Tuesday, October 27, 2015
Continuing with the theme of terms we assume we understand but maybe don’t, let us look at a rather nebulous term that over time has grown in importance in the LDS lexicon: priesthood keys. First, though, let me point out that the concept of priesthood keys exists only because of the unique LDS definition of priesthood. If priesthood meant simply the state of being a priest, we would have no such thing as keys. Keys exist only because priesthood has become an abstract principle, a generalized authority. Keys unlock this authority so that it can be used in various ways.
So, what exactly are priesthood keys? According to Bruce R. McConkie, “The keys of the kingdom [which may not be the same as priesthood keys] are the power, right, and authority to preside over the kingdom of God on earth and to direct all of its affairs.”1 Joseph F. Smith taught that every man ordained to the priesthood has authority, but “it is necessary that every act performed under this authority shall be done at the proper time and place, in the proper way, and after the proper order. The power of directing these labors constitutes the keys of the Priesthood.”2 The Encyclopedia of Mormonism defines priesthood keys as “the right to exercise power in the name of Jesus Christ or to preside over a priesthood function, quorum, or organizational division of the Church. Keys are necessary to maintain order and to see that the functions of the Church are performed in the proper time, place, and manner.”3 Robert Millet and his coauthors explain that “the keys of the priesthood are the right of presidency.” They also point out, “While such persons as the Sunday School president, the Relief Society president, the Primary president, the Young Women president, and the Young Men president all have the right to inspiration and divine guidance because of the responsibility they bear, they do not hold keys.”4 This last statement again tosses us into murky definitional waters. Most presidents of auxiliary organizations in the Church do indeed preside, as their title suggests, but they apparently preside without keys, which indicates that keys are not really necessary in order to preside, except in priesthood functions.
The notion that the presiding officer in a ward or branch of the Church holds the keys pertaining to the performance of ordinances in that unit was apparently not understood as late as 1838. In the early Church, teachers were specifically assigned to preside over congregations, so that high priests, elders, and priests could travel and preach. Therefore teachers presided, even though they did not have sufficient authority to baptize or bless the sacrament, which suggests that they also did not possess priesthood keys regarding the performance of ordinances in the branches over which they presided.5
Did Keys Exist Anciently?
Joseph Smith is reported to have taught that “the fundamental principles, government, and doctrine of the Church are vested in the keys of the kingdom,”6 and “the keys have to be brought from heaven whenever the Gospel is sent.”7 If this is true, we might well ask why there is no mention of this concept in any ancient scripture. Not only does the term priesthood appear very infrequently and then only in a very specialized usage in the Bible and Book of Mormon, but the word key appears even less frequently in ancient scripture. Key appears only one time in the entire Book of Mormon and, interestingly, occurs in the setting of Jerusalem, referring to the treasury of Laban (1 Ne. 4:20). This term appears only two times in the Old Testament, once as a literal key to open a door (Judg. 3:25) and once as a figurative expression: “the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder” (Isa. 22:22). Similarly, this term, in singular or plural form, appears only six times in the New Testament, all of them used figuratively—“the key of the bottomless pit” (Rev. 9:1; 20:1), “the keys of death and hell” (Rev. 1:18), “the key of David” (Rev. 3:7), “the key of knowledge” (Luke 11:52), and “the key of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 16:19). This last reference is the only one even loosely associated with priesthood keys, where Jesus is telling Peter he will build his church upon “this rock” and give him “the key of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven,” suggesting that this key involves making earthly acts valid in heaven. Of course, this key is never directly connected to priesthood in the New Testament, for Peter is never said to have priesthood. This reference, however, is probably where Joseph Smith came upon the idea of priesthood keys, even though this notion is far from clear in Matthew’s account. In contrast to the infrequent use of the word key(s) in ancient scripture, it appears 63 times in the Doctrine and Covenants, referring to the keys of the priesthood, of the kingdom, of patriarchal blessings, of the ministering of angels, of mysteries, of spiritual blessings, of salvation, and so forth, all usages being figurative.
This disparity in usage raises an obvious question. Could it be that mention of figurative keys is an indication of how prevalent literal keys might be in the society in question? A literal key opens a lock, generally on a door. That is its function. This sort of lock is mentioned only four times in the Old Testament, all in the book of Nehemiah. Door(s), by contrast, is mentioned 198 times. In the New Testament, we find no lock(s), although door(s) is mentioned 38 times. Could it be that most doors in ancient Palestine did not have locks and therefore had no keys either? As mentioned, the word key appears only once in the Book of Mormon, referring to Laban’s treasury, which understandably would have had a door and a lock. But the word lock does not appear in the entire Book of Mormon, and door(s) appears only eight times. One of these instances is a quotation from Isaiah (2 Ne. 16:4), so it tells us nothing about Nephite society. Another is from the Savior’s New World version of the Sermon on the Mount (3 Ne. 13:6), about praying in secret with the door shut. Of the remaining six instances, two refer to prison doors (Ether 7:18; Alma 14:27), two refer to tent doors (1 Ne. 16:10; Mosiah 2:6), one refers to the door in the Jaredites’ barges (Ether 2:17), and one is a figurative usage: “Yea, even at this time ye are ripening . . . for everlasting destruction; yea, and except ye repent it will come unto you soon. Yea, behold it is now even at your doors” (Hel. 8:26–27). From evidence in the book itself, the only doors among the Nephites that would probably have had locks and keys were prison doors. There is no direct evidence that the Nephite homes even had doors, although the verse in Helaman suggests they did. But nowhere do we read that those doors had locks or keys. Considering the scarcity of literal doors and the absence of locks in the Book of Mormon account, it is not surprising that the concept of figurative keys, especially keys to priesthood power or to salvation, likewise does not appear in the record. The figurative usage of words has little or no meaning where the literal usage is rare or totally absent. It should be mentioned, however, that the Book of Mormon does not include any other metaphor that might correspond to our modern concept of priesthood keys. Certain individuals had authority from God, although not a generic priesthood, and they did not apparently require keys or any other metaphorical device to use authority themselves or give it to others. Alma1 and his descendants presided over the church, but none of them is said to have exercised priesthood or keys.
So if the ancients had no abstract concept of priesthood similar to the LDS notion of priesthood today, and if they had no figurative concept of keys connected to priesthood, where did this idea of priesthood keys come from? Michael Quinn suggests that “the doctrine of ‘the keys of the priesthood’ (and the related ‘keys of the kingdom’) became central to the question of presidential succession.”8 The concept of presiding, of being at the pinnacle of a power structure, requires some sort of mechanism for maintaining order. Priesthood keys serve that function in Mormonism. But hierarchies have existed and continue to exist without any concept like priesthood keys. As long as established patterns of granting authority and providing for orderly succession are in place, organizations can and do thrive. As an aside, it is interesting to note that the presence of priesthood keys did not prevent multiple relatively credible claims to succeed Joseph Smith after his death. So apparently this concept was not widely understood (or perhaps not understood the way we view it today) prior to Joseph’s death.
One circumstance that arises from the LDS view of authority is that lesser (local) priesthood keys are bestowed upon leaders in one branch (male) of the organization, but they are not bestowed in the other branch (female), thus creating a situation in which there are presiding officers who have keys and there are other presiding officers who do not have keys. This produces not only organizational confusion but also inequalities that cannot be easily explained away.
Perhaps Joseph Smith would have eliminated these inequalities if he had lived long enough. We cannot know. As mentioned earlier, Joseph saw the Relief Society as having some part in the priesthood, and on April 28, 1842, “he spoke of delivering the keys to this Society and to the church.”9 What keys these might be he did not explain clearly, but he did say “that the keys of the kingdom are about to be given to them [the Relief Society], that they may be able to detect every thing false—as well as to the Elders.”10 If this seems confusing, it is likely because Joseph used many terms loosely, keys included. For Joseph, a particular word could mean many things, and meanings often shifted over time. For instance, in 1842 Joseph, speaking about the keys of the kingdom, explained that “the keys are certain signs and words by which false spirits and personages may be detected from true, which cannot be revealed to the Elders till the Temple is completed.”11 Regardless of the several meanings he may have attached to the word keys, the general figurative idea of keys was obviously important to him.
So, where does this leave us? I’m not sure. Priesthood keys serve a purpose in the Church—of maintaining order, particularly in terms of succession at the top—but they also add a layer of complexity and of perplexity to the lower levels of the organization. For instance, we make a big deal of the fact that a deacons quorum president holds priesthood keys. But what do those keys do? Frankly, nothing. They purportedly permit the deacons president to assign other deacons to pass the sacrament and collect fast offerings (activities that were not always priesthood functions), but he could just as easily do this without the concept of keys. According to our standard explanation, these keys permit the deacons president to preside over his quorum. But how is this different from what the Beehive class president does?
So, just for the sake of asking the obvious, what would happen if we removed the term priesthood keys from our LDS vocabulary? Would the organization, in practice, function any differently? Would the Church become more simple, or more chaotic? Would the absence of this concept open the door to greater equality? These are questions we perhaps ought to examine more carefully.
1. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 411, italics in original.
2. Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine: Selections from the Sermons and Writings of Joseph F. Smith, 5th ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1919), 136.
3. Alan K. Parrish, “Keys of the Priesthood,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 2:780.
4. Robert L. Millet, Camille Fronk Olson, Andrew C. Skinner, and Brent L. Top, LDS Beliefs: A Doctrinal Reference (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 361.
5. Gregory A. Prince, Power from On High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 52–53
6. Joseph Smith Jr., History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2d ed., rev. 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1971), 1:338 (hereafter cited as History of the Church).
7. History of the Church, 3:385–88.
8. D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994), 16.
9. Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, 36, April 28, 1842.
10. Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, 37, April 28, 1842.
11. History of the Church, 4:608.
Tuesday, October 20, 2015
The three preceding posts bring us to an interesting question. Although priesthood today does not exist without the institutional Church, is priesthood the only authority in the Church? There are two views on this. One is the perspective I grew up with—that priesthood and authority in the Church are synonymous (in other words, that priesthood is the only form of authority in the Church). This view of authority is a fruit of the unique Mormon definition of priesthood as an abstract idea, a general power that people can possess. If priesthood is God’s authority delegated to men on earth, then what other authority can there be in the Church? This is the perspective behind Elder Oaks’s recent general conference talk on the authority of the priesthood, in which he gave the following explanation:
We are not accustomed to speaking of women having the authority of the priesthood in their Church callings, but what other authority can it be? When a woman—young or old—is set apart to preach the gospel as a full-time missionary, she is given priesthood authority to perform a priesthood function. The same is true when a woman is set apart to function as an officer or teacher in a Church organization under the direction of one who holds the keys of the priesthood. Whoever functions in an office or calling received from one who holds priesthood keys exercises priesthood authority in performing her or his assigned duties.1
I will give some reasons why I find this explanation inadequate, or at least incomplete, later in this post, but for now let me just say that the other view on priesthood—the view I have come to see as more convincing—is that priesthood is not the only authority in the Church, which may open a side door through which we can get around the impasse we are now experiencing on this very difficult issue.
Four Examples of Nonpriesthood Authority
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that priesthood is not the presiding, supervisory authority in the Church. No one would argue this. What I am saying is that there seem to be types of authority in the Church that, while usually created and directed by priesthood leaders, do not seem to be part of the priesthood. Let me illustrate what I mean by other forms of authority with some examples.
1. The Relief Society president in my ward has authority. In fact, I would argue that in a practical sense she has more institutional authority in our ward than I do, even though I am a high priest. She certainly has more institutional authority than the president of the teachers quorum, even though she does not “hold” the priesthood or possess priesthood keys and her calling is not a priesthood calling, as is the teachers quorum president’s. She can call meetings, give sisters visiting teaching assignments, coordinate the care of the afflicted, participate in ward council, and preside over Relief Society meetings. Of course she acts and presides under the supervision of the bishop, but so does the president of the teachers quorum. According to the first view presented above, both of these presidents “exercise priesthood authority,” but there is obviously a distinct difference between the two. One is a priesthood office; the other is not.
The relationship between Relief Society and priesthood is no simple matter, particularly if we consider statements such as the following, which Joseph Smith reportedly made when organizing the women’s organization: “I am glad to have the opportunity of organizing the women, as a part of the priesthood belongs to them.”2 What we may be encountering here is simply a question of semantics, perhaps even somewhat careless semantics. Joseph loved to give people authority, as long as it was subordinate to his authority as presiding officer of the Church, and he established a complex institutional hierarchy that required multiple levels of authority, but he called that authority priesthood, even when it had nothing to do with the office and ritual duties of a priest. In the early days of the Restoration, the lesser priesthood referred only to priests, and the high priesthood only to high priests. In April 1832, a revelation stated that “the offices of teacher and deacon are necessary appendages belonging unto the lesser priesthood” (D&C 84:30)—appendages, not the essential body—and “the offices of elder and bishop are necessary appendages belonging unto the high priesthood” (D&C 84:29). Later, as priesthood became more an abstract principle, these offices became integral parts of the two priesthoods, which came to be known as Aaronic and Melchizedek. Whatever authority Joseph was intending to bestow upon the Relief Society, however, it was suspended by his death, and when Brigham Young resurrected the society several years later, in several ways it was not really the same organization Joseph authorized.
