Priesthood of the Nephites

A number of years ago I came across this article about the priesthood of the Nephites by Joseph Fielding Smith, Jr. At the time, I wasn’t really looking for information about this topic. Rather, I was studying references to the holy order.

As I reflected on the information contained in this “answer” by then Elder Smith, I wondered if there are not also “priests and teachers” in our day who have been called to “teach, direct, and admonish the people.” Here is the complete text to this article:

Joseph Fielding Smith Question: “While studying our Book of Mormon lesson in our Sunday School class our attention was called to the statement in the Teachers’ Supplement which says that the Nephites did not have the Aaronic Priesthood. Members of the class questioned the authenticity of this and called attention to the words in Moroni, chapter three, which clearly state that they ordained priests and teachers, to preach repentance and remission of sins. Then we read in II Nephi 5:26, that Nephi consecrated Jacob and Joseph ‘that they should be priests and teachers over the land of my people.’ Will you kindly put us straight on this matter?”

Answer: After the tribes of Israel were brought out of Egypt the Lord proposed to make them a royal priesthood, conferring on members of all the tribes the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood; but when they made a golden calf to worship in the absence of Moses and were in constant murmuring and rebellion, the Lord denied them this great honor and took Moses and the Higher Priesthood from them, and decreed that this priesthood should not be given them and that they “should not enter into his rest, while in the wilderness, which rest is the fulness of his glory.”1 From that time until the coming of our Redeemer, Israel was subject to the Aaronic Priesthood and the “carnal law,” which was added. Instead of taking the firstborn of the families, the Lord separated the tribe of Levi and made them the priests of the people.

For the Lord had spoken unto Moses, saying,

“Only thou shalt not number the tribe of Levi, neither take the sum of them among the children of Israel.”2

No Levites Among the Nephites

The Nephites were descendants of Joseph. Lehi discovered this when reading the brass plates. He was a descendant of Manasseh, and Ishmael, who accompanied him with his family, was of the tribe of Ephraim.3

Therefore there were no Levites who accompanied Lehi to the Western Hemisphere. Under these conditions the Nephites officiated by virtue of the Melchizedek Priesthood from the days of Lehi to the days of the appearance of our Savior among them. It is true that Nephi “consecrated Jacob and Joseph” that they should be priests and teachers over the land of the Nephites, but the fact that plural terms priests and teachers were used indicates that this was not a reference to the definite office in the priesthood in either case, but it was a general assignment to teach, direct, and admonish the people. Otherwise the terms priest and teacher would have been given, in the singular. Additional light is thrown on this appointment showing that these two brothers of Nephi held the Melchizedek Priesthood, in the sixth chapter, second verse of II Nephi, where Jacob makes this explanation regarding the priesthood which he and Joseph held:

“Behold, my beloved brethren, I, Jacob, having been called of God, and ordained after the manner of his holy order, and having been consecrated by my brother Nephi, unto whom ye look as a king or a protector, and on whom ye depend for safety, behold ye know that I have spoken unto you exceeding many things.”

This seems to be a confirmation of the ordinations that he and his brother Joseph received in the Melchizedek Priesthood. All through the Book of Mormon we find references to the Nephites officiating by virtue of the Higher Priesthood after the holy order. Alma, discoursing on the subject before the people of the city of Ammonihah said:

“And again, my brethren, I would cite your minds forward to the time when the Lord God gave these commandments unto his children; and I would that ye should remember that the Lord God ordained priests, after his holy order, which was after the order of his Son, to teach these things unto the people.”4

In the opening verses of Alma, Chapter 43, Mormon records the following:

“And now it came to pass that the sons of Alma did go forth among the people, to declare the word unto them. And Alma, also, himself, could not rest, and he also went forth. Now we will say no more concerning their preachings, except that they preached the word, and the truth, according to the spirit of prophecy and revelation; and they preached after the holy order of God by which they were called.”

