The Restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood

In the LDS Church priesthood is defined as the power and authority to act in the name of God. This right is delegated to man on earth as a sacred charge and a divine investiture of that authority. Because the priesthood is God’s own power it matters to Him how it is received and utilized, and particularly how willing and worthy the recipients are to act in His name. To receive the priesthood is to enter into a covenant, and to pledge an oath, to magnify ones office in the priesthood and to live by every word which “proceeds from the mouth of God”.

Understandably those who hold this office have a desire to want to know more about the origins of its restoration through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Joseph has stated that it was passed on to both himself and Oliver Cowdery under the hands of Christ’s Apostles Peter, James, and John. He stated that they appeared to him as angels for the express purpose of restoring the priesthood.

The exact date of the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood is not known to Church history. The prophet Joseph later deplored the neglect of record keeping during this eventful period, stating that if he had such historical data in his possession, he “..would not part with them for any sum of money.. But this has been neglected,” he said with regret.

“..and now we cannot bear record to the Church and to the world, of the great and glorious manifestations which have been made to us with that degree of power and authority we otherwise could, if we now had these things to publish abroad.” – History of the Church 2:198-99

While the exact date has yet to be discovered there are however definite clues in regards to the time and location. That it did not occur in Fayette or Palmyra, New York is clear from the following revelation: “The voice of Peter, James, and John in the wilderness between Harmony, Susquehanna river, declaring themselves as possessing the keys of the kingdom, and of the dispensation of the fullness of times.” (D&C 128:20). Just where the precise spot was between Harmony and Colesville, a distance of twenty-seven miles, is impossible to say.

In an 1882 letter to then President Joseph F. Smith, Addison Everett, a bishop of the Church in Winter Quarters and again later in Salt Lake City, recalled hearing the Prophet in Nauvoo relate the circumstances surrounding the restoration of the Melchizedek priesthood:

“..Said as they were translating the Book of Mormon at his father-in law’s in Susquehanna County Pennsylvania. They were threatened by a mob and in the same time Father Knight came down from Colesville County, New York, and desired them to go home with him and preach to them in his neighborhood and on account of the mob spirit prevailing they concluded to go.” Everett recalled that even in Colesville persecution continued, forcing Joseph and Oliver to return to Harmony.”

His letter continues: “And they wandered in a dense forest all night and oftentimes in mud and water up to their knees. And Brother Oliver got quite exhausted in the after part of the night and Brother Joseph had to put his arm around him and almost carry him. And just as the day broke in the east Brother Oliver gave out entirely and he, Br Joseph, leaned him against an oak tree just outside a field fence, Br Oliver crying out, “How long, O Lord, O how long, Br Joseph, have we got to suffer these things?” Just this moment Peter, James & John came to us and ordained (us to) the Holy Apostleship and gave (unto) us the keys of the dispensation of the fullness of times. And we had some 16 or 17 miles to go to reach our place of residence and Brother Oliver could travel as well as I could… Now as to the time I cannot be very explicit. But as the mob spirit had not abated when they returned, they had to remove to Father Whitmer’s (Fayette, Seneca County) to finish the translation.” – Letter from Addison Everett to Oliver B. Huntington 17 Feb. 1883

How much credence can be given to a reminiscence written almost forty years after the fact is debatable. Nonetheless, it is true that the Knights assisted in the translation with paper and provisions, that persecution attended the translation, that by 1 June 1829 Joseph and Oliver had removed north to Harmony, and that the two were never together again in the wilderness of the Susquehanna.

As for the matter of timing, as early as June 1829 the revelations speak of Joseph and Oliver having already received the apostleship:”And I speak unto you, even as unto Paul mine apostle, for you are called even with the same calling with which he was called” (D&C 18:9) The Articles and Covenants of the Church – section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants – refer to Joseph and Oliver each having already been “called of God, and ordained an apostle of Jesus Christ” (v.2) some time before the Church was organized, Joseph had been “inspired of the Holy Ghost to lay the foundation thereof, and to build it up unto the most holy faith” (D&C 21:2). And again as per the Articles and Covenants of the Church, no officer in the Church – whether elder, priest, teacher, or deacon – could be ordained unless “by the power of the Holy Ghost, which is in the one who ordains him” (D&C 20:60). Put another way, there could have been no ordinations and no Church without first the bestowal of the gift of the Holy Ghost upon the first and second elders of the Church. As President George Q. Cannon remarked :“( Joseph) was unable to seal the gift of the Holy Ghost, or to ordain an elder, until after Peter, James and John had endowed him with the priesthood after the Holy Order of Melchizedek.”

Shortly after the organization of the Church in April 1830 Joseph thought for a time that the innovations he was called upon to perform were over. He told David Whitmer “he was through with the work that God had given him the gift to perform, except to preach the gospel.” At the same time, David Whitmer recalls, Joseph handed the seerstone he had used to translate over to Oliver Cowdery, saying “that he was through with it, and he did not use the stone anymore.” Moments like this often occurred to Joseph only to soon have a new revelation drive him on once again.

Over the next year the Church began to grow quickly. As the members sought to grow spiritually the evil influence of Satan began to manifest itself in false revelations and other types of “spiritual” outbursts. These included “the most ridiculous grimaces, creeping upon their hands and feet, and rolling upon the frozen ground.” A new convert at the time named John Corill stated concerning the events of the time “many improprieties and visionary notions crept into the church, which tried the feelings of the more sound minded,” but the wild conduct did not derail him. There were, he thought, “but a very few of the Church who were exercised in that way.”

Containing these excesses was not easy when Joseph’s own revelatory powers excited the members. To discipline the members Joseph sought and received a revelation which condemned the excesses and gave rules for judging the spirits. Members were told to follow the Spirit of truth, not the mindless ecstasies of so called “visionaries.” Spiritual gifts were meant to instruct, not merely to excite. Joseph instructed the saints that God gives knowledge upon knowledge, not mindless sensations.

As the Saints matured over the next year Joseph was told by the Lord to prepare the Saints for an endowment and the reception of further laws of the kingdom. In February of 1831 a revelation was received commanding the Saints to “Sanctify yourselves and ye shall be endowed with power.” The promise became more specific in the command to convene the elders, and “I will pour out my Spirit upon them in the day that they assemble themselves together.”

In early June, forty-four elders, four priests, and fifteen teachers met in a log schoolhouse near Isaac Morley’s farm, hoping for a spiritual endowment. In an expansive Spirit Joseph said that Christ’s kingdom, like the grain of a mustard seed, “was now before him and some should see it put forth its branches and the angels of heaven would some day come like birds to its branches.” According to Levi Hancock Joseph at this point told Lyman Wight he would see Christ that day. Wight soon turned still and white, exclaiming that he had indeed viewed the Savior. According to Hancock, Joseph himself said, “I now see God, and Jesus Christ at his right hand.”

Then the meeting unraveled. Joseph ordained Harvey Whitlock to the high priesthood, the most important business of the meeting, and Whitlock reacted badly. “He turned as black as Lyman was white,” Hancock reported. “His fingers were set like claws. He went about the room and showed his hands and tried to speak, his eyes were in the shape of oval O’s.”  Astonished at the turn of events, Hyrum exclaimed, “Joseph that is not of God.” Joseph, unwilling to cut the phenomenon short, told Hyrum to wait, but Hyrum insisted: “I will not believe …unless you inquire of God and he ownes it.” Hancock said, “Joseph bowed his head, and in a short time got up and commanded Satan to leave Harvey, laying his hands upon his head at the same time.” Then Hancock said, Leman Copley, who weighed over two hundred pounds, somersaulted in the air and fell on his back over a bench. Wight cast Satan out of Copley, and Copley was calmed. The evil spirit, according to Hancock, was in and out of people all day and the greater part of the night. Joseph, who was ordaining men to the high priesthood, came eventually to Hancock and assured him he had a calling “as high as any man in the house.” The words brought Hancock relief: “I was glad for that for I was so scared I would not stir without his liberty for all the world.”

This was not the spiritual endowment the elders had expected, and the outburst may have contributed to ‘trouble and unbelief” among the disciples. John Whitmer noted that about this time “some apostatized, and became enemies to the cause of God, and persecuted the saints.” But others understood it as Joseph did – as a manifestation of “the man of Sin.” Walking back from the meeting, Hancock heard Harvey Green, one of the possessed, say that “he could not describe the awful feeling he experienced while in the hands of Satan.” As John Whitmer reported in the minutes, “the Lord showed to Joseph the Seer the design of this thing, he commanded the devil in the name of Christ and he departed to our joy and comfort.”

During the turbulent meeting, Joseph ordained five men to the high priesthood, and Lyman Wight ordained eighteen others. The ordinations to the high priesthood marked a milestone in Mormon history. Until that time, the word “priesthood”, although it appeared in the Book of Mormon, had not been used in Mormon sermonizing or modern revelations. Later accounts applied the term retroactively, but the June 1831 conference marked its first appearance in contemporary records. The term “authority” appeared frequently, but not “priesthood.” The absence of the word prior to this point may be due to the association of the word with Catholicism. Writing about the meeting years later Joseph said that “the authority of the Melchizedek priesthood was manifested and conferred for the first time upon several of the Elders.”

Speaking on the Priesthood Joseph Smith stated “A  man can do nothing for himself unless God direct him in the right way; and the priesthood is for that purpose.”

“Those holding the fullness of the Melchizedek Priesthood are kings and priests of the Most High God., holding the keys of power and blessings. In fact, that priesthood is a perfect law of theocracy, and stands as God to give laws to the people, administering endless lives to the sons and daughters of Adam.”

Without the restoration of the priesthood there was no power to bind and seal the name of Christ onto the people, and no power to bind those families together into the eternities. We say a prayer of thanks to our God that Joseph Smith was able to restore this authority to mankind once again. He has enabled us all to see our God clearly and to receive instruction from him. As a prophet he instructed us that no blessing he himself received from the Lord could not be received by us as well if we but follow and apply Gods laws.