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Priesthood (Mormonism)

In Mormonism, priesthood is considered to be the power or authority to act in the name of God. There are three types (called "orders") of Mormon priesthood: (1) the Aaronic Priesthood, which is considered to be a lesser, "preparatory" priesthood tracing its roots to the Old Testament, (2) the Melchizedek Priesthood, which is considered to be a higher, New Testament priesthood, and (3) the patriarchal priesthood, an obscure and controversial order of priesthood mentioned by Joseph Smith, Jr, but about which he provided little information.

For information about the Priesthood as practiced in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, see Priesthood (Latter-day Saint).

Table of contents
1 The Meaning of Mormon Priesthood
2 Calling to the Priesthood
3 Ordination
4 Priesthood "Keys"
5 Priesthood Offices
6 History of Mormon Priesthood

The Meaning of Mormon Priesthood

In Mormonism, priesthood is considered to be (1) a power, or (2) an authority. As a power, priesthood includes the power to perform miracles. Mormons believe that the Biblical miracles performed by prophets and apostles were performed by the power of the priesthood, including the miracles of Jesus Christ, whom Mormons believe was "a priest forever ever after the order of Melchisedec" (Heb. 5:6), and thus that Jesus held the Melchizedek Priesthood.

As an authority, priesthood is considered to be the legitimizing stamp by which a person may perform ecclesiastical acts in the name of God, or to hold clerical positions in the church. Mormons believe that acts (and in particular, ordinances) performed by one with the priesthood are recognized by God and are binding in heaven and in the afterlife. In addition, Mormons believe that leadership positions within the church are legitimized by the priesthood authority.

According to Mormon doctrine, to exercise priesthood power or authority, a person must (1) be called by God, (2) be ordained or endowed with priesthood power, and (3) receive the necessary "keys", either through ordination to an office or through delegation.

Calling to the Priesthood

Mormons believe that as a prerequisite to receiving the priesthood, a person must be called. A person may be "called" in one of three ways: (1) by prophesy, (2) by lineage, or (3) by foreordination.

Calling by Prophesy

By far the most common form of calling to the priesthood is "by prophesy". In his Wentworth Letter, Joseph Smith, Jr stated, "We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophesy . . . to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof." (See also Fifth Article of Faith.

In general, a person is called by prophesy when a person within the church hierarchy, who holds the priesthood, receives a revelation that someone should be called to the priesthood.

Calling by Lineage

In some situations, Mormons believe that a person may also be called through their lineage. For example, Doctrine and Covenants 68:16-21 states, "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." In addition, Joseph Smith believed in a patriarchal priesthood (or "Abrahamic" priesthood) that descended from father to son, and was held by Joseph Smith, Sr See, e.g., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sec. 6, pp. 322-323.

Calling by Foreordination

Mormons also believe that a person may be called to the priesthood by foreordination. The Book of Mormon refers to priests that were "called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works." (Alma 13:3). In Joseph Smith's Book of Abraham, Abraham was said to be called to the priesthood in this way:
Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones; And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born. (Abraham 3:22-23.)


Mormons believe that priesthood originates with God, and is passed to others through a line of succession. Only one who holds the priesthood can pass it to another. Mormons refer to this passage of the priesthood to another as ordination. The most common and well-recognized form of Mormon ordination is by "the laying on of hands by those who are in authority" (See Fifth
Article of Faith in Wentworth Letter). An Book of Mormon example of ordination by the laying on of hands is found in the Book of Alma, where Alma "ordained priests and elders, by laying on his hands according to the order of God, to preside and watch over the church." (Alma 6:1).

More controversially, some Mormons believe that a person is endowed and ordained with priesthood power through the Mormon Endowment ritual. In the Washing and Anointing portion of the Endowment ceremony, men are washed and anointed (by men) "to become kings and priests", while women are washed and anointed (by women) "to become queens and priestesses". Some scholars argue that the Endowment ceremony was recognized as an endowment of priesthood power to both men and women, although not an ordination to a specific priesthood office. See, e.g., articles in Maxine Hanks, ed., Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism (ISBN 1560850140).

Priesthood "Keys"

For a priesthood holder to perform miracles or legitimate ecclesiastical acts in the name of God, Mormons believe that a priesthood holder must have the "keys" to perform that miracle or act. Thus, even though a priesthood holder is called and ordained with general priesthood power, the person may also require specific keys not held by all priesthood holders. The existence of keys makes possible a church hierarchy, in which particular priesthood holders specialize in a particular eclesiastical function.

Priesthood keys are passed in much the same way as priesthood power in general, usually through the laying on of hands. There are three types of keys: (1) default keys held by every priesthood holder, (2) keys associated with a priesthood office and held by every holder of that office, and (3) special keys granted only to priesthood holders with select callings within the church.

