Women and the Melchizedek Priesthood

by: Mormon Heretic

January 17, 2011

I was first introduced to the idea of women holding the Melchizedek Priesthood in the book called Sidney Rigdon: Portrait of Religious Excess by Richard Van Wagoner.  Sidney claimed that Emma Smith was the first woman to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood (as I blogged about in Part 5).  Another book, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power by Michael Quinn, seems to support this idea, and goes into greater detail.  Apparently, Brigham Young also supports this idea.  I’ve changed some of the formatting, and modernized the spelling below, but according to Quinn on page 36,

The last major development in LDS priesthood is even less recognized today.  In 1843 Smith extended the Melchizedek priesthood to LDS women through an “endowment ceremony” rather than through ordination to church office.

  • For example, in 1843 Presiding Patriarch Hyrum Smith blessed Leonora Cannon Taylor:
  • “You shall be bless[ed] with your portion of the Priesthood which belongeth to you, that you may be set apart for your Anointing and your induement [endowment].”
  • Thirty-five years later, Joseph Young (a patriarch and senior president of the Council of Seventy) blessed Brigham Young’s daughter:
  • “These blessings are yours, the blessings and power according to the Holy Melchi[z]edek Priesthood you received in your Endowments, and you shall have them.”

The decline in women’s awareness that the endowment ceremony gives them Melchizedek priesthood corresponds to the decline in women’s status in the LDS church during those same years.  In the process, twentieth-century Mormons–both male and female, conservative and liberal–have identified priesthood with male privilege and hierarchical administrative power.  Therefore, some recent writers regard as insignificant the concept that endowed Mormon women had (and continue to have) the Melchizedek priesthood without ordained office and hierarchical status.

I must say that I agree that  modern Mormons always associate priesthood with administration.  On the other hand, I can remember as a deacon, teacher, and priest, being told the priesthood is “the power to act in the name of God.”  So, even though women may not hold an administrative office, it is fascinating to me that Quinn uses a different definition to discuss women’s priesthood power “to act in the name of God.”  Isn’t this a more important use of priesthood power?

Quinn continues this line of thought on page 37,

By contrast, early Mormons understood that priesthood meant divine power (separate from individual faith) that was conferred on mortals and was centered on a relationship with the powers of deity.  For example, Brigham Young (using the word “share” that was often used to explain women’s relationship to priesthood) defined the priesthood’s power without reference to ecclesiastical office or church administration:

An individual who holds a share in the Priesthood, and continues faithful to his calling, who delights himself continually in doing the things God requires at his hands, and continues through life in the performance of every duty, will secure to himself not only the privilege of receiving, but the knowledge how to receive the things of God, that he may know the mind of God continually; and he will be enabled to discern between right and wrong, between the things of God and things that are not of God.  And the Priesthood–the Spirit that is within him, will continue to increase until it becomes like a fountain of living water; until it is like the tree of life; until it is one continued source of intelligence and instruction to that individual.

Then Young continues his remarks to a gender-inclusive audience: “Upon who[m]ever are bestowed the keys of the eternal Priesthood, by a faithful life, [they] will secure to themselves power to see the things of God, and will understand them as plainly as they ever understood anything by gazing upon it with their natural eyes…”  It is in this theological context of priesthood that Young later declared: “Now, brethren, the man that honors his Priesthood, the woman that honors her Priesthood, will receive an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of God.”

To early Mormons “priesthood” signified something greater than ecclesiastical status, hierarchy, administrative power, decision-making, or prestige in an earthly church.  My analysis of the Mormon hierarchy emphasizes those external manifestations of power, but there were other significant dimensions of priesthood in early Mormon thought.

For an extensive history of LDS women and the priesthood, check out this article from Sunstone, which goes into great detail, called “A Gift Given: a Gift Taken” by Linda Newell King.  So, do any of you endowed LDS women realize that you hold the Melchizedek Priesthood, and have authority to act in the name of God?

