There are many different ways in which the words “key” or “keys” are used in scripture. It is an interesting topic to research. President John Taylor was so interested in the word that he did a study he titled, “The Book of Keys” wherein he attempted to reconstruct the topic in whole. So far as I have been able to learn, that book no longer exists.
In Temple Recommend interviews you are asked to acknowledge the current church president “holds all the keys” and “is the only person authorized to exercise them” on the earth today. This is a question we all answer. But in discussions with bishops, stake presidents, religion professors, friends and mission presidents, I’ve never been able to determine, nor has anyone been able to explain what is included. Below is the answer given in The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, (entry written by Alan Perish):
The keys of the priesthood refer to the right to exercise power in the name of Jesus Christ or to preside over a priesthood function, quorum, or organizational division of the Church. Keys are necessary to maintain order and to see that the functions of the Church are performed in the proper time, place, and manner. They are given by the laying on of hands in an ordination or setting apart by a person who presides and who holds the appropriate keys at a higher level. Many keys were restored to men on earth by heavenly messengers to the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.
The keys of the kingdom of God on earth are held by the apostles. The president of the church, who is the senior apostle, holds all the keys presently on earth and presides over all the organizational and ordinance work of the Church (D&C 107:8-9, 91-92
). He delegates authority by giving the keys of specific offices to others (D&C 124:123
). Only presiding priesthood officers (including General Authorities, stake presidents, mission presidents, temple presidents, bishops, branch presidents, and quorum presidents) hold keys pertaining to their respective offices. Latter-day Saints distinguish between holding the priesthood and holding keys to direct the work of the priesthood: one does not receive additional priesthood when one is given keys (Joseph F. Smith, IE
4 [Jan. 1901]:230).
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “the fundamental principles, government, and doctrine of the Church are vested in the keys of the kingdom” (TPJS
, p. 21). “The keys have to be brought from heaven whenever the Gospel is sent”; they are revealed to man under the authority of Adam, for he was the first to be given them when he was given dominion over all things. They have come down through the dispensations of the gospel to prophets, including Noah, Abraham, Moses, Elijah; to Peter, James, and John; and to Joseph Smith and the designated prophets of the latter days (HC
3:385-87). Keys to perform or preside over various priesthood functions were bestowed upon Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery by John the Baptist (see Aaronic Priesthood: Restoration
), by Peter, James, and John (see Melchizedek Priesthood: Restoration of Melchizedek Priesthood
), and by Moses, Elias, and Elijah in the Kirtland Temple (see Doctrine and Covenants: Sections 109-110
Many types of keys are mentioned in the scriptures of the Church (see MD
, pp. 409-13). Jesus Christ holds all the keys. Joseph Smith received the keys pertaining to the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ (D&C 6:25-28
), and through him the First Presidency holds the “keys of the kingdom,” including the sealing ordinances (D&C 81:1-2
). Specific mention of certain keys and those who hold them include the following: The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles exercises the keys “to open the door by the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ” in all the world (D&C 107:35
). Adam holds “the keys of salvation under the counsel and direction of the Holy One,” and “the keys of the universe” (D&C 78:16
, p. 157); Moses, “the keys of the gathering of Israel” (D&C 110:11
); Elias, the keys to bring to pass “the restoration of all things” (D&C 27:6
); and Elijah, “the keys of the power of turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers” (D&C 27:9
). Holders of the Melchizedek Priesthood are said to have “the keys of the Church,” “the key of knowledge,” and “the keys of all the spiritual blessings of the church” (D&C 42:69
), while belonging to the Aaronic Priesthood are “the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins” (D&C 13:1
). All these stewardships will eventually be delivered back into the hands of Jesus Christ (TPJS
, p. 157).
As far as it goes, I think this is a good attempt. But when church members are asked if the church president holds “all the keys” I cannot be certain the above definition is what is meant. Here is the clearest way I think it is illustrated:
From the smallest branch to the largest ward, through all the areas, missions, stakes, wards and branches of the church, there is not a single place in the church where President Thomas Monson would not be recognized as the presiding authority in any meeting he attended. He could go anywhere, in any location, in any meeting, and he alone would be the final authority. While a bishop presides and has the keys over his ward, and in that ward can call or release anyone to any position, President Monson would preside over that bishop if he were to attend the ward. No one would doubt or question whether President Monson could release and call a replacement bishop in that, or any, ward. The same is true of any stake president, or any mission president or any area authority, or any general authority. There is simply no one other than President Monson alone who holds the keys to put the church in order. Period.
I think this is the best definition of “all the keys.”