[Notes, commentary, and questions for LDS Sunday School teachers using the ‘Doctrine & Covenants and Church History’ manual. Feel free to share your thoughts or ideas regarding the lesson in the comments.]
“Priesthood” in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a primary boundary marker, perhaps the central boundary marker if one includes its origin stories, between Mormonism and antebellum American Protestantism. If there is one primary heresy qua Protestantism in Mormonism, it is the dispensing of grace via authoritatively performed sacraments. Most Latter-day Saints see this as the “Power of Godliness” and via Joseph Smith have an extensive protological sacramental soteriology. Their Protestant brothers and sisters were—and perhaps are yet in some cases—filled with the fear of prelate tyranny by such claims (shucks, being a BYU professor, I know some Mormons who feel the same–academic freedom anyone?!?). These claims also entailed communal living enterprises, breach of the sacrosanct canonical wall, a little bit (that a hundred years later had turned into a lot) of Methodist salvific pessimism and eventually the mysterious secret rites of temple Mormonism. Burrrrr, they said.
Doctrine and Covenants Section 84
The phrase, “power of Godliness,” arises from section 84 of the Doctrine and Covenants, a two-part revelation given over two days, September 22 and 23 of 1832. The revelation functioned in part as a kind of half-way point in the development of priesthood “theory.” The headnote and introductory summary in the new 2013 version of the Doctrine and Covenants for section 84 reads this way:
Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Kirtland, Ohio, September 22 and 23, 1832. During the month of September, elders had begun to return from their missions in the eastern states and to make reports of their labors. It was while they were together in this season of joy that the following communication was received. The Prophet designated it a revelation on priesthood.
1–5, The New Jerusalem and the temple will be built in Missouri; 6–17, The line of priesthood from Moses to Adam is given; 18–25, The greater priesthood holds the key of the knowledge of God; 26–32, The lesser priesthood holds the key of the ministering of angels and of the preparatory gospel; 33–44, Men gain eternal life through the oath and covenant of the priesthood; 45–53, The Spirit of Christ enlightens men, and the world lies in sin; 54–61, The Saints must testify of those things they have received; 62–76, They are to preach the gospel, and signs will follow; 77–91, Elders are to go forth without purse or scrip, and the Lord will care for their needs; 92–97, Plagues and cursings await those who reject the gospel; 98–102, The new song of the redemption of Zion is given; 103–110, Let every man stand in his own office and labor in his own calling; 111–120, The Lord’s servants are to proclaim the abomination of desolation of the last days.
The revelation has its interesting apocalyptic elements, such as verses 92-97. And Francis Asbury would have been proud of 77-91. In some ways the revelation announced every financial and political challenge the little church would face in the next five years. But that’s beside our point I think. Let’s focus on some specific parts of the revelation. One quibble with the summary first: 18–25, The greater priesthood holds the key of the knowledge of God. This is accurate as it stands, but contextually it leads modern Saints to err with the temptation of presentism. A different wording, still consistent with the text of the revelation is 18-25, The high priesthood holds the key of the knowledge of God. (But it probably creates the same difficulties. Read on.)
This flows back to the comment above about half-way point. Mormon ecclesial priesthood (the priesthood you think of when someone is sustained to be “advanced to the office of Teacher,” say) had an evolving architecture. To begin with, there were the Book of Mormon officers in the infant 1830 church: Teacher, Priest, Elder. There was an associated pecking order to determine how things operated in church gatherings: Teacher < Priest < Elder. This was the primitive leadership structure and it worked fine most of the time. Deacons may have showed up later, though there is evidence that the office may have been announced with the others. Be that as it may, women were not eligible, only men (not “boys”).
In June 1831 the office of high priest was announced. Early on it was known as the high priesthood as well, but the Book of Mormon context was clear and early church records point to the equivalence of the two terms. That introduced a new top end to the pecking order. In some sense, it stayed that way even after apostles and seventies came on the scene (and was an endless source of discussion and occasional bruised feelings). The details are not for us though. You can read about some of it here if you want.
