Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women: What’s in the new essay?

Emma!The 12th essay in the Gospel Topics series was released yesterday by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Titled Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women, the essay describes Smith’s expansive views of female participation within the priesthood, as well as very recent teachings by Mormon leaders who have sought to clarify the role of women in the priesthood since Ordain Women launched in 2013.

Instead of teaching that priesthood is inherently male, the essay authors emphasize that both “Latter-day Saint women and men go forward with priesthood power and authority.” Although Mormon women are not ordained to offices of the priesthood, the authors point out that Mormon women perform “service and leadership [that] would require ordination in many other religious traditions” such as giving sermons, proselytizing, and officiating in temple ordinances. It is refreshing to see another official church resource explicitly state that “women exercise priesthood authority even though they are not ordained to priesthood office.”

The authors call out two common areas of confusion about the priesthood:

  1. “The priesthood authority exercised by Latter-day Saint women in the temple and elsewhere remains largely unrecognized by people outside the Church and is sometimes misunderstood or overlooked by those within.”

    Ignorance about how women exercise the priesthood within temple walls is unsurprising, given that taboos and policies restrict dialogue about temple ceremonies. (Handbook 2 17.1.6) More transparency could lead to better understanding. The rhetoric surrounding how women exercise the priesthood elsewhere has been more open but inconsistent. (See some examples here.) It appears that church leaders are still grappling with questions about how women exercise the priesthood, given women’s obvious handicap: the lack of the opportunities of priesthood office.

  2. “Latter-day Saints and others often mistakenly equate priesthood with religious office and the men who hold it, which obscures the broader Latter-day Saint concept of priesthood.”

    Some church leaders have been working to rebut the common view that priesthood is equivalent to maleness in recent talks. (See some examples here and here.)

It is important to note what is not in the essay. The authors do not attempt to create a parallel between priesthood for men and motherhood for women. The idea that motherhood complements but also precludes priesthood was popularized by a book published in 1954, around the same time that secular American culture was promoting motherhood as an all-encompassing activity that precluded other life pursuits. (Widtsoe, J.A. The Priesthood and Church Government. Deseret Book: 1954 Edition.) Nor do the authors invoke the common but woefully inappropriate platitude that women and men are separate but equal in the church. “Separate but equal” was a slogan and legal term invoked to justify American racism until 1954, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that separate is “inherently unequal.” Reference A

The authors acknowledge that the breadth of opportunity for Mormon women to exercise priesthood authority has fluctuated historically as male priesthood leaders with priesthood keys have made decisions either restricting or expanding women’s roles.

The third essay in this series, Race and the Priesthood, broke ground by creating an official church resource acknowledging that historical racism within the greater society affected the way priesthood was understood and taught within the LDS Church. Similarly, this essay places the restoration of the priesthood within the context of history, pointing out that the priesthood was restored during a time when sexism was the norm.

“As in most other Christian denominations during this era, Latter-day Saint men alone held priesthood offices…Like most other Christians in their day, Latter-day Saints in the early years of the Church reserved public preaching and leadership for men.”

However, while both essays raise questions about how historical racism and sexism may have affected priesthood ordination policies in the past and today, neither go so far as to answer these questions.

The authors highlight the establishment of the female Relief Society of Nauvoo, including Joseph Smith’s declaration that he would organize the women “in the order of the priesthood” and his promise to make of the Relief Society “a kingdom of priests.” The authors suggest that these statements were indicative of his intentions to set up a similar organizational structure to priesthood quorums and to eventually invite women to attend the temple. These explanations are plausible but certainly not the only possible interpretations of these statements. Since Smith died before he could carry out his plans for the Relief Society, his intentions are not known.

