For several weeks now, I have devoted my columns here to my own personal exploration of the question of women and priesthood ordination within the LDS Church. What set me to this project was the launch of OrdainWomen.org, a set of profiles published by Mormon men and women calling for ordination of LDS women to the priesthood.
Even though I have been a committed feminist for more than twenty years, I never felt the same kind of visceral connection to the priesthood ordination issue that I had so readily felt on other issues of fairness and equality. Seeing the faces of friends go public on-line in support of ordination at Ordainwomen.org made me wonder why.
Perhaps it was because I had not studied the issue carefully enough? Perhaps studying the LDS scriptures and doctrines that structured priesthood ordination would help me arrive at a better understanding of the matter, and perhaps at some stronger personal conclusions, I wondered. So I set out to understand Mormon theology on gender and ordination, on its own terms. I studied scriptures, historical and contemporary writings by church leaders, church handbooks, and ceremonial liturgies from the LDS temple. I also studied scholarship by historians of Mormonism who have carefully and extensively tracked changes in LDS doctrine and practice over time pertaining to priesthood and gender.
Among people who study Mormon theology, it is commonplace to observe that Mormonism has no systematic theology. Other faiths maintain a class of full-time theologians, whether they be professional or vocational; councils and conferences have been convened to debate, articulate, and refine points of theology. This is not the case within Mormonism. We have a lay clergy. Disciplined theological scholarship does not hold a place of honor in our young tradition. Pragmatic considerations dominate. Every so often, an effort to systematize Mormon theology will appear. The best known of these is Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine, which took the apparently orderly form of an encyclopedia, with alphabetized entries keyed to signal ideas in Mormon thought. But McConkie’s effort was not systematic theology, lacking wholly in historical nuance and scholarly precision and sometimes (as in his controversial remarks on race and Catholicism) presenting as doctrine prejudicial speculation.
This lack of systematic theology in Mormonism is often presented as one of the tradition’s distinctive and even positive features. Lack of systematization, some say, reflects the breathtaking populism of Mormon thought—the theology is vested not in the scholarly class but in rank-and-file Mormon people, like data in a cloud—as well as Mormonism’s own signature emphasis on continuing revelation and an open canon. For these reasons, in academic terms, Mormon theology cannot be understood paradigmatically, but only syntagmatically, over time, and in discourse.
But after studying scriptures, historical and contemporary writings by church leaders, church handbooks, and ceremonial liturgies, I find that the state of Mormon theology on gender is more complex. It is not just that the theology of gender in Mormonism is too dynamic and popular to be pinned down. It is that Mormon theology on gender is incoherent. By this, I mean that it is internally inconsistent, at odds with itself, and that the way we currently explain gender and authority to ourselves is without foundation in revelation or scripture. There is a basic incoherence between competing elements of the Mormon lexicon—chiefly, between the ceremonial and symbolic language of the temple, the scriptural value assigned to that symbolic language, the liturgy of the temple, and the quotidian administrative practice of the church. Time has aggravated that incoherence rather than evolved or resolved it. And that incoherence has a real impact on the lives of Mormon men and women and on the functioning of the Church itself.
The idea of “restoration”—that knowledge and blessings intended for humankind by God but lost over time—is central to the identity of the Mormon faith. But when it comes to questions of gender, I believe the tension between the temple ritual, temple liturgy, and the day-to-day administrative practices of the church is evidence of an arrested restoration within Mormonism on questions of gender and authority.
What do I mean by “arrested restoration”? Joseph Smith had a revolutionary vision of women and priestly authority. We can see its outlines in the minutes of the Nauvoo Relief Society, accessible on-line here and in print (in limited form) in The Beginning of Better Days. (A scholarly edition of the minutes in full should be published as soon as possible. It’s curious if not disappointing that the LDS Church owns an entire university system with fully tenured religion faculties and that this basic work of scholarship has still not been done.) He ordained his wife Emma Smith (D&C 25:7); he told women in the Relief Society that he intended to make of them “a kingdom of priests”; and he welcomed women to receive temple endowments, including the wearing of a garment that symbolized priesthood authority. He also lectured to women of the Nauvoo Relief Society and promised further instruction on priesthood and temples.
