Not power; but confidence and faith

old-womans-hands-emanuel-tanjalaMormon women used to give blessings similar to–but not necessarily the same as–the ones currently restricted to male priesthood holders. This is a historical fact. I know of no revelation declaring such practices as being contrary to God’s will, but we’re at a point when many members of the Church feel that even bringing this up is somehow dangerous, irreverent, disrespectful, or otherwise suspect. There’s an “Ordain Women” movement going on which provokes some intense reactions (whether passive-aggressive or just plain aggressive.) There are other movements–like WAVE–which seek more incremental goals like finding better ways to include women in the Church without even requiring Priesthood ordination. (Neylan McBain’s 2012 FAIR Conference address is a must-read in this regard, and I think it could usefully be offered to bishops for their consideration.)

So we have a variety of ways that tension about this issue manifests itself. I was discussing things with a friend when someone called into question the motives of women who feel a desire to exercise priesthood power.

The general thrust was something like this: Such women–whether they would like ordination or simply an even more meaningful ways of contributing to their fellow saints–are probably just power-hungry, lacking the humility which disciples of Christ should manifest in their own designated sphere(s). As the discussion devolved, I offered a touching experience one Mormon woman recorded in her autobiography. One of the replies to the excerpt touched me, so I want to share it.

Here is the excerpt followed by the reply. (And yes, I recognize the irony in giving voice to the concern of women through me, a dude.)

One morning I was sitting undressed crying & just to miserable to do the days tasks–wondering what we were going to do–When a little knock came to the door. I smoothed my hair, & opened it–and there stood our Relief Society President Mary Pickering. She said “I have come to give you a ‘blessing.’” I invited her in saying, I truly needed a blessing, as I was pretty low. She told me she was washing her morning dishes, when some one said to her, very clearly, go down & give Sister Gordon a blessing–So she said I wiped my hands & came. I sat down & she laid her hands on my head & gave me a wonderful blessing, not in the authority of the Priesthood but in the simple faith of a good true Woman Saint. She told me I was going to have good health & that I was going to California, and that God had a great mission for me to perform, greater than any thing I had ever done, and I must be comforted, & not to be discouraged any more as the Lord loved me & had me in his care. With that she took her hands off my head, kissed me & went back to her home–I sat there feeling full of peace & comforted, wondering at the blessings of my Lord, & marveling at the things she told me. How was I ever going to California. We couldn’t afford it What great work was there for me, who was not well enough to do my own work, but I couldn’t doubt it was an inspired blessing. So I dressed & proceeded with the days task. Though I was still very weak I felt sure some [how] I would improve. Shortly after on a week end Fair [Pansy's son] came in from Bingham, & told me he was going to send me to Los Angeles to visit Tensie [her daughter] & see if that wouldn’t restore my health.

From Claudia Bushman, ed., Pansy’s History: The Autobiography of Margaret E. P. Gordon, 1866-1966 (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2011), 205-206.

And from my friend:

I would be supremely humbled if I ever had the opportunity to be ordained, and I would not take such a thing lightly. If not, it is also true that I feel incredibly blessed to have a husband who worthily holds his priesthood. I am so grateful. We have been blessed by his priesthood many times in the short while we’ve been married, and we have both felt protected by the promised guidance he receives through this power.

But I can’t deny I feel a twinge of *something* when I read about moments like the one Blair quoted from that early sister’s journal. I *don’t* feel capable of being able to bless or receive such specific revelation for the women I visit teach, for example, and I wish Relief Society was filled with stories like these, rather than casserole dishes alone (not to undermine the sisters today or undermine casseroles, but I do feel many women feel like their husbands should be the scriptorian and the spiritual leader for the whole family because they are priesthood leader the end). It isn’t power that I want, it is the confidence and faith that God can work and speak through me no less than He can through my husband. I want to feel that close to God. I want to know my place better so that I can work and serve to my best capacity.

