Nauvoo Stake, Priesthood Quorums, and the Church’s First Wards



A restored Seventies Hall stands on the north side of Parley Street in Nauvoo, a memorial to one office and quorum of the priesthood. Today, Latter-day Saint guides use the building, originally built in 1844, as an appropriate site for telling about the Church’s proselyting efforts, a labor assigned by revelation to ordained seventies. But the hall is also a fitting site for explaining stake and local priesthood work in Old Nauvoo: here, the Nauvoo Stake held many presidency and high council meetings; here, men in Nauvoo’s thirty-three seventies quorums, the high priests quorum, and other priesthood groups met, prayed, discussed the gospel, and received and reported on priesthood assignments.

No comparable priesthood hall is found in today’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Likewise, seventies quorums no longer exist as they once did in nearly every Latter-day Saint stake. Therefore the restored walls of the Nauvoo Seventies Hall bear mute but sturdy witness that priesthood organization in Old Nauvoo differed in practice and policy from what today’s Latter-day Saints see. With the hall as a visual symbol, this article presents a history of Nauvoo priesthood groups and how they operated in the days before fully functional wards and even ward meetinghouses existed. To date, there is no history of priesthood work in Nauvoo or of the Nauvoo Stake, a surprising lack given the fact that Nauvoo was a religious capital. The article also evaluates what differences seven years of priesthood work in Nauvoo made in terms of the historical development of latter-day priesthood work, differences that include the introduction into the Church of wards and ward bishops. To examine Nauvoo’s priesthood work is, as the phrase says, to enter a foreign country.1 Present understandings of stakes, wards, and quorums enlighten but also confuse the study of Nauvoo’s priesthood work. Four factors must be understood by all readers of Church history to interpret Nauvoo source materials correctly.

First, the terms ward, branch, stake, and district had meanings looser than do today’s definitions. For example, Nauvoo High Council minutes mention a decision that the Pleasant Vale “stake” outside Nauvoo should be dissolved and “members of that branch” joined to the Church in Nauvoo—the terms branch and stake being used interchangeably.2 For that generation, a branch was a stake, albeit a stake in embryo. (Branches were called stakes in early Utah as well.3) A branch first received a president and then, when needed, a high council and a bishop, and at that point it was considered an operational stake. As membership numbers or geography made them necessary, a second, a third, and more bishops were added. An elders quorum and at least one Aaronic Priesthood unit completed a stake’s organization.

An example of a one-bishop stake sprouted across the river from Nauvoo. In August 1841, the Zarahemla Stake held a conference at which its presidency, high council, and a single bishop were sustained along with an elders quorum presidency. Bishop Elias Smith reported that the stake had in its lesser priesthood nine priests, thirteen teachers, and four deacons. Elder Lewis Zabriskie reported his elders quorum had “20 members generally in good standing.”4

For the population of Old Nauvoo, the term ward had a different meaning than it does today. In the eastern United States then and now, a ward is a political subdivision of a city. Wards in Nauvoo were civil divisions for police, tax, election, school, and other municipal purposes. When Church leaders needed to collect funds or to aid the poor, for convenience they let the city’s political ward boundaries serve as assignment districts. They placed a bishop in charge of each. Those ward units, however, were not Latter-day Saint entities conducting their own sacrament meetings or having their own quorums. Nauvoo quorums for deacons, teachers, priests, and elders were stake entities, not ward ones, as was the case in stakes before and after Nauvoo.5

Second, because Nauvoo was the Church’s headquarters, Church general conferences were held in Nauvoo. These conferences served as Nauvoo Stake’s stake conferences as well; the stake had no stake conferences of its own. Nauvoo Stake’s presidency; high council, and quorum presidents were sustained during general conference sustainings. This practice was found in the Kirtland Stake earlier and in the Salt Lake Stake in early Utah.

Third, Aaronic Priesthood offices were held by men, although some older boys were ordained. No priesthood office then correlated with an age group: “Men of all ages seem to have been ordained to any of the offices in the priesthood up to and including elder to start their priesthood career.”6 Likewise, there was no set time period for holding any priesthood office.

Fourth, men generally were ordained to fill specific needs, not just to receive an ordination.7 From 1830 to 1846, most male converts were not ordained until several months after being baptized. Roger Launius studied a sample of 123 men for whom he could pinpoint baptism and ordination information for this period. Only 10 percent were ordained within a week of baptism, and about 53 percent were ordained at least one year after baptism. He also found that “some men never held the priesthood in spite of seemingly apparent abilities and commitments.”8 By the 1840s, most first ordinations were to the office of elder.9


Men pouring into Nauvoo in 1839 and 1840 included ordained elders, priests, teachers, and deacons, and a few former stake high councilmen. They brought to Nauvoo relatively little practical priesthood experience, some of it trial and error, from labors in Kirtland, in Missouri, and in mission areas. Nauvoo became a restarting point for priesthood quorums and labors interrupted elsewhere.

The Church’s first two stakes, created at Kirtland and in Missouri in 1834, were each headed by a stake presidency (which was the First Presidency in Kirtland), a high council that handled administrative and judicial matters, and a quorum presidency (irregularly organized) for deacons, teachers, priests, and elders. Each stake had one bishop: Newel K. Whitney for Kirtland and Edward Partridge for Missouri. The bishops’ tasks were mainly judicial and financial—collecting and expending Church funds and assisting the worthy poor. Both stakes had high priests quorums. Above the stake level but below the Apostles, the Church by 1840 had three quorums of seventies, sometimes termed “Seventy Apostles.”10

Studies of the earliest Aaronic Priesthood activities indicate that leaders believed in, but quorums rarely reached, the quorum sizes set by scripture—twelve deacons, twenty-four teachers, and forty-eight priests. By 1839 the Church’s main local officers were the ordained teachers, who, under the direction of the stake (usually the stake bishop), visited house to house. They also served as local arbitrators and peacemakers among the Saints. Teachers and priests sometimes were the local presiding officers because high priests and elders were expected to forsake the “standing ministry” in order to proselyte and travel.11 Deacons, when they did anything, held quorum meetings and assisted priests and teachers.12

