Overview of the Priesthood Restoration Accounts
In our last overview, we looked at the different accounts of the First Vision, what the historical record tells us about Joseph Smith’s First Vision, and how the changes in the First Vision aligned simultaneously with changes in Joseph Smith’s theology.
Just like the First Vision, the priesthood restoration is one of the most important events of Mormonism, and, just like the First Vision, the account underwent major changes in the early years of the church. These changes are similar to the First Vision in that they become grander as Joseph Smith needs to bolster his authority, with major changes to claimed revelations from God years later to retrofit the visitation of Peter, James, and John.
One of the best ways to illustrate the evolution of the priesthood restoration is to look at how the church describes the timeline against the historical timeline. As you’ll see below, the historical timeline is much different than the how the church teaches the priesthood restoration, and that a pattern is emerging where Joseph Smith is willing to change revelations and events as needed.
Official Church Timeline of the Priesthood Restoration:
Before we look at the historical records of the priesthood restoration, I want to cover the official narrative of the church regarding the restoration of the Aaronic and Melchezidek priesthoods. A quick overview can be found on the church's website, and we will cover the timeline from that article below.
May 15, 1829: John the Baptist conferred the Aaronic Priesthood on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in Harmony, Pennsylvania. From the official History of the Church (the History of the Church was not written until 1838):
"[W]e ... 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 [Book of Mormon] .... 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 that afterwards he should baptize me.
Accordingly we went and were baptized.
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.
Immediately on our coming up out of the water after we had been baptized, we experienced great and glorious blessings from our Heavenly Father. No sooner had I baptized Oliver Cowdery, than the Holy Ghost fell upon him, and he stood up and prophesied many things which should shortly come to pass. And again, so soon as I had been baptized by him, I also had the spirit of prophecy, when, standing up, I prophesied concerning the rise of this Church, and many other things connected with the Church, and this generation of the children of men. We were filled with the Holy Ghost, and rejoiced in the God of our salvation." (Joseph Smith–History 1:68)
This excerpt from the History of the Church was also later converted into Doctrine and Covenants 13:
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. (D&C 13)
May 1829: Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery received the Melchizedek Priesthood from Peter, James, and John near the Susquehanna River between Harmony, Pennsylvania, and Colesville, New York. From the church's restoration page:
Sometime after John the Baptist’s appearance, the ancient Apostles Peter, James, and John also appeared to Joseph and Oliver, again under the direction of Jesus Christ, and conferred upon them the Melchizedek Priesthood (see Doctrine and Covenants 128:20). “The Melchizedek Priesthood holds the right of presidency, and has power and authority over all the offices in the church in all ages of the world, to administer in spiritual things” (Doctrine and Covenants 107:8). With this authority again on the earth, the Church of Jesus Christ could be restored in its fulness.
April 6 1830: Organization of the Church in Fayette Township, New York.
Now that we’ve covered the timeline of the priesthood restoration as told by the church’s gospel topics entry, I want to cover the timeline using historical documents, statements, and revelations.
Just as with the First Vision, this is incredibly important to understanding how the priesthood restoration evolved, because everything the church cites above was not written until years after the event was claimed to have occurred.
For example, the church cites Doctrine and Covenants 13 as the revelation (or vision) that led to the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood in 1829, but that history was not written until 1838. By that point, the story had undergone many changes, and we will outline all of them below.
Historical Timeline of the priesthood restoration:
1827: The Disciples of Christ, from which many early members of the Church converted, for example, had developed its own priesthood doctrines, influenced by Alexander Crawford, a Scottish minister living in Canada. In 1827, Crawford had delineated the existence of three distinct priesthoods: a patriarchal priesthood (which he also called a priesthood after the “order of Melchisedec”), an Aaronical priesthood (originally held by Aaron), and a priesthood held by Jesus Christ. Crawford regarded Melchizedek as a greater priest than Abraham, citing the fact that Abraham paid tithes to him; indeed, according to Crawford, Melchizedek was one of the key players in the order of the patriarchal priesthood. Crawford also considered the patriarchal priesthood and the Aaronical priesthood as branches of the Levitical priesthood... Regardless, as one historian has claimed, Alexander Campbell [Who was influenced by Alexander Crawford] taught his understanding of priesthood “to many of his followers who [became] part of the Mormonite community and continued to believe the same doctrine.” (BYU Studies)
(Sidney Rigdon was a Campbellite (joined reformed Baptist, later Disciples of Christ or Campbellite) movement and became influential preacher between 1824-1827. Rigdon later joined the church before these priesthood terms were revealed – this is important as we will detail below. (Joseph Smith Papers))
1829 (May 15): As per official the official church timeline, Joseph Smith claims he was called by the Spirit to restore the priesthood. In the Joseph Smith history (written in 1838) that we cited in the official church narrative, this is when the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods were restored first by John the Baptist and then by Peter, James, and John.
As we will show below, this story is anachronistic to 1829 as Joseph Smith does not mention the Aaronic or Melchizedek priesthoods for years to come, and there will be no mention of John the Baptist or Peter, James, and John for 5 years after this event.
In fact, the original revelation that discusses the baptism for Joseph and Oliver in the Book of Commandments (what is now D&C 18), there is no mention of either priesthood nor does it mention any visitation from Peter, James, or John. (Revelation, June 1829–B [D&C 18])
1829: "The Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ" is released in second half of 1829 and is written down by scribe Oliver Cowdery (also Ch 24 in Book of Commandments). There is no mention of priesthood divisions. In fact, in this revelation apostles were elders - this waters down authority in the church (there is no Quorum of the Twelve here). This is not changed until the revelation is altered in 1835, now known as D&C 20.
In these articles, Joseph Smith dictates the following: "God visited him by an holy angel, whose countenance was as lightning, and whose garments were pure and white above all whiteness, and gave unto him commandments which inspired him from on high, and gave unto him power, by the means of which was before prepared that he should translate a book" (Original manuscript, Joseph Smith Papers)
Again, there is no mention of angelic ordinations, priesthood restoration, or Peter, James, and John.
1830: With the formation of the Church, both Joseph Smith and Olivery Cowdery were ordained simply as elders – there is no mention of holding the Aaronic or Melchizedek priesthood for either men.
1830 (June; Written as April in John Whitmer's Book of Commandments and Revelations): "The Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ outlining the duties of the various church offices and ordinances was drafted by Joseph Smith (LDS D&C 20; CofC 17).
