Like much of Joseph Smith’s thought, his understanding of the priesthood did not emerge all at once in 1820 (or, for that matter, in 1829). As Greg Prince has shown, the earliest Mormons did not think in terms of ?priesthood? like later Latter-day Saints would understand it–as a broad umbrella term that included multiple offices. This understanding did not come about until 1835, with D&C 107 (see WVS’s fantastic series on D&C 107, especially part 6). Instead, they thought of offices with varying responsibilities and duties. The early church (1829-1830) included the offices of elders, priests, and teachers, with bishops, high priests, and deacons being added in 1831. However, Prince also suggests that the Book of Mormon and documents from 1829-1830 indicate that early Mormons understood an implied distinction between the authority of elders and the authority of priests and teachers (Power from on High, 12, 27; contrast Quinn, Origins of Power, 289n137, who does not accept this early, implied division).
Prince and Quinn both argue that in 1831 the term ?priesthood? only applied to the high priesthood, which was restored at the June 3-6, 1831 conference (it should be noted that although one contemporary, Ezra Booth, used the phrase ?order of Melchisedec? to describe the high priesthood, this phrase would not be regularly applied until a few years later. In addition, it was not until 1834 that the restoration of priesthood would be associated with John the Baptist, Peter, James, and John, but that is beyond the scope of this post). It was not until mid-1832, in Prince’s estimation, when JS composed his first History, that an explicit division was made between the high priesthood and another priesthood; furthermore, it was not until September 22-23, 1832 that a revelation (D&C 84) used the term ?lesser priesthood? to distinguish this other priesthood from the high priesthood. Although Prince acknowledges that the phrase ?lesser priesthood? referred specifically to the office of priest in D&C 84, and was not an umbrella term that broadly included priests, teachers, and deacons (Power From On High, 27-28; for a more explicit discussion of the priest/priesthood equation, see the link to WVS’s post above), he does not fully explore the implications of this insight.
In fact, a November 11, 1831 revelation (which was later incorporated into D&C 107), used the term ?priesthood? not only to refer to high priests but also to the office of priest. ?[T]he duty of the president over the priesthood is to preside over forty-eight priests? (BCR; compare D&C 107:87, which was altered to fit later understandings). Neither Prince nor Quinn note this 1831 usage of priesthood to refer to priests. Furthermore, William E. McLellin, whose as-of-yet unpublished journals were probably not available to either Prince or Quinn when they published their books, actually used the term ?lesser priesthood? in an October 1831 entry:
Tuesday 25. . . .And Tuesday night in conference, a number of Elders were ordained to the High-Priesthood of the Holy order of God among whom though I felt unworthy I was ordained and took upon me the high responsibility of that office ? A number of others present were ordained to the lesser Priest-Hood. (McLellin, Journal, 25 October 1831, in Journals, 45)
The minutes for the October 25, 1831 conference flesh out McLellin’s summary. They indicate that ?Br. Sidney Rigdon said it was the privilege of those Elders present to be ordained to the High Priesthood, telling them that if they then should doubt God would withdraw his Spirit from them. [Several Elders were then ordained to the High Priesthood, including McLellin]? (Minutes, 25 October 1831, p. 14). Again, it should be remembered that High Priesthood refers specificallyhere to the office of high priest, and was not yet an umbrella term that could include several offices. However, only elders had the privilege of being ordained to the high priesthood–not priests, teachers, or deacons–suggesting a special relationship between elders and high priests. The minutes also record JS as stating ?that those who had been previously ordained Priests would be ordained Elders.?
The conference record does not use McLellin’s phrase ?lesser priesthood,? or even ?priesthood? to signify priests, like the November 11, 1831 revelation would. However, the minutes do support the equation of priests and “lesser priesthood” by quoting JS as saying that ?the others [i.e., teachers and deacons] would be ordained Priests; the Clerk then by appointment ordained br Lyman Johnson and brs Calvin Stod[d]ard, Ezekiel Rider, William Scoby, Uziel Stephens, William Smith William Cahoon, Albert Jackman, Stephen Strong, Calves Willson, Lumon [Luman] Gibbs , Eleazer Willis Michael B. Welton Gideon Carter Priests? (Minutes, 25 October 1831, p. 14). Therefore, just as elders were ?upgraded? to the high priesthood, deacons and teachers were ?upgraded? to priests, suggesting again that high priests and priests were benchmarks, or higher and lesser priesthoods, to which the other offices were connected (D&C 84 would use the word “appendage” to describe this relationship). Although “lesser priesthood” was not used in the official minutes, McLellin’s journal establishes that it was in use at the time.
If nothing else, this indicates that the timeline developed in Prince for the emergence of the concept of a lesser priesthood should be pushed back from mid-1832 to October 1831. As for Quinn, he does not seem to grasp (or perhaps accept) the pre-1835 equation of priest and priesthood, and therefore he retroactively applies the 1835 understanding of priesthood as an umbrella term that included several offices. This leads him to argue that ?until the revelation dated September 1832 (but not published until 1835 [D&C 84]), Joseph Smith and others saw the higher priesthood as encompassing one office exclusively. The lesser priesthood applied to the offices of deacon, teacher, priest, elder, and bishop? (Origins of Power, 29, also 30), with his emphasis being placed on elders being part of the lesser priesthood. As explained above, however, this view is problematic, as demonstrated by the equation of priest and priesthood (and high priest and high priesthood) in the November 1831 revelation and the explicit reference in McLellin’s journal to ?lesser Priest-Hood? combined with the October 25, 1831 conference minutes.
For a great post discussing the dating of Peter, James, and John’s visit to JS, see here.