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Organizational and Administrative Church History

by William G. Hartley

Church organization and administration since 1830 have been the result of the restoration of ancient priesthood authority and offices, of decisions made by living prophets receptive to divine revelation, and of practical responses to changing world and Church circumstances. From its inception the Church has been hierarchical, with authority flowing from the president of the church. Most positions are filled by lay members called to serve without remuneration, and members are entitled to sustain or not sustain decisions and officers proposed by their leaders (see Common Consent; Lay Participation and Leadership).

THE FOUNDATION. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery received priesthood ordination and baptism under the direction of heavenly messengers in 1829. They then baptized others. This cluster of believers gathered on April 6, 1830, for the formal organization of the church, with Joseph Smith as First Elder and Oliver as Second Elder. Two months later the Church held its first conference and soon established a tradition of semiannual general conferences. From the beginning, Church officers were sustained by conference vote, and members and officials received certificates of membership or ordination from conferences.

During the first two years of the Church, deacons, teachers, priests, and elders constituted the local ministry. "The Articles and Covenants" served as a handbook explaining the duties of these officers (see Doctrine and Covenants: Section 20).

A revelation in 1831 instituted the office of bishop, initially one for Missouri and another for Ohio. Temporal affairs were their primary stewardship at first; they received consecrations of property in the 1830s, tithes afterward, and cared for the poor. Soon bishops also received responsibility for disciplinary procedures and for the Aaronic Priesthood. Not until 1839, in Nauvoo, Illinois, did the Church have bishops assigned to local geographical subdivisions called wards, under the jurisdiction of the bishop responsible for the larger region.

The office of high priest was instituted in 1831, with Joseph Smith as the presiding high priest over the Church. In 1832 he chose counselors to assist him, initiating what became the First Presidency. Revelation in March 1833 (D&C 90) gave the presidency supreme authority over all affairs of the Church; their roles at the head of the hierarchy remain essentially unchanged. Late in 1833 a second general officer, the patriarch to the church, was called and ordained.

In 1834 two stakes—geographic entities—were formed (one in Ohio and the second in Missouri) to direct the operation of branches (congregations) and local officers. Stakes were led by a three-man stake presidency and a twelve-member high council (D&C 102). High councils arbitrated disputes, investigated and tried charges of misconduct, and generally oversaw local ecclesiastical operations. Outside stake boundaries, members clustered into isolated branches led by elders or priests.

In 1835 the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the quorum of the seventy were organized. The Twelve, subordinate to the First Presidency, were assigned by revelation to preside outside organized stakes as a traveling high council. This included ordaining and supervising other officers of the Church outside stakes, including Patriarchs. They were also to direct proselytizing in all lands, assisted by the seventy. The Seventy's presidency of seven, called the first council of the seventy, were sustained with other General Authorities in August 1835.

By 1835 revelations defined two orders of priesthood: the higher, or Melchizedek Priesthood, including the offices of high priest, seventy, and elder; and the lesser, or Aaronic Priesthood, comprising priests, teachers, and deacons. Priesthood quorums in the stakes consisted of up to ninety-six elders, forty-eight priests, twenty-four teachers, and twelve deacons, each with its own presidency except the priests, whose president is a bishop.

In the fall of 1835 the Church published the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. The three revelations placed first (now sections 20, 107, and 84) described priesthood and its organization.

Visitations by Moses, Elias, and Elijah in 1836 restored the keys of the priesthood and responsibility to gather scattered Israel and the sealing powers by which families could be linked for eternity in temples (see Doctrine and Covenants: Sections 109-110). These keys are still the basis for LDS missionary, family history/genealogy, and temple work.

After a mission to Great Britain, in 1839-1841, the Twelve received broadened responsibility, under the First Presidency, for Church government within the stakes as well as outside them, a responsibility they have carried since. In Nauvoo they received temple ordinances and the keys necessary to govern the Church if there were no First Presidency.

To complete Church organization and prepare the women, along with the men, for the temple, in 1842 Joseph Smith organized the women's Relief Society in Nauvoo. A counterpart of priesthood organization for men, the Relief Society was seen as a more integral part of Church organization than were later auxiliary organizations.