The document begins by stating the authority upon the church was organized, including a summary of the miraculous events preceding that orgainzation; yet is completely silent about the angelic ordinations that Smith and Cowdery later claimed. Instead, it mentions only divine and angelic "commandments" as the source of authority. For example, this document reads: "God ministered unto him by an holy angel,... and gave until him commandments which inspired him from on high, and gave until him power, by the means which were before prepared, that he should translate a book... Which book was given by inspiration, and is called the book of Mormon, and is confirmed to others by the ministering of angels, and declared until the world by them." (BofC 24:7, 11; LDS D&C 20:6, 10; CofC 17:2b-e); emphasis added). Note the generic use of the phrase "ministering of angels" even though the three witnesses had seen one angel." (Vogel, Evolution of Early Mormon Priesthood Narratives)
1830 (November): Sidney Rigdon is baptized and ordained an elder in the church (eom.byu.edu/index.php/Rigdon,_Sidney). This is important as Rigdon has been teaching the Aaronic/Melchizedek priesthood idea as a Campbellite, and the timeline will show that it is going to be introduced to Mormons shortly after his arrival.
1831 (June): At a conference of Elders, “the authority of the Melchizedek [Page 176] Priesthood was manifested and conferred for the first time upon several of the Elders.” (BYU Studies) This further clarifies that until 1831 the title of “elder” in the church did not equate to priesthood as we stated above with the "The Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ."
Journals for this conference refer *only* to the ‘high priesthood’ and not the Melchizedek priesthood, further adding to the idea that the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods were retrofitted into church history. ("Ezra Booth …was present when the Elders first received the ordination of the High Priesthood. They met together in June, 1831. …While they were there, the manifestation of the power of God being on Joseph, he set apart some of the Elders to the High Priesthood. …The Priesthood was conferred on a number of the Elders."— Journal of Discourses)
On a side note, it is also interesting that many of the elders claimed spiritual visions like the early witnesses claimed under Joseph Smith. Lyman Wight bore testimony that he saw the face of the Savior. We note this because there were multiple occasions when groups would have these kinds of visions when Joseph Smith was present and they took the sacrament. It is impossible to know if it was the wine that made people see the visions or if Joseph Smith was able to guide their visions, but this is something that has not been replicated in the same manner since Joseph's leadership, but was very common in these gatherings early in the church. (Journal of Discourses)
Most importantly, Joseph himself was ordained to the high priesthood by church elder Lyman Wight at this meeting. From Rough Stone Rolling:
"During the turbulent meeting, Joseph ordained five men to the high priesthood, and Lyman Wight ordained eighteen others, including Joseph. The ordinations to the high priesthood marked a milestone in Mormon ecclesiology. Until that time, the word 'priesthood,' although it appeared in the Book of Mormon, had not been used in Mormon sermonizing or modern revelations. Later accounts applied the term retroactively, but the June 1831 conference marked its first appearance in contemporary records… The Melchizedek Priesthood, Mormons now believe, had been bestowed a year or two earlier with the visit of Peter, James, and John. If so, why did contemporaries say the high priesthood was given for the first time in June 1831? Joseph Smith himself was ordained to this 'high priesthood' by Lyman Wight. If Joseph was already an elder and apostle, what was the necessity of being ordained again?" (Rough Stone Rolling, p 157-158)
This entry into the History of the Church also negates the story that will evolve in 1835, which is that Peter, James, and John conferred the Melchizedek priesthood. If that was truly the case, how could the church have recorded in 1831 that it was the first time the "high priesthood" had been conferred on elders in the church, including Joseph Smith himself? This is also the first time that there was any mention of two distinct priesthoods, which is important given how the narrative evolves in the coming years. It also shows that elders were originally part of the lesser, or Aaronic, priesthood.
1831 (August): Joseph Smith travels to Missouri and engages in a dispute with Bishop Edward Partridge over which land to purchase in order to establish the new City of Zion in Missouri. According to Ezra Booth (who later left the church), Partridge claimed that"the land which [Smith] and Oliver [Cowdery] had selected, was inferior in point of quality to other lands adjoining." (Ohio Star, November 24, 1831)
Because Partridge had been ordained as a bishop, he believed that he had the authority to run the church in Missouri as he felt would be best for the church.
1831 (September): Following his visit to Edward Partridge, Joseph Smith dictates a revelation that states that Partridge "hath sinned, and Satan seeketh to destroy his sou." (D&C 64:17)
1831 (November): Escalating the altercation with Edward Partridge in the months prior, Joseph Smith dictates a revelation that calls for Joseph to be the President of the High Priesthood, which makes clear that "the office of a Bishop is not equal." (Revelation 11, 1831)
1831: Lucy Mack Smith writes letter to her brother to discuss the beginnings of the new church, but there are no mentions of angelic visits for priesthood restoration. (Elders' Journal (1 Nov 1906):60-62)
1832 (January): Sidney Rigdon ordains Joseph Smith as President of the High Priesthood in Ohio, and Joseph was sustained in April in Missouri.
1832 (July): Joseph Smith again visits the church in Missouri to see that his authority was still being questioned, and Bishop Partridge continued to challenge his leadership. This leads Joseph Smith to tell W.W. Phelps "Tell brother Edward to remember Ananias & Sophria [Sapphira]." (Joseph Smith to William W. Phelps, July 31, 1832) Ananias and Sappphira were two individuals in the New Testament who withheld money obtained by selling land and were struck dead by the power of God. (Acts 5:1-11)
1832 (Summer): Joseph Smith first mentions that angels were a part of the priesthood restoration as he writes his 1832 history, which includes the original First Vision that mentions only Jesus appearing. With regards to the priesthood, Joseph Smith writes among his miraculous experiences: "thirdly the reception of the holy Priesthood by the ministring of—Aangels"
This is important, because this entry does not mention John the Baptist but is consistent with the early, generic account of angels, because the John the Baptist story has not evolved yet. Furthermore, note that Joseph Smith uses the plural "angels" instead of a singular angel, meaning that this cannot be referencing John the Baptist as the story would later evolve into.
The history continues: "Forthly a confirmation and reception of the high Priesthood after the holy order of the son of the living God power and ordinence from on high to preach the Gospel in the administration and demonstration of the spirit"
This refers to the June, 1831 conference where Joseph was ordained to the high priesthood (notice there is no mention of Aaronic or Melchizedek priesthoods yet), but again does not mention Peter, James, and John.
