Recent studies describing the restoration of the priesthood have noted and demonstrated that we have been anachronistically shaping our 1829 restoration narrative around twentieth-century notions that the Melchizedek Priesthood represents a separate “authority” or “power” that is distinctly independent from the body of ordained men (it has become something we hold rather than something we join). Jonathan Stapley argues that by the early twentieth century General Authorities explicitly defined priesthood as “the exclusive authority and power of God,” whereas before then it was used more ecclesiastically.1 Though Joseph Smith was certainly a restorationist, like many antebellum Americans, scholars have tended to frame his restorationism in terms of how the power or authority of God was restored (emphasizing priesthood as something you hold). For example, we focus on how John the Baptist restored an independent entity called the Aaronic Priesthood and how Peter, James, and John restored the higher companion priesthood called the Melchizedek Priesthood.2 If Stapley is correct, we have good reason to return to the historical record to discover more precisely what the restoration looked like.3 Perhaps we have been focusing too narrowly upon two events, when there was in fact a deeper sense of restoration that encompassed a far broader sense of theophany.
|“Priesthood Restoration as Event”||“Priesthood Restoration as Process”|
|1. Based on an early twentieth-century definition of Priesthood||1. Based on the historical definition of priesthood, 1829 to 1844|
|2. Stable, not developing||2. Unstable, developing|
|3. Restored exclusive power of God||3. Restored as parts of a whole|
|4. Restored as separate entities (priesthood, Melchizedek Priesthood, Aaronic Priesthood)||4. All parts restoring the whole|
|5. Restored exclusively by Peter, James, and John||5. Restored by “diverse angels” from Adam down to Joseph Smith|
This article challenges the idea that priesthood restoration was an event that restored specific independent “authority” and “power” by carefully examining the historical restoration as a process. Demonstrating the need for such analysis, Joseph Smith wrote that “divers angels, from . . . Adam down to the present” restored the gospel and the last dispensation.4 The event we usually refer to as the restoration of the priesthood was just the beginning of a long process.5 As a 2015 article on the Church’s website summarized, “Historical documents make clear . . . that the appearance of Peter, James, and John near Harmony was only the beginning of the restoration of priesthood authority.”6 Furthermore, the suggestion that priesthood restoration was a process and not a single event should be palatable considering the restoration of keys in 1836 through Moses, Elias, and Elijah in the Kirtland Temple and the idea that future keys will yet be restored, such as the keys of the Resurrection.7 As recently as October 2018, in an interview in Concepción, Chile, President Russell M. Nelson said, “We’re witnesses to a process of restoration. If you think the Church has been fully restored, you’re just seeing the beginning. There is much more to come.” Also, in April 2014, in general conference, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf declared, “In reality, the Restoration is an ongoing process; we are living in it right now.”8
To develop the possibility that priesthood restoration is a process and that it includes multiple restorations, this article considers one frequently overlooked event in the Restoration, usually spoken of as the experience in the chamber of Father Whitmer. So, what was this event? First, it was an experience Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery had in the upstairs room of Peter and Mary Whitmer’s house in Fayette Township, New York. In June 1829, Joseph and Oliver were finishing the translation of the Book of Mormon and contemplating the visitation of John the Baptist that had happened just a few weeks earlier. After they spent countless hours in the upstairs bedroom, referred to as a “chamber,” the “word of the Lord” came to them, directing them to ordain each other elders and to establish the Church of Christ. Joseph recalled that this event was associated with the restoration of the power to give the gift of the Holy Ghost, the Melchizedek Priesthood, and the office of elder, making it a perfect example to explore how priesthood restoration was a process that included multiple components.9 This event is not forgotten by history because it was included in Doctrine and Covenants 128:21 and described in Joseph Smith’s official 1839 history. His letter to the Saints (D&C 128) emphatically declares, “Now, what do we hear in the gospel which we have received? A voice of gladness! A voice of mercy from heaven; a voice of truth out the earth; glad tidings for the dead; a voice of gladness for the living and the dead; glad tidings of great joy” (v. 19). Joseph continued, “And again, the voice of God in the chamber of old Father Whitmer, in Fayette, Seneca county” (v. 21).
