Tracing the Priesthood

Tracing the formation of the Priesthood in Mormonism is not an easy task. Dates get confused, concepts change over time, offices are added or refined, and duties are not always clearly delineated. Like all institutions, the organization was not fully formed on the first day. However, in order to get a correct understanding of how the modern LDS Church works, the history of its authoritative structure must be explained. Joseph Smith wrote, “There is no salvation between the two lids of the Bible without a legal administrator. Jesus was then the legal administrator, and ordained His Apostles” (TPJS, pg. 319). Doctrine and revelation are of no value if the proper leadership is not in operation.

Historians start talking about Mormonism with the First Vision of Joseph Smith, where he witnesses God and Jesus Christ in a grove of trees after a day at work on the family property. Next in line is the vision of the Angel Moroni, with the eventual translation and publication of the Book of Mormon. Essential as these two events are for tracing what would be called Mormonism, it is the development of Priesthood that makes it of any importance. This more than anything for believers gives it purpose and meaning. The “Great Apostasy” is the loss of authority that the “Restoration” regains. The Priesthood is the Power of God to officiate in the ordinances of Salvation, and regulate the government of the Church.

During the process of translating the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith and his scribe Oliver Cowdery ran into the concept of authority to baptise. They questioned how anyone would be given the authority to baptise others. Joseph Smith stated, ““We still continued the work of translation, when, in the ensuing month (May, 1829), we on a certain day went into the woods to pray and inquire of the Lord respecting baptism for the remission of sins, that we found mentioned in the translation of the plates. While we were thus employed, praying and calling upon the Lord, a messenger from heaven descended in a cloud of light, and having laid his hands upon us, he ordained us,” to the Aaronic Priesthood (JS-H 1:68). Oliver Cowdery later wrote they were, “ordained by the angel John, unto the lesser or Aaronic priesthood, in company with myself, in the town of Harmony, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, on Friday, the 15th day of May, 1829,” in a preface to a book of formal blessings.Having been given the Aaronic Priesthood, the two baptised each other in the Susquehanna River before returning to the duty of translation.

The Aaronic Priesthood ordination would only be the beginning of Priesthood confiral. John the Baptist promised more power would be given them by other messengers. Generally speaking, a higher priesthood having the authority to give the gift of the Holy Ghost would be bestowed on them. This promise was realized when the angels Peter, James, and John ordained them to the Melchizedek Priesthood on an unspecified date. The missing date has created a level of confusion amplified by possible differences between how the Priesthood was first understood and now.

There are a few theories for when to date the Melchizedek Priesthood ordination of Joseph Smith. The closest to the official version is sometime between May 15 to May 31, 1829. A letter dated 1829 by Oliver Cowdery reflects D&C 18:9, “I speak unto you, even as unto Paul mine apostle, for you are called even with that same calling with which he was called.” Joseph Smith in the History of the Church, 1:61–62 states about the above revelation, “The following commandment will further illustrate the nature of our calling to this Priesthood, as well as that of others who were yet to be sought after.” It is argued no one can be an apostle unless they have the higher priesthood. By at least April 6, 1830, the Melchizedek Priesthood had to have been conferred, the argument continues, because the Church couldn’t be organized without it’s authority. The revelation of church government read during the official organization of the Church, known as D&C 20, clearly states Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were called of God as Apostles. Joseph the first and Oliver the second Elders. These positions again are considered part of the higher priesthood.

Other arguments state that it wasn’t until later, perhaps up to June 1831, that members of the Church were first ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood. Richard Bushman writes that Joseph Smith and others claim it was the first time that priesthood was introduced. He dismisses the explanation it was only the High Priest office. The writings are very specific in naming it the Melchizedek after the Order of the Son of God. He also speculates that perhaps Joseph Smith didn’t fully understand that differences between the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods. the Prophet didn’t realize Peter, James, and John had given to them already (JS:RSR pgs. 157-160). The problem with his theory is that the language is not as precise as he claims. Joseph Smith stating the authority was, “conferred for the first time upon several,” doesn’t necessarily mean all for the first time. Even if other records interchange High Priesthood with Melchizedek Priesthood, that doesn’t mean the two are the same.