It is apparent that this 1832 history was amost certainly written to address growing infighting from the Missouri branch of the church, and to establish Joseph Smith's ultimate authority over the church. This also explains the First Vision account appearing at the same time, which directly gives Joseph Smith unmatched authority as the lone member who can speak for God.
1832 (September 22): Joseph Smith dictates the revelation now known as D&C 84, which officially structures the lower and higher priesthoods for the first time. (Revelation 22-23, September 1832)
What is interesting about this revelation is the following section:
"And this greater Priesthood adminestereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the misteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God therefore in the ordinences thereof the power of Godliness is manifest and without the ordinences thereof, and the authority of the Priesthood, the power of Godliness is not manifest unto man in the flesh, for without this no man can see the face of God even the father and live."
The reason this passage is so interesting is because Joseph Smith claims to have seen the face of God during the First Vision, which was clearly before he received either priesthood and yet he lived. Apologists argue that the word "this" is the "power of Godliness" that is being referred to, but the "power of Godliness" can not be manifest until you receive the priesthood as stated above ("without the ordinences thereof, and the authority of the Priesthood, the power of Godliness is not manifest unto man in the flesh"), so either way Joseph Smith could not have seen God and lived in the First Vision.
As I've tried to point out during these overviews, these little details might feel like nitpicking, but give is a lot of clues as to how Joseph Smith is creating this material and the mistakes and inconsistencies that arise as he evolves his ideas.
1833: The Book of Commandments is released, with all revelations through the release date included. There is no mention of a restoration of the Aaronic or Melchizedek priesthood included in the Book of Commandments whatsoever. There is also no mention of John the Baptist or Peter, James, or John being present.
1834 (April 21): "At a meeting held in Norton, Ohio, Smith "gave a relation of obtaining and translating the Book of Mormon, the revelation of the Priesthood of Aaron, the organization of the Chruch in 1830, the revelation of the High Priesthood, and the gift of the Holy Ghost poured out upon the Church."
There is no indication in this brief entry that "revelation of the Priesthood of Aaron" was different than the "revelation of the High Priesthood," or that it was anything more than a referene to the revealed command for Smith and Cowdery to baptize one another. Note also that there is still no provision for the appearance of Peter, James, and John." (Vogel, Evolution of Early Mormon Priesthood Narratives)
1834 (May/June): Joseph Smith launches Zion's Camp to regain the land lost in Zion, Missouri. This trip turns out to be a failure, and Joseph Smith records a revelation to not help the church in Missouri once he is unable to secure enough help, which shakes confidence in his authority as prophet and leader. From our write-up of the new church history book Saints (Saints part 2, Chapter 18):
Where this revelation takes a completely different turn than the earlier messages to Missouri is that "the Lord also indicated that Zion could be reclaimed by power." This leads Joseph to command the church in Ohio to begin forming a group that will march to Missouri to take the land back. “The redemption of Zion must needs come by power,” the Lord declared. “Let no man be afraid to lay down his life for my sake.”
The revelation calls for 500 men to go to Missouri, but "the force was only a small fraction of the five hundred the Lord had called for." Even though the force did not match the revelation, they carried on to Missouri with a lot of details about the journey including mentions of Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff, two future prophets of the church.
Upon arriving in Missouri, Joseph finds out that Governor Dunklin had refused to provide militia support for the church to go back to their land. Joseph decides to carry on, and the camp continued on to Missouri knowing they would not have any backup beyond the church members who had been relocated after being expelled.
Without the aid of Governor Dunklin, Joseph began seeking out local officials to seek help for the church to reclaim their lands. The officials "agreed to help calm the anger of their fellow citizens, but they warned the camp not to go into Jackson County." They feared if church members went into Independence, violence could escalate quickly.
The very next day, Joseph Smith recorded a revelation that “Zion cannot be built up,” He declared, “unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom.” This followed by a commandment that the church members should wait to rebuild Zion until they had further prepared themselves with more learning. “And this cannot be brought to pass,” He explained, “until mine elders are endowed with power from on high.”
This revelation pleased many members, but angered some who did not understand why they were led all the way to Missouri only to turn around, leaving the Missouri church members stranded after spending so much time, money, and resources getting there. After all of the cost, stress, and risk traveling to Missouri, Joseph Smith was going to turn around and leave them helpless against the outside communities.
I would ask anyone interested to read D&C 105 to get a context for the revelation. Again, the blame is put on the Missouri church members for not being faithful enough ("But behold, they have not learned to be obedient to the things which I required at their hands, but are full of all manner of evil, and do not impart of their substance, as becometh saints, to the poor and afflicted among them"), and the revelation then calls for no further action to be taken to help them.
We were told in previous chapters (in Saints) that God promised to protect the church in Missouri, and now we're being told that because they are "full of all manner of evil" that not only were they not saved, but will not even be helped by Joseph Smith and Zion's Camp.
A critical reading of D&C 105 leads some to believe that Joseph was nervous about undertaking a battle with such small numbers, and received this revelation as a way out of what had been such a difficult mission to begin with. It is also worth noting that the revelation in D&C 105 gives himself and the top church leaders an out: "I speak not concerning those who are appointed to lead my people, who are the first elders of my church, for they are not all under this condemnation." (D&C 105:7) (Saints part 2, Chapter 18)
1834 (September): Oliver Cowdery writes a letter to W.W. Phelps, and this is a very important event in the priesthood restoration story. From historian Dan Vogel:
"Cowdery wrote a letter to W. W. Phelps in Missouri and told him for the first time about an angel ordaining him and Joseph Smith in May 1829. The purpose of the letter, as Cowdery explained, was to strengthen the Missouri church in their faith. According to Cowdery, the angel said "in the name of Messiah, confer this priesthood and this authority, which shall remain upon Earth, that the Sons of Levi may yet offer an offering unto the Lord in righteousness." However, the word priesthood did not appear until June 1831 and connecting the lesser priesthood to the Levites until September 1832. Revealing this event to the church raised Cowdery to almost equal status with Joseph Smith."