Nauvoo Stake

Nauvoo was but a few months old when leaders at the October 1839 general conference created the Nauvoo Stake. Its initial organization consisted of Stake President William Marks, a high council, and three bishops—one for each of Nauvoo’s municipal wards. To handle tithes and aid the poor, Bishop Partridge was assigned to the Upper Ward, Bishop Whitney the Middle Ward, and Bishop Vinson Knight the Lower Ward. Conference attenders also sustained Don Carlos Smith “as President of the High Priesthood” and created an elders quorum by appointing thirty-five elders “who all accepted of their appointments” except one. Of these, ten needed ordaining and were ordained by four high councilmen. One conference speaker discussed the “duties of Priests, Teachers, etc.” Nauvoo now had a stake organization. That same conference approved the creation of a branch or stake across the Mississippi in Iowa, with John Smith as president, a high council, and Alanson Ripley as bishop.13 Nauvoo Stake exercised jurisdiction over Nauvoo’s bishops, Aaronic priesthood quorums, and elders, but not over seventies or high priests.

When priesthood authorities laid the cornerstones for the Nauvoo Temple during the April 1841 conference, the ceremony involved Nauvoo’s quorums. Men sat together by priesthood office so they could vote by office for the Church officers. Bishop Whitney, acting as Aaronic Priesthood president, presented the First Presidency for a sustaining vote to the seated Aaronic Priesthood; Elders President John A. Hicks presented the matter to the elders; Senior Seventies President Joseph Young to the seventies; High Priests President Don Carlos Smith to the high priests; and Elias Higbee to the High Council. Then the presidents of the quorums were presented for sustaining votes.14

At the October 1841 conference, a notable priesthood development was George Miller’s replacing deceased Don Carlos Smith as high priests president.15 William Marks served as Nauvoo Stake’s president until the October 1844 conference, when he was dropped and replaced by John Smith, who had presided over the Zarahemla Stake.16

Nauvoo Bishops

The Nauvoo Stake High Council exercised authority over the ward bishops. Limited records provide only a sketchy history of the interaction between stake and bishop. Of Nauvoo’s first three ward bishops, Bishops Partridge and Whitney continued to serve as general bishops with churchwide or regional jurisdictions at times, so their integration within the Nauvoo Stake’s structure was ambiguous.17 The bishops’ primary task was “to care for the incoming Saints, many of whom were sick or destitute.”18 On August 16, 1841, as part of business at a special Church conference, Bishops Vinson Knight and George Miller presented “the situation of the poor of Nauvoo” and then spearheaded a collection to benefit the needy.19

Nauvoo’s original three wards rapidly became too crowded, so the High Council regrouped them into four wards in early 1842. The Nauvoo High Council minutes for August 20, 1842, record that the council divided Nauvoo into ten wards, matching the new divisions made by the Temple Committee for raising donations and labor, and appointed a bishop for each ward. They voted too that other bishops be appointed over “districts” adjoining Nauvoo “as shall be considered necessary.” The council resolved that Samuel H. Smith be appointed as bishop in place of deceased Vinson Knight and that Tarleton Lewis be bishop of the Fourth Ward; John Murdock of the Fifth; Daniel Carn, Sixth; Newel K. Whitney, Seventh; Jacob Foutz, Eighth; Jonathan H. Hale, Ninth; and Hezekiah Peck, Tenth. David Evans was called as bishop of the district south of the city, the Eleventh Ward; Israel Calkins of the district east of the city and south of Young Street; and William W. Spencer of the district east of the city and north of Young Street. Samuel Smith could not accept the appointment, but Lewis, Murdock, Foutz, Hale, Peck, Evans, and Calkins were ordained.20

Nauvoo High Council minutes for 1842 show that the council called for and received reports from the ward bishops. On October 1, for example, Bishop Lewis of the Fourth Ward reported “according to the instructions of the Council.” On October 15, Bishop Murdock of the Fifth Ward reported he had picked high priests Joseph Fielding and John Lowry for his counselors, which actions the council approved. On October 29, John Hammond reported for the Eleventh Ward, announcing that he and Phillip Ballard had been chosen by Bishop Evans as his counselors. Isaac Higbee reported to the council on the First, Second, and Third wards, after which Hammond introduced a petition from a part of his ward who wanted to be a new “branch.” On November 19, the High Council authorized the action after consulting with Joseph and Hyrum Smith, who approved the request. On November 26, the council instructed Hosea Stout to ascertain the exact boundaries of the ten city wards “that the Bishopric may be more perfectly set in order.” Stout reported a week later. On December 4, the council voted that Bishop Newel K. Whitney be assigned to preside over the Seventh Ward. On December 11, Bishop Hale of the Ninth Ward appeared before the High Council and “made a very large and elegant report of the situation and standing of his ward, which was accepted.”

Sacrament meetings were generally Nauvoo-wide meetings held in the open, in groves, or at the temple site. General Authorities conducted these meetings.21 No evidence exists that any sacrament meetings were held for a particular ward’s membership; other ward meetings, although not common, did occur. For example, Bishop John S. Higbee early in 1845 appointed prayer meetings in his ward, or for part of his ward, “at Bro McKinseys on Thursdays at 4 o’clock.” He “appointed Bro. Ormon Butler to take the charge of the meetings.” These started on May 1, 1845. At the first meeting, Bishop Higbee gave attenders instructions regarding their children and also appealed for donations so he could help the poor. At the next two ward prayer meetings, he presided. The May 15 meeting was a fast meeting.22 Bishop Higbee’s little diary indicates other duties he performed. He settled disputes and performed weddings. On Sunday, May 4, 1845, he helped administer the sacrament at the general Nauvoo Sunday meeting to between six hundred and eight hundred people.23

But a bishop’s main responsibility continued to be caring for the poor. Wealthy convert Edward Hunter, from Pennsylvania, was ordained a bishop soon after the Martyrdom. During his labors as a bishop, he recalled, the “brethren were liberal in their offerings to the poor. Poor were looked after and made comfortable.” He also solicited funds, labor, and materials for the Temple.24 At the October 1845 conference, Stake President “John Smith . . . appointed four bishops to stand at the [temple] door, to take a collection for the benefit of the poor.”25

