Last week I had dinner with an old friend from graduate school who has since been ordained as an Episcopal priest. I joke with him that he’s my personal chaplain—half-joking, really: over the last eighteen years, I believe he’s seen enough of me and my family to know me pretty well, and I’ve seen enough of him and his family to value his moral seriousness and his wisdom. We talked for a few minutes about Mormon feminism. “You’ve made a new beachhead,” he observed. “Now it’s time to deepen the work.”
My friend Jim put into words something I’ve certainly been feeling. When I started this blog, all but a few women were still afraid to say “Mormon feminist” in public and those who did could face tremendous pushback. That’s the legacy of the Mormon feminist firings and excommunications that started in 1993 and went on for almost a decade. But just in the last twelve months there has been an incredible burst of energy and organizing: Pants-to-Church, Let Women Pray, the gorgeous new “I’m a Mormon Feminist” website with real live profiles (add yours?), and most recently, Ordain Women. (There are more, but I can’t even keep up with them. Really.)
The LDS Church offered a response to the growing concern with ordination last week. But for me, both Ordain Women and the Church’s response highlighted that there is tremendous inspecificity in our day-to-day use of the word “priesthood.” It has become customary to use the idea of “priesthood” to simply name everything men do and women do not do in the contemporary LDS Church. Which is wrong. There is a far more complicated story—theologically, historically—to know and tell about priesthood in Mormonism. It’s time to deepen the work and teach ourselves that story.
I am a scholar by training. Study is very important to me. Mormon culture can be anti-intellectual, and it has been customary to characterize scholars as people afflicted with or susceptible to pride. Certainly some of us are, as are people in every profession. But any scholar worth his or her Ph.D. understands that scholarship is in fact a practice that requires humility and discipline. It takes humility to unlearn the collection of half-baked ideas and comforting slogans that stand in for truth; it takes discipline to search out and assess data, reflect carefully on the methods one uses to process the data, and to follow the data where it leads. Arrogance is asserting a claim that belies a much more complicated reality; humility for me is acknowledging how complicated reality is and trying to understand it.
That’s what I want to do with priesthood. I want to study. I want to understand.
So people, I’m gonna get my study on. I’m convening a study hall. Right here at AMG. What is priesthood? And do Mormon women already hold it? Let’s study on it. I’ll bring data. You bring data. We reflect, think, discuss, and learn together.
First up, I present an essay by AMG reader “NeoDan,” who describes himself thusly: “Normally peaceable and retiring, NeoDan has no desire to be shot as the messenger while waiting for, as he sees it, the church to catch up to the Gospel.”
Nicely put, Dan. And now, here’s his case that Mormon women already have the priesthood. It’s thoughtful and deserves careful deliberation. That’s what the comments are for. Read on . . .
What appears to be a grass-roots movement openly making the case for the ordination of Mormon women to the Priesthood, Ordain Women (http://ordainwomen.org) has emerged in recent months in Utah. Drawing strength from similar movements in other faiths, the group called for its first public gathering to be held on the eve of the April 2013 General Conference in Salt Lake City.
While I admire their courage and wish them well, I believe that their call for the ordination of women needs to be more nuanced than it now appears. As I see it, the real issue should be to recognize that, in fact, LDS women already receive the Priesthood and are literally ordained to its highest office. They have been from the time of Joseph Smith to now. Thus, perhaps a more meaningful call would be for the Church to acknowledge this reality and teach it openly to its membership.
Whatever we may think of his life trajectory and his propensity for severe over-documentation, historian Michael Quinn surely got it right in his paper titled Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood Since 1843, published in the groundbreaking 1992 book, Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism.2 In it, Quinn argues that when Emma Smith received her Endowment in 1843, she became the first of her gender to hold the Priesthood in this dispensation. He quotes Church leaders of the era as understanding that the women shared the blessings and opportunities of the Priesthood with the men.
Two examples of many that could be given show how the early leaders of the Church viewed the matter. The first is the Patriarchal Blessing given in 1878 by Patriarch Joseph Young, the Senior President of the Council of the Seventy, to Zina Young Card, a daughter of Brigham Young:
These blessings are yours, the blessings and power according to the Holy
Melchizedek Priesthood you received in your Endowments, and you shall
President Brigham Young himself taught in a public 1874 sermon:
..the man that honors his Priesthood, the woman that honors her Priesthood,
will receive an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of God.4
Later commentary 5 on Quinn’s article often makes the point that men and women receive the Priesthood differently; men by ordination, women via the Temple ordinances. This, however, is somewhat simplistic. While it is true that the various ordinations to the Aaronic Priesthood and then to the Higher, or Melchizedek Priesthood received by males seem to have no parallel to the experience of women, there is also a real sense in which these ordinations remain incomplete until the male makes the covenants and receives the knowledge and keys by receiving the Endowment of the Holy Priesthood. Captured in this, the proper name of the Endowment, is the self-evident truth that this very ordinance is when the female receives the Priesthood also.