"Only a few months later on the fifth of December 1834, Oliver Cowdery was ordained an assistant president or co-president to Joseph Smith, by Joseph Smith. About this time, Cowdery made a suspicious entry in Joseph Smith's large journal which tried to explain his sudden rise to the top. The angel in May 1829 commanded it to be done, according to Cowdery, but things got in the way and delayed it for five years. The idea that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery knew about President and Assistant President of the High Priesthood in 1829 is not believable. The office of President of the High Priesthood came about because Partridge had challenged Joseph Smith in November 1831 and assistants were not added until 1832. Cowdery's excuse for the delay is also unbelievable, since there were several opportunities before December 1834 to ordain Cowdery. Cowdery even assisted Joseph Smith on the 19th of April 1834 before Joseph Smith left with Zion's Camp and confirmed upon Sidney Rigdon authority as First Counselor to preside over the church in the absence of Brother Joseph. When the Quorom of Twelve Apostles was organized in February 1835, Oliver Cowdery did not mention Peter, James and John restoring the keys of the apostleship. Instead, he said, "You have been ordained to this holy priesthood. You have received it from those who have the power and authority from an angel." By this, he was referring to Moroni. It was the duty of the three witnesses to ordain the twelve apostles. The three witnesses received their commission from the angel Moroni." (Dan Vogel, Sunstone History Podcast: "Resoring What Was Lost")
1834-1835: Joseph Smith first mentions that the angels were actual, physical beings – details from Joseph Smith on priesthood move from generic to sharp/specific over time, which is also true of the evolution of Joseph Smith's First Vision accounts.
"In 1829 Joseph said he was called by the Spirit; in 1832 he mentioned that angels attended these events; in 1834-35 the spiritual manifestations became literal and physical appearances of resurrected beings." (Grant Palmer, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins)
1835 (March-August): Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery change the wording of earlier revelations when they compile the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, adding verses about the appearances of John the Baptist along with Peter, James, and John. The Book of Commandments, which later became the D&C, says nothing about these appearances, nor is there any explanation for the incredibly consequential additions into existing revelation. They appear in the D&C with no justifications for the changes nor are they backed up by any historical records to show that Joseph Smith ever had that vision. From Dan Vogel:
"Between about March and August 1835, Joseph Smith added mention of the coming of John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John to his early revelations. To section 27 dated September 1830 he added, "John the Baptist, I have set unto you my servants Joseph Smith Jr and Oliver Cowdery to ordain you onto this first priesthood, which you have received that you might be called and ordained even as Aaron and also Peter, James, and John, whom I have set unto you, by whom I have ordained you and confirmed you to be apostles, and special witnesses of my name." Note that the first public mention of the three ancient apostles ordaining Smith and Cowdery associated this visitation with the apostleship rather than the eldership as commonly assumed. One might therefore conclude that the story of Peter, James, and John was invented after February 1835 when the Quorum of Twelve was organized and Cowdery did not mention it and before it was published in The Doctine & Covenants in September 1835." (Dan Vogel, Sunstone History Podcast: "Resoring What Was Lost")
1835 (March-August, continued): More from Dan Vogel on the process of the evolving priesthood story:
"To Section 107, which was originally given in November 1831 about Joseph Smith being President of the High Priesthood, Joseph Smith added a genealogy of high priests from Adam to Enoch and then stated that the details of this are given in The Book of Enoch, which was to be testified of in due time. This never happened. Instead, the Book of Abraham appeared. In July 1835 Joseph Smith procured two Egyptian scrolls. One he identified as the Book of Abraham and the other as the Book of Joseph. The first thing just Smith did was to translate an alphabet of the Egyptian language which contained a mixture of the "pure language" and Egyptian. Part of its content dealt with a lineage of the high priests."
"About this time, Joseph Smith dictated the first three verses of the Book of Abraham to W. W. Phelps. The remainder of the first two chapters of Abraham won't be dictated until November 1835. These verses mention Abraham's seeking the right to be a high priest from his fathers. Here, as in D&C 107, Joseph Smith is attempting to establish a lineage for the high priesthood. This was a problem, no doubt for some members of the church as well as those outside the church, who believed that high priests were associated with Aaronic priesthood and that Jesus was the only Melchizedek high priest." (Dan Vogel, Sunstone History Podcast: "Resoring What Was Lost")
1835 (September-October): Dan Vogel the explains how Oliver Cowdery retrofitted the priesthood restoration into the patriarchal blessings book:
"Late in September 1835, Oliver Cowdery was copying 1833 blessings of Joseph Smith Sr into the patriarchal blessing book. Cowdery wrote an introduction that explained the authority by which Joseph Smith Sr gave blessings and uses the same language as Abraham 1:2 about the right of the priesthood. He then tried to claim that the visitation of John the Baptist was predicted by ancient Joseph, evidently alluding to one of the Egyptian papyri that Oliver Cowdery identified in the December 1835 issue of the Messenger and Advocate. This is what he wrote: "We repaired to the woods, even as our father Joseph said we should - that is, to the bush. The angel came down and bestowed upon us this priesthood." That is, he explains, they were ordained by the Angel John unto the lesser or Aaronic priesthood."
"Still writing in the patriarchal blessing book in early October 1835, Oliver Cowdery altered and expanded and blessing Joseph Smith gave him in 1833, deleting some negative comments and adding a reference to priesthood restoration. He wrote, "These blessings shall come upon him, Oliver, according to the blessings of the prophecy of Joseph in ancient days, which he said should come upon the seer of the last days and the scribe that should sit with him and that should be ordained with him." He then mentions the ordination by John the Baptist then states, "and after received the holy priesthood under the hands of those who had been held in reserve for a long season. Even those who received it under the hand of the Messiah, while he should dwell in the flesh." The expansion of the 1833 blessings without notice, Cowdery even claimed that he was copying faithfully, creates a highly suspicious situation in which Oliver Cowdery inserts ancient Joseph's prophecy about priesthood restoration. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were apparently planning to use the papyri to support priesthoood restoration to put authority claims and their leadership on a firmer foundation. (Dan Vogel, Sunstone History Podcast: "Resoring What Was Lost")
1836 (March): Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery claim a vision in the Kirtland temple where they receive additional priesthood keys from Moses, Elias, and Elijah. This claim gives them an ultimate authority in the church, but does not come without problems. Elias and Elijah are actually the same person even as Joseph treats them as separate visions - Elias is the Hebrew translation and Elijah is Greek. Nonetheless, this effectively finishes the priesthood restoration by confirming an authority to Joseph Smith that can not be challenged by anyone else in the church.
1838: Joseph Smith writes his new history, which is canonized in the Pearl of Great Price. This entry matches the official church narrative we outlined above, including the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods along with the visitation of Peter, James, and John.
As stated above, this is where D&C 13 is pulled from, which states:
Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah, I [John the Baptist] 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. (D&C 13)
On the surface, this sounds like a miraculous visit by John the Baptist, but as I've outlined above, this is simply anarchronistic to the story of the priesthood restoration. This section of the D&C was not written until 9 years after the event, and it includes all of the additions and changes that we outlined during this timeframe.
