On May 15, 1829, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery knelt in a secluded spot near Joseph’s home in Harmony, Pennsylvania, to pray about baptism by proper authority. In answer to their prayers, John the Baptist appeared as an angel and conferred on them the Aaronic Priesthood.1 This was the first in a series of events that would bring back priesthood authority and keys needed to perform essential ordinances, to lead Christ’s restored Church, and to seal families together for eternity.
To honor this event, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has opened a visitors’ center and reconstructed historical settings at the Priesthood Restoration Site in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania.2 In preparation for this opening, we studied the landscape, remnants of the buildings, and contemporary documents, all of which provided new insights about where John the Baptist likely appeared, where the first baptisms occurred, and how the restoration of the priesthood continued to unfold after the visit of John the Baptist.
Joseph and Emma Smith’s Farm in Harmony
Joseph and Emma lived with Joseph’s parents near Palmyra, New York, for much of the first year of their marriage. They then moved to Emma’s hometown of Harmony, Pennsylvania, at the beginning of December 1827.3 The young couple first stayed in the home of Emma’s parents, Isaac and Elizabeth Hale. After a brief period, Joseph and Emma moved into a house on a narrow strip of land next to the Hale farm. The 13½ acres had once belonged to Isaac Hale, who sold it to his son Jesse in 1815. The northern half of the land included steep, rocky hills covered in trees. On the other half, nearer the river, Jesse Hale had built a home, plowed fields, planted an orchard, and cleared the land of timber. One year, he made about 360 pounds of maple sugar from the mature sugar maple trees growing on the north end of the property.4
Once the Smiths moved onto their farm, Joseph split his time between his religious calling and physical labors. At the same time that he worked on the Book of Mormon translation with Emma and other scribes, he continued to develop the farm by digging a well, clearing land, and building fences. Emma planted a kitchen garden near the home and took care of the family’s two milk cows. The Smiths also continued to tap the maple trees for sugar each year.
“Aside from the Abodes of Men”
Historical accounts show that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery had been praying in the woods, “aside from the abodes of men,” when John the Baptist appeared to them.5 The most likely wooded area on Joseph’s farm was on the north side of the property, where the sugar maples grew. Because of heavy boat traffic on the river and the lack of tree cover on the plowed part of the land, any other part of the farm might not have given the men the seclusion they sought as they asked the Lord about the authority to baptize.6
Oliver Cowdery described the answer they received to their prayer. “The voice of the Redeemer spake peace to us,” he recalled, “while the veil was parted and the angel of God came down clothed with glory, and delivered the anxiously looked for message.”7 The angel introduced himself and conferred the Aaronic Priesthood, explaining that it holds “the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins.”8 He then commanded the two men to “go and be baptized.”9 They made their way to the flooded Susquehanna River, choosing a moment when the heavy boat traffic would least disturb them as they followed the angel’s instructions. After baptizing each other, they ordained each other to the Aaronic Priesthood. These ordinations may have taken place on the banks of the flooded river or back inside the house.
Restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood
The angel John the Baptist had explained to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery 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 [Joseph and Oliver].”10 Many people have wondered when and where this event took place, since the details we have in the scriptures are not as precise as they are for John the Baptist’s appearance. While accounts are limited, careful consideration of available sources and study of the landscape give some insights into the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood.
In the case of the Aaronic Priesthood, the landscape helps divide the restoration of the priesthood into smaller parts that occurred in different places:
- In the woods, Joseph and Oliver heard the Lord’s voice and were given authority by a heavenly messenger.
- In the river, Joseph and Oliver baptized each other.
- After the baptism, on the riverbank or possibly back at the Smith home, Joseph and Oliver ordained each other.
While the Melchizedek Priesthood was restored at the time Peter, James and John laid their hands on Joseph and Oliver, a process of further understanding and even committal of priesthood keys unfolded at more distant places over a longer period of time. The date and location where Joseph and Oliver ordained each other as elders is known: the ordinations took place after a sustaining vote by those who participated in the meeting in which the Church was organized, on April 6, 1830, at the Whitmer home in Fayette, New York.
In Doctrine and Covenants 128, Joseph Smith recalled that the appearance of Peter, James, and John occurred “in the wilderness between Harmony, Susquehanna county, and Colesville, Broome county, on the Susquehanna river,”11 but he did not give a date. How much can we conclude from available evidence about when and where this happened?
As far as location, the wilderness mentioned in Doctrine and Covenants 128:20 likely refers to land along 27 miles (43 km) of country road between Joseph and Emma’s home in Harmony and the town of Colesville, New York, where Joseph’s early friend and supporter Joseph Knight lived. This road comes in sight of the Susquehanna River in five places, none of which were densely settled areas in 1829. If Joseph followed his pattern of seeking a secluded place to pray, he could easily have found one along this wilderness road, which was sparsely settled in 1829. Peter, James, and John likely restored the Melchizedek Priesthood somewhere along this road at a time when Joseph and Oliver were traveling between Harmony and Colesville.
A Continuing Process
Historical documents make clear that after Peter, James, and John restored the Melchizedek Priesthood near Harmony, additional understanding and keys were revealed and committed to Joseph.12 Throughout his life, Joseph Smith continued to grow in his understanding of the priesthood, and there was committed to him priesthood keys that assisted him in restoring temple ordinances. Even in 1829 and 1830, there was more to restoring and understanding the priesthood than two well-known events. For example, Doctrine and Covenants 128 and other documents mention the voice of God being heard in the Whitmer home in Fayette. This sacred experience came in response to a prayer about priesthood authority and was an important moment in preparing for the organization of the Church.13 It was also in the Whitmer home in Fayette that Joseph and Oliver ordained each other elders on the day the Church was organized.14
Even though the priesthood keys, ordinations to office, and restoration of ordinances extends into places such as Fayette, Kirtland, and Nauvoo, the Priesthood Restoration Site highlights the place near which Peter, James and John appeared to Joseph and Oliver. Visitors to Harmony can spend time in an authentic reproduction of the home where Joseph and Oliver translated 3 Nephi and determined to ask God about the authority Christ had given His disciples long ago. Visitors can walk through a quiet woodland path and contemplate the settings in and near Harmony where angels appeared and brought needed priesthood authority back to the earth. And they can visit the river where that authority was used to perform the first baptisms in the latter-day history of the Church.