Nephites Administered Under Melchizedek Priesthood

From these and numerous other passages we learn that it was by the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood that the Nephites administered from the time they left Jerusalem until the time of the coming of Jesus Christ. By the power of this priesthood they baptized, confirmed, and ordained. During these years they also observed the law of Moses. They offered sacrifice and performed the duties which in Israel had been assigned to the priests and Levites. They observed in every detail the requirements of the law. When the Savior came to them, he fulfilled the carnal law and did away with the sacrifice by the shedding of blood of animals. He informed the Nephites that in him the law of Moses was fulfilled.5

When the Savior came to the Nephites, he established the Church in its fulness among them, and he informed them that former things had passed away, for they were all fulfilled in him. He gave the Nephites all the authority of the priesthood which we exercise today. Therefore we are justified in the belief that not only was the fulness of the Melchizedek Priesthood conferred, but also the Aaronic, just as we have it in the Church today; and this Aaronic Priesthood remained with them from this time until, through wickedness, all priesthood ceased. We may be assured that in the days of Moroni the Nephites did ordain teachers and priests in the Aaronic Priesthood; but before the visit of the Savior they officiated in the Melchizedek Priesthood.6


  1. D. & C. 84:22-27. Numbers chapters 1-3.
  2. Numbers 1:48-49.
  3. Alma 10:3; The Improvement Era, Vol. 8, p. 781; Journal of Discourses, Vol. 23, p. 184.
  4. Alma 13:1. See also D. & C. 107:1-4.
  5. II Nephi 25:24-30; III Nephi 1:23-25; 9:15-17; 15:2-8.
  6. Entire quote from Smith, Joseph Fielding, Jr. Answers to Gospel Questions. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957. 1:123-127.

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  1. Jeremy Harrison’s avatar

    I adhere to JFS’s teachings here, but it always bothered me to not know “where” Lehi got the Melch Priesthood. I understand he was a contemporary of Jeremiah and others. Can we assume that Lehi received it under the hand of one of these?

  2. Greg’s avatar

    Great comment Jeremy. I think there are a number of important scriptures and statements by our leaders on this subject. D&C 107 and JST Genesis 14 are good sources of information. This question about priesthood is also discussed at Lehi’s Altar and Sacrifice in the Wilderness by David Seely. Given the context of President Smith’s statement, you may enjoy reading Andrew F. Ehat’s reflections about the endowment in What is an Endowment?.

  3. David Larsen’s avatar

    Greg, thanks for this great post! I have often pondered on how the Nephites could have had the priesthood and agree with you that it must have been the Melchizedek Priesthood. You present that case very well. I believe that there were more figures that had the Melchizedek Priesthood than we know, but that it was generally restricted to Prophets and Kings. I don’t have the reference, but I read somewhere where Joseph Smith said that King David had the Melchizedek Priesthood, although he did not have the fulness. You are familiar with my paper “Two High Priesthoods?” where I try to tease out evidence for this in Old Testament and Pseudepigrapha.
    So, I think that it would not have been excessively difficult for Lehi to have obtained the Melchizedek Priesthood from one of the other Jerusalem prophets with whom he had contact.

  4. Greg’s avatar

    Thank you David. I believe you are referring to a discourse given by the Prophet Joseph Smith on 10 March 1844. I thoroughly enjoyed your videos about the priesthood – for those who haven’t viewed them yet, see Two High Priesthoods?

  5. ama’s avatar

    What confuses me about the priesthood especially when I talk with Evangelicals is this. In Hebrews Paul talks about how the Melchezidek Priesthood is fulfilled in Jesus and he is the High Priest now. So when we have discussions with other Christians about priesthood, they do not see it is necessary because they get power from Jesus when they pray because Jesus has the priesthood and it is through HIm that we gain strength.

    What are your thoughts on that?

    Also, this post was a bit confusing for me as well because if the priesthood was taken away from Israel and only the Levites were allowed to practice the Aaronic Priesthood, how did Lehi obtain the Melchizedek Priesthood?

  6. Greg’s avatar

    Hi ama – Thanks for your comments. Those are some great questions and I’ve wrestled with the same issues as well. I don’t know that I can directly answer either of your questions, but hope the information provided above and in my responses is useful. In Nauvoo, the Prophet Joseph Smith gave a discourse about the “three grand orders or priesthood” that you might find helpful since he used Hebrews 7 as the text for his remarks.

  7. Shawn’s avatar

    Greg, I was reading through 3rd Nephi and was wondering if the Nephite Nation already had the Holy Ghost, why would Christ have them give it again? Do you think that we may be dealing with the idea of old things passing away and a new order instituted? Old Testament (gospel) to the New Testament.

  8. Greg’s avatar

    Hi Shawn – That is certainly a possibility, although it is just as likely that the pattern of receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost is in some respects similar to that as recorded in the New Testament. For example, in 1902 the First Presidency wrote,

    . . . the promise was made, but the fulfillment came after, so that the Holy Ghost sent by Jesus from the Father did not come in person until the day of Pentecost, and the cloven tongues of fire were the sign of His coming. (Gift of the Holy Ghost a Higher Endowment).

    Compare also the post on a Broken Heart and a Contrite Spirit.

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