Women and Priesthood: A Blending of Stapley and Wright

By: Bored in Vernal
March 28, 2011

If you know your way around the Bloggernacle, you’ve probably encountered J. Stapley’s comments about the research he and Kristine Wright were conducting on the subject of early Mormon women’s healing blessings. This culminated in two articles, The Forms and the Power: The Development of Mormon Ritual Healing to 1847 (reviewed earlier today by MH, and hereafter abbreviated F&P), and Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism (abbreviated FRHM). The first reaction I heard to these articles was a question: “What contribution do Stapley and Wright make to the understanding of this subject beyond what has already been done? (see esp. Quinn and Newell) It is true that they do not present new information in terms of aspects of women’s involvement in healing blessings. A prodigious amount of research went into the article, and additional historical accounts were provided, but it doesn’t break new ground in content. Stapley and Wright do offer a different interpretation of the material, however; and therein lies their contribution.

F&P laid a foundation by establishing that the origins of ritual healing in Mormonism were not attached to priesthood. The authors assert that healing was properly seen as a gift of the Spirit, revitalized with the Restoration. But since, in modern Mormonism, giving healing blessings is now closely connected with priesthood, questions regarding women and priesthood at the early stages are natural. In the second article, FRHM, Stapley and Wright attempt to “fill the explanatory lacunae” between the past and present. Why were women’s blessings conflated with priesthood? How did this practice develop into the form we see today? Why were women’s blessings discontinued? The authors state that their purpose in writing is to explain why the end of female administration is consistent and wasn’t the removal of a priesthood they already had.

The authors make some awfully good points about the tangling of priesthood and the gift of healing.  The paper was strong in its discussion of the different factors involved in the decline of this practice: the death of Eliza R. Snow, a changing rhetoric of priesthood, transcription and standardization of policy, advances in science and medicine and so forth.  I agree with conclusions Stapley has made about women and priesthood in his comments on diverse posts. But the article did not meet my expectations for several reasons. I believe that an article that suggests priesthood wasn’t involved in early Mormon women’s healing rituals must deal with the following issues:

  1. The idea that keys were given to sisters to perform these actions
  2. Female blessings which were specifically called “ordinances”
  3. Women who invoked the priesthood when giving blessings
  4. Sisters who were “ordained” and set apart to perform blessings
  5. Patriarchal blessings using the words “Melchizedek Priesthood” connected with women’s power to heal
  6. The sharing of priesthood with husbands and tandem blessings by couples
  7. Limitation of the exercise of healing ordinances to women who had received the endowment because of the belief that only endowed women had received priesthood.

Quotes containing all of these situations were found in FRHM, however I did not find that the authors satisfactorily resolved them. I think I know how Stapley would answer some of these issues, but they weren’t made very clear in this particular article. Several times while reading I wondered if Stapley’s and Wright’s ideas were at war. I imagined that Stapley’s desire was to claim that priesthood authority was always discrete from women’s blessings of faith. Wright, I thought, may have insisted that the ambiguity present in the quotations be preserved.  If my vain imaginings are correct, Stapers is the one who announces that “church leaders consistently taught” that healing was distinct from authority received in the temple (p. 35). Two pages later I daresay it is Wright who describes both Joseph F. Smith and Franklin D. Richards changing their minds and teachings on the same issue (p. 38).

It might have been more interesting to have had each author write solo articles instead of trying to blend their styles and philosophies into one piece. Would Stapley have been more dogmatic? Would Wright have given the actual healing accounts more play? I hope one or both of the authors will respond to my allegations!

A shortcoming in FRHM was that there wasn’t a great deal of interpretation of the historical sources themselves. They seemed to be severely truncated and used as proof texts. Likely this was due to the length of the article. But the accounts would have provided greater interest and vitality to a text that came close to becoming tedious for the general reader. I itched for a detailed examination of key accounts, with the expertise of Stapley and Wright to draw conclusions. The narrative is diluted by putting a lot of the substantive information in the footnotes.

FRHM suffers from organizational weakness as well.  The topics chosen do not lead the reader through a smooth transition of thought. I don’t think the article necessarily has to be in chronological order. But it  should be organized in such a way that the reader does not become confused. The jumping back and forth in time between accounts was disconcerting and faintly misleading.

Most interesting is the parenthetical mention Wright made in a recent blog post of an outline from which the authors worked.