Comments

  1. Yes, thank you. This is it…this has always been it.

  2. Rachel Hunt says:

    Thank you for this, Blair. I feel very similarly to your female friend who desires confidence and faith, and to “feel that close to God.” I also participated in a remarkable Relief Society lesson on the Priesthood, where multiple sisters shared experiences when they felt prompted to give blessings to their family members (and did so) to beautiful effect. It was inspiring.

  3. It might be a sufficient intermediary goal to get more of those bretheren on whom the priesthood has been conferred to behave in such a way as to retain the use of that priesthood. We tend to interpret D&C 121 as saying that the priesthood leaves a person when they try to exercise unrighteous dominion, but in fact it says that the priesthood leaves whenever the Spirit is withdrawn. I rather suspect that, for most of us, holders of priesthood office or not, the Spirit is withdrawn quite a lot of the time, whether because of trying to claim unrighteous dominion or for any of hundreds of other misdeeds. I further suspect that we as a people in general understand so little of what the priesthood actually is that we’re mostly incapable of using it effectively, even when the Spirit is not withdrawn. Perhaps if we did understand it, those agitating for ordination would find they have more access to priesthood power than they originally thought, and those ordained to it would be more respectful of the assignment they’ve been given.

  4. Wilbur, I respectfully disagree. For many reasons, one of which is that I can’t imagine a man giving the blessing Margaret Gordon received. Given the intimate details in the story (not fully dressed & groomed for the day, in her home apparently alone, comforting physical affection shown), I think only another woman could have given that blessing. Women are now expected to minister to each other through visiting teaching, but as Blair’s friend said, we often feel constrained or that we have limited potential. Improved effectiveness of male priesthood just can’t replace women’s unique ability to minister to other women in certain cases. This is the tip of the iceberg in reasons I think women should be ordained, but it is enough for now.

    Mormon culture and teachings place a lot of emphasis on obedience and I think many faithful women won’t seek to bless each other in these ways without explicit permission.

  5. This is beautiful, Blair – and so profound.

    I believe there is a clear distinction between the Priesthood of Ordinance Performance and the priesthood of believers – and a clear distinction between the power of God and the authority to administer officially structured ordinances. The power can be manifested in the ordinances, but it can be manifested and exercised outside those ordinances, as well – and I think that is black letter Mormon doctrine. I also believe it is hard to make a reasonable argument within Mormon theology that all who are baptized and take upon them the name of Christ can’t receive revelation from God and act in the name they have taken upon themselves – or that all temple endowed members don’t have access to the power of the Priesthood (regardless of their authority to perform ordinances) – or that that the prayer of faith actually doesn’t avail much – or that there is not great power in physically touching someone and praying for, over or around them.

    Holding / possessing priesthood power is different than being authorized to administer ordinances. Thus, there are myriad ways people (male and female) who are not authorized currently in the Priesthood of Ordinance Performance can exercise real priesthood power – and I would like to see that simple principle taught openly and directly, regardless of whatever restrictions are in place for the administration of the Priesthood of Ordinance Performance. Expanding access to the Priesthood of Ordinance Performance is one thing (and the reasons for any limitations are an important discussion to have), but exercising priesthood power can happen right now, without challenge, as long as it is not done in any way that mimics or implies official administrative authorization.

    I don’t mean to dismiss or belittle in any way the desire to participate in the performance of ordinances, but I don’t believe in any eternal, immutable limitations on access to the power of God, relative to one’s biological sex – so I would like to start where we are and teach all members to “lift where they stand”, so to speak, by exercising the power they already have. Our women already have the power and authority to prophesy, to speak in tongues, to bless and heal, to discern, to perform miracles, to call on the power of heaven, to receive revelation, to lead in righteous councils, etc. I want that taught first and foremost, since I don’t want administrators (male or female) who don’t understand the real power of God they hold and their ability to imbue the performance of ordinances with that power. Without that real power, the performance of ordinances becomes nothing more than “dead works” – no matter who does the administration.

    In other words, I’d rather work on maximizing power if maximizing authority isn’t an option right now, since exercising power is not contingent on access to ordinal authority. If I had to choose between the two in isolation, I would rather have empowered men and women than authorized men and women.

  6. Thank you Blair. Very lovely thoughts. From a male perspective, I can say that we could also use more frank discussions as to how to channel the priesthoood. For instance, many times when we place hands on heads the inspiration may just not be there. It’s very challenging to confess that weakness in an EQ lesson and ask for others’ advice.

    Wilbur, perhaps before we extend voting rights to women we should make sure that all men are first properly exercising their voting rights. Maybe if all men would diligently study the issues, talk with their spouse about her desires, and choose to exercise a proper vote, then we wouldn’t really need to have women vote at all.

  7. Dave K, I can’t tell if you’re serious or being sarcastic.

  8. Emily, that’s because you don’t know me. I was being serious with Blair, sarcastic/snarky with Wilbur. I guess I need to polish my humor some more.

  9. That’s OK, it’s a good joke in that it shows Wilbur’s absurdity. I try not to make too many assumptions on this topic, since people are all over the map in their opinions. I’ve also been told I need to get a sense of humor :)

  10. Oops, that was me above.

  11. Then we are neighbors. I did grad school in Chicago. Now live in Ohio. Sorry, Blair, for thread-jacking.

  12. Rachel, do you think that the women who related those experiences in that RS meeting would be willing to document them for an interested researcher?

  13. I’m curious why/when they stopped having women pray as visiting teaching companions. And has it started up again? Was it just in my area or a worldwide directive. It seems like the very thing to try to quell this sort of beautiful experience.

  14. EmJen, can you tell me more about this prohibition. I’ve not heard if it before.

  15. Chris Kimball says:

    I’m tempted to begin and end with “confidence and faith”. A wonderful phrase that encapsulates the whole. It is a meaningful and important part of the women and the priesthood story. Thanks.

    As Emily U says (above), “many faithful women won’t seek to bless each other in these ways without explicit permission”. I think that’s absolutely correct, as to “many faithful women”. For what it’s worth, my [idiosyncratic/heterodox/outside the tent] opinion is that BHodge’s friend’s sincere humble desire is in fact the confidence and faith necessary to act, and does not require explicit permission. But I will add the Camilla Kimball participating in a blessing story: “At Elder McConkie’s suggestion [Camilla Kimball] also placed her hands on [Spencer Kimball's] head. That was unusual; it seemed right to me, but I would not have felt free to suggest it on my own because of an ingrained sense that the ordinance is a priesthood ordinance (though I recalled Joseph Smith’s talking of mothers blessing their children). After the administration Mother wept almost uncontrollably for some minutes, gradually calming down.” (excerpt from Edward Kimball’s diary, see “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism”, J. of Mormon History, Winter 2011, by J. Stapley and K. Wright). While I usually see this cited as a touching late-20th century story of a woman participating in a priesthood blessing, I quote it here to highlight two phrases: “At Elder McConkie’s suggestion” and “I would not have felt free to suggest it”. Explicit permission needed and (in this case) granted.

    [I'm male and a priesthood holder and might appropriately be excluded from this conversation. On the other hand, I have enjoyed blessings from women including my mother, I have stood in circles with men and women, and since at least the late '90s I have chosen not to participate in a priesthood blessing or ordinance unless . . . until . . . I am joining a group of both men and women. That personal choice is rather limiting in the LDS Church of the 21st century. (I confess my determination has been broken a couple of times by direct personal requests from people I know and love,)]

  16. Chris, I’m curious why you think Elder McConkie had authority to grant permission for Camilla Kimball to participate. He was not the senior apostle. Is his authority implied because President Kimball was the one being blessed and so could have stopped it if unauthorized? Do all apostles have authority to grant exceptions like this? Or does the permission come because it is a family ordiance and the family can choose who participates? Or maybe it was the spirit that directed and authorized the action? Maybe something else?

