The Presiding Bishopric. Your April Conference Prep. Part 5: Crossing the Plains and Utah Developments.

Back to part 4, forward to part 6–the end. Here’s a page with all parts.

After the death of Joseph Smith in June 1844, it became clear that the Latter-day Saints would leave Illinois. The majority of Nauvoo Saints went west with the apostles, and they needed assistance in dealing with the those who required food and shelter. In the lay-over region called Winter Quarters (near present day Omaha, Nebraska) the need was great enough in 1846 that small wards of roughly 500 persons were created with a bishop for each.[1] As Utah was established a similar pattern developed but the office became richer yet. Church leaders found a need for not only a Presiding Bishop (Whitney was appointed in 1847 and served without counselors until his death in 1850) but for “traveling bishops,” stake bishops, general bishops, regional bishops and lieutenant bishops (not really) who moved among the Mormon communities, regulating the work of other bishops in those communities and collecting donations-in-kind for redistribution.

Edward Hunter succeeded Whitney:[2]

[BY:] I will say that Brother Hunter is the chief Bishop & He has a right to Cho[o]se his two Counsellors.

Bishop Hunter arose & made some Remarks & said He should choose men that could assist. He said Brother Brigham Young was at the Head & his Councellors were inspired of the Holy Ghost. I select for my councellors Brigham Young & Heber C Kimball. [Hunter got two regular counselors in 1856]

Then Brother Kimball & W Richards laid Hands upon Bishop Hunters Head & Blessed him in the following words: O God the Eternal Father I Ask in the name of Jesus Christ while we lay our hands upon thy head that all our words may be dictated to the Holy spirit while we set apart Brother Hunter as a presiding Bishop. We here by set you apart to be a presiding Bishop & to be a Judge in Israel. We Bless you with the spirit of your Office & calling. You shall have wisdom to Judge between good & Evil in all things & to be a great Benefit to the House of Israel & that they may uphold thee by their faith that thou mayest administer in faith & righteousness & be a great Blessing to the people & administer to the poor & needy. Thou shalt have desernment like the lightning to detect the evil & those who seek to deceive & that all may receive thy teachings & that thy work may work together for the good of all the people. Even so Amen.[Kenney, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 4:134]

Edward Hunter: PB from 1851-1883. Hunter acquired authentic counselors in 1856: Leonard Hardy and J. C. Little. Hunter was a quotable speaker.

Tithing in Utah and the general Mormon Corridor in the 19th century was a complex issue. The main thing was most tithes donated by members were “in kind.” That is, things like pigs or lambs or wheat and so on. The PB had charge of these matters and it was a logistical nightmare. You can’t just lock up a pig and let it sit until someone needs bacon. You have to feed it and shelter it, etc. Wheat had to be protected from the elements. Accounting had to be done and records kept. A system of regional and traveling bishops developed to assist ward and stake bishops in handling and accounting for these matters. There were modifications along the way but the system essentially remained in place up until statehood, more or less. After that, transportation networks and storage facilities allowed a more central operation and these agents of the PB disappeared.[3]

After the death of Brigham Young (1877), counselors in the PB began to give some general addresses but

Hunter's two counselors on the left. Richards was a historian. The other two just didn't have enough to do.

their appearance at a regular session of “general conference” was a rarity before the John Taylor era. Leonard Hardy, a counselor in the PB in 1878 and 1st counselor to Edward Partridge in Nauvoo (and a former Salt Lake ward bishop) got reported by Church stenographer George F. Gibbs during a speech in Nephi, Utah in 1878 for the Journal of Discourses. He also appears in the Tuesday morning session of April 1880.[4] Presiding Bishop Charles W. Nibley who began tenure in 1907 started appearing as a speaker in regular general conference sessions in 1909. His counselor Orrin Miller broke ground addressing the October 1906 general conference. Bishop Miller’s remarks at the time indicate the very unexpected nature of the opportunity. PBs addressed conferences from that point on, though at that time up through the 1950s, anybody and their dog could get up to the pulpit (just kidding, no dogs) stake presidents, mission presidents, “auxiliary” leaders, ward bishops, etc.[5] Members of the PB have been considered capable of doing the usual GA assignments since the mid-1970s. Judicial aspects of the PB have mostly been fanciful. A lot of tradition has circulated on their role in a “trial” of a Church president (see part 3). I’ll mention this again a little in part 6.[6]

Members of the Presiding Bishopric (PB) in early Utah held a quasi-general authority status but their position didn’t necessarily carry the sort of de facto lifetime service expectation that some other general church offices did. The tenure of PBs did tend to be a lifetime one in Utah until the early 1900s but this matched most ecclesiastical officers (even local ones) who served long terms, often until death. But Presiding Bishop William B. Preston became so feeble that Church leaders finally decided to release him from office in December 1907.[6a] Since that time, PBs have not necessarily enjoyed lifetime tenure. In the 20th century, PB members have occasionally been moved into other “general” offices, but they have also simply been released from service like Preston (though not necessarily for health issues).

Presiding Bishop William B. Preston. Not released by death.

Since the early Utah period, PBs have typically been filled with men who previously served as local bishops and stake presidents (Bishop Hunter’s [real] 2nd counselor had to be ordained). That path to leadership was rarely taken by other general leaders until the mid-20th century.

The PB is not a “quorum.” There is no quorum over which it presides.[7] In this sense it shares the position of the former “First Council of Seventy.” It currently sits with members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve to decide general budgetary matters (“council on the disposition of the tithes”). Traveling bishops still exist in a way, though under another title. Currently the Church has “Temporal Affairs” officers in various locations. Some locations have “transient” offices staffed in part by bishops who have no fixed congregation. They handle issues relating to Church members passing through, who need food, clothing, shelter or other things on a temporary basis.[8]

The PB is still the final authority in welfare matters in the sense that members who require assistance exceeding certain financial bounds go through a sequence of hurdles up to the PB. Bishops can authorize up to certain amounts. Stake presidents may authorize more but there is an upper bound for what they can approve. From there the decision rests with the appropriate member of the Seventy. They have a ceiling amount which can’t be exceeded without approval of the PB.

Brigham’s establishment and use of the PB was a framework he implemented at all levels in Utah. In other words, a Melchizedek Priesthood — Aaronic Priesthood balance at every level. Simplistically, it worked like this:

First Pres ↔ PB
Stake Pres ↔ stake bishop
Ward Pres ↔ ward bishop

The second two levels disappeared in favor of coalescing them into a single office, introducing clerks that functioned as agents of both local leaders and the PB (“ward” presidents had disappeared by Brigham’s death — people were not keen on not knowing who exactly was the boss). Once a friend and I submitted a plan to the Q12 to essentially recreate this in an effort to reduce the burgeoning workload of ward bishops. They apparently thought it was just a little too radical. Sometime I may tell you about it. I still think its a great idea. Next time, a little about the present day and its heritage.


[1] Wilford Woodruff journal, October 4, 1846.

Thomas Bullock's conference minutes, April 1850. When Bullock gets going, it's almost like reading hieratic.

[2] Hunter took his job seriously. Frequent “Bishop’s Meetings” were held where the bishops were mobilized, instructed, chastised and otherwise motivated. Hundreds of journal entries chronicle these meetings. One thing I’ve noticed in early Church chit-chat and sermonizing: there isn’t a lot of praise rendered. Criticism, certainly. People *seem* like they had fairly realistic pictures of themselves. The same held true for one-on-one conversations. Not that there wasn’t adoration of leaders. There was certainly that.

[3] D. Gene Pace’s Ph.D. dissertation, “Community Leadership on the Mormon Frontier: Mormon Bishops and the Political, Economic and Social Development of Utah before Statehood.” (Ohio State U. 1983) is still useful here (see also his BYU masters thesis on the PB). Also see Pace’s Spring 1983 BYU studies article here. The History Division of the 1970s LDS History Dept. assigned lots of “Task Papers.” Some are quite relevant to these subjects, but unless you have access to the CHL, I don’t know where you would find them. Bill Hartley has a number of articles in BYU studies on relevant topics and see his Ensign article in the Jan. 1978 issue for more stuff.