I live a little over 4000 km from Jonathan Stapley which brings some unique challenges to researching and writing together. Once we had compiled hundreds of healing accounts, they were arranged in a document chronologically. We read through them separately, made notes and then had a couple of marathon phone calls to discuss our findings.

My hope is that the authors will make this compilation available in print, online, (or just email it to me!) That would indeed be a great contribution to the field of Mormon women’s history.

Michael Quinn makes a good case for Mormon women having held the priesthood since 1843. He uses female blessings to bolster his assertions. I fully expected this article to provide strong evidence to the contrary, due to Stapley’s “sneak peeks.” But the most I could take out of Stapley and Wright’s treatment was that the doctrine was understood differently by different leaders and members until the time that it was discontinued in 1946.

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12 Responses to Women and Priesthood: A Blending of Stapley and Wright

  1. J. Stapley on March 28, 2011 at 3:59 PM

    I don’t want to review the review, and am happy that you took the time to read through the article. So, I will just make a few comments and perhaps answer some of your questions. Note that my comments are mine alone.

    Regarding content, I think that our sources, especially in the twentieth century (but also in the nineteenth), which no one had previously had access to, are an important contribution. But I’ll be happy with this being viewed as a contribution in analysis.

    Regarding your enumerated list:

    1. I’m unaware where women were “given keys” to administer to the sick.
    2. I don’t see how “ordinances” are exclusive to priesthood (the original articles of faith called faith and repentance ordinances, e.g.), though as you hint, church leaders on different occasions also said blessing the sick wasn’t an ordinance.
    3. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any women who invoked the priesthood to heal the sick.
    4. Ordinations were common for all Relief Society presidents (and many nurses and midwives) during the nineteenth century. Ordination as being an exclusive priesthood thing is pretty modern.
    5. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any patriarchal blessings that associate the “Melchizedek Priesthood” with female healing.
    6. RE: Sharing Priesthood. See discussion of Temple, Priesthood and healing (pp. 32-40).
    7. We discuss this in depth in ibid. It began with a 1884 letter from ERS and the idea was immediately retracted by Wilford Woodruff in 1888, when she died (though the idea persists in some circles for a few more years).

    I’m unaware of any of the tension you hypothesize existed in the crafting of the paper. Perhaps Kris will have a differing perspective, that is for her to say. There is always tension to be sure in any collaborative endeavor, however, I think that the things you point to are part of a unified narrative (albeit in different points in the developmental arch).

    As you note, as well, we were already pushing the propriety of an article-length treatment as is. I imagine that there will be opportunities to expand on this work (by us and others, hopefully).

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  2. Justin on March 28, 2011 at 4:06 PM

    1) The priesthood is a language that is specific to, and spoken only by, God Himself.

    The key words of the priesthood are not some secret, magic words that, once known and spoken, grant a person speaking them unlimited access to the heavens and the powers thereof. The key words of the priesthood is the priesthood itself — and whosoever has received the key words has received the priesthood.

    The priesthood is the key words that lock or unlock all things, or seal and unloose all things. These are the words of power [agency], the words of authority [keys].

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  3. hawkgrrrl on March 28, 2011 at 5:55 PM

    A fascinating analysis. Hopefully we’ll get some commentary from Wright and Stapley.

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  4. Wendy P. on March 28, 2011 at 8:14 PM

    Team Quinn

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  5. Bored in Vernal on March 28, 2011 at 9:48 PM

    J! So glad you stopped by. Let me clarify my enumerated list.

    1. Keys — refers to the keys Joseph Smith gave to the Relief Society upon its founding. Quinn describes how Joseph told the women he would “make them a kingdom of Priests,” that they should “move according to the ancient Priesthood,” and he “turned the key to [them] in the name of God.” In his journal he wrote that he “gave a lecture on the pries[t]hood shewing [sic] how the Sisters would come in possession of the privileges & blessings & gifts of the priesthood & that the signs should follow them such as healing the sick…” Here Joseph himself connects priesthood and healing the sick. This statement might be interpreted in different ways, but I felt it should at least be addressed in a paper on the subject.

    2. In the modern era, ordinances are performed solely with priesthood authority, thus many do not realize that the word has ever been used in a different way. I appreciate the explanation you give in your comment above, and I agree with your answer. However, I feel that a treatment of this should have been part of the article.

    3. Ellen McKay healed the sick “by administration according to the order of the Priesthood.” (p. 36 of your article) This is what I mean by I wish you had provided more interpretation of the historical accounts. Do you and Kristine feel she was mistaken to invoke the Priesthood? Were Ellen and other RS members under the impression that they possessed Priesthood authority? I feel this is too relevant a point not to deserve a thorough treatment.

