The Seventy. Part 4: B. H. Roberts Era.

B. H. Roberts as Body Retrieval Operative

[All parts of this post may be found here.]
The new guard among the First Council took their responsibilities seriously, met together frequently and did their best to help train the missionary force of the Church. Unfortunately the pattern in force for calling missionaries at the time made calls to elders, who were then ordained seventies and sent on their way. Hence the seventies quorums were mostly filled with men who had already served and would likely not serve again. The men of the First Council served as mission presidents from time to time, and more than once each in many cases. Most of these men were dynamic preachers and good writers. In 1901 the First Presidency and Twelve decided that elders had all necessary authority to serve as missionaries. The character of the seventy’s quorums began to change. More on this later.

B. H. Roberts not only served missions, he was an Assistant Church Historian and a counselor in the General Superintendency of the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association. He wrote manuals for the seventies, the YM, published in the Improvement Era and other magazines and took on George Q. Cannon’s aborted effort at publishing the History of Joseph Smith in hardback volumes as History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1901 (eventually 6 volumes, adding a 7th in 1932). Morgan’s bibliography was also lasting, his 1880s pamphlet “The Plan of Salvation” was still in use a hundred years later.

During Roberts time the puzzle of how the stakes were related to the First Council was becoming important. The Church was expanding and the increase in the number of stakes put pressure on the apostles in visiting their quarterly conferences (following Utah statehood, stakes began to increase by roughly 4 or 5 per year). The members of the First Council were now a regular part of the rotation but they were second class citizens in the stakes no matter how dynamic they were. During his history work, Roberts came across the declaration of Brigham Young mentioned in an earlier post:

the seventies are ordained apostles and when they go forth into the ministry they are sent with power to build up the kingdom in all the world and consequently they have power to ordain high priests and also to ordain and organize a high council[1]

In a letter to the First Presidency, Roberts offered this and some statements by Joseph Smith as a solution to the problem of Seventies operating in stakes. Roberts went to the trouble of typesetting a page in the History of the Church style, hoping it might be inserted in the history. The Presidency rejected the idea with the statement that such a policy change would seem confusing to members and given the long standing separation between the Seventy and the high priesthood, this approach seemed difficult.[2]

Joseph F. Smith - Not Going to Rock the Boat - Gotta love the split beard - this ain't no Hodges beard

The problem really stemmed from the beginning of the Seventy. In 1835 during the selection process of the presidency of the Seventy, several high priests were selected and ordained and the same was true of the first quorum. Things went along swimmingly until people brought up the same question: what was the relationship between the Seventy and the high priesthood? Eventually Joseph Smith resolved the issue by inviting the high priest/seventies to move to the Kirtland high priest quorum and new candidates, not previously ordained high priests were selected for the vacancies. The language assumed to have been used by Joseph Smith (“contrary to the order of heaven”)[3] cemented the problem of the early 1900s in place. (Probably) Warren Cowdery recorded Joseph as saying “The seventies are to be taken from the quorum of elders and are not to be high priests.” There was no “contrary” phrase originally.[4]

[1] Heber C. Kimball Journal, Book 93 December 14, 1845. The 70s were great.

[2] B. H. Roberts collection, CHL. Beyond a nod to mission work in the stakes, stake presidents were clearly reluctant to take First Council members very seriously, especially in gospel scholarship. They were challenged on occasion in a way that the FP and Q12 never would be. Not only was the position of the First Council clearly restricted in the stakes, the non-existent first quorum never had any administrative power when it did exist. While it was a dream of the First Council to see their quorum returned to the land of the living, it’s activities and status were nothing if not unclear. Practices in the 1880s hint that the first quorum members would not be general authorities if they did exist. (For example First Council minutes 27 May 1883, CHL.)

[3] See MS history 2:756 (or HC 2:476 – ignore the * footnote which is confused). The MS history narrative here is not based on a contemporary record. Penned by Willard Richards, some of the material may originate with W. W. Phelps. Unfortunately language like “contrary to the order of heaven” gets assigned to JS by form, not evidence. That comes into play later. Check out Joseph Young’s (late) take on getting the high priests out in his 1878 “History of the Organization of the Seventies.”

[4] April 6, 1837 meeting. Original unknown. Messenger and Advocate 3 (April 1837), 486-487


  1. We just studied Acts 6&7 on Sunday and it got me to wondering if the NT was ever referred to on the issue of what to do with the Seventies? I ask as it almost sounds there like they functioned more akin to the Presiding Bishopric.

