The First Presidency of the Early Church: Their Lives and Epistles
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“The First Presidency of the Early Church: Their Lives and Epistles,” Ensign, Aug. 1988, 16

The First Presidency of the Early Church:

Their Lives and Epistles

Peter, James, and John were the key leaders in the New Testament Church and to that extent functioned as a First Presidency. Whether these Apostles regularly met apart from the rest is not known, but their authority is evident from the Bible and early Christian writings. Most important, Christ selected them. He promised Peter, “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 16:19.) An event shortly after suggests fulfillment, when the three accompanied Jesus to a “high mountain apart,” where Moses and Elias appeared in glory before them. (See Matt. 17:1–3.)

Matthew veils the fulfillment of the promise to Peter, but Joseph Smith clarifies it: “The Savior, Moses and Elias gave the keys to Peter, James and John on the mount when they were transfigured before him.”1

With this authority these ancient Apostles ordained Joseph Smith, Jr., and Oliver Cowdery and gave to them the keys of presidency. (See D&C 27:12.)

Christ took only Peter, James, and John with him on a number of sacred occasions, such as the time he raised a dead child (see Mark 5:37–42) and the time he suffered at Gethsemane (Matt. 26:37–39). Furthermore, Peter and John were the first men at the empty tomb (John 20:1–10), and later that day the resurrected Savior appeared to Peter before appearing to the other Apostles (Luke 24:34).

Right after Jesus’ resurrection, Peter led the gathering of Jesus’ disciples when a new Apostle, Mathias, was chosen. (See Acts 1:15.) Peter declared the gospel for the “eleven” in Jerusalem on the miraculous day of Pentecost. (See Acts 2:14.) Then Peter and John spoke before the Jewish council that condemned Christ, declaring that they would offer their lives rather than compromise their witness of his divinity. (See Acts 4:19–20.)

As the gospel spread to Samaria, Peter and John went there to supervise the work and to lay on hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost. (See Acts 8:14–25.) The prominence of these two Apostles is highlighted by the fact that none of the other original Apostles appear by name from Acts 2 through 11. The climax of the first part of Acts is the revelation to Peter that the gospel should be taken to Cornelius and other gentiles. (Acts 10.)

Two members of the ancient First Presidency, James and John, were brothers—sons of Zebedee. (See Matt. 10:2.) In A.D. 44, the first Herod Agrippa “stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church.” (Acts 12:1.) He imprisoned Peter and “killed James the brother of John with the sword.” (Acts 12:2.) This vacancy in the leading three was soon filled by another James, whom Paul, in writing to the Galatians about A.D. 56, said was the brother of Jesus. He said he visited Peter in Jerusalem, and then added: “But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother.” (Gal. 1:19.)

This second James apparently played an important role in Jerusalem, for Paul lists him as one of the leaders in the Jerusalem Council: “James, Cephas, and John … seemed to be pillars.” (Gal. 2:9.) Cephas is of course Peter’s Aramaic name. (See John 1:42.) And seemed here carries the suggestion of men “of reputation,” as it does in Gal. 2:2, where the Greek verb is the same.

John is prominent with Peter in the first half of Acts, but afterward James the brother of the Lord is the prominent leader at Jerusalem, where he is mentioned often in association with Peter. When the angel released Peter from prison, the chief Apostle sent word to “James, and to the brethren.” (Acts 12:17.)

Because of James’s leading position, later Christian writers titled him Bishop of Jerusalem, but they wrote in an era that knew no higher authority than bishop. James’s specific responsibility included decisions on doctrine for the whole Church, which went far beyond the calling of any New Testament bishop. This is apparent in the prominent role James played at the Jerusalem Council, the meeting of the Apostles and elders to determine whether gentile converts needed circumcision as well as baptism. Peter spoke first in favor of the gentiles, Paul and Barnabas supported him, and James proposed the details of the solution. (See Acts 15:6–21.)

After his third missionary journey about A.D. 59, Paul traveled to Israel, saw James, and followed James’s counsel to go to the temple to show friendship to the Jews. (See Acts 21:18–24; Acts 24:17; 1 Cor. 16:1–4.)

What is common to the messages of Peter, James, and John? They are letter-Gospels in the sense that they describe the Lord’s life and teachings. All knew the Lord during his mortal life, and all saw him after his resurrection. (Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 15:7 [1 Cor. 15:7] of Jesus’ appearance to James, Jesus’ brother.) In their individual ways, they report their knowledge of Jesus Christ. We can read their letters more sensitively if we remember that the authors were living witnesses who heard the Lord’s teachings in person.