1845: Lucy Mack Smith again writes about the formation of the church, recounts the introduction of baptism, but does not mention John the Baptist or other angelic visits which were to have taken place that same day: "One morning …[Joseph and Oliver were translating in Third Nephi in the Book of Mormon] the first thing that presented itself to Joseph was a commandment from God [through the stone in a hat] that he and Oliver should repair to the water & each of them be baptized.They immediately went down to the susquehana (sic) river and obeyed the mandate given them ... They had now received authority to baptize." (Lucy Smith's Preliminary Manuscript, dictated to Martha Jane Coray, 1844-45, original in the archives of the Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah (hereafter LDS archives).
1848: Oliver Cowdery: "I was also present with Joseph when the higher or Melchizedek Priesthood was conferred by the holy angel on high. This Priesthood, we then conferred on each other by the will and commandment of God" (recorded by Bishop Reuben Miller and quoted in History of the Church, Vol. 1, p. 40 footnote). – This is interesting because it was Oliver Cowdery who introduced the John the Baptist story in 1834, but here he is goiing back to the original story of an angel conferring it. In fact, he not only reverts back to the initial story about the priesthood restoration, but does not even specifically claim he witnessed it - he instead uses the words "I was also present with Joseph."
1881: Oliver Huntington’s journal pinpoints the date of the Melchizedek priesthood restoration on a night after Joseph and Oliver had been on trial in Colesville, New York (Journal of Oliver B. Huntington, 13 January 1881). Joseph Smith dated this incarceration in mid-to-late June of 1830 (History of the Church 1:84-85, 92-94). Wesley Walters located the court bill for this trial, which was dated "July 1st 1830" (Joseph Smith's Bainbridge, N.Y., Court Trials, p.125). This puts the priesthood restoration, at best, weeks after the church was founded.
Important quotes about Joseph Smith's changing story on the priesthood restoration:
Richard Bushman: “the late appearance of these accounts raises the possibility of later fabrication” (Note: Richard Bushman is still a believing Mormon, so while he does not come to the conclusion it ultimately was fabricated, he is upfront that the events do not match the history). Bushman goes on to add "Did Joseph add the stories of angels to embellish his early history and make himself more of a visionary? If so, he made little of the occurrence. Cowdery was the first to recount the story of John’s appearance, not Joseph himself." (Rough Stone Rolling)
Richard Bushman: “He revised his own revelations, adding new material and splicing one to another, altering the wording as he saw fit. He felt authorized to expand the revelations as his understanding expanded...Joseph once said that Methodists 'have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of the church. I want the liberty to believe as I please, it feels so good not to be trammeled. Revelation meant freedom to Joseph, freedom to expand his mind through time and space, seeking truth wherever it might be...The balance between freedom and control makes it difficult to keep Mormonism in focus. Was it authoritarian or anarchic, disciplined or unbound? The printed word of God constituted a doctrinal authority that at the same time was open-ended, allowing visionary freedom to Joseph's successors after his death.” (Rough Stone Rolling)
BH Roberts: "…there is no definite account of the [Melchizedek Priesthood restoration] event in the history of the Prophet Joseph, or, for matter of that, in any of our annals…" (History of the Church, Vol. 1, p. 40 footnote) – While apologists have worked to narrow the timeline, there is no recorded date for the restoration of the priesthood or visits from John the Baptist.
David Whitmer: “I never heard that an Angel had ordained Joseph and Oliver to the Aaronic Priesthood until the year 1834[,] 5. or 6—in Ohio... I do not believe that John the Baptist ever ordained Joseph and Oliver...”
David Whitmer: “In August, 1829, we began to preach the gospel of Christ. The following six elders had then been ordained: Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowder, Peter Whitmer, Samuel H. Smith, Hyrum Smith and myself... We preached, baptized and confirmed members into the Church of Christ, from August, 1829, until April 6th, 1830, being eight months in which time we had proceeded rightly; the offices in the church being Elders, Priests and Teachers... We were as fully organized—spiritually—before April 6th as were on that day... In no place in the word of God does it say that an Elder is after the order of Melchisedec, or after the order of the Melchisedec Priesthood. An Elder is after the order of Christ. 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 priesthoods 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 mouthpiece speak out the revelations just as they had it fixed up in their hearts. As I have said before, according to the desires of the heart, the inspiration comes, but it may be the spirit of man that gives it …This is the way the High Priests and the "priesthood" as you have it, was introduced into the Church of Christ almost two years after its beginning—and after we had baptized and confirmed about two thousand souls into the church.(Whitmer, An Address To All Believers in Christ: By a Witness To The Divine Authenticity Of The Book Of Mormon, pp. 32, 33, 64)”
William McLellin: 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... [A]s 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 (William E. McLellin to Joseph Smith III, July 1872, RLDS church archives).
Book of Commandments 15: Jesus commands Joseph to baptize Oliver, not John (D&C 18). Again, no mention of Aaronic of Melchizedek priesthood or need for priesthood to ordain others.
Apologetic Responses to Issues with the Priesthood Restoration:
There have been a number of common apologetic responses to answer the many issues with Joseph Smith's evolving story of the priesthood restoration. It is important to address those here, because many members trust these apologetic sites to give them true, accurate information, when in reality they continue to redefine and twist the history to fit the solution.
For the apologetic response I want to focus on the FAIR Mormon response to the CES Letter regarding the priesthood restoration, because that gives a well-rounded response and is what I've outlined above:
CES LETTER CLAIM: Like the First Vision story, none of the members of the Church or Joseph Smith’s family had ever heard prior to 1834 about a priesthood restoration from John the Baptist or Peter, James, and John.
FAIR MORMON RESPONSE: Records indicate that the visit of Peter, James and John for the purpose of ordination was being discussed in 1830.
When you read FAIR Mormon's reply here, they give no sources yet the above sentence is their statement of fact. They later follow up with “The author has no idea whatsoever Joseph may have told his family about the priesthood restoration, because there are no historical documents to support his position one way or the other,” which only further proves our point that this event was not spoken of to anyone on record.
FAIR Mormon considers this a "Logical Fallacy: Argument from Silence—The author has formed a conclusion that is based on the absence of statements in historical documents, rather than on their actual presence." Again, this is absolutely not true as outlined above. It's not the absense of statements that tell us the restoration was backdated - it's the events that detail how the priesthood restoration was evolved, and that Joseph Smith was not even ordained to the "high priesthood" until 1831.
This is a trick that apologists like to use, because they know that Joseph Smith did not write much in his own handwriting early on, so of course we can't possibly know everything. The problem is that while we can't "know everything," that does not mean you push aside what we do know that clearly contradicts and disproves these key church truth claims.
CES LETTER CLAIM: Was the restoration of the priesthood "back dated" later by Joseph Smith to justify a desire to dominate the Church?
FAIR RESPONSE: When all the circumstantial evidence is studied, the approximate time of the Melchizedek priesthood' restoration can be plausibly narrowed down. Although historical documents do not give an exact date for the restoration of the Melchizedek priesthood we can pinpoint its occurrence to a 17 day window between the 15 and 31 of May, 1829. The window that is known is small enough to preclude a later fabrication of events by the Prophet to "increase his authority."
FAIR continues: Some have claimed that Joseph only began to mention apostolic ordination to the priesthood several years after the Church's organization. Contrary to this claim, there are clear references to Joseph Smith stating he had seen Jesus Christ. Joseph’s ‘conversations’ with the Apostles could be a reference to having seen, spoken to, and been ordained to the Priesthood by the early Apostles Peter, James, and John. Having received that Priesthood Joseph Smith was now qualified to perform healings, and other ‘miracles’.
Again, no sources given by FAIR beyond this, because Joseph Smith never made the conclusion that FAIR does and then FAIR attempts to lump the First Vision into the priesthood restoration as proof that Joseph Smith could have been talking to Peter, James, and John, but then the question is why it was never mentioned in the early forms of the revelation. Back to FAIR's response:
“Joseph learned from Moroni in 1823 that “when [the golden plates] are interpreted the Lord will give the holy priesthood to some, and they shall begin to proclaim this gospel and baptize by water, and after that they shall have power to give the Holy Ghost by the laying on of their hands.”"
The footnote from FAIR leads to a letter written by Oliver Cowdery in **1835** which only further adds to idea this has been backdated. In other words, they're trying to show that the problem of backdating the revelation isn't a problem by citing a retrofitting of the revelation. They know this is a problem, but they're counting on you not looking below the surface. More from FAIR (FAIR's comments are indented and our comments are left aligned):
Question: In what manner was the Melchizedek Priesthood restored?
1. April-June 1829, The Book of Mormon records information about the "high priesthood after the order of Melchizedek" in verses such as Mosiah 18:17; Alma 4:20; 5:3; 3 Nephi 11:25; and 3 Nephi 12:1.
This is an inredible start for FAIR, as they cite five verses that is proof that the Book of Mormon discusses, and I quote FAIR here, the "high priesthood after the order of Melchizedek." Please go read those five verses and tell me what word is not in any of them. I'll give you a hint: it rhymes with Melchizedek.
2. Apparently in April 1829 during the translation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery had a dispute as to what happened with John the Apostle that they settled by revelation see John 21:20. This revelation is canonized as Doctrine and Covenants 7...
I don't know how to respond to this because it has nothing to do with the priesthood, so I'm not sure why FAIR is including this as proof of the priesthood restoration not being retrofitted.
3. Aug 1830, the Lord spoke to the Prophet Joseph Smith of “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.” D&C 27:12
Again, this citation is a claimed revelation that was altered in 1835 to retrofit in the addition of Peter, James, and John.
4. Apr 1830, “And to Oliver Cowdery, who was also called of God, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to be the second elder of this church, and ordained under his hand.” D&C 20:2-3
Again, these chapters were heavily altered after the fact, which is the point I am trying to make that FAIR Mormon is now making for me. Please see images below.
5. “Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery sought after this higher authority, and the Lord gave it to them, before the rise of this Church, sending to them Peter, James and John. What for? To bestow upon them the Apostleship.” -Elder Parley P. Pratt 
This quote is from the 1870s, which is long after the story changed and is in no way proof it happened as stated, and if nothing else is proof of what the church taught after the story changed.
6. Hiram Page, a son-in-law of Peter Whitmer Sr., and one who was present on the day of the Church’s 6 April 1830 organization, later confirmed that “Peter, James and John” had come and bestowed the Holy Priesthood “before the 6th of April 1830.” 
This is from 1848, 13 years after Joseph Smith changed the priesthood revelation to add in Peter, James, and John. Furthermore, Hiram Page would not have been at the event, which means that his recollection would be based on the records of the church, which at that point were solidly in the late versions of the story.
7. “I know that Joseph received his Apostleship from Peter, James, and John, before a revelation on the subject was printed, and he never had a right to organize a Church before he was an Apostle.” -Brigham Young 
Compare the Book of Commandments versus the Doctrine and Covenants to see just how vast the changes were, and how significantly the story changes. (Click either image to open the full page PDF in a new window with a larger view)
CES LETTER CLAIM: Although the priesthood is now taught to have been restored in 1829, Joseph and Oliver made no such claim until 1834. Why did it take five years for Joseph or Oliver to tell members of the Church about the priesthood?
FAIR RESPONSE: It should first be noted that many critics ignore versus in the Book of Mormon that refer explicitly to the High Priesthood of Melchizedek such as Alma 13:18. Alma was "confined [to the] high priesthood of the holy order of God..." (Alma 4:20). It is therefore unlikely that these accounts are a pure fabrication since we know that these versus and versus in Mosiah would prompt Joseph and Oliver to enquire about the proper mode of baptism under this authority (This is a major assumption being made here). We don't know when Oliver first mentioned the priesthood restoration to anyone - we only know when he first put it in print. But consider this: If Oliver was covering up a fraud on the part of Joseph Smith when he talked of receiving the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods, then why didn't he expose the fraud after he fell into disagreement with Joseph Smith and was excommunicated from the Church? Why, in fact, did Oliver continue to insist that the events related to the restoration of the Priesthood actually happened?
There are many reasons that the witnesses did not deny their testimony after leaving the church, and many who did leave the church did so because of reasons other than the Book of Mormon or the priesthood restoration. In Oliver Cowdery's case, he left the church because he caught Joseph Smith having a "nasty, dirty affair" with teenager Fanny Alger before Joseph Smith had even developed the idea of 'sealing keys.'
I'm not going to get into the reasons why Oliver didn't expose the church after his falling out with Joseph Smith, but I will point out that his involvement with the church followed him for the rest of his life. If he did admit the church was a lie, he would then be admitting that he willfully led people into a lie, which would cause irreparable damage to his reputation along with that of his family.
