Keys of the Priesthood

Russell_M_NelsonKeys of the Priesthood

By Elder Russell M. Nelson
Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
Ensign – October, 2005


The ninth in a series of articles about the priesthood and its purposes.


Keys are important and valuable. Most of us carry keys in pockets or purses wherever we go. Other keys are not only important and valuable; they are precious, powerful, and invisible! They have eternal significance. They are the keys of the priesthood.1

The Prophet Joseph Smith taught “the fundamental principles, government, and doctrine of the Church are vested in the keys of the kingdom.”2 Those keys refer to the right to preside over priesthood authority in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Keys carry the right to preside over a local organization of the Church, such as a stake, a ward or branch, a mission or district, a priesthood quorum, or a temple. Keys are conferred by the laying on of hands by one who holds proper authority and whose authority is known to the Church.3

All the keys of the kingdom of God on earth are held by members of the First Presidency and members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The President of the Church—the senior Apostle—presides over the entire Church and is the only person on earth who exercises all the keys in their fulness.4 He delegates authority by conferring or authorizing the conferral of keys upon other bearers of the priesthood in their specific offices and callings.5

Priesthood is the authority of God delegated to man to minister for the salvation of men. “The power of directing these labors constitutes the keys of the Priesthood.”6 We distinguish between holding the priesthood and holding keys of the priesthood. When an individual is given keys, he does not receive additional priesthood. What he has is the right to direct the work of the priesthood.

Preparation and Permission

To serve well as one who bears the holy priesthood, one needs both preparation and permission. May I relate a personal experience? Prior to my call to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, I served as a medical doctor and surgeon. I had earned two doctor’s degrees. I had been certified by two specialty boards. That long preparation had consumed many years, yet the education itself did not allow me to serve the public. Why? Because I needed legal permission.

That could be granted only by authorities of the state government and directing boards of hospitals in which I desired to work. Once officials holding proper authority granted me a license and permission, then I could care for patients who needed surgical relief from their ailments. After legal administrators had exercised their keys, then I could render the service for which I had been prepared.

In return, I was accountable to those who granted those privileges. I was required to obey legal and ethical expectations and never abuse the power entrusted to me.

Just as the important steps of preparation and permission pertain to medicine (and other professions), they also relate to priesthood service. Those who hold the priesthood—Aaronic and Melchizedek—have authority to render priesthood service. As agents of the Lord, they have the right to perform sacred ordinances of the gospel. Keys authorize the performance of that service.

A distinction also exists between priesthood authority and priesthood power. When ordained to an office in the priesthood, one is granted authority. But power comes from exercising that authority in righteousness.7 Thus, although priesthood holders have authority, they must prepare themselves to have power. That they do through making themselves personally worthy and through learning and practicing the duties and doctrines of the priesthood.

Why do these things matter? Why is the power to act in the name of God so important? Why is it important that bearers of the priesthood prepare to serve with power? Because the priesthood is of eternal significance. The priesthood benefits every man, woman, and child who now lives, who has lived, and who yet will live upon the earth. Those who hold the priesthood need to prepare in order to make the blessings of priesthood power readily available to all of God’s children. Those who hold priesthood keys need to understand how to use those keys wisely and righteously.8

History of Priesthood Keys

Keys and authority of the priesthood can be traced through three periods of history: in ancient days, during the Lord’s mortal ministry, and in modern times.

Period One: Ancient Days. Priesthood authority was known anciently, even before creation of the earth. The Prophet Joseph Smith declared, “The Priesthood is an everlasting principle, and existed with God from eternity, and will to eternity.”9 President Brigham Young (1801–77) added that the priesthood “is the law by which the worlds are, were, and will continue for ever and ever.”10

In a premortal realm we existed as spirit children of God. Abraham was one of us. He was told that he was among those chosen before birth to be “rulers” (spiritual leaders).11 Scriptures also relate that the Lord God foreordained after His holy order priests who were prepared from the foundation of the world according to His foreknowledge. Thus, our callings to bear the holy priesthood were portended even before we were born.12

Adam received priesthood authority before the world was formed.13 We know that “the Priesthood was first given to Adam; he obtained the First Presidency, and held the keys of it from generation to generation.”14 The priesthood was conferred through generations from Adam to Moses “through the lineage of their fathers.”15 Referring to prophets of Old Testament times, the Prophet Joseph Smith declared that “all the prophets had the Melchizedek Priesthood.”16

Period Two: The Lord’s Mortal Ministry. During His mortal ministry Jesus conferred priesthood upon His Twelve Apostles and revealed the principle of priesthood keys. To His Apostle Peter the Savior said, “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”17 The Lord also promised these keys to James and John.18

Within a week of that promise, Jesus took Peter, James, and John to a high mountain. There, under the direction of the Lord, keys of the priesthood were bestowed upon those Apostles by Moses and Elijah (also known as Elias).19

