Priestcraft is a term used in the Book of Mormon to describe a bad thing, a thing that Churches and preachers should avoid, but what is it exactly?

I was recently in an online group of Church members where someone shared a letter from their Stake President outlawing informal discussion groups unless those groups were sanctioned by the Stake, and the letter called these groups “priestcraft.” I found that specific use of the term rather surprising, although I guess it’s possible these study groups were hiring speakers to come in (which seems unlikely, but Mormons are weird so IDK–that’s kind of how Snuffer and Rowe started out with books and lectures). The particular Stake letter seemed to be calling anything that they (Stake leadership) weren’t overseeing “priestcraft,” meaning the core problem was not professional preaching for gain and praise, but leader message control and correlation. My initial reaction was: “That’s not priestcraft.”

These are scriptures that relate to priestcraft according to the Church’s website:

  • Men preaching and setting themselves up for a light to the world that they may get gain and praise of the world; they do not seek the welfare of Zion (2 Ne. 26:29).
  • Churches which are built up to get gain must be brought low, 1 Ne. 22:23 (Morm. 8:32–41).
  • Because of priestcrafts and iniquities, Jesus will be crucified, 2 Ne. 10:5.
  • Were priestcraft to be enforced among this people it would prove their entire destruction, Alma 1:12.
  • The Gentiles shall be filled with all manner of priestcrafts, 3 Ne. 16:10.

Although this is mostly a Book of Mormon term, the Bible says:

  • Feed the flock of God, not for filthy lucre, 1 Pet. 5:2.

This seems to be an admonishment to both preachers and churches, to do good works and help others without using that work to enrich oneself or one’s church. The verse is more about motives than practical questions, though. What if you break even rather than making a profit? Is that OK? What if you accidentally make a profit, like oh, say, $100B, but it wasn’t intentional and you still live modestly? Is that OK?

I’ve always thought of priestcraft in contrast to this scripture:

  • Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Isaiah 55:1 [1]

This suggests that the gospel and participating in salvation should be free, not for sale, and everyone should be welcome without any financial bar to entry.[2] As we see in both the Book of Mormon and the New Testament, poverty often leads to humility which leads to being willing to join religious movements (as does being in jail, go figure). Financial wealth leads to independence and pride which makes one less likely to be interested in the gospel.

The other anti-Priestcraft scripture that comes to mind is this one that Mormons like to trot out about missionary work:

  • And he said unto them, When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, lacked ye any thing? And they said, Nothing. Luke 22: 35.

This one is valuable, as it requires total reliance on grace and faith with literally no safety net, financial or even bipedal [3]. It’s a big ask. While we like to preach this idea, we still require missionaries to pay rent, wear shoes, shower and groom, and buy groceries. Relying on local members for meals is one way to make missionaries less financially independent and require them to operate more on faith, I suppose, or at least on the kindness of semi-strangers, as it were. Making them find their meals without relying on members would be an even bigger leap of faith! But it could also lead to some outlandish vulnerable situations and bad PR. Nobody wants to join a church of beggars, despite all the New Testament austerity talk.

I blogged about this concept a few years ago when Snuffer’s movement was just taking off, and my angle was to discuss the issues with monetizing content. I have steadfastly resisted the idea of monetizing content, but I’m probably a little over the top about it. For example, while I would probably resist all of these, I do see a distinction between:

  • Allowing advertising on your blog. (This is mostly an irritation, but we don’t send missionaries out in NASCAR jackets, although it might help fund their missions.)
  • Requiring a subscription to your blog. (How much does it make? In excess of your annual fees? Do writers get paid? What about administrators?)
  • Selling blog-themed merch like mugs or tee shirts that are for profit. (When I wrote the blog post, it was before BCC Press).

If the Church were to go these routes, we could literally have product placements in General Conference. I can just imagine a talk starting with “I was sitting with my family, enjoying a hearty mug of Postum . . .” and the Postum sales SKYROCKET! We actually came really close to that when Elder Durrant coined the term “Ponderize” in his controversial General Conference talk which was immediately followed by a website launch hawking “Ponderize” merchandise.[4] That was an unsavory moment for Mormonism. While much has been said about tithing being a type of subscription to gain access to the temple (which is a legit complaint), if monetization were the focus, it would be easy enough to monetize things like access to Church manuals, LDS Tools, or the Church’s website. Of course, if you had to pay to get into LDS Tools, you’d feel entitled to use that data for a lof of things we aren’t supposed to, such as trying to sell things to other Church members.

So, again, we come back to the question of just what Priestcraft is. Growing up, the definition I would have given would be something like this:

  • Using the gospel to make money, including to make one’s living (e.g. paid clergy, but also televangelism and also selling books about the gospel). I might have been OK so long as the preaching / writing / selling was not the primary source of income, but deep down, I would have felt that it was a rationalization. This is basically a condemnation of any religions with paid clergy, even if paid clergy are making a pittance. Within the Church, it might also condemn GA stipends, mission president homes, and for sure any parents who buy their kid a car for serving a mission.

Growing up, I was not aware of the existence of things like Time Out for Women or Especially For Youth, programs that cost money to attend, where speakers are presumably paid. I had already objected to the idea that Lynn Bryson was allowed to hawk his terrible CDs at our break-even cost Youth Conference after maligning our far better Queen, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC music as if it was going to suddenly turn us into Satan-worshiping pot fiends. According to my personal Priestcraft spidey-senses, these conferences would have qualified as verboten.

As I pointed out in my earlier post, though, there’s a difference between symbiotic and parasitic actors, at least in the Church’s mind. The Church in general doesn’t go after symbiotic grifters (my language, obviously, not theirs), just the ones whose messages are challenging to Church authority (parasites), however that may be defined at a given moment. For example, if you write a book, its content can be evaluated by the Church as far enough off the reservation to consitute “priestcraft” (e.g. Snuffer’s work, and George Pace accidentally came close without realizing it and backed off as soon as he was admonished, ironically, by McConkie whose own book Mormon Doctrine caused a similar behind-the-scenes kerfuffle. Hello, pot. Kettle here.)

Parasites feed off the body while damaging it or using it up. They harm the body. They thrive as it dies. Symbionts (and I’m mostly relying on my knowledge of the Trill species from Star Trek here) have a give and take relationship. Both the host and the symbiont thrive together, becoming stronger, each bringing something new to the body. In the case of the Trill species, the humanoid hosts are basically himbos and bimbos, attractive bipedal folks who are more or less dumb as rocks (going back to the original introduction of the species, mind you–later they got smarter). The symbionts are wise, ancient slugs bringing a bunch of brain cells to the table for a chance to live out yet another bipedal existence. Without hosts, the symbionts are just slimy invertibrates; they are smart and have a lot of life experience, but they are lousy at pickleball and square dancing.

The problem I see with this pass being given to symbiotic actors is that you can make a bunch of money off of Mormons by simply implying you are on message. As we’ve seen, you can make a bunch of money off ex-Mormons in similar ways, by telling them what they already believe. The other problem I see is that admonishing someone for heresy is not really the same thing as priestcraft. Heresy is the off-message issue. Priestcraft is the “show me the money” issue. Since we traditionally associate priestcraft with paid clergy, giving symbiotic actors a pass is kind of hypocritical.


[1] Which begs the question, who you calling ho? Why you gotta be so salty, Isaiah?

[2] Erm, TR questions about tithing be damned?

[3] Good luck shaking the dust off your shoes if you have no shoes.

[4] Quit trying to make Ponderize happen.

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