“None of these offices is he to do”: priests and the administration of the sacrament

A friend shot me a note this week with a question about the “Articles and Covenants.” Revised and included in our Doctrine and Covenants as Section 20, this is the document that functioned as a sort of General Handbook of Instructions and creed for the early church. This document, like most of the Doctrine and Covenants, was crystallized in 1835, however beliefs and policy change (we do have a living church and continued revelation). That presents situations were current practice doesn’t always line up with the text. My friend asked about the duties of priests in verses 46-52, which seem to indicate (in 50-51) that priests shouldn’t administer the sacrament when an Elder is present.

The revisions to Articles and Covenants before the text stabilized were quite significant, and include these verses. The JSPP features the earliest text in their Documents series, but also has other early versions. Both the 1831 featured version and the text included in the 1833 printings (including the Book of Commandments) read: “The priests’ duty is to preach, teach, expound, and exhort, and baptize, and administer the sacrament, and visit the house of each member, and exhort them to pray vocally and in secret, and also to attend to all family duties, to ordain priests, teachers, and deacons, and to take the lead in meetings; but none of these offices is he to do when there is an elder present, but in all cases is to assist the elder, &c.”

According to this, in the early church, priests could basically lead congregational worship, but were not to do so if an elder was present (and remember when the church was organized there were only four offices/callings in the church—elder, priest, teacher, and deacon). Also remember that all of these offices were occupied by men, and universal ordination wasn’t a thing yet. When church leaders prepared the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835, they revised this section, but in a way that is somewhat ambiguous. The priests’ “duty is to preach, teach, expound, exhort, and baptize, and administer the sacrament, and visit the house of each member.” However they were to “take the lead of meetings” only “when there is no elder present.” “[W]hen there is an elder present” he was to limit himself to “preach, teach, expound, exhort, and baptize, and visit the house of each member.” In parallel, the absence of “administering the sacrament” in the second list suggests its equation with “taking the lead of meetings,” but it ambiguous.

One reasonable reading is that, according to the 1835 text, priests were not to administer the sacrament when an elder was present. This of course is not how we do things today. I’m not aware of anyone who raised this issue in history, however, it could only have happened in the twentieth or twenty-first century. In the nineteenth century the sacrament was administered by church leaders, typically bishops. For example, in the Utah era, bishops regularly blessed the sacrament, and adult teachers (either ordained teachers, or acting teacher with a Melchizedek Priesthood office) passed it to the congregation.

The transition to ordaining young men to Aaronic priesthood offices started pretty early (I’ve found some evidences as early as the 1850s), but it wasn’t a regular or systematic policy until the priesthood reforms of Joseph F. Smith in the first decades of the twentieth century [n1]. At this time church leaders decided to create the system of Aaronic priesthood office advancement, and created jobs for the priests, teachers, and deacons. Some church members, including church leaders suggested that having teachers prepare and deacons pass the sacrament was against the scripture which explicitly stated that “neither teachers nor deacons have authority to baptize, administer the sacrament, or lay on hands.” (D&C 20:58). Responses, including those by President Heber Grant were essentially unanimous in declaring that preparing and passing the sacrament are not “administering,” that they are not priesthood duties, and that anyone can do them. They even showed how lay church members including women passed the sacrament every week down the rows. No one that I am aware of, however, questioned the right of priests to administer in the presence of an elder.

Fast forward to the present and church law as indicated in the General Handbooks and received tradition take precedence over the liturgical and ecclesiological texts in the Doctrine and Covenants, largely because we rely on and emphasize the living oracles (to use the older vernacular). As we don’t turn to the canonized texts in this way, we also generally don’t ask these types of questions, but like my friend, occasionally we do!


  1. See Bill Hartley’s classic 1996 JMH article “From Men to Boy’s.”


  1. lastlemming says:

    but in all cases is to assist the elder

    As I read it, it was the priest’s duty to do all of those things in the absence of an elder. In the presence of an elder, however, his only duty was to assist the elder. And if the elder said “Assist me by administering the sacrament,” that was perfectly fine. (The elder could not, however, say the same to a teacher or deacon because verse 58 explicitly says they do not have the requisite authority.)

  2. J. Stapley says:

    lastlemming, that is a possible reading. the revised 1835 text it is changed to “In all these duties the priest is to assist the elder if occasion requires,” which is placed after the list that excludes the Lord’s supper. Unfortunately we have very scant evidence for how the Lord’s Supper was actually practiced for the first decade of the church. It would be nice to check to see what they actually did. Also the number of priests was far fewer than the number of elders, which likely meant this was already an exceptional circumstance. Alas.

  3. John Mansfield says:

    Thanks for continuing to share these things, Jonathan. Teaching again Doctrine and Covenants, I am feeling more than previously that it in many ways the book has more to do with the church’s past than its present, along the lines of your last paragraph. Last April’s General Conference gave focus to the bicentennial of Joseph Smith’s vision in the spring of 1820, but then Joseph Smith and restoration concepts were markedly absent from the October conference six months later, with the sole exception of Elder Gong’s talk telling of his visit to Palmyra. I went back and checked to see if I had missed something, doing a search for “Joseph” through each talk, but I hadn’t missed anything. Besides Elder Gong’s talk, the only mentions of Joseph Smith were a half dozen cases where his time in Liberty was used as an example of enduring adverse circumstances. The contrast of the two consecutive General Conferences left me with the feeling that the church, at least in 2020, was placing Joseph Smith’s work in a long ago, not continually relevant past. [I started typing only to leave my first sentence above, but then my fingers got the better of me.]

  4. J. Stapley says:

    I think that is right, John. It strikes me as a feature and not a bug for a growing new religious movement. But it is also complicated.

  5. “Responses, including those by President Heber Grant were essentially unanimous in declaring that preparing and passing the sacrament are not “administering,” that they are not priesthood duties, and that anyone can do them.”

    “Anyone,” of course, except girls.

  6. On a somewhat related note, verse 57 says that a teacher “is to be assisted always, in all his duties in the church, by the deacons, if occasion requires.” And yet, I’ve never seen anyone adopt the interpretation that a deacon can help prepare the sacrament when needed–an issue of more practical importance in small wards/branches. Notwithstanding verse 57, there seems to be universal agreement that lower office cannot assist in the duties of higher office.

  7. J. Stapley says:

    Fair enough, Kristine, though many leaders pointed to women passing the sacrament down the rows, and women prepared the sacrament into the 1940s. But yeah.

    Jared*, good point.

  8. J.–yes. I think we’ve gotten increasingly worried about female participation.

  9. Josiah Reckons says:

    I see three other teachers and deacons are not permitted to do without being ordained to particular priesthood offices detailed in D&C 20; “neither teachers nor deacons have authority to baptize, administer the sacrament, or lay on hands”. How strictly is this intended to be enforced? It’s interesting to consider this as a supersede-able restriction, in the light of your post and priests. It reminds me that while I have often defined priesthood offices by their duties, these duties are somewhat flexible, changing, and overlapping.

  10. J. Stapley says:

    Josiah, there hasn’t really been any real wiggle room on teacher, and deacons not being able to baptize or lay on hands [for the gift of the holy ghost]. As discussed above, “administering the sacrament” hasn’t ever really been considered passing or preparing it (except in the contemporary church when the people conducting the meeting “thank the Aaronic Priesthood for administering the sacrament.” Technically only breaking the bread and blessing it have been considered “administering.”

  11. Josiah Reckons says:

    When I wrote my earlier comment, I thought that laying on hands may have referred to confirmation or to ordination or administering to the sick as well as confirmation. Re-reading D&C 20, I think you’re right. Laying on of hands doesn’t really seem to refer to these in this section. Maybe baby blessings, but it’s stretching it.

    I can remember a couple of times as an Aaronic priesthood holder being invited to assist in blessing the sick, or hearing about others doing so. I also remember being taught that that wasn’t legit. It wasn’t widespread but there seemed to be a few people around with looser ideas about who could join the circle or voice in things where people lay on hands.

  12. J. Stapley says:

    That would have been very old school. The Aaronic Priesthood handbooks from the early twentieth century allowed for Aaronic Priesthood officers to bless the sick by the laying on of hands, but it was supper rare. Far more common was women in the church anointing and blessing.

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