The Presiding Bishopric – Your April Conference Prep. Part 1: Bishoprics in Early Mormonism.

Last conference I gave you the Seventy. Who knows what will come next. You’ll forgive this sort of annotated stream of consciousness. These six posts were dashed off in a hurry several months ago and then pecked at for the last few weeks. (Here is part 2. Here’s a page with all parts.)

The priesthood office of “bishop” in Mormonism derives from two early revelations. The first was dictated in New York, January 2, 1831 (note the wonderful colloquial language):

And now, I give unto the church in these parts a commandment, that certain men among them shall be appointed, and they shall be appointed by the voice of the church;
And they shall look to the poor and the needy, and administer to their relief that they shall not suffer; and send them forth to the place which I have commanded them;
And this shall be their work, to govern the affairs of the property of this church.[D&C 38:34-36]

The Church duties of these unnamed appointees would eventually become a part of a more formal office established four weeks later:

Edward Partridge. Had fist-fight with Joseph Smith over Zion's location (see D&C 58:14-15). I think he liked to tweak Rigdon. Maybe not.

And again, I have called my servant Edward Partridge; and I give a commandment, that he should be appointed by the voice of the church, and ordained a bishop unto the church, to leave his merchandise and to spend all his time in the labors of the church;
To see to all things as it shall be appointed unto him in my laws in the day that I shall give them. And this because his heart is pure before me, for he is like unto Nathanael of old, in whom there is no guile.[D&C 41:9-11]

The latter revelation promised that the new bishop’s duties would be outlined in the “laws” of the Church. The giving of these laws was a much anticipated event in the early Church and was a draw for the New York Saints to get them to Ohio.[1] The “law” was a series of revelations given a few days after Bishop Partridge was called in the verses above.

A copy of The Law in RB-1. Courtesy LDS Church History Library.

D&C 42 is the current version of that revelation(s) but it has been considerably modified from the original (the original was in question-answer format). Here’s some of what was probably the original instruction to Partridge:

[Partridge has a mention in the “first law”]
again I say unto you that my servent Edward [Partridge] shall stand in the office wherewith I have appointed him & it shall come to pass that if he transgress another shall be appointed in his stead even so amen

[In the second law, the bishop and his council (two elders) get some instruction]
Behold thou shalt consecrate all thy properties that which thou hast unto me with a covenant & a deed which cannot be Broken. & they shall be laid before the Bishop of my Church & two of the Elders such as he shall appoint & Set apart for that purpose & it shall come to pass that the Bishop of my Church after that he has Received the properties of my Church that it cannot be broken taken from you he shall appoint evry man a stewart over his own property or that which he hath Received in as much as shall be sufficient for himself & family & the Residue shall be kept to administer to him that hath not that evry man may Receive according as he stands in need. & the Residue shall be kept in my Store house to administer to the poor & needy & shall be appointed by the Elders of the Church & the Bishop

Given the happenings surrounding D&C 28, it seems likely that “Elders of the Church” was probably not a blanket reference to all ordained elders (male converts were mostly ordained elders at this point). Rigdon’s position is somewhat nebulous at this point, but he’s clearly involved in various projects with JS and a number of early revelations refer to them jointly.[2]

When the high priesthood was introduced in June 1831, Partridge was ordained a high priest. Later (1835), a whole bishop mythos was revealed, suggesting both Old and New Testament links to the office. The biblical Aaronic priests and their patrilineal rules were identified as part of the office, as well as (by inference and language) the diaconate of Acts and the Pauline bishops.

Stephen gets stoned. New Testament style. No, he wasn't a NT Deacon.

The office of high priest allows one to act in other offices: the other bishops that followed Partridge were ordained high priests.[4]

The same year Partridge was ordained, another bishop was called by a revelation to Joseph Smith. Newell K. Whitney, owner of a merchandising operation in Kirtland, Ohio became a bishop in December 1831. Before that time Partridge had taken up residence in Independence, MO. The bishopric was in large part a local ministry, assisting the poor, etc. hence the need for a bishop in the other major population center of Mormonism, in Ohio. The two bishops existed in a kind of cooperative relationship as part of the operation of the Church “corporation” (United Firm). But neither presided over the other. As the Church grew in Missouri, the plan was to establish more bishops there (Partridge’s counselors were to be ordained in particular). It’s not clear that these new bishops would be supervised by Partridge alone.[3] It seems likely that they would merely be under the direction of the (Missouri) presiding council. Indeed, it seems likely that they may have become part of the council. On the other hand, after the Jackson County settlers destroyed the Mormon press and gave ultimatum to the Church to leave the county, Partridge was voted by the Saints as “head of the Church in Zion.”[5]
[1] D&C 38:32 for example.

[2] Rigdon was an experienced and effective preacher and many found him hard to resist (witness his speech before the court that gets him released from Liberty Jail well before Baldwin, McRae, the Smiths and Wight – that power of expression doesn’t seem to come through in the dry written word).

[3] See Orson Pratt’s narrative of the bishopric in JD 22:34-5. More particularly, see JS and co. to W. W. Phelps in Missouri, 25 June 1833 (JS letter book). The letter suggests that bishop’s counselors should now be high priests (Partridge already had two high priests as counselors, Isaac Morley, John Corrill). That would not be a consistent pattern until 1877 when Brigham Young eliminated ubiquitous “acting” bishops and moved to organize bishoprics as high priests, fill out high councils and reduce the geographic size of stakes while expanding their number, eliminate “regional presiding bishops” and generally modify and codify the entire system of Church government.

[4] The current header to D&C 68 claims that the verses on bishops apply the the Presiding Bishop. There doesn’t seem to be any support for this interpretation either in terms of revelation or internal Church rulings (see part 6 I think). The evolution of D&C 68 is nearly as interesting as D&C 107. The textual issues are a little complicated. Part 3 has something more on D&C 68.

[5] See Minute Book 2 (JS Papers) September 11, 1833. Cowdery had left for Ohio to see JS. At the same time, Partridge was also designated as “moderator” in councils and conferences by virtue of his office [as bishop]. The usual practice at the time was to vote on a moderator or president of a council on the spot (in fair Protestant praxis) not necessarily with reference to Church position. Minutes suggest that prior to this councils were governed by the seven “leading elders” (including Cowdery).


  1. Awesome. I know things are complicated with the United Firm, but was the bishop the first position in the Church to be supported by the Church?

  2. Well, Partridge didn’t really have any profession in Independence other than the Church I think. Although it may be that he practiced his trade there (apparently he prospered at it in Ohio). I expect that Phelps, Partridge and Cowdery survived off Church finances off and on in the beginning (print income some). If you’re David Whitmer, then you’re thinking this goes back to JS and OC being supported full time during the translation. (grin)

  3. I’m looking forward to this series!

  4. I found it interesting that the office of Presiding Bishop is Patriarical (like the Church Patriarch), but we’ve not yet been instructed on who the office belongs to in the Patriarichal lineage. It will be also interesting to see when we start finding “literal decendants of Aaron”, who do not need to be ordained as Bishops.

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