Hey guys, so in the past, we’ve talked a lot about the priesthood. If that term is unfamiliar to you, go watch these episodes. Latter-day Saints believe that the lower, or Aaronic, priesthood was restored to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery by the resurrected John the Baptist on May 15, 1829. The higher, or Melchizedek, priesthood was restored to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery soon after that by the ancient apostles Peter, James, and John. Many critics, on the other hand, believe Joseph made these angelic experiences up in order to lend credibility to his claims of authority, largely because descriptions of these experiences don’t show up until a few years after they were supposed to have happened. Let’s talk about it!
The bottom line is that I can’t prove to anyone watching that Joseph and Oliver were visited by angels. That seems to be pretty par for the course when it comes to angelic visitations. Where you land on this issue will depend on how you choose to interpret the history and who you choose to believe. Personally, I consider this controversy a non-issue because if Joseph did just make these experiences up, then Oliver Cowdery, who witnessed these events, had to have been a no-good dirty-rotten liar-liar pants on fire. And that just flies in the face of everything Oliver stood for.
Oliver Cowdery was a stand-up guy. And he wasn’t afraid to stand up even to Joseph Smith. He called Joseph out when he saw things he didn’t like. That’s partially why Oliver ends up excommunicated in 1838. If Oliver had been a co-conspirator, excommunicating would have been an extremely risky move, as it would put Oliver in a prime position to spill the beans and throw Joseph under the bus. But he doesn’t.
In 1846, while still estranged from the Church, Oliver wrote in a personal letter, “I have cherished a hope, and that one of my fondest, that I might leave such a character as those who might believe in my testimony, after I shall be called hence, might do so, not only for the sake of the truth, but might not blush for the private character of the man who bore that testimony. I have been sensitive on this subject, I admit; but I ought to be so—you would be, under the circumstances, had you stood in the presence of John, with our departed Joseph, to receive the Lesser Priesthood—and in the presence of Peter, to receive the Greater….”
So, I trust Oliver. And even the renowned critic, Fawn Brodie, could not justify labeling Oliver as a co-conspirator. Her conclusion, as a non-believer, was instead that Joseph had the ability to unconsciously hypnotize Oliver and the other witnesses, which we’ve talked about before. But still, if the priesthood was restored in 1829, why don’t we hear about the angelic visitations until 1832 and beyond? Well, it could be that some people did talk about it and just didn’t leave behind any records. Indeed, Joseph’s 1832 account does not seem to be a grand announcement. He says it as if it’s old news by that point. And perhaps it was.
But put yourself in Joseph’s shoes. It’s 1829. Relatively few people are involved in the movement at this point. The Church hasn’t been restored yet. The Book of Mormon hasn’t even been published yet. You’ve already been mocked and persecuted for years for talking about your angelic experience with Moroni. How eager would you be to speak out about these new angelic experiences? Not surprisingly, Joseph told us in 1838 that “we were forced to keep secret the circumstances of our having been baptized, and having received this priesthood; owing to a spirit of persecution which had already manifested itself in the neighborhood.”
Richard Bushman noted, “His reticence may have shown a fear of disbelief. Although obscure, Joseph was proud. He did not like to appear the fool. Or he may have felt the visions were too sacred to be discussed openly. They were better kept to himself.” And that reasoning isn’t unusual. You may recall the angelic experience of Peter, James, and John with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration in Luke chapter 9. Did they immediately make their experience public? No, “they kept it close, and told no man in those days any of those things which they had seen.”
This 1885 quote suggests, if the late memory is accurate, that even David Whitmer wasn’t told about John the Baptist’s visit. That seems suspicious to some people, but remember that after the visit of Moroni, Joseph was hesitant to tell his own father about it. In Mark’s account of the Mount of Transfiguration experience, Jesus specifically instructs Peter, James, and John not to tell anyone until the time was right. So I expect that Joseph and Oliver had their reasons.
But ultimately, like Oliver, David testified over and over again that the Book of Mormon was true—that an angel had shown him the plates. He was adamant about it. Unfortunately, it seems that to some critics, David Whitmer only becomes a credible source when he says something that can be used against Joseph and the Church.
Some critics also point out that the descriptions of the priesthood restoration visitations currently found in Doctrine and Covenants 27 were actually added to this section in 1835. We won’t talk much about this since we’ve already done a whole episode about changes to the Doctrine and Covenants. Needless to say, this wasn’t done in secret. People were well aware of the changes. These were simply Joseph’s revelations, and he felt he had the right to add, remove, or otherwise edit them as he felt inspired to do so. But more on that in this episode.
Now, in June of 1831, there was a general conference in which Joseph ordained Lyman Wight and a handful of others to the high priesthood, and then we read that he himself was ordained to the high priesthood by Lyman Wight. Naturally, some people wonder, if Joseph was supposedly given the priesthood by Peter, James, and John, then why is he being ordained here by Lyman Wight? As a side note, you could also fairly ask if Joseph had been given the priesthood by Lyman Wight, by what authority did Joseph ordain Lyman?
Anyway, there are a couple of different ways to approach this subject. Some historians believe that these were actually ordinations to the priesthood office of high priest and not ordinations to the Melchizedek priesthood itself. But even if these were ordinations to the priesthood itself, that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem because we’ve got precedent for this kind of thing. You’ll recall that after Joseph and Oliver receive the Aaronic priesthood from John the Baptist, they baptize each other, and then what do they do? They ordain each other to the priesthood again, “for so we were commanded.” I don’t know why they needed to do it that way, but I don’t have a problem with something similar happening with the Melchizedek Priesthood.
All these questions people have on this topic I think are understandable — I get it. But I think they come with reasonable answers. You are certainly free to come to your own conclusions. If you want to learn more about that Oliver Cowdery guy I highly suggest you go watch this video right now, and have a great day!
— “Priesthood Restoration Documents,” by Brian Q. Cannon (BYU Studies): https://tinyurl.com/4d589tj2
— “Priesthood Restoration,” via the Joseph Smith Papers: https://tinyurl.com/4vb7eezy
— “Restoration of the Priesthood,” via the Church’s website: https://tinyurl.com/2vtzryv3
— Podcast recommendation: “The Priesthood Restored: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast,” produced by the Church (specifically, check out episodes 2 & 3): https://tinyurl.com/yc3kebkp
— Recommended reading: “A Reason for Faith,” by Laura Harris Hales (editor), specifically chapter 6, “The Restoration of the Priesthood,” by Ronald O. Barney.
— “Minutes, circa 3–4 June 1831,” via Joseph Smith Papers: https://tinyurl.com/pymu6mww
— “The CES Letter, a Closer Look: Priesthood Restoration Intro Quote,” https://tinyurl.com/37dsbeea
— “LDS Truth Claims 33: Criticism from 1st Vision and Priesthood Restoration” via LDS Truth Claims on YouTube: https://tinyurl.com/4b34tscp
— “Defending the Authenticity of Priesthood Restoration,” via Latter-day Saint Q & A on YouTube: https://tinyurl.com/yc7cce57
— Doctrine and Covenants Section 13: https://tinyurl.com/382c9dpt
— Doctrine and Covenants Section 27: https://tinyurl.com/27x9uzks
— Doctrine and Covenants Section 128: https://tinyurl.com/yc7pwbra