The Witness of Women: Historical Context

Today, church leaders announced [PDF] that women can now serve as official witnesses for baptisms (both in and out of the temple), and for sealings. In last few hours I have spoken to several friends and family members who were weeping at the news. This feels just and true, and I imagine that it would, regardless of the any historical antecedent. In this case, however, we know that women have been official witnesses in the past.

Church Newsroom

The requirement for formal witnesses in our liturgy appears to begin with Joseph Smith’s letters on Baptism for the Dead (now canonized in D&C 127 and 128):

From the September 1, 1842 letter:

And again I give unto you a word in relation to the Baptism for your dead. Verily thus saith the Lord unto you concerning your dead when any of you are baptised for your dead let there be a recorder, and let him be eyewitness of your baptisms; let him hear with his ears that he may testify of a truth, saith the Lord; that in all your recordings it may be recorded in Heaven, that whatsoever you bind on earth may be bound in heaven; whatsoever you loose on earth may be loosed in heaven; for I am about to restore many things to the Earth, pertaining to the Priesthood saith the Lord of Hosts. And again let all the Records be had in order, that they may be put in the archives of my Holy Temple
to be held in remembrance from generation to generation saith the Lord of Hosts

And again in his September 6, 1842, letter:

It was declared in my former letter that there should be a Recorder who should be eye-witness, and also to hear with his ears, that he might, make a Record of a truth before the Lord. Now in relation to this matter, it would be very difficult for one Recorder to be present at all times and to do all the business. To obviate this difficulty there can be a Recorder appointed in each ward of the City who is well qualified for taking accurate minutes and let him be very particular and precise in making his Record, in taking the whole proceeding certifying in his Record that he saw with his eyes, and heard with his ears, giving the date, and names &c, and the history of the whole transaction, nameing also some three individuals that are present if there be any present who can at any time when called upon certify to the same that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. Then let there be a general Recorder to whom these other records can be handed being attended with certificates over their own signatures

Up to this point, despite the necessity of a record being kept, the church did not keep formal records of who had been baptized, nor were any requirements beyond a priest saying the baptismal prayer and immersion codified. The temple was a different space, however. The Book of the Law of the Lord had reified along with the antecedent Book of Remembrance, sacred time and sacred space. Reading the letters on baptism for the dead, we see Joseph Smith frame sealing and the interdependent hearts of children and fathers in terms of proxy baptism. Soon these concepts comprised the expanded temple liturgy of initiation, endowment, sealing, etc., that constructed the material heaven.

The Temple recorder was a sort of temporal Metatron. And the witnesses were witnesses in the legal sense. They saw what was performed. Witnesses for temple rituals were formalized pretty quickly after JS’s death and with the completion of the temple. Most of the Nauvoo Temple records are not accessible to scholars, but the baptismal records have been open to the scholars and the “Book of Proxey” is out in the wild. Both list names of witnesses, and in at least in the case of the Book of Proxey, the names are simply listed after stating “In the presence of…” One scholar who analyzed the proxy baptismal records observed that in 1845 Malissa Lott was recorded as a witness. [n1] My sense is that, as in many cases (e.g., offering prayers in General Conference), no explicit priesthood requirement existed, but priesthood officers served in these positions honorifically. So while women like Lott could and demonstrably did serve as witnesses, it was rather rare.

It appears to me that witnesses outside of the temple liturgy, namely baptismal witnesses, grew out of the temple mandate. And by the end of the nineteenth century it was public policy that any church member, male or female, could act as a baptismal witness, but by the end of twentieth that was no longer the case. I talked about this briefly in Power of Godliness (p. 94):

Throughout the twentieth century priesthood ecclesiology generally subsumed church liturgy. For example, baptisms have traditionally included official witnesses. Up through much of the twentieth century, these witnesses could be any church member, male or female, ordained or not. [n61] However, in 1976 church leaders ruled that all baptisms must be witnessed by two people “who hold the Melchizedek Priesthood.” [n62] Requiring a priesthood officer for this ritual act was one of many similar changes initiated as part of the priesthood reform and priesthood correlation movements in the church.

n61. B. H. Roberts, “Seventy’s Council Table,” Improvement Era 11, no. 10 (August 1908): 814; Mangal Dan Dipty, “My Journey as a Pioneer from India,” Ensign (July 2016), 68. For examples of women being witnesses for temple sealings, see David O. McKay, diary, January 12, 1968, MS 668, David Oman McKay Papers, JWML.

n61. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints, General Handbook of Instructions, no. 21 (n.p., 1976), 47.

As with many other aspects of church liturgy during the twentieth century, such as healing and blessing, activities that had previously been open to all church members became duties of priesthood officers. There are a couple of important counter examples (female evangelists and women preaching and praying in church), but this trend is important for understanding Mormon liturgical development.