2. Today we have a highly organized Church, with a complex hierarchical pyramid of authority that we call priesthood, but the institution—particularly the corporate support structure that has grown up around the ecclesiastical core—cannot easily fit within the naturally restrictive bounds of an all-male priesthood. Similar to the Relief Society president example mentioned above, middle managers in the departments at Church headquarters exercise authority in a variety of ways. None of these managers, however, exercise authority as a function of their priesthood. Indeed, some (the female managing editor of the Friend magazine, for example) do not hold the priesthood. Rather, these individuals exercise institutional authority in a manner very similar to that of a middle manager in any worldly corporation. They do this under the supervision of priesthood advisers, but they are not exercising priesthood in their jobs.
3. Another example of nonpriesthood authority in the Church occurs in its missions. Young male missionaries are called to be district leaders, zone leaders, and assistants to the mission president as if these were priesthood offices, but they are not. Missionaries called to these positions of leadership and administrative authority are not set apart or ordained or sustained by the vote of other missionaries. (I should add that mission president is perhaps the only high-level calling in the Church that is not sustained by the vote of those over whom he presides, which places it at variance with the law of common consent.) Because so many sister missionaries are now entering the field, new leadership positions have been created for them, called “sister training leaders.”3 Although these new positions are of course not priesthood offices, neither are the leadership positions occupied by male missionaries. But they are positions of institutional authority. Which brings up the question of why a sister missionary could not serve as a zone leader or assistant to the president.4 The argument may be made that this would allow women in the mission to preside over men, but we already have this arrangement in the Primary auxiliary in almost every ward in the Church, including mine, where I answered to the Primary president before I was recently released.
4. A final example that is quite different but very much related to the previous three can be illustrated by the frequent situation that occurs in part-member families where the wife is a member but her husband is not. Who presides in the home when a son turns twelve and is ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood? Certainly not the twelve-year-old, even though he is the only priesthood holder in the house. And what about six years later when that son turns eighteen, becomes an adult, and is ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood? In no less an official source than “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” we find this statement: “By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families.”5 This statement in no way insinuates that the father must have the priesthood in order to preside. According to President Joseph F. Smith, “There is no higher authority in matters relating to the family organization, and especially when that organization is presided over by one holding the higher Priesthood, than that of the father.”6 The parenthetical clause here is just that, parenthetical, which means that it can be dropped from the sentence without impairing its basic meaning. Therefore, according to President Smith, the highest authority in any family is the father, whether he is a baptized member or not. But how can this be possible? The home is the fundamental unit of the Church, we are taught. How then, can someone who is not even a Church member preside over the fundamental Church unit, and in some cases preside over someone who holds the Melchizedek Priesthood? Apparently, the biological (or even adoptive) authority of the father outranks priesthood authority. And what about the situation where an aged high priest goes to live in the home of his son who became inactive at age fifteen and is still only a teacher in the Aaronic Priesthood. Who presides? In this case, home ownership would probably trump priesthood rank.
This concept of the father, or husband, presiding in the family runs into difficulties, however, when considered in tandem with another statement in the Family Proclamation: “Fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.” How can fathers and mothers be equal partners if the father presides over the mother? I will have more to say about the sometimes confusing notion of presiding, in families and elsewhere, later in this series, but for now let us merely acknowledge the very real possibility that priesthood is not the only authority in the Church, nor does it preside in every circumstance.
Women and Authority
What is the difference, then, between priesthood authority and these other possible types of authority in the Church? One of the primary differences is that performing certain ordinances is limited to the priesthood (the only function the word itself actually suggests). But, as mentioned in a previous post, even this was not always as strictly defined as it is today. Women and girls at an earlier time, for instance, were allowed to prepare the sacrament for church meetings and perform other tasks that are now the domain of priesthood holders.7 And for decades after the establishment of the Church, women also laid hands on the sick and afflicted and blessed them. They performed these healings not through the priesthood but through their faith, in harmony with this declaration in the Book of Mormon: “And these signs shall follow them that believe—in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover” (Mormon 9:24). We might well ask how laying hands on the sick and healing them through faith in Jesus Christ can be construed as not “acting in the Lord’s name,” which again illustrates the difficulty associated with the abstract definition of priesthood we embrace today. We might also ask how, in a more official ritualistic capacity, women are permitted to officiate in certain temple ordinances? How can they perform priestly functions without holding an authority we define as priesthood?