Few members of the Church discuss this experience in the chamber of Father Whitmer as an important part of the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood, regardless of Joseph Smith’s emphasis of it in scripture and in his history.10 This is understandable because, admittedly, very little is known about this event. The details we get are from Joseph, but it is uncertain whether the event was a revelation to his mind, if it actually included the audible voice of the Lord, or if the Lord physically or spiritually appeared to them in the chamber.11 What is clear is that Joseph Smith’s most extensively written account of priesthood restoration, in his own history, uses the experience in the chamber of Father Whitmer to demonstrate the ongoing restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood. This article will examine this event, but not in isolation. Instead it will try to examine how Joseph used this event to explain the developing restoration of the priesthood. To do this, this article will examine Joseph Smith’s 1839 accounts of the restoration of the priesthood in his official history.12
This article will first look at how Joseph positioned the Peter, James, and John visit in his history and how it was associated with the apostleship, keys, and dispensations. Then, in comparison, it will analyze his account of the chamber of Father Whitmer and how it was associated with the restoration of the priesthood.13 The Peter, James, and John narrative in Joseph’s history described the restoration of administrative authority, generally described as “keys.”14 The experience in the chamber of Father Whitmer, on the other hand, is described as a series of events to demonstrate how the general power to perform ordinances and hold offices in the Church was revealed.15 This examination of Joseph’s history not only emphasizes the importance of the experience in the chamber of Father Whitmer, but it also offers a possibility for why we favor the Peter, James, and John narrative.16
Peter, James, and John
Priesthood restoration is usually articulated by emphasizing that John the Baptist restored the Aaronic Priesthood (May 15, 1829), and then soon thereafter Peter, James, and John restored the Melchizedek Priesthood (circa late May 1829) to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. This framework is simple and compelling, in which we get one priesthood from John the Baptist and the other priesthood from the Apostles. This avoids the complicated and sometimes distracting historical development of priesthood terminology and ecclesiology and allows us to focus upon the orderly divine nature of priesthood restoration. The explanatory power of this model is remarkable for teaching the doctrinal significance of the restoration.
Other models emphasize priesthood restoration differently but also provide a different kind of knowledge about the restoration, though they are admittedly far less compelling in their ability to present a concise message. Historical development, for example, focuses on complex shifts and movements across time that create issues when they are compared to doctrinal concepts. For example, the words Aaronic and Melchizedek and their association with the priesthood only developed in the years after 1829; the terms were defined in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants in the revelation that became section 107. Terms like Melchizedek were certainly used in the Book of Mormon, the book of Moses, and Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible by 1831, yet it is still clear that the duality of priesthood developed across time and was not established immediately.17 (Therefore this makes defining the priesthood as two events—divided by Aaronic and Melchizedek—anachronistic, since it was not just terminology that developed, it was the idea that there were two priesthoods.) The duality of the priesthood was first observed through the development of ecclesiastical offices and the difference between elders and the other offices described in Doctrine and Covenants 20. Joseph Smith’s 1832 history intimates two different priesthoods, and then D&C 84 codified that separation, describing the priesthood as lower and higher priesthoods. Yet even then the revelation calls the two priesthoods after Moses and Aaron, instead of Melchizedek and Aaron.18 In April 1835, the “Instruction of Priesthood” (D&C 107) finally defined and clarified that “there are two divisions, or grand heads—one is the Melchizedek priesthood, and the other is the Aaronic, or Levitical priesthood.”19 The terminology attributed to John the Baptist in Doctrine and Covenants 13 describing the Aaronic Priesthood was written in 1839 as part of Joseph’s history after the two priesthoods had been clearly defined. This developing terminology makes it difficult to label what John the Baptist restored historically in 1829 as the “Aaronic” Priesthood and what Peter, James, and John restored as the “Melchizedek” Priesthood. This is certainly a historical argument and can only be taken so far, since these visits were eventually labeled that way, but it is also highly problematic to not uncover and understand the historical development that led to the later conclusions.
