“Instituted for travelling Elders”

If you’ve ever asked yourself what exactly is a Seventy, you’re not alone.  In fact, I’d dare to say that the question is one of the more persistent ones throughout Church history.  Based on two brief mentions in the Bible, the idea of the Seventies is laid out in two separate documents in the Doctrine and Covenants and was organized initially in 1835.  Yet, the exact function and role of the Seventies has varied over the years in the Church.

The first major mention of the Seventies in our scriptures comes in the 1835 document “On Priesthood” that is now Section 107 in the Doctrine and Covenants.  After discussing the “twelve apostles, or special witnesses of the name of Christ, in all the world,” the document states that: “The seventy are also called to preach the gospel, and to be especial witnesses unto the Gentiles and in all the world. Thus differing from other officers in the church in the duties of their calling: and they form a quorum equal in authority to that of the twelve especial witnesses or apostles, just named.”  It then adds that: “The seventy are to act in the name of the Lord, under the direction of the twelve, or the travelling high council, in building up the church and regulating all the affairs of the same, in all nations: first unto the Gentiles and then to the Jews:—the twelve being sent out, holding the keys, to open the door by the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ; and first unto the Gentiles and then unto the Jews.”  And, there is a brief statement that: “It is the duty of the travelling high council to call upon the seventy, when they need assistance, to fill the several calls for preaching and administering the gospel, in stead of any others.”[1]  In this text, the Seventy are meant to be a missionary force, witnessing to the world as subordinates to the Quorum of the Twelve.

There are two main references in the Bible that inspired this office.  The Gospel According to St. Luke briefly mentions that: “The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go,” with some instructions from the Lord.[2]  These seventy individuals (or seventy-two according to some manuscripts) functioned as a missionary ministry in preparing the way for Jesus to visit different locations.  The other reference is from a time in Moses’s ministry where he was frustrated with the constant complaining of the Children of Israel, so God told Moses to: “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.”[3]  In this case, rather than a missionary force, the seventy elders functioned as administrative assistants to Moses in dealing with the Children of Israel.  Both the roles as missionaries and administrative assistants to the Quorum of the Twelve would become incorporated in the modern role of the Seventy.

The original intent in setting up the office seems to have been a part of a vision of two parallel ministries running the Church under the direction of the First Presidency.  One ministry was a stationary administration within the established stakes of Zion, with a high council of high priests, elders, etc.  The parallel ministry was a traveling or mission-field ministry with a traveling high council (the apostles) that corresponded to the high council of the stakes and the seventies corresponding to the elders.  The 1835 document explains it this way: “the duty of the president over the office of elders is to preside over ninety six elders, and to sit in council with them, and to teach them according to the covenants. This presidency is a distinct one from that of the seventy, and is designed for those who do not travel into all the world.”  Meanwhile, the seventy “are to be travelling ministers unto the Gentiles, first, and also unto the Jews, whereas other offices of the church who belong not unto the twelve neither to the seventy, are not under the responsibility to travel among all nations, but are to travel as their circumstances shall allow.”[4]  There is a direct comparison here between the elders and the seventies here, with the elders being those “who do not travel into all the world” while the seventy have “the responsibility to travel among all nations.”

This concept of parallel ministries comes up in the other major document in the Doctrine and Covenants that explores the role of the seventy.  A revelation received on 19 January 1841 (now Section 124) functioned as a sacred charter for the new headquarters of the Church in Nauvoo, Illinois.  In many ways, it affirmed the decisions of Church leaders up to that time while adding some new directions as it affirmed that Nauvoo would be a new gathering place, gave instructions to build a temple and a hotel, instructed the Saints to write a proclamation to the government leaders of the world, and affirmed the then-current leadership structure of the Church.  After listing the presidents of the quorum of the seventies, the document stated that the quorum “is instituted for travelling Elders to bear record of my name in all the world, wherever the travelling high council, my apostles shall send them to prepare an way before my face,” adding that “the difference between this quorum and the quorum of Elders is, that one is to travel continually and the other is to preside over the churches from time to time, the one has the responsibility of presiding from time to time, but the other has no responsibiltiy of presiding from time to time saith the Lord your God.”[5]  Here, the link between the seventies and elders is made more explicit, calling the seventies “travelling Elders” who are to “travel continually.”

The seventies were initially called to the ministry in early 1835.  For example, on February 28th 1835, several individuals, such as Jedediah Grant and Almon Babbitt, were “called and to be sent forth.”[6]  The early seventies went out on missions and towards the end of the year, they met “to render an account of their travels and ministry, since they were ordained to that apostleship.”[7]  They were working as a missionary force at that time.  Even though missionary work was their main focus, the seventies in Joseph Smith’s time are perhaps best remembered for leading a large body of the poorer Saints from Kirtland to Missouri.  Known as the Kirtland Camp, the expedition was noted by Elder B. H. Roberts of the Seventy as being “perhaps the greatest work achieved by the First Council of the Seventies, in their organized capacity” during the early days of the Church.[8]  After Joseph Smith’s death, there was a rapid expansion of the ranks of the seventies, growing from three and a half quorums of seventies to thirty-five quorums, becoming the largest priesthood group in the Church at the time.  The First Quorum of the Seventy was, however, effectively dissolved as the members of that quorum were called to serve as president of the second through tenth quorums of the seventy.  (It has been noted that this may have been done to prevent the First Quorum of the Seventy from challenging the Quorum of the Twelve, since Section 107 states that “they form a quorum qual in authority to that of the twelve especial witnesses or apostles.”)[9]

The concept of a traveling ministry and stationary ministry proved complicated to hold onto, though, since very few people were in a position to spend their entire lives traveling as missionaries.  Providing for their families was generally a high priority for middle-aged men who were called as seventies, which made it difficult to forgo work to travel and preach on a regular basis.  Also, being officially outside of the jurisdiction of local units (branches, wards and stakes), their usefulness in their home units was limited by both the fact that they were not part of the elders’ quorum or other parts of the unit and the perception that they were apostles and therefore could remain aloof from callings.  Being separate from the local units, there also wasn’t much focus on keeping the seventies organized, resulting in a chaotic situation in Utah Territory where seventies remained a part of the quorum they had joined initially rather than being organized by geographical location.  This would continue to prove problematic, since the seventies tended to end up doing more with their wards and stakes than with their quorums.  Still, the seventies were the primary missionary force of the Church, constituting about two-thirds of the missionaries called to serve between 1857 and 1876.[10]

That began to change towards the end of Brigham Young’s administration.  During the 1877 priesthood reformation, many of the seventies were ordained to be high priests (which were viewed as mutually exclusive offices at that time), reducing both the amount of priesthood holders who were seventies and the number of missionaries who were seventies.  During John Taylor’s administration, however, President Taylor received a revelation that directed the Quorum of the Twelve to “proceed to fill up the presiding quorum of Seventies, and assist in organizing that body of My Priesthood who are your co-laborers in the ministry.”[11]  The following spring (1883), a set of instructions were laid out to reorganize quorums of the seventies along geographic lines, allowing them “the privilege of joining the quorum located in the district in which they reside.”  These instructions were confirmed by a revelation to John Taylor, which stated that: “What ye have written is my will, and is acceptable unto me.”[12]  This laid the groundwork for what became a high point of the seventies, with nearly twice as many seventies serving missions after the reorganization, achieving a point where they constituted 92% of the missionary force of the Church in 1900.[13]

While initially, the seventies were meant to function as missionaries and the elders were meant to function in organized units, they began to reverse that role around the turn of the twentieth century.  Once it was decided by general authorities in 1901 that elders had all authority necessary to preach the gospel, it became more desirable to ordain men who were going to serve missions as elders because of many of the problems discussed above.  By 1905, only 27% of missionaries serving were seventies—a trend that would continue for the remainder of the time that seventies existed at a local level.  In addition, seventies began to be used in stake missions, giving them purpose at home while shifting the focus away from active traveling for missionary service for the seventies.[14]  This situation began to make the office of the seventies feel more and more redundant in the Church.[15]

