An essay on Joseph Smith's Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women was added on 23 Oct 2015 to the Topical Guide of the LDS.org website.
This essay appears to be a response to the increasing opposition some LDS women have to being excluded from receiving the priesthood, such as the Ordain Women movement. Such groups detail how women in the 1800s exercised what are now known as priesthood ordinances, such as healing the sick.
The essay name implies it will end controversy about what Joseph taught concerning the priesthood, the temple, and women, when in fact the essay is almost entirely about women; however, perhaps it is telling that the essay deals with the three most prominent historical arguments used by those seeking female priesthood: ordination of women in the early church, women healing and blessing, and co-gendered temple worship. (The fourth argument is of course the existence of a Mother in Heaven, which topic was given its own essay, released concurrent with this one).
A MormonThink editor responds to the essay below. (We have lifted liberally from other responses to the Church's essay, including /u/curious_mormon's post on reddit.)
It is interesting that the Church titled the essay, "Joseph Smith's Teachings…" rather than something such as quot;Women and the Priesthood." This focuses on Joseph Smith's teachings and skips the misogynistic LDS doctrines publicly taught and endorsed by Brigham Young, Orson Pratt, Spencer Kimball, and other prophets and apostles. It lets the authors of the essay ignore polygamy, institutionalized sexism and the spiritual polygamists of today. It lets them flatly ignore women's movements, such as Ordain Women or the ERA. Not surprisingly, they also fail to mention that women weren't allowed to pray in sacrament until 1978 or in general conference until 2013. (As a tangent, they were, interestingly enough, allowed to offer prayers to open the Utah Legislature sessions since at least 2001.)
The essays start with the phrase "women and men". This is modern-day code for when Church leaders want women to feel like they have value—it's one of the rare times the Church puts women first, even if it's in name only. For comparison, the phrase "men and women" is used elsewhere, and (not so) ironically appears nearly twice as often within this essay. On the LDS.org site, the phrase "men and women" is used 12 times more frequently than "women and men."
The essay uses words to make the Church sound more Christian. Unlike the more popular reference to Joseph Smith's "mission," they refer to it as his "ministry." This is such a new trend that there are only 52 references on all of LDS.org, with a mere 6 references prior to 2012 (one in 1997, none before that). This seems to go hand-in-hand with references to the Bible as an excuse for the misogyny in the same way that they excused themselves for having racist doctrine. And yes, while they use the Bible to justify misogyny, they stop short of using it to acknowledge that the Bible references female seers, prophets, and revelators.
The first paragraph seems to imply that men and women share equally in everything the Church has to offer, except the priesthood:
Women and men enjoy many opportunities for service in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, both within local congregations and at the Churchwide level. Among other things, Latter-day Saint women preach sermons in Sunday meetings and the Church's general conference; serve full-time proselytizing missions; perform and officiate in holy rites in the Church's temples; and lead organizations that minister to families, other women, young women, and children. They participate in priesthood councils at the local and general levels.
The essay fails to say that women were not even allowed to give prayers in General Conference until 2013. Women give less than 20% of talks at major conferences. Women are not allowed to attend the Priesthood sessions of General Conference (even though the priesthood talks are available to women when they are published in The Ensign the month following the meeting). Female missionaries must be a year older, serve six months less and cannot serve in any mission leadership role except as a training leader for other sisters. Additionally, women missionaries report to three levels of male missionaries (who are often younger than they are). Women cannot baptize nor prepare or pass the sacrament.
The statement that "They participate in priesthood councils at the local and general levels," is a bit misleading. What must first be defined is what a "priesthood council" actually is. From Handbook 2:
4.1 Councils in the Church
The Lord’s Church is governed through councils at the general, area, stake, and ward levels. These councils are fundamental to the order of the Church.
Under the keys of priesthood leadership at each level, leaders counsel together for the benefit of individuals and families. Council members also plan the work of the Church pertaining to their assignments. Effective councils invite full expression from council members and unify their efforts in responding to individual, family, and organizational needs.
As the presiding high priest of the ward, the bishop presides over three related councils: the bishopric, the priesthood executive committee, and the ward council. This chapter provides an explanation of each of these.
4. The Ward Council, Handbook 2: Administering the Church.
Women are allowed to participate in the last two of the three mentioned councils, but only to a limited extent. They are excluded from the Bishopric meeting. They have a limited role in the Priesthood Executive Committee meeting:
As needed, the bishop may invite the Relief Society president to attend some ward PEC meetings to discuss confidential welfare matters and to coordinate home teaching and visiting teaching assignments.
