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In the Latter Day Saint movement, priesthood is the power and authority of God given to man, including the authority to perform ordinances and to act as a leader in the church. A body of priesthood holders is referred to as a quorum.
Priesthood denotes elements of both power and authority. The priesthood includes the power Jesus gave his apostles to perform miracles such as the casting out of devils and the healing of sick (Luke 9:1). Latter Day Saints believe that the Biblical miracles performed by prophets and apostles were performed by the power of priesthood, including the miracles of Jesus, who holds all of the keys of the priesthood. The priesthood is formally known as the Priesthood after the Order of the Son of God, but to avoid the too frequent use of the name of the Son of God, the priesthood is referred to as the Melchizedek Priesthood, Melchizedek being the high priest to whom Abraham paid tithes.
As an authority, priesthood is the authority by which a bearer may perform ecclesiastical acts of service in the name of God. Latter Day Saints believe that acts (and in particular, ordinances) performed by one with priesthood authority are recognized by God and are binding in heaven, on earth, and in the afterlife. In addition, Latter Day Saints believe that leadership positions within the church are legitimized by the priesthood authority.
For most of the history of the Latter Day Saint movement, only men have been ordained to specific offices in the Priesthood. The first exception to this policy was within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite), a minor faction founded by James J. Strang that flourished between 1844 and 1856 (though a diminutive remnant still exists today). In Strang's church, women were—and still are—permitted to hold the offices of Priest and Teacher (but not any other offices) from as early as 1856. In 1984, the Community of Christ, the second largest denomination of the movement, began ordaining women to all of its priesthood offices. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest church in the movement, still restricts its priesthood to men, as do most of the other Latter Day Saint denominations. However, an apostle of the LDS Church has taught that "[m]en have no greater claim than women upon the blessings that issue from the Priesthood and accompany its possession."
Latter Day Saint theology has recognized at least three orders of priesthood: (1) the Aaronic Priesthood, (2) the Melchizedek Priesthood; and (3) the Patriarchal Priesthood. Although these are different orders, they are, in reality, all subsumed under the priesthood held by Jesus Christ, that is, the Melchizedek Priesthood.
The Aaronic Priesthood (also called the Levitical Priesthood), is considered to be a lesser priesthood tracing its roots to Aaron the brother of Moses through John the Baptist. In Latter Day Saint theology, it derives from the original Holy Priesthood which Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery received on May 15, 1829, when they were ordained by an angel identifying himself as John the Baptist. In 1835, Smith and Cowdery clarified that this authority was the "Aaronic, or Levitical priesthood".
By early 1831, Latter Day Saint theology also recognized a higher order of priesthood, or the high priesthood. This high priesthood had been foreshadowed in the Book of Mormon, which referred to men holding the unique position of high priest in the church organization described in that book, holding the "high priesthood of the holy order of God" (Alma 4:20, Alma 13:8); however, the office of high priest was not implemented in early Mormonism until some days after Joseph Smith, Jr. was joined in his ministry by Sidney Rigdon, a newly-converted Church of Christ minister from Ohio, who merged his congregation with Smith's Church of Christ. Rigdon believed the teachings of the early Mormon missionaries who converted him, but thought the missionaries were lacking in heavenly power. Therefore, the church's first High Priests were ordained at a special conference held on June 1831.
By 1835, Latter Day Saints began referring to this High Priesthood as the Melchizedek Priesthood, or, the "Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God". This priesthood was so named, according to a revelation, because Melchizedek "was such a great high priest" and "..out of respect or reverence to the name of the Supreme Being, to avoid the too frequent repetition of his name..."  This priesthood was thought to be the order of priesthood held by Jesus, and a distinction was made between the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods, which derives in part from the Epistle to the Hebrews, whose author argues that Jesus arose "after the order of Melchizedec, and not...after the order of Aaron." (Heb. 7:11).
Although there were generally considered to be only two orders of priesthood during most of the life of Joseph Smith, Jr., toward the end of Smith's life, on August 27, 1843, he referred to a third order of priesthood called the Patriarchal Priesthood. This one of the "3 grand orders of priesthood", Smith said, was second in greatness between the lower Aaronic and the higher Melchizedek. The priesthood included, according to Smith, the "keys to endowment—tokens, etc.", the ability to "walk with God", and the authority of the "order of prayer". Smith taught that this order of priesthood was passed from father to son, and held by Abraham and the biblical patriarchs. However, Smith provided little further information about this third order. Although Smith instituted an office of Patriarch in the church, most modern Latter Day Saint denominations classify the Patriarchal priesthood as an office within the Melchizedek Priesthood, rather than a separate order.
