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Calling the apostle John!

By Eric Johnson

In John 21:18, the resurrected Christ told Peter how he would die at the hand of others. When Peter asked the Lord what would become of the apostle John, Jesus said, “If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me.” What appears to be a mild rebuke seems to have been misconstrued in Mormonism as a promise that John would never die. Though not a subject talked about much by LDS leaders in public, it is taught very clearly in Mormon scripture that John is still alive somewhere on the earth. The introduction to D&C 7 even states, “The revelation is the translated version of the record made on parchment by John and hidden up by himself.”

Joseph Smith claims that when John was asked by Jesus what he desired, John responded by saying, “Lord, give me power over death, that I may live and bring souls unto thee.” [1] To this, Jesus supposedly said in verse 3, “. . . because thou desirest this thou shalt tarry until I come in my glory, and shalt prophesy before nations, kindreds, tongues and people.” Biblical scholars outside of the LDS Church tend to believe that John, though not dying as a martyr, probably lived out his days in Ephesus. However, Smith claimed that John (as well as Peter and James) appeared to him and Oliver Cowdery and bestowed upon them the Melchizedek priesthood.[2] Tenth LDS President Joseph Fielding Smith states that Peter and James appeared as resurrected beings, but John is not so described. Smith wrote,

There is a statement in the Gospel of John, written of his gospel account, which intimates that the Lord gave him power to remain until the second coming. There is a revelation in the Doctrines and Covenants, Section 7, which confirms this thought.”[3]

Despite the fact that D&C 7 states that John was to have “power over death,” he is described by Mormon presidents George Albert Smith and Spencer W. Kimball as a resurrected being who appeared to their founding prophet. During a general conference message in 1950, Smith, the eighth LDS prophet, said Peter, James, and John were men who “lived upon the earth as we have lived, who have gone on and performed their part and have been resurrected and sent back to earth.”[4] Kimball also refers to these three as “resurrected” beings.[5] Mormon Apostle John Widtsoe added that it was “the resurrected apostles, Peter, James and John” that conferred the Melchizedek priesthood upon Smith and Cowdery.[6]

In a 1964 general conference message, Mormon Apostle A. Theodore Tuttle also claimed John was a resurrected being when he appeared with Peter and James.[7] Meanwhile, Henry D. Moyle, the counselor to David O. McKay, retold the story of John’s visitation:

“Jesus Christ conferred his priesthood upon the apostles of old. Then Peter, James and John as resurrected beings conferred the same priesthood which they had received from the Lord upon Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.”[8]

A natural question to the above testimonies would be, “How could John be a resurrected being if he was promised that he would never die?” Though the word “resurrected” is not the most common adjective used to describe John, the phrase “heavenly messenger” or “heavenly personage” is certainly used on numerous occasions by LDS leaders. General authorities such as James Talmage, Bruce McConkie, Orson Pratt, George Q. Cannon, Orson Whitney, Charles Callis, Joseph Wirthlin, Joseph F. Merrill, William Critchlow, and Milton R. Hunter all used the word “heavenly” when speaking of John’s visitation to Smith and Cowdery. Joseph Fielding Smith used this expression when he said, “That they [Smith and Cowdery] did obtain them [Priesthood and Keys], we know, and that the keys of the kingdom were conferred by these heavenly messengers, we have evidence to show.”[9] And in Meet the Mormons, a book published by the LDS Church, Peter, James, and John are called “heavenly messengers.”[10]

If D&C 7 is to be believed, John could not die until Jesus returned. Thus, either Jesus’s promise to John failed or the Second Coming has taken place. Mormon Apostle Bruce McConkie denied that John was resurrected. Rather, he claimed that John appeared as a “translated” being. McConkie wrote, At that appearance, Peter and James were resurrected beings; John was translated.”[11] How McConkie arrives at this conclusion is not clear, but it certainly is not supported by D&C 7. The word “translated” means going from one place to another; this would contradict the specifics of Jesus’ alleged promise, which states that John was to remain on earth. This LDS scripture gives every indication that John would remain on earth as an earthly messenger, not as a translated or heavenly one.

The Three Nephites

The Book of Mormon, touted by Joseph Smith to be the most correct book of earth, reports how the resurrected Jesus Christ came to the American continent and promised three Nephite disciples that they also would live until the Lord’s coming.[12] Third Nephi 28:7-9 states:

“Therefore, more blessed are ye, for ye shall live to behold all the doings of the Father unto the children of men, even until all things shall be fulfilled according to the will of the Father, when I shall come in my glory with the powers of heaven. And ye shall never endure the pains of death; but when I shall come in my glory ye shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye from mortality to immortality; and then shall ye be blessed in the kingdom of my Father. And again, ye shall not have pain while ye dwell in the flesh, neither sorrow save it be for the sins of the world; and all this will I do because of the thing which ye have desired of me, for ye have desired that ye might bring the souls of men unto me, while the world shall stand.”