Priesthood Offices

Within the priesthood, there are many "offices", which represent a category of positions within the clerical hierarchy of the church. The number and nature of these offices have changed over time, and may differ between sects of Mormonism; however, by the death of Joseph Smith, Jr, these offices included at least the following: deacon, teacher, priest, bishop, elder, high priest, seventy, patriarch, and apostle.

Ordination to an office does not necessarily mean ordination to a position of leadership. Priesthood holders are organized into "quorums", which each have a president and possibly one or more counselors. The presidents of these quorums may have additional "keys" not held by other members of the quorum.

History of Mormon Priesthood

Because Mormons believe that priesthood authority and keys may be granted only by one who holds that authority or key, Mormons believe it is important that a person trace their priesthood through a line of succession from a person in the Bible who was known to hold that authority or key. However, Mormons believe that the priesthood authority was absent from the earth during what they call the Great Apostasy, and that priesthood had to be restored through Joseph Smith, Jr. Catholic and Orthodox Christians deny that such a complete apostasy ever took place when defending the validity of their priesthoods, and do not recognize the priesthood of the Church.

Therefore, Mormons believe that ancient prophets and apostles conferred the Priesthood directly upon Joseph Smith and other early members of the Church.

Restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood

The conferral of the Aaronic Priesthood on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery is recorded in Joseph Smith - History as follows: "[W]e. . . went into the woods to pray and inquire of the Lord respecting baptism for the remission of sins, that we found mentioned in the translation of the plates[, The Book of Mormon]. . . . While we were thus employed, praying and calling upon the Lord, a messenger from heaven descended in a cloud of light, and having laid his hands upon us, he ordained us, saying:

"Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah, I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; and this shall never be taken again from the earth until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness.

"He said this Aaronic Priesthood had not the power of laying on hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, but that this should be conferred on us hereafter; and he commanded us to go and be baptized, and gave us directions that I should baptize Oliver Cowdery, and that afterwards he should baptize me.

"Accordingly we went and were baptized. . . .

"The messenger who visited us on this occasion and conferred this Priesthood upon us, said that his name was John, the same that is called John the Baptist in the New Testament, and that he acted under the direction of Peter, James and John, who held the keys of the Priesthood of Melchizedek, which Priesthood, he said, would in due time be conferred on us, and that I should be called the first Elder of the Church, and he (Oliver Cowdery) the second. . . .

"Immediately on our coming up out of the water after we had been baptized, we experienced great and glorious blessings from our Heavenly Father. No sooner had I baptized Oliver Cowdery, than the Holy Ghost fell upon him, and he stood up and prophesied many things which should shortly come to pass. And again, so soon as I had been baptized by him, I also had the spirit of prophecy, when, standing up, I prophesied concerning the rise of this Church, and many other things connected with the Church, and this generation of the children of men. We were filled with the Holy Ghost, and rejoiced in the God of our salvation."

Restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood

Not all of the revelations which Joseph Smith received have been fully recorded in public. The restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood is one instance of this. However, this event and many others is alluded to in Doctrine and Covenants section 128:20-21:

And again, what do we hear?...The voice of Peter, James, and John in the wilderness between Harmony, Susquehanna county, and Colesville, Broome county, on the Susquehanna river, declaring themselves as possessing the keys of the kingdom, and of the dispensation of the fulness of times! And again, the voice of God in the chamber of old Father Whitmer, in Fayette, Seneca county, and at sundry times, and in divers places through all the travels and tribulations of this Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints! And the voice of Michael, the archangel; the voice of Gabriel, and of Raphael, and of divers angels, from Michael or Adam down to the present time, all declaring their dispensation, their rights, their keys, their honors, their majesty and glory, and the power of their priesthood; giving line upon line, precept upon precept; here a little, and there a little; giving us consolation by holding forth that which is to come, confirming our hope!

Restoration of other Priesthood Keys

In addition to the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood, additional Priesthood "keys" were conferred on Joseph Smith and others. In
Doctrine and Covenants 110:11-16 Joseph dictated the following passage as a revelation at the dedication of the first Latter-day Saint temple, the Kirtland Temple:

After this vision closed, the heavens were again opened unto us; and Moses appeared before us, and committed unto us the keys of the gathering of Israel from the four parts of the earth, and the leading of the ten tribes from the land of the north. After this, Elias appeared, and committed the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham, saying that in us and our seed all generations after us should be blessed. After this vision had closed, another great and glorious vision burst upon us; for Elijah the prophet, who was taken to heaven without tasting death, stood before us, and said: Behold, the time has fully come, which was spoken of by the mouth of Malachi?testifying that he [Elijah] should be sent, before the great and dreadful day of the Lord come ? To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse ? Therefore, the keys of this dispensation are committed into your hands; and by this ye may know that the great and dreadful day of the Lord is near, even at the doors.