    4. As in #2, ordinations have a modern association with receiving the priesthood. If ordinations were common during the 19th century for other reasons, the point needed to be at least cursorily made. I did not notice anywhere in your paper where this was done. I felt this was an oversight, considering the references that were made to female ordination.

    5. Joseph Young’s blessing to Brigham’s daughter Zina Young Card in 1878: “These blessings are yours, the blessings and power according to the holy Melchisedek Priesthood you received in your Endowments, and you shall have them.”

    6. The sharing of priesthood with husbands was discussed on pp 32-40 but you didn’t make it clear how women didn’t participate thereby in blessing the sick by the power of the priesthood. (If, indeed, you even do want to make that claim)

    7. In your comment above you seem to suggest that Eliza was completely out of line and the idea was immediately retracted but in the article the point is made that Church leaders supported her ideas for some time and it was only after her death that her views were rebuked. In any case, it seems to me that Eliza’s is an authoritative voice which challenges your thesis. But I will withdraw this point since it’s true that you do discuss it.

    I, too, would like to see more on this subject in the future. I’m especially interested in seeing the quotations from the historical accounts in a less abbreviated form. Thanks to you and Kristine for your scholarship and hard work on this topic.

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  6. Bored in Vernal on March 28, 2011 at 9:57 PM

    Oh, and I also didn’t want to give short shrift to your sources (which no one previously had access to)! I just meant to say that previous articles included samples of women doing the same sorts of things you mention in the article. (Blessing the sick, washing and anointing for childbirth, “sealing” the anointings, tandem blessings with Melchizedek PH holders, ordination of women to be healers) Is there anything else I missed that you found that was new?

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  7. J. Stapley on March 28, 2011 at 10:20 PM

    All right. I think that this clears things up a bit. Some follow up comments:

    1. All of those quotes are from various sermons given by JS in the Spring of 1842 to the Female RS of Nauvoo. It is important to not just cherry pick phrases and stick them together. There is no question that the April 28, 1842 sermon referenced the temple, but the bulk of the discussion about female healing was in terms of spiritual gifts. The key statement doesn’t really have any direct connection to the healing discussion. Now that the minutes are available at the JSPP website, I encourage everyone to go through and read them.

    2. Fair enough.

    3. In the probably over a thousand cases we have documented of women healing, that instance is the only one I can remember, and it wasn’t a discussion of an event, but an obituary (if I am remembering correctly) that mentioned that she administered after the “order” of the priesthood. We included it because you want to have all the counterexamples available, and I think that the context it receives and the additional comments in the footnotes, are sufficient. Your mileage may vary.

    4. Fair enough.

    5. That patriarchal blessing excerpt doesn’t have reference to healing that I can tell. So I stand by my earlier comment. I’ve documented a number of patriarchal blessings given to women that mention priesthood. But they all seem to be talking about the temple and not healing.

    6. Again, I am unaware of any case were a woman invoked priesthood authority. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were such accounts extant, mind you, there is a tremendous diversity in Mormon history. But collaborative blessings are a place where more work needs to be done, for sure.

    7. I don’t suggest that ERS was out of line. She was a prominent interpreter of JS while she lived (see Derr and Madsen’s JMH piece on the RS minutes). But her interpretation was novel and was short lived. We note in a footnote that when the letter that announced her innovation was published in an RS Manual (in 1902 if I remember correctly) it was redacted to eliminate the view. We included every example we found of support for the view. In comparison to the vast amount of documentation for the other perspective, I personally think that we did not give the topic short shrift. Again, your mileage may vary.

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  8. Bored in Vernal on March 28, 2011 at 10:33 PM

    Thanks, J. In fairness I must say that the article indeed has a preponderance of evidence for the authors’ perspective on female ritual healing (did I mention I love that phrase?)

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  9. michelle on March 31, 2011 at 12:57 AM

    I am nowhere near a scholar of these things, and the thoughts I have don’t relate directly to the articles you have cited here, but as I read your comments, BiV, I keep thinking about this month’s VT message, which in and of itself to me seems to address some of what you are addressing.
    For me, understanding that power and authority flow to those who receive priesthood ordinances and to those who are set apart under/within the priesthood order of things helps give me a construct with which to think through these things.