[4] After that, no PB members appear in a regular session until 1906. General Conference in Utah in Brigham’s time was not quite the exercise we consider it today. Conference, despite Joseph Smith’s change of course in April 1844, was still a venue to transact Church discipline, conduct appeals or propose/debate policy (for example, at one general priesthood meeting, an argument between Zebedee Coltrin and John Berry was partially worked through). Speech making also occurred but that was no unusual activity. It’s not like everyone always got a turn in these early Utah general conferences. Sermons were long. The Presiding Bishop usually addressed the evening “bishops meeting” that was really a kind of general priesthood session (there were often two). For example, at the April 1862 conference, the evening of April 7 was occupied by Bishop Hunter, Orson Hyde and Brigham Young. Just as Joseph Smith preached most Sundays, so did most of the apostles in Utah (they often preached on other days as well). At one gen. priesthood meeting quite a few gentiles crowed in, sitting in knots. Hunter spoke and so did BY. At the end of Pres. Young’s speech, one of the gentiles spoke up and said, “I would not have missed that for $5.00.”a For Hunter’s part, his speeches were still being quoted 30 years after his death. Church leaders carried on the April and October conferences in Utah beginning in 1848. Speakers might be selected on the spot but normally in these BY-era conferences the FP and several of the Q12 spoke and extempore was the order of the day. Conferences gradually moved to a more “agendized” format after statehood and then more so as remote broadcasts became more common in the 20th century and worship aspects like choirs became more important and skilled. As an aside, Whitney and Partridge spoke in the Kirtland temple meetings of 1836 and after. They had their own pulpits (for example, see Wilford Woodruff’s journal for January 1, 1837).

a In adjusted (Utah) dollars that would be about $100.00 today.

[5] I haven’t carefully checked on the issue of women addressing general conference gatherings but I think the first woman to address a general conference may have been Michaelene Grassli (October 1988).

[6] This is a complicated business. Some fun reads are Joseph Keeler’s late 19th century teaser Lesser Priesthood and Notes on Church Government and John A. Widtsoe’s Priesthood and Church Government. Widtsoe’s book had great influence.

[6a] Preston’s “mental condition has been such for several years as to embarass the church and his own family . . . ” George F. Richards journal, August 2, 1908.

[7] To be fair, “quorum” was a flexible word in early Mormonism. If the PB had come along a little earlier, things may have been different. But I doubt it.

[8] Many stakes assign one of the ward bishops to help those who have trouble while passing through the stake but any ward bishop may assist transient persons.


  1. Again, another home run. Are you going to get into the remuneration of bishops and tithing clerks? I’ve been collecting sources as I come across them, but it is not clear to me at this point how things evolved.

  2. Church leaders found a need for not only a Presiding Bishop (Whitney was appointed in 1847 and served without counselors until his death in 1850) but for “traveling bishops,”

    Whoa, all the build-up for the office of Presiding Bishop and it gets a parenthetical without a footnote? hehe come on now.

    PBs addressed conferences from that point on, though at that time up through the 1950s, anybody and their dog could get up to the pulpit (just kidding, no dogs)

    I guess you still haven’t read the Chicken Delicious Papers.


  3. J. Stapley, I didn’t do that but it seems to be a variable thing. I know up until the 60s at least bishops were getting some reimbursement for milage. I don’t know when that stopped. But I’m interested in that. Part 4 mentions the whole issue a bit.

  4. WVS – I find it interesting that there was a Ward President and a Ward Bishop at what appears to be the same unit level. I’m sure a lot of things were different back then, but I’m wondering if at that point in time if either the Ward President or the Ward Bishop would have conducted worthiness interviews for something like a temple recommend? Or were those things handled at a higher level?

    BTW – I’d love to hear about the plan you submitted to the Q12.

  5. CJ, the issue is a bit muddled. Bishops have a “lower court” role in Church government. But “presidents” were Melchizedek Priesthood officers. So, the responsibilities might logically be divided. But the present restriction on bishoprics and judgement of MP holders didn’t seem to exist then, so who knows. The bishop revelations, or bishop segments of Joseph Smith’s revelations suggest that bishops could wield a fair amount of authority. Brigham saw it as a symmetry issue. But turf wars ensued and Church leaders refused to get down to nitty gritty decisions on territory. We’re above all that now, right?

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