An example of how that generation used the terms ward, branch, district, and stake interchangeably is the Twelve’s plan, after Joseph Smith’s death, for organizing the Church in the eastern United States. On August 15, 1844, the Twelve proposed dividing that area into districts and branches, each presided over by a high priest. They announced that “bishops will also be appointed in the larger branches, to attend to the management of the temporal funds, such as tithings and funds for the poor, according to the revelations of God and to be judges in Israel.”26

Aaronic Priesthood

Lesser priesthood quorums in Nauvoo were stake, not ward, units. Their history of activity is documented in several surviving minute books.27 Doctrine and Covenants 107:87–88 makes it clear that bishops should be presidents of the Aaronic Priesthood and should preside over priests quorums. In practice, the ideal was not followed. During the Joseph Smith period, in between the uprootings and movings of the members, bishops presided over all of the Aaronic Priesthood, including the quorum presidents,28 but a priest presided over the priests quorum, not a bishop. In Doctrine and Covenants 124, Vinson Knight was called to be a presiding or general bishop, and Samuel Rolfe, who was not a bishop, to be president of the priests.29 Also, when a resurrected Kirtland Stake was created in 1841, the stake council called Nehemiah Greenhalgh, who was not a bishop, as president of the Aaronic Priesthood but left it to the stake bishop to reorganize the deacons and teachers quorums at a later date.30

Various Aaronic Priesthood quorums were organized and reorganized in Nauvoo before the death of Joseph Smith. On March 21, 1841, Bishops Newel Whitney, George Miller, John Higbee, and Vinson Knight organized Nauvoo’s Aaronic Priesthood. For a priests quorum presidency, they picked Samuel Rolf, Stephen Markham, and Hezekiah Peck. Elisha Everett, James W. Huntsman, and James Hendricks became the teachers quorum presidency; Phinehas R. Bird, David Wood, and William W. Lane presided over the deacons.31 Deacons met together that June.32 Teachers quorum minutes show that the quorum met weekly in 1841, but by fall, the meetings were sporadic. In May 1841, they discussed the possibility of visiting each member of the Church, but discussion was laid over until more information on the subject became available.

At a January 18, 1842, Nauvoo Stake High Council meeting, Stake President William Marks said the purpose of meeting was to consider the affairs of the Church, to set in order all things relative to their duty,

to call on the Bishops and see if they call the Lesser Priesthood together if they do their duty if the Priests visit from house to house if there was no malice no hardness no difficulty in the Church that he wished to have them make a record of all who do their duty who keep the word of wisdom &c., He recommended that the Bishops adopt such measures as would be most practicable and useful to bring about such an order of things that their reports be brought before the High Council that they may have a knowledge of their proceedings and the situation of the Church.33

Hyrum Smith, representing the First Presidency,34 explained that bishops were subject to the High Council and that the council

should call on the Presidents of the Lesser priesthood to attend the Council & receive instruction, and that he would meet with them if they would notify him of their meetings. That it was necessary for them to go from house to house, to his house, and to every house and see that every family done their duty, that he knew that there were more than one hundred families in town who did not attend to family prayer . . . that every ordained member was a watchman on the wall.35

Hyrum also said “a record should be kept, by the Lesser Priesthood.” He called for a record of members moving in and out, of the excommunicated, and of deaths. The High Council then voted that quorum presidents should meet with them and the First Presidency the next Friday. Bishop Knight reported that the lesser priesthood holders in his ward were doing their duty.

Stake President Marks spoke about helping the poor, so Bishop Knight gave an account of the situation of the poor, reporting that means had become exhausted for their relief. Hyrum Smith said that “there was a general want of action in the Church, that he wanted every one to start anew he knew not of a resolution in all the quorums to stop iniquity.”36

During the Nauvoo years, some priesthood teaching in homes was done, but how much is not known. One study of Nauvoo priesthood home visiting notes that “their home teaching program did not keep pace with their developments.”37 An oft-repeated story about Nauvoo home teaching concerns seventeen-year-old William F. Cahoon, who visited Joseph Smith—but facts indicate this incident happened well before the Nauvoo period.38 During a February 4, 1844, meeting, the Nauvoo teachers heard “some very appropriate remark[s] on the subjects [of] visiting the brethren and settling difficulties amongst the brethren.” Apparently their next meeting was held almost a year later when the teachers met with the bishops to “reorganize the quorum of teachers, it being previously disorganized by a great number of said quorum joining the seventies and high priests quorums.”39 Samuel K. Gifford recorded that in 1844 he was ordained a teacher “and acted as such to the best of my ability.”40 A year later, by February 1845, the quorum again became organized and teachers again visited members, “generally finding them in good standing.” At the next meeting a week later, one teacher reported he had visited in several wards and found the members generally in good standing. He exhorted the others to faithfully perform their duties.41

Minutes of the Nauvoo Aaronic Priesthood covering the period from January 1844 to June 1845 provide a detailed look at Aaronic Priesthood operations.42 Stephen Farnsworth was ordained president of the priests quorum on January 13, 1844, and chose two counselors. But the quorum had barely started when nearly all the priests were ordained as seventies at the April conference. Meanwhile, the teachers quorum began meeting as a separate group and undertook visiting assignments. At the October 1844 conference, presidencies were sustained for priests and teachers quorums. The following January 1845, the Nauvoo bishops met to reorganize the quorum of teachers. Minutes for the January 13 meeting list the new presidency, ordained that day, and thirty-one teachers. After that, both the priests and teachers met in a combined Aaronic Priesthood meeting conducted jointly by the two quorums’ presidents. The weekly meetings involved testimony bearing, instruction, assignments, and reports concerning “visiting the Church.” Joint meetings were held fairly regularly until at least June 1845, when the minute book ends. Stephen M. Farnworth continued as priests quorum president in the fall of 1845. During 1845 the priests visited Saints throughout the city, assisted by teachers and deacons.43