The authors attempt to explain away the ordinations of female Relief Society officers in Nauvoo by stating that “Mormons sometimes used the term ordain in a broad sense, often interchangeably with set apart.” Maybe they did sometimes, but not in this case. In the minutes of the Nauvoo Relief Society, Joseph Smith explained that Emma Smith did not need to be ordained at that meeting as she had already been ordained previously, just like men who have already been ordained in the modern church do not need to be ordained again to take on new callings. Instead, Emma Smith received a blessing that is similar to the modern practice of “setting apart” while Sarah M. Cleveland and Elizabeth Ann Whitney received ordinations. Reference B

The essay correctly quotes Joseph Smith telling the women of the Relief Society, “I now turn the key to you,” a statement that has been misquoted often in other church materials as “I turn the key on your behalf.” The authors interpret this statement to mean that “Joseph Smith delegated priesthood authority to women in the Relief Society,” implying a similar situation as in the modern Relief Society, in which women exercise priesthood authority under the supervision of male priesthood holders but without holding priesthood keys, i.e., the power to govern. Reference C  However, I question assumptions that priesthood keys cannot be assigned to women, given the strong arguments in this essay that priesthood is not inherently masculine.

The authors report that “Emma Hale Smith’s appointment as president of the Relief Society fulfilled a revelation given to her twelve years earlier, in which she was called an ‘Elect lady’” but do not directly mention that Emma Smith was literally elected to the position by her peers. In Nauvoo, women selected their own Relief Society leaders. Reference B

The Nauvoo Relief Society was disbanded shortly after Joseph Smith’s death in 1844. It wasn’t until 22 years later that Brigham Young established a new Relief Society that continues today, with male-selected female leaders. Reference D Regardless of whether the women of the Nauvoo Relief Society held priesthood keys, it is obvious that modern Relief Society sisters do not.

The essay documents that in the past, Mormon women gave healing blessings by laying on of hands, although women are banned from giving such blessings today. They quote part of Joseph Smith’s teachings to women about healing, in which he describes healing as a gift of the Spirit. In the same speech, Joseph Smith also stated that Nauvoo women were ordained with authority to heal:

“Wherein they are ordained, it is the privilege of those set apart to administer in that authority which is confer’d on them—and if the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold  their tongues, and let every thing roll on.” Reference B

The authors go on to say that “many women received priesthood blessings promising that they would have the gift of healing,” which seems like a rather coded way of describing the documented historical fact that many Mormon women were ordained as healers. Reference E

Although LDS Church policy no longer permits women to heal by laying on of hands, the authors point out that modern Mormon women exercise priesthood authority by participating in priesthood councils and giving sermons in General Conference, but do not mention that female participation is limited to very small numbers of women, outnumbered by a much larger ratio of men. They also emphasize that women “lead organizations that minister to families, other women, young women, and children” and identify these organizations as “the Relief Society, the Young Women, and the Primary.”

Stating that women minister to families could be a response to the feminist critique that with few exceptions, Mormon women are only permitted to lead women and children. It is important to remember that the work women do within the Church benefits whole families including men, but ministering to men is not the same as leading them. And whether women actually lead these organizations is debatable; female leaders of these organizations are selected and supervised by men, not women; female general-level officers have no direct line of authority over their local counterparts; and policymaking, financial and judiciary authority rest with men, not women.

Because the essay elaborates on many ways Mormon women participate in priesthood duties, this essay can be a tool to demonstrate that the LDS Church is more progressive toward women than many other organizations. However, simply being less harmful for women than other worldly organizations is much too low a bar for a church seeking to build Zion on earth. I hope that this essay will be a foreshadowing of good things to come. Now that the church has clarified that women may exercise priesthood authority, let’s give women more opportunities to do so.

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is an advocate, mother, professional, lover of the arts, hater (but doer) of housework and seeker of truth. Podcast: Religious Feminism Podcast Twitter: @aprilyoungb

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21 Responses

  1. Joni says:

    I’m just lumping their “ordain really didn’t mean ordain” statement in with “a few months shy of fifteen.”

    And if members of the Church conflate maleness with priesthood, it’s because we have been explicitly taught to do so. We have the Women’s Session and the Priesthood Session of Conference, don’t we?

    • WI_Member says:

      Was this essay authored by the same person who used the “carefully worded denials” phrase? I am so tired of the verbal gymnastics in play here.

      I completely agree with your point of why the church conflates priesthood with maleness. When have we ever heard the phrase ‘counsel with your priesthood leaders’ to refer to a female auxiliary president? Referring to the organizations ‘led’ by women as auxiliaries, by definition, implies that they are not part of the main body of The Priesthood.

    • Cruelest Month says:

      Preach!

    • Absolutely, Joni. If women exercise the priesthood, why should they be excluded from the Priesthood Session? Or why must the Priesthood Executive Council be renamed the Priesthood and Family Executive Council in order to add a woman? Not only have teachings been inconsistent, but actual practice has been–and frankly, actual practice has more often demonstrated a philosophy that priesthood is male and women must be excluded than the ungendered priesthood model described in this essay.

    • Emily U says:

      Amen, Joni.

      A big question now is what do they mean by saying women have priesthood authority without priesthood office. This seems like relatively new rhetoric. Authority based on what? Baptism? Temple endowment? Setting apart for a calling? Being moved to action by the Holy Ghost? There was something in there about delegated authority, so maybe they mean to say that carrying out any calling in the church is exercising priesthood authority, but this is really not clear and not something we’ve heard much about from Church leaders. I appreciate the effort to be inclusive, but the essay feels disingenuous because the Church also teaches that the central purpose of the restoration is putting in place God’s authentic priesthood authority to do the business of administering saving ordinances. It’s why we make already baptized Christians get baptized again when they convert. It’s the reason the men in the Church who have been ordained have their “priesthood line of authority.” The intended take-away seems to be that priesthood office is no big deal. But it is a big deal.

  2. WI_Member says:

    To say that women lead the Relief Society via priesthood authority is not true. See handbook.

    9.2.1 Bishopric

    The bishop and his counselors provide priesthood leadership for the Relief Society.

    The bishop calls and sets apart a sister to serve as Relief Society president. He oversees the calling and setting apart of counselors in the ward Relief Society presidency, the ward Relief Society secretary, and other sisters who serve in Relief Society callings. He may assign his counselors to call and set apart these sisters.

    Then later it says “They are spiritual leaders in the effort to strengthen sisters and their families. They work under the direction of the bishopric.

    • WI_Member says:

      This is in contrast to what the essay asserts.

      “Today, Latter-day Saint women lead three organizations within the Church: the Relief Society, the Young Women, and the Primary. … In these and other ways, women exercise priesthood authority even though they are not ordained to priesthood office.58”

      • Joni says:

        Frankly, this internal confusion doesn’t surprise me at all. elder Oaks asserted that women already hold the priesthood, and women will never hold the priesthood, in the same talk.

      • Female auxiliary leaders in the LDS Church are very similar to consultants at secular organizations. They are experts; they are valued; they are listened to. But they do not choose the staff, they do not allocate the money; they do not make the decisions. Church policy and teachings by church leaders have made it clear that the auxiliaries are governed by male priesthood holders, not women.

  3. Cruelest Month says:

    I found the essay more confusing than clarifying. It is interesting to me as a cultural artifact representing a jumble of statements on women, priesthood, and history that leaders of the Church were able to agree on and endorse.

    • Yes. In some parts, I felt confident that I was reading compromise wording. I could imagine an earlier draft with a more clear and accurate statement, that was later muddied up when someone somewhere said, “We can’t say that!” Frankly, that may be why they chose to make the authors anonymous, so we cannot interview them and ask about the process and the alternative opinions that were edited out.

  4. RT says:

    I also am finding the way the church is framing women and Priesthood totally confusing. In a quantifiable way what does it mean that a woman has the priesthood? What can she then do? What attribute does she then have? What changes? And when exactly does she get it? Or does everyone just have it all the time anyway? Does Priesthood = Gift of the HG?

