Revelation and Instructions on Priesthood
D&C 107, Part I
Section 107 enjoys three birthdays: November 11, 1831, when JS received the original revelation; circa April 26–May 4, 1835, when JS delivered instructions on the orders of priesthood to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles; and between circa May 4–26, 1835, when JS or Oliver Cowdery or a combination of editors of the Literary Firm merged the original revelation with the instructions for publication in the Doctrine and Covenants.
What of the instructions? — We have detailed descriptions from eyewitnesses that JS and Oliver Cowdery held meetings in 1835 with the newly called Twelve Apostles that included a formal charge of their apostolic duties, a formal organization of the group as the “traveling high council,” and a long series of instructions ahead of the Twelve undertaking their first mission. Their charge was to open the nations to the gospel, something JS affirmed they alone, not even the First Presidency, could do. Their duties included presiding over the domain of the ungathered (as I discussed in a previous post), which entailed “setting in order” and “regulating” the “scattered branches” beyond the borders of Zion and its stakes. On May 4, 1835, the Twelve departed on their mission and visited branches throughout the northeastern United States to direct the elders and priests there in holding conferences, preaching sermons, performing baptisms and ordinations, and assisting families in relocating to Kirtland or Independence. But here’s the trick: there were at least three meetings of JS, Cowdery, and the Twelve before the Twelve’s departure on May 4, any one of which may have included JS’s instructions on priesthood that became a significant expansion on the November 1831 revelation. The Joseph Smith Papers editorial team dates the instructions to circa May 1–4, 1835, though they can’t rule out April 26 and April 28 as possibilities. The most conservative dating, then, for the instructions would be circa April 26–May 4, 1835; JS almost certainly delivered his instructions on the orders of priesthood within those dates, and quite likely between May 1 and 4.
What of the amalgamated final version? — What we read in the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, what became in our modern edition § 107, is an amalgamated text. We can even separate the verses into the original revelation and the later instructions, like so:
November 11, 1831 revelation: D&C 107:59–69, 71–72, 74–75, 78–87, 89, 91–92, 99–100.
circa April 26–May 4, 1835 instructions: D&C 107:1–58, 70, 73, 76–77, 88, 90, 93–98.
See just how amalgamated the final version is? The verses bounce in and out of the instructional voice of JS and the revelatory voice of the Lord. The question arises: who is responsible for this arrangement of text? Who decided how to blend the two texts into a single D&C section?
We don’t know exactly. Sources indicate that JS organized the committee responsible for editing and preparing the 1835 D&C for publication, what they called the “Literary Firm.” JS also appointed Cowdery to manage the committee and the project. We have annotations in JS’s handwriting in the manuscript revelation books that Cowdery, John Whitmer, and William W. Phelps used in compositing the printed D&C text. However, the partial text of D&C 107 in the revelation books contain none of JS’s notations. So, all we have is an amalgamated version in the 1835 D&C, and because of outside evidence, we can extrapolate the non-1831-revelation material and identify it as JS’s instructions to the Twelve on the orders of priesthood.
It’s possible Cowdery merged the texts. It’s equally possible JS merged them. And it’s equally possible John Whitmer, William W. Phelps, or any other combination of these four men, including possibly a couple others, made the editorial decisions over how to blend the two texts into a single section. We do know that JS generally approved the whole 1835 D&C, though he did note some errors that he blamed on Cowdery. When in Nauvoo, JS oversaw an updated edition, what was published very shortly after his death as the 1844 D&C. He certainly had the chance to revise D&C 107 and put his name to the 1844 version in the least, so we can safely assume the final version met his approval, even if we can’t be certain JS arranged the amalgamated text the way it appears.