  17. EmJen, that’s the first thing that came to my mind, too, when I read this–that we have come to the other side of the pendulum. I don’t know when we were specifically told that we were not to pray in VT appointments–was it late 90’s? But it seemed to be U.S. wide, as I heard the directive in multiple wards during those times.

    Enjoyed this post very much. Thank you.

  18. Excellent post!

  19. Chris Kimball says:

    Dave K. — I don’t know why or how Elder McConkie extended the invitation. Only that it happened. Anything else would be speculative. For purposes of this discussion I think the why or how is not relevant, but what matters is that Camilla needed the invitation. Now my speculative theology would say that she didn’t need it and Elder McConkie didn’t need to say anything and she could have stepped forward on her own. But my speculative theology is probably an outlier and the point stands that “many faithful women won’t seek to bless each other in these ways without explicit permission”.

  20. Chris Kimball says:

    Following up on my reply to Dave K., I realize that there is a little more to say. I wasn’t there, I don’t really know, but what I guess and want to believe is that Elder McConkie was simply being courteous, being kind. He recognized that Camilla needed an invitation, and that he was the acting authority in the room so an invitation from him would be accepted and acceptable, and so without examining the need for an invitation, and without examining the authority or doctrine or rules, he simply did the right and courteous and human thing and extended the invitation.

    As for me, with absolutely no authority or doctrine or logic, with just a feeling about how I would like the world to be, I’m wanting to say “go and do likewise”.

  21. EmJen & Corrina,
    I haven’t heard about a prohibition on praying with visiting teachers before. I’ve always been encouraged to pray with my companion by local leaders. A quick search on lds.org showed a recent article by Silvia H. Allred (I’ll try to post the link below) with the third suggestion being to “Pray with and for those you teach.” Is this what you are referring to? If so, it looks like prayer is encouraged.

    http://www.lds.org/ensign/2011/03/home-teaching-and-visiting-teaching-a-work-of-ministering?lang=eng

  22. Likewise I have never heard of a prohibition on VTers praying. It has continued to be common practice everywhere I’ve lived.

  23. Carey Foushee says:

    Another angle that I think applies is to realize that the OW movement is not asking for the priesthood individually, but is doing it as a collective. I think that is a significant difference that also counters the lack of humility argument.

    Now, I realize that yes individually they do want it as well, but they are not going to their individual Bishop’s and demanding it instead they appear to be doing this as a collective speaking to the church at-large.

  24. Carey, no matter how one feels about the OW movement, that is a distinction without a difference.

  25. I have given my children blessing. I put my hands on their heads, I blessed them with the power of a mother’s love. Power I believe I inherited from my Heavenly Mother. The first time I felt scared that I was breaking a rule. But once I started I felt the blessings of both Heavenly Parents. I am married and my husband also gives blessing. My daughters offer blessing prayers for their husbands when their husbands need comfort. In the end we all feel closer and more knitted together in love and faith. Still, I don’t share these experiences in RS.

  26. Thanks for all the comments, y’all.

  27. Thank you Chris. That is largely how I feel too. I wish we knew more. For all the typical critiques of McConkie’s conservatism, I find this story to be fascinating. I just wonder how much of a precedent it sets for others to follow suit. Could a stake president make such an invitation if he were the presiding authority?

  28. Chris and Dave K, there is definitely a pervasive sense within the faithful members of the Church, especially among women, that they want to be sure they are performing actions within their faith that fall within the boundaries prescribed by those in authority whether local or global. And if you look back at how the laying on of hands and washing by women of the Church for healing purposes appears to have been gradually identified as inappropriate it was in small part due to many women seeking approval from the presiding brethren and specifically asking whether such performance of blessings were appropriate. At least that is how Linda King Newell characterized it in her Sunstone article:

    But doubts kept surfacing among women whose desire for approval from their presiding brethren inevitably led to questions of propriety. Answers varied, however, depending on who provided them.

