S. Kent Brown, “Apostle,” in Latter-day Saint Essentials: Readings from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. John W. Welch and Devan Jensen (Provo, UT: BYU Studies and the Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2002), 126–8.
An “apostle” is an ordained leader in the Melchizedek Priesthood in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Apostles are chosen through inspiration by the president of the church, sustained by the general membership of the Church, and ordained by the First Presidency and the quorum of the Twelve apostles by the laying on of hands. They serve as general authorities—as distinguished from local and regional officers—holding their office as apostle for the duration of their lives. The senior apostle is the President of the Church.
In addition to serving as witnesses of Jesus Christ to all the world (D&C 107:23), as Jesus’ apostles did, members of the current Quorum of the Twelve Apostles hold the keys of the priesthood—that is, the rights of presidency (D&C 107:35; cf. 124:128). Of their priesthood authority, President Brigham Young said, “The keys of the eternal Priesthood, which is after the order of the Son of God, are comprehended by being an Apostle. All the Priesthood, all the keys, all the gifts, all the endowments, and everything preparatory to entering into the presence of the Father and of the Son, are in, composed of, circumscribed by, or I might say incorporated within the circumference of, the Apostleship” (Journal of Discourses, 1:134–35). As a priesthood quorum, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles is next in authority to the Quorum of the First Presidency (D&C 107:24). Further, it directs the domestic and international ministry of the quorums of the seventy (D&C 107:34; cf. 124:139–40), and except in the presence of a member of the First Presidency or a more senior member of the Twelve, an apostle presides wherever he may be in the Church.
In the New Testament, an apostle (from Greek apostellein, to send forth [as a representative or agent]) was a divinely chosen envoy (Mark 3:14; John 15:16; Acts 1:21–26) who was a witness to Christ’s resurrection and carried a missionary obligation to testify to it.
Jesus himself was an apostle through whom God spoke (Heb. 1:2; 3:1). The Father sent Jesus, and whoever receives him receives the one who sent him (Mark 9:37; John 8:16–19). As the Father sent him, so Jesus sent his apostles (John 20:21). Initially, they were called from those who “companied with us [the Twelve] all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us” (Acts 1:21). The number twelve, associated with the apostles, echoes the number of tribes of Israel whom the apostles are to judge (Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:30). In this connection, they stood as the foundation of the early Christian church (Eph. 2:19–21; 4:11–14).
At times, the term embraces more than the Twelve, as is implied both in the phrase “all the apostles” (1 Cor. 15:7)—which follows particular mention of “the Twelve” by Paul (1 Cor. 15:5)—and in references to persons named as apostles who were known not to be among the Twelve (Acts 14:14; Rom. 16:7). It is probable that by a.d. 54 the Lord’s brother James had become one of the Twelve (1 Cor. 15:7; Gal. 1:19). Even so, most New Testament references to apostles refer to members of Jesus’ original Twelve or to Paul. They were the guarantors or prime witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, which itself constituted the assurance that he was the expected Messiah and Lord of glory (Acts 1:8–11). In the first century, apostles were traveling witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, sent by him into the world for this purpose (Acts 1:8; cf. Matt. 28:19–20). At the group’s core—and the Church’s foundation—stood Peter, James, and John, who had been with or near Jesus during critical experiences, including his transfiguration (Mark 9:2–9) and his agony in Gethsemane (Mark 14:32–34).
The significance of Jesus’ twelve apostles is underscored in the Book of Mormon. First, about 600 b.c. both Lehi and his son Nephi saw in vision the Twelve as followers of Jesus in Palestine and as victims of persecution (1 Ne. 1:10–11; 11:29, 34–36). Second, these Twelve are to judge the Twelve tribes of Israel and the other twelve disciples whom the resurrected Jesus chose during his ministry in the Western Hemisphere about a.d. 34 (1 Ne. 12:9–10; Morm. 3:18–19; cf. D&C 29:12). Third, these latter twelve disciples—as distinguished from Jesus’ twelve apostles in Palestine—are to judge their own people who are descended from the house of Israel (3 Ne. 27:27). Fourth, during his visit in the Western Hemisphere, the risen Jesus established the position of the Twelve in his church when he chose and instructed them carefully in his gospel (3 Ne. 11:18–12:1; cf. 13:25–34; 15:11–16:20; 18:36–37; 27:13–21). He conferred on them authority to teach the gospel and administer its ordinances—that is, to baptize both with water and the Spirit—thus making them the transmitters of the Church’s doctrine and practices (3 Ne. 11:22; 18:36–37; 19:6–14; 26:17). Fifth, in harmony with the pattern in the New Testament, the Book of Mormon records that Jesus was sent by the Father (3 Ne. 18:27; cf. 16:3) and that he in turn commissioned those twelve disciples to “go forth unto this people, and declare the words which I have spoken” (3 Ne. 11:41).
Modern revelation adds further information. The apostolic office and authority were restored to the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery by Peter, James, and John, thus underscoring the continuing significance of this office in the Church (D&C 27:12). As early as June 1829, nearly a year before the Church was organized, Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, later joined by Martin Harris, were instructed concerning the kinds of men to be chosen as apostles and were commissioned to select the first Twelve in the modern era (D&C 18:26–38). This commission was carried out on February 14–15, 1835, when Cowdery, Whitmer, and Harris selected twelve men to be apostles and ordained the nine who were present (History of the Church, 2:186–98).
Modern scripture specifies that “every decision . . . must be by the unanimous voice” of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (D&C 107:27). Further, its members are empowered to baptize, declare the gospel, and ordain others to the priesthood (D&C 18:26–36). The Lord has instructed that the number of apostles in the Quorum of the Twelve must be maintained (D&C 118:1) and that their keys “have come down from the fathers, . . . being sent down from heaven” (D&C 112:32). Those who serve in this office are to “cleanse [their] hearts and [their] garments, lest the blood of this generation be required at [their] hands” (D&C 112:33).
Kittel, Gerhard, ed., and Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed. and transl. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 1, pp. 407–47. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1964–76.
McConkie, Bruce R. The Mortal Messiah, Vol. 2, pp. 99–114, 303–26. Salt Lake City, 1980.
Smith, Joseph. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2d ed., rev. Salt Lake City, 1957.