An office in the church that Joseph Smith organized on April 6, 1830. This office had the right to preside, preach, teach, exhort, and expound scripture. Originally, Elders were elected to this position by the body of members, but the practice has since changed in the LDS Church to become a “calling” by a presiding authority and a sustaining (vote of approval) by a congregation, preliminary to ordination to the office. Joseph Smith was the First Elder in the church; Oliver Cowdery was the Second Elder.1 Joseph Smith recorded : “The authority of the Melchizedek priesthood was manifested and conferred, for the first time, upon several of the elders” at the June 1831 conference.2 This clarifies that “elder” is a church office that is not related to the High Priesthood, because these men were already serving in their church office of “elder” before the High Priesthood was restored.3 The office of “elder,” like other offices (priests, deacons, teachers), were offices in the church. They were not coincidental to having priesthood. They were offices in the Church of Christ (T&C 59:1,6–10,12).These offices were elected, approved by common consent, and then filled by those elected (see T&C 6:1; JSH 16:17). It was some time later, after D&C 3 (1835 Edition), that this church office and priesthood were conflated to mean the same thing. The office of elder belongs to the church, and whether there is priesthood present or not, the right to preach, teach, expound, exhort, baptize, lay on hands for the holy ghost, and bless and pass the sacrament are all things which the Lord commissioned the church to perform. This is also why, at the time Joseph and Oliver received only the Aaronic Priesthood, they began to call one another the First and Second elder of the church (JSH 14:2).4 The Lord often spoke to “the elders of my church” as one category, in contrast to “priesthood,” which is another category. Mormons conflate the two. An elder is invited to become an actual priesthood holder, but that is dependent upon Heaven alone. It may be conferred on men, but Heaven must ratify (see T&C 139:5). Therefore, there are a lot of elders in the church who have no priesthood. Yet they have an authoritative invitation to connect with Heaven and rise up and receive it.5 The office of elder still continues in many of the various religious groups claiming Joseph Smith as their founder. The term is derived from respecting the holy wisdom of experience most often gained from living a long life. The term “elder,” in that sense, means “wise” or “experienced” — meaning someone who can provide answers because of their experience. It is used in this sense in 1 Peter 1:20 : Likewise, you younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Peter was not referring to offices, since there is no office of “younger.” He was referring to those who were to be respected because of their wisdom born from experience.6
1 A Man Without Doubt, 170.
2 JSP, Documents Vol. 1:320, citing JS History Vol. A1:118.
3 “Laying On Hands,”Aug. 19, 2014, blog post.
4 “Hyrum Smith - Part 2,” July 18, 2012, blog post.
5 “Power in the Priesthood,” May 18, 2012, blog post.
6 Commentary added to Glossary Dec. 8, 2018.