1834 is a transitional year in church history. As the failures of the church to obey the Lord’s commands pile up, the Lord begins to put the pieces in place for what will remain once the fullness is removed.
In February 1834, Joseph Smith convenes the “President’s Standing Council,” effectively the first stake high council. Joseph, Sidney, and Frederick Williams are designated as the presidency.
In April 1834, the Lord declares in D&C 104 that the covenant has been broken and the church is to be cursed.
In May 1834, the name of the church is changed to The Church of Latter Day Saints, missing the name of Christ in stark opposition to 3 Nephi 27.
In June 1834, 15 Elders in Missouri are selected to travel to Kirtland to receive an endowment of power.
In September 1834, a committee calls Joseph, Oliver, Sidney, and Frederick to arrange the items of doctrine of Jesus Christ. This work would become the Doctrine and Covenants, with the Lectures on Faith as the doctrine.
On December 5, the Lord declared condemnation on the leaders of the church.
On December 6, Joseph Smith Sr. is ordained as Church Patriarch. Joseph would later declare the Patriarch to be the highest officer of the church, and D&C 124 would confirm that hierarchy.
Once that change was made, other changes came quickly. In February the Quorums of the Twelve and the Seventy were created. Then the first part of D&C 107 is received which begins to establish the rules of operation for this new church structure. Then during the summer the Doctrine and Covenants is published, for the governance of the Church of Latter Day Saints.
By now the church organization is significantly different than during the fullness. (Click the chart to get a larger version.)
The Twelve and the Seventy are to have no authority inside organized stakes, but they are to travel and administer the church outside the stakes. One thing that surprised me was that the first stake was created just as Zion was faltering. Rather than being an extension of Zion, it seems to have been intended for the exile of Zion, which at the time was promised to be short-lived if the church repented. September 1836 was given as the deadline for redeeming Zion. Once that passed, things deteriorated.
In 1841, the Lord gave Section 124 which listed the church organization. It is basically the same as in 1835, but there is a little bit more information.
The Patriarch is given as the first officer of the church. Interestingly, whereas D&C 107 says the First Presidency is to consist of three High Priests, in 1841 Joseph is identified as the presiding Elder. It appears even Joseph has lost the fullness of the priesthood and has reverted to being an Elder.
Notice the Lord’s description of the High Priest Quorum: “instituted for the purpose of qualifying those who shall be appointed…” This seems almost preparatory in nature, whereas before these High Priests had a “right to officiate in their own standing.”
Finally, the Lord makes it clear that the Quorum of the Twelve, the Quorum of the Seventy, and the stake high council have equal authority. Could you imagine a stake president telling the President of the Quorum of the Twelve to stuff it? Yet this is how the Lord organized things…the Twelve only had authority outside the stakes. My how times have changed.
It’s important to realize that this organization with Stake Presidents, Apostles, and Seventies, is the organization of downgraded church. If we are going to have the fullness restored unto us, I suspect we will first see the Lord’s 1835/1841 organization restored, with Twelve Apostles preaching to the world and leaving the organized stakes alone. Once we redeem Zion, I would expect to see a return to the 1833 organization inside Zion, where other than a president people seem to govern themselves.
As we read the scriptures, it’s critical to keep these different organizational structures in mind, as well as the scriptural definitions of different priesthoods. The misapplication of the term Melchizedek Priesthood to the office of Elder and the continued use of the office of High Priest has definitely muddied the waters. Only by looking back at how the priesthood was referred to and organized during specific periods of the church’s fullness, and comparing that to the state of the church and it’s downgrade, can we decode what the priesthood really looks like, how it should act, and why we don’t see the promises we should have it we truly had the fullness. But it also tells us what we should look for when the Lord sets his hand a second time to recover Israel and redeem Zion.
D&C 107 is important in understanding priesthood. But it’s actually two separate revelations received three and a half years apart. Unless you treat this as two separate revelations, you will come to false conclusions about the priesthood.
Verses 59-100 were received on November 11, 1831. Our current version does have some changes from the original revelation. Verses 90 and 93-98 were added in 1835 to address the newly called Seventy. Verses talking about literal descendants of Aaron (parts of 69-71, 73-74, and all of 76) were added in 1835. If you strip those out, you get a picture of the priesthood as revealed in November 1831, when the fullness of the priesthood was in the Church of Christ.
