Standing on the shore, Joseph Smith reached down and clasped his father’s hand as Oliver Cowdery raised the elder Smith from the water. “Oh! My God I have lived to see my father baptized into the true church of Jesus christ,” he exclaimed. His joy was too much for him. He looked for a place to get away. Friends Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Knight went after him. Knight later described Joseph as being “the most wrot upon that I ever saw any man.”
For years, Joseph Smith Sr. had dismissed the claims of contemporary churchmen, but now he found the truth he sought in the visions and revelations of his son, Joseph Jr. The Church of Christ was organized April 6, 1830, and Joseph Sr. was one of the first to be baptized.
As early as the summer of 1828, Joseph Smith Jr.’s revelations had discussed establishing a church. In the aftermath of Martin Harris’s loss of the Book of Mormon manuscript, Joseph dictated a revelation stating the Lord “will establish my church”D&C 10:53). It was becoming clear that Joseph Smith’s mission would not end with the translation of the plates. Yet even believing associates like Joseph Knight were unaware of preparations Joseph and Oliver seemed to be keeping close to the vest.(see
Knight later recalled that he did not learn of the impending church organization until shortly before the actual event. “Now in the Spring of 1830,” he recalled, “I went with my Team and took Joseph out to Manchester to his Father. When we was on our way he told me that there must be a Church formed But did not tell when.”
Preparations had been under way since at least June 1829. In that month, Joseph Smith dictated the revelation that would become Doctrine and Covenants 18 for Oliver Cowdery. In it Oliver was instructed to “build up my church, and my gospel, and my rock.” In doing so, Cowdery was told to “rely upon the things which are written” (see D&C 18:3–4). The Book of Mormon translation was nearly finished, and Cowdery indeed used the manuscript as he began to outline the polity of the new church.
Cowdery produced a document he called “Articles of the Church of Christ” in preparation for the organization of the Church. More than half of this document was either a direct quotation or a close paraphrase from the Book of Mormon manuscript. Like the Nephite church, this new church would have priests and teachers. It would also have disciples, or elders. The June 1829 revelation also appointed Cowdery, along with David Whitmer, to select twelve who would serve as the Apostles sent out to spread the new church’s message.
Many of those who accepted that message awaited the organization of a church. About this time, Joseph Smith announced a revelation specifying the day that church should be organized. At last the day arrived, on April 6, 1830. Forty or fifty men and women gathered in the small Fayette home of Peter Whitmer Sr. to observe the event. Six of them—Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and four others—served as the official organizers.
They “opened the meeting by solemn prayer.” Joseph and Oliver asked the other four official members if they would accept them as their spiritual teachers, and whether they should proceed to organize the Church. Joseph was 24, Oliver 23. Having the consent of the assembled believers, Joseph ordained Oliver Cowdery an elder in the Church and Oliver did the same for Joseph.
With authorized men called, sustained, and ordained, it was possible for the Church to celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s supper. “We then took bread, blessed it, and brake it with them, also wine, blessed it, and drank it with them.” After the sacrament, Joseph Smith’s history records, “We then laid our hands on each individual member of the Church present that they might receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, and be confirmed members of the Church of Christ. The Holy Ghost was poured out upon us to a very great degree. Some prophesied, whilst we all praised the Lord and rejoiced exceedingly.”
That same day, “Whilst yet together” for the organizational meeting, Joseph Smith received another revelation.Doctrine and Covenants 21, the revelation instructed the newly formed church that “there Shall a Record be kept among you” in which Joseph Smith would be known as a “seer & Translater & Prop[h]et an Apostle of Jesus Christ an Elder of the Church” (see D&C 21:1). Oliver Cowdery, acting in his role as apostle and elder, was to perform the ordination. Though Oliver was designated the church’s “second elder,” the April 6 revelation also designated him the “first preacher,” an office he filled by preaching the church’s first public sermon on April 11.Now
While Joseph and Oliver’s respective roles were clarified, the role Oliver’s Articles document played in the organization is unclear. Sometime after Oliver had completed the Articles, Joseph told him there was more. Joseph’s superseding revelation, now part of Doctrine and Covenants 20, seems to have been completed after the organizational meeting in April but before the Church’s first conference, held in June. At the June conference, this revealed document was accepted as a statement of polity for the new church. Its importance was highlighted by the fact that it was the first revelatory text published in the Church’s newspaper, and it was printed as the second section of the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, after the “preface” dictated as a revelation in 1833.
During the two months between the organization meeting and the Church’s acceptance of the new Articles in June, questions arose concerning the need of believers to be baptized if they had previously been baptized in other churches. Within weeks of the first meeting of the Church, Joseph Smith received a revelation, now Doctrine and Covenants 22, emphasizing the importance of rebaptism in the new church.
The new Church of Christ was more than simply another Christian denomination. After years of keeping a distance from the churches he saw around him, Joseph Smith Sr. saw in the newly restored Church something different: a legitimate successor to the apostolic church with prophets, apostles, revelation, and authority.
For more on the sections mentioned in this article, see the forthcoming volume, Michael Hubbard MacKay, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, Grant Underwood, Robert J. Woodford, William G. Hartley, eds. Documents: July 1828-June 1831. First volume of the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman. Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2013.