    • Yes, it brings up more questions than answers. In May 2014, I completed an in-depth analysis on church leaders’ relatively new teachings about how women are included in the exercise of the priesthood called Shouldn’t It Be Obvious? How Mormon Women Hold And Exercise The Priesthood Today. Whether women are included or not, and the mechanisms by which this occurs, were certainly not an area of consensus at the time, nor, I think, are they yet.

      I wish this analysis were available publicly today, as I think it would really help to inform the discussion surrounding this new church essay. It appears that the essay writers and I were working at the same time, analyzing the same teachings. Unfortunately, I was required by my Stake President to censor that analysis as a condition of attending my brother’s temple wedding in January of this year. (Although, frankly, I don’t think he ever actually read it, so I don’t think that is any statement about the content of the analysis, which I do not believe was inappropriate at all.)

      I agreed to keep my analysis down as long as my SP’s signature remains valid on my temple recommend or until my SP and I work out a different agreement. When that occurs, you will be able to find the analysis here: http://www.the-exponent.com/shouldnt-it-be-obvious-how-mormon-women-hold-and-exercise-the-priesthood-today/

  5. Jason K. says:

    Thanks for your very insightful analysis!

  6. Michael says:

    I find it interesting that your discussion of the entry in the RS Minute Book does not address John Taylor’s statements that he did not, in fact, confer the priesthood on any woman at any time. How does it affect your analysis? The essay clearly demonstrates that John Taylor, who supposedly ordained Cleveland and Whitney to some unspecific priesthood office, stated in an address to a RS gathering that he never conferred any priesthood on those women. It is telling that you do not address this at all.

    • I am happy to discuss that quote with you, Michael. As I am sure you are aware, that quote was not included in my discussion of the 1842 minutes of the Nauvoo Relief Society because John Taylor said no such thing in the historical documents I referenced.

      Taylor declared that his ordinations of the women in Nauvoo, under the direction and supervision of Joseph Smith, did not count as priesthood ordinations in 1880; nearly four decades after the ordinations took place. By that time, the Nauvoo Relief Society, which was disbanded in 1844, was ancient history, and church members back then, just as we do today, had a tendency to reinterpret history to better match present-day practice.

      The essay says:

      “In later years, words like ordination and keys were more precisely defined, as when President John Taylor, who acted by assignment from Joseph Smith to “ordain and set apart” Emma Smith and her counselors, explained in 1880 that “the ordination then given did not mean the conferring of the Priesthood upon those sisters.”

      So over the course of 40 years, church leaders had “more precisely defined” ordination and keys, or in other words, they had changed the meaning of these words. The primary way that these words had changed is that some male church leaders had begun to apply these words only to men. This change in perspective had begun as early as 1851, when a church historian changed a quote from the 1942 Relief Society minutes from “I turn the key to you” to “I turn the key on your behalf.”

      The essay authors did not include the whole John Taylor quote from 1880. Taylor also said that women hold the priesthood “in connection with their husbands, they being one with their husbands.” Under the leadership of Taylor, the idea that women share priesthood with their husbands spread, and had implications for church policy and practice that differ from today’s interpretations. The fact that the essay authors didn’t include this part of the quote is an example of selectively presenting history to reinforce current practice. I do not fault the authors for this; their job was not to create an unbiased overview of history, but rather to justify current practice using historical documents. This is an essay, not a history book.