Verses 1-58 were received in March or April of 1835, when the church had been downgraded from to the Church of Latter Day Saints. By the time of this revelation, not only had the name been changed, but a Patriarch, Quorum of the Twelve, and Quorum of the Seventy had been called. The priesthood organization in the Church of Latter Day Saints is significantly different from the Church of Christ.
Here’s what the scriptures in 1831 said about the priesthood. Words in blue show differences from the version we are familiar with.
D&C 107:65-66, 91-92 Wherefore, it must needs be that one be appointed of the High Priesthood to preside over the priesthood, and he shall be called President of the High Priesthood of the Church; or, in other words, the Presiding High Priest over the High Priesthood of the Church.And again, the duty of the President of the office of the High Priesthood is to preside over the whole church, and to be like unto Moses—behold, here is wisdom; yea, to be a seer, a revelator, a translator, and a prophet, having all the gifts of God which he bestows upon the head of the church.D&C 81:1-2 Hearken to the calling wherewith you are called, even to be a High Priest in my church, and a counselor unto my servant Joseph Smith Jr., unto whom I have given the keys of the kingdom, which belong always unto the Presidency of the High Priesthood.D&C 107:79-81 The President of the court of the High Priesthood shall have power to call other high priests, even twelve, to assist as counselors; and thus the President of the High Priesthood and his counselors shall have power to decide upon testimony according to the laws of the church. And after this decision it shall be had in remembrance no more before the Lord; for this is the highest court of the church of God, and a final decision upon controversies in spiritual matters. There is not any person belonging to the church who is exempt from this court of the church.
D&C 107:89-90 The duty of the president over the office of elders is to preside over ninety-six elders, and to sit in council with them, and to teach them according to the covenants. D&C 20:37-45 An apostle is an elder, and it is his calling to baptize; and to ordain other elders, priests, teachers, and deacons; and to administer the flesh and blood of Christ according to the scriptures; and to teach, expound, exhort, baptize, and watch over the church; and to confirm the church by the laying on of the hands, and the giving of the Holy Ghost; and to take the lead of all meetings. The elders are to conduct the meetings as they are led by the Holy Ghost.
D&C 107:87-88 The duty of the president over the Priesthood is to preside over forty-eight priests, and sit in council with them, to teach them the duties of their office, as is given in the covenants—this president is to be a bishop; for this is one of the duties of this priesthood.D&C 107:68 The office of a bishop is in administering all temporal things.D&C 20:46-52 The priest’s duty is to preach, teach, expound, exhort, and baptize, and administer the sacrament, and visit the house of each member, and exhort them to pray vocally and in secret and attend to all family duties. And he may also ordain other priests, teachers, and deacons. And he is to take the lead of meetings. But none of these offices he is to do when there is an elder present, but in all cases to assist the elder.
D&C 107:86 And also the duty of the president over the office of the teachers is to preside over twenty-four of the teachers, and to sit in council with them, teaching them the duties of their office, as given in the covenants.D&C 20:53-59 The teacher’s duty is to watch over the church always, and be with and strengthen them; and see that there is no iniquity in the church, neither hardness with each other, neither lying, backbiting, nor evil speaking; and see that the church meet together often, and also see that all the members do their duty. And he is to take the lead of meetings in the absence of the elder or priest—and is to be assisted always, in all his duties in the church, by the deacons, if occasion requires. But neither teachers nor deacons have authority to baptize, administer the sacrament, or lay on hands; they are, however, to warn, expound, exhort, and teach, and invite all to come unto Christ.
D&C 107:85 The duty of a president over the office of a deacon is to preside over twelve deacons, to sit in council with them, and to teach them their duty, edifying one another, as it is given according to the covenants.
The general structure should look familiar to us. Here are a few things to note.
In 1831, there was no scriptural command for a First Presidency. The scriptures indicate the church is to be led by the Presiding High Priest who is the President of the office of the High Priesthood. In 1832, Joseph would call Jesse Gause and Sidney Rigdon to be his counselors. Section 81 discusses this and calls this the Presidency of the High Priesthood. Although Joseph originally called Jesse Gause, less than a year later Frederick Williams replaced Jesse. When this revelation was published in 1835, Jesse’s name was replaced with Frederick’s. So a Presidency of the High Priesthood consisting of three high priests existed during the fullness, but didn’t come into being until 1832, after the November 11, 1831 revelation. Not a problem, but something to keep in mind.
Priesthood was synonymous with the office of Priest. High Priesthood was synonymous with the office of High Priest. So when people talked about the High Priesthood during the fullness, they were not talking about Elders and High Priests, they were only talking about High Priests. When they talked about the Priesthood, they were talking about Priests. That’s not how we use those words today, but it’s critical that we honor what the words meant back when they were used, and not impose our modern definitions that would be unknown to Joseph and his contemporaries when they were writing these things.
It’s important to remember the office of bishop had almost nothing in common with the role that goes by that name today. The bishop during the fullness quit his day job, was paid by the Church, and worked fulltime to provide for the temporal needs of the members…i.e. food, clothing, and shelter administered under the law of consecration. Despite being a high priest, he did not run the local congregations, didn’t choose the speakers or the topics, nor did he ask teenagers about their sexual experiences in worthiness interviews.
Lastly you’ll notice that the priests during this period have autonomy when there are no elders present, but when there are elders present they are to do none of their duties autonomously, but only to assist the elders. So if there was an elder in the building, the elder blessed the sacrament.
Notice what doesn’t exist in the organization during the fullness. There is no Quorum of the Twelve, no Seventy, no Patriarch, no stake presidents or even stakes. These were all introduced as the church was being downgraded. In the next post, we’ll look at what that organization looked like.
Now that we’re razed the unstable foundation of our false priesthood traditions, let’s examine how the priesthood actually functioned during the life of Joseph Smith so we can build on a solid foundation.
Let’s start with the most ignominious of priesthood offices in the LDS church today: Teacher. In today’s church, they can’t bless the sacrament, and usually don’t get asked to pass the sacrament. Their claim to fame is preparing the sacrament and cleaning up afterward. During the actual sacrament they might be allowed to stand by the chapel door. I’m not sure why you need authority from God to put water into paper cups or open a door, but hey, I’m not a prophet, seer, or revelator, so what do I know?
Not that most Mormons care, but this is so utterly inconsistent with the office of Teacher back when Joseph was running the church. In 1838, several of the Twelve Apostles traveled to Far West, deposed the stake presidency, and established themselves as the leadership of the stake. This was is clear violation of the role of Apostles, but that’s another issue. What is important is that after running roughshod over the local church, they quickly had to make peace with the locals. On February 24, a high council meeting was held which came to these decisions:
Resolved, by the High Council, that it be considered that no High Priest, Elder or Priest (except the Presidency, High Council and Bishopric) has any right or authority to preside over or take the charge of any branch, society, or neighborhood within the bounds of this Stake: but that the teachers, assisted by the deacons, be considered the standing ministry to preside each over his respective branch of the Stake agreeable to the covenants.
Resolved that we recommend to all High Priests, Elders, and Priests…that they do not take the lead of nor appoint meetings in any branch or neighborhood of Saints within the bounds of this stake without the invitation or consent of the presiding officer of that branch. We also, consider that the teacher, who is the presiding officer, has a right to object to any official character, who may come among them, to officiate…
Resolved that the High Council recommend to each neighborhood or settlement of Saints, within the bounds of this stake, to choose for themselves a teacher…to take the watchcare over them and preside agreeable to the covenants, who shall be assisted by the other teachers and deacons in the branch.
Resolved that each branch of this stake send one or more teachers once in three months to the quarterly conference of this stake, with a written account of the true situation of his branch, agreeably to the Covenants.
I was gobsmacked when I read this the first time. The teachers are the presiding officers, selected by the local congregation, and they have the right to tell the High Priests, Elders, and Priests to stuff it! That’s totally different than anything we’ve been taught in the last 150 years. Realizing that this was connected to the corrupt Twelve exerting authority where they had none, I thought maybe this was an anomaly. Then I found other statements supporting this.
In a meeting on July 6, 1838, Sidney Rigdon reinforced these roles, saying, “the foundation of the happiness of the church rests upon the heads of the Teachers and Deacons, whose duty it is to go from house to house and see that each family in the church is kept in order, and that the children are taught the principles of righteousness…He compared the Elder to quarriers of stone, who merely quarried the stones and brought them to the building, where the Priests, Teachers, and Deacons, are polishers, whose duty it is to prepare them for the building.”
John Corrill later wrote, “The high priests, elders, and priests were to travel and preach, but the teachers and deacons were to be standing ministers to the church. Hence, in the last organizing of the church, each branch of the church chose a teacher to preside over them, whose duty it was to take the particular charge of that branch, and report from time to time to the general conference of elders.”
Three years before Far West, the June 1835 edition of the Messenger and Advocate included this: “The Teachers and Deacons are the standing ministers of the Church, and in the absence of other officers, great things and holy walk are required of them. They must strengthen the members’ faith; persuade such as are out of the way to repent, and turn to God and live; meekly persuade and urge every one to forgive one another all their trespasses, offenses and sins, that they may work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.”
Once I saw the pattern here, I wondered if I could see that in the scriptures.
The teacher’s duty is to watch over the church always, and be with and strengthen them; and see that there is no iniquity in the church, neither hardness with each other, neither lying, backbiting, nor evil speaking; and see that the church meet together often, and also see that all the members do their duty. And he is to take the lead of meetings in the absence of the elder or priest—and is to be assisted always, in all his duties in the church, by the deacons, if occasion requires.
It shall be the duty of the several churches, composing the church of Christ, to send one or more of their teachers to attend the several conferences held by the elders of the church, with a list of the names of the several members uniting themselves with the church since the last conference.
Teachers lead the meetings, watch over the local congregation, and attend a conference held by the elders to report on the local congregation. This is consistent other scriptures:
The high priests should travel, and also the elders, and also the lesser priests; but the deacons and teachers should be appointed to watch over the church, to be standing ministers unto the church.
If you’ve always been taught that Teachers are 14-year-old boys, this doesn’t make sense. When you learn the truth, that Teachers were adult men until Brigham changed it up in the 1860s, this all makes sense. During Joseph’s ministry, even during the dark days of Nauvoo, the Teachers and Deacons ran the local congregations and they were adults. This is consistent with the Biblical qualifications for a Deacon:
Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.
There is no way anyone can claim the current Deacons quorums are a restoration of the Biblical quorums. They were when Joseph was running the show, but once Brigham started his “improvement era” we quickly disconnected from reality. And thanks to Russell, we now have 11-year-old boys serving as Deacons. Instead of Deacons ruling their children well, the Deacons are the children. (sigh)
In the previous post we introduced the scripture-based model for the Holy Priesthood and the offices and appendages to that priesthood. Here’s the graphic as a reminder.
Let’s walk through LDS history and see how this developed.
As mentioned in the first post, the term “Aaronic Priesthood” was not introduced until 1835, and was then applied retroactively. For example, in 1838 Joseph Smith wrote about the visit of John the Baptist. He wrote:
Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah I confer the Priesthood of Aaron…”
Notice he calls it the Priesthood of Aaron, because in 1838 that’s what people understood it to be. It’s like reading a history referring to New York City being founded in 1660. In 1660, it was called New Amsterdam. In 1666, the Dutch handed the city over to the British and it was renamed New York. So what was the Priesthood of Aaron called before 1835?
In 1834, Oliver wrote an account of the encounter with John the Baptist, wherein John says:
Upon you my fellow-servants, in the name of Messiah, I confer this priesthood and this authority…
It is interesting to note that no account says that Joseph and Oliver were ordained to a specific office within the Aaronic Priesthood. Using our model, the office of Priest and the lesser priesthood are synonymous, and the offices of Teacher and Deacon are appendages. So whether Joseph and Oliver were ordained to the office of Priest or given the lesser priesthood, the net effect was the same. They had the authority to baptize. Here’s a scriptural proof:
The power and authority of the lesser, or Aaronic Priesthood, is to hold the keys of the ministering of angels, and to administer in outward ordinances, the letter of the gospel, the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, agreeable to the covenants and commandments.
The whole reason John the Baptist appeared was because Joseph and Oliver wanted to be baptized and knew that required an ordination. Baptism is only administered by Priests in the Aaronic Priesthood, so the power and authority of the Aaronic Priesthood is the office of Priest. They are synonyms. The other offices in the Aaronic Priesthood are appendages:
D&C 84:30 The offices of teacher and deacon are necessary appendages belonging to the lesser priesthood, which priesthood was confirmed upon Aaron and his sons.
It’s important to note that at no time during Joseph’s ministry were Deacons and Teachers given authority to administer any ordinances. Priests were the only office in the Aaronic Priesthood with authority to administer ordinances.
