Teachings of Presidents
Chapter 12: Priesthood, the Responsibility to Represent God

“Chapter 12: Priesthood, the Responsibility to Represent God,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay (2011), 112–23

“Chapter 12,” Teachings: David O. McKay, 112–23

Chapter 12

Priesthood, the Responsibility to Represent God

The priesthood is an everlasting principle that has existed with God from the beginning and will exist throughout all eternity. The keys that have been given to be used through the priesthood come from heaven, and this priesthood power is operative in this Church today as it continues to expand in the earth.1


While addressing a priesthood session of general conference, President McKay told of an experience he had while serving as a missionary in Scotland in 1898. He and his companion, Elder Peter Johnston, walked by a building that caught their attention because it had a stone arch over the front door and an inscription chiseled in the arch. President McKay recalled:

“I said to my companion: ‘That’s unusual! I am going to see what the inscription is.’ When I approached near enough, this message came to me, not only in stone, but as if it came from One in whose service we were engaged:

“‘Whate’er Thou Art, Act Well Thy Part.’ …

“God help us to follow that motto. It is just another expression of Christ’s words: ‘He that will do the will of God shall know of the doctrine, whether the work is of God, or whether I speak of myself,’ [see John 7:17] and that testimony leads us all to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in life. I humbly pray that the Priesthood assembled this night … will take upon themselves the responsibilities which God has placed upon them, and do their duty wherever it may be.”2

motto chiseled on a stone

President McKay often encouraged priesthood bearers to live the motto he had seen chiseled on a stone in Scotland: “What-E’er Thou Art Act Well Thy Part.”

President McKay had been blessed in his life when several priesthood holders righteously exercised priesthood power in his behalf. In March 1916, the Ogden River overflowed and caused the bridge near the mouth of the canyon to become unstable. He recounted: “We [he and his brother Thomas E.] jumped into a little Ford car and dashed through the rain and mud. … I saw the pile of rocks there at the bridge, and it seemed to be intact just as it had been the day before. So [jokingly] I said, ‘I’m going across the bridge. Can you swim?’ With that I stepped on the gas and dashed across the bridge, only to hear Thomas E. say, ‘Oh, look out! There’s a rope!’ The watchman who left at seven o’clock had stretched the derrick rope across the road, and his successor, the day watchman, had not arrived. I reached for the emergency brake but was too late. The rope smashed the window, threw back the top, and caught me in the chin, severing my lip, knocking out my lower teeth, and breaking my upper jaw. Thomas E. ducked his head and escaped uninjured, but I was left partially senseless. …

“About nine o’clock that morning I was on the operating table. … They sewed my upper jaw in place and took fourteen stitches in my lower lip and lacerated cheek. One of the attendants remarked, ‘Too bad; he will be disfigured for life.’ Certainly I was most unrecognizable. When I was wheeled back to my room in the hospital, one of the nurses consolingly remarked, ‘Well, Brother McKay, you can wear a beard,’ meaning that thus I might hide my scars. … Three very close friends … called and administered to me. In sealing the anointing, [one of them] said, ‘We bless you that you shall not be disfigured and that you shall not have pain.’ …

“Saturday evening Dr. William H. Petty called to see if the teeth that were still remaining in the upper jaw might be saved. It was he who said, ‘I suppose you are in great pain.’ I answered, ‘No, I haven’t any pain.’ … Sunday morning President Heber J. Grant came up from Salt Lake City. … He entered and said, ‘David, don’t talk; I’m just going to give you a blessing.’ …

“The following October, … I sat at a table near where President Grant was sitting. I noticed that he was looking at me somewhat intently, and then he said, ‘David, from where I am sitting I cannot see a scar on your face!’ I answered, ‘No, President Grant, there are no scars.’”3

Teachings of David O. McKay

The priesthood is the power and authority to represent God.

Whenever the priesthood is delegated to man, it is conferred upon him not as a personal distinction, although it becomes such as he honors it, but as authority to represent Deity and an obligation to assist the Lord in bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of man [see Moses 1:39].4

You are men who hold the priesthood of God, who hold divine authority to represent Deity in whatever position to which you have been assigned. When a man, an ordinary man is set apart in his community as a sheriff, there is something added to him. When a policeman on these streets, at the crossing, holds up his hand, you stop. There is something more about him than just an individual, there is the power that is given him. And so it is throughout life. No man can be given a position without being enhanced. It is a reality. So, too, is the power of the priesthood.5

Priesthood is inherent in the Godhead. It is authority and power which has its source only in the Eternal Father and his Son Jesus Christ. …

In seeking the source of the priesthood, … we can conceive of no condition beyond God himself. In him it centers. From him it must emanate. Priesthood, being thus inherent in the Father, it follows that he alone can give it to another. Priesthood, therefore, as held by man, must ever be delegated by authority. There never has been a human being in the world who had the right to [take] to himself the power and authority of the priesthood. There have been some who would [take] to themselves that right, but the Lord has never recognized it. As an ambassador from any government exercises only that authority which has been given him by his government, so a man who is authorized to represent Deity does so only by virtue of the powers and rights delegated to him. However, when such authority is given, it carries, within limitations, all the privileges of a power of attorney, by which one is empowered by another to act in another’s stead. All official action performed in accordance with such power of attorney is as binding as if the person himself had performed it. …

Recognizing the fact that the Creator is the eternal and everlasting source of this power, that he alone can direct it, and that to possess it is to have the right, as an authorized representative, of direct communion with God, how reasonable yet sublime are the privileges and blessings made possible of attainment through the possession of the power and authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood—they are the most glorious that the human mind can contemplate.

A man who is thus in communion with his God will find his life sweetened, his discernment sharpened to decide quickly between right and wrong, his feelings tender and compassionate, yet his spirit strong and valiant in defense of right; he will find the priesthood a never failing source of happiness—a well of living water springing up unto eternal life.6

Priesthood power finds expression through quorums as well as individuals.

Strictly speaking, priesthood as delegated power is an individual acquirement. However, by divine decree men who are appointed to serve in particular offices in the priesthood unite in quorums. Thus, this power finds expression through groups as well as in individuals. The quorum is the opportunity for men of like aspirations to know, to love, and to aid one another.7

If priesthood meant only personal honor, blessing, or individual elevation, there would be no need of groups or quorums. The very existence of such groups established by divine authorization proclaims our dependence upon one another, the indispensable need of mutual help and assistance. We are, by divine right, social beings.8

[The Lord] realized that these [priesthood holders] need companionship, fellowship, the strength of the group; and so he organized quorums and designated the number in each from the deacon to the seventy.

These groups meet together, first, to instruct and to edify, to improve in knowledge generally, and particularly to instruct in moral and religious knowledge, in faith, in holiness, but also to obtain mutual strength, to act uprightly. These groups supply a need that is felt among mankind generally. … Priesthood quorums … will supply every yearning for fellowship, fraternity, and service if men will but do their duty.9

Members in the Aaronic priesthood, and members of the quorums in the Melchizedek priesthood, we have a duty to build up our quorums; let us not tear them down by being absent from [priesthood] meeting, or by non-preparation, or by negligence of duty. Let us feel, every one of us, … that it is our duty to do something to build up the Church, as the Church’s duty is to build on truth and redeem mankind from sin. Men of the priesthood, let us be one in this upbuilding; let us fall into the class of benefactors; and let no man, from the high priest to the deacon, in this great priesthood movement … , fall into the class of malefactors [evil doers] or murmurers.10

A priesthood holder must be conscious of his actions and words under all conditions.

Priesthood is authority to represent God. A man who is given the priesthood is an authorized representative of the Lord in any particular field to which the individual is assigned. It is the duty of a representative of any individual group or organization to strive to represent that individual group or organization in honor. The best way to be worthy representatives is so to live that each may be susceptible to the promptings of the Lord whom he represents. Now think what that means as to a virtuous life.

“… my Spirit shall not always strive with man,” (D&C 1:33) says the Lord. Everyone, then, who holds this priesthood should live such a life as will entitle him to the inspiration of the Lord. And let me say in this regard that communion with the Holy Spirit is just as real as your connection through the radio with the unheard voices and music that fill the air. The vibrations are there.

It is so with God’s Spirit. He is ever ready to guide and instruct those who tune in by upright living and who sincerely seek him. I repeat, it is the duty of every man authorized to represent him so to live as to be responsive to that Spirit.11

To hold the priesthood of God by divine authority is one of the greatest gifts that can come to a man, and worthiness is of first importance. The very essence of priesthood is eternal. He is greatly blessed who feels the responsibility of representing Deity. He should feel it to such an extent that he would be conscious of his actions and words under all conditions. No man who holds the Holy Priesthood should treat his wife disrespectfully. No man who holds that priesthood should fail to ask the blessings on his food or to kneel with his wife and children and ask for God’s guidance. A home is transformed because a man holds and honors the priesthood. We are not to use it dictatorially, for the Lord has said that “when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.” (D&C 121:37.)

