Presiding Bishopric, III.

Doctrine and Covenants section 68 contains important material regarding bishops. It is also interesting its textual evolution. I’ll begin by considering a proto-version of verses 13 through 24 (as they appear in Revelation Book 1, Joseph Smith Papers Manuscript Revelations volume) and then I’ll look at the current text of the D&C. In the RB-1 text, observe that the blue text is omitted from the current edition. In verses 13-24 in the current imprint, the text in red is additional text added to the 1831 revelation—this additional text appeared first in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants.

RB-1 Text
And now concrning the items in addition to the Laws & 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 a 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 confrence of high priests & inasmuch as he is found guilty before a confrenc of high priests by testimony that cannot be impeached he shall be condemned or forgiven according to the Laws of the church

Current Text
13 And now, concerning the items in addition to the covenants and commandments, they are these—
14 There remain hereafter, in the due time of the Lord, other bishops to be set apart unto the church, to minister even according to the first;
15 Wherefore they shall be high priests who are worthy, and they shall be appointed by the First Presidency of the Melchizedek Priesthood, except they be literal descendants of Aaron.
16 And if they be literal descendants of Aaron they have a legal right to the bishopric, if they are the firstborn among the sons of Aaron;
17 For the firstborn holds the right of the presidency over this priesthood, and the keys or authority of the same.
18 No man has a legal right to this office, to hold the keys of this priesthood, except he be a literal descendant and the firstborn of Aaron.

19 But, as a high priest of the Melchizedek Priesthood has authority to officiate in all the lesser offices he may officiate in the office of bishop when no literal descendant of Aaron can be found, provided he is called and set apart and ordained unto this power, under the hands of the First Presidency of the Melchizedek Priesthood.
20 And a literal descendant of Aaron, also, must be designated by this Presidency, and found worthy, and anointed, and ordained under the hands of this Presidency, otherwise they are not legally authorized to officiate in their priesthood.
21 But, by virtue of the decree concerning their right of the priesthood descending from father to son, they may claim their anointing if at any time they can prove their lineage, or do ascertain it by revelation from the Lord under the hands of the above named Presidency.
22 And again, no bishop or high priest who shall be set apart for this ministry shall be tried or condemned for any crime, save it be before the First Presidency of the church;
23 And inasmuch as he is found guilty before this Presidency, by testimony that cannot be impeached, he shall be condemned;
24 And if he repent he shall be forgiven, according to the covenants and commandments of the church.

There are some fascinating changes here over and above the obvious additions and several of these relate to the criticism of the New Testament and history of Christianity in the second and third centuries CE. As far as the added text in red, two important things are easy to spot. First, the patrilineal descent option. This is an addition that has no practical discernible application, so what is its purpose? While it may be interpreted as offering the office of bishop as a restoration from the ancient world, securing Mormon exceptionalism in yet another way, I think it also offers us a look at the way early Latter-day Saints saw themselves. Their religion was not just a reappearance of the ancient order of things. The Saints were descendants of the ancients in body as well as in spirit. The idea that they might be seen as children of Aaron (an image that appears prominently in 1832 in both a literal and an adoptive sense) conferred a kind of immortality that was strengthened through Joseph’s career. Modern biology tells us that if Aaron’s line didn’t die out, then we are all descended from him — but our patriarchal blessings continue the powerful adoption theology from the earliest years of the restoration.[1]

The additional 1835 text here (and similar text added to a November 11, 1831 revelation) placed the office of bishop in a very special relationship with the rest of Church leadership. A bishop can only be hired or fired by the First Presidency. Vestiges of both this and the original revelation remain in current practice. Presently, a bishop is recommended to the First Presidency for approval, by a stake president. After that approval, the bishop’s name is announced to the local high council (a council of high priests) who approve names of counselors to the new bishop. Bishops currently have no special immunity in Church discipline. The First Presidency does not put transgressing bishops on trial: we’re back to the council of high priests for that (as noted before, stake presidencies assumed portions of the FP’s role). It’s worth noting that with the 1831 to 1835 development of the bishop mythos came a change in the way bishops fit in Mormon ecclesiology. By 1832, bishops were classified as appendages, attachments, to the high priests. In 1835, they were switched to officers in a new christened, “Aaronic Priesthood.” The organizational chart saw large changes over those four years.

There is a rather interesting thing in the verse summary from the current edition of the revelation that I noted in part 1:

1–5, The words of the elders when moved upon by the Holy Ghost are scripture; 6–12, Elders are to preach and baptize, and signs will follow true believers; 13–24, The firstborn among the sons of Aaron may serve as the Presiding Bishop (that is, hold the keys of presidency as a bishop) under the direction of the First Presidency; 25–28, Parents are commanded to teach the gospel to their children; 29–35, The Saints are to observe the Sabbath, labor diligently, and pray.

Spot it? The verse summary offers the interpretation that verses 13-24 apply to the Presiding Bishop. One can see the temptation there, but historically it makes no sense at all. Since there is no revelation or policy statement to back this up, I think we are forced to consider this a more or less convenient fiction (remember, everyone concerned has made it clear that this kind of introductory text is not to be considered revelation or doctrine). No revelation has ever supported the notion that the Presiding Bishop is the exclusive object of this Aaronic privileging. A look at Joseph F. Smith’s speech of July 4, 1892 (see Stuy, Collected Discourses vol. 3) gives his straight-forward scripture-based interpretation of the these passages. It’s a useful read. The idea that a “literal descendant” of Aaron has a right to the office of Presiding Bishop is pretty old but justifications for it stem from the same forgetfulness that reads History of the Church as a composition of Joseph Smith. Even B. H. Roberts seemed to believe this fiction. Thanks, 1850s historians.

One other item from the verse summary. The men addressed in the revelation were high priests, not elders, and that was theologically important for 1830s Mormonism.

Next time, a little more on bishops in early Mormonism and the genesis of a Presiding Bishop.

[1] Y-chromosome linkage to Aaron? A nice summary is “Y-chromosomal Aaron” in Wikipedia. DNA genealogy would not be good enough for an Aaronite bishop. “Judge in Israel” is yet another trope that appears in revelation (e.g., D&C 58), linking to the Judges of the Hebrew Bible but also making the Latter-day Saints Children of Israel indeed. The title catches on in Mormon discourse with John Taylor again.

2 Responses to Presiding Bishopric, III.

  1. J. Stapley says:

    Love this stuff. Super useful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: