A note on presiding

I was recently reading one locality’s Stake Relief Society minutes of a bygone era, and noticed that, as we do in our weekly ward bulletins today, the various secretaries often noted who presided and who conducted the various meetings. Entirely unsurprisingly, these individuals were women, even if priesthood officers were present. I’ve read a lot of Relief Society minutes, but don’t know that I had ever previously asked myself about this practice. In fact, not having attended Stake Relief Society Conference (except as an occasional workshop presenter), I didn’t know whether this was still the case. A quick check with my wife suggests that it is no longer.

So when did women stop presiding at Relief Society meetings? The short answer is that I don’t know. But having spent some time with these minutes, I can say with surety that it is was common into the 1960s, which makes sense when you think that Correlation didn’t go into full force until the end of that decade, with its new conception of and emphasis on “keys.”

As an example, this Stake Relief Societies held an annual “convention” in the 1960s. There were various meetings associated with the event, and fortunately we often have fairly detailed minutes or summaries. In 1964 after an opening meeting of our Stake of interest:

At 10:00 a meeting for Ward and Stake Officers And Class leader, Bishop, And Stake priesthood representatives began with Sister Zola McGhie presiding and President Beth Tebbs conducting.

Zola was from the general board and Beth was the stake RS president. Alternatively you sometimes see the Stake RS president presiding at Stake conventions when priesthood officers or General board members are present. One such example is the 1959 convention of the same stake.

I guess it makes sense the presidents preside. Okay, that was a little snarky. More on point, I think the evolution of our usage of the term “president” at church has followed something not dissimilar to our usage of “quorum.” It meant a thing when we started using it, but has since evolved in idiosyncratic ways.


  1. Interesting questions, J. YL minutes and reports are a rich source of data points, if not answers. I sense an imprecision in the use of “preside” in the sources in the early 20th C, possibly indicating a transitional period. The “conjoint” movement in the MIA (began 1896) brought questions of precedence to the surface, and JFS was tenacious in explaining that “there can’t be two heads” and the priesthood always presides. It was written into the early YL handbooks. I could show you some other sources.

    P.S. When I served as stake YW camp director ten years ago, the stake YW pres made it clear that at our meetings *she* presided and I conducted. In those words. But this was a private meeting of women.

  2. It would be nice if they had a timeline of loss of institutional power at the back of the Daughters in My Kingdom book, but there is one interesting note:

    The Relief Society Social Service Department is incorporated into Church Welfare and Social Services.

    So I would guess it would have been around then that women stopped presiding at their own meetings.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks Lisa. I would love to sit down and talk through this sometime. What we have in this post is precisely just a note, and as you say, things have to be more complicated. And it doesn’t surprise me that JFS is a key figure here. And loved your PS.

  4. Interesting that you bring this up. It has been my belief (since reading the historical RS minutes) that women need their once existed separate authority over the RS, YW, and Primary. I used to serve as a primary president and read an entire book on the history of primary and was shocked to discover that primary presidents and YW presidents were called and trained by the RS. I think RS would do a much better job at addressing these organizations’ needs. As a primary president and having served in YW and RS presidencies, the bishopric sometimes was oblivious or clueless or uninterested in our auxiliary needs. Women tended to get it intuitively however (that you need particular kinds of people in nursery, scouts, and yw, e.g.). Plus, the women could coordinate callings and presidencies amongst themselves based on auxiliary needs without bishopric approval. PLUS, they could do so much more without males breathing down their necks.

  5. Francisco Guzman says:

    Just to add to the historical development of this issue, I would like to add this quote from Elder Richard G. Scott:

    “Auxiliary officers are presided over by their corresponding priesthood leaders at every level of Church government–at headquarters and at the stake and ward levels. The general officers of the auxiliary organizations at Church headquarters have occasional contact with the stake and ward officers they assist. These headquarters auxiliary officers, however, do not preside over their corresponding field officers.”

    (The Doctrinal Foundation of Auxiliaries, Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting on January 10, 2004.)

  6. JS did turn the key to RS.

    In today’s RS meeting minutes who is listed as presiding? You sure it changed? Maybe different by locality.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    A brief linguistic note: Our word President comes from the accusative form of the Latin participle praesidentum, from the preposition prae “before” and the verb sedere “to sit.” Our word preside derives from the same Latin verb, praesidere, literally “to sit before.” So in a linguistic sense the president of an organization is the one who “presides.”

