Audio for Episode 4, “The Fulness of the Priesthood”
Spencer: 1829. May 15th marked the start of the restoration of the priesthood when an angelic John the Baptist conferred the lower priesthood upon Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. It continued weeks or months later when the biblical apostles, Peter, James, and John appeared and conferred upon Joseph and Oliver the higher priesthood.
But the priesthood restoration did not end with that second visit. Nor did it end with the organization of the church in April 1830. To Joseph Smith and his fellow church leaders, the restoration of the priesthood was ongoing. And by the 1840s, Latter-day Saints were looking toward the temple, where a revelation had assured them that “the fullness of the priesthood” would be revealed to them.
In this episode, we are talking about the ongoing priesthood restoration during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. This is The Priesthood Restored: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast, and I’m your host, Spencer McBride.
Spencer: Episode 4: “The Fullness of the Priesthood”
Spencer: When the church was organized in Fayette, New York, in April 1830, those assembled accepted Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery as their ecclesiastical leaders, as the first and second elders of the church. But it wasn’t long before Joseph and Oliver had conferred upon others the same priesthood authority they held. Those who received these priesthoods were ordained to offices and eventually organized into quorums based on those offices.
However, at this time, they did not use the names Aaronic and Melchizedek to refer to the different priesthoods. That fuller understanding of the lesser and higher priesthood came later. Matthew Godfrey, Managing Historian of the Joseph Smith Papers, explains:
Matthew: So, it’s really not until about the mid-1830s that you see Aaronic Priesthood and Melchizedek Priesthood in the records. When Joseph Smith wrote his first history, kind of his autobiography in 1832, he referred to two different authorities that he had. He called the first authority—he said that he had received the holy priesthood by the ministering of angels to administer the letter of the Gospel. So, this refers to the Aaronic Priesthood.
And then in talking about another authority that he had been given, he said that he had received the High Priesthood after the holy order of the Son of the Living God. So, he’s referring to the Aaronic as the holy priesthood, the Melchizedek as the high priesthood at this time.
And he’s also kind of noting that the lesser priesthood—the Aaronic Priesthood—had the authority of the ministering of angels, and administering the letter of the Gospel, and that this higher authority, he said, had the authority to bestow ordinance from on high, to preach the Gospel in the administration and demonstration of the Spirit. So, this is 1832, and it’s clear when he’s writing this history that he’s referring to two different authorities that he’s received.
Spencer: This difference in the two priesthoods Joseph and Oliver had received was mentioned in revelations from this time period as well.
Matthew: Also in 1832, he and Sidney Rigdon have a vision of the afterlife, what we have as section 76 in the Doctrine and Covenants, and in the course of that vision Joseph Smith sees priests of the most high after the order of Melchizedek, which was after the order of Enoch, which was after the order of the Only Begotten Son. So, this appears to be referring to the Melchizedek Priesthood—a rather lengthy name, you can see why they shortened it later.
September of 1832, there’s another revelation that Joseph gets, section 84 in our current Doctrine and Covenants, which refers to two priesthoods as well, and it refers to them as the lesser priesthood and the greater priesthood. And it said that the lesser priesthood was one that was conferred upon Aaron and his descendants, the greater priesthood was one that Melchizedek gave to Abraham. So again, Melchizedek and Aaron are being associated with these priesthoods as early as 1832, but they’re not calling them the Aaronic and the Melchizedek Priesthood.
The first real clear delineation that we have of this comes in 1835 when there’s an instruction on priesthood that they are preparing for the publication of the Doctrine and Covenants that year. This is what we have as section 107 in the Doctrine and Covenants, and that refers very specifically to the Aaronic Priesthood and the Melchizedek Priesthood. And it’s interesting as well because that also talks about how the real name of the Melchizedek Priesthood is “the priesthood after the order of the Son of God,” but that to avoid repetition of the name of the Savior too frequently, it would be referred to as the Melchizedek Priesthood. And we see from what Joseph Smith wrote in 1832, these other revelations that he received in 1832, that that is what this priesthood was being referred to, the priesthood after the order of the Son of God.
