Since earliest times, the Lord’s Saints have looked forward to the return of Jesus Christ and “the times of restitution of all things.” These times would restore a fulness of all the doctrines, covenants, promises, and blessings spoken by God through “the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began.”1 (Acts 3:21.)
Modern-day prophets have testified that Peter’s words have been fulfilled in our age, “the dispensation of the fulness of times.” (D&C 128:18.) The Restoration is among the most important tasks God has ever entrusted to a man—without it, “the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming.” (D&C 2:3.)
The world’s debt to Joseph Smith is great. As prophet, seer, and revelator, he is central in this dispensation. Last month, we examined his impact on our understanding of God, man, and the Creation. This month, we consider three more crucial topics about which he taught much: priesthood, scripture, and the temple.
Joseph Smith’s teachings concerning priesthood constitute a distinctive part of Latter-day Saint religion. The term priesthood, as used by Latter-day Saints, has at least two specific meanings. Priesthood is both authority from God to act in his name and actual power to accomplish God’s purposes. Joseph Smith proclaimed that he received such authority and power directly from heavenly messengers and that religious ordinances performed without divine authority have no binding effect outside this life. Baptism, for example, is valid only when someone possessing divine authority performs it.
Joseph Smith taught that priesthood authority and power had to be restored to the earth because it had been lost through apostasy.2 Historical evidences of this apostasy include denials of spiritual gifts, uncertainty about doctrines and the roles of Church officers, changes in covenants and ordinances, and overindulgence in pomp and splendor. These external manifestations reflected the internal loss of divine authority.
As early as 1823, Moroni promised Joseph Smith that the priesthood would be revealed to him by the hand of Elijah. (See D&C 2:1.) Priesthood restoration began on 15 May 1829 when John the Baptist—by then a resurrected being of glory—appeared to the young prophet and Oliver Cowdery to confer the Aaronic Priesthood upon them. (See D&C 13; JS—H 1:68–72.) Shortly thereafter, the Apostles Peter, James, and John came and conferred upon them the Melchizedek Priesthood.3 (See D&C 27:12–13.)
In 1836 Joseph Smith received, in the Kirtland Temple, additional fundamental priesthood keys. These priesthood powers included the keys of the gathering of Israel, the keys of the gospel of Abraham, and the keys of the sealing power, each set of powers restored personally by Moses, Elias, and Elijah. (See D&C 110.) At other times, additional keys and powers of the priesthood were also restored. (See D&C 128:21.) These included the keys of the kingdom pertaining to the dispensation of the fulness of times, keys that have subsequently passed to Joseph Smith’s successors, including President Ezra Taft Benson today. (See D&C 90:1–5.)
As this process of priesthood restoration unfolded, Joseph Smith’s understanding of the nature of priesthood power and authority increased. Sometime in April or May 1829, he translated the passage in Alma 13 about the high priesthood after the holy order of the Son of God. He also learned that the priesthood is eternal, a concept that he more fully expressed in 1839 when he said, “The Priesthood is an everlasting principle & Existed with God from Eternity.”4 Soon afterward, he received the lesser priesthood, the priesthood of Aaron. (See D&C 13; D&C 84:25–27.) By this, he learned that two types of priesthood exist and that they would be operative in this dispensation. In May 1829, he also learned that priesthood power is necessary in order to baptize, to confer the gift of the Holy Ghost, and to administer the sacrament of the Lord’s supper. (See 3 Ne. 11:22; 3 Ne. 18:37; Moro. 2–6.)
In April 1830, Joseph organized The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, based upon a foundation of Apostles, prophets, elders, priests, teachers, and deacons; and in June 1830, he witnessed “glorious manifestations of the powers of the Priesthood.”5
In March 1835, he gained further insight into the distinctions between the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods: “The Melchizedek Priesthood holds the right of presidency, and has power and authority over all offices in the church” (D&C 107:8), while the Aaronic Priesthood “is called the lesser priesthood … because it is an appendage to the greater, or the Melchizedek Priesthood” (D&C 107:14). Two years later, the Prophet recorded, “The higher the authority, the greater the difficulty of the station.”6
Joseph Smith also learned that temples had to be constructed to “enable all the functions of the Priesthood to be duly exercised.”7 Near the end of his life, he reemphasized to the Saints that although ministers of other faiths did not have divine authority, he did.8
The teachings of Joseph Smith concerning the nature of authority and the need for a restoration differ markedly from other nineteenth-century creeds. Most Protestants believed that the written words of the Bible constituted the only authority necessary and saw the congregation of believers as a “royal priesthood” in Christ. Catholics asserted priesthood authority in the traditions of the church and through the popes, who they claimed received authority from Peter.9
Neither Protestants nor Catholics generally recognized the need for a restoration of priesthood authority or for an organization of priesthood offices and functions similar to what existed in the early church. Early Christians, however, had priesthood offices and authority quite similar to those established by Joseph Smith.
The New Testament contains evidence of that view. Differences between the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods, for example, are outlined in Hebrews 7. The concept “that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority” (A of F 1:5) is expressed in Hebrews 5:4, which says, “No man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron.” (See 1 Tim. 4:14.)
Ephesians 2:19–20 and 4:11–14 affirm that Apostles and prophets form the essential foundation of the Church, and the New Testament contains references to bishops, seventies, elders, priests, deacons, and other offices. (See Luke 10:1; Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 3:1, 8; Rev. 20:6.) Traces of this organization survived in the first few centuries after Christ. Clement and Ignatius, for example, mention bishops, elders, and deacons in the local structure of church authority.10 With the death of the Apostles, however, priesthood keys no longer existed in the church, and apostate ideas soon replaced these earlier teachings. Through the Prophet Joseph Smith, correct concepts and divine authority were restored.
Unlike traditional Christianity, which remains a religion of the book (the Bible), the restored gospel from its beginning has been a religion of books. Joseph Smith’s contribution to the concept of scripture is important and unique.
The translation of the Book of Mormon assured from the birth of the Church an openness to scriptural texts outside the Bible. Its appearance established that God still speaks through prophets and that the Bible is not an exhaustive collection of scripture. The Book of Mormon expressly cautions readers: “Because that ye have a Bible ye need not suppose that it contains all my words; neither need ye suppose that I have not caused more to be written.” (2 Ne. 29:10.)
It goes even further, pronouncing a woe upon those who say, “We need no more of the word of God, for we have enough.” (2 Ne. 28:29.)
From the writings of Nephi, Joseph Smith learned that the Book of Mormon would be only one of many books to come forth in the last days. (See 1 Ne. 13:39; 2 Ne. 27:11.) The pages of the Book of Mormon also contain interpretations, additions, and corrections to chapters from Isaiah, as well as quotations from heretofore unknown prophets of ancient Israel (Zenos and Zenock, for example), together with a precious account of the resurrected Savior’s personal ministry among inhabitants of ancient America.
From the Book of Mormon, Joseph had his concept of scripture greatly expanded. The translation of the Nephite scripture gave concrete evidence that the Lord had spoken to “all men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north, and in the south,” and that they had written God’s words by which he “will judge the world.” (2 Ne. 29:11.) New scripture promotes faith in other sacred texts. Mormon 7:9 adds that the Nephite records were “written for the intent that ye may believe [the Bible].” [Morm. 7:9]
Between the time the Book of Mormon was published and the Kirtland Temple was dedicated, Joseph Smith learned that God had given power and knowledge to man in a series of dispensations. (See D&C 27:12–13; D&C 110:12, 16.) Beginning with Adam, each dispensation had been given holy scripture “according to their language, unto their understanding.” (2 Ne. 31:3.) Restoring lost knowledge from those earlier dispensations was a part of the restoration of all things, as the receipt of the Book of Moses in 1830 richly illustrated.11
In none of these things, however, did Joseph Smith think any less of the Bible as far as it was translated correctly. (See A of F 1:8.) Indeed, as early as 1830, Joseph devoted great energy to improving our understanding of the King James Bible. He considered this work a “branch of [his] calling,”12 and he spent many hours studying and restoring proper meaning to many passages. In all, Joseph Smith altered about 3,400 verses in the Bible—about 10 percent of the total. Because this task was not completed—and for other reasons—we use the King James Version.13
In addition to restoring ancient principles, Joseph Smith added new revelations to the body of scripture: the volume of sacred writ was not to be closed. Many of these revelations were communicated during regular conferences, then printed in official reports. Significantly, these revelations stand as scripture itself: “What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, … my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.” (D&C 1:38.)
Thus, by experience and revelation, Joseph learned and taught (1) that scripture is nothing more or less than the word of the Lord, (2) that the book of God’s word is not closed, (3) that God speaks to all dispensations, (4) that scripture must be correctly understood through the spirit of truth, and (5) that the words of the Lord’s servants when moved upon by the Holy Ghost are scripture, too. (See 2 Pet. 1:20–21; D&C 68:4.)
