Dews From Heaven was a project started by Kim Berkey and Karen Spencer in October 2013. Both of us were studying passages of scripture which expounded priesthood in various ways (origin, purpose, lineage, covenant, and so on). We decided that it was a delightful idea to study these together. Our focus and methods were similar enough to work well together, but different enough to give each other plenty of fresh insight. Plus, Kim is just a whole lot more rigorous than me, which was good for me. :) Since we were living in different states at the time we opted to study via this blog format.

Later on we invited our friends Jenny Webb and Candice Wendt to study along with us. We’ve had many, many productive conversations connecting one scripture with another, or studying a theme throughout scripture, or trying to riddle out just one grammatical question (Alma 13!). It’s been great and very uplifting.

However, life gets busy. We’re all mothers of small children. They need breakfast and help with homework. Our families go through changes and stresses from time to time. We’ve managed that alright, but this summer two of us have moved significant distances, and another is starting graduate school this fall. With those major life changes, on top of other things already keeping us busy, we’ve decided to put the blog project on hold for a time.

All of us are interested in continuing the project in the future. But for now, it sits as a record and archive of the many insights we had along the way. We’re happy to have them accessible whenever we’re pondering something we’ve discussed before. Perhaps among the hours and hours of thought and comments included here there will be something useful to you too.

Thanks for stopping by. And may your own studies be fruitful too!

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Doctrine and Covenants 84:19-24, Keys and Priesthood Robes

19 And this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God.

The word key is intriguing in relation to priesthood is intriguing. Priesthood “holdeth the key.” This leads me to reflect on the “keys” held in our hands and pockets on a daily basis. Without the right keys, there is no dependable access into the spaces in which we live, travel, and attend to life and so many of its joys and responsibilities. A lost key is an obvious stalemate we remedy as soon as possible.

Of course, urgent efforts to regain keys depend upon my recognizing when a key is out of our possession, such as a key to a new apartment I have yet to move into, my misplaced car key in the morning, or a broken mailbox key when bills are expected.

Yet, what if there are additional locks and keys I am ignorant of? What if I have misplaced, or am actually oblivious to keys that would reshape patterns of life?—like a mysterious PO box addressed in my name, an unknown ancestral home, or a forgotten chest in Grandma’s attic. Messages, treasures, and relationships are left undiscovered. To me this seems analogous to what was experienced by the descendents of Moses and Aaron. It is tragic that they lost keys for generations that left them spiritually impoverished relative to the precious covenants and knowledge they could have enjoyed.

Question: What might be included in the “mysteries of the kingdom”? How are these mysteries unlocked; what does this look like in real life?

Some thoughts: In terms of discovering the “mysteries” of earthly kingdoms (human culture, nature, etc), we require keys to facilitate many of our learning experiences. I think of three basic kinds of objects key under lock and key: 1) Keys open pathways/gates (such as garden paths, hikes, and even roads). 2) Keys open containers/receptacles with information and archives inside, such as a filing cabinet (I think of my own cedar chest, which I fill with handmade things from Grandmothers and family history documents). 3) Keys also open buildings and other spaces designated for us to connect, work, learn, and socialize with other.

There are multitude of ways physical keys provide access to knowledge, relationships, and experiences. Relative to this, I imagine that tongue cannot tell the full extent of the learning experiences and joys to be opened by the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood. I believe that many of the experiences of endowed members are related to the revelatory power of these keys in ways we do not yet fully understand.

20 Therefore, in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest.

Question: Are the ordinances “the mysteries of the kingdom?” I take this first part, “Therefore, in the ordinances thereof,” to mean that the ordinances are opened with the key of priesthood, and are thus that ordinances are identified as the mysteries referred to in verse 19. This verse challenges what I just suggested about the mysteries being very inclusive to many kinds of spiritual and learning experiences. Should “the mysteries of God” and “the knowledge of God” be precisely defined as that which is revealed and conferred in the administration of gospel ordinances?

The ordinances are prescriptive for life and salvation. But are there non-prescriptive ways outside the ordinances themselves God’s mysteries are unlocked specifically through the Melchezidek priesthood, and if how are the keys working and unlocking knowledge of God and His mysteries in our lives? Do faithful women who have received the ordinances of the gospel unlock God’s mysteries on a regular basis?

21 And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh;

Question: What is the “power of godliness” and how is it manifest to us while in our mortal bodies through the priesthood?

Some thoughts: I’ve been pondering how there are many undertones surrounding connections between pure, never ending, all-enduring love and God’s priesthood in this revelation. The power of godliness is manifest through the Lord’s discouragement-immune efforts to sanctify human beings and provide opportunities for them to know him, understand precious truths from the past, and to help past generations to be redeemed. After centuries, the Lord is still mindful of peoples, and mercifully restoring their rights to be near him. God’s perfect love is directly manifest in the ordinances through cleansing power, expressions of forgiveness, and precious promises of eternal joy, righteousness, relationships, health, and life.

22 For without this no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live.

I once heard a former temple president of the Taipei Taiwan mission share how “falling down” experiences are part of Buddhist traditions. When sacred, superior beings unexpectedly appear, humans fall down (this reminds me of the falling down that occurs to King Lamoni and his household and Ammon in Alma 19-20). He went on to suggest that perhaps one reason why we need to practice being embraced by God and passing into His presence repeatedly in the temple is so that when we do enter His presence, we will stand without falling.

Verse 22 sheds light on the endowment. Being enrobed in the priesthood makes our safe passage into the veil possible. This leads me into thoughts about how charity and priesthood are somewhat synonymous when we cross reference scriptural passages. We are to clothe ourselves with charity as with a mantle (D&C 88:125), imagery similar to putting on the robes of priesthood. Charity, like priesthood, is also something that is promised to endure with us forever (Moroni 7:47). It seems to me that to be clothed fully in priesthood is to be fully clothed in charity. We learn in Doctrine and Covenants 121 that the doctrines of the priesthood distill upon us as we let our “bowels be filled with charity toward all men” (see vs. 41-45)

23 Now this Moses plainly taught to the children of Israel in the wilderness, and sought diligently to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God;

24 But they hardened their hearts and could not endure his presence; therefore, the Lord in his wrath, for his anger was kindled against them, swore that they should not enter into his rest while in the wilderness, which rest is the fulness of his glory.

A softened heart and wiliness to embrace the truth that we need the priesthood to become clean and spiritually worthy seem to be the basic things the Lord needs of us. A contrite heart and willingness to “observe covenants by sacrifice” are what make us fully acceptable before God, and qualify us to embark on the journey to sanctification (D&C 97:8).

It is interesting that the Lord’s presence is to the unsanctified is a place of great intensity, danger, and unrest (even death), while to the sanctified, it is promised as the quintessential form of rest.

Another possible question: How do we experience the Lord’s rest while in the wilderness in our lives? How do we enter his rest before being fully sanctified and within his presence?


Filed under D&C 84

D&C 84: 6-18

The Tangent

There is a lengthy tangent in D&C 84 that begins in verse 6 and continues until verse 31. Verse 6 begins: “And the sons of Moses…” and verse 31 begins: “Therefore, as I said concerning the sons of Moses–.” Verses 6-30 are preparatory to explaining what those sons of Moses are going to do.

This portion of the tangent (verses 6-18) focuses on the lineages of authority for the Melchizedek and Aaronic Priesthoods.

Thoughts on the lineage of authority for the Melchizedek Priesthood (verses 6-17)

1) “And the sons of Moses, according to the Holy Priesthood which he received under the hand of his father-in-law, Jethro….” How do you hear the phrase, “according to,” here? It sounds like we were about to find out what the sons of Moses were going to do with or according to the priesthood authority they possess. That is, perhaps this sentence was going to say, “The sons of Moses, according to the Holy Priesthood, are going to do such-and-such….”

Another way of reading the phrase “according to” is as an explanation of the title “sons of Moses.” There are those who are considered “sons” of Moses because they have inherited the priesthood that Moses had. (I think the same idea is at work in verses 33-34, where those who obtain the priesthood “become” the sons of Moses and of Aaron.) That is, perhaps the sentence could be read as, “The sons of Moses, who are sons according to or because they are receiving the Holy Priesthood which Moses had, and which he received from his father-in-law….”

