Teachings of Presidents
Chapter 16: Priesthood, the Divine Government

“Chapter 16: Priesthood, the Divine Government,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith (2011), 136–45

“Chapter 16,” Teachings: Joseph F. Smith, 136–45

Chapter 16

Priesthood, the Divine Government

The holy priesthood is the authority and power of God delegated to man to govern and bless His people.

From the Life of Joseph F. Smith

By age 28, Joseph F. Smith was serving as secretary to the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. On 1 July 1866, as the regular prayer meeting of the Council was adjourning, President Brigham Young announced to his brethren: “I always feel well to do as the Spirit constrains me. It is my mind to ordain Brother Joseph F. Smith to the Apostleship, and to be one of my counselors.” He called on each of the Brethren to express their feelings about the calling, and they all supported President Young with “hearty approval.”

They then laid their hands on the head of Joseph F, and President Young said: “Brother Joseph F. Smith, we lay our hands upon your head in the name of Jesus Christ, and by virtue of the Holy Priesthood we ordain you to be an Apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and to be a special witness to the nations of the earth. We seal upon your head all the authority, power and keys of this holy Apostleship; and we ordain you to be a counselor to the First Presidency of the Church and Kingdom of God upon the earth. These blessings we seal upon you in the name of Jesus Christ and by the authority of the Holy Priesthood. Amen.”1

On 8 October 1867, Joseph F. Smith was sustained and set apart as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles during a general conference, a milestone in his lifelong labor as a member of the governing priesthood councils of the Church. During his service of more than 50 years, his great experience and wisdom in priesthood and Church government benefited the Church throughout the world.

President Joseph F. Smith in the 1860s

President Joseph F. Smith in the 1860s, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Counselor to President Brigham Young.

Teachings of Joseph F. Smith

The priesthood is the authority by which God governs and blesses His people.

The Holy Priesthood is that authority which God has delegated to man, by which he may speak the will of God as if the angels were here to speak it themselves; by which men are empowered to bind on earth and it shall be bound in heaven, and to loose on earth and it shall be loosed in heaven; by which the words of man, spoken in the exercise of that power, become the word of the Lord, and the law of God unto the people, scripture, and divine commands. … It is the authority by which the Lord Almighty governs his people, and by which, in time to come, he will govern the nations of the world.2

A great deal may be said in relation to the authority and rights of the priesthood. It is the grand principle of government and of organization, by which the energies and forces of the people of God in all ages have been and will be directed. It is that principle by which God Almighty governs throughout all His universe. It is the principle by which the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is governed. … It is the authority which God has revealed and restored to the children of men for their government and guidance in the building up of Zion and in the proclamation of the Gospel to the nations of the earth, until every son and daughter of Adam shall have the privilege of hearing the sound of the Gospel, and of being brought to the knowledge of the truth, not only upon this earth, but in the spirit world.3

[The] Melchizedek or Holy Priesthood … is the authority by which individuals or the … quorums … composing the priesthood of the Church, may legitimately act in the name of the Lord; or the moving, directing, controlling, governing or presiding agency, right and authority, which is vested in the Godhead and delegated unto man for the purpose of his instruction, initiation into the Church, spiritual and temporal guidance, government and exaltation.4

The Lord has established on earth the Priesthood in its fulness … by direct revelation and commandment from heaven; … he has instituted an order or government that is beyond the capacity, and that is superior to the wisdom and learning and understanding of man, so far, indeed, that it seems impossible for the human mind, unaided by the Spirit of God, to comprehend the beauties, powers, and character of the Holy Priesthood. It seems difficult for men to comprehend the workings of the Priesthood, its legitimate authority, its scope and power; and yet by the light of the spirit it is easily comprehended.5

However imperfect they may be, men have been clothed with this authority, by which they can speak and act in the name of the Father and the Son, and God is bound, if they speak by His spirit in the discharge of their duties as His servants, to respect and fulfil that which they say, because they speak by the authority that He has given. … Of course, all things must be done in righteousness. No man can do anything in unrighteousness that God is bound to respect. But when a man who holds the Priesthood does that which is righteous, God is bound to acknowledge it as though He had done it Himself.6

The pith of the matter is: the Lord has established his Church, organized his priesthood, and conferred authority upon certain individuals, councils and quorums, and it is the duty of the people of God to live so that they shall know that these are acceptable unto him.7

Although the priesthood is bestowed only upon men, both men and women partake of its blessings.

