When Mormon History Fails You

It’s time to ask the tough question: is Mormon history even helpful to the Ordain Women movement?

Like Joanna Brooks has said, this cause isn’t one that burns deeply within my soul.  If President Monson told us tomorrow that women could be ordained to be “Elders” or “High Priestesses,” I would cheer along with everyone else. If it means that women would get their share of anti-porno talks and dating chastisements, I’m all about lovingly retiring the pedestal–and then burning it in the quiet of the night. I can think of “binders full of women” right now who would run my Elders’  Quorum meeting more competently than I ever could. In that sense, I can confidently say that I’m in support of the Ordain Women movement.

So my comments are not about the rightness or wrongness of Ordain Women.  I’m more interested in how movements like this are conveyed to the public. Is it because we find them intellectually compelling? Emotionally validating?  Or personally liberating?  Perhaps D–all of the above.  I’m interested in the mythology of it. Joseph Campbell defined mythology as “a system of affect-symbols, signs evoking and directing psychic energies.” What gives Ordain Women activists the punch and power that gets women out of their seats and standing in front of the Conference Center?

Whenever a political movement is taking root, it must have a story, a past, and a narrative arc. Nations seek to legitimize their existence and rise using military exploits, great leaders, important texts, and villains. Ordain Women, like any social movement, is no different. It too needs to craft its narrative. And herein lies my reservation. It is entirely reasonable for them to seek out historical precedent to justify what they are trying to accomplish. Heck, I do the same thing when trying to justify the most ordinary of daily activities. History isn’t merely the telling of stories; it often forms the cores of our value systems that enable us to make decisions. So what is Ordain Women’s narrative? Does it have one? Does it need one? Some have cogently argued that it doesn’t–that women ought to receive priesthood office based on the truth independent of any historical narrative. As Michael Barker has said with characteristically profound simplicity: “it’s the right thing to do.”

For years, Mormon feminists have pointed to Joseph Smith’s potent 1842 comments suggesting that the Relief Society was to become “a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day.”  They draw on Joseph Smith’s approval of women administering blessings of healing to suggest that Joseph Smith in fact intended women to hold the priesthood in the same way that men did. They were to become their own “kingdom of priests,” hardly distinguishable from the men. And these feminists are not wrong. Joseph Smith did have big plans for Mormon women. Neither he nor Emma thought of the Relief Society as a cute book club or a sewing group. “We are going to do something extraordinary,” Emma Smith told her sisters of the Relief Society.

But historical analogies come with a lot of baggage, much of it awkwardly-shaped and burdensome to carry.  It’s useful for the purposes of the tete-a-tete of polemics, but it leaves us wanting.  For the two years after Joseph Smith’s comments, there is, for better or for worse, no evidence that he ever ordained a woman to the office of Deacon, Teacher, Priest, Elder, or High Priest.  So whatever Joseph Smith meant in 1842, he had something else in mind.

But if not that, then what? All the evidence suggests that this something else was the endowment. Some twenty years after the fact, Sidney Rigdon recalled of the temple ritual that “Emma was the one to whom the female priesthood was first given.”  In 1843 Brigham Young said that three women were  “taken into the order of the priesthood” when they received their endowment. In February 1844, William Clayton said that Jane Bicknell Young was received “into the Quorum of the Priesthood” when she received her endowment.  Patriarch John Smith later blessed Martha Turnbow that she would be “clothed with the Power of the Holy Priesthood [to] be able to redeem thy fathers house.”  Bathsheba Smith, George A. Smith’s widow, later noted that Joseph Smith “wanted to make us, as the women were in Paul’s day, a kingdom of priestesses.” Her recollections accord almost verbatim with the meeting meetings available, making it virtually certain that Eliza R. Snow recorded Joseph Smith correctly.  The records of women administering blessings don’t give us what we want; the Doctrine and Covenants identify healing blessings as spiritual gifts, and you don’t need man-parts to enjoy those (all above quotes come from D. Michael Quinn’s essay: “Women Have Had the Priesthood Since 1843“).

But what does this mean for Ordain Women? It unfortunately means the usefulness of the above narrative is limited.  While it could potentially serve to promote greater female involvement in the Church–after all, it does suggest that the endowment was intended to give women a line of authority independent of their husband–it falls short. As much as we would like to use it to justify ordination to priesthood office, the most we can do is use it to justify the administration of temple ordinances to women independently of their husbands. And that is basically where we are now.

