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The significant event in Latter-day Saint history that occurred 195 years ago this month

On May 15, 1829, John the Baptist appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and restored the Aaronic Priesthood; a short time later, biblical apostles Peter, James and John appeared and conferred upon them the Melchizedek Priesthood

On Sept. 19, 2015, President Russell M. Nelson said he participated in what was, to that point in his life, “the most significant priesthood assignment I had ever received” — the dedication of the renovated Priesthood Restoration Site near what was then known as Harmony near a bend in the Susquehanna River in northeastern Pennsylvania.

“Both the anticipation of that event and the actual experience itself moved me deeply,” President Nelson wrote in his 2023 book, “Heart of the Matter.” “Other than the Sacred Grove and a few additional landmarks in and around Palymra, New York, there may be no other location in history of Church history as central to the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ as is the area in and around Harmony.”

As he and others walked a new trail system throughout the woods where both the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods were restored, President Nelson noted that “the reality of priesthood keys and priesthood power was tangible.”

President Russell M. Nelson and Sister Wendy Nelson are pictured at the Church's Priesthood Restoration site near Harmony, Pennsylvania. President Nelson dedicated the renovated historic site in Sept. 2015.
President Russell M. Nelson and Sister Wendy Nelson are pictured at the Church's Priesthood Restoration site near Harmony, Pennsylvania. President Nelson dedicated the renovated historic site in Sept. 2015. | Nelson family

“This was holy ground,” he wrote. “The reason for such a profound feeling of reverence is clear. The restoration of the priesthood keys to the earth was crucial. Priesthood keys authorize men on earth to act and speak in the name of God.”

This month — May 15 — marks the 195th anniversary of the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood. Later that year, the Melchizedek Priesthood was also restored. These keys gave Joseph Smith authority to organize the Church in 1830.

“One of the things I have learned in my life is how very real priesthood keys, priesthood authority and priesthood power are,” President Nelson wrote in his book. “I have also learned that the privileges both men and women receive because of the restoration of the priesthood are tangible and can literally change the lives of all who believe in and draw upon priesthood power.”

The Joseph and Emma Smith Home at the Priesthood Restoration Site in Oakland Township, Pennsylvania, is pictured in August 2018. Joseph Smith translated most of the Book of Mormon here, in the home he shared with his wife, Emma.
The Joseph and Emma Smith Home at the Priesthood Restoration Site in Oakland Township, Pennsylvania, is pictured in August 2018. Joseph Smith translated most of the Book of Mormon here, in the home he shared with his wife, Emma. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood

In May of 1829, the Prophet Joseph Smith and his scribe Oliver Cowdery were working on the translation of the Book of Mormon at Joseph’s home in then-Harmony Township, Pennsylvania, when they learned about the necessity of baptism. (The Harmony area in northeastern Pennsylvania is now called Oakland Township, Susquehanna County. There is a community in western Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh that is now called Harmony.)

Baptism is mentioned repeatedly in the books of Mosiah (13 times), Alma (17), Helaman (8) and 3 Nephi (33), said Alexander Baugh, a professor Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University.

“So it’s clear they are becoming indoctrinated with the need for baptism,” Baugh said in a BYU Religious Education video about the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood.

Seeking divine guidance on May 15, 1829, Joseph and Oliver walked into nearby woods to pray about baptism and the remission of sins. Many may imagine it happening on the “idyllic riverbank” of the nearby Susquehanna River, Spencer McBride, a historian and documentary editor for the Joseph Smith Papers, told the Church News. “But the reality is they most likely went to a grove of sugar maple trees on the property.”

Sugar maple grove at Priesthood Restoration Site in Harmony (now Oakland Township), Pennsylvania, is the location where Latter-day Saint historians believe the resurrected personage, John the Baptist, conferred the Aaronic Priesthood upon Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.
Sugar maple grove at Priesthood Restoration Site in Harmony (now Oakland Township), Pennsylvania, is the location where Latter-day Saint historians believe the resurrected personage, John the Baptist, conferred the Aaronic Priesthood upon Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. | R. Scott Lloyd

As they prayed, Oliver recorded that the voice of the Lord spoke peace to his heart as John the Baptist, a resurrected being, appeared. The heavenly messenger placed his hands on their heads and conferring upon them the Aaronic Priesthood, saying: “Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of 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” (see Doctrine and Covenants 13).

John explained that the Aaronic Priesthood granted them the authority to perform baptisms, and he commanded them to baptize each other after his departure. He also promised that they would later receive additional priesthood power, enabling them to confer the gift of the Holy Ghost on each other and on those they baptized.

That same day, Joseph and Oliver waded into the flooded banks of the Susquehanna River and baptized each other. Afterward, they ordained each other to the Aaronic Priesthood.

Following these events, Joseph and Oliver found that scriptures that once seemed dense and mysterious suddenly became clear. Truth and understanding filled their minds, according to “Saints, Vol. 1.”

