Presiding Bishopric, II.

Mormon Bishops, much like their post-New Testament counterparts did, evolved several classes of duties. Those duties augmenting or adding to those outlined or suggested in the precursor to D&C 42 and various additions like D&C 51. D&C 107 is a revelation of many historical parts, several of those being in the segment from verse 58 onward. That segment for the most part was given November 11, 1831. There the first ordained Mormon bishop, Edward Partridge,[1] learned a bit more about the relation of the office to other Church officers and his duties regarding Church discipline. The relevant part of the revelation originally read something like this: [see RB-1.]

thus shall he be a judge even a common judge among the inhabitants of Zion [Partridge lived in Missouri from the summer of 1831] until the borders are enlarged, & it becomes necessary to have other Bishops or judges. & inasmuch as there are other Bishops appointed, they shall act in the same office. & again, verily I say unto you, the most important business of the church, & the most difficult cases of the church, inasmuch as there is not sufficient satisfaction upon the decsision of the judge, it shall be shall be handed over, & carried up unto the court of the church before the president of the high Priesthood & the president of the Court of the high priesthood shall have power to call other high priests, even twelve to assist as counsellors, & thus the president of the high priesthood, & his councellors, shall have power to decide upon testimony, according to the laws of the church; & after this desision it shall be had in remembrance no more before the Lord; for this is the highest court of the church of God & a final desision upon controverses, all persons belonging to the church are not exempt from this court of the church & inasmuch as the president of the high priesthood shall transgress, he shall be had in remembrance before the common court of the church, who shall be assisted by twelve councellors of the high Priesthood, & their desicision upon his head shall be an end of controversy concerning him. thus none shall be exempt from the justice of the Laws of God, that all things may be done in order, & in solemnity before me, to truth & righteousness. Amen. A few more words in addition to the Laws of the church. And again, verily I say unto you, the duty of the president over the office of a Deacon, is to preside over twelve Deacons, to set in council with them, & to teach them their duty, edifying one another as it is given according to the covenants. And also the duty of the president over the office of the Teachers, is to preside over twenty four of the Teachers, & to set in council with them, & to teach them the duties of their office as given in the covenants. Also the duty of the president over the priesthood is to preside over forty eight priests, & to set in council with them, & to teach them the duties of their office, as given in the covenants. And again the duty of the president over the office of the Elders, is to preside over ninety six Elders, & to set in council with them, & to teach them according to the covenants. And again the duty of the president of the office of the High Priesthood, is to preside over the whole church, & to be like unto Moses. behold here is wisdom: yea, to be a Seer, a revelator, a translator, & prophet, having all the gifts of God, which he bestoweth upon the head of the chuch: Wherefore now let every man learn his duty, & to act in the office in which he is appointed., in all diligence. he that is slothful shall not be counted worthy to stand. & he that learneth not his duty & sheweth himself not approved, shall not be counted worth to stand; even so: Amen.

Two important points are made here for the present purpose: first, the bishop is called a “common judge.” The term is used with some freedom in modern Mormon discourse and official literature, but what did it mean in this early text? In Ohio (and New York) civic structure, there was a “court of common pleas” (headed, then, by the common judge). These were the common law courts of early America drawn from the similar institutions in British and Continental law. The word “common” in the revelation therefore takes its meaning from a standard name for lower state courts, which heard civil and minor criminal cases. Second, the bishop is not the final word on judgement in the church. “More difficult” cases go to a system called the “court of the president of the high priesthood.”[2] This higher court was the superior court of the church.[3] Both courts might have “juries” attached to them, the latter would evolve into the “high council” system in 1834. The point is that the bishop was inferior to the president of the high priesthood. This resolved an important question at the time. Partridge, as chronologically the first bishop, was installed when the only other church officers were deacons, teachers, priests, elders. Where did Partridge fit in this pecking order? When high priests were introduced in June 1831, the question still remained, and Partridge and Joseph Smith were not always on the same page. On a side note, the phrase “Also the duty of the president over the priesthood is to preside over forty eight priests” doesn’t refer to the bishop at this point in time.president over the priesthood” meant the to-be-appointed president of the priests (a priest himself — “quorum” was a term not in use at this point in church language. Group dynamics among officers of the same rank was undeveloped.[4]). The bishop slides into this role in 1835 when this revelation was edited for inclusion in the 1835 D&C. Observe also that a provision is made for disciplining a bishop. Since he has judicial authority, a different avenue of discipline was required. Observe also again, “high priesthood” always refers to the office “high priest.”[5]

Ten days earlier, on November 1, 1831, a revelation text was dictated by Joseph Smith that also impacted the bishop. A part of D&C 68 contains some of this text.

And now concrning the items in addition to the Law & commandments they are these there remaneth hereafter in the due time of the Lord other Bishops to be set apart unto the church to minister even according to the first wherefore it shall be an high priest who is worthy & he shall be appointed by the confrenc of high priests And again no Bishop or judge which shall be set apart for this ministry shall be tried or condemned for any crime save it be before a confrenc [conference] of high priests by testimony that cannot be impeached he shall be condemned or forgiven according to the Laws of the church[6]

The November 1 revelation dictated that bishops would be selected by a council of high priests. These councils of the high priesthood constituted much of Church government up until the high councils were established. At this point (1831) there were simply five priesthood offices aside from the singular bishop,[7]

deacon → teacher → priest → elder → high priest (bishop?)