One answer is to insist that women do indeed exercise priesthood authority, but without actually having the priesthood. If we accept the idea that priesthood is the only authority in the Church, this explanation does indeed have some merit. But it leaves too many questions unanswered and even creates new questions that are very difficult to answer.
I don’t want to be difficult here, and I don’t want to openly argue with an Apostle, especially Elder Oaks, who has always been one of my favorite Genera Authorities. I realize that his assertion (that anyone who receives a calling from someone with priesthood keys is exercising priesthood authority) is a generous gesture toward women in a spirit of inclusion, but in the attempt to make space for women under the umbrella of priesthood authority, this assertion actually expands our already nebulous definition of priesthood and creates further ambiguity. If that is all priesthood is—the performance of a necessary function under commission from someone who holds priesthood keys—then everyone who performs any function in the Church, from the lowliest Primary teacher to the general president of the Relief Society, exercises priesthood authority in their calling. But this is where an expanding definition gets us into murky waters and can bruise already tender feelings. Regardless of how broadly we try to define priesthood, female Primary teachers, sister missionaries, and Relief Society general presidents know that they do not actually have the priesthood, an abstract authority that is bestowed on men and boys through ordination and that enables them to perform priesthood functions, such as baptizing, blessing the sacrament, and anointing the sick. If sister missionaries are really exercising priesthood authority in their labors, why then are they not allowed to baptize their investigators who desire to join the Church? If they really do have priesthood authority (you can’t exercise it without having it), it is difficult to understand why they should not be able to baptize under the keys held by the mission president. But they cannot, which means, quite plainly, that they do not have priesthood authority, and to tell them they do in an effort to smooth over troubled waters may only make things worse and bring a new level of confusion to the issue.
This notion (that anyone who has received an assignment from a priesthood leader is exercising priesthood authority) is also undermined by the status of black male members of the Church before 1978. Some of them served in their wards and branches in various nonpriesthood capacities. They received these callings from priesthood leaders. According to this reasoning, these black men were exercising priesthood authority by teaching Primary, leading the music, and coaching Young Men’s basketball teams. But according to teachings of Church leaders at the time, they were “denied the priesthood; under no circumstances [could] they hold this delegation of authority from the Almighty.”8 Any attempt to explain to them that they were actually exercising priesthood authority while being specifically denied that authority would have been confusing at best, offensive at worst. So why is this reasoning deemed acceptable when addressing questions about women and the priesthood? This is perplexing.
As suggested above, many women do have some sort of unnamed, undefined institutional authority, but I would argue that it is not priesthood. Consequently, all our attempts to try to include female Church members in the priesthood in some indirect or tangential way only end up offending and alienating many of them, because there are so many things this oblique “exercise” of priesthood does not include. If we are really serious about claiming that priesthood is the only authority in the Church and that anyone who fulfills a calling under priesthood direction is exercising priesthood authority, reason suggests that we simply make this official by ordination. Otherwise, we find ourselves in increasingly troubled definitional waters with no clear way to resolve the confusion created by our problematic priesthood lexicon.
Presiding and Nonpresiding Positions
Because of our abstract definition of priesthood, exercising this authority in Mormondom involves more than just performing ordinances; it also encompasses the right of presidency, or the right to preside. All presiding positions at the general Church level and in all major subdivisions of the organization (stakes, missions, districts, wards, and branches) are reserved for priesthood holders—for men.9 But what about nonpresiding positions? Is there any apparent reason why women could not be called as, say, high councilors or clerks, which are not priesthood offices and really have nothing to do with presiding? And what about a presiding position such as Sunday School president, which is not a priesthood office?
Interestingly, when we move past the “important” leadership positions, there are other presiding positions in the Church that seem almost of a different species. For instance, presiding positions in ward priesthood quorums or groups are, in practice, very similar to presiding positions in auxiliary organizations, especially Relief Society and Young Women. Thus, at lower levels in the Church hierarchy, there seem to be presiding positions for men and presiding positions for women. Both types are positions of authority, but only one is called priesthood, even though they are quite analogous in practice. I will explore the differences and similarities between these two types of presiding positions later in the context of priesthood keys and quorums.
