Monthly Archives: May 2013

Ask Mormon Girl: Are gender-restricted church responsibilities based in doctrine or custom?

If you’ve been following along these past few weeks (excepting my mother’s day vacation), you know I’ve been convening a personal study session on priesthood:  what it means today, what it has meant, and what all of this means in light of a renewed call for the ordination of women by some LDS feminists.

And after weeks of study, this is what I have gathered, in summary:

Elder Boyd K. Packer has stated that the way Mormons now conceive of priesthood authority—restricted to men, identical with administrative authority, and opposite to motherhood–is not necessarily grounded in scripture; it may be just as much an outgrowth of tradition or custom.  Priesthood keys are, in fact, rather haphazardly defined in scriptures, and they do not map neatly onto current LDS Church administrative functions.  LDS Church historians date the implementation of our current concept of priesthood (as identified with men only and with exclusive administrative authority, and in opposition to motherhood) to the middle twentieth century, as introduced by leaders like John Widtsoe.  Before Widtsoe, there is evidence of a more expansive notion of priesthood in Mormonism, dating from the moment in 1843 when Joseph Smith made the daring and I’d argue revelatory decision to interpret Exodus 40: 12 – 15 to apply to both men and women, effectively vesting women with priesthood through the endowment ceremony.  An expansive sense of priesthood authority survives into the early twentieth century in the continuing practice of LDS women giving blessings of healing and even washings and anointings preparatory to childbirth.  This practice contracted during the 1920s and 1930s.  Correlation as an administrative program was introduced in the 1940s and 1950s and was used as a premise to contract the authority of women over their own auxiliaries in the 1960s and 1970s, as historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has remembered.  We have seen a very modest recent correction in renewed emphasis on the use of mixed-gender councils at the level of ward decision making.  But if we track the institutional authority of LDS women from the 1840s to today, could one plausibly characterize the situation of Mormon women as a restoration incomplete?

My goal this week is to follow the distinction Elder Packer has made and to understand the distinction between practices based in tradition or custom and practices that reflect a consistent and coherent LDS doctrine.  Recently, we’ve seen the Church quietly set aside a longstanding custom of not inviting women to pray at General Conference.  This was purely tradition; it was not reflective of a consistent or coherent LDS doctrine.  Are there other customs in the way we assign authority that do not in fact have a foundation in consistent or coherent LDS doctrine?

It appears that there is a subarticulate LDS doctrine that endowed LDS women do enjoy  priesthood power, even if they are not ordained to  priesthood offices.  Many Mormons take this as a deduction from the fact that LDS women conduct some temple ceremonies with authority delegated by the temple president, as well as by the fact that women in LDS temples participate fully in the priesthood-bearing rites described in Exodus 40: 12 – 15.

The distinction between a general priesthood power and specific administrative authority is often framed through the language of priesthood “keys.”  But to study the scriptural definitions of keys is to find that keys outlined in the scriptures don’t neatly or consistently cohere with the shape of administrative responsibilities in the contemporary LDS church.  In our current handbook, some positions are restricted to male priesthood holders that do not in fact have particular scripturally-delineated keys associated with them.  The question that emerges for me, then, is, if the handbook restricts a particular administrative responsibility to a male Melchizedek priesthood holder but there are no keys associated with that position, is this restriction based on custom (as in the case of women praying in sacrament meeting or General Conference)? 

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What exactly do Mormons mean when they say the word “priesthood”?

With the emergence of the Ordain Women movement, I’ve spent the last few weeks undertaking a personal study of what priesthood is and who holds it.  I’ve been most interested in how the term priesthood came to be used as a name under which spiritual and administrative offices are referred to men alone as a complement to the biological function of motherhood.

This understanding of priesthood seems to emerge in the middle decades of the twentieth century during the “Correlation” movement—an administrative and theological project undertaken by LDS Church leaders to standardize, modernize, and codify Mormon doctrine and practice for uniform administration in a growing and newly global church.

We see one document of this correlation movement and its consolidation of priesthood with the authority to administer the LDS Church in John Widtsoe’s Priesthood and Church Government (1939). Widtsoe culls from a range of Mormon source-texts (Journal of Discourses, for example) a number of statements that he organizes into a rationale for the alignment of priesthood powers, patriarchal authority in the family, and church administration.  This is not a logic originating with Joseph Smith, but one that emerges with the modernization and correlation of twentieth-century Mormonism.

The correlation movement also seems to have produced the first formally articulated “correlation” of priesthood with gender roles.  Historian Sonja Farnsworth locates the first mention in LDS history of motherhood as the female correlate to male priesthood in the 1954 revision of Widtsoe’s Priesthood and Church Government. This modern motherhood-priesthood dyad grew into a powerful element of Mormon identity, as the LDS Church established missionary and public relations campaigns in the 1960s and 1970s that mobilized a particular definition of family and especially in the Church’s formal opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment.

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