Spencer: Around this time, Joseph Smith published several revelations that deepened his understanding of priesthood—as well as the understanding of those around him.
Matthew: There are several revelations that Joseph received that taught him line upon line about priesthood, about its importance, about its usefulness, about how the priesthood should operate within the church. And again, I think for church members sometimes we think that Joseph knew everything at once, and so sometimes we think, “Oh, he had the priesthood restored to him. He must have known immediately everything that that entailed.” But that’s not really how it happened. The Lord teaches him over time.
When he’s working on his translation of the Bible in 1831 and 1832, and he’s going over passages in 1831 in Genesis chapter 14, he receives revelation and inspiration about the priesthood in those. And so we see in his translation of Genesis 14, there’s quite a bit about the priesthood in there and especially about the eternal nature of the priesthood, that it’s not something that man formed, it’s something that has always existed.
Spencer: It’s difficult to overstate the significance of this revelation to Joseph Smith’s understanding of priesthood. It helped him—and those who read the revelation—understand that priesthood was more than ecclesiastical authority for men to lead churches on earth. It was an authority, a power, that existed since the creation of the earth—and would exist forever.
But the earthly history of the priesthood mattered to Joseph, too.
Matthew: One of the most important revelations that comes to him comes in September of 1832, and this is what we have today as Doctrine and Covenants section 84, and this really is a key revelation in developing understanding of the Aaronic Priesthood and the Melchizedek Priesthood. Although as I mentioned before, it’s not referred to as the Aaronic and Melchizedek in this, it’s referred to as the lesser and the greater priesthood.
Among other things that this revelation reveals to Joseph, it says that the greater priesthood holds the keys of the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, says that the lesser priesthood holds the keys of the ministering of angels and the preparatory gospel.
The revelation also traced the lineages of the two priesthoods, said that the lesser priesthood was held by Aaron and his descendants, and that the Melchizedek Priesthood had been passed down through the different biblical patriarchs. So, it originated with God, is passed down through the patriarchs, including through Melchizedek to Abraham and then ultimately to Moses. And so, Joseph learns more about this in this revelation, so this is really kind of key in his understanding. It kind of solidifies many of the things that he had been instructed about prior to this time. In some ways, this revelation can be seen as a culmination of everything Joseph had been learning up to this point through his Bible translation, through some of the other revelations that he had received prior to this time.
Spencer: Priesthood lineage allowed Joseph Smith and other church leaders to understand where they fit in the larger spiritual history of the world. In the story of the moral redemption of humankind, God’s chosen prophets had received and shared priesthood authority. Now, they were living a key part of that story.
In 1829, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery had sought priesthood authority so that they could perform efficacious baptisms. But now, just a few short years later, their understanding of priesthood, their understanding of the authority conferred upon them by angelic visitors, had greatly expanded.
Spencer: Another development in Joseph Smith’s understanding and use of priesthood is associated with the delegation of priesthood leadership. This entailed more than just conferring priesthood authority upon others. It had to do with ecclesiastical authority and the governance of the church. It had to do with priesthood keys. Matthew Godfrey explains:
Matthew: So, in the earliest records, the term “keys” primarily referred to Joseph Smith’s authority to unlock what were called the mysteries of the kingdom. And so, early revelation said that both Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery held keys to bring forth “those parts of my scriptures which had been hidden because of iniquity.” So, this is apparently referring to Joseph’s ability to translate the Book of Mormon. Joseph also held the keys of the mysteries of the revelations, and so this refers to Joseph’s ability to receive revelations from God.
Spencer: Michael MacKay, an associate professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University, agrees.