This led to changes in how seventies were organized.  In 1961, it was decided that it wasn’t mutually exclusive to be a seventy and a high priest, and members of the First Council of Seventy were ordained high priests to give them authority to organize local leadership.  In 1975, the First Quorum of the Seventy began to be reorganized, with members officially serving as general authorities.  With an increase of general authority seventies, they began to fill roles previously occupied by assistants to the Twelve Apostles and regional representatives.  In 1984, for example, area presidencies began to be appointed from the ranks of the seventies.  As the seventies serving in higher level leadership roles began to increase, the local seventies continued to wane in importance, resulting in the discontinuance of seventies quorums in stakes in 1986.  (That wasn’t that long ago, so you can still find many people in the Church who remember serving as seventies at a local level—for example, my elders’ quorum president was telling me the other day that he was a seventy at one point.)  This shift in seventies taking over functions of higher church leadership as extensions of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has continued to be refined over the last several decades.[16]

Thus, the answer to the question “what exactly is a Seventy?” depends on what era you’re looking at.  A seventy is whatever Church leaders chose to use them for.  This seems to have followed a pattern of establishing a system that worked for a while, then became problematic, then a reformation of their function every several decades that again worked for a while then became a problem.  Today, they function as an extension of the Quorum of the Twelve in administering the global Church, which seems to be working well for them while still staying true to their commission as presented in Doctrine and Covenants sections 107 and 124.

 

Footnotes:

[1] “Instruction on Priesthood, between circa 1 March and circa 4 May 1835 [D&C 107],” p. 84, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 26, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/instruction-on-priesthood-between-circa-1-march-and-circa-4-may-1835-dc-107/3

[2] Luke 10:1, NRSV.

[3] Numbers 11:16-17, NRSV.

[4] “Instruction on Priesthood, between circa 1 March and circa 4 May 1835 [D&C 107],” p. 88, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 26, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/instruction-on-priesthood-between-circa-1-march-and-circa-4-may-1835-dc-107/7

[5] “Revelation, 19 January 1841 [D&C 124],” p. 12, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 26, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-19-january-1841-dc-124/10

[6] “Minutes and Blessings, 28 February–1 March 1835,” p. 164, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 27, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/minutes-and-blessings-28-february-1-march-1835/1

[7] “Journal, 1835–1836,” p. 91, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 27, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/journal-1835-1836/92

[8] B. H. Roberts, The Seventy’s Course in Theology, First Year (Salt Lake City, UT: The Deseret News, 1907), 8.

[9] “Instruction on Priesthood, between circa 1 March and circa 4 May 1835 [D&C 107],” p. 84, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 29, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/instruction-on-priesthood-between-circa-1-march-and-circa-4-may-1835-dc-107/3

[10] See Richard D. Ouellette, “Seventies Quorums 1835-1986,” Sunstone January 1987, 35-37.

[11] Messages of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1833-1964, ed. James R. Clark (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965), 2:348.  See also https://prophetsseersandrevelators.wordpress.com/2021/10/18/john-taylor-revelation-october-13-1882/.

[12] “To the Seventies,” https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=_XRNAAAAYAAJ&pg=GBS.PA1&hl=en

[13] Ouellette, “Seventies Quorums,” 35.

[14] Ouellette, “Seventies Quorums,” 35.

[15] See James W. Baumgarten, “The Role and Function of the Seventies in L.D.S. Church History,” BYU Thesis, 1960.

[16] See, for example, http://www.lds.org/prophets-and-apostles/the-unfolding-role-of-the-seventy-time-line?lang=eng

3 comments for ““Instituted for travelling Elders”

  1. Brilliant historical insight. Thank you!
    My experience of current Area 70’s (speaking generally) is the work needs them, but it is a layer of middle management that throws rose petals before visiting apostles. They typically sound the same, are brought into stake conferences on a transactional basis with no consistency and talk for longer than is interesting or required! The role needs revising.
    I could go on…

  2. There is a notion that today’s Seventies is instituted for retired LDS millionaires who desire to serve and travel.

    We would have a more fruitful function from the office of Seventies, if they were more representative of our congregations: if Bishops and Stake Presidencies nominated Seventies, the “travelling office” would be in better touch with the people.

    There is too much Utah in the institution and too many wealthy men running it. The measure of the service of our club of retired millionaires depends on whether they are more devoted to the growth of the institution, or to the health of the congregation.

  3. I like hearing different 70s speak. It seems like a good developmental pool to pull higher leadership from in the future. I disagree that they are millionaires who want to travel. While many are successful, I don’t envy the assignments and can think of a lot of better types of retirement travel. I think at least racially the 70s kind of match what the current church membership looks like with a little lag. Would love to have more female GA types to speak and provide oversight in a workable way in this system.

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