When Joseph left the grove after seeing the Father and the Son, he was not a prophet. He had no calling and no idea that he ever would. The calling came three and a half years later, from Moroni. Joseph Smith—History 1:27–65 tells the story.[1] One of many things the angel told Joseph when he called him, and maybe ultimately the most important thing, was a paraphrase of Malachi’s prophecy of Elijah’s mission:

Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. . . . And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers. If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming.[2]

Moroni and Priesthood Power

In a reminiscent journal entry years later, Joseph said the angel “explained many of the prophecies to me,” including “Malachi 4.”[3] Moroni appeared three times that night and again the next day, emphasizing and expounding the same prophecy. There must have been something vital to Joseph’s calling in that repeated message. Malachi’s version of the prophecy of Elijah’s return doesn’t specifically mention priesthood. Moroni’s does.

The Lord sent angels to Joseph sometimes to solve problems Joseph didn’t even know existed. In this case, Joseph knew he needed forgiveness, but he didn’t know that the earth was on track to be wasted unless Elijah came soon to catalyze a dramatic turn. President Russell M. Nelson explained what was at stake. He taught that “eternal life, made possible by the Atonement, is the supreme purpose of Creation. To phrase that statement in its negative form, if families were not sealed in holy temples, the whole purpose of mortality would be utterly wasted.”[4]

Moroni announced that Elijah would endow Joseph with priesthood powerful enough to seal families forever, reverse the effects of death and the disintegration of families, and thus fulfill the purpose for which the earth was created. Joseph just wanted forgiveness. He got that and a calling to save the world. This was the first revelation Joseph received after his First Vision. It points us to the temple, to the Savior’s priesthood, and to the ultimate purpose of sealing families so they can be together forever.

Elijah and Priesthood Keys

Malachi’s prophecy (and Moroni’s paraphrase of it) was fulfilled on April 3, 1836, the second greatest Easter Sunday in history. Joseph attended an afternoon sacrament meeting in the recently dedicated temple in Kirtland, Ohio. When the meeting ended, he and Oliver Cowdery retreated behind the heavy curtains used to divide the room. They bowed in what Joseph’s journal describes as “solemn, but silent prayer to the Most High.”[5] They then beheld a series of visions.

Vision at Kirtland Temple © by Jorge Cocco Santángelo

First they saw and heard the Lord standing before them. After the Savior appeared He sent Moses to Joseph and Oliver to bestow the priesthood keys needed to gather Israel. Next Elias appeared and dispensed keys for the gospel of Abraham, “saying that in us and our seed all generations after us should be blessed.”[6] Then Elijah appeared and said that it was time to fulfill a multilayered prophecy.

Through Malachi, the Lord prophesied, “I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.”[7] Moroni paraphrased and personalized that prophecy for Joseph Smith in 1823. Now, nearly thirteen years later, Elijah fulfilled it. Jews had long awaited Elijah’s prophesied return and welcomed him during the Passover Seder. On the very day Elijah appeared in the temple, some Jews were celebrating the sacred meal with the hope that Elijah would return.[8]

Joseph Smith and the Temple

Joseph went to work putting the priesthood keys to use against great opposition. Not long after receiving the keys from Moses to gather Israel, Joseph whispered in Heber Kimball’s ear a mission call to Great Britain. While Joseph had previously sent missionaries only on short local or regional missions, Elder Kimball and his companions began the ongoing process of gathering Israel from the ends of the earth. Though oppressed by what seems like a concerted opposition that included financial collapse, widespread apostasy, an executive order driving the Saints from Missouri, and then unjust imprisonment in Liberty, Missouri, Joseph began to teach and administer the ordinances of the temple.

Wilford Woodruff was on a mission in the southern United States when the temple in Kirtland was dedicated and the Savior appeared there, followed by Elijah and others dispensing powerful priesthood keys. But Wilford went on to play a key role in recording what Joseph did with those keys and in continuing the ongoing restoration of temple work.

Inspiration © by Jorge Cocco Santángelo

For example, Wilford was with other apostles on June 27, 1839, exactly five years to the day before Joseph was murdered, when Joseph taught them to discern true and false messengers. Elias, Elijah, and Moses were true messengers who conferred keys essential to the unfolding restoration of temple ordinances and the fulfillment of God’s work to bring about the eternal life of His children. Wilford was the only one to record what Joseph taught that day. He drew symbolic keys in his journal entry, highlighting the sacred knowledge.[9]

Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, June 27, 1839

Wilford continued to learn the temple directly from Joseph Smith in between his missions. In the early 1840s he learned the terms, conditions, and eternal importance of the new and everlasting covenant of marriage. He learned that, because of Jesus Christ, this covenant unites a couple for as long as the marriage remains sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise.

