One of the interesting facets of Mormon history is that a few key events are not exactly clear. An example is the Melchezedek Priesthood restoration. Ben at the Juvenile Instructor did a nice overview of the issues a few years back. The Millennial Star did a nice post discussing how Addison Everett’s account bears on all this. Basically though we don’t know for sure when it was restored. A common, perhaps dominant view, is that rather than being a single event it was a process.
I don’t claim to be an expert in all this. I’ve read the same books as most of you likely have. What I’ve noticed in what I’ve read though is how little the Book of Mormon text plays into these discussions beyond Oliver Cowdery’s later mention that he and Joseph were translating 3 Nephi. That led them to seek baptism with authority. In turn that led the way to the Aaronic Priesthood restoration.
We can characterize the two main interpretations as the fraudulent model (which presumes Joseph Smith made the whole thing up) and the faithful model. The fraudulent model, best represented by Dan Vogel, has the angels being a much latter addition to the development of priesthood. What I want to suggest though is that the translation of the Book of Mormon provides a basis for Joseph thinking about such things in 1829 prior to the restoration of the Aaronic or claims for the Melchizedek Priesthoods.
Let me note that for the faithful view of history the fact Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon does not mean he was that familiar with it. Indeed a peculiar feature of early Mormonism is just how ignorant people often were of the narratives and doctrines in the Book of Mormon. That includes Joseph Smith. Since Joseph didn’t write the Book of Mormon this isn’t that surprising for the faithful model. For the fraudulent model things are a bit trickier since in some sense Joseph is responsible for the text and it thus represents his thinking at the time. Even if critics adopt a model where Joseph isn’t fully conscious of what he’s doing it still reflects his beliefs at the time. That is the Book of Mormon has to be taken seriously by critics as a reflection of Joseph’s mind on priesthood.
One problem we, as Mormons, have is that we tend to read contemporary practice back into earlier text. While there are some reasons to attempt that in terms of producing a systematic theology, often it’s misleading. There’s typically little reason to presume the authors had the same understanding we do. This distorts the texts and reduces theology from careful exegesis to mere proof texting. That said though the Book of Mormon has some interesting passages on priesthood.
We know that according to Oliver the reason Joseph and he sought priesthood and baptism was due to the translating process of the Book of Mormon. According to Oliver in his 1834 account of the reception of the Aaronic Priesthood this was from translating the section where Jesus appears to the Nephites in 3 Nephi. It is true, of course, that nothing in 3 Nephi talks of angelic bestowal of priesthood or really priesthood at all. (Although there is an ordination in 3 Nephi 18)
The most interesting section on priesthood in the Book of Mormon comes a month or two before 3 Nephi in Alma 13. Now many critics have noted similarities between Hebrews in the Bible and Alma’s discourse on priesthood to Zeezrom. It’s important to note the very important different point of each. Hebrews is about Jesus as the great last high priest. Alma 13 is about how “God ordained priests after his holy order…to teach these things unto the people.” (1) The emphasis is on a ritual that includes “a preparatory redemption.” (2) While it’s natural to read this as merely the High Priest of Leviticus 21 it can’t be since others “might have had as great a privilege as their brethren” (4) and “many were ordained and became high priests.” (10) This suggests many can have it at the same time, unlike the Aaronic High Priest.
Now we have to avoid reading our own practices into the chapter. Alma emphasizes two components to the priesthood. First there is a call “on account of their faith.” (4) Then there is an ordination (8) which makes them high priests. We should note that the common phrase “high priesthood” just doesn’t occur in the Bible even though “high priest” does. So there is a difference here.
This high priesthood is explicitly tied to Melchizedek even if the phrase “Melchizedek priesthood” isn’t use. Melchizedek himself is ordained to the priesthood (18).
While receiving the priesthood from angels isn’t clearly stated, it is very interesting that angels are an important part of the chapter. They are mentioned in several verses after Melchizedek section. “…the mouth of angels doth declare it…even to them that are scattered abroad upon the face of the earth wherefore they have come unto us.” (22) This visitation of angels to them is emphasized a great deal by Alma. While the point of the angels are “glad tidings” of the coming of Christ, this occurs in a chapter emphasizing priesthood and Melchizedek.
