The Seventy. Part 5: McKay Turns the Tide.

David O. McKay - Agent of Change

[All parts of this post may be found here.]

From Roberts’ death (1933) up to 1960, First Council members were called from the ranks of the seventies quorums and the elders. Still no high priests allowed. The First Council visited missions and stakes, but could not perform much administrative work there. Then in 1960, David O. McKay decided that the current members of the First Council could be ordained high priests and yet maintain their membership in that body. The news rocked the LDS world a bit (just a bit–the reason: HC 2:476. Check note 3 in part 4 for why that angst was probably unfounded). This move opened the way for the First Council to perform administrative work in the stakes on an as needed basis.[1] They went when the 12 or their assistants could not, or they (the 12) formed teams with the First Council, training them in place. The members of the First Council had never come out of the ranks of the local church leaders like bishops or stake presidents and consequently were seen as somewhat eclectic in their approach. Now things were different. The flow from below would change.

A few years later, the First Council was passed the baton of sealing. This step got little press, but it was important and a real extension of the previous century. The First Council were effectively becoming “Assistants to the Twelve.” The growth of the Church would be the final factor in the change (end) of the First Council.

After 1901, the rank and file seventies gradually became less involved in foreign missionary service. More and more they became “home missionaries.” Staffing home-based efforts, serving in ward and stake teaching calls, but still having quorum alliances unrelated (directly) to ecclesiastical units. They were becoming middle-aged men for the most part who were stuck in a puzzling branch of the kingdom. It would take 85 years to mend things. The number of seventies quorums continued to increase, but their role was essentially confined to local missionary activities.

Harold B. Lee. Didn't really like First Council as high priests. On his watch he wouldn't ordain Rex Pinegar a high priest.

In 1967 a new class of church officers was born, the Regional (or Mission) Representative of the Twelve. They would be high priests and could act in a regional setting (they were not general authorities) in regulating stakes and missions (at first they were conceived as line authorities [see part 6], but that was revoked after a number of problems). This, like the Assistants to the Twelve was seen by the First Council as another move ignoring the text of D&C 107. Weren’t the members of the First Council “the true assistants to the Twelve?”[2] The Regional Reps signaled a new development for the Seventy, but it would be decades until that flowered.

The colorful dynamism of the First Council that was maybe a corollary to their unique leadership path (names like Bruce R. McConkie, Paul H. Dunn, A. Theodore Tuttle come to mind) was about to give way to a new framework that pushed them into a process already in evidence in the 20th century: apostles now came out of the ranks of local leadership. That’s for next time.

[1] First Council members were ordained (mostly) in June 1961. McKay made it a choice for First Council members. Senior President Levi Edgar Young declined for example. Handbooks issued following this move list First Council members as authorized to call and ordain bishops, set apart high priest quorum presidents, stake presidents and stake patriarchs. Not everyone was happy about the move. For example see Prince and Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. p. 150. (Observe Harold B. Lee’s remark on HC 2:476 there. While he supported McKay, he didn’t care for the change himself.) Frankly I see this as a way to systematize the whole shootin’ match. Everybody’s a high priest (except stinky elders) but with special ordinations for particular duties. I doubt they’ll take me up on this. (Brigham’s influence is too strong here. Not even JFS could break it. But I think the mythos could be effectively reinterpreted.) Also see Edward P. Kimball’s wonderful bio of Spencer W. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride. chap. 25, p. 5 ms. (If you don’t own this I hereby revoke your membership in the BCC club.)

[2] A summary is Ouellette, “Seventies Quorums,” Sunstone Magazine (Jan. 1987) p. 35ff. On this dissatisfaction, S. Dilworth Young, private communication to me and see Ed Kimball above. Also, see S. Dilworth Young, “The Seventies: A Historical Perspective.” Ensign (July 1976). Also, Earl C. Tingey, Ensign Sept. 2009.


  1. Frankly I see this as a way to systematize the whole shootin’ match. Everybody’s a high priest (except stinky elders) but with special ordinations for particular duties. I doubt they’ll take me up on this. (Brigham’s influence is too strong here. Not even JFS could break it. But I think the mythos could be effectively reinterpreted.)

    This is cryptic. Could you please explain this a little bit more? Are you saying that COB wouldn’t like your interpretation that effectively everyone is ordained to the office of high priest because of how Brigham Young viewed the office of Seventy?

