Richard G. Ellsworth and Melvin J. Luthy, “Priesthood,” 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), 135–41.

The Source of Priesthood Power

Jesus Christ is the great High Priest of God; Christ is therefore the source of all true priesthood authority and power on this earth (Heb. 5– 10). Man does not take such priesthood power unto himself; it must be conferred by God through his servants (Heb. 5:4; D&C 1:38).

Before the world was created, Jesus Christ, the great Jehovah and firstborn of God the Father in the spirit world, covenanted to use the power he had obtained from the Father to implement God’s program for the eternal happiness of all God’s children (cf. Teachings, p. 190). The actual name of the priesthood is “the Holy Priesthood after the Order of the Son of God”; but to avoid the too-frequent repetition of the name of deity, it is called by other names, particularly the Melchizedek Priesthood; i.e., it is the same authority held by that righteous king and high priest (Gen. 14:18; Heb. 5:6; Alma 13:6, 17–19; D&C 107:1–4; 124:123).

As the divine Savior, Mediator, and Redeemer, Jesus sets the example for all priesthood performance. “Therefore, what manner of men ought ye to be?” Jesus asked his Nephite disciples whom he had ordained: “Verily I say unto you, even as I am” (3 Ne. 27:27).


Joseph Smith defined priesthood as “an everlasting principle, [which has] existed with God from eternity, and will to eternity, without beginning of days or end of years, . . . holding the keys of power and blessings. In fact, [the Melchizedek] Priesthood is a perfect law of theocracy” (Teachings, pp. 157, 322). It is the power and authority by which The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is organized and directed.

The word “priesthood” has several meanings for Latter-day Saints:

1. Priesthood is power, the power of God, a vital source of eternal strength and energy delegated to men to act in all things for the well-being of mankind, both in the world and out of it (DS 3:80; Romney, p. 43).

2. Priesthood is authority, the exclusive right to act in the name of God as his authorized agents and to perform ordinances for the purpose of opening certain spiritual blessings to all individuals.

3. Priesthood is the right and responsibility to preside within the organizational structure of the Church, but only in a manner consistent with the agency of others.

4. Sometimes the word priesthood is used to refer to the men of the Church in general (as in “the priesthood will meet in the chapel”).

Priesthood power may be exercised only under the direction of the one holding the right, or keys, to authorize its use. Priesthood power functions in accord with the characteristics and attributes of God himself, namely persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, love unfeigned, righteousness, virtue, knowledge, justice, judgment, mercy, and truth (D&C 121:41; Lectures on Faith 4). It ceases to exist in a man who uses it to obtain the honors of the world, or to gratify pride, or to cover sin or evil, or to exercise unrighteous dominion (D&C 121:33–37).

Priesthood embraces all forms of God’s power. It is the power by which the cosmos was ordered, universes and worlds were organized, and the elements in all their varied structures and relationships were put into place. Through the priesthood, God governs all things. By this power, the gospel is preached and understood, and the ordinances of exaltation for both the living and the dead are performed. Priesthood is the channel for obtaining revelation, the channel through which God reveals himself and his glory, his intents and his purposes, to mankind: The priesthood holds “the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God” (D&C 84:19–20; cf. Teachings, pp. 166–67). It conveys the mind and will of God; and, when employed by his servants on his errand, it functions as if by the Lord’s own mouth and hand (D&C 1:38).

Thus, the LDS doctrine of priesthood differs from all other views. Priesthood is not vocational or professional. It is not hereditary, passed by inheritance from father to son (even the levitical priesthood was conferred by ordination). It is not offered for money. It is not held by a group of specialists who are separated from the community (all worthy Latter-day Saint men are eligible to be ordained to the priesthood). And yet it is not a “priesthood of all believers,” as in the Protestant conception (Encyclopedia of Religion, 11:529).

History, Orders, and Offices of the Priesthood

Whenever the government of God has existed on the earth, it has functioned through this priesthood power, held by righteous men chosen of God, as were Aaron (Heb. 5:4) and Joshua (Num. 27:18–19). In times of apostasy and wickedness, God has not permitted his servants to confer the priesthood on the unworthy, and it has been lost from the earth. When necessary, the priesthood has been restored with each new dispensation of the gospel.