So to where do we turn? Mormon history gives us some tantalizing tidbits, but like most appetizers, they only whet our appetite. We can turn to the large corpus of feminist literature from theorists and activists (looking at you Nancy Chowderow, Elaine Showalter, and Sonia Johnson). But such avenues are often not very attractive to conservative Mormons who are seeking to stay true the institutional Church established by Joseph Smith and upheld by subsequent prophets.  In the time of greatest need, Mormon history fails to deliver on an issue important enough for the Church Public Relations staff to risk alienating moderate Mormons and energizing Mormon feminist activists.  It’s frustrating, but it’s a hard fact to overlook.  We simply cannot draw on Mormon history to prove the legitimacy of Ordain Women. Yes–indeed YES–to support equal access to public institutions. YES to promoting economically independent women. But on this key issue, we’re left without the evidence we crave so much.

What options remain for the case of Ordain Women?  There’s a rich history of gender inequality among our people (and American society) as manifested in something as simple as a Ward Potluck where the Relief Society is just expected to make all the food because that’s what women do, right? (Right, the Relief Society nods, having been taught from their youth). Our gender norms can be stumbling blocks; in 1987, Boyd K. Packer said that we can’t  move ahead when we’re still living in a 1947 church–something no less true when we talk of gender relations. Or maybe it doesn’t need to be about the priesthood at all. Maybe it has less to do with priesthood ordination and more to do with validating those women (and men) who don’t identify with the “Men Do Things While Women Fawn Over Them Model”–a group that happens to make up the better part of our Church membership not only in the United States but also abroad.

Whatever one feels the “real issue” to be, we can only get there through dialogue, not through kvetching and alienation. But here we are, faced with enraged feminists, offensively-defensive mainstreamers, and moderates deeply disturbed as they see their friends pull out the claws.  “Psychic energy,” we have.  “Affective art work,” this is.  Ordain Women has captured the imagination, hopes, and dreams of intelligent and articulate people–people who deserve to be addressed as serious thinkers. But whatever the legitimacy of Ordain Women, we don’t need a new historical narrative in order to follow the example of the manual laborer from Nazareth who entrusted his most intimate secrets not to the political zealots, fishermen, and revenue agents but to ordinary women in ordinary places.

9 comments on “When Mormon History Fails You

  1. Amy Cartwright says:

    Russell, I really, really liked this. Thank you.

  2. Tom Bartlett says:

    If the women of the LDS church can’t hold THE priesthood and they feel they should, how can they think these old white men are inspired to even run “the true church”. Why would they want to be part of it anyway, it’s not true.

  3. Wow. This is SO well-written. Thank you!

  4. Tom Hatton says:

    Russ,
    I love you dude, and think that this is an interesting and informative essay. Just one question though. Are you suggesting Mary Magdalene was a “woman of ill-repute”? I tend to agree with Talmage, that Mary Magdalene is not the same woman as the fallen woman in Luke 7 (Jesus the Christ, 264-265).

    • I don’t hold a strong opinion on that one either way. Given what we know about how demonic possession was typically perceived in the ancient world, it can be safely assumed that Mary was not considered to be well-regarded woman in her community. And given the other types of people in Jesus’ circles (tax men, political revolutionaries, etc.), I can’t see most respectable people associating with his kinds. Whether this means prostitution or not, of course, I don’t really (nor did Gregory the Great) know.

  5. cindy mexico says:

    Jesus Christ visits the people of Corianton; and ordains women

    The Other Book of Mormon

    Mentinah Archives vol. 1

    The Second Book of Shi-Muel ( Samuel the Lamanite )

    Page 78

    Chapter Six
    1) Now, it was while I labored as High Priest to the people of Corianton, before the year wherein my father returned unto our fathers, that the signs which I had prophesied unto the people of Zarahemlah concerning the birth of the Christ were accomplished. And when my son Corianton and I did labor together in that capacity the signs of His death came, and the people were amazed and affrighted.

    2) But behold, the Spirit did whisper peace to our minds and to our souls so that we did patiently bear the day, the night and the day of darkness. For, though the occurrence was frightful, still, the Spirit did sing a song of sweet redemption to our souls. And many dreamed dreams and saw visions. And even some few did receive commandments as to what should be done when the Lord did come to visit the people of Corianton.

    3) And He did come unto us, in accordance with the visions that I too had received when I was but a young man. For, we had gathered together to worship when the signs came. Yea, and all the people in the cities had gathered to Corianton. And all the people in the forests had gathered, and also from the lakes and rivers. And we were all together, a great concourse of people awaiting the coming of the Lord.

    Page 79
    4) And we did hear His voice from afar off and we did shout with joy when we heard it. For, it caused our hearts to leap. Yea, our hearts did leap within our breasts and nothing could haveprevented us from crying out our joy when we heard His voice.

    5) But the voice was first a voice of warning unto all those who did wickedness. And from this we understood in our hearts that not all the wicked were destroyed. But behold, many were destroyed, even the most part, and that so that all might have one or many accounts to tell of the signs that preceded the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. And the voice was as the voice of an Angel, not of a trump or of thunder. But it did pierce us to the core. And behold, the voice did also separate the good from the bad. For, those who feared the retribution of a just God, trembled and sought to hide themselves. Yea, and they were
    filled with great loathing to see Him. But those who did good works were filled with joy and they ran out into the streets and clearings to see what was about tobefall. Yea, they welcomed their Lord with praise and singing.

    6) And in the day that He did come amongst us, and it was not long after the signs of His death had abated, we did according to the things we had been commanded in the visions and revelations that many had received during the days of darkness.

    7) Behold, we did greet Him as our King and our High Priest. And I did take Him by the hand and I did lead Him to the seat of the High Priest. And I did place upon Him the robes of the High Priest and He did sit upon the seat. And behold, I did declare to all the people that this was the Christ, the Son of the Living God; He who was killed by His own; He who had paid the uttermost price for our redemption and who had sealed it with the sacrifice mostdear. And the people did gather to the Temple to see Him and to hear His words.

    8) And behold, my son Corianton did approach the seat and, bowing himself down before his Lord, he did wash His feet, hands, and head, and he did anoint Him with oil most precious. And when he had done this, the Lord did place His hands upon the head of Corianton and blessed him, and bid him arise.

    9) And behold, Pa-Sabel approached also the seat and bowed herself down before the Lord. And she did break bread and blessed it, as she had been taught to do upon the Way. And she offered it to the Lord, and He did eat. And she did pour out pure wine into a grail and blessed it, as she had been taught to do upon the Way. And she offered it to the Lord, and He did drink. And when this was done He took her by the hand and arose from the seat. And He said in the hearing of all the people gathered there:

    10) Behold, this is well, what these two have done unto me. For they did approach me upon the Way. Yea, they did seek My face and I did acknowledge them. And behold, I did teach them these things upon the Way when I did show Myself unto them who sought Me. Let them be an ensample unto all those who would come unto Me and diligently seek Me. Unto such shall I give My kingdom. Yea, of such shall I make up My jewels.

  6. cindy mexico says:

    11) And behold, when He had said these words, He did join the hands of Corianton, my son, and Pa-Sabel and presented them together to the host, saying:

    12) These two have become First Man and First Woman. Surely, they shall always administer My sacraments together. For, the one is not without the other in Me. Wherefore, I shall bless and sanctify all that they do.

    13) And unto the two, He said:

    14) Go now and do like as you did unto Me also unto all this people, teaching them to do likewise unto every person. And they went straightway and ministered unto the people, teaching them the ordinance of these two sacraments.

    15) And when they had done this and returned again, He turned again unto me and said:

    16) Are there any sick and afflicted among you? Let them come up unto Me and I will bless them. And by their faith, they shall be made whole.

    17) And we did cause that all those who were sick and afflicted to approach Him and He was pleased. For there were not so many who were sick and afflicted because of the many healers that worked their gifts among us. But there were some who had met with accidents who were halt and some who had complaints that they had borne for many years for which the Healers had no cure. But behold, these were not many.

    18) Now, when they had approached the Lord, He did lay hands on them and blessed them. And behold, they did arise and were free of their afflictions. And thiswas a great confirmation of what we had always
    Page 80
    believed about the Lord, that He is mighty to saveboth quick and dead. And we rejoiced in this affirmation.

