In the Church today we are often taught about the importance of Priesthood Keys. In Chapter 14 of Gospel Principles, Joseph F. Smith teaches:
“The Priesthood in general is the authority given to man to act for God. Every man ordained to any degree of the Priesthood has this authority delegated to him.”
“But it is necessary that every act performed under this authority shall be done at the proper time and place, in the proper way, and after the proper order. The power of directing these labors constitutes the keys of the Priesthood. In their fulness, the keys are held by only one person at a time, the prophet and president of the Church. He may delegate any portion of this power to another, in which case that person holds the keys of that particular labor.” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith , 141).
A common analogy is that of a physical key. In order to properly enter someones house. We must receive a key from the owner. That key allows us to unlock the door and enter.
Priesthood keys, we are taught, are not a set of physical keys, but are a set of spiritual authorities. They are all bestowed upon the President of the Church when he is ordained. The President can then bestow certain keys on other male Priesthood holders so that they may perform their duties.
It is through these keys that the affairs of the church are administered. Those priesthood duties can be done with God’s authorization and thus have effect in both heaven and earth. For example, a person who seals a marriage must have sealing keys otherwise that sealing is not recognized by God in the eternities.
As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we believe that these keys were restored to Joseph Smith and that they have been passed down to through Brigham Young and all his successors and that they are held today by President Thomas S. Monson.
It is important to note that we are taught the bestowal of these keys does not come through the transfer of any physical object. Rather they are received by the laying on of hands by those who already possess keys. It is then pronounced that the recipient has the keys and they are now recognized as having that spiritual authority.
In the case of a new President of the Church being ordained, the Quorum of the Twelve collectively holds all the keys, they give all these keys to the new President. In the case of a local leader, someone with higher authority, who possessed only a limited number of keys, bestows an even more limited number of keys upon the local leader.
This is the modern understanding. However, there are statements by Joseph Smith that show that perhaps our current understanding of keys is not complete. As initial evidence of this, I would like to present Doctrine and Covenants Section 129. After explaining how to detect messengers of God by using handshakes, we read in verse 9:
These are three grand keys whereby you may know whether any administration is from God.
Here in this revelation Joseph Smith uses the term keys, but it doesn’t seem to be used in the sense of a spiritual authority. Rather it seems to be a piece of knowledge that is a key.
Another example is on page 156 of Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith states:
“I will give you one of the Keys of the mysteries of the Kingdom. It is an eternal principle, that has existed with God from all eternity”
Here Joseph Smith says he is giving one of the Keys of the mysteries of the Kingdom and then he says that “It”, the key, is an eternal principle. If Joseph Smith restored the Priesthood keys as we understand them today; why then would these statements exist which do not agree with our modern understanding?
There must be something else about these Priesthood Keys, in Joseph Smith’s understanding, than what exists in our modern one. If we dig a little deeper we can find out just what Joseph Smith understood Priesthood keys to be. And since Joseph Smith is the one who restored the keys, his understanding and teachings about the keys must be the foundation upon which we base our understanding.
Joseph Smith’s Understanding of Keys
Joseph Smith’s beliefs about keys were developed early in his life. If we look at Joseph’s youth we can see that he was involved in practices that are termed as, “magic.” There is often a negative connotation associated with using the term magic in association with Christianity and also Mormonism. However the “magic” that Joseph Smith was practicing came from the tradition of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa. This type of “magic” is actually better understood as actions that help a person gain the attributes of God. So while Joseph Smith was doing things that can be called magic, in Joseph Smith’s mind it was a set of practices to help him gain the attributes of God.
Because many of Joseph Smith’s relatives were Freemasons Joseph was also immersed in Freemasonry, as was common at the time. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s book* was used by Joseph Smith in his “magical” practices. The reason Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa carried such weight in those days was because at the time it was believed that Agrippa was a Freemason. Because of this other masons were reading his works. Agrippa’s teachings, and also those of Masonry, established the framework through which Joseph Smith’s would later understand and relate to his spiritual experiences.
