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:
- Implied Authority (Sept 1823 – March 1829)
- Angelic Authority (April 1829 – Oct 1830)
- High Priesthood (Dec 1830 – Nov 1831)
- Organizational Consolidation (Nov 1831 – March 1836)
- 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.