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Melchizedek Priesthood Overview

by Jae R. Ballif

The Melchizedek Priesthood is the authority, responsibility, and power to act in the name of Jesus Christ and to organize and direct part of his work. Through the opportunities of this priesthood, men and women in partnership with God can conduct the work of the family and the Church. "It is the duty of this vast body of men holding the holy Priesthood…to exert their influence and exercise their power for good among the people of Israel and the people of the world…to preach and to work righteousness, both at home and abroad" (Smith, p. 157).

In the words of the Prophet Joseph Smith, "All Priesthood is Melchizedek, but there are different portions or degrees of it" (TPJS, p. 180). Most often, however, the name Melchizedek Priesthood is used in the Church to describe the higher priesthood and its offices. "There are, in the church, two priesthoods, namely, the Melchizedek and Aaronic…. 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" (D&C 107:1, 8). The Melchizedek Priesthood holds the keys to the kingdom, and "in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest" (D&C 84:20).

ORDINATION TO THE MELCHIZEDEK PRIESTHOOD. Every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the Melchizedek Priesthood. As with the aaronic priesthood, the Melchizedek Priesthood is conferred on those who have qualified themselves and have been called by those in authority.

Specific standards of worthiness to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood include personal integrity, chastity, obedience to the divine laws of health, and faithful contribution of tithes to the Church. Beyond these traits, it is expected that men will progress in developing attributes of godliness. Like all followers of Christ, they should be faithful, diligent, and amenable to righteous change, learning, and loving: "We can make advancement only upon the principles of eternal truth. In proportion as we become established upon the foundation of these principles which have been revealed from the heavens in the latter days, and determine to accomplish the purposes of the Lord, will we progress, and the Lord will all the more exalt and magnify us" (Smith, p. 141).

The prophet and president of the church holds and exercises all of the authority and keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood. He delegates to stake presidents and bishops and others the authority to ordain others to priesthood offices. Conferral of the Melchizedek Priesthood by the laying on of hands must also be approved by the common consent of the priesthood bearers or general membership of the candidate's stake or district.

After the Melchizedek Priesthood is conferred upon them, all priesthood holders are ordained to an office within the priesthood, usually elder. They may later be ordained to the office of high priest or patriarch as their Church callings require. Those called to be General Authorities for the whole Church will be ordained seventies or apostles. Ordination to an office within the priesthood gives specific responsibilities within the Church.

Finally, a man may be set apart to carry out an assignment, such as to be president of a quorum of elders, a stake president, or a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. As appropriate, he will be given the keys of authority necessary to carry out that assignment. This procedure makes it possible for every act performed under priesthood authority to be done at the proper time and place and in the proper way. The authority to direct those specific activities constitutes the keys of the priesthood.

An individual accepts his ordination to the Melchizedek Priesthood by making a covenant in his mind and heart with God (TPJS, p. 323; see also Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood). He covenants to honor, dignify, and learn the duties of his priesthood, to keep the commandments of God, to live by God's counsel, and to walk uprightly and virtuously as he carries out his responsibilities. God promises that if the man keeps his commitments, he will be given eternal life and be exalted in a godly state, inheriting all that the Father has, and will participate with God and the Savior in their continued work (D&C 84:39).

FUNCTIONING OF THE MELCHIZEDEK PRIESTHOOD. All who hold the priesthood can use it to benefit others, regardless of their particular Church assignment or priesthood office. For example, in working with their families, men are authorized to carry out their patriarchal responsibilities (see Fatherhood), including blessing family members. In addition, they are authorized to heal the sick, seek personal knowledge, and give general help and comfort to those whom they contact.

To supervise and carry out priesthood ordinances within the Church, it is necessary to have both the Melchizedek Priesthood and the appropriate keys. For example, to confirm baptized members and bestow the gift of the Holy Ghost upon them, it is necessary to have the power of the Melchizedek Priesthood and to be authorized to use it. In this way, there is order, and the work done on earth is acceptable to the Savior in mortality and in the hereafter (see Sealing).

In addition to providing the authority to represent Christ on earth, the Melchizedek Priesthood provides a revelatory channel through which instructions and doctrine from Christ can be made known. Every individual has access to God and the right to receive personal revelation pertaining to his or her life and callings, but when revelation concerning principles or the implementation of principles is required for the Church or a priesthood unit of it, God gives this revelation only through appropriate priesthood leaders. The prophet and President of the Church receives revelation for the entire Church. A bishop receives the revelation necessary for leading the ward. This way of making truth known underscores the right and responsibility of each individual to seek and obtain revelation and at the same time preserves order and harmony by working through the priesthood structure that Christ has set in place.

"The rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven; …[this power] cannot be controlled nor handled [except] upon the principles of righteousness" (D&C 121:36). One can officiate for God only when administering the work in wisdom and love, in a way consistent with the ways of God. Assignments must be pursued with long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, kindness, love unfeigned, pure knowledge, and charity toward all. In this way, God promises that the "doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven" (D&C 121:41-45).

Priesthood can be lost as a result of a disciplinary procedure for serious sin. When a man is excommunicated, he loses his priesthood. Disfellowshipment or probation may restrict a man from using his priesthood until the repentance process is complete. In addition, "when we undertake to cover our sins, or gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness…Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man" (D&C 121:37).