In 1841 Joseph Smith established the office of Trustee-in-Trust to manage Church properties at the general level. The role of bishops in temporal affairs thus became subordinate to that of the Trustee-in-Trust, generally the president of the church. In Nauvoo, and for the next decade after, a Council of Fifty assisted as political and temporal administrators.

The last body in the governing hierarchy to emerge was the Presiding Bishopric. Until 1847 the Church had two general bishops, but that year Bishop Newel K. Whitney became Presiding Bishop. When his successor (1851), Bishop Edward Hunter, received two regular counselors in 1856, the three constituted the first full Presiding Bishopric. Initially, the Presiding Bishopric's primary responsibility was the overall management of temporal affairs, including the supervision of ward bishops in their temporal duties. Beginning in the 1850s, the Presiding Bishopric also oversaw Aaronic Priesthood matters.

The First Presidency, Twelve, Seventy, and Presiding Bishopric—all dating from this first generation—continue to be the main administrative officers of the Church. These General Authority offices are generally life-tenured callings except in cases of calls to a higher position or removal for cause or health problems, though emeritus status has recently been introduced. The Second Quorum of the Seventy is comprised of men called to serve a five-year period. Between 1941 and 1976 additional General Authorities known as assistants to the Twelve also served. The office of Patriarch to the Church, which earlier had administrative functions, was eventually limited to giving patriarchal blessings to Church members outside stakes, and in 1979 was discontinued.

After Joseph Smith's death in 1844, the Twelve Apostles led the Church under the direction of senior apostle and quorum president Brigham Young. In 1847 he was sustained as President in a new First Presidency. Succession in the presidency continues to adhere to that basic pattern.

THE PIONEER ORGANIZATION. After migration to the West in the late 1840s, Church organization adapted to facilitate colonization of the undeveloped Great Basin. Church officers directed the establishment of hundreds of colonies and helped provide settlements with economic, political, judicial, social, and spiritual programs. Often, one of the Twelve presided in larger settlements. Mormon villages combined private enterprise and economic cooperation, with bishops or stake presidents supervising the dispensing of land, building of roads, digging of ditches and canals, and conducting of business ventures (see City Planning; Pioneer Economy). Although civil government gradually assumed an increasing role, the Church remained a significant influence in local and regional affairs throughout the pioneer period.

In a largely cashless economy with little investment capital, Church leaders promoted colonization and industrial enterprises by calling individuals on special missions and by using Church resources to foster community enterprises. A Church public works program, directed by the First Presidency and managed by the Presiding Bishopric, provided employment and helped build the Salt Lake Temple and tabernacle and create other community improvements. In the 1870s Brigham Young directed the organization of united orders, economic endeavors managed by stake presidents and bishops. Since tithing donations were usually in "kind" rather than cash, local bishops and the Presiding Bishopric directed a gigantic barter and transfer system that paid for needed services, fed public works employees, and assisted the needy.

Much Church effort went toward assisting with immigration to the Great Basin (see Immigration and Emigration). The perpetual emigrating fund, a revolving loan fund, helped poorer immigrants, including handcart immigrants, make the trek. In the 1860s Church wagon trains were sent from Utah to convey immigrants from the railroad terminus. After they arrived in Utah, the First Presidency and Presiding Bishopric directed immigrants to settlements where they were needed.

In the 1850s and thereafter, the ward became the primary Church organization in the lives of the Saints. In the pioneer era, bishops selected by the First Presidency and priesthood "block teachers" called by bishops were the main ward officers. General Authorities maintained contact through semiannual general conferences in Salt Lake City, visits to the settlements, Deseret news articles, and epistles.

Missionary work, most of it outside the Great Basin, also had to be organized. In 1850 several of the Twelve opened new missions in Europe. Usually an apostle residing in Britain supervised all European missionary work. Missions were divided into conferences, districts, and branches, each with a president selected by the line officer above him.

During the 1860s and 1870s auxiliary organizations started locally and then became general Church organizations under the supervision or presidency of General Authorities. These included Sunday schools; the retrenchment association, predecessor to the Young Ladies' Mutual Improvement Association (YLMIA; see Young Women); the Young Men's Mutual Improvement Association (YMMIA; see Young Men); and the primary for children. Relief Society for women was revived in Utah and established throughout the Church beginning in 1867.

