A new reading of the “Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood”

Michelangelo's Moses

Michelangelo’s Moses

What follows here is an alternate reading of the “Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood,” viz., D&C 84. I realize that this reading differs from the traditional reading. I think that this is okay, mostly because the traditional reading is different than the contextual reading. Section 84 is based on a revelation delivered on September 22, and 23, 1832, when organizational concepts such as the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods had not yet been revealed. See WVS’s extended treatment of Section 107 for more on that. I tend to think that the common reading today translates the text into a 1836-era framework of administrative priesthood. The following is a reading based on Joseph Smith’s revelations and cosmology of the Nauvoo-era. Basically it starts as a contextual reading and then shifts to a translation of the text into the Nauvoo-era cosmological priesthood. I’m not saying that this reading should be normative, but I do think it works with from the Nauvoo perspective quite well and is more egalitarian. Your mileage may vary.

1-4. This is a revelation for the gathering of the Saints in Zion (outside of Independence, Missouri), where a temple is to be built.

5. Seriously we are going to build a temple.

5-6. The earliest text we have for these verses: “…a cloud shall rest upon it which cloud shall be even the glory of the Lord which shall fill the house, and the sons of Moses according to the holy Priest hood which he received under the [hand of his] father in Law Jethro..” So is it that the glory of the Lord shall fill the house and the sons of Moses according to the holy Priesthood? I tend to think so (you’ll see below). The next verses (7-16) are about this particular priesthood that makes you a son of Moses.

17. The priesthood of Moses is in upon all generations of the church and is eternal.

18. The Lord also gave a priesthood to Aaron and his sons, which is also through all generations and all time.

I’m going to stop here and note that in Nauvoo, JS revealed an expanded cosmological priesthood (seriously read that, this won’t make as much sense without it). The roots of this expansion perhaps drink from this section. In light of the last two verses, consider this 1842 revelation to NK Whitney, the text of which is likely unfamiliar, but the principle shouldn’t be. It is about joining the cosmological priesthood by experiencing a temple sealing by which he would attain “immortality and eternal life” for himself and for all his “house both old and young because of the lineage of my Preasthood saith the Lord. it shall be upon you and upon your Children after you from generation to generation.” [n1]

19. The priesthood of Moses is the greater priesthood and has the authority to administer the church and opens access to the mysteries and knowledge of God.

20-21. It is in the rituals performed by the priesthood of Moses that the power of Godliness is manifest. Particularly, the rituals of the temple. Just saying.

22. You need to have the priesthood of Moses to see the face of God…like Moses did.

Let’s take another excursion to Nauvoo. Three days before revealing the Nauvoo temple liturgy, which is the foundation for our temple work, JS addressed the Elders of the church. He had addressed the Relief Society a couple days before that and promised them the keys of the kingdom, same as he was going to give to the Elders. Anyway, from the JS diary we have a summary of what he said to the elders:

The keys are certain signs & words by which false spirits & personages may be detected from true.— which cannot be revealed to the Elders till the Temple is completed.— The rich can only get them in the Temple. The poor may get them on the Mountain top as did moses…There are signs in heaven earth & hell. the elders must know them all to be endued with power. to finish their work & prevent imposition. The devil knows many signs. but does not know the sign of the son of man. or Jesus. No one can truly say he knows God until he has handled something. & these this can only be in the holiest of Holies.

What Moses experienced was promised to the Elder’s of the Church and to the Sisters before them (see the April 28, 1842 RS Minutes available at the JSPP website).

23. Now, what was that that Moses wanted to do? Have the people behold God’s face.

24-28. Because of hard hearts, Moses’ priesthood was removed, but Aaron’s remained. For fun check the earliest text for vs. 28.

29. Here we have an introduction of the High Priesthood, i.e., the office of High Priests. Bishops and Elders are appendages of the High Priests.

30. Deacons and Teachers are appendages of Priests. For more on this, see WVS’s 107 review linked above. Though this is more a contextual reading that my Nauvoo translation.


Now we are going to talk about how these priesthoods and their exemplars relate to the temple (remember the Kirtland temple is not in play yet, the focus is on Independence, but again, we are translating that to Nauvoo).

31-32. The sons of Moses, and the Sons of Aaron are to participate at the temple in Zion and thereby be filled with Glory (see vs. 5-6 above; see, this is coming together). Also you people are the sons of Moses and Aaron, in case you were wondering.

Now we get into the nitty gritty of the Oath and Covenant. I’m going to come out and say that the subsequent reading is as though it was pointed toward the Nauvoo Temple and associated Cosmological Priesthood. As we read above (seriously, you need to read the link on cosmological priesthood), JS promised the keys of the kingdom as presented in the temple to both men and women. This should not be a surprise to anyone who has participated in the modern temple, because that is precisely what happens.

33. Those who attain the priesthood of the temple are sanctified unto the renewing of their bodies. Think about the promises of temple as they relate to your body. Also as a fun side note, until 1923 temples used to be places for special healing.

