Section 13

Historical Background

​​​​Oliver Cowdery

After writing the account given of the Savior's ministry to the remnant of the seed of Jacob, upon this continent (i.e. 3 Nephi), it was easily to be seen, as the prophet said would be, that darkness covered the earth and gross darkness the minds of the people (Isa. 60:2). On reflecting further, it was as easily to be seen, that amid the great strife and noise concerning religion, none had authority from God to administer the ordinances of the gospel. For, the question might be asked, have men authority to administer in the name of Christ? (JS-Hist. Footnote)

​​​​Joseph Smith

We still continued the work of translation, when, in the ensuing month (May, 1829), we on a certain day went into the woods to pray and inquire of the Lord respecting baptism for the remission of sins, that 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:

   Upon you my fellow servants…

   He said this Aaronic Priesthood had not the power of laying on 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 that afterwards 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 Aaronic Priesthood, and afterwards 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 Melchizedek, which Priesthood, he said, would in due time be conferred on us, and that I should be called the first Elder of the Church, and he (Oliver Cowdery) the second. It was on the fifteenth day of May, 1829, that we were ordained under the hand of this messenger, and baptized.

   Immediately on 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 prophesied 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 prophesied 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.

   Our minds being now enlightened, we began to have the scriptures laid open to our understandings, and the true meaning and intention of their more mysterious passages revealed unto us in a manner which we never could attain to previously, nor ever before had thought of. In the meantime we were forced to keep secret the circumstances of having received the Priesthood and our having been baptized, owing to a spirit of persecution which had already manifested itself in the neighborhood. (JS-Hist. 1:68-74)

Bruce R. McConkie

Now, for the first time in nearly 1700 years, there are mortal men on earth who can stand in the place of the Lord Jesus in ministering for the salvation of men. The hour is at hand when the gloom of sullen darkness will be pierced and the light of heaven again shine forth on our benighted planet.

But this is only the beginning of the grand design. Messengers come again from the realms of light and glory. Peter, James, and John, who held in their day that priesthood and those keys which always appertain to the Presidency of the earthly kingdom, come to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. (“The Keys of the Kingdom,” Ensign, May 1983, 21)


Oliver Cowdery preserves an important fact regarding the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood, explaining that the visitation of John the Baptist was preceded by a message of peace from the Savior himself. Oliver also confirms what many of the rest of us have always imagined—that a visitation from a heavenly messenger is so grand and rapturous as to exceed any earthly enjoyment.

​​​​Oliver Cowdery

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 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. What joy! what wonder! what amazement! While the world was racked and distracted—while millions were groping as the blind for the wall, and while all men were resting upon uncertainty, as a general mass, our eyes beheld—our ears heard. As in the “blaze of day;” yes, more—above the glitter of the May sunbeam, 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 an angel from glory—'twas a message from the Most High, and as we heard we rejoiced, while His love enkindled upon our souls, and we were rapt in the vision of the Almighty! Where was room for doubt? Nowhere; uncertainty had fled, doubt had sunk, no more to rise, while fiction and deception had fled forever!

“But, dear brother, think further, think for a moment what joy filled our hearts and with what surprise we must have bowed, (for who would not have bowed the knee for such a blessing?) when we received under his hands the Holy Priesthood, as he said, ‘Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah, I confer this Priesthood and this authority, which remain upon earth, that the sons of Levi may yet offer an offering unto the Lord in righteousness!’

“I shall not attempt to paint to you the feelings of this heart, nor the majestic beauty and glory which surrounded us on this occasion; but you will believe me when I say, that earth, nor men, with the eloquence of time, cannot begin to clothe language in as interesting and sublime a manner as this holy personage. No; nor has this earth power to give the joy, to bestow the peace, or comprehend the wisdom which was contained in each sentence as it was delivered by the power of the Holy Spirit! Man may deceive his fellow man; deception may follow deception, and the children of the wicked one may have power to seduce the foolish and untaught, till naught but fiction feeds the many, and the fruit of falsehood carries in its current the giddy to the grave, but one touch with the finger of his love, yes, one ray of glory from the upper world, or one word from the mouth of the Savior, from the bosom of eternity, strikes it all into insignificance, and blots it forever from the mind! The assurance that we were in the presence of an angel; the certainty that we heard the voice of Jesus, and the truth unsullied as it flowed from a pure personage, dictated by the will of God, is to me, past description, and I shall ever look upon this expression of the Savior's goodness with wonder and thanksgiving while I am permitted to tarry, and in those mansions where perfection dwells and sin never comes, I hope to adore in that day which shall never cease. (JS-Hist, footnote)