Following the ascension of Jesus Christ and the death of his apostles, apostasy occurred in the Christian church and priesthood authority was taken from the earth. However, after preparation by God through the lives of earnest and sincere reformers and seekers, mankind again received priesthood authority from angelic ministers who held the keys to this power. Beginning on May 15, 1829, heavenly messengers conferred priesthood authority upon Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in a series of visitations. These restorations included the Aaronic Priesthood (D&C 13), the Melchizedek Priesthood (D&C 27), the keys of the gathering of Israel (D&C 110:11), the keys of the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant (D&C 110:12), the keys of the binding and sealing power (D&C 110:13–16), and the keys of all dispensations of the gospel “from Michael or Adam down to the present time” (D&C 128:21). These keys of presiding authority have been in turn conferred upon each succeeding prophet and President of the Church. All priesthood power and authority function today under the direction of the president of the church, who holds all priesthood keys and powers.

“There are three grand orders of priesthood referred to [in the Epistle to the Hebrews]” (Teachings, p. 322–23; History of the Church, 5:554–55)—the Melchizedek, the patriarchal, and the Aaronic:

1.The Melchizedek Priesthood is the “higher priesthood” that incorporates all priesthoods within itself (Teachings, p. 180). It holds “the right of presidency, and has power and authority over all the offices in the church in all ages of the world, to administer in spiritual things” (D&C 107:8). This order of ordination is an unchanging order that has been present in all dispensations (cf. Matt. 10:1; 16:19; John 20:23; Eph. 4:11; Heb. 7:24). From Adam to Moses, all major prophets held the Melchizedek Priesthood; Joseph Smith taught that the prophets after the death of Moses and before the time of Christ held this same priesthood and were “ordained by God himself” (Teachings, p. 181). This authority is superior to the lesser or Aaronic Priesthood that functioned under the law of Moses. The Nephites held the Melchizedek Priesthood and observed the law of Moses under that authority (cf. Alma 13:6–18).

2.The patriarchal order of the priesthood is the right of worthy priesthood-holding fathers to preside over their descendants through all ages; it includes the ordinances and blessings of the fulness of the priesthood shared by husbands and wives who are sealed in the temple.

3.The Aaronic Priesthood, including the Levitical Priesthood, was instituted under the law of Moses at the time when Israel rejected the greater powers, blessings, and responsibilities of the Melchizedek Priesthood. God gave them a “lesser priesthood” comprising specific areas of authority dealing with sacrifices and temporal concerns of salvation (Ex. 20:19; Joseph Smith Translation, Ex. 34:1–2). This authority was granted as a right to Aaron and his lineal descendants forever. Levitical Priesthood refers to certain duties within the Aaronic Priesthood that were delegated to worthy male members of the tribe of Levi.

Within the Melchizedek and Aaronic Priesthoods, men may be ordained to various offices. Those who hold certain offices may then be called and set apart to particular positions of Church service. Beginning at age twelve young men, if they are worthy and desire it, may have the Aaronic Priesthood conferred upon them and be ordained to the office of deacon; they may be ordained a teacher at age fourteen, and a priest at age sixteen. At the age of eighteen, they may have the Melchizedek Priesthood conferred upon them and be ordained to the office of elder. Later, as need and calling dictate, they may be ordained to other offices in the Melchizedek Priesthood. The office of bishop is an appendage to the Melchizedek Priesthood (D&C 84:29), but its function is to preside over the Aaronic Priesthood (D&C 107:87–88). The office of patriarch is an office in the Melchizedek Priesthood.

All faithful and worthy Latter-day Saint men may be ordained to the priesthood and be authorized to act and participate in any of the offices, powers, blessings, and authorities of priesthood. Ordination to each different priesthood office is by the authority and under the direction of the presiding priesthood officer in the ward, branch, stake, or mission of the Church where the person resides, by the laying on of hands by one holding appropriate priesthood office and designated to so act.

For all holders of the Melchizedek or Aaronic Priesthood, activity, training, service, and fellowship occur in priesthood quorums, organized according to priesthood office with appropriate presiding officers (see D&C 20; 107).

Priesthood and the Family

The priesthood achieves its highest function in the family. In the family, the husband and father presides in righteousness and uses his priesthood to bless the lives of his family members, teaching by example and by counsel, giving righteous advice and decisions, openly expressing love and concern, and bestowing priesthood blessings by the laying on of hands when appropriate for the direction, healing, and comfort of his family. As the presiding priesthood bearer in his home, he is accountable to the Lord: Both the husband and wife are accountable to God for their respective responsibilities over the spiritual and temporal well-being of their family.