These doctrines came into Joseph Smith’s world as radical ideas. Joseph’s Christian contemporaries accepted as scripture only the books of the Bible. They considered that volume to be a single, complete, and absolute source to be understood quite literally. Thus, the laws of the Massachusetts Bay Colony described the Old and New Testaments as “containing in them the infallible and whole Will of God, which he purposed to make known to Mankinde,” the denial of which was punishable by fines, whippings, banishment, or death.14
To people of such persuasion, the ideas of continuous revelation, additional scripture, dispensations, inspired versions, and gifts of prophecy evoked sharp reactions. For example, two months after the publication of the Book of Mormon, the Palmyra Reflector warned Oliver Cowdery that he might be sent as a convict to the Simsbury Mines if he dared to proclaim its message in “the principal cities of the Union.”15
The rejection of new revelation in the 1830s was similar to the rejection of new revelation by the Jews at the time of Christ. Many Jews whom Jesus encountered insisted that the receipt of new scripture was impossible, that the law was complete (as they interpreted Lev. 27:34 to say), and that prophecy had ceased after the second century B.C.16
For the early Christians, however, the floodgates of revelation had just opened again. The Epistle to the Hebrews begins with a bold declaration of new revelation: “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in times past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son.” (Heb. 1:1–2.)
John declares likewise: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass.” (Rev. 1:1.)
To these early followers of Jesus, the scriptures were not a closed set of writings. To the Apostle Paul, for example, all writings17 inspired by God were good for doctrine and the promotion of righteousness. (See 2 Tim. 3:16.)
In Paul’s day, there was no fixed collection of books, even among the Jews, that exclusively counted as scripture. Thus, Jude 1:14–15 quotes without reservation the nonbiblical book of Enoch as scripture. Indeed, not until the fourth century did the New Testament canon become fixed, and not until the Reformation in the sixteenth century did the church regard the Old Testament as Jerome did—that is, as the Hebrew canon.18
Matthew, Paul, and Jesus himself led the way in showing, as Joseph Smith did, the need for expounding, searching, and interpreting the scriptures in light of current conditions and true perceptions (see Matt. 22:23–33; Matt. 24:27; John 5:39), and in issuing new commandments (see John 13:34; 1 Cor. 6:7–8). They recognized the impossibility of restricting their spiritual knowledge to a finite number of pages.19 (See John 21:25.) Thus we see an open and complex idea of scripture in the early Christian movement that is comparable to the expanding view of scripture understood by Joseph Smith.20
Also unique among the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith in his day were those regarding temple covenants, baptism for the dead, and the eternal sealing of families. No other religion offered people then, nor do any offer today, the opportunity to receive these rich and wonderful blessings. Joseph Smith taught that while resurrection from death is a gift of God to all mankind through the death and resurrection of Christ (see 1 Cor. 15:21–22), exaltation through the power of the priesthood comes only to those who are sanctified through the Spirit and who keep sacred covenants (see D&C 84:19–24, 33–41.) The most important of these covenants are made in holy temples.
Early in his ministry, Joseph Smith learned the importance of temples in the Lord’s plan of salvation. Before his martyrdom, the Saints had built temples at Kirtland and Nauvoo and dedicated sites in Independence, Adam-ondi-Ahman, and Far West.
In this dispensation, the pattern of temple building was first revealed through the Book of Mormon. This ancient record indicates that in the lands of Nephi, Zarahemla, and Bountiful, the righteous Nephites constructed temples to perform their ordinances. (See 2 Ne. 5:16; Mosiah 2:1; 3 Ne. 11:1.) With the coming of Christ, the Nephite temple remained significant, as Jesus appeared and taught there, instructing his people to keep certain commandments (see 3 Ne. 12:20–13:24) and entering into a covenant with them (see 3 Ne. 18:6–10).
In January 1831, the Lord commanded Joseph Smith to go to Kirtland, where he would be “endowed with power from on high.” (D&C 38:32.) Shortly thereafter, a temple site was selected there. In July and August 1831, the word of the Lord instructed the Saints that another temple site should be dedicated in Independence, Missouri. (See D&C 57:3; D&C 58:57.) In the ordinances of these sacred houses, the Lord said, the “power of godliness” and “the mysteries of the kingdom” (D&C 84:19–21) would be made manifest. There the Saints could worship, give thanks, receive counsel, and be endowed with power. (See D&C 95:7–17.)
Joseph’s understanding of specific temple ordinances grew from these concepts in 1831 to a crescendo in 1844. In 1834, the need for a restoration of all the ordinances of the gospel was revealed: “We all admit that the Gospel has ordinances, and if so, had it not always ordinances, and were not its ordinances always the same?”21
The Lord promised that ordinances would be performed in the temple, where “a great endowment and blessing [will] be poured out.” (D&C 105:12; see also D&C 105:18, 33.) In 1835, the Saints learned that they needed an endowment to “be prepared and able to overcome all things.”22 After the completion of the Kirtland Temple in 1836, washing, anointing, and sealing the anointing were performed there.23
During the Nauvoo period, Joseph Smith taught more about the keys of the kingdom necessary to be born again, to be sealed unto eternal life by the holy spirit of promise, and to recognize Satan. He also revealed that the early Apostles Peter and Paul knew these things.24 He explained that Adam “was the first to hold the spiritual blessings” and knew “the plan of ordinances for the Salvation of his posterity unto the end.”25 Through the priesthood in the temple, the Prophet explained, eternally vital matters are to be revealed from heaven.
On 15 August 1840, at the funeral sermon for Seymour Brunson, Joseph Smith gave the first discourse on baptism for the dead.26 This ordinance was being performed in the font at the Nauvoo Temple by November 21 of the next year.27
In 1842, the women of the Relief Society learned of the vital role they would play in the kingdom.29 Joseph Smith further taught that there existed “certain signs and words by which false spirits and personages may be detected from true, which cannot be revealed to the Elders till the Temple is completed.”30
By 1843, the temple’s full import and design seem to have crystallized in the Prophet’s teachings. The doctrines of sealing and of becoming kings and queens, priests and priestesses were often discussed. Joseph Smith taught that “except a man and his wife enter into an everlasting covenant and be married for eternity, while in this probation, by the power and authority of the Holy Priesthood, they will cease to increase when they die; that is, they will not have any children after the resurrection,”31 nor can they obtain the highest degree of the celestial glory. (See D&C 131:1–4.)
Accordingly, Joseph and Emma Smith were sealed for time and eternity on 28 May 1843.32 Sometime between 29 August 1842 and 16 July 1843, Joseph Smith discussed the full concept of temple ordinances with Hyrum Smith, Brigham Young, Willard Richards, and others of the Twelve.33 He explained how Abraham’s endowment was the patriarchal order of marriage for time and eternity.34 The members of the Quorum of the Twelve then received both the Aaronic and Melchizedek portions of the endowment, and within a year they and their wives had been sealed for eternity.
Finally, in his last year, Joseph completed his doctrinal instruction about the temple. He taught that Jesus received the fulness of the priesthood on the Mount of Transfiguration.35 He said that knowledge of “our condition and true relation to God … can only be obtained by experience through the ordinances of God set forth for that purpose.”36
He also explained the power of Elijah in connection with the sealing of parents to children.37 He stated that ordinances are to be performed for the living and for the dead, in “a place where all nations shall come up from time to time to receive their endowments.”38
In Joseph’s own day, these ideas met with resistance and disdain.39 Nevertheless, the idea of sacred temple worship was indigenous to early Christianity. The early Saints in Jerusalem did not repudiate the temple but worshipped there daily. (See Acts 2:46.) Paul brought alms to the Jews—such offerings were traditionally offered in the temple. (See Acts 24:17–18.) In John’s vision of Jesus Christ, the temple was featured prominently. (See Rev. 3:12, Rev. 7:15, Rev. 11:1.) In early Christianity, a considerable “envy of the temple” lingered long after the loss of the temple.40
Since we know almost nothing for certain about Christ’s confidential teachings to his Apostles, it is impossible to know, except through revelation, the esoteric doctrines he taught anciently. We are also not sure what “the mysteries of the kingdom” were that Jesus and the Apostles occasionally referred to. Most traces of this aspect of early Christianity were systematically eradicated in the third and fourth centuries.41
Increasingly, however, scholars are accepting the idea that early Christians knew sacred teachings and observed sacred rites necessary for the perfecting of the Saints.42 What those teachings and rites might have been anciently can be partially pieced together from disparate fragments and scattered clues that, against the odds, have survived: We know, for example, that the early Saints performed baptisms for the dead.43 (See 1 Cor. 15:29.) Some writings mention a secret and sacred ordinance of the “mirrored bridal chamber” associated with “the Holy of the Holies.”44 A few texts speak of the Apostles and their wives forming a circle so that Jesus could teach them “the ordinances of the treasury of light, they being conducted by him through all the ordinances and thereby learning to progress in the hereafter.”45
Thus, a body of Christian texts attests that secret teachings and sacred rites had formerly existed but had been lost to the main church early in its history.46 While conventional scholarship is unable to reconstruct with any confidence the nature of early Christian liturgy and ordinance work, we can see enough in the dim records of the past to appreciate that Joseph Smith indeed restored eternal truths regarding temples and ordinances.
As these doctrines and the others we have discussed show, the Prophet Joseph Smith’s greatest contributions to the welfare of mankind came in the divine truths and power he restored. These truths were not given him all at once, however; his knowledge grew line upon line, precept upon precept, and he shared his new understandings with the Saints as they were prepared to receive them. In many respects, these teachings were different from the teachings of his day. Even so, some of these most distinctive doctrines of the church he organized are demonstrably similar to specific teachings of early Christianity.
The world owes a great debt to Joseph Smith—a debt not yet completely understood. Our present studies point toward horizons that extend far beyond what we have glimpsed here. Through Joseph Smith indeed has come “the times of restitution of all things” and “the times of refreshing … from the presence of the Lord.” (Acts 3:19–21.)