​​​​B.H. Roberts

It may be well at this point to call attention to the singular and important fact that the Prophet, neither in his narrative of the above really great and dramatic event, nor in any of those great visions and revelations which precede or follow it, stops to comment or grow eloquent over the importance of an administration or the grandeur of an occasion. He may never have heard the maxim, “A true tale speeds best being plainly told,” but had he heard of it and adopted it as his motto, he could not have followed it more closely than unconsciously he has done in his narrative. He seems to have but one object in view, and that is to get on record the plain truth pertaining to the coming forth of the work of God. Oliver Cowdery, however, who shared in this ministration of the angel, John the Baptist, has left upon record a description of the scene and the impressions it left upon his mind, and which, withal is of such singular beauty and power that I think the history of the event should not go to the world without it. (History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1:42, footnote)

DC 13:1 Upon you my fellow servants

​​​​Gordon B. Hinckley

I should like to call your attention to the words “my fellow servants.” Have you ever realized that in the holding and exercise of this priesthood you are a fellow servant with John the Baptist, the very man who, while he was alive, baptized Jesus, the Savior of the world and the Son of God, in the waters of the River Jordan? It is interesting to me that John spoke to Joseph and Oliver, when they were both young men and when they were not highly regarded by people of the world, as his fellow servants. He did not speak down to them as a king might speak to one of his subjects. He did not speak down to them as a judge might speak to an individual on trial before him. He did not speak down to them as a university president or a high school principal might speak to his students. Rather, he who was a resurrected being addressed these young men as his fellow servants. To me there is something wonderful in this. It speaks of the true spirit of the great and magnificent brotherhood of which we are all a part, the priesthood of God. We are all servants together, regardless of our position in the Church or in the world, regardless of wealth or lack of it, regardless of the color of our skin—we are all servants together, brothers one to another and sons of God as a part of this great body of sacred priesthood.

That should mean something to each of us. It does not demean us or put us down in any way. It elevates all of us as fellow servants of the Lord in the responsibility of carrying on the work of the ministry in his Church. (Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Priesthood of Aaron,” Ensign, Nov. 1982, 44-45)

DC 13:1 the keys of the ministering of angels

​​​​Gordon B. Hinckley

When Wilford Woodruff, a man who had lived many years and had many experiences, was the President of the Church, he said to the boys of the Aaronic Priesthood: “I desire to impress upon you the fact that it does not make any difference whether a man is a Priest or an Apostle, if he magnifies his calling. A Priest holds the keys of the ministering of angels,” said he. “Never in my life, as an Apostle, as a Seventy, or as an Elder, have I ever had more of the protection of the Lord than while holding the office of a Priest.” (Millennial Star, 53:629.)

Think of it, my dear young brethren. This priesthood which you hold carries with it the keys of the ministering of angels. That means, as I interpret it, that if you live worthy of the priesthood, you have the right to receive and enjoy the very power of heavenly beings to guide you, to protect you, to bless you. What boy, if he is thoughtful, would not welcome this remarkable blessing?

In the same talk from which I quoted a statement from President Woodruff, he also said: “After I came to these valleys and returned to Winter Quarters, I was sent to Boston by President Brigham Young. … While on the road there, I drove my carriage one evening into the yard of Brother Williams. Brother Orson Hyde drove a wagon by the side of mine. I had my wife and children in the carriage. After I turned out my team and had my supper I went to bed in the carriage. I had not been there but a few minutes when the Spirit said to me, ‘Get up and move that carriage.’ I told my wife I had to get up and move the carriage. She said, ‘What for?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ That is all she asked me on such occasions; when I told her I did not know, that was enough. I got up and moved my carriage four or five rods, and put the off fore wheel against the corner of the house. I then looked around me and went to bed. The same Spirit said, ‘Go and move your animals from that oak tree.’ They were two hundred yards from where my carriage was. I went and moved my horses, and put them in a little hickory grove. I again went to bed.

“In thirty minutes a whirlwind came up and broke that oak tree off within two feet from the ground. It swept over three or four fences and fell square in that dooryard, near Brother Orson Hyde’s wagon, and right where mine had stood. What would have been the consequences if I had not listened to that Spirit? Why, myself and wife and children doubtless would have been killed. That was the still, small voice to me—no earthquake, no thunder, no lightning—but the still, small voice of the Spirit of God. It saved my life. It was the spirit of revelation to me.” (Millennial Star, 53:642–3.)

Such was the testimony of a great and wise and prayerful man who became the President of the Church. He told that story while talking of the blessing that is yours as one who has received the priesthood and who is eligible to have “the ministering of angels.” (“The Priesthood of Aaron,” Ensign, Nov. 1982, 45-46)

​​​​Wilford Woodruff

I attended a council at Lyman Wight's, and was called and ordained to the office of a Priest in the Aaronic Priesthood, while other brethren were ordained Elders. I was called by Bishop Partridge to go to the Southern country on a mission. Bishop Partridge asked me a great many questions, and I asked him questions. It was then dangerous for any of our brethren to go through Jackson County. He wanted me to go to Arkansas, and the road led square through Jackson County. I asked him if we should go through there (I had a companion with me—an Elder). Says he, "If you have got faith to do it, you may; I haven't." I thought that was a curious remark from a Bishop. "Well," says I, "the Lord says we must travel without purse or scrip; shall we do it?" Says he, "That is the law of God; if you have got faith to do it, you can do it." He said he had hardly got faith to go into Jackson County. However, we started and went through Jackson County. We came near losing our lives, and were saved almost by a miracle. We traveled through Arkansas and other parts.

