Priesthood Restoration

The hallmark that sets the LDS Church apart from all other religions is its claim that God’s authority has been restored on Earth through the Prophet Joseph Smith. LDS historians suggest that the restoration occurred sometime in May 1829 in an unknown location near Joseph Smith’s home in Harmony, Pennsylvania. Joseph and his scribe Oliver Cowdery claimed that they were in the midst of prayer when they were visited by a heavenly messenger, John the Baptist, who conferred upon them the Priesthood of Aaron. Joseph and Oliver then claimed that a second visitation soon occurred in a separate location, this time by the ancient apostles Peter, James, and John, where the higher priesthood, or Melchizedek Priesthood, was also conferred upon them.  

Similar to Joseph’s first vision, the restoration of God’s authority passed without mention for years. The event remains documented in just a few sentences of altered scripture, the totality of which was inserted years later into previously canonized LDS scripture. This seminal event lacks any customary corroborating support – such as scribe notes, journal entries, press materials, first or second-hand accounts. The alteration of revelation remains the only supporting documentation which speaks to the visit of John the Baptist, Peter, James and John.

The belated introduction of the restoration narrative occurred during an intensely challenging period in Kirtland, Ohio. Not only was Joseph Smith’s sole authority being questioned, he also faced accusations of adultery. The timing and manner of the introduction of Joseph Smith’s authority claim, coupled with irrefutable evidence of the scriptural alterations supporting it, remains the greatest challenge to the Church’s claim of unique and superior authority. Even Richard Bushman, esteemed LDS historian, observed that “the late appearance of these accounts raises the possibility of later fabrication” (Rough Stone Rolling, 75).



The Book of Commandments (BoC), which contained a compilation of significant early revelations, was printed in 1833 with very limited distribution before the printing press was destroyed by opponents of Mormonism. This canonized publication remains the baseline against which latter alterations are compared. The Book of Commandments was expanded and revised in 1835 to become the Doctrine & Covenants (D&C).

In the revised edition, D&C Section 27 was expanded to include over 400 additional words. The expansion which delivered Joseph’s new and unique authority claims was the very first mention of John the Baptist, Peter, James and John’s visitation. Prior to the publication of the D&C, the miraculous priesthood restoration was unknown within the Church.

A prominent historian of Mormonism, Dan Vogel, observed, “Indeed, there was nothing thus far in the Book of Mormon to cause Smith and Cowdery to seek angelic ordination. Alma received authority to baptize through the Spirit (Mosiah 18:13). Similarly, Alma II taught that holders of the high priesthood were preordained to their office (Alma 13:3), and Jesus’ commission to Nephi and other disciples seem to have been conveyed verbally (3 Nephi 11:21). In this setting, the subsequent claim to angelic ordination seems anachronistic” (Joseph Smith, The Making of a Prophet, 307).

The Church is in possession of Wilford Woodruff’s original, signed Book of Commandments, yet for many decades refused to make the contents public. Upon learning that the Tanners, prominent Mormon history researchers, had secured the first 41 pages, the Church expressly forbade BYU from allowing them additional access. Like Joseph’s original 1832 first vision account, which was kept from public examination for decades, the Tanners were responsible for educating LDS members about these significant alterations.

Consolidation of Power

Most scholars concede that the restoration text was created in 1834-5 by Joseph and Oliver. Joseph’s credibility and authority were particularly threatened, as multiple church leaders purported to be in direct communication with the Lord as new Prophets or Prophetesses. Joseph’s delivery of the restoration and visitation narratives secured his role as the lone Prophet and discredited his rivals.

LDS apologists suggest that Joseph and Oliver remained secretive about their restored authority due to intense persecution. Regarding the secrecy and role that persecution may have played, historian Dan Vogel observed, “While this might explain why they didn’t tell the residents of Harmony, at least for the two weeks they remained in that neighborhood, it doesn’t explain why Smith and Cowdery kept this information from the Whitmer family and others who joined the church in Fayette, which neighborhood Smith admitted was much friendlier to his message. Nor does it explain why he maintained this secrecy for nearly five years in Ohio and Missouri.”