The office of Deacon is also noteworthy. It is not mentioned in the Book of Mormon, though it is in the New Testament (Timothy 3:12 Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.) This office was created in 1831.
So the office of Priest is the Aaronic Priesthood, and within that exists the authority to ordain people to the appendages of Teacher and Deacon.
The office of Elder
Keeping in mind that the term Melchizedek Priesthood wasn’t introduced until 1835, look at how Joseph describes the next step in the revelation of the priesthood:
The messenger who visited us on this occasion and conferred this Priesthood upon us, said that his name was John, the same that is called John the Baptist in the New Testament, and that he acted under the direction of Peter, James and John, who held the keys of the Priesthood of Melchizedek, which Priesthood, he said, would in due time be conferred on us, and that I should be called the first Elder of the Church, and he (Oliver Cowdery) the second.
Joseph wrote this 1838, well after the fullness of the priesthood had been lost. Notice that what Joseph and Oliver “would in due time” receive was the office of Elder, which is an appendage to the High Priesthood, not the High Priesthood itself.
On March 23, 1846, Oliver Cowdery wrote a letter in which he stated:
Had you stood in the presence of John, with our departed brother Joseph, to receive the Lesser Priesthood—and in the presence of Peter, to receive the Greater…
Notice what Oliver doesn’t write. He doesn’t say they received the Melchizedek Priesthood, he says the Greater [priesthood]. Is the office of Elder greater than that of Priest? Yes. But is it the Melchizedek Priesthood as defined by D&C 107 and 84? No, the office of Elder is an appendage to the Melchizedek Priesthood. Here’s another proof:
Wherefore, from deacon to teacher, and from teacher to priest, and from priest to elder, severally as they are appointed, according to the covenants and commandments of the church. Then comes the High Priesthood, which is the greatest of all.
Elder is greater priesthood than Priest, but the High Priesthood (or High Priest) is the greatest of all. I think these nuances in language are important – there is a difference between greater and greatest. Unfortunately for Brigham Young, this part of Section 107 was recorded after Brigham had already been called to be an Apostle. Claiming the apostleship is higher than the High Priesthood is contradicting scripture. But I digress.
It would seem from the scant historical record that Peter ordained Joseph and Oliver to the office Elder, which is an appendage to the Melchizedek Priesthood…enough authority to get the church up and running. The historical record makes it clear that the fullness of the Melchizedek Priesthood was not restored until June 1831.
Here’s some more data points:
Which commandments were given to Joseph Smith, Jun., who was called of God, and ordained an apostle of Jesus Christ, to be the firstelder of this church; 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.
In April 1830, Joseph and Oliver were ordained Elders and Apostles…yet by Joseph’s own account the Melchizedek Priesthood wasn’t restored until June 1831. How could this be?
D&C 20:38 An apostle is an elder.
An apostle is not higher than a high priest. An apostle does not hold the Melchizedek Priesthood. Remember, the office of Elder is an appendage just like the Aaronic Priesthood is an appendage. Peter holds the keys of the apostleship and the appendage office of Elder. It appears that Peter ordained Joseph and Oliver to that appendage office of Elder/Apostle, but he did not restore the Melchizedek Priesthood.
There is no record designating the time frame when Peter ordained Joseph and Oliver to the appendage office of Elder. It apparently happened after May 15, 1829 and before April 6, 1830.
In June 1829, Oliver Cowdery recorded a revelation he received, which became the Articles of the Church of Christ. In this revelation, the Lord tells Oliver, “I speak unto you even as unto Paul my apostle for ye are called even with that same calling with which he was called.” Oliver concludes his account of the revelation by stating, “Behold I am Oliver. I am an Apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” I take that as proof that Peter had conferred the office of Elder on Joseph and Oliver by June 1829.
The office of High Priest, or the Melchizedek Priesthood
As with much of the official LDS history, the explanations for the June 1831 revelation of priesthood are both true and false. SLC will admit that the office of High Priest was introduced here, but claims that despite what was written, the Melchizedek Priesthood had actually already been restored earlier by Peter, James, and John 1829. That is incorrect. As already shown, Peter restored the appendage office of Elder (aka Apostle).
Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 1838
On the 3rd of June, the Elders from the various parts of the country where they were laboring, came in; and the conference before appointed, convened in Kirtland…and the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood was manifested and conferred for the first time upon several of the Elders.
Let that sink in. The Elders are receiving the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood for the first time. That means these Elders didn’t previously hold the Melchizedek Priesthood. When you understand that the office of Elder is an appendage, this makes sense.
John Whitmer, History
The Lord made manifest to Joseph that it was necessary that such of the elders as were considered worthy, should be ordained to the high priesthood. The spirit of the Lord fell upon Joseph in an unusual manner…After he had prophesied, he laid his hands upon Lyman Wight to the High Priesthood after the holy order of God.
Lyman Wight, Journal Here for the first time I saw the Melchizedek priesthood introduced into the church of Jesus Christ as anciently.
John Corrill, A Brief History of the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints, 1839 The Melchizedek priesthood was then for the first time introduced, and conferred on several of the elders.
Parley Pratt, Autobiography, 1874
Several were then selected by revelation, through President Smith, and ordained to the High Priesthood after the order of the Son of God; which is after the order of Melchizedek. This was the first occasion in which this priesthood had been revealed and conferred upon the Elders in this dispensation, although the office of an Elder is the same in a certain degree, but not in the fulness.
Before his day it was called the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God. But out of respect or reverence to the name of the Supreme Being, to avoid the too frequent repetition of his name, they, the church, in ancient days, called that priesthood after Melchizedek, or the Melchizedek Priesthood. All other authorities or offices in the church are appendages to this priesthood.
When you discard the false model of Melchizedek Priesthood taught by the SLC church, this statements all become consistent. The Elders, who possessed only an appendage of the Holy Priesthood, now received the Melchizedek Priesthood, the fullness of the priesthood, for the first time.
The seeds of confusion
Unfortunately, Joseph’s introduction of the term Melchizedek Priesthood occurred during the downgrading of the church, after the fullness of the priesthood had been removed. The appendage office of Elder still existed, and because that was the only vestige of the Melchizedek Priesthood remaining in the church, the term Melchizedek Priesthood began to be used to describe the office of Elder.
On August 28, 1843, Joseph gave a sermon that discussed three priesthoods. According to James Burgess, Joseph said, “Abraham’s priesthood was of greater power than Levi’s, and Melchizedek’s was of greater power than that of Abraham.” According to Franklin Richards, Joseph taught this about the three priesthoods:
1st Levitical which was never able to administer a blessing but only to bind heavy burdens which neither they nor their father able to bear
2nd Abraham’s patriarchal power which is the greatest yet experienced in this church
3rd That of Melchizedek who had still greater power, even power of an endless life
When you realize that the church in 1843 was not the same church in 1831, this statement makes sense. The Church of Christ ceased to exist in 1834. It was replaced by the Church of Latter Day Saints, which morphed into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1838. By 1843, the appendage office of Elder (aka the Abraham’s patriarchal priesthood) was the greatest priesthood experienced in the downgraded church. We have confirmation of this in D&C 124 where the Lord confirms the fullness of the priesthood had already been taken away.
Priesthood Cheat Sheet
Holy Priesthood after the order of the Son of God Melchizedek Priesthood
Understanding the true nature of priesthood is challenging: there are so many contradictions in the scriptures, discourses and writings of early church leaders, and today’s traditions. Even the simple question of how many priesthoods exist isn’t obvious: SLC says two (Aaronic and Melchizedek), Joseph talked about three (adding Patriarchal), others say four (adding Apostolic). And don’t forget the Levitical Priesthood! Why is this so difficult?
There are several reasons. Joseph didn’t begin using the terms Aaronic Priesthood and Melchizedek Priesthood until 1835. Before then, authority came from the office you were ordained to, not from a priesthood. What really made this difficult was that Joseph retroactively applied those terms when revising revelations for the 1835 D&C, as well as in his historical accounts and discourses. Making matters worse, this began after the fullness of the priesthood had been lost, yet they continued using terminology that had been associated with the fullness. Then the SLC church airbrushed the history to resolve challenges to Apostolic rule over the church, and created a new priesthood office of Apostle that was supposedly higher than a high priest. Add in over a hundred years of false tradition and it’s no wonder we’re all confused.
This has been gnawing at me for a couple years. I knew the SLC version wasn’t correct, but still couldn’t figure out the inconsistencies. Several accounts claim the Melchizedek Priesthood wasn’t restored until June 1831, yet prior to that men were being ordained Elders and members were receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost.
