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.