The trajectory of this vision was arrested by at least four major historical forces in LDS history. The first of these was Smith’s own death, the divisions it provoked within the Mormon movement, the exodus westward, and the isolation of Emma Smith from the movement. Whatever Joseph Smith envisioned for women, that vision was not fully conveyed to or shared by those who followed him. Elements of that vision remained in the temple ceremony as well as in living memory among women leaders who had known Smith and witnessed Relief Society organization, and we see its presence in the unabashed leadership of Mormon women in their own church organizations, in grassroots practices of women’s healing, and on the national stage through the early twentieth century. But as historian Ethan Yorgason has observed, the fight over polygamy and Utah’s admission into the union served as a “recolonization” of the Mormon people, and with that reassimiliation or recolonization came a gravitation towards more conservative takes on gender that matched mainstream American norms and values. Recolonization is the second major historical force that arrested Smith’s vision for women. The third was the corporatization and bureaucratic correlation undertaken by the Church in the 1930s and following. As I’ve discussed in earlier posts in this series, we see at this moment in history the consolidation of administrative authority under the structure of the priesthood, a move that undermined and eventually eliminated the independent authority (including budgets) of the Relief Society. Correlation was a third force, and the fourth was the LDS Church’s official political and public relations commitment from the 1960s onward to conservative and customary Euro-American gender roles (what counts as “traditional” gender roles actually varies across global cultures) as a means of differentiating the Church in the religious marketplace. We see this commitment not only in the Church’s fight against the Equal Rights Amendment but in its public affairs programming, including print and television advertisements.
From Smith’s radical vision of women as a kingdom of priests, the officially sanctioned view of Mormon women’s role morphed over centuries into that of women as caretakers of the domestic sphere, a logic that does not have solid footing in the specifics of Mormon theology but draws more from traditional Protestant and secular gender ideologies of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Speculative nineteenth century Mormon theology and the broader implementation of polygamy contributed to the rise of a body of folk doctrine on gender that emphasized literal procreation of both physical and spirit children as a means to increasing the eternal estate, glory, and power of men. Orson Pratt’s writings in The Seer, for example, are notable for projecting human biology onto deity. While elements of this concept of God are present in Joseph Smith’s early theology, Pratt’s biological essentialism and literalism and the body of folk doctrine that mirrors it evidences a narrowing of the role of women from Joseph Smith’s “kingdom of priests” into the accomplices of eternal procreation. We find this narrowing, this drift or shift from a broader vision of women’s roles, take on special force in the twentieth century with bureaucratic corporatization of the LDS Church and its administrative structuring around the offices of the priesthood. 1954 marks the first formal articulation of the rationale that motherhood is a parallel to priesthood, as historian Sonja Farnsworth has found. It is an idea which has no foundation in scripture. LDS scripture, in fact, scarcely mentions motherhood, except for associating labor pain with transgression and the fall into mortality, and it assigns motherhood no spiritual value at all.
There is a great gap between the originary restoration vision of Joseph Smith on gender and the LDS Church’s contemporary discourse on gender and priesthood. There is, truth be told, a deep incoherence. Elements of that original Joseph Smith vision vision remain alive in temple ceremonies, but they have been eliminated from the day-to-day operations of the institutional Church outside the temple. Does the endowment represent a form of priesthood authority, or not? If not, why are endowed women vested with symbols of priesthood power? And if the Church’s own sacred rites within the temple do in fact admit women to the priesthood, why should they not be admitted to full leadership participation in the day-to-day operations of the Church outside the temple?
This basic incoherence, this arrested restoration, has never been fully addressed. Official Church lesson manuals do not go into the relevant details of the early history of the Relief Society, and discussion of temple ritual and liturgy is considered too sensitive to be discussed in open settings. But Mormon feminist historians who first had access to early Relief Society minutes have been writing detailed, footnote-rich, Church archive-sourced scholarship on LDS women and priesthood since 1981. Classic essays on this subject (all of them available via a simple google search) include:
- Linda King Newell, “A Gift Given, A Gift Taken: Washing, Anointing, and Blessing the Sick among Mormon Women,” Sunstone 6 (September – October 1981): 16 – 25. (Rpt. Sisters in Spirit and Silver Anniversary edition of Sunstone.) https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/pdf/115-6-30-43.pdf
- Carol Cornwall Madsen, “Mormon Women and the Struggle for Definition: The Nineteenth-Century Church,” Sunstone 6 (November – December 1981): 7 – 11. Rpt. Dialogue 14.4 (Winter 1981): 40 – 47.