I spent quite some time trying to unlearn everything I know about the priesthood, and walking though the historical records to piece together the progression of the priesthood, and trying to understand the shifting language used to describe it. I’m sure I’ve still got some things to learn, but I’ve made some major breakthroughs that explain the contradictions and harmonize many of the accounts. This does require purging all the traditions you’ve been taught about priesthood and starting from scratch. If you’re willing to commit to that, I’ll walk you through it.
There is only one priesthood (technically)
Why the first is called the Melchizedek Priesthood is because Melchizedek was such a great high priest. Before his day it was called the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God. But out of respect or reverence to the name of the Supreme Being, to avoid the too frequent repetition of his name, they, the church, in ancient days, called that priesthood after Melchizedek, or the Melchizedek Priesthood. All other authorities or offices in the church are appendages to this priesthood.
That last sentence is critical. There is only one true priesthood authority – anything else is an appendage to it. To be specific, the office of high priest is that one true priesthood authority. We think of offices as things that are within the priesthood, but the office of high priest is the priesthood talked about here. It’s comprehensive:
The Presidency of the High Priesthood, after the order of Melchizedek, have a right to officiate in all the offices in the church. High priests after the order of the Melchizedek Priesthood have a right to officiate in their own standing, under the direction of the presidency, in administering spiritual things, and also in the office of an elder, priest (of the Levitical order), teacher, deacon, and member.
You can have a fully functioning church with only High Priests. There is no other priesthood office that can claim that, not even Elders. Why even have other priesthood offices if all that is required are High Priests?
APPENDAGE: Something added to a principal or greater thing, though not necessary to it, as a portico to a house.
This is from the Webster’s 1828 Dictionary. I like the example of a portico. Most would recognize a portico as a part of a house, without truly being part of the house. The house can function without it, and indeed the portico may have been built years after the house was built, but if your portico was damaged, you’d likely consider your house to be damaged. But you could also decide to remove the portico and the house remains intact.
This concept is critical to understanding the other priesthood offices.
D&C 107:5 All other authorities or offices in the church are appendages to this priesthood.
Let’s start with the easy one.
The second priesthood is called the Priesthood of Aaron, because it was conferred upon Aaron and his seed, throughout all their generations. Why it is called the lesser priesthood is because it is an appendage to the greater, or the Melchizedek Priesthood, and has power in administering outward ordinances.
The Aaronic Priesthood is not a separate priesthood, it is a subsetof the one true priesthood. The High Priests already have the power to administer in outward ordinances such as baptism and the sacrament. Someone who has the Aaronic Priesthood conferred upon them cannot, however, administer in the spiritual aspects of the priesthood. Their authority is limited to the specific subset of authority they have been given. It’s an appendage to the one priesthood.
When this was conferred upon Aaron, there were two subsets. The priests, or the sons of Aaron, had the authority to run all the ordinances in the temple, and one priest each year would be chosen as the high priest (still an Aaronic priest) to administer in the outward ordinances of the day of atonement. The Levites, those who were not of the priestly line, had a smaller subset of authority to help run the temple and assist with the sacrifices and such. But a regular Levite would never be eligible to become a priest.
We are familiar with the offices of Deacon, Teacher, and Priest in the Aaronic Priesthood. The good news is that those names are correct, but the function they played in the true church was dramatically different than what we see today. We’ll cover that in a future post. But here’s another important distinction:
D&C 84:26-27, 30
The offices of teacher and deacon are necessary appendages belonging to the lesser priesthood, which priesthood was confirmed upon Aaron and his sons.
Teachers and Deacons are appendages of Priests. The greater priesthood consists of High Priests, the lesser priesthood consists of Priests. All other offices are appendages. That means that Bishops and Elders are appendages to the office of High Priest, and Teachers and Deacons are appendages to the office of Priest.
D&C 84:29 The officesof elder and bishop are necessary appendages belonging unto the high priesthood.
The office of bishop is a necessary appendage to the high priesthood. It is a specific subset of the High Priest’s responsibilities.
