The Women’s Essay

Neylan McBaine is founder and editor of the Mormon Women Project and author of Women At Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact, as well as a contributor to the recent volume, Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings.

The essay released yesterday entitled “Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple and Women,” known among the people now as “the women essay,” has been a long time in coming. I don’t just mean in the sense that we’ve had a societal expectation that official words on this subject of women were needed and hoped for. That is definitely true. But I also mean that the authors at the Church History Library have been working on this essay for a long time. And it’s easy to understand why: we are in medias res on the subject of women in the Church, deep in the heart of a lively discussion that may signify “better days,” as Joseph described them, for women, but which still leave a very long way to go.

I think it is remarkable that the authors, which included women, did as good a job as they have moving the official position forward and opening doors for continued discussion while staying grounded in this history and doctrine we currently have access to. They have done this with a careful unpacking of the definition of priesthood and the language we use to describe priesthood’s role in our worship and communal practices. For example, they rarely use the word “priesthood” without an accompanying qualifier: “priesthood office,” “priesthood authority,” “priesthood ordinances.” By delineating these various functions of priesthood, they challenge us to see only parts of priesthood as gendered – specifically priesthood offices – while being able to say, remarkably, “women exercise priesthood authority….” This is a distinction that, if understood and applied in our local levels would dramatically change the perception and practice of women in church administration. Unfortunately, the essay itself notes that women’s priesthood authority is “misunderstood or overlooked” by church members themselves, so this shift remains a large job.

Most importantly, I think, the essay challenges the notion that women’s engagement in priesthood is limited to being receptors of the blessings, rather than as active agents in doing God’s will on the earth. As Cory Crawford explains in his brilliant essay in the most recent Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought entitled “The Struggle for Female Authority,” “a key component of priesthood… is agency – the power to act: to govern, preside, direct, create, administer and so on.” When we continually assert that women’s interaction with priesthood is receiving all of the blessings and privileges of the priesthood, we negate the power of action that is inherent in a man’s experience with it. We pretend like being an agent of priesthood doesn’t matter. Yesterday’s essay confirmed that when women minister, preach, proselytize, and participate in councils, they are “exercising priesthood authority.” It also publicly wrestled with the idea that women’s priesthood authority might extend even farther within the domain of the temple, leaving open the question of whether those opportunities for action might extend elsewhere someday.

While the essay’s conclusion includes several remarkable statements that move our communal discussion forward, I felt the section’s first sentence was overly gilded: “In some respects, the relationship between Latter-day Saint women and priesthood has remained remarkably constant since Joseph Smith’s day.” First of all, the reader has read just a few pages earlier that women in the early church performed healing blessings, whose power of faith was different than power of the priesthood, but which marked a significant channel of action for women. This has not remained “remarkably constant”, and a reader can’t help but notice this discrepancy when these early practices are put side by side with the (more limited) channels of administration action available to women today. Secondly, is it a good thing that things have remained “remarkably constant”? After 150 years, should we not have embraced the extraordinary sunburst that accompanied the establishment of the Relief Society and continued to lead out in exploring ways to fold in women’s participation more completely?

While we’ve been hearing much about Pope Francis’ encyclicals, we have been tremendously blessed as a people over the past several years to have subjects like women and the priesthood publicly wrestled with, laid bare and given new vocabulary. In “Our Common Home,” Pope Francis adroitly reframed a highly politicized and polarizing issue – the health of the environment—in terms that transcended conservative and political language, appealing to his body’s sense of stewardship and love of divine creation rather than the scientific or political arguments that sometimes cause discord. I see a similar shift in language and vocabulary in yesterday’s essay. The essay is a challenge for us to reexamine priesthood as exclusively gendered. It’s a starting point for rebuilding the discussion and moving away from the “us vs them” stances that have defined too much of our rhetoric on this subject. It’s an invitation to return to our doctrinal roots, to the vision of Brother Joseph and the women he served with, and embrace a priesthood of action for all.


  1. You once told me that women are in effect given a blank sheet of paper in our church and with that have the freedom to write our own roles and responsibilities.

    I see this essay, with its obvious lack of delineating a consistent women’s priesthood theology a similar blank sheet of paper that we now get to discuss.

  2. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    Right on Neylan–you are a voice for those of us who are weary–Love you!

  3. Thank you. So, this essay is about *Joseph Smith’s teachings* about these things. Will there be another essay about just women? What is the significance of Joseph Smith’s name in title? I find Heber J. Grant’s statement interesting. How often does a president choose the Bible over a modern prophet’s more recent revealed teachings? Couldn’t that preference be seen as a step backward, away from restoration?