And while there are trends, the formalization of church liturgy has been rarely completely linear. Perhaps realizing an incongruity between the authority to baptize and the authority to witness, Church leaders announced that priests could also be witnesses for baptisms outside of the temple in 1983, a policy which has been in place to today [n2]. During this period Melchizedek Priesthood officers were required to baptize and witness within the temple. In December 2017, however, Church leaders announced priests were from that point authorized to baptize and witness within the temples.

With regard to witnesses for temple sealings, we see a few really interesting points. Ardis Parshall has a wonderful write up about an exchange between Joseph Fielding Smith and the President of the Cardston Temple in 1959. The formal rules in Cardston allowed for women to act as witnesses of sealings, a practice that Elder Smith found objectionable. However almost a decade later, other temples continued to have women act as witness with the approval of the First Presidency. Per President McKay:

President Tanner mentioned that in the Temple book of instructions in London at least, and perhaps in the other Temples, the statement is made that women may be used as witnesses for Temple marriages. President Buckmiller of the London Temple is asking if women can be used as witnesses for sealings for the dead in the Temple, sealing of children to parents, etc. He said that Elder Hunter says that it is permitted for the living and the question is raised as to whether the same service may be performed by women for the dead.

I said that I could see no reason why the women could not so serve. President Tanner explained that in England it is very difficult to get enough men to the Temple to take care of this work for the deceased. [cited above in PoG]

I don’t know when women were formally excluded from being witnesses in the temple, and while it would be technically possible to look at records to determine the frequency of female witnesses, I have not done that work. I would guess that the temple practice of having only Melchizedek priesthood officers act as temple witnesses dates to the same time as requiring them for baptisms outside of the temple, ~1976, but work is necessary to validate that hypothesis.

Despite being chosen by Jesus in power and glory, the witness of women has historically been challenging for some to accept. I’m grateful that women again have this formal role in our liturgy and in the records of heaven and earth.

[Note: This post was a revision of a post from a couple of years ago]

__________________

  1. M. Guy Bishop, “‘What Has Become of Our Fathers?’: Baptism for the Dead at Nauvoo,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 23 (Summer 1990): 95.
  2. General Handbook of Instructions (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1983), 32.

Comments

  1. Thanks, J.

  2. Thanks, J. Any idea why privileges belatedly [re]extended to women were diluted by extension (in part) to children at the same time?

  3. Christian Cardall says:

    Are the names of witnesses recorded these days?

  4. Next steps? Female ward clerks, Sunday School Presidents, and Ward Mission Leaders, I hope.

  5. J. Stapley says:

    Ardis, that is an excellent question, one that I can only speculate at. To be honest, though, if I had to approach a theology for who could be witnesses for baptism, I would find it difficult to argue against the idea that anyone who was baptized could be a witness.

    Christian, the certificates for living baptisms and confirmations from the lest several decades in my collections do not include the information.

  6. Not a Cougar says:

    I think you’ll see young women preparing and passing the sacrament before you’ll see female ward clerks, Sunday School presidents, and ward mission leaders. Church leadership understandably (if not justifiably) scared of any sexual encounters stemming from unrelated adults of the same sex being alone together.

  7. Not a Cougar says:

    *opposite sex

    [sorry]

  8. Not a Cougar – I am a (male) WML. The missionaries in my ward are sisters. Our ward missionaries and missionary committee reps are an even mix of genders. I fail to see how a female WML would lead to a greater risk of sexual encounters. For my ward, it would actually lead to less of a risk.

  9. Billy Possum says:

    +1 Dave K. Also true of Sunday School President. Cf. Ward Clerk, who functions as an integral member of the (currently all-male) bishopric.

  10. I was surprised to read of the change allowing children to serve as witnesses. Are they sufficiently mature to verify the ordinace was correctly performed?
    As I mentioned on one of the other posts today, there is a very practical need to free up the adult men to actually be the participants in the ordinances rather than spending their temple time serving as witnesses. We have enormous lists of names shared with the temple. Male names are taking about twice as long to finish as female names.
    In addition, we are indexing some enormous data sets that will give us hundreds of millions of new names to do temple work for. Any position that can be handed off to others to perform so that endowed men and women are free to perform ordinances only they can perform is excellent. It is truly the only way we will be able to speed up the work so that certain tasks can be completed prior to the Second Coming.

  11. Re the expansion of the witness role to 8-year-olds begs the question, does an expansion both to women and children dampen the flames of agitation? I know of no children who have advocated to be a witness (although plenty of girls I know have wanted to pass the sacrament). Will “women and children” become a separate category apart from men? In the future will women and children, say, pass the sacrament, resulting in a form of reverse “priesthood creep” where men/ym retreat from these roles? If the trend continues, I imagine you will see a greater willingness to expand roles based on age as opposed to gender.