More importantly, the mention of Melchizedek is from the New Testament in Hebrews 7 and is not from the Book of Mormon:
1 For this Melchisedec, king of Salem, priest of the most high God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and blessed him;
17 For he testifieth, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.
23 And they truly were many priests, because they were not suffered to continue by reason of death:
24 But this man, because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood.
More from FAIR Mormon's response:
FAIR: Many ignore that Joseph Smith mentioned the ‘holy priesthood’ in the 1832 first vision account and that they soften their stance by ignoring that fact.
This is after the 1831 elder meeting were the priesthood was first conferred. It again does not mention Aaronic or Melchizedek nor does it mention a visitation from John the Baptist and still relies on a generic term of angels. In addition, there are many who believe the 1832 First Vision account was actually written later – it is undated and was torn out of its original book for years which makes that specific timeframe unknown. More to he point, why is this story still generic years after the church was formed? Why does it only get more specific and grand as time goes on? How could Joseph Smith forget that God visited him or the John the Baptist was there to confer the Aaronic Priesthood to him?
More from FAIR:
FAIR: The priesthood was mentioned before 1834 in newspapers:
Painesville Telegraph, 7 December 1830: Mr. Oliver Cowdry has his commission directly from the God of Heaven, and that he has credentials, written and signed by the hand of Jesus Christ, with whom he has personally conversed, and as such, said Cowdry claims that he and his associates are the only persons on earth who are qualified to administer in his name. By this authority, they proclaim to the world, that all who do not believe their testimony, and be baptized by them for the remission of sins . . . must be forever miserable.
Again no mention of the priesthood nor specifics about being ordained with Aaronic/Melchizedek priesthood. This quote is about having the authority to baptism and forming a new church, but FAIR is trying to conflate it with the priesthood dishonestly. In other words, FAIR is taking the general concept of authority that we all now associate with the priesthood and are imposing back into this quote, even as Cowdery never makes any references to it.
Painesville Telegraph, 16 November 1830: About two weeks since some persons came along here with the book, one of whom pretends to have seen Angels, and assisted in translating the plates. He proclaims the destruction upon the world within a few years,--holds forth that the ordinances of the gospel, have not been regularly administered since the days of the Apostles, till the said Smith and himself commenced the work . . . . The name of the person here, who pretends to have a divine mission, and to have seen and conversed with Angels, is Cowdray.”
The angel story referenced here was part of the translation/witness of plates/etc. This again does not mention priesthood specifically and FAIR is using this as a way to conflate subjects. No one is denying that Joseph Smith made generic references to seeing angels, but I am saying that the priesthood restoration story was evolved long after the events supposedly took place.
The Palmyra Reflector, February 14, 1831: They then proclaimed that there had been no religion in the world for 1500 years,--that no one had been authorized to preach &c. for that period—that Jo Smith had now received a commission from God for that purpose . . . . Smith (they affirmed) had seen God frequently and personally—Cowdery and his friends had frequent interviews with angels.
Again, no mention of priesthood and no mention of angels as important as John the Baptist or Peter, James, and John. FAIR is continuing to use generic descriptions to apply to whatever problem they need to solve.
Reverend Richmond Taggart to Reverend Jonathan Goings, Cleveland, Ohio, March 2, 1833: The following Curious occurrence occurred last week in Newburg about 6 miles from this Place [Cleveland, Ohio]. Joe Smith the great Mormonosity was there and held forth, and among other things he told them he had seen Jesus Christ and the Apostles and conversed with them, and that he could perform miracles.
Again, no mention of priesthood and no mention of specifics of Aaronic/Melchizedek priesthoods. This is Joseph Smith trying to grow the church *years* after it was being formed. This is also a second hand account that mentions Apostles, which is something FAIR would discount if it was the other way around.
Now I want to quickly go through FAIR Mormon's response to changing the revelations.
CLAIM: Joseph Smith changed the revelations in 1835
FAIR SUMMARY: Fact checking results: This claim is based upon correct information - The author is providing knowledge concerning some particular fact, subject, or event
FAIR then gives some quotes to try and downplay the changes to claimed revelations from God by Joseph Smith. Here are a few of their quotes:
Richard Lloyd Anderson wrote: First Presidency members were assigned to compile "the items of the doctrine" of the Church from the standard works, including "the revelations which have been given to the Church up to this date or shall be, until such arrangement is made" (Kirtland High Council Minute Book, 24 September 1834; also cited in History of the Church, 2:165. Volume 2 link). This resolution might suggest the correction of former wording through revelation. [The revised D&C was] issued in August 1835 with a 17 February 1835 preface signed by the Prophet, Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, and Frederick G. Williams, the revision committee. 
This implies the changes are more for wording than for content/meaning/etc. That grossly misstates what happened and is intentionally attempting to downplay the changes that Joseph Smith made to retrofit the priesthood restoration narrative.
Elder Marlin K. Jensen in 2009: In a few cases, more substantive changes were made as revelations were updated for the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. For example, section 20 was originally received in 1830, before much of the leadership structure of the Church as we know it today was revealed to Joseph Smith. By 1835 Joseph had organized many offices and quorums by revelation. To include this newly revealed ecclesiastical order, several text changes and additions were incorporated into section 20. Our current verses 65–67 on ordaining men to priesthood offices, for instance, had been revealed after the 1833 publication and were subsequently added to the 1835 publication.
Joseph Smith reviewed many of his associates’ editorial changes and made slight alterations in his own hand before A Book of Commandments was published in 1833. He made additional changes, including adding surnames to individuals mentioned in the revelations, just before the Doctrine and Covenants was published in 1835.
Sometime around 1834–35 in Kirtland, Ohio, Revelation Book 2 was used for the preparation of the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, and all but eight items in the manuscript book were published in that 1835 volume. In contrast, just three of the revelations copied into the book were published in A Book of Commandments in 1833. Two of the manuscript book’s revelations were first published in the 1844 Doctrine and Covenants.
Again, this continues to imply the changes are slight or grammatical, which is simply untrue. I get why they don't want to concede that Joseph Smith was making incredibly significant changes to his revelations, but this is just dishonest.
Oliver Cowdery: On the revelations we merely say, that we were not a little surprised to find the previous print so different from the original. We had given them a careful comparison, assisted by individuals whose known integrity and ability is uncensurable. Thus saying we cast no reflections upon those who were entrusted with the responsibility of publishing them in Missouri, as our own labors were included in that important service to the church, and it was our unceasing endeavor to have them correspond with the copy furnished us. We believe they are now correct. If not in every word, at least in principle. For the special good of the church we have also added a few items from other revelations. 
