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Question: Did Joseph Smith intend to ordain women to the priesthood?
Question: Did Joseph Smith intend to ordain women to the priesthood?
Some have understood Joseph Smith's address to the Relief Society on 30 March 1842 to suggest that Joseph intended to ordain women to the priesthood
On March 30th, 1842, Joseph Smith addressed the Relief Society at their third meeting. Eliza R. Snow recorded in the minute book:
the Society should move according to the ancient Priesthood, hence there should be a select Society separate from all the evils of the world, choice, virtuou[s] and holy— Said he was going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests an in Enoch’s day— as in Pauls day
Some have understood this to suggest that Joseph intended to ordain women to the priesthood. When the Relief Society was incorporated into the Ward structure (in 1868), Relief Society president Eliza R. Snow expanded on this idea given by Joseph Smith to explain that the Relief Society formed a necessary and integral part of the Church organization:
Although the name may be of modern date, the Institution is of ancient origin. We were told by our martyred prophet, that the same organization existed in the church anciently, allusions to which are made in some of the epistles recorded in the New Testament, making use of the title, "elect lady.:
This is an organization that cannot exist without the Priesthood, from the fact that it derives all its authority and influence from that source. When the Priesthood was taken from the earth, this institution as well as every other appendage to the true order of the church of Jesus Christ on the earth, became extinct, and had never been restored until the time referred to above.
The Relief Society is an essential part of the restoration of the ‘same organization that existed in the Primitive Church’
Viewed this way, the Relief Society isn’t simply an innovation of the modern Church. It wasn’t organized as a way to engage women in the gospel. It is an essential part of the restoration of the ‘same organization that existed in the Primitive Church.’ Likewise, in an interview, former Elaine Jack, past Relief Society general president, summed these ideas in this way:
Relief Society is not an auxiliary. The church was never fully organized until 'women were thus organized after the pattern of the priesthood.' It's the Lord's organization for women. And we act as a companion role to the priesthood.
If seen as a companion to the priesthood – as an integral part of the Church organization, the Relief Society shouldn’t be viewed as a substitute for priesthood ordination, but as its partner. That is, women were not being ordained to the priesthood—they were being ordained to their own society—one just as ancient (a part of the primitive Church), restored to help the members of the Church work together to build up the kingdom of Zion on earth.
Joseph Smith described the organization of the Relief Society as being parallel to the organization of the priesthood
At the first meeting on March 17th, in 1842, President Smith offered this (page 4-5):
Pres[ident Joseph] Smith further remark'd that an organization to show them how to go to work would be sufficient. He propos'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 and let them preside just as the Presidency, preside over the church; and if they need his instruction - ask him, he will give it from time to time.
Let this Presidency serve as a constitution - all their decisions be considered law; and acted upon as such.
If any Officers are wanted to carry out the designs of the Institution, let them be appointed and set apart, as Deacons, Teachers, &c. are among us. … He then suggested the propriety of electing a Presidency to continue in office during good behavior, or so long as they shall continue to fill the office with dignity &c. like the first Presidency of the church.
This language would cause later confusion, perhaps best illustrated by the ways in which it was understood
For example, Sarah M. Kimball, one of the first members of the Relief Society had, in 1868, organized her ward Relief Society to match that of the priesthood quorums - including offices of teachers and deaconesses. In responding to this confusion in 1880, President John Taylor (who had been assigned by Joseph to set Emma and her counselors apart as the first Relief Society presidency) wrote:
Some of the sisters have thought that these sisters mentioned were, in this ordination, ordained to the priesthood. And for the information of all interested in this subject I will say, it is not the calling of these sisters to hold the Priesthood, only in connection with their husbands, they being one with their husbands.
President Taylor’s remarks underscore the notion that the Relief Society was not intended to move women into the Priesthood organization of the Church
But, his reference to a priesthood held “in connection with their husbands” returns us to Joseph Smith’s remarks to the Relief Society on April 28th in 1842 (at the sixth meeting of the Relief Society). These remarks provided an understanding of the function and role of the Relief Society within the Church for the rest of the 19th century. In particular, Joseph connected the future role of the Relief Society to the work of temple ordinances that he was working to present to the Saints at Nauvoo:
He said the reason of these remarks being made, was, that some little thing was circulating in the Society, that some persons were not going right in laying hands on the sick &c. Said if he had common sympathies, would rejoice that the sick could be heal’d: that the time had not been before, that these things could be in their proper order— that the church is not now organiz’d in its proper order, and cannot be until the Temple is completed—— Prest. Smith continued the subject by adverting to the commission given to the ancient apostles “Go ye into all the world” &c.— 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 ask’d the Society if they could not see by this sweeping stroke, that wherein they are ordaind, it is the privilege of those set apart to administer in that authority which is confer’d on them— and if the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues, and let every thing roll on.