The Fullness of the Priesthood

The Lord’s revelation to Joseph on this subject uses the word fulness to describe the blessings that flow from making and keeping the new and everlasting covenant of marriage. As the Lord put it, “the new and everlasting covenant . . . was instituted for the fulness of my glory; and he that receiveth a fulness thereof must and shall abide the law” (Doctrine and Covenants 132:6).

In the next verse, the Lord begins to reveal “the conditions of this law”:

  1. Making the new and everlasting covenant of marriage
  2. Having the covenant sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise
  3. Receiving that too most holy

Joseph’s journal entry for September 28, 1843, cryptically records a meeting of the Saints who had received the endowment and sealing ordinances.[10] That day Joseph and Emma received what Doctrine and Covenants 132:7 calls “that too most holy,” and what Joseph’s journal calls the “highest and holiest order of the priesthood.” Then they had what Joseph called “fulness of the priesthood.”

According to The Joseph Smith Papers,

in a separate ordinance performed the following September, Joseph and Emma Smith were “anointed & ordd. [ordained] to the highest and holiest order of the priesthood.” Other members of this council—including all nine members of the Quorum of the Twelve who were living in the area and their wives—eventually received the same ordinance, which Wilford Woodruff, a member of the council, often referred to as a “second anointing” in his journal.[11]

Joseph Smith gave the highest, holiest ordinance of the priesthood to Mary Ann and Brigham Young on November 22, 1843. Then Joseph instructed Brigham “to take the quorum [of the Twelve Apostles] and anoint them kings and priests to God.”[12] Wilford Woodruff’s journal documents how Brigham Young fulfilled his assignment.[13]

On Sunday, January 28, 1844 Phebe and Wilford met with other apostles and their wives and discussed “Elijah’s coming to seal the hearts of the fathers to the children [and] seal the hearts of the children to the fathers.” Wilford noted the reference to the passage in Malachi in his journal. Then he made an elaborate heart-shaped design, again incorporating symbolic keys, in connection with the occasion.

Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, January 24, 1844

Underneath the drawing he wrote, “Wilford & Phebe W. Woodruff received our second anointing and sealings.”

Joseph had been privately teaching well-prepared couples about the new and everlasting covenant in all its fulness. He called it being “sealed up by the power of the priesthood unto eternal life having taken the step which is necessary for that purpose.”[14]

In more general terms, Joseph taught the same principles in 1839 to the Saints at large:

After a person hath faith in Christ, repents of his sins, & is Baptized for the remission of his sins & receives the Holy Ghost (by the laying on of hands) which is the first Comforter. then let him continue to humble himself before God, hungering & thirsting after Righteousness. & living by every word of God & the Lord will soon say unto him Son thou shalt be exalted, &c When the Lord has thoroug[h]ly proved him & finds that the man is determined to serve him at all hazard, then the man will find his calling & Election made sure.[15]

Wilford Woodruff internalized these teachings. He spoke often of how he received the most sacred ordinances and covenants under Joseph Smith’s direction.

Brigham Young and Temple Ordinances

Joseph Smith gave Brigham Young the responsibility of organizing the temple ordinances.[16] He also specifically commissioned Brigham Young to succeed him as the one man on earth at a time who exercises the key of the priesthood mentioned in Doctrine and Covenants 132:7. “This last key of the priesthood is the most sacred of all, and pertains exclusively to the first presidency of the church, without whose sanction and approval or authority, no sealing blessing shall be administered pertaining to things of the resurrection and the life to come.”[17]

As Joseph’s instructions to Brigham Young illustrate, we would be wrong to assume that everything related to temple ordinances and covenants was restored at once. Joseph said it came to him “line upon line, precept upon precept; here a little, and there a little.”[18]

By 1846 there are records of the practice of the law of adoption, meaning sealings of adults to adults who were not previously members of the same family. Many Saints at this time were adult converts whose choice to join and gather with the Saints meant that their families disowned them. At the time, no one was sealed to deceased ancestors they had not personally known to have already accepted the gospel.

