The Office of Bishop
By John A. Tvedtnes
Perhaps no officer in the restored Church wears as many hats as the bishop. He is the presiding high priest of the ward, president of the Aaronic priesthood, and is responsible for tithes and offerings and the administration of welfare to those in need. He presides at ward priesthood and sacrament meetings and is a common judge in determining the worthiness of members for various callings and a temple recommend. But it was not always so.
Edward Partridge was the first person called as a bishop in this dispensation, in a revelation dated 4 February 1831 (D&C 41:9-10). At the time he was ordained bishop, he was an elder. Indeed, the office of high priest did not exist in the Church until June of that year, when two “assistants” or counselors were appointed to work with him (D&C 42:31 allowed both elders and high priests to serve as counselors to the bishop).
In the beginning, Bishop Partridge did not preside over a ward, for there were no wards in Kirtland, Ohio, where most of the Church’s membership lived. His principal function was to oversee the temporal affairs of the Church, notably in connection with the law of consecration and stewardship. His role as a “judge in Israel” originally alluded to his duty of assigning stewardships to those who consecrated their properties to the Church. It was not until 1835 that the bishop’s role as judge was expanded to include disciplinary matters.
In the fall of 1831, when the Saints began settling in Missouri, Bishop Partridge moved to Zion, where he served as the presiding high priest and continued in his bishopric duties. In December of that year, Newel K. Whitney, who had been serving as one of the bishop’s agents in Missouri, was called to be bishop in Kirtland.
Following the expulsion of the Saints from Jackson County in 1833 and their resettlement in and around Far West, a presidency led by David Whitmer was called to lead the Church in Missouri. Bishop Partridge’s counselors, Isaac Morley and John Corrill, were called to also be bishops in that area, with Morley also serving as patriarch.
We have come to think of Edward Partridge as the first “presiding bishop” of the Church, followed by Newel K. Whitney, but neither bore that title during his lifetime. Partridge was simply the “bishop” until Whitney was called, after which they were termed, respectively, “the bishop in Zion” and “the bishop in Kirtland.” It was Vinson Knight who, with his counselors, was called “to preside over the bishopric” in 1841 (D&C 124:141). At this time, the bishop was not president of the priests quorum (D&C 124:142), but as early as 1837 the bishop was given responsibility for the Aaronic priesthood and records from Nauvoo have the bishops overseeing the work of the quorums of priests, teachers, and deacons.
The first wards began appearing in Nauvoo, Illinois. As the English term “ward” suggests, they were originally geographical areas, but not congregations. Nauvoo initially had three wards, each with a bishop (Partridge, Whitney, and Knight), but there were no ward meetings. All meetings were held on a stake level, and Nauvoo was the only stake that had more than one bishop. Smaller stakes (some comprising fewer than a hundred members) in the surrounding territories and in Kirtland had a presidency (3 high priests), a high council (12 high priests), a patriarch, and a bishopric. Meetings were conducted by the stake presidency.
The organizational pattern established in Kirtland continued when the Saints moved to Utah. Stakes (often called branches, as in D&C 107:39) organized throughout the territory were single congregations. The Salt Lake Stake was an exception, being initially the only stake in Utah that was divided into wards (up to 50 of them at one point, spread throughout Davis, Salt Lake, and Summit counties).
In 1877, President Brigham Young decided to solve a problem that had been coming up from time to time in some of the stakes. Bishops were complaining that stake presidents would not allow them to even make announcements in sacrament meetings. The original plan for stakes was to have a presidency over spiritual affairs and a bishopric over temporal affairs. Human frailties created friction between some of the presidents and their bishops. President Young’s solution was to combine the office of president and bishop in a single individual in each congregation or ward, and to group several wards in a stake organization as we know it today. This way, the bishop became the ward president and was subject to the stake president.
The reason for the evolution of the office of bishop is rooted in the growth of the Church over time. Initially, the First and Second Elders (Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery) met with the entire Church each Sunday. The First Presidency, serving as the original stake presidency, did the same. After the organization of other stakes, things changed. As those stakes grew larger, it was necessary to subdivide them into wards. In our day, when a stake usually has many more members than the first stake in Kirtland, the burden must be shared by more local leaders, including the many bishops who serve.
Let us pray for the bishoprics and stake presidencies and other leaders whom we have sustained to guide us. And may we truly sustain them in their heavy responsibilities by accepting the callings they issue and fulfilling the responsibilities they have given us as members.
For detailed information and references on the development of the bishopric and other Church offices, see John A. Tvedtnes, Organize My Kingdom: A History of Restored Priesthood (Bountiful, UT: Cornerstone/Horizon, 2000).
2005 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.