It appears that the earliest reference to the baptism of Oliver Cowdery is in a revelation given in June 1829. It states, "Wherefore, as thou hast been baptized by the hands of my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., according to that which I have commanded him, he hath fulfilled the thing which I commanded him" (LDS D&C 18:7). According to Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith their baptism took place on 15 May 1829 in the Susquehanna River at Harmony, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. They had been working on the Book of Mormon at the time.
Joseph Smith first baptized Oliver Cowdery and then Cowdery baptized Joseph Smith. These were the first two baptisms in the Restoration movement. Both Smith and Cowdery performed a few baptisms previous to the organization of the church on 6 April 1830. On this later date Joseph Smith was ordained the first elder and Oliver Cowdery the second elder in the new church. By common consent they were the first recognized ministers in the church. Those persons subsequently ordained traced their authority to the first and second elders, Smith and Cowdery.
In September 1834 Cowdery wrote an account of his experience in a letter to fellow church member William W. Phelps who was then residing in Missouri:
from his [Joseph Smith's] hand I received baptism, by the direction of the angel of God . . . amid the great strife and noise concerning religion, none had authority from God to administer the ordinances of the gospel. . . . we only waited for the commandment to be given, "Arise and be baptized." This was not long desired before it was realized. The Lord, who is rich in mercy, and ever willing to answer the consistent prayer of the humble, after we had called upon him in a fervent manner, aside from the abodes of men, condescended to manifest to us his will. On a sudden, as from the midst of eternity, the voice of the Redeemer spake peace to us, while the vail [veil] was parted and the angel of God came down clothed with glory, and delivered the anxiously looked for message, and the keys of the gospel of repentance! . . . our eyes beheld--our ears heard. As in the "blaze of day;" yes, more--above the glitter of the May Sun beam, which then shed its brilliancy over the face of nature! Then his voice, though mild, pierced to the center, and his words, "I am thy fellow servant," dispelled every fear. We listened--we gazed--we admired! 'Twas the voice of the angel from glory--'twas a message from the Most High! . . . we received under his hand the holy priesthood, as he said, "upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah I confer this priesthood and this authority, which shall remain upon earth, that the sons of Levi may yet offer an offering unto the Lord in righteousness!" 1
Oliver Cowdery mentions that he was baptized by Joseph Smith and includes information relating to receiving the holy priesthood from under the hand of an angel. A few months later Cowdery wrote about a promise "made by the angel while in company with President [Joseph] Smith, at the time they received the office of the lesser priesthood." 2
In 1835 there was a reference that John the Baptist had given Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery authority. This additional wording to a commandment given on 4 September 1830 was added after the Twelve Apostles had been chosen and ordained in Kirtland, Ohio. It first appeared in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants: 3
Which John I have sent unto you, my servants, Joseph Smith, Jun., and Oliver Cowdery, to ordain you unto the first priesthood which you have received, that you might be called and ordained even as Aaron (LDS D&C 27:8).
Here appears for the first time the name of the angel - John the Baptist. While Cowdery was copying patriarchal blessings into Joseph Smith, Sr.'s Patriarchal Blessing Book he recorded that Joseph Smith "was ordained by the angel John, unto the lesser or Aaronic priesthood, in company with myself, in the town of Harmony, Susquehannah County, Pennsylvania, on Fryday [Friday], the 15th day of May, 1829, after which we repaired to the water, even to the Susquehannah River, and were baptized, he first ministering unto me and after--I to him. but before baptism, our souls were drawn out in mighty prayer--to know how we might obtain the blessings of baptism and of the Holy Spirit, according to the order of God, and we diligently saught for the right of the fathers and the authority of the holy priesthood, and the power to admin[ister] in the same: for we desired to be followers of righteousness and the possessors of greater knowledge, even the knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of God. Therefore, we repaired to the woods, even as our father Joseph said we should, that is to the bush, and called upon the name of the Lord, and he answered us out of the heavens, and while we were in the heavenly vision the angel came down and bestowed upon us this priesthood; and then, as I have said, we repaired to the water and were baptized. After this we received the high and holy priesthood, but an account of this will be given elsewhere, or in another place." 4
In October Cowdery wrote that he and Joseph Smith should be ordained "by the hand of the angel in the bush, unto the lesser priesthood, and after receive the holy priesthood under the hands of those who had been held in reserve for a long season; even those who received it under the hand of the Messiah." 5 This evidently referred to Peter James and John. This mention of three apostles of Christ is reflected in the additional wording in the same September 1830 text as that of John the Baptist.
