Category Archives: priesthood

Should Mormon women be ordained? Or are they already priesthood holders?

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, 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 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.

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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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Who was the first LDS leader to pair motherhood and priesthood? What else has changed about priesthood over the course of LDS history?

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. 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.

James 1:5

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What is priesthood? What is the relationship of gender to priesthood?

It is daunting to look at the faith that you love and witness the accumulation of 183 years of non-systematic doctrinal accumulation.  By which I mean that one of the downsides of not having a professional clergy is that Mormonism does not recognize a systematic, coherent theology.  Yes, people.  In this, I envy Catholics and Jews and other faiths who make space for professional theologians and scholars of theology trained in the discipline.  I want a Mormon Jaroslav Pelikan.  I want Mormon Jesuits.  I really do.

What we have instead is an accretion of scriptures, historical events, personal experiences, and interpretive impulses–a chaotic body of data that is typically managed in order to tell the story the speaker wants it to tell.   Every faith tradition has a theological history rich in chaos, and Mormonism is no exception.  What we can see at best as we begin to piece together the history of thought on questions like “What is priesthood?” and “What is the relationship of gender to priesthood?” is the human outlines of our hunger for the truth and the way in which the terms of our search for the truth have evolved over time.  Mormons call this process continuing revelation.  The more we learn about change in Mormon history and doctrine and the more prepared we are to be candid, we must acknowledge that human dispositions and error play a vital role in shaping Mormon doctrinal history–especially on questions of power and its administration.

The problems come when we mistake human impulses and dispositions for Godly intentions and assume that what seems familiar and right to us is in fact essentially reflective of reality.

For example, we now hear a great deal of talk in connection with priesthood about gender complementarity–the idea that the spiritual work of mothering is the intended complement to priesthood offices. This idea is spoken as if it is gospel truth–self-evident.

But is there one scrap of evidence in A) canonized scripture B) canonized revelation C) the words of Jesus Christ or D) the words of Joseph Smith that supports the notion that motherhood is a spiritual office that is the complement of priesthood?

Because unless someone can find me this kind of evidence, candidly, I believe we have to set this whole notion aside as well-intentioned (and by some, deeply felt, but for others, deeply counter-experiential and nonsensical) folk doctrine.  I am mindful that Valerie Hudson and other well-regarded scholars have put forward various accounts imagining the spiritual value of motherhood.  But these have no foundation in doctrine and bear virtually no resemblance to the actual practices and values (aside from rhetorical) of the contemporary LDS Church. They are as fanciful and speculative as Orson Pratt’s 19th century ponderings that spirit children are conceived in a manner that mirrors earthly procreation.  Fact is, we simply do not have a body of doctrine that establishes the role of gender in the plan of salvation.  Pretty much everything we can say about Heavenly Mother–that she exists–is the product of post-1843 speculation confirmed only in retrospect by later prophets like Gordon B. Hinckley.  We do not have evidence for Heavenly Mother in canonized scripture, canonized revelation, the words of Jesus Christ, or the words of Joseph Smith.  Sad fact, but there it is.  What we do have is the projection of familiar 19th century European-American assumptions about motherhood and gender (which are not universally held) onto the nature of God and eternity.  We have speculation, not doctrine.  We also have the use of the idea of complementarity as a rationale for excluding women from authority over the institutional, financial, political, and socio-cultural life of our community.  Again, this is a strange permutation of the use of the term “complementarity,” as we note if we compare our experience in a Church where 19th century Euro-American gender norms rule to the way complementarity is understood and practiced in non-Euro-American societies.  An indigenous Mormon reader of the column wrote in with this note:

[Lakota anthropologist] Bea Medicine and others define gender complementarity not only as recognizing gender differences, but, and this is important, sharing power and decision making.  She observes, “The cultural mandates from symbolic and mythic structures did actually reflect duality and complementarity in economic and social roles” (Medicine 141).  

We do not have duality and complementarity in Mormonism, except in our imaginations.

We must know what something is not in order to be able to understand what is.

This problem extends not only to the folk doctrine that has accumulated over the years to legitimate late 20th century gendered power segregation within LDS institutional life but to the way priesthood has been redefined in this time period to conflate administrative, ecclesiastical, ritual, spiritual, familial, and social offices.  Another reader wrote this week with the same concern:

With all the commotion around priesthood ordination, I determined to start studying what priesthood really means and how it has been described since the restoration. I’m finding that definitions are very inconsistent! Sometimes it’s God’s authority in general, sometimes it’s his power broadly, sometimes it’s specific keys, etc. The church’s most recent “worldwide leadership training” on priesthood authority only confused me more, with quotes like “I use my priesthood keys to perceive and meet the needs of my quorum” (what? Isn’t that just the spirit? so bizarre). I’m finding that keys and authority are even ill-defined; what are keys, specifically? They’re talked about generally all the time, but what specific keys come with ordination to the Aaronic priesthood, and how are they supposed to be used? Anyway, I have determined to try and study it out more, because it’s hard to know where women fall in all this when it’s unclear what priesthood even means, how it relates to spiritual gifts, etc. 

Exactly.  What really counts as priesthood?  Is healing the sick a priesthood office? Is managing the Church’s stock portfolios a priesthood office? Is presiding over a Church-owned university a priesthood office? Is saying a benediction a priesthood office? (It was classified as such during my lifetime.) Is serving on the High Council a priesthood office?

We must know what something is not in order to know what it is.

Okay, readers, next week we’ll start in on some readings.  But for now, I leave you with a couple of questions:

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.)

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?

Send your thoughts to, or follow @askmormongirl on Twitter.


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Ask Mormon Girl: What is priesthood? And don’t Mormon women already have it?

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.

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