The point of this section is to examine how Joseph Smith described the visit of Peter, James, and John in his 1839 history, a description that unavoidably complicates the priesthood restoration narrative. The description also calls for textual analysis and an unpacking of Joseph’s history. The most obvious way that Joseph could have included the Peter, James, and John visit is by including it in a chronology of events to mark the date that they visited Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. Unfortunately, he did not identify a date or associate their visit with other contextualized events. His history does not make timing—when the visit of Peter, James, and John happened—an important data point for understanding the apostolic visit. Most historians have deduced that they came sometime between May 15, 1829, and July 1830. There are two primary events within this fifteen-month window that historians debate over to determine when they came. Larry Porter, a BYU professor who published his study of the priesthood restoration in the Ensign in 1979, argues that they came within a few weeks after John the Baptist in late May or early June 1829 (I favor this argument, but Joseph Smith does not find it necessary to identify the date in his 1839 history).20 By contrast, Richard Bushman and others have argued that there is evidence that the visitation could have occurred as Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery rushed out of a trial in Colesville, New York, in early July 1830.21 The second date is theologically at odds with the idea that the “keys of the kingdom” were needed to establish the Church and has not been adopted by most Church members. Nonetheless, neither of these scenarios has been overwhelmingly adopted by scholars, in part because Joseph Smith never used the dating as a way to understand the purpose of the apostolic visit. His 1839 history in particular does something completely different, and though the timing issue is interesting and relevant for other reasons, it is a fact that Joseph’s history does not try to place the apostolic visit historically in a time frame that matters here.22
|May 16–25, 1829 Visit to Colesville|
|Where:||“in the wilderness between Harmony, Susquehanna county, and Colesville, Broome county, on the Susquehanna river, declaring themselves as possessing the keys of the kingdom.” D&C 128:20.|
|Evidence:||Apostles before April 6, 1830: |
Figure 2. May 1829—the Larry Porter Thesis. This represents some of the evidence for dating the Peter, James, and John visit to late May 1829. This argument has been traditionally been associated with the research of Larry Porter.
|Early July 1830 Colesville Trial|
|Where:||“in the wilderness between Harmony, Susquehanna county, and Colesville, Broome county, on the Susquehanna river, declaring themselves as possessing the keys of the kingdom.” D&C 128:20.|
|When:||(early July 1830) |
Joseph Smith: “I was enabled to escape them. . . . After a few days however, I again returned to Colesville, in company with Oliver Cowdery.” History, A-1, 47.
|Event:||Joseph Smith, “The Court finding the charges against me, not sustained, I was accordingly acquitted, to the great satisfaction of my friends, and vexation of my enemies, who were still determined upon molesting me, but through the instrumentality of my new friend, the Constable.”|
Figure 3. July 1830—the Bushman Thesis. This represents some of the evidence for dating the Peter, James, and John visit to July 1830. This argument has been traditionally associated with the research of D. Michael Quinn and Richard Lyman Bushman.
Joseph explicitly mentions Peter, James, and John twice in his history, and both mentions provide some indication for why the trio came, at least as we look at how Joseph included them in his history. The first mention of Peter, James, and John has nothing to do with their visit, but begins to indicate their purpose and how Joseph Smith was using their visit in his history. This first mention will also be explored even more extensively below, since they are mentioned as part of the dialogue between John the Baptist, Joseph Smith, and Oliver Cowdery. John the Baptist is described in the 1839 history as claiming to lack the authority to give the power to give the gift of the Holy Ghost, telling them “that this should be conferred on [them] hereafter.” John the Baptist also told them that “he acted under the direction of Peter, James, and John who held the keys of the priesthood,” evoking a kind of delegation of authority from the Apostles to himself. This use of the term keys and the notion of delegation or administration reflects a later use of the term, which was more likely to be used to reference the access to the “mysteries of the kingdom,” revelation, or scripture in the time between 1829 and 1832.23 The idea of delegation and the relationship with the keys of the priesthood began developing with the presidency of the High Priesthood in Doctrine and Covenants 65:2, and then by March 1832 (D&C 81:2), the term “keys” was used explicitly to reference the presidency and the distribution of authority.24 Even then the idea of keys and Apostles was never fully developed or connected together in revelation until 1835 when the Twelve Apostles were called. This is relevant to Joseph Smith’s history because the first reference to Peter, James, and John is not about the purpose of their visit, but instead it is about their authority to authorize and delegate keys to John the Baptist. This is anachronistic terminology and invites the question about how Joseph Smith was using the role of Peter, James, and John in his history.
