For 47 years after the official organization of the Church, youth were not given the Aaronic Priesthood. It wasn't until Brigham Young's last year (he died August 1877) when the recommendation was given from Church authorities that the Aaronic Priesthood should be given to young men. In 1908, President Joseph F. Smith had a Priesthood Committee formed (Rudger Clawson and David O. McKay were members of it) and the first official ages were set for advancement through the priesthood offices. In 1951, David O. McKay became Church President, and three years later the priesthood advancement ages were changed to what they are currently.
None of the age demarcations listed above in the table are found in the scriptures.
|Orson Pratt (c. 1870)|
Here are a couple of quotes from Orson Pratt (last surviving member from the original Quorum of the Twelve) summing up the position of the Church and his understanding with respect to necessary organizational changes (I like his 'crazy hair' - it makes me laugh when I see his pictures; so, since I'm quoting him, I figured having his picture here was a good thing as well):
Quote 1: To say that there will be a stated time, in the history of this Church, during its imperfections and weaknesses, when the organization will be perfect, and that there will be no further extension or addition to the organization, would be a mistake. Organization is to go on, step after step, from one degree to another, just as the people increase and grow in the knowledge of the principles and laws of the Kingdom of God, and as their borders shall extend. [Deseret News Weekly, July 18, 1877]
Quote 2: The Lord is about to 'right up' the people; and he has inspired him who presides over us, to organize us more fully. [Journal of Discourses, Vol 19, pp. 12-13; May 20, 1877]
1830 - 1877:
When the Church was first organized, the priesthood had no age recommendations for its offices. Worthy men were simply chosen by the Prophet to fill necessary priesthood roles. There is no directive in the Doctrine and Covenants (essentially the Church's constitution or original law), and as such older (read: experienced) men filled the positions and offices in both priesthoods. As an example on the Aaronic Priesthood side, the first Deacons of the Church were Titus Billings, Serenes Burnett, and John Burk - ordained some time before October 15, 1831 - all considered to be men, not youth. Additionally, at the Church's first conference (June 9, 1830), three priests were present: Joseph Smith, Sr., 59; Hyrum Smith, 30; and Martin Harris, 47. Finally, the average age of those in the Nauvoo priests quorum ... 29. The point here is that it was commonplace for older men to fill Aaronic Priesthood roles in the Church.
By 1877, there were over 100,000 Saints; a dramatic rise from the nearly 12,000 in 1852 that inhabited the Territory of Utah. Put simply, the organizational structure of the Church had to be modified to address the growth. It reminds me a little of the story of Moses and Jethro [Exodus 18:13-26], where the organization of judges was established to lighten the load of Moses.
William G. Hartley states the following in his The Priesthood Reorganization of 1877 document:
"President Brigham Young labored restlessly in his last five months of life to reorganize the Church's government structures. His priesthood reorganization of 1877, thorough and massive, involved every stake, 241 wards, hundreds of quorums, and more than a thousand leadership positions. But this final achievement is underrated or ignored by historians, unknown to Church members, and so far is a missing entry on his leadership balance sheet."
Brigham knew the Prophet Joseph Smith very well, and with that knowledge, he took it upon himself to reorganize the priesthood and bring it back into line with what Joseph had originally intended. The reoganization took place in two large phases. Phase I was initiated and essentially completed by Brigham Young in 1877. This involved reoganization at the stake level (stake presidents, councilors, high councils, etc.). Phase II was reorganization at the ward and priesthood quorum levels (bishops, councilors, etc.).
1877 - 1908:
Near the end of the first phase of reorganization, the First Presidency of the Church released a "circular" outlining its goals for the priesthood reorganization. Here are a few pieces of that document:
"When priests and teachers visit the Saints, according to the instructions in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, the experienced priest or teacher should have as a companion a young man, so that the latter may have the opportunity of learning the duties of his calling, and becoming thoroughly wise and efficient in the discharge thereof."
"... it has been a difficult thing to keep young men in the Elders quorum or in any of the quorums of the lesser priesthood; and when deacons, teachers and priests have been wanted it has generally been the case that seventies and high priests have had to be taken to act in those offices. It would be excellent training for the young men if they had the opportunity of acting in the offices of the lesser priesthood. They would thereby obtain very valuable experience, and when they obtain the Melchisedec priesthood they would be likely to place a higher value upon it."
