Alternative Feminist Approaches to Ordain Women–Part 1By: Mormon Heretic
At long last, here is a transcription of John Dehlin’s podcast from episode 443 posted on October 16, 2013. In a recent post, Fiona Givens took exception to my characterization of her comments from her Mormon Stories interview from October. I promised to transcribe the whole interview (but let me tip my hat to Brent Beal at Doves and Serpents who assisted me with a partial transcript—thanks Brent!) Here is Part 1; I will post part 2 shortly. I will leave this post as is, without my own editorial conversation, and will post a separate post (or a few posts) with my comments. But feel free to give me your reactions–I’d love to hear them, and I’d be happy to engage your thoughts.
John, “Hello and welcome to another edition of Mormon Stories Podcast and the Mormon News Podcast! I’m your host for today, John Dehlin. You are listening to part 2 in a 3 part series on a new phenomenon that has emerged in 2013, or maybe it’s a very old phenomenon. We’ll be discussing that today, called Ordain Women. A couple of days ago, we interviewed four participants in the Ordain Women event on October 5, 2013 at Temple Square. A group of women, Mormon women–most of them active and faithful, attempted to attend the LDS General Conference Priesthood Session, normally intended for men and boys, and they were turned away.
It’s a really fascinating interview, very heart-warming, and that’s how we began this series, talking to the women who were part of that event, and those women were Heather Olsen Beal, Anne Marie Whittaker, Tinesha Zandamela, and Lorie Winder Stromberg along with many other, maybe 200 women who participated in this event.
Now it turns out that there is another group of women—actually there are lots of groups of women, but in this case what I’m referring to is a group of women who maybe you wouldn’t call them traditional Mormon women in some sense or another, in that they might have what I would call possibly progressive views on women and Mormonism and even the priesthood. Maybe some of them are even for ordination, we’ll find out, but they have been public in one way or another, saying that they maybe weren’t able to fully support the Ordain Women event that occurred last week. And we have three—I’m sorry four of these women with us today who are going to respond to the part 1 of this podcast or to what they’ve read or heard about the event and the initiative.
The four women that we have, this is an all-star, rock star cast or panel on Mormon Stories just like we had last time. We have Fiona Givens, she’s returning to Mormon Stories. She is a very popular writer, speaker, and independent scholar, and she is the coauthor of The God who Weeps, which is published by Deseret Book, and Fiona Givens, welcome to Mormon Stories. Thanks for joining us.
Fiona, “It’s lovely to be here, thank you John.”
John, “Margaret Blair Young is a writer specializing in black LDS history. She’s also a filmmaker by the way, and she is an adjunct faculty in creative writing and Black History at Brigham Young University. Margaret Blair Young, you are also returning to Mormon Stories. You were one of our very first interviews, along with your dear friend Darius Gray, so welcome back to Mormon Stories.”
Margaret, “Thank you. I actually saw Darius today, and I mentioned what I was going to be doing tonight and he’s totally in favor.”
John, “Oh Good! Well that’s good. We’ve got the Darius blessing which is always helpful. Give him our best.”
We also have with us Neylan McBaine. This is her first appearance on Mormon Stories. She is founder and editor-in-chief of the Mormon Women Project. She has been published in a number of prominent newspapers and journals and is a gifted and talented writer. Neylan McBaine, you did appear on our sibling podcast, A Thoughtful Faith if I’m not mistaken. Is that true?
Neylan, “I did, I believe I was one of the first podcasts published on that site, so I was honored to be there.”
John, “And it was super interesting. I listened to it, so check out A Thoughtful Faith, and check out Mormon Women Project with Neylan McBaine.
And finally, last but certainly not least we have the wonderful and intriguing Maxine Hanks. She is a theologian, a lecturer, an independent scholar who is focused on women’s studies and religion for oh, I don’t know, what 30 years?”
Maxine [chuckles], “Off and on, yeah, not continuously but off and on, but yeah.”
John, “She is the editor of a famous historical book within Mormonism called Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism, and I’m just going to say it now. I think we need that book back in print, so whoever is listening, set that book free. I’m saying it right now, I’m throwing that down. Maxine Hanks, welcome back—not welcome back. Welcome to Mormon Stories, and I would have to say one last thing, Maxine, just to give you a hard time. I’ve been trying to get Maxine to come on Mormon Stories since what, 2006?”
Maxine chuckles, “Probably!”
John, “Is it 2005?”
Maxine, “It was right before you started the series of discussions about women and status in Mormonism, because that came out of our—you and I—you trying to talk me into doing a Mormon Stories interview, and then you launched. I remember we were discussing what I would talk about and what I would do, so it was right about that time.”
John, “She insists that she’s not delaying because she doesn’t like Mormon Stories, it’s because she cares so much about Mormon Stories she wants to be prepared.”
