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There has been a huge conflict over the priesthood and women. In the debates that have been taking place, I have heard the following statement. “Women used to have the priesthood.” But is that true? I have heard that they are referring to earlier days for the saints when most of the men were in the Mormon Battalion, or had been killed. So there was a shortage of men. So during that time the priesthood was given to women. I want to hear it from you Gramps.



Dear Joshua,

I recently wrote about the importance of understanding and articulating opposing arguments – even when you don’t agree with them (especially when you don’t). I hope that those who hold the position that women have held (or currently have (!)) the priesthood feel that I represent their arguments well, even though I don’t agree with them. I have heard five categories of arguments that women held the priesthood at the opening of this dispensation:

1. Women used to heal.

2. Joseph Smith used the word “ordain” in blessing the RS presidency

3. Women officiate in saving temple ordinances

4. Women are promised priesthood blessings in the temple

5. Today’s rhetoric is reminiscent of the same rhetoric used before the ban was lifted in 1978

The first two arguments present the classic case that women in the days of Joseph Smith held the priesthood (setting up some parallels for when argument 5 comes into play). The third and fourth are used to show that women hold the priesthood today but are held back from exercising it (either by Church leadership or by living below their privileges). The final argument shows that as the Church grows and changes it progresses, and there is no reason why such a change would not again occur.

Women used to heal

The women in the Nauvoo Relief Society used to administer to the sick. The Prophet Joseph Smith even gave them instruction on the proper way to do so: either “by the prayer of faith, the laying on of hands, or the anointing with oil”, while leaving room also for “nurs[ing] with herbs and mild food” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pg 229, see also 224-225). Armed with this instruction, these women of faith fulfilled the vision and perfomed many miraculous healings.

Where it breaks down for me is that while today the power to heal is associated with elders, it does not require any priesthood office. Daughters in My Kingdom points out the context for this instruction.

Part of [Joseph’s] discourse was based on the Apostle Paul’s teachings in 1 Corinthians 12–13 about the gifts of the Spirit. Joseph Smith emphasized that ‘these signs, such as healing the sick, casting out devils etc. should follow all that believe.’

“Because Latter-day Saint women have received the gift of the Holy Ghost, they can seek and be blessed by spiritual gifts such as ‘the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healing, interpretation of tongues, and so forth'” (in the section “Gifts of the Spirit”).

The sisters did not heal the sick as part of their priesthood duties (for they had none); rather they healed as a gift of the spirit comparable to speaking in tongues (which they were also instructed on). Joseph Fielding Smith summarizes the events of that meeting thus: “[W]hen the Prophet Joseph Smith chose the sisters in 1842, he gave them authority. Authority to administer, even, if necessary, the laying on of hands in behalf of the sick. Not to seal and anoint, but by the prayer of faith to plead with the Lord for the healing of the sick” (“Relief Society—an Aid to the Priesthood,”Relief Society Magazine, Jan. 1959, 4).

Women in the Relief Society presidency were ordained

During that first meeting of the Relief Society, Joseph Smith and John Taylor attended and encouraged them to select their own president, who would in turn select her counsellors. The minutes of the meeting can be found online in the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Joseph “propos[e]d that the Sisters elect a presiding officer to preside over them, and let that presiding officer choose two Counsellors to assist in the duties of her Office— that he would ordain them to preside over the Society” (Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book pg 4). The Society selected Emma Smith as president and she selected Sisters Cleveland and Whitney as her counsellors.

“President Smith read the Revelation to Emma Smith, from the book of Doctrine and Covenants [D&C 25, see verse 7]; and stated that she was ordain[e]d at the time the Revelation was given, to expound the scriptures to all; and to teach the female part of community; and that not she alone, but others, may attain to the same blessings.—

“Elder Taylor was then appointed to ordain the Counsellors— he laid his hands on the head of Mrs Cleveland and ordain[e]’d her to be a Counsellor to the Elect Lady, even Mrs. Emma Smith, to counsel, and assist her in all things pertaining to her office &c.

“Elder T[aylor] then laid his hands on the head of Mrs. Whitney and ordain[e]d her to be a Counsellor to Mrs. Smith, the Pres[iden]t. of the Institutio[n]— with all the privileges pertaining to the office &c.” (ibid pg 5-6)

This is quite remarkable indeed! Emma and her two counsellors are ordained, with Emma’s ordination happening back when she was first called to assemble a hymnal. This is a word that we exclusively use to describe receiving an office in the priesthood (priesthood is conferred, while offices are ordained).

