5 key takeaways from the new Mormon essays on women, priesthood, and Heavenly Mother

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Hundreds of thousands of women, young women and girls 8 years old and older gathered on Saturday, September 26, 2015, for the general women’s session of the 185th Semiannual General Conference. The meeting was held in the Conference Center on temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah and in meetinghouses around the world. Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Women, young women and girls 8 years old and older gathered on Saturday, September 26, 2015, for the general women’s session of the 185th Semiannual General Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

I’m generally very pleased with the two new Gospel Topics essays on women and leadership in the LDS Church. Here are five significant takeaway points.

1. It’s officially official: There is a Mother in Heaven. Yay!

According to the Mother in Heaven essay, all people are “beloved spirit children of heavenly parents, a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother.” Belief in Heavenly Mother is referred to as “doctrine” in the LDS tradition.

Interestingly, both men and women are quoted as affirming this doctrine—prophets, yes, but also Eliza Snow and Susa Young Gates. The latter is called “a prominent leader in the Church.”

2. Folk beliefs about why Mormons don’t talk about or pray to Mother in Heaven are still not official, thank heavens.

I’m grateful that the essay did not try to speculate on this, other than saying that Jesus set an example of praying to God the Father.

For example, the essay never says, “We don’t pray to Heavenly Mother because she is a delicate flower whose feminine sensibilities would be crushed if anyone defamed her name like people sometimes dishonor God the Father!”

Which is just silly. If we believe she’s a GODDESS — someone who “side by side with the divine Father” works together “for the salvation of the human family” — then surely we realize she can handle it if some of her kids are ever less than appreciative.

And surely we know that for our part, the way to counteract other people’s false beliefs and mocking of Heavenly Mother would be to use that as an opportunity to testify of her goodness, power, and influence in our lives — not to lock her away so the rest of the world can never get to know her.

3. Joseph Smith authorized women to exercise priesthood authority, even using the language of ordination.

Understanding women and priesthood in the early LDS Church is given more ink than any other topic in the essay on women’s leadership, and with good reason. There’s a lot to discuss. Generally, the essay did a good job of acknowledging the considerable history of women’s leadership in the LDS Church, and it also went out of its way to acknowledge that Joseph Smith prepared both women and men to “receive and administer sacred priesthood ordinances in holy temples.”

Moreover, the essay makes clear that Joseph Smith had “something better” in mind for women than simply making the Relief Society a charitable organization. It was to be organized “in the Order of the Priesthood” and its female officers would be ordained to “preside over the Society.”

4. LDS understanding of priesthood has changed over time.

On the other hand, the essay takes great pains to note that the way Latter-day Saints used terms like “ordain” and “keys” in the nineteenth century is different from the way those are today associated with particular offices of the Melchizedek priesthood.

So while it’s clear from Mormon history that women exercised priesthood authority in some capacity, there is no evidence that they were ever ordained to priesthood office.

What the essay does not say here is revealing, too. It does not say that women have “access to all of the blessings of the priesthood,” and I am glad. Just because I can call my home teacher to come and lay hands on my head does not mean that I have “access to all of the blessings of the priesthood.” Many priesthood blessings come through the wisdom and spiritual maturity that are gained by being stretched in service and leadership, not by merely being the passive recipients of someone else’s words.

Instead, the essay focuses on female leadership and the exercising of gifts. It’s about women healing, serving, blessing, administering, and praying—and not about women being healed, served, blessed, administered to, or prayed for. To me, this is a welcome shift in tone.

5. Mormon women regularly performed blessings of healing until the 20th century.

Many contemporary Latter-day Saints may not be familiar with the scholarship documenting women’s extensive activities in laying their hands on the heads of fellow church members (including men) and healing them, so it’s wonderful to have this officially acknowledged by the Church.

But there are a couple of ways in which the essay oversimplifies things or downplays conflict, as Fara Anderson Sneddon, who has done more research on this history than anyone I know, points out in a post for Rational Faiths.

First, the essay makes it sound like the practice of women giving blessings suffered a natural “decline” in the early 20th century. That’s far from the case: many women fought tooth and nail for the preservation of this privilege (including general Relief Society president Bathsheba Smith and even Eliza R. Snow, who is actually quoted in the essay as an apologist for the other POV!).

Second, the essay presents women’s healings as being totally removed from the concept of ordination. If you had only this essay to go on, you would assume that Mormon women were giving blessings on an ad hoc basis only based on their faith in Jesus Christ, rather than in the name of the priesthood, and that no one had set them apart to be healers.

The historical reality is more complicated. Some women did invoke the power of the priesthood, which they had been taught they held in conjunction with their husbands, and they sealed their healing blessings accordingly. And in some cases, women were healers as an official calling in the ward. Women’s healing role wasn’t just the “emergency” scenario that’s sometimes tossed around (“You’re a mom stranded on a desert island with no priesthood holder in sight . . . HOW DO YOU CURE YOUR CHILD OF MALARIA?”).

