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When was the Melchizedek Priesthood Restored?

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

Page 31,

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?

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14 comments on “When was the Melchizedek Priesthood Restored?

  1. I have no opinion about the date; you’re telling me more than our CofChrist history ever bothered to mention.

    What is fascinating though is confirmation that in the early days of the church, priesthood office was about specialized tasks, not higherarchial rank.

    This matches what I was always taught Priesthood SHOULD be, but have seen increasingly less practiced. We, of course, do not have the theological complications imposed by LDS ideas of eternal family life.

  2. Firetag,

    The book says that one of the attractions to the church for David Whitmer was explicitly because there was no hierarchical ranking. He didn’t like it when the hierarchy was implemented, as he preferred the flat structure.

    I really would like to learn more about CoC, and how they operate. I just wonder if I walked into a meeting, how similar or different would it be? I mean I know you allow women to have the priesthood (and I’m planning a topic to address that too–fascinating stuff), and I’ve heard you only do communion/sacrament once/month instead of weekly, but I’m wondering what other things are similar/different. I know you technically believe in baptism for the dead, but (as I understand it) only do it for family members, and it is downplayed much more than in the LDS church.

  3. The CofChrist is changing so fast that any answer I give you today might be OBE within six months. The church’s website is cofchrist.org and it actually is well-designed to give anyone looking at it a good tour of current church emphases.

    You’ll find probably as many warped mirror experiences there as I do when looking at LDS sites.

    The church has moved strongly into the “peace and justice” wing of progressive Christianity under the last two prophets. You’ll notice that everywhere. There is also, because the church has been declining in membership so rapidly (30% professional staff cuts in the last 3 years) an overwhelming (if unintending) emphasis on geneerating church income that is totally absent from the LDS webpage.

    You will also notice a much greater emphasis on the most recent D&C sections (we’re up to 163 now) and the New Testament than on any works of Joseph Smith. We are certainly Christ-centered in all of our teaching.

    Worship practices vary widely throughout the church, not only from country to country but from congregation to congregation. Most of our congregations are very small; I haven’t had an actual home church that wasn’t in a converted home or a school since I came to the East Coast 35 years ago. That certainly affects the form of worship; since there are often not enough priesthood (because priesthood calls were in no sense fairly automatic), we’ve long extended worship leadership to non-priesthood.

    There is absolutely no emphasis on the afterlife. We, in principle “allow” baptism of the dead in response to direct revelation by the prophet, but no such revelation has been received or expected in 150 years. The various glories exist in our belief system, but I actually haven’t heard anyone teach anything about them since I was a teenager. The Book of Abraham is not regarded as Scriptural, so there is no doctrine of exhaultation or sealing for eternity. There are no special Temple ordinances at all, and we, in fact, encourage the use of our Temple for interdenominational gatherings whenever possible.

    Oh, and Bishops are financial specialists, not congregational leaders, and Stakes no longer exist.

    Strange, huh?

  4. Wow, that is so interesting to me. Perhaps I should invite you to do a guest post on CoC. Are you interested?

  5. I would be pleased to do so perhaps in several weeks — with the proviso that anything I say is my personal observation of the CofChrist and does not in any way speak FOR the CofChrist. Just one heretic to another.

  6. Firetag,

    I welcome your heresy! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Email me at mormon heretic at gmail dot com, and I will be happy to do a guest post for you here in a few weeks. I have always been curious about the differences between CoC and LDS, and you seem to know the differences pretty well.

  7. MH,

    the CofChrist is definitely doing some self-reflection and trying to find some balance of maintaining a unique identity while at the same time situating themselves as part of the broader Christian tradition. There is no longer any ritual or authoritative exclusivism as can be found in the LDS Church. While they still maintain a similar hierarchy, they see the hierarchy today in a manner similar to those of other leading councils in various Christian denominations. While they still maintain the BofM as part of their cannon, there are many who have no acquaintance with the text. I recall reading an article a few years back by a professor at their theological seminary about a student who wished to do an independent study of the BofM and their not being any in the school who had ever read it. On a couple occasion I have had the opportunity to talk with one of their Apostles Susan Skoor who is a certainly a wonderful woman.

    There are many things about the CofC that I find very appealing, though I am not too fond of their distancing themselves from the foundational stories of the restoration. As Firetag pointed out, they are very much into peace and justice lately, which I find as their most appealing aspect.

    A few years ago I wrote a paper comparing the LDS and CofC responses to 9/11 and the war in Iraq that you might find interesting. You can read it here: http://loydo38.blogspot.com/2007/05/comparison-of-lds-and-community-of.html.

  8. Narrator has produced a very good article. To update the further evolution of CofChrist toward the non-violent action theological position after Narrator’s article, I should note that Andrew Bolton, one of the authors N notes, was elevated to Apostle in 2007 and remains one of the most vocal advocates of progressive peace and justice positions in the church. After leaving the role of Church President and Prophet, Grant McMurray spoke openly in his own blog of his personal commitment to non-violence and acknowledged that he felt the United States should have elected George McGovern president during the VietNam era. The church also now sponsors an intern to work with the largest Quaker lobbying group in the country and is trying to actively promote political alliances with progressive denominations and interest groups on legislative agendas within the federal government.

  9. Narrator, thanks for the link. That is very interesting. I think the Bush administration could have done a better job of building consensus, just as his father did.

    I’ve always heard that the CoC wants to act more protestant, and every time I’ve heard that by LDS members, it is always meant in disdain (and makes me cringe.) Firetag, what do you make of such a comment–is it true that the CoC wants to appear more protestant?