David Whitmer, one of the three witnesses of the golden plates and founding member of the Church, confirmed, “I never heard that an Angel had ordained Joseph and Oliver to the Aaronic Priesthood until the year 1834, 5 or 6… I do not believe that John the Baptist ever ordained Joseph and Oliver…” (Zenas Gurley Jr., Questions asked of David Whitmer at his home in Richmond, MO, Jan 14, 1885 / EMD 5:137).

Whitmer further elaborated on his witness to alterations. “Some of the revelations as they now appear in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants have been changed and added to. Some of the changes being the greatest importance as the meaning is entirely changed on some very important matters; as if the Lord had changed his mind a few years after he gave the revelations…The revelations were printed in the Book of Commandments correctly. This I know, and will prove it to you.”

“When the Book of Commandments was printed, Joseph and the Church received it as being printed correctly. This I know. In the winter of 1834 they saw that some of the revelations in the Book of Commandments had to be changed, because the heads of the Church had gone too far, and had done things in which they had already gone ahead of some of the former revelations. So the book of Doctrine and Covenants was printed in 1835, and some of the revelations changed and added to.”

“There is nothing in the New Testament part of either the Bible or Book of Mormon concerning a one-man leader or head to the church… And we had no such an office in the Church in these last days for the first eight months of its existence, until Brother Joseph went into this error on April 6, 1830, and, after unwittingly breaking a command of God by taking upon himself such an office, in a few years those revelations were changed to admit this high office, which otherwise would have condemned it. They were changed to mean something entirely different from the way they were first given and printed in  Book of Commandments; as if God had not thought of this great and important office when he gave those revelations.”

“I see that some of you claim that the same power which gave these revelations, had authority to change them, and refer to Jeremiah 36:32. By reading this passage you will see that the words which were added were “like words;” words which conveyed the same meaning — were added to that book by Jeremiah when he was writing it over again, because it had been burned in the fire by the king. But the words added to the two former revelations are not “like words,” as they change and reverse the original meaning” (An Address To All Believers in Christ, Whitmer).


Lucy Mack Smith’s (Joseph’s mother) 1831 letter to her brother defending the Church lacks any mention of any angel or authority restoration.

Joseph Knight, in 1833, wrote a history of important events in Mormonism up to that year, yet makes no reference to either John Baptist or Peter, James, John. This omission is very significant because his history is the only LDS source for details of angel Moroni’s annual visits with the Smith from 1823 to 1827.

William McLellin shared, “As to the story of John the Baptist ordaining Joseph and Oliver on the day they were baptized; I never heard of it in the church for years, altho I carefully noticed things that were said.”(McLellin to Joseph Smith III, July 1872) William’s story remained consistent, reporting years later, “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… (McLellin to J.L. Traughber, Aug 25, 1877).

B.H. Roberts wrote, “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… This lack of historical proof will not alter belief in the divine commission. These matters are to be accepted by faith.” (History of the Church,1:40. Paragraphs believed to substantiate the priesthood restoration in D&C 18:9; 20:2, 3 ; 27:12; 128:20 are cited).

Joseph F. Smith and Orson Hyde asked David Whitmer “Can you tell the date of the restoration of the Apostleship by Peter, James, and John?” He replied: “I do not know, Joseph never told me. I can only tell you what I know: I will not testify to anything I do not know” (Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 25).


In Biblical times, priesthood wasn’t spoken of as an abstract principle independent of priests. Priesthood was simply a state or quality of being a priest. It wasn’t receiving the priesthood that made one a priest, but rather being made a priest gave one priesthood – just as being dubbed a knight gives one knighthood. The New Testament doesn’t explicitly state that the priesthood was given to any of Christ’s disciples (This is My Doctrine, 373-6).

The LDS Church today teaches that there are two priesthoods: Aaronic and Melchizedek. The word “priesthood” is often used for an array of overlapping but subtly distinct concepts, such as priesthood power, priesthood authority, priesthood keys, priesthood offices, priesthood blessings, priesthood leaders, priesthood quorums, and priesthood ordinances. In the modern LDS church, priesthood is everywhere, and always patriarchal.

