With the recent changes announced by President Russell M. Nelson regarding the witnessing of ordinances, it is a good time to review some important items of doctrine.
The importance of witnesses is well documented throughout scripture (Matt 18:16, 2 Cor 13:1, D&C 6:28, etc). Witnesses in regards to ordinances, however, is taught in the Doctrine and Covenants.
Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you concerning your dead: When any of you are baptized for your dead, let there be a recorder, and let him be eye-witness of your baptisms; let him hear with his ears, that he may testify of a truth, saith the Lord;
That in all your recordings it may be recorded in heaven; whatsoever you bind on earth, may be bound in heaven; whatsoever you loose on earth, may be loosed in heaven; – D&C 127:6-7
While having witnesses when ordinances are performed is essential, there is another element of Priesthood ordinances that is even more crucial than witnesses: the authority to perform those ordinances.
There is no doubt that Latter-day Saints know authority is necessary to administer ordinances. The ability to trace Priesthood authority is one of the main things that separates Mormonism from all other Christian denominations. Church leaders have even taught the significance of this.
One of the most significant things about your priesthood is that by tracing the line of your authority through the one who ordained you back through the various steps, your priesthood authority can be traced back to the Savior himself. – Harold B. Lee, Stand Ye In Holy Places, p.252
This is important because someone who does not have the Priesthood cannot perform ordinances, neither can they confer that authority upon others. Brigham Young taught:
No being can give that which he does not possess: consequently, no man can confer the Priesthood on another, if he has not himself first received it. – DHC 4:257
This is another self evident truth that Latter-day Saints clearly understand. But what happens when someone without authority claims to have it and, consequently, confers it upon others?
When a man lays his hands upon the head of his fellow man and professes to bestow authority, the mere profession of that authority will avail nothing unless he has indeed the authority and has it legitimately. A man who may profess to have the authority; a man who may say I have ordained this person or the other person, unless he has the authority to do so is a mere pretender, and his acts cannot be recognized nor acknowledged of God. – George Q. Cannon, Journal of Discourses 26:247
This may be preaching to the choir because Latter-day Saints already know this. However, what Latter-day Saints don’t know is that it has been prophesied that the time would come when those who thought they had the Priesthood will have their authority called into question.
There would be thousands that think they hold the Priesthood at that time, but would not have it properly conferred upon them. – John Taylor, as recounted by Lorin C. Woolley, 9/22/1929
The day will come when men’s Priesthood and authority will be called into question, and you will find out that there will be hundreds who have no Priesthood… – George Q. Cannon, 1901, Draper, Utah, as recalled by Daniel R. Bateman, Ballard-Jensen correspondence
These prophecies started to be fulfilled in 1921 when the First Presidency decided to stop conferring the Priesthood upon members of the church.
We have been conferring the priesthood, and it ought not to be done. – Messages of the First Presidency 5:120
The First Presidency did not start conferring the Priesthood upon members of the church again until 1957. This means that 36 years went by when worthy male members of the church did not have the Priesthood authority conferred upon them. However, this did not stop men from performing ordinances with what they thought was Priesthood authority, nor did it stop them from conferring the Priesthood upon others. According to President George Q. Cannon, they are “mere pretender[s], and [their] acts cannot be recognized nor acknowledged of God.”
What does this mean? This means that anybody that thought they had the Priesthood conferred upon them between 1921-1957 actually did not. More importantly, this means that millions of male members of the church have not had the Priesthood conferred upon them and that ordinances performed by these men are not valid. With this understanding of history, one begins to realize the grave importance of being able to trace one’s Priesthood authority back through the proper channels.
I believe the time will come when it will be necessary for every man to trace the line in which he has received the Priesthood that he exercises. It is therefore of great importance in our Church that records should be kept, and that every man should know whence he derives his authority—from what source, through what channel he has received the Holy Priesthood, and by what right he exercises that authority and administers the ordinances thereof. I believe this is of extreme importance, and that where there are doubts as to a man’s legitimately exercising that authority, that doubt should be removed. Every man should be careful on this point, to know where he gets his Priesthood; that it has come to him clean and undefiled, legitimately; – George Q. Cannon, Journal of Discourses 26:247
Although witnesses are crucial to ordinances, the proper Priesthood authority is of an even greater magnitude.