As Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery translated the account of Jesus visiting the American continent after His death and resurrection, they were filled with the desire to be baptized. “No men in their sober senses,” wrote Oliver, “could translate and write the directions given to the Nephites, from the mouth of the Savior…without desiring a privilege of showing the willingness of the heart by being buried in the liquid grave” (Joseph Smith—History, endnote, quoted from LDS Messenger and Advocate, Oct. 1834, 1:15–16).
The problem was that the Savior had made it abundantly clear that a person had to be authorized by Him to perform baptisms. In the Book of Mormon account, He publicly gave that authority to Nephi and eleven other men, and He instructed them to begin each baptism with the words, “Having authority given me of Jesus Christ…” (3 Nephi 11:21, 22, 25). Joseph and Oliver didn’t know how they could be baptized; they didn’t know who, if anyone, was authorized to perform baptisms.
On May 15, 1829, they went into the woods near Joseph’s home in Harmony, Pennsylvania to ask for guidance. During that prayer, an angel appeared to them and identified himself as John the Baptist, the same person who had baptized Jesus Christ. He laid his hands on their heads and conferred on them the Aaronic Priesthood, including the authority to baptize. After they received this authority, following the instructions of the angel, they baptized one another in the Susquehanna River (Joseph Smith—History 1:68-72).
Here are some blog posts with more information about baptism and priesthood:
- What Is the Priesthood?
- What Is Authority?
- What Does It Mean to Be Ordained?
- Why Are Ordinances Important?
- What Does the Book of Mormon Teach About the Baptism of Jesus?
Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery baptized one another because there was no one else available to baptize them. On two occasions in the Book of Mormon, baptisms were carried out in similarly unusual ways. Here are some thoughts about those two events:
When John the Baptist conferred the priesthood on Joseph and Oliver, he said that it held “the keys of the ministering of angels” and that it would remain on the earth “until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness” (Joseph Smith—History 1:69, Doctrine and Covenants 13:1). Here are two blog posts with more information on those topics:
Joseph said that, as a result of this experience, they were filled with the Holy Ghost, their minds were enlightened, and they were able to understand the scriptures better than before (Joseph Smith—History 1:73-74). Here are a couple of blog posts about the power of the Holy Ghost to enlighten our minds and clarify our understanding:
Doctrine and Covenants 12 is a revelation given to Joseph Knight, Sr. The first part of the revelation is nearly identical with revelations given to Oliver Cowdery, Hyrum Smith, and David Whitmer. Here is a blog post analyzing the four concepts contained in the first part of these four revelations: