A persistent idea in Mormon thought is the proposition that women are inherently, on average, more spiritual than men. This idea can be found in many texts and discourses of Mormondom; a recent example arises in a discussion thread drawing on an excellent post by Kiskilili at Zelophehad’s Daughters. I have no doubt that an idea of this sort has a huge range of sources. This post sketches just one, with the purpose of showing that ideas about the superior spirituality of women can often arise from beliefs about women that are really quite malign.
B. Carmon Hardy’s recent documentary history of Mormon polygamy, Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy, Its Origins, Practice, and Demise, contains a fascinating short collection of primary sources regarding 19th-century Mormon leaders’ attitudes toward female spirituality. (See pages 125-29. I will be writing a full review of this volume for BCC in the next few weeks.) Mormon leaders at the time typically regarded women as inherently inferior to men. Consider, for example, Charles W. Penrose’s views on the relative status of men and women as published in his essay, “Family Government” in the May 16, 1868 edition of the church’s Millennial Star (issue 30: 20, available online here):
Much as it has been disputed by agitators for “woman’s rights,” man, as a sex, by reason of greater physical and mental strength, is placed by nature above woman in the scale of being…. Woman was made for man.
This view of women as inherently inferior to, and indeed designed expressly to meet the needs of, men serves as a basis for one version of the view that women are usually in a better spiritual state than men. Brigham Young explains the perspective in question in his usual pithy style:
Women… will be more easily saved than men. They have not sense enough to go far wrong. Men have more knowledge and more power; therefore they can go more quickly and more certainly to hell (quoted in Hardy, 125).
This quotation was recorded by an outsider historian, William Hepworth Dixon, whose writings on Mormonism were much contested at the time they were published. So, it is worthwhile to cross-validate this quotation with an October 8, 1861, Brigham Young sermon recorded by faithful insider G. D. Watt.
A few remarks on woman. She is the glory of man, but she is not at the head in all the creations of God. Pertaining to his children on this earth she is not accountable for the sins that are in the world. God requires obedience from man, he is Lord of creation, and at his hands the sin of the world will be required. Could the female portion of the human family fully understand this, they would see that they are the objects of tender mercy, and greatly blessed. This no doubt on a causal view appears to my sisters a glorious doctrine for them and some might be tempted in their ignorance to take unwarrantable liberties, corrupt themselves with sin, and then take shelter under the doctrine that man alone is culpable for the sin they commit. There are, however, restrictions placed upon woman. I will quote a passage of scripture to illustrate this. “And the man that commiteth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that commiteth adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” When the crime was thus atoned for then was she free, and prepared to receive in full the blessings she otherwise would have received had she not committed sin. Woman must atone for sins committed by the volition of her own choice… but she will never become an angel to the devil, and sin so far as to place herself beyond the reach of mercy. She will suffer all that she has strength to suffer according to the venality of her sins. (quoted in Hardy, pg. 126, spelling regularized and strikeouts and corrections omitted)
So we see that, in Brigham Young’s view as explained in this sermon, women are less accountable for sin than are men. Indeed, it would appear that women are not included in either the atonement of Jesus Christ or in the final judgment. The atonement doesn’t fully apply because women are required to suffer and atone for their own sins; this is only applicable to men who do not repent. Final judgment does not apply to women because, according to Young, they will all receive the same final blessings whether they sin or not; if none are judged unworthy, then there is no judgment.
But the driving force behind all of this seems to be Young’s view that women are not, fundamentally, accountable for sin — the doctrine driving Young’s reasoning about why women will all eventually reach exaltation. In Mormon thought, accountability is the necessary partner of moral competence. Young children are held not to be accountable because they are not morally capable of sin. They do not possess the intellectual, physical, social, spiritual, or other forms of development necessary to be held liable for their own actions. Is there any other basis on which Young’s view of women as not accountable for sin could stand, other than on a similar account of women as inherently lacking the basic moral capacity to be responsible for their own decisions?
Attributions of spiritual status along gender lines need not rely explicitly on this horrendously sexist logic. Indeed, current advocates of the proposition that women are on average more spiritual than men rarely say that the reason for this is that women lack the full capacity to sin. Yet such implications are not always easy to escape when making such an argument. Are women less sinful because they are less accountable? Then, as we have seen, the implication is that they cannot really understand what they are doing — a sexist and morally repulsive thought. Are women less sinful because they are tempted less? Yet Paul teaches us that God allows us to be exposed to temptation that is somehow in proportion to our capacity:
No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)
So, if women are tempted less, then we might have to conclude that they, perhaps, are on average spiritually weaker — once again, a sexist and morally unacceptable idea. Or are women given a greater portion of the light of Christ? Yet God is no respecter of persons, and “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). So the argument does not go through.
Brigham Young’s idea that men are solely accountable for sin is perhaps the most extreme Mormon version of the broader proposition that women are more spiritual than men. It may be possible to construct an argument for this broader proposition that does not, either explicitly or by implication, regard women as infantile or inferior. Yet the task is a difficult one, since such implications very often slip in unnoticed. Perhaps it would be better for us to lay the task aside and affirm with Paul that:
…all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).