Women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been called on by church leaders to respect a divine division of the sexes: Motherhood is the sacred privilege of women, and the priesthood—basically the divine authority to act in God’s name—is the sacred power of men.
For almost the entire history of the church, patriarchy has ruled. Men, from the prophet down to neighborhood bishops, set rules, policies and budgets, governing all members, male and female.
But it wasn’t always that way. The group of LDS women agitating for the priesthood to be given to female members say they’re not asking their faith leaders to boldly leap into the future, but to step back in time to the beginning of the church and consider the model set up by its founder and first prophet, Joseph Smith.
On March 17, 1842, in Nauvoo, Ill., Smith convened a group for the creation of the Nauvoo Female Benevolent Society. Smith, his apostle Elder John Taylor and a group of about 20 women gathered on the second floor of Smith’s Red Brick Store, a two-story building where dry goods were sold on the first floor, and revelations were received and church business was conducted on the second.
Taylor ordained the women, and after the newly elected president of the society—Joseph Smith’s first wife, Emma—was instructed on how to conduct meetings, the women brought up their first order of business: disagreeing with the prophet and Taylor over the name of the society.
Taylor, according to the meeting’s minutes recorded in the Joseph Smith Papers, had come up with the name, but for Emma, “benevolent” sounded too much like the Washington Benevolent Society, an 1800s political electioneering club with a reputation for corruption. Joseph seemed to think Emma’s preferred tile of “Relief Society” might suggest the group would seek to bring relief to ne’er-do-wells, whereas “benevolent” was a popular word.
Eliza Snow rose to argue that institutions of the secular world should not be their guide, and that “relief” suggested a group that would be ready to respond to calamity, to do something “extraordinary.” Emma, who likely had been the society’s president for less than 10 minutes, seized on the idea of “extraordinary.”
“We are going to do something extraordinary—when a boat is stuck on the rapids with a multitude of Mormons onboard, we shall consider that a loud call for relief,” Emma said. She went on to say that “we expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls.”
With that, Taylor graciously conceded the point, and a bright, progressive chapter in the history of the LDS Church began.
“In the early church, women would perform blessings when babies were born, women did blessings for healing of the sick, with the laying on of hands; this was very common in the early church,” says Kate Kelly, a Washington, D.C., human-rights attorney and founder of the Ordain Women movement, which is asking church leaders to pray to see if the priesthood should be returned to female members. “In fact, it was uncommon to find women who didn’t do this.”
The first Relief Society not only sought to administer assistance to the “poor brethren” in the church, much as the Relief Society does now, but also operated under its own authority, administered discipline to female church members, had its own publications and provided healing blessings to the sick and the infirm in the church.
But the death of Joseph Smith, and the power vacuum he left behind, set off a chain reaction that not only cleaved Emma Smith from the church but also led to the disbanding of the Relief Society as it was first set up.
Following Smith’s death, Emma cast her support for Sidney Rigdon to be the new shepherd of the flock, a direct challenge to Brigham Young’s claim over the church. In LDS historian Leonard Arrington’s seminal work Brigham Young: American Moses, he wrote that Emma had quarreled with Young over a number of issues, notably polygamy, with Emma “asserting that it could not possibly be a divine principle.”
When Rigdon’s bid failed, the Latter-day Saints moved west and Emma remained behind. Young would disband the Relief Society and not revive it until after settling the Saints in Utah, when the society was changed to the more advisory role it’s maintained since, operating “under the direction of priesthood leaders,” according to LDS.org.
Women cannot administer blessings, nor control the budgets of their wards’ all-women Relief Societies. If a female ward member is accused of breaking church rules, including with unvirtuous conduct, she is called before an all-male disciplinary council. While LDS.org stresses that “the blessings of the priesthood are available to all—men, women and children,” it’s also clear on the point that the “authority of the priesthood is bestowed only on worthy male members.”
But now, 171 years after Emma Smith changed the Benevolent Society’s name to the Relief Society to reflect an institution that would come to the rescue of those saints calling for help while the church navigated the perils of history’s rapids, many members, dissatisfied with women’s roles, the attitudes toward gay marriage and other issues, are responding by jumping ship or calling for change.
Members of Kelly’s Ordain Women group are calling for leaders to consider Joseph Smith’s original vision of women’s roles in the church and are asking for the priesthood; the group’s first major step is seeking access to the church’s Oct. 5 Priesthood Session, which is reserved solely for male members.
But perhaps the greatest challenge that Ordain Women faces isn’t from fellow feminists or even church leaders, but the millions of women in the church, many of whom don’t want the priesthood.
