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 askmormongirl@gmail.com, 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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Ask Mormon Girl: How do I live my faith and my conscience? A Passover / Easter week special.

Forgive me if I step away this week from our regularly scheduled format.

Today—just today–I spoke with three young Mormons facing the exceptional challenge of living their faith and by the leadings of their conscience:

–A young woman who feels led to speak out on the issue of women’s ordination, but who worries that if she does she will get kicked out of BYU and lose her job.

–A young mother in a conservative Utah town whose neighbors are boycotting her home-based business because she is open about her Mormon feminism.

–And a worthy, believing young man (who I will soon profile at my other gig at ReligionDispatches.org) who has been told he cannot serve a mission because he believes his gay brother is equal in the sight of God and deserves all the same blessings and opportunities he enjoys.

We talked for an hour tonight, this young man and me, and he asked me, finally, “Look, I read your bio—and it left me wondering.  Why do you stay?”

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Ask Mormon Girl: I want to convert, but my mother is deadset against it. Help?

One theme, two letters this week, readers:

I am a 16 year-old girl, writing because I have developed a deep love and commitment for the LDS Church, but I’m facing horrible hostility from my mother. My mother isn’t just suspicious of the Church as an outsider. She was raised a member in Utah, and became inactive when she left home for college and never looked back. So when she criticizes the Church she knows exactly what she is talking about and seems to speak from a passionate place of hurt.

I was raised with no religious affiliation, and because of this, I lacked the kind of community that my Jewish and Christian peers had in their synagogues and churches. That was why a year ago, my mother, also having a loneliness/community crisis herself, got my brother involved in Boy Scouts via the church, and talked a local ward to let me go to Young Women’s. We loved it just as a secular way to make friends and have fun, but for me it became spiritual. After about 6 months, I knew that I believed in the Church and it was the completion to my desire to find a church. (I was obsessed with God and Christ from an early age despite the lack of discussion in my home). Then came the time to tell my mom.

A month ago I expressed my desire to get baptized and I got a long lecture on how it would ruin my mind–I have been raised a liberal and the majority of Mormons think more conservatively than me–make me lonely (the irony), how disappointed she would be in me, and how it would divide us for the rest of our lives. 

There has nothing been more painful to me than hearing that. I have considered giving up on the Church because I can’t reconcile it with her. But that’s equally painful. My goal was to get baptized this year, but now I’ve thought it may have to wait until I’m in college. Until then I’d still like to go to church and other activities, but I’m afraid of alienating my mother just by doing that. 

How can I foster my faith but stay at peace with my mother especially as a youth?


I’ve found, through much prayer and reading of the scriptures, that I believe The Book of Mormon to be true. I really want to be baptized. I’m 18 years old and am going to a community college and living with my parents and in two years, I hope to transfer to a four year. Even before finding that I agree with the beliefs and ideals of the Mormon religion, I was considering transferring to BYU in two years. Now I would like to even more because I honestly want to surround myself with like-minded people. I have never met a member of the LDS church that I did not absolutely love. I’m excited to be baptized.

The only problem is that my parents strongly dislike the Mormon religion, mostly because I am half African American and my mother is very sensitive to any person or group of people that has every been racist toward African Americans or Africans in general. I have not yet gone to her to tell her that I want to be baptized, but I did tell her that I want to transfer to BYU.  She was absolutely furious. She told me that I should go find some nice Catholic school to go to instead, because that “would be better for the purposes I have for going”. So it seems that soon I will need to tell her that I want to be baptized. I have no idea how to go about it. I definitely want to avoid destroying my relationship with my parents, but I need to be true to my faith as well. Also, I know there is a very good chance that when I tell them, they will decide to kick me out of the house. I would have literally nowhere else to go and no way to pay for school over the next few years. I’m terrified of being stranded. I’ve considered waiting a few years until I’m out of the house, but that feels extremely wrong morally. It would be like lying. I really need help.

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Ask Mormon Girl: How should I teach tough aspects of Mormon history to my 14 year old Sunday School class?

Happy Monday, readers—and a quick programming note.  This Thursday, February 28, please join me at the Porch in Provo, Utah, for a fantastic night of storytelling on the theme “Good Girls Don’t.  . . “  Two shows, both benefitting the Feminist Mormon Housewives Tracy McKay Scholarship for Single Mothers.  It would be fantastic to see you there.

Now, to this week’s query:

I’m 27 and have been LDS all my life. I recently decided to educate myself on issues swept under the rug by the Church and I guess you could say I’m going through a faith transition. I’m currently in the process of learning about and reconciling our troubled history, but I still believe the gospel at its core is true. I teach Sunday School to a group of 14 and 15 year olds. They’re great kids with strong testimonies, but they regularly come to class regaling stories from the past week of what “crazy lies” their classmates confronted them with. Often these aren’t lies at all; they’re some of those troubling stories from early church history, or past doctrines. My students’ peers are researching the Church online, finding the most bizarre (but historically accurate) parts of our past and culture, and then reporting their findings. What can I say to my students when they bring them up in class? I personally think that these things should be discussed, but at what age? How much information should I give? So far all I’ve said is something about the gift of continuing revelation, and that no matter what wacky thing they’re approached with, if it hasn’t been taught recently, we don’t believe it.