- Nadine Hansen, “Women and Priesthood,” Dialogue 14.4 (1981): 48.
- Margaret Toscano, “The Missing Rib: The Forgotten Place of Queens and Priestessses in the Establishment of Zion,” Sunstone 10 (July 1985): 16 – 22.
- Linda King Newell, “The Historical Relationship of Mormon Women and Priesthood,” Dialogue 18.3 (Fall 1985): 21 – 32.
- Sonja Farnsworth, “Mormonism’s Odd Couple,” MWF Quarterly 2.1 (March 1991): 1, 6 – 11. http://220.127.116.11/~girlsgo6/mormonwomensforum/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/MWFVol2Num1.pdf; Rpt. Women and Authority: Re-Emerging Mormon Feminism, ed. Maxine Hanks (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993). http://signaturebookslibrary.org/?p=975
For most Mormons, though, the incoherence of Mormon theology on gender has been stepped around and managed with a set of rhetorical patches, like the mid twentieth-century pairing of priesthood and motherhood. Recently, in response to the Ordain Women.org movement, Church spokespeople have answered that contemporary gendered LDS priesthood ordination practices enact patterns established by Jesus Christ for the early Christian church. Historical scholarship on early Christianity, unfortunately, does not substantiate that claim. (Women apostles like Junia are identified in the New Testament, to cite one well-known example.) One also hears, for example, that men hold priesthood office, but women have “access” to the priesthood or the “fullness” of the priesthood. What exactly does that mean? Does “access” mean, as it might have in Joseph Smith’s time, that women who have been endowed can act with authority to do God’s work, without ordination to a Melchizedek priesthood office? Or does “access” mean, as it would have in the conservative secular gender ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that women can “access” priesthood power indirectly by influencing their male relatives to use priesthood in a certain way? Does “fullness” mean that there is a general priesthood authority conveyed through the endowment that empowers endowed women without ordination to a specific priesthood office? To me, these are vital questions. A great faith like Mormonism is certainly capable of providing coherent answers.
So my own study of priesthood and gender leads me to conclude that for women, the radical vision of Joseph Smith, his restoration, has been arrested, and that some serious questions about gender and authority remain to be resolved. LDS belief in continuing revelation gives me hope that answers will come. But they will only come, we know from the historical example of Blacks and the priesthood, if circumstances make the questions inevitable for LDS Church leaders to ask of God. And again history suggests that pragmatic considerations—for example, mass conversions in Brazil and the consequent difficulty of determining which Brazillians were “black” enough to qualify or disqualify for ordination—do as much to set the agenda as do theological questions on their own merits, even when those questions profoundly impact the lives of millions of Mormon men and women. Perhaps there will come a day when in one of Mormonism’s global contexts faithful women so outnumber faithful men as to make the desegregation of some religious offices and responsibilities a pragmatic necessity. Perhaps rising rates of disaffiliation among Mormon women in the 18 – 29 year old age bracket will lead to greater concern about the status of women in the church; I doubt that will be the case, even though my own experience talking to younger women who have disaffiliated suggests that unanswered theological questions centering on fairness and equality and the eternal purpose of women’s lives play a significant early role in disaffection. It would be wonderful if questions that now have no answer could be answered in full. In time, perhaps, they will be. I hope that time is soon.
Still, even without contemporary Church leaders addressing the outstanding and long-delayed question of women, priesthood, and authority, there are many steps that can be taken forward—with no theological change at all—to promote greater gender equality within the LDS Church. (For a terrific list of such changes, check out this website.)
With no change at all to LDS Handbook policy or Mormon doctrine, the Church could, for example:
–Institute councils at all levels of church government, including highest-level decision making on church policy, budgets, and theology, inviting women auxiliary leaders to counsel as equals with members of the Quorum of the 12 at all meetings of the Quorum of the 12.