Authors Robert Putnam and David Campbell surveyed LDS women in their 2010 book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us and found that 90 percent of LDS women were opposed to the idea of female ordination.
Meanwhile, some women are finding new purpose in their spiritual lives by not only advocating for priesthood for women, but also, they say, using the priesthood’s powers—without official church sanction—to perform healing blessings on other women.
Kelly says she wants to initiate a dialogue that will get members discussing where the church has been and where it’s going. She notes there’s some debate about the meaning of the priesthood, since some say that women who are worthy of LDS temple ceremonies already have priesthood powers, but she hopes current members will look to the past while praying for the future.
She recognizes that women in the church enjoyed priesthood-like powers for only a few years before their leadership was reorganized, but she rejects the idea that the church’s books of policy are closed when it comes to women in the church.
“To those that say, ‘Well, this is how its always been,’ I say this is a church of restoration,” Kelly says. “We believe the continued restoration of the gospel is one of the most precious and beautiful doctrines of Mormonism—that the heavens have not closed.”
Restoring the Gospel
Kelly grew up LDS in Oregon, where she was often one of only a handful of Mormons in her school. She says she grew up feminist by example, living in a home where both her parents worked and shared household duties equally, but she didn’t quite realize she was a feminist until she went to college at Brigham Young University and got a taste of Utah County culture, with its clearly and rigidly defined definitions of what men and women are supposed to do.
Kelly survived the Utah experience, graduated and moved on with her life, joining a Washington, D.C., law firm focusing on international human rights.
As part of her work, she’s traveled to the Western Sahara and worked with indigenous women fighting for equality. She says she was blessed to meet Aminatou Haidar, a woman of Gandhi-like prominence in the region who continued to advocate for equality despite being subject to repeated imprisonment by the government. Haidar even spent years jailed in Western Sahara’s notorious Black Prison, where she went on a hunger strike to protest the torture of her fellow prisoners.
Coming home from the Sahara, Kelly says, she realized she had a battle closer to home to fight.
“I realized that I was doing all this work all around the world,” she says. “I asked myself, ‘What am I doing in my most intimate community? How am I standing up for myself?’ ”
Kelly realized that for women in her own faith to stand up for themselves and have their voices heard, they would need to do so from a position of authority. As priesthood holders, they would be able to help direct policies that empower instead of alienate their fellow sisters.
While Kelly says she understands the trepidation most LDS women have about ordination, she sees it as an example of why there needs to be more dialogue on the subject; women should have the ability to candidly engage with the idea.
And, she says, it’s up to women in the church to help guide their leaders to revelation.
“We don’t think this change can happen until women are ready for it,” Kelly says. “Until women ask for it.”
Advocating for change in a religious organization presents a unique challenge. The church is not a government body or even a corporation that can be picketed, but a body led by a president whom members obey because they believe he has a direct line of revelation from God.
Kelly says she decided to walk a fine line when organizing Ordain Women. The group does not presume to demand that church leadership restore the priesthood to women, she says, but is simply asking leadership to pray for guidance on the issue.
“Obviously, the church is not a democracy,” Kelly says.
But for Laurie Walker, a devout member who runs the blog A Mormon Mother’s Musings, even a “quiet protest” like Kelly’s represents an inappropriate challenge to the prophet’s role in revealing and administering the word of God.
“Women get the blessings of the priesthood even though we may not carry it and we may not hold it—God has asked that men be the ones to do that,” Walker says. “When you start to question whether or not women should be allowed to hold it, for me, it’s like second-guessing whether God knows what he’s doing.”
Kelly points out, however, that letter-writing campaigns and public pressure did help church leaders decide to seek revelation that ultimately allowed for black LDS men to begin receiving the priesthood in 1978.
Walker, who stresses that her opinions are her own and not those of the church (the LDS Church declined to comment for this story), argues that complaints against gender inequality in the church fail to recognize church members of both sexes benefit in an equality of blessings that originate from the different roles men and women share. Women’s roles as mothers, she says, give them a power the church is dependent upon. Though men can’t experience it themselves, they can benefit from in their own families; likewise, though women can’t hold the priesthood, they can benefit from male priesthood-holders.
These roles are different, but complementary, says Walker, who adds that “motherhood” isn’t a term that should isolate women who can’t bear children.
“We don’t need to carry a child in our belly to say we are a mom, to have that role to nurture and love those that are around us,” Walker says.
Walker says she’s aware of the different roles women had in the early history of the church, but also points out that the church also then practiced “the law of consecration,” whereby the pioneer communities operated like a socialist economy, sharing resources, until it was revealed by revelation that the church wasn’t ready to fully embrace that model of living.