This immersion in the modern Church’s understanding of “priesthood” can make it difficult for us to put ourselves in the shoes of members who were present at the time of its restoration. To accurately understand events as they unfolded, we must attempt to imagine how the revelations would have been seen by the first converts, who came from Methodist, Baptist, and other backgrounds. The editors of the  Joseph Smith Papers  project have noted that this difficulty was present even as far back as the 1838-1839, when later terminology was already being retroactively applied to early church events:

Additionally, the narrative itself, composed beginning in 1838, necessarily reflects the perspective of Joseph Smith and his collaborators at the time of its production, thus inadvertently introducing terminology and concepts that were not operative a decade earlier in the period the narrative describes. Examples include using later priesthood nomenclature such as “Aaronic” and “Melchizedek” and calling the church Smith established “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,” a name not designated until 1838. Such usage makes it difficult to trace the details of the unfolding of church governance and doctrine in the faith’s dynamic early years.

The timeline below outlines relevant events and revelations surrounding the restoration of the priesthood. In hopes of avoiding anachronisms, it lists documents and events in the order that they appear in the historical record, rather than in the order of the modern restoration narrative.


The priesthood restoration was incremental and its true history contains significant challenges. This timeline shows the evolution of a number of ideas surrounding authority and priesthood.

Date Event
1827-1829 Alexander Crawford, a Scottish minister in Canada, teaches the existence of three priesthoods: a patriarchal priesthood after the “order of Melchisedec”, an “Aaronical” priesthood, and a priesthood held by Jesus Christ. The Disciples of Christ, a group committed to restoring primitive Christianity, is influenced by Crawford’s teachings in creating its own priesthood doctrine.3 The Disciples of Christ are also known as “Campbellites”.4

Sidney Rigdon, a Campbellite minister, has great success building up his congregation in Mentor, Ohio and nearby towns, including Kirtland.5

May 15, 1829 John Baptist visits
Mar 26, 1830 The Book of Mormon is published. It sometimes uses the term “high priest” to describe the top religious official in a region, but other times refers to groups of “high priests” together.6 It uses the word “priesthood” in two chapters (Alma 4 and Alma 13), always referring to it as the “high priesthood”, and sometimes expanding it with variations of “high priesthood according to the holy order of God”.7 Alma 13 describes Melchizedek as a high priest but does not identify an order of the priesthood as bearing his name.8 The book describes a number of people baptizing, leading churches, serving missions, or speaking for God with no record of them receiving power or authority to do so from a priesthood holder. These include Lehi, Nephi, Alma, Samuel the Lamanite, and others.

In 3 Nephi, Jesus gives power to Nephite disciples that he visits after his resurrection, but he does not use the word “priesthood”. He gives one prophet “power that ye shall baptize this people” by verbal decree, without laying on of hands.9 A later group of Nephite disciples is given “power to give the Holy Ghost” by Jesus after they are “touched with his hand.”10

Near the end of the book, Moroni speaks of elders ordaining teachers and priests by the laying on of hands.11  The Book of Mormon makes no mention of a lower priesthood associated with Aaron.

Apr 1830 The Church of Christ is founded by Joseph Smith. Joseph dictates a revelation titled The Articles and Covenants of the church of Christ, which lays out the offices of elder, priest, teacher, and deacon.12 The revelation does not use the words “priesthood”, “Melchizedek”, or “Aaronic”, or distinguish between a higher and lower order. This revelation would become chapter 24 of the Book of Commandments (BoC) and eventually section 20 of today’s Doctrine and Covenants (D&C).