Another problem is that perhaps up until at least 1835, the offices were of more taxonomy importance than the two levels of Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods. It started with elders, priests, deacons, and teachers. Elder, for instance, really could be just an Elder and High Priest the Melchizedek Priesthood without reference to the authority they might be under. More importantly would be the duty and authority each position held. Apostle could have been at first a general name for witness of God. Later other offices were introduced with more definition and expansion of duties. A series of revelations combined as D&C 107 solidified the two tier groupings of offices. They could now be found under either the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthood, consisting of lower outward ordinances and higher spiritual blessings.

The offices of the Priesthood have and can continue to change. After the 1960s, the high priest quorum president was placed under the Bishop’s authority rather than Apostles. In effect they became a ward rather than stake office. Another relatively recent change has been the function and placement of the office of the Seventy. It has always had a problematic relationship up until 1986 with where it fit in the organizational structure. At times they were apart from and others combined with the high priests. Eventually they went from a ward level administration to General Authority status along with the Twelve Apostles.

Paul explained in Ephesians 4:11-16 the purpose of so many offices:

11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;

12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:

13 Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ:

14 That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive;

15 But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ:

16 From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.

There is a work to be done. The Church needs the Priesthood and its offices to bring about Zion. No changes can be done without strict consent from the God who gave it to mortals. The people who are given the Priesthood may be imperfect, but the offices demand respect. A testimony of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith insists on the same for the Priesthood and Church that he was called to organize. The Saints have not been perfected and therefore there is the same need for Priesthood offices. No one can take this honor unto themselves and must be authorized by those who have authority. That authority must be traced back to Joseph Smith who got it from John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John who got it from Jesus Christ who got it from God the Father.

For a more detailed examination of Priesthood, see here, here, here, and here(make sure to read all 12 parts).

23 thoughts on “Tracing the Priesthood

  1. Unless I’m misreading it, the president of the High Priest Quorum in a stake is the stake president. So the sentence reading “After the 1960s, the high priest quorum president was placed under the Bishop’s authority rather than Apostles.” should probably read, “…was place under the stake president’s authority…” That is why, in the ward, the men called to lead a High Priest Group are called “group leaders” rather than quorum presidents.

  2. you are right, that is a bad sentence. I should have just quoted where I got it from:

    “Correlation, in effect, demoted Melchizedek Priesthood quorums to unit auxiliaries, and pretty low grade ones at that. Before the 1960s, high priest quorum presidents were stake level officers (not the stake president), needing an apostle (or assistant to the 12) to call and set apart. They were in some ways on a level with the stake president and in a quirky way, presided over him. Correlation in essence erased the high priest quorum and substituted basic unit level “groups” (in stakes) which no one has figured out as yet, simultaneously making the notion of authoritative ‘keys’ a problematic concept in the process. On the other hand, while Melchizedek Priesthood leaders were placed under the authority of the bishop, they did get a little more regular responsibility. But they were clearly, and deliberately, placed under the thumb of the bishop.”

    I am not even sure if this quote is a very good explanation. Like I said, Priesthood development is a lot more complicated that it at first looks.

  3. I am fascinated by the continued shift of greater authority to the stake presidents. Up until very recently in Church history, they couldn’t ordain bishops or patriarchs. Now they can.

    I foresee going forward that stake presidents will continue to gain greater authorities and responsibilities, and that even more quorums of Seventy will be created.

    Personally, it’s an exciting time to be a member of the Church. The future will be interesting.

  4. The first two presentations at the 2014 Church History Symposium would be very relevant here. For an interesting examination of the changing roles of the 70 I recommend Richard Cowan (BYU Church History and Doctrine), “Administering a Worldwide Church”(

    Ken Alford (BYU Church History and Doctrine), “Establishing the Gospel in Afghanistan” ( of the observations made was that in order to have all of the necessary keys to administer the Church under the special circumstances of Afghanistan the District President was set apart as both District and Mission President. Currently 70s are also set apart as High Priests so they can set apart Stake Presidents. Bishops are Ordained High Priests in order to execute the Aaronic Priesthood Office In the same way I suspect that currently Stake Presidents are also set apart as Presidents of the High Priests’ Quorum for their stakes. Two separate offices vested in a single individual. Remember also that while EQ Presidents report through the Bishop to the SP their Calling and setting apart is at the Stake level.

