Your October Conference Prep: Textual Origins of LDS Priesthood Organization, Part VII. The First Presidency.

Continued from part 6.

The revelation of November 11, 1831 was accepted in Zion (Missouri) as an addition to the law of the church on July 3, 1832 (see Far West Record or in JSP parlance, Minute Book 2) but remained unpublished to the body of the church. The office of president of the high priesthood stood vacant until a January 25, 1832 conference at Amherst, Ohio when it was voted that Joseph Smith fill the office. Sidney Rigdon “ordained” Smith at the time (Joseph Smith was ordained a high priest in June 1831). Between that time and March 8, 1832, Smith became acquainted with the idea of having counselors, forming a presidency of the high priesthood. (Caveat: the word “presidency” in early documents was quite often used in the sense of an office, as in so and so holds the office of the presidency.) A revelation received on March 5, 1832 reads in part,

unto the office of the presidency of the high Priesthood I have given authority to preside with the assistence of his councellers over all the concerns of the church [compare D&C 81:1-2 given a few days later] wherefore stand ye fast claim your priesthood in authority yet in meekness and I am able to make you abound and be fruitfull and you shall never fall for unto you I have given the keys of the kingdom and if you transgress not they shall never be taken from you. Wherefore feed my sheep even so Amen [1]

On March 8, 1832, Jesse Gause and Sidney Rigdon became Joseph’s counselors.[2] Jesse was the subject of a revelation at the time which appears as D&C 81, outlining his duties. At a subsequent conference in Missouri in April, the presidency was also sustained. The establishment of the presidency of the high priesthood hit a glitch during that summer when Jesse left on a mission, never to return, and Sidney had a mental breakdown over his continuing arguments with Edward Partridge and was removed from office for a time. [Sidney’s outlandish behavior was possibly due to the lingering effects of brain damage sustained during the beating he and Joseph took in March – outwardly he may have been frustrated with his Hiram (a small log cabin near the Johnson home) and Kirtland living accommodations.]

In January 1833 Joseph received the following revelation:

Behold I say unto you my Servent Frederick, Listen to the word of Jesus Christ your Lord and your Redeemer thou hast desired of me to know which would be the most worth unto you. behold blessed art tho[u] for this thing. Now I say unto you, my Servent Joseph is called to do a great work and hath need that he may do the work of translation for the Salvation of Souls. Verily verily I say unto you thou art called to be a Councillor & scribe unto my Servent Joseph Let thy farm be consecrated for bringing forth of the revelations and tho[u] shalt be blessed and lifted up at the last day even so Amen. [F. G. Williams papers, CHL (dated incorrectly there as 1834).]

Williams was not formally set apart (or ordained – the terminology was fluid) until March 18.

On March 8, 1833 a revelation (D&C 90) was received which directed that Sidney and Frederick Granger Williams be Joseph’s counselors. Moreover, the revelation directed that they hold the “keys” jointly with Joseph. Their role in the presidency was outlined:

6 And again, verily I say unto thy brethren, Sidney Rigdon and Frederick G. Williams, their sins are forgiven them also, and they are accounted as equal with thee in holding the keys of this last kingdom;
7 As also through your administration the keys of the school of the prophets, which I have commanded to be organized;
8 That thereby they may be perfected in their ministry for the salvation of Zion, and of the nations of Israel, and of the Gentiles, as many as will believe;
9 That through your administration they may receive the word, and through their administration the word may go forth unto the ends of the earth, unto the Gentiles first, and then, behold, and lo, they shall turn unto the Jews.

Rigdon then requested that Joseph do as the revelation stated and on March 18 both he and Williams were “ordained” to stand with Joseph, holding the keys of the priesthood. The meaning of this morphed over time and that change made it possible for the apostles to send Rigdon packing in the August 1844 succession disputes. The meaning of “keys” gradually morphed back to the 1830s meaning, reinterpreted to provide assurance of authority among the apostles to continue the succession process. Language is a tricky and beautiful thing.

Further evolution in the presidency of the high priesthood would take place the following year (1834) with the coming of a permanent (standing) council of high priests, the High Council. Members of the presidency of the high priesthood were designated as supervisors of the body who in some sense acted as both attorneys and jurors. In the founding document of the institution (see D&C 102 and Minute Book 2) the presidency receives some further refinement, the counselors now able to function alone, without the president, perhaps acknowledging the 1833 revelations. Indeed, all three were designated presidents, a tradition that deployed in stake presidencies and derived from their essential equality in the 102 minutes.

In the meantime there was a terminological shift, as well as a succession provision. David Whitmer had been identified as successor to Joseph, should he fall, and the presidency of the high priesthood at Kirtland began to be referred to as the First Presidency. The reason for the change of reference was in part the anticipation of other “local” presidencies, like the Zion presidency of the high priesthood (July 1834). The identifier “First” left no doubt which group was referred to. A number of documents were back-written to include the new name, but it was a late development. Everyone understood (for a while at least) that the First Presidency was the Presidency of the High Priesthood (of the Church). Of course, people in strongly traditional organizations often forget the reasons why they do and say things. This was no exception. Later church administrations have sometimes ignored, sometimes claimed, the title “presidency of the high priesthood.”[4]

There were some other developments in 1834 but I will pass over them to the happenings of 1835, in particular the revelation of April 28? 1835, received at the request of the newly formed Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. This revelation was a true paradigm shift and would create fascinating terminological fault lines that confuse and delight.[3] After that, I will interrupt the discussion for a detour to a related and influential bit of textual amnesia.

[1] Newel K. Whitney collection, LTPSC, BYU. The word “presidency” in the revelation didn’t necessarily refer to a plurality of persons. This was common usage in church dialogue at the time. Recognize that counselors or assistants were being considered from the following sentences. The interesting use of “priesthood” here means that early usage of the term was fluid and time-sensitive. Latter-day Saint establishment of priesthood (I use the word in the 1835 sense) was quite unique among contemporary Protestants and the Mormon nomenclature expanded, contracted and otherwise altered in several ways as things progressed. As an aside, the use of “ordained” had a somewhat fluid meaning as well. Oddly, this fluidity is still echoed in the 20th century with church presidents often being “ordained and set apart.” Probably because the event occurs so seldom, there has been no opportunity to formalize it.

[2] On Gause, see Erin B. Jennings, “The Consequential Counselor: Restoring the Root(s) of Jesse Gause,” Journal of Mormon History. 34/2 2008: 182–227.

[3] The revelation is dated March 28, 1835 in the Heber C. Kimball journal, but based on the movements of the participants in the experience, it was probably given near the end of April (see for example, Steven C. Harper, Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants, (D-Book, 2008)). As mentioned previously, its character is different than the Nov. 11, 1831 revelation discussed in earlier posts in this series, consisting of a fusion of different developments and revelations, roughly in lecture form, somewhat like those infamous “Lectures on Faith.”

[4] Brigham Young did not use the title, but John Taylor resuscitated it. It seems to disappear again until the mid-twentieth century. Used sparingly, Gordon B. Hinckley claimed it most recently. It’s not clear of course how they interpreted “high priesthood” but with John Taylor, the early meaning is quite likely.


  1. Hi,
    Thanks for all the wonderful informations in this series,
    but, i am curious as to the origin of our present hierarchial succession pattern. Was there a revelation to that effect? (In case my question is off-topic, can you share a link that really discusses the August 1844 Succession Dispute?)

  2. cesc101, here is a good place to start.

  3. Nice link, J! I get into this just a little bit here and there later on in this series.

  4. Who is the author of this?

  5. David Richard Hall, if you mean this series of posts, that would be me.