Progressive Mormonism: Is it time for the LDS to invite women into the priesthood?

LDS poster promoting racial equality; Should gender equality be far behind?
LDS poster promoting racial equality; Should gender equality be far behind?

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, July 5, 2014 — Mormons are agitating again. The uniquely American religion has a rich heritage of subversion, and this rebellious streak has lately manifested itself in a budding movement to let women into the priesthood.

While other faiths have at various times confronted this same issue, its LDS incarnation is colored by Mormon exceptionalism: the central role that early Latter-day Saint women played in the growing church, like Emma Smith and Eliza R. Snow; the predominance of the Relief Society, the all-women auxiliary of the church; and the church’s historical allegiance to the doctrines of the American founding, manifest in the spirituality of church members’ belief that they can personally communicate with God.

Proponents for Mormon ordination of women make these points, and others, often in thoughtful and insightful ways. But another point that they often make — that the exclusion of blacks from the priesthood is analogous — is unjustified and flawed, both historically and doctrinally.

For decades, the LDS church did not allow black men to hold the priesthood, which barred them from most leadership positions in the church as well as from temple rites. In 1978, the church reversed its ban and opened priesthood ordination to “all worthy male members of the church.” The policy, issued as a press release without elaboration, became canon the following year.

The context of the 1978 Black Priesthood Revelation is a stew of secular historical influences, early church doctrine, tradition of free thinking, and racist attitudes toward blacks. A full understanding of it requires a familiarity with the priesthood in LDS theology — it is the power bestowed upon God’s representatives to do His business, as well as a broad category of membership.

Explanations of the ban have been as controversial as the policy itself, relying variously on ideology, scripture, and politics. In this respect, the drive to lift the ban on women holding the priesthood bears resemblance.

But the similarities end as they bump up against historical realities. The exclusion of blacks was not a product of any revelation issued to Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s founder. On the contrary, at least one black, and likely more, had been ordained with Smith’s knowledge. Smith and early Mormons were unapologetic abolitionists, and were on the progressive fringes of American politics vis-à-vis race relations.

There was never any specific doctrine that supported the ban, either, which complicates attempts to draw an analogy between the experience of blacks and women in Mormondom. While critics of the church will point to statements by church leaders about the origins of the policy to prohibit blacks from obtaining priesthood, none of the statements rise to the level of canonical doctrine.

In fact, the church’s president and prophet in 1954, David O. McKay, is reported to have said that withholding the priesthood from blacks “is a practice, not a doctrine, and the practice will someday be changed. And that’s all there is to it.”

The least ambiguous Mormon doctrine on women holding the priesthood comes from the revelation that extended it to Africans and their descendants, which specifically authorizes “all worthy male members of the church” for ordination.

Proponents of female ordination present themselves as truth-seeking progressives, who will eventually prevail on the leadership to change course. They hope that, with enough agitation and pressure from within, church elders will see the error in their ways. They may in fact succeed. But they won’t be following the template of the 1978 change.

Prior to the church reversal almost 40 years ago, there was very little agitation within the church to make a change. Most of the pressure came from civil rights groups like the NAACP, with little interest in preserving the church’s good standing, or an adherence to its core doctrines. It is true that a majority of members favored opening up the priesthood for many years, but there was no large-scale interest groups formed to promote the cause, nor did the church excommunicate — an extraordinary step — anybody for preaching doctrines contrary to the church’s teaching on the subject.

The LDS church may well change its practice of disallowing women to hold the priesthood. Major changes in doctrine and policy have been made before; witness the polygamy reversal in 1890 and the Black Priesthood Revelation in 1978. But if a change on the position of women ordination occurs, it will be a bigger and more dramatic one.

And it will be without historical precedent or analogy.

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  • It isn’t time to “invite” them into the priesthood, it’s time to give it BACK to them. Like blacks, Joseph Smith ordained women into the priesthood in the early days of the church but it was Brigham Young who took it away from all of them as a matter of personal prejudice and policy, not doctrine.

    • Dave, there is absolutely no record of Joseph Smith ordaining women to the priesthood. It is true that he seems to have bestowed priesthood keys on the first Relief Society Presidency in Nauvoo, and it is true that he stated that he wished to make of the Relief Society “a kingdom of priests,” but these are not the same as actually ordaining women–something I think he would have done had he lived longer.

      I discuss this in detail in my book, _Latter-day Saint Women and the Priesthood of God_, available at Benchmark Books in Salt Lake City, and on Amazon.

  • MaleMan

    No Richard. He’ll let us know when He wants things to happen.

    Psalm 46:10King James Version (KJV)
    10 Be still, and know that I am God:

    • Gene Judson

      “MaleMan” Look up Numbers 27…and also think about the Word of Wisdom came about and numerous examples of His children coming to Him in supplication before He reveals his word.

  • MaleMan

    In church history, refinements to church policy have occurred as a result of members observing and making suggestions, some of which have lead to helpful change.

    The sticking point with Ms. Kelly’s approach is the the method. Though publicaly, her words have been polite, her actions convey a different message. She’s not saying that if church leadership will just listen to her, and ask, that she would be content with and abide by what ever answer is given. The personal rights lawyer in her is basically demanding change and using the secular press and public opinion outside the church as leverage to try to force change upon church leaders according to her view of things. During her video interview by the Salt Lake Tribute after her excommunication, she was defiant advocating that her followers should stay in church and “…raise hell…”

    In a sense either knowingly or unwhitingly, she’s using Sherem/Korihor “reasonable and fair” arguments and unfortunately, too many are being led away by this modern day Pied Piperess. She has a peculiar interpretation of keeping the law of sacrifice.

  • Jim Beggs

    failed to prove your point. where are the scriptural citations for the practice of only ordaining men?

    • Richard Stowell

      Jim, you misread. The point is that if a change were implemented, it would be a bigger departure from custom than the ordination of blacks.

      I cited one scripture: Official Declaration 1, which mentions making the priesthood available to all worthy male members.

  • Hadris Ellsberg

    Collectivists attack free enterprise, private property, and prosperity by claiming collectivism as the sole conduit for altruism while accusing individualists of being selfish and greedy.