Roman Key

A Roman iron key, c. 1st–3rd century AD. 185 mm (7 1/4″) long, “head” of key measures 2 1/4 x 2 3/4.”

As Rebecca J just noted, the theme for youth instruction for the month of June is priesthood and priesthood keys. In the revelations of Joseph Smith, the Biblical leitmotifs of opening and closing, of binding and unbinding, and of sealing and unsealing all come to be associated in deeply significant ways with the priesthood orders of the Church. In this post, I will focus on the theme of opening and closing as it connects to the imagery of keys.

The earliest reference to a symbolic key in the scriptures is in Isaiah 22:20–22. Here, Jehovah announces his intention to replace Shebna, an unfaithful servant, with Eliakim, and give him charge of the royal quarters (the house of David). The imagery of a key being laid upon his shoulder may be more literal than we might at first surmise, since keys in the ancient world could be quite large and were often worn by their guardians on a cord around the neck or slung conspicuously over the shoulder as an indicator of one’s status.

Significant, too, in this passage is the language that “he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” Some interpreters discern a connection between this saying and Jesus’s words to Peter in Matthew 16:18–19: “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind [tie up] on earth shall be bound [tied up] in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose [untie] on earth shall be loosed [untied] in heaven.” In Jesus’s saying, the gates of hell (Hades) are in contrast to the what are assumed to be the gates of the kingdom of heaven that the keys given to Peter fit, which is why we have imagery in popular culture to this day of Peter serving as the guardian of “the pearly gates,” sometimes with a big ring of keys hanging from his sash.


Another implicit contrast to Peter and his keys may also be discerned in Jesus’s rebuke of the lawyers in Luke 11:52: “You have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered.” Similar language in Matthew 23:13 about the elites of Jesus’s day hindering others and not going in themselves, while omitting reference to any key, nevertheless clearly refers to “the kingdom of heaven” to which Peter is given the keys in Matthew 16. Taken together, then, these passages suggest that Jesus had committed to Peter a stewardship (represented by keys) over Jesus’s community, his teachings, and the teaching of sacred things (the key of knowledge) generally.

Finally, in Revelation 3:7, we hear a clear echo from Isaiah 22:22 as reference is made to “he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth.”

Moving to the scriptures of the Restoration, it is curious to note that though there are some striking usages of allied imagery of entering in at the gate (of baptism), the keeper of the gate, and of opening and shutting the heavens, no explicit reference to keys of authority is made in the Book of Mormon. However, it was in the process of translating the Book of Mormon that Joseph’s revelations began to mention keys, the first reference coming in April, 1829, shortly after the arrival of Oliver Cowdery and his beginning to act as scribe.

According a revelation now recorded in Section 6, Joseph and Oliver were both given “the keys of this gift” of “bringing to light… those parts of my scriptures which have been hidden because of iniquity.” This is usually assumed to be a reference to the translation of the Book of Mormon, though the language is somewhat plastic. It indicates, I would argue, that the earliest understanding of the Book of Mormon was that it was a recovery of lost portions of what were properly to be regarded as Israelite scriptures, and that further recovery would be undertaken with Joseph Smith’s inspired version of the Bible. As a side note, Joseph’s inspired version of Luke 3 would be a tour de force of multi-layered revision. It alters not only Luke, but Isaiah, whom Luke is quoting and who, according to Joseph’s revision, is in turn quoting a lost scripture called “the book of the prophets,” which reads:

For behold, and lo, he shall come, as it is written in the book of the prophets, to take away the sins of the world, and to bring salvation unto the heathen nations, to gather together those who are lost, who are of the sheepfold of Israel;

Yea, even the dispersed and afflicted; and also to prepare the way, and make possible the preaching of the gospel unto the Gentiles;

And to be a light unto all who sit in darkness, unto the uttermost parts of the earth; to bring to pass the resurrection from the dead, and to ascend up on high, to dwell on the right hand of the Father,

Until the fullness of time, and the law and the testimony shall be sealed, and the keys of the kingdom shall be delivered up again unto the Father…

I find it interesting that there are latter-day keys mentioned in various latter-day revelations or pronouncements to nearly every specific action mentioned in that pericope—preparation, gathering, preaching the gospel, and even resurrection.

Returning to the Book of Mormon in search of the development of the latter-day understanding of keys, it may well have been Nephi’s pointed teachings about baptism as “the gate by which ye must enter” that prompted Joseph and Oliver to take a break from translating on May 15, 1839, to pray in the woods about how to approach that gate.  Joseph Smith’s 1835 history records that John the Baptist appeared and conferred upon him and Oliver “the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins….”  (See JS-H 1:68–69). This revelation represents the first explicit connection of keys to priesthood in any of the scriptures and is plausibly associated with the imagery of opening that harkens, via the Book of Mormon, all the way back to Peter and Isaiah.