The Master reminded His disciples of the source of their authority: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you.”20

Not long thereafter, the Savior was crucified. Even before the early Apostles completed their labors, the Apostasy began. It occurred, as prophesied, when teachings of men with priesthood keys were rejected and sacred ordinances were defiled.21

Period Three: Modern Times. The restoration of priesthood keys is one of the many miracles of this, the dispensation of the fulness of times.22 As the Prophet taught, “The keys have to be brought from heaven whenever the Gospel is sent.”23 In 1820 our Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith. In May 1829 John the Baptist conferred the Aaronic Priesthood upon Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.24 In so doing, he conferred “the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins.”25 Shortly thereafter the Prophet and his associate received the Melchizedek Priesthood under the hands of Peter, James, and John.26 Joseph Smith had keys to organize the Church, send missionaries, and ordain priesthood leaders.

Later, the Lord spoke to Joseph and Oliver of others to whom additional specific keys of the priesthood had been committed.27 Each, in turn, conferred these keys upon Joseph and Oliver:

  • Moses delivered the keys of the gathering of Israel and the leading of the ten tribes;28
  • Elias, the keys of the Abrahamic covenant;29
  • And Elijah, the keys of the sealing authority.30

Joseph Smith conferred those restored priesthood keys upon all of the Apostles called in his day.31 In turn, these keys have been transferred through the generations to the present leaders of the Church. Today, the President of the Church actively holds every key held by “all those who have received a dispensation at any time from the beginning of the creation.”32

A sacred moment of my life occurred on April 12, 1984, when the First Presidency and members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles laid their hands upon my head. As had been done for others before me, all the keys of the priesthood were conferred. Like each member of the Quorum of the Twelve, I hold all the keys of the priesthood as restored in these latter days, but some keys are not used unless specifically directed by the senior Apostle or upon his death. All of us in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles feel the weight of responsibility and the burden of timeless trust. We know the keys we hold have been restored “for the last days and for the last time.”33

Obligations and Accountability

When hands are laid upon one’s head to be ordained or set apart, both the conveyor and the recipient of that priesthood authority bear obligations and accountability. Let me illustrate. Suppose you own keys to something of value in your life—a vehicle, a home, or a fine instrument. If you loan those keys to another with the intent that he or she use your property, you have certain obligations. You as the lender have a duty toward your borrower’s success. So you teach and train adequately to protect the user and, at the same time, safeguard your own valuable property. The receiver also has obligations. He or she must know applicable laws and obey them, take care of your property, and report back on how well he or she has used it.

The same concepts apply to keys of the priesthood. Temple presidents, mission presidents, stake presidents, district presidents, bishops, branch presidents, and quorum presidents hold priesthood keys of presidency. Their keys control the power of their unit of the Church. That the mission of the Church be accomplished, those leaders not only call and release, but they also train and hold accountable those whom they call. Thus, members who receive priesthood ordinations or callings to serve in the Church have obligations of obedience and accountability.

Every priesthood quorum has a president, whether it is a quorum of deacons, teachers, priests, elders, or high priests. Each president holds keys of authority. Quorum activities and opportunities for service are authorized by the president who holds those keys. Although a quorum president holds keys, his counselors do not. Auxiliary presidents do not hold keys. Counselors and auxiliary presidents serve on assignment from one holding keys who, in turn, has delegated authority for each of them to act.

When one is released from his calling in the priesthood, if keys have been conferred, those keys are relinquished, to be given by proper authority to the new leader. When a bishop is released, for example, his priesthood ordination to the office of bishop remains, but his priesthood keys to serve as the bishop of the ward are conferred upon the new bishop.

Revelation, Loyalty, and the Privilege of Service

Those who receive the Melchizedek Priesthood are under solemn oath and covenant to “live by every word that proceedeth forth from the mouth of God.”34 By so doing, one becomes worthy to receive personal revelation.

Loyalty too is vital to receiving power in one’s priesthood. Loyalty to him who holds the keys to call and to release will foster unity, and unity is essential to success.35 The Lord so explained when He said, “If ye are not one ye are not mine,”36 and “Israel shall be saved in mine own due time; and by the keys which I have given shall they be led.”37

We need to be reminded and warned that the privilege of priesthood service, if abused, may be withdrawn. That is not difficult to understand. The same caution applies in secular activity. If one were to drive another’s automobile recklessly, future permission from the owner would likely be refused. So it is with priesthood authority. If it is abused, “the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.”38

Each bearer of the holy priesthood should feel deeply grateful for that incomparable privilege. It is humbling to know that each of us was foreordained from the foundation of the world for the responsibility we now have.39 May we be true to the trust the Savior has given to those who bear His holy priesthood and hold its sacred keys. I pray that we may use them wisely and precisely as the Lord would have us do.