Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Once Joseph got the Book of Mormon translated, he set out to restore a church, as was promised by his angelic visitor, Moroni, and that he would “reveal the Priesthood” to Joseph. This was the first indication of any idea of priesthood to Joseph Smith. It would not be the last.
There has been an attempt by the LDS Church to look at priesthood and Church organization through an expansive view, with Priesthood and organization assembling itself line up line, order upon order. Every Mormon has been taught that Aaronic Priesthood was restored first through John the Baptist to perform outward ordinances, and then later, Peter, James, and John gave Joseph and Oliver the Melchizedek Priesthood to perform spiritual ordinances. They also delivered the Keys of the Kingdom at that time. Since then, it has been taught the Power of God has been upon men to grow and develop an expansive church organization that has had some adjustments, but generally operates on the same lines as it did in 1830 or even 40 AD.
Here is the basic visual outline one sees in the basic LDS doctrine concerning priesthood restoration in the LDS Church.
Notice how the idea is that one level builds upon another, strengthening and enhancing the Kingdom of God. The narrative of continual revelation to add upon previous Priesthood and power is a nice idea, but has its challenges, something the CES Letter briefly touches upon, but doesn't really engage with any precision.
The idea of Priesthood governing authority was developed much later than 1829 and 1830, beginning in 1834 and 1835. Parts of the Book of Commandments were later changed during the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants to encompass priesthood authority. Prior to this, the only authority needed appeared to be a calling from God, or a charismatic experience. The office structures appear to be something that came along with the inclusion of the Campbellite converts that came over with Sydney Rigdon in Ohio. This sect was searching for a restructure of the primitive New Testament church and found their muse in Joseph Smith, who had the stuff to make it happen. Now it was possible that these experiences were held privately and only included as the need to organize became more necessary. There are very few witnesses (apart from some earlier accounts of Joseph conversing with angelic apostles) to draw from to give this some credence. The story of Peter, James, and John is troublesome because dates don’t match up when Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery began using priesthood terms. Both Bushman and Quinn point out the inventive nature of priesthood and how it was implemented and used almost after-the-fact. It’s as if they were experimenting with what worked and then the Church later created a story that supported the new adopted practices.
With these facts in place, we can begin to construct some options that relate to the restoration of priesthood:
Option A - LDS Orthodox view - God was revealing things line upon line, and as the new church was operating, sometimes it was out of order, but God soon came to the rescue with revelation to help them organize and operate.
Option B - The Fraud view - Joseph got greedy as he saw his new church grow, and he schemed to incorporate these things backwards to establish a hierarchy and structure to the new church in order to give him more power.
Option C - The Historical Adaptive View – The Church was struggling to reign in outliers and insiders who were going rogue. Sydney Rigdon convinced Joseph to adopt new concepts per a New Testament pattern. Joseph thought it was a good idea. It was incorporated but not essential to salvation. Later leaders elevated priesthood governance far beyond its initial understanding.
These options to one extent or another, provide a problem with the idea that ordinances MUST come through proper authority and Priesthood. It’s clear that in some of the early instances, ordinances happened out of order. Either the Lord allowed for this in their naivete, or the ordinances were null and void. Or since re-baptism was quite common at the time, everyone eventually got the right baptism under the right authority at some point.
There is another option to consider.
While the revelation considering John the Baptist and his priesthood restoration appearance has been vetted more thoroughly as to its time and date by historians, the ordinations by Peter, James, and John have not. There is no revelation in the D&C to support it. It’s simply a stated historical fact, along with a painted Sunday School picture to give it veracity. And the verbiage originally given is that the three gave Joseph and Oliver the keys of the kingdom and ordained them apostles, whereas the Melchizedek Priesthood isn’t mentioned. The first revelations in the D&C on Priesthood (Section 20) were correlated after the fact and weren't included in the Book of Commandments. They were amended in 1835, after the Church changed it's name to the Latter Day Saints from the Church of Christ. However, if we go back to the very beginning of Mormonism, the only concepts of priesthood are outlined in Alma 13 in the Book of Mormon:
1 And again, my brethren, I would cite your minds forward to the time when the Lord God gave these commandments unto his children; and I would that ye should remember that the Lord God ordained priests, after his holy order, which was after the order of his Son, to teach these things unto the people.
2 And those priests were ordained after the order of his Son, in a manner that thereby the people might know in what manner to look forward to his Son for redemption. . .
. . . 6 And thus being called by this holy calling, and ordained unto the high priesthood of the holy order of God, to teach his commandments unto the children of men, that they also might enter into his rest—
7 This high priesthood being after the order of his Son, which order was from the foundation of the world; or in other words, being without beginning of days or end of years, being prepared from eternity to all eternity, according to his foreknowledge of all things—
Note that in describing priesthood, Alma seems to give preference to what was then considered a believer’s priesthood, that GOD Himself ordains the priests to teach, not men or angels, and that this priesthood existed before the world was, and will continue after the world ends. The fact that one repents and comes to God and feels compelled to preach, and then is called by God, is enough to qualify for this type of priesthood, at least at the outset. It also takes God to ordain that priest. That would mean that God literally places his hands upon your head to ordain you. It does not seem to give place for human-based ordination schemes. It doesn’t state that it couldn’t be passed down under the hand of men, or of angels, but it’s clear that it’s made to be a heavenly endowment to seal it as authoritative.
When Joseph was translating the Bible in 1830, Joseph received a revelation that fleshed out the Book of Genesis, which was later re-titled the Book of Moses, included in the Pearl of Great Price after his death, published in the LDS 1870's edition of scripture. In those chapters, he talks about a patriarchal order of priests, one that would return at the end of the world. These passages, with the message from Moroni, coupled with the ones in Alma, possibly gave Joseph hope that he would be party to see the restoration of such a priesthood, one that would move mountains and rivers, just as Enoch could do. This priesthood would be the means by which God would bring about a Zion, a perfect society that could ascend to the same heights as Enoch’s ancient city. This became a major teaching and conversion point for early Mormon missionaries . . . the hope that they could resurrect Zion.
This is the foundational environment we have with Joseph Smith when he established the Church in 1830. He would have been familiar with the term priesthood, but it would have been the more democratic/non-hierarchical variety of then Protestantism. Alma's discourses on the Holy Order would have spurred him on to believe in something more. An event happened in 1831 that is rarely discussed in Sunday School that would indicate Joseph thought he had some sort of angelic-based priesthood, and encouraged others to seek the same. At a meeting of the Isaac Morley farm in Hiram, Ohio, the church brethren gathered there to receive the endowment from on high and to be ordained high priests (like in Alma). There was an expectation that a Pentecostal experience would occur as one sees in Acts and they would all receive the priesthood under the hand of the Lord. It began with Hyrum Smith ordaining Lyman White, who while in a trance, exclaimed he had seen the Father and the Son. However, it all went downhill from there. Others seem possessed by the devil, and the scene that ensued looked like one out of a horror movie. Some men were thrown out windows while other levitated. The event was a disastrous failure in terms of expectations.
It was under this cloud of failure that Joseph received D&C 84 on priesthood almost a year later. The revelation begins its exposition of priesthood talking about the father-son patriarchal lineage of the ancient priesthood. It repeats the family-based structure in the Book of Moses. This is an add-on to the heavenly structure revealed in Alma. In this sense, priesthood is given under the hand of God, but it can also be passed down from father to son. This changes at the time of Moses when it ceases being a patriarchal form and becomes structural or organizational. The reason why is explained in verses 23-27:
23 Now this Moses plainly taught to the children of Israel in the wilderness, and sought diligently to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God;
24 But they hardened their hearts and could not endure his presence; therefore, the Lord in his wrath, for his anger was kindled against them, swore that they should not enter into his rest while in the wilderness, which rest is the fulness of his glory.