How these mere men could maintain this longevity is explained later in verses 37-40, which state in part,

“Therefore, that they might not taste of death there was a change wrought upon their bodies, that they might not suffer pain nor sorrow save it were the sins of the world. Now this change was not equal to that which shall take place in the last day; but there was a change wrought upon them…And in this state they were to remain until the judgment day of Christ.”

Verse 31 claims these three would perform “great and marvelous works,” yet verses 27 and 28 say that neither the Jews nor the Gentiles would know them. Third Nephi 28:29 states most clearly that the three Nephites “shall bring out of them unto Jesus many souls.” The idea that these men had never died and were still surviving on the earth is supported by quotes from LDS leaders. For example, George Q. Cannon, a member of the First Presidency, said,

“I have had my thoughts attracted, in consequence of a visit which brother Brigham, jun., and myself made to the hill Cumorah about three weeks ago, to the three Nephites who have been upon this land, and I have been greatly comforted at reading the prom­ises of God concerning their labors and the work that should be accomplished by them among the Gentiles and among the Jews, also before the coming of the Lord Jesus. I doubt not that they are laboring to-day in the great cause on the earth.”[13]

Fourth President Wilford Woodruff said,

“The first quorum of Apostles were all put to death, except John, and we are informed that he still remains on the earth, though his body has doubtless undergone some change. Three of the Nephites, chosen here by the Lord Jesus as his Apostles, had the same promise—that they should not taste death until Christ came, and they still remain on the earth in the flesh.”[14]

The Encyclopedia of Mormonism explains how many stories have circulated amongst the Latter-day Saint faithful about appearances that were made by these disciples:

LDS stories of the Three Nephites comprise one of the most strik­ing religious legend cycles in the United States. Bearing some re­semblance to stories of the prophet Elijah in Jewish lore, or of the Christian saints in the Catholic tradition, Three Nephite accounts are nevertheless distinctly Mormon. Part of a much larger body of LDS traditional narratives, these stories are not official doctrine and are not published in official literature. They are based on the Book of Mormon account of Christ’s granting to three Nephite disciples, during his visit to the New World following his death and resurrection, the same wish he had earlier granted to John the Beloved–to “tarry in the flesh” in order to bring souls to him until his second coming (John 21:22; 3 Ne. 28:4-9).[15]

 Apparently some of these legends have grown to the point where the church leadership cautions its membership from building upon these stories. One manual warned, “Note: Stories often circulate about the three Nephites who were translated. Members of the Church should be careful about accept­ing or retelling these stories. You should not discuss them in class.”[16]


Either there was great apostasy or there was not. According to the Law of the Excluded Middle, it can’t be both. Let’s consider the two possibilities and offer pertinent questions to each possibility:

There was a great apostasy.

What do we do with the stories of John and the three Nephites? Regardless of what types of bodies they had, LDS scripture specifically said that they were not to die. But certainly they were ones who had authority from Jesus Himself.

Wouldn’t those who converted under the tutelage of the four men be considered a part of the true church?

 Since we have no evidence that neither John nor these three Nephites ever worked in harmony with Smith to build his new church, are we to assume that their converts are a part of “the church of devil” as described in 1 Nephi 14:10 of the Book of Mormon?

There was not a great apostasy

Why did God supposedly tell Joseph Smith that all the churches were wrong?[17]

Why have so many Mormon leaders taught in the Great Apostasy?

If there was no Great Apostasy, then why there was need of a restoration by Joseph Smith?

For a look at other historical issues related to Mormonism, please click here.

[1] D&C 7:2.

[2] Just when this took place is not exactly known although LDS historians insist that it had to have taken place after Smith claimed to have seen John the Baptist on May 15, 1829. Mormon historian B.H. Roberts estimates that it took place sometime between May 15, 1829 and April of 1830.

[3] Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions 3:93.

[4] Conference Reports of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, April 1950, 188.

[5] Kimball, The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 456.

[6] Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, 249-250.

[7] Conference Reports of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, October 1964, 8-9.

[8] Ibid, April 1962, 101.

[9] Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation 3:98.

[10] Page 47.

[11] McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 572.

[12] Although the Book of Mormon does not specifically call them apostles, Bruce McConkie does in his book The Mortal Messiah 4:392.

[13] Journal of Discourses 16:120.

[14] Ibid, 13:320.

[15] Ludlow, Encyclopedia of Mormonism 4:1477.

[16] Book of Mormon Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual, 187.

[17] Joseph Smith—History 1:19.


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