Evolution of the Term “Priesthood”
By John A. Tvedtnes

In the restored Church, we often identify the term “priesthood” as “the authority to act in the name of God.” This accurately describes its function, but the dictionary meaning of the term is “the office of priest,” and that is precisely how it was used in Joseph Smith’s day.

Thus, in early Latter-day Saint records, including the Doctrine and Covenants and Book of Commandments, “Aaronic priesthood” or “lesser priesthood” referred to the office of priest of the Aaronic order, while “Melchizedek priesthood” or “high(er) priesthood” referred to the office of priest of the Melchizedek order. This is especially clear when one looks at earlier versions of the history (e.g., Times and Seasons and manuscripts) and revelations, which indicate that so-and-so was ordained “to the high priesthood,” which was later changed to read “to the office of high priest” or “as a high priest.”

In Joseph Smith’s day, deacons and teachers were not considered to hold the “Aaronic priesthood,” nor were elders considered to hold the “Melchizedek priesthood.”  Rather, as we read in D&C 84:29-30, “the offices of elder and bishop are necessary appendages belonging unto the high priesthood. And again, the offices of teacher and deacon are necessary appendages belonging to the lesser priesthood, which priesthood was confirmed upon Aaron and his sons.”

As time went by, terms like “Melchizedek or high(er) priesthood” and “Aaronic or lesser priesthood” came to be used to be used as generalized terms to cover other offices as well. There is no problem with using the terms that way today, but when we read earlier documents, we must remember that they were often used differently in the early days of the Church.

Consequently, during the Church conference of June 1831, when the “the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood was manifested and conferred for the first time upon several of the Elders” (History of the Church 1:175), we need to understand that this merely means that the office of high priest had not yet existed prior to that time. Some critics have incorrectly read this passage as meaning that the ordination by Peter, James, and John never happened.

One prominent critic incorrectly claims that no angelic ordinations are known in original documents prior to 1834-35. The manuscript history for 1832 says of Joseph Smith, “he receiving the testimony from on high [the first vision] secondly the ministering of Angels [Moroni] thirdly the reception of the holy Priesthood by the ministering of Aangels to administer the letter of the Gospel [John the Baptist] … forthly a confirmation and reception of the high Priesthood after the holy order of the son of the living God power and ordinence from on high to preach the Gospel in the administration and demonstration of the spirit the Kees of the Kingdom of God confered upon him” by Peter, James, and John [1] .

Half a century after his excommunication, David Whitmer claimed that it was Sidney Rigdon who convinced Joseph to introduce the office of high priest into the Church.  In his 1887 An Address to All Believers in Christ, he incorrectly wrote, “I do not think the word priesthood is mentioned in the New Covenant of the Book of Mormon.” Actually, it is specifically mentioned in Alma 4:20; 13:6-8, 10, 14, 18, and the term “high priest” is also used three times in Mosiah, thirteen times in Alma, and the plural “high priests” is found eight times in the Book of Mormon. Sidney Rigdon didn’t have to introduce the office, since its existence was already known in 1829, when Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. [2]

In the restored Church, the term “priesthood,” in the sense of a generic authority from God, came to replace the term “holy order” used in that sense in the Book of Mormon. Lehi’s son Jacob noted that he had “been called of God, and ordained after the manner of his holy order” (2 Nephi 6:2). Alma2 is said to bear “the high priesthood of the holy order of God” (see also Alma 5:54; 6:8; 7:22; 8:4; 43:2). He noted that, in ancient times, “the Lord God ordained priests, after his holy order, which was after the order of his Son” (Alma 13:1, 6-11, 18; see also Ether 12:10). The sons of Alma2 and Mosiah also “had been ordained by the holy order of God” (Alma 49:30).

The term was also employed in the early years of the restoration (D&C 77:11), [3] but was gradually replaced by the term “priesthood.” The history kept by Church historian John Whitmer, describing the ordination of the first high priests in June 1831, says that Joseph Smith “laid his hands upon Lyman Wight and ordained him to the High Priesthood (i.e. ordained him a High Priest), after the holy order of God” (History of the Church 1:176, note). The words in parentheses were added by B. H. Roberts when he edited the history for publication, and were necessitated by the fact that the use of the term “high priesthood” to denote the office of high priest had changed by his time.

The visit of Peter, James, and John to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery is mentioned only twice in the Doctrine and Covenants. D&C 128:20 mentions neither priesthood nor ordination, while in D&C 27:12 the Lord speaks of the three ancient apostles “whom I have sent unto you, by whom I have ordained you and confirmed you to be apostles, and especial witnesses of my name, and bear the keys of your ministry and of the same things which I revealed unto them.” By the time Oliver Cowdery returned to the Church in 1848, he was speaking about “the higher or Melchizedek Priesthood,” suggesting that the change from “holy order” to “priesthood” was already an accepted practice. In a signed statement dated 13 January 1849, Oliver wrote of “John the Baptist, holding the keys of the Aaronic Priesthood; Peter, James and John, holding the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood (History of the Church 1:40, note).

The historical evolution of the terms “Melchizedek priesthood” and “Aaronic priesthood” are comparable to the evolution of other terms in Church history. For example, while today the term “ward” denotes an ecclesiastical unit within a “stake,” the earliest use of the term “ward” (in Nauvoo) was for geographical regions of a city, with a bishop in charge of welfare and Aaronic priesthood issues within his ward.

Bishops did not preside over congregations, however; this was left to stake presidents. Indeed, even stakes of fewer than 200 members had a full presidency, a high council, and a patriarch, and sometimes a bishop. Things did not change until the Saints moved to Utah, where the Salt Lake Stake had to be divided into wards (with a total of 50 such units at its peak). Other Utah stakes were local congregations until 1877, when Brigham Young set about to organize wards within larger stake units, and to combine the offices of bishop and president, so that bishops of our day are also presiding high priests. As late as the 1960s, Elder Harold B. Lee wrote of the dual nature of today’s bishops.

Languages are continually changing and terms often take on new meanings. When I was a young man, the term “gay” meant “happy,” and “make love” did not have a sexual connotation. We cannot turn back the clock on terms used differently by earlier generations, but we can try to learn what those terms meant to our predecessors. [4] It is because members of the Church are generally unaware of the historical developments in Latter-day Saint ecclesiastical offices and organizations that I wrote the book Organize My Kingdom: A History of Restored Priesthood (Bountiful: Cornerstone, 2000; re-issued by Horizon), from which this article is extracted.

[1] Dean C. Jessee, The Papers of Joseph Smith [Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1989], 1:3; misspellings retained.

[2] Though the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was not established until February 1835, as early as June 1829, the Lord addressed the future Twelve in D&C 18.

[3] Note the expression “the High Priesthood of the holy order of God” in History of the Church 1:354, 359).

[4] Critics often point to supposed errors in the Bible and the Book of Mormon. While some of their comments are valid, I have noted that in many cases, they rely on 20th– and 21st-century usage rather than on the English language used by the translators. For example, the word “curious” in the Bible and the Book of Mormon does not mean “strange, unusual, or inquisitive”; it means “skilled.”

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