“Do women have the priesthood?” You would think the answer would be a simple yes or no for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The reality, however, seems to say differently, with people arguing for a whole spectrum of answers while discussing this topic of perennial interest. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk, Lisa Olsen Tait shared her historical perspective on how we arrived at the current state of women’s relationship to the priesthood in the Church, drawing on her research that was presented in an article in BYU Studies’ “Yet to Be Revealed” issue. What follows here is a co-post, a shorter post presenting and discussing excerpts from the interview and related materials.
In the original article, Lisa Olsen Tait divided the history into sections with inflection points between them, as follows:
- 1840s: “The Ancient Priesthood”
- 1850–1900: “In Connection with Their Husbands”
- 1900–1940: “The Blessings of the Priesthood”
- 1960s: “The Home Is the Basis”
- 1970–2000: Feminism and Responses
- Twenty-First Century: Priesthood “Power” and “Authority”
In the interview, Tait explained some of the evolution through those eras, specifically related to the temple. To quote in relation to the 1840s:
The revelation commanding the Saints to build the temple (Section 124) repeatedly spoke of it in terms of priesthood. “Therein are the keys of the holy priesthood ordained,” it said. In the House of the Lord the “fulness of the priesthood” would be restored. The Lord would show Joseph “all things pertaining to this house, and the priesthood thereof” (D&C 124:28, 34, 42, emphasis mine).
Joseph Smith’s teachings about the temple … were permeated with language about priesthood. The temple was understood to be the ultimate site and expression of priesthood.
Now, we have to understand that their definition of priesthood was much less abstract than ours has come to be. In the article, I call it the “collective sense” of priesthood—that is, priesthood requires priests and priestesses.
Those who have made covenants and received ordinances are the priesthood. (Think of “priesthood” in the same sense as “motherhood” or “fatherhood.”) And “the priesthood” is the order of the celestial kingdom. In this sense, we are the priesthood—we are of the order of the Son of God (see Alma 13).
During Joseph Smith’s time, the priesthood was understood as the state or condition of being a priest or priestess. That being said, however, it is not entirely clear whether women were considered to be fully a part of the priesthood by Joseph Smith during his lifetime, with a few points of language on record that muddy the water. One is that the original Relief Society presidency was ordained, a term we are used to thinking of as a priesthood term. Tait explained her understanding of how that was used in context:
Terms that now have very definite meanings for us were often used more broadly. To “ordain” something or someone, in the usage of Joseph Smith’s day and even now, could mean simply to appoint them for a particular purpose.
Over time, this term came to mean specifically that someone had been given priesthood authority and office, and since priesthood is conferred only upon men in the church, “ordain” came to mean giving priesthood to men.
It certainly meant that in 1830, but not only that. …
John Taylor, acting at Joseph’s direction, laid his hands on [Emma Smith’s] head and “confirm’d upon her all the blessings which have been confer’d on her.” He also laid hands on her counselors, Elizabeth Ann Whitney and Sarah Cleveland, and “ordained” them to their offices.
These terms and actions implicitly invoke authority that originated in the priesthood, but there is no indication that anyone present that day understood the women to have had priesthood conferred upon them in the same sense that men received it.
Her description here is pretty close to what is described in the Church’s official essay on the subject. Not everyone agrees with Tait’s assessment here, of course, but her interpretation does seem to match what the Church has followed through most of its history.
Lisa Olsen Tait did go on in the interview to describe some developments through the remainder of the 19th century, as follows:
This “priesthood of the temple” did not create or bestow ecclesiastical office to act in the church, but that ecclesiastical meaning and function of priesthood continued—and expanded—throughout the nineteenth century even as the understanding of a connection between priesthood and temple lingered.
This gave rise to an expression that women held the priesthood “in connection with their husbands” or that they held “a portion of the priesthood.”
In 1888, for example, Elder Franklin D. Richards insisted:
“Our sisters share with us any and all of the ordinances of the holy anointing, endowments, sealings, sanctifications and blessings that we have been made partakers of.”
“Is it possible,” Richards continued, “that we have the holy priesthood and our wives have none of it?”
All such assertions made a positive claim—women had “priesthood”—alongside a qualification of the claim—“a portion of” or “in connection with.”
The question that went begging, of course, was if women did have some “portion of” or “connection to” the priesthood, what did it mean?
What authority did it give them?
What did it enable them to do?
No one really had an answer other than insisting that women did not have authority to exercise any priesthood functions or offices on par with men.
Meanwhile, women’s organizations became firmly established within the church, and women held visible positions of authority within them. Everyone agreed that this was not “priesthood” in the same sense as men’s offices, but they also affirmed that the ultimate source of women’s authority was the male priesthood—the Relief Society had been organized by Joseph Smith, and women leaders continued to be called and set apart by bishops and stake presidents.
Priesthood continued to be understood as meaning priests, with women sharing in that role as partners to the priests. Where exactly that placed women in relationship to the priesthood’s rights and responsibilities, however, was a bit ambiguous.
Going on to the early 20th century, Tait wrote that:
Around the turn of the century, Joseph F. Smith initiated a priesthood reform movement seeking to better define, organize, and codify priesthood functions and offices throughout the church.
He formulated and taught a definition of priesthood as “the power of God delegated to man by which man can act in the earth for the salvation of the human family”—a more abstract definition of priesthood than the collective sense understood by earlier generations.
The ecclesiastical sense of priesthood became even more ascendant. Smith adamantly insisted that women did not “hold the priesthood in connection with their husbands.” Instead, they jointly enjoyed all the blessings of the priesthood—the implication being that those blessings were ultimately realized through temple ordinances.
Thus, the collective sense of priesthood was obscured, and priesthood became something separate from the people who held it. Now it was understood that ecclesiastical priesthood authorized and enabled the work of the temple, and the sense that the temple was a place where priesthood “happened” faded.
This priesthood reform movement paved the way for our current understanding and practice when it comes to priesthood. Tait explained that:
The priesthood reform movement served to diminish the sense that women had any direct claim or connection to priesthood in their own right and instead established the understanding that women did not hold the priesthood, but they shared in all its blessings. This formulation has remained remarkably stable for over a century.
Now, culturally, I think we have to acknowledge that the strong emphasis on priesthood—especially priesthood as the governing, administrative power in the church—meant that there was a lot of emphasis on men and boys, with both implicit and explicit implication that women were subordinate and less favored.
And this was happening at the time when the first wave of the women’s movement in the United States was achieving its greatest victory in the passage of woman suffrage. Trying to make sense of these complexities, Susa Young Gates and her daughter, Leah D. Widtsoe, formulated the idea that men have priesthood and women have motherhood. That is, women couldn’t possibly do all the priesthood things because motherhood is so all-consuming.
The Gates-Widtsoe equivocating of priesthood and motherhood remains influential to explain why women are not ordained in the Church.
For more thoughts on women and the priesthood, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk to read the full interview Lisa Olsen Tait (there’s much more to it than what I’ve fit in here).