While she says it’s possible that one day the church could recognize the need to give women the priesthood, it’s a decision that shouldn’t be pushed and must be decided on “God’s time,” she says.
“If God wants it to happen, he will make it happen,” Walker says. “If not, we need to have enough faith to know that we have what we need here, and to know that we as women don’t need the priesthood to validate who we are as a person.”
It’s also a point echoed, but with a twist, by Valerie Hudson, a Mormon feminist blogger of Square Two Journal. Hudson argues that motherhood is an apprenticeship for women to aspire to the model of Heavenly Mother, and that the priesthood is the apprenticeship for men aspiring to be like Heavenly Father. Believing that the priesthood is the superior path to one’s divine goal is a sexist perspective, Hudson says.
“It is misogynist to assume that the masculine and the ways of the masculine must be the yardstick by which all else is measured,” Hudson writes via e-mail. “And it is satanic to assert that we all must be identical in order to have any hope of equality.”
Hudson also argues that the family is the model that people should follow, even above the church and the roles the different sexes play in it.
“As a convert, I am bewildered by those members who believe their church life is Life,” Hudson says. “The church is but a supportive auxiliary to the true work of life, which is found in the home, where men and women rule together as equal and loving partners—which is also the government of Heaven.”
And Hudson balks at the idea of feminists feeling that they need to ask the patriarchy for power they already have.
“For a woman to feel she must ask a man to give her divine power is a fundamentally anti-feminist stance,” Hudson writes via e-mail. “Women are not ordained under the power of men; they are ordained under the power of women.”
Hudson believes that at some point in the church’s future, women will be able to claim their authority without having to ask permission first.
Looking at the church as a whole, such a time seems far off. But even now, one woman in the church has decided to take it upon herself to use priesthood powers, following her heart instead of the rules of her faith’s patriarchy.
Confessions of a Female
On April 28, 1842, Joseph Smith appeared before the Relief Society and spoke to the women about their sacred duties, which included providing healing blessings. According to the society’s minutes, Smith felt the need to address criticism of the power being given to the sisters of the faith. It was a critique Smith didn’t see much merit in, telling the women, according to the minutes, that “if God gave his sanction by healing—that there could be no more sin in any female laying hands on the sick than in wetting the face with water—that it is no sin for any body to do it that has faith.” He also advised the critics of the day that “if the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues, and let every thing roll on.”
In 2013, “Amanda” says that when she prepared to first lay her hands upon another woman to offer a blessing, she was filled with dread about the line she was crossing—until she crossed it.
“I had what could only be described as a vision,” Amanda says. She says she described what she saw to the woman she was blessing, “and it had intense significance to her. The feelings of love and peace were so powerful that I could not deny it.”
Amanda, whose true name has been withheld because of her fear of being excommunicated from the LDS Church, considers herself to be a very upright, orthodox, good-faith member. She’s married, has a family and says “Oh my gosh” in a reflexive way that marks it as a lifelong habit. She also knows that her standing in the church she loves could be jeopardized if she spoke openly about the blessings she performs.
How Amanda came to provide that first blessing, she says, was almost accidental. It occurred in a gathering of women several years ago when a discussion was raised about faith healing in different beliefs. Some of the women expressed that faith healing among women of other beliefs is still common practice, though it’s usually called “praying over you” instead of being called a blessing. One woman in attendance, a fellow Mormon, asked for the women there to “pray over her.”
Amanda says that she and the woman asking for help both knew, without saying anything, that what they were doing was taboo. While not exactly forbidden over the pulpit, for more than a century, it’s been a power understood simply as being legitimately wielded only by men who hold the Melchizedek priesthood.
When Amanda touched the woman’s arm, she says, her field of vision was swept over by a field of darkness. Amid the dark, a small light glowed, softly at first, before expanding, growing brighter and eventually pushing the darkness away.
“I didn’t understand until later that she was struggling with depression,” Amanda says. “I didn’t know what that image was supposed to mean, but she understood it—the darkness in her life was lifting.”
As profound as the blessing was, Amanda says, she avoided repeating it for some time, but in the past year has begun performing blessings with more frequency. These underground blessings have come about through word of mouth, though occasionally she has felt guided by the spirit to approach a woman who seemed in need of help.
Some women have turned her down, fearful of what she offered or simply not feeling comfortable with it. Amanda stresses that when she attends to a woman in need, she does not invoke a priesthood authority but simply the name of Jesus Christ.
She also says that she has faith in male blessings, but says she’s come to learn the significance of a blessing from one woman to another.
