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In Mormonism, priesthood is considered to be the power and authority to act in the name of God. There are two types (called "orders") of Mormon priesthood: (1) the Aaronic Priesthood, which is considered to be a lesser, "preparatory" priesthood tracing its roots to Aaron the brother of Moses, (2) the Melchizedek Priesthood, which is considered to be a higher priesthood. There is some controversy over whether the Patriarchal Priesthood, mentioned by Joseph Smith, Jr., but about which he provided little information, is a third order of the priesthood, or part of the Melchizedek Priesthood involved in temple ordinances.
The meaning of priesthood in the Latter Day Saint tradition
In Mormonism, priesthood is considered to be (1) a power and (2) an authority. As a power, priesthood includes the power to perform miracles. Latter Day Saints believe that the Biblical miracles performed by prophets and apostles were performed by the power of the priesthood, including the miracles of Jesus, whom Latter Day Saints believe was "a priest forever ever after the order of Melchisedec" (Heb. 5:6), and thus that Jesus held the Melchizedek Priesthood.
As an authority, priesthood is considered to be the legitimizing stamp by which a person may perform ecclesiastical acts in the name of God, or to hold clerical positions in the church. Latter Day Saints believe that acts (and in particular, Ordinances) performed by one with the priesthood are recognized by God and are binding in heaven and in the afterlife. In addition, Latter Day Saints believe that leadership positions within the church are legitimized by the priesthood authority.
According to Latter Day Saint doctrine, to exercise priesthood power or authority, a person must (1) be called by God, (2) be ordained or endowed with priesthood power, and (3) receive the necessary "keys", either through ordination to an office or through delegation or setting apart.
Calling to the priesthood
Latter Day Saints believe that as a prerequisite to receiving the priesthood, a person must be called to the priesthood. When a person is called, it is the person's right or destiny to hold the priesthood, although that destiny is not inevitable. See Matthew 22 ("Many are called but few are chosen.") A person may be called (1) by prophesy, (2) by lineage, or (3) by foreordination. In addition, a person's calling through lineage or foreordination may be revealed by prophesy.
Calling by prophesy
By far the most common form of calling to the priesthood is "by prophesy". In his The Wentworth Letter, Joseph Smith, Jr. stated, "We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophesy . . . to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof." (See also Fifth Article of Faith.)
In general, a person is called by prophesy when a person within the church hierarchy, who holds the priesthood, receives a revelation that someone should be called to the priesthood.
Right to the priesthood through lineage
In some situations, Latter Day Saints believe that a person may also be called through their lineage, so that they have a legal right to a priesthood office by "lineal succession." For example, Doctrine and Covenants 68:16-21 states, "And if they be literal descendants of Aaron, they have a legal right to the bishopric, if they are the firstborn among the sons of Aaron." In addition, Joseph Smith believed in a Patriarchal Priesthood (or "Abrahamic" priesthood) that descended from father to son, and was held by Joseph Smith, Sr. See, e.g., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sec. 6, pp. 322-323. One who has the right and calling to hold these positions through lineage must still be ordained by the church hierarchy before officiating in the office.
Calling by foreordination
Latter Day Saints also believe that a person may be called to the priesthood by foreordination. The Book of Mormon refers to priests that were "called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works." (Alma 13:3). In Joseph Smith's Book of Abraham, Abraham was said to be called to the priesthood in this way:
- Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones; And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born. (Abraham 3:22-23.)
It is generally believed that those who were foreordained to the priesthood earned this right by valiancy or nobility in the Pre-mortal life. It is by prophecy that a person's foreordination is thought to be revealed. Latter Day Saints, however, do not believe in predestination, and therefore believe that foreordination is a destiny, but not an immutable destiny. A person can lose their foreordination through sin.
Ordination or Endowment with priesthood power
Latter Day Saints believe that priesthood originates with God, and is passed to others through a line of succession. Only one who holds the priesthood can pass it to another. Latter Day Saints refer to this passage of the priesthood to another as ordination. The most common and well-recognized form of Latter Day Saint ordination is by "the laying on of hands by those who are in authority" (See Fifth Article of Faith in The Wentworth Letter). A Book of Mormon example of ordination by the laying on of hands is found in the Book of Alma, where Alma "ordained priests and elders, by laying on his hands according to the order of God, to preside and watch over the church." (Alma 6:1). Modern day priesthood holders ordained to the office of priest (or 'higher') are able to ordain other worthy males to priesthood offices up to their office.
