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