According to Latter Day Saint doctrine, to exercise priesthood authority, a person must (1) be called by God, (2) be ordained or endowed with priesthood authority, and (3) receive the necessary priesthood keys, either through ordination to an office or through delegation(setting apart).
Latter Day Saints believe that as a prerequisite to receiving the priesthood, a person must be called to the priesthood. When a person is called, it is the person's opportunity or destiny to hold the priesthood. See Matthew 22:14 ("Many are called but few are chosen"). There is some disagreement among the various Latter Day Saint sects as to the manner by which a person may be called to the priesthood; however, there are at least four possibilities expressed in Mormon scripture: (1) calling by prophecy, (2) calling through lineage, (3) calling by foreordination, or (4) calling through faith and good works. In addition, a person's calling through lineage or foreordination may be revealed by prophecy, and a person's faith and good works may identify him as one who was foreordained; thus, these categories are far from mutually exclusive.
Despite the existence in Mormon doctrine of other means by which a person could be called to the priesthood, the most common and standard means by which a person is said to have been called to the priesthood is "by prophecy". In his The Wentworth Letter, Joseph Smith, Jr. stated, "We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy...to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof." (See also Fifth Article of Faith.)
In the early church, many callings came as direct scriptural revelations by Joseph Smith, Jr.. Since Smith's death, most Mormon denominations consider a person to have been called by prophecy when someone within the church hierarchy, who holds the priesthood, is inspired by the Holy Spirit that the person should hold the priesthood.
In some situations, Latter Day Saints believe that a person may also be called through their lineage, so that they have a legal right to a priesthood office by lineal succession. For example, Doctrine and Covenants 68:16-21[which?] 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. ((see Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sec. 6, pp. 322–323.)) One who has the right and calling to hold these positions through lineage must still be ordained by the church hierarchy before officiating in the office.
Latter Day Saints 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 the Book of Abraham, Abraham was said to be called to the priesthood in this way:
It is generally believed that those who were foreordained to the priesthood earned this right by valiancy or nobility in the Pre-mortal life. It is by prophecy that a person's foreordination is thought to be revealed. Latter Day Saints, however, do not believe in predestination, and therefore believe that foreordination is a destiny, but not an immutable destiny. A person can lose their foreordination through sin.
Many Latter Day Saints believe that a person may be called to the priesthood through their faith and good works. This view is based primarily upon the Book of Mormon, which states that "it was by faith that they of old were called after the holy order of God". (Ether 12:10). Similarly, in the Book of Mormon's first detailed discussion concerning the calling and ordination of high priests, the scripture states, "And this is the manner after which they were ordained—...they having chosen good, and exercising exceedingly great faith, are called with a holy calling.... And thus they have been called to this holy calling on account of their faith." (Alma 13:3-4). In a similar vein, the earliest sections of the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C) contain statements such as "if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work" (LDS D&C 4:3) and "whosoever will thrust in his sickle and reap, the same is called of God" (LDS D&C 6:4).
In addition to being called by God, Latter Day Saint theology holds that a person must be given priesthood authority by one who curentlly holds it. While calling represents a general call to receive priesthood authority, a person is not thought to actually possess the priesthood to which they have been called until it is formally conferred or endowed to that person through a sacred ceremony.
Mormons generally understand priesthood authority to be given in one of two ways: (1) as part of an ordination ceremony, or (2) through the Endowment ceremony (a minority view). After a person has received the priesthood a person may be ordained numerous times to various particular offices within the church. Receiving the priesthood is considered to be a saving ordinance.
Very early in his ministry, Joseph Smith, Jr. began to advocate the position that priesthood does not come directly from God through the Holy Spirit, as many Protestants believe, but through a line of direct or apostolic succession. Thus, Latter Day Saints generally believe that priesthood originates with Jesus, and is passed to others through a line of succession. Only one who holds the priesthood can pass it to another. Thus, in 1829, Smith and his associate claimed that the Aaronic Priesthood was given to him by John the Baptist, who was thought to have authority through the lineage of his father Zacharias, who was an Aaronic priest. Later, Smith also claimed to have received the Melchizedek Priesthood from the Apostles Peter, James, and John, who were given their authority by Jesus.