Aside from this indicated pecking order in meetings and the grouping numbers established in this revelation, the next priesthood architecture change was not acknowledged in revelation until a year later [D&C 84]. At that point the high priest and the (lower) priest or “lesser” priest became the pivotal offices. The other offices were then styled as “appendages” to these two. At that stage, elder and bishop were seen as appendage offices to the high priesthood. High priests could function in all Church positions at the time.[8] The lesser priesthood i.e., the office of priest, (later, the office of priest in the Aaronic order) had appendages too, the offices of deacon and teacher. This was rearranged in 1835 with the establishment of two general categories of priesthood, Aaronic and Melchizedek. Bishops then fell in the Aaronic order and were designated as presidents of quorums of priests.

The general duties of bishops at this point didn’t include liturgical supervision per se. But with the 1835 changes, combined with D&C 20, bishops gradually came to be seen as supervising the Lords Supper — but this did not happen until well after the move from Nauvoo. It was only with the journey to and establishment of Utah Mormon settlements that bishops would come to the “father of the ward” meme, a title evolving out of the charitable care exercised by bishops as suggested in the text of D&C 38 quoted in part 1. For the first twenty years or so in Utah, bishops still didn’t do much with sacrament meetings as a rule. In more populated areas, these were stake meetings held in the afternoon. Sunday mornings were for sermons. Some wards held evening meetings in addition in these settings. Bishops didn’t really do much with boys as Aaronic Priesthood holders until the 1870s. Then 11 to 17 year-olds began to be ordained deacons [duties confined to ushering in meetings and passing the sacrament – nobody felt comfortable assigning boys as “teachers” — they formed an important part of Church discipline at the time]. Priest, teacher, and deacon Quorums in Utah were stake-wide for many years with bishops rotating or sharing responsibility. While choirs were often a part of Sunday worship since Kirtland, in Utah they began to take over Sunday services. Congregational singing seems to have waned to nearly nothing by the 1890s. Hymnals were written for choirs. Ward congregational singing got up and running after the turn of the century with a new hymnbook designed for congregational singing. Ward buildings were the key to the ward take-over of Sunday meetings. What did the Presiding Bishopric do here? Essentially nothing.

Next time we look at a little more scripture.

[1] Partridge was a home body and hated being away from his wife Lydia. She, in turn, was the epitome of SAHM-hood — ran the household and everything that implied but had little to do with matters of property and business. Partridge’s hat making shop was next door to the home. As the bishop was assigned permanent residency to Missouri, it meant he couldn’t go back to Painesville to retrieve wife and children. Their eventual journey to Independence is an interesting story I won’t tell here. A daughter later wrote that her mother just couldn’t see the hand of the Lord in her trials (as she did in her blessings) but was willing to do whatever it took. In August, Partridge wrote to his wife:

I have a strange desire to return to Painesville this fall, but must not. You know I stand in an important station; and as I am occasionally chastened, I sometimes feel as though I must fall, not to give up the cause, but fear my station is above what I can perform to the acceptance of my Heavenly Father. I hope you and I may so conduct ourselves as at last to land our souls in the haven of eternal rest. Pray for me that I may not fall. Farewell too for the present.

Partridge’s worry over his own standing was more or less justified. Church discipline was sort of mercurial. He and the others in Zion were having considerable difficulty in settling issues of Church government and the nature of their relation to Joseph Smith.

[2] At the time of the revelation, there was no president of the high priesthood. The office would not be filled for a few more months.

[3] “Common judge” is now also (historically mis-) applied to stake presidencies which took the place of the First Presidency in the church judiciary. The 1970s seem to mark the first time common judge is applied to stake presidents. Common Judge has some mystique in the church perhaps first encouraged by President John Taylor. I suppose it’s too late for stake presidents to be called “superior judge.” Next time you see your stake president, call him that. He’s no common judge.

[4] “Quorum.” A Latin term first appropriated in English jurisprudence for (roughly) a council of important judges. The usage it has in the church is now rare outside it. The word doesn’t seem to appear in Church literature prior to 1834 and my guess is it was an innovation by Cowdery or Phelps but it may have come from the rather frequent scrapes Joseph Smith had with law suits. It becomes codified in church discourse by the renovations in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. After that it is used in a much broader way than just a group of men ordained to a common office. That breadth of use shrank after Smith’s death. Texts are important in the preservation of praxis and as fulcrums of interpretive claims.

[5] Whenever the words “high priesthood” appear in any of the revelations, including the modern D&C, they refer to the office of “high priest,” not some nebulous authority or the later “Melchizedek Priesthood” of 1835. The latter was a term that developed over time but its meaning was not codified until 1835 (probably a natural evolution considering Joseph’s fondness for the book of Hebrews). Again, see here.

[6] Historical discussions of LDS priesthood are rendered somewhat difficult by the change in terminology. To recapitulate, before 1835 “priesthood” referred initially simply to the office of priest. In ordination ceremonies, no one had the “priesthood” conferred upon them. Men were simply “ordained” to office.

[7] (Excluding bishop — there was only one at the time. Besides, the office wasn’t well understood at this point.) In the next part of the post, I’ll look at D&C 68 just a little. It deserves a much larger treatment.

[8] What were essentially special high priests would be organized later, counselors in the Presidency of the High Priesthood, patriarchs. Bishops at first were established as appendages to the high priesthood, though in a different sense than elders (see future posts). Later bishops became part of the Aaronic order.

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