Temple Priesthood & the JSP

“Temple Priesthood & the JSP: What do the Papers tell us about what we already know”
September 15, 2024. JSPP Conference Presentation
Kathleen Flake, University of Virginia

Science tells us that the asymmetry of the brain reflects our two ways of understanding our experience. The one way narrows our attention such that we don’t see forest, only trees. Lawyers and scholars, too, are famous for this capacity to abstract the particular from the whole, even until forest becomes bark and leaf. Our other way of knowing is by widening our attention and considering things within their contexts– the forest in its larger landscape, its interaction with light and rain, general stages of growth and decay, maybe even the creatures it shelters. Neither is better than the other. In fact, they are doing the same thing but with a different kind of attention: the one, analytic (deconstructive, if you will) and the other, wholistic and contextual. Why does this matter? Where and how we focus our attention affects what we know and understanding is dependent on the cooperation of these two ways of knowing.

It seems to me the Joseph Smith Papers is a product of such cooperation, and it invites us to do the same. If we do, regardless of whether the text is new or familiar to us, the Papers Project can change what we know, even about what we thought we already knew very well. It seems to me likely that the Project’s chief contribution may not be the addition of new data to the Smith archive, but its renewal and revision of our scholarly and religious historiographical canon. I will attempt to illustrate this today with two kinds of documents: the first very familiar, the second already known to a few but now available to many.

Better Understanding the Familiar

The most familiar of all documents related to Joseph Smith’s is his 1838 “History of the Church,” retitled “Joseph Smith-History” in its scriptural form. The Papers Project provides seven other versions of this history, including his 1832 draft which was the basis for the 1838 version. Research presented at the Huntington 2020 observance of the First Vision’s bicentennial has already demonstrated how indebted we are to the Project for its curation of these several accounts. I used it to argue, among other things, that a close reading of the two versions Smith wrote shows that the History is less about the nature of God than the nature of the church. In other words, it is an institutional history, not a doctrinal statement or guide on how to get answers to prayer and not even a very personal history. Not surprisingly then, Smith described it as about events “in relation to the rise and progress of the Church.”

Stepping back from the words of the text to look at it as a narrative, we can see that the storyline begins in earnest with the problems caused by the first vision; namely, not just the personal treatment of the young prophet but the message that no church had the power of godliness necessary to save the soul. What follows is the solution to the problem: the restoration of power through three appearances by heavenly messengers. What I have just referred to as the three events subsequent to Smith’s first vision are, as you well know, the appearances of John the Baptist and Peter, James and John, who bestowed the “powers of godliness” (lower and higher) that was associated with two orders of priesthood (Aaronic and Melchizedek) and of Moroni who cites Malachi to prophesy of a third order priesthood or the Abrahamic order. Priesthood is, you might say the point of this point of this story, as an origin story for the Church. Later, Joseph would put it this way: “the summum bonum [or highest good or goal] of the whole subject that is lying before us, consists in obtaining the powers of the Holy Priesthood. For him to whom these keys are given there is no difficulty in obtaining a knowledge of facts in relation to the salvation of the children of men, both as well for the dead as for the living.” 

If we take an even broader view of the subject, however, an interesting wrinkle appears in this plotline. Malachi’s prophecy had been fulfilled by the time Smith wrote this story. Here’s the account as it appears in Section 110 of the Doctrine and Covenants “Elias appeared, and committed the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham, saying that in us and our seed all generations after us should be blessed. After this vision had closed, another great and glorious vision burst upon us; for Elijah the prophet. . . stood before us, and said: Behold, the time has fully come, which was spoken of by the mouth of Malachi.” It is curious to me that, writing as he was in 1838, only two years after these visitations, Joseph does not mention them in his narrative of the “the rise and progress of the Church.” Of course, the answer may simply be, as I have argued elsewhere, that this is a prehistory of the Church, and that he expected this additional, Abrahamic order of priesthood would receive due attention in later accounts. It could also mean that he did not yet know how or lacked sufficient social stability to instantiate it in actual practice.

Four years later, however, the Abrahamic priesthood was fully operational or about to be so. It informed nearly every aspect of Smith’s religious activity: his sermons, scriptural production, organizational innovation, and temple’s ceremony. Here, too, the Papers Project provides the textual and contextual knowledge to constructively reexamine what we think we know about the “Holy Priesthood.”

Better Understanding Through Newly Available Documents

Two documents are of particular help. They were once only available to a few but now, because of the Papers Project, have been made easily accessible to all. It will not surprise you that one of these documents is the Nauvoo Relief Society Minutes. The second is less well known but no less valuable, the revelation of the marital sealing rite preserved by the Newell and Ann Whitney family.

In the spring of 1842, having achieved sufficient social stability in Nauvoo to seek relief from his other duties to devote his time to the “perfection of the Saints,” as he put it, Joseph Smith took several steps to realize the endowments of power revealed in Kirtland. He published the Book of Abraham, which explained what it meant to obtain “the rights belonging to the Fathers and the right to administer the same.” In the same month, he organized the women as he had other standing councils of the Church; namely, with revelatory leadership, membership based on worthiness, and possessing religious rights and duties. He placed them within a salvation history of an ancient priestly sisterhood “as in Enoch’s day — as in Paul’s day” and imposed upon them the duties of Christ-like discipleship to “enlarge your souls toward others if you [w]ould do like Jesus, and carry your fellow creatures to Abram’s bosom.” In all these and other ways recorded in the Relief Society Minutes, Smith explicitly told them they had power in the priesthood.

