Your October Conference Prep: Textual Origins of LDS Priesthood Organization, Part VI. Oath and Covenant of What?

So far I have noted that D&C 107 is a compilation of revelations. There are two major parts in the compilation, one from November 1831 and another from April 1835. In D&C 107 these are arranged in reverse chronological order. So, we’ve spent some time looking at the last part of D&C 107 (which came first!). Later we will look at the 1835 segment which has a rather different character than the 1831 segment. As these two revelations were combined in the 1835 D&C, still other revelations and regulations were interleaved in these texts to form what we now know as D&C 107. But for now we consider what happened in between these two major components. You probably need to read the previous parts to understand (and believe) what I’m going to say here.

Between the ca 1831 texts of the November 11 revelation and the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants text (section 3 of that first edition, 107 of the present edition) there were several developments. One was the important revelation of September 22, 23, 1832. (LDS D&C 84) In this text we see the beginnings of a taxonomy of priesthood, more nuanced than previous classifications but not yet mature.

The September 1832 revelations review the two “priesthoods” in the church at this point. REMEMBER:

1) the lesser priesthood (or just “priesthood” in 1831) = the office of priest,[1]
2) the high priesthood (or occasionally, just “priesthood” in the following text) = the office of high priest.

While it is very common in modern sermons and discussions of this section (84) to assume that lesser priesthood references the concept of the Aaronic order and high priesthood is the Melchizedek order,[2] this is incorrect. In 1832 the more refined and paradigm shifting notions of Melchizedek Priesthood and Aaronic Priesthood had not surfaced yet. As one can see, this both rationalizes but also changes the currently assigned meaning of passages like this one:

31 Therefore, as I said concerning the sons of Moses—for the sons of Moses and also the sons of Aaron shall offer an acceptable offering and sacrifice in the house of the Lord, which house shall be built unto the Lord in this generation, upon the consecrated spot as I have appointed—
32 And the sons of Moses and of Aaron shall be filled with the glory of the Lord, upon Mount Zion in the Lord’s house, whose sons are ye; and also many whom I have called and sent forth to build up my church.
33 For whoso is faithful unto the obtaining these two priesthoods of which I have spoken, and the magnifying their calling, are sanctified by the Spirit unto the renewing of their bodies.
34 They become the sons of Moses and of Aaron and the seed of Abraham, and the church and kingdom, and the elect of God.
35 And also all they who receive this priesthood receive me, saith the Lord;
36 For he that receiveth my servants receiveth me;
37 And he that receiveth me receiveth my Father;
38 And he that receiveth my Father receiveth my Father’s kingdom; therefore all that my Father hath shall be given unto him.
39 And this is according to the oath and covenant which belongeth to the priesthood.[3]
40 Therefore, all those who receive the priesthood, receive this oath and covenant of my Father, which he cannot break, neither can it be moved.
41 But whoso breaketh this covenant after he hath received it, and altogether turneth therefrom, shall not have forgiveness of sins in this world nor in the world to come.
42 And wo unto all those who come not unto this priesthood which ye have received, which I now confirm upon you who are present this day, by mine own voice out of the heavens; and even I have given the heavenly hosts and mine angels charge concerning you. [Emphasis added.]


Sons of Aaron is a term for priests, sons of Moses a similar title for those ordained high priests.[4] Thus the oath and covenant, as this passage is commonly called, really applies to those of the high priesthood. However, consider the more detailed authority architecture introduced by the revelation:

29 And again, the offices of elder and bishop are necessary appendages belonging unto the high priesthood.
30 And again, the offices of teacher and deacon are necessary appendages belonging to the lesser priesthood, which priesthood was confirmed upon Aaron and his sons.

We find here that two subgroups of priesthood offices are now defined.[5] One headed by the office of high priest, the other by the office of priest. The remaining offices are defined as “appendages” to these two. That is, something added to the principal idea or object, but not necessary. We see here the beginnings of the more mature taxonomy which would be laid out in April 1835. But that reclassification would be considerably more radical in a number of ways.

Making the office of elder an appendage to the high priesthood brings the elders, riding the coattails of the high priests, into the covenant cycle mentioned above. An April 1835 revelation alters this relationship further.

