The Cosmological Priesthood

I think that modern observers generally engage in anachronistic readings of “priesthood” as it was discussed by Joseph Smith and others, particularly as it related to the temple and the Relief Society. I have come to use the term “cosmological priesthood” in relation to such matters. The following is taken from my recent article on adoptive sealing rituals (pp. 56-61), where I briefly attempt to approach the meaning of priesthood in these contexts. There is bonus material in the footnotes and those interested can read the linked article to access it.


Joseph Smith revealed to a band of dedicated followers a series of rituals intended for the temple, but which exigency required that he administer before the temple itself was complete. This group, later called the Quorum of the Anointed, served as the guardians and transmitters of Smith’s temple rituals and doctrinal innovations.

As was his proclivity when revealing or expanding doctrine and practice, Smith imbued words in common parlance with new and sometimes radical meaning. Smith expanded “priesthood” to comprise the eternal structure of heaven as mediated in the temple on earth. Members of Smith’s temple quorum contemporarily referred to the group as “the order of the priesthood,” “the quorum of the priesthood,” and simply “the priesthood.” Through the temple rituals, participants wore priesthood vestments and looked forward to the ultimate promise of the “fulness of the priesthood,” where men and women reigned through eternity as kings and queens, priests and priestesses. [n7]

In a revelation to Newel K. Whitney in 1842, the Lord declared that, by entering into the new relationships formed through Joseph Smith’s sealings, Whitney would attain “immortality and eternal life” for himself and for all his “house both old and young because of the lineage of my Preasthood saith the Lord. it shall be upon you and upon your Children after you from generation to generation.” [n8] By having a member of his family sealed to Smith’s family—joining the cosmological priesthood—Whitney became part of the structure of heaven.

This new and cosmological priesthood was not always discussed in terms that were discrete from older conceptions of priesthood. Highlighting the expansion of the lineal priesthood as manifested in the hierarchy of the Church and general Latter-day Saint Israelism, Patriarch John Smith, brother of Joseph Smith Sr. and a temple quorum member, often referred to both old and new conceptions of priesthood simultaneously in his blessings. For example, he blessed his son’s mother-in-law in 1844, declaring that she was “a Daughter of Abraham through the loines of manssee [Manasseh] and a lawful heir to the Priesthood in common with thy Companion and thou shall have power through that Priesthood to redeem thy dead friends.”[n9] As this blessing shows, it is clear that the purpose of this new priesthood was the salvation of the human family. Like Whitney, Susannah Bigler was both promised heirship to the priesthood of heaven and the capacity to extend it to others.

This cosmological priesthood was lineal, passing from parents to children, both male and female. Wilford Woodruff and his wife Phoebe had participated in the temple rituals before they left for England in 1844. Phoebe gave birth to a son the following year. As was common in nineteenth-century Mormonism, eight days after he was born, she held the child in her arms while Wilford anointed him and declared, “Thou hast a legal right to the Melchezedec Priesthood by linage. Thou art the first fruits of the Priesthood unto thy parents since there endowment.” Like John Smith, Woodruff incorporated older conceptions of priesthood with the newer cosmological priesthood. Still it is clear that he viewed this priesthood as part of an eternal network, promising his son that he would eventually “take thy station in the celestial kingdom in the linage of thy Fathers in the family organization of the celestial world.” [n10]

It is unclear what Joseph Smith ultimately envisioned when he referred to the station of priest and king in his cosmology as the “fulness of the Melchezedek Priesthood.” [n11] He died before the completion of the Nauvoo Temple, and consequently it was left to the Quorum of the Twelve to transmit these concepts to the broader church. These Church leaders generally treated the older administrative priesthoods of the church as distinct from the newer cosmological priesthood of the temple, particularly with regard to the inclusion of women. [n12]

As Smith’s system began to formalize, becoming a legal heir to the priesthood required individuals to either be born to parents sealed in marriage or be themselves sealed to parents. However, the one temple ritual that Joseph Smith never administered during his lifetime was the sealing of children to parents, biological or other.[n13] Smith taught that the power to “bind or seal” children to parents was the power of Elijah. [n14] This understanding was manifest in the temple where both biological children and non-biological relations became heirs through sealing ritual. Both those not sealed in marriage and those not sealed to parents were to be “single & alone” in the eternities. [n15] It is within this network that Mormonism’s unique perseverance was realized. Not only did these relationships provide heirship to the new cosmological priesthood, but they also were the means of salvation, as the definition of salvation transformed to encompass the heavenly kinship network or, as one temple quorum member and subsequent Nauvoo temple worker described it, “the ‘bundle of eternal life.’” [n16] Kinship, priesthood, and salvation became synonymous. On August 13, 1843, Smith preached a funeral sermon: “When a seal is put upon the father and mother it secures their posterity so that they cannot be lost but will be saved by virtue of the covenant of their father.” [n17] While Smith taught that perseverance was a blessing of various discrete temple rituals, he did not intend to create discrete liturgies. Instead, Smith revealed a single unified liturgy. Mormon sealing, whether for marriage, for children, or for the fullness of the priesthood, sealed in the traditional sense (i.e., guaranteed salvation) inasmuch as it formalized eternal bonds in the interconnected network of the cosmological priesthood. [n18]


  1. Cosmological priesthood ftw.

    You’re my idol, Stapley.