      Many things happened between 1842 and 1880 that changed the outlook of the church toward women. Emma Smith and her husband Joseph Smith had several conflicts over polygamy, straining their relationship. Emma Smith supported her own theological opinions about polygamy in the context of her calling as Relief Society President, just as other church leaders were opinionated in the context of their callings, and Joseph Smith reacted by attempting to reign in some of her power. Joseph Smith died in 1844, so he was not able to implement his plans for the Relief Society or come to any resolution with Emma Smith over their differences on the polygamy doctrine. Brigham Young clashed with Emma Smith over many doctrinal and practical issues and disbanded the Relief Society altogether, with the pronouncement, “Sister[s] … have no right to meddle in the affairs of the kingdom of God.” (A quote that, likewise, did not make it into the essay.) Brigham Young decided to create a new version of the Relief Society 22 years later, placing Eliza R. Snow, who had proven herself a valiant supporter of polygamy, in as leader instead of allowing women to choose their own leadership.

      http://signaturebookslibrary.org/women-and-athority-02/

      https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/pdf/029-16-25.pdf

      • Michael says:

        April, I have read pretty much everything you’ve posted here over the years, including the stuff your SP forced you to take down, and I find your outlook particularly depressing. It seems clear, to me at least, that your view of the history of the Church is informed by a paradigm in which Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, and all that follow, are primarily motivated by the acquisition and maintenance of institutional power and a willingness on each of their parts to do and say anything to maintain that power. Your view is more common than I would like, sadly. You speak in your comment above of power struggles between Joseph and Emma, of Brigham Young engaging in such struggles and setting up a puppet in a reconstituted Relief Society. Of John Taylor lying about his involvement in 1842 in order to maintain his status quo and of the modern Church doing the same today. You are, if nothing else, consistent in this stand.

        However, I can’t help but feel that such a position is a bit depressing. You and those of like mind continue to fight on for your desired reforms in an organization that you seem to feel has been engaging in a concerted effort, throughout it’s history, to subjugate women. Even taking your personal narrative out of the equation, the Church, in the last week, has doubled down on the very things that you complain about and yet you still fight on.

        Personally, I come to very different conclusions. I don’t think that Emma ever had either the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthoods conferred on her, nor do I believe that any other of the earliest women in the Church ever received such a conferral. Aside for the occasional use of the word “ordain,” which is different in meaning and practice from conferral, and which can be reasonably understood in multiple ways, there were never any of the trappings that generally accompanied conferral of the priesthood and ordination to an office with respect to any of the early women. None were placed in positions reserved for priesthood holders; none even received certificates of ordination; none of them were presented for the sustaining vote (that has always accompanied conferral of the priesthood and ordination to an office); and none of them were publicly or privately acknowledged as deacons, priests or elders, etc.

        Given all of this, I think the more reasonable interpretation of all of this historical data is simply this: the priesthood has not historically been conferred upon women; John Taylor was not lying when he affirmed that he hadn’t done it; and the essayists are not being inaccurate to state the same today. The difference between my world view and yours can be summed up simply. It is that I don’t think that the Church has been lying about this, and you seem to accept that it has.

        Of course, you are free to accept the conclusions that you draw, but they are in no way inevitable. Reasonable people can and do read all of the same things you have a come to a different conclusion.

      • I am delighted to learn that you are a regular reader, Michael. I appreciate people who are willing to learn about other views, even if they do not personally agree.

        I would appreciate it if you were a bit more careful about not putting words into my mouth, especially in referencing my censored writings, since I cannot direct people to them to see what I said in my own words.

        In particular, I did not accuse anyone of lying. As you point out, reasonable people can interpret the same events differently, and I would add that reasonable people may change their own opinions and interpretations of events over time, especially over a particularly long period of time, like 40 years.

        Nor did I pretend to know exactly what kind of priesthood Emma had or how that would have evolved had history played out differently. It is interesting to talk about, looking back, because it helps us to recognize that things as they are today are not always how things have been, or as they have to stay. Following the Spirit and doing what is right is more important than precedence.

  7. Emily U says:

    Thank you for this, April. I always appreciate reading your thoughtful analyses.

  1. May 30, 2017

    […] these experiences five years ago, church leaders have begun discussing priesthood differently, better including women in the doctrinal definition of priesthood. However, even as church leaders use more inclusive language to describe women as participants in […]

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