Words can be a bit slippery, particularly when we use them in different ways over time. Take, for example, the use of the word “ordinance” in the Church. In its most basic sense, an ordinance is an authoritative order; a decree or a piece of legislation (think of a city ordinance). It seems very possible that many of the time when the word occurs in the Doctrine and Covenants, the word is used in this manner, referring to the laws or decrees of God. On other occasions, the term may be used as an appointment or commission (in what is now an archaic use of the word). In the Church today, however, it is generally used to refer to religious rites like baptism, confirmation, endowment, etc. Hence, it becomes tricky when interpreting statements like the one in the important 22-23 September 1832 revelation (now Doctrine and Covenants, Section 84) that “in the ordinences thereof the power of Godliness is manifest and without the ordinences thereof, and the authority of the Priesthood, the power of Godliness is not manifest,” whether ordinances refers to the laws of the Gospel, an appointment as a result of priesthood ordination, or the sacred rites of the Gospel. Gratefully, at least there isn’t much confusion about whether ordnances is the intended use in the Church when the term ordinance is used.
Priesthood is another word that is a bit difficult to pin down. While we know it generally refers to something that men are ordained to use in the Church that is important in leading the Church and performing ordinances (in this case, the rites), it can be unclear whether the term refers to specific offices in the Church, authority in the Church, or the power of God. We can explore these three approaches to priesthood and then look at how they apply to a couple specific cases in how we talk about priesthood in the Church.
First is offices, especially those of priest and high priest. In English, the suffix “-hood” is added to a word to denote the state, condition, character, or nature of a person of a particular character or class. Think of words like knighthood, motherhood, childhood, etc. It means that the person in question has the word ahead of -hood as part of who they are. Hence, priesthood, in this sense, simply means that the person in question is a priest. The suffix -hood can also be used to denote an order or organization of people with the status proceeding the suffix (“it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood” or “Jacob, come! Tonight you shall join our brotherhood”). When used in this way, the term priesthood is innately connected to the office of the person and cannot be separated from it.
When Section 84 was revealed in 1832, the term priesthood seems to have been used in this sense. William V. Smith, for example, in his analysis of early Mormon priesthood revelations wrote that when some 1831 revelations used the term:
The word “priesthood” was used in exactly the same way that “high priesthood” was: priesthood referred to the office of priest. There was no concept of Aaronic and Melchizedek divisions at this point. When Smith quoted John the Baptist saying, “Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah I confer the Priesthood of Aaron” this meant that Smith and Cowdery were thereby made “priests.” “Priesthood” was gradually understood differently after 1835 and the original usage was essentially lost by the twentieth century. But in revelations prior to 1835, phrases like “lesser priesthood” (for example D&C 84:30) referred to the office of priest. Reading the revelations without that in mind has generated acontextual readings over time.
Thus, when we read the term “priesthood” or “high priesthood” in early Latter-day Saint documents, it’s likely that priesthood refers to the office of being a priest or high priest.
Second is authority. Take, for example, the definition of priesthood given by Elder B. H. Roberts: “It is ‘Power which God delegates to man, by which man is made the agent of God; by which he may by and in the name of God act for Him.’ That is Priesthood, as we understand it.” He went on to compare it to power of attorney, when someone has property but “he is not able to give his personal attention to his business interests in this location; he therefore selects some man in whom he has confidence … and he says to him: I wish you to become my agent, to act for me, to take possession of this property … and whatsoever he shall do, when acting under the law, is just as good and valid as if the owner of the property himself were performing the transactions.” In turn, “Priesthood is something like that. It is power which God gives to men by which they are made His agents.” Other examples of comparisons, such as the authority of police officers to enforce the law, can be cited, but the key idea here is that priesthood is a form of authorization to act for God in administering the Church.
When priesthood is discussed in terms of authority, it generally has to do with priesthood organization and the ability to lead in Church settings. For example, in a 1930s Church publication, the Quorum of the Twelve responded to a question about receiving answers to prayers and the gift of the Holy Ghost when not ordained to the priesthood by stating that you can, then asking: “If, then, one may pray, may have his prayers answered, may have the Holy Ghost bestowed upon him, and may exercise many of its gifts, without holding any Priesthood, what is the place of Priesthood on the earth?” To this, they responded:
Chiefly Priesthood functions in connection with organization. That is, the greatest need of Priesthood is where there is a service to be performed to others besides ourselves.