What parts of D&C 107 carry the status of revelation? — Definitely the portion produced originally on November 11, 1831: it was presented in the first-person voice of the Lord in a dictation event described as revelatory by JS and others present, which is our best standard for classifying a text in the JS corpus as a revelation. The instructions are a bit trickier. In the contemporaneous sources, it’s clear the instructions were exactly that—a series of instructional statements composed and delivered by JS to a group of presiding elders, the apostles, prior to their 1835 mission. We don’t have any association of those instructions with JS’s revelatory mode of reception, dictation, or presentation. Much later, Heber C. Kimball and Brigham Young spoke of the instructions to the Twelve (which could have, in their minds, included the formal charge, description of duties, and more that were part of those initial training meetings) as revealed to JS. But there are some qualifiers we must bear in mind: (1) Kimball and Young constitute later reminiscences and potentially secondhand sources, though still probably firsthand sources; (2) Kimball and Young resisted the instructions portion of D&C 107 during a strenuous period of rival claims of succession after JS’s death for the document’s emphasis on the Seventy being equal in authority to the Twelve, something that threw a wrench in their own claims of presiding authority not just of the domain of the ungathered but of the whole church; (3) Kimball and Young pointed to the revelatory dimension of the instructions while they construed the instructions to say the Twelve had the highest authority (while deliberately downplaying the instructions’ mention of the Patriarchal order of priesthood and the role of the Seventy in presiding over the church); (4) Kimball and Young may be unreliable narrators for the foregoing reasons.
What appears more significant than later reminiscences by Kimball and Young calling the instructions a “revelation,” is what we know of JS’s and Cowdery’s collaboration on the instructions. What’s well established is that the occasion of the Twelve’s commission and departure was one of primarily setting in order the church in the ungathered, unregulated, scattered, distant zones away from Zion. JS and Cowdery expended a good deal of their collective instructions to the Twelve trying to communicate the proper order of the whole church, anticipating that out in the branches, things could easily get irregular—in fact, the branches already had a high degree of inconsistency that frustrated proselytizing elders who continually wrote to JS and Kirtland leaders for help in how to organize branches and direct converts to settle with the Saints in Zion. And there were those classic disputes the elders wished to resolve with councils, something JS did not trust to just anybody, and manifestly placed the Twelve in a conciliar position to end the litany of grievances being reported from abroad. So, in this context, it’s clear JS and Cowdery worked to equip the Twelve with policy instruction to go in hand with the Articles and Covenants (D&C 20, the original bylaws of the church) and the Law of the Lord (D&C 42, the foundational commandments to the latter-day church). What the Articles and Covenants and the Law of the Lord and D&C 107 all share is collaborative amalgamation of a precursor revelation and later supporting apparatus produced by JS.
In the Articles and Covenants, Cowdery first produced a revelation in the first-person style of the revelations; then, JS and Cowdery reviewed the revelation and JS created an expanded apparatus describing offices in the church. In the Law of the Lord, JS first produced a revelation in the first-person style of the revelations; then he appended a series of additional policies, an expanded apparatus describing penalties for transgression and procedures for settling disputes. In D&C 107, JS first produced a revelation in the first-person style of the revelations in November 1831; then he produced a series of instructions intended for the Twelve to establish properly the church abroad within a structure and order of priesthood.
If you look at the section order of the 1835 first edition of the D&C, the first sections you see are 1. The Lord’s Preface; 2. The Articles and Covenants; 3. D&C 107 titled “On Priesthood.” Right away, it’s clear the “Covenants” portion of the book is setting out policy for church and priesthood organization. (The preface comes first because the Lord commanded it; and the revelation functions as a preface, not body text anyhow.)
Brigham Young did say that JS and Cowdery worked on the instructions for hours together ahead of delivering them to the Twelve, and other evidence from Phelps, Cowdery, and the manuscripts only support this likelihood. This is to say that JS didn’t accord the instructions—just like the bylaws of the Articles and Covenants—the same status as the revelations of the Lord, though he did wish for them to be read together and be foundational to church organization.
This matters because there are parts of D&C 107 that come out of JS’s mind and subjectivities that may be idiosyncratic to him. For example, the opening lines in our modern version say this about priesthood:
There are, in the church, two priesthoods, namely, the Melchizedek and Aaronic, including the Levitical Priesthood. Why the first is called the Melchizedek Priesthood is because Melchizedek was such a great high priest. Before his day it was called the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God. But out of respect or reverence to the name of the Supreme Being, to avoid the too frequent repetition of his name, they, the church, in ancient days, called that priesthood after Melchizedek, or the Melchizedek Priesthood.