The logic is simple: women receive the same Temple ordinances and receive the same blessings and keys that men do. How is any of this possible if women hold no Priesthood authority? They must therefore, indeed, “hold” Priesthood authority in a very real sense, even if we don‘t say so. Remember, none of these roles require a woman to be married and therefore somehow receiving her authority from a man.
The parallels with a woman who is set apart as an ordinance worker go even further – she lays on hands and pronounces blessings, even giving the keys of the Priesthood to other sisters, exactly the same as a male ordinance worker does. Again, how could someone who does not hold the Priesthood give others its keys? Certainly, a female ordinance worker ultimately functions under the authority of a male Temple President, but that fact is inadequate in explaining the authority that she exercises. And it certainly does not account for the general parallels inherent in every endowed sister mentioned earlier.
So, even if the Church does not currently articulate it in this way, Quinn is surely correct in his conclusion that every endowed Mormon woman has Priesthood power conferred upon her. The fact that we don’t yet express it in those terms does not change the reality.
In acknowledging the Temple-bestowal of Priesthood upon women, some LDS commentators have noted that the original concept of Priesthood as spiritual power to represent God shared equally by men and women, has changed to refer essentially only to hierarchical, administrative positions in the Church organization. In their view women effectively exercise their Priesthood inside the Temple, although nowhere else.
For some decades now, other scholars, mostly non-LDS, have gone further still, arguing that Jesus conferred formal Priesthood offices upon women as well as men. That may be, but the evidence supporting that notion seems somewhat slim and forced. Mary Magdalene was certainly pre-eminent among the followers of Jesus, even the leading Apostles, but that surely arose from her unique relationship to him, rather than any calling as such.
On the other hand, even if Jesus did not ordain women to specific Priesthood office in his day, that in itself should not mean that it cannot, or should not, be done. Our society is much different than it was two millennia ago and a whole spectrum of faiths have been busy embracing a role for women in their respective priesthoods. They include the Community of Christ, the former Reorganized LDS church, which now has female Apostles and a member of the First Presidency.
Is this whole situation comparable with the bestowal of the Priesthood upon black men? In the beginning the Priesthood was given by the Prophet Joseph Smith to at least one Negro man, but succeeding presidents of the Church apparently yielded to the racist attitudes prevailing in American culture and denied it, even stating that Joseph Smith had made a mistake in bestowing it.6 Denial of the Priesthood to the Negro remained Church practice for over a century. It took the looming issue of thousands of mixed-race Brazilian saints being unable to enter their own Temple and the growing missionary prospects in Africa to force the issue, resolved only in 1978 by President Kimball in a simple but historic administrative action. Perhaps something similar is playing out with the issue of women and Priesthood.
In at least two senses, the Temple Endowment and then, potentially, through ordination in the crowning ordinance of the Temple, the Second Anointing, LDS women already receive the Priesthood. In my view, therefore, what is most needed is simply acknowledgment of this in the Church, rather than any new revelation or appeal to otherwise change current practice.
The interwoven complex of doctrines comprising our understanding of the Godhead, our Heavenly Mother and her roles, the Holy Ghost, the status of Mary Magdalene, and the Priesthood all share something else – in our recent efforts to appear mainstream and “normal” to the public, have all become increasingly neglected teachings in the modern Church. These doctrines, more than any others, define the Restored Gospel. None are of greater relevance to the life journey of every Latter-day Saint.
Surely some official explication on these subjects is long overdue. It would arguably go a long way toward revitalizing the general membership of the Church numbed by the current limited, dumbed-down, menu found in the correlated lessons and the official magazines.
Until then, half of the total Church membership remains effectively disenfranchised. Its women, unaware that they receive Priesthood authority when they are endowed, a blessing that can more deeply bless their personal journey, their family, the community and the Church, remain only dimly aware of their potential station in the eternities to come. They, all of us, deserve better.
2. D. Michael Quinn, “Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood Since 1843” in Maxine Hanks, ed. Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), 365-409.
3. Patriarchal blessing by Joseph Young, 28 May 1878, in Zina Card Young papers, Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, as quoted in Quinn, pp 399 note 46.
4. Journal of Discourses 17: 119.
5. A primary source is Margaret Merrill Toscano, “If Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood since 1843, Why Aren’t They Using It?” in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought vol. 27 no. 2 (Cambridge, MA: Dialogue Foundation: Summer 1994), 219-226.
6. Russell W Stevenson, “A Negro Preacher”: The Worlds of Elijah Ables,” Journal of Mormon History vol. 39 no. 2 (Salt Lake City: Mormon History Association, Spring 2013), 165-254.
Okay, beloved readers. Think, question, respond. Does he have it right? What is the data? Is it valid data? What are our methods for understanding the data? Where does the data take us?
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