As a believing member of the Church I never once heard any stories of women using the priesthood. But they did! Women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints used the priesthood for nearly eighty years until the Brethren removed those rights. Women in the Church today are only authorized to use their priesthood power in the temples. How would would the Church change if it allowed the women to use that priesthood once again?
I don't recall when it was exactly that I learned that in the early Church, sisters used the priesthood. Perhaps it was in Todd Compton's book In Sacred Loneliness. Perhaps it was when I went through the temple for the first time and women, ordained with the priesthood, anointed my head with oil and placed their hands upon my head to bless me, not once, not twice, but at least three times. Perhaps it was when I was on my mission, taking recent converts on General Conference and I heard for the first time about an organization called Ordain Women. I can't recall precisely when I learned this part of my Church's history, but once I understood that Joseph Smith did indeed "ordain" the women with the priesthood and heard the stories of these women giving blessings, healing the sick, raising the dead, and promising salvation -I felt a sense of betrayal. Had I been lied to in all my thirty plus years as a member of the Church? Why had I never been authorized to use the priesthood as they had? I felt a sense of loss. Why was that taken away? Why could I not have been part of the baptism of those I loved and taught while on my mission?
Women and the Priesthood Today
Women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in 2023, are not to give blessings of any kind. They are not to heal the sick by laying on of hands, they are not to give mothers blessings and they are not to bless their new babies (in fact, they are stopped from even holding their babies while the men give the blessing!). Women are not to perform baptisms, or give the gift of the Holy Ghost (even when they're sister missionaries). Women are not to officiate in any ordinance except those authorized for the temple, and only to women. Women are authorized to use the priesthood during the Initiatory and the Endowment ceremony for their fellow sisters. Certain, selected women are allowed to bless their husbands through the laying on of hands during the ceremony of the Second Anointing. When are told that they use the priesthood authority when acting in whatever calling they are given (see Presidents Oaks' talk Keys and the Authority of the Priesthood, given in April of 2014). It is unclear as to how that priesthood authority differs from revelation.
This limited ability for women to use the priesthood was not always the policy. Women used their priesthood power until those rights were removed in the 1920s.
Joseph Smith once stated: “If God gave his sanction by healing… there could be no more sin in any female laying hands on the sick than in wetting the face with water… If the sisters have faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues” [28 April, 1842].
Blessings meetings were a common part of the lives of the early Mormon women. “In them, the Saints often combined the laying on of hands for health blessings, tongues, and prophecy. Eliza R. Snow’s diary contains numerous references to these occasions. For example, on 1 January 1847 she wrote of receiving a blessing ‘thro’ our belov’d mother Chase and sis[ter] Clarissa [Decker] by the gift of tongues,’ adding: ‘To describe the scene… would be beyond my power.’ [Snow, 1 jan. 1847]” [The Historical Relationship p. 23, Newell]
On February 3, 1854, Wilford Woodruff and his wife blessed their son who was a newly ordained priest. “His father and mother [Phoebe Carter Woodruff] laid hands upon him and blessed him and dedicated him unto the Lord” (Woodruff 4:244). On another occasion, on September 8, 1875, George Goddard recorded a similar incident about his sixteen-year-old son, Brigham H. On his birthday, “his Mother and Myself, put our hands upon his head and pronounced a parents plessing upon him” [Newell: The Historical Relationship, 24 Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought].
Blessing the Sick
On June 19, 1849, Sister Washbern sent for Louisa, Sister Twist and myself [Zina] to come and wash and anoint her daughter Mary Ann. She was taken very sick Sunday. Brigham Young sent his carriage to carry us down. The Lord blest the administration and she was better” [Compton, 96]
Washing and anointing the sick became a common practice among Church members, particularly women. It was customary for the person administering a blessing to anoint with oil the part of the body in need of healing -for example, a sore shoulder or perhaps crushed leg. For instance, in 1949 Eliza Jane Merrick, an English convert, reported healing her sister: “I anointed her chest with the oil you consecrated, and also gave her some inwardly… She continued very ill all evening: her breath very short, and fever very high. I again anointed her chest in the name of the Lord, and asked his blessing; he was graciously pleased to hear me, and in the course of twenty-four hours, she was as well as if nothing had been the matter” (Merrick 1849, 205) [Newell: The Historical Relationship, 23 Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought].
Casting out Evil Spirits
In the 1850s, a woman named Harriet Cook (one of Brigham Young’s wives) was convinced that somebody was practicing witchcraft against her, so she asked Zina (another of Brigham’s wives) and Susa Young Gates’ mother Lucy, “to come to her in the Lion House and wash and anoint her rebuking the evil spirit which was tormenting her.” So Zina acted as priestess in pioneer Utah [Compton, 97].
Presendia Lathrop Huntington moved twenty-one times as Heber C. Kimball’s plural wife. After she had moved into her twenty-first home she asked the men in her life to dedicate the home for her, but ending up doing it herself “to the best of [her] ability.” And “with all the faith” she could command, planted a garden where the trees were “luxuriant and fruitful, a more prolific garden there is not in the city” [Todd Compton, 137].
During March of 1849, Presendia Lathrop Huntington gave a man named Joseph Hovey (who had once helped her during a time of depression) a blessing. Placing her hands on his head, she said: “Inasmuch as you have comforted me when I was weighed down in the days that are past and now, I also say in the name of jesus Christ that you shall be blessed… Yea, you shall have your exaltation, for I will see to it for your goodness towards me. Yea, I will tell Joseph Smith of your good works and you shall come on Mount Zion with the hundred and forty four thousand.” [Compton, 114].