|References to Peter, James, and John in Joseph Smith’s History (A-1)|
|First Reference||Second Reference|
|John the Baptist references Peter, James, and John||Peter, James, and John were mentioned in the 1835 version of D&C 27:12–13|
The second reference to Peter, James, and John in Joseph’s history is not even found within the prose but instead is found in the text of Doctrine and Covenants 27 that was inserted into his history chronologically as part of the events that happened at the end of summer 1830. What makes this even more complicated is the fact that the part of the revelation that describes the visit of Peter, James, and John was added to the revelation in 1835. Interestingly, the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants was the first published documentation of the visit of Peter, James, and John. The additions made to section 27 also emphasize the transmission of priesthood authority or keys to Joseph Smith by multiple biblical prophets and patriarchs to govern the modern church.25
Retrospectively, Peter, James, and John became one link in a long chain leading back from dispensation to dispensation and patriarch to patriarch in a line of key-holding authority back to Adam. As such, the verses in Doctrine and Covenants 27 inform us that the Apostles delivered to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery administrative keys and a new dispensation in the form of their apostleship. The 1835 text of section 27 describes the purpose of the Peter, James, and John visit without referencing priesthood, high priesthood, and especially Melchizedek priesthood:
|Doctrine and Covenants 27:12–13||Doctrine and Covenants 128:20|
|“ordained you and confirmed you to be apostles”|
|Committed Keys of the Kingdom|
|“I have committed the keys of my kingdom.”||“Declaring themselves as possessing the keys of the kingdom.”|
|Committed A New Dispensation|
|“I have committed . . . a dispensation of the gospel for the last times.”||“and the dispensation of the fulness of times!”|
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 days times; and for the fulness of times, in which I will gather together in one all things, both which are in Heaven and which are on earth.26
Though the uninterrupted line of authority from dispensation to dispensation was not defined by each patriarch possessing the apostleship, Doctrine and Covenants 27 emphasized the postincarnation apostleship because Peter, James, and John ordained Smith and Cowdery to be Apostles. Also, though there is no identifiable unified narrative that tells the story of the developing apostleship or the changing ideas about keys over Joseph’s life, they are nonetheless a theme that emerges throughout Joseph Smith’s history. The restoration of the apostleship and the ability to call additional Apostles, like the New Testament Apostles, emerged first in the text of the 1829 Book of Mormon.27 This was the seed that would eventually grow into the Latter-day Saint Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1835.28 The text of the Book of Mormon created an ecclesiastical possibility for Christ’s Apostles to be replicated as a quorum or authoritative body of twelve, in spite of the fact that antebellum Protestants believed there was no succession of the New Testament Apostles.29 Steps were also taken to call additional Apostles in 1829, even before the Church of Christ was established, when a revelation was given to Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer to call “even unto twelve” as part of the restoration.30
Though they did not call twelve immediately, the revelation developed much like many of the other revelations, as a major initiative that would flower over years. For example, as the Church established its ecclesiastical structure and administrative center, the mention of twelve Apostles emerged again in the fall of 1831. Church leadership had recently been introduced to a higher expression of the priesthood and the office of high priest as an administrative office in the Church.31 On October 26, 1831, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon offered instruction on the priesthood at a Church conference.32 Cowdery also informed the Church that he had been recently told that the twelve “would be ordained & sent forth from the land Zion.”33 Then, just a few days later, one of Joseph Smith’s revelations (D&C 65:2) addressed the authority of the kingdom of God, which would prepare the earth for the Second Coming of Christ. It stated, “The keys of the kingdom of God is committed unto man on the Earth & from thence shall the Gospel roll forth unto the ends of the Earth, as the stone which is hewn from the Mountain without hands shall role forth untill it hath filled the whole Earth.”34
Considering this slow development of the apostleship and the fact that it was initiated in 1829 (D&C 18), its latent development may have been a reason for Joseph to exclude the Peter, James, and John visit from the part of his history that described 1829.35 Within months of each other, in 1835, the first members of the Quorum of the Twelve were ordained and the Peter, James, and John visit was added to D&C 27. Then the 1835 additions to D&C 27 ended up in Joseph Smith’s history as if they were written in the summer of 1830. Joseph had numerous places in his history to emphasize the Peter, James, and John visit, but instead he let the text of D&C 27 describe the event. With that brief mention, his history of 1835 described the ordination of the Twelve Apostles.
