All photographs taken by the author.
We have celebrated the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood from the time I was a young boy. We were in the St. Louis Missouri Stake and I remember gathering for wonderful fathers and sons outings in various places with amazing speakers and meals and campouts that commemorated this amazing event. I never remember once celebrating the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood. I think we didn’t because we didn’t know the exact date or many details of that sacred event. We actually know more than we think.
The Restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood
We have all been taught about the events and the context of the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood. Joseph and Oliver had been working on the translation of The Book of Mormon for 38 days. They came to the account of the Savior’s visit to the Nephites and to his teachings about the mode and manner of baptism. They read about authority: “Having authority given me of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen” (3 Nephi 11:25).
This ignited discussion between them.
Joseph Smith’s Account
“We still continued the work of translation, when in the ensuing month (May, 1829), we on a certain day went into the woods to pray and inquire of the Lord respecting baptism for the remission of sins, that we found mentioned in the translation of the plates. While we were thus employed, praying and calling upon the Lord, a messenger from heaven descended in a cloud of light, and having laid his hands upon us, he ordained us, saying:
“Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the Gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; and this shall never be taken again from the earth, until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness.
“He said this Aaronic Priesthood had not the power of laying on hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, but that this should be conferred on us hereafter; and he commanded us to go and be baptized, and gave us directions that I should baptize Oliver Cowdery, and afterwards that he should baptize me. Accordingly we went and were baptized. I baptized him first, and afterwards he baptized me, after which I laid my hands upon his head and ordained him to the Aaronic Priesthood, and afterwards he laid his hands on me and ordained me to the same Priesthood—for so we were commanded.
“The messenger who visited us on this occasion, and conferred this Priesthood upon us, said that his name was John, the same that is called John the Baptist in the New Testament, and 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, and that I should be called the first Elder of the Church, and he (Oliver Cowdery) the second. It was on the 15th day of May, 1829, that we were ordained under the hand of this messenger and baptized.”[i]
Oliver Cowdery’s Account
Oliver Cowdery gave us his perspective with other details. He and Joseph had pulled themselves away from “the abodes of men” and prayed fervently.
“On a sudden, as from the midst of eternity, the voice of the Redeemer spake peace to us, while the veil was parted and the angel of God came down clothed with glory and delivered the anxiously looked for message, and the keys of the Gospel of repentance…
“Then his voice, though mild, pierced to the center, and his words, ‘I am thy fellow-servant,’ dispelled every fear. We listened, we gazed, we admired! ‘Twas the voice of an angel from glory—’twas a message from the Most High, and as we heard we rejoiced, while His love enkindled upon our souls, and we were rapt in the vision of the Almighty! Where was room for doubt? Nowhere; uncertainty had fled, doubt had sunk, no more to rise, while fiction and deception had fled forever.
“But, dear brother, think further, think for a moment what joy filled our hearts and with what surprise we must have bowed, (for who would not have bowed the knee for such a blessing?) when we received under his hands the Holy Priesthood, as he said, ‘Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah, I confer this Priesthood and this authority, which remain upon earth, that the sons of Levi may yet offer an offering unto the Lord in righteousness!’”[ii]
Two Unknown Events
Oliver refers to two things we know little to nothing about. One is “the voice of the Redeemer spake peace to us.” What did the Savior say to them at this time? What revelation was given through His sublime voice? Oliver also said, “…and we were rapt in the vision of the Almighty!” We clearly are only given a small portion of all that happened on that Friday, May 15, 1829. We look forward to the day when all those things will be discovered or revealed.
The Restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood
There has been much discussion over the years about determining the exact date of the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood under the hands of the ancient apostles Peter, James and John. In the broadest range, every evidence points to the fact that this sacred event took place sometime between Friday, May 15, 1829 and August of 1830. Specific evidence, however, points to a much narrower field.
We have always had the date for Section 18 of the Doctrine and Covenants listed as June 1829. This section seems to offer a clue to our search for the date of the event. Verse 9 may be a key:
And now, Oliver Cowdery, I speak unto you, and also unto David Whitmer, by the way of commandment; for, behold, I command all men everywhere to repent, and I speak unto you, even as unto Paul mine apostle, for you are called even with that same calling with which he was called (emphasis added). It appears from this language that the keys of the apostleship had already been given. But we don’t know the date of this section. Or do we?