Maxine chuckles, “Well Mormon Stories is just so momentous, and I’m severely introverted, so yeah. But thank you John. We will. We will do that momentous interview that I have been dragging my feet on, but I wanted to mention Women and Authority, the great thing that Signature Books has done for that book is, along with other books, has put it online, so that Women and Authority, even though it’s 20 years old, it was kind of a ground-breaking book for dealing with women and priesthood, and really I can talk about that more in a minute I guess, but we worked really hard to delve into that and really figure it out and explore it, and it’s online! So you can go to Signature Books Library, the whole text is online which is wonderful.”
John, “Alright. Well thanks for joining us on Mormon Stories, Maxine.”
Maxine, “Thank you John.”
John “…and the Mormon News Podcast. Let us begin, and I’m going to begin sort of like I began last time, and I’m going to ask one of my famous compound questions where you’re going to have to remember a couple things. I would like to hear from each of you, we’ll start with Fiona sort of 2 things: (1) what sort of brought you into wanting to have this conversation, and I would like you just sort of the beginning your view on women in the church and authority/priesthood, just as kind of a baseline, and then we’ll go in and dig more. But just give us sort of how you are similar or different than how you would perceive the average Ordain Women sort of participant to be, if you’re able to do that. So Fiona, why don’t you go first.”
Fiona, “Oh thank you John, absolutely. Into the breach I tread . Elder Packer gave a really intriguing talk in about 2011, I think it was about 2011 [it was actually 2010], in which he talked about, summarizing quickly, the church’s ability to disseminate priesthood authority and how they’ve been successful in that around the world, but have not been so successful in disseminating priesthood power. I found that really intriguing that he would bifurcate priesthood authority and priesthood power. To me that suggested that one could have priesthood authority without priesthood power, and that one can have priesthood power without priesthood authority.
I think section 121 is not at all ambiguous on this that you can have priesthood authority, but have absolutely no priesthood power. For me, of the two, the most potent of course is priesthood power. I felt, as a convert, the first time I went to the temple that I was being ordained with priesthood power, and I have felt that ever since.
As a European, as someone who was born and raised in Africa, I am particularly sensitive to the global church, and our call to build Zion. I come from a history of very strong female leaders, from Queen Boudica who burned a bunch of Romans in their temple to this current monarch who simply will not die, but my historical past has been littered with very strong female figures. I’m hearing a lot of political rhetoric in the OW conversations, which has concerned me just a little bit. I’m not sure if this is not a throwback to the ERA, new wave feminism days. I mean in the conversation you had, I think I heard the verb being used ‘marching to the Tabernacle’, and it was quickly changed to ‘walking’ but the first word came out was ‘marching’, so that concerns me just a little bit.
Most importantly, it’s this global perspective. Many of the countries in which we hope to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ have a very fixed social and political male hegemony, and I’m not sure how successful our ability to aid women in those countries exercised priesthood power which I found in the temple, which is accessible to all. If sister missionaries are coming into those countries, most of them are primarily Muslim, waving the banner of priesthood authority, and right now I understand there are a lot of African men joining the church because of this hierarchical power, and I think if we were to come in and destabilize that then we would prevent our sisters around the globe from accessing the ordinances and the power, the priesthood power that is only to be found in the temple. I would hesitate now. For me the most important thing is for our women around the world is to be able to access priesthood power, and that may be through the paradigm, ironically enough, of male hegemony. If their husbands are joining the church, it is likely that they will also receive the ordinance of baptism and then be able to go further and receive the priesthood power in the temple. So that’s where I am, this is where I am on the issue.”
John, “Ok, so you feel like you received priesthood power when you received your endowment in the temple?”
Fiona, “Oh, absolutely! Jesus was talking about this in the New Testament. I think it was in Luke when he asks his apostles to come, his followers to come and be endued actually was the verb that he used, but endowed with priesthood power, well be endowed with power from on high. I think it’s very clear, totally unambiguous in the temple that women and men are having access to priesthood power and are endowed with priesthood power, which is really, really important, most important than priesthood authority, much more important than priesthood authority to my mind.”
John, “Ok, I’ve got some questions, but I’m going to hold them because I want to make sure we get through each of the panelists. I’m going to hold some questions, but that is wonderful as an introduction. Margaret, why don’t you tell us what you would add, take away from, or alter from what Fiona said.”
Margaret, “I think that Fiona’s words should not be added to or subtracted from, [John chuckles] so I will not, those are canonized, but I will say how I became involved in this. The blog post that I did on my own blog at Patheos talked about the process of the restoration of priesthood to blacks. Blacks had been ordained, meaning black men—it had not been extended to black women, had been ordained under Joseph Smith and then that stopped in about 1847, and I knew very well what the whole history was, and I knew about the establishment of the Genesis Group. Because I’ve worked extensively with Darius Gray for the last 15 years and am very close friends with Eugene Orr who is also a counselor in the Genesis Group, that’s part of my knowledge base. I talked about that and the process that they had met with church leaders.
Gene, he was the first to ask if they could meet with the brethren and there was no answer. Darius who worked for KSL then asked and there was a response. But it was—they weren’t asking for priesthood. They were asking for time to talk about this huge problem that faced them which was that they were losing their families. When the white kids would be ordained to the priesthood at age 12, and the black kids would not, the black kids were probably not going to stay, and basically all of the youth, all of the sons of these remarkable men had left, and that was the beginning of the conversation. The Genesis Group was established in 1971. The priesthood was restored to blacks in 1978, so there was a bit of a time lag between those. I did talk—Darius and I had an important meeting today with someone else and then he and I chatted for a bit, and I talked to him a little bit about the conversation around Ordain Women and I mentioned the phrase of somebody saying that they felt so burdened with the patriarchy that it made it almost impossible to participate in the church, and Darius who was called the n-word on the first day as a baptized Mormon when he went to church, who was told to his face that he was cursed, that he had been less valiant in the pre-existence, found that an astonishing phrase.
He said that he looks on his fidelity to the church as beginning with his testimony which was unshakeable. If you ever say, if you ever ask Darius, ‘how could you have possibly joined the church that restricted priesthood from blacks?’ and I have this happen over and over if we’re doing a radio show or a fireside, the question gets asked and I go ‘ok, here it goes.’
He bears his testimony. He says, ‘I’ve prayed to God. I received direct revelation telling me this is the restored gospel and you are to join.’ There was no mention of the priesthood restriction, whether it was of God or of man, simply this is the restored gospel and you are to join, and he said, as he looks at it, it hasn’t been a burden. It’s been his responsibility to do everything that he can to improve what he has chosen to be a part of, because he feels called of God, and I want to talk a little bit more—well we can reserve this for later. The other—one of the other worlds I inhabit, the one I inhabit probably the most academically is the world of black history, black national history, international history now, especially black Mormon history.
But the other world I inhabit is third world in Guatemala, where I have seen Quetchical Indians, Indian women become Relief Society Presidents, and these very poor women who you would think have little power, preside in their Relief Societies teaching, teach Sunday School. It’s a remarkable thing to see them functioning in these—I would consider them priesthood roles with priesthood power, where they’re ministering to others and teaching the gospel, and to talk about the patriarchy as such a burden. These women do not feel burdened by the gospel, they feel liberated by it. They will hike over mountains to do their visiting teaching where it’s kind of—and I’m serious about that. Several of my Indigena friends will hike over a mountain, have lunch, and then go the rest of the way down the mountain to do their visiting teaching, and then return. It’s a six hour trip and it’s done on foot. That’s the sort of global Mormonism and sisterhood that we have.
I see Ordain Women as being a very first world thing, and not really honoring what the priesthood is, maybe not understanding ordination, what that would mean, the root of it being “orden” or “ordenar,” so “orden” (order), “ordenar” (to ordain), but you can also put into “orden” (order) a room, you can put people into an “orden,” like an order of nuns, an order of monks, an order of women, in say, the Relief Society. I think Maxine will have more to say on that. That’s all I’ll say for now.”
John, “Wow, I’ve already got like ten questions but this is wonderful. Thank you Margaret. Actually I served among the K’iche’ in Guatemala so I know a little bit about what you speak, and the gospel does some beautiful things in Latin America. I can testify. Neylan McBaine, let’s hear from you!”
Neylan McBaine, “Hello! Well, I come to this conversation as somebody who is particularly invested and enthusiastic about the individual contributions of women in the world and in the gospel, and specifically the empowering element of the gospel in individual women’s lives. For me, a major source of power in each one of our lives comes from the presence of the spirit in our lives and the gift of personal revelation in our lives that gives each one of us an inner authority to understand our own worth and our own purpose and I think that that inner authority is woefully underappreciated, underdeveloped, and not listened to enough in our women, and so I choose to approach the challenges of our women today not from a power crisis, but more from the point of view of a purpose crisis, that we are as a people we need to be seeking for that self-determined life that really relies on the spirit and on the power of personal revelation and on an individual relationship with the Lord to find that inner core and that sense of fulfillment that seems to be lacking among some of our women today.
And you know I mean in all that good thing kind of has to go back to my mom and I talk a lot about my upbringing when I talk about my involvement with women in the church because I was born and raised in New York City, of a single professional mom, I was an only child and I was born into the church, and my mom was born into the church, but I think I was rather isolated from church culture growing up in New York City in the 80s and so I had this opportunity to view women in my church congregation as incredibly self-determined and with a very well-developed senses of inner authority so that—to give an example, my mom actually shared this with me just the other day and I’d heard the story before but it was fun to be reminded of it.
In about mid 1960s after my mother had graduated from BYU but was starting her career as an opera singer she went to BYU and performed a concert there and this was before she was married, before she had children or even knew if she was going to be able to have children, which ultimately she had trouble, and thus I am an only child, but she knew at that time that she was gifted and she knew what she wanted to do with that gift, and after giving this recital, the most prominent professor at BYU at the time honestly came up to her and said, ‘Sister Bybee, what are you going to do with this talent of yours?’
She said, ‘Well I’m going to be an opera singer. I want to be an opera singer. And he in no uncertain terms and very aggressively as she remembers it told her ‘well you can’t do that. You can’t do that. You have to have a family. There’s no way you can be an opera singer and have a family.’ And I said, ‘Well mom what did you do about that?’
And she said, “Well I ignored him of course!’ [John chuckles] And that’s my mom for you, and I grew up with that, and it surprised me as I’ve gotten older how the words of the brethren that are meant to evoke feelings and priorities are taken so literally as the way lives should look and function. I don’t think that the counsel from our brethren is always intended to be prescriptive and functional. We have to go off and live our lives, and I think there is an element of taking their counsel and taking their good words and using them to direct priorities and feelings, but still trust that inner authority and that self-determining voice.
So in the work that I try to do with women, it’s a lot about saying ‘Hey, we’ve got all the power we need. We’ve got all the power we need. Listen to that inner voice and rather than asking men to give you power, just go off and live it. Go off and use it. Go off and have a big life. Incorporate those best prioritizations, and these best feelings, and those best spiritual promptings from the words of the brethren and from a personal relationship with God and make that life your own.’”
John, “Beautiful! Ok, well thank you Neylan. That was great. That’s three for three outstanding summaries, so now we have last but not least again Maxine Hanks. Maxine Hanks, tell our listeners a little bit about—just briefly about how you go back in the history of these issues and then and then kind of a brief summary of your position right now.”
Maxine, “Ok, although I have to I would just love to keep listening to Fiona, Margaret, and Neylan. Wow! But for me, I came to this issue actually in my 20s, early 20s, going on an LDS mission, I was a full-time missionary. What brought me to that was a life-long sense, from the time I was a little kid, that I had some kind of ministerial or priestly calling. And I kept trying to figure out how that fit into my beloved church, the Mormon Church, which I was very devoted to. I concluded, as a teenager, and I was a feminist as a teenager, in the 70s, they called us women’s libbers back then.
So I felt this keen sense of calling and I held all of the usual leadership positions in the church. I tried to figure out how I could have a priestly or ministerial calling, and it was the missionary calling I realized that that was the closest thing, or the only thing that I would find in Mormonism that would really give me that. So I determined that I would go on a mission—and this was the late 70s when they discouraged women from going, but I was determined to go and I was particularly pressured. The big issue back then was you’re supposed to get married, and I was very pressured to get married instead of going on a mission and had, you know numerous proposals of marriage—I just did not want to go that route. I wanted to go on a mission.
So what was fascinating for me was that I submitted my mission papers the very week that blacks got the priesthood in June of 78 (the announcement.) Yeah, I submitted my mission papers literally a day or so before the announcement. I got my call in September. October of 78, the first week of October, I entered the Missionary Training Center and attended LDS Conference that weekend as a new missionary, the very weekend that the revelation on priesthood was accepted and voted in, which there’s a strong connection between this weekend and that week 35 years ago for me because that experience of being set apart to be a missionary in 1978 and then entering the temple and going through the temple the day before I entered the Missionary Training Center in October of ’78, I had a spiritual experience.
I felt, and I didn’t know anything about the scholarship, I hadn’t researched it yet, but I had such a profound spiritual experience when the stake president laid his hand on my head and set me apart as a full-time missionary for the church, I felt the mantle of authority descend on me and I knew I had received some kind of priesthood, and I couldn’t explain it. The same thing happened when I went through the temple a few days later.
As I went through the temple for the first time, I think it was October 5th, 1978, I experienced—again it was a different sense of priesthood than what I had received in the missionary calling or setting apart, but I experienced that I received some sort of mantle of priesthood when I went through the temple, and it was so profound that it stayed with me, and later, on my mission, I felt that I had the same mantel that the elders had. I spent my entire missionary experience in Central Florida when it was the pivotal state in the ERA battle, I spent that whole mission feeling that I had the same authority as the elders, and the same spiritual mantel, and being told every day, “you don’t, you don’t have the same, you don’t have the authority we have, you have a lesser authority, you don’t have the priesthood,” and it became this tension within me that was so profound it led me to do my research when I got back from my mission and went to BYU. That’s was led me into doing research on women and the priesthood. And it eventually led me out of the church. So fast forward to…”
John interrupts, “Just real quick. There’s probably three people who are listening who actually don’t know that you were actually one of the September Six who were excommunicated in September 1993, so I’ll just throw that in there, sorry about that. Go ahead.”
Maxine, “Right, right. No fine. So that’s what led me to research the topic. When I was researching and reading about women and priesthood, it was this cognitive dissonance or tension between feeling that I had the authority or the mantel of some kind of priesthood that I had received, and yet being told in the church that I didn’t. I’m trying to understand that. So that motivated me, and inhabited me the whole time I was researching the book Women and Authority, and looking for materials and working with contributors to develop articles, and I authored an article in that book called ‘Sister Missionaries and Authority’, which for me was my way of finally answering that question within myself because what I discovered when I researched the book and that article was that I analyzed the calling and the authority of the sister missionaries and the authority implicit in the call and in the temple ceremony and in the service of preaching gospel, very clear in the Doctrine and Covenants and very clear in the research that in order to preach my gospel, you have to have the priesthood. There’s a kind of priesthood inherent in preaching the gospel, the call to preach is one avenue of priesthood. So I was able to kind of put that altogether and to realize as I worked on that article and on the book that the spiritual sense I’d had in 1978 was right. The scholarship re-affirmed what I had experienced spiritually.