The Saints assumed that they should be sealed to other Saints, and desired to be sealed to the most faithful, who were therefore likely to be exalted. As a result the apostles developed large families of adopted adult children and their families. The migration from Nauvoo to the West was organized in part by these families. In some cases there were jealousies between adopted families, and a sense of superior status. In Winter Quarters, camped on the Missouri River enroute to the West in February 1846, although Brigham Young knew sealing was key to exaltation, he was sick and worried about the law of adoption.

He dreamed that Joseph visited the Saints: “Joseph stepped toward us, and looking very earnestly, yet pleasantly, said: ‘Tell the people to be humble and faithful, and be sure to keep the spirit of the Lord and it will lead them right. Be careful and not turn away the small still voice; it will teach them what to do and where to go; it will yield the fruits of the Kingdom. . . . Tell the brethren that if they will follow the spirit of the Lord, they will go right.’ ”[19]

Brigham Young acted on that counsel and passed it on to his successors. Not long before he died, President Young sent Wilford Woodruff to preside over the St. George temple when it opened in 1877, with explicit plans to begin the work of endowments for the dead. Up to this point, the endowment ordinances had been transmitted orally, with considerable variation. President Young tasked St. George Temple President and Apostle Wilford Woodruff, along with a committee of recorders, to “write out the Ceremony of the Endowments from Beginning to End.”[20]

Wilford Woodruff and Eternal Families

When Wilford Woodruff later became President of the Church, he thought deeply about Joseph’s teachings in Nauvoo:

This is the spirit of Elijah, that we redeem our dead and connect ourselves with our fathers which are in heaven and seal up our dead to come forth in the first resurrection, and here we want the power of Elijah to seal those who dwell on earth to those which dwell in heaven. . . . Go and seal on earth your sons and daughters unto yourself and yourself unto your fathers in eternal glory.[21]

President Woodruff concluded:

We have not fully carried out those principles in fulfillment of the revelations of God to us, in sealing the hearts of the fathers to the children and the children to the fathers. I have not felt satisfied, neither did President [John] Taylor, neither has any man since the Prophet Joseph who has attended to the ordinance of adoption in the temples of our God. We have felt that there was more to be revealed upon this subject than we had received.[22]

Some of that additional revelation came to President Woodruff on April 5, 1894. Three days later, in a general conference address, he told of the revelation:

I have prayed over this matter, and my brethren have. We have felt, as President Taylor said, that we have got to have more revelation concerning sealing under the law of adoption. . . . In the commencement of adopting men and women in the Temple at Nauvoo, a great many persons were adopted to different men who were not of the lineage of their fathers, and there was a spirit manifested by some in that work that was not of God. . . . President Young was not satisfied in his mind with regard to the extent of this matter; President Taylor was not.

When I went before the Lord to know who I should be adopted to (we were then being adopted to prophets and apostles), the Spirit of God said to me, “Have you not a father, who begot you?” “Yes, I have.” “Then why not honor him? Why not be adopted to him?”  “Yes,” says I, “that is right.” I was adopted to my father, and should have had my father sealed to his father, and so on back; . . . . That is the will of God to this people. I want all men who preside over these temples in these mountains of Israel to bear this in mind. What business have I to take away the rights of the lineage of any man? What right has any man to do this? No; I say let every man be adopted to his father; and then you will do exactly what God said when he declared he would send Elijah the prophet in the last days. Elijah the prophet appeared unto Joseph Smith and told him that the day had come when this principle must be carried out. Joseph Smith did not live long enough to enter any further upon these things. His soul was wound up with this work before he was martyred for the word of God and testimony of Jesus Christ. He told us that there must be a welding link of all dispensations and of the work of God from one generation to another. This was upon his mind more than most any other subject that was given to him.[23]

Ever since the April 1894 revelation, Latter-day Saints have administered sealings genealogically to ancestors rather than by being adopted into other families. The prophets have admonished the Saints, as Joseph Smith did, to present the records of ancestors in the temples for ordinances (see Doctrine and Covenants 128).

Wilford Woodruff lived long enough to bear his testimony into Emerson’s phonograph, recording his voice on wax cylinders that are preserved in the Church History Library in Salt Lake City. Today we can listen to him.[24] One thing to notice from his testimony is his emphasis on continuity amid changes. Wilford testified that he received his temple ordinances and his apostolic commission in 1844 under Joseph’s direction. He also testified that the temple ordinances “as received by the Latter-day Saints” in 1897 were authored by Joseph and “true principles.”

