A Quick Note: Historicizing the Role of Bishoprics

By October 7, 2019

The history of Bishops and their responsibilities throughout the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has yet to be written. Historicizing the shifts in responsibility at the October 2019 General Conference of the church can consequently be challenging. I’d like to focus here on one key facet of the new ecclesiology: the role of Bishoprics with young men of the church.

The office of bishop was revealed and established before the high priesthood, and operated for years before Joseph Smith revealed the offices of apostle or seventy. When Smith revealed the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods in 1835 he placed bishops over the former. At this time Bishops did not have counsellors, and while could hold court over church members, other quorums and councils generally filled that duty.

Bishops were placed over geographic wards in Nauvoo, but did not really have ecclesiastical authority over congregations (which didn’t really exist). In early Utah, settlements were considered stakes. Often a presiding elder or president was called to administer the spiritual aspects of a church, while a bishop handled its judicial and financial matters. E.g., William Pace was Palmyra’s bishop, but Steven Markham, as the stake’s president, managed worship. [n1] Bishops soon grew to have authority over congregational wards, at least in areas with significant population. [n2] Bishops of various sorts also managed tithing and financial affairs. [n3] During all of this time bishops had no specific responsibility over the youth of the church, and Aaronic Priesthood offices were filled by men, though mostly the offices remained empty.

Fast forwarding to the twentieth century, and we have the well known progressive reforms of the “Priesthood Reform Movement” that created a path for boys to advance through the offices of deacon, teacher, and priest at regular ages. [n4] It is well after these reforms that we have a logic and structure that anticipates the recent changes. In 1939, LeGrand Richards spoke at the Aaronic Priesthood Convention which was held in association with the October General Conference. Richards had been reforming the youth programs of the church, and he announced that:

after consulting with the First Presidency, the Presiding Bishopric were making a definite request of all bishops to actively assume the Presidency of the Priests’ Quorums, attending meetings and directing the work, and that each counselor actively assume supervision of the Teachers’ and Deacons’ Quorum work respectively. By revelation, the Bishopric are made the Presidency of the Aaronic Priesthood, and it is felt that much better results can be secured if this Presidency shall become active and make Priesthood Quorum work their first responsibility.

This request does not in any way affect the present plan of having a supervisor for each quorum. The supervisor is to assist the member of the Bishopric in making plans to carry forward the work[.] [n5]

In January 1940 the Presiding Bishopric announced that “special assistants to ward bishoprics in the conduct of Aaronic Priesthood quorums who have heretofore been designated as quorum supervisors are hereafter to be designated as quorum advisers.” The Presiding Bishopric believed that “this new title will more clearly convey the real objectives of the appointment of men to assist members of the bishopric in the actual conduct of Priesthood quorum activities.” They also note that these advisors should leave “to the officers the actual presiding and conduct of all meetings, as set forth in the revelations.” [n6]

____________________________

  1. William G. Hartley, Another Kind of Gold: The Life of Albert King Thurber, a Utah Pioneer, Explorer, and Community Builder (Troy, ID: C. L. Dalton Enterprises, 2011), 10.
  2. Ronald W. Walker, “’Going to Meeting’ in Salt Lake City’s Thirteenth Ward, 1849-1881: A Microanalysis” in New Views of Mormon History: A Collection of Essays in Honor of Leonard J. Arrington, edited by Davis Bitton and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987), 138-161.
  3. William G. Hartley, “Ward Bishops and the Localizing of LDS Tithing” in ibid.
  4. William G. Hartley, “The Priesthood Reform Movement, 1908– 1922,” BYU Studies 13 (Winter 1973): 137– 156; William G. Hartley, “From Men to Boys: LDS Aaronic Priesthood Offices, 1829– 1996,” Journal of Mormon History 22 (Spring 1996): 115–117; Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter- day Saints, 1890–1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 93– 115.
  5. ”Bishops and Counselors Urged to Actively Supervise Quorum Meetings,” Progress of the Church (December 1939).
  6. ”Adviser is New Designation for Priesthood Quorum Aids,” Progress of the Church (January 1940).

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. A friend asked me about YM presidencies, and I had been thinking about that as well. The reality is that I don’t know the answer to that, but my sense is that they must have arisen out of the Mutual Improvement Associations. I’m really looking forward to Lisa and Kate’s work on the Young Women’s orgs to help fill in a lot of gaps. As far as the General Handbook evidence goes, there really is nothing about young women or young men (outside of the Aaronic Priesthood orgs) until 1976, when the ward organization included a “Director of the Aaronic Priesthood” and a “Young Women’s President.” “Young Men” and “Young Women” were codified as organizations in 1978. So I’m guessing that the YM presidency is off that same vintage. The 1983 handbook is replete with info on the YM and YW Presidents and the respective organizations.

    It is clear that they were really focusing on boys in the late 1930-50s. There is skads of info in the General Handbooks on programs for boys, and essentially nothing on the girls.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 7, 2019 @ 5:13 pm

  2. Elsewhere, Matt Godfrey noted that “although the term ‘counselor’ was not used, Edward Partridge had two ‘assistants’–John Corrill and Isaac Morley, appointed in 1831–while Newel K. Whitney also had two assistants–Hyrum Smith and Reynolds Cahoon–appointed in 1832.” This is an important point, to which I might add Sidney Gilbert as an “agent” as another potential antecedent. My recollection is that Bishops in Nauvoo did not have assistants or counselors, but I could be mistaken.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 7, 2019 @ 8:47 pm

  3. Thanks, J!

    Comment by Jeff T — October 7, 2019 @ 11:06 pm

  4. I have recollections, lost in the fog of too many years, that there was a time when young men serving in the leadership of the priests quorums were actually called presidencies. Then someone reread the 107th section and determined that the bishop was to be the president of the priests quorum and the young men serving with him were thereafter designated “Assistants.”

    Can anybody else remember this change? Or is there documentary support for my memory?

    Comment by Mark B. — October 8, 2019 @ 9:50 am

  5. Mark, that was part of the revisions of ecclesiology that are included in D&C 107. But the Bishop actually joining the priests quorum appears to date to the materials in this post, ca. the end of 1939. The idea that priests were then called to be “assistants” to the bishop is documented in the 1976 general handbook, and I didn’t see it before that, though I also don’t have the Aaronic priesthood handbooks to look through.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 8, 2019 @ 2:28 pm

  6. My memory (though it has been 60 years ago) was that I was an assistant to the bishop in our Priests’ quorum in the early 60’s. When I asked about it then I was told that the bishop already had counselors, so we were assistants.

    Comment by Sheldon Miller — October 8, 2019 @ 6:35 pm

  7. Here is the YM org chart from 1967, which doesn’t include a YM’s presidency, so perhaps that dating of the presidencies to the mid 1970s is correct.

    https://juvenileinstructor.org/ji-content/uploads/2019/10/1967-YM.png

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 14, 2019 @ 5:11 pm


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