The Minutes make it equally clear that the women’s priestly rights had jurisdictional limits. In Smith’s cosmology, both men and women participated with power in effecting God’s plan for human salvation and were commissioned to “save souls.” But the jurisdictional reach of their authority differed. During the first organizational meeting, Smith had limited the women’s privileges to minister to the poor and “strengthen virtue” to only “the female community.” Six weeks later, he repeated these jurisdictional boundaries when counseling the Society regarding priesthood: “Let your labors be confin’d mostly to those around you in your own circle; as far as knowledge is concerned, it may extend to all the world, but your administrations, should be confin’d to the circle of your immediate acquaintance and more especially to the members of the Society.” Here, one sees the combination of unlimited authority “as far as knowledge is concerned” but limited power as to “administration.” Women were not to “keep silent” in the church but administration” or mediation of priestly power was “confin’d” to their “select” society.

Thus, as in all the other priestly councils, the Relief Society’s duties and rights were exercised within an ecclesiastical bureaucracy of offices and councils within which individuals were both granted authority and limited vis-a-vis others in the exercise of it. Gender distinctions were defined not in terms of the nature of the authority, but rather its jurisdictional scope. Or, in canonical terms, men held the “keys” to (or presided over) the Aaronic and Melchizedek orders. Women, however, participated in the powers associated with these two orders (ministering to the poor, rebuking the sinful, teaching, healing and blessing by the laying on of hands), but did not preside, that is, except those deemed an “Elect Lady,” who presided over the “female community.”

The women’s authority over the women of the church was, nonetheless, real. When Reynolds Cahoon, a member of the temple committee, addressed the Society at its invitation, he admitted “a delicacy in rising to address the Society.” While such language was a politeness of the times, he seemed to be expressing a particular sensitivity since he immediately turned his attention to a comment on the Society’s identity and authority. There were, he said, “many Benevolent Societies abroad designd [sic] to do good but not as this… according to the order of God connected with the priesthood.”

The temple endowment, too, would speak in specific terms of both the women and men having power in the Aaronic and Melchizedek orders of priesthood. It is, however, in the Whitney family’s preservation of a sealing rite that we see that the temple is the means of receiving power in the Abrahamic order. The thread of this story begins as early as 1835 when Smith noted that God established marriage according to a pattern of “everlasting priesthood.” But it was not until 1842, that men and women were joined or “sealed” by temple rites that constituted a new locus of priestly authority through ritually constructed kinship. Newel K. Whitney left an account of the rite used to seal Joseph Smith to his daughter and which later described it as a revelation, most likely through Joseph Smith. Several aspects of it demonstrate that the sealing rite is resembles an ordination.

Whitney did not explain his role as officiator in terms of his ecclesiastical office of bishop. Instead, he claimed a priestly authority that was both personal to him as a father and broadly held by his family, living and dead. He began by saying he performed the marriage “in my own name and in the name of my wife your mother and in the name of my ‘Holy Progenitors.’ Furthermore, this authority was, he added, “vested in me by revelation and commandment and promise of the liveing God obtained by . . .the Holy Fathers.”

The ultimate blessing pronounced upon the couple took the form of a command, but not to the couple. Rather, it was an imperative directed at those from whom Whitney derived his authority to perform the marriage. “Commanding in the name of the Lord,” Whitney said, “all those Powers[of Priesthood] to concentrate in you and through to your posterity.” 1 With these words, the priestly authority of parents and “Holy Progenitors” was bestowed upon or, in the language of the rite, “concentrated in” or “vested in” the bride and groom. Thus, Whitney not only claimed priestly authority to marry them; he conveyed that authority to them. In this manner, the ceremony was designed to create a matriarch and patriarch whose children obtained from them birthrights to priestly status no less than the biblical Israelites. (KJV Gen. 19:6).

The sealing rite’s gender-neutral reference to “Holy Progenitors” conveyed the sense of a parental, not merely fatherly, authority. To paraphrase the New Testament ideal, in early Mormonism the fathers were not without the mothers in the “Priest Hood” (cf. 1 Cor. 11:11). This matriarchal dimension of patriarchal priesthood was evidenced elsewhere in the Nauvoo’s historical record. 2 Two months prior to performing this sealing, Bishop Whitney had addressed the Relief Society. He told them: “Without the female all things cannot be restor’d to the earth—it takes all to restore the Priesthood.” 3 Smith soon began to teach that sealed marriage was an order of the priesthood and without it heaven was unattainable. Priesthood was, thus, not merely the power which governed the temple; it was the gift of the temple.

These are only two of records from the Papers Project which that fill the gap left in the 1838 historically account of the power of godliness. There are many more and so many that I don’t know what could rival it for his attention and intentions. It really was and is, as he said, “the summum bonum of the whole subject that is lying before us.”


I have spoken of “gaps” in certain histories, even Joseph Smith’s. I would not have you think that I think these are errors either in the record or the persons responsible for the record. Rather, I think such gaps speak to the nature of our encounters with the divine. I would even say they are inevitable and remain to serve as catalyst for further revelation “until we all come into the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, . . . unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:14-14)

I believe the Joseph Smith Papers Project is a step in that right direction, giving us a better understanding of what we thought we already knew.