Michael: Yeah, so from the very beginning Joseph Smith is using the term “keys” as a metaphor, but he is variously using them. And so, as the emergence and the restoration of priesthood comes through a prophet, the original term of keys—D&C 28 uses keys as a reference towards the authority to access the mysteries of godliness, to unravel and deliver revelation. And so, this is the first kind of sense of what keys are.
Spencer: Matthew Godfrey added additional insights to what Michael said.
Matthew: An October 1831 revelation, what is section 65 in the Doctrine and Covenants, says that the keys of the kingdom have been given to man on the earth. So this seems to be a reference to Matthew chapter 16 verse 19 in the New Testament, where Jesus gave to Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And so now in October of 1831, it’s saying these same keys have come back to the earth; they have returned to the earth again.
Spencer: But by 1831, the needs of a rapidly growing church became the impetus for a deeper understanding of priesthood keys. Starting in 1831, Joseph Smith and the headquarters of the church were in Kirtland, Ohio, but a large group of Latter-day Saints had started gathering in Jackson County, Missouri. And the church maintained a centralized governance, where Joseph Smith’s prophetic authority, and his role as first elder of the church, remained important. At the same time, Joseph needed to delegate authority to church leaders in Missouri. But the authority he had in mind was more than just someone being placed in charge in Missouri. He wanted the person in charge to have the ability to lead the church there by revelation, just as Joseph did for the entire church.
Michael: And so, as the concept of keys develops over time, it becomes far more administrative rather than charismatic. So, Joseph Smith as a prophet doesn’t want just an institution; he wants an institution where David Whitmer in Missouri can receive revelation from God. He is using keys to first of all maintain the charismatic sense of prophetic authority, but then he develops it into the administrative side of the church, where if I deliver keys to David Whitmer, he’ll have access to the mysteries of godliness, but he’ll also have administrative power to govern over the bishop that is in Missouri.
Spencer: As Joseph Smith taught, priesthood keys were about both the ability to discern the mysteries of godliness and to lead the church in one’s designated role. But the keys restored to him by angelic visitors were also connected to various aspects of the gospel he was restoring.
Matthew: A March 1832 revelation clarifies that it was Joseph Smith who held these keys of the kingdom, that he was the one who had received them. And Joseph reiterates that in his 1832 history where he talks about how he had received the keys of the kingdom at that time. Then an 1835 revelation, section 27 in the Doctrine and Covenants, says that Joseph had received these keys from Peter, James, and John. And Joseph later declared that he and Oliver Cowdery received additional keys in 1836 after the dedication of the Kirtland temple, where they say that they were visited by Moses and Elias and Elijah, and that they all conveyed to them additional priesthood keys. Keys for the gathering of Israel, keys for the gospel of Abraham to go forth in this dispensation, keys that will ultimately be used to do work for the dead, salvation for the dead, and to bind families together.
So, in 1839 Joseph Smith said in one of his discourses: “The keys have to be brought from heaven whenever the Gospel is sent.” And so, I think as time goes on Joseph begins to realize that keys, or authority, that’s really what he means when he’s talking about keys; he’s talking about authority that has been given to function in various responsibilities within the church. So, I think he’s understanding that it wasn’t enough just to have the priesthood, it wasn’t enough to have the Aaronic Priesthood and the Melchizedek Priesthood, but that there were very specific keys or authority for different aspects of the gospel that had to be given as well in order for the church to really function as it should function. And so again, this is another example of how Joseph learns kind of line upon line about the priesthood, about its function, about leadership in the church. He doesn’t know it all at once. These are things that are revealed to him over time as the Lord sees fit to reveal them and as Joseph needs more light and more understanding about these things.
Spencer: Joseph Smith’s history reveals an ongoing restoration of priesthood authority, and priesthood keys were a major part of that. And as the priesthood organization developed in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in some ways it represented a strong sense of egalitarianism. In the church, priesthood was not reserved for society’s elite. There were no requirements related to wealth or education. Instead, the primary requirement for male church members was a desire to serve God and live worthily of the priesthood authority they would hold.