That revelation, given by the Lord to the Prophet Joseph Smith, is one of the most beautiful lessons in pedagogy or psychology and government ever given, and we should read it over and over again in the 121st section of the Doctrine and Covenants.12

No member of this Church, no husband or father, has the right to utter an oath in his home, or ever to express a cross word to his wife or to his children. By your ordination and your responsibility, you cannot do it as a man who holds the priesthood and be true to the spirit within you. You contribute to an ideal home by your character, controlling your passion, your temper, guarding your speech, because those things will make your home what it is, and what it will radiate to the neighborhood. You do what you can to produce peace and harmony, no matter what you may suffer.13

I pray that we may … sense the value of the priesthood, and that every deacon in this Church will realize that when he is given the Aaronic Priesthood he is set apart among his fellows, that he is different from others. He cannot with impunity swear as other boys may swear, he cannot participate in pranks in the neighborhood as other boys may participate, he stands apart. That is what it means to a twelve-year-old boy, and, bishops, that is just what you should explain to them when you choose them to be deacons. Do not just call them up and ordain them, but have a talk with them and let them realize what it means to be given the Aaronic Priesthood. In the boyhood area these boys so chosen and instructed should exert an influence for good. …

… It is our obligation when we accept the priesthood to set an example worthy of imitation by our fellows. It is not what we say that will influence them. It is what we do. It is what we are.14

As long as members of the priesthood merit the guidance of Christ by honest and conscientious dealing with their fellow men, by resisting evil in any of its forms, by the faithful performance of duty, there is no opposing power in this world which can stay the progress of the Church of Jesus Christ.15

Priesthood power becomes productive when it is used to serve others.

We can conceive of the power of the priesthood as being potentially existent as an impounded reservoir of water. Such power becomes dynamic and productive of good only when the liberated force becomes active in valleys, fields, gardens, and happy homes. So the priesthood, as related to humanity, is a principle of power only as it becomes active in the lives of men, turning their hearts and desires toward God and prompting service to their fellowmen.16

Our lives are wrapped up with the lives of others. We are happiest as we contribute to the lives of others. I say that because the priesthood you hold means that you are to serve others. You represent God in the field to which you are assigned. “Whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” (Matt. 16:25.)17

You elders perhaps have one of your number sick, and his crop needs harvesting. Get together and harvest it. One of your members has a son on a mission, and his funds are getting low. Just ask if you can be of help to him. Your thoughtfulness he will never forget. Such acts as these are what the Savior had in mind when he said, “Inasmuch as ye do it unto the least of these my brethren, ye do it unto me.” (See Matt. 25:40.) There is no other way that you can serve Christ. You can kneel down and pray to him, that is good. You can plead with him to give you his guidance through the Holy Spirit—yes, we do that and must do it. We have to do it. But it is these practical, daily visits in life, it is the controlling of our tongue, in not speaking evil of a brother, but speaking well of him, that the Savior marks as true service.18

“What e’er thou art, act well thy part.” Are you a deacon, do the duties of a deacon well. Are you a teacher, do your work well. A priest watching over the Church, visiting with them—young men in this Church, if we could just do the duties of the teacher and of the priest, teaching people their duty, what a power for good to young men eighteen years of age, and nineteen. Not incorrigible [unwilling to take correction], not recreants [disloyal cowards], but leaders. Brethren there is nothing in the world so powerful in guiding youth as to have them act well their parts in the priesthood.19

Priesthood holders have the responsibility to represent God as home teachers.

It is said in Ephesians, fourth chapter, that Christ gave some apostles and some prophets, some evangelists and some pastors and teachers; “for the perfecting of the Saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” [Ephesians 4:12.] The [home] teachers, in the Church, holding the holy priesthood, have devolving upon them the great responsibility of perfecting the Saints, and of edifying the body of Christ; therefore, I think it is not too much to say that it is their duty, their duty, to carry into every home just such a divine spirit as we have experienced here in these sessions of conference. No greater responsibility can rest upon any man, than to be a teacher of God’s children.