34. Those who go to the temple become the sons (and daughters) of Moses and Aaron, the seed of Abraham, the church and the elect of God.

35-38. Those who go to the temple receive the Father, one might say they enter his presence, and they are given all that the Father has.

40-42. This is the Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood. And if you turn from this covenant you will not have forgiveness in this world or the world to come. In Nauvoo, and in association with the temple, JS taught that those who experienced any sealing (including birth in the covenant) were sealed unto eternal life, excepting they sin against the holy ghost. See here.


  1. Your reading resembles Paul Toscanos reading (I’m referring to his Sunstone article from 198?). Althoug Toscano talked about the fulness of the priesthood, which probable wasn’t understood sameway when this revelation was received (1832) than today.

  2. This is very helpful in thinking about the Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood and opens up some avenues of future study for me. Thanks for posting your work.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    I’m glad that it is useful, Karen.

    Niklas, I’m not familiar with that work, though I imagine that what we differ in our understanding of what the Nauvoo-era temple-related priesthood language meant.

  4. Here is a link to Toscanos paper:

    Click to access 061-30-37.pdf

    “For Joseph Smith, then, the oath and covenant of the priesthood did not refer to the two parts of a bilateral contract, nor to any kind of mutual contract with God. Instead, the oath and covenant is a unilateral promise made by God, and sealed by his own oath. This promise is not extended to all priesthood bearers, but only to those men and women who have received the fulness of the priesthood.”

  5. J. Stapley says:

    Yeah, I pretty much emphatically disagree with that reading. I think it is important to note that I’m not saying JS viewed the revelation in Section 84 as I am reading it here. I think I have proposed a reading based on JS’s cosmological and liturgical expansion in Nauvoo. I don’t really know what JS thought about this revelation during this period. Toscano is sort of religion-making here.

  6. “Toscano is sort of religion-making here.” Isn’t he often?

    I’m not saying that you and Toscano wuold be argueing the same thing. I just thought it was interesting to note that Toscano related the Oath and Covenant to temple ordinances (or fulness of the priesthood) and you see it in the context of cosmological priesthood. Anyway the naivistic way of reading it to refer to just mere conferral of priesthood isn’t the best way of reading it.

  7. Joseph M says:

    I may be dense but I’m not seeing anything here that is differentfrom how I have alwys read this section. Could you elaborate on how it is suposed to differ from the standard reading?

    As a side thought.

    Referencing Doctrine and Covenants 121:45

    45 Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.

    Acording to DR. Margaret Barker “dew of heavan” is an anchent term for the temple anointing oil and a symbol of the Holy Spirit. This plus the listing of ‘member’ among the priesthood offices in D&C 20:38 leads me to classify the gift of the Holy Ghost as a Priesthood ordination.

  8. J. Stapley says:

    Joseph, there are different ways to read scripture (here is a review of three particular ways, but what I am doing in this point is a fourth, I think). I think that the traditional reading of Section 84 is one that associates the verses with ordination of (frequently young) men to Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthood office. As noted, I am beginning with a contextual reading and then translating that into the Nauvoo cosmology, neither of which are the traditional reading.

    Regarding your other thoughts, I don’t think it is particularly helpful or wise to try to define the one correct reading of scripture in an effort to systematize or create the uber-narrative. And I don’t really quite see how that reading of D&C 20:38 or 121:45 fits with a contextual, traditional, or other reading.

  9. v 5 FTW. The traditional reading, however potentially ahistorical, is so entrenched in practice that I think it’s not going anywhere…

  10. I’ve never done a close reading or made arguments along these lines, but I’ve typically read the oath and covenant as being separate things. I suspect that may be a function of my Old Testament studies; I had quite an interest in the curses inherent in swearing oaths and treaty/covenant making. This author was two years ahead of me in my program, and had similar interests, as evident from his book (expanded from his diss.)
    Oaths are typically involved in covenants, but they aren’t synonymous.

  11. J,
    Interesting reading. I am now connecting this to D&C 93, received some seven months or so later. In V1, it says:

    Verily, thus saith the Lord: It shall come to pass that every soul who forsaketh his sins and cometh unto me, and calleth on my name, and obeyeth my voice, and keepeth my commandments, shall see my face and know that I am;

    That sounds a lot like what is going on in 84:22-26.

    Then, in 93:18-22, we read:

    And it shall come to pass, that if you are faithful you shall receive the fulness of the record of John.
    I give unto you these sayings that you may understand and know how to worship, and know what you worship, that you may come unto the Father in my name, and in due time receive of his fulness.
    For if you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fulness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace.
    And now, verily I say unto you, I was in the beginning with the Father, and am the Firstborn;
    And all those who are begotten through me are partakers of the glory of the same, and are the church of the Firstborn.

    That also sounds somewhat similar to or a distillation of 84:33-42. I had never connected these before in quite this same way.

    What think ye?