Upon rereading, we notice some anomalies that we wouldn’t find if the meeting were held today. For instance, they are ordained to preside. This in itself isn’t necessarily unusual, as that is the role of high priests. But they are ordained to the office of “a Counsellor”. It’s remarkably peculiar that they are creating offices on the fly. And what’s more, what presidency (besides the bishop over the priests’ quorum) holds an office differing from its members? I find it far more believable that rather than ordaining the women to the priesthood, Elder Taylor was fulfilling President Smith’s vision that the Relief Society be patterned after the priesthood (not actually the priesthood).

Once again, Joseph Fielding Smith confirms this with a simplifying clarification: “The term ‘ordain’ was used generally in the early days of the Church in reference to both ordination and setting apart, and, too, correctly according to the meaning of the word. Men holding the Priesthood were said to have been ‘ordained’ to preside over branches and to perform special work. Sisters also were said to have been ‘ordained’ when they were called to some special duty or responsibility. In later years we developed a distinction between ordain and setting apart. Men are ordained to offices in the Priesthood and set apart to preside over stakes, wards, branches, missions, and auxiliary organizations. The sisters are set apart—not ordained—as presidents of auxiliary organizations, to missions, etc. This saying that Emma Smith was ‘ordained’ to expound scripture, does not mean that she had conferred upon her the Priesthood, but that she was set apart to this calling, which found its fulfillment in the Relief Society of the Church” (Church History and Modern Revelation, 1:126).

Women officiate in saving ordinances

If you are unfamiliar with this argument, or if you find it confusing because you have not yet been to the house of the Lord, allow me a moment to explain some of the ordinances that take place there (I pray that I do so respectfully and circumspectly). Elder Boyd K. Packer described them as “the ordinances of washing and anointing[,] … referred to often in the temple as initiatory ordinances. It will be sufficient for our purposes to say only the following: Associated with the endowment are washings and anointings — mostly symbolic in nature but promising definite, immediate blessings as well as future blessings. … In connection with these ordinances, in the temple you will be officially clothed in the garment” (The Holy Temple, pg 154-155).

Propriety and decency demand that these saving ordinances, when performed for women, be performed by women. As such, we have sisters performing neccessary ordinances. This shows, the argument goes, that women hold the priesthood and are currently only exercising it in the temple (some proponents specify that this priesthood is given them during the endowment, and some associate the bestowal with sealings).

Elder Oaks, in a recent conference address, acknowledged the unusual practice: “With the exception of the sacred work that sisters do in the temple under the keys held by the temple president, … only one who holds a priesthood office can officiate in a priesthood ordinance” (“The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood“, April 2014). Elder Oaks then goes on to provide an explanation:

“[S]ince the scriptures state that ‘all other authorities [and] offices in the church are appendages to this [Melchizedek] priesthood’ (D&C 107:5), all that is done under the direction of those priesthood keys is done with priesthood authority.

“We are not accustomed to speaking of women having the authority of the priesthood in their Church callings, but what other authority can it be? When a woman—young or old—is set apart to preach the gospel as a full-time missionary, she is given priesthood authority to perform a priesthood function. The same is true when a woman is set apart to function as an officer or teacher in a Church organization under the direction of one who holds the keys of the priesthood. Whoever functions in an office or calling received from one who holds priesthood keys exercises priesthood authority in performing her or his assigned duties” (ibid).

So here I have to acknowledge that women perform their work in the temple with priesthood authority. But that is nearly meaningless in the context of the discussion we’ve been having. Women perform all their church obligations with priesthood authority. The gospel doctrine teacher teaches by the authority of the priesthood. The youth of the church set up and take down chairs for activities by the authority of the priesthood. Primary children bear their testimony in fast and testimony meeting by the authority of the priesthood.

If this is all that’s meant with this argument, I agree; but I’m not agreeing too much.

Women are promised priesthood blessings in the temple

I mentioned briefly above the temple is filled with priesthood imagery and the endowment and other ordinances are used to show that women who have received the ordinances of the temple hold the priesthood.

My difficulty with this argument is that I feel that the terminology is getting changed (somewhat like the argument above). The temple ordinances are not ordinations (except, of course, the work for deceased brothers to have the Melchizedek Priesthood conferred on them and become ordained to the office of elder). So any authority that is received from the ordinances is different from the authority granted to a priest to baptize, or a stake president to preside, or a bishop to sit as a judge in Israel.