Fast forward then to the present, and then I’ll wind up here. What’s fascinating, and this kind of links back to Fiona’s statements that started us on this kind of circle of sharing our story. In Mormonism, and through these experiences, I experienced the mantle or the authority of priesthood. I don’t know that I experienced the power until I left the church. I was excommunicated for my work on the book and for public speaking about women and priesthood as part of the September Six, and I went on this journey to explore priesthood, and to undergo ordination in other traditions and to learn about ministry and chaplaincy, and it was when I went on that path, that I discovered that even though I was being ordained to minor orders, and like Margaret said, the word ordain, ordination, comes from the root word is order, which means that you are set apart into a particular order, and there are all these different orders. I was ordained to five minor orders of the priesthood before even entering the deaconate, which is to become a deacon, and then a priest. And then I had gone through these five minor ordinations or orders, and it was in that process where I…”
John interrupts, “These are non-LDS, right?”
Maxine, “These are non-LDS. This was after my excommunication in 1993 as one of the September Six, I went off into a couple of other traditions and explored other religious traditions, particular Gnostic tradition.
I was going through these ordination because I’d had this compelling desire and sense of call my whole life from the time I was young, so I really wanted to finally satisfy this, and finally feel like after all I’d been through, trying to find ordination or ministry within the church, and then discovering my answers that in the research and in the book Women and Authority that women were ordained in a variety of ways, they did have access to priesthood, and then being excommunicated for that and then going off on this other path, working with priests and bishops in other traditions, trying to find my ordination finally. I’ve learned that ordination was inner, it was spiritual the power of priesthood, it wasn’t the authority. Definitely you have to have permission within a particular religion to function in a ministerial capacity. So permission of the group or the church or the congregation, that is the authority—it’s the permission to act. But the power of priesthood is spiritual.
So it wasn’t until I was going through this process of entering minor orders and being ordained to these different orders or priesthood that I discovered that that wasn’t really ordination, that I didn’t need feel ordained until I received the spiritual power and it was an inner, spiritual process. It wasn’t until that experience of really obtaining the power, the spiritual power of priesthood that I realized that that’s where it was.
So I guess what I’m trying to say, long story short is that I discovered the power that was so real in Mormonism, and that that’s really where it was that I came back. I came back to the church, knowing that ordination is really inner, it’s spiritual, and definitely there are issues that we can discuss, we will be discussing in terms of the authority or the right to exercise that power, but fast forward to this weekend with the Ordain Women moment and what they were doing, that whole week when they were preparing to do their action, I was finalizing temple recommend interviews and buying temple garments preparing to return to the temple on my 35th anniversary of when I had first entered the Salt Lake Temple October 5th, 1978.
I wanted to go to the temple on October 5th, but it was Saturday. I really wanted to be in the temple praying as my part of this whole larger discussion of women’s relationship to authority and Mormonism, and I couldn’t go that day because of Conference and the crowds, and it was really fascinating to me that they had their even on the 35th anniversary of my entering the temple, and on the 35th anniversary of the church voting in the revelation on priesthood in October of ’78.”
John, “A little bit of serendipity there.”
Maxine, “Uh huh.”
John, “OK. Well Maxine, again thank you. So good. Now I have like a thousand questions, and I don’t quite know how to do this because you know, what I want to do is just throw a question out there and have whoever wants to first attack it do that, but I know that in audio sometimes that’s a disaster because either no one jumps in or everybody jumps in, so I’m going to do it anyway, and I’ll just ask you guys to kind of try and regulate as best you can because I don’t know who the best person it is to ask these questions, but here’s where I’m going to start. I’m going to ask for simple yes or no for a couple questions. So panel, starting with Fiona, then Margaret, then Neylan, then Maxine.
So it sounds like you believe that you already have the priesthood, meaning priesthood power. Fiona, Yes or no?”
John, “Ok, so all four women believe they already have the priesthood power. Ok, that’s important. Ok, Here’s a second question that I’ll ask of all of you. Do you believe that most LDS women today think of themselves as having priesthood power?”
Fiona, “I’m not sure.”
Margaret, “Yeah, I’ve seen some who realize it and some who don’t.”
John, “Ok, but no percentage?”
Margaret, “No, I couldn’t possibly.”
Neylan, “Uh, No.”
John,”You’re saying most women probably don’t.”
Neylan, “I would say most women probably don’t.”
Maxine, “Well I think my sample is skewed. Do you know who I know?”
John, “yep, yep”
Maxine, “Half and half. Half the women I know including conservative relatives who serve as Relief Society presidents fully believe they’ve got it, half and half.”
Neylan, “Can I just say something about that John?”