ANCIENT HISTORY OF THE MELCHIZEDEK PRIESTHOOD. The Melchizedek Priesthood is an eternal priesthood. Before mortality, God delegated authority and responsibility to worthy individuals. This holy priesthood was the means by which that action was taken. After this life, those who have been valiant and have honored their priesthood will continue to bear it and to have the responsibility to use it in serving others.

Adam, the first of the spirit children of God to live on earth, received the holy priesthood, with all its power, authority, and keys. "And thus all things were confirmed unto Adam, by an holy ordinance" (Moses 5:59). This authority was delegated to others in an unbroken chain from one prophet to another. "All the prophets had the Melchizedek Priesthood" (TPJS, p. 181).

Abraham sought the blessings of his fathers and the right to be ordained to the priesthood. Because he had qualified himself for the priesthood, even though his own father had not, Abraham obtained the priesthood from Melchizedek, the king of Salem and a priest of God (Abr. 1:2-5). Melchizedek met Abraham and blessed him, and Abraham gave him a tenth part of all he had (Heb. 7:1-3). Melchizedek exercised mighty faith and used his priesthood to bring a people practicing iniquity to repentance. None was greater than he (Alma 13:17-19). Originally, the priesthood was known as the "Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God" (D&C 107:3). To avoid too frequent use of God's name, the Church in ancient days called the priesthood by the name of this noted priesthood leader, Melchizedek (D&C 107:2-4).

Moses received the Melchizedek Priesthood from his father-in-law, Jethro (D&C 84:6). Moses held the Melchizedek Priesthood until he was translated, at which time the keys of the greater priesthood went with him, and what remained with the people was an appendage to the Melchizedek Priesthood called the Aaronic Priesthood, a priesthood with limited authority. After the time of Moses, individual prophets were given the holy priesthood at various times by God, but it was restricted from the general populace.

The Book of Mormon reports that Nephite prophets held the priesthood called after the order of the Son of God, the Melchizedek Priesthood (Alma 13:10). Those who had the authority directed the work of God among the people (Alma 29:13).

The apostles were given the Melchizedek Priesthood by Jesus Christ while he ministered on earth. He gave them authority and responsibility to direct his Church. After Christ left, the apostles continued to officiate for him and conferred the Melchizedek Priesthood on others when it was appropriate (Eph. 4:11-13; Acts 1:22-26; see also Organization of the Church in New Testament Times). Over time, both the principles and the priesthood authority and keys were lost through apostasy.

MODERN HISTORY OF THE MELCHIZEDEK PRIESTHOOD. The Melchizedek Priesthood was given to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery (see below). As directed, they ordained one another first and second elders of the Church on April 6, 1830 (see Elder). In turn, they conferred the priesthood upon, ordained, and set apart others to offices and callings in the priesthood (see Organization of the Church, 1830). The first bishop was ordained in 1831 to care for the poor and needy and to govern the temporal affairs of the Church. On June 3, 1831, Joseph Smith directed more than twenty men to be ordained to the "high priesthood," as the president of this high priesthood. High priest councils governed the Church until 1834.

In 1835 the Church structure was adjusted to accommodate the additional revelation and increased numbers; priesthood quorums made up of men ordained to particular offices were in operation (see Doctrine and Covenants: Section 107). Three presiding high priests were established as the quorum of the First Presidency. The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was a traveling high council directed by the First Presidency. The Seventy were to travel internationally to preach. Stake high councils were established to govern within their stakes, and bishops cared for the temporal concerns of the Church.

It was necessary for additional Melchizedek Priesthood keys to be restored to carry out the higher temple ordinances. Messengers from God brought these keys and instructions on April 3, 1836 (see Doctrine and Covenants: Section 110).

On July 12, 1843, Joseph Smith recorded the revelation concerning eternal marriage relationships, wherein Christ said he would "give unto thee the law of my Holy Priesthood, as was ordained by me and my Father before the world was" (D&C 132:28). He conferred upon Joseph "the keys and power of the priesthood" (D&C 132:45; see also Patriarchal Order of the Priesthood).

The First Presidency presides over the Melchizedek Priesthood and directs the work of the Church. The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles shares this responsibility according to the keys given to the apostles. In turn, stake presidents supervise the wards and branches of the Church by the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood and the specific keys given them.

All men who have the Melchizedek Priesthood are members of a priesthood quorum. These quorums are established within geographic boundaries and are made up of a group of men who hold the same office in the priesthood or who are of the same age group and may come to hold that office. Quorums administer the work of the Church assigned to them, train members in their priesthood responsibility, and provide opportunities for service and brotherhood for those working toward common goals.

In each stake there is one high priests quorum. The stake president and his counselors serve as the quorum presidency. A high priests group functions in each ward, presided over by a group leader, one or more assistants, and a secretary. An elders quorum, presided over by a president, two counselors, and a secretary, is organized in every ward and independent branch. The stake presidency and high councilors oversee all Melchizedek Priesthood quorum activities in the stake.


Backman, Milton V., Jr. The Heavens Resound: A History of the Latter-day Saints in Ohio 1830-1838, pp. 237-56. Salt Lake City, 1983.

Critchlow, William J., Jr. "Priesthood—Asset or Liability?" IE 66 (Dec. 1963):1067-69.

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

Kimball, Spencer W., et al. Priesthood. Salt Lake City, 1981.

Smith, Joseph F. GD, pp. 136-200.

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

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 2, Melchizedek Priesthood, Powers and Offices

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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