New Release: “Items on the Priesthood” by John Taylor

This 1881 pamphlet by President John Taylor contains an early, authoritative doctrinal discussion of the role of bishops in the Church, which, in context, is more significant than it might appear at first blush.

As any careful reader of the Doctrine and Covenants will be aware, bishops with various duties were called early in Church history, but the office of bishop was not a Church standard for local lay ecclesiastical leaders. The history of the office is actually somewhat convoluted; in the early Utah period it seems there were simultaneously traveling bishops, a presiding bishop, and local bishops whose responsibilities overlapped with local presidents of the Melchizedek priesthood. Some confusion and conflict resulted, so towards the end of Brigham Young’s life he directed the institution of a more or less modern structure of wards and stakes, with recognizably modern bishoprics. This was announced in an Orson Pratt address in 1877. (I’m drawing most of this history from a fascinating Dialogue article and the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.)

Then, in 1881, John Taylor issued this pamphlet as a (perhaps the) definitive doctrinal explanation of the doctrine of the bishopric, with the following preface:

As there is more or less uncertainty existing in the minds of many of the Bishops and others in regard to the proper status and authority of the Bishopric and what is denominated the “Aaronic or Levitical” Priesthood, I thought it best to lay before the brethren a general statement of the subject, as contained in the Bible and Book of Doctrine and Covenants.

The following views have been submitted to the Council of the Twelve and have received their sanction; they were also laid before the Priesthood Meeting at the Semi-Annual Conference, held in the Assembly Hall, Salt Lake City, October 9th, A. D. 1880, and were unanimously accepted by the large body of Priesthood present on that occasion.

As you read the body of the pamphlet, it will seem familiar, but the key thing to realize is that this is one of the first detailed doctrinal statements on the bishopric that would seem so familiar to a modern reader. Furthermore, it was issued by the prophet and sustained in a general conference and by the Twelve, so it has checked off most of the key requirements for canonization. Given all this, it’s as close as we have (at least that I know of) to a scriptural explanation of exactly how all the pieces of the modern doctrine of the bishopric fit together. It sure seems like it should be better-known. Anyways, have a read.

Many thanks to Samuel Shreeve, our lone intern from Utah State University, for producing this e-book. It’s being released mid-week because, thanks to the wrap-up phase of the internship program, we already have another whole book to release this weekend and even more on the horizon. Keep an eye out for more releases.

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