So, the essays are not perfect, but I’m really pleased overall. Just to have official confirmation of the history of women performing healings and blessings is a huge step forward.

  • Anon

    I was disappointed in the essay on our Mother in Heaven. It claimed that our knowledge was limited, but didn’t bother to share what we do know. For instance, the essay could have mentioned that our Mother in Heaven was a co-creator of worlds, as taught by Brigham Young. And according to Elder Holland, She and our Father are “involved in the ongoing process of creating everything around us.” It could have been explained that our Heavenly Mother was a co-framer of the plan of salvation, as taught by Elder Ballard. Harold B. Lee taught that our Mother is involved with us during our mortal probation. In an early General Conference, Elder James Duffin stated that we will have to give an account of our lives to both of our Heavenly Parents. And they could have put to rest the question that many have concerning the deification of women. All of this could have been shared, but wasn’t. It was a great disappointment to me.

  • Yes, Anon, there’s definitely more that could have been included to flesh out the MIH essay. But I’m grateful that the essay exists at all. As such it opens the door for lots of enriching conversations in the future.

    One thing I would change about it is the language about us already having “sufficient” knowledge about her. That’s not even close to the way I feel. How could we have sufficient knowledge, when we don’t teach lessons about her, rarely talk about her, and are discouraged from contacting her? And when she’s not part of the temple ritual?

    I worry that if we imagine that we already have “sufficient” knowledge then we will become too complacent to ask for more – – and we do need more.

  • HarryStamper

    You claimed you were disappointed in the essay, it did not include everything known about the subject. Your disappointment seems odd. You know a lot about the subject, you responded and itemized many examples, you sourced many well known General Authorities and their recent public comments. Your well versed and well spoken. So well versed Jana even acknowledged your comments. So where’s the disappointment…??? It seems the topic is getting a lot of traction.

  • Joseph

    As an LDS Christian I feel that my faith in Jesus Christ is strengthen through these additional clarifications, but not contiginet on them- meaning that I worship God the Father and trust His authorized servants in the Church of His Son to lead and guide us as his feels for as as we are able to recieve His word.

  • Anon

    First, I want to thank you for your kind words. They are appreciated. Then, I want to say that I believe the purpose of the essays is to edify, clarify and teach. If this is indeed the purpose of the essays, then I think the essay written about our Mother in Heaven failed in its purpose. It repeated what we already know; that our knowledge is limited. If the writers of the essay knew something of the information that I shared, then why didn’t they share it as well, to edify us. If they didn’t already know some of the information I shared, then I think they were lazy with their research.

    We have been promised that we might become “partakers of the divine nature.” To do that, we must come to know our Heavenly Parents. I yearn to learn all I can about both of my Heavenly Parents. I study and pray and look to the Brethren for more knowledge. I had high hopes that more would be given.

  • Jana, I would be greatly surprised if you have not read, “A Mother There” by David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido, BYU Studies 50, no.1 (2011). Also, I realize it takes powerful headlines and powerful bullet points to get people motivated to read but point number one was firmly established in our hymnal and also in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism published in 1992 (Vol. 2, page 961).
    When I say in our hymnal, I do not believe you will find doctrinal errors in the “Hymns of the Restoration” section. Support for that generalized statement, in part, comes from verses 2, 3 and 4 of “A Mighty Fortress” are NOT in the hymnal.
    You do good work, keep writing!

  • Scott Roskelley

    It’s great that we can now speak about Father in heaven as married to Mom. Still we don’t know if Jesus Christ is married or not. We’ve gone back and forth from Wilford Woodruff saying Jesus was a polygamist, to Joseph Fielding Smith saying he was married “Yes! but do not preach it!” to backtracking in 2006 when president newsroom said “the belief that Christ was married has NEVER been official church doctrine”.

  • gillsyk

    I wonder if the author regrets the word “sufficient” in the MIH essay. I believe that section is trying to say something fairly narrow: that despite the limits of our knowledge, we do have enough to appreciate such and such aspects of this doctrine. But it’s all too easy to take it as saying, We have sufficient knowledge about MIH, period. I don’t think that’s the intent, but it has certainly been unfortunate to have such a painful alternate reading.

    Appreciate your thoughts and optimism about these new essays.

  • Brian Whitney

    This is great. Very positive look at what the latest Gospel Topics essays contribute to the conversation of women in Mormonism. I remember teaching a Sunday School class about the priesthood and brought up female healings. One of the attendees said that he had read the journal of a distant relative who discussed administering blessings, and all this time he thought she was heretical. While I was, admittedly, underwhelmed when I read the essays, you are correct that owning female blessings is a huge win. Thanks for helping me #ponderize the new essays.

