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There are many kinds of keys in the world; keys to houses, cars, buildings, diaries—just to name a few. In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—sometimes inadvertently called the Mormon Church—there are sacred, invisible keys: the keys to the priesthood of God. The priesthood is the authority and power that God gives to man to act in all things for the salvation of His children. The keys of the priesthood are the rights of presidency, or the power given to man by God to direct, control and govern His priesthood on earth—in other words, the right to organize and direct the work of God in His kingdom, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The priesthood keys separate the Church of Jesus Christ from all of the other churches on the earth today—only His Church will have His priesthood keys.

Christ bestows priesthood keys on apostles

A 16-year-old needs two things to drive a car: a driver’s license and keys. These provide two things: authority and access. The license is the authority to drive the car. The keys allow access to and use of the vehicle. Both are required to drive a car. The same is true for the priesthood and priesthood keys. The priesthood is the authority, or the license to drive the car. The priesthood keys control the access to and the use of the car—or the priesthood.

What Is the Priesthood?

The priesthood is the power that God gives to man to act in all things for the salvation of His children. What does this mean? Elder M. Russell Ballard, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (with the First Presidency, the governing body of the Church of Jesus Christ), explained:

The power by which the heavens and earth were and are created is the priesthood. … The source of this priesthood power is God Almighty and His Son, Jesus Christ. Not only is the priesthood the power by which the heavens and the earth were created, but it is also the power the Savior used in His mortal ministry to perform miracles, to bless and heal the sick, to bring the dead to life, and, as our Father’s Only Begotten Son, to endure the unbearable pain of Gethsemane and Calvary—thus fulfilling the laws of justice with mercy and providing an infinite Atonement and overcoming physical death through the Resurrection.[1]

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, then second counselor in the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ, taught:

The priesthood, or any responsibility within it, cannot be purchased or commanded. The use of priesthood power cannot be influenced, swayed, or compelled by position, by wealth, or by influence. It is a spiritual power that operates on heavenly law. It originates in the great Heavenly Father of us all. Its power can be controlled and directed only through principles of righteousness, not self-righteousness.
[Bearers of the priesthood] … have been given authority and responsibility to act in His name as His servants on earth. … [They] are called upon to serve, to bless, and to act in all things for the good of everyone and everything entrusted to [their] care. … By this great power [they] are authorized to preach the gospel, administer the ordinances of salvation, help build the kingdom of God on the earth, and bless and serve [their] families and [their] fellowmen.[2]

What Are the Keys of the Priesthood?

Priesthood keys are the authority God has given to priesthood leaders to direct, control, and govern the use of His priesthood on earth within a jurisdiction. The chain of command, so to speak, in the Church of Jesus Christ is organized through priesthood keys. All priesthood keys come from Heavenly Father through His Son, Jesus Christ. This is the beginning of the “chain of command” of the priesthood. This chain of command continues as Jesus Christ gives the keys of the kingdom—or the power and authority to direct, govern and administer the temporal and spiritual work of His Church on the earth—to the senior living Apostle, who is the president of His Church, or His prophet.[3] President Russell M. Nelson, explained:

All the keys of the kingdom of God on earth are held by members of the First Presidency and members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The President of the Church—the senior Apostle—presides over the entire Church and is the only person on earth who exercises all the keys in their fulness. He delegates authority by conferring or authorizing the conferral of keys upon other bearers of the priesthood in their specific offices and callings.
Priesthood is the authority of God delegated to man to minister for the salvation of men. “The power of directing these labors constitutes the keys of the Priesthood.” We distinguish between holding the priesthood and holding keys of the priesthood. When an individual is given keys, he does not receive additional priesthood. What he has is the right to direct the work of the priesthood.[4]

There are two priesthoods—the Aaronic and Melchizedek. The scriptures teach:

The power and authority of the higher, or Melchizedek Priesthood, is to hold the keys of all the spiritual blessings of the church. …
The power and authority of the lesser, or Aaronic Priesthood, is to hold the keys of the ministering of angels, and to administer in outward ordinances, the letter of the gospel, the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, agreeable to the covenants and commandments. (Doctrine and Covenants 107:18, 20)

Priesthood Keys in History

The keys and authority of the priesthood can be traced back through history to the foundation of the world. President Nelson taught:

Priesthood authority was known anciently, even before creation of the earth. The Prophet Joseph Smith declared, “The Priesthood is an everlasting principle, and existed with God from eternity, and will to eternity.” President Brigham Young (1801–77) added that the priesthood “is the law by which the worlds are, were, and will continue for ever and ever.” …
Adam received priesthood authority before the world was formed. We know that “the Priesthood was first given to Adam; he obtained the First Presidency, and held the keys of it from generation to generation.” The priesthood was conferred through generations from Adam to Moses “through the lineage of their fathers.”[5]

But through wickedness and rejection of the Lord’s prophets, the priesthood keys were lost. During the Savior’s mortal ministry, the priesthood keys and authority were returned to the earth. President Nelson said:

During His mortal ministry Jesus conferred priesthood upon His Twelve Apostles and revealed the principle of priesthood keys. To His Apostle Peter the Savior said, “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The Lord also promised these keys to James and John.
Within a week of that promise, Jesus took Peter, James, and John to a high mountain. There, under the direction of the Lord, keys of the priesthood were bestowed upon those Apostles by Moses and Elijah (also known as Elias). The Master reminded His disciples of the source of their authority: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you.”[6]

Again, the priesthood authority and keys were lost as the people eventually rejected the Apostles and their message.

