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Definition of the Priesthood
The priesthood is the power and authority of God. God created the heavens and the earth by His priesthood power. By this power the universe is kept in perfect order. Through this power He accomplishes His work and glory, which is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Pearl of Great Price, Moses 1:39).
Our Heavenly Father shares His priesthood power in a limited way with worthy male members of the Mormon Church. The priesthood enables them to act in the name of Jesus Christ to help bring about the salvation of the human family. Through it, they can be authorized to preach the gospel, administer the ordinances of salvation, and govern God’s kingdom on earth. Men are ordained to the priesthood through the laying on of hands by worthy priesthood holders. As the Apostle Paul taught, "And no man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron." (Hebrews 5:4)
Priesthood holders are divided into bodies called quorums. Through the quorums of the priesthood, men and boys strengthen each other and organize themselves to be of service in the neighborhoods and communities in which they live. Women and girls, though not receiving the priesthood, have equally important roles and responsibilities in carrying out the purposes of our loving Heavenly Father here on earth. They are entitled to all of the blessings of the priesthood.
The Aaronic Priesthood functions under the direction of the Melchizedek Priesthood and is the lesser of the two priesthoods in terms of power and authority. It is named after Aaron, the brother of Moses, from whose lineage came the ancient priests and high priests of Israel. In ancient Israel, only those of the tribe of Levi could be ordained to this priesthood (which is why it is also referred to as the Levitical Priesthood). With the coming of Christ, however, the lineal restrictions were lifted and worthy men of any tribe could receive this priesthood. The Mormon Church continues to operate in this manner, allowing any worthy man over the age of twelve to be ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood.
There are four offices within the Aaronic Priesthood. Each has specific duties and responsibilities associated with it. Once a man has progressed to the next highest office, they still retain all the power and authority of the lower office.
- Deacons: Men can be ordained as Deacons starting at age twelve. One of the duties of the deacon's quorum is to watch over the Church and its members. They are also to "warn, expound, exhort, and teach, and invite all to come unto Christ" (Doctrine and Covenants 20:59). Deacons can also pass the sacrament to the congregation, collect fast offerings, assist the bishopric, serve as messengers, be baptized and confirmed for the dead in the temple, speak in meetings, and care for the meetinghouse and grounds.
- Teachers: Men can be ordained as Teachers starting at age fourteen. Teachers are to watch over and strengthen the Church as well as see that there is "neither lying, backbiting, nor evil speaking (Doctrine and Covenants 20:53-55). Teachers may also prepare the sacrament, serve as home teachers, reverently serve as ushers in ward meetings and stake conference, assist the bishopric, and participate in seminary, where available.
- Priests: Men can be ordained as Priests starting at age sixteen. The priest's quorum has the responsibility to "preach, teach, expound, exhort, ... and visit the house of each member, and exhort them to pray vocally and in secret and attend to all family duties" (Doctrine and Covenants 47 20:46-47). Priests can bless the sacrament. They can also baptize, though they do not have the authority to confer the Holy Ghost.
- Bishop: The office of bishop is the highest office in the Aaronic Priesthood. The bishop is the president of the priest's quorum, the president of the Aaronic Priesthood, and the presiding high priest in the ward. Although the position of bishop is an Aaronic Priesthood office, men called to be bishops hold the Melchizedek Priesthood and hold the office of high priest so they can preside over the entire congregation.
The Aaronic Priesthood is also described as holding "the keys of the ministering of angels, and to administer in outward ordinances" (Doctrine and Covenants 107:20).
The higher priesthood is named after the ancient patriarch and high priest Melchizedek, to whom Abraham paid tithes. Doctrine and Covenants 107:3-4 explains why the priesthood is called after him:
- Before his [Melchizedek's] 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.
Paul, in his epistle to the Hebrews, mentions a number of times that Christ was "an high priest after the order of Melchisedec" (Hebrews 5:10).
The Melchizedek Priesthood was given to Adam and has since been held by every patriarch and prophet authorized by God. This priesthood was taken from Israel as a whole during the time of Moses. Instead, Israel was given the lesser portion known as the Aaronic Priesthood. Christ restored the Melchizedek Priesthood to His apostles. After the death of the apostles, the priesthood was lost during what is known as the Great Apostasy. In 1829, Christ's apostles (as resurrected beings) then restored the high priesthood to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. 
Offices and Functions Just as in the Aaronic Priesthood, a man retains all the keys and authority of his previous ordinations. For example, if no Aaronic Priesthood members are present, the Melchizedek Priesthood holder can bless and pass the sacrament.
- Elder as Title: The title "Elder" can be used for any holder of the Melchizedek Priesthood. As a title it is typically used to refer to male Mormon missionaries (e.g. Elder Smith or Elder Jones) or to General Authorities (such as Elder Russell M. Nelson or Elder Merrill J. Bateman).
- Elder as Office: Men are ordained as elders beginning at either age 18 or 19. The duties of an elder are to baptize, confirm members of the Church and give the gift of the Holy Ghost, administer the sacrament, give blessings of comfort and healing, and generally watch over the Church.