  • 2 Things, first, Elohim – the name for the LDS highest God, is plural. I’ve always understood this was because it is used both to describe us (elohim) and our Heavenly Parents. Elohim – Gods the Father and Mother, YHWH/Jesus Christ, God the Son, and Adam/Michael/Holy Ghost/Spirit.

    Second, my biggest gripe about this essay is that it proves that we, as a Church, have evolved past revelations. We use essays rather than asking God and our prophet, seer, and revelator giving us God’s Word. This, for me, is a HUGE problem. While the Church is true, it is clear that we are now like the Protestants and Catholics, denying the power thereof. It is hard to teach my kids to follow the prophet when we know that he isn’t talking to God like Smith did.

  • Dean, thanks. I have indeed read that article and thought it was great. In fact, when I wrote this post yesterday I tried to link to it, and I got an error/page not found message. Maybe BYU Studies has it behind some kind of paywall? Not sure.

    I don’t think it’s enough to say that just because something is in the hymnal it qualifies in most Mormons’ minds as official doctrine. (I hope not, anyway . . . ) And not a lot of people have read the Encyc of M’ism. So the essay on Heavenly Mother is especially valuable because it’s short, it’s on the church website, and it has that imprimatur of having been approved by the First Presidency.

  • Pete

    The Significance of “O My Father” in the Personal Journey of Eliza R. Snow provides more background on Eliza Snow Smith’s poem/hymn.

  • Pete

    I found this part particularly interesting, and don’t recall seeing this in the Gospel Topics essay.

    in 1855 in the midst of the complex discussion of men’s and women’s roles, they revised Eliza’s original record of Joseph Smith’s sermons to the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo. Before the minutes were approved by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve for inclusion in the official history of the Church, all passages referring to authority and keys in connection with women were reworded to clarify the obligation of the sisters to work under the presiding authority of priesthood leaders. The changes repudiated the authority Emma Smith had claimed in using her calling as Relief Society president to promote opposition to plural marriage.

  • Nathan

    The posting of essays on the http://www.lds.org website is not evidence that we’ve “evolved past revelations.” The Church has hundreds of explanatory essays on its website under “Gospel Topics”. They don’t replace the scriptures, or General Conference talks, but rather quote from them. They are simply study helps, like the Bible Dictionary in our LDS edition of the Holy Bible.

    The Church doesn’t post the essays to take the place of revelation. They are used to share what is already published in a more concise form. Any reading of them points to all the reference material at the bottom, and the Conference talks to the right. Those are the revelations that inform the posting of essays such as this.

  • @Anon, I was hoping for me, too. I was hoping that even if something new wasn’t revealed, that the essay would include a more well-rounded depiction of Heavenly Mother as detailed by BYU Professor, David Paulsen, in “A Mother There: A Survey of historical teachings of Heavenly Mother” (http://childlessmormonsupport.com/?p=1407 – seemingly unavailable at BYU Studies for some reason).

    @HarryStamper, I found the essay disappointing because it can pretty much be summed up as “The doctrine of a Heavenly Mother is a cherished and distinctive belief among Latter-day Saints . . . [but] our present knowledge about Heavenly Mother is limited”. There doesn’t appear to be any reliable scriptural source for Heavenly Mother beyond the hymn, “O My Father” written by Eliza R. Snow. The only other sources I know of, D&C 132 and the Family Proclamation, raise some serious questions – it is possible they were merely given to create legal standing (see here: http://jvalentiner.blogspot.com/)

  • @Learn About Christ, I really like interpretation of Elohim. Janice Allred in “Toward a Mormon Theology of God the Mother”, Elizabeth Cady Stanton in “The Women’s Bible”, Gospel of the Hebrews, and Margaret Barker in “The Mother in Heaven and Her Children” discuss a more expansive view of the Holy Trinity that includes Heavenly Mother (see here: http://jvalentiner.blogspot.com/)

  • Wayne Dequer

    I got an interesting response from a non-member friend when I posted it on Facebook. She has a degree in Religious Studies from UC Santa Barbara. She commented: “Just read your post that included the concept/doctrine of Mother in Heaven. How interesting that the LDS Church had the concept of a feminine aspect of God long before the rest of us Protestant types did. The Roman Catholic Church, of course, regards the Virgin Mary as a universal Mother; (don’t know about really high Anglicans). Thanks for posting.”

  • Elder Anderson

    In non-Mormon Christian denominations, God transcends gender. God is referenced as male simply as a matter of convention and tradition. Gender and sex are meaningless for an entity without a physical body. This is what all Protestant churches and the Catholic Catechism teach. See the Wikipedia article on “Gender of God in Christianity” for a discussion. In the Mormon tradition, God and Heavenly Mother have physical bodies, and so gender is relevant. This differs from other Christian denominations (from which Mormonism was derived).

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