4.3 Priesthood Executive Committee, Handbook 2: Administering the Church.
At the invitation of a the bishop, a man may allow a woman to attend the meeting.
A representative woman from both the Relief Society and Young Women presidencies participate in the Ward Council meeting. Unfortunately, they are often at the meetings to be delegated LDS-gender-specific assignments, such as being assigned to provide decorations, fliers, food, etc. to ward activities.
As noted, the bishop presides over these councils, so women would never be able to actually lead any of these meetings.
Their examples of shared service [for women] is limited only to the local, non-administrative level. They try to imply equal service everywhere in the church, but they fail to mention what the upper level women's leadership actually does (nothing of importance, outside of PR puppets and recent claims of being allowed to voice opinions in the all male councils). They also fail to acknowledge that upper level positions for men are paid. Women, it seems are not.
The essay states there are women employed by the Church:
Professional women teach Latter-day Saint history and theology at Church universities and in the Church's educational programs for youth…
Regarding the second half of that statement, there are in fact very few paid, full-time CES instructors who are women. However, there are a large number of women teaching in unpaid positions of seminary and institute.
The essay claims there are professional women in the Church. This is true, but it is like saying there are men of color in the top levels of leadership. Yes, there are token figures holding non-influential positions, but that's hardly the equality they're implying. They also do not mention that it's been less than a year since women were allowed to work in these "professional" positions while pregnant. It wasn't until 2013 that BYU hired it's first tenure track, female professor who had young children (following the policy change). That policy would never have been tolerated by any public companies and would have been deemed sexist and illegal.
Regarding BYU, of the 1500+ faculty and 1300+ part-time faculty, there are apparently only 108 women (3.8%-7.2% for those keeping count - [note: it has not been verified that all women faculty are in the women's association and it's unclear if enrollment is automatic, or if there are penalties that would discourage women from joining.] ).
Also, not mentioned in the essays is that the Church, even today, instructs women not to work outside the home if at all possible. Relief Society (as well as priesthood classes) still give yearly lessons that teach that women should not work outside the home. They drill into members that men should work and women should stay at home and take care of the children.
That is why it is so important for mothers to stay at home to care for their children themselves. They should try not to leave them in the care of others. Our leaders have asked mothers not to work outside the home unless it is absolutely necessary.
"Lesson 14: The Latter-day Saint Woman," The Latter-day Saint Woman: Basic Manual for Women, Part A, (2000).
Female responsibilities include being a wife, include being a mother, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a friend. This is all about nurturing, teaching, and influencing. These are non-negotiable responsibilities. We can’t delegate them. We can accept them and live them, but these are things we understood before we were born, and we can’t negotiate with the Lord about whether or not these are our responsibilities. They have been part of the plan from the beginning; they are not going to change because of any clamor to the contrary. These are our responsibilities.
One of the questions that I get frequently is, “Is it okay if I work outside of my home?” You have to know that as an international, global, Relief Society president, that question isn’t always appropriate in all of the world’s countries. There are many, many places where if our women don’t work, they don’t eat. So of course they have to work. The question of whether or not to work is the wrong question. The question is, “Am I aligned with the Lord’s vision of me and what He needs me to become and the roles and responsibilities He gave me in heaven that are not negotiable? Am I aligned with that, or am I trying to escape my duties?” Those are the kinds of things we need to understand. Our Heavenly Father loves His daughters, and because He loves us and the reward at the end is so glorious, we do not get a pass from the responsibilities we were given. We cannot give them away. They are our sacred duties and we fulfill them under covenant.
Julie B. Beck, BYU Women’s Conference 2011.
At BYU, many LDS girls drop out of college and support their husbands when they get married. These teachings are very out-of-date with the modern notion of gender equality and families.
My wife noted that when the Relief Society gave the last 'women should not work outside the home' lesson in our ward, a few of the women that worked left the room at the beginning of the lesson (presumably so they would not be embarrassed or feel uncomfortable due to the fact that they work for whatever reason).
The essay states:
In organizing the Relief Society, Joseph spoke of "ordain[ing]" women and said that Relief Society officers would "preside over the Society." He also declared, "I now turn the key to you in the name of God."
Comments from the Rational Faiths website:
Many today make the assertion that because women were ordained in the early church, they must have been given the priesthood. There are many instances of women being "ordained" to minister, heal, preside, and administer in holy ordinances. Many women record being "ordained and set apart" to these responsibilities. While the first of these instances occurred at the founding of the Relief Society in Nauvoo, women were still being "ordained" as late as the 1890s.
