In the original version of this post, I responded to a statement in a recent Salt Lake City Weekly article about WAVE. I conflated an editorial statement by the journalist with a summary of Tresa Edmund’s description of WAVE. I apologize to Tresa. I have edited the post to reflect her kind correction. My comments in this post should not be viewed as a critique of WAVE or their positions, but as a response to the idea promoted by the journalist who wrote the article.
The perennial debate. The Salt Lake City Weekly had an article about WAVE, a group of feminists who are seeking to promote equality within the Church. After quoting Edmunds about WAVE’s hope to be viewed as faithful members, the author wrote:
The key to avoiding such confrontations will mean primarily avoiding contentious issues such as reclaiming female ownership of priesthood authority. This authority is given only to male members of the church, but was granted to women in the early years of the church’s history, between 1830 and the 1850s.
Unfortunately, this quoted passage perpetuates something akin to historical fraud. No such ownership existed and it wasn’t granted from the 1830s and the 1850s, at least not in a way that the author appears to be asserting. The group may want to distance themselves from the “radical” characters of the 1990s, but the author of the article, at least, appears to think that they share the same premises.
Now it is important to note that “priesthood” has meant different things at different times. What often happens is that people take current definitions and then try to map them on the past (or the converse). So let’s start from the beginning and talk about what priesthood has meant.
As our friend W. V. Smith has shown (see his twelve-part series on D&C 107), the first meaning of priesthood apparently meant simply the status of being a priest in the church (and not say, a teacher). Similarly, the High Priesthood, was tantamount to being ordained to the office of high priest.
Now David Whitmer in looking back asserted that in the early years there was no talk of “priesthood,” only “authority”; but it is clear that he was misremembering. There is simply too much documentation to the contrary. But he is correct that the early missionaries often spoke of the association of priesthood and authority. These traveling evangelists contrasted the difference between other Christian baptism and Mormon baptism as one of proper priesthood authority. Fairly swiftly, priesthood was the referent to any office (deacon, teacher, elder, and later seventy, apostle, etc.).
Some have argued that because women were authorized to heal by the laying on of hands and anointing with oil, that they had “the priesthood.” I think that they do so because healing rituals in the church today are performed by the invocation of priesthood authority. But this is not the case in the early church. All church members were authorized to perform healing and blessing rituals. A similarly faulty argument would be to say that women hold “the priesthood” today because they speak in church, and in Joseph Smith’s day only priesthood holders did the same, often invoking the authority of the priesthood in the process.
I’m going to skip ahead a bit to Nauvoo, even though there were some interesting things in between; this is a blog post after all. In Nauvoo Joseph Smith revealed his expanded Temple liturgy and associated cosmology. He created a quorum to mediate the transmission of the temple rituals. Contemporary participants called this quorum various things, including “the priesthood” and variants thereof (it is frequently referred to as the Quorum of the Anointed now). Women became members of this quorum and acted in the capacity of “priestess.” It is important to realize that this priesthood was a radical expansion of the term (think of the change in the “new and everlasting covenant” over time). This priesthood was a synonym for heaven and represented an interconnected kinship network that governed eternity. (For a more detailed description of what was happening see the papers written by Sam and I respectively on adoption theology due out next summer with JMH). Children born in the covenant were “heirs to the priesthood” or had to become such by temple sealings. What priesthood? The eternal heavenly family, where priests and priestesses reign through eternity in the Kingdom of God. Joseph Smith’s temple quorum was simply this “priesthood” on earth.
Now, the relationship between this new cosmological priesthood and the older governing priesthood of the church is somewhat ambiguous in Joseph Smith’s teachings. And we don’t have a lot to go from (basically the last two years of his life). It is clear that Smith viewed the Relief Society as an integral part of the restored church. And it is clear that Smith used the temple quorum and the governing priesthood of the church separately. We can only speculate whether he would have collapsed these institutions. But it is also clear that those who succeeded Smith viewed the new cosmological priesthood and the church’s governing priesthood to be discrete (for a more detailed description of the complexity and evolution of the term in Nauvoo and Utah, see the paper on female healing Kris and I have forthcoming in the winter JMH).
We don’t talk about the temple cosmology in terms of priesthood now very much. Moreover the twentieth century saw a dramatic shift in the structure of priesthood authority with regards to church administration and liturgy. These, however, are generally amplifications of previous themes and not exactly changes in taxonomy.
As far as I can tell, besides shifts in vocabulary, I don’t see what priesthood exactly has been taken from and could consequently be granted again to be owned by women.