2) Verses 6-13 outline a genealogy of priesthood authority from Jethro back to Esaias, a man who lived at the time of Abraham, and then on back to Adam himself. I didn’t remember there being a parallel priesthood line co-existing with the famous Abraham-Isaac-Jacob line, and I didn’t find any reference to this genealogy in the Bible. That throws off all sorts of theories and ideas I’ve been collecting about the Abrahamic Covenant! The Bible (and our other scriptures) present Abraham as a pivotal figure in history, and that his covenant and priesthood were only passed to his son Isaac, and then to Jacob, and so on. But here we learn that Abraham blessed a man who was not his son and who went on to pass that priesthood to his sons for many generations. And to top it all off, then that priesthood line also ends up blessing one of Abraham’s descendants, Moses, and bringing the priesthood back to Abraham’s descendants! I find this so fascinating!

3) One more note on Abraham: we also learn that “Abraham received the priesthood from Melchizedek.” That detail isn’t explained in either Genesis or the Book of Abraham. In Genesis we read that he was blessed by Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18-20). But the Book of Abraham leaves out Melchizedek’s name all together: Abraham simply “became” a high priest (Abraham 1:2).

4) I wonder why this lineage of priesthood authority goes through Abel and not Seth? (See Genesis 4:25 and Moses 6:2-4,7.)

Thoughts on the lineage of authority for the Aaronic Priesthood (verse 18)

1) The genealogy of Aaronic Priesthood authority only receives one verse, but only one is necessary since there is no list of names who passed on the priesthood from generation to generation. The verses on the Melchizedek Priesthood authority went backwards from Moses to Adam. Here, we recognize that the Aaronic Priesthood was organized at the time of Moses, so there is no backwards lineage to Adam to list! Rather, this verse focuses on the future: “And the Lord confirmed a priesthood also upon Aaron and his seed, throughout all their generations….” Even from Aaron forward no names are listed, simply the information that it would continue with his seed.  The second half of verse 18 emphasizes that this priesthood will be just as permanent as the Melchizedek: it “continueth and abideth forever with the priesthood which is after the holiest order of God.”

2) It’s interesting to me that there is a creation of a priesthood order but not an ending of that order. Put another way, it is my understanding that the work of the Aaronic Priesthood (such as sacrifices and baptisms) was being accomplished by those with the higher priesthood until the time of Moses and Aaron. It’s as if God splits the work of the priesthood at that time, and gives the Aaronic Priesthood also responsibility for much of the work of the Law of Moses that didn’t exist previous to Aaron. It would appear to me, if I were writing the story, that the Aaronic Priesthood order should fold back into the Melchizedek Priesthood order at some point, perhaps at the time of Christ’s coming and the Law of Moses’s fulfillment. But here it seems quite apparent that the Aaronic Priesthood order will continue forever alongside the Melchizedek Priesthood order.

3) Since the Aaronic Priesthood order had a definite beginning point, I can see the reasons why it is emphasized over and over again in scripture that the Melchizedek Priesthood order (by any of its names) has existed forever into the past and will exist forever into the future. It is “without beginning of days or end of years.” I can see the need to reiterate that fact when it seems like the Bible is more familiar with the work of the Aaronic Priesthood than the work of the Melchizedek Priesthood.

Question on verse 17: “Which priesthood continueth in the church of God in all generations”

This clause could be read in a few slightly different ways depending on which words we emphasize.

1) It could be saying that the Melchizedek Priesthood exists in all generations in which a Church is established. This would fit the way we traditionally talk about the Apostasy.

2) It could be saying that the Melchizedek Priesthood exists in every generation, and that there is a Church established at all times which provides a place for the Melchizedek Priesthood to function. This doesn’t fit with the way we talk about the Apostasy generally, but it might fit with some of the details we have learned in D&C 84 (sometimes there are other lines of priesthood authority that we don’t think of or are not aware of, like the Jethro-Esaias line).

3) Options 1 & 2 are assuming that the verse is meant to teach us something about the Melchizedek Priesthood. But perhaps we could find a third reading by assuming that the verse is meant to teach us something about the Church. It’s not that the Church is always organized, but in all generations in which it is organized — at every moment in history when it exists — it always has the Melchizedek Priesthood. It’s not that the Melchizedek Priesthood needs a Church, but the Church needs the Melchizedek Priesthood. (Then the rest of the section is saying, essentially: So let’s get down to work explaining what it is and why it’s so important.)




Filed under D&C 84

D&C 84 – Historical Background

Over the past few weeks I’ve been slowly making my way through Greg Prince’s Power From on High (available free online here), which is one of the few books offering anything like a schematic of priesthood development during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. I purchased the book because I felt weak in historical context for some of the theological developments we’ve been discussing, but I don’t have the resources, time, or historical know-how to mine the primary sources myself. Instead, I’ve been relying on Prince’s overarching framework for priesthood development, and assuming that you will find it as useful as I have, I want to use part of this post to outline his argument. My hope is that this will help fill in some of the historical gaps between the scant references to priesthood in the D&C, and further situate us as I then go on to discuss the specific context of Section 84.

Greg Prince’s Taxonomy

Prince traces the development of the priesthood through five phases:

  1. Implied Authority (Sept 1823 – March 1829)
  2. Angelic Authority (April 1829 – Oct 1830)
  3. High Priesthood (Dec 1830 – Nov 1831)
  4. Organizational Consolidation (Nov 1831 – March 1836)
  5. Elijah and the Fullness of Priesthood (April 1836 – April 1844)

In the first phase, neither Joseph Smith nor his followers laid claim to any direct divine authorization. Although it was clear that Joseph had a kind of calling, his authority to perform that calling was merely implicit in the successful translation and publication of The Book of Mormon.

In April 1829, however, with the arrival of Oliver Cowdery, claim to divine authority became explicit, albeit through a very specific narrative: the reception of angelic messengers, with a particular focus on Joseph and Oliver’s angelically-appointed authority to baptize. Although the messengers would not be named until 1835, and although this authority was not yet referred to as “priesthood,” Joseph and Oliver built on their new authority by constructing the early church out of the blueprint provided in The Book of Mormon.

It is only in the third phase, and in conjunction with the infamous June 1831 conference, that the word “priesthood” finally entered Mormon usage. Anticipating a promised “endow[ment]” of “power from on high” (D&C 38:32–33), Joseph ordained several elders to a new order of authority. That order was called both “the Order of Melchizedek” (drawing on Alma 13 and JST Genesis 14) and “the High Priesthood” (drawing again on Alma 13), although Prince hastens to note that neither term carried anything like their modern LDS definition. The term “Melchizedek Priesthood” would not be used until 1835, and “High Priesthood” was clarified in the following months to indicate only the particular office of high priest, which was established that October. It appears that the 1831 ordination was simply understood as some sort of extra authority beyond what the saints already possessed, and the elders drew on scriptural precedent in order to name this nebulous power, which remained somewhat ill-defined and ill-organized until the following year.

The fourth phase of “organizational consolidation” is where Prince places D&C 84. In this phase, which began shortly after the June 1831 conference and which culminated in the hierarchical seating of the Kirtland temple, the formal structure of priesthood organization began to develop. This coincided with a centralization of authority in which the church presidency was outlined, followed by the high council and the traveling high council.

Prince’s fifth and final phase of priesthood development was inaugurated by the appearance of Elijah at the Kirtland temple, who, it was prophesied, would “reveal … the Priesthood” (see D&C 2:1). From this period on, Elijah became the dominant figure in priesthood theology and the priesthood was understood in terms of its ability to seal the living and the dead and perform vicarious ordinances on behalf of the deceased. It was this topic that preoccupied Joseph Smith until his death in 1844.

All told, Prince gives a good sense for the uncertainty and improvisation with which the early saints undertook the task of restoring the priesthood. I find that uncertainty doubly encouraging—first because it suggests that my sense of floundering through the D&C is partly due to the ambiguities inherent in inchoate priesthood theology, and second because that leaves us lots of room to creatively explore the several possibilities in these texts.