John, “Please, please.”
Neylan, “I think that there’s definitely rhetoric around what happens in the temple, and there’s always sort of this asterisk when we’re talking about women and the priesthood, but there’s sort of this infant version of something going on in the temple, but I don’t know that anybody’s quite sure what that is. I’d love to get into at some point, because this is something that I’m personally really passionate and interested about. You referred to us and the Ordain Women movement that you interviewed the other day as sort of more progressive as opposed to traditional, and I actually would describe probably what many of us on this call tonight believe in as quite regressive, and I think what I’m saying is that a beautiful vision I have that I’d love to work towards is actually the vision of the priesthood understanding and the practice that existed in Joseph’s Smith’s time, and I’d love to talk about that at some point because I think when women become familiar with our history and they become familiar with the healings that took place and the blessing meetings that took place in the early church and the way that the women governed themselves and healed each other and blessed each other and literally performed these ordinances through the power of faith and the power of Jesus Christ on each other, their whole perception of what women have today changes, and so I’d love to talk about the importance of understanding our history and working towards getting back to something that we lost rather than trying to ask for something new.”
Fiona, “If I could just jump in there. I think we all bring our backgrounds into our faith tradition, and I was raised on convents for all of my life and we had a mother superior and the order was ordered, and it was an educational order, but it was also ministerial, and for me I think that the significance of the temple was such that I saw the Relief Society very much as a convent in complementing a monastery where they had a father abbot prior, and they were ordered, but they were equal, they were different, but they were equal in their priesthood power. So for me it’s so easy for me to see in Mormonism, and I think that Neylan is absolutely right that we have forgotten what we had and for me I see Relief Society and priesthood as equal. So for me I would like to see the Relief Society come out from its current auxiliary status, as Neylan said, back to where it was. When Joseph turned the key, gave the key, you know, somebody asked me once, how do you know he meant priesthood keys, but it’s like, this is Joseph, what other keys are there? These were priesthood keys that Emma now had to officiate within the female distaff of the church, to my mind.”
John, “Ok, ok. Let’s just go there really quickly Neylan and Fiona. I’ll give a really brief summary and they you guys can correct me. When Joseph Smith organized the Relief Society, he made a reference there that many people have hung on to as being particularly meaningful. What was that reference?”
Neylan, “’I turn the key to you’, he said, which was actually later amended to be ‘I turn the key in your behalf.’”
Fiona, “Turning to you is like giving. You can see it as giving; here it as this is the key. Here are your rights.”
John, “And didn’t he say something about making a kingdom of priests?”
Fiona simultaneously, “priests”
Margaret, “a society of priests, yes.”
John, “to the women, right?”
John, “ok, so that was his intent.”
Margaret and Fiona, “Yes.”
Maxine, “Absolutely. In fact I think all of us are on the same page on this, and I see it the same way Fiona does. I see the Relief Society as a female order, just as the nuns have orders in Catholicism. It’s a female order. But he tells them, ‘I now turn the key to you, and knowledge’, I should be quoting this exactly, knowledge and revelation or inspiration will now flow down, will flow forth, meaning he opened their key of revelation and their key, and he also says ‘I will make of this society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day and as in Paul’s day’ and he says that they will move according to ancient priesthood so he uses all those terms.”
John, “Right. Ok. Early in the Mormon Stories history we released a Sunstone presentation called A Gift Given: A Gift Taken Away. Who is it that authored that?”
Maxine, “Linda Newell.”
John, “Linda Newell.
Maxine, “That was her very first piece, and then it had several other incarnations in Dialogue and then Sisters in Spirit and then in Women and Authority.”
John, “Ok, and basically as I read that, it talks about all the different ways that women used the laying on of hands, anointing, healing the sick, doing special washings and anointings in preparation for birth where literally body parts were anointed with oil and there’s even a quote from Brigham Young saying I want a wife who’s strong or robust enough to heal, anoint with oil and heal or something like that. Am I getting it right?”
Neylan, “Well John, I actually have one of her articles in front of me and let me read a quote from Eliza R. Snow in 1884 that Linda Newell quotes. In 1884 Eliza R. Snow said,
Any and all sisters who honor their holy endowment not only have the right, but should feel it a duty whenever called upon to administer to our sisters in these ordinances which God has graciously committed his daughters as well as to his sons.
And I think one of the things that Maxine is alluding to is that Linda in a number of publications, has gone through and really mapped out the disintegration of that understanding from about 1884 to its ultimate decline in about 1920 when President Joseph F. Smith officially renounced women’s ability to do healing blessings. I’ll turn that back to Maxine and Fiona, they probably know more about that than I do, but that’s really striking to me.”
John, “Well I don’t want to yet go into why it was taken away, but do you just want to respond Maxine?”
Maxine, “Yeah. I’m so glad that Neylan brought up that reference, because that same—I’m pretty sure it’s that that same interview or that same piece in the Exponent in 1884 where Eliza also articulates—she’s answering questions. It’s a Q&A that the Women’s Exponent is doing with Eliza because they’re trying to hold on to authority and roles that have been slipping away and being diminished between about the 1880s and just after the turn of the century when Emmaline Wells is released.
During that period, there are mixed messages. That’s the period of the mixed messages when some of the brethren are affirming that women do have access to priesthood powers, healings, blessings, and other aspects, personal revelation, and then other leaders are diminishing that and so it’s a mixed message kind of time. And anyway, Eliza answers the question, are the women of the Relief Society to go to the men, to the bishops for counsel and as their leader, and she reiterates the Relief Society was designed to be a self-governing organization, to solve its own problems, to deal with its own programs and she reiterates that the women are to go to their Relief Society leaders and then if necessary go higher up to their stake leaders, then higher up to the general leaders, and only then does the General President then go to the President of the Church, so it’s a very important reiteration of the female line of authority in Mormonism and the authority of the Relief Society in that same interview.”
Fiona, “And I think also John, that’s a beautiful quote Neylan, thank you. What Eliza is reiterating is this priesthood power comes from the temple—it’s those who have been endowed. So she’s regulating, at least to my mind who can perform the healing blessings and she understands to my mind anyway that that power, that priesthood power comes from the temple, because she specifically says that so it’s not sort of a willy nilly thing, but at least it, anyway to my mind she seems to be emphasizing this idea of priesthood power coming from the divine feminine, and the heavenly parents from the temple directly to women.”
Maxine, “She is and that’s a good point. She is alluding to the temple. Other statements during that period, the mixed message period of time, at that point when the statements that do affirm women’s priesthood during that period are relying on the temple for authority of citation because women definitely have priestly authority, priestly robes, whatever you want to call them in the temple. But prior to that mixed message period, earlier on there are allusions to both the Relief Society itself and as well as the temple, and there are historical reasons for that. You know there was some confusion and unfinished business of the Relief Society after the death of the prophet and the succession crisis. So earlier references do refer to both the Relief Society and the temple but later on, they’re kind of falling back on this is the only thing that we can really cite in a way that we feel certain about because by that point, a lot of the Relief Society’s authority, having been shut down with Joseph’s death and everything that was going on, and not reinstituted until really the 1860s, 1867, starting to with Indian Relief Society in 1852-53, but not reconstituting it until 1860s in Utah, the Relief Society suffered a terrible loss of identity and authority that was attempting to be reconstituted in Utah, but there are references to both Relief Society authority and temple authority.”
John, “Ok. Really good. Ok, I’m going to go to a place you probably aren’t expecting me to, but since what we’re doing, as Neylan said is we’re being a little bit regressive and we’re going back. What we’re also doing is we’re sort of you know, blowing the mind of the average Mormon, especially the average Mormon female and saying ‘oh no, no. You’ve had priesthood all along.’ I like that, I think it’s beautiful. Here’s one question that I would love you guys to give brief answers to.
If priesthood is something different that a man laying his hands upon a man and ordaining him to a specific office, if priesthood power really is just the power of God given to both men and women, ok, are non-Mormons, non-LDS people able to access the same priesthood power of which you speak, or is this something that’s only given to Mormons? Anyone can jump in and answer.”
Margaret, “They can certainly access powers of revelation and the powers of God. The endowment and the initiatory rites before are not accessible by non-Mormons, but certainly there are powers of God that anyone can call upon.”
Maxine, “You know this is a profound question, and I sort of have to raise my hand and say, Guilty. Because I have really thoroughly explored this in Mormon tradition before I left for my excommunication, and I really thoroughly explored it outside of Mormon tradition in going through other ordinations and working with three different really types of ministry, and I have to say, that’s where I discovered the power of priesthood was on that path. When I was seeking the authority and the ordination is when I discovered the power.
So yeah, I would have to say I felt the power, I felt the spirit, I found the power of inner ordination when I was on that solitary path outside of the church. But what I will have to say also is that discovering that there were other dimensions to it, and that the power of priesthood, and the power of the lay ministry, and the authority of that was so just astonishingly restored and organized within Mormonism, the power of the lay church and the lay ministry, every member a minister became so much more obvious to me after working with more isolated and hierarchical systems, that I absolutely had to come back and immerse myself in the scope and the power of the lay church which I find to be unlike any other.”
John, “Right. Ok, so if I can just restate. For Maxine, non-Mormons can also have priesthood power, but there’s something special about the combination of priesthood power and the way our church is run and organized and maybe blessed by God. Is that kind of what you’re saying?”
Maxine, “Absolutely. Yeah.”
John, “Ok, Ok. Now Margaret I heard you saying that what non-members can have is something different than what Mormons can have in an important way, and what I guess what I’m asking is a Catholic mother in Guatemala, you know, prays for her sick child. Is that gonna have less power than (a) an active Mormon male who anoints his child and says a priesthood blessing versus (b) a Mormon mother who believes she has priesthood power, but hasn’t had the laying on of hands for some deacon, teacher, priest kind of priesthood ordinance. Are those all three equal assuming everything else is equal or are they different?”
