Church History

“Bishop,” Church History Topics



On February 4, 1831, Joseph Smith received a revelation appointing Edward Partridge as the first bishop of the Church.1 Just a few days after his appointment, another revelation to Joseph Smith explained that the role of the bishop was to oversee the implementation of the newly revealed law of consecration. According to the revelation, the bishop would receive consecrated properties from Church members and administer those properties for the benefit of the poor and to purchase land in Zion.2 In July 1831, another revelation directed Bishop Partridge to move to Jackson County, Missouri, where he would purchase land and divide it into parcels, or inheritances, for those Saints living the law of consecration.3

Partridge, Edward

Edward Partridge, first bishop in the Church.

A November 1831 revelation to Joseph Smith expanded the bishop’s duties: he would be in charge of “all temporal things” in the Church and would also “be a Judge in Israel.”4 A few months later, Joseph Smith received another revelation that further emphasized that the bishop would “fill the judgement seat,” administer the law of consecration, and be accountable to God for how he conducted his duties.5

In 1835, Joseph Smith revised by inspiration two earlier revelations to clarify the position and duties of a bishop. He thus explained that “literal descendants of Aaron” had “a legal right to the bishopric, if they are the first born among the sons of Aaron.” Otherwise, a high priest would be called to fill the office.6 In addition, Joseph Smith clarified that the bishop is the president of the Aaronic Priesthood as well as the president of the priests quorum.7

Because Partridge was no longer in Ohio after July 1831, Newel K. Whitney was appointed by revelation in December 1831 to be a bishop in Ohio. Partridge and Whitney continued to operate as bishops in Missouri and Ohio respectively and were the only two bishops in the Church until a stake was organized at Adam-ondi-Ahman in Missouri in 1838 and Vinson Knight was called to serve as bishop.8

When the Saints settled in Nauvoo, Illinois, Partridge, Whitney, and Knight were all appointed to be bishops: one for each of the three political wards in the area. Other bishops were called in new stakes created in Illinois and Iowa Territory, and bishops were called in congregations of the Church in locations such as Philadelphia. In August 1842, the Nauvoo high council divided Nauvoo into 13 ecclesiastical wards and appointed bishops over each ward.9 In April 1847, Whitney was sustained as the first Presiding Bishop of the Church, an office that would continue thereafter.10

After the Saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, Church leaders divided the community into 19 wards with a bishop over each ward. As Salt Lake City grew and new communities were established, additional wards were created with bishops over each. These bishops served as the presiding ecclesiastical officer of each ward, managed the receipt of tithing and other donations, conducted Sunday meetings, and called ward members to various positions. Like previous bishops, they were generally assisted by two counselors.

A bishop’s responsibilities expanded again in the early 1900s when President Joseph F. Smith and other leaders reorganized Aaronic Priesthood quorums to consist mainly of youth. Bishops were charged with encouraging young men in their priesthood responsibilities and supervising all Aaronic Priesthood quorums in their wards. (This had previously been under the jurisdiction of stakes.)11

Today, bishops are called to preside in all wards of the Church. They look after the temporal and spiritual needs of the members of their flock and preside over most aspects of the Church within their wards.

Related Topics: Consecration and Stewardship