Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Monument to the Restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood

Monument to the Restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood

By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 12, 2009

While uncounted thousands of visual artists have contributed their skills to building Zion, the Fairbanks dynasty holds a special place in the world of Mormon art history: John B. Fairbanks (1855-1940) was one of the art missionaries sent to Paris by the Church, who came home to paint murals for the temples. His sons J. Leo (1878-1946) and Avard T. (1898-1987) have a catalog that must amount to a hundred or more Mormon-themed works: Leo is chiefly responsible for the friezes decorating the Hawaiian Temple; Avard assisted him there, and later did the frieze decorating the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU. Avard sculpted the Angel Moroni appearing on the Washington, Jordan River, and other temples. Many of our most familiar images are Fairbanks creations, and their works dot the continent. Avard’s son Jonathan Leo (1933- ) and other younger members of the family continue the artistic tradition.

Most of us have by now heard the Gospel Doctrine lesson on the restoration of the priesthood, and some proportion of our teachers probably displayed a photograph of the Restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood monument on Temple Square. The Presiding Bishopric (then consisting of Joseph L. Wirthlin, Thorpe B. Isaacson, and Carl W. Buehner), as presidents of the Aaronic Priesthood, commissioned Avard T. Fairbanks to design and sculpt that monument in 1957; in 1960, they asked for a similar memorial to be placed on the banks of the Susquehanna River, and Fairbanks designed a bronze relief of the same scene, mounted on a granite shaft.

Fairbanks was evidently commissioned to design the monument without a lot of input from church leaders – they approved the design, but did not dictate any particular form or content at the outset.

Fairbanks began by thinking about the Aaronic Priesthood, how it had influenced his life as a young man finding his way in the Church and the world, and how Church programs for young Aaronic Priesthood holders had served his eight sons (he also had two daughters).

I examined carefully the value of the Aaronic Priesthood and its program as directed by the Presiding Bishpric. I recalled how it had influenced my own life and the lives of my eight sons, all of whom had come up through the Aaronic Priesthood and all of whom are now honorable holders of the Melchizedek Priesthood. With excusable parental pride, I saw an aggressive program of character building as it shaped and guided my sons toward worthy objectives and high ideals, which resulted in honest achievement.

The authority of the Aaronic Priesthood is generally held by young men. And why not? Such Biblical names as Samuel and David remind us that God can use youthful instruments to further His purposes.

Because the restoration was an historical event involving known individuals, he would portray those individuals realistically – but rather than trying to recreate a literal representation of the event, he would design a more symbolic representation.

I’ve heard it said, but cannot confirm or identify parties, that some recent church leaders disapprove of the monument because it depicts John the Baptist with one hand on the Prophet’s head and the other on Oliver’s head, as if he were ordaining them at the same instant; some believe that this “false” portrayal is why the monument was virtually hidden for so long in the shrubbery on the periphery of the Square. Fairbanks studied the scriptural account; I’m sure he knew the John ordained Joseph first, then Oliver. Any lingering concerns over the “incorrect” historical portrayal could be alleviated by recognizing the symbolic elements of this seemingly straightforward depiction.

Fairbanks decided to use realistic, recognizable portraits of Joseph and Oliver, and to give John the face and figure of a real man, not an idealized angelic model. He would emphasize the youthfulness of today’s Aaronic Priesthood holders by emphasizing the youth of both Joseph and Oliver (neither of whom had yet reached his 25th birthday) and by portraying John as a young man (he was only about 30 when he died). The figures would be shown during the conferral of authority by the laying on of hands – while the two men did not receive the priesthood simultaneously, they both received the priesthood during the same event, and Fairbanks would represent that by showing the angel conferring the priesthood upon them both.

To focus attention on the central act, the three figures would appear, Fairbanks decided, without any foliage or other embellishment to distract the eye. The laying on of hands is a simple act, and he would honor the dignity and simplicity of that act by allowing it to stand alone.

He portrayed Joseph and Oliver as kneeling, representing their humility, but suggested the vigor of their youth by posing them in slightly off-balance positions – if you were to kneel in the pose of either man, your muscles would be taut, and that visible strain adds a sense of movement to an otherwise static view.