The Priesthood was originally exercised in the patriarchal order; those who held it exercised their powers firstly by right of their fatherhood. It is so with the great Elohim. This first and strongest claim on our love, reverence and obedience is based on the fact that he is the Father, the Creator, of all mankind. … Man possessing the holy Priesthood is typical of him. But as men on earth cannot act in God’s stead as his representatives without the authority, appointment and ordination naturally follow. No man has the right to take this honor to himself, except he be called of God through the channels that he recognizes and has empowered.8

The patriarchal order is of divine origin and will continue throughout time and eternity. … Men, women and children should understand this order and this authority in the households of the people of God, and seek to make it what God intended it to be, a qualification and preparation for the highest exaltation of his children.9

Whatever honors, privileges, or glory are attained by the man through the Priesthood, are those shared with and enjoyed by the wife. She being one with him in Christ, all his honors are her honors, his blessings are her blessings, his glory is her glory, for they are one—inseparably. … As Paul said, “The man is not without the woman nor the woman without the man in the Lord.” [See 1 Corinthians 11:11.] In other words, the man cannot attain to glory, honor or exaltation without the woman, nor the woman without the man. They are but two complements of one whole. … The Priesthood of the Son of God is bestowed upon the man, that attaining to the same eminence and perfection, he may act as Christ and God act. … While man … is the direct object on whom the power and honor of the Priesthood are bestowed, and he is the active medium of its operations, she partakes of its benefits, its blessings, its powers, its rights and privileges, with him as the complement of himself. … The power is not given to the woman to act independent of the man, nor is it given to the man to act independent of Christ.10

Women are responsible for their acts just as much as men are responsible for theirs, although the man, holding the authority of the priesthood, is regarded as the head, as the leader. … Furthermore, when we speak of the men, we speak of the women, too, for the women are included with the men and are an inseparable part of mankind.11

The keys of the priesthood are required for the government of the Church.

The Priesthood in general is the authority given to man to act for God. Every man 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 at the proper time and place, in the proper way, and after the proper order. The power of directing these labors constitutes the keys of the Priesthood. In their fulness, the keys are held by only one person at a time, the prophet and president of the Church. He may delegate any portion of this power to another, in which case that person holds the keys of that particular labor. Thus, the president of a temple, the president of a stake, the bishop of a ward, the president of a mission, the president of a quorum, each holds the keys of the labors performed in that particular body or locality. His Priesthood is not increased by this special appointment; … the president of an elders’ quorum, for example, has no more Priesthood than any member of that quorum. But he holds the power of directing the official labors performed in the … quorum, or in other words, the keys of that division of that work.12

[The] President is the mouthpiece of God, the revelator, the translator, the seer, and the Prophet of God to the whole Church. It is he who holds the keys of this Holy Priesthood—the keys which unlock the doors of the Temples of God and of the ordinances of His house for the salvation of the living and the redemption of the dead. It is he who holds the sealing power, by which man may bind on earth and it shall be bound in heaven, and by which men duly authorized and appointed of him who holds the keys may loose on earth and it will be loosed in heaven. This is the order of the Holy Priesthood.13

The priesthood governs by the law of love.

The Lord revealed the great principle of organization, by which His Church is to be governed, which the Lord Himself established in the Church, the authority of the Holy Priesthood, that of the High Priesthood, the Apostleship, the Seventies, and the Elders, and then the organizations of the Lesser Priesthood—the Bishops, the Priests, the Teachers and the Deacons—God established these organizations in the Church for the government of the people. What for? To oppress them? No. To injure them? No, a thousand times, no. What for? That they and their children might have the benefits of these organizations for instruction, for admonition, for guidance, for revelation, and for inspiration to do that which the Lord requires at their hands, that they may become perfect in their lives.14

We are governed by law, because we love one another, and are actuated by long-suffering and charity, and good will; and our whole organization is based upon the idea of self-control; the principle of give and take, and of rather being willing to suffer wrong than to do wrong. Our message is peace on earth and good will towards men; love, charity and forgiveness, which should actuate all associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Ours is a Church where law is dominant, but the law is the law of love.15

No man should be oppressed. No authority of the Priesthood can be administered or exerted in any degree of unrighteousness, without offending God. Therefore, when we deal with men we should not deal with them with prejudice in our minds against them.16

There is not a man holding any position of authority in the Church who can perform his duty as he should in any other spirit than in the spirit of fatherhood and brotherhood toward those over whom he presides. Those who have authority should not be rulers, nor dictators; they should not be arbitrary; they should gain the hearts, the confidence and love of those over whom they preside, by kindness and love unfeigned, by gentleness of spirit, by persuasion, by an example that is above reproach and above the reach of unjust criticism. In this way, in the kindness of their hearts, in their love for their people, they lead them in the path of righteousness, and teach them the way of salvation, by saying to them, both by precept and example: Follow me, as I follow our head.17

Honor the power and authority of the holy priesthood.

