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Power from on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood

Power from on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood

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Power from on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood

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301 pages
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Aug 15, 1995


 Authority and priesthood were concepts that developed gradually in Mormon theology, not as thunderbolts but as ideas that acquired meaning and momentum over time. Acting initially on the basis of implied leadership, Joseph Smith moved toward explicit angelic authority and an increasingly defined structure drawn from biblical models.

All the while the structure of higher and lower priesthoods fluctuated in response to pragmatic needs. Priests were needed to perform ordinances, teachers to lead congregations, bishops to manage church assets, and elders to proselytize–responsibilities which would be redistributed repeatedly throughout Smith’s fourteen-year ministry.

Gregory Prince charts these developments with impressive interpretative skill. Besides the obvious historical significance, he underscores the implications for current Mormon governance. For instance, where innovations have characterized the past, one need not be bound by custom or surprised when church leaders instigate change.

Aug 15, 1995

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Power from on High - Gregory A Prince

Power From On High

The Development of Mormon Priesthood

Gregory A. Prince

Signature Books, Salt Lake City, 1995

To JaLynn,

who appreciated before I the necessity of writing this book

Jacket design by Brian Bean

Copyright 1995 Signature Books. All rights reserved.

Signature Books is a trademark of Signature Books, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Prince, Gregory

Power from on high : the development of Mormon priesthood / Gregory Prince, p.cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 1-56085-071-X (Hardback)

1. Aaronic Priesthood (Mormon Church)—Controversial literature.

2. Melchizedek Priesthood (Mormon Church)—Controversial literature. 3. Priesthood—Controversial literature. 4. Authority—Religious aspects—Mormon Church. I. Title.







I am indebted to several institutions and individuals associated with them for their support. Steven Sorensen and Ronald Barney, representing the archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Ronald Romig, representing the Library-Archives of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Independence, Missouri, were particularly helpful. Without their cooperation this book could not have been written. I am also grateful to David Whittaker and the Harold B. Lee Library of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, for permission to use materials from their collections.

Most of the materials cited in this book are from my own library. I am indebted, in more ways than one, to Sam Weller and Joan Nay of Zion Book Store, in Salt Lake City, for assistance spanning two decades in making these resources available to me.

The sections of this book dealing with the office of patriarch and the ordinance of the patriarchal blessing reflect the insight and resources of Gary Smith and Irene Bates, who generously provided me with copies of all patriarchal blessings in their extensive collection which were given during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. These blessings, both in hard copy and electronic format, are now available to researchers as the Irene Bates Collection at the Library-Archives of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

I am grateful to Lester Bush and Val Hemming for their critical review of the manuscript and their long-standing friendship. Only my wife, JaLynn, has had to endure me more than they during the decade since I embarked on this project. For her love, endurance, and understanding I dedicate this book to her.

My professional training is in science, not history or theology, and readers familiar with the tools of science will recognize their use in the writing of this book. Whatever contribution it may make to the field of Mormon studies will rest, in large measure, on the training I received from my scientific father, Dr. David D. Porter of the UCLA School of Medicine; my uncles, Dr. Harold S. Ginsberg of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University, Dr. Robert M. Chanock of the National Institutes of Health, and Dr. William H. Carnes (deceased); and my grandfathers, Dr. Frank J. Dixon of the Scripps Clinic & Research Foundation and Dr. Albert B. Sabin (deceased).



1. Authority

2. Offices

3. Ordinances, 1829-30

4. Ordinances: The Endowment

5. Ordinances, 1831-36

6. Ordinances: The Second Anointing

7. Judicial Systems

8. Women and Priesthood

1. Authority

A revelation to the three-year-old Church of Christ (also called Mormon) declared in 1833 that God would give unto the faithful line upon line precept upon precept.¹ The concept of authority was not initially addressed in the Restoration movement² but developed gradually, or line upon line. Now viewed as the founding Restoration event, the epiphany known as the first vision resulted from Joseph Smith’s mourning for my own sins and for the sins of the world.³ In response, the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee. Despite the importance attached to the first vision by subsequent generations of Latter-day Saints, it did not serve as Smith’s call to the ministry or claim to divine authorization.