John himself is elevated slightly above ground level, suggesting his elevated status as a messenger from God.

An inscription – perhaps a little wordy for today’s taste, but narrating the event simply and unself-consciously – reads:

John the Baptist, Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery in the Restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood.

This event occurred on the banks of the Susquehanna River the fifteenth of May, 1829, near Harmony, Pennsylvania.

Joseph Smith in his writings states:

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, in the name of Messiah I confer the Priesthood of Aaronic, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; and this shall never be taken again from the earth, until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness.” (Doctrine and Covenants, Section Thirteen.)

Erected by the Aaronic Priesthood in the year 1957.

Funds for the monument were raised in small amounts by donations from many holders of the Aaronic Priesthood. In accepting their donations, the Presiding Bishopric noted, “We must honor our priesthood, for it does mean as much to us as we are telling the world it does.”

Fairbanks wrote of his completed monument, “To me, the two monuments [he includes the later one placed at the Susquehanna] call to visual attention a beautiful story of the courage required of two young men to face a world of unbelievers. It was my intent, and I felt it to be that of the Presiding Bishopric, that these monuments should touch the hearts of all who hear or read the story of these men and this incident.”

I am happy to note that the monument was recently moved from its obscure position to occupy a much more visible spot on the Temple grounds, between the Temple itself and the South Visitors’ Center.



  1. Thank you for the lovely post. A work of art like that certainly stands on its own merits, but it is also good to hear the explanation of why the artist created the work like he did.

    Comment by Researcher — March 12, 2009 @ 8:16 am

  2. What a great post. I really admire anyone who can accomplish the almost impossible feat of writing about art or music and making the piece come alive. For me, your description of this piece did just that. Thanks.

    When I look at John and how his feet literally don’t touch the ground, I think it not only suggests a messenger from God, but also as a supernatural being. It’s so striking to see him floating, as it were, while he confers power on Joseph and Oliver. Just look at those floating feet!

    Comment by Hunter — March 12, 2009 @ 8:16 am

  3. I believe that Daniel Fairbanks, a professor of biology and the former dean of undergraduate Education at BYU, is Avard’s son. He uses remarkable skill in sculpture, learned and inherited, to give lectures on Christ and on Darwin during which he creates a bust of the subjects.

    Comment by Rick — March 12, 2009 @ 8:22 am

  4. I am happy to note that the monument was recently moved from its obscure position to occupy a much more visible spot on the Temple grounds, between the Temple itself and the South Visitors’ Center.

    I’m glad to hear this. It really is a stunning image, and the background information brings it to life.

    Comment by Ray — March 12, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

  5. I’m glad you enjoyed this — thanks. (I’ve been away from the internet all day, or I’d have said so earlier.)

    Rick, I’d certainly enjoy seeing and hearing a lecture like that! If Daniel isn’t Avard’s son, he can’t be very far off that branch of the family tree. It’s remarkable, isn’t it?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 12, 2009 @ 7:37 pm

  6. I’m puzzled by the idea that church leaders would object on the grounds that Joseph was ordained first. Joseph Smith 1:68-69 seems very clear that they were ordained together as depicted by Fairbanks. Perhaps they are conflating the ordination by John with the subsequent post-baptismal ordination (verse 71) where they ordain each other. But even then, Joseph first ordains Oliver, who then ordains Joseph. I can’t see any support in the account for Joseph being ordained first in either case.

    Where exactly was the monument before it was moved? I haven’t been to Temple Square in over a decade, but I remember the monument being in front of the North Visitors Center, just to the right as you walk in the north gate. That seems like a pretty prominent location to me. Perhaps that was its location before it was moved into the shrubbery. Or perhaps my memory is faulty.

    Comment by Left Field — March 13, 2009 @ 5:20 am

  7. I can’t vouch for the legitimacy of the objection, Left Field; it’s just one of those pieces of gossip that “everybody knows” and that may or may not be true. While I usually try not to spread that kind of “everybody knows” gossip, I mentioned it because my post offers a way around that objection (i.e., the artistic license of representing both ordinations simultaneously because you can’t really depict two events in a single static sculpture). While I agree with your reading of Joseph Smith 1:68-69, I think some strongly believe that John ordained first Joseph and then Oliver simply because all ordinations, settings apart, blessings, etc., today are done one at a time and there’s an assumption that it has always been done that way.

    Thanks for the opportunity to clarify that — I have no idea whether such an objection on the part of any church leader really does exist, or whether that is a rumor invented to explain the placement of the statue in such an obscure spot. If you’ve heard that objection, and if it colors your view of this sculpture, try thinking of it as an artistic expression rather than a literal depiction of events — that’s the sole reason for mentioning it.

    For the past few years, the sculpture has been on the east side of Temple Square, in the angle between the outside wall and the wrought-iron fencing around the Temple itself, almost flat against the wall, under the bushes and trees that are planted against the wall and which kind of grew up and over the monument. It wasn’t exactly blocked from view — even though it was in the shadows you could see it clearly if you had reason to walk straight toward it — but you wouldn’t have seen it from any other angle and walked over to take a closer look.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 13, 2009 @ 6:11 am

  8. These posts are fun. I guess I come from the “old school” and was influenced by the depiction of the two-for-one ordination. I came across a similar post on a different blog about a month ago (and, of course, I can’t remember which blog it was). Apparently, the notion of the dual ordiantion was prevalent even before the Arvad Fairbanks monument. This was based only on JS-H 1:68-69, but also on the wording of D&C 13:1 (i.e. “servants”) indicating the dual ordination. The suggestion at this other blog was that in the 1980s the imagry was changed to the singluar ordinations to be consistant with the way we do things now (orthodoxy). Of course, we don’t really know if that theory is correct or not. I do think that in the Church they do try to maintain a sort of consistance and orthodoxy in the details of how such things are depicted. I doubt that we’d ever see too many depictions of early sacrament services in which every one takes a swig from a large goblet (especially if it had a plug of tobacco settled on the bottom). :-) I think the Church tries to depict images very similar to how we do things today except a bit rustic is all. Hence, the John ordaining JS in a similar pose and attitude as we’d see a bishop ordaining someone to the priesthood today.

    (I wonder if right before the ordination if John the Baptist asked Joseph what his full name was?)

    Comment by Steve C. — March 13, 2009 @ 6:30 am

  9. Undoubtedly he did, Steve. :) I like your use of “rustic” — that captures the impression I have, too, about the few times the church acknowledges differences between then and now. It isn’t really different, just less developed. Uh-huh.

    If you or someone else remembers the blog you refer to, I hope you’ll leave another comment. I’d like to read that.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 13, 2009 @ 6:56 am

  10. Ardis, here is the text of his lecture on Christ: And here’s a clever picture taken mid-stream in his lecture on Darwin:

    Comment by Rick — March 13, 2009 @ 9:30 am

  11. I did a doubletake on the picture, Rick, but I’m looking forward to reading the article. Thanks for the link.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 13, 2009 @ 10:41 am

  12. Ardis, I just did a doubletake on the picture, too. It is really a cool photo.

    Comment by Maurine — March 13, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

  13. We have an oil painting by John B Fairbanks, who I’m assuming was the father of Avard. He lived west across the train tracks and down a lane from where my husband’s family lived on Whitlock Avenue in Salt Lake, (about 1200 East and 21st South area).

    My father-in-law wrote on the back of the painting (abt 10×13) “This oil painting, done by John B Fairbanks, was given to John and Enid Ward because they let a younger Fairbanks use the garage or at least park his car on Whitlock Avenue during the winters.”

    The painting is of the lane looking down toward the Fairbanks homestead, apparently a spring scene as there are blossoms on some of the trees. On the back of the painting is also written, “Our winter sledding hill.”

    Comment by Maurine — March 13, 2009 @ 1:26 pm

  14. Ardis-

    Great piece.

    I find Fairbanks fascinating. He’s the faithful Mormon foil to Cyrus Dallin, also a Utahn (from Springville) whose family separated from the LDS Church while he was still young. Dallin, of course, crafted the Angel Moroni that sits atop the SL Temple and the statue of Brigham Young at the intersection of Main and South Temple.