However, no public record exists that records a women being ordained to a specific office of the priesthood, and, as the essay explains, our 21st century understanding of the term "ordained" is not immediately transferable to a 19th century understanding. The fact that many women were "ordained" in the first 50 years of the church does not directly lead to the conclusion that early LDS women held priesthood office. While some today might feel strongly that the use of the word "ordain" in regards to early LDS women stands as proof that these women held a priesthood office, there is in fact no historically responsible evidence that these same women understood it to be so.
That said, this new essay asserts that "ordain" was used in a broad sense, that it could be interchangeable with "set apart"; I find this a touch disingenuous. It is clear from journal entries and recorded blessings that "ordain" was distinct from "set apart"; women who were ordained tended to be higher in rank or status, called to a position of authority or special prowess (such as those called to serve in Relief Society presidencies or called to train to be midwives), and—after the establishment of the Relief Society and the subsequent availability of the temple endowment to women—theses women tended to be endowed sisters. Under these circumstances, women who were "ordained" as well as set apart were being blessed with an extra measure of power and authority.
Response to "Joseph Smith's Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women," by Fara Sneddon, Rational Faiths, Oct 24, 2015.
The essay acknowledges that women gave blessings in the early days of the Church:
Some women had performed such blessings since the early days of the Church.
During the 19th century, women frequently blessed the sick by the prayer of faith, and many women received priesthood blessings promising that they would have the gift of healing. "I have seen many demonstrations of the power and blessing of God through the administration of the sisters," testified Elizabeth Ann Smith Whitney, who was, by her own account, blessed by Joseph Smith to exercise this gift. In reference to these healing blessings, Relief Society general president Eliza R. Snow explained in 1883, "Women can administer in the name of JESUS, but not by virtue of the Priesthood."
Women's participation in healing blessings gradually declined in the early 20th century as Church leaders taught that it was preferable to follow the New Testament directive to "call for the elders." By 1926, Church President Heber J. Grant affirmed that the First Presidency "do not encourage calling in the sisters to administer to the sick, as the scriptures tell us to call in the Elders, who hold the priesthood of God and have the power and authority to administer to the sick in the name of Jesus Christ." Currently, the Church's Handbook 2: Administering the Church directs that "only Melchizedek Priesthood holders may administer to the sick or afflicted."
It is interesting to note a portion of Section 84 of the Doctrine and Covenants:
62 Therefore, go ye into all the world; and unto whatsoever place ye cannot go ye shall send, that the testimony may go from you into all the world unto every creature.
63 And as I said unto mine apostles, even so I say unto you, for you are mine apostles, even God's high priests; ye are they whom my Father hath given me; ye are my friends;
64 Therefore, as I said unto mine apostles I say unto you again, that every soul who believeth on your words, and is baptized by water for the remission of sins, shall receive the Holy Ghost.
65 And these signs shall follow them that believe-
66 In my name they shall do many wonderful works;
67 In my name they shall cast out devils;
68 In my name they shall heal the sick;
69 In my name they shall open the eyes of the blind, and unstop the ears of the deaf;
70 And the tongue of the dumb shall speak;
Doctrine and Covenants 84: 62-70. (emphasis mine)
Prest Joseph Smith arose and called the attention of the meeting to the 12th. chapter 1st Corinthians.
He continued to read the chapter, and give instructions respecting the different offices, and the necessity of every individual acting in the Sphere allotted him or her…
Joseph went on:
He Said the reason of these remarks being made was, that Some little foolish things were circulating in the Society, against Some Sisters Not doing right in laying hands on the Sick. Said if the People had common Sympathies they would rejoice that the Sick could be healed;
President Smith continued the Subject, by quoting the commission given to the ancient apostles in Mark 16th chapter
No matter who believeth, these Signs such as healing the Sick, casting out devils &c Should follow all that believe whether male or female. He asked the Society if they could not See by this Sweeping promise, that wherein they are ordained it is the privaledge of those Set apart to administer in that authority which is confered on them; and if the Sisters Should have faith to heal the Sick let all hold their tongues, and let every thing roll on.
History, 1838-1856, volume C-1 Addenda, Joseph Smith Papers.
It should be clear from D&C 84 and Joseph Smith's address to the Relief Society that he believed that every person who believes and is baptized will be able to perform "works," regardless of their gender. However, the gifts and works listed are today associated with things only those holding the priesthood can do.