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14 Responses to Women and the Melchizedek Priesthood

  1. Dan on January 17, 2011 at 4:53 AM

    Nothing wrong at all with women having and using the priesthood. There’s nothing about the priesthood that makes it work better for men, or exclusively with men. And I saw some quote that President Hinckley said that if the membership of the church yearned for it, women would eventually get the priesthood. Well, add me to the list of members of the church yearning for that day.

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  2. Stephen Marsh on January 17, 2011 at 7:35 AM

    we talk about lots of things besides woman and the priesthood. Honest!

    ;)

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  3. Dane on January 17, 2011 at 4:21 PM

    Okay Dan, here’s your list — http://agitatingfaithfully.org/the-list . Now come sign up! :)

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  4. J. Stapley on January 17, 2011 at 6:27 PM

    I think that this association of what we might call the Melchizedek Priesthood with what was going on in Nauvoo to be general folly. Kris’s and my piece on female healing comes out in a few weeks and then I have a piece coming out in the summer issue of JMH on Adoption ritual which discusses what I call the cosmological priesthood of the temple in some detail. I think that these two will complicate your views somewhat.

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  5. Bored in Vernal on January 17, 2011 at 6:39 PM

    Yay! I’ve been looking forward to this piece forever.

    MH, as I was reading this post I wondered about the words “Melchizedek priesthood” to describe the authority women held in Nauvoo and extended by Joseph Smith. Wasn’t this more like a “priestesshood” and not connected with Melchizedek priesthood until much later, when connecting it with the priesthood of their husbands?

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  6. Henry on January 17, 2011 at 6:39 PM

    LDS women know that they are in a partnership with their husbands to bring themselves and their children safely through mortality and onto exaltation. President Benson always said to keep your eyes on the prize (exaltation). The glories of the world do not matter when you have this mindset. In the LDS church, will women ever have the priesthood and be able to exercise authority like men do now? Who knows? No human ultimately makes that decision and it’s unwise to assume authority if you do not have it.

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  7. Dan on January 17, 2011 at 6:59 PM

    will do, Dane

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  8. MH on January 17, 2011 at 9:57 PM

    Steve, what are you saying–too much about women and the priesthood over the last few weeks? :) (I’ve got one more post planned, and then I’ll give it a rest.)

    J Stapley, I still need to read your piece that you told me about a few months ago. (I’ll put it on my Kindle so I won’t have to read it on my computer.) So do you take particular issue with anything I quoted from Quinn?

    BiV, I’ve read your posts about “priestesshood”, and I think I’m in general agreement. Quinn makes specific reference that the priesthood that women hold by virtue of the endowment is a very different kind of priesthood then men hold. I need to do some more research from some of the original Relief Society minutes (perhaps J Stapley can give us the “reader’s digest” version), but it seems to me that I’ve heard that Joseph may have been attempting to create the RS as a sort of priesthood quorum. Of course, J Stapley has studied this much more than I, so I’d be interested to hear how this reasoning is “folly.”

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  9. MH on January 17, 2011 at 10:05 PM

    BiV, can you explain what you mean “connecting it with the priesthood of their husbands”? Are you saying that these events occurred long after the 1840’s? I guess there is some support for that. I mentioned that Sidney Rigdon asserted that Emma was the first woman ordained to the priesthood, but that was in 1868, after he had started his own church in Pennsylvania. Van Wagoner’s book says,

    “On 30 March 1842, two weeks after organizing the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, Joseph Smith announced that the “Society should move according to the ancient Priesthood” and that he was “going to make a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day–as in Paul’s day.”

    Footnote 3 on page 437 has some interesting notes.

    The preceeding quote comes from the “Minutes of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo,” 30 Mar 1842.

    When the minutes were published in History of the Church, leaders omitted Smith’s first use of the word “Society” and changed the second “Society” to “Church,” so that the prophet’s meaning was entirely altered.