Just as the November 11 revelation exists in the Newel K. Whitney collection at the L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library (BYU), so D&C 84 appears there, as well as in the KRB. There is only one intriguing alternate reading in those texts and it does not apply to the passages above. Two other manuscript versions of the revelation exist but like the Whitney version, do not bear on the discussion.

In the next installment, more regarding the president of the high priesthood.

[1] The usage coincides with commonly understood meanings, i.e., the office of a priest. (For example, Webster’s 1828 edition, or the Oxford English Dictionary.) Historian David Grua observes the early equivalence of “priesthood” and “priest” in church minutes. Also see the previous posts in this series which show “priesthood” was not an umbrella term for particular offices.

[2] That is, Aaronic Priesthood and Melchizedek Priesthood as presently defined in Mormonism. A fascinating example of the confusion created by the adjustment of terminology appears in Joseph F. Smith’s Gospel Doctrine chapter 9. I’ll examine this after the next part of the post. Later parts also return to this interesting and fun transition.

[3] Joseph Smith himself suggests a reinterpretation of D&C 84 in a speech on August 27, 1843.

[4] This trope is connected to the expanding adoption theology of Mormonism. Cp. Samuel Brown’s Journal of Mormon History article, Summer 2011. Also J. Stapley’s article in the same issue.

[5] The astute reader will see that in my metadiscussion of Mormon priesthood I often use the current (post 1835) terminology in referring to LDS priesthood. This seems the easiest way to communicate to a largely Mormon audience, provided you keep in mind the distinctions being sought here.


  1. I think that a contextual reading of D&C 84 is all sorts of wild. Very difficult to do without the careful ground work you are doing.

  2. Considering the text internally, its possible to observe referential temptation. It’s very hard to talk about the subject without using second order language and that is plain confusing with the way Mormons often parse scripture.

  3. Matt Godfrey says:

    This is great stuff. You make some excellent points about the usage of high priesthood and lesser priesthood in 1832. It seems to me, however, that it is not so cut and dry that, in 1832, high priesthood referred only to the office of high priest and lesser priesthood referred only to the office of priest. By early 1832, the term “high priest” was used more and more as the term to refer to the office (see minutes of various meetings; also Revelation, 1 Nov. 1831 [D&C 68]). Also, Jared Carter referred to his brother Simeon being ordained in 1831 as “an elder in the high priethood.” The use of high priesthood in this sense seems to refer more to an authority than to an office. (Granted, Carter may not have been writing this until 1832 or 1833, but it still fits the general time period.) in Joseph’s 1832 history, he refers to two distinct authorities or powers that he has received: “the reception of the holy Priesthood by the ministring of–Aangels to administer the letter of the Gospel” and the “high Priesthood after the holy order of the son of the living God.” Melchizedek was already beginning to be associated with the high priesthood, perhaps even as early as the fall of 1831, when Ezra Booth said that church members were claiming that they had “been ordained to the High Priesthood, or the order of Milchesidec” (“Mormonism–No. II,” Ohio Star, 20 Oct. 1831.) Some of this I outline in more detail in an article on D&C 84 in the proceedings of the 41st Sperry Symposium (just published–sorry for the self-promoting!). I think you’re spot on, though, that in 1832, the understanding of priesthood was not yet to the point that it would be in 1835. For the most part, it’s pretty murky what “priesthood,” “high priesthood,” “lower priesthood,” “high priest,” etc. actually meant to church members in 1831 and 1832–at times, I think it meant an office; at other times, I think it meant a distinct authority or power.

    This is such an interesting time period for the development of administration, priesthood offices, etc. Thanks for your great posts on these–I’m finding them tremendously interesting.

  4. Matt, thanks for dropping by. I think terms were flexible and Melchizedek gets associated with things rather early (and of course, the office of high priest and the term high priesthood are Book of Mormon identifications). In the revelation texts though things appear more clear cut for a while at least. Next post looks at this a little more as do later installments.

  5. Great stuff, WVS. And thanks for the nod in the note.

  6. Thanks, David. I’d intended to quote more from your JI post, but this thing has grown to gargantuan proportions as it is. We’re only about 1/3 of the way through.

  7. Matt, I meant to also remark (I was responding with a phone in my comment above) that the Carter statement is also evidence of two things: the difficulty in referencing the Mormon authority structure as a whole, and section 84′s taxonomy of “priesthoods.” Again, more on this later and thank you again for your comment and reference to your Sperry paper. I’d like to get a copy.


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