In 1877 President Brigham Young implemented a massive reordering of wards, stakes, and priesthood quorums. This reform removed the Twelve from local leadership assignments, created new quorums for elders and Aaronic Priesthood, expanded the role of bishops as ward leaders, gave stakes increased responsibility, and, for the first time, involved most young men in Aaronic Priesthood offices. These and other changes at that time, such as quarterly stake conferences and reporting procedures, remained standard for nearly a century.

During the changes of 1877, Elder Orson Pratt explained the Church's organizational flexibility in terms that also foreshadowed future developments:

To say that there will be a stated time, in the history of this church, during its imperfections and weaknesses, when the organization will be perfect, and that there will be no further extension or addition to the organization, would be a mistake. Organization is to go on, step after step,…just as the people increase and grow in the knowledge of the principles and laws of the kingdom of God [Deseret News Weekly, July 18, 1877].

Led by prophets, seers, and revelators, the Church has exhibited its flexibility in adapting to changing needs and circumstances.

ELABORATION AND CONTINUITY. The Church faced the 1880s with a well-developed and well-functioning organization; in addition, it was beginning to create auxiliary organizations for children and youth. Over decades these would mature and be fine-tuned to function more effectively in an increasingly complex world.

Church pioneering institutions also remained. During the 1880s and 1890s, the Church continued to direct colonization and economic development (see Economic History of the Church). Building on the cooperative movement of the 1860s and the united orders of the 1870s, by the 1880s the First Presidency was coordinating development and regulated economic competition through a central Board of Trade and similar stake boards. During this period as well, revelations to President John Taylor initiated a revitalization of quorums of Seventy and moved these quorums toward becoming stake rather than general Church entities.

Federal prosecutions of polygamists during the 1880s disrupted Church administration as General Authorities, stake presidents, and bishops went into hiding or left Utah (see Antipolygamy Legislation). Franklin D. Richards, an apostle whose plural wife had died, carried on many of the public functions of general Church leadership under the direction of the First Presidency, who were in hiding. With general Church ownership of property severely restricted, stakes, wards, and individuals formed nonprofit associations to hold Church property, including temples, meetinghouses, tithing houses, and livestock. After the manifesto of 1890 and the granting of amnesty, Church leaders resumed their full administrative duties.

During the 1880s stake boards or committees were created for YMMIA, YLMIA, Relief Society, Primary, and Sunday School to promote and supervise auxiliary work locally. In 1889 the Relief Society began holding conferences in connection with the Church's general conferences, as did the Primary. By 1902 each of the auxiliaries was publishing its own magazine.

Though an extensive bureaucracy was not necessary until rapid international growth began in the 1960s, between 1900 and 1930 the Church modernized management and constructed important new facilities. The Church acquired historical sites, supported hospitals, established recreation centers in local meetinghouses, and erected new offices in Salt Lake City, including a Bishop's Building (1910) for the Presiding Bishopric and auxiliary organizations, and the Administration Building (1917), in which the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve still have their offices. Zions Securities Corporation was created to manage taxable Church properties, and the Corporation of the President was established to oversee ecclesiastical properties.

Church leaders also attended to programs for youth. Early correlation efforts saw the autonomy of Church auxiliaries decline as the Church assumed greater control over auxiliary magazines; the YMMIA's improvement era became a magazine for priesthood and Church readership. In 1911 the Church adopted the Boy Scout program as part of the YMMIA (see Scouting). In response to the secularization of Utah schools during the late nineteenth century, the Church had created stake academies and conducted religion classes after school for elementary-school children. By 1910 a General Board of Education supervised thirty-four stake academies; Brigham Young College in Logan, Utah; Latter-day Saint University in Salt Lake City; and Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. By the 1920s the Church had closed most of its academies or transferred them to the state. Starting in 1912 released-time seminaries provided religious instruction for high school students. In 1926 the first institute of religion for college students opened adjacent to the University of Idaho (see Church Educational System).

