Priesthood (Mormonism)

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In Mormonism, priesthood is considered to be the power and authority to act in the name of God, including the performance of sacred rites and ordinances, and the performance of miracles. A body of priesthood holders is referred to as a quorum.

The term priesthood denotes elements of both power and 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.


Orders of Priesthood

There are at least two types (called "orders") of Mormon priesthood: (1) the Aaronic Priesthood (or Levitical priesthood), which is considered to be a lesser priesthood tracing its roots to Aaron the brother of Moses, (2) the Melchizedek Priesthood, which is considered to be a higher priesthood. The distinction between these two orders of priesthood derives in part from the Epistle to the Hebrews, whose author argues that Jesus arose "after the order of Melchizedec, and not...after the order of Aaron." (Heb. 7:11).

The Aaronic Priesthood (also called the Levitical Priesthood) was the original form practiced by Joseph Smith, Jr. and his associates beginning on May 15, 1829, when Smith and Oliver Cowdery claimed to have been ordained to this priesthood by an angel identifying himself as John the Baptist.

The Melchizedek Priesthood is also referred to as the "high priesthood of the holy order of God" (Alma 4:20, 13:8), or the "Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God" (LDS D&C 107:3). In Mormonism, unlike most other Christian religions, the Melchizedek Priesthood is thought to be held by mortals as a normal priesthood office, and not solely by either pre-Aaronic priests such as Melchizedek, or Jesus alone, as most Christians interpret the Epistle to the Hebrews.

There is some controversy over whether there is a separate third order called the Patriarchal Priesthood, which was listed by Joseph Smith, Jr. in 1843 as one of three orders, but about which he provided little information. At earlier times, Smith referred to only two orders of priesthood. (See, e.g., LDS D&C 107:1) Thus, many Latter Day Saints view the Patriarchal order as an indistinct part of the Melchizedek Priesthood practiced only in temples.

Calling and ordination

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 opportunity or destiny to hold the priesthood. See Matthew 22 ("Many are called but few are chosen"). There is some disagreement as to the manner in which a person may be called to the priesthood; however, there are at least four possibilities expressed in Mormon scripture: (1) calling by prophesy, (2) calling through lineage, (3) calling by foreordination, or (4) calling through faith and good works. In addition, a person's calling through lineage or foreordination may be revealed by prophesy.

Calling by prophecy

Despite the existence in Mormon doctrine of other means by which a person could be called to the priesthood, the most common and standard means by which a person is said to have been "called" to the priesthood is "by prophecy". In his The Wentworth Letter, Joseph Smith, Jr. stated, "We believe that a man must be called of God, by preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof." (See also Fifth Article of Faith.)

In the early church, many callings came as direct scriptural revelations by Joseph Smith, Jr.. Since Smith's death, most Mormon denominations consider a person to have been called by prophecy when someone within the church hierarchy, who holds the priesthood, is inspired by the Holy Spirit that the person should hold 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.

Calling by faith and good works

Many Latter Day Saints believe that a person may be called to the priesthood through their faith and good works. This view is based primarily upon the Book of Mormon, which states that "it was by faith that they of old were called after the holy order of God". (Ether 12:10). Similarly, in the Book of Mormon's first detailed discussion concerning the calling and ordination of high priests, the scripture states, "And this is the manner after which they were ordained—...they having chosen good, and exercising exceedingly great faith, are called with a holy calling.... And thus they have been called to this holy calling on account of their faith." (Alma 13:3-4. In a similar vein, the earliest sections of the Doctrine and Covenants contain statements such as "if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work" (LDS D&C 4:3) and "whosoever will thrust in his sickle and reap, the same is called of God" (LDS D&C 6:4).

The gift of the priesthood and ordination to a particular priesthood office

In addition to being called by God, Latter Day Saint theology holds that a person must be given the priesthood power by one who previously holds it. While calling represents a general call to exercise priesthood authority or power, a person is not thought to actually possess the priesthood to which they have been called until it is formally conferred or endowed to that person through a ritual ceremony.