[Messages of the First Presidency, James R. Clark, Volume II, Circular of the First Presidency: July 11, 1877]
Reactions to the directive of the First Presidency to allow young men to serve in the Aaronic Priesthood were very favorable:
"The 1877 changes revolutionized Aaronic Priesthood Work by stipulating that all youth receive some priesthood instead of just a few youth having that privilege. Youth were the solution to the long-standing dilemma of how to keep lesser priesthood quorums staffed when capable men were recruited away from them to the higher quorums. The new policy was for experienced teachers to take youth with them while ward teaching. The second phase created scores of new Aaronic Priesthood units, most filled with boys. Some boys became deacons at age eleven. Weber Stake ordained 'all the boys above fourteen years not already ordained.' Reactions to this new youth priesthood were strongly favorable. An October report from Ogden noted the 'great good that had already resulted from organizing the Lesser Priesthood, the young men responding to the call they received in such a manner as enkindled new life and spirit in the hearts of their parents and older members of the Church generally.' A Cache bishop said that 'a source of strength had been opened up through the organization of the Aaronic Priesthood, the young men acquitting themselves creditably.' The Salt Lake Stake presidency 'felt especially blessed in ordaining the young to positions in the Priesthood.'"
"The reorganization of 1877 was a final testament by Brigham Young, who sought all his life to follow accurately Joseph Smith's teachings as to how priesthood ought to function in the Church. 'The Church is more perfectly organized than ever before, perhaps with the exception of the general assembly at Kirtland, but in some things now we are more stable and complete than we were even then,' observed John Taylor that September. The semi-gothic Assembly Hall, built 1877-1880, still stands on Temple Square as an impressive granite-and-wood memorial of President Young's 1877 priesthood reorganization, his last major achievement as a prophet on earth." [Priesthood Reorganization of 1877, William G. Hartley, 1979]
1908 - 1954:
Brigham Young set the Church on its current path today with regards to priesthood organization; however, the job was far from over, and so President Joseph F. Smith organized the General Priesthood Committee on Outlines (working from 1908 to 1922) to systematize the quorums, lessons, meetings, etc., throughout the Church. Prior to the current practice of holding priesthood meetings every Sunday, priesthood quorum meetings were held on a Monday or Wednesday, and sometimes the lesson topics were chosen by individual quorum members.
"One lesser priesthood group, for example, divided its class time between religious lessons and such adventure books as Tom Sawyer, The Jungle Book, The Call of the Wild, Pigs is Pigs, and Frank Among the Rancheros. In another case a lesson was given on the life of United States President William McKinley--in a Canadian teachers' quorum. In December, 1908, a deacons' quorum in Ogden 'went downstairs and Brother [--] gave a lecture on Ben Hur.'" [Priesthood Reform Movement 1908-1922, by William G. Hartley]
Those types of lessons are a far cry from what are given today, to be sure. Timing of the meetings, lesson topics - all from a completely different era than I lived in. The above quote has even been used in a fairly recent General Conference of the Church (October 1998, Priesthood Session, Elder D. Todd Christofferson). The point is, the Priesthood Committee organized by President Smith had its work cut out for it.
Apparently the advancement of young men through the offices of the Aaronic Priesthood was not happening. Because not all wards had understood the intent of President Young's reorganization, the Committee decided to recommend outright how to advance young men through the priesthood offices.
"... unless there are special reasons to the contrary they should be advanced in the priesthood from deacon to teacher and from teacher to priest. There can be no set age when persons should be ordained to the various offices in the Aaronic Priesthood, but we suggest that as near as circumstances will permit boys be ordained as follows: Deacons at twelve, Teachers at fifteen and Priests at eighteen years of age." [Presiding Bishopric, Circular Letter File, 1 January 1909; Historical Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints]
1954 - Present Day:
From the Improvement Era, November 1954:
"IN A meeting of the First Presidency and the Presiding Bishopric, held August 31, 1954, it was approved that worthy young men be ordained teachers at the age of fourteen and priests at the age of sixteen.
"Worthy young men will continue to be ordained deacons at the age of twelve and recommended to be ordained elders at nineteen as in the past."
"Stake and ward leaders of Aaronic Priesthood under 21 are charged with full responsibility for effecting these changes, and completing their roll books accordingly, by January 1, 1955.
"These changes are of history-making calibre and we must not fail to comply with these recommendations immediately and without reservation."
With this announcement on the Presiding Bishopric's page, advancement ages were set - finally. I doubt they will ever change again.
I have left out a great deal of history and explanation. Rather than quoting the sources, in their entirety, I will list them here, so as to allow for easier future study of this topic. Here are two very good sources for further reading: