Is the Mormon Priesthood Really of Ancient Origin?

By Eric Johnson and Bill McKeever

The authority of the priesthood is so important to the Mormon that without it, male members are not enabled “to act in God’s name for the salvation of the human family” (Gospel Principles, p. 67).  Those without this authority are unable to perform any ordinances, as Apostle James Talmage explained:

No one may officiate in any ordinances of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints unless he has been ordained to the particular order or office of Priesthood, by those possessing the requisite authority. Thus, no man receives the Priesthood except under the hands of one who holds that Priesthood himself; that one must have obtained it from others previously commissioned; and so every bearer of the Priesthood today can trace his authority to the hands of Joseph Smith the Prophet, who received his ordination under the hands of the apostles Peter, James, and John; and they had been ordained by the Lord Jesus Christ. (The Articles of Faith, p. 189).

Mormonism teaches that all authority of the priesthood was “taken from the earth as the apostles of old were slain” (Ibid, p. 188). According to  Apostle John Widtsoe, John the Baptist was probably the last to hold the Aaronic Priesthood, while the Melchizedek Priesthood ceased three or four centuries after Christ. Without these priesthoods, “there can be no true Church of Christ in its fullness” (Priesthood and Church Government, pp. 19, 25, 45). Thus, according to Mormonism, there was a 1700-year period when there was no authority and Christianity was in a state of total apostasy. Then, on May 15, 1829, it is claimed that the angelic John the Baptist appeared to the Mormon founder Joseph Smith and his scribe Oliver Cowdery. Using the authority given him by Peter, James, and John, the angel conferred upon them the “Priesthood of Aaron,” as D&C 13 puts it.

In the 1833 Book of Commandments, no mention is made of John the Baptist baptizing Joseph and Oliver. This section was initially published in the Times and Seasons on August 1, 1842, but it was not added to the Doctrine and Covenants (Section 13), until 1876. There is also no mention of the Aaronic Priesthood in the Book of Mormon. Apostle Parley P. Pratt admitted that the Nephites did not have the Aaronic Priesthood when he said: “… the Aaronic Priesthood is no where pretended to in the Book of Mormon” (Writings of Parley Parker Pratt, p. 209).  First Nephi 5:16 in the Book of Mormon states that the family of Lehi came from the tribe of Joseph. Since this unique LDS scripture also fails to mention the Melchizedek Priesthood, it appears that the Nephites were also acting without proper authority and did not represent “the true church.”

As the story goes, Joseph and Oliver were later visited by three of Jesus’ disciples–Peter, James, and John–who bestowed upon Smith and Cowdery the next level of priesthood, known in Mormonism as the Melchizedek Priesthood. Without these two priesthoods, Mormonism teaches that men will have no chance at true salvation. As for each woman, her eternal progression is contingent on a priesthood-holding male. The problem with the idea that men have the opportunity to achieve the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods is that it is without biblical precedence.

First, the idea that there was a total apostasy of Christendom for even one year (let alone 1,700 years) is quite an outlandish statement. There have been devout Christians since the time of the apostles through all the ages. The church of God has never disappeared. This fact verifies the truth of Jesus’ statement when he said in Matthew 16:18 how “the gates of hell shall not prevail against” the Christian church. Apostle Orson Pratt said in 1850 that this verse refers only to the LDS Church. He said,

The gates of hell have prevailed and will continue to prevail over the Catholic mother of harlots, and over all her Protestant daughters; but as for the apostolic Church of Christ [Mormon Church], she rests secure in the mansion of eternal happiness, where she will remain until the apostate Catholic Church, with all her popes and bishops, together with all her harlot daughters shall be hurled down to hell (Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon, No. 3, p. 44).

While admitting that some past leaders of Christianity may have had pure motives and zeal, Apostle George Q. Cannon believed that a lack of priesthood meant they lacked the necessary authority. He stated:

A Wesley, a Luther, a Calvin, a Wycliffe and a host of others who have arisen in the world, imbued with the highest and purest motives and the highest and most intense desires for the salvation of their fellow men, have labored zealously to turn men to God and to bring them to a knowledge of the Savior; but they have not had the authority of the Holy Priesthood (Gospel Truth, pp. 174-175).

This is quite a presumptuous statement to make, but one that goes unnoticed by too many Christians who may feel Mormonism is no different from biblical Christianity. Consider that Mormonism teaches that this lack of authority applies to all non-Mormons today! John Widtsoe wrote:

The preaching of the Gospel also requires the authority of the Priesthood. Any person may teach righteous doctrine and will be blessed thereby. But only those who share in the power of the Priesthood can teach with authority the doctrines of Christ and invite the children of men into the Church of Christ. It is those who hold divine authority, that speak as they are “moved upon by the Holy Ghost” (D & C 68:3). (Priesthood and Church Government, p. 41).

