“Matron” and other ecclesiastical offices held by women

A couple of weeks ago I received an email with a question from an individual living in Italy. She had observed that “temple matron” had been rendered quite differently between languages, and she wondered what the history of that term was. She was quite correct, and the history is interesting.

In 1842 Joseph Smith revealed an ecclesiology that incorporated women. Emma Smith was ordained as the President of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo. This was an ecclesiastical office, and like all such offices at the time, one entered the office by ordination. The RS President was given authority over the society to govern, just as the First Presidency governed over the church. The RS stumbled a bit, but was eventually reconstituted first on the local level and then on the general level in Utah. Again presidents were the leading officers throughout.

In Nauvoo before Joseph Smith was killed, the temple was governed through a quorum, that incorporated male and female initiates. Joseph Smith was the president of the quorum. After his death, it was really the Quorum of the Twelve that ran things. In Utah, with the Endowment House and the pioneer temples (St. George, Logan, Manti, SLC), the First Presidency created temple presidents, who managed the temples, and when it was finally finished the SLC Temple President (who was also an Apostle) acted as sort of the President of all the temples, sort of. I need to do some more work here, but during this time period, women were called to be “presidents” of the “women’s department” or “of women workers.”[n1] These presidents were not the wives of the temple presidents.

After JFS died, Heber J. Grant initiated a host of liturgical reforms, and with the help of apostle/SLC temple president George F. Richards, reformed the temple liturgy. GFR and the FP decided to have Alice Richards (GFR’s wife) assume the responsibility of lead female worker in the temple. It appears that the term “matron” was also introduced during this time as the name of the presiding female authority in the temple, and has since generally been the wife of the temple president.

At the time, “matron” was a common appellation in civic life. Hospital matrons were typically in charge of housekeeping, and eventually nursing. Police matrons were in charge of caring for all women and children held by the police. Orphan’s and other asylums often had “cottage matrons” that assumed motherly roles for those housed. Similarly homes for the aged had matrons (or sometimes superintendents) that were in charge. While it is a term that is now deprecated in society (likely because it is highly gendered), it has stuck in temple usage for nearly a century now.

We have some work to do on the history of temple workers. We know that women administered the liturgy, sometimes healed the sick, and I would guess because of the popular usage of matron in society, also cooked and cleaned. That latter bit is something that we need to document. My sense is that those activities are no longer gendered in the temple today.

Matron is now something of an anachronism, and looking at translations of the word by the church is eye opening. The following are a few instances of the word in church publication:

This task was harder than I thought, because the church doesn’t publish general conferences and news announcements in many languages. Nevertheless, we see a striking diversity. Female guardian, FTW. My thought is that “president” would be the preferred title for temple matrons and wives of mission presidents. Barring that, there are a few possibilities nested in here.

__________________________

  1. There are a few occasions where these presidents were referred to as priestesses or high priestess, but this was essentially honorific, and frankly hagiographic.

Comments

  1. Intensely interesting work, J. The variety in tee translation suggests a variety of views on the role itself.

  2. Mark this for reference. (= highest praise)

    When you say “”president” would be the preferred title” I wonder who’s preference? It would be my preference, but I would like to see it associated with real responsibility and authority. I’m not sure what the “temple matron” really does these days.

    Is there any parallel in historical and different language titles for the wife of a mission president?

  3. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks. The diversity in translation suggests to me that has been translated in an ad hoc fashion. My understanding was that there had been significant resources put into translation guides, but perhaps those are just for scripture. Or “matron” fell through the cracks? I don’t know but it is really interesting to me.

    Christian, my sense is that like a lot of the other archaic words that we use that have outgrown the original context, people just don’t think about it all that much. And I don’t really have any information on titles for wife of a mission president. Other’s have concluded that there really is no name (e.g., here and here).

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    I love the different translations! Riffing off “female guardian,” I’ll suggest here the Latin word Custos, which means a guard, watch, preserver, keeper, overseer, protector, defender, attendant, protectress, etc. (Compare English “custody” from Latin custodia “a guarding”).

  5. The Japanese メイトロン is probably better transliterated “meitoron”. The Chinese 女監護斯 has components which individually mean (in order) female, overseer, protector, and 斯 doesn’t really have a straightforward meaning and might be there to make the whole word sound better (the word with the “female” part seems to be a unique LDS creation — try searching for it on Google!)

  6. Kristin Brown says:

    I have a good friend who is serving as a matron. I will ask her what her responsibilities are.

    One definition states, “A temple president’s primary responsibility is to supervise the affairs of an LDS temple in both an administrative and spiritual capacity. … The matron and her assistants share in the responsibilities of the temple presidency.”
    It sounds like a matrons responsibilities are great enough to require assistants.