- Seventy: Members of the Quorums of the Seventy are called as General Authorities under the direction of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The Seventy direct missionary work and other Church activities, build up the Church in all the nations where the Church has membership, and preach the Gospel. Members of the Seventy may also be called upon to speak in General Conference. At present, there are five quorums, each with no more than seventy members. Members of the Seventy may be honorably released and given emeritus status.
- High Priest: High Priests have the authority to officiate in the Church. Men are ordained as High Priests to serve in a number of callings: members of the bishopric, members of the stake presidency, high councilors, mission presidents, stake patriarchs, etc. High Priests have their own quorums, separate from the Elder's quorum.
- Patriarch: Patriarchs are called on stake levels and are ordained by General Authorities or stake presidents given that authority by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. A patriarch's duty is to give worthy Church members special blessings known as patriarchal blessings. Such blessings are the Lord's personal words to the recipient and may give the person a better understanding of their callings in life. The office of patriarchs is held for life, though if the patriarch is no longer able to function in his duties, an additional stake patriarch may be called. The term "patriarch" is also applied to the father of a family.
- Apostle: Meaning "one sent forth," apostles are special witnesses of Jesus Christ and are called for life. The men ordained as apostles are members of either the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles or the First Presidency. The apostles travel throughout the world building up and regulating the Church. Each apostle is given all the keys of the kingdom, but only the senior apostle--the President of the Church--is authorized to use all the keys. The other apostles act under the president's direction.
- President: At any one time, only one man can hold the office of President of the Church and exercise the keys and authority associated with that office. The President (also referred to as "the Prophet") is the senior apostle (in terms of years as an apostle, not age. See Choosing a Prophet to learn about the Order of Succession) and is also the president of the Melchizedek Priesthood. He is sustained as the prophet, seer, and revelator. As such he is entitled to receive revelation for not only the Church, but the entire world. A man will remain President of the Church the remainder of his life, though in cases of poor health the counselors in the First Presidency may take over some of the functions of the office as the President authorizes.
The Melchizedek Priesthood "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," and holds "keys of all the spiritual blessings of the church" (Doctrine and Covenants 107:8, 18).
Blacks and the Priesthood
Until 1978, men of African descent had not been permitted to receive the priesthood, although they could become members and serve within the church. (Persons of other dark-skinned ethnicities not of African descent, such as the Polynesians, could receive the priesthood prior to this time.) In 1978, an official declaration of the First Presidency reported that a revelation had been received by Mormon Church President Spencer W. Kimball directing that all worthy men be allowed to receive the priesthood. Elder David B. Haight was present when President Kimball received the revelation. Years later he bore this testimony in general conference:
- I noticed an edition of the Chicago Tribune on the newsstand. The headline in the paper said, “Mormons Give Blacks Priesthood.” And the subheading said, “President Kimball Claims to Have Received a Revelation.” I bought a copy of the newspaper. I stared at one word in that subheading—claims. It stood out to me just like it was in red neon. As I walked along the hallway to make my plane connection, I thought, Here I am now in Chicago walking through this busy airport, yet I was a witness to this revelation. I was there. I witnessed it. I felt that heavenly influence. I was part of it. Little did the editor of that newspaper realize the truth of that revelation when he wrote, “… Claims to Have Received a Revelation.” Little did he know, or the printer, or the man who put the ink on the press, or the one who delivered the newspaper—little did any of them know that it was truly a revelation from God. Little did they know what I knew because I was a witness to it (David B. Haight, “This Work Is True,” Ensign, May 1996, 22).
- Moses Mahlangu, of Soweto, South Africa, patiently but persistently waited sixteen years for baptism. When he speaks of his long wait to join the Church, Brother Mahlangu compares himself to Cornelius [the first Gentile to join the early Christian Church after Peter received revelation that the gospel was spread to the Gentiles], who he says was “very good in waiting to receive the word of God or to be a member of the Church until the angels came and told him what to do.” (See Acts 10:1–7) Today, at age sixty-three, Moses is a grounds-keeper at the Johannesburg South Africa Temple, which he regularly attends. He is also the elders quorum president in the Soweto Branch. (E. Dale LeBaron, “Gospel Pioneers in Africa,” Ensign, Aug. 1990, 40)
For More Information about Blacks and Mormons:
Women and the Priesthood
In the Mormon Church, women are not ordained to the priesthood. This does not in any way lessen them in the eyes of either God or the Church. Women are entitled to all of the same blessings of the priesthood as men. Men and women, however, have different responsibilities both within the Mormon Church and before God.
- President [Joseph Fielding] Smith explained: "While the sisters have not been given the Priesthood, … that does not mean that the Lord has not given unto them authority. Authority and Priesthood are two different things. A person may have authority given to him, or a sister to her, to do certain things in the Church that are binding and absolutely necessary for our salvation, such as the work that our sisters do in the House of the Lord." (Relief Society Magazine, Jan. 1959, p. 4.)
- President Smith's teaching on authority explains what the Prophet Joseph Smith meant when he said that he organized the Relief Society "under the priesthood after the pattern of the priesthood." The authority to be exercised by the officers and teachers of the Relief Society, as with the other auxiliary organizations, was the authority that would flow to them through their organizational connection with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and through their individual setting apart under the hands of the priesthood leaders by whom they were called. (Dallin H. Oaks, "The Relief Society and the Church," Ensign, May 1992, 34)
See also: Mormon Women