It is a proper thing for us to accept and honor the Holy Priesthood that has been restored to the earth in this dispensation, through Joseph the Prophet. I know that is good, because it is calculated to uphold the truth, and sustain the Church, and develop men in knowledge, in good works, in fidelity to the purposes of the Lord, and it is essential to the proper government of the people of God in the earth, and for our own individual government, the government of our families, the government of our temporal and spiritual affairs, individually as well as collectively.18

Honor that power and authority which we call the Holy Priesthood, which is after the order of the Son of God, and which has been conferred upon man by God himself. Honor that Priesthood. What is that Priesthood? It is nothing more and nothing less than divine authority committed unto man from God. That is the principle that we should honor. … The Priesthood of the Son of God cannot be exercised in any degree of unrighteousness; neither will its power, its virtue and authority abide with him who is corrupt, who is treacherous in his soul toward God and toward his fellowmen. It will not abide in force and power with him who does not honor it in his life by complying with the requirements of heaven.19

Do you honor this Priesthood? … Would you, holding that Priesthood, and possessing the right and authority from God to administer in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, violate the confidence and the love of God, the hope and desire of the Father of all of us? For, in bestowing that key and blessing upon you, he desires and expects you to magnify your calling.20

If you will honor the holy Priesthood in yourself first, you will honor it in those who preside over you, and those who administer in the various callings, throughout the Church.21

It is … not good that the Latter-day Saints and the children of the Latter-day Saints should treat lightly this sacred principle of authority which has been revealed from the heavens in the dispensation in which we live. … It is sacred, and it must be held sacred by the people. It should be honored and respected by them, in whomsoever it is held, and in whomsoever responsibility is placed in the Church. The young men and young women and the people generally should honor this principle and recognize it as something that is sacred, and that cannot be trifled with nor spoken lightly of with impunity. Disregard of this authority leads to darkness and to apostasy, and severance from all the rights and privileges of the house of God; for it is by virtue of this authority that the ordinances of the gospel are performed throughout the world and in every sacred place, and without it they cannot be performed. Those also who hold this authority should honor it in themselves. They should live so as to be worthy of the authority vested in them and worthy of the gifts that have been bestowed upon them.22

Suggestions for Study

  • What is the priesthood? For what purposes did the Lord delegate to man the authority of the priesthood?

  • How can we come to “comprehend the workings of the Priesthood”?

  • In what ways do the men and women of God partake of the blessings, powers, and privileges of the priesthood?

  • How has the priesthood blessed your life? How has it blessed those in your home?

  • What are the keys of the priesthood? Why are they given? Who holds all of the priesthood keys? Who holds keys at the ward and stake level?

  • In what spirit should priesthood holders perform their duties? (See D&C 121:41–46.) What influence does a priesthood holder have in the home and the Church when he shows “love unfeigned” and “gentleness of spirit”?

  • How can we honor the priesthood and hold it sacred? In what ways might we “treat lightly” this sacred authority?

  • How does the example of the Savior help us understand how to exercise and honor priesthood authority?


  1. Life of Joseph F. Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (1938), 227.

  2. Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. (1939), 140–41.

  3. Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, 23 Aug. 1892, 6.

  4. Gospel Doctrine, 190.

  5. Gospel Doctrine, 40–41.

  6. Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, 23 Aug. 1892, 6.

  7. Gospel Doctrine, 45.

  8. Gospel Doctrine, 147.

  9. Gospel Doctrine, 287.

  10. Letter to Susa Young Gates, 7 July 1888, in Truth and Courage: The Joseph F. Smith Letters, ed. Joseph Fielding McConkie (n.d.), 11–12.

  11. In James R. Clark, comp, Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. (1965–75), 5:80.

  12. Gospel Doctrine, 136.

  13. Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, 27 Apr. 1897, 1.

  14. In Conference Report, Oct. 1911, 7.

  15. Gospel Doctrine, 143–44.

  16. Gospel Doctrine, 149.

  17. Gospel Doctrine, 150–51.

  18. In Conference Report, Apr. 1912, 9.

  19. Gospel Doctrine, 160.

  20. Gospel Doctrine, 165.

  21. Gospel Doctrine, 165.

  22. Gospel Doctrine, 140–41.