    Eliza R. Snow, second Relief Society general president, taught that Relief Society “cannot exist without the Priesthood, from the fact that it derives all its authority and influence from that source.” Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained, “The authority to be exercised by the officers and teachers of the Relief Society … was the authority that would flow to them through their organizational connection with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and through their individual setting apart under the hands of the priesthood leaders by whom they were called.”

    I also thought this post about women and healing might be worth adding to your reading list, if you haven’t yet seen it.

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  10. Bored in Vernal on March 31, 2011 at 9:45 AM

    michelle, thank you for that link, I really liked it. As I study this topic more and more I realize that there are two different ways of seeing it, and I still can’t decide which is more valid. Recently I’ve been reading the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes and I discovered that at the sixth meeting Joseph came to give instructions regarding the priesthood. He started by reading 1 Cor 12 (about spiritual gifts) and said that some sisters who had been laying on hands for the healing of the sick had not been doing it right. He said that he wished that these things could be done “in their proper order” but that wouldn’t happen until the Temple was completed. He talked about the ancient apostles being commissioned to go forth and that such signs would follow them.

    He ask’d the Society if they could not see by this sweeping stroke, that wherein they are ordained, it is the privilege of those set apart to administer in that authority which is confer’d on them

    My interpretation of this is that JS connected this gift with priesthood as well as a gift of the spirit (which was how it was then being done). He then said that if the sisters had faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues and let the work roll on.

    This is the point that we get that well-used quote:

    Respecting the female laying on hands, he further remark’d, there could be no devils in it if God gave his sanction by healing— that there could be no more sin in any female laying hands on the sick than in wetting the face with water— that it is no sin for any body to do it that has faith, or if the sick has faith to be heal’d by the administration.

    Keep in mind here that this whole talk was supposed to be instructions regarding the priesthood.

    I really think there is reason to believe that Joseph later gave the sisters priesthood authority through their endowments and intended that healing rites should take place by this authority; and should supplant the gift of healing by faith. So I find merit in both ways of interpreting female healing ritual in the Church: one being that it was separate and distinct from priesthood (Stapley/Wright) and the other being that it was connected with and a sign of women’s priesthood authority (Quinn). I have yet to decide where I stand.

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  11. michelle on March 31, 2011 at 12:55 PM

    I actually think the notion of priesthood authority is not inaccurate at all (which is what I was trying to get to with the above quotes); but my point is that I think priesthood authority and power can flow to our lives and through us without actually “having” priesthood or holding priesthood office. I think it’s important to think of priesthood power and authority in broader terms and consider how it is that we have access to it and/or become an instrument for it. I don’t fully understand how priesthood office, keys, and administrative power for men stands out as different, but I don’t think I think there is plenty in our current teachings that would indicate that even without ‘having’ priesthood per se, women do receive power and authority by virtue of priesthood ordinances and settings apart we receive.

    Just a couple of other quotes that have helped me as I think about all of these things.

    President Joseph Fielding Smith taught that the Prophet’s action opened to women the possibility of exercising “some measure of divine authority, particularly in the direction of government and instruction in behalf of the women of the Church.” (Relief Society Magazine, Jan. 1965, p. 5.) President Smith explained: “While the sisters have not been given the Priesthood, … that does not mean that the Lord has not given unto them authority. Authority and Priesthood are two different things. A person may have authority given to him, or a sister to her, to do certain things in the Church that are binding and absolutely necessary for our salvation, such as the work that our sisters do in the House of the Lord.” (Relief Society Magazine, Jan. 1959, p. 4.)

    Elder Oaks:
    “In considering the Prophet’s instructions to the first Relief Society, we should remember that in those earliest days in Church history more revelation was to come. Thus, when he spoke to the sisters about the appropriateness of their laying on hands to bless one another, the Prophet cautioned “that the time had not been before that these things could be in their proper order—that the Church is not now organized in its proper order, and cannot be until the Temple is completed.” (Minutes, 28 Apr. 1842, p. 36.) During the century that followed, as temples became accessible to most members, “proper order” required that these and other sacred practices be confined within those temples.”

    Both from this article by Elder Oaks: http://lds.org/pa/library/0,17905,4931-1,00.html

    You’ve probably seen all of this already, but I’m sharing it anyway. ;)

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  12. SilverRain on April 4, 2011 at 8:56 AM

    This does bring to mind a few things that happen in the temple ordinances regarding the proper or true order of healing, all of which women are involved in.

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