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The Origin of the Mormon Priesthoods

The Origin of the Mormon Priesthoods

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Where and how did the Mormon priesthood orders originate? The LDS Church claims that the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods were conferred on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in 1829. Is this true?
"Not only is the LDS claim that these two priesthoods brought unprecedented spiritual light to the world in 1829 self-serving (and, as this study argues, biblically unsupportable), it is also historically questionable."

According to LDS doctrine, the “Melchizedek priesthood” is an eternal priesthood order that existed before the world and that was passed down from generation to generation. It is “the order of Melchizedek, which was after the order of Enoch, which was after the order of the Only Begotten Son” (D&C 76:57). In D&C 84, Joseph Smith gives a kind of genealogy of the priesthood, tracing its history from Moses backward through his father-in-law Jethro, Abraham, Melchizedek, Noah, Enoch, Abel, and finally Adam (D&C 84:6-16). In the same revelation, Joseph Smith explains that God took this greater priesthood away from the Israelites because of their disobedience in the wilderness following the Exodus, while the lesser Aaronic priesthood continued to be passed down from one generation to the next until John the Baptist (D&C 84:18-28). Jesus, who as the Only Begotten Son already had the Melchizedek priesthood, restored it to the earth for a short time in the first century, but with the passing of the apostles God again removed that priesthood from the earth. The LDS Church teaches that the Lord restored both priesthoods in 1829 by having heavenly figures confer them on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery—the Aaronic priesthood by John the Baptist in May 1829 and the Melchizedek priesthood by the apostles Peter, James, and John in June 1829 (see D&C 13:1; 27:7-8, 12-13).

 

Table 1: LDS View of the History of the Priesthoods

Periods of Human History

Melchizedek Priesthood

Aaronic Priesthood

Adam to Moses (up to ca. 1500 BC)

 

Aaron to John the Baptist (ca. 1500 BC-AD 30)

 

Jesus and his apostles (ca. AD 30-100)

 

The Great Apostasy (ca. 100-1829)

 

 

Restoration from Joseph Smith (1829-present)

 

The LDS view of the histories of the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods provides an interesting cross-section of how the LDS Church views human history (see Table 1). In ancient times, according to LDS doctrine, God’s people had either the Melchizedek priesthood or the Aaronic priesthood, but with the exception of two very short periods of time (during the ministries of Moses and Aaron in the Old Testament and of John the Baptist and Jesus in the New) the two priesthoods never functioned at the same time. The darkest period of earth history from the LDS perspective is that of nearly the entirety of the Church age, following the death of the New Testament apostles. For seventeen centuries, which the LDS Church calls “the Great Apostasy,” neither of the two priesthood orders operated on the earth. By contrast, the brightest period of earth history in the LDS view is that of the past two centuries (starting when Joseph Smith supposedly received the priesthoods), when both priesthoods have been functioning together and both have been passed down for several generations. This view of world history provides a rather self-serving appraisal of the LDS Church as the beacon of light and spiritual power in contrast to historic Christianity as supposedly powerless in spiritual darkness.

Not only is the LDS claim that these two priesthoods brought unprecedented spiritual light to the world in 1829 self-serving (and biblically unsupportable), it is also historically questionable. The texts describing these supposed momentous events were not part of the 1833 Book of Commandments, the earliest version of the LDS scripture containing Joseph Smith’s modern revelations that was later called Doctrine & Covenants. One of these later texts that were not in the Book of Commandments is Doctrine & Covenants 13, a one-sentence revelation that was written in 1839, first published in 1842, and eventually added to D&C in 1876. The other is D&C 27:5-13, a text of over 300 words added in 1835 to the revelation previously published as Book of Commandments 28 by splicing them literally into the middle of a sentence (see Table 2). Not only is the new material added into the middle of a sentence, but the “revelation” that tells about Joseph and Oliver receiving the priesthoods from John the Baptist and from the apostles Peter, James, and John is cumbersome, rambling, and thematically out of place in what was otherwise a straightforward instruction to use water instead of wine in the sacrament.

