Your October Conference Prep: Textual Origins of LDS Priesthood Organization, Part VIII. The April 1835 Revelation.

Continues Part 7.

Joseph Smith founded two new priesthood groups early in 1835, the Twelve Apostles and the Seventy. While the apostles had been presaged before the formal organization of the church (D&C 18) the first ordinations took place in February 1835. The apostles felt the need for some more detailed direction regarding their standing and duty in the church and asked Joseph Smith for this direction. Heber C. Kimball reminisced about the experience in his journal as follows:

One evening when we were assembled to receive instructions, the revelation contained in the third[1] section of the Doctrine and Covenants, on priesthood was given to brother Joseph as he was instructing us and we praised the Lord.[Kimball journal 94B, p. 23, CHL (courtesy Robert Woodford).]

The text of the April 28[2] revelation takes the form of a lecture, settling different questions, establishing terminology and the ordering of offices as well as appealing to an Old Testament-related narrative, a tradition with Joseph Smith, and combining several revelatory threads. The text of the revelation was printed in the D&C in August 1835, a project which had been underway for some time. Since it will be more efficient to comment on a text form people are familiar with, I will use the form of the currently printed version in the LDS Doctrine and Covenants corresponding to D&C 107:1-57.

1 There are, in the church, two priesthoods, namely, the Melchizedek and Aaronic, including the Levitical Priesthood.
2 Why the first is called the Melchizedek Priesthood is because Melchizedek was such a great high priest.
3 Before his day it was called the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God.
4 But out of respect or reverence to the name of the Supreme Being, to avoid the too frequent repetition of his name, they, the church, in ancient days, called that priesthood after Melchizedek, or the Melchizedek Priesthood.
5 All other authorities or offices in the church are appendages to this priesthood.
6 But there are two divisions or grand heads—one is the Melchizedek Priesthood, and the other is the Aaronic or Levitical Priesthood.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this passage in modern ecclesial Mormonism. Eventually it would redefine the liturgy of ordination (a later post). Conceptually the revelation establishes two authority “pools” from which all priesthood offices are drawn. These pools are the Melchizedek Priesthood and the Aaronic Priesthood. This revelation marks the first time that this revised architecture is used. Eighty odd years later we find Joseph F. Smith engaging in back reading it into all the early revelations. I will consider this in some detail since it’s so important in current praxis. On the other hand, it became normative in LDS thought. Not only would JFS’s interpretation change the way the revelations were understood, it would change the way priesthood was given to men in the church. Again, I will return to that in a later post. The remark about the Levitical priesthood is curious given later reference in the revelation. But it is certainly a nod to the Mosaic era, where the Levites and the family of Aaron formed two different priestly castes. The revelation formalized a trend in the referential struggle to allow both a way to speak of groups of offices as a superset of particular officers (D&C 84 was struggled with this) as well as individual ranks of the system. Terms like “Melchizedek High Priesthood” were being used along with other hybrids to get some flexibility of language. Even with the April revelation, that language would continue, and continue to evolve. Tracing and making useful sense of the way the rank and file spoke of Mormon authority in these early years is a frustrating and probably unhelpful enterprise in trying to draw conclusions about “doctrine.” The best that can be said is that things had not settled into a uniform lexicon. The April revelation represents a codification of developing semantic clusters and by the beginning of the 20th century, a restrictive and solidifying scheme, if sometimes allowing exegetes to force fault shifts in historical meaning to appear consistent (more to come here).[3]

7 The office of an elder comes under the priesthood of Melchizedek.

This short sentence addressed a question resulting from early practice and revelation. It seems familiar from D&C 84, but recall that the system there was quite different. (See part 6 of this series.) Its import is that the office of elder is no longer a tag-along to the high priesthood. It formally sections out a bit of the new category, “Melchizedek Priesthood.”

8 The Melchizedek Priesthood holds the right of presidency, and has power and authority over all the offices in the church in all ages of the world, to administer in spiritual things.
9 The Presidency of the High Priesthood, after the order of Melchizedek, have a right to officiate in all the offices in the church.
10 High priests after the order of the Melchizedek Priesthood have a right to officiate in their own standing, under the direction of the presidency, in administering spiritual things, and also in the office of an elder, priest (of the Levitical order), teacher, deacon, and member.
11 An elder has a right to officiate in his stead when the high priest is not present.
12 The high priest and elder are to administer in spiritual things, agreeable to the covenants and commandments of the church; and they have a right to officiate in all these offices of the church when there are no higher authorities present.

Some of the important phrases here are “The Presidency of the High Priesthood, after the order of Melchizedek” and “High priests after the order of the Melchizedek Priesthood.” The high priesthood is no longer the fount from which the offices of elder and bishop spring, according to the April revelation and the high priesthood itself lives under the umbrella of the Melchizedek Priesthood. The ordering phrase is reminiscent of section 20 language.

13 The second priesthood is called the Priesthood of Aaron, because it was conferred upon Aaron and his seed, throughout all their generations.
14 Why it is called the lesser priesthood is because it is an appendage to the greater, or the Melchizedek Priesthood, and has power in administering outward ordinances.
15 The bishopric is the presidency of this priesthood, and holds the keys or authority of the same.
16 No man has a legal right to this office, to hold the keys of this priesthood, except he be a literal descendant of Aaron.
17 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 by the hands of the Presidency of the Melchizedek Priesthood.

Here we have a new definition of “lesser priesthood.” It no longer refers just to the office of priest, as it does in D&C 84 for example, and the offices of deacon and teacher are not styled as appendages to it. Instead, all are now drawn from the pool of the Aaronic order. An important addition here is the office of bishop. It is now a part of the Aaronic order, not an appendage to the high priesthood. Moreover, the OT notion of patrilineal heritage attaches to the bishopric. If a literal descendent of Aaron can be identified, he may officiate without being ordained to the high priesthood (which may still officiate in the other offices). During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, no man was identified by the presidency as being in this category. It’s meaning was not practical, but lies in its linkage to the ancient pre-Christian world. In Joseph’s view, the “priesthoods” of all former dispensations would be included in this last restoration (there’s a note in one of these posts about how broad the usage is here during Joseph Smith’s lifetime — I can’t recall where I put it now).

One more item related to the terminology of this portion of the revelation: the presidency of the Aaronic Priesthood. This office is never really defined in scripture elsewhere, but it has a strange connection to the 1832 revelations in D&C 84. With the priesthood architecture of the 1832 revelations, the priest is a kind of parent office, the teacher and deacon offices characterized as outgrowths of the priestly office. By the 1870s at least, some had started to use the language of verse 15 above to consider the bishop the “President of the Aaronic Priesthood.”[4] This kind of speech is wonderfully odd. If you focus one eye on 1832 and another on 1835, there is a perfectly rational explanation for such language. But this bridge between the two worlds in unstable and then paradoxical if you look too broadly (or closely). On the other hand, crossing that bridge brings into focus the office of bishop in current praxis: he is presiding priest (in 1835 no longer part of the high priesthood), and presiding high priest[5] (in 1832 bishop is an outgrowth of the high priesthood — aside from the fact that Partridge was ordained before the high priesthood was announced) at the same time. This figures into the 1835 revelations and redactions in another complex way. Not going there now.

18 The power and authority of the higher, or Melchizedek Priesthood, is to hold the keys of all the spiritual blessings of the church—
19 To have the privilege of receiving the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, to have the heavens opened unto them, to commune with the general assembly and church of the Firstborn, and to enjoy the communion and presence of God the Father, and Jesus the mediator of the new covenant.
20 The power and authority of the lesser, or Aaronic Priesthood, is to hold the keys of the ministering of angels, and to administer in outward ordinances, the letter of the gospel, the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, agreeable to the covenants and commandments.

The quotation from Hebrews 12 is interesting and one Joseph repeated elsewhere (yes, you guessed it, in a funeral sermon!). In a sense, this passage reaffirms that the ideas of D&C 84 are still valid, simply expressed in a new context. In an important way, the revelation takes what was once the sole province of the high priesthood, and spreads it out into the new authority pool, the Melchizedek Priesthood. This language is clearly reflective the book of Hebrews and Joseph saw the book as particularly useful and important in many ways. If any of this seems confusing to you, imagine some of the people on the ground at the time. There is also the fun of re-reconciling these ideas with both the biblical texts and Joseph Smith’s additions and redactions of them. Attempts to locate consistency here are troublesome and often do violence to the texts. But forward.

21 Of necessity there are presidents, or presiding officers growing out of, or appointed of or from among those who are ordained to the several offices in these two priesthoods.
22 Of the Melchizedek Priesthood, three Presiding High Priests, chosen by the body, appointed and ordained to that office, and upheld by the confidence, faith, and prayer of the church, form a quorum of the Presidency of the Church.

The presidency of the high priesthood is molded into the new formalism with a new title: the Presidency of the Church[6] or as it had already become known, the First Presidency (see part 7). This is both a new and a continuing construct. Joseph F. Smith’s (JFS) view was that members of the First Presidency, based on this verse, must be ordained high priests (whether or not they were previously apostles – apostles who had not been ordained high priests should have this done as a matter of course). The presidency are identified as a separate quorum. Some distance is placed between the Presidency of the Church and other high priests by this perhaps, but recall that “quorum” had a less formal import at this period. JFS was a fan of the received text more than the received tradition and part of his liking for James Talmage’s religious work was Talmage’s evident sympathy with that.

23 The twelve traveling councilors are called to be the Twelve Apostles, or special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world—thus differing from other officers in the church in the duties of their calling.
24 And they form a quorum, equal in authority and power to the three presidents previously mentioned.

While early practice following this revelation evidences otherwise, the language here suggests that we look back to the 12 counsellors in the court of the president of the high priesthood (see post 2 or 3 or whichever). Indeed, so did the establishment of the high councils in 1834. In fact, the apostles are a traveling high council as later text shows. The word “quorum” appears again, which now replaces the vague terms used in earlier revelations. The apostles as a group are equal in authority to the presidency “quorum.” The word equal here has never been taken seriously, except in terms of succession – with the possible exception of the financial upheavals of the Woodruff era.

25 The Seventy are also called to preach the gospel, and to be especial witnesses unto the Gentiles and in all the world—thus differing from other officers in the church in the duties of their calling.
26 And they form a quorum, equal in authority to that of the Twelve special witnesses or Apostles just named.
27 And every decision made by either of these quorums must be by the unanimous voice of the same; that is, every member in each quorum must be agreed to its decisions, in order to make their decisions of the same power or validity one with the other—
28 A majority may form a quorum when circumstances render it impossible to be otherwise—
29 Unless this is the case, their decisions are not entitled to the same blessings which the decisions of a quorum of three presidents were anciently, who were ordained after the order of Melchizedek, and were righteous and holy men.

The Seventy are addressed here and we find again that as a quorum their authority is equal to the other two quorums, by transitivity (assuming logical terms are legitimate here), but again, the meaning here is viewed as relevant only in terms of succession. The church presidency is here given an ancient (Old Testament) basis. This meshing of OT and NT was again typical of Joseph’s ideas later characterized by him as “welding” former revelatory epochs into one.

30 The decisions of these quorums, or either of them, are to be made in all righteousness, in holiness, and lowliness of heart, meekness and long suffering, and in faith, and virtue, and knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness and charity;
31 Because the promise is, if these things abound in them they shall not be unfruitful in the knowledge of the Lord.
32 And in case that any decision of these quorums is made in unrighteousness, it may be brought before a general assembly of the several quorums, which constitute the spiritual authorities of the church; otherwise there can be no appeal from their decision.

The judical character of these quorums is hinted at here, and also a new judicial body, the “several quorums.” The meaning here is vague and has never been tested although it could refer to the “solemn assembly” motif. Perhaps it also appears in the approval schemes of new policy or revelation, as in the 1978 priesthood change.

33 The Twelve are a Traveling Presiding High Council, to officiate in the name of the Lord, under the direction of the Presidency of the Church, agreeable to the institution of heaven; to build up the church, and regulate all the affairs of the same in all nations, first unto the Gentiles and secondly unto the Jews.
34 The Seventy are to act in the name of the Lord, under the direction of the Twelve or the traveling high council, in building up the church and regulating all the affairs of the same in all nations, first unto the Gentiles and then to the Jews;
35 The Twelve being sent out, holding the keys, to open the door by the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and first unto the Gentiles and then unto the Jews.

The authoritative ordering which was not implied in the earlier text is given here. Functionally, the Presidency directs the Twelve who direct the Seventy in turn. (In actual fact, the Presidency, when they are healthy, have nearly always directed everybody.)

36 The standing high councils, at the stakes of Zion, form a quorum equal in authority in the affairs of the church, in all their decisions, to the quorum of the presidency, or to the traveling high council.

The high councils en masse form a quorum. There are possible alternate readings (each high council forms a quorum, etc.), but this one is affirmed by some other revelations I will discuss later and text to follow. Never truly tested as an issue of government it nevertheless could be interpreted as a safety valve, available if the unthinkable happened. But see part 15 to come.

37 The high council in Zion form a quorum equal in authority in the affairs of the church, in all their decisions, to the councils of the Twelve at the stakes of Zion.

This curious passage seems to place the Zion high council on a level, by themselves, with the Twelve Apostles (and it also tends to work against the alternate interpretation re, high councils above). Since there is no designated Zion high council at present, the point is moot perhaps, but interesting. Part 15 of this series is also relevant here. Moreover, the Q12 were, in this era, basically barred from messing around in stakes. That would begin to change in Nauvoo as Joseph Smith began to trust Brigham Young and the apostles, removing their activity restrictions and placing many of them in his inner circle in terms of liturgy, polygamy and politics.

38 It is the duty of the traveling high council to call upon the Seventy, when they need assistance, to fill the several calls for preaching and administering the gospel, instead of any others.
39 It is the duty of the Twelve, in all large branches of the church, to ordain evangelical ministers, as they shall be designated unto them by revelation—
40 The order of this priesthood was confirmed to be handed down from father to son, and rightly belongs to the literal descendants of the chosen seed, to whom the promises were made.