25 Therefore, he took Moses out of their midst, and the Holy Priesthood also;
26 And the lesser priesthood continued, which priesthood holdeth the key of the ministering of angels and the preparatory gospel;
27 Which gospel is the gospel of repentance and of baptism, and the remission of sins, and the law of carnal commandments, which the Lord in his wrath caused to continue with the house of Aaron among the children of Israel until John, whom God raised up, being filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb.
Thus, priesthood can become organizational and hierarchical, not because it was building upon greater things, but was given to be lesser, as a task-master. It seems that this lesser version is content with human-passed ordination, while the greater takes a heavenly or Godly messenger to endow. Later on, in verse 54-57, these passages are precariously linked to explain what would soon happen to priesthood in the LDS church. The sins of the church are laid bare and seem to echo the same problem of ancient Israel:
54 And your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received—
55 Which vanity and unbelief have brought the whole church under condemnation.
56 And this condemnation resteth upon the children of Zion, even all.
57 And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon and the former commandments which I have given them, not only to say, but to do according to that which I have written—
One must realize that the early Mormon church was basically using the Book of Mormon simply as a proof-text of their organizational divinity. The Christ doctrine within largely slept dormant. It was a plain doctrine that echoed the following concept which is repeated here with one additional element:
God being no respecter of persons
Sacrificing a broken heart and a contrite spirit as an act of faith
Faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ
Repenting of your own sins
Receiving the gospel through the ordinance of baptism under those approved by God
Receiving the baptism of Fire and the Holy Ghost—the purging of sin
Receiving a better hope to continue in this process
Practicing real charity, giving to the poor, helping the needy, sacrificing your own wants for others needs
Receiving the Savior (enduring to the end) by piercing the veil and become holy and pure thereby receiving priesthood under the hand of God
By 1832 this doctrine was already getting muddled with hierarchical extras. Both leaders and followers had eschewed the simple commandments of faith and were either leaning too much upon Joseph Smith or attempting to go after their own revelations and getting stymied by the early Mormon system of control. Almost 10 years later, the Lord explains in section 124 what was most likely lost as a result of this condemnation—the fullness of the priesthood.
28 For there is not a place found on earth that he may come to and restore again that which was lost unto you, or which he hath taken away, even the fulness of the priesthood.
David Whitmer, after he left the Church, wrote a pamphlet in the 1880’s excoriating the narrative of priesthood, thinking Joseph Smith adopted it to give himself power. He preferred the charismatic nature of the early church, where visions and callings from God dominated what qualified someone to have authority, which would be applied in a democratic fashion. This allowed people like Hiram Page who in 1830 used his seer stone to get revelations, even if it went against the order of things. Whitmer considered the Hiram Page incident a turning point in the pride and power that Joseph Smith began to exhibit.
Despite Whitmer’s insistence in the late 19th Century that Joseph started to fall and take unto himself power and forgetting his charismatic roots, the scriptures cited seem to indicate Joseph Smith was acting in the manner of Moses, giving less on purpose but maintaining a charismatic invitation to others. The name of the Church changing from the Church of Christ to the Church of the Latter Day Saints (or men) in 1834 gives us a clue. One on hand, Joseph Smith set up greater controls on church power to help its leaders to execute, while on the other hand, he continued to teach a non-hierarchical charismatic salvation model both in the Lectures on Faith, through the School of the Prophets in Kirtland, and later in the sermons found in the Words of Joseph Smith, the Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and the King Follett Discourses. He would read scriptures lamenting about the need for the people to rely so much on their leaders but was also quick to cut off any who operated out of order. This dichotomy seems to indicate that he was managing two different systems.
Which Brings us to Option D on the Priesthood:
Option D - The More is Less Model: Joseph Smith had angelic visitations but didn’t understand their importance to a church system until much later. He was hoping others would receive divine manifestations on their own. When that didn’t happen, he leaned upon his own authority to set up a new system, a new church, if you will, replete with a name change (The Church of Christ to the Church of the Latter-day Saints), to signify something lesser. He hoped that at some point, the spiritual ability of the Church would outgrow this structural vehicle.
