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]
- 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.
- 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.
- William G. Hartley, “Ward Bishops and the Localizing of LDS Tithing” in ibid.
- 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.
- ”Bishops and Counselors Urged to Actively Supervise Quorum Meetings,” Progress of the Church (December 1939).
- ”Adviser is New Designation for Priesthood Quorum Aids,” Progress of the Church (January 1940).