Of course, one of the richest of these texts is the one we’re about to begin studying.

D&C 84: Historical Background

Section 84 was revealed in September 1832 (about one year after D&C 68), a few weeks after Joseph relocated his family from Hiram to Kirtland so that he could be more involved in the day-to-day activities of the church. The family was housed on the second floor above Newel K. Whitney’s store, which included a handful of other rooms dedicated to the work of the church. Around this same time, several elders began to return from their missions to the eastern United States. Joseph reports that “the elders … present[ed] the histories of their several steward[d]ships in the Lord’s vineyard; and while together in these seasons of Joy, I enquired of the Lord and received [section 84].”

The date of D&C 84 indicates that it was dictated over the course of two days (September 22–23, 1832). Prince makes a great deal of this information, using it to imply that the revelation can almost be treated as two halves:

… the revelation was given to two groups of men over a two-day period—seven elders on 22 September and “Eleven high Priests save one” the following day—and for two separate purposes—“explaining the two priesthoods” and “commissioning the Apostles to preach the gospel.” (Power From on High, 27)

Although all three existing manuscript copies show a break between v. 102–103, suggesting some sort of pause in the dictation, it is unlikely that this justifies so clean a thematic division as Prince supposes. For one, the supposed shift in audience from “Joseph Smith, Jun., and six elders” (D&C 84:1) to “eleven high priests save one” (originally in D&C 84:42, but removed prior to publication) occurs well before the break between v. 102–103. Additionally, the two purposes for the revelation cited by Prince occur in the index to the Kirtland revelation book; they are not part of Section 84 itself.

Rather, the editors of the Joseph Smith Papers Documents volume explain that the dictation “most likely beg[an] the evening of 22 September and continu[ed] into the early morning hours of 23 September,” with the break between v. 102–103 indicative of a less significant interruption than Prince supposes. They agree that “the eleven high priests save one” denotes a shift in audience, but the specific identities of these priests or why the shift occurred where it did remain unclear. The editors also suggest, however, that the phrase “eleven high priests save one” is meant to identify these priests with the eleven apostles to whom Jesus spoke following his resurrection, since both groups received similar instructions and promises regarding their upcoming mission to the nations.

Two of Joseph’s summer projects from 1832 seem to have played an influential role in the particular shape taken by D&C 84. One of these projects was his translation of the Bible. During the summer months prior to this revelation, Joseph completed revisions on both Genesis 14 and Hebrews 7. To Genesis 14 he added further reflections on the priestly role of Melchizedek and “the order of the Son of God.” Although his revisions to Hebrews 7 were less substantial, it appears that he also found this chapter particularly instructive since, like D&C 84, Hebrews 7 mentions two priesthoods, one associated with Aaron and another associated with Melchizedek.

The second project Joseph undertook in the summer of 1832 was to write his history—the only account of the foundational events of the restoration that includes his own handwriting. In it, Joseph begins to reflect on the reception of the priesthood, attempting to synthesize his various messengers and manifestations over the years. He lists the events of the Restoration as follows:

  • “Firstly he receiving the testimony from on high”
  • “Secondly the ministering of angels”
  • “Thirdly the reception of the holy Priesthood by the ministering of Angels to administer the letter of the Gospel—the Law and commandments as they were given unto him—and the ordinances”
  • “Fourthly a confirmation and reception of the high Priesthood after the holy order of the son of the living God [and] power and ordinance from on high to preach the gospel in the administration and demonstration of the spirit.”

It’s clear that Joseph understood himself to hold two authorities—one that allowed him to administer the gospel (#3) and one that allowed him to preach the gospel (#4). Prince claims that this this second authority refers not to the Melchizedek priesthood as modern Latter-day Saints understand it, but instead denotes the specific office of high priest. This argument is consistent with Joseph’s further clarification that the “high Priesthood” appointed him “to preach the gospel in the administration and demonstration of the spirit,” which agrees with previous revelations about the responsibilities of high priests. It is also important to note that although the stage is set to formulate two distinct types of priesthood authority, Joseph did not arrange them in anything like a hierarchical relationship until D&C 84.

Continuing the trajectory begun earlier that summer, D&C 84 introduces two separate authorities and associates them with well-known biblical figures. This revelation not only expanded the meaning of “priesthood” and brought it into dialogue with biblical tradition, but it also clarified for the first time how the priesthood was related to the offices of elder, priest, and teacher. For the first time in church history, some offices were now made subordinate to others. Prince cautions that D&C 84 is particularly confusing on this point, however, because it deals with three terms—“holy priesthood,” “high priesthood,” and “lesser priesthood.” The first two, he says, are interchangeable, and still refer to the specific office of high priest, while the third references the office of (regular) priest. Into this split framework the revelation inserts other offices, for the first time arranging them hierarchically. The office of high priest (“high priesthood”) comes equipped with two subordinate “appendages,” the offices of elder and bishop (D&C 84:19), while the office of priest (“lesser priesthood”) comes equipped with the two “appendages” of teacher and deacon (D&C 84:20). Although the terms “Aaronic Priesthood” and “Melchizedek Priesthood” would not be introduced until 1835, still three years in the future, section 84 begins to move in that direction by associating the offices of priest and high priest with the figures of Aaron and Melchizedek, respectively.

It’s clear that Section 84 is a landmark revelation, easily the most comprehensive and systematic treatment of LDS priesthood theology available until 1835. It is with D&C 84, in particular, that priesthood becomes less a question of mere church administration and begins to reflect on Joseph Smith’s larger mission—and indeed the task of Mormonism as a whole—to “sanctify [the] people that they might behold the face of God” (D&C 84:23).


Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), 202-203.

Matthew C. Godfrey, “A Culmination of Learning: D&C 84 and the Doctrine of the Priesthood,” in You Shall Have My Word: Exploring the Text of the Doctrine and Covenants (ed. Richard O. Cowan; Provo: Religious Studies Center, 2012).

Matthew C. Godfrey, Mark Ashurst-McGee, et. al., eds., Documents: Volume 2 (Joseph Smith Papers; Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2013), 289-292.

Gregory A. Prince, Power From on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 1-45.



Filed under D&C 84

D&C 68:13-21

13 And now, concerning the items in addition to the covenants and commandments, they are these—

Do you know of any additions to the “covenants and commandments” before this chapter? I did a quick search for “covenants and commandments” and I couldn’t find any other passages talking about additions. If not, then this is a pretty significant moment in Church history! Thoughts on that?

14 There remain hereafter, in the due time of the Lord, other bishops to be set apart unto the church, to minister even according to the first;

I should probably check sources on this, but from just this verse here, it doesn’t appear that the saints knew if the different bishops would have jurisdiction over different areas, or if one bishop would supervise the rest, etc. I guess all they needed to know right away was that God would need more of them. That move does, at the least, signal growth and progress, which is exciting.

 15 Wherefore they shall be high priests who are worthy, and they shall be appointed by the First Presidency of the Melchizedek Priesthood, except they be literal descendants of Aaron.

Why the “wherefore” here? God has just promised them there will be many bishops, maybe this “wherefore” is linked to that? It’s practically impossible to find any direct descendants of Aaron, let alone many! And so God explains His plan for going forward — that high priests can act as bishops?

Also, should we read the emphasis as “wherefore … high priests” or “wherefore … worthy?”

 16 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;

 17 For the firstborn holds the right of the presidency over this priesthood, and the keys or authority of the same.

It’s not a great help for me to point this out, but I want to really focus on this point: these verses are talking about right of presidency, not simply right to priesthood. The importance of this distinction hit home when I read Ardis Parshall’s post on priesthood (see especially comment number 32). Reading this text and her post reminds me that I’m not as careful as I think I should be myself in my own discussion of priesthood…

I find it intriguing that God makes certain individuals in charge of very specific things for the entire existence of the human family. D&C 27 lists many of these assignments, such as how Moroni has the “keys of the record of the stick of Ephraim.” Why is that necessary? Or perhaps necessary isn’t the word to use at all – perhaps none of this is more necessary than regulations and policies I set up in order to keep order in my home. But regardless, God assigns certain people very specific roles — and then He sticks to them! I would be tempted to redo those assignments for convenience. But instead He has angels appear and confer keys, He has Moroni take back the plates, and so on. I’m quite taken by that rigidity, myself. It’s one reason I why I really enjoy studying the priesthood.

For example:

 18 No man has a legal right to this office, to hold the keys of this priesthood, except he be a literal descendant and the firstborn of Aaron.

 19 But, as a high priest of the Melchizedek Priesthood has authority to officiate in all the lesser offices he may officiate in the office of bishop when no literal descendant of Aaron can be found, provided he is called and set apart and ordained unto this power, under the hands of the First Presidency of the Melchizedek Priesthood.

God is so careful about keeping His word. High priests can only do this when Aaron’s sons aren’t available, and only if God specifically allows for the exception by calling, setting apart, and ordaining.

Here I’m going to share some carefully-worded thoughts about these verses and the temple experience. I like the logic in verses 18-19 that while some particular people have a right to be a bishop, there are others who can assist when those cannot be found, or perhaps whenever not enough of those particular people can be found. (This sounds similar to D&C 20:49, where a priest should — but also, only can — take lead of a meeting when an elder is not present.) Those men can assist because a high priest of the Melchizedek priesthood is in the position to officiate all lesser offices. This man serves by virtue of the Melchizedek priesthood and not by virtue of his lineage. Those normally necessary lineage requirements are bypassed in this case.

This process is only valid however when those high priests are called, set apart, and given power specific to that office of bishop. It’s as if the authority lies dormant already, but it is only awakened or quickened by a very specific authorizing process. (This is somewhat similar to the need of a priest to get permission to perform the sacrament. He has the authority to do so by virtue of his office, but he doesn’t have the authorization to use that authority without permission from the bishop or branch president.)

So, this brings me to the temple. All participants in the endowment receive power associated with the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods, even though not everyone is actually involved in these priesthoods outside of the temple. The language is specific that they are even authorized to act or officiate in (and not just receive) ordinances of those priesthoods. It would appear that the temple and the Church contradict at this moment. But I don’t see how those words could be overlooked, so I have to assume that something more intricate is going on here.

If we take verse 19 as a model (and please tell me if I’m being unfair to do so), then I wonder if we could see things in this way. All participants of the temple endowment have been given authority to officiate in Melchizedek and Aaronic priesthood ordinances. But in general, it seems, no individual is ever authorized to use priesthood authority without permission. (I think that often that permission comes in the form of ordination to a specific office; that office designates specific assignments in which they are authorized to use their priesthood authority.) Many endowed members have authority who are not currently authorized to use their authority, and won’t be unless or until they are “called and set apart and ordained unto this power” — for a specific assignment, I think.

This may be one way of explaining women’s relationship to priesthood ordinances. Currently, they receive these ordinances (allowing for salvation and exaltation – the real goal of priesthood work, or course) but they do not officiate in those ordinances. Maybe someday women, when or if needed, will also be authorized to use their authority by being given a specific calling to do so. In that case, they too might bypass the normal lineage requirements (being a male?) by a very specific authorizing process. They would serve not by virtue of priesthood office, as is normally the case, but by virtue of their endowed priesthood authority.

And maybe that’s already seen in part, such as when women officiate in the initiatory ordinances without being first ordained to a priesthood office. They serve by virtue of being called, set apart, and ordained to the power specific to that assignment. But they are not authorized to use their endowed priesthood authority in any other setting. (These ideas are similar in many ways to Elder Oaks’s last conference talk, and I’m quite curious to know if I’m on the same wavelength or not.)

Let’s just say that I’m dying to hear your thoughts!

 20 And a literal descendant of Aaron, also, must be designated by this Presidency, and found worthy, and anointed, and ordained under the hands of this Presidency, otherwise they are not legally authorized to officiate in their priesthood.

 21 But, by virtue of the decree concerning their right of the priesthood descending from father to son, they may claim their anointing if at any time they can prove their lineage, or do ascertain it by revelation from the Lord under the hands of the above named Presidency.

This clarification is nice: everyone who acts in a priesthood office or ordinance must be authorized to do so, even if that person has a legal right to it by his lineage. This seems a general doctrine of the priesthood, then: a person who has priesthood authority must also be authorized to use that authority by ordination unto the power specific to an assignment.

Thoughts? What things have I overlooked that would change or reshape this picture of priesthood and priesthood authority?



Filed under D&C 68

D&C 68:1-5

Although verses 1-5 discuss the topic of priesthood only obliquely, I’m glad that we’ve decided to include them because I think they provide an important clue to the entanglement of priesthood, revelation, and writing that we find in the Doctrine and Covenants at large (something we’ve been discussing lately in the comments on D&C 20:38-67).

In verse 1, the Lord seems to give a kind of historical summary of Orson Hyde’s missionary activity, and it’s delivered in a series of doubles marked by parallel prepositions which culminates in double gerunds, as follows:

“My servant, Orson Hyde, was called
by his ordination to proclaim the everlasting gospel,
by the Spirit of the living God
from people to people,
and from land to land,
in the congregations of the wicked,
in their synagogues,
reasoning with
and expounding all scriptures unto them.”

In verse 2 and 3, the Lord provides “an ensample” for those who, like Orson, have been ordained with the task of preaching the gospel, namely, “that they shall speak as they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost.” And the outcome of this speaking is given in the oft-quoted fourth verse:

“Whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.”

Scripture plays an interesting role in these verses. First, in v. 1, I’m struck that Orson was tasked with expounding “all scriptures” in particular, not just the scriptures or even scripture. Why “all?” Is there a concern at work that we might privilege certain scriptures over others in our teaching? That’s certainly a very human tendency; we like to construct coherent narratives, stories that make sense to us and support our worldview, and so we’re naturally prone to emphasize the scriptural doctrines and ideas which fit together easily and which we find most personally appealing. But if we were to read this verse as admonishing us to avoid cherry-picking our favorite texts for preaching and instead utilize “all” scripture, its practical application gets pretty hairy, since scripture is, in itself, self-contradictory (the biblical kings are applauded for types of worship the prophets later condemned, the New Testament epistles give contradictory accounts of the roles of women, the Book of Mormon understands the Law of Moses very differently than did the Israelites, etc). With all these contradictions in mind, how is it even possible to expound “all scriptures?” I want to at least play with the idea that these  contradictions are somehow vital to the very nature of scripture, and that the ways it internally resists harmonization is important to the process of reading it. Engagement with scripture, on this model, might be seen as a kind of dialectic in which we find our personal stories and understandings repeatedly challenged.

Second, verse 4 presents scripture as a kind of byproduct of the priesthood endeavor, and here is where we again start to engage with themes of writing and texts connected with the priesthood. In fact, we might be looking at a unique way of defining scripture itself: the byproduct of priesthood work. That’s complicated, however, by its obviously verbal nature (“whatsoever they shall speak … shall be scripture”) and by its additional epithets (“..shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord,” etc). Thus, scripture is presented as primarily verbal, instead of textual; it is something  authoritatively divine that accurately reflects God’s intentions. None of that is to discount the possibility of a written document being produced (these words could be transcribed at some later time, for instance), but it does complicate the theme of specifically textual production.

I’m also struck at how nicely this dovetails, in certain ways, with the themes we’ve been discussing from D&C 20. Notice that this “scripture” is produced out of a very particular kind of situation: “as they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost.” To cinch the connection further, here is the original preface to this revelation, which was removed prior to its publication:

“The mind and will of the Lord, as made known by the voice of the spirit to a conference, held November first, 1831, concerning certain Elders, who requested of the Lord to know his will concerning them, and also certain items, as made known in addition to the Laws and commandments, which have been given to the church, firstly: my servant Orson was called…”

The priesthood office to which this revelation’s primary addressees were ordained was specifically the office of elder, and they are given a “promise” (v. 5) that, in connection with that ordination, they will interact with the Holy Ghost in a particular way. Again, we see elders engaging with the Holy Ghost, and it culminates in a production of something like a text.

If all these parallels are justified, it leaves me with this vital question: what is the relationship between priesthood, scripture, and the Holy Ghost? I’ve been trying out several different answers to this question all week, but I’ll leave you with two of my latest iterations:

Elder: an office of engagement with the Holy Ghost.
Priesthood: the community who conducts a liminal life at the veil (the boundary between heaven and earth), tasked with producing records that chronicle that interaction.



Filed under D&C 68

D&C 68 – Historical background

Before we jump into D&C 68, I wanted to catch up on what the sections between D&C 20 and 68 say about priesthood. I searched for “priesthood,” “elder,” and “priest,” and found only a few minor references, none of which were trying to explain priesthood or the roles of those offices. There are references to Zion generally, which we may or may not want to consider references to the priesthood. I think we’re still figuring out what the connection really is between Zion and priesthood. But, I did find many references to the office of “bishop” especially as it relates to Zion. Plus, it’s a role that will be important in D&C 68, so it made sense to focus on that office for now.

Revelations from 1831 in Kirtland, Ohio, that mention bishops:

D&C 41:9-11.

(9) And again, I have called my servant Edward Partridge; and I give a commandment, that he should be appointed by the voice of the church, and ordained a bishop unto the church, to leave his merchandise and to spend all his time in the labors of the church; (10) To see to all things as it shall be appointed unto him in my laws in the day that I shall give them. (11) And this because his heart is pure before me, for he is like unto Nathanael of old, in whom there is no guile.

Note that in this revelation, the Saints are still waiting for the law (which comes in the very next section). The important points seem to be 1) God called Edward Partridge, 2) He will leave his livelihood to serve the Church, and 3) He is pure in heart so God (and the Saints) can trust him.

D&C 42:31-35.

(31) And inasmuch as ye impart of your substance unto the poor, ye will do it unto me; and they shall be laid before the bishop of my church and his counselors, two of the elders, or high priests, such as he shall appoint or has appointed and set apart for that purpose…. (34) Therefore, the residue shall be kept in my storehouse, to administer to the poor and the needy, as shall be appointed by the high council of the church, and the bishop and his council; (35) And for the purpose of purchasing lands for the public benefit of the church, and building houses of worship, and building up of the New Jerusalem which is hereafter to be revealed—

D&C 42 was the “law” they were waiting for, and of course this is part of what we call the “law of consecration.” The bishop’s role here is as a middle-man between the Saints/their property and the Church/its property. He also receives any extra “residue” which is kept in a storehouse. The Bishop (and the high council) use the residue for the “public benefit” of the Saints as well as for the poor and needy.

Verses 71-73 also note that the bishop and his counselors can take care of their families out of the donated substance from the Church. At first this sounded like he doesn’t have to work on a stewardship like everyone else, but I don’t think that’s quite right. I think that he simply gives himself a stewardship just like everyone else.

Question: How do you see the role of a bishop in D&C 42 as similar or dissimilar from the role of a high priest from Alma 13? Or, at least, from the role that Melchizedek seemed to embody in that chapter?

D&C 46: 26-27.

(26) And all these gifts come from God, for the benefit of the children of God. (27) And unto the bishop of the church, and unto such as God shall appoint and ordain to watch over the church and to be elders unto the church, are to have it given unto them to discern all those gifts lest there shall be any among you professing and yet be not of God.

There was considerable disagreement in Kirtland at the time about what constituted a true spiritual experience. D&C 46 came as part of a response to some elders in Kirtland who asked Joseph how to tell which spiritual gifts were Godly and which ones weren’t. I had the misunderstanding for a while that the Bishop could discern because he had all of the gifts. Verse 29 says that there might be someone appointed to have all of those gifts, but it doesn’t connect that with a bishop. Verse 27 is pretty clear that the bishop can discern gifts by the Spirit. (And so can the elders, too.)

Is this parallel to his work with properties in any way? A bishop knows what gifts or properties the Saints brought to consecrate, and he knows what gifts or properties they received to work on. He was a go-between with properties; is that in any way similar here, or am I working too hard to find a connection? He doesn’t give spiritual gifts, of course, but he can discern what what God had given to someone as they began to use (or pretend to use) that gift among the Saints. We could also make a connection between him knowing which gifts were “of God,” just like properties become “of God” through consecration. Though, of course, their spiritual gifts don’t become consecrated by the bishop, he just discerns them. Anyway, maybe there’s something there and maybe there isn’t.

I do like the connection though, that in D&C 42 the bishop used the residue for the “public benefit” of the Church, and here spiritual gifts are given “for the benefit of the children of God” and “that every member may be profited thereby.” Whether or not there’s a parallel role for the bishop, it sounds like there is a parallel role for spiritual gifts. Perhaps in Zion everything (temporal and spiritual) is given, through individuals, for the benefit of all?

That might also help us see consecration of properties in a slightly different way. Sometimes I wonder why God doesn’t simply bless the “Church” itself, as an body, or institution, with great prosperity and then its leaders can provide for the needs of the Saints. But it seems clear that God blesses individuals with talents, money, property, business, learning, etc., which He expects will be shared with the Church body. The individual is the medium through which He blesses the group.

D&C 51. I included a link to entire section because it’s just interesting to see the directions from D&C 42 start to be played out in real, on-the-ground work. It also became “example unto my servant Edward Partridge, in other places, in all churches” (v.18). I have a just two brief comments:

(15) And thus I grant unto this people a privilege of organizing themselves according to my laws.

Whereas we often see the law of consecration as a trial or tough commandment, God saw it as a “privilege” He was granting to the Saints. Of course, when I think of the possible end result being a city like Enoch’s or the Nephites, then that does sound like quite a privilege.

Also, verse 19 ups the stakes of all of this by saying:

(19) And whoso is found a faithful, a just, and a wise steward shall enter into the joy of his Lord, and shall inherit eternal life.

There’s a lot more going on here that just an wise/unwise economic order, or another “program!”

D&C 52. It’s worth noting for historical reasons that this section was received during the “June Conference” when the first ordinations to high priest were made.

D&C 54. Again it’s worth just the historical context for this section: some of the Saints’ land in Ohio isn’t going to be available anymore (they were living on Leman Copley’s farm, but he changed his mind and decided not to consecrate it!), so that expedites the need to move some Saints to Missouri!

Revelations from the Summer of 1831 (when Joseph Smith visits Missouri) that mention bishops:

D&C 57-60 have are some bits and pieces about the Bishop and an agent who helps him, but nothing very substantial.

Revelations when Joseph Smith was back in Ohio that mention bishops:

D&C 64:34-42.

(34) Behold, the Lord requireth the heart and a willing mind; and the willing and obedient shall eat the good of the land of Zion in these last days. (35) And the rebellious shall be cut off out of the land of Zion, and shall be sent away, and shall not inherit the land … (37) Behold, I, the Lord, have made my church in these last days like unto a judge sitting on a hill, or in a high place, to judge the nations. (38) For it shall come to pass that the inhabitants of Zion shall judge all things pertaining to Zion. (39) And liars and hypocrites shall be proved by them, and they who are not apostles and prophets shall be known. (40) And even the bishop, who is a judge, and his counselors, if they are not faithful in their stewardships shall be condemned, and others shall be planted in their stead. (41) For, behold, I say unto you that Zion shall flourish, and the glory of the Lord shall be upon her; (42) And she shall be an ensign unto the people, and there shall come unto her out of every nation under heaven.

The section heading explains that there was “a company of brethren who had been commanded to journey to Zion (Missouri) was earnestly engaged in making preparations to leave in October.” Though the revelations was given in Ohio, it shows the shifting focus towards Zion.

Judgement is clearly the theme in these particular verses. Those who aren’t judged willing and obedient are cut off from Zion. The church judges the nations. Zion judges Zion. Including apostles and prophets, and “even the bishop, who is a judge.”

There are different kinds of “judging” going on here too. For example, Zion’s inhabitants will judge whether or not apostles and prophets are really who they say they are (or if they’re “liars and hypocrites”), but they will judge whether or not the bishop and his counselors are “faithful in their stewardships.”

