Throughout Church history, Presidents of the Church have addressed the needs and opportunities of the growing Church by adjusting the organization of the priesthood. As one significant realignment of priesthood quorums under Brigham Young took effect in 1877, Apostle Orson Pratt assured Latter-day Saints that adaptation was an essential part of priesthood order. “Organization is to go on step after step,” he taught, “from one degree to another, just as the people increase and grow in the knowledge of the principles and laws of the kingdom of God, and as their borders shall extend.”1 Whether initiated by revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants or by inspired instruction from Church leaders conveyed in general conference addresses or handbooks, continuing adjustments to the ecclesiastical structure of the Church have reflected the vitality of the priesthood.
For the newly organized Church of Christ in 1830, the Articles and Covenants (later expanded into Doctrine and Covenants 20) were the basis of priesthood organization. The document outlined ordinances (such as baptism), different offices (such as priest and elder), and a system for conducting business (quarterly conferences). As Church membership grew and needs changed, later revelation introduced additional ordinances, offices, and organizational systems. Terms and concepts about priesthood fluctuated within the first five years of the Church.2
Major adjustments occurred in Kirtland, Ohio, and in Nauvoo, Illinois, as Joseph Smith responded to revelation that directed him in restoring the priesthood in its fullness. In 1835, while preparing for the dedication of the Kirtland Temple, Joseph instituted quorums and quorum procedures according to revelation and counsel. He expressed satisfaction that he had “completed [the] organization of the church” following the revelations he had received and that priesthood quorums could continue to build the kingdom of God.3 In 1842 he proposed that the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo be organized “after the pattern, or order, of the priesthood” and introduced additional temple ordinances.
After Joseph Smith, some of the most concentrated reforms to priesthood organization occurred under the direction of Brigham Young in the late 1870s and Joseph F. Smith in the early 1900s. In 1876 and 1877 Brigham Young addressed local irregularities in wards and stakes with a plan to standardize the pattern and nomenclature of stakes, wards, quorums, and priesthood offices. The status of a “center stake” was discontinued, rendering all stakes effectively equal.4 New criteria defined how to organize a stake or a quorum. Apostles would no longer serve in local presidencies, and bishops, not ward presidents, would preside over wards. A more vertical chain of responsibility ran through stake presidents and bishops, bringing consistency across wards and stakes and directing quorums along clear lines of authority. Quorum meetings convened at standard intervals.5
Around 1906 Joseph F. Smith emphasized ordaining young men to the Aaronic Priesthood and recommended age groups for ordination to each office, much like the division into age-based classes Young Women leaders had introduced previously. He undertook a concerted study of Church government, seeking to establish doctrinal consistency in how priesthood officers performed their duties. He emphasized that the authority to preside over a quorum or organization required a special authorization to exercise “priesthood keys”:
“The Priesthood in general is the authority given to man to act for God. Every man that has been ordained to any degree of the Priesthood, has this authority delegated to him. But it is necessary that every act performed under this authority, shall be done … in the proper way, and after the proper order. The power of directing these labors constitute[s] the keys of the Priesthood.”6
President Smith emphasized that the performance of all quorum duties was governed by the exercise of keys delegated to quorum presidents under the direction of the President of the Church, who possessed all keys granted by the Lord to the Church.7
Church growth prompted many assessments of the organizational efficiency of wards, stakes, and programs throughout the 20th century. In 1923 President Heber J. Grant organized a stake in Los Angeles, California—a city where the Saints were a small minority.8 This shifted the pattern away from the 19th-century convention of creating stakes only in communities with a Latter-day Saint majority. President Grant also established a new position, Assistant to the Twelve, to alleviate the increasing demands on the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Between 1941 and 1976, 38 men served as Assistants to the Twelve, until President Spencer W. Kimball called them into the First Quorum of the Seventy and retired the position.
The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles continued to streamline Church auxiliaries within a system of Church administration initially termed “correlation.” Later administered as Priesthood Correlation, this process took different forms at different times: from David O. McKay’s efforts as an Apostle in the 1910s to consolidate Church curriculum to a reorganization of auxiliaries under priesthood-led committees during the presidencies of David O. McKay, Joseph Fielding Smith, and Harold B. Lee.
Adjustments followed with regularity, although several had sweeping effects at both general and local levels. President Spencer W. Kimball formed a quorum of General Authority Seventies, retired the calling of General Patriarch to the Church, and received the revelation extending priesthood ordination to men of African descent for the first time since the 1840s.9 In 1986 President Ezra Taft Benson announced the end of stake Seventies quorums.10 In the late 1990s President Gordon B. Hinckley introduced Area Authorities (eventually reclassified as Area Seventies) to further meet the needs of a growing global Church.11
Further adjustments to priesthood organization continued in the early 21st century. In 2018 ward high priest groups were discontinued, with all Melchizedek priesthood holders belonging to the elders quorum; however, stake high priests quorums (limited to those with active callings as stake patriarchs or in a stake presidency, high council, or bishopric) remained. In 2019 the First Presidency announced that young men would be eligible for Aaronic Priesthood ordination at the beginning of the calendar year they would turn 12 years old instead of waiting for their birthdays, as was the practice previously.12