The Patriarchal Order of Priesthood
By John A. Tvedtnes

On 27 August 1843, the prophet Joseph Smith addressed the Saints assembled in Nauvoo on the topic of priesthood. Using Hebrews 7 as the background of his remarks, he declared:

There are three grand orders of priesthood referred to here. 1st. The King of Shiloam. (Salem) had power and authority over that of Abraham, holding the key and the power of endless life … What was the power of Melchizedek? ‘Twas not the Priesthood of Aaron which administers in outward ordinances, and the offering of sacrifices. Those holding the fullness of the Melchizedek Priesthood are kings and priests of the Most High God, holding the keys of power and blessings. In fact, that priesthood is a perfect law of theocracy, and stands as God to give laws to the people, administering endless lives to the sons and daughters of Adam. Abraham says to Melchizedek, I believe all that thou hast taught me concerning the priesthood and the coming of the Son of Man; so Melchizedek ordained Abraham and sent him away. Abraham rejoiced, saying, Now I have a priesthood . . . The 2nd Priesthood is Patriarchal authority. Go to and finish the temple, and God will fill it with power, and you will then receive more knowledge concerning this priesthood. The 3rd is what is called the Levitical Priesthood, consisting of priests to administer in outward ordinance, made without an oath; but the Priesthood of Melchizedek is by an oath and covenant. The Holy Ghost is God’s messenger to administer in all those priesthoods. (History of the Church 5:554-5)

Eight years earlier, the prophet had dictated a revelation that declared, “There are, in the church, two priesthoods, namely, the Melchizedek and Aaronic, including the Levitical Priesthood” (D&C 107:1). At the time this revelation was recorded, there were, in fact, only two orders of priesthood in the Church. By the time of the 1843 Nauvoo discourse, the temple was under construction and Joseph declared that knowledge of the “Patriarchal authority” would be revealed therein. [1]

There had been ordained patriarchs in the Church since 1833 and two years later the Lord made provision for the ordination of patriarchs in each of the stakes (D&C 107:39). [2] He then declared that “The order of this priesthood was confirmed to be handed down from father to son, and rightly belongs to the literal descendants of the chosen seed, to whom the promises were made. This order was instituted in the days of Adam, and came down by lineage in the following manner” (D&C 107:40-41). Then follows a recitation of the names of the antediluvian patriarchs, down to the time of Noah (D&C 107:52). Note especially the term “order” in connection with patriarchal authority.

The 1843 discourse promises further knowledge about this order of the priesthood that would be received when the temple was in operation. Since no new information was forthcoming about those men who give patriarchal blessings, Joseph’s promise must have reference to another aspect of patriarchal authority that would be available in the temple.


The term “patriarch” literally means “father-ruler” and denotes the relationship of a priesthood holder to his posterity. As we have seen in D&C 107, this priesthood passed from father to son in antiquity. Ultimately, it came to Abraham whose priesthood, as the 1843 discourse demonstrates, was inferior to that of Melchizedek. D&C 84:14 informs us that “Abraham received the priesthood from Melchizedek, who received it through the lineage of his fathers, even till Noah.” Abraham wrote,

I sought for the blessings of the fathers, and the right whereunto I should be ordained to administer the same; having been myself a follower of righteousness, desiring also to be one who possessed great knowledge, and to be a greater follower of righteousness, and to possess a greater knowledge, and to be a father of many nations, a prince of peace, and desiring to receive instructions, and to keep the commandments of God, I became a rightful heir, a High Priest, holding the right belonging to the fathers. It was conferred upon me from the fathers; it came down from the fathers, from the beginning of time, yea, even from the beginning, or before the foundation of the earth, down to the present time, even the right of the firstborn, or the first man, who is Adam, or first father, through the fathers unto me. I sought for mine appointment unto the Priesthood according to the appointment of God unto the fathers concerning the seed. My fathers, having turned from their righteousness, and from the holy commandments which the Lord their God had given unto them, unto the worshiping of the gods of the heathen, utterly refused to hearken to my voice. (Abraham 1:2-5)

From this passage, we learn that Abraham was a rightful heir to the patriarchal priesthood, but that his immediate ancestors had been unbelievers, so he had to seek elsewhere for his “appointment unto the Priesthood.” Though primogeniture was the basic principle by which the authority passed from father to son, only righteous men could be ordained. Thus, while Abraham’s son Ishmael was older than his half-brother Isaac, the Lord told Abraham that “in Isaac shall thy seed be called” (Genesis 21:12; cf. Genesis 17:19). Similarly, Isaac’s son Jacob received the promise instead of his twin, Esau, who was born first.

When the Lord rescued Abraham from the altar on which he was bound for sacrifice, he told him, “Behold, I will lead thee by my hand, and I will take thee, to put upon thee my name, even the Priesthood of thy father, and my power shall be over thee. As it was with Noah so shall it be with thee” (Abraham 1:18-19).

The king of Egypt claimed the patriarchal authority, as Abraham explained:

Now the first government of Egypt was established by Pharaoh, the eldest son of Egyptus, the daughter of Ham, and it was after the manner of the government of Ham, which was patriarchal. Pharaoh, being a righteous man, established his kingdom and judged his people wisely and justly all his days, seeking earnestly to imitate that order established by the fathers in the first generations, in the days of the first patriarchal reign, even in the reign of Adam, and also of Noah, his father, who blessed him with the blessings of the earth, and with the blessings of wisdom, but cursed him as pertaining to the Priesthood. Now, Pharaoh being of that lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood, notwithstanding the Pharaohs would fain claim it from Noah, through Ham, therefore my father was led away by their idolatry. (Abraham 1:25-27)

It has generally been assumed that this passage means that the Egyptians (and, by extension, other descendants of Ham) could not be ordained to the priesthood. [3] But Abraham’s explanation make it clear that he was writing about the patriarchal authority, which he, being of the firstborn line of Shem, inherited. [4] Having stated Pharaoh’s claim, Abraham countered:

But I shall endeavor, hereafter, to delineate the chronology running back from myself to the beginning of the creation, for the records have come into my hands, which I hold unto this present time. But the records of the fathers, even the patriarchs, concerning the right of Priesthood, the Lord my God preserved in mine own hands; therefore a knowledge of the beginning of the creation, and also of the planets, and of the stars, as they were made known unto the fathers, have I kept even unto this day, and I shall endeavor to write some of these things upon this record, for the benefit of my posterity that shall come after me. (Abraham 1:28, 31)

Both Pharaoh and Abraham claimed patriarchal authority, one through Ham, the other through Ham’s brother Shem. What made the difference is that Abraham had the ancient records of “the patriarchs, concerning the right of Priesthood,” which clearly supported his claim.

Temple Priesthood

In view of Joseph Smith’s comment that the Saints could learn more about the patriarchal order of priesthood in the temple, we must consider what is different about priesthood in relation to the temple than priesthood as generally used in the Church. [5] There are two aspects, of which the first is that in the temple one is anointed to become a king/queen and priest/priestess to God – something noted by the apostle John, especially in connection with those considered worthy to dwell in the presence of God (Revelation 1:6; 5:10).

Indeed, Joseph Smith’s revelation about the kingdoms of glory note that those who are worthy of the celestial kingdom are “They are they who are priests and kings, who have received of his fulness, and of his glory” (D&C 76:56). The second aspect is summed up in D&C 131:1-4:

In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees; And in order to obtain the highest, a man must enter into this order of the priesthood [meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage]; And if he does not, he cannot obtain it. He may enter into the other, but that is the end of his kingdom; he cannot have an increase.