    My observation is temple matrons also have the responsibility of speaking on a regular basis throughout their temple district.

  7. President is a worthy title for our temple matrons, which work side by side with their husbands as they serve in administering the spiritual ordinances in the temple. Both work very hard. Their hours are long and they both deserve the title.

  8. The shift in temple governance from a gender-integrated anointed quorum to the 12, then to a temple-specific male and female president, and then to a male president with a matron, is an interesting shift. I guess I had never really thought of the anointed quorum primarily as a governing body. I had always thought of temple governance as passing from Joseph Smith personally to the 12. I had overlooked the role of the anointed quorum.

  9. Lindsey Smith says:

    http://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=4011609&itype=CMSID

    What ever happened to the effort at changing some of the names/ titles of girls/ women in church? I remember reading the above article in the summer of 2016 with some hope…

  10. Larry the Cable Guy says:

    Some languages have gendered nouns that suggest a male or female depending on whether they end with ‘o’ or ‘a’.

    In the Portuguese example above, it is understood by using the term Diretora (ending with ‘a’), that this is a title for Female Temple Director.

  11. Kristin Brown says:

    I was surprised to here the responsibilities of my friend who is serving as a matron. It sounds like the main purpose of a matron is to do what needs to be done.
    She is serving in a different country so her first duty was to memorize all the ordinances in a different language so she could fill in when needed.
    I was astonished to find out how much laundry she does. Since their temple is a medium size temple she manages the laundry room which includes washing the veils and curtains once a month.
    My friend helps to train new workers, meets with every first time patron and each bride.
    She thought all she would do is walk around the temple smiling and greeting people. Although she does that as well, it is not all she does.
    I could go on, but that is enough for now. Although the role of the temple matron is a little ambiguous, it sounds like they are responsible for everything.
    She did say it was her favorite calling.
    I have decided these are humble and remarkable women.

  12. J. Stapley says:

    That is really cool. Thanks, Kristin.

  13. (Really need to come up with a screen name, but going to stay anonymous here.)

    Thank you for that information, Kristin.

    I don’t know how common it is across the church, but among my acquaintanceship, women will sometimes bypass their normal training of taking serious issues to the bishop and go instead to the temple matron.

    One woman I know was not comfortable remarrying until she explained her situation to the temple matron and got her blessing. The matron was not a woman she knew as far as I recall, but she respected the calling. Her charming first husband had been abusive and the bishop and stake president had preferred to ignore the situation and leave him in a position of authority in the stake, and she had to go through a divorce and custody battles without ward or stake support. More than a decade on, the second marriage has been a blessing to many people, so the matron was of much greater benefit to this family than the bishop or stake president, especially since they actively damaged rather than helped. Having the temple matron available gave her an alternate line of authority to confirm her personal revelation.

  14. NowinChina says:

    This is a very interesting discussion. As someone who has learned several languages, French, Finnish, Old English, and Mandarin Chinese (fluent), I believe in the importance of having the correct translation. While many of them may be correct, the Mandarin one is a little strange. A better interpretation may be a woman who supervises, inspects, protects and guards. It’s sometimes hard to put that into one English word. The first translator of The Book of Mormon into Chinese used a lot of literary or classical language in his translations. While, I don’t know if he translated this term or not, I do know that many of the Chinese terms translated in the initial phases of the Church entering Hong Kong and Taiwan tried to be as descriptive of the original English meaning as possible. (Look at the name of the Church for an example. ). Also, generally the same characters are used throughout the Chinese-speaking Church. (Simplified versions would be used as necessary. )The pronunciation would be different between Mandarin and Cantonese. I would change Mandarin to Chinese in your list.

    Finally, my husband worked in non-scriptural translation for the Church in the 1990’s. He worked diligently with the translators in many languages to ensure that the same meaning that was in the English was conveyed in the translation. I assume the Church still does this today. The guides for scriptural translation are very specific and strict. Some of these terms may have been translated when the translations were not as standardized as today. ( For example, in the first Chinese translation of The Book of Mormon, the phrase “it came to pass” was not included in the translation because it sounds awkward and strange in Chinese. (According to what I’ve heard, the omission was approved by an apostle.). In the most recent translation, this phrase has been included.

  15. J. Stapley says:

    Helpful thoughts. Thanks, NowinChina.

  16. fwIw the old German translation left out “and it came to pass.” It saved a large number of pages and really did not affect the meaning.

  17. I distinctly prefer the title of “matron” and wish that mission presidents’ wives were called mission “matrons.” It speaks to female power and maternal Influence. Archaic as it may be, to me, it’s a title that also points to and honors our Heavenly Mother. #maternalfeminism #FTW

  18. I always wonder why the female mission president is called “wife.” I would love to see it changed to President.

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