  12. Later in D&C 93, there seems to be a lot of emphasis on the responsibilities of parents to their children, emphasizing perhaps the lineal aspect of your cosmological priesthood.

  13. J. Stapley says:

    I agree, Steve. And Ben I have to defer to others on any readings informed by ancient culture.

    kevinf, yes, I think this was first argued by Andy Ehat, that by Nauvoo, the early promises of actually beholding the Lord were translated into the dramatic ritual of the endowment. Everyone beheld the Lord, but in a much more symbolic manner. So I think that makes sense.

  14. Excellent! I have read it this way for several years now. The temple context makes all the difference.

  15. I’m not sure which camp it puts me in, but my personal studies over the last few years have me leaning more and more to the fact that the Oath and Covenant has little/nothing to do with 12 and 18 year old boys receiving the the AP and MP, but everything to do with men and women going to the temple to:
    1. “receive these two priesthoods”,
    2. being renewed in their bodies by the “mighty change” and baptism by fire and the Holy Ghost (not just by laying on of hands, which is only an invitation to receive the real thing), and
    3. in the words of Nephi…having entered in at that gate you can speak with “the tongue of angels”, or in other words receive “messengers” who have the express purpose of helping bring you to a point where you can…
    4. Receive the Son…who in the words of Nephi says “and when he shall manifest himself unto you in the flesh, the things which he shall say unto you ye shall observe to do”, so that he can prepare you to….
    5 Receive the Father and all that the Father has (or in other words, the fulness of the Priesthood).

    In the scriptures, it seems that those who receive these highest blessings tend to hear it from the voice of God himself, that they are begotten by God in that day (Think Moses 1 and God’s constant references to “Moses my son” and “thou art in the similitude of mine only begotten”). Perhaps this is why later in DC 84 the Lord says “whoso receiveth not my voice is not acquainted with my voice, and is not of me”….for this Oath and Covenant is made by His own voice. This is what is means to enter into salvation, to enter into His rest, to receive the fulness of the Priesthood.

    I understand that this is not a traditional reading, but it is the one that has been impressed upon me, and confirmed as I’ve spoken with some who have received these greater blessings. And lest we be tempted to dismiss such great promises, let us also remember that this is the same section where the Lord laments our darkened minds, our unbelief, our inability to truly receive those things that have been promised to us through the Book of Mormon (which seems to be one record after another of an individual who softened their heart, were ministered to by angels/messengers, and received the Son, and sometimes the Father). We would do well to remember the words of Moroni…if these things have ceased, then has faith also ceased, and awful is the state of man.

  16. J. Stapley says:

    dk, I think that it is important to recognize, as I said above, that it is not “particularly helpful or wise to try to define the one correct reading of scripture in an effort to systematize or create the uber-narrative.” There are different ways of reading scripture, and in the case of this post, it is important to note that the original revelation was delivered ten years before the Nauvoo temple liturgy was revealed. It had a meaning to the people that heard it independent of what happened later.

  17. V Pauni says:


    I’m having a hard time making sense of it primarily because the priesthood and its nomenclature from that time period are so messy and without definite meaning. Institutional understanding of the priesthood had a great deal of evolution to undergo.


  18. J. Stapley says:

    V Pauni, I think that it may be easiest to start with a contextual reading. The link to WVS’s bit on 107 linked in the post is a great place to start. After that, if you are interested in my reading in this post, I would check out my bit on the cosmological priesthood, and in particular my article on adoption ritual. With those to contexts, I think you will so he framework for my reading here much clearer.

  19. So, how does this fit with the idea of the calling and election made sure?

  20. J. Stapley says:

    RW, for primary sources about perseverance from the temple liturgy, see pp. 60-61 of my adoption paper. I wrote up a quick overview of some of the ramifications here.

  21. Jacob H. says:

    I’m surprised no one commented yet on John’s baptism IN THE WOMB! Such a cooler reading for v. 28. Thanks for the tip.

  22. Jacob H. says:

    I was wondering if you know of any research into what v. 42 is saying, the Priesthood, having been received, is now being “confirmed” upon the men present (save one?) by the voice of God (also v. 48). Specifically, this pattern of event –> confirmation of the event that seems to be everywhere: Baptism –> confirmation; anointing with oil –> confirmation(/sealing) of the anointing; endowment –> 2nd anointing (maybe); ordination of the original 12 by the 3 witnesses –> confirmation by the 1st presidency. Is this administrative pattern found elsewhere, in other churches perhaps?

  23. “34. Those who go to the temple become the sons (and daughters) of Moses and Aaron, the seed of Abraham, the church and the elect of God.”
    How do you get “(and daughters)”?

  24. J. Stapley says:

    akd, as I mentioned in the post, this reading is a translation of the revelation from its context into the cosmology of the Nauvoo Temple.

  25. steelblaidd says:

    Some thing I ran accross recently at mormonwoman.org is that the reading proposed here appears to be being taught in April’s YW leadership training (section starts at ~30:00).

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