Authority Dynamics

Ardis’s recent post, which included some interesting bits on Latter-day Saint liturgy got me digging through some of my files. I have a long term study of Mormon liturgy and ritual brewing and at one point I sat down to sketch out the evolution of authority within the church over time. I came across these Venn diagrams, which some might find interesting.

I generally think it is easier to understand Mormon liturgy by taking a step back and using descriptive terms that aren’t contested. So, for example, when Kris and I write about the temple in our forthcoming paper on female healing, we discuss how in Nauvoo women received an expanded liturgical authority to administer rituals of salvation and empowerment. Words like “priesthood” have important meaning, but sometimes they obscure more than they reveal from the present.

Still, for the rough sketch of authority, I decided to use the term “priesthood” as is commonly understood in the Church today (i.e., men who have been ordained to an office in the Melchizedek or Aaronic Priesthood). I also classify “temple” authority as being discrete from these two priesthoods (though as you see, they overlap). Mostly these were for personal use and I don’t think that they will be implemented further in the broader study.

The following are two snapshots of church activity, one in 1877 at the death of Brigham Young and the other at 2010. To be sure there could be many other interesting time periods to examine.

Now, there are many reasons for the shifts between the slides. I mentioned the study on female healing above (JMH – January 2011), which will hopefully answer a lot of questions. Still this is an area where there is skads of work to be done.


  1. Very helpful, J; thanks.

  2. Thank you. I’m a visual person so this helps me organize my thoughts.

  3. J., prayer circles aren’t predominantly a temple matter today? Rare to see them anywhere else.

  4. I don’t think I can agree with that second diagram and the place of healing. A lot of people place names on the prayer roll of the temple for people who are ill. Likewise while there aren’t the laying on of hands by non-priesthood holders it is a common belief that you can pray for your health and the health of others in an effective fashion. i.e. that God will heal others through your prayers.

    Now one can herein dispute the meaning of authority in that context. But then the meaning of authority relative to healing in the 1800’s is a bit more complex too.

  5. Just to clarify if it’s not clear I think J. needs to unpack what he means by authority and healing. I suspect I ultimately agree with him but that we just have a semantic issue.

  6. Forget my #3 – I think I get it.

  7. Clark, sure. Though, the two examples you cite, I would classify them as “prayer circle” and “prayer.” They aren’t specifically healing rituals (though in the Nauvoo and immediate post-nauvoo era, the prayer circle was used in connection with anointing as a healing ritual). Though I do agree with you that there are loads of generalizations in such a project.

    Steve, it is still there, just moved a bit.

  8. As far as what goes in the healing circle:

    Laying on hands
    Sealing/Confirming the anointing
    All the above in conjunction with the prayer circle
    Washing and anointing for health
    Baptism for health
    All of the above in the Temple

  9. Very cool (and helpful). Thanks, J.

  10. I can’t remember the old temple ceremony, but I seem to remember that [a certain aspect of the endowment presentation], so I thought it was always priesthood.

    Other than healing, I actually think it’s remarkable not more has changed.

  11. Martin, I edited your comment as I want to stay well within Church conventions regarding discussions of the Temple liturgy. My reason for the shift is that prayer circles used to be a common thing; for example, my stake center had an altar in it until 1979 for the use of the high council. There are some extant examples of women leading the ritual during the early period.

  12. Very helpful in visualizing the shifts, J. Quinn had a detailed history of prayer circles in Dialogue fifteen years or so ago that was very helpful for me in understanding that particular shift. I’m somewhat surprised that your stake still had an altar in it up until 1979, as I had thought that the direction to discontinue that practice outside of temples came to a head in the 1950s or thereabouts.

  13. Perhaps surprising from our perspective now, that article was actually in BYU Studies. And yeah, it is the Bellevue Stake Center there on Main street! Pretty wild, eh?

  14. Wild indeed, J. Makes me wonder what happened to the actual physical artifact. I mean, what do you do with something like that? Send it to the DI?

  15. As luck would have it, Kev, if you head over to the DI right now, you can get the lockers from the Seattle temple remodel. $50 for a unit of seven!

  16. Thank you for the ‘pies’. I do Family History and have a problem with some “Grave Dedications” that appear to be done by non-priesthood holders as late as 1970. That seems OK in your first pie(?), but is unclear in your second pie(?)

