An LDS Lexicon: Bishop, Bishopric


(This entry contains some original observations about the word Bishopric that I have not encountered elsewhere, so please read beyond the first few paragraphs even if you are familiar with LDS Bishops and Bishoprics)

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a Bishop refers to the individual priesthood authority who directs the affairs of a single congregation.  In contrast, in the Catholic church a bishop oversees multiple congregations in a group called a diocese, similar to what latter-day saints call a Stake President.

A Bishop in the LDS Church is not paid for his service, but manages the affairs of his congregation in his spare time in addition to holding a normal full-time job to support himself and his own family.  Bishops are called from among the members of the congregation who hold the Melchizedek Priesthood to serve for a number of years, after which they are “released” to return to the congregation and replaced by another.  So in any congregation there is only one bishop, but there may be several former bishops among the congregation.

The word Bishop means literally “overseer” (see Etymology below).  The Bishop is both the presiding High Priest of the Melchizedek Priesthood and the President of the Priest’s Quorum of the Aaronic Priesthood for the congregation over which he has stewardship.

As President of the Priest’s Quorum, he directs the sacrament ceremony of the Lord’s Supper (see An LDS Lexicon:  Sacrament) each Sunday, and handles the temporal affairs of the ward including overseeing the collection of tithes and other donations made by the members of the congregation.  He also oversees the distribution of aide to the poor within the geographical limits of his congregation.

As the presiding High Priest, he also works together with the President of the Stake, which is comprised of multiple congregations, as a gatekeeper to the additional ordinances performed in the Temple, which differ from normal Sunday services in that they are restricted to only those who are living according to certain commandments and statutes of the Church (see An Lds Lexicon: Endue, Endow, Endowment).  The bishop conducts standardized interviews to judge the worthiness of those members who wish to participate in the temple ceremonies and issues a printed recommend with his own signature that, after an additional interview with the presidency of the stake, will permit the member to enter into the temple. ( Sunday services in the chapels of meetinghouses are open to the public.)

The Bishop is assisted in his duties by two counselors.  Latter-day Saints refer to the Bishop and his Counselors collectively as “the Bishopric.”  Most members of the church are unaware that using “bishopric” in this way is relatively meaningless outside of LDS culture. As far as I can tell, this meaning may be unique to the latter-day saints (please let me know if you have any examples outside of Mormonism).

The church also has a “Presiding Bishopric” which oversees the temporal affairs of the church worldwide including tithing and humanitarian aide.

Looking at etymological roots, the “-ric” suffix in “bishopric” means “realm” and is strongly related to the German concept of a “reich.” (See Etymology below) It is also more distantly related to the words “ruling,” “regulating,” and “reigning.” So “bishopric” literally means “the realm over which a bishop rules” and, in standard usage, bishopric is simply a synonym for diocese. In a more generic sense a bishopric is a bishop’s stewardship, which includes his responsibilities and authority, in addition to the physical realm over which that authority extends.

The word “bishop” occurs very infrequently in the King James version of the Bible, and only in the New Testament.  “Bishopric” occurs only once, spelled “bishoprick.”  Interestingly, it appears in a verse that itself quotes the Old Testament book of Psalms, which does not use the word “bishoprick” at all, but uses “office” instead (see Acts 1:20 citing Psalms 109: 8).  So this single biblical instance employs the more standard usage, with “bishopric” meaning “the stewardship of an overseer” and not “a priesthood presidency composed of a bishop and his counselors.”

It is instructive also to look at the usage of “bishopric” in the book of Doctrine and Covenants, where it us used seven times.  The first instance of “bishopric” in modern revelation is in Section 68, verses 16-18:

And if they be literal descendants of Aaron they have a legal right to the bishopric, if they are the firstborn among the sons of Aaron; For the firstborn holds the right of the presidency over this priesthood, and the keys or authority of the same.  No man has a legal right to this office, to hold the keys of this priesthood, except he be a literal descendant and the firstborn of Aaron.

This first usage matches the use in the Acts 1.  The bishopric here refers to the office of a bishop, the stewardship over which a bishop has authority.

Bishopric makes its next appearance in Section 82, verses 11-13:

Therefore, verily I say unto you, that it is expedient for my servants Edward Partridge and Newel K. Whitney, A. Sidney Gilbert and Sidney Rigdon, and my servant Joseph Smith, and John Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery, and W. W. Phelps and Martin Harris to be bound together by a bond and covenant that cannot be broken by transgression, except judgment shall immediately follow, in your several stewardships—To manage the affairs of the poor, and all things pertaining to the bishopric both in the land of Zion and in the land of Kirtland; For I have consecrated the land of Kirtland in mine own due time for the benefit of the saints of the Most High, and for a stake to Zion.  For Zion must increase in beauty, and in holiness; her borders must be enlarged; her stakes must be strengthened; yea, verily I say unto you, Zion must arise and put on her beautiful garments.

“Bishopric” here seems to refer to the physical realms over which they have been given stewardship (Missouri and Kirtland), and then, alluding to Isaiah  54,  Kirtland is specifically named a Stake to Zion.  This creates the most direct connection between a bishopric and a Stake in the scriptures, and matches not only the literal meaning of the word, but also the Catholic use of Bishopric as a synonym for Diocese.

