From the perspective of evangelical Christians during the Second Great Awakening, signs of the “true and living” church were grounded in the presence of charismatic spiritual gifts such as healings, speaking in tongues, and prophecy. For Christian primitivists who became early converts to Mormonism, it was Smith’s reception of revelation, both written and oral, along with a manifestation of spiritual gifts, that qualified the Church of Christ (later renamed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) as the “only true and living church” (D&C 1:30). The concept of priesthood took root by 1834, as the church began shifting from charismatic to administrative authority. It was during this time that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery began to expound upon visitations that they claimed to have received by heavenly messengers five years earlier.
According to these later accounts by Smith and Cowdery, while translating the Book of Mormon they became concerned over the question of having proper authority to baptize. On May 15, 1829, they took the matter up in prayer at the bank of the Susquehanna river in Harmony, PA, where they claimed to be visited by an angelic messenger (later identified as John the Baptist) who instructed and ordained them with a “lesser” priesthood (later called the Aaronic priesthood) for the purpose of baptizing. According to these accounts, the angelic messenger also promised that a higher authority would be obtained at a later time. Although neither Smith nor Cowdery recorded a date for this second event, it is commonly taught that during the summer of 1829 the two were again visited by angelic messengers (later identified as Peter, James, and John) who instructed them and conferred upon them this “higher” priesthood (later called the Melchizedek priesthood).
While several reports of angelic ministrations to Smith and Cowdery exist as early as 1830, details of priesthood ordination and naming of the heavenly messengers as Biblical apostles Peter, James, and John did not occur until 1834. This has led some scholars to contend that the restoration event was a later fabrication, stating that Smith and Cowdery likely crafted this narrative during a time when some early converts began challenging their ecclesiastical authority. Smith defended his own silence on the matter as “owing to the spirit of persecution which had already manifested itself in the neighborhoods.” Those who defend the events of the restoration of the priesthood point to later testimonies of Oliver Cowdery who continued to insist in the reality of these heavenly visitations long after he had severed his relationship from Smith and the church. However, David Whitmer and William E. McLellin, early leaders who also severed their ties, both denied the angelic restoration of authority when interviewed late in life.
The earliest mention of the ecclesiastical office of elder being conferred likely took place at the home of Peter Whitmer Sr. in June, 1830, two months following the organization of the Church of Christ. It was recorded that during this conference Smith ordained Cowdery and, likewise, Cowdery ordained Smith, to the office. Because these ordinations likely took place after the formal organization of the church, some scholars have challenged later statements that the church had been organized under the office of elder from its inception. Regardless of when the conferral of the office of elder may have happened, believers emphasize that Smith acted under God’s authority in organizing the church, even if his understanding and implementation of priesthood offices developed over time.
The ongoing debate among historians of Mormonism regarding the restoration of the priesthood centers on two factors: the lack of contemporary accounts, with the first known account being written five years after the event reportedly took place, and the evolving concept of priesthood within the early Mormon church. The most comprehensive look at the topic is Gregory A. Prince’s Power from on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood. Grant Palmer devoted a chapter challenging the claims of the priesthood restoration in An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins. D. Michael Quinn also deals with the topic in the first volume of his The Mormon Hierarchy series, titled Origins of Power. Defending Smith’s claims, historian Ronald O. Barney contributed a chapter titled “The Restoration of the Priesthood” in A Reason for Faith. A forthcoming book is scheduled from historian Gerrit J. Dirkmaat dealing with the topic, although a publishing date has not yet been announced.