  2. There are parallels, Clark, but I’m not aware of any discussion based on that Acts passages. Could be though, just based on numbers.

  3. Nothing to say other than I’m enjoying this series. I remember as a kid when the 70s quorum was dissolved and integrated into the EQ and HP, and I remember asking my dad what the 70s even did. I remember not understanding the answer, other than “missionary work”.

  4. Ditto Martin. I’m really loving this series since I know so little about the Seventy. They always struck me as somewhat out of place. Even know where they basically just form an intermediary between the Stake Presidencies and Apostles and help take some of the load off the apostles. (Reminds me of Acts 6:1-3 although there the issue was Church welfare)

  5. Clark’s question makes me muse on twelve apostles becoming The Twelve and seventy missionaries becoming The Seventy. And Martin’s remembrances triggers one of my own, around 1991, of a new move-in introducing himself in priesthood opening exercises. “An elder or a high priest?” he was asked from the pulpit. “Neither one,” hamming up the self pity, “I’m a Seventy.” At which Bro. Chamberlin (who Clark lived with that summer) turned around, “Ah, welcome brother.”

  6. Cool, John. In the final post I ask for those people to out themselves if any are left.

  7. Clark

    I remember being told in either an Institute of Religion or BYU Religion class that the 7 men called in Acts Ch 6 to help with welfare were NOT 70’s nor their ancient equivalent. The teacher said that there were 7 of them was not related to the presidency of the 70 and could just be coincidence or because 7 is an important number in the Jewish culture. My teacher quoted some of the Brethren to back this view up. I’ll did into my notes and books when I get a chance and see if I can get something more concrete for you.

  8. That’s odd Andrew since I just checked the Institute Manual and they most emphatically do make the connection. (See pg. 114 where they even tell students to look at D&C 107)

  9. You got me really curious now Andrew. (And to be fair the reference above was actually Luke 10 and not Acts 6) I just checked the NT lesson manual and no connection is made there. It’s a fair question whether Acts 6 and Luke 10 are the same body. There’s an interesting article in a recent Ensign that makes the connection too. With pretty similar Q&A type articles in past decades.

  10. Really nice chronology in Clark’s link. (#9)

  11. I really love that you included the picture of him as a young man. It has so much character.

  12. That really is a fantastic photo. Makes me think Michael Bien (of Terminator fame) will play B. H. Roberts.

  13. I’ve come accross several instances in 1890s when a member of the First Council of Seventy ordained a bishop, and the FP and 12 subsequently debated “what do we do now?”

    We had a seventy in our ward that was made a high priest a couple of months ago. My dad was ordained a seventy by Elder Spencer Kimball back in the day.

  14. Those First Council guys were just cool.

  15. mmiles, I photoshopped him into one of my old missionary suits.

  16. observer fka eric s says:

    Heard Patrick Mason speak two weeks ago and he used the BH Roberts photo above in his book. As the caption suggests, Roberts had this photo taken when he was about to unearth the bodies of two missionaries who had just been killed by a mob in the South. The clothing he wears here are a disguise. He did not want to be recognized by mobs, so he dressed up as a “hobo.” He liked his operative disguise so much that he commissioned the photo. This photo actually redacts the set around him, which includes a grave stone if I remember right.

  17. these are great

  18. It would be interesting to know the number of stake seventies left in the church. When the stake quorums were dissolved an effort was made to ordain those remaining seventies to be high priests. All of the residual seventies that I am aware of were inactive at the time of the change and have remained so since.

  19. Sheldon, they’ve gotta be pretty old by this point, no?

  20. The stake seventies quorums were dissolved sometime in the 80’s. I knew young seventies who would be only in their 50’s. The guys I know who are still seventies are well over 60. The number can only go down, whether through death or ordination as high priests.

  21. Clark,

    I spent a few minutes trying to look up notes I have on the Seven in Acts 6 not being 70’s and have not found them yet. Today and tomorrow are big homework days for me (Masters Degree) I will keep looking this up as I get the time over the next few days

  22. The only seventy we have in our ward is indeed inactive and has been inactive a long time. One man who recently became area seventy told that he had asked if he need to be ordained again, for he had been ordained a seventy in the 70’s or 80’s. The answer was that it really wasn’t necessary. The thing is he asked that after he was reordained, which is pity, because I’d like to know what kind of setting apart he would have received otherwise.