  10. Well, it is not a case of “appearing”.

    One of the advantages of being a relatively small church is that average involved members (at least in the US) do get to know your equiv of “General Authorities” on a first name basis. These guys (and in our case, ladies) do walk the walk, because they sincerely hold the theological positions they are trying to teach the people. Indeed, all of the rumors and between the lines reading that I can find seems to indicate that the leadership believes it should pull the church into a more radical peace and justice direction than it has, but holds back to avoid shattering the church in the process (think Episcopalian).

    It may be a case of spending too much time in an academic/ecclesiastical echo box in formulating positions, or of having been burned so badly by conservative opposition to more modest steps they and their predecessors took in the 1980s that they distrust conservative worldviews and view progressive protestantism as more friendly. But their views are deeply and passionately held, in some cases to the point of accepting martyrdom if that should be required.

    I can’t even prove that their positions are wrong about what the church is supposed to do. I can merely prove that if they have correctly defined the mission, the maintenance of our denomination is rapidly becoming superfluous to mission achievement. And I’m pretty sure that by ignoring some of the deepest resources God provided the Restoration, we’re making completion of the mission harder not just for us, but for all of God’s people.

  11. Hi Heretic,

    I raised this question once on the MADB board.

    http://www.mormonapologetics.org/topic/7282-date-of-melchizedek-priesthood-restoration/page__p__183180__fromsearch__1&#entry183180

    But I got very little response. I did not bring up Quinn’s research, even though I had read it. It is a difficult topic for non-heretics.

    My own faith is that the Melchizedek Priesthood was restored at Father Whitmer’s chamber BY REVELATION. This occurred in 1829 before the church was organized.

    When Peter, James and John appeared to Joseph and Oliver in 1830 the restored the Apostleship, not the Priesthood.

    Read carefully this account from Church history:

    http://www.boap.org/LDS/History/HTMLHistory/v1c7history.html

    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, which holds the authority of the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.

    [They were together hoping to receive the fulfillment of the promised Melchizedek Priesthood.]

    We had for some time made this matter a subject of humble prayer, and at length we got together in the chamber of Mr. Whitmer’s house, in order more particularly to seek of the Lord what we now so earnestly desired; and here, to our unspeakable satisfaction, did we realize the truth of the Savior’s promise–“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you”

    [So this states that their prayer for this fulfillment was answered!]

    –for 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; and then to ordain others, as it should be made known unto us from time to time.

    [Clearly, BY REVELATION, they were commanded to ordain each other to offices in the Melchizedek Priesthood. Hmm. How could they do that if they did not have the Priesthood? The revelation must have given them the Priesthood.]

    We were, however, commanded to defer this our ordination until such times as 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, and have them decide by vote whether they were willing to accept us as spiritual teachers or not; when also we were commanded to bless bread and break it with them, and to take wine, bless it, and drink it with them; afterward proceed to ordain each other according to commandment;

    [Since all things are to be done by common consent, the Lord however tells them they must get the consent of the church members before doing these ordinations.]

    …then call out such men as the Spirit should dictate, and ordain them; and 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.

    [Thus, by this revelation, they had the Priesthood, and could pass it to others as directed by the Holy Ghost.]

    My own faith is that the reason they could receive the Melchizedek Priesthood by revelations is because they had been “foreordained” to it in the Spirit pre-existence. Thus they did not need to be “ordained” again– they only needed revelation to activate the Priesthood given to them as spirits.

    Richard

  12. While I won’t get into pre-existence issues here, I think you are making an important point. Priesthood comes from God BEFORE the rite. The rite is authorized by the people as a sign of their willingness to ACCEPT the ministry of priesthood. But the rite does NOT create priesthood. Consider: If the people had said “no”, the elders would still have been elders — they just wouldn’t have been associated with a church yet.

  13. Thanks Richard for stopping by. It seems some of my older posts are getting a resurgence in activity–I’m not sure why, but welcome! I think what I like about Quinn on this topic is that I’m not bothered by the ambiguity (frankly I wasn’t bothered before, because I wasn’t aware of it.) I really enjoyed learning that the early church was much more de-centralized, and much less organized than it is today.

    Honestly, it does not matter to me which date one chooses–Richard’s reasoning is as sound as anyone’s from that perspective. Richard, are you referring specifically to Alma 13:3?

    Richard, I checked out your website and downloaded a few pdf files. Some of the links on the PDF files are broken. I found the fascinating. Would you be open to a sort of interview like I did with FireTag and John Hamer about the Community of Christ?

    FireTag, I really wish you would get into pre-existence issues. ๐Ÿ™‚ I always enjoy your perspective on things. I’m not sure what you mean when you said, “If the people had said “no”, the elders would still have been elders — they just wouldn’t have been associated with a church yet.” Can you expound a bit? Which people–Oliver and Joseph?

  14. MH:

    I’d like to get into preexistence issues, too. But suggesting a different way to interpret the relationship between physical time and “spiritual metatime” makes the posts on parallel universes and duality in my blog positively simple by comparison. More urgent concerns keep pushing that back, since I practically have to create special graphics to have any hope of being clear.

    If you think about it, our theology says priesthood has been disconnected from a church for most of human history. The priesthood establishes the church institutions, not, as most protestant denominations assert, that the institutions determine who has priesthood. Priesthood established the church in the Book of Mormon multiple times. The church could not take away from Joseph or Oliver anything God had given them, and the church couldn’t bestow anything God didn’t want them to have.

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