  12. Not a Cougar says:

    Dave, the “not justifiably” in my sentence is doing a lot of heavy lifting. I personally don’t think it’s a big deal, but Church leaders appear to disagree.

  13. I think Church leadership should understandably (if not justifiably) be scared of any sexual encounters stemming from unrelated adults of the same sex being alone together. Coed callings could alleviate this risk.

  14. Another Roy says:

    Cathy, I am fascinated that passing the sacrament as a deacon does not appear to use the priesthood. It is the same as the action that we all take to literally “pass” the tray to the next individual down the line. There is no doctrinal reason why women, children, members, and non-members could not perform this function. It is a tradition and a church policy in the handbook of instructions, nothing more.

  15. (Reposting, since the first try didn’t go through) Excellent overview of the history of witnesses, thank you.

    Ardis, I’ll take a wild guess at your question. Some of the recent changes, such as eliminating the three hour block, have come with extensive explanation of why. The Deseret news article was the first I saw of this change and after reading gushing testimonies from women and commentary on the role of women I was surprised to find none of that in the actual announcement. The few examples included center around families (grandparents acting as witnesses for temple baptisms, a mother or daughter as witnesses for a family baptism. To me it seems that the focus seems to have been on extending the “family centered, church supported” theme of recent changes. That doesn’t discount the significance for women – but puts it more in the category of small and simple things rather than grand changes.

    Lastly, I suppose someone mature enough to be baptized should be mature enough to act as a witness.

  16. “Church leadership understandably (if not justifiably) scared of any sexual encounters stemming from unrelated adults of the same sex being alone together.”

    It’s understandable only in a worldview that sees women (like children) as not quite fully human. This is what has to change for women to be full citizens in the Kingdom. As long as women are first, foremost, and forever defined as potential sex objects/mothers, we cannot fully exercise our gifts in the service of the church.

  17. [Day-dreaming] Maybe we will have children as financial clerks someday. Oh, I mean women.

  18. Not a Cougar says:

    Kristine, agreed. Perhaps I should have phrased it differently, but what I mean to convey was that I understand what Church leaders’ concerns are when it comes to a man and woman being left alone in the same room. I simply don’t share them, but then I’ve been raised in a world where women in positions of authority is relatively common. Not so much for the Greatest, Silent, and Baby Boomer Q15. Reminds me an episode of Parks & Recreation where Leslie Knope gets elected to the city council and her fellow councilor goes on and on about how women’s ability to give birth makes them unfit for public office.

  19. Geoff-Aus says:

    When we removed racism officially it was decisive.
    Trying to remove sexism one item at a time is not decisive, it is painful and tedious. Is there some benifit to doing this rather than just announcing the priesthood is available to all worthy members.

  20. ” Is there some benefit to doing this rather than just announcing the priesthood is available to all worthy members.”

    Maybe we should ask Him whose name is in the title of the church.

  21. I know it’s frowned upon to criticize any leader in the church, especially the first presidency. But does it bother anyone else that President Oaks started out his talk this conference by making a joke about a woman who wrote him about needing to share her house in heaven with her husband’s first wife? Can you imagine how she must feel hearing her concern being laughed at by everyone in the audience and broadcast?

  22. Wondering says:

    I wonder why some assume President Oaks was making a joke? There seemed to be no hint of humor or deprecation in his telling that story. It was some in the audience who laughed, not he. In fact, he seemed to criticize the amusement of those who laughed at the woman’s question: “So what about a question like I mentioned earlier about where spirits live? If that question seems strange or trivial to you, consider many of your own questions or even those you’ve been tempted to answer on the basis of something you heard from another person some time in the past.” I thought it refreshing that President Oaks acknowledged that “There is so much that we do not know that our only sure reliance is to trust in the Lord and his love for his children.”

  23. In regards to Shauna Adams’ comment, I think it’s good to be sensitive to others and be careful in circumstances such as this. On the other hand, the question, I think, was representative of likely many, many people who ask the same question. Do we know that Pres. Oaks did not discuss this with the woman beforehand, asking her if it would be ok if he used this example?

    Even if he did not, Wondering made an astute observation. Pres. Oaks used it to teach. Oftentimes our questions belie assumptions that are not warranted (we could say this about some people who leave the church over historical issues). On this issue, so many of us assume we understand more about the afterlife than is warranted by revelation. I mentioned this on several occasions when I taught gospel doctrine and sometimes caught strange looks from class members. Section 76 of the D&C doesn’t tell us as much as we think it does.

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