Whenever you do anything for, or in behalf of, someone else, you must have the right to do so. If you are to sell property belonging to another, you must have his permission. If you wish to admit an alien to citizenship in our government, you cannot act without having been commissioned to do so by the proper authority.
Now, a religious organization, or the Church, is in the last analysis a matter of service. You baptize someone, or you confirm him, or you administer to him in case of sickness, or you give him the Sacrament or the Priesthood, or you preach the Gospel to him–what is this but performing a service?
Now, when it comes to earthly power to perform a definite service, we call it the power of attorney in the case of acting legally for someone else, or the court and the judge where it is a question of acting for the government.
But in the Church of Christ this authority to act for others is known as Priesthood.
Priesthood, when spoken of as a type of authority, is primarily focused on organizing the Church and carrying out important Church services.
While many early revelations probably use the term priesthood in the sense of the office of being a priest, the idea of priesthood as authority, or a system of authorization, is not absent from early Church records. For example, Jared Carter recorded in his journal that his brother Simeon was “an elder in the high prie[s]thood.” This use of the term “high priesthood” with the office of elder indicates that Carter is using it as a level of authorization or authority, with different offices within that high priesthood, somewhat similar to how we use the terms Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthood today. This became an increasingly important definition, particularly after the document known as Section 107 was compiled in 1835 as a manual on priesthood, with the statement that: “There are, in the church, two priesthoods, namely: the Melchizedek, and the Aaronic. … All other authorities, or offices in the church are appendages to this priesthood; but there are two divisions, or grand heads—one is the Melchizedek priesthood, and the other is the Aaronic, or Levitical priesthood,” with offices listed as subsets of these two priesthoods. While the terms Melchizedek and Aaronic priesthood weren’t formally used in the Church at the time that Section 84 was recorded, the terms “lesser Priesthood” and the “holy Priesthood” or “greater Priesthood” and specific authorities or duties associated with each are used: “this greater Priesthood adminestereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the misteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God,” while “the lesser Priesthood … holdeth the keys of the ministring of Angels and the preparitory gospel, which gospel is the gospel of repentence and of Baptism, and the remission of sins, and the Law of carnal commandments.” The view of priesthood as authorization or authority became increasingly important as a way of understanding its role and function.
Third is priesthood as the power of God. One example of this approach to Priesthood comes from Elder M. Russell Ballard, who taught that: “The power by which the heavens and earth were and are created is the priesthood. … Not only is the priesthood the power by which the heavens and the earth were created, but it is also the power the Savior used in His mortal ministry to perform miracles, to bless and heal the sick, to bring the dead to life, and, as our Father’s Only Begotten Son, to endure the unbearable pain of Gethsemane and Calvary.” In this sense, priesthood is not just authority to act in God’s stead, but the power of God as an entity in its own right.
Again, this concept was at least hinted at in early Latter Day Saint understandings of the priesthood. The concept of being endowed with power from on high (which preceded the 1831 ordinations to the high priesthood) included the idea of having power to perform miracles as a result of priesthood ordinations. Jared Carter, whose brother had been recently ordained, recorded in his journal an experience where a woman had sustained grave injuries after falling from a wagon and he told her “that she need not have any more pain, and also mentioned my Brother Simeon who was endowed with great power from on high, and that she might be healed, if she had faith. Brother Simeon also conversed with her, and after awhile took her by the hand, saying, ‘I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to arise and walk.’ And she arose and walked from room to room.” Likewise, as Latter Day Saint elders traveled to Missouri in late 1831, one critical periodical reported that “some of them affect a power even to raise the dead, and perchance, (such is the weakness of human nature), really believe that they can do it!” The revelation that is now Section 84 also hints at this definition by stating that: “in the ordinences thereof the power of Godliness is manifest and without the ordinences thereof, and the authority of the Priesthood, the power of Godliness is not manifest unto man in the flesh, for without this no man can see the face of God even the father and live.” While the language here is not entirely clear, it seems likely that “the power of Godliness” entails some sort of demonstration of Godly power or the personage of God.