The issue of healing by the laying on of hands was a practice that was common for Mormon women in the 19th century
Here, Joseph first brings up the issue of healing by the laying on of hands (a practice that was common for Mormon women in the 19th century). This had apparently caused some contention as to whether it was appropriate or not. Healing the sick, however, was one of the signs to follow those with faith, and Joseph Smith compared their organization and the ordination that had been given to the members of the Relief Society to the commission given to the apostles in the New Testament. ‘These signs’ were understood to be a part of the mission of the Relief Society, and healing the sick was one of their primary focuses through the beginning of the twentieth century.
Later, Joseph Smith also noted:
He said as he had this opportunity, he was going to instruct the Society and point out the way for them to conduct, that they might act according to the will of God— that he did not know as he should have many opportunities of teaching them— that they were going to be left to themselves,— they would not long have him to instruct them— that the church would not have his instruction long, and the world would not be troubled with him a great while, and would not have his teachings— He spoke of delivering the keys to this Society and to the church— that according to his prayers God had appointed him elsewhere. While we may see a prophetic foreshadowing here of Joseph’s assassination in 1844, this may also represent Joseph’s intentions seen in his journal entry for July 16th, 1843: “The same spirit that crucified Jesus is in the breast of some who profess to be Saints in Nauvoo. I have secret enemies in the city intermingling with the Saints, etc. Said I would not prophesy any more, and proposed Hyrum to hold the office of prophet to the Church, as it was his birthright. I am going to have a reformation, and the Saints must regard Hyrum, for he has the authority, that I might be a Priest of the Most High God; and slightly touched upon the subject of the everlasting covenant, showing that a man and his wife must enter into that covenant in the world, or he will have no claim on her in the next world. But on account of the unbelief of the people, I cannot reveal the fullness of these things at present.” (See History of the Church, 5:510. Volume 5 link)</ref>
When this was prepared for publication in the History of the Church, this section was substantially rewritten (interpreted) as follows:
He spoke of delivering the keys of the Priesthood to the Church, and said that the faithful members of the Relief Society should receive them in connection with their husbands;
This idea of shared priesthood resulted in the notion of women being able to exercise the power of the priesthood without being ordained to an office in the priesthood. It is this understanding of Joseph Smith’s remarks that serves as the backdrop for President Taylor’s comments as well as the treatment of ritual healing and temple ordinance work performed by the Relief Society within the 19th century.
Keys and the Relief Society
At the conclusion of his remarks to the Relief Society in April of 1842, Joseph made this comment:
This Society is to get instruction thro’ the order which God has established— thro’ the medium of those appointed to lead— and I now turn the key to you in the name of God and this Society shall rejoice and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time.
President Willard Richards, following the Nauvoo pattern set by Joseph Smith, called and set apart women as healers
What does this mean, when Joseph suggests that “I now turn the key to you”? Elder Bruce R. McConkie asks this question for us in 1950:
What, then, in summary, is the relationship of the Relief Society to the keys of the kingdom? And what was the significance of the Prophet's turning the key in their behalf in the name of the Lord? ... By turning the key the Prophet delegated to the duly appointed officers of the new organization a portion of the keys of the kingdom. Under the Priesthood they were now authorized to direct, control, and govern the affairs of the society. They thus became legal administrators holding the keys of presidency. Under this appointment their lawful acts would be recognized by the Lord and he would work with them in the rolling forth of the kingdom in the sphere assigned to them.
The sphere that they saw assigned to them was this healing of the sick and taking care of the welfare of Zion. President Willard Richards, following the Nauvoo pattern set by Joseph Smith, called and set apart women as healers:
Accordingly he laid his hands upon the heads of a number of the sisters who had prepared themselves to act as midwives and also administering to the sick and afflicted and set them apart for this very office and calling, and blest them with power to officiate in that capacity as handmaids of the Lord. Among the number set apart at that time Sister Presendia was one who received the blessing, and from that day to this she has realized the power and influence it conferred in her daily administerings, not only when she has been called upon to act as a midwife, but when washing and anointing and blessing the sisters.
