March Visiting Teaching: Under the Priesthood and after the Pattern of the Priesthood
When I first saw the title of this month’s message, I murmured. Then I worried about how to do this post and be true to myself, and not overly critical of the church or of Barbara Thompson, who is the author of this month’s message. So, I decided to flip the message and go from the end to the beginning, because that was the only way that I could make it work for me.
To start, one of the suggested questions was this:
What will I do this month to increase my ability to receive personal revelation?
There are a number of ways we know that we can increase our ability to receive personal revelation. The critical term here is “personal”. Prayer is personal, spiritual revelation is personal. Often times when I pray, I want the spirit to TELL me exactly what it is that I need to do. But this is in contradiction to the principle of agency. In agency, I need to make a choice and then pray to see if the choice is correct. I often feel guided when answering the prayers of others. But in cases where I seek direction for myself, I need to make a choice, and then pray to see if the spirit confirms my choice. Preparing myself to be in tune and to trust that the spirit takes time and practice. This leads nicely into From Our History section:
During the construction of the Nauvoo Temple, a group of sisters desired to organize to support the building effort. Eliza R. Snow drafted bylaws for this new group. When she showed them to the Prophet Joseph, he responded: “Tell the sisters their offering is accepted of the Lord, and he has something better for them. … I will organize the women under the priesthood after the pattern of the priesthood.” A short time later, the Prophet told the newly organized Relief Society: “I now turn the key to you in the name of God, and this Society shall rejoice, and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time.” The sisters were expected to rise to a new level of holiness and to prepare for the priesthood ordinances soon to be administered in the temple.
I think it is pretty clear here that Snow organized the Relief Society, although Joseph Smith is credited with it. But Smith’s role was in organizing it under the “pattern of the priesthood.” In Rough Stone Rollingand subsequent interviews, Richard Bushman has mentioned that prior to the construction of the Kirkland temple the Smith, Oliver Cowdery, etc. practiced and experimented with different washings, anointing, rituals, ceremonies and prayed for confirmation of the process and symbolism to be accepted by God. They didn’t go with the first attempt, and even now, the temple ceremony has been modified and perfected from the first ordinances performed in 1836. (sorry I don’t have the RSR reference at hand)
In applying the earlier concept of prayer, wherein we make a choice, then pray for confirmation that it is right (or not), we see a pattern in the development and ongoing perfection of the temple and temple ceremony. I think this can be equally applied to the Relief Society in this manner: Snow organized the Relief Society and wrote by-laws. Smith, having spent years praying and seeking confirmation of the temple ordinances immediately applied concepts from which he had gained in the temple revelation process and applied them to the women’s organization. In combining the confirmation of the temple ordinance work specifically for women with the organization designed and outlined by Snow, the Relief Society was created. This leads to the next section:
To be organized “after the pattern of the priesthood” gave sisters sacred responsibilities. Julie B. Beck, Relief Society general president, explained: “We operate in the manner of the priesthood—which means that we seek, receive, and act on revelation; make decisions in councils; and concern ourselves with caring for individuals one by one. Ours is the priesthood purpose to prepare ourselves for the blessings of eternal life by making and keeping covenants. Therefore, like our brethren who hold the priesthood, ours is a work of salvation, service, and becoming a holy people.”
The above Beck quote can be difficult. “Priesthood purpose” is elusive- does this mean we have priesthood, as is stated in the temple? Or are we “like our brethren” and hold the priesthood, but not the priesthood keys? It is clear that there is a divide in responsibility- but it isn’t clear to what end. This is one of the great feminist debates. But- in focusing on the message for this month, the most powerful part to emphasize is that we are Queens and Priestesses. Consider these other quotes:
“We are priestesses and queens, who have received of his fulness, and of his glory” Chieko N. Okazaki, Disciples [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1998], 23.
“Inasmuch as we continue faithful, we shall be those that will be crowned in the presence of God and the lamb. You, my sisters, if you are faithful, will become Queens of Queens, and Priestesses unto the Most High God. These are your callings. We have only to discharge our duties.” Eliza R. Snow and the Woman Question by Jill C. Mulvay Fn, BYU Studies, vol. 16 (1975-1976), Number 2 – Winter 1976 264.
In application of this, it returns again to the concept of women seeking, receiving and acting upon our own revelation with authority bestowed by God. I think this is vital to understand. In this, we are not seeking “permission” from others; we are furthering our personal relationship with the Divine. This is a protection for us against unrighteous dominion and a reminder that we have the divine right to inspiration as clarified the scriptural reference included in the message, Doctrine and Covenants 121:36-46.
To be organized “under the priesthood” gave sisters authority and direction. Eliza R. Snow, second Relief Society general president, taught that Relief Society “cannot exist without the Priesthood, from the fact that it derives all its authority and influence from that source.” Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained, “The authority to be exercised by the officers and teachers of the Relief Society … was the authority that would flow to them through their organizational connection with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and through their individual setting apart under the hands of the priesthood leaders by whom they were called.”