This is actually both hopeful and heartbreaking, and if you know much about Nauvoo history, the founding and almost immediate disbanding of the early Relief Society for over a decade (Emma tried to use it to fight polygamy, not realizing almost every woman in the room was secretly married to her husband), and the history of women giving blessings, it feels like they are skating on thin ice. Just a tiny bit of research opens the door to so much upsetting information from early Mormonism. Their examples of how women today participate all reflect serious imbalances.
The essay tries to give Joseph credit for the relief society. In reality, it was already in existence and Joseph just took it over when he had a "revelation" that put Emma at the head of the organization. An organization that had already given itself the charitable charge. Despite the claims in the essay, women's benevolence societies were very popular, even though the essay tries to claim that Joseph's takeover makes it special. The other half of this is that they figuratively take away the one organization that was made by women and gave credit for it back to the men. Credit should go to Sarah Kimball and Margaret Cook for organizing it as they first started a sewing society, complete with constitutions and bylaws, for help with the the Nauvoo temple. It was this sewing society Joseph Smith turned into the Relief Society.
The essay claims that women lead the Relief Society, the Young Women, and the Primary. This is not accurate. Women don't actually lead organizations as they are presided over by men from the local level on up. Additionally, the women are instructed to recite the words, practically verbatim, that were written by the all male correlation or curriculum committees. They follow policies, such as the one not to deviate from the manual, written by only men. They have no power to make any decisions that are not at some point authorized by the male. They are replaced if they deviate or get too creative. They're excommunicated if they create a following (see Kate Kelly). Still, even with this loose definition, no woman in the church leads a man in any ecclesiastical position.
The essay is titled "Joseph Smith's Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women". How can an essay with this title completely omit any mention of polygamy? That was a very fundamental practice that Joseph Smith taught encompassing the priesthood, temple and especially women. The essay mentions the early temple ceremonies as a way to seal families but does not mention that Joseph used the early temple ceremonies as a way to introduce polygamy to the inner circles. To completely avoid referencing D&C 132 in this essay makes it obvious that the Church does not wish to bring about any more discussion about polygamy, even if it is completely relevant to the topic.
The essay fails to discuss the role that women have played in scripture. The women who currently support the Ordain Women movement, often cite how the Bible references female seers, prophets, and revelators. It would have been nice and appropriate if the essay touched on the role of women and the priesthood in Biblical times.
Comments from the Rational Faiths website:
It has been less than a day since the church posted "Joseph Smith's Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women," and the reactions have ranged from heralding it to condemning it. I find myself somewhere in the middle. At times the essay smacks of an attempt to contain the best historical arguments used by those agitating for female ordination, other times it loses its way from being about Joseph's teaching and instead rests its assumptions and conclusions firmly in the teachings of more modern prophets. I recognize I am not the ideal audience; the points and illustrations the essay presents are not new to me. Over the last fifteen years the church has released all of this information and more, and those who have been interested in the topic have had resources such as Jill Derr's Women of Covenant: A History of the Relief Society, a study supported and endorsed by the highest church leadership—yet the general membership will not have read through its hundreds of pages. Instead, this essay offers a good starting point to understand the rich history of women in the LDS church.
Emmeline B Wells, the fifth president of the Relief Society and the president who oversaw the time period when the great bulk of women's healing and blessing rituals were taken away, wrote that "History may not have preserved it all, there may be no tangible record of what has been gained, but sometime we shall know that nothing has been irretrievably lost." This essay provides newly legitimized space for me and others to continue our research into early Mormon women (without the threat of local leadership disapproving). The essay de-stigmatizes these topics and grants permission for all of us—and for the general membership at large—to engage in discussions that were all but absent in most LDS congregations. To me, all these are very good things.
Response to "Joseph Smith's Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women," by Fara Sneddon, Rational Faiths, Oct 24, 2015.
This essay was apparently brought about by all the publicity surrounding the Ordain Women movement, the public turning away of women trying to attend the priesthood session of conference in April Oct 2014 and the excommunication of women leading the movement like Kate Kelly. The essay will of course do little to change the minds of the LDS women who think that women should be entitled to all the blessings and opportunities of the LDS Church given to men, including having the priesthood. In this editor's opinion, the emphasis should be on whether the priesthood is really divine as opposed to whether or not it should be gender specific. There are many problems with the claimed restoration of the priesthood that few members are aware—perhaps that should be the focus of the next essay?