That claim began with another vision, in the autumn of 1823, when an angel of the Lord came and stood before me. The angel called Moroni entrusted to Smith plates of gold upon which there was engravings which was engraven by Maroni & his fathers the servants of the living God in ancient days and deposited by the commandments of God and kept by the power thereof and that I should go and get them.⁴ Translating the plates into the Book of Mormon marked the beginning of Smith’s ministry. It established among his followers his credentials as a prophet. Such authority, however, was implied, for Smith never claimed that Moroni bestowed formal authority by the laying on of hands, the manner sanctioned by ancient and modern Christianity.

As the Mormon restoration unfolded, the essence of divine empowerment assumed a more concrete form. Almost six years after Moroni’s visit, angelic beings bestowed authority on Smith and his assistant Oliver Cowdery by the laying on of hands. Although in the Mormon church today the term priesthood refers to this bestowed authority, such a relationship did not develop until years after the founding of the church. Initially authority was understood to be inherent in what are now termed offices. Three offices—elder, priest, and teacher—were present by August 1829, as were the ordinances of baptism, confirmation, and ordination, but the word priesthood was not used in reference to these for another three years.

In June 1831 a modem pentecost occurred in which supernatural powers, similar to those reported in the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2, were bestowed upon latter-day disciples through their ordination to the high priesthood, thus coupling the concepts of authority and power. Between 1831 and 1835 an organizational consolidation occurred, resulting in the 1835 designations of the Aaronic Priesthood and Melchizedek Priesthood, which incorporated the elements of authority and power which had developed over the prior dozen years.

Perhaps the most important and certainly least understood development began in 1836 when Smith and Cowdery recorded a vision of Elijah, the Old Testament prophet. Although Elijah did not become associated with priesthood for another two years, he gradually became the most important figure for Latter-day Saint authority. Indeed, after 1840 Smith never associated Moroni, John the Baptist, or Peter, James, and John—previous angelic ministers—with the concept of priesthood, opting instead to emphasize Elijah.

The concept of bestowed authority was present prior to the organization of the church, but the structure and nomenclature developed gradually throughout the remaining years of Smith’s life. Although the development occurred along a continuum, the continuity was punctuated by several key events. In attempting to understand the developmental process, it is useful to divide the continuum into several phases on the basis of those events.

Phase 1: Implied Authority, September 1823-March 1829

Visions surrounding the gold plates of the Book of Mormon provided the earliest confirmation of Joseph Smith’s divine calling. Within weeks of Smith’s obtaining the plates in September 1827, neighbor Martin Harris became convinced of the visions and gave [Smith] fifty Dollars to bare my expences and because of his faith and the righteous deed the Lord appeared unto him in a vision and showed unto him his marvilous work which he was about to do.⁵ A similar manifestation in 1829 converted a man whose role in Latter-day Saint priesthood would be second only to Smith’s: [The] Lord appeared unto a young man by the name of Oliver Cowdry and shewed unto him the plates in a vision and also the truth of the work and what the Lord was about to do through me his unworthy servant therefore he was desirous to come and write for me to translate.

While it was apparent that Smith had a calling, the basis of his authority was implicit in his work, not the result of any hands-on ordination. Prior to 1829 neither Smith nor his followers claimed to have received the type of divine authorization which ultimately would become known as priesthood.

Smith’s primary concerns during this time were his own status with God and the translation of the gold plates. He expressed no intent to organize a church or to confer authority or ordinances on others. Three revelations date from this period, none of which addressed these issues. In the first, from July 1828, Smith was chastised for having lost part of the Book of Mormon manuscript and was told that he would be allowed to resume translating, but no authority was mentioned.⁷ In the second, dated February 1829, a ministry extending beyond publication of the Book of Mormon was implied. The qualifications for that ministry were listed: Faith, hope, charity and love, with an eye single to the glory of God (BC III:1). Formal authority evidently was not required. The third revelation, given to Joseph Smith one month later in behalf of Harris, described for the first time the establishment of a church, like unto the church which was taught by my disciples in the days of old (BC IV:5), but stipulated no prerequisites.⁸

