened.

A harmonization of discrepancies would have been easier for Mormons in the late 1830s than for those of the 1990s who have been taught to see Mormon history as seamless. Rather than having two priesthood orders, early Mormonism fulfilled religious seekers who sought two different religious authorities: a divine calling and a conferred authority.154 By combining present perspective and unaltered original documents, we can understand that from April to July 1830 the LDS church had two bases of authority rather than two priesthoods: (1) the publicly acknowledged charismatic calling of living prophets in the Old Testament mold, and (2) the virtually unknown angelic ordinations which were kept secret. The concept of charismatic prophets changed only with respect to exclusivity. The concept of prophetic authority expanded several times in Mormonism.

These changes were important since Smith and Cowdery were the only ones who contemplated the need for divine authority conferred by angelic ordination. Until Cowdery’s 1834 history and retroactive changes in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, there was nothing in Mormonism to attract converts who expected a literal restoration of apostolic authority. Charisma and the voice of God were the only bases of authority that early Mormon converts knew until the publication of Cowdery’s history in 1834.

Patriarchal Priesthood

The development of Patriarchal priesthood is almost as complex as that of the others. Oliver Cowdery wrote in 1835 that “Joseph Smith, jr., is the first Elder, and first patriarch of the church.”155 Despite their emphasis on angelic restoration of authority, traditional LDS histories never explain how Smith obtained the authority of patriarch. According to his official history, not until an angel conferred its “keys” in April 1836 did Smith receive authority connected with the Old Testament patriarchs (“the dispensation of the Gospel of Abraham”). That was more than one year after he formally established patriarchal authority as an ordained office in the new church.156

The explanation is that Smith inherited lineal priesthood without ordination. A revelation stated this in December 1832: “Therefore, thus saith the Lord unto you, with whom the priesthood hath continued through the lineage of your fathers—For ye are lawful heirs, according to the flesh, and have been hid from the world with Christ in God” (D&C 86:8-9). In 1847 Brigham Young preached: “Joseph Smith was entitled to the Keys of the Priesthood according to Blood. Still He was the fourth son.”157 Decades later Apostle Franklin D. Richards published that “Joseph Smith, Sen., inherited the Patriarchal Priesthood, by right from the fathers over the house of Israel in this dispensation.”158 However, early Mormon doctrine was not simply that Smith inherited the “right” to priesthood, but that he actually possessed the priesthood at birth. For example, in January 1845 Young blessed a newborn “son of Promise…on whoom [sic] the Preasthood [sic] shall rest from his birth to all Eternity even so Amen.”159

Joseph Smith, Jr., was the fourth-born son in his family, and the third to survive. Like Lehi’s fourth son Nephi in the Book of Mormon (1 Ne. 2:5), Smith was the “son of promise.” For the Smith family, literal ordination to the office of patriarch was merely a formality of church consistency for those who were lineal heirs of Patriarchal priesthood.

No form of the word “patriarch” appears in the published version or available manuscripts of the revelations on priesthood received in 1832 and 1835. The latter revelation began: “There are in the Church two Priesthoods, namely, the Melchizedek and the Aaronic, including the Levitical Priesthood” (D&C 107:1).160 However, Orson Pratt said that the original manuscript (now unavailable) did contain the word “patriarchs” which Smith changed to “evangelical ministers.”161 Lineal priesthood was a concept in Mormon theology as early as 1832. However, the office of patriarch and the term Patriarchal priesthood did not exist until December 1834.

Lineal priesthood as described in the December 1832 revelation was not of church but of family. According to that revelation, Smith had lineal authority before his first vision, before visits of angels, before the restorations of Aaronic priesthood, of apostolic authority, or of the high priesthood. Smith was never ordained to this lineal priesthood by the laying on of hands. Later called Patriarchal priesthood, this authority existed in him from birth.