“The pain that women feel is often distinct from that of men, and there is something about having another woman to minister to her that touches that pain in a way that a male priesthood blessing doesn’t,” Amanda says. “Women are so hungry for authority for us, and understanding for us ... I have never done a blessing that didn’t end with the both of us just being in tears.”
Amanda says that in the act of blessing, she feels no fear, but when she steps back and considers what she’s doing, she realizes the risks. She’s begun to consider the possibility of becoming a Reiki master or learning another Eastern form of energy work so that she might have a cover for providing healing blessings.
But she says it’s shameful that women with gifts might have to hide them simply because the church has decreed such power to be available only to men.
“One thing I think we suffer from as a church is the way we are using the priesthood as a catch-all bureaucratic force,” Amanda says, adding that the assumption that men will have talent in performing blessings can hurt the faith of male priesthood holders.
“I have gone to men asking for priesthood blessings and you just felt zip, nothing; the poor man feels that and feels the burden ... feels the shame and guilt for not living up to that calling,” she says. “The scripture says not everyone has the gift of healing or revelation, but the way we are currently using the priesthood assumes they do.”
Amanda says she’s helped dozens of women, some who’ve had anxieties over parenting or grief over a divorce. But most of the time, she says, she doesn’t know what the maladies are and tries to leave it between the Lord and the woman seeking help. But every blessing she performs, Amanda says, has only helped strengthen her testimony in the church.
“It’s easy as a woman in this church to get the message that your contributions aren’t as important as that of a man,” Amanda says. “I struggled for a long time to get pregnant, so I wasn’t part of the ‘motherhood.’ But this [calling] has completely nurtured my faith. Every time I do this, I get to see how the Lord sees someone else. It has completely cemented my relationship to Him.”
For Hannah Wheelwright, a 20-year-old political-science student at Brigham Young University, getting involved in the Ordain Women movement wasn’t just an extracurricular activity; it was a personal calling that helped her keep her faith in God and the LDS Church.
Wheelwright grew up on the East Coast. While adjusting to the BYU lifestyle, she was reading from the Bible when she came across Genesis 3:16, where God tells Eve she was given to Adam to be “ruled over” by him. A crack formed in Wheelwright’s faith. At first, she says, she couldn’t believe in the idea of a sexist God; her doubt then festered to the point that she didn’t know if she could believe in any God at all.
But some events eventually brought her back to the faith. One was getting involved in Ordain Women. The other was a unique spiritual experience she had been searching for in her crisis of faith.
In 2011, Wheelwright received a blessing from a fellow Mormon woman, a blessing she described as one of the singular most spiritual experiences that she’s ever had. It was powerful enough to bring her back to the faith, she says, and gave her something to fight for.
“I’ll never go back to the same sort of faith I had growing up,” Wheelwright says. “But I’ve come around to realize that there is a God, and I’m planning on staying in the LDS Church.”
A Call for Relief
When Frances Monson, the wife of LDS Church Prophet Thomas S. Monson, passed away, newspaper obituaries told the story of the prophet’s wife trying to sneak into the all-male priesthood session to hear her husband speak after he was called to be an apostle of the church. An usher had to escort her from the meeting, and she instead stood outside the doorway, straining to hear her husband’s words.
While the story was held up to show the adoration of the prophet’s wife, Kelly sees the story as a sad reminder of the barriers set by the priesthood.
The church has made some important gestures recently, such as asking a woman to offer a prayer in LDS General Conference for the first time ever, in April 2013, and televising the Oct. 5 priesthood session for all to see, but the organizers of Ordain Women argue that it’s not just about whether women can hear the deliberations of priesthood holders or not, but the fact that their voices can’t join the discussion.
And though some Mormon feminists argue that inevitable backlash against the Ordain Women movement will set back the more modest efforts of other groups to have women’s voices and needs recognized, Wheelwright says it’s not possible for one to happen without the other.
“Having women’s voices respected and heard more in church, allowing women to be ward clerks, are all good goals,” Wheelwright says. “But I think if women were ordained, they would be able help those changes happen. All that will come after women have a seat at the table.”
Kelly also echoes Wheelwright’s statement and says that church leaders can’t retaliate against the movement without risking the alienation of more LDS women.
“There is no point in advocating for a piecemeal approach that at the same time also reinforces our subordinate status,” Kelly says.
Ordain Women will be meeting at City Creek Park (110 N. State, Salt Lake City) at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 5, and walk to the LDS Conference Center to wait in the standby line to attend Priesthood Session. For more information, visit OrdainWomen.org.