    Rigdon ordained his wife as prophetess in 1863 or 1864. Other women were advanced to a quorum of prophetesses. From page 428,

    A significant difference between the manner in which Rigdon and Joseph Smith bestowed priesthood on women was that at least ten Rigdonite women -[Van Wagoner lists them]-were ordained elders as well as prophetesses. Smith never ordained women to specific priesthood offices.

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  10. Rigel Hawthorne on January 18, 2011 at 3:12 PM

    “Mormons understood that priesthood meant divine power”

    My sibs and I always respected that our Mother had divine power; she knew how to get things done when in offices where it was confirmed to her that she had been called of God, and she knew how to get answers to her prayers relating to us kids.

    It is intuitive that women have the Melchizedek Priesthood through the endowment…otherwise, you wouldn’t have women temple workers working the ‘women’s side’ of the room’ during the endowment sessions or in the women’s initiatory room.

    As far as reaching back to how things occurred in Nauvoo, sometimes I feel that the ‘practice’ of doctrines newly revealed in Nauvoo would run in different directions, the effects of which became the basis of further revelations which provided more light on the practices. That makes Nauvoo an interesting process to study, but not necessarily the definitive moment of church practices.

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  11. JLM on January 18, 2011 at 8:58 PM

    I’m glad I ran across this, hopefully I can add some illumination of a different aspect of the topic.

    First a little back ground. My wife is in the first stages of study and preparation for becoming a doula and maybe later a midwife,and in the course of her researches we have be come aware of how much the midwife held a place of honor and authority in the community before the rise of obstetrics in the 19th century.

    Last night she ran across the following essay, by a non-Mormon midwife, giving a spiritual recounting of birth and we were struck by the pervasiveness of Temple imagery in the description.

    http://houstonbirthdoula.com/blog/2010/05/the-holistic-stages-of-labor/

    It occurred to us that in the same way that men officiate in the ordinance that takes us out of mortality and into the presence of the Father, women officiate in the ordinance that brings us out of His presence and into mortality. Over the last two centuries, society has moved this ordinance out of the hands of women in community and into the control of a medical “priesthood” where it has changed from a natural, joyous, and often peaceful and easy process(my wife’s great-grandmother took 4 hours out of a morning of cooking for the farm hands to birth her tenth child, assisted by her older children, and it wasn’t until that evening that her husband noticed the change in her situation), into one that is highly industrialized, and full of pain, fear and injury.

    I think it especially relevant that in the early days of the Church in Utah midwife was a calling for which a woman was “usually set apart by a General Authority of the church, if available, and the calling was for life, much like the calling of Patriarch.(http://thegiftofgivinglife.blogspot.com/2010/02/midwifery-as-calling-guest-post-by.html)”

    I think it would be instructive to see how closely the disappearance of the understanding of the Melchizedek Priesthood outlined in this post tracks with the disappearance of the midwife from Utah.

    Below is a rough timeline of midwifery practice in the United States:
    http://www.midwiferytoday.com/articles/timeline.asp

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  12. mh on January 18, 2011 at 10:19 PM

    interesting perspective, you might be on to something there.

    I do want to add one thing about the sterile, fearful medicalization of birth. death rates for both women and children have dropped precipitously.

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  13. Mark Clifford on January 21, 2011 at 2:41 PM

    Just for fun sometime, read the old testament account of how Aaron was ordained to the priesthood (recalling that one must be called of God as was Aaron):
    1. He was taken into the temple
    2. He was ritually washed and anointed
    3. He was dressed in ritual clothing
    4. He participated in a ceremonial enactment
    5. Then he was pronounced a priest
    Of course, we wouldn’t confer priesthood in the same way..would we?

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  14. The Priesthood « Deconstructing Gospel Principles on January 21, 2013 at 11:12 AM

    […] one another by the power of the priesthood (and still do so today in the temple), and there are suggestions that the original intention of the Relief Society was to help prepare the women of the Church for […]

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