The most common and well-recognized manner through which a Latter Day Saint receives the priesthood is as part of an ordination ceremony. Typically, in an ordination ceremony, before a person is ordained for the first time to a particular office such as elder, deacon, teacher, or priest, the person performing the ceremony will "confer upon them" the Aaronic or Melchizedek priesthood.
While most Latter Day Saints recognize that priesthood may be conferred as part of an ordination ceremony, some feminist Mormons understand the Endowment ceremony to be an endowment of priesthood authority. 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". Later in the ceremony, both men and women are clothed in the "robes of the priesthood" and "prepared to officiate in the ordinances of" the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods.
Thus, it has been suggested that the Endowment ceremony was recognized as an endowment of priesthood authority to both men and women, although not an ordination to a specific priesthood office. (Hanks, 1992). This view was expressed in 1884 by Eliza R. Snow, president of the Relief Society, who stated:
A similar view was also expressed by LDS theologian and apostle James E. Talmage in 1912, who wrote:
Female priesthood authority was closely associated with the Relief Society. Joseph F. Smith, an influential Mormon leader around the turn of the 20th century, argued that though Mormon women were not ordained as general authorities, elders, or high priests, they are admitted to an "ecclesiastical or priestly authority" through the Relief Society, which may include holding offices within the church through that organization.
After a person has received the priesthood, they may be ordained numerous times to various particular offices within the church. This takes place by the laying on of hands. The ordination to a particular office, such as priest, teacher, or elder, represents a more specific call to perform a particular priesthood duty within the church, and a person may be ordained to numerous offices during their lifetime, depending on the needs of the church.
That specific ordinations to preach or perform ordinances are made through the laying on of hands was a concept formulated early in Joseph Smith's ministry. He stated the principle as one of the church's articles of faith, that a calling to preach or perform rituals in the name of Christ was to be made through "prophecy and the laying on of hands by those who are in authority" (See Fifth Article of Faith in The Wentworth Letter). A 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). Modern day priesthood holders ordained to the office of priest (or higher) are able to ordain other worthy members to priesthood offices up to their office.
Priesthood keys are conferred upon all the presidents of the quorums. For a priesthood holder to exercise ecclesiastical power or authority, Latter Day Saints believe that a priesthood holder must have a specific set of keys or be authorized by one who holds those keys. 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 ecclesiastical function.
Priesthood keys are passed in much the same way as priesthood power in general, usually through the laying on of hands. The manner and rigor with which the concept of "keys" is applied varies from denomination to denomination within the Latter Day Saint movement.
For example, in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the following declaration by Elder Merrill J. Bateman explains how priesthood keys function: "The priesthood is the power and authority of God delegated to man. Priesthood keys are the right to direct the use of that power. The President of the Church holds the keys necessary for governing the entire Church. His counselors in the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles also hold the keys of the kingdom and operate under the President's direction. Stake presidents, bishops, and temple, mission, and quorum presidents are given keys to guide the Church in their jurisdictions. Their counselors do not hold keys..." (General Conference Report, October 2003)
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:
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 two counselors. The Deacons, Teachers, and Priests quorums are mostly made up of, but not limited to, young men. Each quorum has a president of that quorum who holds priesthood keys. The president and counselors are selected by the bishop. The priests quorum does not have a young man who is the president, the bishop or branch president(like a bishop but leader of a branch not a ward) is the priest quorum president which grants him keys as well.
Because Latter Day Saints believe that priesthood authority and keys may be granted only by one who holds that authority or keys, they 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 keys. Moreover, Latter Day Saints believe that the priesthood authority was absent from the earth during the Great Apostasy, and that priesthood had to be restored through Joseph Smith, Jr.. Catholic and Orthodox Christians do not believe that such a complete apostasy ever took place when defending the validity of their priesthoods, and these churches do not recognize the priesthood exercised by Latter Day Saints.
Latter Day Saints believe that ancient prophets and apostles conferred the priesthood directly upon Joseph Smith, Jr. and other early members of the movement.
Church members initially viewed priesthood as a charismatic authority. By 1832, however, Smith indicated for the first time, in an unpublished history, that the priesthood had been received by the "ministering of Angels" In 1834, Oliver Cowdery provided the first public announcement that the priesthood had been conferred by John the Baptist on May 15, 1829. Cowdery's account was essentially confirmed by Smith, who described it as follows:
Unlike the restoration of the Aaronic priesthood, Smith never provided a date for the restoration of the Melchizedek priesthood, and never clearly indicated how this authority was conferred. Smith first specifically introduced the Melchizedek or "High" priesthood to the church in 1831. In his 1832 history, he referred to "a confirmation and reception of the high Priesthood after the holy order of the son of the living God power and ordinence from on high to preach the Gospel in the administration and demonstration of the spirit the Kees of the Kingdom of God conferred on him [Smith] and the continuation of the blessings of God to him &c" However, this provided no date, and did not indicate any circumstances of this "confirmation and reception".