You will recall that in the first episode of this podcast, we spoke about the democratization of religious authority in the United States during the 1800s. I spoke with Christopher Jones, an assistant professor of history at Brigham Young University, about how the priesthood in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints compared to priesthoods in mainline Protestant denominations of that era. Were the Latter-day Saints more egalitarian or more hierarchal than these counterparts?
Christopher: I think that Latter-day Saint priesthood organization and understandings of religious authority at the end of Joseph Smith’s life, when compared to other primarily Protestant groups of the time in the United States, I think the difference is a difference of kind and not necessarily of degree in terms of how democratic it was or how hierarchical it was. In order to understand where Joseph Smith ends up in 1844, you have to go back to where he begins when he first founds the Church of Christ in 1830.
So, I think Joseph Smith’s earliest understandings of religious authority actually mirror pretty closely those of contemporary Protestants in many respects. Now, Joseph Smith believed that he possessed religious authority that other Protestants lacked, to be sure, that he had been bestowed this priesthood authority by God himself and by angelic visitors. But in terms of what that religious authority meant and what it meant for the organization of his church, I don’t think it was radically different initially.
So, like Methodists and Baptists, Smith was adamant that one should feel called to the ministry, to be called of God to be a minister. Like Methodists and Baptists, he introduced initially a relatively simple system of church organization and structure with himself and Oliver Cowdery appointed as first and second elders in the Church of Christ, and others appointed as teachers and priests with pretty routine duties.
So if you read the Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ, what is now canonized as section 20 in the Doctrine and Covenants, and compare it with the church organization outlined in say the Methodist Episcopal Church’s doctrine and discipline from the time, I don’t think you’re going to find anything especially noteworthy or revolutionary or distinct or different about the church organization of Joseph Smith’s Church of Christ during this time.
Spencer: But that changed pretty quickly.
Christopher: But of course, over the course of the 1830s and 1840s, Joseph Smith’s conception of religious authority expanded in really interesting ways in response to revelations that he received. While it never lost its democratic elements, its belief that revelation was open to and indeed incumbent upon all of God’s followers, all members of the church, ultimate religious authority came to be more explicitly invested in Joseph Smith himself, in the prophet, seer, and revelator who presided over the church, as well as in the other members of the First Presidency that served with him, and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles that he organized.
The revelation now canonized as Doctrine and Covenants 107 presents a greatly expanded and much more specific understanding of religious authority, with the priesthood of the church now organized into Melchizedek and Aaronic branches, with additional offices introduced that goes beyond anything mentioned in section 20 as initially given, including deacons, teachers, priests, elders, and high priests. So, I don’t necessarily think that even in 1844 Joseph Smith’s church was necessarily more democratic or necessarily more hierarchical than many other Protestants of the day. But rather it was different in kind, not degree. It was different in its specific understandings of where religious authority came from.
Spencer: Still, the nature of church governance necessitated structure, and priesthood quorums provided much of that. As Christopher mentioned, as the church grew and Joseph’s understanding of priesthood organization expanded, new quorums and leadership positions were required. These included a general presidency of the church, what became known as the First Presidency, as well as the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Like the rest of the priesthood organization in the church, these quorums were established over time. Matthew Godfrey explains:
Matthew: So, I think for church members today, we would expect because the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve are our main leaders, so we would almost expect that from the formation of the church, that they would exist at that time as well. But it’s not until a few years after the organization of the church that we see these bodies form within the church.
When the church is organized, you really have two general officers: Joseph Smith who’s designated as the first elder, and Oliver Cowdery, who’s designated as the second elder. And those are really the only general offices that are in the church at its formation.
Spencer: What became the First Presidency was first called the Presidency of the High Priesthood, which was formed in November 1832. And, by 1835, Joseph Smith and his two counselors are being referred to as the First Presidency of the church.
