I don’t believe in prophetesses.

“Miriam, the prophet…” I read. It jolted me.

I was looking at one of the Dead Sea scrolls, part of a library of ancient documents discovered in 1947 which include the oldest known copies of the Bible’s Old Testament. At this exhibit, pages from the scrolls were on display and next to each page was an English translation.

It wasn’t like I hadn’t read that passage about Miriam before. The same story is found in my King James Bible, with one key difference. In that version, Miriam is a prophetess, not a prophet. (Exodus 15:20)

If course, that difference doesn’t mean anything at all. The word “prophetess” is just an outdated word for “prophet.” Back in King James’s time, and even in Joseph Smith’s time, the English language used gendered versions of the same word to differentiate between men and women. Emma Smith, for example, called herself “presidentess” of the Relief Society.

For the most part, the English language has since abandoned the “-ess” suffix. Mormons don’t have a Relief Society presidentess anymore. She is a president, like the Elders Quorum president. But when we talk about female prophets, if we mention them at all, Mormons tend to use the outdated word “prophetess.”

We should stop it.

Using a unique word to differentiate female prophets leaves the impression that they were something other than—and perhaps less than—their male counterparts.

The LDS Guide to the Scriptures, included as a supplement in online and printed Mormon scriptures, goes beyond impressions. Although prophet and prophetess are translated to Old English from the same word in the original text, the Guide provides two completely different definitions for the masculine and feminine Old English forms. The definition for prophet describes a person with a sacred calling, analogous to the modern calling of prophet in the LDS Church, with extensive authority and responsibility.

In contrast, the definition for “prophetess” is much shorter. A prophetess, according to this LDS reference, is a spiritually gifted woman. She has no particular calling or authority. Unlike male prophets, the Guide asserts, prophetesses did not hold the priesthood.

Again, we are talking about the exact same word here, just written differently because of an Old English grammatical rule that doesn’t even apply any more. The Guide offers no scriptural references to support its claims of gendered differences in the status and roles of male and female prophets in ancient times because there are none.

Denying that female prophets were prophets in the same sense that men were lends itself to certain kinds of scriptural interpretations. I was taught as a teenager in LDS seminary that when Aaron and Miriam committed the same sin—complaining against their brother, the prophet Moses—Miriam received a much harsher punishment because, as my teacher explained, while it is wrong for anyone to undermine the authority of a prophet and seek to elevate their own status in the church, it is particularly bad for a woman to do it, because women aren’t supposed to want the priesthood. (Numbers 12) (For a less sexist explanation, read Why Does God Hate Miriam? by EmilyCC.)

My prayer for Jerusalem’s Western Wall

At the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, I had the opportunity to participate in the tradition of placing a written prayer on a stone from Jerusalem’s Western Wall. I prayed for women to hold the priesthood and I was not struck down with leprosy. Phew.

Calling female prophets by a different name creates a distinction that did not exist in Biblical times and that we should not pretend ever existed. I believe women were prophets. I don’t believe we should keep calling them something else.

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at aprilyoungb.com.

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11 Responses

  1. Heather says:

    Grounded & insightful. You do good work, April.

  2. m says:

    I think it has to be acknowledged, as well, that Isaiah’s wife was called a prophetess because she was Isaiah’s wife. It could be the term indicates a close relation to a prophet, as Miriram was the sister of Moses and Aaron, although she did have prophecies of her own right.

    Further, the New Testament defines anyone with a testimony of Jesus Christ as a prophet, so she is certainly among the great prophets by that definition.

    Finally, I think we must make a distinction between Prophet and prophet, the former indicating priesthood authority and the latter indicating the more common Biblical definition. The former would not apply to Miriam but the latter would.

  3. Tim Rollins says:

    Distinctly, yet so sweetly put. I’ve held the view my entire adult life that because men and women are equal in the eyes of God, He gives them roles that are complementary, NOT competitive in nature, as it relates to the marriage covenant.

    I also believe that men and women in the Church — once both have received the blessings of the temple — are equally accountable in the general overall scope of screwing up, even telling a stake president in 1999 that the endowment was the great equalizer, and that the totality of a member’s life must be factored in when it comes to working with both male and female members in difficulty, and there can never be any ‘different spanks based on gender rank’.

    After phrasing it the way I did, he got my point loud and clear, and the tone within the unit markedky improved.

    Great article, April, as you brought up an excellent point! Thanks again! 😊

  4. ElleK says:

    I always love your insights, April. I was not aware of the prophet/ess translation issue. This is so interesting.

  5. Moss says:

    I love this, April. When I think of female Prophets, I always think if Deborah and Huldah, who functioned more in the way we see Prophets like Moses function- leading Israel, judging, receiving revelation for the church. They appear to have administrative and ecclesiastical authority- and not limited to other women and children, either. I also think of prophets like Anna, whose testimony of the Savior is one of the first we encounter in the New Testament.

    The more I study, the more I see that there is so much more going on with women in scripture than we currently understand or acknowledge. And the priesthood- as we currently conceptualize it- doesn’t neatly fit onto what we see happening in the scriptures. And that’s ok- we have different needs than they did then. And, to quote Darius Gray, “We have a living prophet because we believe in change”. I hope that more light and knowledge here will be part of the restoration as it continues.

  6. Andrew R. says:

    “Using a unique word to differentiate female prophets leaves the impression that they were something other than—and perhaps less than—their male counterparts.”

    I find this interesting because I would never consider male and female different simply because of the “ess”.

    For instance I know that women of a feminist persuasion think that all actors should be called actor. However, I also know many female actors who like to be referred to as actress. And for me, there is no distinction in their ability, or profession. The difference is in their gender. But I don’t decide whether an actor is good or bad based on their gender.

    So I would also not consider a person’s gender have any affect on their ability to speak to the revelation they have received. You don’t need priesthood to be given a revelation – which is why Relief Society Presidents can receive revelation in their callings.

  7. Chiaroscuro says:

    I hate that the bible can say a woman was a prophet OR a prophetess and BOTH titles are dismissed. “She was just a good woman like all the RS sisters” nothing on par with the menfolk with that title. Its kind of like how God is Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother is just one of our Heavenly Parents; not a God OR Goddess as far as doctrine

  8. Leonard R says:

    The title through me, but I appreciated your insights.

    Was going to leave a different comment re: Heavenly Mother, but Chiaroscuro’s excellent comment helped me realized that Janice Allred had the foresight of my thought decades ago by titling her classic book not “Heavenly Mother” or “Mother in Heaven”, but simply “God the Mother”.

  9. Ziff says:

    This is such a great point, April. Excellent post!

  10. Mathy says:

    In this same vein, one of my favorite Old Testament stories is Deborah the prophet and she never gets any time in Sunday School. No discussion of what a great team Barak and Deborah were and how he was willing to give up his own personal honor in the battle in order to have Deborah’s guidance. No discussion of how awesome Jael was. Just enough time spent to make sure everyone knows that Deborah isn’t *really* a prophet and then we’re done. Gotta make more time for apocryphal Esther I guess.

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