Since Adam Wade* traveled from Australia to Toronto earlier this year and presented me with his moving and earnest testimony of a call to join the Quorums of Seventy in Community of Christ, I’ve been studying and pondering and praying about the role. In this first post, I’m going to reflect on the origin and conception of the Seventies in the early Restoration movement.
The use of the word “Seventy” as a priesthood office is fairly unique in the Restoration tradition of Protestant Christianity. Early members of the movement were alarmed at the explosion of rival sects in the early 19th century and sought to “restore” the organization and practices of the original 1st century Christians. Lacking the results of some two centuries of study in the academic fields of history, literary criticism, and archaeology that we possess today, 19th century seekers had only a single, dusty lens through which to glimpse their vision: the New Testament texts as they were rendered in the King James Bible.
This source became the blueprint for Restored priesthood roles including deacon (1 Tim 3:8-13), teacher (1 Cor 12:28), priest (Rev 20:6), bishop (1 Tim 3:1-7), evangelist† (2 Tim 4:5), pastor (Eph 4:11), and prophet (1 Cor 14:29-32). In addition, a misreading of the theological proposition that Jesus Christ is the high priest of the new covenant (Heb 3:1) led to the ordination of “high priests” and the separation of the offices into two orders, Aaronic and Melchisedec (Heb 7:11).
The role of apostle — then as now — was frequently confused with a special group set apart as “the Twelve.” The Twelve in the new covenant of God’s Kingdom symbolically represented the Twelve Tribes of the new Israel (q.v. Mat 19:28). While it may be true that all of the Twelve were apostles, not all apostles in the New Testament were numbered among the Twelve. Paul is the most famous example of an apostle (Rom 1:1) who was never one of the Twelve, but others explicitly named as apostles include a male and female pair, Andronicus and Junia (Rom 16:7).
The idea of a special group known as “the Seventy” derives from this wider category of apostles in the New Testament period. The name itself comes from a story told only in Luke. In this text, having just sent out the Twelve on a preaching mission (Luke 9:1-6), Jesus sends out another group:
After these things the Lord appointed other seventy also, and sent them two and two before his face into every city and place, whither he himself would come. Therefore said he unto them, The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest. Go your ways: behold, I send you forth as lambs among wolves. Carry neither purse, nor scrip, nor shoes: and salute no man by the way. And into whatsoever house ye enter, first say, Peace be to this house. And if the son of peace be there, your peace shall rest upon it: if not, it shall turn to you again. And in the same house remain, eating and drinking such things as they give: for the labourer is worthy of his hire. Go not from house to house. And into whatsoever city ye enter, and they receive you, eat such things as are set before you: And heal the sick that are therein, and say unto them, “The kingdom of God is come nigh unto you.” (Luke 10:1-11, KJV)
The Seventy, then, were meant to be itinerant preachers who lived by begging and the hospitality of those they encountered who accepted their message. This passage in Luke inspired early members of the Restoration in 1835 to create a quorum of Seventies alongside a quorum of the Twelve. As we read in the contemporary Doctrine & Covenants Section 104:11b-e:
Of the Melchisedec priesthood, three presiding high priests, chosen by the body, appointed and ordained to that office, and upheld by the confidence, faith, and prayer of the church, form a quorum of the Presidency of the church. The twelve traveling councilors are called to be the Twelve Apostles, or special witnesses of the name of Christ, 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 and power to the three presidents previously mentioned. 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.
In the same document, we read that “The Seventy are to act in the name of the Lord, under the direction of the Twelve, or the traveling high council, in building up the church, and regulating all the affairs of the same, in all nations” (D&C 104:13a) and that “it is the duty of the traveling high council [i.e., the Twelve] to call upon the Seventy, when they need assistance, to fill the several calls for preaching and administering the gospel, instead of any others” (D&C 104:16). Finally, we read that “the order of the Seventy… should have Seven Presidents to preside over them, chosen out of the number of the Seventy, and seventh president of these presidents is to preside over the six” (D&C 104:43a).
From their starting point in the Restoration tradition, therefore, the Seventy have been linked with the Twelve in their calling of traveling and building up the church community by sharing the good news and inviting people to join the movement. Among the Seventies called in 1835 was my own great great great great grandfather Stephen Winchester, who had recently served as a captain in the Zion’s Camp expedition.‡
In my next post, I’ll look at the development of the role of the Seventies in the early Restoration and Reorganization, but reflections on their role today will probably have to wait for a third post.
*Adam Wade had been Community of Christ President of Seventy for the Quorum that included Canada. Since the fields were redrawn at the 2016 World Conference, Canada has been moved to John Glaser’s Quorum.
†This word was used interchangeably with the term patriarch.
‡The early Seventies were called from among those men who had served in Zion’s Camp, an abortive attempt to retake lost lands in Jackson County, Missouri, by force. See Joseph Young Sr., History of the Organization of the Seventies (Salt Lake City: 1878), p. 3, where Stephen Winchester is listed among the original members of the First Quorum of Seventy.