This section can be problematic and hard to teach. The term “under” connotes a sense of expected subservience and “the priesthood” culturally normally refers to patriarchal dominion. But I don’t think the Relief Society was intended as an organization under the authority of men. I think the Relief Society was an organization wherein the women to work under the direct authority of God. Consider:
On 17 May Newell K. Whitney accompanied Joseph Smith and told the Relief Society women: “In the beginning, God created man, male and female, and bestow’d upon man certain blessings peculiar to a man of God, of which woman partook, so that without the female all things cannot be restor’d to the earth—it takes all to restore the Priesthood.” Although Whitney had recently been initiated into the endowment and his remarks reflect his awareness of women’s forthcoming role in that ordinance, his words also reflect an anticipation that many held in that era: women’s role within the church including priesthood powers—at least in some form. On 28 April 1842 Joseph told the women: “I now turn the key to you in the name of God and this Society shall rejoice and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time.” It is important to remember that “keys” were associated with “priesthood” and that Joseph turned the key to women rather than “in their behalf” as the History of the Church (4:607) would later report. It is clear that at its inception the Relief Society was not considered an “auxiliary” in the church as the Primary for children, Sunday School, and Mutual Improvement Association for adolescents would later be. –Linda King Newell, Women and Authority, ‘The Historical Relationship of Mormon Women and The Priesthood’, accessed March 1, 2011.
This is brilliant! I can teach this! Later changes in the concept of the Relief Society re-directed it as an auxiliary. But this was not the original intention of the organization, as Newell has pointed out. This is important to me. Usually when a lesson is taught in regard to “supporting the priesthood”, I tend to roll my eyes and prepare for another lecture on how I am supposed to help Mormon men rule over me. I have never felt the spirit in these lessons. I do not have a testimony of this masculine pecking order. Therefore, I cannot teach it because I would be lying if I said I supported this, and lying cannot invoke the spirit. As a result of this and in order to teach this with my own sense of truth and testimony, I am forced to take an nontraditional route in addition to the Newell quote:
When we are confirmed as members of the church, all of us are ordained through the Melchizedek priesthood to have the Holy Ghost. To me, this means that whenever we follow the promptings of the spirit, we are acting and using Melchizedek priesthood authority within ourselves; in this, I believe we are vessels and carriers of this priesthood. Confirmation is an ordinance and when this ordinance is performed, we retain the Holy Ghost. Listening to the Holy Ghost and associated promptings, then acting upon that prompting is acting with authority under the priesthood direction of God. No mortal with a fancy priesthood office can become the middle man for this personal and direct relationship with God.
I think this again goes back to the question in regard to receiving personal revelation. Indeed, I find very little of this message having to do with traditional priesthood patriarchy. I find the real purpose is to invoke our Heavenly Parents’ gift of the Holy Ghost in obtaining and acting upon direction we individually obtain in personal revelation. In concluding the finish-to-start pattern which means ending with the beginning:
My dear sisters, how blessed we are! Not only are we members of the Church, but we are also members of Relief Society—“the Lord’s organization for women.” Relief Society is evidence of God’s love for His daughters.
Doesn’t your heart thrill as you recall the exciting beginnings of this society? On March 17, 1842, the Prophet Joseph Smith organized the sisters “under the priesthood after the pattern of the priesthood.”
In application of the Relief Society as an entire organization that can be filled and directed by the spirit with authority (as in the Beck quote) is exciting. It is in this way that I see it as evidence of God’s love, because I am in a society that teaches me that I am to receive revelation and promptings directly from God, and no one can take that from me.
What’s more, this message has made me wonder. I wonder about the early beginnings of the church. I wonder about the keys held by the early Relief Society sisters. I wonder about prayer circles and the Mormon women who have historically offered blessings upon their children. When I think about these things, I can’t help but believe that the visiting teaching focus on the history of the Relief Society and the anticipated publication of the history of the Relief Society is in preparation of future revelation in regard to the role of women.
Ponder this scriptural passage associated with the message: Doctrine and Covenants 25:3 Behold, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou art an elect lady, whom I have called. This is the Lord’s blessing given to Emma at the start of the Relief Society. In this, I think it is essential to understand that the term “elect” was used because she had been electedto the office of Relief Society President, and that this election immediately became a divine calling. When we seek and elect righteous changes to be instituted in the church organization, then those changes are confirmed by God, just as we are confirmed at baptism. Personally, I think the Relief Society is due for a major change. And I think this message is reminding us to seek inspiration and direction so we may collectivly prepare and call upon this change.
What changes or adaptations in regard to the Relief Society do you seek? Have you been praying for these changes and for inspiration in regard to preparations necessary for incoming revelation? How can you increase your ability to receive revelation?