 

Table 2: Changes to What Is Now Doctrine & Covenants 27

Book of Commandments 28

(published 1833)

Doctrine & Covenants 27

(new material added in 1835)

(Verses 1-6a) Listen to the voice of Jesus Christ, your Lord, your God and your Redeemer, whose word is quick and powerful. For behold I say unto you, that it mattereth not what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, when ye partake of the sacrament, if it so be that ye do it with an eye single to my glory; Remembering unto the Father my body which was laid down for you, and my blood which was shed for the remission of your sins: Wherefore a commandment I give unto you, that you shall not purchase wine, neither strong drink of your enemies: Wherefore you shall partake of none, except it is made new among you, yea, in this my Father’s kingdom which shall be built up on the earth. Behold this is wisdom in me, wherefore marvel not, for the hour cometh that I will drink of the fruit of the vine with you, on the earth,

(Verses 1-5a) Listen to the voice of Jesus Christ, your Lord, your God, and your Redeemer, whose word is quick and powerful. For, behold, I say unto you, that it mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink when ye partake of the sacrament, if it so be that ye do it with an eye single to my glory—remembering unto the Father my body which was laid down for you, and my blood which was shed for the remission of your sins. Wherefore, a commandment I give unto you, that you shall not purchase wine neither strong drink of your enemies; Wherefore, you shall partake of none except it is made new among you; yea, in this my Father’s kingdom which shall be built up on the earth. Behold, this is wisdom in me; wherefore, marvel not, for the hour cometh that I will drink of the fruit of the vine with you on the earth,

 

(Verses 5b-13) and with Moroni, whom I have sent unto you to reveal the Book of Mormon, containing the fulness of my everlasting gospel, to whom I have committed the keys of the record of the stick of Ephraim; And also with Elias, to whom I have committed the keys of bringing to pass the restoration of all things spoken by the mouth of all the holy prophets since the world began, concerning the last days; And also John the son of Zacharias, which Zacharias he (Elias) visited and gave promise that he should have a son, and his name should be John, and he should be filled with the spirit of Elias; Which John I have sent unto you, my servants, Joseph Smith, Jun., and Oliver Cowdery, to ordain you unto the first priesthood which you have received, that you might be called and ordained even as Aaron; And also Elijah, unto whom I have committed the keys of the power of turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers, that the whole earth may not be smitten with a curse; And also with Joseph and Jacob, and Isaac, and Abraham, your fathers, by whom the promises remain; And also with Michael, or Adam, the father of all, the prince of all, the ancient of days; And also with 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; Unto whom I have committed the keys of my kingdom, and a dispensation of the gospel for the last times; and for the fulness of times, in the which I will gather together in one all things, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth;

(Verses 6b-7) and with all those whom my Father hath given me out of the world: Wherefore lift up your hearts and rejoice, and gird up your loins

 

 

 

 

 

and be faithful until I come:—
even so. Amen.

(Verses 14-18) And also with all those whom my Father hath given me out of the world. Wherefore, lift up your hearts and rejoice, and gird up your loins, and take upon you my whole armor, that ye may be able to withstand the evil day, having done all, that ye may be able to stand. Stand, therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, having on the breastplate of righteousness, and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace, which I have sent mine angels to commit unto you; Taking the shield of faith wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked; And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of my Spirit, which I will pour out upon you, and my word which I reveal unto you, and be agreed as touching all things whatsoever ye ask of me, and be faithful until I come, and ye shall be caught up, that where I am ye shall be also. Amen.

This evidence clearly shows that the idea of resurrected persons conferring priesthoods on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery was added to the LDS scriptures after 1833. No other written evidence for these claims before 1834 has been found. The reasonable conclusion is that these were stories that Joseph and Oliver made up years after the events supposedly happened.

 

For Further Reflection

  • What does the LDS view of the history of priesthood imply about traditional, historic Christianity?
  • What is the best explanation for the lengthy addition in 1835 to D&C 27 of material about Joseph and Oliver receiving the priesthood—in the middle of sentence in a revelation instructing the Saints not to use wine in the sacrament?