What was wanting was further organization. This came late in 1831 with a revelation on November 11. That revelation gave us the nascent First Presidency (called the President of the High Priesthood) and a preventative for the nervous Protestants (no one was exempt from church discipline, even the highest officer). Another item from the November revelation was priesthood groupings (later called “quorums” from the political term of the day, just as the judicial aspects of the revelation took their lead from American jurisprudence). But still, no categorical differences that we now associate with the names Aaronic Priesthood and Melchizedek Priesthood. The category theory of priesthood experimented with names for a time. D&C 84 solidified the enterprise a bit. It went like this:
Priesthood Category Theory-Part 1
Two categories of priesthood were outlined based on the
High priesthood as you recall meant high priest. In turn, lesser priesthood meant priest. The revelation outlines the new category theory like this:
High Priesthood + appendages to the high priesthood (= elder and bishop).
Lesser Priesthood + appendages to the lesser priesthood (= deacon and teacher).
There were two priesthoods. High and Lesser. Keep in mind again, these are not the same as Melchizedek and Aaronic Priesthood which are merely categories, not offices. Those terms, while forms like them were batted around a bit by this time, didn’t mean what we now take them to mean. You with me?
Now read through the modern section 84, erasing from your mind the notions of Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthood. There are only the six priesthood offices with their various duties that I won’t go into here, four of those six offices have an “appendage” relationship to the other two. Little bits of dissonance will disappear from your mind, and you will thank me.
Oath and Covenant
Since the manual spends some time on the “oath and covenant of the priesthood” (note J. Stapley’s interesting take on this here) I’ll just briefly comment on it. The important segment is this (comments are in [brackets]):
6 And the sons of Moses, according to the Holy Priesthood [insert line of authority descent as proof of continuity]
14 Which Abraham received the [high] priesthood from Melchizedek, who received it through the lineage of his fathers, even till Noah; [see Book of Abraham chapter 1 here for Abraham's high priesthood quest]
17 Which [high] priesthood continueth in the church of God in all generations, and is without beginning of days or end of years. [Note that the revelation echoes Hebrews 7 and that the phrase shows up elsewhere in modern revelation, appearing in the Pearl of Great Price and the Book of Mormon.]
18 And the Lord confirmed a [lesser] priesthood also upon Aaron and his seed, throughout all their generations, which [lesser] priesthood also continueth and abideth forever with the [high] priesthood which is after the holiest order of God.
19 And this greater priesthood [the high priesthood] administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God.
20 Therefore, in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest.
21 And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the [high] priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh;
22 For without this no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live. [Answer fun question here.]
23 Now this Moses plainly taught to the children of Israel in the wilderness, and sought diligently to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God; [Moses wanted to make a bunch of high priests.]
24 But they hardened their hearts and could not endure his presence; therefore, the Lord in his wrath, for his anger was kindled against them, swore that they should not enter into his rest while in the wilderness, which rest is the fulness of his glory.
25 Therefore, he took Moses out of their midst, and the Holy Priesthood [high priesthood] also;
26 And the lesser priesthood [i.e., the office of priest] continued, which [lesser] priesthood holdeth the key of the ministering of angels and the preparatory gospel;
27 Which gospel is the gospel of repentance and of baptism, and the remission of sins, and the law of carnal commandments, which the Lord in his wrath caused to continue with the house of Aaron among the children of Israel until John, whom God raised up, being filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb.
28 For he was baptized while he was yet in his childhood, and was ordained [to the lesser priesthood?] by the angel of God at the time he was eight days old unto this power, to overthrow the kingdom of the Jews, and to make straight the way of the Lord before the face of his people, to prepare them for the coming of the Lord, in whose hand is given all power.
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.
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— [there was a problem with that ---see D&C 124]
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 [that is, being ordained a priest and high priest] of which I have spoken, and the magnifying their calling, are sanctified by the Spirit unto the renewing of their bodies. [Since high priests could officiate in any other office, presumably it was ok to skip the office of priest. Also, since elder and bishop are appendages to the high priesthood, they seem to be brought along for the ride here.]
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. [Observe that Abraham (via this revelation and D&C 107) is the intersect of the high priesthood and the "patriarchal" priesthood. I won't go into that.]
35 And also all they who receive this [high] 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 [high] priesthood.
40 Therefore, all those who receive the [high] 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 [high] 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. [It's probably worth a moment to dwell on "oath" and "covenant" since they may have different meanings in this Old Testament driven text.]