    19) And when He had blessed all the sick and the afflicted, He turned again unto me and said:

    20) Suffer the little children to come unto me, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.

    21) And we did suffer all the parents to gather the little children and bring them to the Lord. And He did teach them many things that cannot be written. And He raised His hands into the air and He blessed all the little ones. Now when He had done this, a great light was seen in the sky above their heads and they were all enveloped in light. And it was to be seen within the light that Angels descended and did minister to the children. And voices were heard that we did not understand, and songs were voiced that we did not know.
    And all the people marveled at this thing. And when the Angels had again ascended and the light had gone away, behold, the countenances of the children shone still and they did prophecy.

    Chapter Seven

    1) Now, after all these things had taken place, Jesus turned once again to me and said:

    2) Behold, the people of Corianton are Nemenhah indeed. Great should be your joy and also your cause to give thanks and rejoice. For, you have listened toMy voice and you have soughtMy face. Wherefore, I have manifested Myself unto you at many times, and you are not surprised nor too much amazed by My appearance unto you this day. This thing does please Me very much. Now I go unto the Nemenhah of Mentinah again to teach them. Continue faithful and I will visit you often to teach you also.

    3) And after He had said this, a cloud did descend fromheaven and He was taken up in it and carried away with a great sound.

    4) And I, and all the people, did stand in amazement and in joy. Yea, we felt a joy that could not find expression. And we could not find it in ourselves to depart one from another for the space of many hours because of the Spirit that was in us. For, of a sudden one person or another would burst forth in prophecy and we were loathe to be absent from such miracles.

    5) Now, in three days time the people had meant to meet to worship together because of the signs that had been shown in the heavens. And now that Jesus had visited them and manifested Himself unto them, they were all the more anxious to meet and offer oblations unto Him. And it was while we were thus met and employed that we looked and behold, Jesus stood in our midst. And when we had seen Him, all the people bowed down to the earth before Him. And He sat with us and taught us upon the bench, saying:

  7. cindy mexico says:

    6) Samuel, you who have been my mouthpiece in times past, be so now even unto this people. And take twelve of your people, of both men and women, and behold, I shall touch them and place upon them the priesthood. And they shall listen to My words and take them to the people. For the multitude gathered is great and My voice shall reach them all through Myanointed ones. And all those who are of the Nemenhah of Corianton who are not present must also hear My words. Wherefore, these whom you appoint and upon whom I lay this great charge, shall take other twelve from each city and region, to begin
    the spreading of My gospel to all the people.

    7) Then, when all the people have received of My word, let them all strive to obtain for themselves the anointing. And if they do this with singleness of heart, seeking My face, behold, I shall manifest Myself unto them upon the Way. For I am the Way, the Truth and the Light. If anyone seeks Me in this spirit, they shall find Me.

    8) And I did all that the Lord commanded me, choosing out six men and six women who were known to me to be upright people with good intentions. And He took them one by one and touched them and called them to be His servants. And these are the words He used:

    9) Upon you, my servant, I lay a certain charge and commission. And I give you authority to act in all things that the Spirit does manifest that I would do were I present to do them. Wherefore, be diligent in study, and also in fasting and in prayer. In this shall you know My doctrine. Yea, in this shall you know of Me, through the whisperings of the Spirit, that which isMy will and that which is not. And I give unto you power to command the elements as often as the Spirit dictates. Wherefore, pray always that you be not deceived and carried away in pride.

    10) Then, casting His eyes about, He taught us concerning this priesthood, saying:
    Page 81
    11) Behold, I do perceive your thoughts. Marvel not that I have given mine authority to women and men alike. Yea, this thing has been of concern to some since the day that Pa-Sabel received word from Me of the ordinance she should perform when I came. Behold, I do confer the priesthood upon those men who
    would follow Me and do the things they see Me do. And unto such is made an ordination, that they may speak and act in My name, and be justified in so doing. But I do not confer such upon the women, for they have of My Mother in Heaven that which I cannot give. Wherefore, I do ordain them. But the priesthood they have already cannot be given, nor taken away, but by that person who gave it. Wherefore, if there be any woman who desires to follow Me and do the thingsthey see Me do, they are authorized from the foundation of the world, and I do justify them.