Phase 2: Angelic Authority, April 1829-Octoher 1830

In April 1829 itinerant schoolteacher Oliver Cowdery arrived in Harmony, Pennsylvania, to serve as Joseph Smith’s new scribe. Within days their work on the Book of Mormon produced passages dealing with baptism. The first of these was from The Book of Mosiah⁹:

And now it came to pass that Alma took Helam, he being one of the first, and went and stood forth in the water, and cried, saying, O Lord, pour out thy spirit upon thy servant, that he may do this work with holiness of heart. And when he had said these words, the spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he said, Helam, I baptize thee, having authority from the Almighty God, as a testimony that ye have entered into a covenant to serve him until you are dead, as to the mortal body; and may the spirit of the Lord be poured out upon you; and may he grant unto you eternal life, through the redemption of Christ, which he hath prepared from the foundation of the world. And after Alma had said these words, both Alma and Helam was [sic] buried in the water; and they arose and came forth out of the water rejoicing, being filled with the spirit. And again, Alma took another, and went forth a second time into the water, and baptized him according to the first, only he did not bury himself again in the water.¹⁰

Of particular importance is the idea that before Alma baptized he received authorization simply from the spirit of the Lord. There is no mention of angelic appearance, laying on of hands, or ordained office. Alma baptized himself and Helam simultaneously.

Cowdery received the following communication from God at about this time:

Now therefore whosoever repenteth & humbleth himself before me & desireth to be baptized in my name shall ye baptize them. And after this manner did he [the Lord] command me that I should baptize them[.] Behold ye shall go down & stand in the water & in my name shall ye baptize them. And now behold these are the words which ye shall say calling them by name saying[,] Having authority given me of Jesus Christ I baptize you in the name of the Father & of the Son & of the Holy Ghost Amen. And then shall ye immerse them in the water & come forth again out of the water & after this manner shall !11ye baptize in my name.¹¹

Smith’s and Cowdery’s baptisms in the Susquehanna River in May 1829 were thus divinely authorized, though not as a prerogative based on the duties of any office. Later accounts described additional elements such as authority from an angel conferred by the laying on of hands and tandem rather than simultaneous baptism, in contrast to the Book of Mormon model.

Although they possessed authority to baptize, Smith and Cowdery lacked the authority mentioned in later passages of the Book of Mormon, which enabled recipients to confer the Holy Ghost and to ordain priests and teachers. In these passages those holding this higher authority were simultaneously called disciples and elders and were equivalent to Christ’s apostles in Palestine (BM, 1830, 574-75). Book of Mormon witness David Whitmer later said that Smith and Cowdery obtained this authority early in June 1829, after he took them to his father’s farm in Fayette, New York, and that following this they ordained each other elders.¹² Shortly thereafter, Whitmer was baptized and ordained as the third elder of the Restoration.¹³

Inasmuch as a revelation dated mid-June stated that Cowdery and Whitmer had been called even with that same calling as the Apostle Paul (BC XV: 11),¹⁴ the ordinations as elders must have occurred within the first two weeks of June 1829. The revelation reinforced the idea that their new, higher authority was the same described in the Book of Mormon by commissioning Cowdery and Whitmer to choose twelve disciples who were then to ordain priests and teachers, the same duty given the twelve disciples/elders in The Book of Moroni (BC XV:35; cf. BM, 1830, 575).

