The Odd Double Restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood

June 29, 2004 | 11 comments
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Of late I have been reading Joseph Smith’s History of the Church (also sometimes known as the Documentary History of the Church) in the mornings before I start work. Reading it raised fun little puzzle for me about the restoration of the Aaronic priesthood.

The DHC makes for interesting reading, and it provides a nice way of studying the sections of the D&C in the context in which they were given. (Although for a variety of reasons the DHC is quite problematic – it was written long after the fact and heavily and silently edited by Joseph’s scribes and the Church Historian in Utah who prepared it for publication. Also, the text of many of the revelations changed over time, and the DHC anachronistically always includes the later text.) My question comes with D&C 13. This section records the words given by John the Baptist when he restored the Aaronic priesthood. According to the DHC account, John the Baptist laid hands on Joseph and Oliver and said:

    Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of the 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

The record then states that Joseph baptized Oliver, after which Oliver baptized Joseph. So far, so good.

Then comes the interesting part. The DHC says, “I [Joseph] baptized him first, and afterwards he baptized me, after which I laid my hands upon his head and ordained him to the Aaronic Priesthood, and afterwards he laid his hands on me and ordained me to the same Priesthood – for so were commanded.” So why would Joseph and Oliver get ordained by John the Baptist then re-ordain one another immediately thereafter to the same priesthood?

Now one could do a kind of naturalistic deconstruction of this text. You could argue that what really happened is that Joseph simply baptized and ordained Oliver, and Oliver baptized and ordained Joseph. The story about the angel was added in later to make everything seem more miraculous. There are a number of problem with this interpretation, however. First, the original text – which as far as I know contains the bit about the angel – was written in 1838. By this time the John the Baptist story had been around a long time, so why would Joseph problematize it with the odd double ordination story? It is not as though what we have is an early, angelless text into which an angel story has been interpolated. Second, we have lots of statements by Oliver Cowdry – some of which predate Joseph’s original manuscript of the DHC – insisting on the real presence of the angel. Hence, for documentary as well as religious reasons, I am not inclined to accept the secular deconstruction.

This suggests that there is some theological reason for the double ordination. I have no idea what it might be. As far as I know Joseph never said anything else about it, and I have never seen any LDS source discuss this particular little puzzle (although if anyone knows of anything addressing it, please let me know). Thoughts?

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11 Responses to The Odd Double Restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood

  1. Nathan Tolman on June 29, 2004 at 12:38 pm

    Perhaps the first ordination was to the Aaronic priesthood and the second to an office. Who knows? Perhaps the Lord prefers redundancy sometimes.

  2. Eric James Stone on June 29, 2004 at 12:53 pm

    I’ve noticed that, too, and concluded it that the ordination performed by John the Baptist was a sort of “bootstrapping.”

    As a general pattern for the Church to follow, someone should be properly baptized before being ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood. Also, proper baptism requires someone ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood — as does proper ordination to the Aaronic Priesthood.

    Since no one on Earth had the Aaronic Priesthood, John the Baptist was sent to restore it, which was done in a rather unusual simultaneous double ordination.

    That authority was sufficient for Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery to then perform the ordinances in their proper order. We still follow that order today, never ordaining to the Aaronic Priesthood prior to baptism.

    Of course, this is just my personal theory, as I’ve never seen it discussed anywhere else, either.

  3. D. Fletcher on June 29, 2004 at 1:00 pm

    How could Joseph baptize Oliver without having first received the Aaronic Priesthood?

    It’s pretty clear to me. John the Baptist had to give some version of the Priesthood to Joseph, who then could baptize and ordain Oliver. But having done this, Oliver then had to use his Priesthood authority to reordain Joseph using the earthly keys we now know.

    The unclear thing is why John gave both of them the Aaronic Priesthood — he could have simply given it to Joseph, who then would pass it on to Oliver.

    The surprise in all of this is that John the Baptist was a resurrected being with a physical body. Couldn’t he have baptized and ordained both of them by himself?

  4. Gary Cooper on June 29, 2004 at 1:05 pm

    I beleive Joseph Fielding Smith reponded to your question, Nate, and to your’s, Fletcher. I can’t recall if I read it in “Answers to Gospel Questions” or “Doctrines of Salvation”, but it’s there.

  5. Ben Huff on June 29, 2004 at 1:10 pm

    Yeah, Christ was baptized, as much to set the standard as anything, since he was free of sin anyway. Perhaps this is a lesser version of a similar idea. Presumably Joseph and Oliver were in good standing with the Lord, to be translating, receiving an angelic visit etc., so presumably they were worthy to receive the priesthood, but you don’t want to set the precedent wrong, so they ordained each other *again*, after being baptized. That way the proper order is there from the beginning (in addition to the exceptional order of their particular case).

  6. lyle on June 29, 2004 at 1:13 pm

    D. Fletcher: Very interesting. I guess it would have been lots simpler if Jesus Christ himself, or God the Father, had simply done all of the ordination & ordinance work for Joseph Smith & then sat back & watched to make sure he did it right on Oliver.

  7. danithew on June 29, 2004 at 1:23 pm

    This question came up in our elders quorum priesthood meeting this last Sunday. The teacher raised the question and many of us tried to answer but finally we kind of moved on. I’d be interested to see what Joseph Fielding Smith wrote on the matter.

  8. Nate Oman on June 29, 2004 at 1:37 pm

    Gary: Thanks for the pointer to the Joseph Fielding Smith stuff. I will try to run it down this sunday in our ward library.

  9. Eric James Stone on June 29, 2004 at 2:59 pm

    President Hinckley, in the First Presidencey messag in the May 1989 issue of Tambuli, addressed this:

    “Those second ordinations, I suppose, were not necessary, but were done to emphasize a lesson. They already had received the authority from John. But they were taught that the receiving of the priesthood was to follow baptism and a pattern for conferring it was established.”

    http://library.lds.org/nxt/gateway.dll/Magazines/Liahona/1989.htm/tambuli%20may%201989.htm/first%20presidency%20message%20upon%20you%20my%20fellow%20servants%20.htm

  10. Mark Butler on June 30, 2004 at 3:51 pm

    The answer is very simple. John the Baptist _conferred_ the priesthood, but did not ordain them to any particular office. Joseph and Oliver then proceeded to _ordain_ each other to offices in the priesthood.

    The difference between the two is a bit of a mystery. I might suggest that prior to conferral Joseph had prevenient _authority_ but lacked the _power_ thereof. John himself was _ordained_ by an angel at the age of eight days – but did he really hold the priesthood until later, despite his early ordination? We might say the same of Jesus Christ’s early mortal ministry.

  11. Dave on July 4, 2004 at 1:11 pm

    Stephen E. Robinson and H. Dean Garrett address this issue VERY WELL in their commentary on the doctrine and covenants vol. 1. Unfortunatley I don’t have the book with me, but just swing by deseret book and flip it open to section 13 and read what they put. I think it coincides with what’s been written here.