The idea of keys flowered over time also. Paralleling the keys given to Peter in the New Testament by Christ, this authority was intended to be used to build the “kingdom of heaven” on earth. This was also associated with the creation of the presidency of the High Priesthood who would use those keys to authorize and administer the priesthood in the last days.36 Authority was delegated to leaders like bishops, who were also high priests, to administer to Church members and distribute authority among them.37
By 1835, the administrative authority described as keys was codified into revelation through authorized revisions added to previous revelations and by additional new revelations in preparation to publish the Doctrine and Covenants. In particular, the majority of the verses in section 27 were added after the original revelation in 1830,38 and these later additions introduced an apocalyptic event just before Christ’s Second Coming in which the patriarchs across the dispensations would meet to return their “keys” of their dispensations back to Adam.39 It is in this added part of D&C 27 that Peter, James, and John are mentioned as having delivered the “keys of the kingdom” to Joseph Smith in succession with all of the patriarchs.40 Additions to several revelations (D&C 7, 27, 68, and 107) all represented the administrative and distributive authority of the priesthood and the importance of the concept of keys. In other words, as Joseph and editors of the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants prepared the revelations for publication, keys and administration were emphasized more than ever before. Of course, the Peter, James, and John visit was understood and described in terms of administration and keys.
In particular, these changes came as Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and the presidency chose and ordained twelve Apostles for the first time.41 Once they were ordained and before the Twelve were sent out to the branches of the Church across the United States, Joseph provided them with instruction on the priesthood (now D&C 107) that outlined the priesthood orders and Church governance. The Twelve were instructed that “the order of this priesthood was confirmed to be handed down from father to son. . . . This order was instituted in the days of Adam, and came down by lineage.”42 Each priesthood and office were delineated and defined within the ecclesiology that identified how authority within the branches of the Church was distributed. In particular, the Twelve became the traveling high council that held the keys of the kingdom and who would establish leaders and distribute the keys to local authorities and offices outside of Zion and her stakes.43 To some extent, this was a moment when the Peter, James, and John visit could have been understood with more precision and understanding.
The revelatory additions to Doctrine and Covenants 7, 27, 68, and 107 shape the primary narrative in Joseph Smith’s history and explain why the Peter, James, and John narrative in the history emphasizes administrative keys and apostolic restoration. Joseph Smith framed the visit of Peter, James, and John within the administrative and distributive developments that created the Latter-day Saint concept of keys, the ordination of Apostles, and purpose of the last dispensation. His history captures this narrative within the development of Latter-day Saint ecclesiology, particularly as part of his revelations about priesthood authority. The restoration of priesthood through Peter, James, and John was described as administrative (broadly speaking, as if this administrative authority controlled the kingdom of God and the last dispensation), rather than simply a restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood.44 These categories and narratives are clearly not indivisible, but rather overlapping, which enabled Joseph to also address the restoration of the priesthood as a nonadministrative power to perform saving ordinances.
The Restoration of Melchizedek Priesthood: The Power to Baptize, Give the Gift of the Holy Ghost, and Ordain Elders
The second restoration narrative that Joseph Smith describes in his history is about the power to perform ordinances and ordain individuals to priesthood offices. This restoration is formed around three events: (1) the visit of John the Baptist, (2) the chamber of Father Whitmer, and (3) the establishment of the Church of Christ. The key to understanding this narrative is realizing that Joseph Smith did not describe these events separately. In fact, the core of this argument depends upon not only the textual connections Joseph Smith used to inseparably link them together but also the fact that he left the Peter, James, and John visit out of this 1829 narrative in his official history. In other words, Joseph connected these three events together and disconnected the visit of Peter, James, and John from these three events.
This is no small demarcation, since Joseph Smith claimed that the three events together restored the power to baptize, the power to give the Gift of the Holy Ghost, the Melchizedek priesthood, the office of elder, and the directive to organize the Church. Yet it can be demonstrated that Joseph Smith’s intentions were to create this narrative and to intentionally leave the Peter, James, and John narrative to be discussed later in his history. Many Latter-day Saints follow Larry Porter’s argument that Peter, James, and John visited in the second half of May 1829, the timing of which would put their visit in the middle of the period that I’m calling here the “second narrative,” yet Joseph Smith conspicuously left their visit out of the chronological flow of the events he narrated in his 1839 history.45
Textual Connection between the John the Baptist Narrative and the “Chamber of Father Whitmer”
Joseph Smith, History, Vol. A-1
|John the Baptist in the woods in Harmony, Pennsylvania, pp. 17–18.||“Voice of the Lord” in the “chamber of Father Whitmer” in Fayette, New York, pp. 27–28.|
|Three Promises made by John the Baptist in Smith’s history and fulfilled in the chamber.||Transition: “We now became anxious to have that promise realized to us, which the Angel [John the Baptist] that conferred upon us the Aaronick Priesthood had given us, viz:”|
|Promise 1 (power to give the gift of the Holy Ghost)||Fulfillment 1 (power to give the gift of the Holy Ghost)|
|“He said this Aaronic priesthood had not the power of laying on of hands, for the gift of the Holy Ghost, but that this should be conferred on <us> hereafter”||“Authority of the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.”|
|Promise 2 (Melchizedek Priesthood)||Fulfillment 2 (Melchizedek Priesthood)|
|Melchizedek “priesthood he said should in due time be conferred on us.”||“that provided we continued faithful; we should also have the Melchesidec Priesthood”|
|Promise 3 (office of elder)||Fulfillments 3 (office of elder)|
|“And that I should be called the first Elder of the Church and he the second.”||“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”|
The key to understanding Joseph Smith’s narrative is in the language he used to connect the John the Baptist visit, the chamber of Father Whitmer, and the establishment of the Church. Thus, the best place to start is with Joseph Smith’s account of the John the Baptist visit. Joseph’s history describes three promises that John the Baptist makes to Joseph Smith: (1) to receive the power to give the Holy Ghost, (2) to receive the Melchizedek priesthood, and (3) to be ordained the first elder. Many readers have assumed, for good reason, that these three promises were fulfilled by the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood through Peter, James, and John.46 However, Joseph Smith’s own 1839 history does not turn to the visit of Peter, James, and John to fulfill these promises. Instead, he leaves the apostolic visitation out and describes the fulfillment of all three promises to have occurred at the house of Peter Whitmer Sr., where they were finishing the translation of the Book of Mormon in the chamber of Father Whitmer, and in the April 6, 1830, organization of the Church of Christ.47
Joseph Smith’s history directly connects the promises given by John the Baptist to the purpose of the events that occurred in the chamber of Father Whitmer. He began by writing, “We now became anxious to have that promise realized to us, which the Angel [John the Baptist] that conferred upon us the Aaronick Priesthood had given us.” In other words, Joseph and Oliver asked for the fulfillment of John the Baptist’s promises. First, they asked for the power to give the gift of the Holy Ghost, and second, they asked for the associated Melchizedek Priesthood. Within Joseph Smith’s accounts about the restoration of the priesthood (whether he was explaining the restoration of priesthood through Moses, John the Baptist, Elias, or Elijah), none of them explicitly claim that the “Melchizedek Priesthood” was restored by them, except for in the chamber of Father Whitmer.48 Curiously, none of his accounts about Peter, James, and John claimed that they restored the Melchizedek Priesthood either. After asking the Lord for the fulfillment of John the Baptist’s promises, Joseph Smith wrote that “here to our unspeakable satisfaction did we realize the truth of the Saviour’s promise; ‘Ask, and you shall receive, seek, and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you.’” He explained that “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 Cowdery to be an Elder in the Church of Jesus Christ, and that he also should ordain me to the same office.”49
Joseph Smith’s History “according to previous commandment”
|The Chamber of Old Father Whitmer, June 1829, Joseph Smith, History, vol. A-1, 27.||Establishment of the Church, April 6, 1830, Joseph Smith, History, vol. A-1, 37.|
|“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.”||“I then laid my hands upon Oliver Cowdery and ordained him an Elder of the Church. . . . He ordained me also to the office of an Elder of said Church.”|