The Priesthood Keys Are Restored in Modern Days

The priesthood was again restored to the earth in the early 1800s through a young man named Joseph Smith—who became the first prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ in modern days. President Nelson said:

The restoration of priesthood keys is one of the many miracles of this, the dispensation of the fulness of times. As the Prophet [Joseph Smith] taught, “The keys have to be brought from heaven whenever the Gospel is sent.” In 1820 our Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith. In May 1829 John the Baptist conferred the Aaronic Priesthood upon Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. In so doing, he conferred “the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins.” Shortly thereafter the Prophet and his associate received the Melchizedek Priesthood under the hands of Peter, James, and John. Joseph Smith had keys to organize the Church, send missionaries, and ordain priesthood leaders.
Joseph Smith conferred those restored priesthood keys upon all of the Apostles called in his day. In turn, these keys have been transferred through the generations to the present leaders of the Church. Today, the President of the Church actively holds every key held by “all those who have received a dispensation at any time from the beginning of the creation.”[7]

Who Holds Priesthood Keys Today?

Mormon First Presidency

The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles hold all the keys of the kingdom so they can direct the work of the Lord on the earth. They assign and delegate authority to other priesthood leaders so they can direct the work in their jurisdictions. They are sometimes called General Authorities, because they have the authority to serve anywhere in the world.[8]

President Nelson said:

The Prophet Joseph Smith taught “the fundamental principles, government, and doctrine of the Church are vested in the keys of the kingdom.” Those keys refer to the right to preside over priesthood authority in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Keys carry the right to preside over a local organization of the Church, such as a stake, a ward or branch, a mission or district, a priesthood quorum, or a temple. Keys are conferred by the laying on of hands by one who holds proper authority and whose authority is known to the Church.

Each realm of responsibility is defined by a geographic location. Larger congregations are called wards, and smaller ones are called branches. Each ward or branch has a defined geographic area, and all members live within that locale. A stake is a group of wards and/or branches, also within a defined geographic location. A district is a smaller version of a stake. These local priesthood leaders—stake and district presidents, branch presidents and bishops— receive keys as part of their callings, or Church assignments. A mission president presides over the missionary work and the proselytizing missionaries within a specific geographic location. A temple president has responsibility for a specific temple—for example, the Salt Lake City, Utah, temple. Male Church members who receive the priesthood are organized into quorums, and the president of each quorum receives keys to direct the work therein.

Men do not campaign or volunteer for priesthood leadership positions. They are called and given these assignments by one who has the proper authority and who makes the call through inspiration and revelation that comes with his stewardship. This authority to preside is only valid for the designated responsibilities and within the geographic jurisdiction of each leader’s calling. When a priesthood leader is released from his calling, he no longer holds the associated keys. In many cases, priesthood leaders are assisted by counselors. These counselors do not receive priesthood keys.[9]

Seventies Receive Priesthood Keys "As Needed" for their Assignments

Seventies—under the direction of the Apostles—are called to proclaim the gospel, build up the kingdom of God and regulate the affairs of the Church in all nations.[10] Area Presidents, who are part of the Quorums of the Seventy, are assigned to administer geographic areas under the authorization of the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles. Seventies do not receive priesthood keys, with the exception of the Presidency of the Seventy—who receive the keys to preside over the Quorums of the Seventy.[11]

Seventies, working under the direction of and by assignment from the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, are sometimes given tasks that require the use of priesthood keys. In these cases, the keys they need to accomplish the task are delegated, or “loaned” to them for the use in a specific assignment.[12] President Brigham Young, the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ in modern days, told the Seventies in his time, “When we send you to build up the kingdom, we will give you the keys, and power and authority.”[13]

The priesthood is the power that God gives to man to act in all things for the salvation of His children. The keys of the priesthood are the right to govern and direct the use of the priesthood to accomplish God’s work on the earth. The priesthood keys and authority are found only in Christ’ Church on the earth today—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

  1. Elder M. Russell Ballard, “This is My Work and Glory,” General Conference, April 2013.
  2. President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, The Joy of the Priesthood, General Conference, October 2012.]
  3. See “2.1.1. Priesthood Keys” in Handbook 2: Administering the Church.
  4. President Russell M. Nelson, Keys of the Priesthood, Liahona, October 2005.
  5. President Russell M. Nelson, [1], Liahona, October 2005.
  6. President Russell M. Nelson, Keys of the Priesthood, Liahona, October 2005.
  7. Elder Russell M. Nelson, Keys of the Priesthood, Liahona, October 2005.
  8. Apostles are not the only priesthood leaders who are called General Authorities. Members of the First and Second [2], as well as the Presiding Bishopric, are also known as General Authorities.
  9. See “2.1.1. Priesthood Keys” in Handbook 2: Administering the Church.
  10. See Doctrine and Covenants 107:25–26, 34.
  11. See “2.1.1. Priesthood Keys” in Handbook 2: Administering the Church.
  12. Elder Earl C. Tingey, Area Authority Seventies: “To Bear Record of My Name in all the World,” Ensign, October 2002.
  13. History of the Church, 7:308.

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