Though specific details were lacking, by the turn of the 20th century, Latter Day Saint theologians were convinced that such a conferral had occurred prior to the organization of the Church of Christ on April 6, 1830. This was largely because the early church organization contained the office of elder, which by 1835 was considered an office of the Melchizedek priesthood. As evidence for such a pre-organization angellic conferral, writers referred to a revelation in which Smith said he heard "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!" Thus, most Mormons believe that Smith and Cowdery were visited by the three angels and that they conferred the Melchizedek priesthood in the same way John the Baptist had conferred the Aaronic priesthood.
However, the official church history, supervised or written by Smith, states that "the authority of the Melchizedek priesthood was manifested and conferred for the first time upon several of the Elders" during a General Conference in early June 1831. When Smith's official history was first published in 1902, the compiler B.H. Roberts thought that this was a mistake, because it would not be consistent with the then-common Mormon belief that the priesthood had been conferred prior to the church's founding in 1830.
However, some recent Mormon historians accept Smith's history as correct and consistent with other historical records showing that other Mormons present at the conference dated the restoration of the Melchizedek priesthood to 1831. This conference had been a very significant event in the early church history, coming soon after the conversion of Sidney Rigdon, who believed that Mormon missionaries lacked the necessary power to adequately preach the gospel. Thus, in January 1831, Smith issued a revelation where he wrote that after Mormons relocated to Kirtland, Ohio, they would "be endowed with power from on high" and "sent forth". In a revelation given to an individual, Smith assured the man that "at the conference meeting he [would] be ordained unto power from on high". One of Smith's associates that was present at the conference expressed the view that this ordination "consisted [of] the endowment--it being a new order--and bestowed authority", and later that year, an early convert who had left the church claimed that many of the Saints "have been ordained to the High Priesthood, or the order of Melchizedek; and profess to be endowed with the same power as the ancient apostles were". In 1835, the historical record was muddled a bit when the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants altered pre-1831 revelations to make a distinction between the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods, and to classify the offices of elder and apostle as part of the latter.
In addition to the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood (and the keys of the Holy Apostleship), additional Priesthood keys were conferred on Joseph Smith and others. In The Doctrine and Covenants, Covenant 110:11-16 Joseph dictated the following passage as a revelation following the dedication of the first Latter-day Saint temple, the Kirtland Temple:
In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest denomination of the Latter Day Saint movement, priesthood is recognized only in men and boys, who are ordained to offices in the priesthood as a matter of course once they reach the age of 12, so long as they meet requirements of "worthiness". There are no other requirements for ordination, although prior to 1978, the church did not ordain men or boys who were deemed to be of black African descent, based on the mid-19th century teachings of Brigham Young, which the church felt it could not abandon without a revelation from God. (See Blacks and Mormonism). This doctrine has been reversed since then and now allows all men, no matter of race or any other factor, to hold the Priesthood as long as they stay worthy to obtain it as is outlined by scriptures and church revelation.
Priesthood is structured as a vertical hierarchy with a clear chain of command. At each level in the hierarchy, the priesthood is organized by quorums, led by a presidency which usually consists of a president and two counselors. The church recognizes the two major "orders" of priesthood, Aaronic and Melchizedek, the latter being limited to men over the age of about 18 who have been a member of the church for over a year.
The Community of Christ teaches that all Christians are called by their gifts and talents to the ministry, priesthood is seen as a particular expression of universal ministry to which all are called. Since 1984, the church has ordained both women and men to the priesthood. All offices are deemed equal in importance, but the duties and responsibilities of each differ.
For a person to be called to the priesthood for the first time, his or her calling is typically discerned by the pastor of the local congregation. These priesthood calls are approved after review by a Mission Center President and vote of a congregational conference. For certain calls, especially to higher offices of the priesthood, the discernment will come through other church officials and approval will be voted upon at a Mission Center Conference or World Conference. Once the call has been administratively processed it is presented to the individual called. If that individual accepts the call and is sustained by a conference vote, he or she will be ordained to that office.