It’s also interesting to me that the “even” comes before “bishop,” rather than apostles and prophets. (We think of a bishop as lower in the hierarchy, so the word “even” would sound more natural before “apostle” or “prophet” in our modern Mormon culture.) Perhaps the emphasis is that the very one who judges stewardships (receives properties, assigns stewardships, evaluates needs, etc.), will also be held accountable for his honesty in his own stewardship.

D&C 67, 68, 69, 70 and part of 107 were all received in Hiram, Ohio as part of the “November Conference.” It was there that they decided to publish the revelations, so sections 1 and 133 also come at that time.

D&C 67 does not mention bishops at all, and I won’t jump ahead past D&C 68. So, the next step is on to D&C 68 itself!


Additional notes on the context of D&C 68:

Steven C. Harper’s book, Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants, says this about D&C 68:

Some of the recently ordained high priests assembled for conference meetings in Hiram, Ohio, and “requested of the Lord to know his will concerning them.” The Lord obliged them with the first twelve verses of Doctrine and Covenants 68. Then, anticipating that the revelation would soon be carried to the Saints in Missouri with the others, the Lord added an amendment to previous revelations, giving more instructions about the office of bishop and the responsibilities of parents in Zion.

The section heading explains:

Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Hiram, Ohio, November 1, 1831, in response to prayer that the mind of the Lord be made known concerning Orson Hyde, Luke S. Johnson, Lyman E. Johnson, and William E. McLellin. Although part of this revelation was directed toward these four men, much of the content pertains to the whole Church. This revelation was expanded under Joseph Smith’s direction when it was published in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.

The Joseph Smith Papers Project has this summary:

On 1–2 November 1831, ten elders convened a conference in Hiram, Ohio, to discuss the publication of the Book of Commandments, a compilation of JS’s revelations.1 According to a later JS history, four of the conference attendees—Orson Hyde, Luke Johnson, Lyman Johnson, and William E. McLellin—approached JS during the conference and requested to know the Lord’s will concerning them.2 This revelation came in response to their inquiry.3 The revelation provided more information about the evangelizing duties of the four men specifically and of elders in general. While Hyde, McLellin, and Luke Johnson were all ordained to the high priesthood at a conference held in Orange, Cuyahoga County, Ohio, a week earlier, Lyman Johnson was ordained to the high priesthood at the Hiram conference on 2 November.4

After closing the portion of the revelation addressed specifically to the four men with an “Amen,” the document shifts its audience to the church in general and gives additional information about the office of bishop, as well as counsel to members of the church “in Zion” about teaching and baptizing their children and avoiding idleness and greed. The text may originally have been dictated as two discrete revelations, which, like some other revelations closely related in time or content, were then copied together and presented as a single, unified text. All extant copies of the text—whether in manuscript or published form—present both parts as one revelation.
The original manuscript of the revelation is not extant, and the conference minutes do not mention the revelation.5 However, the copy in Revelation Book 1 is dated 1 November 1831 and a heading states that it was “given in Hiram Nov. 1. 1831.”6John Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery copied the revelation into Revelation Book 1, probably soon after its dictation.7
Are there any other sources you have found particularly helpful for understanding the context of D&C 68?


Filed under D&C 68

D&C 20:38-67

We’ve chosen to do all of v. 38–67 in one post because A) these verses are more practical and less overtly theological, so we can move through at a faster pace, and B) we’re interested in how the various offices relate to each other, and that’s best determined by looking at all of them in one large chunk. Of course, it also means that this will be a shallower reading than we gave to Alma 13, and it will necessarily skip over some of the finer details. I hope that what I offer in this post will provide a helpful framework, and that we can devote the comments to a discussion of those details.

D&C 20:38–67 is pretty straightforward in its organization:

v. 38–45 ~ duties of an elder
v. 46–52 ~ duties of a priest
v. 53–59 ~ duties of a teacher (with passing reference to deacons)
v. 61–67 ~ administrative details (timing for conferences & priesthood certificates)

But while the different offices appear sharply delineated on the surface, their duties overlap in complicated ways.

First, I think it’s important to note that there seems to be the beginnings—vague and implicit though they may be—of a split into higher and lower priesthoods. Although the demarcation into Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods wouldn’t happen for several more years, I think we see some signs of these offices being aligned into two groups. Twice we are told that one priesthood office is to be assisted by the members of another: priests are to assist the elders (v. 52), and deacons are to assist the teachers (v. 57). No mention is made of teachers helping priests. To me this suggests that the proto-“higher” priesthood consisted of elders, with priests as their assistants, while the proto-“lower” priesthood consisted of teachers, with deacons as their assistants. (It’s worth mentioning that our current Melchizedek and Aaronic priesthoods do not split along the same lines; priests are part of the Aaronic priesthood, not the Melchizedek, as this “proto” organization might suggest.)

Things are not so clear-cut as that may make it appear, however. For example, the priests’ and teachers’ unique duties have more in common with each other than they do with the elders’ or deacons’, respectively, and there are other complicating factors, as well.

Tracing out the individual duties of each office quickly becomes confusing because of all the repetition. Phrases are repeated both across the several offices and within the several offices. In the first case, for example, “lower” offices can fulfill the duties of “higher” offices where needed; priests can lead meetings where no elder is present, and teachers can lead meetings when neither an elder nor a priest is available; both priests and elders can administer the sacrament and baptize, etc. The result is that phrases like “take the lead of meetings” and “baptize and administer the sacrament” are scattered throughout the section across several offices in a way that makes it difficult to sharply delineate responsibilities. As another example, all of the offices (elder, priest, teacher, and deacon) are required to “expound, exhort, and teach,” though there are variations on that responsibility depending on the office (compare v. 42, 46, 50, 59).

In the second case—repetitions within a single office—we often get a double reminder of the office’s duty. We are twice told that elders can baptize (v. 38, 42) and confirm (v. 41, 43), and twice told that priests ought to visit the members, exhorting them to pray (v. 47, 51).

Because of all that overlap and repetition, I chose to focus on the duty that was unique to each office (and there was only one in each case, which is interesting). Here’s the chart I drew up, with the unique duties in red:


Here’s the sense I’m getting for each office, with special emphasis given to their completely unique duties:

Elders seem to be primarily responsible over the boundaries of the church. They are the missionaries, seem to be chiefly in charge of baptism, conduct the fellowship meal that marks the saints as a community (the sacrament), and confirm new members, which we understand today to be the ordinance by which converts become full members. This responsibility for the growth of the church–if I’m right to see it this way–can also be seen in their duty to ordain other men to offices of the priesthood; just like they are to oversee the growth of the church membership, they are responsible for growing the ranks of the priesthood, as well.

Priests I understand to be primarily responsible over the church as individual members. Their unique duty is to “visit the house of each member” (v. 47, 51, emphasis added), making sure that those members pray and attend to their family duties. Their ministry is to individuals, ensuring that those members are fulfilling their individual duties.

Teachers, then, are primarily responsible over the church as community. They uniquely ensure “that there is no iniquity in the church, neither hardness with each other, neither lying, backbiting, nor evil speaking” and “that the church meet together often” (v. 54-55, emphasis added). Teachers are liable for the interrelational space between and among the members.

(Deacons receive hardly any direct attention in this section, and don’t have a duty that is uniquely their own. They’re pretty much lumped in with teachers.)

If that schematic is correct, it leaves me with a few other questions and points for discussion:

1.) What we’re seeing here is a strongly ecclesiastical priesthood, completely focused on the church–its boundaries, its individual members, and its community dynamic. This is something very different from the ritual priesthood of the Old Testament, or Alma’s teaching priesthood in the Book of Mormon.

2.) The elders have a really interesting relationship with the Holy Ghost that I’d like to figure out.

The Holy Ghost is mentioned four times in this section, and it’s always in conjunction with the Elders:

Elders lay on hands for confirmation for the Holy Ghost (v. 41)
Elders lay on hands to give the Holy Ghost (v. 43)
Elders lead meetings as led by Holy Ghost (v. 45)
Holy Ghost is in the one who ordains (v. 60)

In the last case, of course, it need not be entirely unique to the elders, since priests also have the ability to ordain (v. 48), but ordination is also one of the very first duties assigned to elders (v. 39), and I think the other mentions of the Holy Ghost are indicative.

So what is this relationship? In each instance I see the elder acting as a kind of conduit for the Holy Ghost to others–he’s the conduit for their confirmation, the conduit who receives inspiration about leading the meeting, and the conduit for ordination. I’m not sure what more to say about it than that. I mentioned that elders also seem responsible for the boundaries of the congregation; could it be that the Holy Ghost is a kind of liminal figure that aids with that duty, somehow? I don’t know. I’m open to ideas.

3.) Relationship between priesthood and spiritual gifts.

Verse 60 is interesting, and sits largely outside of the organization I suggested at the beginning. Here it is in full:

“Every elder, priest, teacher, or deacon is to be ordained according to the gifts and callings of God unto him; and he is to be ordained by the power of the Holy Ghost, which is in the one who ordains him.”

The fact that we mention “gifts” and “the Holy Ghost,” both tied to ordination, makes me think we could talk about “gifts” here as referring specifically to the “gifts of the spirit” along the lines of D&C 46, or something. That’s a pretty speculative gesture to make, I realize, but I think it might be productive.

It sounds like ordination is to come according to spiritual gifts one already has. God has given someone certain “callings,” indicated by accompanying “gifts,” and ordination is to be performed according to those talents. On that reading, priesthood begins to look like an official or institutional sanction corresponding to one’s spiritual gifts, licensing them for use in the church community. It’s a way of bringing the charismatic gifts of the spirit into the institutional hierarchy in an organized, controlled fashion.

This appeals to me for three reasons. First, how cool is that?! :) Second, it reminds me of the way the Law of Consecration worked under its earlier model–an individual comes to the bishop, suggest how they would like to build the kingdom according to their own interests and talents, and receives the resources to do it. It’s entirely self-directed and according to one’s own gifts. Third, I think this connects up in interesting ways with D&C 46:27:

“And unto the bishop of the church, and unto such as God shall appoint and ordain to watch over the church and to be elders unto the church, are to have it given unto them to discern all those gifts lest there shall be any among you professing and yet be not of God” (emphasis added).

Bishops and elders have the ability to discern the gifts of the spirit. Here spiritual gifts are explicitly connected with the priesthood. I’d like to think more about the reason listed for that (this is done to identify those who are “not of God,” a further aid in policing congregational boundaries?), but I think there’s enough here to warrant further thought.

What else of interest do you see in D&C 20? What do you think of my wild speculations? Discuss!


Filed under D&C 20

D&C 20 – Historical Background

Section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants was one of the most important revelations for the early church. It was the first revelation selected for printing in the Evening & Morning Star, and the only revelation to be printed twice in that publication. In the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, section 20 was given prime placement, sequentially second only to the revealed preface. It was one of only two revelations deemed important enough to be carried around by individual elders and missionaries (the other: D&C 42), and announced its significance with its informal title: “the Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ.”

D&C 20 is closely tied to the organization of the church. The understanding that the Lord wanted Joseph to organize a church came only gradually (apparently midway through the translation of the Book of Mormon) and seized Oliver Cowdery with particular interest. In June 1829 Joseph, Oliver, and David Whitmer prayed for instruction about how to organize the church, but the revelation–now D&C 18–addresses itself to Oliver in particular:

“Now, behold, because of the thing which you, my servant Oliver Cowdery, have desired to know of me, I give unto you these words.” (D&C 18:1)

He is then commanded to do the following:

“Rely upon the things which are written; for in them are all things written concerning the foundation of my church.” (D&C 18:3-4)

The “things which are written” was apparently a reference to the Book of Mormon; during the rest of 1829, Oliver combed through the Book of Mormon for clues to the Lord’s preferred organization and procedure for his church. The resulting document was called the “Articles of the Church of Christ” and contained reflections on baptism, ordaining priests and teachers, and church meetings, drawn primarily from 3 Nephi 11, 18 and Moroni 3-6, in addition to a few lines from the 1829 revelations and some of his own commentary. Oliver’s document bears some relation to what eventually became D&C 20, but the particulars of that relationship aren’t clear. Although it’s tempting to see the “Articles” as an early draft for D&C 20, they are perhaps better described as a forerunner, something like an anticipatory thought experiment (see here and here).

The precise date of D&C 20 is unknown, but although the section heading ties it to the organization of the church on April 6, 1830, it was almost certainly not ready by then. Its earliest possible date is April 10. Our only certainty is that it was completed by June 9, 1830, when it was presented and ratified at the first conference of the church.

The text itself is unique among the revelations. Rather than addressing a particular individual or group in the first-person voice of the Lord, D&C 20 speaks in the third person and seems most similar to contemporary Christian creeds or confessions of faith. It lays out the church’s position on several theological issues, including the fall, the nature of man, atonement, infant baptism, predestination, and redemption. In the section on priesthood duties that we’ll be looking at in detail (D&C 20:38-67) the Book of Mormon’s influence is obvious; the offices of elder, priest, and teacher, in addition to some of their duties, come straight from Moroni 3-4, but also would have been familiar to the early saints from other Christian churches of their day. It’s also important to remember that at the time, the priesthood had not yet been organized along “Aaronic” and “Melchizedek” lines, and that the term “apostle” (v. 38) probably referred to a more generic “witness” or “messenger” of Jesus, something akin to a missionary, but nothing like our specialized understanding of the office.

D&C 20 was revised over time–especially the section on priesthood offices–as clarification became necessary and understanding grew. I’ve spent some time looking over the changes, and while there are several, I don’t find them substantial enough for us to worry about. I plan on focusing on our current D&C text, and I’m confident that we aren’t doing a disservice to the “original text” in the process.

The next post will focus on v. 38-67 specifically and give us an idea of how priesthood was understood by the early church.


Filed under D&C 20

Alma 13:14-20

And now on to the story of Melchizedek in verses 14-20. First, notice how Alma sets it up: it’s not just a story about Melchizedek, but a story about how a people and a high priest relate to one another. Verse 14 actually begins with “the people in the days of Melchizedek.” While this does make a nice transition from verse 13, I think Alma is doing more than just transitioning. I think he is wanting us to focus on “the people” and “Melchizedek” as two characters in the story that follows.

This idea isn’t shocking, I’m sure, but I think it’s important to take note of this. Before this point in the chapter, Alma seemed to be explaining what a priest was (a teacher) and how he got there (by a specific manner). Now Alma seems to shift the focus to how a high priest and a people relate to each other. I think that will become more and more significant as we go along.

(As the first of many tangents, I did some searching to see how priests were talked about before Alma 13. Were they described as teachers generally, or as teachers over a specific people? It turns out that Alma the elder was the first one to be called “a” or “the” high priest. Before that, we just have “priests” — in the plural — who are consecrated to teach. Under Alma and Alma the younger, many priests are called to assist in teaching the members of the Church. But only Alma, and then his son Alma, are called “the” high priest. Is this a significant switch? Are they being more like Melchizedek than other priests were before them? I wonder if part of what Alma is battling against in Alma 13 is the people’s idea that he is a teacher for members only, rather than a high priest over the whole people. See Alma 8:11.)

But, before we can get too far into seeing how a high priest relate to each other, we get this odd verse on tithing and Abraham (verse 15). Why does Alma talk about tithing in verse 15? Is it just to show how Abraham (an immensely important figure for the Nephites) relates to Melchizedek? Does it function like the discussion in Hebrews 7 does? Is there actually a reason to bring tithing itself up? 

I think there actually is a reason to bring it up, and I even want to explore the possibility that tithing has something to do with being a high priest of the Holy Order of God. In order to do that, I’m going to take a detour through the JST of Genesis 14. Now I know there will be concerns that I’m assuming too much, but I am not actually suggesting that Alma had exactly what we have in our JST (since the connections between the JST and the brass plates are completely obscured). What I am suggesting is that these two passages, however they relate to each other, are filled with similar themes, and that is enough to merit some comparisons. We have references in both to Melchizedek, Abraham, tithing, high priesthood, order of God, building a city, causing a people to repent, and a Prince of Peace. My goal is to see how the JST handles these same themes, and see how that might help us see things we’ve overlooked in our Alma 13 text.