Margaret, “The whole idea of God is no respecter of persons I think also applies to our ability to access divine power, and that applies to a poor women with a baby in Guatemala who hasn’t even been introduced to missionaries of any faith but who has a sense of connection to God. She is not considered less because she doesn’t have to be a member of this church or the Catholic church or whatever.
But for me I should make this particular. For me in the temple which is something that I really treasure, it’s been the foundation of my ability to mother my children with peace in my heart. I find the power within the temple itself that renews me that the waiting upon the Lord and symbolically clothing myself in priesthood. Because of the visual component it stays with me. I find I spend five hours there as an ordinance worker every Saturday, and I find when I leave I’m exhausted simply because of everything I’ve been doing.
But I’m also able to cope with the really difficult situations, whereas before I was collapsing in the midst of especially some choices that my children made. The power that I felt that I would identify as priesthood power in the temple to soothe my soul that for me is uniquely there. That doesn’t mean that others won’t have beautiful spiritual experiences. I remember telling a missionary, the sacred grove can be your bedroom. You know you can make a place sacred simply by what you do there, by identifying it as your sacred place where you will come for renewal, refreshment. So in those ways, it is completely universal.”
Neylan, “John, if I could just draw a quick parallel that might help. I hadn’t thought of this before and it’s not at all a fleshed-out idea but perhaps what you’re getting at is the parallel between the Light of Christ that we believe exists in every person, and then this particular Gift of the Holy Ghost that we’re given at our confirmations that sort of, what is the relationship with that?
We believe that everybody can be spoken to by the Holy Ghost, but there’s an added gift to always be with us when we actually are confirmed, and maybe there’s a parallel there that we can draw that maybe each person is able to act through the power of faith but perhaps the equivalent of being given the Gift of the Holy Ghost is that gift and power of priesthood above that.”
John, “I like that analogy for the purposes of those particular beliefs. I’ll just say for me, and this interview isn’t about me, but I’m just going to jump in a tiny bit here and say that the way that I like to think about priesthood is God’s power on the earth, and however Mormons do priesthood is the way that Mormons do priesthood, but Catholics do priesthood and Episcopalians do priesthood and Muslims do it too, and I never want to be in the position of judging who is superior and who’s inferior and who’s got it all the time versus some of the time, especially because it’s so much tied to personal worthiness anyway. So my bias is to want to hear some type of universalistic message where everybody’s got it and everyone just has it in a different quality or flavor. But you know that’s just me. I hate to speak down to anybody ever.”
Maxine, “Right, right.”
Neylan, “John, I think that also takes away one of the things that’s so unique about our restoration which is of course the restoration of authority and the ability to call yourself the prophet, whereas there are many men and women on the earth who are in communication with God. There is one prophet. For me that is a beautiful truth that I like to hang onto. So although the universalist message does have a lot of beauty too, I think that we can’t ignore that element of it.”
Maxine, “Could I toss something else in?”
John, “Fiona first, and then Maxine.”
Fiona, “I was actually trying to find this quote by Joseph, because he has the same heart and mind as you John. Joseph said that all the Methodists, Presbyterians, everybody could come to God, could come to Christ. He was really, really universalist in his idea of the sacred gifts being showered upon all of humanity whether they are in or outside of the church. And the fact to that you know, in the New Testament, Christ never heals using priesthood power. He never starts his healing by saying ‘having the power of Melchizedek…’”
John interrupts, “Having been blessed by Jesus Christ…”
Fiona, “Right. It’s all faith. It’s all faith, and this is such a huge component that I think we forget and many people around the world exercise faith in God everywhere and are blessed and healed by that power, which is Christ’s power at the end of the day. The Melchizedek Priesthood is the Preishood after the Order of the Son of God. It is Christ’s power, and everybody can access it, so I think there is that universalism there. My feeling is that Joseph understood that. He didn’t feel that he was coming to restore truth. Truth is out there, he kept saying gather it and bring it home.
For Joseph, his job was to restore priesthood keys, and when I say priesthood keys, he referred I think particular to the sealing keys, and there is no other church denomination that I know of in the world that has this emphasis on families being sealed together, that there is something tangibly potent about this sealing power that the adversary cannot break. For me that was because of Joseph’s loss and his family, the death of his brother, that was hugely important, this idea of families being linked together and sealed to each other and then sealed all the way back to God and that those were bonds the adversary could not break, and hence this whole emphasis on Joseph to seal the human family together. That I think is unique to Mormonism and unique to our doctrine, and that is our gift I think to the world, and it is a generous gift. I think often times we’re just a little slightly embarrassed about genealogy work and ordinances for the dead but that really is the most generous thing if indeed every person must be baptized then surely this is the most generous way to do that to ensure that every single person who has ever lived on this earth will receive all of the ordinances to empower them, to be sealed to each other and to their God. I just think that’s absolutely phenomenal. That’s priesthood power.”
John, “Yes it is.”
End of Part 1. I will post Part 2 shortly. What are your reactions?