Sealing in marriage for eternity is here called an “order of the priesthood.” It is a necessary step to the establishment of an eternal family, in which both husband and wife hold priesthood responsibility for their posterity. Eternal marriage is also termed a “new and everlasting covenant” in D&C 132:4, 6, 19-20, 26-27, 41-42. [6]

A Family Affair

Having laid this foundation, we return to the terminology “patriarchal.” Though it is masculine in form, no man can become a patriarch in either time or eternity without his wife as matriarch, for “neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:11), being considered “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). “Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6).

In the revelation detailing the principle of eternal marriage, the Lord declared that the purpose of marriage is “to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment, and to fulfill the promise which was given by my Father before the foundation of the world, and for their exaltation in the eternal worlds, that they may bear the souls of men; for herein is the work of my Father continued, that he may be glorified” (D&C 132:63). The same revelation speaks of “exaltation” and “eternal lives,” alluding to the continuation of the family unit in eternity (D&C 132:24, 55). “For strait is the gate, and narrow the way that leadeth unto the exaltation and continuation of the lives, and few there be that find it” (D&C 132:22).

The patriarchal order of the priesthood is therefore the basis of an eternal family organization, one that can continue in the highest portion of the celestial kingdom, where God is the Father of all. “For this cause,” wrote the apostle Paul, “I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named” (Ephesians 3:14-15). [7]


[1] A later discourse by the prophet seems to allude to those holding keys over the three orders of the priesthood: “The spirit of Elias is first, Elijah second, and Messiah last. Elias is a forerunner to prepare the way, and the spirit and power of Elijah is to come after, holding the keys of power, building the Temple to the capstone, placing the seals of the Melchizedek Priesthood upon the house of Israel, and making all things ready; then Messiah comes to His Temple, which is last of all. Messiah is above the spirit and power of Elijah, for He made the world, and was that spiritual rock unto Moses in the wilderness. Elijah was to come and prepare the way and build up the kingdom before the coming of the great day of the Lord, although the spirit of Elias might begin it.” History of the Church 6:254.

[2] Though the original revelation read “patriarchs,” they were subsequently termed “evangelical ministers,” because the term “evangelist” denotes someone who proclaims good news, which is what patriarchs do when giving blessings (see Journal of Discourses 19:115). Note that this passage uses the term “large branches” instead of “stakes.” In the early days of the Church, the two terms were used interchangeably, whereas today the term “branch” is used for a very small congregation of Latter-day Saints. For a discussion of these and related issues, see my book Organize My Kingdom: A History of Restored Priesthood (Bountiful: Cornerstone/Horizon, 2000).

[3] Some Latter-day Saints have suggested that Ham’s wife Egyptus was a descendant of Cain, but neither the book of Abraham nor any other scriptural passage makes such a claim. It was a common belief among 19th-century American Protestants and was used to justify slavery and, later, the mistreatment of African-Americans. Early Latter-day Saints brought the idea with them when they converted to the restored Church and mistakenly pointed to the book of Abraham for evidence for the belief. For an in-depth discussion, see Stephen R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[4] Hugh Nibley seems to have been the first to note this meaning of the text.

[5] Men and women alike officiate as ordinance workers in the temples.

[6] In addition to sealing in marriage, one other ordinance is termed a “new and everlasting covenant” in scripture (D&C 22:1). Significantly, these two ordinances are performed not in the name of Jesus Christ, as with other ordinances, but in the name of all three members of the Godhead. The first of them, baptism, is the gate into the celestial kingdom, while the second, sealing in marriage, is the gate into the highest division of the celestial kingdom, provided that one keeps the covenants associated with those ordinances.

[7] Lest the reader misunderstand, I reiterate Joseph Smith’s declaration that the Melchizedek Priesthood is superior to the Patriarchal order. Indeed, a man must receive the higher order of priesthood before he can be sealed to his spouse in the temple. Apostles have keys for all three orders of the priesthood, with the senior apostle as President of the Church and the one by whose authority those keys function.

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