At the founding meeting, Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith ordain each other as elders “unto this church of Christ”, with no reference to an order of priesthood.13

Aug 1830  The Church claims D&C 27 was received this month.
Oct 1830 Parley P. Pratt shares the Book of Mormon with Sidney Rigdon, who then joins the church along with his formerly Campbellite congregation. Over the next several months, Sidney’s preaching leads to the conversion of over a thousand people in the Kirtland area.14
Feb 1831 Joseph and Emma move to Kirtland, Ohio.15
June 3, 1831 At a conference of church leaders in Kirtland, Joseph is ordained to the “high priesthood” by Lyman Wight. “The authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood was manifested and conferred for the first time upon several of the Elders.” (History of the Church, 1:175-76) .Over 20 other men are also ordained, most by Lyman but a few by Joseph. This is the earliest occurrence of the word “priesthood” in modern Mormon teachings or revelations.16 Joseph Smith’s own history, written years later, claims this as the first time.  B.H.Roberts, as church historian, recognized the problem and inserted footnote denying the text.

Note that the conference included evil spirits which threw one from his seat to the floor, bound another, inability to use limbs or speak.

Nov 1831 Joseph receives a revelation stating that those holding each office (elder, priest, teacher, deacon) should be organized in groups with those of the same office, and presided over by someone of that same office. It also lays out a progression between offices from deacon to teacher to priest to elder and finally to “the high Priesthood”. The word “priesthood” is used only in reference to this top office, and not in reference to the lower ones.17 The progression of offices in this revelation reiterates the progression instituted at a meeting a month earlier.18

This revelation would later become a portion of section 107 of today’s Doctrine and Covenants.

Feb 1832 Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon together receive a vision (now D&C 76) in which those who “come forth in the resurection of the just” are described as “priests of the most high after the order of Melchesadeck which was after the order of Enoch which was after the order of of the only begotten son”.19
June 1832  The Evening and Morning Star, the Church’s first periodical, which often introduces revelations to members, yet no mention of the first vision or Peter, James, John.
Summer 1832 In the preface to an unfinished history, Joseph refers to “reception of the holy priesthood by the ministering of Angels to administer the letter of the Gospel the Law and commandments as they were given unto him and the ordinances, forthly a confirmation and reception of the high Priesthood after the holy order of the son of the living God power and ordinance from on high to preach the gospel in the administration and demonstration of the spirit the Kees of the Kingdom of God conferred upon him…” (This is the same document that contains the 1832 First Vision account.)20
Sep 1832 Over the course of two days, Joseph dictates a revelation (D&C 84) that teaches in detail about two orders of priesthood: a “Holy Priesthood” that the revelation repeatedly associates with Moses, and a “lesser priesthood” that the revelation associates with Aaron. The line of Moses’s ordination is traced back to a previously-unknown “Esaius”, who received it directly from God, and is said to have lived at the same time as Abraham. Abraham’s priesthood line is also traced back through Melchizedek, Noah, Enoch, Abel, and Adam.21

This revelation also introduces specific links between church offices and the two priesthoods. “[T]he offices of elder and bishop are necessary appendages belonging unto the high priesthood”, says the revelation, and “the offices of teacher and deacon are necessary appendages belonging to the lesser priesthood”.

1833 Book of Commandments published by W.W. Phelps, predecessor to D&C, Verse 28 is very important – no mention of Peter, James, John.
1833 Joseph Knight writes history of important events in Mormonism up to that year – no mention of either John Baptist or Peter, James, John.
Nov 15, 1833 Mormonism Unvailed printed – first significant anti-Mormon book – no mention of First Vision, Peter, James, John.
Feb 1834 At a council in Kirtland, Joseph says “I remarked, that I should endeavor to set before the council the dignity of the office which had been conferred on me by the ministering of the angel of God, by his own voice, and by the voice of this church”.22 

Oliver’s account was “the first time Mormons learned that a heavenly conferral of authority occurred before the church’s organization.” Source