As a historian, I must disagree with this assertion about Melchizedek, about the ancient church, and about the naming of the priesthood after Melchizedek. I can supply counterevidence to these claims; and I can demonstrate how JS is lifting these ideas from a particular esoteric trend of interpreting the Epistle to the Hebrews in the New Testament (a trend conspicuously ahistorical in its approach to reading the Bible). (The case is strong, technical, and verbose, but let’s just admit JS is tinkering with highly esotericized nineteenth-century notions of an ancient church and priesthood that unfortunately … didn’t quite … how to say … … exist. It’s on par with accepting Masonic narratives about Hiram Abiff and Solomon’s temple—nowhere historically accurate, highly speculative, and the stuff of excited insider-baseball secret-society lore.) Associating such historically bound assertions about priesthood with the mind and will of the Lord is a bit … heartburny for me. But since we have evidence for this being an extemporaneous speculation by JS within a Kirtland meeting on the same status and style as the Lectures on Faith, we’re allowed to consider this an outgrowth of JS’s Bible studies and cultural milieu in 1835. Since we do operate collectively with an institutional and social commitment to revelation, especially canonized revelation, for the sake of procedures and consistency, I’m glad these lines as instructions afford us latitude in conceptualizing and speaking of priesthood.
Intial rhetoric among JS and his associates between 1829 and 1833 invoked the term “priesthood” to refer to those ordained to the ministry. This usage was practically identical to general Protestant terminology. Only 8 primary sources connected to JS and the church mentioned priesthood directly before November 1831 (when the first version of D&C 107 was received): Cowdery’s 1829 revelation, the precursor and draft for what became the Articles and Covenants (D&C 20); the Book of Mormon (drafted in and around June 1829, published in March 1830); D&C 18 (received in June 1829); D&C 20 (the Articles and Covenants, presented at the first church meetings in April 1830); D&C 27 (received in September 1830); some articles in the Painesville Telegraph (published in November and December 1830); and some articles in the Palmyra Reflector (published in February 1831). In all of these, priesthood could be swapped out with ministry or ordained ministers, and the surrounding text wouldn’t change meaning.
Alma 13 presents an excursus on high priests being ordained to a holy calling and Melchizedek receiving the office of the high priesthood according to the holy order of God. This would seem an innovation and departure from a general rhetoric about the ministry, except, the verses behave as a summation of what appears in Genesis, 2 Enoch, and Hebrews 7, texts Protestants cited in support of Jesus being regarded as the preeminent high priest and Melchizedek a symbolic precursor akin to John the Baptist. Notice how Alma 13 describes ministry, not a complex scheme of orders and relations between priesthood offices and degrees of priesthood authority. The text even acknowledges these descriptions are derived from scripture: “Now I need not rehearse the matter; what I have said may suffice. Behold, the scriptures are before you” (Alma 13:20). Intertextual studies between Alma 13 and the Bible and Pseudepigrapha show not really anything novel is coming through the Book of Mormon relative to Melchizedek or the priesthood/ministry.
Not too long after the Book of Mormon translation, JS encountered biblical texts mentioning Melchizedek in his Bible revision project. He consulted Bible commentaries and debated with Oliver Cowdery and Sidney Rigdon. Who was Melchizedek and how should these passages mentioning him be interpreted? This brought to his awareness esoteric lore about Melchizedek traceable to translation controversies over the Hebrew name Malki-shedeq. What JS did with this in his Bible revision was present Melchizedek as a priest and miracle-worker; he accepted wholesale the lore treating Melchizedek as a high priest possessing direct access to the full knowledge of God and authority to perform tightly guarded and elite rituals known only to initiated and supremely righteous figures in the Bible, like Abraham and very few others.1 These claims arose in late medieval, early modern Europe; sources from antiquity just don’t bear out much of anything about Melchizedek or about Jewish or Christian communities thinking all this about him.
Clearly something evolved in the rhetoric of priesthood between 1829 and 1835. Unpacking this evolution is among the more technically frustrating and contested topics in Mormon historiography. Historians are all over the place on what to do with the sources, especially since so much of the church’s strongest truth claims after the 1950s have come to rest on a particular narrative of priesthood authority and its sequence of restoration through JS and his successors. I’ll admit—I do not enjoy discussing the history of priesthood in the church because of the metadiscourse surrounding just about every facet of the issue. It’s a pain to explain when one employs a strict, evidence-based, source-critical, contextually-robust methodology, as I do.
So, am I dodging this right now? Sure. Sorry to disappoint. But I’ll still lay out the contours of the argument leaving you to trust me, I guess, that I’m not being lazy with my sources. I’ll post those brief outlines next time :) Catch you soon.
For a throughly researched and reliable historical exploration of this European ahistorical lore, check out the best work to date on the subject, Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).