In conclusion, the only acceptable avenue out of this increasingly confusing maze of explanations regarding priesthood and authority in the Church seems to be the admission that priesthood is only one kind of divine authority and that there are, in fact, other kinds. This admission may lead us to consider new possibilities, such as the validity of the ancient scriptural notion that priesthood and authority are distinct concepts, that priesthood is linguistically and logically connected to officiating in priestly rituals, and that priesthood and institutional leadership may not necessarily be coterminous. These are certainly radical ideas, but they have a fairly solid basis in the Bible and the Book of Mormon.
What I have tried to point out in this post and the previous three is that our unique definition of priesthood leaves us somewhat in no-man’s land.10 We are stuck somewhere between a rather restrictive scriptural/historical idea of priesthood as merely the capacity of being a priest (performing the ritualistic functions that a priest performs) and the more expansive (and apparently expanding) modern idea of priesthood as the institutional authority that enables a person to lead or speak or act in the Church in an official or governing capacity. The idea that there are other types of authority in the Church that are not designated “priesthood” illustrates the problematic nature of a priesthood that is neither completely restrictive nor completely expansive.
1. See Dallin H. Oaks, “The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood,” Ensign 44, no. 5 (May 2014): 51.
2. Sarah Granger Kimball, “Auto-biography,” Woman’s Exponent 12, no. 7 (September 1, 1885): 51.
3. “Church Adjusts Mission Organization to Implement ‘Mission Leadership Council,’” Newsroom, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/church-adjusts-mission-organization-implement-mission-leadership-council.
4. I heard recently of a mission in which the mission president organized an entire zone of female missionaries, complete with female district and zone leaders. It is significant to note that these female leaders did not preside over any male missionaries.
5. The First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” https://www.lds.org/topics/family-proclamation.
6. Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine (Deseret Book Company, 1968), 286–87. Father, Consider Your Ways, a pamphlet published by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1973, concurs: “Fatherhood is leadership, the most important kind of leadership. It has always been so; it always will be so. Father, with the assistance and counsel and encouragement of your eternal companion, you preside in the home.” Pages 4–5, quoted in Ezra Taft Benson, “To the Fathers in Israel,” Ensign 17, no. 11 (November 1987): 49. See also Dallin H. Oaks, “Priesthood Authority in the Family and the Church,” Ensign 35, no. 11 (November 2005): 24–27, where Elder Oaks explains why his single mother presided in the home even when he was ordained a deacon.
7. Many of the duties associated today with Aaronic Priesthood offices evolved over time and were not institutionalized until as late as the 1950s. Of course, at one time youth were not given the priesthood at all, and adults were ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood offices. For a recounting of the evolution of the Aaronic Priesthood and a listing of current priesthood duties that do not actually require the priesthood, passing the sacrament among them, see William G. Hartley, “From Men to Boys: LDS Aaronic Priesthood Offices, 1829–1996,” Journal of Mormon History 22, no. 1 (1996): 117–18, 129–31. This article is reprinted in William G. Hartley, My Fellow Servants: Essays on the History of the Priesthood (Provo, Utah: BYU Studies, 2010), 37–86. Hartley quotes President Heber J. Grant saying that “there was ‘no rule in the Church’ that only priesthood bearers could carry the sacrament to the congregation after it was blessed” (130).
8. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 527.
9. Some would bring up the general auxiliary presidents in this context, but the Relief Society General President no longer presides over the Churchwide Relief Society. Ward Relief Society presidents are presided over by their bishops, not, I should add, by their stake Relief Society presidents. This fruit of Correlation creates the strange situation in which we have presidents who do not preside. General and stake auxiliary presidents function more in the mode of consultants, not file leaders.
10. It is tempting to render this idiom “no-woman’s land” here, but I’m sure any attempt at either humor or political correctness would be offensive to someone, so I will resist the temptation. By the same token, “no-man’s land” will probably offend others, so I’m in a no-win situation. Nevertheless, the term is exactly right, regardless of its sexist overtones, so I will use it.
Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Because priesthood is an abstract principle in modern Mormondom, it does not necessarily have to be attached to the institutional Church, although in our day this is always the case. Joseph and Oliver, for instance, were not members of the Church when they received authority that was later termed priesthood, nor were they members when they baptized each other, but we explain this fact by observing that they had to receive the authority first in order to establish the Church; otherwise, the organization would not have been authorized by the Lord. Nevertheless, since the founding of the Church in the latter days, priesthood has always been bestowed and exercised within its institutional confines. Indeed, Orson Hyde, in a May 1844 article titled “Priesthood What Is It,” declared that priesthood “is the right and the power to establish and govern the Church of the Living God, and is the same to that body, that government is to the nation.”1 This definition entirely sidesteps the more elementary and historical notion that priesthood has a necessary connection to being a priest and performing priestly rituals; it is instead the authority to establish an organization and then govern it. It is institutional authority.
