First of all, I have to point to the Teacher, at Gospel Doctrine Underground, for introducing this topic to me. Previous to his discussion, I had not given much thought to when the Melchizedek Priesthood (MP) was restored. I just finished a book called “The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power” by D. Michael Quinn which goes into great detail on this subject. (Quinn has a similarly titled book called “Extensions of Power.“)
In the book, Quinn gives a few different dates for the MP restoration, along with pros and cons. On page 30 Quinn states, “By 1835 Smith and Cowdery had good reason to be vague about the introduction of the priesthood.” Some people have tried to pin down the date, and here are three different possibilities. I’ll address the issues surrounding these dates.
- June 2, 1829
- July 6, 1830
- June 8, 1831
At the organization of the church on April 6, 1830, the Melchizedek and Aaronic priesthood were not clearly defined as they are now. You will recall that at the church organization on April 6, 1830, that Joseph was referred to as the First Elder of the church (rather than prophet), and Oliver was the Second Elder. Obviously these terms aren’t used in this fashion to describe President Monson, for example. Another example to illustrate the evolution of priesthood is to note that there were not 12 apostles called until 1835. Obviously there was a great deal of evolution regarding priesthood knowledge going on in these early church days.
In these early days of the church, men were baptized and immediately ordained to the priesthood. There was no hierarchy as we have now, and in fact there was no distinction between the offices of teacher, priest, and elder. Quoting from Quinn on page 28,
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 of “second elder,” these three priesthood offices had different functions but no discernible difference in status. 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 older devoted 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.
This aversion to ranking in priesthood office continued through the conference for a full year later. Martin Harris was still a priest, and two of the Eight Witnesses of the Book of Mormon were teachers even though thirty-eight Mormons of far lesser distinction held the office of elder.”
Confusion in early church regarding Priesthood restoration
Apostle William McClellin (who was excommunicated in 1838 for apostasy) states that he had no knowledge of any priesthood restoration by angelic visitors. “But I never heard one word of John the baptist, or of Peter, James, and John’s visit till I was told some year or two afterward in Ohio.” Joseph Knight had written about many important Mormon events in 1833, and made no mention of these visits either. Book of Mormon witness, David Whitmer (also excommunicated in 1838) had no knowledge of angelic visitations of John the Baptist or Peter, James, and John, until 1834. He even went on to state, “I do not believe John the Baptist ever ordained Joseph and Oliver–(See my post on the Kirtland Bank Crisis for more info on these apostles.)
Richard Bushman states that Joseph Smith was often reticent to tell others about his revelations and angelic visits. The earliest known account of this visit by Peter, James, and John was referenced by Oliver Cowdery in 1834. Certainly, these angelic visitations were not known by general church membership until Cowdery’s introduction in an 1834 history of the church referencing only John the Baptist. From page 20-21,
His [Oliver’s] 1834 published history made no reference to an angelic visitation after John the Baptist’s ministration. His manuscript history of 1835 dated John the Baptist’s visit precisely as “Friday the 15th 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 Messiah.” [Joseph Smith diary, 16 Jan 1836.]
Pros/Cons for a June 1829 Date
In the introduction to D&C 13, the Aaronic Priesthood is clearly stated to have been conferred upon Joseph and Oliver on May 15, 1829. Section 27, received in August 1830, seems to indicate that the ordination to the MP had already occurred in verse 12. Quinn notes that section 27 was originally chapter 60 of the Book of Commandments, the forerunner of our Doctrine and Covenants. D&C 27:8, 12 did not appear on the Book of Commandments. Page 16,
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.
[Sources: William Clayton diary, 12 July 1843, in Smith, An Intimate Chronicle, 110;
Joseph Smith diary, 12 July 1843, in Faulring, An American Prophet’s Record, 396;
History of the Church, 5:507]
Quinn further states on page 18, “evidence shows that the second angelic restoration of apostolic authority could not have occurred before the church’s organization on 6 April 1830.” To explain this discrepancy, Quinn continues,
one Mormon writer [Times and Seasons 4 (15 Oct. 1843):329] 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.
Quinn goes on to suggest that the reason for Joseph and Oliver’s vagueness on the subject is that the priesthood was actually received after the organization of the church. Page 22 states,
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.
Support for July 1830 Date
Quinn talks about Joseph Smith’s arrest on the charge of disturbing the peace for attempting to exorcise a demon out of an individual. Court records indicate this happened in July 1830, three months after the organization of the church on April 6. (There were two trials, and Smith was acquitted both times.) Page 24,
Thus Smith’s history shows that in early July 1830, probably the night of 5-6 July, he and Oliver made an arduous nighttime escape. After travelling 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.” This would have been the morning of 6 July, 1830, exactly three months after the church’s organization.
In 1844, a man by the name of Addison Everett overheard Joseph and Oliver describing the visit of Peter, James, and John following a trial in Colesville, which adds some corroborating, though circumstantial evidence supporting this date. Quinn notes that Richard Bushman confirms this July 1830 date. Bushman supports this July 1830 date in his biography from 1984 about Joseph Smith.
Support for June 1831 date
Smith’s 1838-39 history, published in 1842, retroactively introduced the Melchizedek priesthood concept and obscured the date when he and Oliver were first ordained. However, this history at the same time confirmed that Smith ordained elders without the 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 our Savior’s promise.” The official history did not refer next to an appearance of Peter, James, and John, as modern Mormons would expect. Rather his history said that God simply commanded Smith to begin ordaining men to the office of elder.”
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 [or Aaronic] priesthood. According to Smith, “the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood was manifested and conferred for the first time upon several elders.” This required Assistant Church Historian B.H. Roberts 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. Of course this is precisely what Smith and others in attendance said happened.
Reconciling this information
Quinn does a great job of explaining that it was much easier for members in the 1830’s to understand these changes than for us modern Mormons. As we see in the Doctrine and Covenants, Joseph was continually receiving revelations to explain things to him, as well as us. I really believe that Joseph didn’t fully comprehend all the revelations he received. Since that time, the church has been able to systematize beliefs.
I can remember as a deacon, teacher, and priest, being told the duties were to “watch over the church.” As a teenager, I remember thinking that it was a strange responsibility for someone so young as I was to be given such a charge. Of course, current deacons, teacher, and priests do little more than prepare the sacrament. But in understanding that adult members such as Martin Harris, and Hyrum Smith were “merely” teachers, deacons, and priests, it makes much more sense that they were supposed to watch over the church.
So, which date do you support?