As Joseph continued to receive revelations, there came a proliferation of keys, which has been summarized elsewhere. I have a sense, though, that there is more work to be done on the subject of keys within the revealed religion of the Latter-day Saints. Some questions I have:

  • How early, using the scriptures, can one make the case for keys being associated with priesthood and/or with priesthood office?
  • Can keys be connected to temple functions in the ancient world?
  • What about the keys of the ministry of Peter, James, and John mentioned in another revelation by Joseph Smith dating from the same early period of the translation process, when he and Oliver Cowdery were learning about keys?
  • Were keys such as those mentioned in Joseph’s revelations being talked about in other denominations at the time?
  • Are there keys that are not tied to priesthood office or authority?
  • What is the significance of Joseph Smith’s language to the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo in 1842, when he said:

This Society is to get instruction thro’ the order which God has established— thro’ the medium of those appointed to lead— and I now turn the key to you in the name of God.

  • Do keys expire?
  • If they are conferred at the beginning of one’s service in an office, when that service is ended, are the keys revoked, returned, or made inactive?—or do such questions reveal an overly literal approach to the notion of keys?


NOTE: This post is the sixth in a series based on the monthly themes from “Come, Follow Me,” the new youth curriculum for the Church. Here are the previous posts for JanuaryFebruaryMarchApril, and May.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    I used to have a key to the stake offices in our building (I don’t recall at this point why they gave me one). I had it for maybe two or three years, but towards the end of that time I had been made a YMP, and every now and then on a Tuesday night I’d lead the boys on a raid to sneak some candy from the high council stash they kept in the offices. It wasn’t hard to figure out who was doing this, so they took the key away from me. So yes, where keys are given they may also be taken away…

  2. Rachel Whipple says:

    I like the image of a mantle of authority better than keys, perhaps because it is less common.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    A sticky thing is that JS (and others) used the term “key” or “keys” to mean different things at different times. We have a modern catechismal value that sort of overshadows any of the nuance present. I really appreciate your elucidation of the ancient context, though. Very helpful.

  4. Thanks, J. Stapley. You are right that the concept of keys evolved for Joseph Smith. I wish I had had the time to lay that out a little better, but it’s the sense I got of it as I read the sources that motivates, in part, my comment near the end of the post—that it feels like there is more to understand about keys in the restoration context.

  5. This was a very helpful discussion of keys, which I have long struggled to understand. In the process of talking about “openings and closing” here, I couldn’t help but think about data encryption keys. Encryption keys are primarily about privacy, but also about authority and verification. Software downloads on the internet come with a hash (encrypted signature) to verify authenticity and accuracy of the download. An encrypted password and/or encryption key is required to “open” a connection to a remote secured network. There are a lot of interesting parallels here that I am thinking about. Very interesting discussion, thanks for sharing.

  6. Joseph M says:

    I think it’s important to recognize that key is a metiphorical description something to help us understand how these particular aspects of the Priesthood operate. The reason Key dosent apear in the BoM is that that was not a metaphore they would have understood. The equivelent at that time and place would have been Seal and a great example of what tis means in
    Esther 8:8
    Write ye also for the Jews, as it liketh you, in the king’s name, and seal it with the king’s ring: for the writing which is written in the king’s name, and sealed with the king’s ring, may no man reverse.

    And D&C 104:64
    And the vails of the sacred things shall be had in the treasury, and a seal shall be upon it; and it shall not be used or taken out of the treasury by any one, neither shall the seal be loosed which shall be placed upon it, only by the voice of the order, or by commandment.

    I think the idea of key is useful mostly because it leads our mind to the concept of a door.
    I have gained some insight in to how keys can opperate on different levels because I have worked in high security areas and they have very interesting doors.

    This will be a little long to set up so as ask your patience

    On the door there will generaly be an combination lock, an alarm system, and a magnetic badge reader sometimes with a number pad for a key code. Esentialy ther are three keys to the door.

    If the secure room is unoccupied it is locked. At the end of the day, when the building is unoccupied, the door is locked and the alarm is set. At the begining the day In order for someone to enter the room there must be some one with the combination, the alarm code, and a badge. These may not all be in possetion of the same person and possesing more of them adds additional responsibility and LIABILITY to the person who holds that key.