Correlation efforts also extended to the work of priesthood, including missionary work, and to auxiliaries. A Priesthood Committee on Outlines began publishing lesson materials for each priesthood quorum during a priesthood revitalization movement (1908-1922). Church leaders also grouped deacons, teachers, and priests by age and defined their duties more fully; instituted weekly ward priesthood meetings, conducted by the bishops; and improved ward (formerly "block") teaching. After 1923 members of the Quorum of the Twelve directly supervised Melchizedek Priesthood work while the Presiding Bishopric supervised the Aaronic Priesthood, and in 1928 the Church published its first Melchizedek Priesthood handbook. A Priesthood-Auxiliary Movement, in 1928-1937, made Sunday School the instructional arm and YMMIA the activity arm of priesthood. This plan defined auxiliaries as aids to the priesthood and made the adult Gospel Doctrine class in Sunday School an integral part of adults' Sunday activity. Junior Sunday School for children became part of the Sunday School program Churchwide in 1934.

The Presiding Bishopric began providing aggressive leadership to Aaronic Priesthood work and to the YMMIA in 1938, and shortly thereafter they were given supervision of the young women. They provided counsel to bishops and stake presidents on Aaronic Priesthood, buildings, records and reports, and ward teaching through a weekly bulletin, Progress of the Church.

Beginning in 1925 a mission home in Salt Lake City provided training for new full-time missionaries. During the 1920s radio and motion pictures first helped missionaries convey the LDS message. Stake missionary work (part-time proselytizing by local members), started locally by 1915, was supervised by the First Council of Seventy after 1936. In 1937 the first missionary handbook was published, and in 1952 missionaries began using A Systematic Program for Teaching the Gospel, the Church's first official proselytizing outline. In 1954 a Missionary Committee, under General Authorities, began overseeing missionary appointments, the mission home in Salt Lake City, and publicity and literature. A Language Training Mission for full-time missionaries called to foreign lands opened in 1961 at Provo, Utah, and in 1978 it was expanded to become a missionary training center for most new missionaries. Eventually Mission Training Centers were established in other countries; collectively these provide intensive training in dozens of languages.

In 1936, to ease hardships caused by the Great Depression, the First Presidency introduced the Church Security Program. Renamed the Welfare Program in 1938, it established through existing priesthood channels a network of farms, canneries, and factories that sent food, clothing, furniture, and household goods to bishop's storehouses to assist the needy and, later, disaster victims. Soon after World War I, the Relief Society developed a Social Services department to help families. This was gradually expanded to provide professional assistance, available through priesthood leaders, in such matters as counseling, therapy, and adoptive services. Eventually Social Services joined health services, employment bureaus, and other guidance programs as part of Welfare Services.

To meet the needs of LDS servicemen far from home wards and stakes, the Church responded with servicemen's groups on military bases, LDS chaplains, servicemen's coordinators, a Military Relations Committee, servicemen's conferences, seminars to prepare young men for the service, and an English-speaking servicemen's stake in West Germany (see Military and the Church). Native Americans also received renewed administrative attention. An Indian mission was formed in 1936 in the American Southwest, a general-level Indian Committee in the late 1940s, and the Indian Student Placement Services beginning in 1947.

CHALLENGES OF GROWTH AND INTERNATIONALIZATION. Between 1960 and 1990, Church membership more than quadrupled, with especially rapid growth outside the United States. Many organizational developments during these decades were designed to streamline operations, enhance communication and leadership training, and focus resources on the needs of Church members far from headquarters.

By the 1960s three kinds of organizations were operating within the Church: (1) an ecclesiastical system under a priesthood chain of command; (2) auxiliaries, each with its own general officers, manuals, conferences, and publication; and (3) professional services and departments for education, social work, legal affairs, building, communications, accounting, etc. Early in the 1960s, efforts began to correlate these organizations. A Correlation Committee consolidated and simplified Church curriculum, publications, meetings, and activities. Further elements of the correlation program, implemented in 1964, grouped priesthood responsibilities into four categories: missionary, genealogy, Welfare, and home teaching. Ward teaching became home teaching, giving the priesthood quorums new responsibility for carrying Church programs to LDS families. Wards developed priesthood executive committees and ward councils to coordinate functions and reach out to individuals. In 1965 Family Home Evening was established Churchwide and, in 1970, Monday nights were set aside for families; special manuals provided suggestions for gospel-oriented family activities.