Wherefore, the office of a bishop is not equal unto it; for the office of a bishop is in administering all temporal things; nevertheless a bishop must be chosen from the High Priesthood, unless he is a literal descendant of Aaron; for unless he is a literal descendant of Aaron he cannot hold the keys of that priesthood. Nevertheless, a high priest, that is, after the order of Melchizedek, may be set apart unto the ministering of temporal things, having a knowledge of them by the Spirit of truth.
Here’s where this gets really wonky. The office of Bishop is a hybrid. Ideally it is filled by a descendant of Aaron, but if one can’t be found it is an appendage to the office of High Priest and is filled by a High Priest. In referring to the lesser priesthood (aka Aaronic) we learn:
D&C 107:15 The bishopric is the presidency of this priesthood, and holds the keys or authority of the same.
So the Bishop straddles the greater priesthood and the lesser priesthood. The duties of the bishop today are dramatically different (and mostly unscriptural) compared to during the life of Joseph, but we’ll cover that in a future post.
This is the one that is going to take some serious re-education.
D&C 84:29 The offices of elder and bishop are necessary appendages belonging unto the high priesthood.
Just as the offices of Deacon and Teacher are appendages the the office of Priest, and the entire Aaronic Priesthood is an appendage of the High Priesthood, the office of Elder is also an appendage. Let that sink in.
The office of Elder is not integral to the High Priesthood. It’s a portico — not necessary, but beneficial. It’s another subset of responsibilities – basically allowing the High Priests to outsource part of their duties. Or better yet, allowing God to delegate specific roles to men who either don’t qualify for the High Priesthood, or just don’t have access to the High Priesthood at that time.
Elders do not hold the Melchizedek Priesthood. They have received a subset of the Melchizedek Priesthood, just as Aaronic offices have received a subset. Only a High Priest holds the Melchizedek Priesthood.
D&C 107:7 The office of an elder comes under the priesthood of Melchizedek.
UNDER: In a state of pupilage or subjection; as a youth under a tutor; a ward under a guardian; colonies under the British government.
I like the last example. The Elders are like colonies. Semi-autonomous, but definitely not part of the main government or country. Their powers are limited, especially when a high priest is present.
D&C 107:11-12 An elder has a right to officiate in his stead when the high priest is not present. The high priest and elder are to administer in spiritual things, agreeable to the covenants and commandments of the church; and they have a right to officiate in all these offices of the church when there are no higher authorities present.
Putting the pieces together
Here’s what that organization would look like.
In this scripturally-based model, there really is only one priesthood, but there are subsets of that priesthood. In this model, your authority ties directly to the office to which you are ordained. You aren’t given all of the priesthood and then restricted in what you can do (as we do today by giving 11 year old boys the Aaronic priesthood but then telling them they cannot perform baptisms). Either you are a High Priest that holds all the priesthood, or you are ordained to an office that holds only a specific subset of that authority. When you read the early history of the church, men were ordained to offices, not priesthood.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that God wanted to restore his church to the world after a long absence. Just as you don’t go from sitting on the couch to running a marathon in the Olympics without some training in the middle, you can’t go from apostasy to the fullness of the gospel without some intermediate work. God could give a subset of authority (Priests and Teachers) to allow people to begin repenting and administering outward ordinances like baptism. Then he could give another subset of authority (Elders) to enable men to preach the gospel and give the gift of the Holy Ghost. Once the people were “in shape”, they would then be ready for the fullness, specifically the complete priesthood or the office of High Priest.
Let’s also say, hypothetically, that God decided to remove the fullness of the priesthood and there were no more men with the authority of High Priest. The office of Elder, being a subset and an appendage, could continue to function and run the church, albeit with some limitations. In this case the church would be downgraded from it’s previous status, but still have the opportunity to administer in both outward ordinances and give the gift of the Holy Ghost and preach the gospel to the world.
What would that look like?
That looks like two separate priesthoods: a higher priesthood and a lower priesthood. If the people kept using the term High Priest even though they didn’t have the authority anymore, it would be confusing and incorrect, but from an actual authority standpoint it would still look like two priesthoods, even though they were really two appendages or subsets of the true priesthood that is not available.
The key insight for me was to think in terms of offices rather than priesthood. That’s the language that was used for the first five years of the church when all this was being restored. It wasn’t until after the fullness had been lost that the priesthood terminology was introduced and muddied the waters.
In the next post, we’ll review the history of the restoration of priesthood offices, keeping track of the different wording used at different times, and show how this model reflects what actually happened.