When the Church of Christ was organized on April 6, 1830, none of its members were professional clergy, but all its adult male members were endowed with “priesthood.” For millennia, Christians had wrestled with defining the roles of lay people and the clergy in expressing piety. If the sacraments were the preserve of the clergy, how should pious lay people channel their devotion to God? The Mormon answer to this question would be straightforward: in the restored church, laymen were the clergy.
At a formational conference a few months after its organization, the church approved a set of “articles and convenants” that initially defined three priesthood offices: teacher, priest and elder. Teachers were to exhort the membership and see that they meet often. Priests had the additional authority to administer the sacrament (communion), to baptize members and to ordain teachers and other priests. Elder was the highest position. In addition to encompassing the roles of the others, elders were to lead all meetings, ordain other elders, and confirm membership in the church by the “laying on of hands and the giving of the Holy Ghost.” Elders were explicitly equated with “apostles,” and many early elders referred to themselves as apostles. Although Joseph Smith was known as a prophet, a seer, a revelator and a translator, his initial “office” in the church was “first elder.” His original assistant, Oliver Cowdery, was given the role of “second elder.”
Releasing the priesthood to laymen was like harnessing the whirlwind. Often, immediately following baptism and confirmation, new members were ordained as elders of the church. Then, the new elders would themselves depart on missions, charged with evangelizing and baptizing their neighbors — spreading the good news of the restored gospel.
The office of deacon was soon added beneath teacher with the primary assignment of assisting the other offices. Then, in February of 1831, the office of “bishop” was added and the first bishop was given charge of the church’s communitarian property in Missouri. A second bishop was created in December of that year for Kirtland. By November 1831, deacons, teachers, priests and elders were grouped into quorums and each quorum was assigned a “president,” e.g., “deacons quorum president.” In the spring of 1832, the Saints began ordaining each other to be “High priests after the order of the Melchizedek Priesthood.” At the same time, a “presidency” of the High Priesthood, known as the church’s “First Presidency” was established.
In 1834, twelve high priests in Kirtland were called to a new “High Council” of the church. A second High Council was created in Missouri along with a second church presidency. The High Councils soon became the church’s leading legislative and judicial bodies. A third, special “Traveling High Council of Twelve” was called and given charge of the church’s missionary work. These apostles were to be assisted by “Quorums of Seventy,” led by seven Presidents of the Seventy.
What had begun with a simple structure evolved into something much more complex in just a handful of years (see diagram). Nearly every man in the church had some level of priesthood authority.
Although other churches have lay ministers, this explosion of offices seems unique to Mormonism. This leads me to a couple of questions: To what extent was this distinction the engine that fueled the early church’s success? Can an elaborated lay priesthood be fairly called the genius of early Mormonism? As the lay priesthood has continued to evolve, what are the advantages and challenges for the LDS church today?