    A person with the combination can open the door, but without an alarm code the room can’t be used. With an alarm code I can make the room useable but before I leave I have to make sure that either someone else with a code is there or everyone else has left. If I have a badge only, I can enter as long as the door is unlocked and I can escort in other people who don’t have a badge as long as I record their entry and stay with them at all times.

    Inside the Rom ther are often locked cabinets and computer systems that have their own paswords and combinations.

    To analogize to the Priesthood. Being baptized and given the gift of the Holy Ghost is like having a badge. You can partake freely of the Power of the Priesthood and Help others (children, non-members) to partake of it ( My reading of D&C 20 especialy v 38 is that the first office of the Priesthood is Member . Holding Keys (like having the Combination and Alarm code) confers the responsibility to open the door for others as well as liability if that door is not kept open. I don’t think most people realize that Quorum Presidents are responsible not just for the care of the members of the Church but everyone who could be a member who lives in the area of their responsibility, baptised or not.

    Some People have authority to hand out badges, or the combination, or alarm code (Bishops, Stake Presedents, Apostles), others can give acces to things in the room itself ( Priests, Elders, Sealers and other Temple workers). In all cases the keys exist to make it posible for other people to make use of the room/ priesthood power and expand thier capacity to exercise their agency. When JSjr. “Turned the Key” for the RS he oppened a new room wher in the Sisters had access to a different portion of the Power of God.

    As another thought consider the Apostecy as the door being closed,and locked, and the combination changed but the alarm not being set. The room was still useable if you were already in it but no new people could get in until the new combination was given out.

    In any case I hope this analogy provides some ideas.

  7. Thanks for this, Morgan.

    It’s interesting how such a simple concept as a key can be so profound to different people in different ways, as evidenced by its relevance today in ways that would have been unimaginable to the ancient people who wrote about keys.

    I like the framework of opening and closing, but I also like the purpose of most openings. It’s one thing to talk about opening a door (or gate) in order to enter a room (or restricted area), but it’s another thing entirely to talk about opening a door or gate with the purpose of seeing / experiencing what is inside the room or restricted area. In other words, keys, primarily, aren’t about getting into a locked space; rather, at the core, they are about access to something of value – whether that be gold or an elite group or solitude or safety or increased light and knowledge. It’s not the room that is the focal point of having keys; it’s what is inside the room and the benefit of what’s inside the room.

    That’s easy to forget that in the myopia of “getting into the Celestial kingdom” – or any other location. In Mormon theology, the ultimate destination is a condition – and the key generally gets someone on the path and allows her to walk along the proper path – having her condition changed as she walks. I believe, therefore, that life’s journey is comprised of a series of keys – and, in a real way, I believe the final destination has no key and no entrance, Rather, it is where someone ends up after all the gates have been opened and the veils parted and the realization hits that she was “there” all along. Thus, theoretically, there is one key chain holding copies of the same master key.

    At least, that view works for me right now.

  8. Nice review of the sources, Morgan. I think it is important to emphasize that “keys” are just a metaphor — there aren’t any real keys. It is just a way to talk about how duties and responsibilities are assigned and authorized within the LDS priesthood structure, and perhaps by extension how God organizes and authorizes the various divine tasks he assigns to gods, angels, and men.

    LDS rhetoric often reifies the keys metaphor, as if keys, real keys, actually explain something about the LDS priesthood. We could easily employ other metaphors. And metaphorical explanations are only valid or helpful to the extent they correspond to whatever it is they are applied to (reality trumps the metaphor). I’d be pleased if some leader in a presentation just ditched the keys discussion and put up an org chart showing how supervisory authority is actually assigned within our ward organization, which includes the priesthood branch (the Bishop, the EQP, the HPGL) and the auxiliaries (various presidents). It only confuses things to create distinctions between the keyed and the keyless which don’t correspond to how authority is actually distributed within LDS wards.

  9. Also, Morgan, an interesting early Mormon use of the concept of keys is Eliza R. Snow’s reference in “Oh, My Father” to the foundation of her understanding of the existence of Heavenly Mother being the restoration of “the key of knowledge”.

  10. I’m with Dave. Keys are a useful metaphor, but there is inconsistency in their application. Counselors in stake presidencies cannot set apart elder’s quorum presidents because they don’t have keys. Yet Seventies set apart Stake Presidents using delegated authority. And despite the fact that elders quorum presidents hold keys and high priest group leaders do not, there is no practical difference of authority between the two, including the ability to call and set apart secretaries and instructors. What is the real difference between keys and delegated authority? (See Handbook 2, 2.1.1.)

  11. Great comments and questions, all. I’m on the plains, headed towards MO, so I won’t attempt any lengthy response right now. But I think Jared’s examples raise some interesting questions.

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