Church Authority Expanding
After 1832, the Mormon hierarchy built up quite quickly and efficiently, similar to the era of Israelites of Moses’ time, with councils and committees beginning to form. 1835 brings us offices and quorums and councils, the authority vehicle of the Mormon Church that continues today. It’s at this time that the Church officially called the Quorum of Twelve Apostles into being, bringing the likes of Brigham Young, John Taylor, and Heber C Kimball into Joseph Smith’s inner circle. These men had been with Joseph on the failed mission to reinstate the lands of the dispossessed Mormons in Missouri in 1834. They proved to be loyal and obedient to Joseph on their march from Ohio to Missouri and thus were ordained by the Three Witnesses and charged to seek the face of the Lord, essentially commanded to the same charge Joseph had been teaching some of them in the School of the Prophets. In essence, they weren’t really Apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ until they received a face-to-face witness of him. But they were called as such, invitationally.
Instead of seeing these new quorums as additive as they have been portrayed in LDS history, it may be more helpful to see them as diminutive, the same way milk needs to be consumed before meat. While there was less chaos, such as the example of the Morley farm, the order and function of the newly named Church of the Latter Day Saints was becoming more efficient and effective at governing and advancing on one hand or cutting off people according to their obedience and diligence to the structure on the other, a new modern law of carnal commandments. It was as if Moses’ system was being repeated in modernity. These structures had checks and balances. Each quorum was organized to serve different parts of the Church. They were equal in authority under God. Each had to agree before a new system or rule in order to become doctrine. Even the body of the Church had to weigh and measure the issue at hand and vote through common consent before an issue was made doctrine or a new revelation was canonized as scripture. It was still highly democratic and charismatic, and allowed for checks and balances. It functioned in this way for the most part of the first decade.
The following chart shows how this LDS hierarchy in 1835 was slated to operate:
While Joseph Smith was an enigma in his style, sometimes acting in an authoritarian manner, otherwise divesting his power, all the while teaching a plan of graduation from the church structure to the wider membership in his public sermons, he found out the hard the way the limitations to his power in 1837 in the aftermath of the Kirtland Anti-Banking system collapse. Many of his trusted advisors, even his witnesses and apostles, turned on him. The strength in which they put their trust in him had reached a breaking point for many of them. Joseph and Sydney Rigdon had to flee for their lives from Kirtland to Missouri. It was clear that to whatever extent Joseph Smith exerted power over his Mormon people in Ohio, it wasn’t enough to keep him or his family from harm’s way. He allowed enough freedom of thought to perennially allow a potential overthrow. He could have used his power to quell an insurrection by setting up trusted advisers who would not defect, or rule by fear. Yet he did not. Instead, he usually retreated to reconsider different ways to teach and lead the gospel within the church.
The effects of Kirtland followed him to Missouri. Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer were out of order on matters related to property allocation. Defections were rampant as they went over to the anti-Mormon Missourians who painted a picture of a power-hungry Mormon Church led by Joseph Smith and Sydney Rigdon. The terrorist Danite organization formed to quiet dissenters, an omen to an even greater and more menacing system that would be put into place in Deseret two decades later. There is some evidence Joseph Smith was involved in at least encouraging this group, even if he disavowed them after-the-fact. Yet at the end of the hostilities after the Missouri militia and army had routed the Mormon defenses of northern Missouri, Joseph Smith surrendered himself as a sacrifice for his people. He later excommunicated the leader of the Danites. There he languished six months in jail, awaiting a promised execution. It was in this environment that he received what some see as his most humble understanding of priesthood to date in Section 121 (34-46):
34 Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen?
35 Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson—
36 That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.
37 That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.
38 Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God.
39 We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.
40 Hence many are called, but few are chosen.
41 No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
42 By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—
43 Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;
44 That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.
45 Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.