Michael Quinn makes this insightful observation: “When the Church was organized in April 1830, there was still little sense of hierarchy. Smith was seen as one prophet among potentially many. Neither was there a structured sense of authority or priesthood. . . . It was priesthood—and eventually a highly structured priesthood—which required the hierarchical institution that Mormonism became.”2 Priesthood and hierarchy are inextricably intertwined in the modern Church. One does not exist without the other. In fact, one spawns the other.
The Organizational Impulse
Priesthood in modern Mormonism has spawned a hierarchical institution that is, organizationally speaking, on steroids. The LDS Church is so massively organized that it makes even the Roman Catholic Church look like amateur hour. Even if we completely ignore the general Church hierarchy of First Presidency, Apostles, Seventies, and general auxiliary presidencies as well as all area- and stake-level officers, we still see that each fully staffed ward in the Church has not just a bishop and his counselors, but a high priest group leader with two assistants, twelve (yes twelve) presidents with two counselors each (if you count the bishop as president of the priests quorum with his two assistants), a handful of clerks, a ward mission leader, an employment specialist, a music chairperson, dozens of teachers, secretaries, advisers, and other assorted official positions. This irrepressible organizational impulse makes Mormonism easily the most highly structured religion on earth, but it also opens the door to several significant and as yet unanswered questions regarding authority. One very simple question is, how much of this organization is absolutely necessary? This is a question that has been studiously avoided. The idea of giving every member a “calling” has certainly trumped every call for organizational reduction and simplification.
Returning to the idea that priesthood and institutional hierarchy are inseparable in modern Mormonism, I should point out that it is, of course, theoretically possible for the Lord to bestow priesthood authority upon someone not baptized into the Church, but as far as we know, this has not happened since the Church was organized. In earlier dispensations, however, prophets sometimes received authority and spoke and acted in the Lord’s name without any sort of corresponding formal organizational structure (Moses in exile and Abinadi among the apostate colony of King Noah, for instance), but this pattern does not prevail in our day—the priesthood and the Church are inseparable. Without the priesthood, there is no authorized church, and without the Church, there is no valid framework within which the priesthood can operate, although this framework has changed and evolved significantly since the early days of the Restoration.3
At times in the ancient world, priesthood was directly responsible for leading the people, not just performing sacred rituals. At the time of Jesus’s ministry, for instance, the religious leader of the Jewish people was the high priest. As I understand it, this is because the Temple was the central pillar of the Jewish religion, and the high priest was the chief of the priests who performed sacrifices in the Temple. A similar situation prevailed at times among the Nephites, but the direct connection to priestly rituals is missing from the record. Alma1 and his successors in the office of high priest did function as head of the church, but just how the Nephite temple figured into this arrangement is unclear. Indeed, there is only one mention in the Book of Mormon of sacrifices being performed in connection with Nephite temples, and this was long before the church was established. It is also not a very specific or clear connection: “And . . . the people gathered themselves together throughout all the land, that they might go up to the temple to hear the words which king Benjamin should speak unto them. . . . And they also took of the firstlings of their flocks, that they might offer sacrifice and burnt offerings according to the law of Moses” (Mosiah 2:1, 3). The temple here is only tangentially connected to priestly rituals (priests and priesthood are not even mentioned). The temple is a place where the king taught the people. We must assume, since the Nephites followed the Law of Moses, that they performed sacrifices in their temples, but the specifics of this practice are not mentioned. In the Book of Mormon, as opposed to the Bible, the temple is not ever directly connected to either priesthood or the office of high priest. In the Nephite record, at least after Alma1 founded the church of Christ, priesthood served as a form of institutional religious authority. In this particular regard, the Book of Mormon church is similar to the modern LDS Church, even though the concept of priesthood among the Nephites differed from our understanding of priesthood today.
In terms of the two types of authority discussed in part 2 of this series, priesthood in the modern LDS Church is entirely an institutional authority. It is not an authority based on personal influence or a divine dispensation to an individual. It is conferred by and through the organization. Granted, some leaders possess a set of personal qualities that have been labeled charisma, and this may give them greater influence over those they lead than the leverage exerted by others whose personality and attributes are less alluring. But charisma alone does not give any member of the Church the right to act officially in Church affairs. It certainly does not give a person the right to preside over the organization.