Mormons generally understand priesthood power to be given in one of two ways: (1) as part of an ordination ceremony, or (2) through the Endowment ceremony (a minority view). After a person has received the priesthood power as part of a ritual ceremony, a person may be ordained numerous times to various particular offices within the church.

The requirement of priesthood succession

Very early in his ministry, Joseph Smith, Jr. began to advocate the position that priesthood does not come directly from God through the Holy Spirit, as many Protestants believe, but through a line of direct or apostolic succession. Thus, Latter Day Saints generally believe that priesthood originates with Jesus, and is passed to others through a line of succession. Only one who holds the priesthood can pass it to another. Thus, in 1829, Smith and his associate claimed that the Aaronic Priesthood was given to him by John the Baptist, who was thought to have that authority through the lineage of his father Zacharias, who was an Aaronic priest. Later, Smith also claimed to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood from the Apostles Peter, James, and John, who were given their authority by Jesus.

Gift of the priesthood through an ordination ceremony

The most common and well-recognized manner through which a Latter Day Saint receives the priesthood is as part of an ordination ceremony. Typically, in an ordination ceremony, before a person is ordained for the first time to a particular office such as elder, teacher, or priest, the person performing the ceremony will "confer upon them" the Aaronic or Melchizedek priesthood.

Gift of the priesthood through the Endowment ceremony

While most Latter Day Saints recognize that priesthood may be conferred as part of an ordination ceremony, some feminist Mormons understand the Endowment ceremony to be an endowment of priesthood power. 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". Later in the ceremony, both men and women are clothed in the "robes of the priesthood" and "prepared to officiate in the ordinances of" the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods.

Thus, it has been suggested 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).

Ordination to particular priesthood offices in the church through the laying on of hands

After a person has received the priesthood power as part of a ritual ceremony, a person may be ordained numerous times to various particular offices within the church. This generally takes place by the laying on of hands. The ordination to a particular office, such as priest, teacher, or elder, represents a more specific call to perform a particular priesthood duty within the church, and a person may be ordained to numerous offices during their lifetime, depending on the needs of the church.

That specific ordinations to preach or perform ordinances are made through the laying on of hands was a concept formulated early in Joseph Smith's ministry. He stated the principle as one of the church's articles of faith, that a calling to preach or perform rituals in the name of Christ was to be made through "prophecy and 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 members to priesthood offices up to their office.

Priesthood "keys"

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:

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:

Missing image
Quorums of the Priesthood

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

In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest denomination of the Latter Day Saint movement, the priesthood is the power and authority to act in the name of God.

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

Melchizedek Priesthood
ApostleNo age minimum specifiedSpecial 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.
Seventy18 and olderMen who assist the Apostles to serve as General (typically First or Second Quorums) or Area (typically Third to Eighth 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.
Patriarch18 and olderA local man that is ordained to give Patriarchal Blessings to members within his stake
High Priest18 and olderMay serve in leadership callings such as a Bishop, ordain other High Priests and all duties of an Elder
Elder18 and olderConfer 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
Aaronic Priesthood
Bishop18 and olderPreside 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
Priest16 and olderPrepare and Bless the Sacrament, Baptize, ordain other Priests, Teachers and Deacons and all the duties of a Teacher
Teacher14 and olderPrepare the Sacrament, Hometeach and all the duties of a Deacon
Deacon12 and olderStanding 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 ChurchHigh 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 ApostlesTwelve 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 CounselorsHigh Priests (Elders) who preside over a particular mission
Stake(District) President and CounselorsHigh Priests (Elders) who preside over the wards (Branches) within their stake (District)
High CounselorsTwelve (or more) High Priests who assist the Stake Presidency
Temple President and CounselorsHigh Priests who preside over a temple
Bishop (Branch President) or CounselorHigh 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 "sustained" or accepted 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.

The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was instituted on February 14, 1835, (Doctrine and Covenants 107:23-24) and is equal in authority to The First Presidency in absentia.

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.


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