  4. “they rarely use the word “priesthood” without an accompanying qualifier” Yes. It’s nice to see someone acknowledge the ambiguity of “priesthood”.

  5. Susan Vaughn says:

    …if women’s priesthood authority is misunderstood or overlooked, why are our revered women leaders at the administrative level not exercising their agency over the pulpit by uttering specific phrases e.g. ‘By the priesthood authority I have,……..’ …thus leading, guiding, and teaching us as women members how to ‘live up to our potential’…

  6. This is a great analysis, especially the part about things being the same between Joseph’s day and our day. I mean the essay acknowledged that as a church we limited public preaching and the like to men in the early days because that’s what everyone else was doing (aka sexism). So why would we want to keep women limited? I also find it strange that the essay seemed to try and highlight that our church was superior in some ways to others because women get to do all these things, and they don’t even need to be ordained! Who cares what the world or other churches do. This is Christ’s church. Let’s find out what He wants women to do to build His kingdom.

  7. Last Lemming says:

    …if women’s priesthood authority is misunderstood or overlooked, why are our revered women leaders at the administrative level not exercising their agency over the pulpit by uttering specific phrases e.g. ‘By the priesthood authority I have,……..’

    Perhaps because they have a clearer understanding of Section 121 than the men who utter that phrase over the pulpit. (“No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood…”)

  8. LittleRedHen says:

    I was hoping to feel uplifted by the essay, it had the opposite effect. My only solice is the hope that this essay will start a dialogue.

    With the invention of modern labor saving equipment and the ability to plan pregnancies, every culture and religion is trying to redefine the role of women within their societies. All true change is uncomfortable, but it is only through change that real progress is made.

    I want a larger role within my community, and I want that same opportunity available for my mother, my sisters and my daughters. Whether it includes the priesthood, I don’t care. Give us the possibility of more authority and more opportunity.

  9. I felt like Joseph’s reference to ordaining women was glossed over. If he said “ordain and set apart” isn’t that indicative that it means two different things. Internal politics in the early church may have played a significant role in women not being ordained during Joseph’s life. It certainly played a role after his death when Brigham needed to under cut Emma to keep power.

  10. A lovely and hopeful take, Neylan. Thank you.

  11. “Neither Joseph Smith, nor any person acting on his behalf, nor any of his successors conferred the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthood”

    This is an unfortunate, blatant historical inaccuracy: go ahead and qualify it as J. Stapley does as “cosmological priesthood” but Devery Anderson’s temple trilogy clearly documents primary sources of female conferral of “the fullness of the Melchizedek Priesthood” from Joseph Smith down to Heber J Grant at least.

  12. Thanks for this, Neylan. I read the essay as “we devolved because The Handbook told us to,” but I missed a lot of important things that you bring up here.

  13. I have a question about “priesthood authority.”

    I understand the essay to say the same thing as Elder Oaks’ earlier conference address; namely, that any member who acts under the direction of priesthood leaders is acting with priesthood authority. Examples of this include (i) a missionary elder performing a convert baptism under the direction of the mission president, (ii) a RS president creating a welfare food order at the direction of the bishop, and (iii) a nursery worker feeding the kids goldfish crackers at the direction of the primary president (who gets her authority from the bishop).

    Handbook 2 directs that “People who are not members of the Church may be called to some positions, such as organist, music director, and assistant Scout leader.” (CHI 2, 19.1.1)

    Is it accurate to say that a person does not need to be a member of the LDS church in order to act with LDS priesthood authority? In expanding (or at least correcting) our understanding of priesthood to include all women, did we also expanded the authority to the whole world?

  14. Anon for this says:

    In the temple, the placement/wearing of the robes is indicative of being prepared to officiate in the ordinances of the Aaronic/Melchizedek priesthood. So if I, as a woman, am never ordained to an office of either of these priesthoods (or have it conferred upon me, or whatever particular phrase we’re using at the moment), how can I officiate in the ordinances? Is this meant for after I die? Is this my function as a priestess to my husband? Is it the second anointing?

    From the essay…

    “…neither Joseph Smith, nor any person acting on his behalf, nor any of his successors conferred the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthood on women or ordained women to priesthood office.”

  15. Following up on Anon’s question, is “temple ordinance worker” an office in the priesthood? It seems that the reason women cannot baptize, confirm, or administer the sacrament is because they do not have the requisite priesthood office. The essay is very clear that only men are ordained to a priesthood office. But if an office is needed to perform the lesser/preparatory ordinances, it would seem an office would also be necessary to perform the higher/crowing ordinances of the temple. And the essay does confirm that women have authority to perform certain temple ordinances. So I’m confused. Is an office not needed to perform ordinances, or do female temple workers actually received a (limited) office?