But I do not want to dwell on these things. I merely wish to say that I went out as a Priest, and my companion as an Elder, and we traveled thousands of miles and had many things manifested to us. I desire to impress upon you the fact that it does not make any difference whether a man is a Priest or an Apostle, if he magnifies his calling. A Priest holds the keys of the ministering of angels. Never in my life, as an Apostle, as a Seventy, or as an Elder, have I ever had more of the protection of the Lord than while holding the office of a Priest. The Lord revealed to me, by visions, by revelations, and by the Holy Spirit, many things that lay before me.  (Brian H. Stuy, ed., Collected Discourses, 5 vols. [Burbank, Calif., and Woodland Hills, Ut.: B.H.S. Publishing, 1987-1992], Vol. 2, Willford Woodruff, August 10, 1891)

DC 13:1 the keys of the gospel of repentance

How do Aaronic Priesthood holders hold the keys to the ‘gospel of repentance,’ as stated in Doctrine and Covenants 13?

“I was asked this question some time ago by the members of an Aaronic Priesthood class I taught, and I was stumped. After some study, I felt better able to answer.

“One of the principles I learned was that when Priesthood keys are turned they open ‘spiritual doors’ for our Heavenly Father’s children. I also learned that since the bishop is the president of the Aaronic Priesthood in his ward (see D&C 107:13–15), he holds the keys to repentance for the people of his ward. As a judge in Israel (see D&C 107:72–74), a bishop helps those who have committed serious sins to repent. He decides what action, if any, they must take to fully repent, and he also offers support to help them put their lives in order so that they can again be worthy to receive the blessings of the gospel.

“When John the Baptist gave the Aaronic Priesthood keys to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery (which keys have subsequently been given to others), he also gave them the right to help others repent so they can come unto Christ and enjoy the blessings of the Atonement. Today, each bishop holds these keys to open the ‘spiritual door’ of repentance for the members of his ward.

“Several months after I had taught that Aaronic Priesthood class, I again had the opportunity to meet with them. I admitted that the answer I had previously given was incomplete and that because of their question I had learned a principle I might not have learned otherwise. I explained how a bishop exercises the key to the gospel of repentance as he works with members who need his help to repent….[but] the office of bishop is not the only office of the Aaronic Priesthood that can open a ‘spiritual door’ that will put members in a position where they can go through the steps of repentance.

“The repentance that leads to salvation cannot occur until we look to the Savior and accept his atonement. Aaronic Priesthood ordinances are designed to put us on the path to effectual repentance by turning our thoughts and hearts to Christ.

“In biblical times, the sacrificial ordinances performed by Aaronic Priesthood holders were done in a way that helped the children of Israel appreciate their Savior and his atonement—to which they must look for a remission of their sins. John the Baptist, an Aaronic Priesthood holder, spent his ministry helping to prepare the Church members of his day to accept Christ as their Savior and come unto Him—the only way they could truly receive the ‘gospel of repentance.’

“For the same reasons, latter-day Aaronic Priesthood holders prepare, administer, and pass the sacrament, and baptize. Both of these ordinances help ward members to repent. Baptism, the first ordinance necessary for salvation, can be performed by those who hold the Aaronic Priesthood office of priest. It is an essential step for all who accept the atonement of Christ and the cleansing from sin it offers. Through baptism, we take upon ourselves the name of Christ and covenant to serve the Lord and keep his commandments.

“The sacrament, another important ordinance in which we review our baptismal covenants, is administered by the Aaronic Priesthood. The sacrament plays an important part in our salvation because it symbolizes our acceptance of the Atonement and our partaking of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins. As young men prepare, bless, and pass the sacrament each week, they help others to repent and come unto Christ.

“In addition to participating in these ordinances, many Aaronic Priesthood holders have the opportunity to ‘warn, expound, exhort, and teach, and invite all to come unto Christ.’ (D&C 20:59.) Such teaching strengthens members and helps bring souls to Christ.

