History of the Church Series
The first volume of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days has recently been published! Titled The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846, this volume features several stories that draw on research and articles published by BYU Studies. One such article is cited in chapter 8 of Saints, which tells the story of the restoration of the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthood. You can learn more and read original accounts of the restoration of the priesthood in “Priesthood Restoration Documents,” by Brian Q. Cannon and the BYU Studies staff. Below is an excerpt of the full article, which was published in issue 35:4. To read the full text of this article, click here.
Few events in the history of the Restoration are as consequential as the bestowal of the priesthood upon Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. The following excerpts from early Church documents recount all of the known direct statements from the first twenty years of Church history specifically concerning the restoration of the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods. In addition to compiling the descriptions that were written or dictated by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, this collection also includes the accounts by contemporaries of Joseph and Oliver up to the time of Cowdery’s death in 1850. Reflecting information that was probably gleaned from conversations or unrecorded discourses of Joseph and Oliver, a few of these statements offer details unavailable elsewhere. Additionally, these statements help to reveal early Church members’ understanding of the restoration of the priesthood and show how they described the priesthood restoration to others.
Long before he received the priesthood, Joseph Smith learned of it from Moroni. According to an account of Oliver Cowdery published in 1835, Moroni appeared to Joseph in September of 1823 and informed him, “When they [the golden plates] are interpreted the Lord will give the holy priesthood to some, and they shall begin to proclaim this gospel and baptize by water, and after that they shall have power to give the Holy Ghost by the laying on of their hands. While it is unclear to what extent this retrospective account may contain details that were actually learned after 1823, Joseph definitely learned more about the priesthood as he translated the Book of Mormon in 1829. From the golden plates, Joseph learned that power was necessary to perform ordinances including baptism (3 Ne. 11:22), the sacrament (3 Ne. 18:5), and conferring the Holy Ghost (3 Ne. 18:37; Moro. 2:1–3); that this power was conferred by the laying on of hands (3 Ne. 18:38; Moro. 2:1; 3:2); that one could be ordained to the calling of disciple or elder, who in turn could ordain priests and teachers (Moro. 3:1); and that elders or disciples, unlike priests and teachers, could confer the gift the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands (Moro. 2:1–2). Additionally, a passage in Alma 13 discussed the calling and ordination of high priests including Melchizedek to the “high priesthood of the holy order of God” (Alma 13:6, 14, 18).
Having learned through the writings of ancient prophets that baptism by proper authority was necessary, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery sought that ordinance. In response to their supplication, John the Baptist appeared and conferred the priesthood of Aaron upon them. At a later date, Peter, James, and John appeared and bestowed what is known today as the Melchizedek Priesthood. . . .
While the documentary record is fragmentary regarding the date for the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood, the record is extensive and rich in many other respects. It strongly shows that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery repeatedly testified that they received power from on high to perform ordinances, first from John the Baptist and then from Peter, James, and John. Their testimonies began early in Church documents and intensified as these first and second elders drew closer to their own impending deaths. The powerful thrust of these accounts, corroborated by numerous statements from other early members of the Church, is intellectually challenging and spiritually invigorating.