Perspectives on Priesthood

I have been exploring the concept of Mormon spirituality outside of the context of the LDS church and Christianity as a whole. I have been reading “The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology” by Jonathan A. Stapley. He is a Mormon scholar that has written about some fascinating topics such as Female Ritual Healing in MormonismAdoptive Sealing Ritual in Mormonism (Law of Adoption), and Last Rites and the Dynamics of Latter-day Saint Liturgy. One of the first chapters in The Power of Godliness touched upon how Mormon Priesthood evolved. This concept intrigued me, especially since I have been wanting to start a group based around this type of Mormon spirituality. I decided to do a bit more research on the topic. I ended up reading the first couple of chapters of “The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power” by D. Michael Quinn, “Evolution of Mormon Authority Claims parts 1 and 2” by Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith Papers, and various online timelines as well. I wanted to give a little overview about how priesthood and authority changed between 1829-1830 and then give my opinion on the priesthood.

Before 1830, the priesthood was seen as a calling that only you could tell if you had. Grant Palmer called this the “charismatic priesthood”. We see it in The Book of Mormon with characters like Alma. The early church very much replicated this model of “holding the priesthood”. This can be shown in several places in the precursor to The Doctrine and Covenants, which is known as The Book of Commandments (BoC).

BoC 3:1 (D&C 4) (Feb. 1829) says

… O ye that embark in the service of God, … if ye have desires to serve God, ye are called to the work … faith, hope, charity, and love, with an eye single to the glory of God, qualifies him for the work

BoC 11:4-5 (D&C 12) (May 1829) said:

4 Behold I speak unto you, and also to all those who have desires to bring forth and establish this work, and no one can assist in this work, except he shall be humble and full of love, having faith, hope and charity, being temperate in all things, whatsoever shall be intrusted to his care.

5 … therefore, give heed with your might, and then you are called: Amen.

In addition, callings such as apostle were considered something that you feel drawn to. BoC 15:10-11 (D&C 18) (June 1829) said:

10 And now Oliver, I speak unto you, and also unto David, by the way of commandment:

11 For behold, I command all men everywhere to repent, and I speak unto you, even as unto Paul mine apostle, for you are called even with that same calling with which he was called.

The only literal ordinations by Jesus was recorded in Mark 3:14. After Jesus and Judas’s deaths, the apostles laid their hands on Matthias’s head to ordain him. However, Galatians 1:1 shows that Paul was never called or ordained by anyone, he just felt a calling for it.

David Whitmer gives even further light and knowledge in his 1887 pamphlet “An Address to All Believers in Christ” part 2 chapter 4. He claimed that the office of “prophet” was not something that was endowed to one specific person, and that in those days, multiple people were considered prophets. Those that were considered the great leaders were the ones that were humble. He singled out Joseph Smith as making a power grab that stemmed from him being prideful. He claimed Joseph Smith repressed 2 things:

  1. His own false prophesies in order to make it seem like he was always correct.
  2. The prophesies of other early Mormons.

These quotes show that in the early days everyone had the priesthood if they felt they did. There were no restrictions, conditions, requirements, or qualifications placed upon the priesthood. If you felt drawn to it, you had it.

This began to change in June 1829. At this time there were new rituals and traditions associated with the priesthood, such as duties, offices, and ordinations. There were 3 offices: teachers, priests, and elders, and each had a different job. Teachers were to teach other Mormons, Priests were to perform rituals for those who were ready for them, and Elders were to conduct meetings. However, no one office was considered higher than the other. There were many people ordained to these offices, even though the church hadn’t been organized or the priesthood restored by Peter, James, and John.

The early Mormons were not able to legally perform marriages or hold property until they had formally organized. The spiritual community became a formal organization on April 6, 1830. The duties of the priesthood offices were also expanded and the office of deacon was added when this formalization occurred, as is seen in BoC 24 (D&C 20). At this time the church was chiefly lead by the elders, but many saw Joseph Smith as the de facto leader. David Whitmer compared it to the Nephites wanting a king when they had a system of judges. The church continued to have non-exclusive leaders for a very short time. In September 1830, one of the prominent members of the church, Hiram Page, used his seer stone to obtain revelation, and many accepted it as revelation. However, Joseph Smith viewed this as a threat to his power. BoC 30 (D&C 28) was given as a result, which said that Page’s revelation was actually from the devil and that his revelation should be burned and his stone ground to dust. Joseph Smith said that no one was allowed to lead people spiritually without Joseph Smith’s express permission. This was reiterated again 5 months later with BoC 45 (D&C 43).

These acts began a string of Joseph Smith solidifying a bureaucracy with him having absolute power over the Mormons. There is evidence that he started dosing his followers with entheogens without telling them and told them that it was by his power that they were experiencing these things. He started creating even further divisions in the priesthood with the introduction of Sidney Rigdon’s Campbellite views, and situated himself and those loyal to him into the highest positions of power. To top it all off he re-wrote the Book of Commandments into the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835. This transition of holy books included many significant and drastic changes. Most notably was the change of BoC 28 to D&C 27, which rewrote history so that John the Baptist gave Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery permission and authority to baptize and Peter, James, and John gave them both the priesthood. This all lead to the solidification of Joseph Smith’s sole authority amongst the Mormons.

So, what does this have to do with Mormon spirituality outside of the context of the LDS church and Christianity as a whole? One concept that people, especially LDS/ex-LDS Mormons, seem to struggle with is not being able to take charge of their own spirituality. Their spirituality is/was dictated and directed by a bureaucracy that Joseph Smith kicked off in 1830. This has prevented them from experiencing being able to perform rituals and holding opinions on their terms.

Many may say that the concept of priesthood would be useless. I agree. However, after almost 190 years of a bureaucratic and hierarchical relationship to spirituality, this concept is an important thing to talk about. I am interested in drawing from the 1829 view of priesthood. This is the priesthood that gives everyone unrestricted and unconditional access to the priesthood. It validates your experiences, encourages you to listen to others (not just a bureaucratic leader), and ultimately encourages you to follow the path that is best for you. It gives permission to perform, and even reinvent, traditional rituals that people want in order to symbolize milestones in life, give comfort, or even just a placebo. Rituals like baby blessings, healing blessings, baptism, sacrament, ordinations, dusting off shoes, endowments, sealings, or grave dedications. It gives you permission to view different “offices” in different ways, or to simply do away with them.In short, my perspective on having the priesthood means taking charge of your own spirituality. It means conducting the rituals that bring you and others peace and fulfillment.

Originally posted 08/29/2019.

EDIT 01/26/2020: A great way that I’ve come to see the concept of the priesthood is basically having it be synonymous with “friendship”.