More controversially, some Latter Day Saints believe that a person is endowed with priesthood power through the Endowment ritual. In the washing and anointing portion of the Endowment ceremony, men are washed and anointed (by men) "to become kings and priests", while women are washed and anointed (by women) "to become queens and priestesses". Some scholars argue that the Endowment ceremony was recognized as an endowment of priesthood power to both men and women, although not an ordination to a specific priesthood office. (Hanks, 1992). This view was expressed in 1884 by Eliza R. Snow, president of the Relief Society, who stated:
- Is it necessary for sisters to be set apart to officiate in the sacred ordinances of washing, anointing, and laying on of hands in administering to the sick? It certainly is not. Any and all sisters who honor their holy endowments, not only have right, but should feel it a duty, whenever called upon to administer to our sisters in these ordinances, which God has graciously committed to His daughters as well as to His sons; and we testify that when administered and received in faith and humility they are accompanied with almighty power. (Snow, 1884).
For a priesthood holder to perform miracles or legitimate ecclesiastical acts in the name of God, Latter Day Saints believe that a priesthood holder must have the "keys" to perform that miracle or act. Thus, even though a priesthood holder is called and ordained with general priesthood power, the person may also require specific keys not held by all priesthood holders. The existence of keys makes possible a church hierarchy, in which particular priesthood holders specialize in a particular eclesiastical function.
Priesthood keys are passed in much the same way as priesthood power in general, usually through the laying on of hands. There are three types of keys: (1) default keys held by every priesthood holder, (2) keys associated with a priesthood office and held by every holder of that office, and (3) special keys granted only to priesthood holders with select callings within the church.
Priesthood offices and quorums
Within the priesthood, there are many "offices", which represent a category of positions within the clerical hierarchy of the church. The number and nature of these offices have changed over time, and may differ between sects of Mormonism; however, by the death of Joseph Smith, Jr., these offices included at least the following:
- Bishop and Presiding Bishop
- High priest
- Patriarch and Presiding Patriarch
Ordination to an office does not necessarily mean ordination to a position of leadership. Priesthood holders are organized into "quorums," which each have a president and possibly one or more counselors. The presidents of these quorums may have additional "keys" not held by other members of the quorum. In addition to the quorums associated with the offices listed above (e.g., the "deacons quorum"), priesthood quorums that existed as of Smith's death included:
History of the priesthood in the Latter Day Saint tradition
Because Latter Day Saints believe that priesthood authority and keys may be granted only by one who holds that authority or key, they believe it is important that a person trace their priesthood through a line of succession from a person in the Bible who was known to hold that authority or key. However, Latter Day Saints believe that the priesthood authority was absent from the earth during what they call the Great Apostasy, and that priesthood had to be restored through Joseph Smith, Jr.. Catholic and Orthodox Christians do not believe that such a complete apostasy ever took place when defending the validity of their priesthoods, and these churches do not recognize the priesthood exercised by Latter Day Saints.
Therefore, Latter Day Saints believe that ancient prophets and apostles conferred the priesthood directly upon Joseph Smith, Jr. and other early members of the movement.
Restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood
The conferral of the Aaronic Priesthood on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery is recorded in Joseph Smith - History as follows: "[W]e. . . went into the woods to pray and inquire of the Lord respecting baptism for the remission of sins, that we found mentioned in the translation of the plates[, The Book of Mormon]. . . . While we were thus employed, praying and calling upon the Lord, a messenger from heaven descended in a cloud of light, and having laid his hands upon us, he ordained us, saying:
"Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah, I confer 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; and this shall never be taken again from the earth until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness.
"He said this Aaronic Priesthood had not the power of laying on hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, but that this should be conferred on us hereafter; and he commanded us to go and be baptized, and gave us directions that I should baptize Oliver Cowdery, and that afterwards he should baptize me.
"Accordingly we went and were baptized. . . .
"The messenger who visited us on this occasion and conferred this Priesthood upon us, said that his name was John, the same that is called John the Baptist in the New Testament, and that he acted under the direction of Peter, James and John, who held the keys of the Priesthood of Melchizedek, which Priesthood, he said, would in due time be conferred on us, and that I should be called the first Elder of the Church, and he (Oliver Cowdery) the second. . . .