The following early Mormon and non-Mormon records support the claim of divine restoration of authority, including (beginning in the appearance of angels, (beginning in late 1832 but not explicit until late 1834) the receipt of priesthood from angels, and (in 1835) the naming of angels:

While it is not known why Smith and Cowdery delayed naming the messengers until 1835, the answer may reside in the role the Book of Mormon played during the earliest months of the Restoration. In addition to authorizing and initiating Smith’s ministry, the Book of Mormon served as a blueprint for the early church. The form of the early church beginning in the summer of 1829 paralleled that described in the Book of Mormon. Its emphasis on the necessity of baptism and formal authority to baptize initiated Smith’s and Cowdery’s journey to the Susquehanna River. It described the mode of baptism and even specified the exact wording of the baptismal prayer. In this context one might appreciate that the actual conferral of authority to baptize (and subsequently the higher authority of the apostleship) could have been viewed by Smith and Cowdery of lesser significance. It is important to realize that Smith himself publicly associated John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John with priesthood restoration only from 1835 to 1840, after which time Elijah pre-empted them in Latter-day Saint theology, even as Moroni appears to have pre-empted them prior to 1835.²⁸

The status of Mormon authority in 1829 was as follows. Motivated by passages in the Book of Mormon, Smith and Cowdery had sought and received authorization to baptize. Later they encountered additional Book of Mormon passages describing a higher authority which was needed to confer the Holy Ghost and ordain to offices, which they subsequently received. Neither level of authority had yet been called priesthood. Prior to 1831 the only use of the term was in the Book of Mormon, where it was used synonymously with the office of high priest (BM, 1830, 258-60), an office which did not exist in Mormonism until late 1831. Prior to then men acted by virtue of the office to which they had been ordained, either elder, priest, or teacher. In performing ordinances they sometimes referred to their authority explicitly, as in the baptismal prayer, though without using the term priesthood.²⁹ Authority was generally implied, as in the blessing of the bread and wine (BM, 1830, 575-76) and in the ordination of priests and teachers (BM, 1830, 575).³⁰ It was not until several months after the June 1831 general conference, when the high priesthood was conferred, that the term priesthood entered Mormon usage at all.

Two offices—priest and teacher—were named in the Book of Mormon as possessing lesser authority. Neither office was specifically bestowed on Smith or Cowdery.³¹ The Book of Mormon stated that both offices had authority to baptize (BM, 1830, 265), though a revised version of the Articles and Covenants of the church in 1831 restricted the performing of baptism to the former office.³²

The higher authority, according to the Book of Mormon, resided in elders whose authority equaled that of Jesus’ ancient apostles (BM, 1830, 574-75). Initially the term disciple referred to those possessing this authority (BC XV:28), but in late 1829 the term switched to apostle.³³ In a revelation dated 6 April 1830 (the day the church was formally organized), Smith and Cowdery were called Apostles and Elders (BC XXII:1, 13, 14). Two months later the first general conference was held at which licenses to preach were given to two teachers, three priests, and five elders.³⁴ Two of those licenses still exist. Smith’s father’s states that he is a Priest of this Church of Christ,³⁵ while John Whitmer’s says he is an Apostle of Jesus Christ, an Elder of this Church of Christ.³⁶ A year later the Articles and Covenants further clarified the dual nomenclature by stating that an apostle is an elder.³⁷ William McLellin later explained that an Apostle is not an administrative officer. When they ministered they did it as Elders.³⁸ That apostles existed in the church as early as 1829, and that twelve apostles may have been selected as early as 1830, is further suggested by the following sources:

David Marks, an itinerant preacher, stayed in the home of the Whit- mer family on 29 March 1830, just eight days before the church was organized. In his memoirs published in 1831 he said of his conversation with the Whitmers, they further stated, that twelve apostles were to be appointed, who would soon confirm their mission by miracles.³⁹

An article in The Cleveland Herald, dated 25 November 1830, said that since the Book of Mormon would not sell unless an excitement and curiosity could be raised in the public mind, [the leaders of the new church] have therefore sent out twelve Apostles to promulgate its doctrines, several of whom are in this vicinity expounding its mysteries and baptising converts to its principles …⁴⁰

In December 1830 letters of introduction written by Sidney Rigdon in behalf of John Whitmer called Whitmer an Apostle of this church,

⁴¹ and by Joseph Smith and John Whitmer called Orson Pratt (ordained an elder on 1 December 1830) another servant and apostle.


By the end of 1830 new elders were no longer also called apostles.⁴³ The use of the term declined quickly. By 1835, when the Quorum of Twelve Apostles was organized, no mention was made of the earlier apostles.

Another development at the end of 1830 proved to be

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