D&C 84 is a wonderful example of how Mormonism tied itself, via revelation from God and Joseph Smith’s fascination with ancient texts, to the Old Testament. Joseph Smith rehabilitated the Old Testament, partly through his Bible revision work, to a full gospel participant, something that probably made reformed Baptists like Alexander Campbell a little mad (in a couple of different ways).
Priesthood Category Theory–Part 2
So let’s not leave it hanging out there: where did Aaronic Priesthood and Melchizedek Priesthood (church publications always capitalize) come from? Not from John the Baptist or Peter, James and John.
No, the terms are formalized by an April[?] 1835 revelation which you now know as verses 1-58 of D&C 107. It would be far too great a task to unwind D&C 107 here. You can go to the link above for a start at elucidating that monumental web of meaning.
To be brief: D&c 107:1-58 poured the concrete for a new category theory of priesthood.
Melchizedek Priesthood is introduced as a category. It is not an office (though later it nearly attains that status- see the last link below for a bit of that).
Aaronic Priesthood is introduced as a category, and “lesser” priesthood gets repurposed as another name for this category.
At the same time, new church officers are introduced or at least fit into the priesthood architecture. It works like this:
Melchizedek Priesthood is simply a category term, a kind of pool of authority from which old and new offices are drawn:
Melchizedek Priesthood now sprouts offices of high priest, elder, apostle, seventy, patriarch.
Aaronic Priesthood does the same for bishop, priest, teacher, deacon. [Note that bishop moved away from high priesthood into a different category. This is a fun story.]
The two categories have similarities to the way the high priesthood and lesser priesthood are treated in D&C 84. (And hence arises part of the historical confusion surrounding later readings of D&C 84.)
A lesson worth remembering: when reading the revelations in your scripture study, it’s worth your time to compare the modern text to that of the online manuscripts and tools now available at history.lds.org and of course at josephsmithpapers.org. And when thinking about ecclesial priesthood, remember the wonderfully fluid meanings of words! A word to the wise: editors do now, and always have, ruled your life!
One last word about priesthood category theory. It’s here.
I don’t know if any of this will be of practical value in your lesson preparation, but at least it may give you some new perspectives on interpretation, and perhaps, use your own judgment, some fun for your class. You could even email them the link to this and then they’d be prepared to discuss?
P.S. Write some stunning, powerful, yet simple original music for verses 98-102. Then share it. BCC wants to judge you.
 The exact phrase is owed to D&C 84, but the theme arises from the very beginnings of Mormonism. In an 1838 recital of his “first vision,” Joseph Smith has God repeating a stinging rebuke to some Christian ministers: “I was answered that I must join none of [the available churches], for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof,'” a mixed quotation from Isa. 29:15 (Matt. 15:8) and 2 Tim. 3–“For men shall be lovers of their own selves . . . Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.” The
D&C 84 interpretation of the “power of godliness” is certainly connected to these precursors, but those precursors don’t really anticipate D&C 84. D&C 84 introduces a framework for the passage that breathes a whole new life into it. Can you say:
“believers priesthood was overdone in Protestantism”?
 Keep in mind, that the revelations were edited in ways that can confuse the heck out of people trying to understand them in terms of chronological terminology. There are some further complications at this point. One is this: section 84 is inconsistent in its use of the term “priesthood.” At this time in 1832, “priesthood” often meant the office of Priest (as we know it now, priest in the Aaronic Priesthood), but it might also stand for a shortened form of high priesthood. Note also that a vision delivered nine months before D&C 84 uses “priest” in an obviously different way. Confusing eh? Read in context people.
 Section 84 is one of the few revelations for which we may have an “autograph.” This manuscript is in the handwriting of Frederick G. Williams and contains the note at the end of the ms: “A Revelation to order of P.H. + to N.K. Whitney–Sept. 23, 1832.” (Newel K. Whitney collection, BYU.) Note that the recipients of D&C 84 are referred to as “mine apostles, even God’s high priests.” (v.63). This is interesting in that another manuscript, this one in Revelation Book 2, pp. 20-31. has the following note attached: “Revelation given to six Elders (high priests in fact) Sept. 22 & 23d of 1832 explaining the two priesthoods and commissioning the Apostles to preach the gospel” (no Quorum of the Twelve yet). Might this give us a clue about what happened with Peter, James and John?