  8. I have been thinking a lot about how the church uses the term preside in both ecclesiastical and familial contexts. The first thing mentioned at any formal meeting is who is presiding—what person in the group has some sort of executive authority. It seems to me that leaders are simultaneously promoting and downplaying the notion that men are supposed to preside over women—including their wives. The term was inserted into the new marriage sealing ceremony and is of course one of the “3 P’s” for men in the Family Proclamation, but more and more GA quotes are coming out that seem to recognize the importance of equal decision making power of women in marriage, such as this one by Elder Perry: “. . . there is not a president or vice president in a family . . . [wives and husbands] are on equal footing. They plan and organize the affairs of the family jointly and unanimously as they move forward.” But since leaders have not amended the proclamation or any other official reference that declares that men have the right and responsibility to preside over women, such quotes are confusing and seem to render the proclamation’s explanation of gender roles incoherent; either men have more decision-making power than women, or they do not—it simply is not possible to have a relationship of “equal” partners in which one partner presides over the other. I’m not convinced there is any good reason for using the term preside to describe what a husband is responsible for in his marriage and family.

    The proclamation already states that, “parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs, and to teach them to love and serve one another, observe the commandments of God, and be law-abiding citizens wherever they live.” That statement of joint responsibility paired with the expectation of men to, “provide the necessities of life and protection for their families” seems to pretty well cover all the needed bases and avoids entirely the risk of creating or perpetuating marriages that do not recognize the need for wives and mothers to have equal decision making power in the family. If any of you believe the word can be salvaged in relation to family function, please share.

  9. Angela C says:

    “If any of you believe the word can be salvaged in relation to family function, please share.” It can’t.

  10. Harold hecuba says:

    The scriptures are clear. The husband is the head of the family.

  11. Kristine says:

    Which scriptures, Harold?

  12. Unfortunately, I think there are many besides Harold who believe it is not only normal but good for men to have more decision making power than women–that God intended women to defer to men–which is precisely why I take issue with the church continuing to use the word preside to describe what (only) men do in families.

  13. *Intended for women?

  14. J. if you plan to continue or expand on this work, one subtlety I would watch for is the trend to encourage or require male priesthood presence in what are otherwise women-only meetings. Saying “the priesthood leader presides when he is present” is not quite the same as “a priesthood leader should be present.” Anecdotally I am fairly confident that _both_ changed in the course of the 20th century.

  15. “Saying ‘the priesthood leader presides when he is present’ is not quite the same as ‘a priesthood leader should be present.'” Even if this distinction is made, the implication is that any woman with a husband has lesser power in her own home. GA’s have *graciously* explained that single mothers preside in the absence of husbands (not sons ordained to the priesthood)–but having to explain that at all seems to illustrate just how precarious the decision-making power of women at home is.

  16. CJ, I don’t disagree (with your 12:04 pm point), but I do want to be clear that my comment at 11:53 pm had nothing intentional to do with “preside” in the home. I’m with Angela C., that the word “preside” cannot be rehabilitated for home use.

  17. J. Stapley says:

    I think you are right, Christian. I’m think about this a part of larger ecclesiastical shifts, and you have definitely identified and import piece of that.

  18. Christian, I should have acknowledged in my 12:04 comment that you weren’t referring to presiding in the home or responding to me at all–l was just continuing to reflect on my tangent off the original post.

  19. Slightly off topic, but I would be curious to see how this plays out in a mid-century MIA context as well, which appears at least on the surface to have been a pretty egalitarian organization. For example, when traveling, General Board members are told over and over again to make sure the stakes know that the YW and YM board members are authorized to speak for the entire organization. It’s the one place in the church where women and men worked together for long periods of time—sometimes it was more egalitarian than other times, but at least the conducting was strictly regulated (men and women alternated weeks.) I’ll have to go back and look at presiding. I did recently see someone referred to as a “Stake Priesthood President,” presumably to differentiate between all of the other Stake Presidents (even the Gleaner Stake President was referred to by that title.)

  20. As we continued to investigate the term “preside,” we found something super interesting. The origin of this word comes from the latin term praesidere which means to “stand guard” or literally to “sit in front of.”

    This is so profound!

    “Those who are responsible of presiding over others are not meant to control or exercise authority over them, but rather to protect and to guard them.

    Someone who is presiding over their family should not be like the king sitting on his throne in charge of making all the decisions and getting his own way, but rather like a general at the frontline with his army.

    He’s right there in the trenches with his men, literally standing between them and the enemy. “

  21. Stefan, I like that–but isn’t guarding synonymous with protecting? Why the need for the third “P” if men are already asked to provide for and protect their families?

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