46 The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.
The genius of this passage seems to tie the priesthood of the Church back to its Alma roots, that priesthood is tied to righteousness, not ordination, keys, or any earthly means of transmitting it. It recalls a two-part system, one in which ordination is given, no matter the office (being called), as an invitation to rise up and receive the second part, an audience with the Lord, where the Lord will confer upon that individual the higher priesthood (being chosen). This is when real priesthood is given, not during the ordination. Earthly ordination only gives authority to operate among men through common consent. It's merely an invitation. The higher authority cannot be a means to coerce. It must be used judiciously according to the Christian virtues of charity, persuasion, long-suffering, and meekness. One is to serve as Jesus Christ did long ago, in a condescension towards serving one’s fellow man. Or it is lost.
What this passage does in its genius also helps to tell a story. Was Joseph being chastised for his injudicious use of priesthood? Was he calling repentance to his fellow church leaders? In the aftermath of the Ohio and Missouri disasters, one can see the Lord teaching a valuable lesson to a fallen people, who, like the Nephites in the Book of Mormon, and the children of Israel, fall into error time and time again. Their leaders were not spared from the chastisement. Some were killed. Some were put into prison. But no one was immune from error. Joseph Smith received several revelations that called him to repentance. Men CAN lead others astray, no matter their calling. They must qualify their position through righteousness, or they are not worthy of their calling. The humility of a prophet can be a valuable lesson.
After Joseph Smith and his brethren escaped prison to the shores of the Mississippi in Illinois, they were humbled for a season. Yet, by 1842, the dichotomy of Joseph Smith seemed to rise again. On one hand, he was teaching even more spiritually esoteric doctrines imploring the individual to a charismatic theophany, but on the other hand, he surrounded himself with tighter security, a standing army, a secret quorum, and notions of being a king. His church governing systems began to change. The Apostles and Seventy were by and large, leading Church business from abroad, while the High Councils were running Church affairs at home in Nauvoo. There was some evidence that Joseph was vesting more trust in the Quorum of the Twelve, inviting most of them to join his secret Anointed Quorum and visionary Council of 50, while letting them in on some of his esoteric spiritual teachings such as sealings. Yet, he was still successfully kidnapped once, and marked for death by Missouri extradite orders, and was constantly in hiding for his life. While at the time likely being the most powerful man in Illinois, he had a curious lack of discernment for those he let into his inner circle, such as John C. Bennett. Like in Kirtland, by 1843, he was being undermined and conspired against by this circle, some who would try to expose him in the fated Nauvoo Expositor newspaper which he reluctantly commanded to be destroyed. Once again, Joseph Smith fled as the state of Illinois called for his arrest, only to be convinced to turn himself in once again to spare his people. This time, however, he wouldn’t be so lucky, as his life and his brother, Hyrum’s, would be taken on a fateful June day in 1844 in the upstairs room of the Carthage jail where he was besieged by militiamen from Illinois, the Carthage greys. Some in that mob were people he had once put much faith and trust.
The lesson from Joseph Smith in terms of priesthood and power comes from a complicated man who had both the capacity for humility and love, an ability to get the mind and will of God, teaching others to do the same, while at the same time setting himself atop an organization that he was barely able to operate, yet by its genius could operate much of the time on its own, only leveraging Joseph when necessary. In his leadership of that organization Joseph was often paranoid, petulant, naïve, cluttered, overly concerned with validation from peers and associates, rash over real or perceived dis-loyalties, yet forgiving at the same time of past wrongs. When he was directly in front of people, he could be a rabbi, a teacher, a revelator of esoteric experiences that he wanted others to emulate. He taught it was essential to salvation, this walking back through the angels that stand as sentinels into the presence of the Lord. But he was also still human.
It could be said that at the end, he was trying to teach us how, through the introduction of temple ritual, something that would surpass his life, but which he never lived to fully implement.
 D. Michael Quinn, "The Council of Fifty and Its Members, 1844-1945," BYU Studies 21 (Winter 1980): 163-196