    I did a story on Dallin for the Beehive Archive. Maybe it’s time to post the script on my blog.


    Comment by Brandon — March 13, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

  15. Steve C. – I remember reading a blog about that too, though I thought it was longer ago than a month. There was a drawing of a woman blessing her two children with a hand on each child. I recall it sparked a discussion on the image of John the Baptist doing the same thing. I thought it was JI, but searching for it now I can’t find it. So I looked at T&S, BCC and here. No luck. I don’t go to many other blogs, so I can’t guess where else it might be.

    Comment by BruceCrow — March 13, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

  16. Ha, I hadn’t thought about the parallels between Fairbanks and Dallin — they’re there.

    Brandon, when I see your Dallin piece posted on Beehive Achive, I’ll link to it here. More people need to discover your blog. The same kinds of stories appeal to both of us, so Beehive Archive should appeal to Keepa readers.

    (There’s a link in Keepa’s sideblog, for readers who may not yet have discovered the Beehive.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 13, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

  17. Your post brought back fond memories from 50 years ago. As a 12 year old deacon, I was able to attend the general priesthood meeting in the Tabernacle where the statue was dedicated in 1959. Thanks to the generosity of some leaders in the Calgary Alberta Stake, I along with about 150 other boys and our leaders from the stake were able to travel to Conference in 5 Greyhound buses and participate in the celebration. To qualify for the expense paid trip, we had to have had 100% attendance for the previous year. I remember the still shiny statue and sitting in the Tabernacle for the first time in my life during the Priesthood session. As a 12 year old my most vivid memory of that trip was being in the tabernacle with the 1000’s of other Priesthood holders and realizing that I was part of a worldwide Brotherhood. On my infrequent trips back to Temple Square, I always stop at the statue.

    Comment by Alan LeBaron — March 13, 2009 @ 5:17 pm

  18. That’s a wonderful report, Alan, thanks.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 13, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

  19. By coincidence, I attended a baptism this evening where they showed a church video dramatizing the restoration of the priesthood. The video clearly depicts John ordaining both Joseph and Oliver simultaneously, although you can’t actually see his hands on their heads. John reaches down and forward with both hands going out of frame while a voiceover of Joseph quotes, “having laid his hands upon us, he ordained us saying,’Upon you my fellow servents…'” with John lip-synching the words of the ordination. At the end of the ordination, John is seen withdrawing both hands.

    So the video clearly shows the simultaneous ordination, while arguably being a bit squeamish about showing John with his hands on both.

    Interestingly, the verbiage used by John was once recommended when ordaining brethren to the Aaronic Priesthood. Joseph F. Smith’s Gospel Doctrine includes a quotation from the Improvement Era (4:394, March 1901) stating the following:

    In ordaining those who have not yet received the Aaronic Priesthood, to any office therein, the words of John the Baptist to Joseph Smith, Jr., and Oliver Cowdery, would be appropriate to immediately precede the act of ordination. They are:

    “Upon you my fellow servants [servant], in the name of Messiah, I confer the Priesthood of Aaron.”

    Of course, it would not necessarily follow that these exact words should be used, but the language should be consistent with the act of conferring the Aaronic Priesthood.

    (The bracketed material is in Gospel Doctrine; I can’t say if it’s also in the Improvement Era original.)

    At the end of Gospel Doctrine, there is an Addendum by the First Presidency (Grant, Lund, Penrose) indicating that

    In reference to the form of procedure mentioned on page 136, and that set forth in this addendum as adopted by the leading authorities of the Church from the beginning, our beloved and departed President, Joseph F. Smith, when questioned concerning them, decided, as of record, “It is a distinction without a difference,” and “either will do.”

    Persons, therefore, who have been ordained in either way hold the right to officiate in all the duties of their respective offices in the Priesthood.

    Comment by Left Field — March 14, 2009 @ 6:21 pm

  20. Good hunting, Left Field. That’s a valuable bit of research. The next time I hear someone say that “they” object to the depiction of a simultaneous ordination, I’ll be able to point to this. Mostly, though, I’m glad of your help in understanding it better for myself.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 14, 2009 @ 9:24 pm

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