Their letters do not reason as much as report. Peter and John speak openly of what the Lord said and did. More subtly, James does the same. One scholar concludes that “there are more parallels in this Epistle [of James] than in any other New Testament book to the teaching of our Lord in the Gospels.”2

James and His Letter

Which James wrote the epistle of that name? It begins with a confident “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad.” (James 1:1.)

Only a General Authority would address spiritual Israel, giving commands and counsel to the whole Church, and only a well-known James would write without need of further identification. Two candidates fit these conditions: the brother of John and the brother of the Savior. As mentioned earlier, after the brother of John was killed by Herod in A.D. 44, the only James mentioned in the New Testament is the brother of Jesus. Acts afterward simply refers to James without specific identification because his prominence placed him beyond confusion with anyone else.

Was the brother of the Lord the writer of the New Testament letter of James? An answer comes from the first collection of Christian sources, Ecclesiastical History, compiled by the Palestinian bishop Eusebius. Beginning shortly after A.D. 300, Eusebius quoted writings that have long since disappeared. Thus Eusebius’s opinions, when coming from early documents, should not be lightly dismissed.

Eusebius says that James’s letter was challenged by scholars of his day because Christian writers quoted it hardly at all. Yet he admits that earlier Christians had considered it authentic and identified its author. The bishop-historian describes the martyrdom of the Lord’s brother in A.D. 62 and then comments on the letters of James and Jude:

“These accounts are given respecting James, who is said to have written the first of the epistles general. … Not many indeed of the ancients have mentioned it. … Nevertheless we know that these … are publicly used in most of the churches.”3 (Actually, James was quoted by an important Christian in the second century A.D.4)

There is a fallacy in doubting authenticity because of an absence of early quotations. Eusebius said that most churches were using James and Jude as authentic even though they were not mentioned by prominent Christian writers. And this first Christian historian identifies the author of James as the Lord’s brother.

A letter “to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” would hardly seem appropriate before the death of James, the brother of John (A.D. 44). Then, the Church was only beginning to spread to areas around Israel; but soon afterward the great missionary expansion created the need of Christian literature to instruct new converts.5

The letter would thus have been written between that time and the death of the Lord’s brother in A.D. 62. Eusebius quotes Hegesippus, a second-century Jewish Christian, who told the following details concerning James’s death: Jewish leaders waited for retribution against James, the brother of the Lord. Deeply respected in the Jewish community for his godly and prayerful life, the Apostle was called “James the just.” But he lost civil protection when the Roman governor died. Jewish leaders then forced James to stand on a temple wall at Passover and demanded that he deny Jesus before the massed pilgrims. Instead, James bore a powerful testimony of Christ and was thrown to the ground and stoned. He died while praying that his persecutors would be forgiven.6

James’s letter is a personal testimony of Christ’s message. Critics who downgrade James actually downgrade the Sermon on the Mount because his letter contains the first quotations in the New Testament from the sermon. Perhaps relying on a written collection of teachings that Matthew later used, James wrote his letter before Matthew gave his three-chapter record of Christ’s challenging speech. (See Matt. 5–7.)

James was probably the oldest brother after Jesus (see Matt. 13:55), and had full opportunity to hear the private and public message of the Lord. James repeats many of Jesus’ teachings but stresses the Sermon on the Mount, paraphrasing four of the nine beatitudes in wording similar to that of Matthew’s record.7

In James 5:12, he summarizes Jesus’ teaching on Jewish oaths, explaining that promises should be made simply with yes and no and that all of them should be kept. (See also Matt. 5:33–37.) He rephrases Jesus’ instructions about the crucial importance of hearing and then doing:

“But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” (James 1:22.)

Belief is blended into action in Jesus’ great sermon and in James’s letter. Both demand high moral standards, and both tell what it means to pray fervently and have full faith. God will surely give to those who ask in faith (see James 1:5), and God blesses the sick through the prayer of faith and the laying on of hands (see James 5:14–15). As Jesus promised, so James promises miracles through prayer and faith.

Who has faith, then? Jesus had stressed that one cannot serve two masters. (See Matt. 6:24.) James says twice that a double-minded person is unstable. He bluntly tells us that half-hearted prayers are not answered, nor will Satan leave a person of divided determination. (See James 1:6–8; James 4:7–8.)