“Both former-day and latter-day Aaronic Priesthood holders have exercised the keys of the gospel of repentance as they have participated in ordinances that turn repentant hearts and souls to Christ and his atonement. Indeed, all the duties of Aaronic Priesthood holders help to open a ‘spiritual door’ by which we can come unto the Lord, repent of our sins, and enjoy the blessings of ‘the gospel of repentance.’” (Darrel B. Harker, recently released bishop of the Sherwood Park Second Ward, Edmonton Alberta Bonnie Doon Stake, “I Have a Question,” Ensign, Feb. 1989, 59–60)

DC 13:1 the keys of baptism of repentance for the remission of sins

Millions of baptisms had been performed in Christianity over the preceding 1700 years. Yet none of them had the power to open the kingdom of heaven. John, a prophet of whom the Lord said, ‘Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist’ (Matt 11:11) had returned the lesser priesthood. But with it came the key to opening the gate of the celestial kingdom for all who would believe, repent and be baptized. Finally, men would again hold the authority to administer a baptism which would be recognized by God.

​​​​Victor L. Brown

If we just had the capacity to understand the full meaning of the holding of the keys of the ministering of angels and of the gospel of repentance and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins, I believe every young man who has gone into the waters of baptism would look forward to receiving the Aaronic Priesthood with all his heart and would do everything in his power to become worthy of it. I am confident there are some who feel this way, but there are many who do not. (“Priesthood Activation,” Ensign, May 1982, 34)

DC 13:1 until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness

This passage is one of those expressions which is frequently quoted and infrequently understood. When will the sons of Levi offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness? When will the Aaronic Priesthood be taken from the earth? The answer is buried deep in the prophecies of Ezekiel.

Prior to looking at those prophecies, the student must understand that the practice of animal sacrifice, as practiced in Old Testament times, will be restored during the Millennium. There will be a portion of the temple in the New Jerusalem and in the Old Jerusalem which will be dedicated to performing the ancient rites of sacrifice as part of the “restitution of all things” (Acts 3:21).

​​​​Joseph Smith

It is generally supposed that sacrifice was entirely done away when the Great Sacrifice [i.e.,] the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus was offered up, and that there will be no necessity for the ordinance of sacrifice in future; but those who assert this are certainly not acquainted with the duties, privileges and authority of the Priesthood, or with the Prophets.

The offering of sacrifice has ever been connected and forms a part of the duties of the Priesthood. It began with the Priesthood, and will be continued until after the coming of Christ, from generation to generation. We frequently have mention made of the offering of sacrifice by the servants of the Most High in ancient days, prior to the law of Moses; which ordinances will be continued when the Priesthood is restored with all its authority, power and blessings. . . .

These sacrifices, as well as every ordinance belonging to the Priesthood, will, when the Temple of the Lord shall be built, and the sons of Levi be purified, be fully restored and attended to in all their powers, ramifications, and blessings. This ever did and ever will exist when the powers of the Melchizedek Priesthood are sufficiently manifest; else how can the restitution of all things spoken of by the Holy Prophets be brought to pass. It is not to be understood that the law of Moses will be established again with all its rites and variety of ceremonies; this has never been spoken of by the prophets; but those things which existed prior to Moses’ day, namely, sacrifice, will be continued.

It may be asked by some, what necessity for sacrifice, since the Great Sacrifice was offered? In answer to which, if repentance, baptism, and faith existed prior to the days of Christ, what necessity for them since that time? (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 172–73)

The prophet Ezekiel describes the day when these sons of Levi (presumably those Levites restored when the lost tribes return) will offer again an offering in righteousness. Ezekiel laments the ancient days when the Levites offered sacrifice, but followed after other gods.

   ‘And the Levites that are gone away far from me, when Israel went astray, which went astray away from me after their idols; they shall even bear their iniquity.

   Yet (in the Millenial day) they shall be ministers in my sanctuary, having charge at the gates of the house, and ministering to the house: they shall slay the burnt offering and the sacrifice for the people, and they shall stand before them to minister unto them.

   Because (anciently) they ministered unto them before their idols, and caused the house of Israel to fall into iniquity; therefore have I lifted up mine hand against them, saith the Lord GOD, and they shall bear their iniquity.

   And they shall not come near unto me, to do the office of a priest unto me, nor to come near to any of my holy things, in the most holy place (as holders of the Levitical priesthood only, they will not be allowed into certain portions of the temple, i.e. the celestial room; they will not perform the ordinances of the temple which belong to the Melchizedek Priesthood): but they shall bear their shame, and their abominations which they have committed.

   But I will make them keepers of the charge of the house, for all the service thereof, and for all that shall be done therein.’ (Ezek. 44:10-14, emphasis added)

Sometime after this Millennial offering, the Levitical Priesthood will be taken from the earth.

Joseph Fielding Smith

The sacrifice of animals will be done to complete the restoration when the temple spoken of is built; at the beginning of the millennium, or in the restoration, blood sacrifices will be performed long enough to complete the fulness of the restoration in this dispensation. Afterwards sacrifice will be of some other character. (Doctrines of Salvation, 3:94)