Church leaders turned to the Aaronic Priesthood quorums when the state dissolved Nauvoo’s city government. In early 1845, the state cancelled Nauvoo’s city charter, thereby dissolving the city’s police system. Policeman Hosea Stout said the police decided to subdivide Nauvoo and the “County into Quorums of twelve deacons and have a Bishop at their head and they could thus administer in the lesser offices of the Church and preserve order.”44 On March 24, 1845, President Smith and the Twelve ordained new bishops and instructed them to call deacons to be watchmen to “insure peace and good order.” Newly ordained Bishop John S. Higbee organized his First Ward into five “districts or wards” each with a bishop (apparently not ordained) “for the purpose of guarding the city from marauders and evil doers.” Higbee noted that he ordained Elam Ludington and Jesse D. Hunter as his counselors on March 30 of that year.45

David Moore said that after the Nauvoo Charter was repealed authorities organized the cities into districts and appointed officers over every ten men. “They were called Bishops and Deacons,” he said, and guarded the city at night. The organization was kept up during the summer of 1845. Moore was appointed (apparently not ordained) a bishop and assigned to keep watch of his district one night a week. To guard his very large district on the north side of Nauvoo, which included a steamboat landing, he had a company of thirteen men. “Our weapons was a large hickory cane and a toothpick [a huge knife] the object of the knife to whittle Rascals out of town.”46 These priesthood guards have been romanticized and popularized by being called “whistling and whittling brigades.”47

In 1845 leaders proposed that deacons should take care of the poor.48 At the October 1845 conference, held inside the Temple, the usual officers were sustained for all quorums but the deacons. Brigham Young therefore announced “that there be a quorum of deacons selected, and a president over them, and that the presiding Bishops see to it, as soon as possible, and make report to this conference, before its close.”49

Leaders periodically wanted “to fill up” the quorums. By that they meant they wanted enough men in the quorums so quorum meetings and assignments happened, not that quorums must have the twelve, twenty-four, and forty-eight members set for the deacons, teachers, and priests quorums.50 In October 1842, for example, the Nauvoo teachers quorum numbered only fifteen members.51 In January 1845, Bishop Newel K. Whitney called a meeting “to fill up the quorums in order that saints might be visited by the lesser priesthood.” Records note that “four priests and ten teachers were ordained” at the meeting.52

Boys and the Priesthood

Aaronic Priesthood offices at Nauvoo were filled almost entirely by adults. Because of the duties assigned deacons, teachers, and priests in the revelations, leaders felt that maturity, not age, was the prerequisite for ordination. Nevertheless, in the pre-1846 period, many young men served the Church well in official callings.53 Orson Pratt became a missionary at age nineteen. Lyman Johnson, later a young member of the Twelve, served a mission when he was twenty. George A. Smith, baptized at fifteen, marched in Zion’s Camp and later was ordained a member of the First Quorum of Seventy at eighteen. Peter Whitmer, Jr., became one of the Eight Witnesses at nineteen. Daniel Tyler, not quite eighteen, filled a mission by himself when his older companion failed to show up. Joseph’s younger brother Don Carlos received the priesthood at age fourteen, filled a mission that year, and at nineteen became the Nauvoo high priests quorum president. Erastus Snow, baptized at fourteen, preached extensively in Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania before he was nineteen. At nineteen he preached with Joseph Smith at a Far West meeting. Harrison Burgess, eighteen, filled a mission to Vermont. William F. Cahoon says he was seventeen when he was a home teacher. Admittedly these cases are few and most involve older boys or young men, but they do show a willingness at that time to call youths to priesthood service. Later in the century, the Church in Utah increasingly used this precedent for ordaining faithful and capable youths.54


An elders quorum formally existed during most of the Nauvoo years. Lack of records means that the quorums’ history can be told only in outline, based mainly on newspaper reports. By 1841 John A. Hicks was elders quorum president.55 The quorum presidency sometimes was sustained at general conferences. The last Presidency mentioned in the records was sustained on April 7, 1845, when members “continued and sustained” Samuel Williams as President, with Jesse Baker and Joshua Smith remaining as counselors.56 While no quorum roll book survives to show enrollments year by year, membership numbers probably varied. They rose when new elders moved in and when large groups of missionaries, sent out as elders, returned. They fell when elders were called to be seventies or high priests.

Men called on missions during Joseph Smith’s presidency were sent out as elders or seventies, a practice which required that some men be ordained before leaving. At general conference in April 1840, “the committee on ordination” (apparently not a stake committee) “reported that they had ordained thirty one persons to be elders.” Another fifty men, some of whom undoubtedly had been elders, “had been received into the quorum of the seventies.”57 At the 1840 October conference, “the committee on ordinations reported that they had ordained thirty nine to the ministry.”58 During 1842 and 1843, large numbers of men were called into the elders’ ranks. Apostle Brigham Young presided at a special conference in August 1841, held to select experienced men to go into the vineyard. The Twelve sent six elders to various cities and received conference approval to call many others.59

A special elders conference convened between April 6 and 12, 1843, conducted by the Twelve. The purpose “was to ordain elders, and send them forth into the vineyard to build up churches.” Dozens of names of men were enrolled, and twenty-two men were ordained.60 Then the April conference saw a mass recruitment for missionary service. One conference purpose, Joseph Smith announced, “was to chose young men, and ordain them, and send them out to preach, that they may have an opportunity of proving themselves, and of enduring the tarring and feathering and such things as those of us who have gone before them, have had to endure.” Elder Lyman Wight asked “if there were any present of the rough and weak things, who wished to be ordained, and go and preach, who have not been before ordained.” He then spoke to these men “on the subject of their duty and requirements to go to preach.” As a result, under the hands of the Twelve, 275 men were ordained as elders during the conference.61

A year later, during the April 1843 conference, the same thing happened. Under the direction of the Twelve, dozens of men were called on missions, twenty-two of whom needed to be ordained as elders first.62 Three months later, at a special conference of elders held July 3 and 5, several dozen elders were sent on missions.63

Again, at the April 1844 general conference, an army of elders was called and sent to most states of the Union. Names of 339 men are listed in the Times and Seasons, many of them “experienced and able elders.” Their assignment was to preach, to hold conferences, and to expound Joseph Smith’s “Views of the Power and Policy of the General Government” in order to find electors who would vote for him for president of the United States.64

Other than these mass ordinations for missionary purposes, the Nauvoo High Council sometimes approved of elder ordinations. For example, council minutes note on September 10, 1842, that “Lewis Muedze was also ordained an Elder as he desired to return to Germany to preach the Gospel.” On September 17 that year, the council record notes that “Truman Gilbert presented a Recommend from the Kirtland Branch Ohio and was ordained an Elder according to his request.” Similarly, “Charles Greenwood requested an ordination, he was recommended by L. Soby, he was ordained.”