    This practice seemed largely focused on women caring for other women and children and not relying on the Elders to provide spiritual blessings in time of need. And, it was quite evident that the women were performing a priesthood ordinance but instead a prayer, blessing, and anointing of faith in the name of Jesus Christ. Though there was a priesthood connection in that women were given authority to act through their husband’s priesthood and the endowment from the temple.

    Newell makes the case that this constant querying, or as Zina Young stated, “poking at the wheat plant” then eventually “you will spoil the root,” had some impact on the dwindling of these blessings that aligned with the formalization of the domain of priesthood practices between 1890 and 1946.

    When asked if women held the priesthood in connection with their husbands, [she said] that we should be thankful for the many blessings we enjoyed and say nothing about it. If you plant a grain of wheat and keep poking and looking at it to see if it was growing you would spoil the root.

    So I think it is quite clear, especially given the pronouncements made by the Apostles and the First Presidency during the 30’s and 40’s – including Elder McConkie’s father-in-law Joseph Fiedling Smith – that for a woman to participate in a priesthood blessing would require approval of a presiding authority.

  29. I left out something that I think is relevant here. It wouldn’t require ordination for women to participate in laying hands on other women as is described in Blair’s anecdote from Margaret Gordon’s life. They weren’t ordained when Joseph Smith and Brigham Young encouraged them to act and live in such a manner as to be able to call down the blessings of heaven through prayer and faith on behalf of the women and children they cared for. Eventually there an expectation was set that only women who had been endowed in the temple could perform these blessings. But it feels like it would require a prophet, through the Lord, to reverse a theological shift that was enacted by those who preceded him concerning an official doctrine of women blessing other women.

  30. My father-in-law has invited my mother-in-law to lay hands upon my head and my wife’s head during priesthood blessings. It is a joyful and deeply spiritual experience. I don’t see anything wrong with it. I gave school blessings this past week and did not invite my wife to join me, though I now wish I had. I believe doing it by “virtue of the priesthood which I hold and which we share” would, I hope, be sufficient and follow the letter of the law but certainly invite the greater spirit of the law, until such time as we, as a church, are more enlightened on the matter.

  31. There was indeed a prohibition on visiting teachers praying in the homes of the sisters they taught. I remember it well because one sister asked me to pray for her shortly after we were told we couldn’t. I did it anyway. I would also guess it occurred in the early 90s.

  32. I should add that we were told to pray together as visiting teachers *before* we began the visits. The prohibition was praying in the homes with the sisters we taught. The implication was that women couldn’t be trusted, of course, but I never heard any reasons why or what had prompted this.

  33. Thanks for a beautiful post, Blair!

    I feel very blessed to live in a time when Mormon (and non-Mormon) women are discovering more and more of their spiritual power. For me, the blessings of equality are part of the restoration of all things and the establishment of our Heavenly Parents’ realm on earth. It moves me no end.

  34. Joe Kaiser:
    ‘I believe doing it by “virtue of the priesthood which I hold and which we share” would, I hope, be sufficient and follow the letter of the law’

    While this may sound like a good stop-gap approach it leaves out and causes pain for women (like me) who are widowed, divorced after being sealed, married but have a husband who has left the faith, or never married at all. In other words, there are “conditions” other than worthiness (and age) that would prohibit participation by females.

    This sounds like a recipe for making another category of Have-Nots, instead of addressing the actual issue.

  35. Regarding authority, ordination/setting apart, ritual forms, etc. with respect to women performing blessings or healing rituals, I encourage people to read the article that Kris and I wrote, and to which Blair linked in the original post. There are some creative things going on with some of the comments here that aren’t particularly based in any historical reading, I think.