As for the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, as early as 1829, Joseph Smith received a revelation that Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer were to identify the men who would serve as apostles. They fasted and prayed for some time about this assignment. And it’s years before they finally establish the quorum. In fact, Martin Harris eventually joins Cowdery and Whitmer in the process, likely because the three of them were the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon. And, in 1835, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was formed in Kirtland, Ohio.
Yet, it may come as a surprise to some Latter-day Saints today to discover that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was not immediately in its place next to the First Presidency in authority. Joseph Smith taught the proper place of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1836 but, like so much else related to the restoration of the priesthood, it took time for the quorum to assume its designated role.
Matthew: After the Twelve serve a mission to England, a very successful mission in 1840 and 1841, they come back to Nauvoo, and Joseph, recognizing the great work that they had done in England to administer the church there, to really get it set up there, and also recognizing that Brigham Young was the one as the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who was really responsible for seeing that the Saints were able to get out of Missouri and into Illinois after they were expelled from Missouri. Because, of course, Joseph Smith is in jail at this time. He can’t really do anything for that, so he delegates that to Brigham Young, and Brigham does a great job of making sure that all the Saints are taken care of.
And so I think Joseph recognizes kind of the administrative abilities that those in the Twelve had. And so, at a conference that’s held in 1841, Joseph tells the church that it’s now time for the Twelve to take their place next to the First Presidency. And that’s where you really see the Twelve begin to develop as one of the major central administrative bodies of the church.
Joseph begins to rely on them more and more over time and eventually in 1844, according to Orson Hyde, Joseph makes sure that the Twelve has all of the keys. And that’s not just all the keys to administer the church, but he makes sure that they have all the keys to be able to perform temple ordinances as well, which I think in the minds of the Twelve and in the minds of Joseph Smith, was just as important as the Twelve having the keys to be able to lead the church after this time.
Spencer: Back in the first episode of this podcast, we spoke with historians to survey some of the different approaches Christian denominations in the 1800s were taking to questions of priesthood. Specifically, we talked about how in this time and place priesthood ordination was no longer restricted to elite men educated at divinity school. Still, most of these denominations would only ordain men to priesthood office and would not ordain people of color.
Like these other Christian denominations, following the organization of the church in April 1830, church leaders only ordained men to priesthood office in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, they were far more open to ordaining men of color than other denominations were.
Paul: During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, there’s no indication that he ever restricted priesthood ordination from men of Black African descent. And, in fact, there’s every indication that he sanctioned such ordinations.
Spencer: That’s Paul Reeve, the Simmons Professor of Mormon Studies at the University of Utah.
Paul: Elijah Abel is the best-known example. Elijah Abel is baptized in 1832 and then ordained an elder in 1836, and by the end of 1836, December, ordained a Seventy. And Joseph Smith’s signature appears on Abel’s ministerial certificate in 1836. So, we know that he’s fully aware of Elijah Abel and sanctions his priesthood, and Abel will later actually make that claim himself.
So, we have a sense that Smith has an open racial vision in terms of priesthood ordination. There’s another Black priesthood holder, Q. Walker Lewis, who was ordained by Joseph Smith’s younger brother, William Smith, who was an apostle at the time. And Q. Walker Lewis is in the Lowell Massachusetts Branch.
Spencer: So, several Black Latter-day Saints were ordained to priesthood offices during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, an opportunity they would have been denied in many other Christian denominations.
But what about Latter-day Saint women? How can we characterize their relationship to priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime? While they were not ordained to priesthood office, in Nauvoo, Illinois, during the 1840s, Joseph Smith began teaching doctrines that made it clear the priesthood was about more than ecclesiastical administration and that where the fulness of the priesthood was concerned, there was a very important place for women. That development is tied to the founding of the Relief Society.
To better understand this connection, I spoke with Lisa Olsen Tait, a historian in the Church History Department who specializes in women’s history.