In this light, consider some of the quotes of Church leaders about the ordinances of the temple. Again, from Daughters in My Kingdom:

“In the Church today, faithful women and men all over the world continue to serve in the temple and find strength in the blessings that can be received only through temple ordinances. As President Joseph Fielding Smith, the tenth President of the Church, stated, ‘It is within the privilege of the sisters of this Church to receive exaltation in the kingdom of God and receive authority and power as queens and priestesses'” (in the section “Temple Blessings”).

The authority and power to be queens and priestesses is a future blessing. Similarly, priesthood-wielding brethren are promised similar blessings that are still yet future. Given the sacred nature of this particular topic, I will forbear from further comment.

One additional point that should be covered is the priesthood blessings granted by sealings. Some time ago, President Packer gave a great talk entitled “What Every Elder Should Know—and Every Sister as Well: A Primer on Principles of Priesthood Government“. It is an excellent talk and I recommend reading the whole of it. In it, he states the following:

“There are references to a patriarchal priesthood. The patriarchal order is not a third, separate priesthood. (See D&C 84:6–17D&C 107:40–57.) Whatever relates to the patriarchal order is embraced in the Melchizedek Priesthood. “All other authorities or offices in the church are appendages to [the Melchizedek] priesthood.” (D&C 107:5.) The patriarchal order is a part of the Melchizedek Priesthood which enables endowed and worthy men to preside over their posterity in time and eternity.”

Once again, we see D&C 107:5 quoted, tying us right back up to the principle shared by Elder Oaks. Under this appendage (whether office or authority) lies the joint work of husband and wife living the principles of family life (but not church governance). I’m of the mind that this is best referred to as the blessings of the priesthood.

This is just like the ban on blacks receiving the priesthood

Women are denied the priesthood today just like blacks before 1978. Excuses are given for this that are less than inspired (motherhood is set as the complement to priesthood instead of fatherhood), just like the now disavowed doctrines touted before the ban was lifted (curse of Cain, pre-mortal less-valiance, etc). The Church is now receiving pressure to re-evaluate where women stand with respect to sexist policies just like the pressures the Church received in past to re-evaluate where blacks stood with respect to racist policies.

The similarities are appealing, but it’s different. For starters, there was no question that Joseph Smith ordained  black men and had them sit in the Church’s governing councils. Additionally, once the ban was instituted, it was always spoken of as temporary. The most popular timeline had the ban lifted in the Millennium. Here, the closest thing we have to a promise of a future priesthood for women is a temple promise that closely parallels a temple promise given to men. And I have to call out that the ban was lifted during a lull, not when the Church was under intense pressure (for an excellent–though lengthy article on the circumstances around the revelation, see Edward L. Kimball’s, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood”).

And yet, as different as these two events are, I have to acknowledge one glaring similarity. If women are to receieve the priesthood, it must come by revelation as it did for blacks. It will not come by petition, for that is not how priesthood is governed.

“In the Church we do not assume authority belonging to either an ordained or a set apart office or calling. We must be called to a position and sustained, be ordained or set apart and given authority…. We do not call ourselves to offices in the Church. Rather we respond to the call of those who preside over us. It is the responsibility of those who preside to prayerfully consult the Lord as to His will concerning a position in the Church. Then the principle of revelation is at work. The call is then delivered by the presiding officer who is acting for the Lord” (Packer, “What Every Elder Should Know — and Every Sister as Well”).

Individuals are not ordained except by revelation, and neither are entire groups. Elder Oaks stated succinctly,

“But even though these presiding authorities [the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve] hold and exercise all of the keys delegated to men in this dispensation, they are not free to alter the divinely decreed pattern that only men will hold offices in the priesthood.

“The Lord has directed that only men will be ordained to offices in the priesthood.”


I remain unconvinced that women held the priesthood at the start of this dispensation. I do think the examples cited serve as a reminder of just how pervasive the priesthood is in the temple and in the weekly meetings of the Church. Just by receiving the Gift of the Holy Ghost and the accompanying gifts, each member has been blessed with an incredible endowment of grace. Once again, from Daughters in My Kingdom (why didn’t I just link to this great book and call it good):

“Sister Sheri L. Dew, who served as a counselor in the general Relief Society presidency, echoed these teachings:

‘Sisters, some will try to persuade you that because you are not ordained to the priesthood, you have been shortchanged. They are simply wrong, and they do not understand the gospel of Jesus Christ. The blessings of the priesthood are available to every righteous man and woman. We may all receive the Holy Ghost, obtain personal revelation, and be endowed in the temple, from which we emerge “armed” with power. The power of the priesthood heals, protects, and inoculates all of the righteous against the powers of darkness. Most significantly, the fulness of the priesthood contained in the highest ordinances of the house of the Lord can be received only by a man and woman together.'”


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