I stood one day on the banks of the Susquehanna River in the area of what is known as Harmony, Pennsylvania. I walked among the trees, and then down to the edge of the water. I thought of what had occurred there on May 15, 1829, and I thought of the marvel and the wonder of it.
I thought of the young man Joseph Smith, then twenty-three years old. Previously he had married Emma Hale, and they had gone back to Harmony where her parents lived. Oliver Cowdery, the school teacher, had come to visit Joseph and had offered his services to act as scribe in the work of translating the Book of Mormon, Joseph dictating as Oliver wrote.
The area is beautiful in May. The leaves of spring are upon the trees. A few blossoms are still left. The river runs high as the snows melt.
The two young men in the course of translating the ancient record came across mention of baptism for the remission of sins. They doubtless talked about it and wondered about it. They doubtless had questions in their minds concerning who had authority to baptize, and how it was to be done. Not having certain answers to their questions, one might well have said to the other, “Let us ask the Lord.”
Leaving the house, and the yard, and the surrounding fields, they went into the woods where they might have privacy to pray.
While they were praying, according to Oliver, the voice of the Redeemer was heard. They must have been startled and opened their eyes. They saw an angel come down in a cloud of light. He spoke to them.
“He said that his name was John, the same that is called John the Baptist in the New Testament, and that he acted under the direction of Peter, James, and John, who held the keys of the priesthood of Melchizedek.”
He placed his hands upon the heads of the two young men and ordained them, 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; 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.” (D&C 13).
“He said this Aaronic Priesthood had not the power of laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost,” and told them that this authority would be conferred on them later. He then instructed them to be baptized and told Joseph that he should first baptize Oliver and that Oliver should then baptize Joseph.
They walked down to the edge of the water. I can almost see them—these two very earnest young men following the direction given by a resurrected being. Joseph first baptized Oliver, immersing him in the waters of the river. Oliver then similarly baptized Joseph, following which Joseph layed his hands upon the head of Oliver and ordained him to the Aaronic Priesthood, as John had done a little earlier, following which Oliver did the same for Joseph.
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.
The words used by John in conferring this priesthood were few. I suppose most of us who have conferred that priesthood on others have used far more. However, John said all that was essential, while he also established a pattern for what is essential.
The authority which he gave them was the same authority which he, John, held when in Palestine he was known as the Baptist, the man to whom Jesus came to be baptized in the waters of the river Jordan.
This John was no ordinary individual. Jesus said of him, “There is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist.” (Luke 7:28).
It is significant to me that John placed his hands on the heads of Joseph and Oliver. This is the first time of which we have record in the history of the restoration of the gospel that this procedure was followed. To me it is significant that he, a resurrected being, physically put his hands on the heads of the young men who were the recipients of that gift. There is a physical process in the gift of divine authority. It is as if the authority, when the proper language is used, flows from him who has it to him who receives it, through the hands of one to the head of the other.
John then said, “Upon you my fellow servants.” It is significant to me that he did not say, “Upon you young men or you boys” or anything like that. He said, rather, “Upon you my fellow servants.” He placed them upon his own level. He made it very clear on that significant occasion that in the Church one is not master and another servant, and that all who hold the priesthood are fellow servants of the Eternal God from whom that authority comes. A man may be rich or poor, he may be physically strong or weak, he may be fair-skinned or dark-skinned, he may be tall or short, he may be highly educated or have relatively little education as did Joseph. This all makes no difference in terms of divine authority. The important thing is that each be worthy. Those opening words of John are tremendously significant—“my fellow servants.” Some of the greatest men in the history of this work have been men who have had little of the goods of the world, or who have had relatively little of formal schooling, or who may not have been very impressive in their appearance. The important thing is that they were found worthy to hold and exercise the priesthood of God.
John said next, “in the name of Messiah.” Again in that first ordination in this dispensation he set a pattern for us. When we are involved in priesthood ordinances we do not ordinarily say, “in the name of Messiah.” We usually say the same thing in different language, that is, “in the name of Jesus Christ.” We must never forget that in all of our priesthood work we do it in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior and the Redeemer of the world in whose service we are engaged as those holding the priesthood.
The name of Jesus Christ is sacred. No one should ever use it other than in a sacred manner. To profane it is to sin in a most serious way. It is the sacred name divinely bestowed upon this Church. It is different from all other names, because it is the name of one who was different from all other men. He came to earth, the son of a mortal mother and the Eternal Father. By virtue of the divine power that was in him he overcame death, rose from the grave, and brought salvation to all mankind.
Never, under any circumstances, take the name of the Lord in vain. Hold it sacred at all times and use it with reverence.
John next said that he conferred the Priesthood of Aaron—Aaron who held this marvelous power and authority. John went on to say that this priesthood “holds the keys of the ministering of angels.” What are keys? They represent the authority to unlock and make available certain specific and wonderful blessings including the “ministering of angels.” Every boy who holds the Aaronic Priesthood is entitled to the ministering of angels if he lives worthy of it. That means that he may call upon divine power for protection, for guidance, for comfort, for strength. I believe that John was not using idle words when he spoke of ministering angels. I think he was conferring a resource of priceless worth to be made available to those holding the priesthood provided they sought it and lived for it.
He then spoke of the gospel of repentance. The Lord made it very clear in the early years of this dispensation that we have no greater responsibility than to encourage people to repent. That simply means that we encourage them to forsake evil, to turn around, and to set their lives in harmony with the truths of the everlasting gospel. I hope that all boys of the Aaronic Priesthood are planning to go on missions and that they will have the opportunity. I hope that when they do so the great thrust of their effort will be to teach repentance. That may not mean that they will simply tell people to repent. Rather, it means that they will teach them the gospel in such a way that those who hear will want to change their lives, to leave the sins of the past and live above and beyond these in the future.
John then went on to tell Joseph and Oliver that with this priesthood he gave them authority to baptize by immersion for the remission of sins.
As the Lord made clear in later revelations, baptism is symbolic of death and burial and then rising to a newness of life. What a remarkable and wonderful thing it is that the sins of the past can be forgiven, that is, erased, and that we can come out of the waters of baptism clean and whole and acceptable before the Lord to begin our lives anew with a resolution that we shall live without sinning.
No one on earth can perform this ordinance with proper authority who has not been ordained to the priesthood.
Is it any wonder that each spring, on or about May 15th, we commemorate the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood? It is something we should commemorate. It represents the coming to earth of divine authority which was taken from the earth and which has been brought back with a promise that it shall remain.
As one who has known and seen that power, and as one who has heard the voice of the Spirit, I testify of the truth of these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Some Points of Emphasis. You may wish to make these points in your home teaching discussion:
The Priesthood of Aaron was conferred upon Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery by a resurrected being—John the Baptist.
The priesthood authority which John gave to Joseph and Oliver was the same that he held when he baptized the Savior so many years before.
With the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood came the great gift of baptism, a symbol of forsaking our old lives and taking upon ourselves a life pleasing unto God.
Relate your feelings about the restoration of priesthood authority in this dispensation. Ask the family members to share their understanding of the priesthood.
Are there scriptures or quotations from this article that the family might read aloud and discuss?
Would this discussion be better after talking with the head of the household before the visit? Is there a message from the quorum leader or bishop?