And also with Peter, James, and John, whom I have sent unto you, by whom I have ordained you and conformed 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 the 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 (LDS D&C 27:12-13).
In 1839 the official account of what was to have occurred in May 1829 was written under Joseph Smith 's direction:
We still continued the <work of> translation, when in the ensuing month (May, Eighteen hundred and twenty nine) we on a certain day went into the woods to pray and enquire of the Lord respecting baptism for the remission of sins as we found mentioned in the translation of the plates. While we were thus employed praying and calling upon the Lord, a Messenger from heaven, descended in a cloud of light, and having laid his hands upon us, he ordained us, saying unto us; "Upon you my fellow servants in the name of Messiah I confer the priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the minist[e]ring 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, untill the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness." He said this Aaronic priesthood had not the power of laying on of hands, for the gift of the Holy Ghost, but that this should be conferred on <us> hereafter and he commanded us to go and be baptized, and gave us directions that I should baptize Oliver Cowdery, and afterward that he should baptize me.
Accordingly we went and were baptized, I baptized him first, and afterwards he baptized me, after which I laid my hands upon his head and ordained him to the Aaronick priesthood, and afterward he laid his hands on me and ordained me to the same priesthood, for so we were commanded.
The messenger who visited us on this occasion and conferred this priesthood upon us 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 Melchisedeck, whi[c]h priesthood he said should in due time be conferred on us. And that I should be called the first Elder of the Church and he the second. It was on the fifteenth day of May, Eighteen hundred and twenty nine that we were baptized; and ordained under the hand of the Messenger.
Immediately upon our coming up out of the water after we had been baptized we experienced great and glorious blessings from our Heavenly Father. No sooner had I baptized Oliver Cowdery than the Holy Ghost fell upon him and he stood up and prophecied many things which should shortly come to pass: And again so soon as I had been baptized by him, I also had the Spirit of Prophecy, when standing up I prophecied concerning the rise of this church, and many other things connected with the Church and this generation of the children of men. We were filled with the Holy Ghost, and rejoiced in the God of our Salvation. . . . In the meantime we were forced to keep secret the circumstances of our having been baptized, and having received this priesthood; owing to a spirit of persecution which had already manifested itself in the neighborhood . 6
Though at the present time it is hard to determine the actual events relating to the angel ordination and baptism the following summarizes the possible events recorded mainly in the account of Joseph Smith since Oliver Cowdery's writings are only brief. Both Cowdery and Smith were in Harmony [now Oakland], Pennsylvania in May 1829. The home where they were working on the Book of Mormon was not too far from the Susquehanna River. As mentioned previously in relation to Joseph Smith's account of the revival, the 1839 account of John the Baptist is a theological piece of "historical" writing. Mention in the account of two priesthoods - Aaronic and Melchizedek are terms used at a later date.
It appears that missionaries did not preach about a restored priesthood by John the Baptist or by Peter, James and John but as time went on it became an important feature in presenting the restored gospel to potential converts. In Joseph Smith's 1832 account of his early life Frederick G. Williams, Smith's scribe, wrote, "thirdly the reception of the holy Priesthood by the ministering of Aangels [Angels] to admin[i]ster the letter of the Gospel . . . and the ordinencs [ordinances]" referring to angels ministering to Joseph Smith.
The story of priesthood restoration in Joseph Smith's 1839 history says that John the Baptist came to him and Cowdery and "laid his hands upon us, he ordained us." Later in the history it was recorded under the date of June 1829:
We now became anxious to have that promise realized to us, which the Angel that conferred upon us the Aaronick [Aaronic] Priesthood had given us, viz: that provided we continued faithful; we should also have the Melchesidec Priesthood, which holds the authority of the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost. We had for some time made this matter a subject of humble prayer, and at length we got together in the Chamber of Mr[.] Whitmer's house . . . we had not long been engaged in solemn and fervent prayer, when the word of the Lord, came unto us in the Chamber, commanding us; that I should ordained Oliver Cowdery to be an Elder in the Church of Jesus Christ, And that he also should ordain me to the same office, and then <to> ordain others as it should be made known unto us, from time to time: we were however commanded to defer this our ordination . . . 7
In 1842 Joseph Smith wrote:
The voice of Michael on the banks of the Susquehanna [River], detecting the devil when he appeared as an angel of light! The voice of Peter, James, and John in the wilderness between Harmony, Susquehanna county [Pennsylvania], and Colesville, Broome county [New York], on the Susquehanna river, declaring themselves as possessing the keys of the kingdom, and of the dispensation of the fulness of times! 8
This brief mention says that Joseph Smith heard the voice of Michael, Peter, James and John on the bank of the Susquehanna River. There is no known account from Smith or Oliver Cowdery telling about the circumstances of the appearance of Peter, James and John to them. Cowdery said prior to his rebaptism into the church, "I was also present with Joseph when the melchesideck priesthood was confer[r]ed by holy angles [angels],-which we then conferred on each other by the will and commandment of god." 9 Brian Q. Cannon and others wrote, "No single document written by the principles discusses both the appearance of Peter, James, and John and the revelation received in the Whitmer home." 10
Joseph Smith's history for the period before the organization of the church is based upon the importance of his developing theology. This may explain why no account is given of Peter, James and John. In 1835 it was considered essential to include a brief mention in the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenant. In April 1836 Smith and Cowdery were to have seen in vision in the Kirtland Temple, among others ancient personages, Elijah the prophet (see LDS D&C 110:13-16). That Elijah theology was imposed in the writing of his history is seen when reading about the angel who appeared in his bedroom to tell him about the gold plates. Smith's history records that the angel said the following words:
Behold I will reveal unto you the Priesthood by the hand of Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. 11
It is important to know the context when events are retold. In this case more is known of the visit of the angel (John the Baptist) than that of Peter, James and John. Where Smith and Cowdery got their authority became an issue but when explained it was to the expense of not detailing the events surrounding the visitation or vision of Peter, James and John. How important these visionary experiences are depends on how a person feels when discussing them. Missionaries in the early church before 1835 did not claim they held priesthood authority that was restored by the ancient apostles Peter, James and John.
1. Cowdery to Phelps, 7 Sept. 1834, Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1 (Oct. 1834):14-16, emphasis omitted.
2. Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith: Autobiographical and Historical Writings (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1989), 1:21, date of 5 Dec. 1834.
3. For the early text, revision and commentary on the 4 September 1830 commandment see H. Michael Marquardt, The Joseph Smith Revelations: Text and Commentary (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999), 72-80.
4. Patriarchal Blessing Book 1, LDS archives, Sept. 1835, typed copy.
5. Patriarchal Blessing Book 1, LDS archives, 2 Oct. 1835, typed copy.
6. Manuscript History, Book A-1:17-18, LDS archives, see Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith 1:290-91, crossed out words omitted.
7. Manuscript History, Book A-1:26-27, LDS archives; see Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith 1:299.
8. LDS D&C 128:20, 6 Sept. 1842.
9. Reuben Miller Journal, 21 Oct. 1848, LDS archives.
10. "Priesthood Restoration Documents," Brigham Young University Studies 35:4 (1995-96):168.
11. Manuscript History Book A-1:5; see Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith 1:278.