Every ancient presidency message asks for concern for others. Jesus singled out that principle in the Golden Rule and in the second great commandment of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. (Matt. 7:12; Matt. 22:37–40.) James called the second great commandment “the royal law” (James 2:8) and gives clear examples of its meaning. Those who keep the royal law focus on the needy, especially the fatherless and widows. (James 1:27.) They regard a person’s quality, not his clothes. (James 2:2–3.) They give fair pay to the laborer. (James 5:1–4.) They speak to all with clean and respectful language. (James 3:1–6.) Within the person living such a law is purity, peace, and God’s spiritual power. (James 3:17–18.)

Peter and His Letters

The Gospels mention Peter more often than anyone except Christ. Peter’s name appears nearly 100 times in those books, from his earliest travels to seek out John the Baptist to his final days with the resurrected Jesus.

First and Second Peter ring with authority. The first letter is quoted several times by Polycarp in the early second century and is thereafter often identified as being from Peter.8 Many modern scholars doubt the apostolic origin of 2 Peter because of the lack of early quotations, but others see it as first century because Jude probably paraphrased its teaching on the coming apostasy.

Personal knowledge of Jesus underlies all of Peter’s letters. Peter was a living eyewitness of the Transfiguration, remembering the Father’s voice declaring the divinity of the Son. (See 2 Pet. 1:16–18.) Peter was by the cross when Christ bore “our sins in his own body,” and tells how the Savior suffered painfully without blaming his persecutors. (See 1 Pet. 2:21–25.)

This personal knowledge of Christ carries over to Peter’s paraphrases of what the Master taught. Peter plainly echoes Jesus’ call to be peacemakers, as well as the principle of giving good for evil. (See 1 Pet. 3:9, 11.) Peter also counsels the priesthood to “feed the flock of God” (1 Pet. 5:2), relaying the insistent charge the Savior gave him: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:16).

This counsel goes further than verbal teaching. One word repeated a number of times in both letters is translated conversation, used for its now-archaic meaning of way of life.9 Peter asks the Saints to set the example, just as Christ had set the example for him.

The Gospels give almost day-to-day pictures of Peter’s growth. The first half of Acts features his presidency of the Church. But Acts drops his story in favor of Paul after the Jerusalem Council. Although Peter lived nearly two decades more, the New Testament gives only glimpses of this period.

One instance concerns his ministry in Antioch about A.D. 50. Paul blames him for not eating with the gentiles in the presence of Jews but admits that Peter, James, and John had decided to concentrate on missionary work to the Jews. (Gal. 2:9–14.) The episode is valuable because it shows that Peter was in several major cities of the empire, not as bishop of Antioch or of Rome, but as a traveling Apostle above the stationary bishops.

When the Corinthians challenged Paul’s practices, he reminded them that Peter and the Lord’s brothers were traveling with their wives among the Christian churches. (1 Cor. 9:5.) Was Peter’s main mission field Asia Minor? His first letter addressed the Saints in five Asian provinces and perhaps was written to strengthen his converts. (1 Pet. 1:1.) Substantial groups of Jews then lived in those areas.

Why is Peter the only New Testament source for Christ’s preaching to the spirit world? The answer may relate to Peter’s presidency. He was the first priesthood leader to talk with Christ after Jesus “went and preached unto the spirits in prison.” (1 Pet. 3:19.) Several scriptures show that the early Church knew far more on this subject than is preserved. When promising the keys to Peter, Jesus said that the Church would overcome “the gates of hell” (Matt. 16:18), the last word being the Greek hades, meaning the world of departed spirits.

The New Testament tells us that Christ holds “the keys of hell” (Rev. 1:18) and exercised them by entering the spirit world to preach to those who rejected Noah. But Peter totally opens the scope of that work, saying that all are accountable and that “for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead.” (1 Pet. 4:6.)

Based on Peter’s assertion, preaching the gospel could not be limited to those who would die during Peter’s time. Thus Joseph Smith’s translation boldly but logically changed Peter’s was to is, indicating that the preaching to the dead has continued.10 If no other but Christ preached to departed spirits, why were having keys and overcoming hades associated with Peter and the Church? Only prophets have the full perspective here, with President Joseph F. Smith seeing in vision the ongoing preaching by the righteous who have died. (See D&C 138.)