  36. JNR–Yeah, it sounds like that VT prayer prohibition must’ve been a bit haphazard (thankfully!). I heard it in both NC and UT during the 90’s. I don’t always pray on VT appointments–kinda just depends on the situation, but I think I’m going to be a bit more purposeful about it now. This post reminds me of the power that we need to bring to our sisters’ homes.

    The CHI describes that in Home Teaching a prayer is typically offered, while there is no mention of prayer in the Visiting Teaching section (see CHI pages 43 and 69). This is just another example of how men/women are instructed differently in their roles….(Maybe it’s just assumed that women do pray in VT, since we are, by nature, more spiritual. J/k.)

  37. Women have a vast nurturing capacity. The spiritual “Gift of Healing” is not gender-specific. I support women giving blessings of healing and comfort by the laying-on of hands.

  38. BHODGES thank you for these two beautiful excerpts.

    There is no irony in male allies intentionally and thoughtfully giving voice to the concerns of women. Indeed we welcome your support.

  39. I Love this article! With that said, its not true that women didn’t hold the priesthood…if this article is true… (Its long but well worth reading for all the good information… and yes, I am an active church member, just in case you wondered;p http://signaturebookslibrary.org/?p=1171

  40. ” This post reminds me of the power that we need to bring to our sisters’ homes.”

    I love this thought.

    I feel like Sister Beck was encouraging us to seek for revelation about how to minister to our sisters when she invited us to pray for them daily, and reminding us that there was no more important ministry that we have except within our own homes than our stewardship as visiting teachers.

    I personally feel like the focus of the laying on hands that used to happen by women sometimes can distract from the understanding that we have access to power to minister that is inherent in being a covenant follower of Christ. There are *so* many ways to bless and help bring the healing power of Christ into people’s lives, to be an instrument in His hands. Men don’t only use their priesthood through the laying on of hands, either. (Or imo they shouldn’t limit the view of priesthood to such acts.)

    I love the heartfelt note of your friend, Blair. I think that the faith and confidence to minister with power really is key, whether male or female, whether ordained to the priesthood or not.

    ~michelle

  41. Sharee Hughes says:

    When I was interviewed for my first temple recommend, my bishop told me I should now consider that I had the female equivalent of the priesthood. From that day on, I have considered myself a priesthood holder. That doesn’t mean I can perform the priesthood ordinances the men do, I realize that. But there are still ways I can exercise my priesthood. And speaking of ordinances, this may be a little off topic, as it has nothing to do with women, but, Blair, when I spoke to you at Sunstone about the Down’s Syndrome man in my ward who was allowed to pass the sacrament and asked if he would have had to be ordained (he had not been baptized), you told me no because passing the sacrament was not a priesthood ordinance. I mentioned that to some people who did not believe me and wanted some kind of official verification, which I have not been able to find. Can you enlighten me? And actually, I guess it isn’t off topic, really, as if passing the sacrament is not a priesthood ordinance, women should be able to do it to.

  42. I don’t believe ordination would be a requirement for the man you mentioned, but I suspect they may very well have ordained him. It is common to view passing as a priesthood function, which is somewhat different from an ordinance. Technically, you pass the sacrament when the deacon hands it off to you. In some traditions the sacrament has to be given directly from the priest who blessed it to the congregant with no middle man.

    On the development of the priesthood in terms of the duties of boys, etc., I recommend Hartley’s “From Men to Boys,” http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1026&context=mormonhistory

  43. Good advice to read your article, J. As for your comment (“There are some creative things going on with some of the comments here that aren’t particularly based in any historical reading, I think.”), it occurs to me that this description could be applied to almost any blog post discussion!

  44. Thank you, Anon.

  45. Thank you for this. My husband is not a member and I don’t believe it’s power hungry of me to desire to be able to bless my family via priest/priestesshood power at any given moment of the night or day — it’s is a humble, righteous desire — and God knows me and my heart that it is.

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