Lisa: We have to understand that when it comes to Joseph Smith and the organization of the Relief Society that we don’t have a lot of explicit records that help us understand what he was thinking, and so we have to make inferences and connections based on the sources that we do have. In the meeting on March 17 when the Relief Society was organized, Joseph sets up Emma and her counselors as a presidency over this women’s organization and says that they will lead just as the presidency does, referring to himself and the First Presidency of the church, I think. And so, he’s explicitly seems to be establishing a parallel leadership of the women over the Relief Society to that of the priesthood presidency over the church.
Now, how far that analogy extends, how far we can push that is much more ambiguous. He didn’t spell out exactly in what ways they were parallel and in what ways they were not, but given the fact that he explicitly draws that connection and uses the terminology, it’s fair to interpret that to mean that he’s seeing some parallel between the women and the men of the church, each with their own leadership structure.
Spencer: In Nauvoo, Joseph Smith spoke to the women of the Nauvoo Relief Society several times. On those occasions, he often spoke about priesthood.
Lisa: So in understanding how Joseph Smith was thinking about the relationship of the Relief Society and priesthood, we have just a few key data points in the sources, and the most crucial of those is April 28, 1842. On that day in his journal, it’s recorded Joseph Smith saying that he met with the women of the Relief Society that day and taught them how they would come in possession of all the gifts and blessings of the priesthood.
And when we go to the minutes for that day, he does start out by saying he’s going to make some observations about the priesthood, and then he goes on to talk about women’s participation in healing rituals, administering to the sick. And then he goes on to talk about the temple—in a way where those seem to be possibly connected as well. But if we expand out from those specific sources and look at the other sources of the time and how priesthood is being discussed at this time, there seems to be a real connection and understanding that the temple and the temple ordinances are going to be the ultimate expression of priesthood.
Spencer: In January 1841, Joseph Smith published a revelation in which God commanded the Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo to build a temple. That revelation is now canonized as section 124 of the Doctrine of Covenants. And in that revelation, the Saints are instructed on the importance of this temple. It reads, “For there is not a place found on earth that [the Lord] may come to and restore again that which was lost unto you, or which he hath taken away, even the fulness of the priesthood.”
Lisa: April 28 is just a week or so before Joseph introduces the endowment to that first small group of men. And so, there is quite a bit of discussion going on at this time around priesthood and temple. So, there seems to be this connection of priesthood and temple. And so when he’s speaking to the women about how they’re going to come into possession of the gifts and blessings of the priesthood, it’s inextricably connected to the temple and to the endowment, which remember they understood was an endowment of power, that the priesthood would be this ultimate expression of God’s power, of the reception of power through the temple ordinances. And once Joseph starts administering the temple ordinances jointly to men and women, which is not until 1843, but once that starts happening, then there is this little group formed of men and women, husbands and wives, who have been endowed, who’ve received temple ordinances, and they refer to themselves as a quorum. They use priesthood language to express how they understand themselves as a result of having received these temple ordinances.
And so that takes us again back to organizing the Relief Society. Joseph Smith seems to be laying the groundwork, creating a framework through which he’s going to introduce women into the gifts, blessings, powers, and ordinances that they’ll receive in the temple, which is understood as priesthood.
Spencer: We can see why the minutes of the Nauvoo Relief Society are such an important source to help discover Joseph Smith’s developing understanding of priesthood, and how the power and blessings of the priesthood go far beyond ordination to an office and instead would be made available to all.
But as valuable of a historical resource as these minutes are, they come with limitations. Much of the language in that record is ambiguous and has been interpreted a number of different ways by scholars. Sometimes the intended meaning of phrases is unclear.