Speaking of the LDS Church, he explained:

The Church itself is a product of Priesthood. Therefore, whenever the Church of Christ is upon earth the Priesthood is a part of it. The Church is the instrument through which Priesthood operates. Men may then obtain the Priesthood through the Church and in no other way (Ibid., p. 45).

James Talmage, another Mormon apostle, added:

The special privileges and blessings associated with the Church, the right to hold and exercise the Priesthood with its boundless possibilities and eternal powers, will be, as now they are, for those only who enter into the covenant and become part of the Church of Jesus Christ (The Articles of Faith, p. 368).

Second, the Old Testament teaches that the Aaronic Priesthood could be held only by certain men who came from the Levite tribe, which had its roots in Aaron, the brother of Moses (Numbers 3:10-11; cf. D&C 107:16). This was a hereditary priesthood, one which would invalidate the non-Jewish Smith and Cowdery as well as all subsequent non-Jewish Mormons. The Jewish nation ended up getting into terrible trouble with God when the kings allowed others outside of Aaron’s line to become priests. Despite not coming from the tribe of Levi, the New Testament says Jesus fulfilled this priesthood. Hebrews 7:11-14 says:

If therefore perfection were by the Levitical priesthood, (for under it the people received the law,) what further need was there that another priest should rise after the order of Melchisedec, and not be called after the order of Aaron? For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law. For he of whom these things are spoken pertaineth to another tribe, of which no man gave attendance at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Judah; of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood (emphasis ours).

According to the author of Hebrews, the Aaronic Priesthood was inadequate to bring salvation to men and therefore was no longer necessary due to the great sacrifice of Christ. This is why New Testament Christians have never had to utilize the temple and sacrifice lambs and bulls. All of the sacrifices in the Old Testament were merely foreshadowing the blood, which was to be paid by Christ, the Lamb of God. Therefore, the Mormon idea that the Aaronic Priesthood is necessary becomes a moot point.

Christian scholar Alfred Edersheim noted that the duties of the Levites included keeping the sanctuary clean, guarding the temple, and making sure the gates were either opened or closed at their proper times. It was also the duty of the Levites to prevent those who were defiled from entering the sanctuary (The Temple, p. 89). Though a Levite did not have to necessarily be a priest, a priest had to be a Levite. The hereditary line had to be proven in order for a candidate to be approved. Edersheim noted that should a candidate for the office of priest fail to prove his legitimacy, “the candidate was dressed and veiled in black, and permanently removed” (Ibid., p. 95). He wrote:

If he passed that ordeal, inquiry was next made as to any physical defects, of which Maimonides enumerates a hundred and forty that permanently, and twenty-two which temporarily disqualified  for the exercise of the priestly office.

The function of the priest was to officiate in the sacrifices and to also offer counsel ranging from military advice to interpretation of Israelite custom and law. The priesthood in Mormonism is not an identical counterpart. Today, twelve-year-old Mormon boys are baptized into the Aaronic Priesthood and given the title “deacon.” This is especially interesting since 1 Timothy 3:12 says that “deacons [are to] be husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.” God apparently felt that grown men should be the ones who receive the Aaronic Priesthood since D & C 84:111 states how “the deacons and teachers should be appointed to watch over the church, to be standing ministers unto the church.” President Brigham Young claimed that deacons were even to be married:

It is not the business of an ignorant young man, of no experience in family matters, to inquire into the circumstances of families, and know the wants of every person … it is not the business of boys to do this; but select a man who has got a family to be a Deacon, whose wife can go with him, and assist him in administering to the needy in the ward…. I will venture to say the view I take of the matter is not to be disputed or disproved by Scripture or reason (Journal of Discourses 2:89).

However, President Joseph Fielding Smith disagreed with Young’s interpretation of 1 Timothy 3:12 and said it should no longer apply today. Several paragraphs after claiming that the New Testament office of “pastor” is not necessary because it can be applied to other LDS positions, Smith contradicted both Joseph Smith and Young when he wrote:

It was the judgment of Paul that a deacon in that day should be a married man. That does not apply to our day. Conditions were different in the days of Paul. In that day a minister was not considered qualified to take part in the ministry until he was 30 years of age. Under those conditions deacons, teachers, and priests were mature men. This is not the requirement today (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation 3:109-110).

What conditions have changed that would make today’s younger people more qualified than those in ancient times? Better yet, what conditions have changed since the time that Young said a deacon should be married?

Regarding a fixed age requirement for the Aaronic Priesthood, Edersheim wrote:

There was not any fixed age for entering on the office of high-priest, any more than on that of an ordinary priest. The Talmudists put it down at twenty years. But the unhappy descendant of the Maccabees, Aritobulus, was only sixteen years of age when his beauty, as he officiated as high-priest in the temple, roused the jealousy of Herod, and procured his death. The entrance of the Levites is fixed, in the sacred text, at thirty during the wilderness period, and after that, when the work would require less bodily strength, but a larger number of ministers, at twenty-five years of age (The Temple, pp. 94-95).

The function of the LDS priesthood is not only different from that of ancient times but the method of ordination is also not the same. Leviticus chapter 8 gives elaborate details as to how the priest was to be consecrated for service. This complex rite included ceremonial washings, corporate prayer over the head of the sacrificial bullock, the slaying of the bullock, the sprinkling of its blood, and the burning of the sacrifice. This was followed by the sacrifice of two rams and the offering of bread. The initiates were then separated from the people for seven days in which they would perform numerous animal sacrifices. On the eighth day, they would again emerge to offer sacrifice and bless the people. If the Mormon Priesthood is a restoration of the ancient priesthood, why are their priests not set apart in a similar fashion?

Third, the office of the Melchizedek Priesthood is held by only one person. His name? Jesus Christ. Hebrews 7:21-24 says:

(For those priests were made without an oath; but this with an oath by him that said unto him, The Lord sware and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec:) By so much was Jesus made a surety of a better testament. And they truly were many priests, because they were not suffered to continue by reason of death: But this man, because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood.

Although a priest (and king) named Melchizedek is talked about in Genesis 14, there is little information on his background. Like Christ, there is no evidence of his priestly succession or of his priestly parentage. There is no evidence in the entire Bible of anyone but Jesus being called a priest after the order of Melchizedek. Mormon leaders may continue to assume that men like Peter, James, and John held this office, but such claims are completely without biblical support.

The old order of the Aaronic Priesthood was fulfilled in Jesus since 1 Timothy 2:5 says He became our mediator to God the Father. He is “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners.” Therefore, we do not need a human priest who needs to be cleansed first before he could offer sacrifice to cleanse others. This was done once by Christ when He offered up Himself on the cross (Hebrews 7:26-27). Instead of being handed a priesthood whose function has passed, Christians are given what is known as a “royal priesthood” under Jesus (1 Peter 2:9-10; Hebrews 4:14).  While the Aaronic Priesthood could be held by a very few people whose primary function was to sacrifice animals on behalf of the sins of the people, the Royal Priesthood is open to all believers. Its function is to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. This office gives believers the right or authority to become the sons of God (John 1:12).

Fourth, when it comes to the office of high priest, Mormonism again diverges from the historical norm by having a multitude of men simultaneously holding this position. The Bible does not support the idea that more than one person held the office of high priest at the same time. Dr. Edersheim wrote:

Originally the office of high-priest was regarded as being held for life and hereditary; but the troubles of later times made it a matter of cabal, crime, or bribery (The Temple, p. 94).

Alma 13:10, in the Book of Mormon, states that “there were many who were ordained and became high priests of God.” One church manual states:

High priests hold the keys of presiding over the affairs of the kingdom, and thus General Authorities, stake presidencies, bishoprics, and patriarchs are ordained as high priests. The quorum of high priests consist of all high priests in a stake with no maximum number (Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual, p. 436).

This is a clear contradiction of the biblical pattern. While a Mormon may retreat to Luke 3:2, history shows that Annas held the high priesthood from around A.D. 6-15. (Luke 3:2 says that “Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests.”) Five of his sons also held this position, including his son-in-law Caiaphas who was appointed by the Roman government in A.D. 18. Caiaphas held this position until around A.D. 36. Luke 3:2 poses no problem because the former high priest retained his title even though he no longer acted in that capacity.

Unlike previous high priests, Hebrews 10:10 says Jesus offered himself “once for all” for the sins of the people. The duty of the high priest to stand in the gap on behalf of the people has therefore been transferred to Jesus Christ “who ever liveth to make intercession” for us. He alone is our great high priest. Christianity rests on the fact that Jesus fulfilled the incomplete Aaronic priesthood. Each one of us, through faith in Christ, has the right to be called a child of God with full authority to approach the throne of grace.


For further research, consider the articles in our section on the Priesthood.