I think that modern observers generally engage in anachronistic readings of “priesthood” as it was discussed by Joseph Smith and others, particularly as it related to the temple and the Relief Society. I have come to use the term “cosmological priesthood” in relation to such matters. The following is taken from my recent article on adoptive sealing rituals (pp. 56-61), where I briefly attempt to approach the meaning of priesthood in these contexts. There is bonus material in the footnotes and those interested can read the linked article to access it.
Joseph Smith revealed to a band of dedicated followers a series of rituals intended for the temple, but which exigency required that he administer before the temple itself was complete. This group, later called the Quorum of the Anointed, served as the guardians and transmitters of Smith’s temple rituals and doctrinal innovations.
As was his proclivity when revealing or expanding doctrine and practice, Smith imbued words in common parlance with new and sometimes radical meaning. Smith expanded “priesthood” to comprise the eternal structure of heaven as mediated in the temple on earth. Members of Smith’s temple quorum contemporarily referred to the group as “the order of the priesthood,” “the quorum of the priesthood,” and simply “the priesthood.” Through the temple rituals, participants wore priesthood vestments and looked forward to the ultimate promise of the “fulness of the priesthood,” where men and women reigned through eternity as kings and queens, priests and priestesses. [n7]
In a revelation to Newel K. Whitney in 1842, the Lord declared that, by entering into the new relationships formed through Joseph Smith’s sealings, Whitney would attain “immortality and eternal life” for himself and for all his “house both old and young because of the lineage of my Preasthood saith the Lord. it shall be upon you and upon your Children after you from generation to generation.” [n8] By having a member of his family sealed to Smith’s family—joining the cosmological priesthood—Whitney became part of the structure of heaven.
This new and cosmological priesthood was not always discussed in terms that were discrete from older conceptions of priesthood. Highlighting the expansion of the lineal priesthood as manifested in the hierarchy of the Church and general Latter-day Saint Israelism, Patriarch John Smith, brother of Joseph Smith Sr. and a temple quorum member, often referred to both old and new conceptions of priesthood simultaneously in his blessings. For example, he blessed his son’s mother-in-law in 1844, declaring that she was “a Daughter of Abraham through the loines of manssee [Manasseh] and a lawful heir to the Priesthood in common with thy Companion and thou shall have power through that Priesthood to redeem thy dead friends.”[n9] As this blessing shows, it is clear that the purpose of this new priesthood was the salvation of the human family. Like Whitney, Susannah Bigler was both promised heirship to the priesthood of heaven and the capacity to extend it to others.
This cosmological priesthood was lineal, passing from parents to children, both male and female. Wilford Woodruff and his wife Phoebe had participated in the temple rituals before they left for England in 1844. Phoebe gave birth to a son the following year. As was common in nineteenth-century Mormonism, eight days after he was born, she held the child in her arms while Wilford anointed him and declared, “Thou hast a legal right to the Melchezedec Priesthood by linage. Thou art the first fruits of the Priesthood unto thy parents since there endowment.” Like John Smith, Woodruff incorporated older conceptions of priesthood with the newer cosmological priesthood. Still it is clear that he viewed this priesthood as part of an eternal network, promising his son that he would eventually “take thy station in the celestial kingdom in the linage of thy Fathers in the family organization of the celestial world.” [n10]
It is unclear what Joseph Smith ultimately envisioned when he referred to the station of priest and king in his cosmology as the “fulness of the Melchezedek Priesthood.” [n11] He died before the completion of the Nauvoo Temple, and consequently it was left to the Quorum of the Twelve to transmit these concepts to the broader church. These Church leaders generally treated the older administrative priesthoods of the church as distinct from the newer cosmological priesthood of the temple, particularly with regard to the inclusion of women. [n12]
As Smith’s system began to formalize, becoming a legal heir to the priesthood required individuals to either be born to parents sealed in marriage or be themselves sealed to parents. However, the one temple ritual that Joseph Smith never administered during his lifetime was the sealing of children to parents, biological or other.[n13] Smith taught that the power to “bind or seal” children to parents was the power of Elijah. [n14] This understanding was manifest in the temple where both biological children and non-biological relations became heirs through sealing ritual. Both those not sealed in marriage and those not sealed to parents were to be “single & alone” in the eternities. [n15] It is within this network that Mormonism’s unique perseverance was realized. Not only did these relationships provide heirship to the new cosmological priesthood, but they also were the means of salvation, as the definition of salvation transformed to encompass the heavenly kinship network or, as one temple quorum member and subsequent Nauvoo temple worker described it, “the ‘bundle of eternal life.’” [n16] Kinship, priesthood, and salvation became synonymous. On August 13, 1843, Smith preached a funeral sermon: “When a seal is put upon the father and mother it secures their posterity so that they cannot be lost but will be saved by virtue of the covenant of their father.” [n17] While Smith taught that perseverance was a blessing of various discrete temple rituals, he did not intend to create discrete liturgies. Instead, Smith revealed a single unified liturgy. Mormon sealing, whether for marriage, for children, or for the fullness of the priesthood, sealed in the traditional sense (i.e., guaranteed salvation) inasmuch as it formalized eternal bonds in the interconnected network of the cosmological priesthood. [n18]