This isn’t the clear establishment of a need for angelic ordination. However the translation of the Book of Mormon would have made clear that ordination was necessary. It’s not clear that the figures in the Book of Mormon require angelic ordination since the holy order of Alma 13 appears to go back to Nephi. 2 Nephi 6 (most likely translated a month or so after 3 Nephi) says “I Jacob having been called of God and ordained after the manner of his holy order and having been consecrated by my brother Nephi…” (2) Note the strong comparison to Alma 13 with the call and ordination not to mention “holy order.”
I think we can conclude at least a few things. First getting the priesthood is not, as we tend to think of it today, a simple process. There’s first a call and then a ritual of some sort. Second there is a priesthood which is a kind of order after Melchizedek and Christ. The angelic part is a bit trickier, although it may not be needed. That said the important context for Alma 13 involves angels. Alma’s companion with his encounter with Zeezrom is Amulek. But Amulek’s call comes from an angel. (Alma 10:7)
A common view among historians is to split up the priesthood restoration into two parts. I’d simply note that with the Zeezrom narrative in Alma 10-15 we have something very similar. We have an angel giving a call and a priesthood with separate calls and ordination to an order tied to Melchizedek. While it’s not a slam dunk, it does suggest that these things were at least knowable by Joseph Smith in the summer of 1829. If one adopts the fraudulent model then Joseph Smith has come up with this as a model of priesthood by then. (Again in the faithful model Joseph might be clueless about all this, although there’s obviously evidence for his being aware of it)
The confusion over the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood, while not totally cleared up by these parts of the Book of Mormon is perhaps somewhat explained. We may well have separate calls and ordinations. It’s also worth noting that Alma 49 ties baptism to this holy order. “…the word of God which was declared…by all those who had been ordained by the holy order of God being baptized unto repentance and sent forth to preach…” (49:30)
To conclude I think that the clear understanding of the time was that there were separate calls and ordinations. This thinking is found in the later texts such as the JST for Genesis 14 (sometime between mid 1830 and 1831) where priesthood was “delivered unto men by the calling of his own voice…” This is also in Moses 6 (sometime at the end of 1830) “…he heard a voice out of heaven saying…thou art after the order of him who was without beginning of days or end of years, from all eternity to all eternity. Behold, thou art one in me, a son of God; and thus may all become my sons.”
As a final postscript, recognizing a certain desire for systematic theology, one might say that we have to distinguish not only between calls and ordinations but also keys. My sense, perhaps wrong, is that the most important thing Peter, James and John brought were keys. The theological development of priesthood continued well up into Nauvoo. Usually each expansion of theology came with associated angels giving extra keys even though the priesthood itself had already been given.
 Actually I’ll fully confess that the bloom of Mormon history the past decade corresponded to my being busier in my personal life than ever before. So I’m actually pretty far behind in my reading. Made worse by deciding to go ebook only for reading to cut down on the size of my library. This means many of you are undoubtedly better read on the subject than I am. So I really value your feedback here.
 Since this is a faithful blog, we’ll here be presuming some variation of the faithful interpretation to be correct. That’s not to dismiss those who disagree. Indeed part of this post is engaging with them. Just that I think most reading here feel they have spiritual experiences confirming the truth of the gospel. That in turn changes the way they look at the evidence. I should add that even for faithful views of history the evolution of Joseph’s understanding and a conception that doctrine was revealed “grace for grace” (D&C 93:13) a step at a time.
 It is quite clear that the narrative of Peter, James and John was later. As Vogel notes neither John Whitmer nor William McLellin heard of it until a few years later.
 The consecrated part is different but this is also in Alma where the leader, often the king and sometimes the prior high priest, consecrates priests and high priests. This setting them aside seems separate from their ordination to the priesthood. See for example Alma 4:4.
 The one exception might be that Amulek’s ordination isn’t made explicit. That’s true although one should note that Alma defends Amulek’s knowledge by saying “it is given unto many to know the mysteries of God” but they are given a strict command to not share it all. The clear implication is that Amulek’s words on God and resurrection in Alma 11 are part of this. Also note Amulek says in the prior chapter “I have seen much of his mysteries” (10:15). The emphasis in Alma 13 is about how the holy order is set up to teach and is how Alma defends his knowledge of the mysteries. While somewhat circumstantial the context suggests Amulek has entered into this order. Amulek’s teachings in Alma 11 thus may be tied to what Alma sees the order doing in Alma 14:16.
I should note that many of the ideas in this post, while in my mind for quite a few years, also developed out of a discussion at MDDB.