… Some of [the home teachers] feel that their calling is of little importance, that there is not much dignity attached to it, when the fact is, that there is no more important work in the Church. We can not say of any one calling in the Church, that it is of more importance than another, because all are devoted to the development, to the instruction, to the salvation of God’s children. So it is with the calling of teacher; but if there be any preference given, because of superior advantages in winning these people to salvation, it will go to those men holding the priesthood of God, who come in direct contact with the individual members of the Church. …

The first thing to do, my brethren, is to look to yourselves, to see whether or not you are prepared to teach. No man can teach that which he himself does not know. It is your duty to teach that Jesus Christ is the redeemer of the world, that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and that to him in this last dispensation there appeared God the Father and his Son in person. Do you believe it? Do you feel it? Does that testimony radiate from your being when you enter into the home? If so, that radiation will give life to the people whom you go to teach. If not, there will be a dearth, a drouth [drought], a lack of that spiritual environment in which the Saints grow. …

… Brethren, the message, and particularly the manner of presenting that message might not be the same when given to one who had spent his life in faithful labor in the Church, as when given to those who are newly converted. As each family is different from another … , so our messages and our methods, particularly our methods of presentation, might vary. I cite this just to impress us with this thought, that it is our duty to know those whom we are going to teach.20

The [home] teacher’s duty is not performed when he goes only once a month to each house. I remember when one Bishop made it a duty of the [home] teacher to go at once to a house bereaved of a loved one and see what could be done in order to bring comfort to those who were grieving and to make arrangements for the funeral. It is the [home] teacher’s duty to see that there is no want; if there is sickness there, to go and administer—watching over those families always.21

I believe that in [home] teaching there is one of the greatest opportunities in all the world to awaken in those who are negligent, discouraged, downhearted, and sad, renewed life and a desire to re-enter into activity in the Church of Jesus Christ. By such activity they will be led back into the spiritual atmosphere which will lift their souls and give them power to overcome weaknesses which are now shackling them.

To give help, encouragement, and inspiration to every individual is the great responsibility and privilege of [home] teachers.22

Suggestions for Study and Discussion

  • What is priesthood power? (See pages 115–16.) For what purposes did the Lord delegate to man the authority of the priesthood? (See pages 116–17, 120–21.) What is the difference between simply receiving the authority of the priesthood and having power in the priesthood?

  • Think of an experience when the power of the priesthood was exercised in your behalf. How did this affect you or the members of your family? How can we use such experiences as “teaching moments” for our children and grandchildren?

  • Why is it necessary that a priesthood holder live worthy to be guided by the Spirit of the Lord? (See pages 118–19.) What blessings are promised to those who are faithful to priesthood covenants and obligations? (See also D&C 84:33–34.)

  • Why is home teaching so vital in the Church? (See pages 121–22.) What can we do to be more effective home teachers? How can President McKay’s counsel to home teachers be applied to visiting teachers? What can we do to help our home and visiting teachers feel welcome in our homes and be effective in their callings?

  • How do praying, studying the scriptures, and becoming more Christlike help us to honor the priesthood? In what ways can fathers and mothers prepare their sons to receive the priesthood?

  • How do women share in the blessings that come from the power of the priesthood?

  • What is the purpose of priesthood quorums? (See pages 116–17.) What responsibilities are associated with being a member of a quorum? (See pages 116–17.)

Related Scriptures: 1 Peter 2:9; D&C 84:33–48; 121:34–46


  1. In Conference Report, Oct. 1967, 94.

  2. In Conference Report, Oct. 1956, 91.

  3. See Cherished Experiences from the Writings of President David O. McKay, comp. Clare Middlemiss, rev. ed. (1976), 138–40; paragraphing altered.

  4. Gospel Ideals (1953), 168.

  5. In Conference Report, Oct. 1954, 83.

  6. In Conference Report, Oct. 1965, 103–4.

  7. In Conference Report, Oct. 1965, 104.

  8. Gospel Ideals, 168.

  9. Gospel Ideals, 180–81.

  10. In Conference Report, Apr. 1909, 68.

  11. Gospel Ideals, 180.

  12. In Conference Report, Oct. 1967, 97.

  13. In Conference Report, Apr. 1969, 150–51.

  14. In Conference Report, Oct. 1948, 174.

  15. Gospel Ideals, 167–68.

  16. In Conference Report, Oct. 1965, 103–4.

  17. In Conference Report, Oct. 1950, 112.

  18. In Conference Report, Oct. 1955, 129.

  19. In Conference Report, Oct. 1954, 84.

  20. In Conference Report, Oct. 1916, 57–60; paragraphing altered.

  21. In Conference Report, Apr. 1956, 86–87.

  22. Gospel Ideals, 196.