Welcome back, AMG readers, to my ongoing personal study session on the question of priesthood ordination. Last week, I left you all with two questions. Here’s the first:
- 1. Can anyone find evidence in A) canonized scripture B) canonized revelation C) the words of Jesus Christ or D) the words of Joseph Smith that indicates the value of gender roles in the plan of salvation? (And yes, we all know that temple marriage is required for exaltation–but marriage does not necessarily mean gender roles.)
Commenter Matelda22spy wrote:
Female prophets in the Bible: Luke 2:36-38. Acts 21:9 Exodus 15:20 Judges 4:4 2 Kings 22:14 Isaiah 8:3
Female deacons: Romans 16:1
Female apostle? Romans 16:7
“Apostle” has its own meaning in the LDS Church. Maybe we best not count on its biblical meaning being exactly the same? In the Bible it appears to have been more synonymous with “missionary” than “leader.”
For example, in Romans 16:7, a woman named Junia is called “prominent among the apostles.” Meaning she was a missionary, i.e. an apostle? Some editors have changed it to the masculine Junias, but the original text contains the feminine.
Maybe other women have been similarly edited out of the scriptures, and restraints upon them edited in. Joseph Smith himself expressed concern that the Bible had translation errors and corruption, did he not?
Yet if men truly do play every role and serve as every voice/writer in the Bible, I see that as a point against religion, not a point against women. I’m not about to take anyone’s or any Church’s word for it that God expects nothing from me except procreation.
Commenter Michael S. went to the Joseph Smith papers, where he read notes from the Relief Society organization (http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/nauvoo-relief-society-minute-book?dm=image-and-text&zm=zoom-inner&tm=expanded&p=19&s=undefined&sm=none)
“[Prest. J. Smith said] that the Society should move according to the ancient Priesthood, hence there should be a select Society separate from all the evils of the world, choice, virtuous and holy— Said he was going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day— as in Pauls day”.
This is fascinating evidence to consider given the contemporary LDS emphasis on the priesthood-motherhood dyad / division of labor. The scriptures do not talk about a gendered division of labor in such terms. They do talk about female prophets, apostles, and deacons.
It also appears that Joseph Smith did not talk about a gendered division of labor in such terms. He did talk about the Relief Society as a “kingdom of priests” to whom he turned “keys.”
The priesthood-motherhood dyad / division of labor seems to enter LDS discourse in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Sonja Farnsworth’s classic study “Mormonism’s Odd Couple: The Motherhood-Priesthood Connection” finds that “A survey of Mormon writings indicates that motherhood and priesthood were first officially linked in the 1954 revision of Apostle John A. Widtsoe’s book Priesthood and Church Government.” (Please read the entirety of her essay here: http://signaturebookslibrary.org/?p=975)
Of course, the motherhood-priesthood dyad takes its most formal and commanding shape with the Proclamation on the Family in 1995. In asserting the eternal nature of gender as we know it on earth in twentieth-century European and Euro-American contexts as a basis for division of church responsibility in church leadership, the Proclamation actually innovates perspectives on gender that are not present in scripture. The Proclamation has not been canonized as scripture. Is it a revelation? This is a very sensitive subject because any statement issued by the First Presidency and Twelve Apostles must be regarded with great seriousness. It is also a fact of record that when Elder Boyd K. Packer described the Proclamation on the Family as a “revelation” in an October 2010 conference talk, that language was edited out prior to the talk’s publication in the Ensign.
Is a division of spiritual labor and authority founded in mortal biological differences an eternal principle? Neither the scriptures nor the words of Joseph Smith appear to suggest so; the Proclamation on the Family does.
(As I was writing this, the phrase that kept coming to my mind was that the essential spiritual significance of mortal biological gender differences must be “hazarded with great diffidence.” That’s a phrase straight out of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1784) from the section where Jefferson attempts to locate essential significance in mortal biological differences of race. Jefferson attempted to use eighteenth-century science to argue that differences between blacks and whites went deeper than skin tone and indicated essential differences in human capacity. Science since the time of Jefferson has troubled the idea that “racial” differences are substantial or essential. Contemporary science also complicates the picture on gender as an essential and dualistic or dyadic difference. We now recognize that gender differentiation in the human species takes place along a spectrum that includes ambiguously sexed and intersex individuals. What significance if any is to be assigned to this spectrum of human variation is not clear.)
And now, here’s the second question I asked last week:
2. How can we know what really counts as priesthood? Which of the functions we group under the broad umbrella term “priesthood” now are really priesthood-limited responsibilities?
I received a wonderful message from reader Ronda, who reached out to a major historian of modern Mormonism. His response is here:
I spent a decade immersing myself in every primary and secondary source I could find that touched on priesthood in order to write Power from On High, and I have continued to ponder the subject in the 18 years since the book was published. I have not changed my mind on a single, significant point in the process. Here is my current synthesis:
There were no institutions in ancient times that bore any resemblance either to Aaronic Priesthood or Melchizedek Priesthood as we now have them within the LDS Church. There are similarities, to be sure, in some names and some functions; but to say that LDS Aaronic Priesthood and Melchizedek Priesthood represent a one-for-one restoration of anything ancient does not hold water.
That said, there clearly was a priestly class, sometimes delineated by inheritance, sometimes by individual calling, through which some semblance of order was imposed on whatever structure there was at the time and place—because even at a given time during the New Testament period there were different churches in different areas behaving differently. Hence, the letters of St. Paul.
In addition to the “called and ordained” priesthood, there was what St. Paul referred to as the “priesthood of all believers.” More about this a little later.
Both the concept and the form that priesthood took within the LDS tradition were evolutionary and somewhat arbitrary. For example, the notion of “authority” was what took Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery away from the translation process and to the waters of baptism. For another two years the word “priesthood” was not even employed with reference to that authority. Consider the fact that we have only three ordinance prayers (outside of temple rituals, which came much later) that have stipulated wording, and all three pre-date the formal founding of the Church in 1830: the baptismal prayer and the two sacramental prayers. These are the earliest ordinances and they are the only ones that do not invoke, by name, the priesthood of the officiator. Why? Because there wasn’t a thing called “priesthood” at the time the prayers were formalized. The over-arching names of Aaronic Priesthood and Melchizedek Priesthood were not introduced until 1835, and what they meant then was not a one-for-one relationship to their predecessors. This is why the notation in the History of the Church that the June 1831 General Conference was “the first time the Melchizedek Priesthood had been given” was so problematic—problematic for the dual reasons that it was written in 1838 and applied anachronistically later terminology to an earlier period; and that what we recall as the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood (a similar anachronism) occurred in 1829 and not 1831. See the problems emerging?
Likewise, the offices within each priesthood umbrella were patched together somewhat haphazardly and over several years; and the very definition of a priesthood office is arbitrary. That is, we designate offices by tradition and not by function. (In a circular definition, an office is whatever we say an office is.) Thus, bishop is an office, but stake president, regional representative, area authority are not, even though functionally they all behave the same way.
The “complete” priesthood did not emerge in 1829. What emerged then was the “authority” half, the legalistic part. Sidney Rigdon provided the impetus for the other half shortly after he joined the Church late in 1830. He traveled to New York to meet Joseph Smith, and within a few weeks was the scribe for a revelation (now LDS D&C 38) that called for the fledgling church to move to Ohio, where the elders would be “endowed with power from on high.” Rigdon was drawing on Luke 24, wherein the resurrected Christ told the apostles whom he had already ordained (i.e., given “authority”) that they were not yet permitted to take the gospel to the world. To do so, they needed a second element, which was “power from on high.” They were told to tarry at Jerusalem until they received that endowment—an event known as the Pentecost that occurred a short time later and is described in Acts 2 (same author as Luke). Rigdon’s break with Alexander Campbell (Rigdon had been a bishop in the Disciples of Christ movement that Campbell started) came over this issue, with Campbell acknowledging that gifts of the spirit had been part of the ancient church, but denying their legitimacy in the contemporary church. Rigdon argued the opposite, that gifts of the spirit were essential to the True Church that he was seeking.
It is essential to differentiate between the non-contingent half of priesthood, which is legal authority that holds regardless of the worthiness of the officiator; and the contingent half (“power from on high”), which is the power through which the extraordinary can occur. Put differently, a baptism performed by a bearer of the requisite priesthood will be recognized by the Church as valid even if he was an adulterer or murderer at the time he performed the ordinance. But a blessing of restoration of health will be contingent upon the ability of the officiator to tap into the “power from on high.” It is not automatic, and I suspect you have seen instances where great damage has been done by men who promised, in the context of a priesthood ordinance, something that they could not deliver.
Now, in light of the above statements, consider the following editorial that was published in the Improvement Era in 1931:
“Can any one, without the Priesthood, pray and have his prayers answered? Or receive the Holy Ghost, with its gifts and manifestations?
The answer is Yes. Men, women and children who do not hold the Priesthood have had their prayers answered millions of times in the history of Christianity the world over and in the history of this dispensation. Men, women and children also receive the Holy Ghost after baptism through the laying on of hands.
May one have revelations and visions of heavenly beings, without the Priesthood?
Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery did so. In May, 1829, John the Baptist appeared to them, and that was before either of them had been ordained. It was John, in fact, who conferred the Priesthood upon them. This function of having visions, of course, was exceptional in their case.
If, then, one may pray, may have his prayers answered, may have the Holy Ghost bestowed upon him, and may exercise many of its gifts, without holding any Priesthood, what is the place of Priesthood on the earth?
Chiefly Priesthood functions in connection with organization. That is, the greatest need of Priesthood is where there is a service to be performed to others besides ourselves.
Whenever you do anything for, or in behalf of, someone else, you must have the right to do so. If you are to sell property belonging to another, you must have his permission. If you wish to admit an alien to citizenship in our government, you cannot act without having been commissioned to do so by the proper authority.
Now, a religious organization, or the Church, is in the last analysis a matter of service. You baptize someone, or you confirm him, or you administer to him in case of sickness, or you give him the Sacrament or the Priesthood, or you preach the Gospel to him–what is this but performing a service?
Now, when it comes to earthly power to perform a definite service, we call it the power of attorney in the case of acting legally for someone else, or the court and the judge where it is a question of acting for the government.
But in the Church of Christ this authority to act for others is known as Priesthood.” (“Priesthood Quorums–Why Priesthood At All?” ["All Melchizedek priesthood material is prepared under the direction of the Council of the Twelve"]; Improvement Era 34(12):735, Oct., 1931
I encountered this article while doing a deep search for the priesthood book. I’ve never seen anyone else refer to it, perhaps because they don’t like what it says for today’s rigidly patriarchal church, and yet it speaks clearly to me what the possibilities are for today. On the one hand, it acknowledges that women are entitled to the gifts of the spirit, something that was obvious to church members in the 19th century but has been pushed into the shadows beginning in the early 20th century. On the other hand, it focuses on priesthood as being essentially legalistic. The overall tone of the article is consistent with women’s exercise of “power from on high,” the spiritual side of our understanding of priesthood, and leaves unanswered the question of women acting in the legalistic aspects of priesthood.
Where does that leave us as we move forward? In my opinion there is no canonical obstacle to the ordination of women in the LDS Church. However, I see the situation as analogous to that of blacks and priesthood ordination, in the sense that while exclusion of both groups from ordination has been a matter of policy rather than canonical doctrine, the status quo is so firmly entrenched that it will require a revelation to move the Church to a new position. In this vein, I find it interesting that William Critchlow, an Assistant to the Twelve, broached the subject in the October 1965 General Conference: “When He whose business priesthood is wants the sisters to have it, he will let his prophet know, and until then there is nothing we can do about it.” While that’s clearly not enough to hang one’s hopes on, nonetheless it is significant that he did not slam the door shut.
And that’s the end of his letter. Setting aside his final conclusions, the major take-away here I think worth noting is that the organization of priesthood offices and their relationship to administrative offices in the LDS Church has changed over time. Underscoring this point is a wonderful bibliography BYU has compiled of studies on the emergence of priesthood organization published on-line here: http://rsc.byu.edu/es/archived/firm-foundation/28-mormon-administrative-and-organizational-history-source-essay Even a quick glance at this bibliography reveals that the current understanding of priesthood which lumps together priesthood offices, priesthood keys, administrative offices, and institutional authority and then positions these all as the essential complement of motherhood is particular to late twentieth-century and early twenty-first century Mormonism.
The correlation movement in the twentieth-century encouraged LDS people to view our theology as a set of fixed and stable terms. This was a good way to organize a curriculum that could be taught to a rapidly growing membership around the world. It does not necessarily tell the whole story of a changing and evolving system of spiritual and institutional administration that our faith’s most careful scholars—like those acknowledged in the BYU bibliography—have richly documented.
In summary: the way it is is not the way it has always been. It has not always been the case that priesthood is the name under which spiritual and administrative offices are referred to men alone as a complement to the biological function of motherhood.
Which leaves me hungry a) for a semester off from work to read the entire BYU-published bibliography and b) for a clearer understanding of how to differentiate the fullness of the priesthood, the offices of the priesthood, and the keys of the priesthood and what relationship they bear to positions of authority in administering spiritual power and institutional power.
And that is where I’ll leave it for this week, friends. I await your thoughts.
I hope you will dig into the Sonja Farnsworth essay and, better yet, into the BYU bibliography, and report here what you find.
Parting question: fullness, offices, keys—what other terms do we use today as LDS people to understand what priesthood is and how it works?
Thank you all for your thoughtful participation in this study hall. I love that regular Mormon people take their faith so seriously. I am learning a great deal from you, and I hope you are learning too.
Send your thoughts and queries to email@example.com, or follow @askmormongirl on Twitter.