So — with what I hope is enough justification for a little fun with the JST — onward! Here are verses 25-27 of the JST of Genesis 14:

“And Melchizedek lifted up his voice and blessed Abram.

Now Melchizedek was a man of faith, who wrought righteousness; and when a child he feared God, and stopped the mouths of lions, and quenched the violence of fire….

And thus, having been approved of God, he was ordained an high priest after the order of the covenant which God made with Enoch”

Like Alma 13, this JST passage is careful to explain why someone was called as a high priest. Melchizedek was “a man of faith,” “wrought righteousness,” “feared God,” and controlled nature, even. God “approved” of his works, and Melchizedek became a high priest. I found it interesting that both the JST and Alma 13 found it important to explain why a high priest is called. (It’s also interesting how similar the “why” is to Alma 13.) I had assumed that Alma was explaining this to justify his position over the people, but perhaps there is more than just that going on here.

With a soft spot in my heart for anything connected to Enoch, Adam, or Abraham, it will be no surprise that I found the connection to Enoch fascinating, so forgive me as I indulge a bit (I think we’ll find it productive in the end). Enoch is the first person I know of who taught a wicked people well enough to get them to repent, build up a city, fend off all their enemies, and be translated into Heaven. Melchizedek is described as a high priest specifically “after the order of the covenant which God made with Enoch,” and I think that is language we shouldn’t pass over too lightly. I think we should hear in this that Melchizedek’s priesthood assignment was connected specifically with the work Enoch did: teach and build a city. I’m dying to know more about this “covenant” business too, but for now, I want to focus on the basic connection between Enoch, a preacher and city-builder, and Melchizedek, a preacher and city-builder.

On to JST verse 28:

It being after the order of the Son of God; which order came, not by man, nor the will of man; neither by father nor mother; neither by beginning of days nor end of years; but of God

The JST passage, like Alma 13, is intent on explaining that this order came directly from God (see Alma 13: 1, 2, 7, 9, and 16) and that it has no identifiable beginning (see Alma 13:8).

JST verses 29-31:

And it was delivered unto men by the calling of his own voice, according to his own will, unto as many as believed on his name.

I like the personal nature of the first half of this verse (God calls by his own voice, and by his own decision) but the last part is tougher to understand. Like Alma 13:4, there is a suggestion that as long as someone is faithful, they will be come a high priest. But my personal experience tells me otherwise. How I can reconcile these two things? I can read this in a round-about way, knowing that everyone has the chance to receive saving ordinances, “as if” they had been a priest, but Alma 13 and this JST verse seem to be pretty clear. How do you make sense of this? I’ll offer one idea, that corresponds with my work elsewhere so of course I like it, but I’d like to hear more ideas on this.

The next verse in the JST could be use to imply that it’s not that anyone who believes will receive the high priesthood, but all those of Enoch’s line who believe. Note how verse 30 starts with the word “For:”

For God having sworn unto Enoch and unto his seed with an oath by himself …

This seems to say that God gives the priesthood because of a promise God made to Enoch and to his seed. Was it meant only for their seed? Hard to tell for sure, but that does line up with D&C 107:40.  I’ve looked around a lot in scripture for places that talk about a “chosen seed” which has a right to the priesthood, while anyone else is just helping them. (See lots of speculative ideas here.) If that’s at all on to something, then even if there are many people (who aren’t of the chosen line) who believe/are faithful/perform good works, etc., that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will become a high priest. They may, but it’s not automatically the case.

I think this is a fair enough reading of the JST, though it may or may not be a good way to read Alma 13.

All of verses 30-31 now:

For God having sworn unto Enoch and unto his seed with an oath by himself; that every one being ordained after this order and calling should have power, by faith, to break mountains, to divide the seas, to dry up waters, to turn them out of their course;

To put at defiance the armies of nations, to divide the earth, to break every band, to stand in the presence of God; to do all things according to his will, according to his command, subdue principalities and powers; and this by the will of the Son of God which was from before the foundation of the world.

While none of this matches up directly with Alma 13, sorry, it’s way too fun to pass up! What an incredible power! But not only incredible, it’s a power described elsewhere in scripture. Besides Enoch himself, it’s similar to Nephi’s power (in Helaman 10), and also to Jacob’s (see Jacob 4:7-8). In addition, the idea that this power is given over and over again throughout history is affirmed in D&C 128:9.

I wonder if this what allows priests to become a “Prince of Peace,” because they can use that power to defend their cities and end all wars around them? (See also D&C 45:67 – 70.) 

But now on to JST verse 32:

And men having this faith, coming up unto this order of God, were translated and taken up into heaven.

While “translated and taken up into heaven” is pretty close to the idea of “entered into the rest of the Lord their God” (in Alma 13:12), it’s really the timing of the experiences that I want to talk about. In both cases, it appears to me that it is a result of being a faithful high priest, rather than a part of or the definition of the priest’s ordination. (Kim argued already for this point in this post.) Thinking about this again made me realize it would be impractical for these things to happen simultaneously, since the point of being ordained a priest is to work with people on earth.

Now to verses 33-34, which have quite a bit in common with Alma 13:18:

And now, Melchizedek was a priest of this order; therefore he obtained peace in Salem, and was called the Prince of peace.

And his people wrought righteousness, and obtained heaven, and sought for the city of Enoch which God had before taken, separating it from the earth, having reserved it unto the latter days, or the end of the world;

And here is Alma 13:18:

But Melchizedek having exercised mighty faith, and received the office of the high priesthood according to the holy order of God, did preach repentance unto his people. And behold, they did repent; and Melchizedek did establish peace in the land in his days; therefore he was called the prince of peace, for he was the king of Salem; and he did reign under his father.

I noticed at least these similarities: 1) priest/priesthood of/according to this/the (holy) order, 2) obtained/established peace, 3) called the Prince of peace/called the prince of peace, 4) people wrought righteousness/they did repent. And if we add in verse 32, we have a fifth similarity: 5) men having faith/having exercised mighty faith. Why so many similarities? More importantly: Why are these five points so crucial to the understanding of Melchizedek that all five are mentioned in both passages? How do these details explain the role of high priest in relation to a people? I’ll leave that an open question for now.

Verse 35:

And hath said, and sworn with an oath, that the heavens and the earth should come together; and the sons of God should be tried so as by fire.

Enoch’s covenant seems to have included the promise that the heavens and earth should come together. I think this refers to other Zion cities that unite with Enoch’s city (see Moses 7: 62-64). If so, I think this supports the idea mentioned earlier that when Melchizedek is ordained after the covenant given to Enoch, he was given the assignment to build up a Zion city.

Verses 36-39:

And this Melchizedek, having thus established righteousness, was called the king of heaven by his people, or, in other words, the King of peace.

And he lifted up his voice, and he blessed Abram, being the high priest, and the keeper of the storehouse of God;

Him whom God had appointed to receive tithes for the poor.

Wherefore, Abram paid unto him tithes of all that he had, of all the riches which he possessed, which God had given him more than that which he had need.

And now finally we get back to tithing, and we can begin to see why tithing is in Alma 13. If Melchizedek is building a Zion city, it would make sense that he would find a way to have no poor, like Enoch did. Melchizedek was a high priest and keeper of the storehouse. That signals that he was not just any high priest, but a high priest like Enoch was, one who was also building a city. So finally coming full circle, that little inclusion of Abraham paying tithing in Alma 13:15 actually strengthens the idea that a high priest, at least this kind of high priest, is more than a teacher of the commandments. (And I left tangents about Abraham himself here.) A high priest’s role is to teach a whole people, and in such a way, that they can create a Zion community. To that end, Alma can’t pass by the people in Ammonihah or anywhere else. Alma isn’t just performing teaching duties associated with a calling within and to the Church, it appears he is fulfilling his role as the high priest, the kind of high priest Melchizedek was.

So in summary again, I think here Alma shifts in verse 14 from talking about priests themselves to how a people and a high priest relate to one another. I think this is in part to answer his audience’s comment in Alma 8:11. A high priest is called, given powers, and assigned to bring a whole people into God’s rest. And Alma is working to that end, I think.


Filed under Alma 13