  17. Bob, I’ve narrowed down the window of when grave dedications became a priesthood ritual to 1945 or 1946. From that time to the present, church direction is to have the grave dedicating in the name of the Lord and by the authority of the priesthood.

  18. StillConfused says:

    Interesting shifts. Women could do more healing in the past but not talk in church. Interesting.

  19. StillConfused, you just highlighted a weakness of the format. That is to say, while non-priesthood church members (including women) were explicitly authorized to participate in healing rituals, they weren’t explicitly barred from speaking in church. Church leaders (often general authorities) just generally spoke at Sunday services (remember that testimony meetings were during the week). So the speaking/praying thing in 1877 is descriptive rather than prescriptive. More recently, there was some debate from the 1960s to the 90s, but now female speaking and praying is prescribed.

  20. #17: Thanks for the answer. It may be that my Mom’s ‘uncle Wally’ had latent priesthood I am not aware of. When my mom’s large family left Idaho for Salt Lake to make a living, they were watched over by uncle Wally. ( Waldemar P. Read professor at UoU). Sadly, he dedicated some of the grave site.

  21. #17: Thanks for the answer. It may be that my Mom’s ‘uncle Wally’ had latent priesthood I am not aware of. When my mom’s large family left Idaho for Salt Lake to make a living, they were watched over by uncle Wally. ( Waldemar P. Read professor at UoU). Sadly, he dedicated some of the grave sites.

  22. I think that healing in 2010 is in the wrong place. see Clark’s comment #7 above.

  23. #4 even.

  24. J.- this is great. In 2010 though, isn’t home dedication a “priesthood” thing. I only ask because when I was first a member, I was in a singles branch and we were often asked by women in our ward to go dedicate their apartments for them.

  25. Matt, I imagine that if we took a survey most members would say the same thing. However, home dedication has remained available to the entire church. Check the handbook. In a number of ways it surprising, I think.

  26. J., you’re right that it’s not a Priesthood operation. While I am very glad of this, it also surprises me that it has remained distinct, since the primary argument used to justify this separation–the fact that many households don’t have a priesthood holder–seem to be considered irrelevant under the current guidelines for other scenarios where a priesthood holder may not be in the family (administering blessings to children, dedicating graves, etc…).

  27. Add me as one who sees a broader possibility for healing in 2010. Yes, the “priesthood blessings” is firmly in that circle, but even Elder Bednar’s example of the way a mother’s faith and prayers in a sense actuated a priesthood blessing on her son’s behalf is an example of how women and children, through their faith, can exercise a measure of ‘authority’ to call down the healing blessings of heaven.

    It’s tricky to use the word authority too broadly, I know, and yet I think we limit our view of the gift of healing that is a gift of the Spirit (which gifts are available to all) if we only talk about it in terms of priesthood.

    And while we are at it, I have found great healing power in participating in initiatory ordinances. I think some of this can depend on how one would define ‘healing’ and I tend to define it more broadly than perhaps you would here, J.

    Still, I like the visual approach to trying to explore this.

  28. Michelle, I can’t speak for J., but I don’t think he is making a theological statement by placing healing in the Priesthood circle. Rather it seems that he is trying to specify what the current liturgical norm or expectation is. Elder Oaks talk in the Priesthood session of last conference very clearly placed this ordinance in the Priesthood domain, even though he recognised that healing by the prayer of faith occurs.

    However, J. it seems to me that Prayer Circles require a distinct circle, primarily because they were separated from Temple rites in 1877 and have subsequently moved into the Priesthood/Temple domain. Moreover, there association with healing suggests that this circle should be placed in that context as well.

    This is really excellent though, thank you for sharing.

  29. What’s the ‘preparation of the Lord’s supper?’ Is that something separate from the sacrament? Were women once involved in preparing the sacrament in a way they aren’t now?

  30. 24–Matt, you fell for that line? ;)

  31. It’s Stapley’s poetic way of saying “prepare the sacrament”.

  32. blaueblume says:

    As late as the early 1970s, there were plans for a dedicated prayer circle room in a stake center that was being planned in Houston, Texas. Nothing came of it, which seemed to confirm the opinion I had at the time that all such extra-temple activities of this kind were being done away with. I remember participating in prayer circle meetings in the Salt Lake Temple in 1975, done on a rotating schedule serving the stakes in close proximity to the temple. It is my understanding that that has long been curtailed.