Quorum presidents sometimes posted notices in the newspaper inviting newly arrived men holding a particular office to meet with that quorum. In July 1840, the Times and Seasons carried a notice issued by Iowa Elders Quorum President Daniel Avery calling for elders in Iowa to enroll their names in his quorum by early August “or they will not be considered in fellowship with said quorum.” His quorum met, the notice said, on the fourth Saturday of each month at Ambrosia, Lee County.65

In March 1841, President John A. Hicks of the Nauvoo elders quorum published a notice “to the Elders Scattered Abroad.” He requested that all those who held the office of elder should notify the clerk of the quorum of elders of their place of residence “by letter post piad [sic], that we may know where to find them.” The time had come, he said, “when it is necessary that every one should render an account of his stewardship if he wishes to continue any longer steward.” He was reacting to a problem of men out “in the world calling themselves elders” who had neither license nor recommend from the quorum. Some out in the world claiming to be elders were in fact “unclean persons, some of whom have fled from justice” and “keep not the commandments neither the word of wisdom.” Then, as a postscript, quorum clerk Samuel Henderson asked men who formerly belonged to the elders but who had “joined the quorum of Seventies since last spring Conference” to notify him.66

John S. Higbee was ordained an elder on July 3, 1839, and although his small journal says nothing about his quorum, it does record that in July of 1840 he assisted with the baptisms for the dead, Performing about one hundred immersions of people “most of them for their dead relatives.”67

High Priests

High priests had a quorum in Nauvoo, presided over first by Don Carlos Smith and then by Bishop George Miller.68 They held quorum meetings, but how often or regularly is not known. Quorum records are scarce, so only a thumbnail history is possible. Like the elders presidency, the high priests presidency struggled to find out who should be in their quorum. President Miller late in 1842 announced that all high priests who had not become members of “the Quorum of High Priests” should enroll in the quorum “upon their arrival in this place.” It was their duty, he said, “to apply to the Quorum for admission.69

During the October 1844 conference, President Brigham Young gave the high priests a major task. First he had the quorum members come up from the congregation and join together on the right of the stand. He then announced that he wanted to select a number of high priests to preside in each congressional district in the United States. He picked eighty-five high priests to do the job. For this mission, or to replace those called, forty-nine elders were ordained as high priests during the conference. The plan, President Young said, was not for the high priests to tarry six months, but to take their families along and to settle down in those districts. They could return when the Temple was finished and receive their endowments, but then they were to return to their districts and turn them into stakes as large as the Nauvoo Stake.70

Departures apparently waited for good weather to come early in 1845. John S. Higbee’s diary notes that on January 12, 1845, he attended his high priests quorum meeting and while there he and fifty other high priests were chosen for a special mission by the Twelve and told to hold themselves in readiness to be sent to the various states.71 Calls were issued, but for some reason the plan to send high priests eastward was not carried out.

At their January 26, 1845, meeting, the high priests quorum discussed a proposal that they build a high priests hall, 120′ long, 80′ wide, and 33′ high. But Brigham Young convinced them to put the labor and money into finishing the upper room of the Temple so “you can get your endowment, and your priesthood.”72 As a result, no high priests hall was started.

At general conference on October 6, 1845, Bishop Miller, William Snow, and Noah Packard were sustained as the quorum’s presidency.


Nauvoo had a greater influence on the priesthood office of seventy than on any other office, because both the number of men ordained to be seventies and the number of quorums mushroomed. A question that continues to disturb because it is not clearly answered is why President Brigham Young so vastly expanded the seventies’ ranks. On February 28, 1835, Joseph Smith, based on an unrecorded revelation “showing the order of the Seventy,” commenced to organize the first seventies unit in the Church. Its seven-member presidency presided over one quorum of seventy men and then over other units of seventy as needed—“until . . . seven times seventy, if the labor in the vineyard of necessity requires it.” Seventies were not local ministers but were considered General Authorities, traveling ministers, witnesses unto the Gentiles and in all the world, and “seventy apostles.” Seventies were called from among the experienced elders.73

Records indicate that from one-third to one-half of all missionaries set apart between 1837 and 1843 were seventies.74 By 1839 a second and third quorum of seventies had been organized. Their work was directed by the seven presidents of the first quorum, who together formed what is termed the First Council of the Seventy. Brigham Young’s brother, Joseph Young, served as senior president of the First Quorum and therefore as president of all of the seventies.

In Nauvoo the seventies quorums met for edification, instruction, and worship. The meetings also helped the presidencies keep track of their members. Until the fall of 1844, only a few new quorums were added. Andrew Moore, for example, was ordained a president in the Fifth Quorum of Seventy in August 1844. He noted in January 1846 that “I continued to meet with my Quorum once every week to tranceact [sic] business and to see that the Quorum was in union . . . and to give instructions.”75 To keep their seventy-member quorums reasonably filled, quorums recruited new members from among the elders, Aaronic Priesthood bearers, and the unordained. Individually, many seventies received and filled mission calls during the Nauvoo period. Some were already in seventies quorums when called, and others became seventies because of their mission calls.