"Immediately on our coming up out of the water after we had been baptized, we experienced great and glorious blessings from our Heavenly Father. No sooner had I baptized Oliver Cowdery, than the Holy Ghost fell upon him, and he stood up and prophesied many things which should shortly come to pass. And again, so soon as I had been baptized by him, I also had the spirit of prophecy, when, standing up, I prophesied concerning the rise of this Church, and many other things connected with the Church, and this generation of the children of men. We were filled with the Holy Ghost, and rejoiced in the God of our salvation."
Restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood
Not all of the revelations which Joseph Smith received have been fully recorded in public. The restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood is one instance of this. However, this event and many others is alluded to in Doctrine and Covenants section 128:20-21:
- And again, what do we hear?...The voice of Peter, James, and John in the wilderness between Harmony, Susquehanna county, and Colesville, Broome county, on the Susquehanna river, declaring themselves as possessing the keys of the kingdom, and of the dispensation of the fulness of times! And again, the voice of God in the chamber of old Father Whitmer, in Fayette, Seneca county, and at sundry times, and in divers places through all the travels and tribulations of this Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints! And the voice of Michael, the archangel; the voice of Gabriel, and of Raphael, and of divers angels, from Michael or Adam down to the present time, all declaring their dispensation, their rights, their keys, their honors, their majesty and glory, and the power of their priesthood; giving line upon line, precept upon precept; here a little, and there a little; giving us consolation by holding forth that which is to come, confirming our hope!
Restoration of other Priesthood keys
In addition to the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood (and the keys of the Holy Apostleship), additional Priesthood "keys" were conferred on Joseph Smith and others. In Doctrine and Covenants 110:11-16 Joseph dictated the following passage as a revelation following the dedication of the first Latter-day Saint temple, the Kirtland Temple:
- After this vision closed, the heavens were again opened unto us; and Moses appeared before us, and committed unto us the keys of the gathering of Israel from the four parts of the earth, and the leading of the ten tribes from the land of the north. After this, Elias appeared, and committed the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham, saying that in us and our seed all generations after us should be blessed. After this vision had closed, another great and glorious vision burst upon us; for Elijah the prophet, who was taken to heaven without tasting death, stood before us, and said: Behold, the time has fully come, which was spoken of by the mouth of Malachi--testifying that he [Elijah] should be sent, before the great and dreadful day of the Lord come--To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse--Therefore, the keys of this dispensation are committed into your hands; and by this ye may know that the great and dreadful day of the Lord is near, even at the doors.
Priesthood in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Requirements for Ordination
The priesthood is conferred on male church-members beginning at age twelve by the laying on of hands of men previously ordained to the priesthood. Ordination to the priesthood is based on the recipient's personal "moral worthiness" without regard to education or other socio-economic status, and, since 1978, without regard to race. (Previously, members of African descent were excluded from priesthood ordination.)
Offices of the Melchizedek and Aaronic Priesthood
|Apostle||No age minimum specified||Special Witnesses of Jesus Christ who hold all the keys of the kingdom to officiate in all responsibilities and duties of the Priesthood including the sealing power and the power to act as a Prophet, Seer and Revelator.|
|Seventy||18 and older||Men who assist the Apostles to serve as General (typically First or Second Quorums) or Area (typically Third to Sixth Quorums) Authorities. Seventies may also have other 'special assignments' as directed by the First Presidency or Twelve Apostles. When a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy becomes 70 years old, he is typically granted 'emeritus status' and retires from his special assignments and assumes the role of a high priest (although still officially a General Authority). Until 1986 quorums of seventies resided primarily on the stake level, and aside from a general presidency, were typically not assigned as General Authories, although as a Seventy they could preside over stake conferences.|
|Patriarch||18 and older||A local man that is ordained to give Patriarchal Blessings to members within his stake|
|High Priest||18 and older||May serve in leadership callings such as a Bishop, ordain other High Priests and all duties of an Elder|
|Elder||18 and older||Confer the Gift of the Holy Ghost ordain other Elders, bless the sick by the laying on of hands and all the duties of a Priest|
|Bishop||18 and older||Preside over local wards (congregations), administer temporal and spiritual welfare to their wards and officiate as a common judge in Israel; a Bishop is also President of the Aaronic Priesthood in his ward; a literal descendant of Levi is entitled to this office, but it may be filled by a High Priest if no Levitical descendant is present in the ward. The Bishop is typically the presiding High Priest in a congregation|
|Priest||16 and older||Prepare and Bless the Sacrament, Baptize, ordain other Priests, Teachers and Deacons and all the duties of a Teacher|
|Teacher||14 and older||Prepare the Sacrament, Hometeach and all the duties of a Deacon|
|Deacon||12 and older||Standing minister, pass the Sacrament, collect Fast Offerings, and assist the Teacher in all his duties as occasion requires|
If an adult man joins the church, he may be called and ordained to hold the Aaronic Priesthood (if he is morally worthy) by those in the Church with authority to do so. After a period of time (usually one year) the man may be called and ordained to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood (again based upon moral worthiness) by those in the Church with authority.