Letter from Oliver Cowdery to Hyrum Smith
Oliver Cowdery wrote a letter to Hyrum Smith dated June 14, 1829 in the which he uses specific language that clearly comes from Section 18. He wrote:
“These few lines I write unto you feeling anxious for your steadfastness in the great cause of which you have been called to advocate and also feeling it a duty to write to you at every opportunity.
“Remember the worth of Souls is great in the Sight of God. Behold the Lord your God Suffered death upon the cross after the maner of the flesh; wherefore he Suffered the pains of all men that all men might repent and come unto him and he hath risen again from the dead that he might bring all men unto him upon the conditions of repentence and how great is his joy in the Soul that repents and behold he commandeth all men to everywhere to repent and [be] baptised and not only men but women [and] children which have arrived to the years of accountibility.” (Emphasis added)[iii]
Oliver’s specific references to Section 18 clearly indicate that this revelation must have been received on or before this date, at least soon before he wrote this letter. This would narrow the date of the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood to between Friday, May 15, 1829 and Sunday, June 14, 1829—a period of just 30 days. But we can narrow it even further.
David Whitmer’s Trip
Joseph and Oliver invited David Whitmer to come to Harmony, Pennsylvania and bring them to his parents’ home in Fayette Township, Seneca County, New York. David Whitmer’s report indicates that about the 1st of June they arrived in Fayette. From that time for the next two weeks (bringing us to June 14) we have enough evidence of activities and the schedule of the work of translation (including the obtaining of the copyright for The Book of Mormon on June 11), that it seems unlikely the event took place in the first 14 days of June. Now we bring in one more witness.
Brother Addison Everett’s Recollection
Addison Everett, a contemporary with the Prophet Joseph, wrote a letter to Oliver B. Huntington in 1881. Although this was many years after the conversation he would quote, it gives us further insights into the events around the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood. Everett wrote:
“I heard the following conversation between Joseph and Hyrum a few days before they were martyred. … Oliver Cowdery was spoken of and Joseph went on to state that ‘at Coalville [Colesville] he and Oliver were under arrest on charge of Deceiving the people and in court he stated that the first miracle done was to create this earth. About that time his attorney told the court that he wanted to see Mr. Smith alone a few moments. When alone Mr. Reid said that there was a mob in front of the house and hosting [hoisting] the window, Joseph and Oliver went to the woods in a few rods, it being night, and they traveled until Oliver was exhausted and Joseph almost carred him through mud and water. They traveled all night and just at the break of day Oliver gave out entirely and exclaimed O Lord, How long Brother Joseph have we got to endure this thing.’
“Brother Joseph said that at that very time Peter, James and John came to them and ORDAINED THEM to the APOSTLESHIP.
“They had 16 or 17 miles to travel to get back to Mr. Hale’s, his father-in-law, and Oliver did not complain any more of fatigue.
“Now, brother Huntington, I have told you what I heard Bro. Joseph tell almost the last time I ever heard him talk.”[iv]
Elder Erastus Snow’s Witness
Apostle Erastus Snow gave a similar account in Logan, Utah in a conference address in 1882:
“In the due course of time, as we read in the history which he [Joseph] has left, Peter, James and John appeared to him—it was at a period when they were being pursued by their enemies and they had to travel all night, and in the dawn of the coming day when they were weary and worn, who should appear to them but Peter, James and John, for the purpose of conferring upon them the Apostleship, the keys of which they themselves had held while upon the earth, which had been bestowed upon them by the Savior. This Priesthood conferred upon them by those three messengers embraces within it all offices of the Priesthood from the highest to the lowest.”[v]
Elder Snow and Addison Everett were contemporaries in St. George, Utah, so it is possible that Elder Snow got those details from Brother Everett. Brother Everett’s recalling of the court trial and the reference to Mr. Reid seems better suited to a case the Prophet Joseph records in the summer of 1830. But it is possible that this Colesville case is a different one than the Prophet talks about.
Their account give us some interesting details that we have not talked about much in our historical accounting of this sacred event.
Joseph Smith Writes of the Sacred Event
The Prophet Joseph gives us one more reference to this event in our scriptural canon:
“And again, what do we hear?… The voice of Michael on the banks of the Susquehanna, detecting the devil when he appeared as an angel of light! 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 fulness of times! (D&C 128:20)
This adds an interesting detail. It appears from the sequence of events that at the very time the holy priesthood was about to be restored, Satan appeared as an angel of light and it was Michael (Adam) who intervened and cast him out!
Alvin R. Dyer Adds His Commentary
Elder Alvin R. Dyer commented about this event:
“It is to be remembered that it was Michael, the archangel, who was called upon to expel Lucifer and his disobedient and rebellious pre-mortal followers from the presence of God. The fact is that Michael, or Adam by his human name, has the God-given assignment to keep Lucifer within his bounds.
“Further evidence of this is seen in the attempt made by Lucifer to thwart the bestowal of the Melchizedek Priesthood by Peter, James and John upon the heads of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. Apparently, not having yet received the Higher Priesthood, they were not able to detect the presence of Lucifer, who, according to the words of the Prophet Joseph Smith, appeared on the Susquehanna River as an angel of light to deceive them and no doubt to attempt to interfere with the conferring of the Holy Priesthood upon them. We are informed by the Prophet of the appearance there of Michael, the archangel, who came to detect the deception of Lucifer and banish him from the scene.”[vi]
Dr. Alonzo Gaskill Adds Insights
Alonzo L. Gaskill writes about this:
“Satan, in an effort to deceive, appeared in the form of an “angel of light” to the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. It was immediately after this Luciferic encounter that Peter, James, and John restored the Melchizedek Priesthood…
“Lucifer tried to deceive Joseph and Oliver in their frightened and exhausted state by giving them a false revelation. At that very moment Adam appeared and cast Satan out. He then introduced Peter, James, and John as the messengers that Joseph and Oliver should give heed to. Joseph and Oliver were then ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood. The placement of this event in section 128 of the Doctrine and Covenants, immediately preceding section 129 on the discernment of spirits, is likely not coincidental.”[vii]
Day to Celebrate the Restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood
We don’t have enough evidence to narrow the date to one specific day, but based on all the context and circumstances we can assume that Peter, James and John returned to the earth sometime between Saturday, May 16, 1829 and before Saturday, May 29, 1829.
Based on Addison Everett’s recollections, we can rule out the following dates in May that year (based on the court schedule): May 16, 17, 18, 23, 24, 25. Based on Joseph’s record of the baptism of Samuel Harrison Smith (May 25), we can likely rule out May 26 and May 27 (because of the distance to travel to Colesville). Joseph also received some revelations in May, apparently before May 29. This likely rules out May 19, 20, 21 and 22.
In order for David Whitmer to get Joseph and Oliver to Fayette by June 1, he would have had to taken them on May 29 at the latest. Based on all these assumptions, the most likely day of the visitation of Peter, James and John is Thursday, May 28, 1829.
Joseph lamented that he did not keep a more careful record and that many of the important details of the coming forth of the Kingdom of God on the earth (including the exact date of the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood) were lost.
We publish this article today to commemorate this coming weekend, which most likely marks the 187th anniversary of the Restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood to the earth.
Conclusion: Source Documents and Background of the Restoration of both Priesthoods
There are a surprisingly large number of primary source (and secondary source) Church documents that impressively record critical details about the restoration of both the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods. More than twenty years ago, Brian Q. Cannon and the BYU Studies Staff published excerpts from 70 different historical documents that referred to either one or both of these events. Their research was published in BYU Studies, Volume 35:4 (1995). You can access that entire piece by clicking here.
Dr. Larry C. Porter has also done an impressive amount of research into determining the date of the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood. His findings are easily accessible in the June 1979 Ensign article entitled Dating the Restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood.
Dr. Porter also wrote another wonderful article in December 1996 talking about the restoration of both priesthoods. That article can be found by clicking here.
This author also produced a video in 2005 entitled Witness of the Light which documented some of these sources (including the recollection of Addison Everett) which gave us the above-mentioned-details about the events surrounding the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood. A two-hour documentary-style video covered the life of Joseph Smith including this brief segment on the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood:
[i] Smith, Joseph. History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Volume 1:39-41.
[ii] See Joseph Smith History Endnote or History of the Church, 1: 42, note 3.
[iii] Letter of Oliver Cowdery to Hyrum Smith, Fayette, New York, 14 June 1829.
[iv] Letter of Addison Everett to Oliver B. Huntington, St. George, Utah, 17 Feb. 1881, recorded in “Oliver Boardman Huntington, Journal #14, [under back-date of] 31 Jan. 1881,” Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. See also O. B. Huntington Diary #15, 18 Feb. 1883, pp. 44–47, where additional particulars are recorded. Original spelling has been retained.
[v] Journal of Discourses, 23:183.
[vi] Dyer, Alvin R. Meaning of Truth, Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, 1961, pp. 153-54.
[vii] Gaskill, Alonzo L., The Lost Language of Symbolism, Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, 2003. See Chapter 11.