At the October 1844 conference, President Brigham Young, in addition to calling high priests “to go abroad and preside” in the eastern states, called for a major expansion of seventies quorums. He wanted at least ten quorums of seventy, so one purpose of the conference was “to ordain the presidents of the seventies and then fill the quorums of seventies from the elders quorum.” The next day, October 8, Heber C. Kimball of the First Presidency “recommended all those elders who are under the age of thirty-five, and also all the priests, teachers, deacons and members, who are recommended to be ordained, to withdraw and receive an ordination into the seventies, which was done.”76

This expansion of seventies quorums was a major priesthood development during the Nauvoo years. Before the conference concluded, the seventies presidents had ordained approximately four hundred men into seventies quorums. They filled eleven quorums and put forty men into a twelfth quorum. After the conference and for the next several months, more quorums were created and more seventies ordained. Thomas Steed recalled that on April 7, 1845, he “was ordained a seventy with about five hundred others . . . and joined the 21st Quorum.”77 In December 1845, the thirty-second quorum was organized. By early 1846, seventies units numbered thirty-four.78

Why the Twelve called for this build-up of seventies is not explained. Apparently the Twelve had in mind a massive missionary labor in the near future, perhaps to implement what President Joseph Smith had wanted done—Norton Jacob recalled that in 1844 President Smith “directed that all the Elders of Israel should go into the vineyard.”79 President Young told the conference “that the elders young men who are capable of preaching, will be ordained” and that “if an elder wants to go preaching let him go into the seventies. You are all apostles to the nations to carry the gospel; and when we send you to build up the kingdom, we will give you the keys, and power and authority.”80

This seventies recruitment apparently was part of a two-pronged expansion the Twelve wanted for the kingdom: sending out a large missionary force to convert and baptize new members and sending out high priests to preside over areas where these converts lived. Counselor Heber C. Kimball noted that Brigham Young, when challenged about whether a high priest was higher than a seventy, answered that “the Seventies are ordained Apostles and when they go forth into the ministry, they are sent with power to build up the kingdom in all the world and consequently they have power to ordain High Priests, and also to ordain and organize a High Council.”81 The goal seemed to be the creation of stakes throughout the United States, converted and organized by seventies, who would install the selected high priests as stake presidents. However, for reasons not explained, perhaps because of priorities given to finishing the Temple, neither prong of the plan was pushed. Nevertheless, Nauvoo quickly had more seventies than any other Melchizedek Priesthood office. By late 1845, most of the men in Nauvoo who held the priesthood were seventies.

To house the meetings for the many quorums, the seventies constructed their own Seventies Hall, which was completed that winter. On December 26, 1844, the Twelve presided over the first of several days of dedicating the new Seventies Hall as a home for fifteen quorums. That day many of the Twelve and the Seven Presidents sat on the stand. Senior presidents of each of the seventies quorums sat on the right, a choir on the left, and a brass band in front. The congregation was comprised of members of the second and third quorums of Seventy with their families. At a rate of two quorums per day, “each day afforded a new congregation, that all the seventies, with their families, might in turn, participate.”82 At the dedication services, prayers and preachings made clear that seventies “were designed to be messengers to every land and kingdom under heaven” and “to administer salvation.” Senior President of the Seventies Joseph Young, on the fourth day, prayed that God would “bless them and their families when they shall go to the Islands of the sea.”83

The seventies’ final notable activity in Nauvoo came during the winter of 1845–46 when “the Twelve delegated to them [the Presidents of the Seventies] the government of the Temple, while the ordinances were being administered to their quorum.” The Twelve’s action firmly placed the “responsibility for giving the endowment” to the seventies on the shoulders of the First Presidency of the Seventy.84

Nauvoo’s Priesthood Legacy

An assessment of local priesthood work during the Nauvoo period shows continuity in terms of what priesthood bearers and quorums had done before in Missouri, in Ohio, and in mission areas, and it identifies several adaptations and changes. What was Nauvoo’s priesthood legacy? What started or continued at Nauvoo that became part of priesthood practices in the future? What was enduring and what was temporary?

[*** graphic omitted ***]

On December 15, 1844, the Nauvoo City Council passed an ordinance allowing the creation of the Seventies Library and Institute Association. Two weeks later, stockholders met and elected a board of trustees, which included Apostle George A. Smith (Journal History, December 15 and 24, 1844). Donors of money or books received stock certificates enabling them to use the library. On January 1, 1845, Times and Seasons praised the newly formed library for intending to embrace the arts and sciences from “every where,” because seventies “while travelling over the face of the globe” would gather important books for it (Times and Seasons 5 [January 1, 1845]: 762). Books were kept in a room over James Ivins’s store and then in the Seventies Hall. One inventory lists 675 books (Seventies Library Inventory, Nauvoo Restoration Inc.)

Nauvoo continued a barely established precedent that stakes were the basic local Church unit. Ideally, a new clustering or settlement of Saints would begin with a presiding officer, who might be called a branch, district, stake, or settlement president or presiding elder. Then the clustering needed a bishop to handle court cases, moneys, and the poor. Finally, a high council was needed to handle discipline cases and disputes and to make decisions for the settlement. If population grew, more bishops would be added, the settlement subdivided into wards—sometimes called districts or branches—and satellite settlements recognized as being part of the stake. This pattern continued to be followed in Utah for decades.

Local priesthood quorums continued to be stake entities as they had been in Missouri and Kirtland. These included deacons, teachers, priests, and elders quorums. This pattern continued in Utah. Salt Lake Stake, for example, had stake deacons, teachers, and priests quorums until the 1870s. Sanpete Stake during the 1870s had a stake quorum of each, and half of each quorums’ members came from one city (Manti), half from another (Ephraim).85

Visiting priesthood teachers continued to be the most important local priesthood officers in contact with the members. Before, during the Nauvoo years, and after, visits to the homes were standard priesthood work. Visiting was considered lesser priesthood work, a view that continued through that century. Since Nauvoo, the main activity carried out by local priesthood bearers continues to be visiting members in their homes.86

Quorum meetings before, during, and after Nauvoo were the most important self-learning sessions that male Latter-day Saint members attended. When ward Sunday Schools first started in the 1860s, they were for children and youths. Not until the late 1800s was Sunday School generally attended by adults.87

A concern before, during, or immediately after Nauvoo was that priesthood quorums have enough manpower to be viable, but not that there be multiple quorums for each office so that all men could be priesthood bearers. The assumption was that a stake should have one quorum each of elders, priests, teachers, and deacons. In time Utah wards came to have their own groups of teachers and deacons and finally of priests. Until well into this century, stake elders quorums continued to include more than one ward’s elders.

However, the Nauvoo years brought three priesthood changes that, as subsequent years proved, were of paramount importance. Of greatest significance was the creation of subunits called wards, each of which had a bishop assigned to it. Like a very fertile seed, wards headed by bishops became within the decade following the exodus from Nauvoo the essential church unit that cared for, trained, provided ordinances and worship services for, and otherwise served Saints at the local level. The practice of having wards and ward bishops that started in Nauvoo has become a fixture of Church government.

