Priesthood Authority: Joseph's Word Alone?

It is standard procedure for those who make the case for the LDS faith to put their opponents on the defensive by challenging our existence as a Church and our authority to interpret the Bible the way we do. They ask, “Where do you get your authority? We have the authority of the Melchizedek priesthood, which was restored to the earth by Joseph Smith.”

But who says so? We must take the word of Joseph Smith alone, depending on whether we find his word to be credible. Do we have any other witnesses? Here is where the evidence is weak. We know that all three of the original three witnesses left the LDS church and lost faith in Joseph (Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris were re-baptized late in life), but all three continued to believe the Book of Mormon. What can we learn from them about the restoration of priesthood authority?

Brigham Young acknowledges in Journal of Discourses 7:164, "Some of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, who handled the plates and conversed with the angels of God, were afterwards left to doubt and to disbelieve that they had ever seen an angel. One of the Quorum of the Twelve—a young man full of faith and good works, prayed, and the vision of his mind was opened, and the angel of God came and laid the plates before him, and he saw and handled them, and saw the angel, and conversed with him as he would with one of his friends; but after all this, he was left to doubt, and plunged into apostacy [sic], and has continued to contend against this work. There are hundreds in a similar condition.”

In 1857, apostle Heber Kimball gives a strange version of the bestowal of priesthood authority in Journal of Discourses 6:29: "Peter came along to him and gave power and authority, and, says he, ‘You go and baptise Oliver Cowdery, and then ordain him a Priest’…Then Oliver, having authority, baptised Joseph and ordained him a Priest...Peter comes along with James and John and ordains Joseph to be an Apostle, and then Joseph ordains Oliver, and David Whitmer, and Martin Harris..."

B. H. Roberts has a helpful extended footnote in History of the Church 1:40 footnote 2, where he says “there is no definite account of the event [bestowing of the priesthood] in the history of the Prophet Joseph, any of our annals." However, in the same footnote, he gives a long quote from Oliver Cowdery that was published in the 1834 Messenger and Advocate, where Oliver is overjoyed by the visit of an angel to him and Joseph, immediately after their baptism, but the angel is never named.

Only in 1848 does Oliver mention his two priesthood ordinations, and yet even here, he refers only to an angel: "I was present with Joseph when an holy angel from God came down from heaven and conferred on us, or restored, the lesser or Aaronic Priesthood, and said to us, at the same time, that it should remain upon the earth while the earth stands. I was also present with Joseph when the higher or Melchizedek Priesthood was conferred by the holy angel from on high. This Priesthood, we then conferred on each other by the will and commandment of God." (B. H. Roberts says this is a statement written down by LDS bishop Reuben Miller, which was then published on April 13, 1859 in the Deseret News.) A few months later, Oliver finally says in a signed statement what he never told us in 1834: “John the Baptist, holding the keys of the Aaronic Priesthood; Peter, James and John, holding the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood, have also ministered for those who shall be heirs of salvation, and with these administrations ordained men to the same Priesthood.”

In his booklet An Address to All Believers in Christ, David Whitmer speaks of his baptism and ordination, but makes no mention of heavenly visitors. Whitmer also flatly denies any talk of receiving any priesthood when he was ordained. He claims that the two priesthood orders “originated in the mind of Sydney [sic] Rigdon,” who persuaded Joseph to do them in 1831. Whitmer states that "Christ himself is our great and last High Priest.” He further writes, “Brethren, it is solemn mockery before God to have established in the church to-day this important office of which Christ alone is worthy.” (The third Book of Mormon witness, Martin Harris, bears no witness that I can find to any of the events in question.)

Joseph tells us that in his church’s June 6, 1831 conference, “the authority of the Melchisedek [sic] priesthood was manifested, and conferred for the first time upon several of the Elders.” (Times & Seasons volume 5 #3 = History of the Church 1:175-176.) According to John Whitmer, Joseph himself was ordained to this priesthood at this conference by Lyman Wight. (See Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 158, and footnote 66.) Why Joseph would be ordained in 1831 by this man to a priesthood to which he had already been ordained by Peter, James, and John themselves in 1829, is a puzzle. Why these elders (including Joseph?) did not already have the Melchizedek priesthood is a puzzle. And why there should be so much confusion about the landmark event from which all LDS power and authority flows is truly a puzzle.

The 1833 Book of Commandments (Wilford Wood edition) does not mention the Melchizedek priesthood. The Melchizedek priesthood does appear in 1835 (section 3 = modern section 107), but there are no mentions of John the Baptist or Peter, James, and John’s roles in restoring these. We find these ordinations mentioned only in section 50 (= modern section 27). D&C section 13 (words of John the Baptist) were not added until 1876; they first appeared in the Times & Seasons in 1842, with no indication if the source is Joseph, or second-hand.

So I find the independent testimony to the bestowal of LDS priesthood authority to be extremely slim. Oliver's testimony to an unnamed angel, with no priesthood mentioned, is the best and earliest we can find. And it is also surprising how little mention is made of the Melchizedek priesthood until 1835, if that priesthood was so important, including the fact that we have no early testimony from any independent witness to this event (Oliver’s 1834 testimony speaks of the purported visit of John the Baptist). The suggestion that Sidney Rigdon invented the priesthood and persuaded Joseph to implement it sounds appealing to me, but I would not want to rely on David Whitmer's word alone.

LDS priesthood authority ultimately rests on Joseph’s word alone. Can we trust Joseph? That is the question I focus on in The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph Smith. I do not explore the origin of the priesthood authority that Joseph claims to have restored in this book, but unless we can trust Joseph’s word on other subjects, his priesthood authority rests on nothing more than because he says so.