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.
The way we understand priesthood today dates to this mid-twentieth century moment in Mormon history. It is a product of correlation. The correlation movement gives us a vocabulary for priesthood that we utilize today:
Offices: This term is now used to refer to the ranks of priesthood ordination available to men: deacon, teacher, priest, elder, high priest, and so forth.
Keys: This term is now used to refer to specific authorizations to administer LDS Church rites or “ordinances” as well as to the authority to function in specific callings.
Fullness / power: There are several terms one finds in use to indicate access to priesthood power beyond offices and keys. The term “fullness” appears in D&C 124:28 in reference to the temple, as the place where God will “restore” “the fullness of the priesthood.” As introduced by Joseph Smith, the idea of the “fullness” of the priesthood originally referred to powers conveyed to men and women through the LDS temple rite known as the second anointing. (For more, read here.) Today, however, it is increasingly common to hear the phrase “fullness of the priesthood” used by Mormons who want to gesture towards an equality of status shared by men and women who have received their temple endowments and / or entered into eternal marriage. One also occasionally hears the term “power of the priesthood” used in this broadly inclusive sense, as Elder M. Russell Ballard taught in April General Conference: the power of the priesthood is accessible to men and women, even if the “authority” of the priesthood is restricted to men. This understanding seems to be underscored by the language of D&C 121, which specifies both “rights” (authority) and “power” (fullness) of the priesthood.
Yet to study the ways these terms have been defined is also to find the limits of our current definitions.
For example, we find in Exodus 40:12 – 15 a description of rituals administered in the tabernacle erected by Moses. Those familiar with LDS temple rites will recognize that in LDS temples these rites are now extended to men and women. Exodus 40:13 states that Aaron by virtue of these rites “may minister unto me in the priest’s office”; Exodus 40:15 states that these rites “shall surely be an everlasting priesthood throughout their generations.” These scriptures raise the question of why LDS women who have also been through these rites today are not acknowledged in day-to-day Mormon life as priesthood holders, and even priesthood “office” holders. Why the euphemistic use of the motherhood-priesthood dyad in day-to-day Mormon life and teaching rather than an open acknowledgement of the implications of Exodus 40?
Those familiar with LDS temple rites also understand that by the Correlation-era definition of keys as authority pertaining to specific offices, women who administer LDS temple rites may also be understood to hold keys as they perform their duties. Again, why are these keys not acknowledged in day-to-day LDS life and in the way priesthood is taught in our manuals and over the pulpit? Rather than the priesthood-motherhood dyad?
It also seems that the way we use the term “keys” today does not map neatly onto the set of priesthood keys identified in scripture. For example, in D&C 13, the keys of the Aaronic priesthood are identified as “the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentence, and of baptism by immersion;” D&C 84 adds the key of “the preparatory gospel.” D&C 84 describes the keys of the “greater” priesthood as the “key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God;” D&C 107 adds to it “the right of presidency, and power and authority over all the offices in the church in all ages of the world, to administer in spiritual things.” (These sections of the D&C specify these keys as belonging to men, but this was in 1832 and 1835, long before Joseph Smith’s 1843 introduction of the endowment for women.)
These scripturally indicated keys are not co-extensive with the range of responsibilities now reserved to men in the LDS Church. I am thinking particularly here of the Melchizedek priesthood keys to “administer in spiritual things.” It is not indicated (in scripture at least) that these keys include the exclusive right to administer the temporal affairs of the Church, including curriculums, budgets, membership records, investments, personnel decisions, public prayers, and so forth. Nor are powers of healing by the laying on of hands indicated in these scriptures as keys to be restricted to Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthood holders. Historians like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich remind us that Mormon women did in fact exercise a greater range of administrative authority until the middle decades of the twentieth century than they do now, and the history of Mormon women’s healing by the laying on of hands is well documented .
I’ll close with a quote from Elder Boyd K. Packer I came across while studying this week. He has a very Widstoe-like article laying out principles of priesthood and church administration that was published in the 1993 February Ensign, an article entitled, “What Every Elder Should Know—And Every Sister as Well—A Primer on Principles of Priesthood Government.” Here are his closing words:
“There are some things about the priesthood that every elder should know if he is to understand how the Church is governed to have things right before the Lord. There are principles and precepts and rules which are often overlooked and seldom taught. Some of these principles are found in the scriptures, others in the handbooks. Some of them are not found in either. They are found in the Church. You might call them traditions, but they are more than that. They are revelations which came when the Brethren of the past assembled themselves, agreed upon His word, and offered their prayers of faith. The Lord then showed them what to do. They received by revelation, ‘line upon line, precept upon precept,’ true principles which form the priesthood way of doing things. (See Isa. 28:13; 2 Ne. 28:30; D&C 98:12.)”
These words really struck me. For Elder Packer acknowledges what historians of LDS priesthood and Church government have shown: that the way we do things now is not the way things have always been done. Some understandings that now structure the practice of LDS priesthood are “not found in either” scripture or handbooks. They have emerged from the process of continuing revelation, which for me means God’s long dialogue with a people. History does not support an understanding of our current priesthood structure as identical to that in the lifetime of Jesus Christ, or Joseph Smith. The use of the term priesthood as an umbrella term for male-only authority to perform ordinances, administer all church affairs (temporal and spiritual), preside as patriarch in the home, and exclusively practice powers such as healing by laying on of hands, and as the dyadic correlate to motherhood, is a product of the middle decades of the twentieth century. We already see movement away from this correlation-era understanding in directions from LDS Church leaders to use desegregated male-female councils in decision making. And we see evidence of its internal contradictions and limitations when we try and reconcile it with LDS temple worship.
Seeking clarification at these pressure points may lead to better understanding of what priesthood is. But I suspect that more pragmatic considerations—inefficiency, inability to staff all positions now segregated by gender—may be an impetus to further seeking. Are there positions now segregated by gender that do not in fact require priesthood keys but that we have traditionally under our correlation-era understanding of priesthood assigned to men only?
Readers, I’ll leave it there for this week. Thank you for letting me share what I have been studying. As always, I look forward to learning from you in the comments below.