|“such times, as it should be practicable to have our brethren, who had been and who should be baptized, assembled together.”||“we had received commandment to organize the Church And accordingly we met together for that purpose, at the house of the above mentioned Mr Whitmer [Peter Whitmer Sr.] (being six in number) on Tuesday the sixth day of April, AD One thousand, eight hundred and thirty.”|
|“have them decide by vote whether they were willing to accept us as spiritual teachers, or not.”||“We proceeded, (according to previous commandment) to call on our brethren to know whether they accepted us as their teachers.”|
|“when also we were commanded to bless bread and break it with them, and to take wine, bless it, and drink it with them.”||“We then broke bread, blessed it, and brake it with them, also wine, blessed it, and drank it with them.”|
|“then attend to the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, upon all those whom we had previously baptized; doing all things in the name of the Lord.”||“We then laid our hands on each individual member of the Church present that they might receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, and be confirmed members of the Church of Christ.”|
Joseph Smith’s history unquestionably connects the visit of John the Baptist and the experience in the chamber of Father Whitmer but then describes additional commandments in the chamber, given by Christ, to be fulfilled at the establishment of the Church. According to Joseph’s history, Christ commanded them to (1) ordain each other as the first and second elders, (2) to perform those ordinations at the establishment of the Church where believers had been gathered, (3) where the congregation could vote by common consent to accept Joseph and Oliver as their leaders, (4) then prepare and receive the Lord’s Supper, and finally (5) give the Gift of the Holy Ghost to those who had been baptized. Joseph Smith’s history explicitly states, “We proceeded, (according to previous commandment)”50 to follow what was given by the Lord in the chamber of Father Whitmer. The Prophet fulfilled, at the April 6, 1830, establishment of the Church, all five commandments given in the chamber as shown by figure 7.
Through this examination of the text of Joseph Smith’s history, it is clear that Joseph Smith saw the visitation of John the Baptist and the events that followed as essential aspects of a single restoration narrative. The visit of John the Baptist, the experience in the chamber of Father Whitmer, and the establishment of the Church were part of one single restoration narrative that restored the power to baptize, the power to give the gift of the Holy Ghost, the Melchizedek Priesthood, the office of elder, and the Church of Christ. The fact that these terms have to be understood in an 1835–1839 context actually makes these restoration narratives more potent, though more anachronistic for an 1829 context, regarding a conception of how the priesthood was restored. When Joseph Smith worked on his history in 1839, he was well aware of the historical changes that had occurred over the previous decade, yet he felt confident in declaring that the “Melchizedek Priesthood” was restored in the chamber of Father Whitmer. His history is a complicated text, but in this instance, there is little reason to question the deliberate narrative developed from a retrospective position.51 This specific narrative moves us away from traditional accounts that describe the restoration of the priesthood as an event because it was a process including several events that constituted the Restoration.
It was never just one event that welcomed Joseph Smith and the Church’s leadership into the priesthood and offered them the authority to perform ordinances and govern The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Joseph continued to outline the process of events in his history and revelations. His history itself chronologically works through numerous restoration events to demonstrate the process of the restoration. For example, his history starts soon after the narratives described above by including the 1835 version of D&C 27 in which numerous restoration experiences are noted, including when Peter, James, and John ordained him and Oliver Cowdery as Apostles. Then, perhaps even more perplexing, on June 3, 1831, Joseph was “ordained to the High Priesthood under the hand of br. Lyman Wight” and he “conferred, <the high priesthood> for the first time, upon several of the elders.”52 Following this event, he was guided by revelation to form the Presidency of the High Priesthood, construct quorums, and create new sacraments. By 1836, the priesthood was then restored through Jesus, Moses, Elias, and Elijah (D&C 110) in the Kirtland temple.53 Interestingly, with retrospection, Joseph wrote in his history that from his earliest visits with Moroni, Moroni told to him, “I will reveal unto you the Priesthood by the hand of Elijah the prophet.”54 All of this complicates the traditional two-event restoration narrative of the Melchizedek Priesthood by including multiple restoration events across Joseph Smith’s ministry that were part of that restoration.