— Restore financial and institutional independence of Relief Society and women’s auxiliaries, including power to set own curriculum and budget.
–Ensure equal budgets and opportunities for young men and women’s programming.
–Review hiring policies in all Church administrative offices and arms to gender-desegregate leadership, institute equal pay for equal work, and equitable coverage of men’s and women’s health needs including contraception.
–Institute equal representation of men and women on the boards and in the leadership of Church-owned subsidiaries including universities (BYU, LDS Business College, etc.), corporations (Deseret Management Corporation, including Bonneville Communications, Deseret Book, etc.), Church Educational System, Humanitarian Services, LDS Family Services.
–From the pulpit, encourage women to study LDS history on women’s spiritual gifts—including the historical practice of giving blessings.
–Publish the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes and assign them as Relief Society and Priesthood curriculum.
–Pray about the question of women’s priesthood authority and ordination.
Without making any changes to Mormon doctrine–only to handbook policy–the Church could (in addition to the foregoing):
–Gender desegregate all callings and responsibilities that do not explicitly require priesthood ordination, including Sunday School presidencies (and, conversely, Primary presidencies) and church historians.
If the Church were to seek to clarify the question of endowed women’s role in the Melchizedek Priesthood, and if this clarification were to find that endowment conveyed a fullness of the Melchezidek priesthood if not its offices, the Church could (in addition to the foregoing):
–Desegregate all callings and responsibilities that do not explicitly require priesthood keys. Currently gender-segregated callings that require priesthood ordination but have no priesthood keys assigned to them by scripture include witnesses to baptisms and sealings, stake and ward clerks and executive secretaries, stake high councils, ward and stake mission leaders, counselors in bishoprics, and counselors in temple, mission, stake, branch, district, and ward and stake auxiliary presidencies.
–Permit women who wish to do so to witness baptisms, stand in the circle for naming and blessing of children, and participate in the consecration of oil, and dedication of homes.
–Delegate authority to women auxiliary leaders to conduct worthiness interviews for women, young women, and girls and church courts for women.
(If any of these ideas make sense to you, you might add your name as a signer to this document.) Will we in our lifetimes see any of the above changes instituted? Since starting this series, I have received messages from many men and women sharing instances when their local leaders extended customarily gender segregated callings across gender lines, or made other egalitarian changes, to meet local needs or answer local concerns. Again, LDS Church history suggests that it is local pragmatic concerns that have driven some of the most far-reaching and revolutionary changes in our theology this century.
I love the pragmatism of Mormonism. But I also love its beautiful and distinctive theology, and I am deeply struck by the fact that there is a basic incoherence in that theology—an arrested restoration on question of gender, priesthood, and authority. I appreciate the women who are organizing to ask Church leaders to seriously consider this question. I am struck by the power of Joseph Smith’s vision and would like to see it realized with the recognition of endowed women as priesthood holders and an end to discourse which positions priesthood against motherhood.
Perhaps there was a time when the dominant patterns of economic and family life and the infrastructural demands of growing a worldwide church made it very pragmatic to map the entire administration of the church onto a gendered division of labor. But surely that time is past. Gendered divisions of labor make less and less sense in the context of emerging twenty-first century patterns of economic and family life. All around me I see working Mormon women—wage stagnation (and increased corporate profit-taking) since the 1970s makes the two income family basic reality for all but more affluent LDS people. And all around me I see Mormon men profoundly involved in the parenting and nurture of their children. Some men are outstanding nurturers, in fact, and some women are not; some women are incredible analysts and administrators and some men are not. Why should these capacities not all be honored as sacred and useful, regardless of gender? Put-your-shoulder-to-the-wheel egalitarianism in Church administration and leadership seems more in keeping with the pragmatic spirit of Mormonism than a biological essentialism-driven folk doctrine that would prioritize the performance of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Euro-American gender roles over the work of salvation.
For me, the questions about priesthood, gender, and authority outnumber the answers. I have faith the day will come when the questions will have answers. I do hope that day will come sooner than later. But without waiting, with no theological change at all, there is so much that can be done to manifest a greater commitment to gender equality in a faith that teaches that all are alike unto God.