If we look at this information we can see that Joseph Smith’s understanding of keys came from these works and his Masonic upbringing. In these books we read of certain “keys” for invoking the power of God or for bringing various aspects of His power down to man.
It is taught that a Key possesses three attributes. The first attribute is physical. A key must possess some physical manifestation such as a hand grip, hand gesture, or something written.
The second attribute is something spoken. A key must possess a spoken manifestation. But this is not simply saying a word. It is speaking something with complete conviction, as if your entire being is that word.
The third attribute is the Spiritual power or attribute that is accessed by the previous two elements.
So when Joseph Smith spoke of keys he was referring to these type of keys. It was not simply a spiritual authority, but was a physical and spoken manifestation that must be known. It was believed that when these keys were used they brought about a very real spiritual power/manifestation.
In Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith(pg. 199) we read:
There are certain key words and signs belonging to the Priesthood which must be observed in order to obtain the blessing. The sign of Peter was to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins, with the promise of the gift of the Holy Ghost obtained.
Here we have Joseph Smith teaching that there are KEY WORDS(spoken attribute) and SIGNS(physical manifestation) which belong to the priesthood.
With this new understanding of keys we can reexamine events in the history of the church from a new perspective. Here is when Joseph received the keys in the Kirtland temple
Doctrine and Covenants 110:1-16
11 After this vision closed, the heavens were again opened unto us; and Moses appeared before us, and committed unto us the keys of the gathering of Israel from the four parts of the earth, and the leading of the ten tribes from the land of the north.
12 After this, Elias appeared, and committed the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham, saying that in us and our seed all generations after us should be blessed.
13 After this vision had closed, another great and glorious vision burst upon us; for Elijah the prophet, who was taken to heaven without tasting death, stood before us, and said:
14 Behold, the time has fully come, which was spoken of by the mouth of Malachi—testifying that he [Elijah] should be sent, before the great and dreadful day of the Lord come—
15 To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse—
16 Therefore, the keys of this dispensation are committed into your hands; and by this ye may know that the great and dreadful day of the Lord is near, even at the doors.
Since we understand what Joseph meant by the term keys we can better understand what occurred during these events. Joseph and his companions didn’t just stand there and have angels tell them, ‘I am now giving you the keys.’ Rather these were sacred communions with heaven wherein knowledge of the Keys, and how to perform them, was transmitted from angels in heaven to men on earth.
When these visitors came to Joseph and gave him the keys. They were not simply imbuing him with power. But they were giving him knowledge and teaching him the keys necessary to access the powers of heaven pertaining to the specific realms of each key.
Conferral of the Keys
Let’s discuss this idea of conferring Keys in greater depth. We have seen that according to Joseph Smith’s understanding that the conferral of Keys in the early church was not a magical transfer of power from one person to another. Rather the conferral of Keys involved educating the recipient in the Keys and how to perform them.
What this means is that in order to receive priesthood keys the recipient must be taught them. This concept is almost completely foreign to modern members of the church. However this is exactly what was meant by Joseph Smith. And we know this is the case because of Joseph Smith’s early practices, his statements, and beliefs.
Knowledge of what the Keys are and how to use them cannot be transferred through simply uttering the phrase, “I bestow upon you the keys.”
It would be like giving your car keys to someone, but not actually giving them the physical keys. Instead you just tell them that they now possess the keys to your car. But unless they do some hot wiring, they aren’t going to be starting the car anytime soon.
No, the Keys must be taught to the recipient. Therefore, when Joseph Smith received the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthood, the messengers who bestowed them must not have simply pronounce upon them the keys. Rather they bestowed the knowledge of the physical and spoken manifestations that are the Keys.
This entire concept is can be difficult to grasp. However there is something that many members of the church can relate to, and this is something I feel I should speak very carefully about. In the endowment ceremony members receive certain keywords and signs. These keywords and signs that are given in the endowment are keys. And all the other keys of the priesthood as restored by Joseph Smith are similar to these.
Who is Supposed to Hold the Keys?
It is very easy to show that the President of the Church is supposed to hold all the keys. It is also easy to show that the Quorum of the Twelve is supposed to hold all the keys collectively. But there is information to show that other people are supposed to hold all the keys as well.