Administering to Men
On November 8, 1882, Presendia “presided over the washing and anointing of a Bishop Bringhurst, an interesting but not unique case of a woman administering to a man” [Compton, 140].
Presendia Lathrop Huntington was well known for her spiritual and priestly gifts, and she also received prophetic visions during her stay at Winter Quarters. Emmeline Wells once wrote: “Many things were shown to Presendia, and almost as it were the heavens opened to view, for her comfort and consolation in the time of her great sorrow and sacrifice. These were sacred things” [Compton, 129].
Raising the Dead
One night, Zina Huntington was called to sit up all night with the body of a neighbor. Pondering “power, faith and the possibility of the dead being brought back to life now as well as in the days of the apostles,” she felt that she had the faith to call the neighbor back from the dead. When she laid her hands on him, “The dead man obeyed, and opened his eyes full wide and gazed into hers.” This was too much for Zina, and she rushed from the room; the corpse lapsed back into lifelessness. She later explained to her children that the man was not meant to take up his mortal life again, but God had allowed his momentary revival “to show her that ‘these signs do follow them that believe’” [Compton, 75].
Speaking in Tongues
What seemed to go hand in hand with using the priesthood was the ability to speak in tongues. This is sometimes called Glossolalia. Speaking in Tongues was very common in the 1800s and may seem strange to many today. In today's vernacular, "speaking in tongues" has more to do with a missionary's ability to learn a language quickly. But this is not how Joseph Smith understood it. Speaking in tongues is the phenomenon of speaking in an unknown tongue, usually in a religious context. Picture the Pentecostals or other charismatic Christian groups. This video may help to illustrate what I mean.
Plenty examples exist in church history: “Sister Smith blest us in tongues Aunt Zina interpreted" (from Emmeline Wells in Todd Compton's book In Sacred Loneliness, 109). In Patty Sessions journal for February 28, 1847 it reads: “Br and Sister Leonard and Sister Buel was here last night we spoke in tongues and had a good time” (Compton, 128).
One might even see the presence of glossolalia in the Book of Mormon as evidence that it is indeed a 19th century book, instead of an ancient one. In Alma 19:29-30 in the Book of Mormon we read: “And it came to pass that she went and took the queen by the hand, that perhaps she might raise her from the ground; and as soon as she touched her hand she arose and stood upon her feet, and cried with a loud voice, saying: O blessed Jesus, who has saved me from an awful hell! O blessed God, have mercy on this people! And when she had said this, she clasped her hands, being filled with joy, speaking many words which were not understood; and when she had done this, she took the king, Lamoni, by the hand, and behold he arose and stood upon his feet.”
Women Known for Their Priesthood
Some of the sisters in the early church became \well known for their abilities to give blessings, speak in tongues, and to prophecy.
Zina Huntington, a plural wife first of Joseph Smith and later of Brigham Young, received a patriarchal blessing from John Smith, Joseph’s uncle in 1850, which stated: “The Priesthood in fullness is & shall be conferred upon you (Smith 11:6; Newell: The Historical Relationship, p. 24, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought).
Speaking of Presendia Lathrop Huntington, Edward Tullidge once stated: “She was also endowed with a large, inspired mind, the gifts of prophecy, speaking in tongues, and the power to heal and comfort the sick. Being quite pre-eminent in her apostolic life” [Compton, 115]
Removing Their Power
In early 1901, President Lorenzo Snow released a statement in the Deseret News: “Priest, Teacher or Deacon may administer to the sick, and so may a member, male or female, but neither of them can seal the anointing and blessing, because the authority to do is vested in the Priesthood after the order of Melchizedek.”
In response, Louisa (Lula) Greene Richards, former editor of the Women’s Exponent, wrote a letter dated 9 April 1901. “If the information given in the answer is absolutely correct, then myself and thousands of other members of the Church have been misinstructed and are laboring under a very serious mistake, which certainly should be authoritatively corrected. Sister Eliza R. Snow Smith [her correspondents sister], from the Prophet Joseph Smith, her husband taught the sisters in her day, that a very important part of the sacred ordinance of administrations to the sick was the sealing of the anointing and blessings, and should never be omitted. And we follow the pattern she gave us continually. We do not seal in the authority of the Priesthood, but in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
President Lorenzo Snow never responded.
According to Church Historian D. Michael Quinn, President Joseph F. Smith (the prophet after Lorenzo Snow, who was the prophet up until 1918) and his second wife, Julina would often give blessings of healing together. According to D. Michael Quinn, "if it's good enough for the prophet's wife, it's good enough for the church!" [see Gospel Tangents, Episode 189]
“Throughout the 1920s Church leaders increasingly drew bolder lines between spiritual gifts and priesthood powers. With the clarification of the priesthood role came restriction of the women’s sphere. Church Leaders made it clear that women did not have right to priesthood power. Further definition of priesthood included healing, anointing with oil, etc., as exclusive functions of elders" [Linda King Newell, “A Gift Given: A Gift Taken,” Sunstone].
It seems to me that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is trying to remove itself as far away as it can from the idea that women at any point in its history had any power at all.
Doctrine or Policy?
In April 2014, Elder Oaks made the statement that: “The Lord has directed that only men will be ordained to offices in the priesthood.”
However, according to Mormon Historian, D. Michael Quinn, the women were given the priesthood independent of any office. He is of the mindset that women are given the priesthood during the endowment ceremony and, should the prophet give his approval, the women could easily be authorized to use their priesthood. In this same interview with Rick Bennett on Gospel Tangents, the question is asked (though never answered): Is the Church’s stance that women are not to act upon their priesthood a policy or a doctrine?
My question to the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would be, What would it hurt to let the women use the priesthood again? Would this not simply strengthen family relationships and decrease sexism within the church?
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