In any case, having multiple ways of using the term priesthood complicates discussions about the priesthood in the Church. While technical discussions tend to differentiate between the second and third definition by talking about the authority of the priesthood and power of the priesthood, it’s not infrequent for colloquial discussions of the priesthood to get a bit messy. Take, for example, the discussion around whether it is appropriate to call men ordained to the priesthood “the priesthood.” It’s not uncommon in sacrament services to hear local Church leaders say: “the sacrament will be administered by the priesthood,” or something similar as a way to say that people who are ordained will take care of blessing and passing the bread and water. When approached with the first definition—an individual or order of individuals who are priests—this makes sense. It’s like saying the brotherhood will take care of moving someone or the neighborhood will keep a close eye on things. When viewed as the second (authority or authorization) or third (God’s power) definitions, it becomes less feasible, hence Angela C./Hawkgrrrl’s satirical definition of priesthood as “a mysterious power which somehow totes the bread and water around to the pews of its own accord, and must be thanked for it; it also stacks chairs and opens the overflow curtain; NOT synonymous with male church members.” Because of this, Elder Dallin H. Oaks has repeatedly tried to steer Church members away from that practice, stating that: “While we sometimes refer to priesthood holders as ‘the priesthood,’ we must never forget that the priesthood is not owned by or embodied in those who hold it,” and that “men are not the priesthood!” Whether men who are priests are the priesthood or not depends on how you understand the word.
A more sensitive issue is whether women can be said to have the priesthood. In recent years, there has been a trend towards stating that women do have the priesthood in certain ways (see this previous discussion as an example). In general, these efforts rely on either a very specific approach to the second definition (when performing temple ordinances or Church callings, women do so with priesthood authorization) or the third definition (women can have the power of God in their lives through faithful living, covenants, the gift of the Holy Ghost, spiritual gifts, etc.). These are ways to understand women as having the priesthood in the modern Church, but it does tend to cause some confusion in how we use the term priesthood resulting from multiple ways to understanding priesthood.
Hence, priesthood is a difficult word to pin down at times. It can be unclear whether the term refers to the state of being a priest, authority in the Church, or the power of God (or possibly even other uses of the term that I haven’t addressed here). Even within those definitions, there seem to be nuances and multiple ways of understanding their relationship with priesthood. In short, priesthood has been used in different ways over time and in different situations, resulting in the potential for confusion or acontextual readings of the term, which is part of the challenge we face in interpreting our sacred texts.
- William V. Smith, “Early Mormon Priesthood Revelation: Text, Impact, and Evolution,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 46, no. 4 (2013)
- Roger Terry, “Authority and Priesthood in the LDS Church, Part 1: Definitions and Development,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 51, no. 1 (2018)
- Roger Terry, “Authority and Priesthood in the LDS Church, Part 2: Ordinances, Quorums, Nonpriesthood Authority, Presiding, Priestesses, and Priesthood Bans,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 51, no. 2 (2018)
- Gregory A. Prince, Power From on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), ch. 1: Authority
- Matthew C. Godfrey, “A Culmination of Learning: D&C 84 and the Doctrine of the Priesthood”
I recognize I’m a week behind in posting this article. In my defense, it was one of the more research-intensive posts I’ve put up this year.
 “Revelation, 22–23 September 1832 [D&C 84],” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed August 2, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-22-23-september-1832-dc-84/1
 William V. Smith, “Early Mormon Priesthood Revelations: Text, Impact, and Evolution,” Dialogues: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 46, no. 4 (Winter 2013), https://www.dialoguejournal.com/articles/early-mormon-priesthood-revelation-text-impact-and-evolution/
 B. H. Roberts, “Priesthood and the Rights of Succession,” Collected Discourses Delivered by: President Wilford Woodruff, His Two Counselors, the Twelve Apostles, and Others, edited by Brian H. Stuy, 5 vol. (Burbank, California: BHS Publishing, 1987-1992), 2:368-369.