As Church members, we have commonly abbreviated the narrative of the restoration of the priesthood by associating the Aaronic Priesthood with John the Baptist and the Melchizedek Priesthood with Peter, James, and John. Yet members are well aware that priesthood restoration was a process, not an event, or even just two events. Members are well aware of the abridgments we make to the priesthood restoration narrative, but occasionally we need reminders of its nuanced and ongoing history. To expand our understanding should be an exciting part of this process.
The process of the restoration of the priesthood is described in revelations like Doctrine and Covenants 27, 107, 110, and 128 to be a meeting of heavenly beings on earth with Joseph Smith. In fact, D&C 128:21 records that Joseph was visited by “divers angels, from Michael or Adam down to the present time.” The priesthood existed before the foundation of the world and Joseph was welcomed to join by angels who delivered “their rights, their keys, their honors, their majesty and glory, and the power of their priesthood; giving line upon line, precept upon precept” (D&C 128:21). The priesthood was not treated or restored as the power of God, but God’s power was used authoritatively by this holy order and restored by angels who were ordained members of the priesthood. As such, the priesthood was later described as the restoration of something one could hold, as if Melchizedek Priesthood was restored in that way and within a single visit or event.
The discrepancy between the priesthood being restored as a single event and it being restored as part of a process of events can be explained by the complicated transition after Joseph Smith’s death and when Brigham Young become the second prophet. By 1839, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles had become increasingly important, and once they returned from their mission to England, they took on more authoritative administrative roles. In Nauvoo, they participated in the most important councils and temple rites, and by the end of Joseph’s life, they had become the predominant key-holding quorum of the Church.55 After Joseph Smith’s death, their authority needed to be demonstrated.
As the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles found itself holding the reins of the Church, the visit of Peter, James, and John was the restoration event that best represented the priesthood restoration and became highlighted as the Church developed over time. Brigham Young emphasized the centrality of apostleship above all other restorations, marking the Peter, James, and John visit as the central event in the restoration of the priesthood.56 In 1853, Brigham addressed the membership to demonstrate the foundational authority that the Apostles held in their hands. He preached, “I speak thus to show you the order of the Priesthood.” He insisted, “We will now commence with the Apostleship, where Joseph commenced.” He explained that after Joseph “was ordained to this office, then he had the right to organize and build up the kingdom of God, for he had committed unto him the keys of the Priesthood.” Having the keys of that same priesthood given to him as an Apostle, Brigham declared, “All the Priesthood, all the keys, all the gifts, all the endowments, and everything preparatory to entering into the presence of the Father and of the Son, are in, composed of, circumscribed by, or I might say incorporated within the circumference of, the Apostleship.”57 Brigham Young’s emphasis on the centrality of the Peter, James, and John visitation has since then become the Church’s official position, expressed in simple and compelling terms. This paper, conversely, has developed an additional historical reconstruction of priesthood restoration by focusing directly upon how Joseph Smith told the story in 1839, centered on his experience with “the voice of God in the chamber of old Father Whitmer” (D&C 128:21).
This suggests that priesthood restoration was a process. Joseph Smith’s accounting of the Peter, James, and John visit, which was clearly part of the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood, was associated with apostleship, keys, and dispensations; it was not a single event that restored the priesthood but rather the conferring of an office and administrative authorities that developed over time. Additionally, Joseph’s history framed the John the Baptist visit together with the “voice of the Lord” in the chamber of Father Whitmer and the establishment of the Church to emphasize this part of the process, not to emphasize an event. This bound the restoration of ordinances, offices, and priesthood together in his detailed account of priesthood restoration in 1839.