Beginning in 1965 all messages from general Church agencies to wards and stakes were funneled into the priesthood bulletin. Regional publications merged in 1967 into a unified international magazine, published in several languages. In 1971 Church magazines in the United States and Great Britain were restructured with the publication of the ensign for adults, the new era for teens, and the friend for children. By 1970 the Church had implemented a worldwide translation and distribution organization with publishing and distribution centers in European countries, the Americas, and the Pacific Rim.

Members of the First Council of the Seventy were ordained high priests in 1961 in order to better assist the Twelve in overseeing the growing number of wards and stakes. Regional representatives and Mission Representatives of the Twelve were called in 1967 and 1972, respectively (and merged in 1974). These officers played a key role in training and advising local leaders, an increasing number of whom were relatively recent converts with little administrative experience.

Spencer W. Kimball's presidency (1973-1985) saw important administrative changes, often in the direction of regionalizing responsibilities. Several functions previously reserved for General Authorities were delegated to stake presidents. In 1975 the First Quorum of the Seventy was reinstated as a body of General Authorities; a decade later the office of Seventy became exclusively a General Authority position. Regional Representatives received limited line authority to supervise stake work (1976). In 1978 the Twelve became more directly involved in such ecclesiastical matters as curriculum, activity programs, and Scouting; the Presiding Bishopric retained responsibility for temporal programs but no longer for the youth. To enhance general Church supervision of local operations throughout the world and at the same time facilitate regionalization, in 1984 an area presidency (a president and two counselors, all of the Seventy) was organized for each of several major geographic areas. As the Church expands, boundaries are redrawn, and the number and importance of area presidencies increase.

Church programs have also been redesigned to meet the needs of an increasingly international membership. During the 1960s a labor missionary program (modeled after one that earlier constructed a college and a temple in New Zealand, and numerous chapels, especially in the South Pacific) helped the Church build meetinghouses in all parts of the world (see Building Program). In the mid-1970s the Church divested itself of hospitals that benefited primarily residents of the intermountain West and focused increased attention on the construction of chapels and temples worldwide—this time not by labor missionaries but by professional builders. A consolidated Sunday three-hour meeting schedule for priesthood, Sacrament meeting, and auxiliary meetings was introduced in the United States and Canada in 1980 and later worldwide. By the 1980s a satellite communications network linked headquarters with many local stakes; that, and the widespread use of videotapes, made general conferences and communications from Church headquarters much more accessible. By 1990 much of the training of local leaders had been assumed by area presidencies and regional representatives.

In the 1980s Church financing became increasingly centralized, relieving local units of a major burden. Beginning in 1982 ward and stake buildings were funded fully from general Church funds (from tithes). In 1990 general funds also became the source for financing all local operations in the United States and Canada (see Finances of the Church).

Though the basic administrative officers date from the founding generation, the challenges faced and the way the Church organizes itself to meet those challenges have changed dramatically. Such changes will continue. As President John Taylor said in 1886, the priesthood must not be fettered by "cast iron rules," for it is "a living, intelligent principle, and must necessarily have freedom to act" as circumstances require (First Council of the Seventy, Minutes, Dec. 15, 1886, Church Archives).


Allen, James B., and Glen M. Leonard. The Story of the Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City, 1976.

Cowan, Richard O. The Church in the Twentieth Century. Salt Lake City, 1985.

Hartley, William G. "The Priesthood Reform Movement, 1908-1922." BYU Studies 13 (Winter 1973):137-56.

Hartley, William G. "The Priesthood Reorganization of 1877: Brigham Young's Last Achievement." BYU Studies 20 (Fall 1979):3-36.

Quinn, D. Michael. "The Evolution of the Presiding Quorums of the LDS Church." Journal of Mormon History 1 (1974):21-38.

Widtsoe, John A. Priesthood and Church Government. Salt Lake City, 1954.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 2, Organization

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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