  2. Well, I was being a bit sarcastic, but only a bit. JFS saw the apostles this way: you have to be a high priest to preside, then ordained an apostle to have the world-wide missionary ministry. To be a patriarch, you must first be a high priest, to be a bishop – first a high priest. Scripturally, the First Presidency are high priests. Why not the Seventy – if they’re going to have a ministry beyond preaching to the world. Why *not* ordain them high priests? Of course, that’s the de facto situation now anyway. Brigham’s position was rather different than this. For him, being ordained an apostle or seventy, was a step up from high priest. That’s an odd position given D&C 107, and 112.

  3. I grew up in the church in the 60s and early 70s so I remember the time before the current quorums of the 70. The First Council may have effectively become assistants to the 12 but I know for me they were very distinctly not the 12. I saw them as a group equal in standing and I think that is how they were treated. To me that is one of the biggest differences between then and now. Today the 70s all seem like jr. partners, back then they had equal stature.

    Two observations on local 70s. I knew that they were the ward missionaries and that they had a lifelong calling to missionary work. Also, in my experience, local 70s were the stalwart, active crackpots that were made 70s so those on the leadership track didn’t have to deal with them. For these two reasons I dreaded the possibility that I might be called to be a 70 when I got older.

  4. This connects with things I’ve wondered about how the idea of a calling in the church has evolved. I have a sense, which I’ve wanted to examine further—I could be wrong, that callings were once attached more firmly to the individual, that being set apart a bishop or stake president or apostle or to work in the Young Mens’ program or the Sunday School was only a bit less permanent than being assigned to the lineage of Ephraim or sealed to a spouse. Part of my idea, which I haven’t really examined yet, is that among the apostles of a century ago, there would be few former stake presidents and bishops compared with today. I think the first President of the Church who had been a stake president was Heber J. Grant and the next was Harold B. Lee. Following Lee, the next four were former stake presidents.

  5. One question that this raises is whether “Seventy” was intended to be a priesthood office at all, or whether it simply was a designation of an assignment to which a man holding the higher priesthood could be called. The only use of the term in the D&C that appears to point in the other direction–that it’s a priesthood office–is 124:138. In every other instance the term Seventy appears to refer to a quorum or quorums of that number of men.

  6. #4 Interesting idea. Do you think this could be the reason behind the practice of calling people by certain titles long after they are released from the callings with those titles? This practice has never made sense to me. For example, our High Priest Group Leader used to be in the Stake Presidency and our Ward Welfare Specialist used to be the Bishop. Most of the ward still calls these men “President” and “Bishop” respectively. This can make for a confusing Ward Council Meeting. Why can’t we just call them “Brother” again?

  7. Could you expound a bit on that footnote from part 4? It still seems like this was pretty controversial. Now in a fallibilistic Church I think we should expect this sort of thing. (i.e. acknowledge texts aren’t the equivalent of innerrant texts dictated by God) I recall some people being a bit worried about this and concerns being raised even later when the other changes were made to the 70 (effectively getting rid of it in preference to the current system of GAs)

  8. WVS (2) Part of the problem is I think that our conception of priesthood office is purely hierarchal. That is you move up getting more priesthood but you don’t really move “down” the way someone moving from Bishop to nursery teacher might. There’s this element of ambiguity between what is an office and what is a calling. The way we normally think of it (as you note) is Elder, Seventy, High Priest with Seventy now being basically abandoned as an office and moved to being a calling. However lots of people assume Apostle is an office and not a calling. Despite things being more stable of late I still think there’s a lot of ambiguity in it all.

    For once as a practical matter I’m not sure the very division between office and calling makes a lot of sense. Offices have standard duties and some duties require keys (usually temporarily given by someone in a calling regulating such acts such as baptism or administration of the sacrament). But if it’s all about keys then exactly how is a Elder having a set of duties and temporarily delegated keys really different from a Bishop? The main reason appears to be quorum structures and less the actual priesthood itself. Thus the real issue is that you can move into various callings but always are associated with a quorum structure. I can be a Bishop but technically (ignoring the AP issues) I’m in the HIgh Priest’s group. Apostles then become tricky since they are their own quorum.

    It’s all pretty confusing and ambiguous from a theological perspective though. So I’m hardly surprised that the history is so confusing with various leaders having different views. We just miss how confusing it all is since the structures have largely stabilized, outside of the Seventy.

  9. Interesting history, and well done series.

    We had one of the last local seventies in our ward. He had gone inactive in the late 80’s after the local seventies quorums were disbanded (although not because of that specifically). He moved a few times, and here about four years ago, he started coming to church again. Almost immediately, he was given the choice of becoming a high priest or meeting with the elders, but clearly everyone was uncomfortable with him remaining a 70 and meeting with the elders. I think he was, as well, so he chose to be ordained a high priest, and now teaches in our HP group.