Saintliness and fidelity: Thoughts on the Priesthood

Recently I presented a paper at the EMSA conference.  Time constraints, and also a sense of their devotional rather than scholarly nature, required that I remove some of the comments I wanted to make.  As such I have tried to describe them below.

At the conclusion of his recent book, Douglas Davies offers the reader a ‘glance’ at the sacrificial spirituality of Mormonism by connecting specific themes in Joseph Smith’s theology with Richard Hutch’s view of saintliness and the ‘ongoing human sacrifice’ from which it is formed.

Bearers of the Priesthood are part of an eternal chain of embodied associations.  Hands (and it is usually plural) touch the head of the person to be ordained; re-enacting the same ritual space across time and memorialising the various hands on various heads which have brought this authority to this point.  This embodied reading of ordination implies the re-establishment of God’s divine life and power on the earth.  It is the continuation and extension of a chain of belonging [1] and it is the perpetuation of the restoration.  Life-Belonging-Restoration are antithetical to Death-Dissolution-Apostasy and priesthood becomes the axis upon which these ideas turn.

Hutch argues that there is ‘a soteriological intention to address the ‘need’ to make way for the next generation with responsive and fulfilling ‘acts’’.  Being ordained to the Priesthood implies the necessity of transferring that power onto future generations and ensuring the continuation of the restoration.  The desire for salvation (or this ‘soteriological intention’) implies an ‘ongoing human sacrifice’ which involves being faithful to the past in order to perpetuate this order in the future.  This sacrifice is a willingness to live ‘out of past generations and into future ones’ and is an awareness that the ordained becomes the means by which this redemptive power persists.   In the words of Davies, the death of Joseph Smith ‘stood full contrary to betrayal or apostasy’.  This betrayal would not have been merely of his present community (the Mormons centred upon Nauvoo) but it would also have been a betrayal of those ancient personalities who extended their powers to him.  Further Joseph represents, in part, a refusal to betray those Priesthood generations which will be bound to him in this chain of belonging.  Thus being a living sacrifice to life, as Hutch calls it, involves a willingness to be faithful to the embodied lives bound to each Priesthood holder. To sacrifice, in this sense, is not necessarily a single moment, an event, but it is to live in harmony with those whom the ordained are ritually connected; to live as though their bodies bear upon the recipient in the present.


1. Samuel Brown, The Early Mormon Chain of Belonging in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (2011).


  1. David M. Morris says:

    I enjoyed your paper at EMSA but would disagree with your statement ‘ also a sense of their devotional rather than scholarly nature’. Participants are reminded that it is not a confessional or devotional meeting — but a forum of scholarly research. I don’t think there was any that were not scholarly and academic, perhaps I missed one? Nevertheless you had an interesting paper.

  2. David, the comments posted here are more devotional than scholarly and therefore I did not include them in my paper. My comment above is not a reflection on EMSA but my own work. Sorry for the confusion.

  3. David M. Morris says:

    Ahhh I see now. The light is dawning on me. Nevertheless you still have a good paper :)

  4. Steve Evans says:

    “This betrayal would not have been merely of his present community (the Mormons centred upon Nauvoo) but it would also have been a betrayal of those ancient personalities who extended their powers to him.”

    To the extent these groups’ practices came into conflict, which did Joseph choose?

  5. Steve, it is very probable that Joseph saw himself, to a large extent, as the focus of the Church’s fidelity. In other words, Joseph imagined he was being faithful to them when he was being faithful to these Biblical characters and he expected, in turn, them to be faithful to him when new revelations or keys came down from these personalities. Therefore I imagine Joseph would choose the ancients over the Nauvoo community and he would expect others to follow.

  6. observer fka eric s says:

    “The desire for salvation (or this ‘soteriological intention’) implies an ‘ongoing human sacrifice’ which involves being faithful to the past in order to perpetuate this order in the future. This sacrifice is a willingness to live ‘out of past generations and into future ones’ and is an awareness that the ordained becomes the means by which this redemptive power persists.”

    These observations are noted. Obligations to past figures and institutions who are long gone suggest powerful psychological ties have occurred somehow. So these observations cause me to wonder whether this “desire for salvation” can be healthy or peaceful if it has come to the point of moving one to behave based on obligations to persons/institutions past or future rather than living by faith in the present moment.

    If our obligations to past/present persons and institutions come into conflict with present individual peace and worship (which they can and do), to which should we capitulate?