  16. Why isn’t the women’s essay seen as the capstone of the “priesthood creep” phenomenon? The essay, combined with Elder Oaks’ talk a few conferences ago, seems to suggest that everything anyone does in the Church is a priesthood function.

  17. David Day says:

    Anon and Dave K,

    I think several of us have several questions. It seems clear to me (at least until more/new info drops) that “temple ordinance worker” is not a priesthood office (there are only 9 of those total, deacon, teacher, elder, etc.) but apparently a women who does not hold either priesthood or priesthood office and perform priesthood ordinances, specifically temple ordinances. That is a bit of a surprising conclusion, but it seems that logic takes us there.

  18. Thanks David Day. I would state it differently: “our practice takes us there,” not our logic. What’s really happening, IMO, is that sisters were allowed to perform ordinances in the temple because the ordinances take place in a situation of semi-undress. Victorian norms made it very troubling to have men perform these ordinances. It helped that, at the time the temple ordinances were formalized under BY, women were more involved in blessings and other exercises of priesthood than they are today. Over time, the temple practice became normal, but it’s always been an exception – based more on modesty sentiments than any doctrinal logic.

    And as I’ve asked before, if female temple workers can be authorized to perform temple washings and annointings, why the heck can’t they also be authorized to perform temple baptisms, confirmations, etc.? If we’re going with logic, it only makes sense.

  19. Scott Roskelley says:

    The essay can’t be taken seriously because it does not discuss the responsibilities, duties, rights, keys, authority of the women’s office of PRIESTESS. The endowment language has been corrupted over time. Originally women were ordained as “priestesses unto God”. See Heber C. Kimball’s journal: (1 Feb 1844). My wife Vilate and menny feemales was recieved in to the Holy Order, and wash washed and inointed by Emma. February the first 1844. My self and wife Vilate was announted Preast and Preastest unto our God under the Hands of B. Young and by the voys of the Holy Order.

  20. Searching says:

    One thing I was so grateful for in this essay is the information that sisters weren’t included in the endowment for a full 16 months; that only males attended at first. I have always felt like an add on, that the ceremony was truly intended for a male audience, about men and their potential, highlighting the roles of key male figures (while the key female figures are virtually absent.) The essay, oddly enough, validates me feeling like an afterthought in the endowment. Turns out, I most likely was/am.

  21. Clark Goble says:

    Scott, outside of what Joseph said about the Relief Society at its creation, it appears the only revealed duties and keys are related to the endowments and washings. We might not like that but I’m not sure outlining what has been revealed means it can’t be taken seriously.

    Searching, I think many aspects of the endowment arose out of the all male masonic rites. Of course the endowment is extremely different. However there was a female adjunct to masonry arising the French tradition called adoptive masonry. Many aspects of the endowment seem influenced by these masonic rites (although it’s hard to establish causation). If this is so then even acknowledging the initial endowment was likely fragmentary it would be likely Joseph always intended to have women as a part. Much of the final form of the endowment developed in early Utah. Many of those elements have been removed (as have some masonic trappings). It’s possible major changes could add more women parts in the future, assuming the President receives some revelation on that.

    Dave K, while propriety was undoubtedly part of the reason women engaged in the rituals I think the meaning goes far deeper than that if you think about it. Again I think adoptive masonry is an interesting context for this. I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable going through important details on a blog comment though, given the nature of the endowment.

    While there is a tendency, as someone else mentioned, to priesthoodize everything, I do think we have to be careful calling women giving blessings up through the 1930s as priesthood blessings. This may appear a difference without a difference but I think there are things to be careful about if only in terms of the rhetoric used to understand the practices.

    David Day, the distinction between offices and priesthood is actually a long one. It’s been more this century where priesthood has come to be viewed as the offices. Exactly how to interpret the evolution, especially the steps of evolution when the offices were unveiled in addition to the more traditional priest/high priest taxonomy is complicated. While there are some excellent articles on this I think scholarship is still getting at aspects of this.

    Anon, I don’t feel comfortable discussing the details. I’ll just say that if you pay close attention in the temple you are anointed and endowed to become something. That is they are preparatory. The actual fulfillment happens later when we are made kings, queens, priests and gods. I doubt for most of us that will happen in our lifetimes.

    Kingdom Falling, I don’t think the ordain issue was glossed over. It noted a difference in use of the term during the era. We may debate those points, but I don’t think we can say the authors glossed over the issue.

  22. Searching says:

    Clark, I’m trying to figure out why knowing that the endowment (where women were added later) is modeled after the masonic rites (where women were also added later) is beneficial? How does this information not strengthen what I originally posted?

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