Before I continue, I know people will be pointing to Section 132:7 where it says: “7 …whom I have appointed on the earth to hold this power (and I have appointed unto my servant Joseph to hold this power in the last days, and there is never but one on the earth at a time on whom this power and the keys of this priesthood are conferred)…”
This verse is often quoted as proof that only one person on the earth at any given time who holds all the Keys of the Priesthood. But there are problems with Section 132. The most original version we have came from Brigham Young after the Saints arrived in Salt Lake. To explain this situation I would like to quote Rock Waterman from the blog Pure Mormonism:
Brigham’s later explanation for why the revelation was not in Joseph Smith’s handwriting was that this one was actually a copy of the original revelation, as “Sister Emma burnt the original.”
When Emma Smith, back in Nauvoo heard this claim, she replied that she had “never saw such a revelation until it was published by Pratt in The Seer.”
This “copy” of a very lengthy revelation was in the handwriting of William Clayton, formerly a scribe of Joseph Smith. He was also now a polygamist.
What I wonder about is this: was it the practice of Joseph Smith to have his scribes immediately create a second copy of all of his revelations, or did Brigham Young simply ask Clayton to “recreate” this one from memory?
To be succinct the providence of section 132, especially the phrase about only one holding they keys at a time, is not as clear cut as first thought. Also when considering some of Joseph’s other statements it may not be correct.
First, here is a quote that relates to the issue of women and the Priesthood(a topic which I plan on blogging about another time):
[Joseph] spoke of delivering the keys to this Society and to the church— that according to his prayers God had appointed him elsewhere.
This comes straight out of the Relief Society minute book available on Josephsmithpapers.org. Here Joseph Smith says he is going to give the Keys to the Relief Society and also to the Church. There are other quotes relating to this but are not relevant to the discussion of keys.
Second, Joseph spoke that it was part of the ordinances of the church that a person receive all the keys of the priesthood:
The declaration this morning is, that as soon as the Temple and baptismal font are prepared, we calculate to give the Elders of Israel their washings and anointings, and attend to those last and more impressive ordinances, without which we cannot obtain celestial thrones. But there must be a holy place prepared for that purpose. There was a proclamation made during the time that the foundation of the Temple was laid to that effect, and there are provisions made until the work is completed, so that men may receive their endowments and be made kings and priests unto the Most High God, having nothing to do with temporal things, but their whole time will be taken up with things pertaining to the house of God. There must, however, be a place built expressly for that purpose, and for men to be baptized for their dead. It must be built in this central place; for every man who wishes to save his father, mother, brothers, sisters and friends, must go through all the ordinances for each one of them separately, the same as for himself, from baptism to ordination, washing and anointings, and receive all the keys and powers of the Priesthood, the same as for himself.
Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith p.362
Here we see that for the operation of the church the President holds all the keys and also the Quorum of the Twelve holds all the keys collectively. But we also see that it is the divine purpose for each person to attain the fulness which includes “all the keys and powers of the priesthood”.
Conclusion: The Keys Today
We have examined this topic from a historic perspective. We have learned that Priesthood Keys are not simply a spiritual authority; but are a three part key bringing together the physical, the spoken, and the spiritual to distill the powers of heaven upon mankind. We have learned who are supposed to hold the keys. We have also learned that keys cannot be conferred only by placing hands on the head, but they must be taught to the recipient. Now in order to bring our analysis full circle we must apply our understanding to our modern times. We can clearly see that the understanding of priesthood keys early in the restoration is not the same as that which we have now.
So what happened? Did God change the nature of priesthood keys? Was Joseph Smith wrong in his understanding? Or has something been lost in our understanding of what keys are?
For me I don’t think God would change something as fundamental as Priesthood keys. The Keys were restored as a certain type of tool, a physical and spoken manifestation, to access the powers of heaven. For this to have been changed would completely undermine the work of Joseph Smith and the restoration. Likewise if Joseph was wrong about the keys then it destroys the work he did as the founding prophet of this dispensation and again undermines our own foundation.