I’m dreading the day one of my students asks, “Is it true that Joseph Smith married a girl my age?” No one ever told me the truth about these things, but then again I never asked because I had no idea. I don’t want to lie, but I don’t want to say too much, either.

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Ask Mormon Girl: Time to come out of the closet as a Mormon feminist. How do I tell my husband?

Over the last couple of years I feel I have been transforming. I am no longer the completely accepting Mormon woman, who accepts all the teachings of the church as truth, and just say, “I’ll understand it in the eternities. Don’t worry about that now.” I think I started to see something going on within myself when I lived in California during the Prop 8 stuff and was not in alignment with what seemed to be every other Mormon’s opinion. I started reading Feminist Mormon Housewives at first because it appalled me a little. But then I actually started to agree with some of the things that I was reading. Then I started reading Ask Mormon Girl and recently added Young Mormon Feminists. I had a realization that I actually AM a feminist.

My problem is  . . . How do I come out of the closet?

My husband is not completely traditional in his beliefs and opinions. Right now, he is a stay-at-home dad, and I am the bread winner. But overall, he is a fairly traditional Mormon man. I keep worrying that he will see the blogs I read and discover that part of who I am and it will be a major “thing” between us. Do I just come out and say it? Or do I give it to him gently? And if it is gently… how would I do that?


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Ask Mormon Girl: I’m a high school senior. Should I go to BYU?

[This post has been updated.]

I am a high school senior seriously stressed out about college. I have serious issues with conformity and the lack of diversity at BYU, but I secretly feel like I wont be happy unless I go there, even if that means possibly turning down Harvard, Columbia, and full scholarships to USC and UVa. Can you tell me about your experience at BYU?

JL in Arkansas

My experience at BYU?

Just this week, JL, I was digging through an archive bin in my garage when I laid my hands on a prized letter from Rex Lee, who was the president of Brigham Young University during my years as a Cougar.  It was a letter I received after sending my diploma back after graduation.

That’s right.  I sent back my diploma.  Had to do with the firing of one of my favorite professors, Cecilia Konchar Farr, on some pretty shady grounds:  BYU said it was her scholarship, but we all knew it was her feminism that got Ceil in hot water.  And Ceil wasn’t the only BYU faculty member or student feeling the heat of retrenchment during the 1990s.

Those were some times. 

Here’s President Lee’s letter:

redact rex lee

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Ask Mormon Girl: I’m a 31 year old Mexican Mormon and . . . feminist. Help?

First, dear readers, I want to thank you for the outpouring of support for the gay elder I wrote about last week.  Your letters are winging their way to him in an unnamed region of the globe.  Thank you for your words of kindness, courage, and compassion.

This week’s letter comes from a woman in Mexico.  I’ve been seeing more than a few of these lately.  Young women, usually.  Places like  Brazil and Russia.  The story is often the same.  They were hungry, courageous, willing to be different, tuned into the bigger questions, and looking for answers.  They found the LDS Church.  They gave their lives to it.  And then, complications materialized. As they do for most of us.  Sooner or later.

Here’s the letter:

I have been LDS since I was 19. I’m a convert. Now, I’m 31, single and studying for a masters in population and development. My story began as many here in Mexico. I met in high school a nice friend, and she turned out to be mormon. I did have mormon family but they were inactive and never spoke about church. So, I met the missionaries and got baptized really fast. My mom did too, few days after.

I can’t deny that I was happy and comfortable in and with the church. I even entered the Temple. I didn’t serve a mission, not even really had a plan about doing that since I’m a daughter of a single mother. And yes, that influenced in myw hole life and of course at church. I get really sad about the fact that I cannot get sealed with her (since she never married my father).

I served as an YW president in my ward for really a lot of years. Then, I was called as 1st counselor of YW in the stake; that’s when I saw the big difference between women’s and men’s opinions at church. Always, at our meetings our leaders asked for solutions for the problems that we were facing, but when we offered our opinion and/or solutions we weren’t listened to at all. Always, the main objective was to keep young men safe, not really our women and girls.

For example, one of my church friend´s mom suffered a terrible attack by her boyfriend. She was at the hospital for about 3 weeks; she´s still alive by God´s mercy. When I talked with our leaders about that, one said: “Well, it´s natural, she was doing not so good things in her life.”

That’s when I asked for help outside church, so that´s how I met a group of feminists in my town. Since then, I understand so many things. I understand that violence isn´t only physical, and then I realize that there was spiritual violence too. The saddest part is that I found that we suffered of that kind of violence at the church, at Jesus’s church.

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