Prophets of God

Those same ordinances and the commission to give them to the Saints is now vested in the Lord’s living Apostles, led by President Nelson. In 2019 the First Presidency announced:

Whenever the Lord has had a people on the earth who will obey His word, they have been commanded to build temples. Scriptures document patterns of temple worship from the times of Adam and Eve, Moses, Solomon, Nephi, and others.

With the restoration of the gospel in these latter days, temple worship has also been restored to bless the lives of people across the world and on the other side of the veil as well.

Over these many centuries, details associated with temple work have been adjusted periodically, including language, methods of construction, communication, and record-keeping. Prophets have taught that there will be no end to such adjustments as directed by the Lord to His servants.

A dedicated temple is the most holy of any place of worship on the earth.[25]

Today’s prophets and apostles continue the work of salvation that was initiated by prophets of the past like Malachi, Elijah, and Moroni. Under the Lord’s direction, they oversee continuity amid change.

Steven C. Harper, Ph.D. is a professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University and the Executive Editor of the Wilford Woodruff Papers. After graduating from BYU with a BA in history, he earned an MA in American history from Utah State University, and a PhD in early American history from Lehigh University. He became a volume editor of The Joseph Smith Papers and the document editor for BYU Studies in 2002. In 2012 Steve was appointed as the managing historian and a general editor of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, and was named editor in chief of BYU Studies Quarterly in 2018. He has authored dozens of articles and numerous books  including: Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants (2008), Joseph Smith’s First Vision (2012), and First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (2019).

Discover more Church history insights within the Wilford Woodruff Papers by exploring wilfordwoodruffpaper.org.

Please join us at our Building Latter-day Faith Conference on March 4, 2023. For more information visit https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/conference/2023-building-latter-day-faith.


Some original text has been edited for clarity and readability.

[1] History, 1838–1856, volume A-1, [23 December 1805–30 August 1834], The Joseph Smith Papers, josephsmithpapers.org.

[2] Joseph Smith—History 1:38–19.

[3] Journal, 1835–1836, p. 24, The Joseph Smith Papers, josephsmithpapers.org.

[4] President Russell M. Nelson, “The Atonement,” Ensign, November 1996, ChurchofJesusChrist.org.

[5] Journal, 1835–1836, p. 192, The Joseph Smith Papers, josephsmithpapers.org.

[6] Doctrine and Covenants 110:12.

[7] Malachi 4:5.

[8] Stephen D. Ricks (1983), “The Appearance of Elijah and Moses in the Kirtland Temple and the Jewish Passover,” BYU Studies Quarterly: Vol. 23: Iss. 4, Article 16, scholarsarchive.byu.edu.

[9] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, June 27, 1839, p. 100, the Wilford Woodruff Papers, wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/journal/1836-06-27. See also Doctrine and Covenants 129.

[10] Journal, December 1842–June 1844; Book 3, 15 July 1843–29 February 1844, p. 110, The Joseph Smith Papers, josephsmithpapers.org.

[11] Nauvoo Journals, May 1843–June 1844, The Joseph Smith Papers, josephsmithpapers.org.

[12] George A. Smith, Address, December 1874, The Millennial Star 37 [2 February 1875]: 66.

[13] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, p. 196, the Wilford Woodruff Papers, wilfordwoodruffpapers.org.

[14] Instruction, 16 May 1843, as Reported by William Clayton, p. 14, The Joseph Smith Papers, www.josephsmithpapers.org.

[15] Discourse, between circa 26 June and circa 2 July 1839, as Reported by Willard Richards, The Joseph Smith Papers, josephsmithpapers.org.

[16] John Nuttall Journal, February 7, 1877, Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[17] Parley P. Pratt, “Proclamation,” [1 Jan. 1845] Millennial Star, Mar. 1845, 5:151.

[18] Doctrine and Covenants 128:21.

[19] Brigham Young, Manuscript History, February 23, 1847.

[20] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, January 14, 1877, p. 222, the Wilford Woodruff Papers, wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/journal/1877-01-14.

[21] History of the Church, 6:252.

[22] “The Life and Ministry of Wilford Woodruff,” ChurchofJesusChrist.org. 

[23] “The Law of Adoption,” Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols., comp. James R. Clark [1965-75), 3:254-5; see also The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff [1946], p.155; Teaching of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff [2004], pp. xxxiii-xxxiv.

[24] “The 1897 Audio Record of Wilford Woodruff’s Testimony,” BYU Studies, youtube.com/watch.

[25] “First Presidency Statement on Temples,” newsroom.ChurchofJesusChrist.org