Again, this continues to imply the changes are slight or grammatical which is clearly not the case in many instances, and certainly not with the priesthood resotration.
The rest of the FAIR document provides more quotes about changes to revelation with many saying it can be done by prophets and most were grammatical/insignificant.
They also contend that Whitmer’s quote is out of context and present the fuller quote, which I will provide below and highlight the words typically cited by critics:
"In the year 1829, on our way I conversed freely with them upon this great work they were bringing about, and Oliver stated to me in Josephs presence that they had baptized each other seeking by that to fulfill the command-And after our arrival at fathers sometime in June 1829. Joseph ordained Oliver Cowdery to be an Elder, and Oliver ordained Joseph to be an Elder in the Church of Christ. <and during that year Joseph both baptized and ordained me an elder in the church of Christ.> Also, during this year the translation of the Book of Mormon was finished, And we preached, baptized and ordained some as Elders, And upon the Sixth day of April 1830, six Elders together with some fifty or sixty (as near as I recollect) of the members met together to effect an organization. I never heard that an Angel had ordained Joseph and Oliver to the Aaronic priesthood until the year 1834[,] 5, or 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..."
I am not sure how this helps the case of the priesthood restoration happening as stated, although FAIR then uses dictionary definitions of ordained to try and make the point that they still initiated the priesthood even as Whitmer contends the story doesn’t add up.
Again, these apologetics just cannot answer for the problems with the priesthood restoration, and many of which I believe are outright dishonest when you look at FAIR's answers above. Using late sources to prove the priesthood restoration happened as told just does not work historically, and vague references to angels in no way helps to bolster the credibility of Joseph Smith.
One final apologetic response I want to highlight here is Richard Bushman, who wrote the following in Rough Stone Rolling regarding Joseph Smith changing revelations from God as he wanted: "He revised his own revelations, adding new material and splicing one to another, altering the wording as he saw fit. He felt authorized to expand the revelations as his understanding expanded."
Much like I discussed with the Book of Mormon "loose translation" theory and the Book of Abraham "catalyst theory," this kind of thinking is indistinguishable from outright fraud. This kind of idea is one that gives comfort to believers because it really is a catch-all answer, but it really does not answer the underlying problem.
In this case, Joseph Smith is not merely changing a few words in the priesthood restoration, but adding major characters from the Bible to give it more credibility. As I mentioned in the First Vision overview, this would be like if I claimed to play in a very competitive basketball game where the players told me I was pretty good at basketball. Then a few years later, as my authority was being questioned, I rewrite the story to say that those players were actually Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant who taught me the game and passed the torch to me.
That example probably feels very extreme, but that is exactly what Joseph Smith did with these changes. To fit Bushman' theory here, we have to believe that Joseph Smith did not realize who he was talking to and receiving the priesthood from, which makes absolutely zero sense in reality. Again, this is a catch-all theory that attempts to downplay the problem of Joseph Smith making changes, but it is an apologetic argument that would not be given if it was for any other religious leader, politician, or organization that you were not already a member or follower of.
Much like the First Vision, this overview is really important to understanding how Joseph Smith created his theology and evolved it as he founded the church. While FAIR Mormon wants to argue that it is an “argument from silence” because we can’t possibly know what Joseph Smith told others, we actually do have a lot of solid evidence to show that not only did the story evolve, but the very idea of priesthood in the church grew along with it.
We can show that Joseph Smith himself was not even ordained to the “high priesthood” until 1831, and that the label of Melchizedek priesthood was not used until years later. There is absolutely no reason that Joseph Smith would be ordained into the high priesthood in 1831 if he was truly ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood two years earlier.
Furthermore, you can read for yourself the revelations in the Book of Commandments and compare them to the altered revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants to know what Joseph Smith was teaching others about their authority to hold these priesthoods.
To be clear, these are not arguments from silence as FAIR wants to claim with these problems, and I think this is a great illustration of the inconsistencies and deceptiveness of apologetics. As we’ve highlighted throughout these overviews, the apologists jump around their arguments depending on the problem, but once you dig a bit deeper it becomes clear that the apologetic solutions are not solutions, but attempts to reframe your focus.
As I mentioned before with the gold plates, in order to believe the priesthood restoration happened as the church teaches today, you have to believe that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were visited by John the Baptist and then Peter, James, and John. From there you have to believe that they decided to tell no one about it, and then allowed for the priesthood to evolve within the church after the event for reasons unknown. Then you have to believe that they either decided it was worth telling or, as Richard Bushman believes, they came to a new understanding of what they saw that day.
This simply does not pass the sniff test, and if you were researching any other religious, political, or business leader that made claims such as this with the overwhelming amount of contradictions to the story, would you give them the same benefit of the doubt? While the church would ask you to seek a spiritual witness of the event, these are problems that simply do not go away because we are asked to evaluate them on feelings instead of evidence.
These overviews are meant to be read together, because they fit together just like a puzzle. While it is a problem that Joseph Smith significantly changed the story of the priesthood restoration, the bigger problem is that this is a pattern for Joseph Smith. In our last overview we showed how Joseph Smith changed the First Vision, and in our Book of Mormon overviews we showed how Joseph Smith was willing to use surrounding ideas to create the text, leaving his fingerprints all over the Book of Mormon.
With the priesthood restoration we can show that Joseph Smith was implementing a concept of multiple priesthoods using the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthood titles just as the Campbellites did years before Joseph Smith. More importantly, Sidney Rigdon came to Joseph Smith from the Campbellite movement, and shortly after his arrival the priesthood evolution had already begun.
Another often overlooked aspect of the priesthood restoration is that we can show that Oliver Cowdery was more than willing to embellish, lie, or whatever you want to call it in order to help Joseph Smith’s authority and, in turn, his own. Oliver Cowdery was the first one to create the story of Peter, James, and John, and was promptly elevated to second in the church, which is no small detail.
While we can’t “know everything” as FAIR Mormon and other apologists commonly use in replying to these problems, we absolutely can take what we do know to assess the validity of the truth claims of the church. As I said above, studying church history to me has been like trying to solve a massive puzzle that just never quite fit together as a believing member, but once I was willing to take the history at face value whether it’s the scriptures of the church or the history of Joseph Smith, they began to fit without needing to jam them into place.
Next section: Joseph Smith and Polygamy