Exaltation and eternal life in the highest degree of the celestial kingdom are achieved only as the fulness of the priesthood is attained through building and achieving an eternal marriage. The highest intellectual and spiritual development of both male and female is to become as God is. Both male and female are in the image of God (Gen. 1:27); godhood cannot be achieved by male or female alone. Everyone in the premortal life was begotten as a spirit child of Heavenly Parents before being born into mortality by earthly parents, and life on earth is part of the progression of men and women toward becoming like their Heavenly Parents. Only through the sealing ordinances of the holy priesthood, performed in the temples of the Lord, and through faithful, righteous living can male and female join in an eternal marriage unit wherein they may attain a fulness of the priesthood and exaltation together.

Fulness of the priesthood, which is the highest order of priesthood, is attained only through an eternal union of male and female, sanctified by the sealing ordinances in a temple of the Lord and ratified by the Holy Spirit of promise (D&C 132:18–19). Those so united, who honor their covenants with each other and the Lord, will in the Resurrection inherit exaltation and eternal life, consisting of an eternal union together and an eternal family, including eternal increase, spirit children, and the creation and possession of worlds and universes.

Thus, all blessings, benefits, and inheritances of the priesthood are equally shared and achieved by husband and wife alike if they carry out their respective responsibilities in faith, love, harmony, and cooperation in the Lord. The apostle Paul stated, “Neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:11).

In the temples of the Lord, sacred priesthood ordinances (e.g., washings, anointings, clothings) are administered to men by men and to women by women who have received the endowments of the priesthood in the temple (Teachings, p. 337) and have been given that specific priesthood responsibility. Women thus may act in priesthood power when called, set apart, and authorized by those who hold the keys; however, women officiators are not ordained to the priesthood or to an office in the priesthood to do this work.

The Power of God unto Exaltation

Joseph Smith said: “I advise all to go on to perfection. . . . A man can do nothing for himself unless God direct him in the right way; and the Priesthood is for that purpose” (Teachings, p. 364). Perfection is attained by obedience to the principles and ordinances of the gospel. Without priesthood authority, no ordinances—no matter how, when, where, or by whom performed—are valid, ratified by the Holy Ghost, or recorded in heaven (D&C 132:7). The sealing power, the power to bind on earth and in heaven (Matt. 16:19; 18:18; D&C 132:46), belongs solely to the priesthood of God; and proper baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost, the holy endowment, eternal marriage, and family sealings come only through the authorized servants of the Lord. Through these powers and authorities of the holy priesthood, the work of salvation proceeds as it was planned in the grand councils of heaven before the world was.

Under the direction and authority of the priesthood in this last dispensation, the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times, the work of the priesthood includes proclaiming the gospel, perfecting the Saints, and performing ordinances for the redemption of the dead. Priesthood bearers are charged to teach the gospel to all nations and peoples, to proclaim the knowledge of salvation. Doing this missionary work is a responsibility of all members of the Church, and a particular obligation for bearers of the priesthood. They are also charged to watch over the Saints everywhere, to labor to increase faith, understanding, and testimony, and to improve the spiritual Welfare and physical comfort of all who will receive them. Priesthood bearers are further charged to “redeem the dead” through the sealing power of the priesthood (D&C 128:14–18). Latter-day Saints are taught and encouraged to seek out the names and records of their dead progenitors, to actively engage in genealogical research, to turn their hearts to their ancestors, that every individual may be sealed by sacred temple ordinances in eternal families and ultimately in the family of Adam, which becomes the family of Jesus Christ (D&C 39:4–6; 42:52).

Essentially and eternally, the work of the priesthood is the work of Christ delegated to righteous servants. “This is my work and my glory,” the Lord said to Moses, “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). The work of priesthood is to assist in bringing souls to Christ and thereby to exaltation in the kingdom of the Father.

Achieving the fulness of the priesthood of the Son of God is the great goal of all faithful Latter-day Saints, because it is the power of God unto salvation and eternal lives. It is the power by which mortal bodies will be resurrected immortal, to be possessed forever by the spirits who dwelt in them, glorified by God according to their works while in mortality. It is the power by which eternal joy may be attained, but always and only through obedience to the laws and principles of righteousness as exemplified and taught by the Savior.


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