  5. The wonderful thing about the Priesthood is its flexibility. As a church we went from having two leading Elders guiding a church of less than a hundred people to today’s fifteen high priests presiding over millions around the world. There are some who protest the various changes as indicative of fault. Would the same peole protest the progress of a seed from zygote to tree? One of Joseph’s particular inhibitions was a failure to keep exact records. I tried to discover the exact date of an ordinance in which he played a part by looking at a range of dates in his journal. On the day most likely he only referred to chopping wood. Other days were simply not recorded. The exact date of the Restoration of the Melchezedek priesthood would be nice to know, but far more important is the knowledge that it happened. Those who complain of a lack of revelation in the modern Church fail to recognize its manifestation in the functional expansion of the priethood to meet the needs of a growing church.

  6. Thanks for your insightful post.

    Too bad the Prophet Joseph didn’t keep daily records, but then again how many of us do? And especially in that day and age it could have been hard just to get paper to write on.

    I’ve been learning so much lately from posts here on MS. It is an exciting time to be a member for sure.

  7. It’s true the Lord spoke of Joseph and Oliver as apostles, but they never were sustained or ordained as apostles in the church. Rather, they were first and second elder, and then high priests. They never thought of themselves as apostles, and, and being an apostle is not a necessary pre-requisite to serving in the First Presidency.

  8. Ji,

    You don’t have to be an apostle to be a counselor in the First Presidency, that is true. But you do have to be an apostle to be the presiding high priest of the church.

    However, Joseph and Oliver were, in fact, ordained Apostles, as were David Whitmer and Martin Harris. (The Three Witnesses helped to ordain the original Twelve in 1835). In the priesthood, you can’t ordain someone to an office that you yourself don’t hold.

    D&C 21 is very instructive.

  9. “Joseph the first and Oliver the second Elders. These positions again are considered part of the higher priesthood.” But they weren’t at the time. In fact, it took some time before use of the word “priesthood” was common in the Church. At first, there were only offices, from which authority was derived. The current divisions, as mentioned in the OP, came later.

    “Even if other records interchange High Priesthood with Melchizedek Priesthood, that doesn’t mean the two are the same.” Exactly. They weren’t. For more information, I strongly suggest Power from on High, by Gregory A. Prince. It traces the development of the priesthood and is a fascinating read. It particularly helps to clear up confusion regarding the current editing of the D&C that creates anachronisms in the text with regard to the priesthood.

  10. The aspect of priesthood that most amuses me was restoration of the sealing keys.

    This was an event that has been foretold for millennia, that families in Passover Seders even now re-enact, sending the youngest to the door to see if Elijah is there.

    But since Joseph wasn’t steeped in the lore of Elijah and the sealing keys, he never recorded that it occurred on Easter and during passover, as had been foretold.

    I continue to be amused that the resonance in the timing of the restoration of the sealing keys isn’t mentioned in D&C 110. All the explanatory blurb says is “The occasion was that of a Sabbath day meeting.”

  11. Michael Towns,

    Joseph was sustained by the membership and ordained as an apostle? I don’t think so. I think this notion is projecting backwards into history.

    Likewise, the Three Witnesses weren’t sustained by the membership as apostles, either. Yes, D&C 21 is instructive. And yes, we re-create the past in light of modern practices.

    In saying Joseph presided among the people as a high priest, for which office he was sustained and ordained, I do not diminish his authority or calling. The Lord called him an apostle, but he never was ordained or set-apart as such.

    The First Presidency is three high priests. The current members were also previously ordained as apostles, but they function today as high priests.

  12. “The Lord called him an apostle, but he never was ordained or set-apart as such.”

    Not quite. The ordination of Joseph as an Apostle, then of Oliver under Joseph’s hand, is clear:

    D&C 20:2-3
    2 Which commandments were given to Joseph Smith, Jun., who was called of God, and ordained an apostle of Jesus Christ, to be the first elder of this church;

    3 And to Oliver Cowdery, who was also called of God, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to be the second elder of this church, and ordained under his hand;

  13. I would love to hear more about the stake high priest quorum president and how and when it became the same as the stake president. Where can I find out more?

  14. Can’t really help you there Richard. My own research was preliminary. Might be in Prince’s Power from on High.

  15. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s in Prince’s book. He goes into a lot of detail about certain aspects, but I see nothing where he addresses the earlier confusion about stake presidents and high priest quorums.

    It seems I read an article, years ago, that is kicking around in my brain. It is possible that Brigham Young addressed this issue in his extensive 1877 “reorganization” of the priesthood. It may have been this article that I read years ago:

  16. “they could not freely recruit new members as they had in the past”

    Now that’s a trip. Can you imagine being “recruited” by the high priests’ quorum? Definitely a different world back in the day.

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