A second important change was caused by the general introduction of the temple endowment and celestial marriages late in 1845. After that, the endowment became required of all men going on missions or receiving temple marriages. Henceforth, men going on missions or marrying had to bear the Melchizedek Priesthood. This policy increased the numbers of elders and seventies by siphoning off practically all men who had staffed the deacons, teachers, and priests quorums. By the earliest days in Utah, Church leaders, lacking non-Melchizedek Priesthood men, had to call elders, seventies, and high priests to be acting deacons, acting teachers, and acting priests in order to keep Aaronic Priesthood work going.88

A third major change during the Nauvoo era was the unusual and massive expansion of seventies quorums. After the expansion, most Nauvoo men held some priesthood office. Assuming that Nauvoo’s peak population was about 12,000 and that the average household was a family of two parents and three children, then it seems that one-fifth of Nauvoo’s 12,000 residents, about 2,400, were men. Of those 2,400, there were 1,823 men by late 1845 who were seventies (making up thirty-four quorums).89 Add to this number about 300 high priests, including bishops and Apostles,90 and a score or more of Aaronic Priesthood bearers, and the number of priesthood holders exceeds 2,000. A reasonable estimate, then, is that by late 1846 three-fourths or more of Nauvoo’s males held some priesthood office. About 80 percent of these were seventies, making seventies the largest priesthood group in the Church, a distinction they held for the next decade.91 In the 1847 select pioneer party, for example, there were eight Apostles, four bishops, fifteen high priests, eight elders, and seventy-eight seventies.92 During the nineteenth century, seventies provided two-thirds of all missionaries called.93

Nauvoo’s main personalities, location, and dramatic happenings are well known and documented. Even Nauvoo’s common people have received scholarly attention in recent years. For the women, the Female Relief Society served briefly to help bond many to the Church organization. Less known but equally important, priesthood quorums in Nauvoo similarly connected men to the Church organization. In those days before wards and therefore before ward sacrament, before priesthood and auxiliary meetings, quorums—during their off-and-on existences—gave priesthood bearers a sense of belonging and comraderie, a place to discuss, learn, and share experiences, and a range of religious assignments to perform. Priesthood office and quorum membership were ingredients in a glue-mix that by 1845 helped bond most of the Latter-day Saint men in Nauvoo to the Church.

About the author(s)

William G. Hartley is a research historian at the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History at Brigham Young University.


1. David Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

2. Nauvoo Stake High Council Minutes, May 8, 1842, Archives Division, Church Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City; hereafter cited as LDS Church Archives.

3. William G. Hartley, “Organization of Wards and Stakes: A Historical Approach,” in Religious Educators Symposium, Transcripts of Addresses and Abstracts of Presentations, CES Church History Symposium, August 19–20, 1977, 53–54.

4. Times and Seasons 2 (September 15, 1841): 547.

5. William G. Hartley, “Ordained and Acting Teachers in the Lesser Priesthood, 1851–1883,” BYU Studies 16 (Spring 1976): 375–98; and William G. Hartley, “The Priesthood Reorganization of 1877: Brigham Young’s Last Achievement,” BYU Studies 20 (Fall 1979): 3–36.

6. Robert L. Marrott, “History and Functions of the Aaronic Priesthood and the Offices of Priest, Teacher, and Deacon in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1829–1844” (Master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1976), 36.

7. Marrott, “The Aaronic Priesthood,” 24.

8. Roger Launius, “A Survey of Priesthood Ordinations, 1830–1844,” Restoration Trail Forum 9 (May 1983): 3.

9. Milton V. Backman Jr., The Heavens Resound: A History of the Latter-day Saints in Ohio, 1830–1838 (Salt LakeCity: Deseret Book, 1983), 244–48; Donald Q. Cannon and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., Far West Record: Minutes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830–1844 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983); D. Michael Quinn, “The Evolution of the Presiding Quorums of the LDS Church,” Journal of Mormon History 1 (1974): 21–38; Dale Beecher, “The Office of Bishop,” Dialogue 15 (Winter 1982): 103–15; and James N. Baumgarten, “The Role and Function of the Seventies in L.D.S. Church History” (Master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1960).

10. Meeting of High Council and Bishopric, February 24, 1838, Minutes in Far West Record, 142; for teachers’ activities see also the Far West, Kirtland, and Nauvoo Teachers Quorum Minutes, December 1834–December 1845, film of manuscript, LDS Church Archives.

11. John Somers Higbee, Reminiscences and Diaries, 1845–66, LDS Church Archives.

12. Times and Seasons 1 (December 1839): 30–31.

13. Times and Seasons 2 (April 15, 1841): 375–83.

14. Times and Seasons 2 (October 15, 1841): 577.

15. See Joseph Smith Jr., The History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2d ed. rev., 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1978), 7:296; hereafter cited as HC.

16. Beecher, “The Office of Bishop,” 103.

17. Beecher, “The Office of Bishop,” 104.

18. Times and Seasons 2 (September 1, 1841): 521.

19. Higbee Diaries.

20. Nauvoo Stake High Council Minutes, August 20 and 21, 1842; and HC 5:119–20; a note on page 120 explains the evolution from three wards in 1839 to four wards and then on March 1, 1842, to thirteen wards. Ward boundaries were readjusted on December 4, 1842 (see HC 5:199).

21. William G. Hartley, “Mormon Sundays,” Ensign 8 (January 1978): 19–25; and George W. Givens, In Old Nauvoo: Everyday Life in the City of Joseph (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1990), 142–49.

22. Higbee Diaries.

23. Edward Hunter, Autobiography Excerpt, in Our Pioneer Heritage, comp. Kate B. Carter, 20 vols. (Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1958—77), 6:325.

24. Times and Seasons 6 (November 1, 1845): 1013.

25. James R. Clark, ed., Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1833–1964, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965), 1:236.

26. Marrott, “The Aaronic Priesthood,” 29, 36.

27. Marrott, “The Aaronic Priesthood”; Teachers Quorum Minutes for Kirtland, Far West, and Nauvoo, 1838–42; and Nauvoo Aaronic Priesthood Minutes and Biographical Sketches, January 13, 1844, to June 15, 1845, LDS Church Archives.