Lisa: And this is one of the reasons that the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes are just this inexhaustible source of discussion, because Joseph definitely uses language that seems to imply that women have some sense of priesthood, of bringing women into this more egalitarian relationship within the church, maybe a parallel to the priesthood quorums and so forth. But there’s also plenty in those minutes, about hierarchy and about following those who are ordained to lead. In the April 28 sermon, the minutes say: “He exhorted the sisters always to concentrate their faith and prayers for, and place confidence, in those whom God has appointed to honor, whom God has placed at the head to lead—that we should arm them with their prayers.”
Does he mean the female leaders of the Relief Society? Does he mean the priesthood leaders of the church, the male hierarchy? That’s not entirely clear. And that’s an example of how these minutes contain many ambiguities that can be read one way or another depending on what we want them to say.
Spencer: One way to work through—and even embrace—this ambiguity, is to keep in mind the context in which this record was kept.
Lisa: I think it’s always important to understand context. When we come across things in the historical record that don’t seem to match how we understand things now, that are ambiguous or unclear, it’s important to have a sense of the context that that grew out of.
This is why, for example, it’s important to read the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes within the context of Joseph’s introduction of temple ordinances, because that seems to be the context that was foremost in his mind for how he’s thinking about priesthood.
Priesthood itself is a term that has a lot of meaning and a lot of potential within it, and at different times throughout the history of the church, different meanings and applications and potentials of that term have had more prominence than at other times. For example, talking about priesthood to the Relief Society in 1842 seems to be a way of talking about the temple. And in the early twentieth century, talking about priesthood was very much about offices, ordinances, and ecclesiastical structure in the church.
So, it’s important when looking at questions about priesthood and discussions about priesthood over time that we understand the context that those are coming out of, and that we understand that there are different meanings and emphases that are given about priesthood at different times.
I am really grateful that we have the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes. They are pretty much the best preserved and most complete accounts of Joseph Smith’s teachings that we have, and they’re very powerful and give a very clear mandate for women in the church to claim their spiritual power and authority—to lead, to serve, to connect to the power of God in their lives. That having been said, there is plenty of ambiguity in those minutes, and they are kind of an inexhaustible source of discussion because of that ambiguity. People can and have gone into them and read all kinds of things into them based on usually what they already believe or what they want to find there.
I find that they’re most useful to think with, that they give us inspiration, they give us ideas, they help us see things in different ways that perhaps can be challenging to us in a good way and help us to examine our assumptions, help us to examine where we are now and maybe see potential within the gospel within these foundational principles and ideas that maybe we haven’t seen before.
Spencer: Those minutes of the Nauvoo Relief Society that Lisa mentioned, that she described as “one of the most complete accounts of Joseph Smith’s teachings that we have,” they were published in a book called The First Fifty Years of Relief Society, which is available for free digitally through the church’s Gospel Library App. If you’re interested, you can access those records there.
But one of the concepts that becomes evident when Joseph Smith’s revelations are read along with the minutes of the Nauvoo Relief Society is that the ordinances of the temple would reveal “the fulness of the priesthood.” Or, as an 1832 revelation stated, that in the ordinances of the priesthood, “the power of godliness is manifest.”
The introduction of the ordinances of the temple, including the endowment ordinance that symbolizes our return to the presence of God and the sealing ordinance that binds families together for eternity, was part of the restoration of the priesthood. And, according to Joseph’s teachings to the Relief Society, the benefits of such ordinances administered in the temple would be available to men and women alike.
Spencer: In June 1844, with the Nauvoo Temple still under construction, an armed mob murdered Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum in Carthage, Illinois. Members of the church were deeply saddened by the violent end to the lives of their prophet and patriarch. They mourned for their loss.
But the church was more than Joseph Smith. As the president of the church, he had delegated priesthood authority and priesthood keys to others. This meant that the church need not end with his death.
And it did continue. Eventually, the majority of Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo would follow Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to what became the western territories of the United States. And from there, the church would continue to spread around the world. And with the spread of the church came the spread of priesthood authority.
Our next episode delves into how a rapidly expanding church in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries led to further developments in priesthood organization. This is The Priesthood Restored: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.