The organisation of the LDS Church hierarchy claims to be based on the primitive Christian Church and operates primarily through a lay leadership. Russell M. Nelson, originally an internationally known heart surgeon, became the current prophet or President in 2018. He is a literal spokesman for God. The First Presidency is made up of the prophet and two counsellors, each of whom is addressed as ‘President’. These are followed by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the most senior of whom in terms of date of ordination becomes the next prophet when the previous prophet dies. He also is addressed as ‘President’; all other members of the Quorum of Twelve are addressed as ‘Elder’. This structure of succession was established after Joseph Smith died without appointing an heir, as a way to ensure smooth transitions in leadership of the Church. The general Church leadership also includes seven Quorums of Seventy, which are councils that work alongside the prophet. Members of these quorums are addressed as ‘Elder’, although they usually only serve until the age of 70. Then there is a Presiding Bishopric and General Officers. These positions make up the General Authorities in Salt Lake City, which is the highest organisational level of the Church. Also at this level are three organisations led by women: the Relief Society, as previously mentioned, the Primary (a children’s organisation) and the Young Women’s organisation, which provides similar educational, growth and leadership opportunities for young women that are provided through priesthood quorums for young men.
Beyond Salt Lake City, ‘Area Seventies’ are responsible for large geographical areas, and their structure replicates that of the General Authorities. Geographical areas of the Church are divided into stakes, each of which has its own president and two counsellors. Each stake is comprised of five to twelve wards and branches. A branch is a unit with fewer members and leadership resources than a ward. Each ward has a bishop who presides over local congregations, also with the assistance of two counsellors. Stakes have a president, two counsellors, a high council made up of 12 high priests, and a patriarch who gives patriarchal blessings to members of the stake. There is no professional priesthood, positions beyond the General Authorities are filled by lay workers, and are voluntary, performed alongside professional and family commitments. LDS membership requires a commitment to Christian service. Wards revolve around many positions known as ‘callings’ that are filled voluntarily. Members of the priesthood have the authority to act in God’s name. Bishops are selected by stake presidents but they are also called by God. The ‘laying on of hands’ confers priestly authority, but priestly power is said to come from living a worthy life. There were no black priests until 1978, and women cannot hold the priesthood. The priesthood is only for ‘worthy’ males (those who make a genuine effort to live a Christian life), following the Church’s interpretation of early Christianity.
There are two priesthoods in the LDS Church: Aaronic and Melchizedek. The Aaronic Priesthood is given to new converts and men aged 12-18. It is a preparatory stage of priesthood, in which young men learn more about their faith. They are first ordained deacon, then teacher, then priest, each stage conferring a greater responsibility. A young man must be worthy and faithful in his duties, and assist the bishop in service to the ward. Members of the Aaronic Priesthood are responsible for the preparation, distribution, and blessing of the sacrament (which is similar to Holy Communion in some Christian churches) during services. After reaching a certain level of experience and maturity, they are able to baptise, and they are asked to visit and care for members of the Church. The Melchizedek Priesthood is conferred by bishops and stake presidents with the common consent of Church members in their community. It is a higher level of priesthood than the Aaronic. Members of the Melchizedek Priesthood are required to perform sacred ordinances and lead in the Church. Within a ward, members of the Melchizedek Priesthood belong to either the elders’ quorum or the high priests’ group. Once ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood, men can then be ordained into specific offices with different responsibilities: Elder, High Priest, Bishop, Patriarch, Seventy, and Apostle. ‘The Keys of the Priesthood’ refers to the right to exercise authority in the name of God, and preside over a priesthood function, quorum, or organisational division of the Church.
Although priesthood authority is seen as the authority to act in God’s name, this authority is doctrinally circumscribed and limited to appropriate circumstances. Key to understanding Mormon priesthood is the scriptural injunction that “no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge ….” (Doctrine and Covenants, Sect. 121).
Women over 18, and married women and single mothers under 18, join the Relief Society. Young men are encouraged to do two years of missionary work from age 18 at their own expense, with a focus on proselytizing. Women can do missionary service from age 19. Retired couples are encouraged to serve in education or humanitarian services.
Church organisation is highly coordinated and hierarchical. Uniformity and conformity of doctrines and practices in the LDS Church is maintained through the worldwide distribution of instructional materials and Church programmes, called the Church Correlation programme. The Church is maintained through members tithing 10 per cent of their income, a practice encouraged from 1899 to end a long period of financial problems resulting from federal financial oppression.