28. Marrott, “The Aaronic Priesthood,” 26.

29. HC 4:312; and D&C 124:141–42.

30. Times and Seasons 2 (July 1, 1841): 459.

31. HC 4:312.

32. Teachers Quorum Minutes for Kirtland, Far West, and Nauvoo, 1838–42, LDS Church Archives.

33. Nauvoo Stake High Council Minutes, January 18, 1842, 34.

34. Doctrine and Covenants 124:91–96.

35. Nauvoo Stake High Council Minutes, January 18, 1842, 33–35.

36. Nauvoo Stake High Council Minutes, January 18, 1842, 35.

37. Gary L. Phelps, “Home Teaching—Attempts by the Latter-day Saints to Establish an Effective Program during the Nineteenth Century” (Masters thesis, Brigham Young University, 1975), 29.

38. William Farrington Cahoon, “Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” Juvenile Instructor 28 (August 15, 1892): 492–93. It is generally accepted that this story happened at Nauvoo (Phelps, “Home Teaching,” 35), but if so, Cahoon could not have been seventeen as he claims: he was born on November 7, 1813, so if he were “about seventeen years of age,” that age would put the story near 1830 and before he was baptized.

39. Teachers Quorum Minutes, January 13, 1845.

40. Samuel Kendall Gifford, Reminiscences, typescript, LDS Church Archives, 5.

41. Teachers Quorum Minutes, February 12 and 19, 1845.

42. Nauvoo Aaronic Priesthood Minutes and Biographical Sketches.

43. Nauvoo Aaronic Priesthood Minutes and Biographical Sketches.

44. Juanita Brooks, ed., On the Mormon Frontier: The Diary of Hosea Stout 1844–1861, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press and Utah State Historical Society, 1982), 1:27, March 14, 1845.

45. HC 7:388; and Higbee Diaries.

46. David Moore Journal, Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. Quoted in Thurmon Dean Moody, “Nauvoo’s Whistling and Whittling Brigade,” BYU Studies 15 (Summer 1975): 484.

47. Brooks, Diary of Hosea Stout, 1:36–37, n. 67; and Moody, “Nauvoo’s Whistling and Whittling Brigade,” 480–90.

48. HC 7:381.

49. Times and Seasons 6 (November 1, 1845): 1010.

50. Marrott, “The Aaronic Priesthood,” 19.

51. HC 5:169.

52. HC 7:351.

53. Adapted from a list in William G. Hartley’s “Joseph Smith and Nauvoo’s Youth,” Ensign 9 (September 1979): 26–29.

54. William G. Hartley, “Ordained and Acting Teachers,” 375–98; and Hartley, “The Priesthood Reorganization of 1877,” 3–36.

55. HC 4:341.

56. HC 7:392.

57. Times and Seasons 2 (April 1840): 94–95.

58. Times and Seasons 1 (October 1840): 187.

59. Times and Seasons 2 (September 1, 1841): 521.

60. Times and Seasons 4 (April 1, 1843): 157–58.

61. Times and Seasons 3 (April 15, 1842): 761–63.

62. Times and Seasons 4 (April 1, 1843): 158.

63. Times and Seasons 4 (June 15, 1843): 240. Although the issue is dated June 15, it carries news of the July 3 and 5 special conference.

64. Times and Seasons 5 (April 15, 1844): 504–6.

65. Times and Seasons 1 (July 1840): 143.

66. Times and Seasons 2 (March 1, 1841): 340.

67. Higbee Diaries.

68. HC 2:370, 4:12, and 4:424.

69. Times and Seasons 3 (August 15, 1842): 894.

70. Times and Seasons 5 (November 1, 1844): 695–96.

71. Higbee Diaries.

72. Nauvoo High Priests Quorum Minutes, Miscellaneous Minutes File, LDS Church Archives, January 26, 1845. See also HC 7:34.

73. HC 2:201–4, 221, 346, and 7:307; and Doctine and Covenants 107:25. The standard history of seventies work is Baumgarten’s thesis, “The Role and Function of the Seventies in L.D.S. Church History” (see n. 9 in this article).

74. First Council of Seventy, Minutes and Genealogy Book B, microfilm, LDS Church Archives; statistics compiled by the author.

75. Andrew Moore, Reminiscences, LDS Church Archives.

76. HC 7:305.

77. The Life of Thomas Steed from His Own Diary, 1826–1910, typescript (n.p., n.d.), 11. Copy in Church Library, Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.

78. HC 7:549; Seventies Record Book B, LDS Church Archives, December 21, 1845; Baumgarten, “The Role and Function of the Seventies,” 32; and 34th Quorum of Seventies, Seventies and Quorums, Records, 1844–1975, December 21, 1845.

79. C. Edward Jacob and Ruth S. Jacob, The Record of Norton Jacob, typescript (Norton Family Association, 1949), 5.

80. HC 7:307–8.

81. Heber C. Kimball, Journal, Book 93 (November 21, 1845–January 7, 1846), entry dated December 14, 1845, LDS Church Archives. This entry is not in The Journal of Heber C. Kimball published by Kraut’s Pioneer Press.

82. Times and Seasons 6 (February 1, 1845): 794.

83. Times and Seasons 6 (February 1, 1845): 797–98.

84. HC 7:566; and Seventies Record Book B, January 7 and 8, 1846.

85. Hartley, “Ordained and Acting Teachers”; Hartley, “The Priesthood Reform Movement, 1908–1922,” BYU Studies 13 (Winter 1973): 137–56.

86. Hartley, “Ordained and Acting Teachers,” 378–79; Hartley, “The Priesthood Reform Movement,” 137–56; see also Phelps, “Home Teaching.”

87. Hartley, “Mormon Sundays,” 23.

88. Hartley, “Ordained and Acting Teachers,” 375–98.

89. Author’s tally is based on individual quorum records in Seventies Record Book B.

90. There were 286 high priests who received temple endowments late in 1845 (see HC 7:552).

91. Baumgarten, “The Role and Function of the Seventies,” 32–33.

92. Journal History, April 18, 1847, 2.

93. Baumgarten, “The Role and Function of the Seventies,” 48, 106.


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