  33. Actually, Aaron, I think you can speak for me. The healing liturgy is fairly well defined, though of course people find healing in various activities and other rituals. I also agree that prayer circles are rather complicated and not easily categorized.

    john f., it isn’t really poetry. When writing about church liturgy, I generally don’t use “the Sacrament” because for many readers it might not be clear what sacrament is being discussed. I consequently usually refer to it using the more traditional “Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper” or sometimes the “Eucharist.”

    kristine N, both preparing the sacrament and passing the sacrament are not technically priesthood rituals (there is a great letter from Heber J. Grant to that effect). They were assigned to deacons and teachers early in the twentieth century, in part, to give them something to do. Hartley’s “From Men to Boys” has the best discussion of this.

    blaueblume, prayer circles outside of the endowment ceremony were eliminated not long after the extra-temple prayer circles were done away with in 79 (as I remember).

  34. Stapley, I understand that non-Mormon readers won’t really know what we mean when we say “The Sacrament” because the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist is just one of the “sacraments” found in creedal Christian liturgy. Still, I would strongly advise against using “Eucharist” in your writings about the Mormon Sacrament.

    Also, on this blog, I think there is very little possibility of readers being confused when you say “The Sacrament”.

  35. Fair enough, john. Though I didn’t create the diagrams for BCC, and I have just generally gotten in the habit of using the more generally understood terms. That said, I don’t understand your advice against using “Eucharist.” In my readings it is used fairly broadly.

  36. It seems to me that the “Eucharist” is for all intents and purposes a foreign term within Mormon discourse. Not so with Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, so that would be a better generalist term, I would have thought.

  37. Graphics like these are unbelievably helpful for visual people like me to understand complex developments. Thanks, J.

    Also, BCC readers should know that these diagrams aren’t just created for pretty effect. I once saw J. sketching such a diagram at the library for whatever he was working on that day. He really does think like this!

  38. Anonymous for this one. says:

    This is very interesting. I have a little bit of insight into feminine healing gifts. When I was a little girl my mom told me that my grandmother (my father’s mother) had a near death experience with the birth of one of her many children. My mother said as part of this experience my grandmother was given the gift of healing or made aware that she possessed the gift. She has never laid her hands upon my head but her very presence and attention to me has had a very healing effect in my life. She does not know that I as a child was told this story. She suffers from many ailments herself including osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis. Making just about everything difficult. Last May she became aware that I was struggling with a chronic physical condition and bit of depression. She insisted that she drive over to my house and visit me after dropping Grandpa off at physical therapy, so he wouldn’t worry where she was at and she could have some one on one time with me. She said she felt like she needed to wrap her arms around me me and talk face to face with me. She was insistent. All I can say is that day in and in the weeks that followed I did feel much better.

    My husband who is agnostic at best testifies to this same influence. I haven’t shared the story about my Grandmother with him but when ever there is a family event he seeks her out and always remarks “Visiting with your Grandma always makes me feel so good.”

    As for prayer circles not outside the temple. I wonder if that has any relation at all to the increased number and proximity to temples. Just like the endowment house became obsolete could the same thing be said of prayer circles outside the temple?

  39. Anonymous, it is my understanding that all the gifts of the spirit are available to all members of the church. Church authority simply manages certain practices.

    Regarding prayer circles, I’d refer you to Quinn’s article on the subject in the Fall 1978, BYU Studies.

  40. Rather it seems that he is trying to specify what the current liturgical norm or expectation is.

    I figured that was what was going on. Still, I guess I wonder why more general gifts of the Spirit aren’t included in a circle under ‘church’ — since things like ‘testifying’ and ‘exhortation’ are not formalized ritual, but evoke participatory power.

    J, would fasting would fit somewhere — perhaps even with healing? A ward fast on behalf of the ill is the only time I can remember kneeling with my ward (in the chapel, no less).

    That said, like I said, I really like the diagram approach.

  41. Generally, gifts of the spirit aren’t ritualized, and for that matter aren’t necessarily exclusive to the Church. So while someone might have the gift of healing, performing a healing ritual requires authorization from the church. As far as I am aware, no church authorization is required for people to be wise or have knowledge, for example.