We find the next instance of “bishopric” in the book of Doctrine and Covenants in Section 107, verses 13-18:

The second priesthood is called the Priesthood of Aaron, because it was conferred upon Aaron and his seed, throughout all their generations. Why it is called the lesser priesthood is because it is an appendage to the greater, or the Melchizedek Priesthood, and has power in administering outward ordinances. The bishopric is the presidency of this priesthood, and holds the keys or authority of the same. No man has a legal right to this office, to hold the keys of this priesthood, except he be a literal descendant of Aaron.  But as a high priest of the Melchizedek Priesthood has authority to officiate in all the lesser offices, he may officiate in the office of bishop when no literal descendant of Aaron can be found, provided he is called and set apart and ordained unto this power by the hands of the Presidency of the Melchizedek Priesthood. The power and authority of the higher, or Melchizedek Priesthood, is to hold the keys of all the spiritual blessings of the church

This, I believe, may be the source of our modern LDS usage of “bishopric” as a collective name for the bishop and his two counselors.  Verse 15 says that “The bishopric is the presidency of this priesthood.”  It is easy to see how a reader could take that to mean that the presidency of the Aaronic priesthood, comprised of the bishop and counselors, is called “the bishopric.”  However, I believe that this is a misreading.  Taken in context, and consistent with the use of bishopric in previous sections, I submit that verse 15 is actually saying that the presidency of the priesthood of outer ordinances is the “realm of authority” that belongs to Aaron’s seed, contrasted to the stewardship over spiritual blessings belonging to the higher priesthood.

Looking at the final three occurrences of the word in modern scripture, one in section 114 verse 2, and the final three in section 124, verses 21 and 141, we see that the continued use of “bishopric” agrees with the dictionary and etymological meaning of the word.

For verily thus saith the Lord, that inasmuch as there are those among you who deny my name, others shall be planted in their stead and receive their bishopric. Amen.

I therefore say unto you, I seal upon his head the office of a bishopric, like unto my servant Edward Partridge, that he may receive the consecrations of mine house, that he may administer blessings upon the heads of the poor of my people, saith the Lord. Let no man despise my servant George, for he shall honor me.

And again, I say unto you, I give unto you Vinson Knight, Samuel H. Smith, and Shadrach Roundy, if he will receive it, to preside over the bishopric; a knowledge of said bishopric is given unto you in the book of Doctrine and Covenants.

I think that reading these final instances interchangeably with “bishop’s stewardship,” and “the realm over which a bishop has authority” makes a great deal more sense than the modern LDS meaning.

Recognizing that the book of Doctrine and Covenants uses the word “bishopric” with its original meaning, different from the modern, idiosyncratic use by latter-day saints, improves our ability to understand the scriptures.

Translated in KJV from Old Testament Hebrew Words

The words “bishop” and “bishopric” do not occur in the King James version of the Old Testament

Translated in KJV from New Testament Greek Words

επισκοπον (ep-is’-kop-os) “an overseer, curator, guardian, or superintendent”
Total occurrences: 7 in 7 verses
Translated as: bishop(6), overseer(1)

επισκοπην (ep-is-kop-ay’) 1. “investigation, inspection, visitation; oversight” 2. “overseership, office, charge, the overseer or presiding officers”
Total occurrences: 4 in 4 verses
Translated as: visitation (2), bishoprick (1), office of a bishop

Usage in Latter-day Scripture

The words “bishop” and “bishopric” do not occur in the Book of Mormon or the Pearl of Great Price.

The word “bishop” occurs in the book of Doctrine and Covenants 70 times and the word “bishopric” occurs 7 times.

Etymology & Etymologically Related Words

“To observe”
(Indo-European root)
“one who watches”
“overseer, bishop”
“overseer, bishop”
(Vulgar Latin)
(Old English)
scope, -scope, -scopy; horoscope, telescope
“To examine, consider”
“to look at”
espy, spy, espionage, specimen, spectacle, spectrum, speculate, speculum; aspect, circumspect, conspicuous, despise, expect, frontispiece, inspect, introspect, perspective, perspicacious, prospect, respect, respite, retrospect, spiegeleisen, suspect, transpicuous
“a seeing, sight, form”
species, specious, spice; especial
“To look down on, despise”
despicable, despise
“To move in a straight line”
(Indo-European Root)
(Old English)
“the diocese of a bishop”
(Old English)
1. “The office or rank of a bishop.”
2. “The diocese of a bishop”
(Old High German)
reich, reichsmark
“strong, powerful”
(Old English)
(Old French)
“king, royal and priestly title”
regal, regulus, reign, royal; regicide, regius professor, vicereine, viceroy
“he rules”
raj, rajah, rani, rye; maharajah, maharani
“straight piece of wood, rod”
rail, reglet, regular, regulate, rule
“right, just, correct, straight”
(Old English)
“to lead straight, guide, rule”
realm, rectitude, recto, rector, rectum, rectus, regent, regime, regimen, regiment, region; address, adroit, alert, correct, direct, erect, incorrigible, porrect, rectangle, rectify, rectilinear, resurge, Risorgimento, sord, source, surge
raca, racu
“rake (implement with straight pieces of wood)”
(Old English)
(Middle Dutch)
“straight, strong, hence haughty, overbearing”
(Od English)
“to arrange in order, recount”
(Old English)
“to ask”
rogation, rogatory; abrogate, arrogate, corvée, derogate, interrogate, prerogative, prorogue, subrogate, supererogate
“to pay attention to; care; to extend, stretch out”
(Old English)
reck, reckless
“to stretch out, reach out for”
anorectic, anorexia

Additional Resources

Bishop in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism Online

NOTE: This is an entry in an ongoing, periodic series I call “An LDS Lexicon.” Each entry in my LDS Lexicon series contains etymology, etymologically related words, some information about the Hebrew and Greek terms from which the word is translated in the Bible (if applicable), and some personal insights about the word.

The views expressed here and in other entries in this series are my own and should not be construed to represent the official doctrine of the LDS Church. They are subject to change and amendment.

You may view all entries in this series: An LDS Lexicon

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