According to the 1835 revelation, “The order of this Priesthood was confirmed to be handed down from father to son, and rightly belongs to the literal descendants of the chosen seed, to whom the promises were made” (D&C 107:40). As the patriarch Abraham expressed it in a book of that name begun in July 1835 by Smith: “It was conferred upon me from the fathers; it came down from the fathers from the beginning of time…even the right of the firstborn.”162

Not until eight years after the 1835 revelation did Smith explain in a sermon that “this great revelation on priesthood” was incomplete in its statement: “There are in the Church two Priesthoods, namely, the Melchizedek and the Aaronic, including the Levitical.”163 In August 1843 the prophet preached: “There are three grand orders of priesthood…[first] the Melchizedek….The second priesthood is Patriarchal authority….The 3rd is what is called the Levitical Priesthood.” One contemporary version of this sermon said that the “second Priesthood [is] Abraham’s Patriarchal power which is the greatest yet experienced in this Church.”164

Because the 1835 revelation did not mention that there was a Patriarchal priesthood separate from the “Order of the Melchizedek Priesthood” (D&C 107:1, 10), Smith’s brother William interpreted them as identical. The only difference, he argued, was that very few men have a lineal right to this priesthood by birth. “It is the priesthood after the order of Melchisedec [sic], which is after the order of the Son of God, that is handed down from Father to Son,” he wrote, “not the offices of Prophet, Patriarch, Apostle, High Priest, Elder, Priest, Teacher, and Deacon.”165

Although Utah Mormons dismiss William Smith’s priesthood interpretations as self-serving and apostate, an official church historian (later church president) expressed similar views. “Down through time there has been a gradual development in the offices in the priesthood. Adam held the Melchizedek Priesthood,” wrote Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith. “Yet from Adam to Moses the order of priesthood was that of the Patriarchal order. These men were high priests and patriarchs.”166

Further Developments

A further evolution of Mormon priesthood concepts involved the Old Testament prophet Elijah. Not until 1835 did original Mormon documents describe a role of Elijah in the restoration of authority. The Book of Commandments referred only once to Elijah “which should come” and made no connection to priesthood restoration (BofC, 76; D&C 35:4). When the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants added a reference to Peter, James, and John to a previously published 1830 revelation, it introduced a new emphasis on Elijah and the Malachi prophecy: “And also Elijah, unto whom I have committed the keys of the power of turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers, that the whole earth may not be smitten with a curse” (D&C 27:9; BofC, 60; Mal. 4:6).167

In 1836 the ancient prophet Elijah appeared to Smith and Cowdery, by which angelic ministration “the keys of this dispensation are committed into your hands” (D&C 110:13-16). Two years later Smith dictated an official history which for the first time revealed what the angel Moroni had told him about Elijah in 1823: “Behold I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.”168

“The Priesthood” phrase in Moroni’s promise dates it to after 1830. The Book of Mormon used only the phrase “the High Priesthood,” whereas “the priesthood” as a generic phrase did not enter Mormon use until 1831.169 The 1835 Doctrine and Covenants had already introduced a statement about Elijah’s “keys,” but no other edition of the Doctrine and Covenants appeared during Smith’s lifetime. Without finances to produce a new edition, Smith added to his 1838 history a previously unknown 1823 revelation about Elijah and the priesthood, thereby simplifying the process of retroactive additions to previous revelations.

From 1839 to his death in 1844 Smith’s sermons emphasized Elijah as restorer of supreme priesthood authority. For example, the prophet preached in October 1840: “Why send Elijah? Because he holds the keys of the authority to administer in all the ordinances of the Priesthood and without [i.e., unless] the authority is given, the ordinances could not be administered in righteousness.”170 Peter, James, and John had disappeared from Smith’s emphasis on priesthood restoration.

During these last five years Smith invoked Elijah’s restoration of priesthood keys as the authority for essential ordinances for the living and the dead. These included baptism, the “Holy Order” preliminary anointing and endowment, the sealing of marriage for eternity, and the second anointing.171 The most incisive interpreter of Elijah’s significance has noted that after 1835 this Old Testament prophet “eclipsed” the importance of Peter, James, and John: “By the time of Smith’s death, Elijah’s position in Restoration theology was second only to that of Jesus Christ.”172 That assessment needs to be qualified only with respect to the corresponding elevation of Adam during the same period.

In 1839 Smith also began teaching that Adam was the archangel Michael and the supreme key to Mormon authority. “The Priesthood was first given to Adam: he obtained the First Presidency, and held the keys of it,” Smith said, “the keys have to be brought from heaven whenever the Gospel is sent. When they are revealed from heaven, it is by Adam’s authority.”173 After presenting this expanded understanding of the role of Adam, Smith announced that Adam had appeared to him as one of the divine messengers of the restoration.

In an 1842 letter the Mormon prophet referred to the “voice of Michael [Adam] on the banks of the Susquehanna, detecting the devil when he appeared as an angel of light.”174 As previously indicated, the archangel Michael probably appeared to Smith in June 1830, just before the priesthood restoration by Peter, James, and John. After Smith’s death, Brigham Young spent thirty years elaborating the role of Adam in what is commonly known as the “Adam-God doctrine.”175

The last major development in LDS priesthood is even less recognized today. In 1843 Smith extended Melchizedek priesthood to LDS women through an “endowment ceremony”176 rather than through ordination to church office. For example, in 1843 Presiding Patriarch Hyrum Smith blessed Leonora Cannon Taylor: “You shall be blesst [sic] with your portion of the Priesthood which belongeth to you, that you may be set apart for your Anointing and your induement [endowment].” Thirty-five years later, Joseph Young (a patriarch and senior president of the Council of Seventy) blessed Brigham Young’s daughter: “These blessings are yours, the blessings and power according to the holy Melchisedek [sic] Priesthood you received in your Endowments, and you shall have them.”177 The decline of Mormon women’s awareness that the endowment ceremony gives them Melchizedek priesthood corresponds to the decline in women’s status in the LDS church during those same years.178 In the process, twentieth-century Mormons—both male and female, conservative and liberal-have identified priesthood with male privilege and hierarchical administrative power. Therefore, some recent writers regard as insignificant the concept that endowed Mormon women had (and continue to have) the Melchizedek priesthood without ordained office and hierarchical status.179

By contrast, early Mormons understood that priesthood meant divine power (separate from individual faith) that was conferred on mortals and was centered in the relationship of an individual with the powers of deity. For example, Brigham Young (using the word “share” that was often used to explain women’s relationship to priesthood) defined the priesthood’s power without reference to ecclesiastical office or church administration:

An individual who holds a share in the Priesthood, and continues faithful to his calling, who delights himself continually in doing the things God requires at his hands, and continues through life in the performance of every duty, will secure to himself not only the privilege of receiving, but the knowledge how to receive the things of God, that he may know the mind of God continually; and he will be enabled to discern between right and wrong, between the things of God and things that are not of God. And the Priesthood—the Spirit that is within him, will continue to increase until it becomes like a fountain of living water; until it is like the tree of life; until it is one continued source of intelligence and instruction to that individual.

Then Young continued his remarks to a gender-inclusive audience: “Upon who[m]ever are bestowed the keys of the eternal Priesthood, by a faithful life, [they] will secure to themselves power to see the things of God, and will understand them as plainly as they ever understood anything by gazing upon it with their natural eyes…” It is in this theological context of priesthood that Young later declared: “Now, brethren, the man that honors his Priesthood, the woman that honors her Priesthood, will receive an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of God.”180

To early Mormons “priesthood” signified something greater than ecclesiastical status, hierarchy, administrative power, decision-making, or prestige in an earthly church. My analysis of the Mormon hierarchy emphasizes those external manifestations of power, but there were other significant dimensions of priesthood in early Mormon thought.


Joseph Smith’s Church of Christ was announced in 1828 as an unorganized group of believers with no priestly authority and with no requirement for baptism or other ordinances. A year later it remained unorganized but had a concept of priestly authority and practiced religious ordinances. In 1830 this Church of Christ was formally organized as an institution with confirmed church members and organized branches. Smith began as a prophet whose only gift was to translate the Book of Mormon and became a prophet whose many gifts included exclusive right to give commandments and revelations to the church.

At first the church emphasized the authority of charisma as evidence of God’s approbation and only later stressed the authority of ordination and office. What began as simple “authority” became a single “Holy Priesthood,” then evolved into the multiple “orders” of lineal (or patriarchal) priesthood, Aaronic (or lesser) priesthood, and Melchizedek (or greater) priesthood. Church membership changed from believers who knew nothing about angels restoring authority or “priesthood keys” to hierarchically-oriented Mormons who regarded such angelic restorations as the foundation of latter-day priesthood. Smith had to abandon his 1830 promise not “to add or diminish from, a revelation or commandment from Almighty God.”181 Instead he made unacknowledged additions of whole paragraphs, new concepts, and previously unmentioned events to the texts of already published revelations. For that reason, Lyman Wight in 1837 dismissed the Doctrine and Covenants as “a telestial law,” while he praised the Book of Commandments as “a celestial law.” That statement nearly got him excommunicated.182 However, four years later Wight became a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and a special witness of Jesus Christ.

Due to length limitations, the footnotes have not been included.