The Susquehanna River flows near Harmony, Pennsylvania, where Joseph and Emma Smith lived in the late 1820s. This photo was taken in 2011.
The Susquehanna River flows near Harmony, Pennsylvania, where Joseph and Emma Smith lived in the late 1820s. This photo was taken in 2011. | Kenneth Mays

Restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood

After John the Baptist ordained Joseph and Oliver, he told them he acted under the direction of biblical apostles Peter, James and John, who held the greater authority — the Melchizedek Priesthood — which included the power to give the gift of the Holy Ghost. He promised that in due time this power would be conferred on them.

This did happen a short time later — historians estimate it could have happened as soon as a few weeks to many months after the appearance of John the Baptist on May 15, 1829 — although records of their visitation and conferral of the Melchizedek Priesthood are scant, McBride said in the Joseph Smith Papers’ “The Priesthood Restored” podcast.

“It’s one of those events about which we wish we knew more details,” he said. “Yet, historians treasure the details that do survive.”

A statue depicting Apostles Peter, James and John conferring the Melchizedek Priesthood on Joseph Smith stands at the Priesthood Restoration site near Harmony, Pennsylvania, in June 2021.
A statue depicting Apostles Peter, James and John conferring the Melchizedek Priesthood on Joseph Smith stands at the Priesthood Restoration site near Harmony, Pennsylvania, in June 2021. | Trent Toone, Church News

The event is mentioned in Doctrine and Covenants 27:12-13 as one of multiple examples of angelic visitations to Joseph to contextualize the spiritual work the young Prophet was undertaking, although no date for the visitation is given.

“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.”

Other historic documents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reference the event, but surviving records of the visitation from Joseph’s lifetime are largely limited to references in his letters and published revelations.

In a blessing Joseph gave to Oliver that was recorded in October 1835, he spoke of Oliver’s receiving “the holy priesthood under the hands of they who had been held in reserve for a long season, even those who received it under the hand of the Messiah.”

In an 1842 letter to Latter-day Saints, now canonized as Doctrine and Covenants 128:20, it reads: “The voice of Peter, James, and John in the wilderness between Harmony, Susquehanna county, and Colesville, Broome county, on the Susquehanna river, declaring themselves as possessing the keys of the kingdom, and the dispensation of the fulness of times.”

Oliver spoke of this sacred occasion in several letters later in his life, including one in 1846 where he related the sense of awe with which he stood “in the presence of Peter, to receive the Greater [priesthood].”

McBride said one event strongly suggests that the visitation of Peter, James and John occurred shortly after the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood and before the organization of the Church in 1830, where they were sustained as the first and second elders of the Church and acted with divine authority to baptize and to bestow the gift of the Holy Ghost.

The Peter Whitmer farm in Fayette, N.Y., is where Joseph Smith organized The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 6, 1830.
The Peter Whitmer farm in Fayette, N.Y., is where Joseph Smith organized The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 6, 1830. | Tom Smart, All

At the invitation of the Whitmer family, Joseph and Oliver moved to New York to finish the translation of the Book of Mormon. While there, they used the Aaronic Priesthood to baptize several people, but they wondered about the authority to confer the Holy Ghost on others.

While praying in the Whitmer home, the voice of the Lord commanded Joseph and Oliver that they should ordain each other to the office of elder, but not until a future date when they had the approval of the Church. Those ordinations occurred on April 6, 1830, the day the Church was organized.

“So they had received the ordination from Peter, James and John already, this is permission to now act on that authority,” Mark Staker, a senior researcher in the Church History Department, said on the Joseph Smith Papers podcast. “You can give it to others if you follow this process, and the process that is outlined here is that they need to have baptized brethren assemble and sanction them proceeding to ordain people.”

Additional priesthood keys

In time, other heavenly messengers bestowed upon Joseph additional priesthood keys. The most important of these events took place in the Kirtland Temple on Easter Sunday, April 3, 1836, when Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery saw Jesus Christ and were visited by Moses, Elias and Elijah (see Doctrine and Covenants 110).

The sun rises on the Kirtland Temple in Kirtland, Ohio, on Monday, March 25, 2024. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The significance of priesthood keys being returned to the earth by heavenly messengers under the direction of the Lord cannot be overstated, President Russell M. Nelson taught in April 2024 general conference.

“Priesthood keys constitute the authority and power of presidency. Priesthood keys govern how the priesthood of God may be used to bring about the Lord’s purposes and bless all who accept the restored gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said. “Let us rejoice in the restoration of priesthood keys, which make it possible for you and me to enjoy every spiritual blessing we are willing and worthy to receive.”

Restoration of the priesthood today

On the Joseph Smith Papers podcast, Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles discussed what the restoration of the priesthood means for Latter-day Saints today.

“I hope everyone gains clarity on what the priesthood is and its function,” Elder Renlund said in the podcast. “For too long, the power of the priesthood has only been taught to men in priesthood quorums. And yet, the sisters of the Church have the same need to come to understand that the power of the priesthood applies to everyone who has received ordinances and made covenants with God.”

Learn more about the Priesthood Restoration Site at ChurchofJesusChrist.org.

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