In addition to being ordained to a certain office in the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthood, a male may also be set apart to a Priesthood leadership calling. For example, men are usually not ordained to the office of high priest unless they are also set apart in a calling which requires that ordination, such as serving in a bishopric or on a stake high council. However, older men are also ordained to the office of high priest although they may have never been set apart to serve in a leadership office. Each person who holds an office in the Aaronic or Melchizedek priesthood also belongs to a priesthood quorum.
Priesthood leadership callings
In addition to the regular offices of the Aaronic or Melchizedek priesthood referred to in the chart above, there are other leadership callings within the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods. The table below lists these other Priesthood leadership callings and the table below it shows how the various callings are organized within the hierarchy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
|Current Priesthood Leadership Callings|
|President (Prophet) and Counselors in the First Presidency of the Church||High Priests (usually three) who direct the affairs of the entire Church|
|President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and members of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles||Twelve Apostles who preside over the Stakes and assist the First Presidency|
|Presidency of the Seventy||(High Priests) Seven Seventies assigned to preside over the Quorums of the Seventy and to supervise the Stakes and Missions within the United States and Canada|
|Area President and Counselors||(High Priests) Seventies (usually three) assigned to supervise the stakes and missions within a certain geographical area|
|Mission President and Counselors||High Priests (Elders) who preside over a particular mission|
|Stake(District) President and Counselors||High Priests (Elders) who preside over the wards (Branches) within their stake (District)|
|High Counselors||Twelve (or more) High Priests who assist the Stake Presidency|
|Temple President and Counselors||High Priests who preside over a temple|
|Bishop (Branch President) or Counselor||High Priests (Elders) over branches (congregations) and administer temporal and spiritual welfare to their congregations|
Church leadership, Quorum organization and filling vacant callings
In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, apostles are a group of men (typically fifteen are sustained as such) who are called and ordained to be special witnesses of Jesus Christ, to govern and administer to the entire church and to hold the highest Priesthood keys in the church. Each apostle that is set apart as a member of the First Presidency or Quorum of the Twelve Apostles is also ordained as a "Prophet, Seer and Revelator" and holds all the "keys of the Priesthood" that are necessary to govern the church. However, according to Latter-day Saint doctrine, the full exercise of these keys are dormant until the apostle is entitled or directed to exercise them. Thus, only the President and Prophet of the church is entitled to receive revelation for the entire church and exercise and authorize the use of all revealed priesthood keys.
Since Brigham Young organized a First Presidency in 1847, the most senior member of the group (in years served as an apostle) has also been ordained as the president of the church. The President has generally been supported by two Apostles whom he selects as his counselors. On occasaion, certain Presidents—generally with health problems—have chosen to select additional counselors. The church president and his counselors compose the First Presidency. The remaining Apostles compose the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the most senior member of that quorum has also been the President of that quorum.
The members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are called to their positions for life and serve until death. As vacancies arise in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, all of the apostles meet to pray and to come to a unanimous decision by revelation as to whom among the rank and file of the church will be called to fill the vacancy. The apostles then ordain the appointed man called.
In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the First Presidency dissolves whenever the President of the Church is no longer serving in that capacity—to date, only because of death. When the First Presidency dissolves, the counselors of the First Presidency resume their place in their previous quorums - if members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles they resume their standing within that Quorum - until a new First Presidency is organized by the Twelve.
The First Quorum of the Seventy was established February 28, 1835, (Documentary History of the Church 2:201-2) and these quorums are equal in authority to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in absentia. The High Council of Zion (presently defunct) and collectively the High Councils of all the Stakes of Zion also form quorums 'equal in authority' to the Three Presiding Quorums.
- Eliza Roxcy Snow, "To the Branches of the Relief Society", Woman's Exponent 13 (15 Sept. 1884).
- Maxine Hanks, ed., Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism (1992) (ISBN 1560850140).
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