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

This continues the discussion of the November 11, 1831 revelation (see part 1 and part 2) with the second portion, in the handwriting of Oliver Cowdery.

This part divides naturally into two segments, properly corresponding to what may have been two separate revelations, where I mean to include the part discussed in the previous post with the first part in the quotation below. The first segment below ends with the first “Amen.” This “Amen” terminates judicial discussion and begins a discussion of internal priesthood structure. So again, if we include the base text of D&C 69, three revelations possibly occurred on Nov. 11. Text in brackets is my addition.

The Beginnings of Church Discipline Structures

thus shall he [the bishop] be a judge even a common judge among the inhabitants of Zion until the borders are enlarged, & it becomes necessary to have other Bishops or judges. & inasmuch as there are other Bishops appointed, they shall act in the same office. & again, verily I say unto you, the most important business of the church, & the most difficult cases of the church, inasmuch as there is not sufficient satisfaction upon the decsision of the judge, it shall be shall be handed over, & carried up unto the court of the church before the president of the high Priesthood & the president of the Court of the high priesthood shall have power to call other high priests, even twelve to assist as counsellors, & thus the president of the high priesthood, & his councellors, shall have power to decide upon testimony, according to the laws of the church; & after this desision it shall be had in remembrance no more before the Lord; for this is the highest court of the church of God & a final desision upon controverses, all persons belonging to the church are not exempt from this court of the church & inasmuch as the president of the high priesthood shall transgress, he shall be had in remembrance before the common court of the church, who shall be assisted by twelve councellors of the high Priesthood, & their desicision upon his head shall be an end of controversy concerning him. thus none shall be exempt from the justice of the Laws of God, that all things may be done in order, & in solemnity before me, to truth & righteousness. Amen. A few more words in addition to the Laws of the church. And again, verily I say unto you, the duty of the president over the office of a Deacon, is to preside over twelve Deacons, to set in council with them, & to teach them their duty, edifying one another as it is given according to the covenants.[1] And also the duty of the president over the office of the Teachers, is to preside over twenty four of the Teachers, & to set in council with them, & to teach them the duties of their office as given in the covenants. Also the duty of the president over the priesthood is to preside over forty eight priests, & to set in council with them, & to teach them the duties of their office, as given in the covenants. And again the duty of the president over the office of the Elders, is to preside over ninety six Elders, & to set in council with them, & to teach them according to the covenants. And again the duty of the president of the office of the High Priesthood, is to preside over the whole church, & to be like unto Moses. behold here is wisdom: yea, to be a Seer, a revelator, a translator, & prophet, having all the gifts of God, which he bestoweth upon the head of the chuch: Wherefore now let every man learn his duly duty, & to act in the office in which he is appointed., in all diligence. he that is slothful shall not be counted worthy to stand. & he that learneth not his duty & sheweth himself not approved, shall not be counted worth to stand; even so: Amen.

The establishment of church “courts” finds its beginning here. There is a court of common pleas (headed by the common judge) a mimic in terminology and duty of the common law courts of antebellum America and particularly in Ohio. The word “common” takes its meaning from a standard name for lower state courts of the period which heard civil and minor criminal cases (and that in turn from the English counterpart (OED: common pleas)).

The bishop is assigned this role of judge in the lower court. There may be a “jury” attached to a case in certain instances, but I will leave that for the moment. The courts of common pleas typically handled civil disputes and the bishop’s court would do the same. Cases where a church member had a complaint against another member could be handled by the common court. The name implies that lesser infractions were the province of the bishop and that any church member had access to this court for redress of complaint.

Following the set up of the lower court system, the revelation continues with the establishment of a superior court structure. The superior court is attached to the president of the high priesthood and this court functions as both an appeals court (indeed, the court of final appeal at this point) as well as one of original jurisdiction in complex or serious cases. This court may not function without what is essentially an ad hoc twelve man jury, made up of high priests, who don’t have any permanent status beyond a given court session, at least on paper. Again, this superior (supreme) court handles difficult cases of church discipline, disputes between church members or cases on appeal.[2]

Guarding Against The Abuse of Prelate Power

As a final provision, the president of the high priesthood may be tried, obviously not by the superior court system, but by the “common council.” This is an augmented common court (i.e., the bishop) with a twelve man jury (again they are to be high priests). The bishop [3] together with his jury would pass judgement on the president of the high priesthood. One glaring lack in the provision exists. If the president of the high priesthood is disciplined, perhaps removed or even cut off (excommunicated), then how is he to be replaced? It was some time before this gap in the system was addressed. Late in the Kirtland period (1837), the president of the high priesthood would go before the common court. However, by then there was some provision for succession.[4] But that discussion lies in the future. As the revelation says, “none shall be exempt from the justice of the Laws of God,” a phrase which defines the jurisdiction of these courts as applying to church matters, or at least involving church members.

The judicial provisions end what was probably a separate revelation consisting of the text given in part 2 of this post down through the trial provisions for the president of the high priesthood above.

The establishment of the president of the high priesthood changed some provisions in revelations given earlier in the month of November 1831. For example, a revelation given November 1 outlined provisions for selecting new bishops, who were now to be high priests. They were to be selected by a “conference of high priests.” The text of that revelation would evolve considerably by the time of its publication in the Doctrine and Covenants (1835) due mainly to the establishment of the president of the high priesthood. For a short discussion of this revelation see here.

The last portion of the revelation sets out group organization for existing priesthood offices, deacon, teacher, priest, elder, high priest. There is no provision for “presidencies” in the revelation. Each office gets a president. The sizes of these groups, (“quorum” would not be used for some time), seem small (12 for the deacons) but this was not a real issue at the time, most men when ordained at all, were ordained elders up to the June 1831 conference. Church conferences, where records exist in this period, documented small numbers. The October 25, 1831 conference at Orange, Ohio had 12 high priests, 17 elders, 4 priests, 3 teachers and 4 deacons. The idea of having multiple quorums of deacons, teachers, priests and elders is left open, but naturally suggested by the numerical restrictions.

The high priests have no numerical restriction but they form a group as suggested in the establishment of the president.[5]

What did “Priesthood” Mean in 1831?

One interesting bit in the revelation clarifies the way the early church used titles. The phrase “Also the duty of the president over the priesthood is to preside over forty eight priests” signals that the word “priesthood” was used in exactly the same way that “high priesthood” was: priesthood referred to the office of priest. Remember, there was no concept of Aaronic and Melchizedek divisions at this point.[6] When John the Baptist said “Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah I confer the Priesthood of Aaron” this meant that Smith and Cowdery were thereby made “priests.” “Priesthood” was gradually understood differently after 1835 and the original usage essentially lost by the 20th century. But in revelations prior to 1835, phrases like “lesser priesthood” (for example D&C 84:30) referred to the office of priest. Reading the revelations without that in mind causes ad hoc explanations to exist. As noted before, “high priesthood” always refers to high priest, in the revelations.[7]

In the next installment, I will begin a brief recounting of developments between the November 11 revelation and the 1835 version of D&C 107.

[1] I already noted that the portion of D&C 20 registering “Deacons” was not present in 1830. Their presence in this revelation makes their internal structure apparent.

[2] Naturally one sees the beginnings of the high council system here, which was formalized in February 1834. High Council of course, is a title originating in civil government just as “common council.” Both are judicial in origin. Church government issues prior to formal high councils were handled by the ad hoc high priesthood councils. For example, see the manuscript history of the church during the summer of 1833.

[3] The role of the bishop’s counselors is not completely clear from the text. In ordinary cases they seem to act as lawyers, presenting the aspects of the case. Their role would evolve with further regulation such as the later development formalized in 1877 Utah that counselors to the bishop were to be high priests.

[4] Church judicial formalities with regard to the president of the high priesthood was modified in August 1835 and then again in January 1838. More later.

[5] Joseph Smith would of course become president of the high priesthood, but not until the following year. The establishment of a presidency had to wait for several months following that.

[6] The idea that the bishop was the president of the priest’s quorum was a later development. At this point, a priest was to be assigned as president of the priest quorum. When the present information was incorporated in D&C 107 in 1835, an “error” remained. See if you can find it. I’ll bring it up in a later post. The bishop Aaronic Priesthood mythos introduced later impressed more consistency on the organization, moving the bishop into the ranks of the Aaronic order and effectively identifying him as the directing priest. But no more for now.

[7] Unfortunately, the section headings of the current edition of the LDS Doctrine and Covenants perpetuate misunderstanding on these points. (See for example the heading of D&C 84.) It is true that people have suggested that “high priesthood” was something separate from office, or an office that disappeared from Mormon liturgy. The records suggest otherwise. I may come back to this, but not with any surprises.


  1. WVS,
    ould you writer something on the succession requirement for the Prophet. Is it scriptural or tradition that the senior Apostle succeeds? I think the church would be improved with a Prophet under 70. Can this be acheved and how?

  2. Geoff – A, this does come up in a later post, but my own opinion here is that on balance, the modern church is better served by its conservative tradition conscious leadership than any sort of political process that would surely develop outside seniority driven schemes. The hard fought position from Nauvoo that, to put it somewhat crudely, the apostles are king-makers argues against both any sort of emeritus status for the upper echelon and more importantly the elevation of anyone outside the current system. The investment in seniority is huge and the stability it implies weighs so heavily in the minds of most that any change could introduce chaos into a structure founded more and more on Woodruff’s 1894 revelation and its flood plain.

  3. WVS,
    I am 64, my father is 89. I am slowing down. I find it difficult to do the things I used to. It would border on abuse to require my father to follow the schedule of the Apostles. As there seems only to be tradition requiring the seniority system we have at present, what would happen if Apostles and Prophets were required to retire at 70 or 75. I hear you saying that the election process would turn into politicking. So 2 alternatives. Isn’t the Lord supposed to make the selection? or, IN this age of computers couldn’t all the memebers vote on it. Would Uchtdorf get it at present? I think much of the change from obedience to Christlike as the emphasis can be attributed to him. If he were in charge now…who knows?

    Unlike you I do not think the conservative culture serves us well. There are very few people in the world who are as conservative as Utah Republicans. Neither the Saviour or JS were, to my mind, conservative, (they were leading the world in social change, wheras we are dragged screaming and kicking behind )
    it is not convincing that the Church of Jesus Christ should be ultra conservative.

    With this culture we limit the pool from which we can draw new members How long have we been at 14m? How small is the church in liberal democracies like Europe or Australia.

    How might the church be different with leaders at least one generation younger? If it lead to more progressive policies we might “roll forth and fill the earth”, like we claim we are. There might be a topic for a post here someone.

  4. WVS, I remain convinced that this work is brilliant, and represents a critical synthesis that should be formalized and published widely.

  5. Thanks, J.
    Geoff – A, I come back to this a little, as I said. But as John Turner observes in his recent biography on Brigham Young, Brigham felt he could not see Joseph as imperfect in anything, or he would doubt him in everything. I expect most members are quite comfortable with mature leaders. As far as youth goes, I also believe that Elder Bednar is among the most conservative of the current leaders. Youth is not really the answer here.

  6. Even if our leaders emphasized and began to heed some form of 3 Ne 28:3 “… after that ye are seventy and two years old ye shall come unto me in my kingdom; and with me ye shall find rest”, we would have trouble if retired prophets started speaking their mind contrary to the will of the current one. Have we seen this happen at all with emeritus members of the 70?

    WVS, in addition to and the JSPP, is D. Michael Quinn’s Origins of Power a good source for some of these early organizational dynamics?

  7. Jacob H., most of the literature is not “textual” and tends to be focused around certain “hot spots.” But Quinn along with some scattered articles are starting points. J. Stapley gives a link to some materials on succession issues in part 7 of this. References in these may be helpful. Also, Gregory Prince’s book “Power from on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood” is out there (I don’t know too much about it) and then you have the standard Mormon history literature – History of the Church is still useful, you just need to exercise care. Mark Staker’s book Hearken, O Ye People is useful here too. The best sources are probably still manuscripts. Understanding of early practice is still a little murky and terminology was very fluid. The principals were still finding their way and referential struggles existed for some years.

  8. Another source I neglected to mention here is Robert C. Woodford’s 1976 BYU dissertation on the D&C. It amounts to a critical edition of the 1921 edition. It’s massive and some things are out of date, but it is required reading for any one interested in the revelations.

  9. Those volumes are going to be hard to get. That’s too bad. =/

  10. Jacob, Woodford’s dissy is available online for a fee.

  11. It looks like the BYU Studies CD is no longer available, but from the UMI Dissertation Express (publication number 8027231) you can get a pdf copy for $37 (or other formats for a bit more). Awesome. Thanks for the info.

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