What is the recent history of women praying in public in the LDS church?
In July 1967, the church issued a “Priesthood Bulletin,” a newsletter to the leadership of the church. It said, among other things “The First Presidency recommends that only those who bear the Melchizedek Priesthood or Aaronic Priesthood be invited to offer the opening and closing prayers in sacrament meetings, including fast meetings.” In 1967, women were banned from praying in Sacrament Meetings.
In 1968, the General Handbook of Instruction said “Prayers in Church Meetings Prayers in all Church meetings should be brief, simple, and given as led by the spirit by the one who is voice. Their content should pertain to the particular matter at hand. Brethren holding the Melchizedek or Aaronic Priesthood should offer the prayers in sacrament meetings, including fast and testimony meetings.”–p. 44.
In 1975, the rule about prayers only being offered by priesthood holders was reiterated in The Ensign.
This policy stayed in place until 1978, when President Kimball said “The First Presidency and Council of the Twelve have determined that there is no scriptural prohibition against sisters offering prayers in sacrament meetings. It was therefore decided that it is permissible for sisters to offer prayers in any meetings they attend, including sacrament meetings, Sunday School meetings, and stake conferences.”
Women praying in public have come a long way from the ban on praying in Sacrament Meeting. The Church Handbook of Instruction published in 2010, the one currently in use, says “Men and women may offer both opening and closing prayers in Church meetings.” This is wonderful progress; women have been granted the right to pray in any meeting they attend. There is just one step left; a women praying during General Conference.*
There is currently a letter writing campaign to church leaders, started by a group called Let Women Pray, asking that this final step be taken. (This event is not sponsored by the Exponent.) To our knowledge, women have not prayed in a General Conference session** ever, and certainly not within the last several decades. While women have been told they can pray in any meeting, that has not held up in the most public meeting of the LDS church. Many church members would like to see that change and are writing to ask that this change be made. Letters are being send to President Linda Burton, President Elaine Dalton and President Rosemary Wixom, as well as Elder Holland and Elders Perkins and Evans of the Quorum of the Seventy.
If you would like to see women pray in General Conference, send letters to the address below by February 22.
Let Women Pray
P.O. Box 3833
Salt Lake City, UT 84110
If you can, include 6 copies, one for each recipient. For more information about the campaign and the group, find Let Women Pray on Facebook or read our blog.
Here are letters composed by Exponent bloggers explaining why the feel this is important. Emily writes:
Dear General Authority,
I am writing regarding women praying in General Conference. This is not an easy letter for me to write because I have, I think, a healthy awareness of my ignorance of the magnitude, both in scale and gravity, of the things the Apostles of the Church deal with. I don’t presume to advise you, only to engage in what I think is a long-standing means of communication between God’s people and His prophets: letter writing. The scriptures have many examples of letters written by prophets to their people: Jeremiah, Paul, and Joseph Smith did this. I think the letters written by these prophets must often have been prompted by questions from their people, probably received in the form of letters. So it is in this spirit of seeking to communicate that I write.
I live in a very diverse suburb of Chicago. My neighbors to the north and south are Orthodox Jews and Assyrian Catholics, respectively. My son’s elementary school is the most racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse school I have ever observed. He is the only Mormon, and already he is noticing that Mormons are different. I explain to him how beautiful the diversity of God’s creation is, and how the diversity around us enriches our lives. I tell him it’s good to be different, and that he is not the only child in his class with a unique background. He is noticing not only that he is the only Mormon in his class, but also that people who look like his classmates are rare in his church. Recently after attending a party in a church member’s home he asked, “Mama, why are there no black people at the Mormon parties?” He has also asked me, although we have barely discussed this issue, why I do not have the priesthood.
These are important questions, that while difficult, I feel I can answer while holding both the truth of the gospel and the pain of not having all the answers as daily realities. But those realities and my son’s observant questions are also the reason that things like women not praying in General Conference matter so much to me. I did not notice that women don’t pray in Conference until I was in my 20s. But he lives in a different world than I grew up in. I worry that the contrast between his church life and his daily life may at times be jarring, and that the Church will often be the thing that appears in the less flattering light. Yet I believe within the realm of the current light and knowledge we have in the gospel, there is room to appreciate and expand the role of those who are less visible. It would be a balm to my soul to hear a woman pray in General Conference. It would be one more thing I could point to for my son and daughter to say, look: women are visible in this church, their spiritual gifts are just as important as the men’s. I could more confidently say, you see women in your life leading, teaching, working, and contributing, and they do those things in the Mormon Church, too.
To be honest, I’d love to see many other changes which would open the arms of the institutional church a little wider to honor the diversity within us: general auxiliary board members sitting on the stand in General Conference, female Sunday School presidents, and a revised hymnal to include African American spirituals, for example. But as you have said, one miracle at a time. I love the gospel and I hope I am raising my children to love it, too. I sincerely thank you for taking time to read this letter, and for considering what it would mean to me and many others to allow women to pray in General Conference.
With warmest regards,
And here is a letter from April:
Dear Brethren and Sisters,
I hope you will invite women to pray at the April 2013 General Conference. Excluding women from prayer at General Conference gives the impression that female prayers are somehow inferior to those offered by males and that God is more apt to listen to men than women. I have heard many General Conference talks that emphasize that God loves men and women equally; I do not like to see such important verbal messages contradicted at the very meeting where they are given by the choice to exclude women from voicing prayers.
Also, in spite of changes in written policy that clarify that female prayers are welcome in Sacrament Meeting, local leaders in some wards, branches and stakes continue to invite only men to offer certain congregational prayers. General Conference is an excellent venue to set an example for local leaders across the globe and demonstrate that women are welcome to pray on behalf of LDS congregations.
I have not composed my letter yet. But I got involved with this event because I believe that women praying in General Conference would show the women of the church that their prayers are just as powerful as men’s are. I have been told on by several people, including a commenter on this forum, that men’s prayers are stronger because they hold the Priesthood. I do not believe that is true, nor do I believe that is what the church teaches. But if women don’t pray in the largest and most important meetings the church holds, meetings where new revelation is given, it leaves members free to believe that men’s prayers matter more. No women should feel she is less important then the men in her life, and no man should feel his prayers are stronger. There is no policy demanding women be excluded from praying in General Conference. In fact, the opposite is true. I’d like to see the current policy of allowing women to pray anywhere be acting upon.
*This research was done by Jonathan Griffith and can be seen on this blog post.
**I realize that women regularly pray in the General Relief Society and Young Women’s Meetings. These meetings are not called sessions by church leaders, nor are the counted as general sessions. When the leader conducting the last session welcomes the congregation, he calls that session the fifth and final session of Conference, which excludes the women’s meetings. These meetings are also held a week before the rest of Conference. So the argument can be make that the women’s meetings do not count as session of Conference.