After the death of Joseph Smith, there were two major noninstitutional claims to succeed him as the presiding authority in the Church and two significant institutional claims,4 as well as several marginal claims. James Strang sought to succeed Joseph Smith on the basis of a letter he claimed Joseph had sent him and visions he claimed to have had. This could be viewed as a charismatic appeal for authority. Another group held that authority to lead was a hereditary matter (a notion Joseph actually encouraged), and they eventually convinced Joseph Smith III to accept the presidency of their movement, which became the Reorganization. The largest body of Saints, however, chose to follow the Apostles, who claimed the right to succession based on their priesthood and on keys they said Joseph had conferred upon them. This was a formal institutional claim to authority. Sidney Rigdon also claimed the mantle of institutional leadership by virtue of his position in the First Presidency, which created competing priesthood claims.5 In September 1844, the Twelve excommunicated Rigdon in an attempt to extinguish his claim that he was the only ordained prophet, seer, and revelator remaining after the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum. Rigdon moved to Pittsburgh with a group of his followers and continued to stake his priesthood claim to leadership. In terms of sheer numbers, though, the Apostles prevailed, and since the 1844 succession crisis, the right to preside in the LDS Church has come only through regular and formal priesthood channels, established and maintained by the Apostles.6
But are presiding and priesthood necessarily connected? Is there authority, even a form of presiding authority, in the Church that is not called priesthood? I will explore these questions in the next post.
1. Orson Hyde, “Priesthood What Is It,” The Prophet, May 25, 1844, p. 3, col. 2.
2. D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994), 7–8.
3. See William V. Smith, “Early Mormon Priesthood Revelations: Text, Impact, and Evolution,” Dialogue 46, no. 4 (2014): 1–84, especially 13–19, 46–48.
4. Three, if you count the early effort by Emma Smith and some members of the Quorum of the Anointed to promote William Marks, president of the Nauvoo high council and an opponent of polygamy, as Joseph’s successor. This effort was nipped in the bud before the entire Quorum of the Twelve returned to Nauvoo. See Merina Smith, Revelation, Resistance, and Mormon Polygamy: The Introduction and Implementation of the Principle, 1830–1853 (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2013), 186.
5. Sidney Rigdon, who likely suffered from bipolar disorder, would have been a poor choice to lead the Church, had his claim succeeded, an assessment his son, Wycliffe, agreed with. “I do not think the Church made any mistake in placing the leadership on Brigham Young,” he wrote. “Sidney Rigdon had no executive ability, was broken down with sickness, and could not have taken charge of the Church at that time. . . . The task would have been too great for Father. I have no fault to find with the Church with doing what they did. It was the best thing they could have done under the circumstances.” Quoted in Richard S. Van Wagoner, Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994), 360. See pages 116–18 for a discussion of Rigdon’s mental health.
6. It is interesting to note, as Michael Quinn has point out, that before 1847, the First Presidency of the Church was not an apostolic quorum. Quinn, Mormon Hierarchy, 37–38. Four of Joseph’s counselors (Gause, Rigdon, Williams, and Law) did not come from among the Twelve, nor were they ever ordained Apostles. Amasa Lyman was ordained an Apostle and took Orson Pratt’s place in the Quorum of the Twelve when Pratt was excommunicated. When Pratt was reinstated, Lyman was bumped from the Quorum but was made a counselor in the First Presidency. Two of Joseph’s assistant presidents (Cowdery and Hyrum Smith) were ordained Apostles but never served in the Quorum of the Twelve. Assistant President John C. Bennett was not ordained an Apostle. After Joseph’s death, the First Presidency became an apostolic quorum. All members of the First Presidency (with one exception noted below) either came from the Quorum of the Twelve or were ordained Apostles shortly before or after their call to the Presidency. J. Reuben Clark Jr. and Alvin R. Dyer, for instance, never served in the Quorum of the Twelve, but they were ordained Apostles. Clark served in the First Presidency for eighteen months before being ordained an Apostle. Dyer was ordained an Apostle in October 1967 but was not added to the Quorum of the Twelve. In April 1968, he became an additional counselor to President David O. McKay, serving with First Counselor Hugh B. Brown, Second Counselor N. Eldon Tanner, and additional counselor Thorpe B. Isaacson, the only counselor since 1847 who was never ordained an Apostle.