 Improvement Era, October 1931, Page 735, https://prophetsseersandrevelators.wordpress.com/2017/10/04/why-priesthood-at-all/
 Journal of Jared Carter, typescript, 4, CHL.
 “Instruction on Priesthood, between circa 1 March and circa 4 May 1835 [D&C 107],” p. 82, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed August 3, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/instruction-on-priesthood-between-circa-1-march-and-circa-4-may-1835-dc-107/1
 “Revelation, 22–23 September 1832 [D&C 84],” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed August 3, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-22-23-september-1832-dc-84/1
 M. Russell Ballard, “This is My Work and Glory,” CR April 2013, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2013/04/this-is-my-work-and-glory?lang=eng
 Jared Carter journal, in “Journal History,” 8 June 1831, LDS archives.
 Niles’ Weekly Register, 16 July 1831.
 “Revelation, 22–23 September 1832 [D&C 84],” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed August 3, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-22-23-september-1832-dc-84/1
 Angela C. “Mormon Jargon 2,” By Common Consent, 24 July 2014, https://bycommonconsent.com/2014/07/24/mormon-jargon-2/.
 Dallin H. Oaks, “The Relief Society and the Church,” CR April 1992, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1992/05/the-relief-society-and-the-church?lang=eng
 Dallin H. Oaks, “The Power of the Priesthood in the Family” (worldwide leadership training meeting), wwlt.lds.org.
Priesthood is an association between mankind and those on the other side of the veil. It is a brotherhood. It is also, potentially, a sisterhood. It is a fellowship wherein mortals are connected with the “Powers of Heaven.”There are two brotherhoods. One is between men (or women, as the case may be), and it is here among mortals. There is a second one between mortal man and the Powers of Heaven. It is the fellowship, association, or priesthood with the Powers of Heaven that gives to man the power.
Without a connection to Heaven, there is no priesthood. The “Powers of Heaven” are the angels themselves. Priests must have angelic accompaniment to claim priesthood. The power of the priesthood cannot be controlled by men. It comes from Heaven or it does not come at all. There has never been an institution or church entrusted with the power of Heaven. The power of the priesthood comes only one way, men do not have any right to either confer it, or prevent it from being conferred. Heaven alone determines if a man will be permitted to act as one of Heaven’s chosen. Ordination invites. God alone confers His power.
The focus of attention on priesthood skews what may be most important; it distorts the whole picture: All of the miraculous things that Melchizedek accomplished — quenching the violence of fire, closing the mouths of lions, causing rivers to run out of their course — all of those things were accomplished by Melchizedek without the priesthood. When Paul listed the things that got accomplished by faith, he was not talking about priesthood, ordination, office, or authority. Most of what people think belongs to the franchise called “priesthood” really should be viewed as the evidence (or the absence) of faith.
Q. What is priesthood?
A. Priesthood is exercise of righteous dominion. (Priestcraft is exercise of unrighteous dominion).
One of the side-effects of the culture of Mormonism in the Restored Church, has to do with the linking of priesthood to Masonry. The assumption that LDS liturgy originally derived from any part of Masonry is a mistake the Church is still expunging. Joseph used Masonry as a context for teaching covenant and coronation, nothing else. Brigham added the Masonic dross at a later time. The consequence of linking priesthood to Masonry blinds us from seeing priesthood outside fraternity.
The context of patriarchal priesthood, ironically, derives from women. Mothers intervene and usurp where necessary. Sarah and Isaac, Rebekah and Jacob, Rachel and Joseph–were all favored and legitimized by “birthright.” By what authority is a patriarch or king recognized, except priesthood? Is the ancient throne-seat of Israel not also the Queen’s lap?
Zion, the Bride, and Israel become feminine by covenant; there is enough evidence to suggest that our “fraternal” understanding of priesthood is error. When the fraternal emblems are removed from the LDS temple, we will see in purity that the temple itself is feminine: the Ark, the Grail, the Cup, the Basin, the Womb, the Water, the Bread, the Tree, the Altar, the Throne, Mother Earth and Creation–all point to Eve as the central hero of the narrative.
A case can be made that, like King Josiah, Brigham removed “Wisdom” (feminine representation) from the temple. If this be so, how to restore Wisdom?