1834 Oliver Cowdery writes Full History of the Rise of the Church of the Latter Day Saints. Such a comprehensive history of the early years should surely contain the details of multiple miraculous events, yet we find only the ecstatic account of ordination by an unidentified angel. If Joseph and Oliver then knew him to be John the Baptist they did not reveal it. There is no mention of two priesthoods, Aaronic or Melchizedek, lesser or higher, no promise of the Holy Ghost, no visit of Peter, James, and John (which in 1834 should have been a matter of historical record for five years), no mention of the baptism and ordination of each other, and finally, a different wording of the angelic conferment.
Apr 1834 The minutes of another Kirtland council meeting include: “Bro Joseph Smith Jr. … then gave a relation of obtaining and translating the Book of Mormon, the revelation of the priesthood of Aaron, the organization of the Church in the year 1830, the revelation of the high priesthood and the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out upon the church…”23
Oct 1834 Oliver Cowdery publishes an account of angelic ordination in the Messenger and Advocate. The angel’s language is very similar to that which would appear later in Joseph’s 1839 history, but the angel is not identified as John the Baptist, and the angel refers to “this priesthood” rather than the “priesthood of Aaron”. There is no mention of a second ordination by Peter, James, and John.24
Aug 17, 1835 Updated and heavily revised Doctrine & Covenants presented at conference, containing numerous unannounced changes and expansions to previously published revelations. PETER, JAMES, JOHN retroactively inserted into D&C 27 – FIRST TIME ANYBODY HEARS OF PRIESTHOOD RESTORATION. 

To the existing revelation on church offices (BoC 24, today’s D&C 20) is added a reference to the “high priesthood” and the offices of traveling bishop, high councilor, and high priest.

The revelation on sacramental wine (BoC 28, today’s D&C 27) is more than doubled in size, adding the names of several scriptural prophets who will participate in a special sacrament ceremony at Jesus’s second coming. After mentioning John the Baptist the additional verses say “Which John I have sent unto you, my servants, Joseph Smith, Jun., and Oliver Cowdery, to ordain you unto the first priesthood which you have received, that you might be called and ordained even as Aaron;” and later in the same section “And also with Peter, and James, and John, whom I have sent unto you, by whom I have ordained you and confirmed you to be apostles, and especial witnesses of my name, and bear the keys of your ministry and of the same things which I revealed unto them”.25

This 1835 change to an 1830 revelation is the earliest mention of being ordained by resurrected biblical figures.

1835 Oliver Cowdery 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).
1839 Joseph records a new history of the founding events of the church, which we have today as Joseph Smith History. This includes the account of John the Baptist ordaining Joseph and Oliver to the “priesthood of Aaron”, and relates John saying that he “acted under the direction of Peter, James and John, who held the keys of the Priesthood of Melchizedek, which Priesthood, he said, would in due time be conferred on us.”

This is the first account giving a date for the Aaronic priesthood restoration (May 15, 1829).26

Joseph explained the absence of earlier accounts of this event by saying “we were forced to keep secret the circumstances of having received the Priesthood and our having been baptized, owing to a spirit of persecution which had already manifested itself in the neighborhood.”

The history goes on to describe Joseph and Oliver ordaining each other to be elders, but does not provide an account or a date for ordination by Peter, James, and John.27

1842 In an epistle to the church, Joseph recounts hearing “The voice of Peter, James, and John in the wilderness between Harmony, Susquehanna county, and Colesville, Broome county, on the Susquehanna river, declaring themselves as possessing the keys of the kingdom, and of the dispensation of the fullness of times!” This letter comprises section 128 of today’s Doctrine and Covenants.28 It limits the possible locations of the Melchizedek priesthood ordination to an approximately 50 mile stretch of river between Colesville and Harmony. (The entire distance is more like 350 miles, but most of it does not run along the Susquehanna river).
1876 The words of John the Baptist from the 1839 priesthood restoration account are added to the Doctrine and Covenants as section 13.
1885 In an interview, David Whitmer says the following:

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, my information from Joseph and Oliver upon this matter being as I have stated, and that they were commanded so to do by revealment through Joseph. I do not believe that John the Baptist ever ordained Joseph and Oliver as stated and believed by some. I regard that as an error, a misconception…”29

1887 David Whitmer publishes An Address to All Believers in Christ. It reaffirms his testimony of seeing the gold plates, but also says this about the priesthood:

“This matter of ‘priesthood,’ since the days of Sydney Rigdon, has been the great hobby and stumbling-block of the Latter Day Saints. Priesthood means authority; and authority is the word we should use. I do not think the word priesthood is mentioned in the New Covenant of the Book of Mormon. Authority is the word we used for the first two years in the church — until Sydney Rigdon’s days in Ohio. This matter of the two orders of priesthood in the Church of Christ, and lineal priesthood of the old law being in the church, all originated in the mind of Sydney Rigdon. He explained these things to Brother Joseph in his way, out of the old Scriptures, and got Brother Joseph to inquire, etc. He would inquire, and as mouth-piece speak out the revelations Just as they had it fixed up in their hearts.”30

Whitmer also describes some church members being troubled and leaving the church over changes made to the revelations when the Doctrine and Covenants was published: “When it became generally known that these important changes had been made in the Doctrine and Covenants, many of the brethren objected seriously to it, but they did not want to say much for the sake of peace, as it was Brother Joseph and the leaders who did it.”31 (Emphasis in original.)



Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery claimed that Christ, Moses, Elias, and Elijah appeared to them in the Kirtland temple on April 3, 1836. (D&C 110) This visitation is credited as the moment additional priesthood keys were restored surrounding the LDS Temple Ceremony. According to Smith’s claims, The Savior appeared to accept the offering of the saints (D&C 110:3), Moses appeared to restore the keys of the gathering of Israel, Elias appeared to restore the blessing of the Abrahamic Covenant, and Elijah appeared to restore the temple sealing power. There are two significant challenges with this narrative.

First, Smith apparently remained unaware that two of these seemingly different Biblical figures are in fact the same person; Elias is merely the Greek form of the Hebrew Elijah. He describes both figures as fulfilling Malachi’s prophecy regarding the return of the prophet Elijah. Thus, the two beings described separately by Smith in the context of Malachi’s prophecy would be the same person.

Some Mormon scholars attempt to reconcile the dilemma with the notion that the name Elias has been applied to other men besides Elijah, such as Noah, John the Baptist and others. Or perhaps Smith’s Elias was merely a preparatory messenger who goes before one greater than himself. Such arguments rely upon incorrect Biblical and linguistic context, while avoiding the fact that Smith also clearly refers to two distinct Elias and Elijah prophets in D&C 27:6-9.

Richard Packham provides a thorough examination of the issue, suggesting “Now, which explanation makes more sense and is more likely the case? …Elias is a hitherto unknown prophet of Abraham’s time, with a Greek name, or maybe Abraham himself, or Melchizedek, or Gabriel – who is also Noah – and Christ, and Elijah, and John the Baptist, and John the Revelator, and a ‘spirit or doctrine’? Or the more obvious conclusion that Joseph Smith was simply ignorant of the fact that the King James New Testament uses the Greek version of Old Testament names?”  

The second problem with Smith’s Elijah narrative stems from a lacking doctrinal need for additional binding powers. Malachi 4:5-6 is interpreted by the LDS Church as the restoration of the sealing powers which enables families to be sealed together. Yet Malachi’s prophecy as it appears in the Old Testament gives no indication that Elijah would restore priesthood keys or reveal sealing ordinances either for the living or the dead.

The New Testament interprets Elijah’s coming as having been fulfilled in John the Baptist. There is no mention of John exercising what Mormons understand as sealing powers. The view of a future coming of Elijah was refuted by traditional Christian theologians, who pointed to Christ’s own assertion that John the Baptist was Elias.

Why Elijah’s authority would have been needed to make any ordinance binding is unclear, since Peter, James and John restored “the keys of the kingdom, which included the authority to “bind on earth” and “in heaven.” (Matt 16:9) Significantly, in all versions of Malachi’s prophecy revealed to Joseph Smith prior to 1838, there is no change in the wording from the King James Bible, nor is there any indication that Elijah would restore any sealing authority. This includes passages in the Book of Mormon, the D&C and even JST Malachi 4:4-5 (This is My Doctrine, 74-76).



Links to Rough Stone Rolling references:

  • Pages 157-59 discuss how Joseph Smith was ordained to the high priesthood (Melchizedek Priesthood) for the “first time” one to two years AFTER Peter, James, and John were said to have bestowed the Melchizedek Priesthood on Joseph and Oliver.
  • Page 75 summarizes how “The late appearance of these accounts raises the possibility of later fabrication.”