Your October Conference Prep: Textual Origins of LDS Priesthood Organization, Part I.

All Latter-day Saints need a little context in their lives. What better way to get that around conference time than looking at some text history, eh? I’m quoting myself here mostly in this series, but even if you’ve seen some of it before, it will have something new for everyone I hope. Think of this (infinitely long) series as an appreciation of the wonderful Joseph Smith Papers Project.

Section 107 of the LDS Doctrine and Covenants is often quoted as fundamental in determining succession in the presidency of the LDS church (it was so quoted in the post martyrdom conference of August 1844 in Nauvoo). It plays a role in outlining the organizational structure of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as well as some other parts of the post-Joseph Smith Mormon diaspora. The focus of D&C 107 is priesthood structure and church government for the most part. It is a remarkable document for many reasons and I will not try to cover each aspect of the text in these posts. The other important revelation here is D&C 84. It will get some time as well. There are a couple of other key texts that I won’t spend too much time with like D&C 124.

In a sense, the development of priesthood structure in early Mormonism seems odd when compared to present teaching and practice. Early revelations (e.g., D&C 20) established Book of Mormon-like officers: teachers, priests, elders (the word “apostle” is used, but is defined as an elder). Within a year or so the office of deacon was added. There was no division of authority (no “Aaronic Priesthood” or “Melchizedek Priesthood”), merely named offices with different permitted practice for each one (except in the case of deacon — allowed to do the duties of the teacher, as required). A teacher would head a congregation where no other officers were present. A priest would run things in the absence of elders. In practice, congregations or impromptu meetings often selected the presiding officer or moderator from among the eligible office holders (but see below).[1]

Duties of the various offices were rather like those found in branches of Protestantism, such as home visiting of members, performing baptisms, administering the Lord’s Supper, etc.[2] The basic organizational structure consisted of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery as “first and second elder” respectively together with the mentioned pecking order among the early offices.

High Priesthood — Catalyst For Change

In June 1831, the office of high priest was introduced during a multi-day conference.[3] The office was added to the list of those already given, and was regarded as a higher office with duties that had not surfaced previously, particularly in the area of salvation assurance. Previous to this, the office of bishop had been established with certain open ended duties whose relationship to other church officers was unclear. (Edward Partridge was ordained a bishop February 4, 1831. Partridge was ordained a high priest in June, but the nature of his bishopric in that circumstance was not clear at the time. For more on bishops see the last conference series starting here). Local groups of church members selected their leaders from among their group or they were appointed by missionaries who had enrolled converts in the area. (These groups are often referred to as “churches” in the revelations.) But priesthood offices were still without a formal internal structure: no architecture like “Aaronic Priesthood,” no “quorums” or quorum presidents, etc. Early ordination praxis will be discussed later.

Organization was added in 1831 with a revelation given on the November 11th at Hiram, Ohio. The “autograph” of the revelation may be lost, but a very early copy is found in Revelation Book 1 (The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Manuscript Revelation Books (MRB) pp. 217-18). This copy is in the handwriting of John Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery. It was intended to appear in the Book of Commandments, but did not by virtue of the destruction of the printing office in Independence, MO in 1833.

In part 2 I’ll give the Whitmer portion of what I think was the original text of the revelation of November 11, 1831 as suggested by the form of the manuscript copy in MRB, with some comment. Study. There will be a final exam.

[1] Searching early revelations for mentions of priesthood offices can be chronologically misleading. When revelations were printed, a number were modified to make reference to priesthood offices not known when those revelations were originally delivered. Doctrine and Covenants Section 20 is perhaps the leading example. Consider for example verses 65-67 in the current edition, which mention bishops, high councilors, common consent, presidents of the high priesthood, high priests, etc. Manuscripts were also updated with sequential changes. Again section 20 is a good example. In fact, it has more variants in both imprints and manuscripts than any other revelation in the D&C. Minute Book 2 reports the first church conference, June 9, 1830. The reading there suggests that the office of deacon was not present in the text. The first deacon was not ordained until 1832[1831]. A most interesting change in the text(s) of D&C 20 was a change in the baptismal prayer from the Book of Mormon form to the present wording in 1835.

[2] An unusual difference during the period was the duty of elders to lay on hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost. Textually, this may be seen as a Book of Mormon derived practice.

[3] Mark L. Staker, Hearken, O Ye People, chapter 12. This innovation/restoration gets very little air play in the modern church, but it was a major development. Part of the reason for this lack of attention was the careful emphasis on the apostolic office by the post martyrdom quorum of the twelve. The demotion of “the high priesthood” would help insure no official competition for church leadership. It was an effective strategy in the long run but it obscured the nature of church government during Joseph Smith’s lifetime and there are other issues there too. More on this later.


  1. Love these posts. Thanks, WVS.

  2. You’re entirely welcome.

  3. Thanks, WVS. What do you think of the JSPP’s source note on the website for the Articles and Covenants, which comprises the RB1 version? The conclude that Whitmer transcribed the text in the spring of 1831, but that it is representative of the April 1830 text. It also includes mention of deacons.

  4. J., this is my thought based on ordination dates, D&C 20 prototype, Peter Whitmer ms, and a couple of other things. It’s quite possible that the historical note is correct in implying that the RB1 text is true to an April 1830 ms, I admit. Also possible that the ms was updated rather early. It seems odd though that no deacons were present until late 1831 apparently. (I see I gave the wrong date for the minute book 2 entry, should be 1831. — I’ll change it in the post.)

  5. Thanks, WVS. This was my favorite series of posts from BOAP; glad to see you revisit them here.

  6. Thanks, David. I’ve done some revisions and additions for this. At the very least, it’s longer and generally more verbose now.

  7. To follow up on a comment J. made on the series when it first appeared, I think it would be great if you turned this into an article. BYU Studies maybe, since they’ve published these types of textual analyses before (I’m thinking of Faulring’s piece on the Articles).

%d bloggers like this: