Your October Conference Prep: Textual Origins of LDS Priesthood Organization, Part XIV. Priesthood Ordination Praxis.

In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, how is a man ordained to the priesthood? This question is fraught with historical complexity both in the meaning of the terms deployed in that sentence, and the ways in which acceptable practice has evolved over the years.

For the first 90 years or so of LDS church organization, priesthood ordination ceremony gradually developed into more or less the following pattern:

By authority of the Holy Priesthood and by the laying on of hands, I ordain you an elder in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and confer upon you all the rights, powers keys and authority pertaining to this office and calling in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

This was modeled again more or less on Book of Mormon text from which it probably unrolled:

In the name of Jesus Christ I ordain you to be a priest, (or, if he be a teacher) I ordain you to be a teacher, to preach repentance and remission of sins through Jesus Christ, by the endurance of faith on his name to the end. Amen.[1]

It seems the nearer we get to 1830, the simpler the form becomes. Ordinations in Ohio were quite simple: “Brother – – – we lay our hands upon thee and ordain thee an elder . . .” for example. There were some variations on this. Some blessing words were often included.

This was turned on its head in 1919 with the wide distribution of a collection of Joseph F. Smith’s sermons and writings titled Gospel Doctrine. I quote the following passage from the book:

The revelation in section 107, Doctrine and Covenants, verses 1, 5, 6, 7, 21, clearly points out that the Priesthood is a general authority or qualification, with certain offices or authorities appended thereto. Consequently the conferring of the Priesthood should precede and accompany ordination to office, unless it be possessed by previous bestowal and ordination. Surely a man cannot possess an appendage to the Priesthood without possessing the Priesthood itself, which he cannot obtain unless it be authoritatively conferred upon him.

Take, for instance, the office of a deacon: the person ordained should have the Aaronic Priesthood conferred upon him in connection with his ordination. He cannot receive a portion or fragment of the Aaronic Priesthood, because that would be acting on the idea that either or both of the (Melchizedek and Aaronic) Priesthoods were subject to subdivision, which is contrary to the revelation.

In ordaining those who have not yet received the Aaronic Priesthood, to any office therein, the words of John the Baptist to Joseph Smith, Jr., and Oliver Cowdery, would be appropriate to immediately precede the act of ordination. They are:
“Upon you my fellow servants [servant], in the name of Messiah, I confer the Priesthood of Aaron.”
Of course, it would not necessarily follow that these exact words should be used, but the language should be consistent with the act of conferring the Aaronic Priesthood. [Gospel Doctrine, chapter 9.]

The procedure advocated by President Smith of “conferring” the “priesthood” prior to ordaination seemed odd or unnecessary to many and after his death in 1918, the new First Presidency (Heber J. Grant era) issued a statement to the effect that the “old” way (see above) was quite as effective and acceptable as the JFS process. Of course, JFS’s argument is partly without basis regarding the ordination by John the Baptist. Whether the rest of his argument is forceful was a matter of relatives.[2]

JFS’s view of the priesthood was colored by the natural misunderstanding derived from the joining of the April 1835 revelation with the November 1831 revelation. Consider this remark from the same chapter:

Further in the same revelation [D&C 107] verses 65 and 66, we are told:
“Wherefore it must needs be that one be appointed of the High Priesthood to preside over the Priesthood, and he shall be called President of the High Priesthood of the Church:

“Or in other words, the presiding High Priest over the High Priesthood of the Church.”

It is well to remember that the term “High Priesthood,” as frequently used, has reference to the Melchizedek Priesthood, in contradistinction to the “lesser,” or Aaronic Priesthood.[Emphasis added.]

The meaning of “lesser priesthood” had (textually) shifted with the April 1835 portion of D&C107. But “high priesthood” was never shifted in meaning, in fact Joseph Smith and most everyone else was using the term to refer to high priests up until he died.[3] His successors in Utah used it the same way. JFS used it the same way: witness the letter to John Pack in part 10.

In spite of the Heber J. Grant First Presidency letter regarding ordinations, later church leaders evidently found President Smith’s position compelling and it eventually became policy (officially in the 1960s). This is an interesting pattern that has been repeated in several ways in church doctrine and practice. In this case it may be true that the JFS method was popularized by Bruce R. McConkie’s 1958 book Mormon Doctrine.[4] From a recent edition of the LDS Church handbook of instruction:

To perform a priesthood ordination, one or more authorized priesthood holders place their hands lightly on the person’s head. Then the priesthood holder who performs the ordination:

1. Calls the person by his full name.

2. States the authority by which the ordination is performed (Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthood).

3. Confers the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthood unless it has already been conferred.

4. Ordains the person to an office in the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthood and bestows the rights, powers and authority of that office. (Priesthood keys are not bestowed in conferring the priesthood or ordaining to one of these offices.)

5. Gives a priesthood blessing as the Spirit directs.

6. Closes in the name of Jesus Christ.

Hence we see that the joining of the two revelations and the eventual fading of meanings influenced liturgical practice in the 20th century.

JFS saw his “new” interpretation of the revelations as incorporating a broad view of succession. If all church authority was wiped out by some unimaginable cataclysm, with the exception of a single elder, that elder held full authority (the “Melchizedek Priesthood”) to reconstruct every aspect of the institutional church. No reason for angels to revisit planet earth. I’ll look at this from a different angle later.

Meanwhile, President Smith’s procedure was not just mechanical, it provided for a kind of “super-office” or a sort of “possessing the order” as well as some or another office in that “order.” I think this a rather curious, but it is built in to our understanding by the adoption of this liturgy. Textual liturgy is not just praxis. It is doctrine.

[1] The Book of Mormon pattern was seen as appropriate at least until 1900.

[2] There’s a double meaning in that. But kidding aside, probably one of the most influential church-produced books of the 20th century was John A. Widtsoe’s Priesthood and Church Government. Widtsoe quoted the Grant presidency in the 1939 book: “By authority (or in the authority) of the Holy Priesthood and by the laying on of hands, I (or we) ordain you an Elder (or Seventy, or High Priest, or Patriarch, or Apostle, as the case may be) in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and confer upon you all the rights, powers, keys and authority pertaining to this office and calling in the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.” p. 243-4.

[3] For example, Times and Seasons 2 (15 April 1841):387-88.

[4] My thanks to J. Stapley for checking 20th century handbooks for the method of ordination. Apparently, the method changed in 1964 to the JFS version.

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