    12) For, the daughters of Eve do sacrifice of themselves freely for the sake of all living. For this cause did Adam call her name Eve. For she is the Mother of all Living. She does give of herself, even to the laying down of her life, in order that man might be, and in order that the purposes of heaven may go forward. She is a Priestess and Queen unto the Most High God forever.

    13) Wherefore, if by the Spirit she is moved upon to take up emblems of My life and death, and bless them, and administer them to the people, what is that to you? She does it unto Me. Wherefore, restrain her not at all.

    14) But behold, men received not such power by their creation and come into the world without the natural inclination to do good. Wherefore have I said, the natural man is an enemy to God. By the sweat of his face shall Adam earn his bread all the days of his life. And through constancy in service and in sacrifice shall he learn, order by order, line upon line, even precept on precept, to become like Me and do the things they see Me do. Wherefore, I confer priesthood upon men who would be My servants, and I give them
    authority to minister. But woman are ministers from the foundation of the world.

    15) And when a man wishes to engage in the work ofmy Father which is in Heaven, you unto whom I have given this authority may confer it unto him and ordain him to that stewardship that I shall provide for him. That he may also take up his cross and learn by the application of the Law of the Gospel to give freely of himself, breaking his heart and humbling his spirit. For,this is the sacrifice which I will accept of him.
    Yea, he shall bend his own will and tame it, and do whatsoever I shall command him. And this he shall learn to do without coercion or compulsion, but freely ofhis own accord. This is the sacrifice of the heart and the spirit which I require of all those who would call themselves My servants.

    16) And that man shall attend to do his duty unto the people, administering the sacraments unto them, keeping My Holy House, and teaching the people. This is the work that I shall require of him. And behold, he shall do all this freely and shall not be compelled to do it in any way. For, though the priesthood appear to be that by which service is rendered unto others, it is a service unto Me and unto My Father. Wherefore, let him do it with an eye single to the glory of God and not tohis own. And if he do this, he shall attain to that
    state of happiness of which the prophets have spoken, both in this life as also in the life to come.

  8. cindy mexico says:

    17) And when a woman wishes to engage in the work of My Father which is in Heaven, in addition to that great work which the Mother has given unto her by virtue of her very creation, you, unto whom I have given My authority, may ordain her unto that stewardship that I shall provide for her. And she shall apply that great gift, which My Mother which is in Heaven has given her, to the ministering unto the people as
    the man does. She shall also bend her own will and do whatsoever I shall command her. But remember, whereas the stewardship that I shall provide for every man is a necessary thing for most men, in order that they might overcome the natural man, that which has been provided women by the Mother does already accomplish this end for them. Wherefore, priesthood, though a woman may officiate in the sacraments and
    in every holy ordinance, is not requisite for her salvation. Whereas, men must have this device in order to truly come unto me. And where the priesthood is not available for them, surely I shall provide another means whereby men may overcome that which prevents them from the Way.

    18) And these are the sacraments which I command you to administer unto My children:

    19) You shall bless your little ones, calling upon My name. For, in the day that I began the work of Atonement for them, they were given to Me by the Father and the Mother. Wherefore, ye are My children, notwithstanding, I am also My Father’s son.
    Posted in Let’s Share Our Dreams and Visions | Leave a comment
    Women’s Priesthood Daughters of Adam and Eve
    Posted on April 18, 2014 by c j

    For I Am the Lord;

    Now, behold ye Nemenhah, the daughters of Adam are blessed from before the foundation of the world.
    Behold, My daughters, by the nature of your creation, ye do serve all people. Yea, it is good that ye do organize yourselves in all your good and that ye do uphold this nation as ye presently do. But behold the orders of the priesthood are for the sons of Adam, to be an instrument unto them that they may train their natures to be more like unto the daughters of Eve.

    Yea, that by the sweat of their face, even by their strength, they might learn to give of themselves for the sake of others. For how shall they become like Me if they do not that which I have done? But, ye Daughters of Eve, ye do it already.

    Wherefore, covet not that which I have given unto men, but rejoice and know that ye may seek My face without other preparation than that which ye have received by your nature. For ye receive of the Mother even a more complete priesthood than the orders of the priesthood that I give unto men, in order that they may prove themselves thereby.
    Posted in Let’s Share Our Dreams and Visions | Leave a comment
    Nemenhah Temple Endowment; Covenant of Elohim

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