Tracing the formation of the Priesthood in Mormonism is not an easy task. Dates get confused, concepts change over time, offices are added or refined, and duties are not always clearly delineated. Like all institutions, the organization was not fully formed on the first day. However, in order to get a correct understanding of how the modern LDS Church works, the history of its authoritative structure must be explained. Joseph Smith wrote, “There is no salvation between the two lids of the Bible without a legal administrator. Jesus was then the legal administrator, and ordained His Apostles” (TPJS, pg. 319). Doctrine and revelation are of no value if the proper leadership is not in operation.
Historians start talking about Mormonism with the First Vision of Joseph Smith, where he witnesses God and Jesus Christ in a grove of trees after a day at work on the family property. Next in line is the vision of the Angel Moroni, with the eventual translation and publication of the Book of Mormon. Essential as these two events are for tracing what would be called Mormonism, it is the development of Priesthood that makes it of any importance. This more than anything for believers gives it purpose and meaning. The “Great Apostasy” is the loss of authority that the “Restoration” regains. The Priesthood is the Power of God to officiate in the ordinances of Salvation, and regulate the government of the Church.
During the process of translating the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith and his scribe Oliver Cowdery ran into the concept of authority to baptise. They questioned how anyone would be given the authority to baptise others. Joseph Smith stated, ““We still continued the work of translation, when, in the ensuing month (May, 1829), we on a certain day 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. 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,” to the Aaronic Priesthood (JS-H 1:68). Oliver Cowdery later wrote they were, “ordained by the angel John, unto the lesser or Aaronic priesthood, in company with myself, in the town of Harmony, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, on Friday, the 15th day of May, 1829,” in a preface to a book of formal blessings.Having been given the Aaronic Priesthood, the two baptised each other in the Susquehanna River before returning to the duty of translation.
The Aaronic Priesthood ordination would only be the beginning of Priesthood confiral. John the Baptist promised more power would be given them by other messengers. Generally speaking, a higher priesthood having the authority to give the gift of the Holy Ghost would be bestowed on them. This promise was realized when the angels Peter, James, and John ordained them to the Melchizedek Priesthood on an unspecified date. The missing date has created a level of confusion amplified by possible differences between how the Priesthood was first understood and now.
There are a few theories for when to date the Melchizedek Priesthood ordination of Joseph Smith. The closest to the official version is sometime between May 15 to May 31, 1829. A letter dated 1829 by Oliver Cowdery reflects D&C 18:9, “I speak unto you, even as unto Paul mine apostle, for you are called even with that same calling with which he was called.” Joseph Smith in the History of the Church, 1:61–62 states about the above revelation, “The following commandment will further illustrate the nature of our calling to this Priesthood, as well as that of others who were yet to be sought after.” It is argued no one can be an apostle unless they have the higher priesthood. By at least April 6, 1830, the Melchizedek Priesthood had to have been conferred, the argument continues, because the Church couldn’t be organized without it’s authority. The revelation of church government read during the official organization of the Church, known as D&C 20, clearly states Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were called of God as Apostles. Joseph the first and Oliver the second Elders. These positions again are considered part of the higher priesthood.
Other arguments state that it wasn’t until later, perhaps up to June 1831, that members of the Church were first ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood. Richard Bushman writes that Joseph Smith and others claim it was the first time that priesthood was introduced. He dismisses the explanation it was only the High Priest office. The writings are very specific in naming it the Melchizedek after the Order of the Son of God. He also speculates that perhaps Joseph Smith didn’t fully understand that differences between the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods. the Prophet didn’t realize Peter, James, and John had given to them already (JS:RSR pgs. 157-160). The problem with his theory is that the language is not as precise as he claims. Joseph Smith stating the authority was, “conferred for the first time upon several,” doesn’t necessarily mean all for the first time. Even if other records interchange High Priesthood with Melchizedek Priesthood, that doesn’t mean the two are the same.
Another problem is that perhaps up until at least 1835, the offices were of more taxonomy importance than the two levels of Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods. It started with elders, priests, deacons, and teachers. Elder, for instance, really could be just an Elder and High Priest the Melchizedek Priesthood without reference to the authority they might be under. More importantly would be the duty and authority each position held. Apostle could have been at first a general name for witness of God. Later other offices were introduced with more definition and expansion of duties. A series of revelations combined as D&C 107 solidified the two tier groupings of offices. They could now be found under either the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthood, consisting of lower outward ordinances and higher spiritual blessings.
The offices of the Priesthood have and can continue to change. After the 1960s, the high priest quorum president was placed under the Bishop’s authority rather than Apostles. In effect they became a ward rather than stake office. Another relatively recent change has been the function and placement of the office of the Seventy. It has always had a problematic relationship up until 1986 with where it fit in the organizational structure. At times they were apart from and others combined with the high priests. Eventually they went from a ward level administration to General Authority status along with the Twelve Apostles.
Paul explained in Ephesians 4:11-16 the purpose of so many offices:
11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;There is a work to be done. The Church needs the Priesthood and its offices to bring about Zion. No changes can be done without strict consent from the God who gave it to mortals. The people who are given the Priesthood may be imperfect, but the offices demand respect. A testimony of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith insists on the same for the Priesthood and Church that he was called to organize. The Saints have not been perfected and therefore there is the same need for Priesthood offices. No one can take this honor unto themselves and must be authorized by those who have authority. That authority must be traced back to Joseph Smith who got it from John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John who got it from Jesus Christ who got it from God the Father.
12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:
13 Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ:
14 That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive;
15 But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ:
16 From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.
For a more detailed examination of Priesthood, see here, here, here, and here(make sure to read all 12 parts).