During the remainder of the 19th century, there was an increasing formalization in healing ordinances and an accompanying liturgy used within the relief society. President Eliza R. Snow, under the direction of President John Taylor visited many of the newly organized local Relief Societies, and encouraged them:
We need not be afraid of doing too much nor getting ahead of our Bretheren and if we did why let them hurry up,” she told women in Santaquin. She taught Gunnison women the same principle, drawing precedent from the Nauvoo minutes: “The Prophet Joseph Smith said to the Sisters: ‘provoke the Brethren to good works.’” Snow described the Relief Society as “self-governing” and sought to cultivate in women a sense of initiative, responsibility, and partnership. “Woman was not only created as a help meet for man but to be one with him in the priesthood,” she declared. Echoing Joseph’s counsel that “all must act in concert or nothing can be done,” she affirmed that men’s and women’s interests “are both in the Kingdom of God and cannot be divided. The Gospel of Christ is designed to unite our labors.”
The response was enthusiastic. So much so, that in 1906, Elder J. Golden Kimball observed in his General Conference address:
The Priesthood quorums ... have become lax in their work and let loose their hold. While the auxiliary organizations have taken the right of way, the Priesthood quorums stand by looking on awe-struck.
In response, President Joseph F. Smith announced his intention for a priesthood reformation in the April 1906 Conference:
We expect to see the day, … when every council of the priesthood in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will understand its duty; will assume its own responsibility, will magnify its calling, and fill its place in the Church, to the uttermost, according to the intelligence and ability possessed by it. When that day shall come there will not be so much necessity for work that is now being done by the auxiliary organizations, because it will be done by the regular quorums of the priesthood.
The work of the Relief Society in the 19th century, and in particular the practice of healing by the laying on of hands shifted to the Priesthood during this priesthood reformation (between 1908 and 1920). Attitudes shifted considerably towards these practices. Brigham Young, in 1869 suggested, speaking to the women of the Church:
Why do you not live so as to rebuke disease? It is your privilege to do so without sending for the Elders.
In 1946, a letter from Elder Joseph Fielding Smith shows how policy on this matter had been reversed
Joseph Fielding Smith:
While the authorities of the Church have ruled that it is permissible, under certain conditions and with the approval of the priesthood, for sisters to wash and anoint other sisters, yet they feel that it is far better for us to follow the plan the Lord has given us and send for the elders of the Church to come and administer to the sick and afflicted.
Women and Priesthood in a temple context
The one area where there was little change was in the ordinances of the temple. It was widely recognized that women officiated in ordinances in the temple, and the liturgical language of the endowment recognized women as priestesses. It is in this context that we see references back to Joseph Smith’s teachings of a priesthood given in the temple. After the completion of the St. George temple, and the resumption of temple work, there was a push to formalize the liturgy of the temple, and to make sure that it was consistent across the Church. In this context the question of women’s participation in ordinances both within the temple context and outside it came under scrutiny. In 1888, President Franklin D. Richards provided some additional insight:
I ask any and everybody present who have received their endowments, whether he be a brother Apostle, Bishop, High Priest, Elder, or whatever office he may hold in the Church, "What blessings did you receive, what ordinance, what power, intelligence, sanctification or grace did you receive that your wife did not partake of with you?" I will answer, that there was one thing that our wives were not made special partakers of, and that was the ordination to the various orders of the priesthood which were conferred upon us. Aside from that, our sisters share with us any and all of the ordinances of the holy anointing, endowments, sealings, sanctifications and blessings that we have been made partakers of.
Now, I ask you: Is it possible that we have the holy priesthood and our wives have none of it? Do you not see, by what I have read, that Joseph desired to confer these keys of power upon them in connection with their husbands? I hold that a faithful wife has certain blessings, powers and rights, and is made partaker of certain gifts and blessings and promises with her husband, which she cannot be deprived of, except by transgression of the holy order of God. They shall enjoy what God said they should. And these signs shall follow them if they believe.
Moses said, when some one told him that a certain man was prophesying in the camp, and the people thought he had no right to do so, Moses replied saying: "I would to God that all of the Lord's people were prophets." So I say: I wish all the sisters were so faithful that they were healers of the sick, through the power of God.
In justifying the role of women using priesthood power and authority—particularly within a temple context, President Richards introduced this proof text normally used to justify notions of a priesthood of all believers. It provided an Old Testament context to support this doctrine of priesthood received in connection with temple service.
