“The Saga of Revelation: The Unfolding Role of the Seventy,” Ensign, Sept. 2009, 54–60
On February 8, 1835, Joseph Smith announced to Brigham and Joseph Young that he would organize the Twelve Apostles and the Seventy in accordance with a vision he had received (see D&C 107).
The Prophet then said: “‘I wish you to notify all the brethren living in the branches, within a reasonable distance from this place, to meet at a general conference on Saturday next. I shall then and there appoint twelve Special Witnesses, to open the door of the Gospel to foreign nations, and you,’ said he (speaking to Brother Brigham), ‘will be one of them.’ … He then turned to Elder Joseph Young with quite an earnestness, as though the vision of his mind was extended still further, and addressing him, said, ‘Brother Joseph, the Lord has made you President of the Seventies.’”
Although the Youngs knew of the existence of these priesthood offices in the Bible, still the Prophet’s words “caused these brethren to marvel.”1
On the following Saturday, February 14, members of the Twelve were appointed and ordained, and two weeks later members of the First Quorum of the Seventy were also appointed and ordained.
Two things that stand out in my mind as particularly important about the history of the Seventy are evident in this first calling of the Seventy in our dispensation: (1) the office of Seventy is doctrinally based in the scriptures and (2) the role of the Seventy is inextricably connected to the mission of the Twelve. As we study these two essential points, a third—equally if not more important point—becomes evident: the Lord reveals His will line upon line, making the history of the latter-day Seventy a pattern of revelation for the Church and for individuals.
The first mention of the Seventy is the Old Testament instruction to Moses and “seventy of the elders of Israel” (Exodus 24:1).
The Lord told Moses to use the Seventy so that he need not bear his burdens alone: “Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel … that they may stand there with thee” (Numbers 11:16).
To properly empower the Seventy, the Lord took the “spirit” that was upon Moses and gave it also to the Seventy. “When the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, and did not cease” (Numbers 11:25).
The New Testament Church likewise included the office of Seventy. The Savior Himself called and instructed the Seventy (see Luke 10) in a manner similar to the instructions He gave the Twelve (see Matthew 10). He sent out the Seventy, explaining that “he that heareth you heareth me” (Luke 10:16; see also verses 1–15).
The effectiveness of the Seventy was evident as they reported on their commission, “saying, Lord, even the devils are subject unto us through thy name” (Luke 10:17).
The Seventies’ role in relation to the Twelve becomes particularly evident following the Savior’s Resurrection. The Church had grown so that the Twelve alone were not able to meet all the needs of the people. When some began to murmur that the widows were being neglected in the daily ministration, the calling of Seventies answered the challenges of growth. The Seventy bore some burdens so the Twelve need not neglect the assignments they alone could fulfill:
“Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.
“But we [the Twelve] will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:3–4).
This pattern was restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith, and the office of Seventy in relation to the office of the Twelve became clearly defined in modern revelation:
“The Seventy are also called to preach the gospel, and to be especial witnesses unto the Gentiles and in all the world” (D&C 107:25).
“The Seventy are to act in the name of the Lord, under the direction of the Twelve or the traveling high council, in building up the church and regulating all the affairs of the same in all nations” (D&C 107:34).
The Twelve are “to call upon the Seventy, when they need assistance, to fill the several calls for preaching and administering the gospel, instead of any others” (D&C 107:38).
The Seventy are “instituted for traveling elders to bear record of my name in all the world, wherever the traveling high council, mine apostles, shall send them to prepare a way before my face” (D&C 124:139).
I am confident that each Seventy today considers it a great privilege to support the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. And again Seventies help provide an answer to the challenges of Church growth. While there will generally be only 3 members of the First Presidency and 12 members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, there is flexibility in the ranks and numbers of the Seventy.
When they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, the early Saints, including Seventies, were dispersed to various settlements. The Seventies had been organized into approximately 30 quorums. Lack of proximity made it difficult, if not impossible, for the members and leaders of the Seventy to meet in their original quorums.
As a result of this difficulty, in 1883 the First Presidency prayerfully prepared a written recommendation on how and in what manner the Seventy should be organized.
On April 14, 1883, the Lord accepted the recommendation and revealed: “What ye have written is my will, and is acceptable unto me: and furthermore … let not your hearts be troubled, neither be ye concerned about the management and organization of my Church and Priesthood and the accomplishment of my work. Fear me and observe my laws and I will reveal unto you, from time to time, through the channels that I have appointed, everything that shall be necessary for the future development and perfection of my Church, for the adjustment and rolling forth of my kingdom, and for the building up and the establishment of my Zion.”2
This “time to time” revelatory pattern is evident through a study of the history of the Seventy—a study that demonstrates how the calling, duties, and responsibilities of the Seventy have developed line upon line in accordance with the doctrinal foundation of the scriptures. President Boyd K. Packer, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, has said that the unfolding events in the organization of the Seventy “will prove to have been a great Godsend and a pattern of revelation itself.”3
Let us review just a few of the significant developments in this history to illustrate this line-upon-line pattern.
Organization of the Seventy. In February 1835, when the Prophet Joseph called the first Seventies of this dispensation, all of them had been members of Zion’s Camp, the group that marched from Ohio to Missouri in 1834 to aid the Saints.
Elder B. H. Roberts (1857–1933) of the Seventy noted that this service indicates “that the character of men who attain unto this high station in the Priesthood of God should be men who have made sacrifices for the work of God, or who are perfectly willing to make such sacrifices, even to laying down their lives for the cause.”4
Growth in Nauvoo. While the Saints lived in Nauvoo, “the number of the Seventy was greatly increased. … By the first of January, 1845, the number of quorums had increased to fourteen.” A year later the number of quorums had increased to 30.5
Dispersal in Utah. The dispersal of Seventies after the Saints’ arrival in Utah led to the recommendation of the First Presidency in 1883, which provided that the members of the Seventy associate themselves with a quorum located in the area where they resided.
As mentioned, the Lord accepted the recommendation of the First Presidency and promised that from time to time, He would continue to reveal necessary adjustments. It seems the saga of revelation was only beginning!
Seventies Quorums in Stakes and Missions. In April 1953, when the number of quorums was approximately 500, the First Presidency, concerned about some Seventies not affiliated with a quorum, announced that a quorum of the Seventy, presided over by seven presidents, should be organized in each stake or mission where there were 36 or more Seventies.6
In each stake or mission having fewer than 36 Seventies, a unit, rather than a quorum, would be presided over by a president and two counselors. The units and quorums were then organized in consecutive numbers to avoid confusion. In 1974 Seventies units were discontinued, and each stake was to have a quorum. The presidencies of the stake quorums served as the stake mission presidency.7
Previously, in March 1936, missionary work had been organized with a mission in each stake. These stake missions were supervised by the First Council of the Seventy, working through stake presidents.8
Reestablishing the First Quorum of the Seventy. October 1975 general conference brought a major milestone in the continuing saga of revelation. President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) announced the reconstitution of the First Quorum of the Seventy. This quorum of General Authorities would gradually be organized with 70 members and Seven Presidents.9
One year later, at the October 1976 general conference, the First Quorum of the Seventy was expanded by the addition of the First Council of the Seventy and the Assistants to the Twelve. All members of the First Quorum were ordained to the office of high priest as well as to the office of Seventy.
President Kimball explained: “With this move, the three governing quorums of the Church defined by revelations—the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and the First Quorum of the Seventy—have been set in their places as revealed by the Lord. This will make it possible to handle efficiently the present heavy workload and to prepare for the increasing expansion and acceleration of the work, anticipating the day when the Lord will return to take direct charge of His church and kingdom.”10
Discontinuation of Stake Quorums. On October 4, 1986, all stake quorums of the Seventy were discontinued, and Seventies at the stake level became members of elders quorums or were ordained to the office of high priest. The office of Seventy was thus reserved for General Authorities of the Church.11
Establishment of the Second Quorum. On April 1, 1989, the Second Quorum of the Seventy was created.12 This began to put in place two Quorums of the Seventy: the First as General Authorities who would become emeritus at age 70 and the Second as five-year General Authorities.
Calling of Area Authorities. At the April 1995 general conference, all regional representatives of the Twelve were released effective in August of that year, and the office of Area Authority was announced. (Regional representative was a Church calling established in 1967 to train stake and ward leaders.)
President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910–2008) said of Area Authorities: “These will be high priests chosen from among past and present experienced Church leaders. They will continue with their current employment, reside in their own homes, and serve on a Church-service basis. The term of their call will be flexible, generally, for a period of approximately six years. They will be closely tied to the area presidencies.”13
Calling of Area Seventies. Two years later, in April 1997, President Hinckley announced that the Area Authorities would be ordained Seventies and would be known as Area Authority Seventies (now called Area Seventies). This was the beginning of a significant increase in the number of Seventies and in their responsibilities.
President Hinckley explained, “As Seventies they are called to preach the gospel and to be especial witnesses of the Lord Jesus Christ as set forth in the revelations.”14
President Hinckley explained that these Brethren would have a quorum relationship. He organized the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Quorums of the Seventy geographically.
Thereafter, Area Seventies began to preside at member-missionary coordinating councils (consisting of a mission president and all stake presidents in the mission). Later this meeting was renamed as a coordinating council meeting, and the agenda was expanded to include most Church programs and various multistake concerns.
Expanded Duties of the Presidency of the Seventy. In April 2004 members of the Presidency of the Seventy were released as Executive Directors of major headquarters departments, and other Seventies were assigned to these positions. Several months later, in August 2004, the Presidency of the Seventy began to supervise all 11 Church areas in North America and to assist the Twelve in supervising all international areas.
The Presidency of the Seventy commenced meeting with the full Twelve each Tuesday. The Twelve are able to rely on the Presidency of the Seventy as the presidency is to “choose other seventy [and] to preside over them” (D&C 107:95).
The saga of revelation in the organization and duties of the Seventy continues today. The First Presidency has recently consolidated international Church areas and given more administrative responsibilities to Seventies serving in Area Presidencies.15
How could Joseph Smith have understood when he ordained the first Seventies that this office would grow to include, at this time, 315 Seventies in eight quorums throughout the world? I testify that Joseph didn’t have to know because the Lord knew and what Joseph established was a latter-day foundation based upon the doctrines of the scriptures and a “vision showing the order of the Seventy” (D&C 107:93).
The Lord’s hand has been over the unfolding history of the Seventy from the beginning and in each subsequent development that moved the office of the Seventy to comply with its scriptural charter. Why study this unfolding history? As President Packer explained, it is “a pattern of revelation itself.” Line upon line, the Lord has revealed His will for the Seventy, and I know that He will continue to do so for the Seventy—and for you and me as individual members of His Church.