The Presiding Bishopric. Your April Conference Prep. Part 3: D&C 68 Analysis.

Back to part 2, forward to part 4. Here’s a page with all parts.

Doctrine and Covenants section 68 contains important material regarding bishops. It is also interesting for the textual evolution it underwent. I’ll begin by considering the proto-version of verses 13 through 24 (as they appear in Revelation Book 1, Joseph Smith Papers Manuscript Revelations volume) and then I’ll look at the 1981 text (the current text of the D&C). In the RB-1 text, observe that the blue text is omitted from the current edition. In verses 13-24 from 1981, the text in red is additional text added to the 1831 revelation – this additional text appeared first in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants.

RB-1 Text
And now concrning the items in addition to the Laws & commandments they are these there remaneth hereafter in the due time of the Lord other Bishops to be set apart unto the church to minister even according to the first wherefore it shall be an high priest who is worthy & he shall be appointed by a confrenc of high priests And again no Bishop or judge which shall be set apart for this ministry shall be tried or condemned for any crime save it be before a confrence of high priests & inasmuch as he is found guilty before a confrenc of high priests by testimony that cannot be impeached he shall be condemned or forgiven according to the Laws of the church

Current Text
13 And now, concerning the items in addition to the covenants and commandments, they are these—
14 There remain hereafter, in the due time of the Lord, other bishops to be set apart unto the church, to minister even according to the first;
15 Wherefore they shall be high priests who are worthy, and they shall be appointed by the First Presidency of the Melchizedek Priesthood, except they be literal descendants of Aaron.
16 And if they be literal descendants of Aaron they have a legal right to the bishopric, if they are the firstborn among the sons of Aaron;
17 For the firstborn holds the right of the presidency over this priesthood, and the keys or authority of the same.
18 No man has a legal right to this office, to hold the keys of this priesthood, except he be a literal descendant and the firstborn of Aaron.

19 But, as a high priest of the Melchizedek Priesthood has authority to officiate in all the lesser offices he may officiate in the office of bishop when no literal descendant of Aaron can be found, provided he is called and set apart and ordained unto this power, under the hands of the First Presidency of the Melchizedek Priesthood.
20 And a literal descendant of Aaron, also, must be designated by this Presidency, and found worthy, and anointed, and ordained under the hands of this Presidency, otherwise they are not legally authorized to officiate in their priesthood.
21 But, by virtue of the decree concerning their right of the priesthood descending from father to son, they may claim their anointing if at any time they can prove their lineage, or do ascertain it by revelation from the Lord under the hands of the above named Presidency.
22 And again, no bishop or high priest who shall be set apart for this ministry shall be tried or condemned for any crime, save it be before the First Presidency of the church;
23 And inasmuch as he is found guilty before this Presidency, by testimony that cannot be impeached, he shall be condemned;
24 And if he repent he shall be forgiven, according to the covenants and commandments of the church.

There are some fascinating changes here over and above the obvious additions but considering those takes us too far afield. As far as the added text in red, two important things are easy to spot. First, the patrilineal descent option. This is an addition that has no practical discernible application, so what is its purpose? While it may be interpreted as offering the office of bishop as a restoration from the ancient world, securing Mormon exceptionalism in yet another way, I think it also offers us a look at the way early Latter-day Saints saw themselves. Their religion was not just a reappearance of the ancient order of things. The Saints were descendants of the ancients in body as well as in spirit. The idea that they might be seen as children of Aaron (an image that appears prominently in 1832 in both a literal and an adoptive sense) conferred a kind of immortality that was strengthened through Joseph’s career. Modern biology tells us that if Aaron’s line didn’t die out, then we are all descended from him — but our patriarchal blessings continue the powerful adoption theology from the earliest years of the restoration.[1]

The additional 1835 text here (and similar text added to the November 11, 1831 revelation) placed the office of bishop in a very special relationship with the rest of Church leadership. A bishop can only be hired or fired by the First Presidency. Vestiges of both this and the original revelation remain in current practice. Presently, a bishop is recommended to the First Presidency for approval, by a stake president. After that approval, the bishop’s name is announced to the local high council (a council of high priests) who approve names of counselors to the new bishop. Bishops currently have no special immunity in Church discipline. The First Presidency does not put transgressing bishops on trial: we’re back to the council of high priests for that (as noted before, stake presidencies assumed portions of the FP’s role).

There is a rather interesting thing in the verse summary from the current edition of the revelation that I noted in part 1:

1–5, The words of the elders when moved upon by the Holy Ghost are scripture; 6–12, Elders are to preach and baptize, and signs will follow true believers; 13–24, The firstborn among the sons of Aaron may serve as the Presiding Bishop (that is, hold the keys of presidency as a bishop) under the direction of the First Presidency; 25–28, Parents are commanded to teach the gospel to their children; 29–35, The Saints are to observe the Sabbath, labor diligently, and pray.

Spot it? The verse summary offers the interpretation that verses 13-24 apply to the Presiding Bishop. One can see the temptation there, but historically it makes no sense at all. Since there is no revelation or policy statement to back this up, I think we are forced to consider this a more or less convenient fiction (remember, everyone concerned has made it clear that this kind of text is not to be considered revelation or doctrine). No revelation has ever supported the notion that the Presiding Bishop is the exclusive object of this Aaronic privileging. A look at Joseph F. Smith’s speech of July 4, 1892 (see Stuy, Collected Discourses vol. 3) gives his straight-forward scripture-based interpretation of the these passages. It’s a useful read. The idea that a “literal descendant” of Aaron has a right to the office of Presiding Bishop is pretty old but justifications for it stem from the same forgetfulness that reads History of the Church as a composition of Joseph Smith.[2]

Next time, a little more on bishops in early Mormonism and the genesis of a Presiding Bishop.

[1] Y-chromosome linkage to Aaron? A nice summary is “Y-chromosomal Aaron” in Wikipedia. DNA genealogy would not be good enough for an Aaronite bishop. “Judge in Israel” is yet another trope that appears in revelation (e.g., D&C 58), linking to the Judges of the Hebrew Bible but also making the Latter-day Saints Children of Israel indeed. The title catches on in Mormon discourse with John Taylor again.

[2] I freely admit to riding the historical criticism train here and most everywhere. But I’m versatile.


  1. Wonderful stuff. Becoming the children of Aaron has huge cachet in the olive leaf, which I think is best read today through the lens of the Temple as opposed to administrative priesthood ordination. Additionally the idea of lineal priesthood is I think an important context. We have the patriarch ordained before the addition of this text, and then in a few years, we have JS claiming lineal right of presiding high priest.

  2. I love these analyses, WVS. I’ve found your work extremely helpful, and have found many an opportunity to send links your way. Thanks again for the fascinating work.

  3. So, can a literal descendant of Aaron be a bishop regardless of the worthiness for that? (regardless of the fact I don’t know how the lineage would be proven).

  4. KevinM, the revelation suggests that it would be ascertained via revelation. This acknowledges the lack of any possible written genealogy.

  5. J., all very important stuff submerged in much of Mormon speech and tradition.

  6. Thanks David.

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