    I should have included fasting, but like prayer, it isn’t necessarily a healing ritual. I would include it in the general church list. You can fast for anything you want. As I mentioned above, people often find healing outside of the regular healing liturgy of the church. I would also say that testifying and exhorting are highly ritualized in the Church, though I’m not sure what you mean by participatory power.

  42. Anonymous for this one. says:

    I guess the point of the story #38 is this, in the early church would someone like my Grandmother have been called on to perform more ritualized healing. If she has that same healing gift now in our time would the ritualized part be just that, just a ritual.

    If that is the case should I begrudge and puzzle (as much as I do) over the fact that women today are not allowed to participate in these types of healing rituals if we possess the same gifts perhaps we do not need the ritual to exercise the gifts.

  43. As far as I am aware, no church authorization is required for people to be wise or have knowledge, for example.

    Right, but in my mind, no church authorization is necessarily needed to testify or exhort or pray, either. So I see some crossover in your diagram between formal ritual and general activities that may or may not be ritualized.

    I see this same kind of potential crossover with the concept of healing, although I can understand why you represent it the way you do, since most of our language around the concept is tied to priesthood.

    But the diagram to me feels very stark, as though healing was a more broad thing before and now suddenly it’s so “restricted.” I just tend to look at it differently — esp with the notion that just because women don’t lay hands on each other like they used to doesn’t mean we can’t be and aren’t instruments in God’s hands (even in ‘ritual’-like ways, like through visiting teaching or the many ways we gather regularly to try to help care for the poor) to bring the healing power of Christ into others’ lives. Healing is not just physical; it’s not just a “I was sick and then had a blessing and then got well.” There are many means, imo, built into broader Church rituals that can also tap into Christ’s healing power and add upon the formal priesthood blessings that we usual connect with healing.

    Fasting is another example where I think it’s worth teasing out some of the differences. We fast once a month; it’s part of our ritual as a Church. And sometimes such fasting does have specific purposes with healing in mind. I personally like separating that possibility out because some of the most powerful experiences I have had with my wards has been joining with them in deliberate, unified fasting and prayer for a ward or stake member. I was a direct participant in a ritual that was directly related to seeking for healing and it had a significant impact on me. Just because we can and do fast for other reasons, I think ‘the church’ participates in real healing processes that to me would be worth noting.

    But all of that may be beyond the scope of what you are wanting to do, and I understand if it is.

  44. no church authorization is necessarily needed to testify or exhort or pray, either.

    Personal prayer certainly, but my intent for testifying and exhorting was in conjunction with church meetings. I think that authorization, though perhaps not evident to the regular attendee, is nevertheless real and historically traceable. Perhaps I should have not included personal prayer.

    But the diagram to me feels very stark, as though healing was a more broad thing before and now suddenly it’s so “restricted.”

    I don’t know about stark, but you are correct that the healing liturgy was a much broader thing and now is, in comparison, rather restricted. I would not say it was a sudden shift though. It was quite incremental. I think the suddenness comes from skipping 133 years between the images.

    …doesn’t mean we can’t be and aren’t instruments in God’s hands…

    I am in agreement 100%.

    Just because we can and do fast for other reasons, I think ‘the church’ participates in real healing processes that to me would be worth noting.

    I agree, though I hope that you can see how classifying such activities with the church’s healing liturgy is somewhat problematic in such an excercize.

  45. though I hope that you can see how classifying such activities with the church’s healing liturgy is somewhat problematic in such an excercize.

    I can, and that’s why I said I understand if it’s outside the scope of what you are doing here. Still interesting for me to think through a little, so thanks for engaging.

  46. nice effort at visually conceptualizing these gospel principles

  47. For my own personal clarity, I’d love to see some sub-bubbles for church leadership within Priesthood. Have the been functions of the priesthood that have moved from the function of general authorities down to bishops? Have there been functions that moved from bishops to all priesthood?

    I really need to order your JMH article on healing, as I would love to understand the timing of these movements between chart A and B. I guess I’ll have to suck it up and subscribe.

  48. That is a great question, and one worthy of study, Matt. For example, Stake Presidents can now ordain Patriarchs and Seventies can Ordain High Priests, things that used not be done. Also speaking in church, when did non-church leaders begin speaking in Sacrament Meeting? Good stuff.