  7. I’ve been mulling your oost over, Aaron. What are your plans for the full paper?

  8. Sorry, I don’t get it. Rituals as a means of cross-generational solidarity? To me, rituals have immediacy based on a kind of spiritual Physics. Special properties of water unknown to us are needed for baptism, for example.

    What exactly is sacrificial about spirituality? If a dog chooses not to eat its vomit or the sow doesn’t wallow in the mire, it isn’t necessarily a sacrifice. I guess it depends what’s in the vomit.

  9. Steve Evans says:

    Bradley, I suggest you take a deep breath, read Aaron’s post again and attempt to understand it. It’s clear you do not.

  10. Okay, now I get it. He’s paraphrasing Bob Marley: “Cause every day we pay the price, we’re the living sacrifice, Jammin’ till the jam is through”. I like Bob too, Aaron.

    My allegiance is to Christ and whoever happens to be for Christ. The notion of belongingness to past and future priesthood generations is still nonsense to me. The priesthood is a tool, like any other tool, but fortunately not open to abuse.

  11. observer, both your question and Steve’s pose similar problems with the view expressed here and they drive to heart of the lived experience of faith. I do believe that giving up our personal peace and worship is at times required of us. There is value in giving up my own preferences and beliefs because of my broader commitment to the institution and to others in my community. Yet, there are also times when I believe that our commitment to these personalities and this institution should lead us to act in ways which may be perceived as apostasy by others in that same community. In short, living with these covenants involves a particular type of tension between these various loyalties.

  12. Bradley, I’m not really sure how to respond. I’m grateful you took the time to read the post (twice?) at least. If these ideas do not work for you I suppose that is fine, but it is impossible to ignore that they were important for JS and many of the early leaders of the Church. Being part of a tradition that takes these ideas seriously suggests that we should at least give them some thought especially because they are quite prevalent in our scriptures. Moreover, LDS scriptures are quite clear that the Priesthood is open to abuse and we are warned specifically to avoid such behaviour.

  13. This is great, Aaron. Trying to think how I can adapt it for a YM lesson about “the eternal chain of embodied associations.” Next time we have an ordination I’m going to use some of this stuff in the follow-up lesson.

  14. Thanks, Kyle. Maybe if Brad gets on the curriculum committee we will start to see titles like this in our YM’s manuals.

  15. observer fka eric s says:

    Thanks Aaron R. It seems easier to understand how JS reacted to conflicts between mortals and immortals endowed with priesthood authority. But can we compare the priesthood Order to other sort of cultural Orders we perpetuate? I’m don’t want to go off track here, but I’m just trying to think aloud about the implications of the OP.

    Within this context, I often think about the persons and institution of “Pioneer” in LDS culture. We have sacraficial-like reenactments. We tell their stories. We sing hymns of the Pioneer. We celebrate July 24. So we instill a powerful identity of the Pioneer within the congregations as part of what it means to be LDS. And it seems we do this to perpetuate an Order of the Pioneer and as an expression of faith to those past. But why is this important to do?

    Members of the church in the modern era don’t know the Pioneers. We can’t realistically appreciate them. Our faith in Christ and points of doctrine don’t (shouldn’t) depend on the Pioneers. Pioneering is not “real” in the sense that faith and the priesthood are right now. One can extrapolate this to any ethos or identity that is based in the distant past or uncertain future (e.g., “I am of [X] ancestral decent, so I need to perpetuate what it means to be [X] even though I have no idea what it means to be [X] because my ancestors left [X] three generations years ago.”).

  16. observer, first I do think there is a difference between Smith’s (and our) tension with angelic beings and our relationship with the pioneers. Second, I also believe that the question you raise is very important. Being faithful to our (historical) community, i.e. the pioneers, can be drawn out in genetic or religious terms. Responding to the pioneers is important, IMO, for all Mormons, regardless of biology and geography, because of what their story means for LDS. Their lived experience, the very embodiment of their faith, should bear upon the present. Moreover, I think it does. Certainly there a variety of different stories to tell and different narratives to draw our sense of self from (just like Adam & Eve) but ultimately being Mormon, I believe is not so much about specific doctrines, although that is implied, but it is about accepting a set of stories – the PoS, the First Vision and the pioneers – that shape our experience of faith and religion. By accepting those stories implies a sense of fidelity to the lives in those stories.


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