Mormon founder turned over priesthood keys to women, says Deseret Book author

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Fiona Givens

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Folks, take a look at the lead article in the new issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. (It’s behind a paywall but is well worth the two bucks, I promise.) Titled “The Perfect Union of Man and Woman,” it makes three main historical and theological arguments:

1)   Joseph intended the Relief Society to give women a role that was collaborative with male priesthood.

2)   Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother co-preside.

3)   Ancient traditions (and some early Mormon traditions) associated Heavenly Mother with the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this is the person who wrote it: Fiona Givens, a Deseret Book author who has been traveling widely in response to local invitations (with her husband, author and renowned intellectual Terryl Givens) giving firesides and  touring with the “Time Out for Women” series that is sponsored by Deseret Book.

Last week I saw Fiona at a colloquium for historian Richard Bushman, so we sat down to discuss the piece.

RNS: You write that “Part of [Joseph’s] reclamation entailed a restoration of the Divine Feminine together with a revision of contemporary conceptions of priesthood power and authority in conjunction with ‘keys’ Joseph believed had been lost following the advent of Christianity.” So are you saying that Mormon women had priesthood keys?

Fiona Givens: Looking at the inaugural Relief Society minutes and Joseph Smith’s whole mindset of collaboration, he was thinking of men and women collaborating in ecclesiastical and administrative roles. He uses the word “preside” quite consistently. He is turning over priesthood keys to Emma. There is in the historical record much to justify the idea that Joseph was helping to organize a female “order” to collaborate with the male quorums that had already been established, though women were never given administrative authority in the church as a whole.

RNS: What was Joseph Smith drawing on in thinking about women’s leadership?

FG: His mother said he did not read widely, but he did read deeply. I think that’s an important quality of Joseph that needs to be understood more. Two things are working here: he read the New Testament really closely, and if you do that, you’re going to see female voices. Joseph Smith had an extraordinarily magnanimous mind, and he saw what had not really been seen by his contemporaries in ecclesiastical roles: women as leaders. If one is going to read the text closely and be willing to move the male paradigm aside, suddenly it’s clear that women were ministering with men in collaborative roles as apostles, prophets, teachers, deacons, etc. in the New Testament.

RNS: You spend some time in the article tracing the LDS doctrine of Heavenly Mother, and I was surprised to see an emphasis there on the revelation about her as collaborative.

FG: Joseph’s restoration of Heavenly Mother was critically important. He was a collaborative thinker who felt that his revelations needed to be assisted by other bright, intelligent, intuitive minds. When he discovered—and one is not quite sure how—that there was a Heavenly Mother, this same idea of collaboration he had already modeled influenced the way Joseph saw the relationship between the Father and the Mother as primarily collaborative.

Chapters 4 and 5 in the Book of Abraham illustrate this quite dramatically.  So at the end of the day, we can read Moses 1:39 as “this is our work and our glory to—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”

RNS: The article has an account I’ve never heard before: of Joseph, Sidney Rigdon, and Zebedee Coltrin having a vision of the Heavenly Family: Father, Mother, and Son. Why don’t we hear more about this?

FG: We don’t hear about it because Heavenly Mother has only just become a safe topic. Quite honestly, since the essay on Heavenly Mother came out, implying approbation by the leadership of the church, the conversation discussing who she might be is now tenable in a way it has not been in the past.

RNS: In the article you have a controversial line of argument that suggests that Heavenly Mother may actually be the Holy Ghost. Where does this come from?

FG: I want to make clear that I am not making this claim, just tracing a fascinating but neglected historical dimension to the Divine Feminine. We find this in the Church Fathers Jerome and Augustine and others. The Coltrin vision is suggestive. Joseph, in the Doctrine and Covenants, never appends a pronoun in his discussions of the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit, or the Comforter, and Elder Charles Penrose actually identified the Holy Ghost with Heavenly Mother.

Contemporary Mormons, of course, will say the Book of Mormon refers to the Holy Spirit as a he. But then one needs to look at the culture in which the Book of Mormon came forth. People in the nineteenth century were looking for biblical consistency. What encouraged Brigham Young and most converts to join the church was the fact that the Book of Mormon was consistent with the biblical text. Suddenly shifting the gender of the Holy Spirit was not going to convince anyone to join the LDS Church.

RNS: What do you hope for the article to accomplish?

FG: As a historical researcher, I am simply trying to excavate a history of how the Divine Feminine has been understood in the Christian, and in the Mormon tradition. I do not intend this article to be a persuasive piece. I see it as part of an ongoing conversation, and hope it will open doors in many different directions.

There is much work to be done. I’m hoping I can turn this Cliffs Notes version into a monograph in which I can highlight the role of the Divine Feminine in the Hebrew tradition, the Catholic tradition, and now in our tradition—and how this all fits into Joseph’s wonderfully expansive view of the role of Heavenly Mother—and women—in the gospel restoration.


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