|John the Baptist gives the Aaronic Priesthood to Joseph Smith.|
After a Young Women lesson on the Priesthood, a newer member of the Church asked a question that I couldn't answer, so I looked up the answer and sent her an email. Since an understanding of this change could be helpful in understanding our family history, here's a summary of what I found, and I attempted to keep the description fairly simple.
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I appealed to a historian friend, and he provided a link to an article in the Journal of Mormon History by William Hartley called "From Men to Boys: LDS Aaronic Priesthood Offices, 1829-1996." Hartley did the research for the article under the direction of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
One of the central principles of the Church is the belief in continuing revelation. The priesthood was restored to Joseph Smith. He received revelations, such as Doctrine and Covenants 20, setting up the basic structure of the Church. Subsequent church leaders have received additional revelations adjusting the practices for the needs of the time.
As Hartley notes in his article, the change from adults serving as deacons, teachers, and priests to boys preforming the duties of those offices was due to a number of factors.
First, it was caused by changes in missionary work and temple worship. Missionaries had to be elders (Melchizedek Priesthood) to go through the temple, so after their missions they would not be available to be ordained to the duties of the Aaronic Priesthood. This happened around the time the first temple was built in Utah Territory (1877).
Next, service in the Aaronic Priesthood was seen as a way to prepare boys for their missions.
Third, it became way to train the young men to be lay ministers (elders, high priests, bishops) in their adulthood. By the 1870s, boys as young as ten were ordained as deacons to take care of some of the basic needs of the wards, preparing the buildings for services, delivering food and firewood to the poor, etc.
During the Progressive Era (decades surrounding 1910) with its focus on the needs of children (child labor laws, the building of playgrounds, etc.) the structure was put in place that we would generally recognize as current practice with boys being ordained as deacons, teachers, and priests, and being given certain responsibilities. But despite the 100-year-old practice, we are used to having grown men serving in the duties of the Aaronic Priesthood, especially in smaller wards or student wards.
Since the needs of our young people continue to change, the program will undoubtedly continue to change under the direction of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. We saw this last year as the age for missionary service changed.
As Hartley notes in closing:
Because General Authorities have restructured Aaronic Priesthood work every twenty to thirty years (1849, 1877, 1908, 1928, and the 1960s) to meet changing realities and as inspiration dictates, we can expect further adjustments. International growth, new social demands, and new generations of young people no doubt will cause additional pragmatic reshapings of priesthood practices to better bless both the Church and those ordained to Aaronic Priesthood offices.