I think the issue we must face today is that we have simply lost a fundamental understanding of what the priesthood keys are supposed to be. And since the understanding of keys, which is taught to us from the highest level of the Church, is different than what Joseph Smith taught keys were; then it seems that the nature of keys has also been lost among the leaders as well. Granted, this is just speculation on my part, but it seems to me that if the leaders are not teaching the correct nature of priesthood keys, then it means that they themselves do not have this understanding. This begs the question, How long ago was this understanding lost? When did it happen? And even more importantly, if and understanding of the nature of priesthood keys has been lost, then the keys have not been taught to the following generations of leaders. And if they keys have not been taught to the leaders, then how are they supposed to possess them?* These are questions we must all very carefully consider.
Post Script: What Are the Keys?
Now that we have an understanding of what keys really are in general terms lets look at specific keys. Throughout the scriptures there are mentions of specific keys. Only a small portion of these references exist in the Bible, the rest are in the Doctrine and Covenants. I apologize for not including the references for each key.
Here is a list of keys, some of which have an explanation as best as I can research(many have a descriptive name so I have not provided an explanation):
Key of the house of David/Key of David
“The word key in this verse is maf-tay-ach in Hebrew. It means an opener, Strong’s #4668.
The name Eliakim (EL-YAW-KEEM), Strong’s #471, means “whom God raises up or sets up”.
The word shoulder is she-kem, Strong’s #7926, meaning the place of burdens like a yoke.
So now we have the paraphrase: ‘EL will lay the yoke on the place of burdens of the one He raises up; and this yoke is the opener of the house of David. What He opens no one shall shut; and what He shuts no one shall open.’” – http://yeshivahanateev.org/keyofdavid.html
This key refers to the authority to establish the House of David or the Kingdom. Revelation 3:7 tells us that it is Christ that holds this key.
Keys of the Kingdom
This is a term that seems to refer to all the keys. It is related to the sealing powers and the Key of knowledge.
Key of Knowledge
According to Luke 11:53(JST) the Key of Knowledge is the fulness of the scriptures.
Keys of Hell and Death
In Revelation 1:18 Christ tells us he holds the Keys of Hell and Death. Hell could be associated with salvation and death could be associated with resurrection.
Key of the Bottomless Pit
Keys of the Gift of Translation
The term “translation” here means translating languages, not the changing of the body into a Celestial state.
Keys of John’s ministry
Key to live until Christ comes
Key to prophesy before nations, kindreds, tongues, and people
Keys of the Record of the Stick of Ephraim
Keys of Bringing to Pass the Restoration of All Things Spoken by the Mouth of All the Holy Prophets Since the World Began, Concerning the Last Says.
Keys of the Power of Turning the Hearts of the Fathers to the Children, and the Hearts of the Children to the Fathers
Keys of the Mysteries and Revelations Which are Sealed (a.k.a. Keys of the Mystery of Those Things Which Have Been Sealed)
Keys of the Church
Keys of the Mysteries of the Kingdom
- That man who rises up to condemn other, finding fault with the Church, saying that they are out of the way, while he himself is righteous, then know assuredly, that that man is in the high road to apostasy;
Keys of the Aaronic Priesthood:
Key of the ministering of angels
Key of gospel of repentance
Key of baptism for the remission of sins
Keys of Salvation
Keys of the School of the Prophets
Keys of this Kingdom and Ministry
Keys of all the Spiritual Blessings of the Church
Keys of the Gathering of Israel From the Four Parts of the Earth
Keys of the Leading of the Ten Tribes From the Land of the North
Keys to Administer in Outward Ordinances
Keys of the Patriarchal Blessings
Keys Whereby He May Ask and Receive Blessings
Keys of the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times
Key to Know a Resurrected Being by Shaking His Hand
Key to Know a Just Spirit by Offering Your Hand and He Will Not Take It.
Key to Know an Angel from the Devil in that You Will Not Feel His Hand When You Offer to Shake It.
There are also the Keys of the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthood as given in the Endowment.