  2. As per my current research, I find it fascinating how this cosmological priesthood was used as a persuasive tool in the succession debates. By holding the keys to the temple and its ordinances–both literally and figuratively–Brigham Young and the Q12 held the keys to heaven. A good rhetorical position, once the congregations are convinced that such a cosmological chain based on priesthood is necessary.

  3. J., when I first read that JS was never involved in sealing parents to children, it was a bit of a shock. I had always assumed that adoptions were performed during his lifetime. Further it is also surprising that parent-child sealings were not performed outside temples even during the Utah period. How clearly did he layout the practice for this type of sealing and are any there extant records which deal with this?

  4. Thanks, Ben. I completely agree. While Ehat cracked the idea of the temples importance to the succession of the Twelve, there really is a lot more going on the he gets at. I think that your study will be tremendously valuable and I look forward to it. The idea that BY and other Quorum of the Twelve members didn’t just have authority, but were biologically capable of nucleating heaven on earth (en lieu of JS) is an example of one such area.

    Aaron, it is clear in his sermons that JS viewed child-to-parent sealings as being an integral piece of the temple cosmology. And I’ll confess to being perplexed as to why none are performed outside finished temples, while every other ritual was. The documentation is pretty clear that those most involved in the temple quorum had neither seen nor participated in the ritual until the temple was finished. I think this definately contributes to BY’s later perspective which elevated child-to-parent sealings theologically. But it is a mystery to me. Antagonists sometimes accused JS of using certain temple rituals as carrots to get the temple finished, but I have a hard time integrating such a position into the broader situation in this case.

  5. Delicious stuff, J.

  6. NewlyHousewife says:

    So if I understand this correctly, until you were sealed to someone (parent or spouse) you couldn’t do baptisms for the dead?

  7. NewlyHousewife, any baptized church member could be baptized for the dead. I will say that baptism for the dead was an important antecedent to this. Sam’s article on adoption theology outlines that.

  8. J., is it possible that although JS believed those ordinances were essential to the temple cosmology that he just had not formally fleshed out the rites associated with this set of covenants and sealings? Further, just thinking aloud, but is there a sense in which the power of Elijah was conceived to be located in a particular dedicated space and that these ordinances could, for whatever reason, only be legally ratified in such a space. This is probably a little too creative (and for that matter McConkie-esque) but I am really interested in these ideas.

  9. Aaron, you see a dramatic shift in the marriage sealing ritual from 1842 and the finished temple, so I wouldn’t be surprised if similar shifts were afoot regarding JS’s perspective with regards to child-to-parent sealings. This is especially so due to the temporal proximity of baptism for health as sealing. All extra-temple sealings were repeated if possible in the temple, a pattern that persisted, with a few exceptions, generally into the twentieth century. So that idea of the spirit of Elijah is, I think, consistent with what is happening, much more so than the idea of it as team genealogy.

  10. J, I have to sadly confess I’ve not yet read your paper yet. (I have a HUGE stack of unread papers and books beside my bed: it’s just been a ridiculously busy year) I’m curious though as to how you view the Ehat thesis of three types of priesthood. The regular, the patriarchal and then the higher order typically associated with the Holy Order and which you appear to be talking about above as cosmological. Do you think that thesis of Ehat is defensible? I guess you accept part of it as you differentiate cosmological from regular so I guess I’m curious as to how you see the patriarchal order in all this.

  11. Just to clarify, when you talk about lineage it *sounds* like you think the patriarchal and cosmological are the same contra Ehat and others. I guess I’m just asking if you do actually think them the same.

    A related question is how you view the statements about rights to the priesthood by lineage. i.e. the rhetoric of heirs according to the flesh that some saw as a lineage right to a priesthood that applied to many of the founding leaders like Joseph Smith.

  12. Clark, Sam get’s into the antecedent priesthood themes that are very important (e.g., patriarchs, and baptism for the dead, etc.) and I get into how the lineal priesthood played a part. I think the idea of three priesthoods (aaronic, melchisedek, and patriarchal) oversimplifies a very messy evolution and essentially freezes each at various places in their development. I also think it is an attempt to systematize it into something palatable for modern readers. Instead, there were a lot of dynamic conceptions, and nothing was fully resolved. There are loose ends galore. What I try to do with the cosmological priesthood is to integrate as much as possible and capture the vision of JS and other temple quorum members.

  13. Excellent post, J. Thanks!

    #12 said just about everything I would have said on my own. I especially liked:

    “I think the idea of three priesthoods (aaronic, melchisedek, and patriarchal) oversimplifies a very messy evolution and essentially freezes each at various places in their development.”

    I think, in a way, we’ve inherited the most basic, easily understood construct – one that works for the highest percentage of the membership. I’m ok with that – but I love to consider the possibilities and implications in the messy, evolutionary process and wonder how it might have developed if Joseph had lived longer. (or if the Church itself would have perished with him at the helm longer – but that’s a different topic altogether)

  14. Always fun stuff, J. Aaron, JS does talk about temples as a “cosmological” necessity for doing cosmological priesthood. Pushed back into to preexistence as are all priesthood matters in some sense.

  15. Ray, I’m not entirely sure that’s apt. For one I don’t think many are even aware of the idea of different sorts of priesthoods – whether it be Ehat’s model or J’s messier version. There are hints in scripture (the phrases of “hid in Christ” or “heir according to the flesh” and of course the issue of priesthood in Abr 1). But I assume the vast majority of members and leaders assume priesthood is purely how they encounter in day to day use. They might make a distinction between those with their election made sure (and even McConkie pushed that a lot in his writings) but not the sort of distinction that Ehat, J, or others made. (As I said I’m way behind on my reading so I’m just not up to date on the contemporary discussion of all this)

    I’ve long thought though that arguments about women having this priesthood such as in that old Women and Authority collection Maxine Hanks edited were extremely problematic in terms of the history being appealed to. (This is quite independent of the more political claims being pushed)

  16. #15 – I’m not sure how what you wrote addresses what I wrote – what is not “apt” in my comment.

    I agree totally that most members aren’t even aware of the idea of different sorts of priesthoods and that they see it in the way they encounter it in their own lives – which is what I called the “most easily understood construct”. Maybe I didn’t make that clear in my comment – and maybe my use of “most basic” was misleading.

  17. OK, I probably just misread you then Ray. When you say it works for the highest percentage of members I thought you meant that’s how they interpreted it. I think my point is that we have a lot there and most of it has simply been left alone and unexamined by anyone but a few academically oriented laity and then a few GAs.

  18. I agree with that, Clark. Thanks for the clarification.

  19. J – #12
    “I think the idea of three priesthoods (aaronic, melchisedek, and patriarchal) oversimplifies a very messy evolution and essentially freezes each at various places in their development. I also think it is an attempt to systematize it into something palatable for modern readers.”

    Doesn’t the idea of three priesthoods come straight out of the sermon in the grove? If so, how is it an attempt to make it palatable for modern readers?

  20. Hemi, I don’t read the Sermon in the Grove (June 16, 1844) as really broaching the subject. Is there a part of that sermon that you are thinking of specifically? More commonly the sermon of August 27, 1843, is pointed to as the main discussion of the three priesthood idea. I should probably rephrase my critique, though. I generally think that the drive to systematize the three priesthoods is fueled by the desire to make sense of this stuff in today’s church. Is that better?

  21. An other way of putting it might be that the drive to make sense of this is the drive to do theology as opposed to straight history. Which is completely understandable. But I think far too often the process of evolution is overlooked when doing theology. That “proof text” inclination is hard to break for even those most conscious of it. On the other hand it’s hard to come up with general claims without doing so.

    For those interested the Aug 27, 1843 accounts can be found at the Parallel Joseph. I can’t really say much regarding all this until I read J’s paper as it sounds like he deals with the interpretation thereof. If definitely agree with J that some treatments oversimplify things since in the text it says the MP isn’t held and then has the Levitical and Patriarchal which is hard to reconcile to most simple understandings of the priesthood of the time.

    It is interesting that the Church does appear to have a formal theology on all this even if it does seem pretty vague from what sources I’ve seen. And not talked about openly often. (You undoubtedly have far better ones than I) I’ve seen explicit claims that the Patriarchal is given by marriage and claims that higher “ordinances” do not give a further priesthood. You probably refer to the sources in your paper but from what I can see things aren’t that different from some of the stuff done in the 1830’s. (Say the April 6, 1837 Wilford Woodruff entry)

    As late as 1877 Young is using Patriarchal as a synonym for Melchezedek. (Once again my apologies if I’m just repeating what you say in your paper)

    When Brother Joseph received the priesthood he did not receive all at once but he was a prophet, seer and revelator before he received the fullness of the priesthood and keys of the kingdom. He first received the Aaronic Priesthood and was ordained under the hands of John the Baptist. He then had not power to lay on hands to confirm the church but afterwards he received the Patriarchal or Melchizedek Priesthood from under the hands
    of Peter, James and John, who were of the Twelve apostles and were the presidency when the other apostles were absent. From those Apostles Joseph received every power, blessing, and privilege of the highest authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood ever committed to man on the earth. (Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff Journal, 15 August 1847)

    Anyway, thanks for the great post. It gave me a lot to chew on. (It’s been years since I’ve read on any of this)

  22. Just read quickly through some old notes I’d made up in the 90’s on this. Wow. My memory of what I’d learned versus what I said I learned sure didn’t match. So I better shut up before I embarrass myself.

  23. J.
    You are right on the date of the sermon, of course…I was mixing them up.
    I do agree with your restated premise. Thank you for clarifying.

  24. Great post J. Thanks.

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