When asked about such matters and what they implied about women having priesthood ordination, Wilford Woodruff wrote to the Relief Society General President:
Wilford Woodruff: [Answer:] To begin with I desire to say that the ordinance of washing and anointing is one that should only be administered in Temples or other holy places which are dedicated for the purpose of giving endowments to the Saints. That ordinance might not be administered to any one whether she has received or has not received her endowments, in any other place or under any other circumstances.
But I imagine from your question that you refer to a practice that has grown up among the sisters of washing and anointing sisters who are approaching their confinement [i.e., preparing to give birth]. If so, this is not, strictly speaking, an ordinance, unless it be done under the direction of the priesthood and in connection with the ordinance of laying on of hands for the restoration of the sick.There is no impropriety in sisters washing and anointing their sisters in this way, under the circumstances you describe; but it should be understood that they do this, not as members of the priesthood, but as members of the Church, exercising faith for, and asking the blessings of the Lord upon, their sisters, just as they, and every member of the Church, might do in behalf of the members of their families.
In 1912, Elder James Talmage further expanded this to include single sisters being endowed when he suggested that a single woman being endowed shared the priesthood of her future husband:
"It is a precept of the Church that women of the Church share the authority of the Priesthood with their husbands, actual or prospective; and therefore women, whether taking the endowment for themselves or for the dead, are not ordained to specific rank in the Priesthood."
Connections between women, priesthood and celestial marriage
This connection between women, priesthood, and celestial marriage was reintroduced by Elder Ballard in his August 20, 2013 devotional at BYU:
When men and women go to the temple, they are both endowed with the same power, which by definition is priesthood power. While the authority of the priesthood is directed through priesthood keys, and priesthood keys are held only by worthy men, access to the power and the blessings of the priesthood is available to all of God’s children. ... Those who have entered the waters of baptism and subsequently received their endowment in the house of the Lord are eligible for rich and wonderful blessings. The endowment is literally a gift of power. All who enter the house of the Lord officiate in the ordinances of the priesthood. This applies to men and women alike.
And again, most recently in the April 2014 General Conference by Elder Dallin H. Oaks quoted Elder Ballard and emphasized this statement:
Our Church doctrine places women equal to and yet different from men. God does not regard either gender as better or more important than the other. … When men and women go to the temple, they are both endowed with the same power, which is priesthood power. … Access to the power and the blessings of the priesthood is available to all of God’s children.
- Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book (entry dated 17 March 1842), LDS Church Archives, 22.
- Eliza R. Snow, “Female Relief Society,” Deseret News (22 April 1868): 81.
- Eliza R. Snow references Articles of Faith 1:6 in her article.
- Quoted in Tina Hatch, "'Changing Times Bring Changing Conditions': Relief Society, 1960 to Present," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 37 no. 33, 68-69.. See also Julie Beck’s (then Relief Society general president) remarks in "Why We Are Organized into Quorums and Relief Societies," BYU devotional address (17 January 2012).
- See Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book (entry dated 17 March 1842), LDS Church Archives, 9. See also JD 21:368 (below) where he appeals to that experience.
- John Taylor, (8 August 1880) Journal of Discourses 21:367-368.
- Minute Book, 38-39.
- For an overview, see Jonathan A. Stapley and Kristine Wright, "Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism" The Journal of Mormon History 37 (Winter 2011): 1-85.
- Minute Book, 37-38.
- History of the Church, 4:604. Volume 4 link See also Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 226. off-site For a discussion of the interpretations of the Minute book see Jill Mulvay Derr and Carol Cornwall Madsen, "Preserving the Record and Memory of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, 1842–92" Journal of Mormon History Vol. 35/3 (Summer 2009): 88-117.
- Minute Book, 40.
- 
- “A Venerable Woman: Presendia Lathrop Kimball, Continued,” Woman’s Exponent 12 (15 October 1883): 75.
- Jill Mulvay Derr and Carol Cornwall Madsen, "Preserving the Record and Memory of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, 1842–92" Journal of Mormon History Vol. 35/3 (Summer 2009): 99.
- Conference Report (April 1906), 19.
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- Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 13:155.
- Joseph Fielding Smith, letter, 29 July 1946.
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- Wilford Woodruff to Emmeline B. Wells, 27 April 1888, Correspondence of the First Presidency, LDS Church Archives.
- James E. Talmage, The House of the Lord: a study of holy sanctuaries, ancient and modern (Salt Lake City, Utah: The Deseret News, 1912), 94.
- M. Russell Ballard, "'Let Us Think Straight'," BYU devotional address, 20 August 2013.
- Dallin H. Oaks, "The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood," Ensign (May 2014).