Peter was crucified at Rome under Nero. About A.D. 96, Clement wrote from Rome that Peter and Paul endured persecution to their deaths, adding an honor roll of martyrdoms: “To these men with their holy lives was gathered a great multitude of the chosen, who were the victims of jealousy and offered among us the fairest example in their endurance under many indignities and tortures.”11 The only extensive persecution up to that time was under Nero, so Clement places the death of Peter at the time that Nero’s victims perished.12

Thus the latest date for Peter’s letters is A.D. 68, when Nero died. In his second letter, the chief Apostle predicts his imminent death (see 2 Pet. 1:14)—a hint that he had been arrested after A.D. 64 in the investigation following the fire that Nero blamed on the Christians. Peter’s first letter says that “judgment must begin at the house of God,” a possible reference to the first wave of arrests after the fire. (1 Pet. 4:17.) Furthermore, the mention of full preaching throughout Asia Minor suggests a date in the 60s. Both letters thus represent the insights of a seasoned president of Christ’s church.

John and His Letters

John was the surviving member of the early Church’s presidency. Reading the close of his Gospel and its modern clarification (see D&C 7), we know that John’s special ministry continued without death, though he was known as an aged Apostle at the end of the first century. As the final witness of Christ among the Old World Apostles, he penned his firsthand knowledge of Jesus in plain phrases: “Which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled.” (1 Jn. 1:1.)

History sketches John’s last mortal decade but is silent about his middle years. Earlier there was the intense period of testifying with Peter in the temple. During this period he also sat in many Church councils on the expanding work. Like Peter after the Jerusalem Conference, John disappeared from our view. Unlike Peter, however, there was no hint of John’s whereabouts until almost half a century later.

John’s life during these years was sketched by Irenaeus, a bishop writing in the last quarter of the second century. When young, Irenaeus knew Polycarp, an Asia Minor bishop in the vicinity of Ephesus, in present southwest Turkey. Polycarp had known John and reported events and attitudes in the Apostle’s life. Irenaeus’s recollection is clear:

“I remember the events of those days … so that I can speak even of the place in which the blessed Polycarp sat and disputed, … how he reported intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord.”13

Irenaeus related that John wrote the Revelation in exile “towards the end of Domitian’s reign,” which is A.D. 96.14 John then wrote his Gospel “during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.”15 Some modern scholars speak of an Ephesian ministry before Patmos, but Irenaeus gives no hint of this. Irenaeus speaks of John as known until “the times of Trajan,” a reign that began in A.D. 98.16 That approximate date for John’s Gospel is supported by Irenaeus’s story that the Apostle John would not be in the same building with the heretical Cerinthus, who flourished in the early second century.17

So a study of Irenaeus suggests about A.D. 96 for Revelation, about A.D. 98 for the Gospel, and about A.D. 100 for the letters. Since the letters constantly refer to what Christ taught, they presuppose that the Apostle had already circulated his Gospel. Some modern Christians mistakenly argue that no prophecy could come after the end of Revelation, but the Apostle continued to speak and write by inspiration after warning copyists not to change “the book of this prophecy,” clearly referring to the book of Revelation only. (See Rev. 1:3; Rev. 22:19.)

According to modern revelation, Apostles are “special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world” (D&C 107:23), and no one filled this assignment more faithfully than John. A trademark of his writings is the emphasis on “witness,” “testimony,” and “bear record.” John testified firsthand because he outlived all others who could speak of Jesus from personal knowledge. But his words also show reliance on the Holy Ghost as the deeper source of knowledge of Christ. (See 1 Jn. 5:9.)

John’s three letters, as does the Gospel of John, combine simple Greek with a profound message. For example, in speaking of the Savior, John uses “the Word”—a term full of meaning—three times in the New Testament: in opening his Gospel, in opening 1 John, and in testifying of the Second Coming in Revelation 19:13 [Rev. 19:13].

The patterns in 1 John are striking. He continually reminds his readers of what Jesus taught “from the beginning.” His topics are those of the Last Supper discourse, showing us that more than half a century later he still remembers the final mortal teachings of the Lord.

A few decades later, John’s warning against pseudo-Christians was reused by a faithful bishop, and a stream of quotations from John’s writings followed in the second and third centuries.18 Though the thumbnail letters of 2 and 3 John were rarely referred to, their unassuming messages coordinate with 1 John like moons circling a planet.