The regulation of church “patriarchs” is here. Joseph Smith allowed that the New Testament “evangelist” was equivalent to the Mormon office of patriarch (the use of “evangelical” here provides a bit of unintentional humor) they are to be called by the apostles in all large branches of the church. The patrilineal descent thing already mentioned in regard to bishops reappears here for patriarchs. It was never enforced except in the case of descendants of Joseph Smith Sr. relative to the “Patriarch to the Church” a now deprecated office.

41 This order was instituted in the days of Adam, and came down by lineage in the following manner:
42 From Adam to Seth,…… [leaving stuff out]
53 Three years previous to the death of Adam, he called Seth, Enos, Cainan, Mahalaleel, Jared, Enoch, and Methuselah, who were all high priests, with the residue of his posterity who were righteous, into the valley of Adam-ondi-Ahman, and there bestowed upon them his last blessing.
54 And the Lord appeared unto them, and they rose up and blessed Adam, and called him Michael, the prince, the archangel.
55 And the Lord administered comfort unto Adam, and said unto him: I have set thee to be at the head; a multitude of nations shall come of thee, and thou art a prince over them forever.
56 And Adam stood up in the midst of the congregation; and, notwithstanding he was bowed down with age, being full of the Holy Ghost, predicted whatsoever should befall his posterity unto the latest generation.
57 These things were all written in the book of Enoch, and are to be testified of in due time.

An excerpt(?) here or perhaps a condensation from the “book of Enoch” gives the lineal descent of the ancient patriarchs. The revelation is linked to Joseph’s vision of Adam-ondi-Ahman.

The effect of the April 28 revelation is difficult to quantify. It would (gradually) change the discursive world of Mormonism in many important ways. But the most curious thing about it, was that the 1835 editorial committee decided to include the November 11, 1831 revelation as a continuing text following this one in publication, for some reason even leaving in the special directive about Zion. The semantic tension between the two texts should be evident to the reader by now. But there were certain important elements of the November revelation not found anywhere else. Joseph was sensitive to charges in the past that he produced revelations at need. Preserving the text of the November revelation without major edits was important to all concerned, especially given the rigid nature of the faith of many.

Next time we detour to the next generation of Mormons to consider how things evolved. After that 3 post rascal, we will come back to look at how Joseph and his fellow editors treated the text of the November 11 revelation when they published it as “part 2” of the April 28 revelation above in the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. Don’t give up yet. Even going to the dentist has its benefits. Think of this as a textual equivalent.

[1] Now section 107. Kimball’s reference is to what are now verses 1-57 of D&C 107. Since the original dictated text of the April revelation is not extant, it is difficult to determine how much of the text of 1-57 was given at that time. The “book of Enoch” material may possibly have been a somewhat later addition. Note its similarity to the 1832 material of D&C 84.

[2] A date of March 28 is traditional, but based on the movements of the apostles and Joseph Smith, it seems likely that the March date is in error. For some analysis of the date, see Steven C. Harper, Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants pp. 563-564 n2. My thanks to Jonathan Stapley for pointing out Harper to me (I think, my apologies if it was a different bloke).

[3] Book of Mormon language deploys a “high priesthood,” sometimes as part of an “order” but other times, not. Hence both the term and the identification of “high priesthood” and “high priest” I’ve been beating you over the head with have very early support in Mormon semantics and biblical usage reflects this very clearly as well. Early Latter-day Saints saw this in their Protestant traditions both from high church and low church sources. Other people still understand the term “priesthood” in this way, and occasionally Mormons still use it that way. For example in speeches to Young Women organizations there were sometimes references to acknowledging the “priesthood” but this didn’t refer to the Mormon category as much as it did fellow workers in either the Young Men organization or local or general church leaders like bishoprics, etc.

[4] For example, see Orson Pratt’s address to the London Conference March 9, 1879. (JD 22:194) Pratt here also reads the presiding bishopric into the bishop mythos in this speech. He really liked to stir things up. For more here see the bishopric series from the last April.

[5] For at least some decades this was official. See Widtsoe, Priesthood and Church Government p. 169.

[6] Note the presence of the KRB preamble here. The KRB text is from the 1834 time period. [See the JSP intro to Revelation Book 2.]


  1. WVS, what a great series. I read all of them to this point today, and I feel like I am drinking from a firehose (or, in computer terms, a buffer overflow). This has answered a few questions for me, and raised a number of others, but it will take me some time to process all of this. Can we refer to you as the CTW (Chief Textual Wonk)? I’m seconding Stapley, this deserves to be all compiled in a single document, once it’s all out there, for more deliberate study. Keep it up!

  2. Thanks, Kevinf.