Your Sunday Brunch Special: “Conferring the Priesthood.” When Architecture Becomes Liturgy.

Priesthood is a complex subject in Mormonism. The very meaning of the word has ebbed and flowed. Below, I focus on ecclesiastical office in a narrow sense. I only consider church structures involving the practice of ordination, not “setting apart” in the modern vernacular. For a larger treatment, see my article in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.

"Melchizedek Priesthood" is the umbrella category for a number of offices.

“Melchizedek Priesthood” is the umbrella category (Order) for a number of offices.

You may have been /party to/observer of/ the ordination of a Mormon male to priesthood office. It happens a lot. Perhaps you noted that when a deacon or an elder is sustained/ordained there is a bit of special language:
The Aaronic Order or category.

The Aaronic Order or category.

. . . we lay our hands upon your head and confer upon you the Aaronic Priesthood and ordain you a deacon in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


. . . we lay our hands upon your head and confer upon you the Melchizedek Priesthood and ordain you an elder in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The language “confer upon you . . .” is the point of this post.[1]

The words seem natural given that Mormons see their priesthood as having the taxonomic structure illustrated in the two diagrams.

It is a fact that Joseph Smith’s revelation in the spring of 1835 (now available as verses 1-57 of Doctrine and Covenants 107) more or less outlines this grouping of priesthood offices. Prior to that revelation, offices were grouped in other ways and following the 1835 revelation, church speech and practice only gradually adjusted.[2] The notions of Melchizedek Priesthood and Aaronic Priesthood as they appear in section 107 were back-written into some earlier revelations in the 1835 first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.

But whatever changes the 1835 revelation wrought on Mormon thinking about priesthood I think it is important to state that the revelation helped cement 1835 Mormon views of priesthood and it is vital that we exercise some caution in trying to see that 1835 architecture in our readings of other scripture, ancient or modern, no matter how redacted. The 1835 revelation gives us a way to talk about Mormon priesthood, but not necessarily (in spite of the naming reasons offered in Doctrine and Covenants 107 — an issue I plan to discuss sometime) a ruling definition for other passages of scripture or Mormon literature, especially that of the nineteenth century. I think Joseph Smith might agree here: he saw the restoration as not just a return of the former glories, but a new way of looking at the old, the sometime sacralization of the secular and the expansion of religion aided by new revelation and inspired extension of definition.

Turning back to the point of this, the basic issues are folded into these two assertions:

(1) Joseph Smith, and for that matter Latter-day Saints up to 1900, saw the 1835 categories as a way to think about priesthood and jurisdiction. They did not see it as a liturgical warrant. When priesthood ordinations took place, there was no conferral of genus, only species. No one had the Aaronic/Melchizedek Priesthood “conferred,” just as no one had the “order of Jesus” conferred.[3]

(2) After 1900, church President Joseph F. Smith began, on occasion, to advocate a conferral rite. When, after his death, the book Gospel Doctrine: Sermons and Writings of President Joseph F. Smith was published, it contained this advocacy as supported by his exegesis of Doctrine and Covenants 107.[4]

As a result of President Smith’s view, his son, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, and perhaps others, took up the idea. Elder Smith’s son-in-law and general authority Bruce R. McConkie, included the idea of conferral as part of the rite of initial priesthood ordination in his 1958 Mormon Doctrine. In the meantime, church handbooks were either silent on the subject, or outlined the pre-Joseph F. Smith pattern. It was not until the 1960s that we find church practice officially changed in favor of the Joseph F. Smith rite. The way we read texts is influenced by and then influences in its turn, every aspect of our lives. Don’t eat too many croissants.


[1] When a Mormon male is ordained to priesthood office for the first time, the congregation is invited to sustain the conferral of priesthood category as well as the particular priesthood office.

[2] Reference to priesthood office and position were in flux from 1830. Earlier revelations captured snapshots of that evolving referential structure.

[3] The language Joseph Smith used to describe John the Baptist’s appearance and actions was important in later evolution. But care is necessary in interpreting Joseph’s meaning in his 1838 recital of the event. Indeed, the whole angelic priesthood delivery mythos is in need of careful reanalysis. I’m not doing that here.

[4] This was seen as somewhat shocking by readers (it is important to understand the circulation of even general conference addresses was relatively small and so Pres. Smith’s ideas had small audience originally, and the way these speeches were seen . . . that’s another story). The result was a nearly immediate 2nd edition of the book with a letter from the new Heber J. Grant First Presidency, outlining that this was Pres. Smith’s opinion and that the historical modes of ordination without conferral were acceptable, correct and need not be altered.


  1. What did the pre-1900 ordination language look like? If “confer” was not used, was it simply a matter of saying “you are ordained to the office of a _____”? How was the priesthood “given”? Or was it not “given” at all?

  2. jg, a formal required change didn’t take place until the 1960s. Prior to that, one might simply be ordained to the selected office, as in “we lay our hands upon your head and ordain you an elder in the . . . . ” The Book of Mormon form for ordination of teachers was an acceptable pattern. Joseph F. Smith started the ball rolling, but his was a minority view for many years.

  3. Thanks for this? I think this is a very important perspective about how this particular approach evolved. It is also fascinating to contemplate such an evolution — to think that the current practice stems from one person’s preference that was sort of codified after his death by the posthumous publication of his “teachings” material. And then, despite a First Presidency letter that this approach was one person’s opinion, the whole Church ended up following this approach as if it had been written on the tablets on Mt. Sinai because Elder McConkie included it in his own book collecting his opinions about Gospel topics, Mormon Doctrine.

    Truth be told, however, I like the bifurcation of conferral and ordination. It’s very clinical and categorical. So I can see why Elder McConkie grabbed on to his father-in-law’s preference and ran with it.

    I’m just saying it’s interesting to observe how these things sometimes develop.

    Do you have any sources or historical anecdotes behind your statement that President Joseph F. Smith’s opinion about this conferral rite was “shocking” to many readers, thus eliciting the First Presidency letter in the second edition of his Gospel Doctrine? Was it along the lines of “Oh my, look what JFS is saying is required for proper priesthood ordination — a “conferral rite” couple with ordaining to a particular office within the particular priesthood order (AP vs. MP). My ordination did not contain these elements; rather, Bro. Jones just flat out ordained me an Elder when I received the MP. So is my ordination bogus?”

  4. Didn’t mean to make that first sentence a question! Sorry about that. I am thankful for this.

  5. John, there were letters to the FP about the assertion in the book, and some people were indeed concerned that their ordinations were invalid. Church magazines and other publications prior to Gospel Doc. used the original form and given our historic need for harmony, you can feature the concern of some folks. And thanks? (grin)

  6. Chris Kimball says:

    Thanks for this. Let me contribute a family story from memory (not actual quotes and no reference available, call it apocryphal but I was there):
    When Spencer Kimball come back to his home shortly after becoming President (1974), one of his grandsons asked him whether the presidency was conferred or ordained? SWK gave a fairly casual reply to which the grandson responded “that’s not what Elder McConkie says”. SWK came back with two replies: (a) Elder McConkie doesn’t know everything, and (b) it doesn’t matter what it’s called, I was there and I know what happened.
    I like to think that last line (“I know what happened”) is the real lesson, a one-liner response to the various “did it really count” worries people have had over the years, about their own ordinations/confirmations/setting aparts/etc.

  7. Chris, thanks for the anecdote. The question of whether one is ordained or set apart as church president is the top of a fascinating organizational tree. Most of it invisible.

  8. J. Stapley says:

    Love this stuff. How liturgy develops and then in turn influences belief and praxis. I think that the 1968 handbook could arguably be the single most influencial liturgical text of the 20th century.

  9. J., does one particular aspect of the 68 handbook stand out for you?

  10. Chris Kimball says:

    #6 & #7: I don’t remember and may never have known whether the question or the casual answer was “confer”, “ordain” or “set apart”, or some combination or variation.The story itself tells why I never bothered to find out or remember.

  11. Chris, I have never heard “confer” used in that context and I presumed that “set apart” was the original verbiage. That was indeed presumptive and it would be rather cool if “confer” was used. Thanks again.

  12. You state, “No one had the Aaronic/Melchizedek Priesthood “conferred” then in your foot note you hand wave away the instance where someone did have it conferred. “Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of the Messiah, I CONFER the priesthood of Aaron….” Your point is taken about genus vs. species is asserted, but seemingly contradicted by D&C 13. Could you comment more on that?

  13. Fascinating to see how these things develop. I have asked two temple sealers about the wording used when they were given the sealing power. Both told me that the word “confer” was used, as in, “I confer upon you the sealing power.” Given the significance that the word “confer” has taken on in the post-JFSII/McConkie church, I have always wondered why there would be a third “conferral.” Posts like this help me to read less into things like that.

  14. kaphor, in early Mormonism, the word “priesthood” meant one was a “priest.” By 1838, that terminology was no longer fixed, but still in use. Assuming JS was accurate in his usage after 9 years, then earlier saints saw this act as ordaining JS and Cowdery to the office of priest. At the time of that ordination, there was no concept of Aaronic Priesthood as authority pool as we see it (in the above diagram).

  15. Jacob, that is interesting. Thank you.

  16. Very interesting.
    Isn’t the proper conferral of priesthood one of the issues of fundamentalists? So they make big fuss about nothing.

  17. Niklas, it’s been a while since I’ve looked at that literature, but you’re right. They did have an issue about ordinations.

  18. Yes, Niklas, to the Fundamentalists the method of conferring priesthood office is a VERY big deal. See and (an AUB study guide)

  19. I’d forgotten that business. They have it precisely backwards.

  20. Joshua B. says:

    Does anyone know how artwork depicting Smith and the laying on of hands would play into this topic? Was that purely an artist’s rendition or is there historical accuracy in this depiction?

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