Priesthood Restored or Retrofit?

By Lane Thuet

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On May 15, 1829, Mormon history records that John the Baptist gave the Aaronic Priesthood to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. Later, the apostles Peter, James and John gave them the Melchizedek priesthood. With these priesthoods restored, Smith could officiate the affairs of God’s kingdom with full authority. Mormons are taught that this authority had been lost soon after the original apostles died. During its absence, no one on earth had the proper authority to administer ordinances such as baptism, communion, or even marriage. LDS Prophet Spencer Kimball remarked, “Presumptuous and blasphemous are they who purport to baptize, bless, marry, or perform other sacraments in the name of the Lord while in fact lacking his specific authorization” (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p.494).

Mormons today are led to believe that their church alone has this true priesthood. Kimball added that “without this priesthood power, men are lost…There is no priesthood anywhere else today than in this restored [LDS] Church.” Fifteenth LDS President Gordon Hinckley added, “The priesthood is here. It has been conferred upon us. We act in that authority” (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, p.473). Mormonism teaches that for churches to act without this authority is a grievous sin.

Because of its necessary authority, this priesthood had to have been restored in order to properly organize the LDS Church. That means the restoration must have happened before April 6, 1830 – the Mormon Church’s official date of organization.

Significantly, no Mormons seem to have known about the priesthood in the earliest years of the Church. It should have been one of the foremost topics of teaching. Instead, there is no mention of any priesthood found in the histories, diaries, or writings of church members until several years after it had already been established. David Whitmer, one of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, said,

“I never heard that an Angel had ordained Joseph and Oliver to the Aaronic Priesthood until the year 1834[,] [183]5. or [183]6—in Ohio.… I do not believe that John the Baptist ever ordained Joseph and Oliver…” (Early Mormon Documents, 5:137).

Another early convert, William McLellin, stated, I joined the church in 1831. For years I never heard of John the Baptist ordaining Joseph and Oliver. I heard not of James, Peter, and John doing so.” Some time later he repeated that “I never heard of it in the church for years…” (An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, pp.224-25).

Whitmer states that teachings concerning the priesthood were first introduced into the church “almost two years” after its beginning (An Address To All Believers In Christ, p.35). LDS writer Grant Palmer admits, “Accounts of angelic ordinations from John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John are in none of the journals, diaries, letters, or printed matter until the mid-1830s” (An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, pp. 223-224). LaMar Petersen agreed, writing, “There seems to be no support for the historicity of the Restoration of the Priesthood … prior to October, 1834” (Problems in Mormon Text, p.8). Former Mormon historian D. Michael Quinn informs us that “men were first ordained to the higher priesthood over a year after the church’s founding. No mention of angelic ordinations can be found in original documents until 1834-35” (The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power, p.15).

In “A Revelation on Church Government” that Smith received in April 1830, there was no mention of either priesthood (History of the Church 1:64-70). Some time later, Smith went back and added three verses to the revelation, one of which mentions a “high priesthood” (D&C 20:67). When the Book of Commandments was printed in 1833, it included no mention of these ordinations.

The first time that any mention of angelic messengers is documented was in 1834 at a meeting of the Kirtland High Council. Soon after, Cowdery also started to talk about angels. In 1835, he said, “[Smith] was ordained by the angel John, unto the lesser or Aaronic priesthood, in company with myself… After this we received the high and holy priesthood …” (Early Mormon Documents 2:452-453).

The revelation referring to the Aaronic restoration is missing from the Book of Commandments, as well as from the original church history as published in The Evening and Morning Star (edition dated March 1833, p.6). The only known manuscript copy of the revelation makes no reference to the LDS priesthoods either (Origins of Power, p.16). All mention of priesthood was added at a later time. In fact, the addition included 459 words that were not in the original revelation.

The account of the Melchizedek restoration is entirely missing. B.H. Roberts writes that “there is no definite account of the event in the history of the Prophet Joseph, or, for matter of that, in any of our annals…” (History of the Church, 1:40fn). Palmer confirms that “no contemporary narrative exists…. the date, location, ordination prayer, and any other circumstances surrounding this experience are unknown” (An Insider’s View, 229).

Even Joseph Smith’s own family did not know about the restoration of the Melchizedek priesthood. Quinn writes, “Smith’s own mother made no reference to angelic restoration of authority in an 1831 letter she wrote to her brother about the new church” (Origins of Power, p.19). Joseph Smith III, the son of the founder of Mormonism, admitted that “there is no historical evidence of such an event. Nor is there any evidence that Peter, James, and John were present…. It is not safe then to write historically that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were ever ordained literally…” (Reorganized History of the Church 1:64-65).

The information that is available about the Melchizedek restoration also creates a problem. Many LDS scholars who have studied the event place the ordination within a few weeks of the Aaronic priesthood ordination date, which was in May 1829 (Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 2:885-86). There is a brief mention of the event in Oliver B. Huntington’s journal, which places the Melchizedek ordination on a night after Joseph and Oliver had been on trial in Colesville, New York (Journal of Oliver B. Huntington, 13 January 1881). Joseph Smith dated this incarceration in mid-to-late June of 1830 (History of the Church 1:84-85, 92-94). Wesley Walters located the court bill for this trial, which was dated “July 1st 1830” (Joseph Smith’s Bainbridge, N.Y., Court Trials, p.125).

That date is several weeks after the Church was organized. But LDS sources are emphatic that Smith could not have legally organized the Church unless he had received the Melchizedek priesthood first. That creates an irreconcilable problem for the LDS claim of authority.

Grant Palmer points out that

“by degrees, the accounts [of LDS priesthood restoration] became more detailed and more miraculous.… Details usually become blurred over time; in this case, they multiplied and sharpened.… The most plausible explanation is that they were retrofitted to an 1829-30 time period to give the impression that an impressive and unique authority had existed in the church from the beginning” (An Insider’s View, pp.228-230).

Conclusion

The evidence shows that the LDS teachings regarding a restored priesthood authority originated many years after the founding of the church, and that they were subsequently added to the early revelations and history. This is certainly a dubious foundation for such sweeping claims to be God’s infallible, and only, authority on earth.


Further Reading