John’s first letter is strangely relevant for today’s Latter-day Saints. The end of the first century was a time of crisis of faith and of faithfulness, when John says that many “went out from us.” (1 Jn. 2:19.) Though he calls these former members “antichrists” (1 Jn. 2:18), he clearly uses anti in a classical Greek sense of substitution, not merely opposition. The anti-Christs teach that Christ has not “come in the flesh” (1 Jn. 4:2)—that is, they are Christians who revise the physicalness of the incarnation or resurrection. These seceders from Christ’s church claim to be more sophisticated Christians. Are they really closer to God? John warns that they carry the spirit of contention and vindictiveness, inspired by Satan instead of by God. (See 1 Jn. 1:9; 1 Jn. 2:19; 1 Jn. 3:10, 14.)

The senior Apostle affectionately addresses members as “children” (3 Jn. 1:4) and encourages them to set aside lust, materialism, and pride, Satan’s effective weapons in any century (see 1 Jn. 2:15–16). John’s messages blend with the letters of the other pillars in calling for conversion, repentance, and development of a Christlike character.

These letters especially review the ultimate principle of the Last Supper discourse: love. What are the springs of life-giving love? John, the Apostle of love, answers from his strength in the Lord: “We love him because he first loved us.” (1 Jn. 4:19.)

Though John was earlier called one of the “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17), he grew to receive the greater appellation of one of “the children of God” (1 Jn. 5:1–2).19


  1. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith (Provo: Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center, 1980), p. 9. Quotations in this article have minor stylistic modifications.

  2. Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1970), p. 743.

  3. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2.23.24–25, trans. Christian Frederick Cruse.

  4. James 4:7 on resisting the devil is closely followed in the Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 12.5.2. This work is by the brother of a Roman bishop and is published as part of the collection, Apostolic Fathers.

  5. The first major conversions outside of Israel occurred in Antioch and Asia Minor from about A.D. 43 to 49. See Richard Lloyd Anderson, Understanding Paul (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1983), pp. 33–34, 394.

  6. Eusebius 2.23.1–18, quoting Hegesippus. The stoning is verified and the political context furnished in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 20.9.9 (section 200).

  7. See Matt. 5:3 and James 2:5; Matt. 5:7 and James 2:13; Matt. 5:9 and James 3:18; Matt. 5:10–12 and James 1:12 and James 5:10. See also Guthrie, p. 743.

  8. For instance, Polycarp 2:2 repeats the opening of 1 Peter 3:9 [1 Pet. 3:9] on not returning evil or railing. See also 1 Pet. 1:8 and Polycarp 1:3. This bishop wrote in the early second century and is included in Apostolic Fathers. For background, see Richard Lloyd Anderson, Ensign, Aug. 1976, pp. 50–55.

  9. Peter’s “conversation” verses are 1 Pet. 1:15, 18; 1 Pet. 2:12; 1 Pet. 3:1–2, 16; 2 Pet. 2:7; 2 Pet. 3:11. In several important translations, the Greek term generally becomes “behavior,” “conduct,” or “life.” James 3:13 is another example.

  10. For Joseph Smith’s teachings on continued preaching in the spirit world, see Anderson, Understanding Paul, p. 411.

  11. 1 Clement 5:1–7, 6:1, Kirsopp Lake trans. of Apostolic Fathers in the Loeb Library series. For background, see Richard Lloyd Anderson, Ensign, Aug. 1976, pp. 50–55.

  12. The Roman historian Tacitus details how Nero unjustly blamed the Christians for the fire of Rome in A.D. 64 and executed “an immense multitude.” (Annals, 15.44.)

  13. Irenaeus to Florinus, preserved in Eusebius 5.20.5–6, trans. Kirsopp Lake, in the Loeb Library series.

  14. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.30.3; Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956), 1:560.

  15. Irenaeus 3.1.1; Roberts and Donaldson, 1:414.

  16. Irenaeus 2.22.5 and 3.3.4; Roberts and Donaldson, 1:392, 416.

  17. Irenaeus 3.3.4; Roberts and Donaldson, 1:416.

  18. Polycarp 7:1 begins with a close paraphrase in 1 Jn. 4:3. See note 8 above.

  19. See the footnote correction in the LDS edition of the King James Bible, where sons is more correctly translated from the Greek as children.

  • Richard Lloyd Anderson, a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, teaches Gospel Doctrine in his Provo, Utah, ward.

Illustrated by Bill Maughn